Friday 15 May 2015

Forgotten Book - The Blunderer

The Blunderer, by Patricia Highsmith, was first published in 1954. By that time, she had already made her name, with her brilliant debut novel Strangers on a Train. She'd also written, under a pseudonym, a lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, later (wisely, I think) re-titled Carol. A year later she would publish her other great masterpiece, The Talented Mr Ripley. So she was clearly at a very productive and intense stage of her career. And The Blunderer illustrates her strengths pretty well, though it also reveals some of her limitations.

The set-up is, as usual with Highsmith, intriguing. In the first chapter, an unpleasant chap called Kimmel murders his wife, having first taken the precaution of trying to set up an alibi. Attention then shifts to the life of Walter Stackhouse, an affluent, good-looking and personable young lawyer with a rather irritating wife. In due course, the lives of Stackhouse and Kimmel will collide, with devastating results for both of them.

This book begins really well, and I found the central premise fascinating. Unfortunately, I became increasingly irritated with Walter's behaviour. He is a prime example of a Highsmith protagonist who behaves in a manner that is not only self-destructive, but also so obviously so that it is difficult to maintain sympathy with him. The same pattern recurs in books like A Suspension of Mercy and Those Who Walk Away, which I reviewed recently. Highsmith deploys various techniques in her attempt to persuade us to suspend our disbelief. In this early book, I think she is less successful than in the later books. I found my sympathy for Walter draining away, and this diminished my interest in his fate.

That said, Highsmith was an admirably ambitious writer, and even her failures (and this book isn't, in my opinion, really a success) are more interesting than many books where the author is much less daring. More than sixty years after its first appearance, I feel that its prime interest is as an example of a relatively inexperienced novelist grappling with challenges of technique. But this is much more interesting than it may sound. I had very mixed feelings about The Blunderer, but I'm still glad I read it.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Martin, thanks for the review. It has drawn me closer to Patricia Highsmith's work.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it so often the case with Highsmith: the characters can be very annoying creatures!

Martin Edwards said...

Prashant, R.T., thank you. A reasonable book, I think,but not one of her masterpieces