Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Blunderer, by Patricia Highsmith

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The Queen of Suspense, Patricia Highsmith, doesn't disappoint with this Kafkaesque tale of suburban misery and murder. 

Patricia Highsmith’s third novel, The Blunderer (1954), opens with a gruesome murder scene. Helen Kimmel has been beaten and stabbed to death. We don't know who the murderer is, or the motive. The next chapter we are introduced to Walter Stackhouse, a young, dissatisfied lawyer hoping to open his own practice. He is married to Clara and the couple live your average American 1950s lifestyle. They are both pretty miserable. Clara is overly critical and finds nothing is ever good enough. She actually prefers the company of her pet dog. They have discussed divorce several times, but keep pulling back from the brink. Pretty soon into the novel Walter starts up a relationship with Ellie Briess, a young, pretty and sympathetic music teacher.

While Walter’s personal life is unravelling in horrible slow motion, he reads about the murder of Helen Kimmel. Her husband, Melchior Kimmel, a bookshop owner, has been suspected of the crime, but not convicted. Walter becomes fascinated with Kimmel, tracking him down and visiting him at his bookshop. He goes so far as to ask a few mildly probing questions about the death of his wife. It becomes clear to the reader that, subconsciously at least, Walter may harbour some wild, perverse fantasy of ending his problems with Clara in the same way. Whether he would do such a thing, of course, remains another matter.

Hence the two men start to mirror each other in strange and uncanny ways, the reader invited to look at them as slightly distorted images of each other. It’s almost like Dostoyevsky’s early novel, The Double, a story about two men who look alike, hold the same job and the same name, working as office clerks, with the one tormenting the other.

Further dramas unravel. Upon hearing bad news of her mother’s ill health, Clara decides to visit her. She catches a bus, and Walter follows her. At one of the stops Clara goes missing. She is later found dead, having fallen off a cliff. It’s pronounced suicide, but when police officer Lawrence Kirby investigates, he starts to see darker possibilities.

This is a compelling read, perhaps my favourite Patricia Highsmith so far. The novel strongly resembles something by Kafka, in that it continues unfolding endlessly like a nightmare, leaving the reader wondering where the whole mess will end up.There’s also a lot of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in The Blunderer, especially in the character of officer Corby.

Brilliant, if scary, fun. Highsmith writes it as she sees it: the misery of 1950s America - the booze, the desire for money, sexual problems, unhappy marriages - working the whole mess into a rivetting psychological striptease.

The Blunderer, by Patricia Highsmith. Published by Virago Classics. ISBN: 9780349004525 RRP: $19.99

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