Philip Carter, the main character in Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel, is in an impossible situation. This book, which traces both his years in prison and the months after his release, shows just how a terrible situation can turn a basically good man bad—and it takes the reader right along.
The first half of the novel is focused on Philip’s time in prison, which goes badly from the start. He gets in trouble constantly because he doesn’t know the rules. When the guards punish him by stringing him up by his thumbs, the result is a crippling injury that causes him to become addicted to morphine. The years of physical separation from his wife, Helen, bring with them a mental and emotional separation that may be impossible to breach. Philip becomes suspicious of Helen’s friendship with a lawyer who’s been helping with his case, and there’s no denying that the two have a bond. When Philip is released, at about the midpoint of the book, this feeling of distance and suspicion continues to imprison him.
Highsmith was inspired to write this book by a fan who wrote to her from prison, and the book does feel at times like an expose, not merely of poor prison conditions (though these come into play) but of the psychological trauma that prison can inflict and the impossibility of getting past it. Prison life changes Philip—it causes him to doubt human nature in a way he never had before. (Indeed, his earlier tendency to trust is what landed him there.) It also causes him to doubt the system, as it obviously didn’t work for him. Authorities, promises, relationships—none of it means what it did. And without that grounding, how can he get along in the world? Upon his release from prison, he has every financial and material advantage one might want in his situation, but the psychological damage has been done. Can he be healed?
One of the obvious literary touchstones for this book is The Count of Monte Cristo, another tale of false imprisonment and loss of trust in the system. When I read The Count of Monte Cristo, I got extremely frustrated with Dantès’s obsessive pursuit of revenge. What fascinated me about my own reaction to this book is that when Philip starts down a similar path, I rooted for him in a way I didn’t for Dantès. Some of this had to do with the less calculated nature of what Philip did, but I was surprised that I wanted him to get away with terrible acts—some against innocent people. Such is the beauty of Highsmith’s characterization and her framing of the situation. Philip does plenty of things that are clearly wrong, but he’s been pushed to a point where he can’t operate logically anymore. I had to take pity and want his suffering to end.
This is only the second of Highsmith’s novels that I’ve read. I read and enjoyed The Talented Mr Ripley many years ago, but she quickly fell off my radar even though these kinds of dark psychological suspense novels are precisely my kind of thing. I’d love to hear recommendations for other Highsmith novels to try. I have People Who Knock on the Door, and I’m game to try more Ripley books, but are there others that I must keep my eye out for?