Monday, August 3, 2015

Some Domestic Suspense for you

To celebrate the Library of America's decision to publish several of the American women mystery authors who were profiled in Atomic Renaissance, I thought I'd give you my thoughts on some of the books in the collections. All of these books are fascinating and everyone should be running to get a copy of them!

After Highsmith's The Price of Salt, The Blunderer, was again in the suspense field and published under her own name. In The Blunderer, she twists the formula she used so well in Strangers on a Train.
“[T]he germinal idea of another book, The Blunderer, was not so promising, was more stubborn about developing, but showed a hardihood by sticking in my head for more than a year, and nagging at me until I found a way to write it. This was: ‘Two crimes are strikingly similar, though the people who commit them do not know each other.’”1

As with Strangers on a Train, the two main characters are men, bound together by murder. In this case, one man has intentionally killed his wife, the other merely fantasized about it before his wife commits suicide. While Walter Stackhouse has not committed a crime, he has daydreamed about his wife’s murder. Society punishes him for that crime by making him the outcast that his wife wanted him to be. Stackhouse is trapped in an existential nightmare, one where he is punished for the wickedness of his thoughts rather than for any deed he committed. The situation is evocative of Kafka, where no one can halt events once they have begun. The logical end is like a brick wall looming ahead. The policeman, Corby, plays the two men off each other until the situation explodes into further violence.
Again the women in the novel are not sympathetic. Clara Stackhouse, a successful businesswoman, clings to her husband with threats of suicide and promises that she will change. She is petty and neurotic, accusing her husband of starting an affair with an acquaintance before he even notices the young woman in question.

In nearly all of Highsmith’s works, the plot has a point of no-return where the character could choose another direction. Once that choice is made, the inevitable path of self-destruction begins. Some critics have decried her works, saying that the suspension of disbelief is stretched too far by the extreme reactions of the characters. To Highsmith’s credit, she makes the situation so plausible and real that the reader forgets that the protagonist might have avoided the entire situation. In Strangers on a Train, Guy could have easily not played along with Bruno’s conversation. He could have moved or read a book. In The Blunderer, Walter follows the bus carrying his wife to the first rest stop. His reasoning for his actions is thin, but Highsmith has so masterfully drawn the characters and situation that the reader understands the actions, even if the decisions are not what the reader would do.
(1.Patricia Highsmith. Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, page 4.)