I admit it — I only bought this book because the cover was intriguing (especially to someone interested in archaeology) and because it is coming out as a movie. I thought it must be on the SCENE CARD list of books that you can get extra points for buying because it is also a movie. Scene started this program a while ago by sending out their first ‘monthly book list’ but they haven’t sent any more lists and I haven’t taken the time to hunt around on the web for one, so I was just guessing. I didn’t think this was an author I’d heard of before although now I realize I am a bit familiar with her work without having realized it. Perhaps this is why there are so many posts around the net lamenting the fact that despite being regularly named in the top crime authors of all time, Patricia Highsmith is not, apparently, a name bandied about by the masses. She is what is referred to as a “niche” author.
I have heard of The Talented Mr. Ripley, of course, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen the whole movie. (Bits of it on TV perhaps, and, of course, trailers!) And Alfred Hitchcock made a movie from her book, Strangers on a Train (which I promptly ordered last night). She authored 22 novels and eight short story collections and has had several biographies written about her since her death in 1995, one in French intriguingly called (and I translate approximately): the long and marvellous suicide. From what I’ve discovered, her personal life was in many ways as dark and unsettling as the characters in her psychological thrillers.
But enough about that. The Two Faces of January (movie due to be released in theatres Oct. 3rd) is full of the psychological action so characteristic of Highsmith’s writing. Set in Athens, Crete, and Paris, the main character, who goes by so many aliases we will just refer to him as Chester, is a smooth con man just a few steps ahead of the law and continually looking over his shoulder. His much younger wife is a pert, flirtatious, somewhat naive lady fully aware that her husband is a crook but not in the least disturbed by it until he accidentally kills a Greek police agent in Athens who wanted to take him in for questioning in relation to a fraud investigation in the United States. Even then, she is only briefly concerned about it. The third character in what almost becomes a love triangle is a young man, Rydal, who is struggling with the relationships he had with his recently deceased father and with a cousin, Agnes, with whom he had a brief sexual relationship when he was 15. Chester reminds him somewhat of his father which is what involves him in their lives in the first place; then he is drawn to Chester’s wife, Colette, by some intangible, quasi resemblance to Agnes. Chester’s psychological upheaval revolves around his reactions to having killed (a first for him), his concern about possibly being blackmailed by Rydal, the suspicions that Colette may be having an affair with Rydal, and . . . you get the idea. The psychological descriptions are as equally chilling as the physical descriptions of the settings are detailed.
At twenty to 1, well fortified by Scotches that he had drunk in his room, Chester went out to keep his appointment with Niko at Stadiou and Omirou. Chester had written the street names down on the edge of his Daily Post. He was not sure Niko would keep the appointment, if Rydal had spoken to him, and of course Rydal would have by now. Chester had seen from inside his taxi on the Piraeus dock that Rydal had got free from the police there. He had made the taxi-driver wait while he watched what was going on at the head of the ship’s gangplank. Chester had hoped, had believed, Rydal had been arrested, they had taken so long with him. And then Rydal had come walking down the gangplank with his suitcase, and Chester had experienced a strange kind of relief which he couldn’t understand, until he realized that if Rydal had been detained, he would have told the police all about Chester MacFarland, alias William Chamberlain.
Some of the most interesting physical descriptions are of, what to me, are the more exotic settings of the story. On Crete, Rydal follows Chester and Colette to the Palace of Knossos.
Rydal climbed the hill. Slowly the palace came into view, a flat open area on his left, paved with stone, like a court or stage, a drop of ground behind it, and, on the right, the palace itself, which looked like a conglomeration of huge boxes, outside stairways without handrails, open terraces whose roofs were supported by dark, red columns — the renowned russet red of Crete.
I’ve got to go there sometime.
As the story progresses, Chester becomes less able to deal with all the pressures, drinks more and more heavily, and, rather than being appalled by the fact that he has killed a man has become readily accepting of the idea that he might kill again. Rydal, being put in the compromising position of being an accessory after the fact in the murder of a police agent and obtaining false identities for Chester and Colette, still can’t bring himself to turn this killer who somehow reminds him of his father over to the police.
From what I’ve read about the movie, some subtle changes have been made to adapt book to screen but it is basically the same plot. When I put the book down, I thought it was too dark and ominous a story to go and see the movie. However, since reading more about Highsmith and some of her other books, including ones made into movies, I think I may go after all. I will watch Strangers on a Train when it comes, and The Talented Mr. Ripley and then I will decide about seeing this movie or not. I do think I will buy more books by Patricia Highsmith in the near future; after I’ve put more of a dent in the current “to read” pile. If you have seen the Ripley movie, you might want to get the book; 5 Ripley books, actually. Extremely good writer of thrillers like few others.