The inside of Patricia Highsmith’s head, in this semi-biographical novel, is an uncomfortable place to be. Even before the main events start to unfold, we’re in uneasy company, sharing ‘Pat’s’ restlessness as she takes nocturnal walks, dressed in brogues and a man’s dressing-gown, always sensing that she’s being pursued. Highsmith’s fascination with snails is apparently well-documented, and Pat usually has one or two in her pocket for company, as well as many more kept in saucers and dishes around the house.
She’s come to this rural Suffolk village in order to work, but is also preoccupied with thoughts of her lover, the glamorous Sam, who may or may not escape from her unpleasant husband (the Problem) for a night or a weekend. Pat’s obsession with Sam – her clothes, her scent, her mannerisms - recalls the central relationship in The Price of Salt, recently filmed as Carol; she thinks of Sam’s “tremendous grace and poise, like the calm surface of a dangerous lake, with the promise that trembled within it of something utterly unruly.” Meanwhile there is interest from another young woman, a journalist who Pat suspects may have more than professional interest; while Pat’s supportive friend, Ronnie, is a portrait of the writer Ronald Blythe (as I was slow to realise), at that time working on his classic account of rural life, Akenfield.
The story is told at first in third-person from Pat’s viewpoint, later alternating with first-person present-tense – confounding the reader’s expectations, as we can’t initially tell whether the events narrated are real or imaginary, or if we’re moving into fiction either written or imagined by Pat. “Like the moments when plots form,” she thinks at a critical moment; “my fingers on keys flying through something fast, something they do of their own will; but somewhere else, just at the corner of my eye, beside me or close to me, something shaping by itself, with the energy and volition of a livid dream.” This haunting something at the corner of the eye carries her back to childhood, and to her unkind treatment at the hands of her stepfather, Stanley. Dawson makes good use of Highsmith’s complex relationship with her mother, who abandoned her as an infant to spend a year with her grandmother, and at one point casually tells her daughter that she tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. Pat frequently recalls such childhood incidents at moments of crisis or doubt.
When Sam’s husband Gerald pursues her to the cottage, Pat’s physical repugnance for the man escalates into a violent outburst. The Problem becomes a more pressing one, and she finds herself enacting a scene which could come from one of her own novels. Jill Dawson shares Highsmith’s knack of making the reader feel implicated in furtiveness and guilt as we accompany the two women to the Aldeburgh coast in an attempt to fabricate evidence – an attempt which, in spite of Pat’s knowledge of crime and criminals, feels bodged and clumsy.
It’s a book that demands close attention. Dawson must have immersed herself in Highsmith, and fans will pick up more references than I did to Highsmith's own novels (the acknowledgements provide enlightenment). But I did especially enjoy ‘Pat’s’ reflections on writing, and crime writing in particular. In fact the title is ironic, given her dislike of being classed as a ‘crime writer’; she prefers to say that she writes suspense novels, and is contemptuous of the ‘Golden Age’ detective story, in which “everyone in the parlour is equally capable of committing a deadly murder, whether an eight-year-old duchess or a sweet-natured stable boy.” She scorns motives in fiction: “How rational, how thoughtful. For Christ’s sake, is this what murders are about? Victims are just the people in the way, the girlfriend or wife or guy at the receiving end: there’s no design. Murders are about one thing: they come out of murderous feelings.” All her relationships, possibly excepting her friendship with Ronnie, are prickly and difficult; writing is her sanctuary. In the midst of a crisis she acknowledges that “only work, the austere servitude of words, the thoughtful peck of fingers on keys, only that will save me.”
This fictional Pat is an intriguingly complicated, tricky character. I don’t think I’ll be the only one to part from her with some relief – but with the definite urge to read more Highsmith novels and more Jill Dawson, too.