The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith has been made into a film, something I learned immediately after reading the book for the first time. I'm a Highsmith fan, and have read quite a lot of her work over the years, bu this title had escaped my attention, although Julian Symons admired it, and mentioned it in Bloody Murder. Fitfy years after it was published, it remains a gripping read - although Symons rightly made it clear that not everyone "gets" Highsmith, because of her strange outlook on the world, and the odd way in which her people behave.
And she could be inconsistent - I've also recently read A Game for the Living, which has a fascinating and very well evoked setting (Mexico) but not much else to recommend it in my opinion. Highsmith herself judged it one of her failures, perhaps because it is a sort of whodunit, and the feeble mystery is poorly constructed (I wasn't surprised to learn that she changed her solution, though she didn't come up with a satisfying one.) As in The Two Faces of January, the focus is on a rather odd relationship between a couple of youngish men, but although the book opens with the savage murder and mutilation of the woman both men slept with, tension soon dissipates, and even a mysterious message apparently sent by the dead woman is handled in a casual, anti-climactic way.
Back to The Two Faces of January. The story is told from the perspectives of two men. Chester MacFarland is an American con man travelling in Europe with his pretty young wife Colette. They are staying in Athens at the start of the story, as is a young American called Rydal Keener, a former law student, who spots the couple and thinks that Chester is like his father, while Colette resembles a girl with whom he misbehaved in his teens. Rydal finds himself strangely drawn to the MacFarlands, and when Chester kills a Greek police officer by mistake, Rydal - for no instantly obvious reason - helps him to get away with it.
None of the three main characters behave in a predictable way, and this seemingly irrational way of living, quite typical of Highsmithland, can be off-putting to some readers. Interestingly, her American editor, the legendary Joan Kahn, rejected this book, and she was herself unhappy with what she'd done, re-writing extensively. Yet if you buy into the characters, it's a very rewarding read. The settings - Athens, Crete, Paris - add to a feeling of exoticism, certainly by standards of Fifties fiction, which is a hallmark of many of her books..
Highsmith was interested in the choices that people make in life, and this is very fertile territory for any crime novelist. I suppose the closest I've come to a Highsmith (or Rendell) type of character is Guy in The Arsenic Labyrinth. I really enjoyed writing him. The challenge is to make the way that people like Chester and Rydal behave seem believable. It requires an intensity of vision and writing that makes even apparently inconsistent behaviour (I'm thinking of what Chester does at the end of the story) seem plausible. This is much easier said than done, but in my opinion this particular book is an example of Highsmith at her best. I would admit that the quality of her novels, except perhaps those that revisited Tom Ripley, slipped after the late Sixties, but she remains in my view one of the most notable crime writers of the 20th century. If you haven't read this one, I can recommend it. I only hope the film will be as good.
How interesting that you associate Highsmith's characters with Rendell's. You're right, of course. I never noticed before, though I admire both hugely.
That said, I haven't read more than 4 or 5 Highsmiths. The next on my shelf is Those Who Walk Away. Do you have an opinion? It's 1967, so perhaps, as you say, not so brilliant. I remember I did once try the first couple of pages and found them terribly confusing, so I put it back for later.
I like Highsmith, but I think it's best to assume her work (especially her short stories) are going to fill you with disquiet, almost dread, even when the characters' behaviors aren't always predictable. After reading Highsmith's biography, I'm convinced she had a form of high-functioning autism, like Asperger's Syndrome, where there is limited understanding of social cues and interaction. I think she wrote her characters that way because she herself failed to realize how unpredictable, even bizarre, some of their actions would appear. On the other hand, I think she was really able to capture the essence of psychopathic personalities because she wrote them as the monstrously selfish and self-involved people they are.
I read quite a few Highsmith books about 20 years ago, and then one day thought 'I don't enjoy these very much' and stopped seeking them out. They have made some good films though.
Thanks, Colin. Funnily enough, Those Who Walk Away is next on my list!
Deb, that's a very interesting theory, and it seems plausible to me.
Moira, yes, I think (as Deb implies) one has to be in the right mood to get the most out of Highsmith, and I did go off her for a while. But she's back in favour with me now, despite A Game for the Living!
I hope you'll post your thoughts about Those Who Walk Away, Martin, whenever you do read it. I have high hopes of it, despite that bumpy first encounter.
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