Monday, February 02, 2009

7. A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

Ah, Patricia Highsmith, does she ever fail to deliver? I have to pace myself with her for two reasons. One is that she is so precise and cold in the way she views humans that it could make you a little crazy if you read too much of her (or at least depressed). Two is just that they are each so good and there are a finite amount of them, so I like to savour them.

A Suspension of Mercy is about a young couple living in the British countryside. He is a struggling writer. She paints, but not professionally. They each get a little bit of money monthly from inheritances, she a bit more than he. They seem to have a pleasant, bohemian existence, counting their pennies, having friends from London over from time to time. There are hints of tension. He broods about his lack of success at writing. She snipes at him from time to time, offhand remarks but quite cutting. Highsmith is a master at slowly peeling away the layers so that by the time the wife decides to take some days off and go to Brighton by herself, the reader is well aware that there is a lot of trouble in this marriage.

Another thing that Highsmith is a master of is making a totally banal situation seem full of dread and mystery and then of having the flaws of her characters turn the situation into a truly frightening one. The basic plot is that the wife takes off again for a second time, this time for longer. She really wants to get away and asks her husband to tell her friends she is staying with her parents. She has done this several times before and he respects her wishes. He is a writer of crime television scripts and takes advantage of the situation to pretend what it would be like if he had actually murdered her. He even goes so far as to take an old carpet out before dawn, load it rolled up into his truck, drive to the woods and bury it there. The nice old lady across the lane, up early birdwatching, sees this.

The wife stays away longer for this time and soon her family, then her friends, then the police start getting worried. The husband is very blasé the whole time, not realizing or deliberately ignoring that he is looking more and more like a true crime suspect. The wife, now shown to lack some serious sense, keeps hidden, not realizing or deliberately ignoring the stress she is causing everyone. There is a very real plot reason for this that I don't want to give away, but more importantly it is really her lack of judgment and egotism that motivates her.

The situation gets worse and worse, crazier and crazier. It moves forward in Highsmith's deliberate, constant pace, viewed through her cold, objective lens. You really have to take a step back to realize how nuts the situation has become because you get so caught up in the minutiae of the situation and she does such a good job of thinking like the characters.

And while their behaviour is frustrating at times, it's never unrealistic. The woman in particular is a cruelly accurate portrayal of a certain slightly artistic, emotionally unrealistic young woman. She reminded me so much of an ex of mine, who flew to Canada to meet me during vacation once carrying $30 and a voter registration card (in a lunch pail). She was held over at customs and we had to come and claim her. As much as I hate the extortionists at Canada Customs, I had to agree with their actions in this case and was really astounded that she had managed to survive this long in the world.

A tense, entertaining read, uncluttered by false morality yet somehow morally very satisfying.


Buzby said...

Awesome review, I am all over this but I do agree with you that one needs to have a Highsmith quota.

Lewis Cash said...

I've only read Highsmith's Ripley books, but I'm adding this one to my library queue.