Sunday, July 19, 2015

Highsmith again: this time, The Blunderer. Oh, that ending!

9780393322446
W.W. Norton, 2001
(originally published 1954)
265 pp

paperback

While the rest of my crime novel collection is screaming at me (most notably a new novel by Mallock, The Faces of God and Jan Costin Wagner's newest release), I'm bound and determined to make this a Highsmith summer. So far it's just been Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt, and this one;  these are only three novels out of several, but I'll get there. If not over the summer, then well, before the year is out for sure.   As I posted in a status update yesterday afternoon on goodreads (at page 209),
"I just love Patricia Highsmith's work. I'm sitting here reading this today, and my tension level has been ratcheted up more than a few times throughout this story. I so want to peek at the end to make sure everything comes out all right, but this is Highsmith, so I know it won't."
and as things turned out, I was right. But that's Highsmith for you:  things don't always go the way you think they should in her books.  She often does a 180 in terms of reader expectations;  in this case, she ended up  leaving me a lot more unsettled at the end than I was throughout the story.

The Blunderer examines three different men in terms of two of Highsmith's favorite themes, guilt and justice. The first, Kimmel, is a bookstore owner who specializes in obtaining pornography. He's also a murderer [which is not a spoiler since you see the whole thing unravel right away upon opening the book and it's on the back-cover blurb] who believes he's gotten away with killing his wife and feels no remorse; the second is an attorney, Walter Stackhouse, whose neurotic ballbuster of a wife Clara  is driving his friends away little by little because of her disapproving attitude and crazy imagination.  Unlike Kimmel, Walter only thinks about getting rid of his wife, and on reading the story of Mrs. K's death, becomes obsessed with the way the job was done.  At the same time, he also becomes more and more convinced of Kimmel's guilt, becoming fascinated with Kimmel himself, and trots off to his bookstore to take a look at him.  When Clara turns up dead (also on the back-cover blurb) in much the same fashion as Kimmel's wife, enter the third party of this strange triangle, the overzealous, overreaching, and over-aggressive  police detective investigating Mrs. Kimmel's death.  While Kimmel sails along sure of himself as far as the law is concerned, Walter isn't so fortunate -- he is the titular "blunderer," whose stupid mistakes he's made along the way are enough to cause havoc for Walter in so very many ways.

first American edition cover, 1954


While there are definite similarities between this novel and Strangers on a Train (as in an examination of guilt, the psychology of the individual,  and the doppelganger-ish, growing obsession between two men),  unlike SOAT, the ending of this one is a definite shocker.  But before reaching that point, what I find most interesting about this book just may be the way in which the reader is pretty much manipulated the entire way through the story.

As in the cases of  both The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, I found myself constantly being thrown off kilter while reading, but that's what makes Patricia Highsmith such a fine writer, and it's likely why her books are still quite popular half a century or more after they were first published.  I don't want just crime, investigation and solution in my reading, and she more than satisfies my need for dark inroads into the psyche.  The Blunderer is one I'd most certainly recommend to readers of darker fiction.

5 comments:

  1. I still haven't read any books by Highsmith, and it is because I know that they will make me feel uncomfortable. But I plan to read The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train for sure... and then we will see.

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    1. Tracy, they make ME feel uncomfortable! There's nothing like a hefty dose of amoral characters who get under my skin. Strangers on a Train is way less disturbing than Ripley, just FYI.

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  3. Superior description of enjoying Highsmith's work/art. I often wonder for what reasons other people read if they are unable to enage in the event,

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    1. I think it's mainly that most people want just plot and could really care less about what's happening around it --
      the easiest way to get through a book for many readers.
      The best writers though, in my opinion, use plot as a vehicle for exploring human nature or other issues.

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