I can’t think of anything more apt to set the imagination stirring, drifting, creating, than the idea – the fact – that anyone you walk past on the pavement anywhere may be a sadist, a compulsive thief, or even a murderer.
Patricia Highsmith, via Joan Schenkar
Languid summer days, passions feel richer and more undeniable but the effort’s just too much. Sit in the sun at the first café you come to, feeling your flesh roast, enjoying the anxious flicker in your face that comes with the luxury of a second cup of coffee, hiding behind your pair of sunglasses – watching the world, dissecting its denizens- while you read something that is, no doubt about it, perfectly perverse.
Another Patricia Highsmith novel, and even though I moved two hundred miles from where I bought the book to where I read the book, I still feel that she has followed me here: once again the crimes in the novel are a little too close to home.
A Suspension of Mercy was written in the mid-sixties, while she skulked in a lonely Sussex cottage. It reads local. I’m used to her as a fifties New Yorker, or as seventies Eurotrash. Living down the road is a little creepy. In a good way. Its quick and dirty but sophisticated and charming. It’s perfectly natural, it could happen to anyone: a pitcher of martinis in the garden with attractive friends, before steaks for dinner and sex after dark that’s only just a little bit wrong…
There are three main characters this time. Sydney Bartleby is a total prick: self-absorbed, restless, argumentative, lazy cruel and taking his failures as a writer out on the only person who loves him because who else is there? Alicia Bartleby, his wife, has enough of an income from her parents to indulge their Bohemian ambitions – she’s a painter as well as the housekeeper of their lonely little cottage in the sleepy Sussex village they found a year or so before. And Mrs Lilybanks is the ancient old widow who has just moved in next door. They expected her to be a nosey killjoy but actually she’s a painter just like Alicia, and her sympathy and empathy stir the thwarted emotions of her neighbours just enough to tip them into a new frame of life.
The couple decide to take a break from one another. While he starts to draft a series of silly stories about a serenely competent arch-criminal, she heads off to live with her parents, or somewhere, while they work out whether they want to go on with their marriage. The final straw was Alicia catching a snatch of Syd’s imagination: “You’re thinking about killing me, aren’t you?”
So she heads off with her paint set while he enjoys the bachelor life and his fantasies that he has actually killed her – where’s the harm in a little dreaming? – and, before you know it, no one knows where on earth Alicia Bartleby has gotten to.
Their cris de coeur become, inevitably, crimes de couer…
The novel has utter sympathy for Alicia and Mrs Lilybanks, and the passages about their young friendship are genuinely touching. In an early episode, Mrs Lilybanks has a snatch of a thought that is heartbreakingly insightful – a hapless, psychic warning to her friend: the old lady’s painting did not look as good now as it had at 5 o’clock when she had stopped work. Or as good, Mrs Lilybanks thought with resignation, as it would have looked had she spent her life painting instead of her Sundays. Art, as they said, was long, and the life so short.
As always with Highsmith, the story has empathic and imaginative sympathy for Alicia and Mrs Lilybanks, until suddenly it doesn’t. In her brilliant and pithy introduction to the 2014 Virago edition, writer Joan Schenkar argues convincingly that Highsmith wasn’t a crime writer, she was a punishment writer. Because it is her characters’ honest passions, inarticulate and occult, that stir just strong enough to stoke the engine of the cruel machine beneath the surface; the engine that suddenly lurches into life and coldly delights in punishing everyone for their hope and ambition.
There actually isn’t a crime in the novel until right at the very end. But then the law never seemed to bother Pat Highsmith: you don’t punish someone because of their crimes, you punish them because of that impulse in their heads, that dream that the dawn didn’t quite kill, that hope in Hell.
She wrote this novel just down the road, of course she did, and she was probably looking right at you as she did it.