Better start this with a confession: I’ve never read a Patricia Highsmith novel. I’ve often thought about it, been urged by fans to do so, but I’ve never got around to it. Jill Dawson, on the other hand, has long been addicted to Highsmith’s fiction as she tells us in her acknowledgements. Obviously, my reading of The Crime Writer will be entirely different from a Highsmith fan’s but my ignorance didn’t stop me from enjoying it immensely. Dawson takes Highsmith’s sojourn at Bridge Cottage in Suffolk and weaves it into a story which constantly pulls the rug from under her readers’ feet.
Highsmith has bought the Suffolk cottage to be in easy reach of her married lover, Sam, who lives in London with her brutish husband and their eight-year-old daughter. She’s agreed to have her fiercely protected privacy breached by a Virginia Smythson-Balby, a journalist after a piece for the local paper on the famous author in their midst. Aside from Sam, the only person welcome in Highsmith’s life is Ronnie, a writer friend who calls in daily to prise her out of her shell. She’s unsettled when Virginia turns up, sure that she’s seen her somewhere before, but Highsmith’s no stranger to such niggling suspicions, constantly dogged by the conviction that she’s being stalked. It’s true that a stream of letters were sent to her in Paris, some signed ‘Brother Death’, but the gendarmerie dismissed them as only to be expected by a crime writer. Highsmith bristles at this particular epithet, insisting that – like Dostoevsky – she writes ‘suspense stories’. She struggles with the two books she’s writing – one a novel, the other about her craft – longing for Sam and painting her lover’s portrait to fill the void. One evening her yearnings are fulfilled and Sam arrives. Then things take a very dark turn, or do they?
Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction, replete with a multitude of allusions to Highsmith’s work as Dawson makes clear in her acknowledgements for the ignoramuses among us. Biographical details are all present and correct, from Highsmith’s grim childhood to her obsession with snails. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator and unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning, claustrophobic inner monologue. The irascible Highsmith is a woman constantly in the grips of a paranoia aggravated by her alcoholism. Dawson is careful to tie in some loose ends but we’re left wondering what exactly happened inside and outside Ms Highsmith’s head. It’s a very clever piece of writing, absolutely engrossing. I’ll be interested to hear what Highsmith’s fans think of it. It’s left me determined to get my hands on one of her novels as soon as I can. The question is which one. Any suggestions?