Monday 13 June 2011

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1963); First Edition, John Bance Cover, Review

This week, as promised, I'll be blogging exclusively about mistress of suspense Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith isn't a new discovery for me; I've been reading her novels for years and many of them remain among my favourite books, in particular the five starring the man with no conscience, Tom Ripley (especially 1974's Ripley's Game). Graham Greene called Highsmith "the poet of apprehension", but that pithy epithet only goes so far towards explaining the appeal of her stories. In a way, it's easiest to define them by what they aren't. They're not whodunnits or murder mysteries, although they frequently feature murders; they're not police procedurals, although policemen do appear, and have crimes to solve; they're not courtroom dramas or hard-boiled thrillers, although the law, at least in a moral sense, is an abiding concern, and there is violence in the books, sometimes explicit and shocking.

What they are, are psychological explorations of the darker side of the human condition. Often Highsmith's novels will focus on two protagonists – usually male – who become inexplicably fascinated by one another. This fascination frequently has homosexual undercurrents (Highsmith herself was gay) and invariably leads to a death, or multiple deaths. It's a structure established right from the very beginning of her novel-writing career, with Strangers on a Train (1950), and one she would return to again and again for the rest of her life, although usually with a fresh twist each time.

This week I'll be blogging about some of my recent(ish) Highsmith acquisitions, identifying and exploring the themes that weave through her stories and delving into the publishing history behind the books. But I'll also be looking back at some first editions I bought a while ago but never got round to writing about – which is the case with the first two books I have to show, both of which hail from the early 1960s, both of which boast distinctive John Bance dustjackets, and both of which I bought on my very first visit to the Lewes Book Fair, getting on for three years ago. And the first of those is this:

The UK hardback first edition of The Cry of the Owl, published by Heinemann in 1963 – originally published in the US by Harper in 1962 (the cover to which on the novel's Wikipedia page is actually taken from one of my own blog posts – and it's not the only one, either). Highsmith's eighth novel, it features Robert Forester, a recently divorced man working for an aeronautics company in Pennsylvania who has a parallel life as a Peeping Tom. Forester becomes fixated on a secluded house in a wood, finding a kind of peace by spying on the calming domesticity of its occupant, Jenny Thierolf. But matters become complicated when Jenny spots Robert one night, and unexpectedly invites him into her home. And when Jenny's boyfriend, Greg, gets wind of this blossoming relationship and makes contact with Robert's embittered ex-wife, Nickie, the stage is set for a tale of escalating obsession and violence.

In some ways, The Cry of the Owl marks a slight shift in Highsmith's approach, in that the infatuation at the heart of the novel is between a man and a woman (although Greg's fixation on Robert is as tangible as in any other of Highsmith's works). Certainly the fact that the relationship between Robert and Jenny is unambiguously romantic – although cool and reserved on Robert's side and highly strung on Jenny's – and that the theme of voyeurism, another constant in Highsmith's books, is front and centre, for me lent the story an added poignancy. Obviously I can't speak for anyone else, but the urge to spy and stalk is something I can relate to, having gone through a regrettable phase of that myself in the aftermath of a relationship when I was a lot younger. I think that's partly why the novel made such an impact on me, but even without that added resonance, The Cry of the Owl is a powerful piece of fiction, by turns queasy, gripping and ultimately crushing.

Indeed, I'd go so far as to say The Cry of the Owl is one of Highsmith's best novels. But while the next book I'll be looking at – and the next novel Highsmith had published – 1964's The Two Faces of January, doesn't quite reach those heights, it does still have it merits, and in its choice of location – i.e. Europe – offers an insight into another of Highsmith's preoccupations, both in her fiction and in her own life.


  1. I just had a look at the shelves and though I have most of her books, I don't have any collectible editions. In fact, they are all paperbacks save for one ex-library copy - the last Ripley book. So it looks like this is going to be a tough week for me - seeing all the firsts I should have picked up by now. I've liked her for a long time and it would've been smart to buy those books before her acclaim reached its current level.

    And because I never learn my lesson, I picked up the Joan Schenkar biography of Highsmith last week - in trade paperback form. Have you seen this book?

    I haven't read Cry of the Owl yet - but after reading your review, I put it on my TBR pile.

  2. Actually firsts of her novels from the early-60s onwards aren't too hard to come by on AbeBooks and Amazon Marketplace, and you don't have to pay through the nose for them either. The books from Strangers on a Train to This Sweet Sickness are the real buggers; those are out of my price range, although I do have an ex-library first of This Sweet Sickness, which isn't one of my favourites anyway.

    Haven't read the Shenkar biography yet; I did start making my way through Andrew Wilson's earlier bio, Beautiful Shadow, but got sidetracked. Must get back to it soon.

  3. My favourite is "Edith's Diary" - are you going to review that too?

  4. Ah, now that's one I've yet to read. I've got a copy sitting on my shelf though, and I do like the look of it...

  5. I dig this one much more than The Tremor of Forgery, the appeal of which I've never really been able to understand. (It's a fine book, but Highsmith's best? What was Graham Greene smoking?) It can be quite a depressing book, because it seems like no matter what Robert does, he's inescapably fucked, but it's just so well-done. The ending is one of my favorites from Highsmith.

    It's been filmed twice, in 1987 and 2009. I loved the 2009 version, and couldn't believe all the negative reviews it got. It's probably my second favorite Highsmith adaptation, after The American Friend. I tried watching the 1987 version, which, according to the critics, is the far superior version, but I found it so dreadfully boring, static, and artless that I turned it off before the one hour mark.

  6. I wondered what the film adaptations of this one were like, Craig. I'll have to seek out the 2009 version. But, I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with you on CRY OF THE OWL versus THE TREMOR OF FORGERY. To my mind, TREMOR is the better book, and quite an extraordinary novel to boot. I tried to explain why I think that's the case in my TREMOR post, so if you're up for a fight – I mean, debate – maybe leave a comment on that post and we can get into it over there. ;-)

  7. There's not much to debate, since I enjoy Tremor – I just happen to enjoy several other Highsmiths more. I've read your Tremor post(s) and I agree in a general sense, but I wasn't as blown away by it. For me, it's similar to Ripley Under Water, which is a fine book on its own terms, but it seems less impressive when you compare it to Ripley's Game.

    But then I can never seem to agree with the majority on anything, so what the hell do I know? The 2009 Cry of the Owl film has a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I loved it. I'm also listed in the Guinness World Records book as the only documented person who didn't like The Dark Knight, so you can take my opinions with a grain of salt.

  8. Not sure if there's any kind of majority arguing for TREMOR as Highsmith's best novel – Graham Greene aside, most people tend to go for STRANGERS ON A TRAIN or TALENTED. But I take your point. And I usually find myself falling for the books (and films and records and TV shows) that aren't the best-known or -loved too – and I'd argue that TREMOR is a case in point.

    How can you not like THE DARK KNIGHT though? It's such a weird, misshapen, sprawling, self-indulgent mess of a film. What's not to love?!

  9. I've read plenty of critical essays about Highsmith that sang the praises of Tremor, but these are the same people who dismiss the Ripley sequels. I've never heard anyone call Strangers her best; in fact, I consider it overlooked. (The film gets much more attention.) Talented usually gets a lot of praise; too much, I would say, since I find it roughly equal to Under Ground and inferior to Ripley's Game.

    The Dark Knight is... certainly a self-indulgent mess, yes. It's also bloated, pretentious, soulless, pretentious, hypocritical and inconsistent with its own messages, and pretentious. It would be more bearable if any of the actors aside from Heath Ledger were capable of showing a single human emotion. I know Batman is supposed to be the darkest superhero, but for fuck's sake. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes itself less seriously.

    But that's fine, because I still get to enjoy 2008's far superior Batman movie: Iron Man.

  10. Haha, you really don't like DARK KNIGHT, do you? Never mind. Well, re Highsmith, I guess I'm in the minority again in that TREMOR and RIPLEY'S GAME are my favourite Highsmith novels. Thus far, anyway: I've still got a good number of her books to read (and blog about), including a very nice edition of THIS SWEET SICKNESS...

  11. I don't hate The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger's performance nearly makes up for all the pretentious moralizing and the bland performances from pretty much every other actor, and it does manage to raise an interesting question here and there. I just won't be jumping on the OMG BEST MOVIE EVER bandwagon any time soon.

    I may not like Tremor as much as you do, but I'm glad to finally encounter someone who sees the brilliance of Ripley's Game. And all the Ripley sequels, for that matter. Under Ground is terrific, Game is the best of them all, and Boy and Water are quite good, even if they're not as brilliant as the first three. They don't deserve to be so overlooked.

    I have This Sweet Sickness on my shelf, but I haven't read it yet. It'll be my next Highsmith. The consensus is that it's one of her best, which makes me nervous, since we've established how often I agree with the majority. But I'll give any book of her's a chance. I plan on reading many more after Sickness.

  12. I'd heard/read that about THIS SWEET SICKNESS, but even if it turns out to be a lesser work, the edition I have it in is very lovely, and very rarely seen...

  13. Would you say john bances book fronts are the best in her series they got into top books fronts of the sixties i cant find anything else about him online But i would like to learn more about him his his artwork