I'm so glad that the works of Patricia Highsmith have been reissued (I particularly love her Ripley series). This book is similar in many ways to the Ripley books - male protagonist who is an amoral American living in the European countryside and married to a European. Sydney is an unsuccessful American mystery writer, who finds himself unhappy in his marriage. His wife, Alicia, is a bit critical of Sydney and he finds his imagination plotting her murder. The suspense comes from guessing whether he will end up killing her and whether he will get away with it. The plot twists are rather clever, although very little of what happens is particularly believable and the ending is a let-down. Despite these flaws, Highsmith's writing style is so smooth and enjoyable that I found myself liking this book a great deal. Highly recommmended for suspense book lovers and fans of the Ripley series.
on January 7, 2004
...and this novel is an example. Because her characters often engage in activities that are illegal or, at least, immoral, American publishers have classified her work as "crime fiction," or something similar. Highsmith's fiction was decidedly NOT crime fiction, and people who read Grafton, Cornwell, or Kellerman might be disappointed. There are no good guys, bad guys, hunky detectives, loyal girl Fridays, or love stories. Just people we normally meet, taking extraordinary chances or exploring weird indulgences. Who hasn't fantasized about killing one's spouse (or parent, child, friend, enemy, etc.)?
Read any of Patricia Highsmith's work as if you were reading a classic novelist--Dostoevsky, perhaps. In Highsmith's vision, crime is a metaphor representing the oddly amoral choices we make out of our natural narcissism or neurosis. The discomfort you feel while reading a Highsmith novel? Be warned: that's your conscience scraping its fingernails across the blackboard of your soul. Pleasant? No. Dangerous, guilty, neurotic fun? You bet!
on December 10, 2001
There is something tantalyzing about reading a book that could only be a book; a story that hides behind the fact that you can only know what you are told, never what you see. Is the story-teller of this novel (the original title was, I believe, "The Storyteller") telling us the bizarre and awful things he is doing or is he working out the plotline of a new fiction? Curious characters and situations, and some very odd behavior that stretches your reader's patience. But we do not go to Highsmith to meet conventional people with conventional behavior; we ask her to introduce us to the perverse and psychologically messy people we hope we never meet outside of her pages.
A Suspension of Mercy by the highly acclaimed Patricia Highsmith starts off essentially as a dark comedy in that there's much ado about a murder that hasn't taken place. Not much of real interest happens for long stretches of narrative as characters are methodically introduced and fleshed out to varying degrees.
By design, the first 60% of the book is slow moving and, at times, maddeningly dull. It was Highsmith's intention to show that evil is not something exotic but rather it derives from the very ordinary. That which is monstrous resides in the everyday. Evil lurks in our neighbors, our friends, our family members, ourselves. So, the reader must patiently watch as the characters do unexciting, everyday things even though such mundane activities are often very dull.
The action picks up in the last 40% of A Suspension of Mercy. Here, some real criminality rears its ugly head. But there are problems here as well. More often than not, Highsmith has her characters do things that make little sense and, even more disturbingly, seem completely out of character. That's particularly disappointing since Highsmith's best work is known for showcasing great characters who display highly recognizable personality types and behave in the exact ways such personality types would be expected to behave.
A Suspension of Mercy is disappointingly inferior to Highsmith's best work. Not recommended.
on September 4, 2001
Having read most of Highsmith's novels I've become rather critical of her work in both good and bad ways. While undoubtedly gifted in generating suspense out of thin air, many of her stories are formulaic ... with the sense Highsmith is "manufacturing" the novel rather than it be a result of inspiration. However when Patricia Highsmith has a truly new and creative thought she produces great stuff (The Talented Mr Ripley, This Sweet Sickness, Strangers on a Train). How does Suspension of Mercy hold up?? Rather well, actually.
Suspension of Mercy is a story about a crime novelist and screenwriter who imagines what it would be like to kill his wife ... nothing more than a morbid 'hobby'. However when his wife walks out and keeps her whereabouts unknown people begin to talk, the police get involved, and ... it gets interesting. Highsmith does a wonderful job on focusing on the nervous, neurotic behaviour of the characters. While the story isn't entirely believable I found the ending to be rather good.
Bottom line: a very competent effort by Highsmith. Not among her very best, but certainly a polished piece of mystery writing.
on May 25, 2015
Sydney Bartleby is an American living in Suffolk with his English wife Alicia; she lives quite comfortably on her inheritance, while Syd is a struggling mystery writer, hacking away at his great mystery novel while failing to sell crime-show screenplays to television studios. Their marriage on the rocks, after one spat too many Alicia heads to London and leaves Syd alone for a few weeks—and both look forward to the quiet and solitude. Syd's writing picks up and he makes sales, but as the weeks pass and his wife fails to return, suspicion begins to fall on Syd. Why hasn’t she contacted anyone? Why hasn’t she collected her weekly inheritance of £50? And why did his neighbor Mrs. Lilybanks see him walking around one night, carrying a heavy carpet over his shoulder—who buries a carpet in the middle of the night? The Police change their investigation from a missing persons case to a murder; and to complicate things, Sydney begins living out his own murder-mystery plots, play-acting the game of murder under the watchful eye of the investigators…
While Highsmith does an excellent job building tension around this concept---a murder without a corpse---Syd's character I found a bit frustrating. Highsmith has a reputation for trapping her characters in unavoidable circumstances, usually through their own guilt and frantic attempts to escape. But I felt Syd wasn't so much "trapped" as "merely accepting the circumstances and refusing to challenge them"---whenever he learns something that would remove suspicion from himself, he keeps it hidden, continuing to play chicken with the investigators. He knows he's innocent and doesn't worry, at which point why should I? Yet Highsmith still crafts a tense, foreboding atmosphere. Not a 100% success for me, though I will try again with another Highsmith and see if that one is a better fit.
on June 10, 2013
My exposure to the work of Patricia Highsmith is sadly lacking; although I've read most of the Ripley books (which are outstanding, in case you haven't read them), all of my other exposure to her worlds are through the film adaptations of her work. Having finished A Suspension of Mercy, I get the feeling it might not have been the ideal one to jump back into her books with, but it's still well-written, beautifully crafted suspense with a flair for the ghoulish and the dark. As with most of Highsmith's work, much of the beauty of the book comes from watching the plotting unwind, so I'll just say that A Suspension of Mercy is about a writer who ends up entertaining himself by imagining all the ways he might murder his wife, only to find those "harmless" games resulting in some very real consequences. Several reviewers have commented on some of the more unlikely character actions that drive the book, but by and large, they worked for me; it helps, of course, that Highsmith has such a strong grasp on her morbid and damaged characters, so much so that even the most implausible of actions seems to work within their way of viewing the world. (What's more, so much of it feels like Highsmith's variation on Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse," where a man finds himself reacting absurdly simply out of absurd self-destructive tendencies.) It all builds to an ending that seems to have been a deal-breaker for a lot of people, but worked beautifully for me; it's a gloriously ironic and tense series of events that plays out beautifully, all in the capable hands of Highsmith. I'll concede that Mercy isn't the strongest of Highsmith's work; yes, some of the actions and coincidences strain credulity, and yes, you're going to have to just trust yourself to Highsmith's hands for it all to work. (I can't help but feel that the original title, The Storyteller, would give people a very different perception of the book and shape their reactions to it.) But it's still some beautifully psychological suspense, and it's a joy to watch Highsmith plot it all together like a spider spinning a web.
on August 1, 2013
My local library is having a big reading promotion for both adults and children this summer with large reading lists for all age groups and interests. Ms. Highsmith was an author on this list and while the listed book was out I picked up this one based on just the title. Sadly I didn't recognize her name right away since it has been a long while since I have read her much more famous works such as "Strangers on a Train". As with all the books I picked up, I didn't read anything about it, not even the back cover and found it the characters in it to be on the express train towards insanity.
I would highly recommend just picking up this book and reading it with no previous knowledge as pretty much anything even the short back cover can give away too much of this interesting and intense novel. If you would like to do that I will end this section simply with: It is a worthwhile read and quite a quick read at that. Very well crafted and will send shivers up your spine as your turn the last page and realize just what has transpired in these lives.
***MILD SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT ****
We start off with a simple premise: a newlywed couple not necessarily happily married who have bought a house in the middle of nowhere in England as their relationship and lives start to unravel. Sydney is a writer while his flighty wife Alicia is an artist with very wealthy parents who have disapproved of this marriage.
What does Sydney write about you ask? Well he has written novels that have been successful in his home country of America, is working on TV shows and about murdering his dear sweet wife.
Yes, we begin pretty shortly in with an author writing out how he intends to murder his wife and what it feels like to do the deed. When Alicia takes an extended holiday facts begin to become clouded as to whether he is still living in the fantasy or whether the fantasy he is creating on paper has in fact become reality.
The characters are carefully crafted and you will probably be surprised to as to who you end up siding with along with perhaps rooting for their actions no matter how vile. There is betrayal, selfishness and revenge that mix all of our players together nicely, from the innocent onlookers to those with agendas of their own.
In many ways, while reading this book it is hard to not cry out loud at some of the injustices that take place. People truly can be this cruel and devious and while it is nice to read fantasy books with the white knight always winning over evil, reality is sadly a different place. People often have their own motives and anyone in their way be damned as they claw over them to get what they want. In the end it is people following their desires and how these desires prey on their very being.
This book is very well crafted and Ms. Highsmith is definitely on my list to read more, especially her books that aren't as well known. She has created believable characters acting in ways that are true to their origins regardless if we beg them to do something differently.
The part of this that earns this book four stars from me (really more like 4.5 out 5) is the ending. It does feel shaky and a little out of place for those involved but at the same time you know why it has happened. After all the betrayal, back-stabbing, traitorous behavior displayed by all those involved something's got to give and it definitely does. I just wish it had gone somewhat smoother for the last two chapters or so.
But the book made me smile at the end for everything is just a matter of attitudes.
on July 7, 2013
This work reminded me of Barbara Vine/ Ruth Rendell. I loved the quaint matter of factness in the evilness and in the politeness of the characters. It kept me guessing and in a love hate with all the characters. I would read again and will explore more by the author.
Patricia Highsmith's strengths have always been the meticulous development of her sociopaths and psychopaths, and her ability to make the monstrous seem ordinary. In "A Suspension of Mercy," Sydney Bartleby is a married writer whose fertile imagination takes over his psyche. An unsuccessful thriller writer, Sydney is constantly bickering with his wife, Alicia, until she decides one day to leave him for a few months and re-evaluate whether she'd like to stay married to him or not. While gone, Sydney pretends that he had murdered his wife, and disposed of her body wrapped in an old rug and buried it in the woods, all ostensibly as research for a future book. His ghoulish imagination takes complete control of him that he starts acting guilty when Alicia's absence becomes a police matter. From Sydney's neighbor to his closest friends, everyone becomes convinced that he did indeed do away with Alicia. Real life and imagined life converge to the degree that Sydney becomes unhinged (if he wasn't already) and dangerous.
I think very few genre writers such as Highsmith can get away with an implausible story (one is immediately reminded of "Strangers on a Train" where two strangers swap murders, and of course, her Ripley series.) And she does get away with these absurdities because in her stories, there's always some undefined terror that's just biding time, hidden in mundane everyday lives, waiting to jump out at just the right Highsmithian moment. I remember reading some article a long time ago that termed this particular ingredient in her books as "commonplace deviancy," which makes them far more disturbing and creepy than those that employ conventional scare tactics. "A Suspension of Mercy," like many in her oeuvre, is Kafkaesque with its hopelessness, absurdities, alienation, persecution, and most notably in how its protagonist "invents a struggle." It is at times funny in a biting and sardonic way. Halfway through, the reader doesn't really know whether Sydney's irrational actions mean he's merely carried away with formulating a plot for a future book or if he's truly going bonkers. Either way, it's an absorbing read--a literary thriller with sharply-drawn characters from an acknowledged master of misanthropy.
BTW, there are no happy endings in Highsmith novels (except for "The Price of Salt"), a natural predilection for someone who abhorred the artificiality of justice for the good and punishment for the bad in fiction. Thus, if one wishes such satisfaction, it will not be found here. Highsmith is an acquired taste, I think, for her stories mostly repel by their sheer exaggerated eccentricity, but I'll be darned if they aren't oddly addictive.