I’ve been meaning to read more Patricia Highsmith for a long time. I’ve read (I think) all her Ripley novels, which are dark and sociopathic and delightful. But for some reason, I have never picked up any of her other books. Maybe I felt nervous that they wouldn’t live up to (down to?) Ripley.
During a recent five-day conference, however, I took five books with me, and you know how that is. You need to take a little of everything: a favorite, something historical, something nonfiction, something light, something heavily plotted… Highsmith seemed perfect as a dark thriller for when that was my mood.
I chose The Blunderer. This is a book about a man who finds himself cornered, someone who consistently makes bad choices out of fear or insecurity or bravado, but who might have made a different choice if he’d had time to think.
Walter Stackhouse has been married to Clara for several years. Clara is beautiful, but jealous, fiercely ambitious, and critical; she has slowly alienated Walter from all his friends by making it clear (to them and to Walter) that she doesn’t like them. When Walter, driven to the snapping point, proposes a divorce, Clara attempts suicide, and when this is foiled, she accuses Walter relentlessly of carrying on an affair (he’s not… or at least not at first.)
But then Clara’s body is found at the bottom of a nearby cliff, after she starts a bus trip to see her dying mother. The body has many similarities to the body of another woman who was gruesomely killed on a bus trip. Walter stands firm for about five minutes, and then he begins to blunder around in the dark. He has to deal with an extremely energetic detective, Lieutenant Lawrence Corby, a man who will stop at absolutely nothing to get what he wants: not violence, not lies, not unfounded rumors in the papers. (I got the sense that Corby might have been a psychopath himself.) Walter has to face the man he suspects of killing the first woman: Melchior Kimmel. He has to watch his friends begin to suspect him of murder, then fall away. And through all of this, Walter’s own character is revealed. Each weakness, each willingness to take advantage of someone else, each place where he betrayed his wife or someone else, each time he lied to make things more comfortable — everything comes into the spotlight.
I enjoyed every page of this book, even though it made me squirm. Walter makes terrible mistakes, and alienates his own friends as much as Clara ever alienated them for him. Yet there’s always the sense that this was his choice, and he could, somehow, have done better if he’d understood. Even the ending feels avoidable, even at the last minute. Highsmith is an absolute master of the deceptive ground of human psychology, the if-onlies and the yes-buts. I’m looking forward to reading more of her dark, bitter work.