In an era that favours dark suspense and unhealthy passions, a novel about Patricia Highsmith could hardly be more timely. Published a few months after the release of the acclaimed Highsmith adaptation Carol, Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer explores the life and work of an author whose themes emerged a good half century ahead of the current taste for domestic noir or the psychological thriller.
Highsmith is both rated and periodically neglected: sidelined as a crime novelist, she has never quite been awarded the lofty place in the canon she deserves, though Graham Greene labelled her “the poet of apprehension”. As well as 22 novels, she produced exquisite short stories, many written at a very young age. She had a strange and interesting life, meticulously portrayed in Andrew Wilson’s biography Beautiful Shadow and then again in Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith. Her “little hell” of an American childhood was followed by a peripatetic existence in Europe, literary success that resulted in several film adaptations – most notably Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley – and a highly complex personal life. She seduced a string of women, bred snails, suffered from severe depression, became an emotionally avoidant alcoholic and was variously viewed as kind, witty, and a nightmare. As one of her publishers, Otto Penzler, said she was “mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving … But her books? Brilliant.”
Hers was a dark and thrilling talent, her philosophy and the murky psychology of her protagonists owing more to Dostoevsky or Kafka than to detective fiction. Her explorations of criminal mentality, obsessive love, stalking and murder reveal a fascinating mind.
In 1964, Highsmith retreated to deepest Suffolk, taking on a house in the village of Earl Soham, and this is where Dawson has landed for the focus of what is a clever idea. The Crime Writer merges the life and the literary themes of Patricia Highsmith and plays with them, creating a layering of forms, a novel within a novel in which Highsmith is both subject and protagonist. Dawson asks what would happen if that perverse mind had enacted her fantasies. As Wilson notes, many of Highsmith’s criminal heroes “have imaginations that enable them to … live out the fiction inside their heads.”
The village is finely portrayed as claustrophobic, brooding, yet suitably prosaic, with a more evolved setting than Highsmith’s own Suffolk novel, A Suspension of Mercy. Dawson’s depiction of time and place is remarkably well handled, and she achieves the double act of capturing a 1960s village with a native’s authenticity and with the slight distortion, the prejudice and saturated colour, of an American abroad.
Here Pat, as she is known, is in hiding from fame and fans, and is fixated on a female lover, a mild tribute to the love object in Carol. This London-dwelling mistress is in a destructive marriage, and Pat’s anger towards her love rival reaches boiling point as fantasy turns to violence.
A young female journalist, Virginia, is on the prowl, while Pat spends much time drinking, longing for her girlfriend, tending snails and ruminating with her friend Ronnie. “Violence is not an act, it’s a feeling,” Pat tells Virginia. And if this boisterous hack is always leaping out of the bushes, just what has she witnessed that she shouldn’t have, and what are her intentions towards Pat?
The novel is so busy successfully inhabiting its subject’s psyche, surroundings and fictional process, that there is little room for the plotting at which Highsmith herself so excelled. It’s a slow burn of ventriloquism, rumination and atmosphere, full of knowledge and little nods that will delight Highsmith fans; Dawson, like Virginia, is “releasing her scraps of information in drips”. Once the plot really gets going, at a frustratingly late stage, its surprises are a relief. The way to read this novel is not to expect a conventional plot. Dawson has previously written about Rupert Brooke and the murderess Edith Thompson, and her eighth novel is a similarly strange hybrid of fact and fiction.
This is an ingenious concept, one that would be almost impossible to pull off without some sagging, and momentum suffers while observation reigns. Dawson can be applauded for her passionate immersion in her subject, and for creating a novel as dark and odd as the subject herself.
• Joanna Briscoe’s latest novel, Touched, is published by Hammer. To order The Crime Writer for £15.19 (RRP £18.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.