Monday 11 June 2012

This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1961); Jack Whitsett Dust Jacket Design

I've saved the best for last in this short run of posts on Patricia Highsmith first editions; not necessarily in terms of dust jacket design – I reckon the wrapper for the 1959 Heinemann edition of A Game for the Living takes the top honours there – more that the novel in question is one of Highsmith's most powerful: a clammy study of infatuation, delusion and murder...

This Sweet Sickness was first published in the US – by Harper – in 1960 and in the UK – by Heinemann, which is the edition seen above – in 1961. The dust jacket of the Heinemann edition was designed by Jack Whitsett, and to my knowledge this is the first time it's been seen online; certainly there are no pictures of the jacket on AbeBooks, where a decent copy of the Heinemann first will set you back £60–£100.

The protagonist of This Sweet Sickness is David Kelsey, a brilliant young chemist living in a boarding house in the (fictional) New York State town of Froudsburg. Every weekend David leaves Froudsburg to spend time with his ailing mother in a nursing home – or at least that's what he tells his few friends and the other residents of the boarding house. In fact David's mother has been dead for years, and David spends his weekends at a house upstate, bought under the name of William Neumeister, and decorated in what David imagines is a manner which will appeal to his one true love, Annabelle. Trouble is, Annabelle dumped David in favour of another man – a turn of events David refers to as "the Situation" – and David has become dangerously obsessed by her – an obsession which drives him to ever more twisted extremes...

In the twin themes of dual identity and stalking, there are echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955 – and indeed Ripley Under Ground, 1970) and The Cry of the Owl (1962) in This Sweet Sickness – and the novel is certainly (at least to my mind) the equal of both of those books. Highsmith never deviates from David's viewpoint, so that his obsession with Annabelle becomes almost unbearably intense, developing from frequent letter-writing to unwanted visits to, latterly, violence and murder. Time and time again Annabelle tries to let David down gently – although in the clumsy way that she does, Highsmith suggests that she is also, to a degree, leading him on – and each time David twists her words to suit his own purpose. And once David finds himself with a body on his hands, he becomes caught in a trap of his own making, as his other life as William Neumeister – whom he comes to identify as a separate, more confident (and luckier) persona – crashes into his own, leaving him with no way out of his queasy, self-induced nightmare.

This Sweet Sickness is an unsettling, gripping, brilliant book, up there with The Tremor of Forgery (1969) and even, dare I say it, Ripley's Game (1974) in terms of accomplishment, and its Heinemann dust jacket has now joined the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery, along with those of A Game for the Living and The Glass Cell. That brings the total number of wrappers in the gallery up to 70, which is where I'll be leaving things for the moment, because I'm moving on to other matters – namely, in the first instance, a Westlake Score. But before we get to that, I've just been made aware of an intriguing Patricia Highsmith innovation, so look out for a Highsmith bonus post very soon...


  1. Sounds like an excellent read especially as you compare it favourable to Ripley's Game. Must get a copy!

  2. Never heard of this one--sounds reminiscent of "The Collector", by John Fowles, which was adapted into a theatrical film by William Wyler.

    Only "The Collector" was published in 1963.

    Highsmith reminds me of Shirley Jackson in some ways--forging ahead of her male counterparts, pioneering story ideas that would later become commonplace. While I may prefer Parker to Ripley (a lot), she wrote about a seemingly amoral protagonist who gets away with murder well before Westlake or Dan J. Marlowe. Westlake remains the first to turn such a protagonist into a going concern, though. Her second Ripley novel was in 1970.

    "This Sweet Sickness" was adapted both for television ("The Alfred Hitchcock Hour", with Dean Stockwell in the lead role) and also into a 1977 French film starring Gerard Depardieu.

    "The Collector" tends to be better-remembered, but I'm tempted to read both books, and decide for myself which is better.

  3. Another excellent DJ. I've seen the movie with Depardieu, but have not read the book. It was so long ago I can't remember much of it other than a vague memory of Depardieu being extremely creepy.

  4. Jill (or rather, mum, I presume!): they're very different books, but This Sweet Sickness is almost – ALMOST – as good as Ripley's Game. It is quite an uncomfortable read though.

    Chris: I've not read The Collector, but from what little I know of it, there do appear to be similarities. And thanks – and to John – for the TV and movie info; I don't always include that sort of thing in reviews of books unless there's a compelling reason to; after all, few novels are written with an adaptation in mind (although maybe that's less true these days). But it's useful to have that info for people who are interested in adaptations, so ta for doing the job for me!