Patricia Highsmith and death in Venice

Patricia Highsmith, Those Who Walk Away (Virago Modern Classics, 2014; first published 1967)

Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) moved to a country cottage in Suffolk in England in 1964, apparently to be nearer the Englishwoman she’d fallen in love with. She wrote three novels there, including A Suspension of Mercy (1965), the only one of the three to be set in East Anglia, about which I posted HERE, and Those Who Walk Away, which is set mostly in Venice.

Patricia Highsmith Those who walk away coverAs Joan Schenkar says in the introduction to this VMC paperback edition, it’s a classic Highsmith exploration of her favourite fictional territory, the ‘infinite progression of the trapped and the hunted.’ Ray’s wife Peggy had recently committed suicide, and her father Ed’s grief twists him into a murderously vengeful monomaniac. Ray becomes ‘fair game’ to him. Ed blames Ray for his daughter’s death, and spends much of the novel trying to kill him. After all, he tells himself laconically, with unintentional irony, ‘he’s asking for it.’

After Ed’s first botched attempt to shoot him dead, Ray follows him to Venice, where a sinister game of competitive mutual stalking ensues. Lines blur between hunter and hunted. Ray seems to be set on a quest for his own oblivion, a liberation from his own identity. ‘Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness.’ This Highsmith quotation in the introduction (no provenance is given) sums up perfectly the cheerfully dark, disturbing tone and plot of Those Who Walk Away.

Venice canal

A typical canal scene in Venice taken by me last March

I wish I’d taken this with me to read on holiday in Venice last spring. Highsmith evokes the beauty and history of the lagoon island with great aplomb. But she also shows the seedier side of the city, the menacing alleys and murky apartments where the poorer folk live. It’s there that Ray finds sanctuary, and the famous tourist honey-pot sites are where he’s most in danger.

The famous Gritti Palace hotel features, for example, a key location in another Venice novel  with an American protagonist that I’ve posted about here, Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees (1950). Thomas Mann’s novella seems to have cast a shadow over novelists who set their stories there, for Hemingway’s slightly sleazy account of an older military man’s love affair with a much younger Venetian woman is also haunted by the imminence of death. Hemingway’s American officer is also a keen hunter – of ducks, not hapless sons-in-law.

I’ve not read Highsmith’s famous debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), but have seen the 1951 Hitchcock film version, so can recognise the common device: two men with unstable identities, locked in a mutually destructive dance-macabre embrace.

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy. VMC. First published 1965

I’m not usually keen on suspense thrillers, as I find they generally lack suspense and don’t thrill. A Suspension of Mercy did little to change my mind. I found it contrived and far-fetched.

The central character Sydney is an American thriller writer who fantasises about murdering his posh English wife Alicia, and gets a kick out of giving his neighbours and friends the impression that he’s indulged that fantasy, offering an implausible-sounding (but true) explanation that they’re having a trial separation – it’s difficult to see why Alicia put up with his abusive, selfish behaviour for as long as a year.

Highsmith Suspension coverIt’s set in rural Suffolk, and mirrors many key aspects of Highsmith’s own life at the time. But even the post-modern metafictional aspects failed to engage me: they too seemed self-indulgent. It seemed to me that PH was having far more fun writing this novel than I was in reading it. Like she’d set herself a challenge to write a murder mystery without a murder – an exercise in plotting. Her characters as a consequence have all the vitality of chess pieces.

Sydney’s slightly deranged flirting with danger in posing as a wife-killer, even though he was innocent, is portrayed with chilling detachment, and this is perhaps the most skilled part of the plotting and characterisation: the doubling and subversion of reliable narrative voice that are among PH’s trademarks work pretty well here.

What’s less successful is the highly unlikely actions of the married pair as their situation spirals out of control. People do die, one more or less of natural causes, though Sydney is again under suspicion, one who is murdered; but neither of the married pair behaves in a convincing manner. They behave in order to keep the plot ticking over, and cease to convince as well-rounded characters.

The secondary characters are also bloodless and serve to move the plot along or keep it tangled, little else – though I quite liked the treacherous turn Sydney’s writing partner Alex takes. People can be horrible like that.

This novel was disappointing. I thought the two others by PH that I’ve read and posted on – Carol and Edith’s Diary – were well written, tautly plotted and psychologically interesting and highly original. A Suspension of Mercy is inferior to them in every respect.