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.





12 thoughts on “Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy

  1. While I liked this more than you, I do agree that it’s not Highsmith’s best. The central plot was rather far-fetched, especially towards the end. A shame really as I thought it started out pretty well.

    Have you read Deep Water? I think that’s probably one of her most compelling novels – along with the Ripleys, of course.

  2. “It seemed to me that PH was having far more fun writing this novel than I was in reading it.”

    I found this a fascinating observation. In this case, looks like the “world” Highsmith created within her novel was not compelling enough to keep you from being distracted by the strings she was pulling!

    This is not exactly the same thing, but I had a funny experience at one of my 2008-2010 Recession-era survival temp jobs. I offered to help plan an interactive murder mystery we were having at an old Victorian mansion in Dupont Circle, Washington DC. The woman at the firm who was planning the party “froze me out” and simply did not want me helping for some reason. I was disappointed but decided to be diplomatic and hold my tongue as I was a lowly contract worker, surrounded by boxes of dusty legal documents I was putting into final form before they were carted off to the warehouse. Still, I was a bit sad that my dream of an original aviation law-themed murder (this was a boutique firm that did a lot with airline clients), complete with a mysterious client visiting from Australia, would not be coming to life.

    Comes the day of the dinner, we have a pretty generic manor house “Clue” themed production, and we head from room to room searching for items, which was a lot of fun. But then we head into the dining room and are greeted with a group of actors at the front of the dinner tables (with my planner frenemy bedecked in a glittery gown as the glamorous “Miss Diamond”). The group laughed uproariously at their own private jokes, and presented a totally incomprehensible “solution,” to the murder, but as there was no microphone, none of us could hear it, so everyone returned to their dinner and talked among themselves.

    Self indulgence…a deadly sin in the artist!

    • Maureen: an intriguing analogy. And how rude of those guests. Maybe I was a bit hard on PH, and perhaps as you judiciously put it I was too conscious of and distracted by the string-pulling that was going on in the narrative.But I did find it too plot-driven.

  3. Oh no, Simon, you weren’t too hard on Highsmith at all. The failure was hers, in allowing you to become distracted. That should not happen. I think that is why it is worth sending your mystery manuscript out to some trusted readers to get truly honest feedback like this, BEFORE looking to publish for a general audience. This is a flaw that would need to be repaired.

    Rude is a great word for it. The Players at our “2010 Holiday Whodunit Dinner” were not reaching out to their dinner audience to tell their story. They were not showing consideration to the audience, even to the issue of setting up an adequate sound system, and facing outward towards the audience. They lost and disappointed them.

    Everyone came to the law firm dinner (including, unfortunately, some valued clients) excited for a little adventure, and expended effort in collecting “clues” (fake letters, a fake telegram, even a couple of photos), returning from their scavenger hunt through the old mansion eager for a gripping story and the resolution of the murder mystery, which was denied them. It was embarrassing. Sigh.

    It was as if Agatha Christie had not left enough clues to solve a mystery, then sent Miss. Marple into the dining room in her quiet, dove-grey gown, only to have her get drunk on brandy in front of the fire and flirt with The General and the Man from Scotland Yard, and never bother to tell anyone who the murderer was!

    A Crime Against The Christie Golden-Age Mystery Reader!!!

    It was not even really a “mystery” at all. It hadn’t been well written or plotted, and was a chaotic mess of pastiche and cliché.

    • There was a piece in the London Sunday Times yesterday about these grandes dames of thrillers/crime, A Christie and P Highsmith. PH was pretty scornful about the arid puzzle solving template she felt AC abided by; she was clearly more turned on by psychological warpedness and cruelty for its own sake – less so by showing law and order prevailing over evil. Obviously your Whodunnit players lost sight of their audience and purpose.

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