The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

'The Price of Salt" by Claire Morgan (Patricia Highsmith), made as the film "Carol".

The Crime Writer is an imagined episode in the life of the novelist, Patricia Highsmith.  Highsmith spent time in Bridge Cottage in the village of Earl Soham, Suffolk, but she probably didn’t kill anyone while she was there, which Pat, in Dawson’s novel, does. When asked her opinion of Agatha Christie, Pat says, “‘The only thing Agatha Christie did that interests me is to go missing for a few days.  Fake her own death….That’s the closest she’s come to conjuring up a real crime in her life.”  And, as Christie’s missing days were imagined in the film “Agatha,” so Dawson imagines an life-changing event in the life of the creator of the talented Tom Ripley, master shape-shifter.

Dawson’s Pat is a well-realised character, but unfortunately this is a prosaic and unsophisticated novel. The writing is often clunky – “Sam doesn’t answer.  She is sitting at the table now, forks a piece of cucumber into her mouth.” – only occasionally good – “The Suffolk roads are dark, flanked either side by trees that always make me think of a film set, a false front.  I know what’s behind them: hills and further darkness, a waiting blankness.  At Cretingham…a ghostly owl sweeps in front of us and the headlights suddenly pick out an old-timer in a flat cap, sitting in the back garden of his lone cottage with a pipe – at past midnight – like a gnome.”  The use of alternating first and third person narrators seems more indecisive than enlightening.   The tight identification with the events and details of Highsmith’s life, the attempt to get it all in, to the smallest detail and the hammering of Pat’s philosophy of writing make the book more like an essay on Highsmith than a fully realised story.  There is an odd meeting with a biographer and a BBC interview which just don’t fit; presumably they are included to chime with real events in Highsmith’s life. The repetitive conversations about art and literature become heavy-handed and dull. And to make it all really first-year creative writing school, there is a take it or leave it  “it was all a dream”, “get-out-of-jail-free” card played at the end, which weakens the entire purpose of the book.

Dawson’s Pat does not consider herself a crime writer – “She’s had to explain, for possibly the hundredth time in her career, that she didn’t write crime novels; she wasn’t a crime writer.  The damn fool girl had protested by naming some of the best-known novels, as if Pat didn’t know her own work, to which she’d patiently explained: ‘Would you call Dostoevsky a crime writer for writing Crime and Punishment?  Edgar Allen Poe?  Theodore Dreiser?  I don’t happen to care for the label “crime writer…” 

And yet, all the most tedious detail of a crime novel is there – the covering up, disposing of the body, heart-stopping statements made by possible witnesses, wondering what the police know, the finding of a wallet, an address written by the victim, pondering alternatives which should have been taken, loaded telephone conversations, working out who was where at what time, wondering when someone was last seen etc. etc.. There is a ludicrous  moment in which the police deliberately destroy a piece of evidence.

The “damn fool girl” is Virginia Smythson-Balby, a journalist of the “where do you get your ideas from?” school, who may or may not be writing an article about Pat.   Pat thinks she has met her somewhere before, which Virginia denies. Pat is irritated by her, and, given Highsmith’s famous truculence and reserve, it is not at all clear why she puts up with her – other than for her perkiness and bounciness and large breasts of course. There is sex in this book – between humans and between snails and it is all quite nauseating.

Virginia Smythson-Balby spells out Dawson’s theory – “There clearly are messages in your work.  You know, the ordinariness of evil lurking in domestic settings, the doppelganger theme – the bad guy and the good guy who change places, who are the same person.  And there’s the murderer celebrated as ultimate rebel, an amoral or subversive hero, the forces of law and order as toothless against evil, the victim as reclusive or contemptible or silly in some way and deserving of death.” Naturally, Pat’s hackle rise at this. “Fiction is my first language.  Reducing it to another one – messages, for Christ’s sake – is radically, destructively incomplete.”

When Smythson-Balby talks abut the effect that Dostoevsky’s experiences may have had on his fiction, Pat lectures her thus – “‘There you go again.  Confusing his characters with his own position.  As if a writer wasn’t capable of putting things in a character’s mouth that he didn’t happen to feel.  Or spread them between two characters.  I happen to think the white space is where the meaning is held'”,  “‘Leave the novels alone – the unconscious bits should remain unconscious.'”  The reader of The Crime Writer does wish that Dawson had taken this advice.”‘And another thing,’ I say. ‘You’re getting yourself confused.   Between fact and fiction, I mean.  An author makes things up.  Their skill is to lie, to deflect and head-of, not to give you a shining pathway to their innermost self.’

Pat lies about her current novel, “It’s about a woman who believes she’s being followed.  A prowler of some sort.  A voyeur.  Perhaps a rejected lover.  Someone from her past.  She might be a little paranoid about it.  Perhaps she’s imagining it…she can’t be sure.  She receives letters from him, not threatening but meaningless, troubling,.  She’s afraid…”  Just in case we are not sure what is happening in this book, Dawson synopsizes it for us. It’s patently obvious to the reader that indeed Pat does think she is being watched, and she does receive unhinged letters from an unknown source (the revelation of the identity of the writer at the end of the book is a disappointment).

Pat is waiting for her lover, Sam to visit.  Dawson is irritatingly coy about Sam at first, using evasions to hide Sam’s gender, hoping to surprise the reader  when we learn that Sam is a Samantha.  This is an irritating device, given that anyone with the slightest knowledge of Highsmith’s life knows that she was a lesbian. This lesbianism as treated as a symptom of Pat’s refusal to follow rules and her “outsiderness”, also signified by her cottage in a small, “foreign” village and her lack of a telephone.

This unconventionality, this otherness, aligns Pat in her mind with Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov.  She has been rereading Crime and Punishment and memorizes the lines beginning,‘an extraordinary man has the right, that is, not an official right, but an inner right, to decide in his own conscience to overstep…'”  She says to Smythson-Balby, “‘Not everyone is capable of murder, not at all.  That’s a phoney idea.  Capable of thinking of it, wanting to, of course.  But doing it?  That’s something else.  The ultimate crime, a boundary very few people cross, and yet if you read Christie or Ngaio Marsh and the rest, you’d believe all were capable of it with impunity.  That’s the lie being pulled.  And I object to it”.

She says it again….

“..How can it be that as recently as a week ago I heard a writer of crime fiction state, once again, ‘I think we are all equally capable of committing murder given the right circumstances?’  And I wanted to scream:  Oh, yeah?  you think you could do one, even it you needed to?  You think it easy, do you, to pick up that great heavy thing and bring it down on the head of whoever is driving you nuts?  If it’s so easy – go ahead, do it, why not?  Have a go, why don’t you, instead of just talking  about it. Or what?  you believe your great-aunt Lucy, who never hurt a fly, is as likely as young George, the ruffian at the local dance-hall, to have exactly the same amount of hate juice inside, solidifying into the same violent lava?  All those plots where characters have motives  – ha!  How laughable I find these motives.  How rational, how thoughtful.  For Christ’s sake, is this what most murders are about?  Victims are just the people who are in the way, the girlfriend or wife or guy at the receiving end; there’s no design.  Murders are about one thing: they come out of murderous feelings.  The grey blob at the corner of the eye, the fears, the feeling of deep, choking, agonising fear, the simmering cauldron bubbling in the centre of the heart and stoked up daily.”

Pat tells Smythson-Balby that a murderer is bold, unconventional, brave: – “A murderer is cursed with aloneness.  Forever.  Once he’s committed this – ultimate anti-social act, he’s condemned to a lifetime spent in terror of being found out.  But perhaps he longs to tell all, to boast, because his crime took some kind of courage or daring – certainly a lack of care for convention.  Not everyone is capable of murder because most people are not brave and are afraid of breaking society’s rules.  What goes on in the mind of a man who has killed somebody?  Matter of fact, I am interested in that.”

Neither Pat nor Dawson seems to notice the contradiction.  If the murderer acts out of fury and without motive, how can he be acting as ‘an extraordinary man’ who  ‘has the right, that is, not an official right, but an inner right, to decide in his own conscience to overstep…'”?

Pat’s emotions and opinions are extreme – she loathes Sam’s husband Gerald for some good reasons, but poor Mrs Ingham and almost everyone else for being there. Her descriptions of Sam as being “exquisitely lovely”, having “tremendous grace and poise”, the paeans to “her maturity, the kindness, her logical, thoughtful self, the loveliness.  And fire,” become tedious and sickly, as does her dewy-eyed admiration of her friend Ronnie, (based on Ronald Blythe, author of Akenfield).  She is a silly, prickly woman who values her convenience more than credibility or truthfulness.  She stuffs her cheek with cottonwool, “preparing to pantomime and point to her swollen face, implying that she couldn’t talk to the grocer on account of toothache”.  She is irritable and entitled, primed to become the killer of her description, and yet, when she does lash out, arguably in defence of another, the death is unintended.  Pat just happens to hit her victim’s weak spot, it is not a murder.

We’re told repeatedly that Pat grew up with a critical, neglectful mother and a violent step-father.  That is part of the reason for her hatred of the abusive and violent Gerald.  However, with her lack of insight, it needs to be pointed out to her that Sam might be exaggerating his unpleasantness.  And she never does twig to the fact that she is merely a diversion to Sam, not her reason for existing, as Sam is for her.  Sam is constantly cancelling their meetings, blaming her family obligations and we can see, although Pat cannot, that Sam will never leave Gerald for her.

Pat’s certainty of her specialness extends to her hallucinations – a skittering grey blob, a loathsome little man, “the Thing”. “‘Nobody else sees me,’ the Thing used to say.  Maybe I only belong to you. Why should the others see me?”  This gives Pat, “a quiver of pride, laced with fear.  Special.  I miss him, I realise.  Maybe I wanted him to reappear.  So familiar, so inexplicable.  Mine alone, he was.  Maybe I loved him.”

This is a quick and not awful read but it is a book for Highsmith completists only.  The rest of us would be better off reading Highsmith herself.  Or Christie.












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