on March 22, 2001
After reading 'Strangers on a Train', which I thought was utterly superb, I was generally disappointed in Highsmith's later works. While at worst enjoyable, these later works lacked the psychological tension of her first book (which was turned into a Hitchcock film). Fortunately, I discovered the (now) little-known 'The Blunderer', Highsmith's second mystery novel (after 'Strangers on a Train' and before 'The Talented Mr Ripley'). It is equal to the best she has ever done.
Like 'Strangers on a Train', 'The Blunderer' is the study of two accused criminals and how they cope with each other while being hounded by an aggressive police detective. As guilt and suspicion build with each page the reader is really dropped into the deep end of endless anxiety and self-doubt. I found myself completely absorbed, especially during the last half of the novel. It is such a joy to read a novel that is crisp, economical and written in a seemingly effortless style.
Bottom line: 'The Blunderer' is a must read. Hopefully it will be reprinted so that Highsmith junkies (like me) can readily find it.
on December 26, 2001
For Highsmith fans, The Blunderer has just been re-released in a new series put out by Norton press. (Norton is also planning to re-release other Highsmith books for which they have publishing rights.)
My review of the book isn't as positive as those by others who have written before me, but I think this is because I read, just before The Blunderer, The Cry of The Owl, which is similar in plotline but far better written and without the unnecessarily violent ending found in The Blunderer. (Highsmith wrote The Blunderer in 1954 and The Cry of The Owl in 1962; my guess is that in the intervening years Highsmith had time to improve on the plotline.)
Still, The Blunderer is a good read. Highsmith did a great job of showing how two people's lives can suddenly intwine in ways neither individual would ever conceive of if not in the middle of Highsmith's weird, twisted, amoral universe. Highsmith also continues her close-up examination of our inner obsessions that, on occasion, can creep to the surface and wind up completely derailing life as we knew it before.
I recommend The Blunderer for readers who are well familiar with Highsmith's works beyond the well-known Mr. Ripley series. Gain appreciation of Highsmith's "high notes" before taking a look at her earlier works which foreshadow the mystery writer genius of future years.
on March 6, 2001
Currently out of print, this early thriller by Patricia Highsmith bears many of her trademarks: page-turning suspense, unbelievably cruel and sordid characters, the "doppelganger" motif (as in "Strangers on a Train"), the famous "transference of guilt" that fascinated Hitchcock, and an overpowering sense of hopelessness (at times I felt like I was reading an American version of Camus's "The Stranger"). Added here is a theme of lying that twists and turns its way through the plot until "the tangled web" is so thick that there is simply no way out.
The story concerns two unhappy marriages -- one that ends in murder, and another that seems headed in the same direction. Like so many other Highsmith books, it features a pair of not-too-admirable protagonists, one who is truly guilty and another who only seems to be -- or is he really? How much do intention and motivation count toward making a man guilty of murder? This is one of Highsmith's favorite themes, and it's played out here in its most radical and shattering incarnation.
In the end, I think you'll find the book is about a man who is not so much a blunderer as he is virtually driven to possible madness and genuine guilt by the constant doubt and suspicion of everyone he knows -- including himself.
In typical Highsmith fashion, this is a book nearly impossible to put down, yet dizzying in its psychological implications. I've said before that reading Highsmith is like falling down a well -- it's dark and terrifying, and there's no way to stop. That's about what this book feels like.
Well worth finding, esp. for the die-hard Highsmith fan (like me).
on December 27, 2001
This is a superbly crafted novel. It gets under your skin, and like a test for allergies, it makes you aware of sensitivities you never knew you had. I couldn't put it down, I often laughed out loud, and was haunted. She makes an improbable situation most probable. In another writer's hand this could've been dreadful. How did she do it? I am not sure. But that is the magic of Highsmith, and she spins her spell wonderfully in this masterpiece. It has an existential power, a nightmarish texture, and the bite of the best dark comedy.
on October 18, 2011
Highsmith's 3rd published novel starts on the fast-track then gradually slows to a crawl before being revived by an O'Henry ending, the slowing a result, perhaps, of too much Stackhouse (the blunderer). The detective Corly never rises much above caricature but Kimmel, the narcissitic porno-collecting murderer, is a real treat (as is Clara, Stackhouse's nagging and unbearable wife). One of Highsmith's best.
on November 21, 2014
This story has a lot in common with Dostoevsky' s "Crime and Punishment" in that the detective has free rein to get inside the heads of the two suspects to force out admissions of guilt in the absence of real proof. One of the characters, Kimmel, is repugnant but intelligent. The other, Walter, is sympathetically portrayed, yet he is the blunderer who makes the ultimate blunder at the end of the story.
Another reading reveals this to be a retelling of the Whittaker Chambers-Alger Hiss saga that was occupying much of the media coverage when this novel was written. The physical descriptions match the two real-life antagonists, and the likable nature of Hiss is reflected in the portrayal of Walter. The huge amount of circumstantially incriminating but questionable evidence eventually traps Walter, much like Hiss' eventual conviction that seemed so incredible to people who were closely following the case. A question posed by this story is "what constitutes guilt?"
on March 28, 2016
Dark novel of a would-be murderer
The Blunderer is a man named Walter whose wife is such a shrew that the reader would forgive him for doing away with her. He doesn’t but thinks about it and that’s enough for this twisted morality tale. Walter furtively follows a man who did what Walter dreams of and pays the price as if he did the deed himself.
Highsmith’s characters are well drawn and believable and—typical of Highsmith—unbalanced. From sadistic policemen to compulsive killers, their psychopathic light shines bright, making our hapless Walter more sympathetic. It’s a neat trick Highsmith pulls off, and she’s a master at it: paint everyone so reprehensible that we side with the protagonist. It works well, but better in Highsmith’s other novels. Although suspenseful and classic Highsmith, The Blunderer reaches a point where Walter keeps making one ill-fated move after another, digging his hole deeper, and the reader gives up on him. His behavior is almost mechanical, feeling like a plot device more than a real human failing, and it just doesn’t work as well here. There’s also a significant mystery that is drawn out that isn’t quite resolved regarding Walter’s wife and the book ends on a dark note to be sure, but too soon. The Blunderer opens and closes with horrific murders, and the same menacing tone is maintained throughout so fans of Highsmith won’t be disappointed but, like Walter’s unresolved desire, there’s something missing.
Patricia Highsmith's 1954 novel, "The Blunderer" is the second of four novels included in a new Library of America volume, "Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s." The LOA book in its turn is part of a two-volume box set edited by Sarah Weinman of Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s, which includes eight novels by eight women writers of suspense fiction. The LOA kindly has given me a review copy of the box set. I am enjoying working through the individual novels.
Of the eight writers in the LOA set, Highsmith (1921 -- 1995) is the best known. Her 1955 novel "The Talented Mr Ripley" is included in a Library of America volume of crime writing from the 1950s. Highsmith's many novels about the Ripley character have been much praised and filmed. Her first novel, "Strangers on a Train" became a celebrated Alfred Hitchcock film. But her third novel, "The Blunderer" was out of print for many years until its 2001 reissue. The novel's publication in the LOA will provide for its permanence and accessibility.
Highsmith's novel is set in Long Island and Newark in the early 1950s. The novel tells the story of two women taking separate lengthy bus trips who meet their deaths at rest stops along the way. Both women are in unhappy marriages. The book opens with the brutal murder of the first woman by her husband, Melchior, "Mel" Kimmel. (There is no suspense about the murder or the killer, as Highsmith makes both clear in her opening chapter.) The scene of the book soon shifts to the unhappy marriage between Walter and Clara Stackhouse. Walter, 30, is a successful but restless corporate lawyer. He lives a dull life socializing with other well to do people. His marriage has been deteriorating as Clara becomes increasingly demanding, nagging, and unresponsive sexually. Walter sees a news clipping about the Kimmel murder and the lives and fates of the two men gradually intertwine when Clara meets her death at a bus rest stop with Walter trailing her. A brutal detective, Corby, believes both men guilty of murdering their wives and pursues both of them remorselessly and violently. Walter's actions show him as guilty in act as in his mind. The book offers a portrayal of internal self-destruction.
The book is tensely and tightly written with its two primary male characters well portrayed. The novel also shows the shallow aimless side of suburban America in the post- WW II years and the consequences of living without purpose. Walter tries to find meaning to his life by contemplating leaving his law firm and opening his own practice to serve lower to middle class clients. His sexual and emotional feelings try to revive from his marriage when he becomes smitten with a young music teacher. But his dreams prove unavailing when he cannot handle his relationship with Clara or explain his actions following her suspicious death. In an early passage of the book, Highsmith describes Walter's unsuccessful search for purpose in life:
"Walter felt that perfect achievements were few. Men made laws, set goals, and then fell short of them. His marriage had fallen short of what he had hoped. Clara had fallen short, and perhaps he had not been what she expected, either. But he had tried and he was still trying. One of the few things he knew absolutely was that he loved Clara, and that pleasing her made him happy. And he had Clara, and he had pleased her by taking the job he had, and by living here among all the pleasant, dull people. And if Clara didn't seem to enjoy life as much as she should, she still did not want to move anywhere else or do anything but what she was doing. Walter had asked her. At thirty, Walter had concluded that dissatisfaction was normal. He supposed life for most people was falling slightly short of one ideal after another, salved if one was lucky by the presence of somebody one loved. But he could not put out of his mind the fact that Clara, if she kept on, could kill what was left of his hope for her."
Some aspects of the novel make it less than fully convincing. The detective, Corby, is intolerably brutal in his investigation which goes well beyond the scope of acceptable police practice in the 1950s. As a lawyer, Walter surely would have realized this at the outset and taken steps to protect himself, such as hiring a capable criminal defense attorney. I was less than fully convinced by his complete emotional and mental collapse and by his failure to take steps to protect himself. With that reservation, the novel is thoughtful and chilling in its portrayal of the evil and the foolish that lurks behind much everyday life.
"The Blunderer" is a relatively obscure Highsmith novel that rewards reading. It is worthy of being remembered and deserves its place in the LOA's excellent new anthology of Women Crime Writers.
on June 20, 2014
I'm new to Highsmith's books but I have to say I was very disappointed in this one. I loved "Deep Water" and eagerly delved into this one. Though the writing is extraordinary, the story left me wanting. The actions of the protagonist made me want to shout at him about his stupidity. Again, there is the good writing, but I couldn't care about the lead character.
The story is about a man who kills his wife and a man who wants to kill his wife. One is innocent, one is guilty but the reality of the guilt or innocence seems to have nothing to do with the outcome of the story. It has to do with poor choices.
on October 26, 2013
Writers hold up mirrors to uncharted mind landscapes. Patricia knows more about us than we might think we do. Her spelling skills are impeccable: the lady never loses her thread through man's intimate alphabet. Highsmith works her way from the bright spot of A to Z's darker shades. Two characters share the Blunderer's stage. As a reader it is expected we identify with innocence. And indeed who will doubt we're not the good guy, clumsy at times, but always meaning well. Yet the uncomfortable truth that extremes are drawn together is brought to us in a very skillful process. Could it be that clumsiness is a revealing sign of premeditation ? In us as on the page, character loses its pristine clarity. Conscience sets and the moonlit Blunderer's is aglow with a different light. Most of us will come out of the experience with some uneasy insights and may ponder that we are actually 'the other'.