Thursday 18 September 2014

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith: British First Edition (Cresset Press, 1956)

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 19/9/14.

I am, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, a book collector of relatively modest means. I've never exactly been made of money, even before I started collecting old books around five years ago – I work in publishing for one thing – and with the arrival of Edie a year-and-a-bit ago the disposable income I have available to me for buying secondhand books has shrunk even further (not a complaint, by the way; Edie is worth every penny I, er, no longer have). Accordingly I've long resigned myself to the fact that, unexpected (and, it must be said, unanticipated) windfalls notwithstanding, there will probably always be books which I desire but which I will not be able to afford.

Foremost among those lusted-after books are the British first editions of Patricia Highsmith's first three novels (under her own name; The Price of Salt, written as Claire Morgan and published in the US in 1952, wasn't published in the UK until 1990 – under the title Carol – by Bloomsbury), all of which were issued in the UK by the Cresset Press: Strangers on a Train (1950), The Blunderer (1956; originally 1954 in US) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1957; originally 1955 in US). For me, being a Tom Ripley fanatic – my favourite novel of all time is Ripley's Game; indeed it was a first edition of that which arguably made me a book collector – the most desirable of those is The Talented Mr. Ripley, but I'm also a fan, and collector, of Highsmith's wider oeuvre, and so I would certainly not sniff at British firsts of the other two – if I could afford them: in dust jackets, all three books run into the hundreds of pounds (jacketless copies can be found cheaper).

At least, in the ordinary run of things on the likes of AbeBooks and Amazon Marketplace (where in each case there are only a handful of British firsts available); because every now and then, a book collector of relatively modest means with a particular passion for Patricia Highsmith can get lucky:

That there is a 1956 Cresset Press British first edition of The Blunderer, which I nabbed on eBay over the summer. The dust jacket is a little chipped and worn, but it's not price-clipped, and the book itself is in good condition – and most importantly it wasn't anywhere near as expensive as the cheapest jacketed copy I can see online at present, which is £245 (there is a jacketed copy offered at £145, but the jacket is a facsimile). It's a serendipitous addition to my Patricia Highsmith first edition collection – where it now nestles alongside a Heinemann first of Highsmith's fourth novel (under her own name), Deep Water, which I secured last year – and to the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery – not to mention the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1960s and 1960s page, although in that case I've had to file it under "Designer Unknown" down the bottom, as the wrapper is uncredited. There's not even a signature on it that I can see to identify it; anyone able to do so please leave a comment.

The Blunderer isn't among my favourite Highsmith novels, but it does have a memorably violent and gruesome ending, one which Andrew Wilson, in his 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, highlights, calling it "a masterly denouement to an utterly compelling novel" and drawing attention to the shocking moment where, as Highsmith puts it, Walter " his open mouth felt the sting of a knife blade through his tongue, felt the sting again in his cheek, and heard the blade's grate against his teeth". Wilson also makes note of how, as the basis for Clara, the wife of the novel's lead, Walter Stackhouse, Highsmith used facets of the character of her lover at the time, Ellen Hill, especially Hill's suicide attempts, quoting from Highsmith's diary: "The suicide & Ellen's character in the book I find very disturbing & too personal."

For me the novel is interesting for the way it develops Highsmith's theme of two men becoming weirdly and dangerously fascinated by one other, a theme which the writer established in her debut, Strangers on a Train, and which she would return to in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January, Those Who Walk Away, Ripley's Game and The Boy Who Followed Ripley, with elementss of it appearing in many others of her books. Highsmith herself makes note of this in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, and also how she much preferred to narrate novels from two points of view – as in The Blunderer – rather than one, although to my mind some of her best books are related from a single viewpoint (The Talented Mr. Ripley, This Sweet Sickness, The Tremor of Forgery, Ripley Under Ground).

Something else Highsmith explores in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is "the germ of an idea" for a few of her novels. In the case of The Blunderer:

The germinal idea... was not so promising, was more stubborn about developing, but showed a hardihood by sticking in my head for more than a year, and nagging at me until I found a way to write it. This was: "Two crimes are strikingly similar, though the people who commit them do not know each other." This idea would not interest many writers, I think. It is a "so what" idea. It needs embellishments and complications. In the book that resulted, I had the first crime done by a more or less cool killer, the second by an amateur attempting to copy the first, because he thinks the first killer has gotten away with his crime. Indeed, the first man would have, if not for the blundering effort of the second man to imitate him. And the second man did not even go through with his crime, only went to a certain point, a point at which the similarity was striking enough to attract the attention of a police detective. Thus a "so what" idea may have its variations.

Incidentally, a film adaptation of The Blunderer was announced early in 2013, directed by Andy Goddard and, it was further announced at Cannes this year, starring Patrick Wilson as Walter Stackhouse and Toby Jones as his nemesis, Melchior Kimmel; but the book almost became a film thirty years ago. According to Andrew Wilson, John Hurt was lined up to star as Walter Stackhouse in 1983, in an adaptation financed by Goldcrest and HBO, but sadly nothing ever came of the project.

The Blunderer was Highsmith's second novel under her own name... and it so happens I have some other sophomore novels by women writers lined up for the next few posts, beginning with a book by an author who cites Patricia Highsmith as a big influence.


  1. Man, seriously, I envy your Highsmith collection. Though I must say Highsmith never was in the first row of writers which books I collect, I have higher priorities.
    And let me know if are interested in guest post on US vs. UK first editions.

  2. Higher priorities than Patricia Highsmith? Who could possibly be a higher priority than her?!

    My Highsmith collection has taken me years, Ray, but it's been time and effort – and money – well spent, I feel. Most of my books are upstairs (or in the loft), but the Highsmiths are in a cabinet downstairs, just under the telly; rarely does an evening go by without my taking the time to gaze at them for a moment or two (and occasionally rearrange them in various display configurations... don't ask).

  3. Higher priority than Highsmith? Westlake, for instance. Or Charles Willeford. Or Goodis. Or Charles Williams. Or Don Delillo. The list is long.

  4. Well, personally I'd put Highsmith firmly in any first row of authors, but then I've not read everyone on your list.

  5. I'm not saying she's no good. I'm saying I haven't read her enough to make her a priority.

  6. Looks like we've both got some reading to do!

    On a related note, do you ever look at your to-read piles – or list – and think, 'I wonder if I'll live long enough...?'

  7. Oh, we always do. Every day I want to slow down on reading for work and concentrate on reading for fun, but it never happens.