The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson: Literary fan fiction at its best

Cover imageBetter 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?

24 thoughts on “The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson: Literary fan fiction at its best

  1. MarinaSofia

    You can’t go wrong with The Talented Mr. Ripley – no matter how well-known it is, it really is a subtle and wonderful portrayal of class envy and self-deceit.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks, Marina. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to get this far in my reading career without reading a Highsmith.

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks, Cleo. I’ll be interested to know what you think given that you’re a crime fiction fan, and I’m sure you’ve read a Highsmith or two!

      Reply
  2. Poppy Peacock

    Really like the sound of this one. I’m like you… keep meaning to read Highsmith but as yet been waylaid. I’ve got Mr Ripley & Carol on the TBR… one day!

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I’ve been meaning to read Highsmith for some time and now feel I really must. I was so impressed with this book and I have the feeling that Dawson had a lot of fun writing it.

      Reply
        1. Susan Osborne Post author

          More often than not the case. I have such strong images in my head from it that I think I’ll have to leave that one for a little while. Deep Water will be added to my list, though!

          Reply
  3. naomifrisby

    This sounds absolutely fantastic. I’ll wait for the paperback (skint and lots to read in the meantime) but it’s definitely going on my list.

    I’ve only read a couple of Highsmith but I have a set I bought last year to work through. I was – foolishly – snobbish about her and dismissed her work. I had to read The Talented Mr. Ripley for my MA and it is absolutely fantastic. Good place to start, I think.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks for the tip, Naomi, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one. So cleverly constructed.

      Reply
  4. JacquiWine

    I’ll second Claire’s recommendation of Carol (once those images of the film have faded from your memory) – it’s beautifully written.

    In the meantime, The Talented Mr Ripley would make an excellent choice. As Naomi says, It’s absolutely fantastic, a brilliant portrayal of likeable psychopath.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks, Jacqui. I remember John Malkovich’s portrayal of Ripley. So convincing that he seemed made to play it – coolly amoral.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    This sounds excellent. I have never read Jill Dawson (though have two tbr one is The Great Lover) or Patricia Highsmith but this novel appeals immensely .

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I enjoyed The Great Lover but this one’s even better – so cleverly put together

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, Cathy. Mr Ripley seems to top the list of recommendations!

      Reply
  6. bookbii

    I haven’t read Patricia Highsmith either, though she’s on my ‘should’ list. Jill Dawson is very good. I’ve only read Fred and Edie, which is another blending of fiction and fact, but it’s an excellent book and I keep thinking I should read another. Perhaps this will be the one. Would love to hear your views on Highsmith when you get to her.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I’ve been a fan of Dawson’s for quite some time but I’d say this one’s her best, Belinda.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        That’s a strong recommendation indeed. Have you read The Tell-Tale Heart? I’ve been eyeing that one up (but will probably read The Crime Writer now as well!). Why is there so little time to read? Sigh.

        Reply
        1. Susan Osborne Post author

          I have and it’s very good but The Crime Writer’s better. I think she had a lot of fun writing this one!

          Reply
  7. Lectito

    I adore Highsmith (I have an entire shelf just for her books), and I’m looking forward to reading The Crime Writer. I vote with the other commenters to said to start with The Talented Mister Ripley. I think it gives a good sense of her overall style, and it’s a fabulous story.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I’ve a feeling I might come back to this one once I’ve got a Highsmith or two under my belt. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Reply

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