The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

Reviewed by Gill Davies   

crime writerJill Dawson is a poet and novelist who has made her reputation with carefully researched and vividly recreated historical fiction based on real people and events, including an intriguing novel about the murderers Thompson and Bywater (Fred and Edie, 2000).  Her research is thorough and she is very good at imagining and recreating different historical and social contexts. She is not a crime writer but in this novel she imagines violent and disturbing events in the troubled life of another fiction writer, Patricia Highsmith.  Her life was full of bizarre and dark events and Dawson incorporates many of these, weaving them seamlessly with other invented details, principally a murder and a stalker. (If you don’t know much about Highsmith, I do recommend Andrew Wilson’s biography Beautiful Shadow, 2003). Amongst other things, Dawson includes Highsmith’s mother’s cruelty and neglect; her penchant for keeping snails as companions (she  would carry them in her handbag with a head of lettuce to keep them happy); and her love affair with a married woman that is reminiscent of her earlier novel, The Price of Salt (filmed as Carol).

It’s England, 1964. The period is evoked by occasional details introduced with a light touch (the Great Train Robbers are on trial, it is a year since the assassination of JFK, there are allusions to Christine Keeler and The Beatles). But we are far away from things of global import, hidden away in the Suffolk village of Earl Soham, where the American novelist Patricia Highsmith has bought a cottage in which to write undisturbed.  She is, however, troubled by thoughts of strangers pursuing her and is obsessing about her married lover.  References to a restless and uprooted life in America, Italy and France suggest that she will not stay for long. A young woman claiming to be a journalist calls to do an interview to which Pat grudgingly agrees. (Her very difficult relationships with strangers as well as intimates form the underlying narrative rhythm of the novel).  And just like a character in one of her own novels, Pat begins to feel her visitor is oddly familiar but menacing. The creepiness mounts slowly and we are not sure to what extent it is Pat’s paranoia and to what extent the ‘girl’ is concealing her true motives and movements. In addition, Pat is full of alcohol most of the time, suspicious, over-wrought, and in an intense and difficult secret relationship with a married woman. The strangeness is neatly underpinned by the contrast between the dullness of life in the village and Pat’s unease. That is, moreover, fed by her disturbing experience of a letter writer-stalker who harassed her in Paris and who she hoped to escape by retreating to deepest England.

It was in Suffolk that Highsmith was writing her novel A Suspension of Mercy. And this is where Dawson is really ingenious. A Suspension of Mercy is about an American writer living in Suffolk who thinks he may commit murder. He ‘gets life a little mixed up with his plots. Something that may happen to me. I think I have some schizoid tendencies, which must Be Watched.’ (From a letter quoted by Wilson).  At the same time, she was preparing a book about writing, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. So Dawson plays with the facts of Highsmith’s life, her ideas about suspense fiction and the plot and ideas behind her concurrent novel. She mingles them to produce a gripping and disturbing novel that could be one of Highsmith’s own. It has all the characteristics: a rather unattractive protagonist who has difficulty trusting people and forming relationships; jealousy and suspicion; fantasies of power and of being loved; and everyday weirdness. Dawson very effectively gets inside her character’s consciousness – with a technique that Highsmith herself used to great effect. The narration slips into Pat’s train of thought – often self-deceiving, sometimes downright nasty. And yet, as with so many of Highsmith’s own fictional characters, we find ourselves inevitably sympathising with her, wanting her to get away with meanness, rudeness, even murder – if only because the victims are even more horrible than the protagonist.

This is an intriguing and very unusual novel. It has a playfulness which is, I think, hinted at by the title. Highsmith strongly rejected the description ‘crime writer’ and thus the fictionality of the text is reinforced from the start. The mixing of real people (like Ronald Blythe) with fictional characters is peculiar but I think we recognise its artifice with the almost satirical names Dawson invents (Virginia Smythson-Balby; Samantha, Minty and Gerald Gosforth). There’s a strong hint that Pat may be fantasising, imagining another suspense novel, this time featuring herself. But we are never quite sure. The narrative switches from third person to highly subjective first person as the events become darker and start to move away from the biographical facts. But I wonder what readers unfamiliar with Highsmith’s life and work will make of this? Much of my pleasure was derived from the literary pastiche and the fun Dawson has in putting Highsmith into one of her own novels. There are allusions to other novels that Dawson points out in her Acknowledgements and I do think readers will get more out of this if they are already familiar with Highsmith’s style and themes. However, it does stand by itself, though it would be best anticipated as a psychological exploration rather than as a suspense or crime novel.

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Jill Dawson, The Crime Writer (Sceptre, 2016).  978-1444731118, 247pp., hardback.

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