Thursday 18 June 2015

Singular Points of View: Patricia Highsmith and A Dog's Ransom (Heinemann, 1972)

NB: Linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books, 19/6/15.

Patricia Highsmith wrote all of her novels and short stories in the third-person singular (past tense), arguing – in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966, revised 1981) – that "first-person singular is the most difficult form in which to write a novel". She added:

I have bogged down twice in first-person-singular books, so emphatically that I abandoned any idea of writing the books. I don't know what was the matter, except that I got sick and tired of writing the pronoun "I", and I was plagued with an idiotic feeling that the person telling the story was sitting at a desk writing it. Fatal! Also, I have quite a bit of introspection in my heroes, and to write all this in the first person makes them sound like nasty schemers, which of course they are, but they seem less so if some all-knowing author is telling what is going on in their heads.

Highsmith also preferred "two points of view in a novel, but I don't always have them". In most cases where she elected not to write from two (usually male) viewpoints, she chose a single (also usually male) viewpoint – for example Deep Water (1957), This Sweet Sickness (1960), The Tremor of Forgery (1969) and all bar one (Ripley's Game, 1974) of the five Tom Ripley novels, reasoning that "keeping a single point of view throughout a book... increases the intensity of the story – and intensity can and should offset a possible monotony of a one-person viewpoint". But very occasionally she wrote a book from more than two points of view. A Suspension of Mercy (alias The Story-Teller, 1965) would be an example of this, as would this book:

A Dog's Ransom, published in hardback in the UK by Heinemann in 1972. In the opening chapters the story unfolds from the viewpoint of Ed Reynolds, a well-to-do New Yorker on the receiving end of anonymous poison pen letters; but once Ed and his wife Greta's French poodle, Lisa, is dognapped,  Highsmith introduces Patrolman Clarence Duhamell, a well-meaning but naive and, so it proves, inept cop who makes it his personal mission to retrieve Lisa. And then, just as it looks as though Highsmith will be uncharacteristically withholding the identity of the dognapper and crafting a whodunnit – as she did in probably her weakest novel, A Game for the Living (1958) – she introduces her third POV character, one of her classic creeps, the objectionable Kenneth Rowajinski.

I suppose the prior Highsmith creep Rowajinski most reminded me of was Melchior Kimmel from The Blunderer (1954), but in his nasty hobby of poison penning, Rowajinski also brought to my mind Tom in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)who in the opening stages of that book is engaged in a spot of mail fraud – "no more than a practical joke, really," as Highsmith/Tom puts it, "Good clean sport" – and considering giving one of his victims "a good scare by telephone to put the fear of god into him". But anyway: the multiple vantage points of A Dog's Ransom and its vision of a New York crippled by crime and corruption afford the novel a kind of state-of-the-nation feel – which, according to Highsmith's biographer, Andrew Wilson (in Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, 2003), was precisely Highsmith's intention.

This and other aspects of the novel are explored by John Norris in his thoughtful review of A Dog's Ransom from last week (coincidentally both John and I happened to have read the same book at around the same time). I'm not sure if John actually liked the book – I'm not sure I did either – but he like me was certainly fascinated by it. Reviews at the time of publication were mixed, however; though Brigid Brophy in The Listener thought the novel "a virtuoso piece" and praised it for "taking the reader deep into the ironies of his own ambivalence", Mary Borg in the New Statesman highlighted the "glaring unlikeliness" of the plot, while the Times Literary Supplement called the book "a mechanical exercise in self-pastiche, employing all [Highsmith's] familiar devices and rehearsing most of her familiar obsessions, but with none of the vigour, inventiveness or intensity which in her best work makes those devices and obsessions seem so rivetting".

"Such reviews," wrote Andrew Wilson in Beautiful Shadow, "compelled Graham Greene to write to Highsmith expressing his disgust at the stupidity of the critics and admiration for the book itself, noting that it was 'one of the best and most complex of your novels'." Greene was a fan of Highsmith's work – as was she of his; he's one of the very few authors she namechecks in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction – and the two corresponded for years. Greene also provided the foreword to Highsmith's first collection of short stories, Eleven (alias The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories, 1970) – as quoted on the back of the Heinemann edition of A Dog's Ransom – and I'll be taking a look at that book in my next post.


  1. I remember reading Highsmith's short how-to book and finding it more an illumination of her own methods than a useful manual for others. Which of course gives it a value that no actual how-to book will ever match.

    I've found attractions in employing first-person singular narrative that can outweigh many of the disadvantages you get in plotting and planning. Showing your protagonist's character through the voice is an essentially dramatic process. You can substitute impression for detail, to more powerful effect.

    The major disadvantage is that you give up the ability add context that the narrator wouldn't know, insight that they wouldn't have, incident that they wouldn't witness... unless you employ multiple narrators, a messy technique which you then have to label 'experimental' and quietly hope to get away with.

  2. When Robert Crais started writing his Elvis Cole private detective novels they were like most PI novels written in the first person. However, he eventually started using a mixture of 1st and third person. He pulls this off surprisingly well.

  3. I first came across this story when ti was televised for ARMCHAIR THRILLER in the 1970s and its darkness really did my head in (no way I should have been watching at the age of 10) but read the book about a decade ago and was really impressed - it's horrible, but in a really fascinating, very typically Highsmith sort of way - and, unlike so many of even her best books, doesn't feel overlong. Great review Nick.

  4. Finally had a chance to read this today, Nick. Glad you did a piece on this book and thanks for the nod and link to my own review. At the risk of sounding too confessional myself here are some elucidations on how reading the book affected me. I'm not sure I can ever say I "like" or even enjoy a Highsmith novel. She is a fine writer with a great command of language (something I wish I could have highlighted in my post -- so many finely rendered sentences) and a gripping storyteller that's for sure. I say I like her work because I'm almost always impressed by the intensity of emotion, passions even, of her characters. Her exploration of the dark side of human nature will always be fascinating to me because I share her worldview to a certain extent. In A Dog's Ransom I was particularly struck by the subtle changes in how others treat Clarence, one of her oddest creations. Her mastery comes in how the treatment changes though no one really lets on how they truly feel about Clarence by the end. He thinks he still has friends but he is really very much alone and abandoned. The randomness of cruel acts that pervade the action also ring true to me and had a personal resonance for me the deeper I got into the story.

    Lately I've been reading assessments of Highsmith as someone who quite possibly had a form of Asperger's syndrome. She has been called a "high functioning" person on the autism scale by a neurologist who wrote a book about Asperger's among creative people. In Clarence I think she has created the closest textbook case of how a "high functioning" Asperger’s person behaves. I have personal experience with this and was mentally checking off all sorts of boxes in the symptomatology. Her own admission with the problems of writing in first person are further proof of her self-image and inadequacy issues and how those problems affected her social interaction. That she would create a writer’s manual and dissuade beginner novelists from using first person narrative (which I think is the easiest voice to write in) and expect others to share her personal beliefs as if they were universal is also telling.

  5. Thanks for the fascinating comments all – very much appreciated.