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 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.
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!
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 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 September 10, 2001
Although its plot occasionally stretches credulity, this is nonetheless a fine novel by one of the masters of suspense fiction. There are rarely any "good guys" in a Highsmith novel, and this one is no exception. Even the kindly neighbor Mrs. Lilybanks is too snoopy for her own good. Likewise, the police employ tactics that border on harrassment (though the suspect exacerbates the problem by withholding evidence and behaving guilty on purpose). I'd like to have seen the author create more convincing motivations for some of the protagonist's more bizarre behavior, especially that behavior which threatened to needlessly sabotage the literary successes he is so hungry for. But this is just a minor quibble. If you like your crime fiction without any pat moral tacked on at the end, this is your kind of novel. The suspense will twist a knot in your stomach and the clever turns of the plot will keep you guessing until the final page -- literally.
on February 15, 2002
Someone once said that Patricia Highsmith's novels are like bad dreams that keep us thrashing during the night. This one is no exception. I can't really call it a mystery becuase there really is no "who done it" - at least who done it in the terms that we would normally associate it. Rather, Ms. Highsmith comes across like Ruth Rendell or maybe Elmore Leonard. Not so much of a mystery as a crime novel where the plot really isn't the driving force, it's the characters. She, like Rendell and Leonard, has created a few characters who bounce off of one another like billiard balls and move the story along.
Sydney Bartleby, an aspiring author-to-be, imagines a plot to kill off his wife Alicia, a painter. Oh, he hasn't done it, mind you, but he has thought about it enough. So, when Alicia takes some time off away from ol' Syd because their marriage is reaching the straining point, Sydney begins a descent into the netherworld of his own imagination. Did he kill her and bury her in a carpet in the middle of the woods? The only person in the book who might even begin to resemble a "good guy", widowed Mrs. Lilybanks, their neighbor, isn't so sure. Sydney leads the police on in their investigation and when it appears that his own fictions will rock and destroy his own life - and he keeps going on - you just want to shake him. I found this to be just a little unbelieveable. The last couple of chapters will either surprise you or leave you asking, "Is that all there is?"
Ms. Highsmith hasn't been that well publicized in the U.S. until one of her earlier novels, "The Talented Mr. Ripley", was made into a movie. Still, like here classic debut novel, "Strangers on a Train", this one shows us what forces might be perculating just below the skin of everyday life. Elmore and Ruth would be proud.
A frustrated American author meets and marries an English lady, they move into the English countryside so he can write and think, and their marriage gradually dissolves into sarsastic quips, and trivial complaints. Though this is definitely not new, Hightsmith twists this faltering marriage into a nasty game of hide and seek, where the wife takes an extended disappearing act into Brighton, and her folks call the police to investigate. Meanwhile, frustrated write-hubby daydreams and sometimes tells his friends how he may have done away with her. In a wonderfully set English landscape, this seeming innocent situation slowly turns frightening, with a fine cast of characters, including the elderly widow,new next door neighbor. For sheer everyday creepiness, Highsmith is in a class of her own in this non-Ripley mesmorizer.
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.