The Two Faces of January (1964) by Patricia Highsmith

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…

Overall Thoughts

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…

Rating: 2.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Any other country but US or UK

Calendar of Crime: January (1) Month in the Title

14 comments

  1. I’ve struggled with Highsmith’s characters, and am vaguely baffled whenever the assertion is made that we view them sympathetically on account of how they’re written. There seems to me a deliberate aloofness in how she views the actions of people around crime — as if the characters are helpless in the face of crime to do anything other than what they do, when it seems to me that all they had to do was not make the massive leap into, like, committing these very avoidable crimes for the silliest of reasons.

    So I’m glad someone else sees it in a similar way to me. I just don’t think I’m much a fan of her breed of suspense writing — usually because the suspense is “someone will do something stupid and eventually get called out for it”. Suspense!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Woohoo we’re in agreement. Always nice when that happens.
      The characters really do take nincompoop to a whole new level. It is not really a case of, there I go, but by the grace of God, as these people really could have so easily avoided their problems.
      It’s an odd kind of suspense, somewhat shaped by the inverted mystery formula, but I am not sure that she does it particularly well.

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      • Nice to see that two people, so wrong, can find each other. Even the grievously mistaken are entitled to friendship!
        I have not read this in over 30 years but I did quite like it.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Too long ago to remember details, but in general the way one of the characters gets a hold on the other. That is a common theme in Highsmith, especially when it involves exploiting guilt. The best example is A Tremor Of Forgery, which really is her best book as I recall.

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  2. Oh dear, I don’t think you’ve given a lower score than this?? Actually, maybe you have, but only on a very rare occasion. I haven’t heard much that is good concerning Highsmith’s ‘mystery’ novels – and this review seals my poor impression of her writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I gave up on this one very early on, it was just so unconvincing, not to mention uninteresting – and it seems I made the right decision. It wasn’t as bad as ‘The Tremor of Forgery’, though. [Yet Graham Greene thought the latter was her best book – which just goes to show.]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I usually love Patricia Highsmith, but this one is just awful.There are a lot of interesting directions this plot could have gone, and it seems like she tried to do them all at once, very halfheartedly. Any suspense that is generated is immediately undercut and that final section seems endless..

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  5. I’m with Ken on this. I am fascinated with Highsmith’s idea that the world is ruled by random cruelty. She has recurring themes that not only mean a lot for me personally, but ones that I happen to agree with. The most prominent of her themes is that strangers can develop deep and often profound connections to one another, more powerful, and more meaningful than genuine friends/lovers/spouses/partners ever can. She believes that coincidence and irony are practically governing factors in Life and that cruelty is inescapable. You have to be able to buy into this idea of a malevolent universe and be willing to accept the surreal and perverse events that occur. The books are not intended to be realistic or even believable in my opinion.

    The trio of characters in The Two Faces of January are all guilty of lying and cheating and being deceitful in one way or another. They are all exceptionally self-interested and exploit each other to get what they desire or to strike back vindictively. I see the world we live in being more and more reflective of this intensely cruel self-interest, an aspect of humanity that Highsmith saw all too clearly and wrote about so trenchantly. I might add that the recent movie version highlights all her points just as chillingy, too.

    In response to a comment above I’ll add that I have written about The Tremor of Forgery and I happen to think it’s also one of her best novels. Believe it or not it’s her most optimistic book, one of the few that actually has a positive ending. If you want the best summary of why I find Highsmith to be one of the most interesting and thought provoking of crime writers read my review of A Dog’s Ransom. I’d add a hyperlink but I know that WordPress software will kick out my comment as spam if I do that.

    Liked by 1 person

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