It has been years since I have read anything by Highsmith and to be frank I think today’s read has reminded me of why that has been the case.
The story opens with Chester and Colette MacFarland, arriving in Athens. They are on an enforced holiday to Europe when it seems like one of Chester’s latest cons in Manhattan, has become unstuck. A trip abroad seems like the safest option until things blow over. Also in Athens, is another American named Rydal Keener, though he is comparatively poorer. However, he too is in a form of exile, though of a more voluntary kind, having split from his family a few years previously, following a rift with his father. Yet Rydal becomes ‘spellbound’ by Chester when he notices him, picking up on a resemblance between him and his now dead father. Chester of course thinks Rydal is on his trail, professionally speaking, so is flabbergasted when a Greek policeman tracks him down instead. A spur of the moment hit to the head kills the policeman outright. Fortuitously or unfortunately, Rydal is also there to witness this scene at the hotel. Yet he does not call the police and instead decides to help Chester out, a decision he and the MacFarlands will soon regret…
So where to start with this one? Well one of my big gripes is over Rydal and his motivations for getting involved in Chester’s problem. They just seem so weak, tenuous or downright non-existent. Even if he does look like his father, aiding and abetting manslaughter makes very little sense. It is quite surprising that Rydal’s behaviour becomes more unfathomable and inexplicable as the book progresses and personally I don’t think he has a clue what he is doing until he does it. Contrary to what the introduction to my edition says, Highsmith does not make ‘us not only understand their motivations but recognise something of ourselves in them.’ Nor do I feel she successfully ‘manipulates us into sympathising with villains,’ as I didn’t warm to any of the three main characters.
I think I also got a bit irked with the introduction as it makes two very bold claims. Firstly suggesting that Highsmith was ‘one of the first authors to tell her stories from the villain’s point of view’ and secondly that she was ‘one of the first novelists to explore the contradictions that exist within a single character, using criminals to illustrate how villainy and humanity, co-exist in the same person.’ I’m not quibbling as to whether she did include these elements in her books, but I disagree with this idea of her being ‘one of the first authors,’ when writers such as Francis Iles and Richard Hull, to name but two examples, were doing all of this, decades before her. You could even go as far as saying that a lot of mainstream detective novels before Highsmith combined ‘villainy and humanity’ in their killers. How else would they conceal them from the reader otherwise?
Although labelled as a cat and mouse plotted crime novel, the majority of the book is a rather lukewarm fugitive on the run story. Though this part of the book felt very slow and given the fugitive element I was surprised to find it feeling more like a tedious holiday novel. At one point, in fairness before a more dramatic moment finally happened, I did think that I’d had more eventful holidays than this hapless trio, which is saying something!
I will credit Highsmith with providing an unexpected twist half way through, but unfortunately I don’t think she capitalises on it very effectively. The final third, in which the cat and mouse chase takes place, is somewhat drawn out and this section cemented my lack of interest in the two main male protagonists. As I finally made it to the end of the book, I had no capacity left to care what happened to either of them, which is probably not a bad thing given that the ending lacks emotive drama and is dismal, depressing and rushed.
So on that final uplifting note, I think it is time for a re-read of an old favourite…
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Any other country but US or UK
Calendar of Crime: January (1) Month in the Title