Patricia Highsmith's quasi-crime novel
"Several of Highsmith's works fall out from the mystery genre, and her crime novels often have more to do with psychology than conventional plotting, " according to one useful commentary. Someone else once said that when Highsmith, probably best known today for the Ripley novels, Strangers on a Train, and the movies based on them, wrote The Tremor of Forgery, she had almost entirely abandoned character for the political.
Both observations are pertinent to this novel, published in 1969 and set in 1967, at the time of racial unrest in the United States and the Six Day War in the Middle East. Highsmith's Howard Ingham is murkily aware of these events, a writer left to his own devices in Tunisia after a movie project falls through. Ingham finds a dead body late at night in a narrow Tunis street. The man's throat has been cut. Ingham fails to report his finding to police, and ... nothing happens. Ingham throws his typewriter at a man breaking into his room. The typewriter hits home, the man screams, the body disappears, and ... nothing happens.
Later, Ingham's sort-of fiancee arrives from New York. They patch up a misunderstanding born of betrayal. They drift apart. Ingham meets a Danish painter living in Tunisia, rejects his sexual advance, yet becomes the man's close companion. They, too, drift apart, Ingham accepting with enthusiasm then rejecting the man's invitation to accompany him back to Denmark for a visit. This Dane, having seemed to go thoroughly native, welcomes the opportunity to return to his homeland. Ingham stays behind.
Issues of morality and right social conduct arise, then melt away. The Dane, bitter over his treatment by some local residents, tells Ingham that his victim -- if, indeed, Ingham killed the intruder -- did not matter. Adams, the smug, Reader's Digest-reading American from the passage at the head of this post and possibly a spy, insists that Ingham tell the truth about the (possibly) fatal meeting with the burglar.
The Tremor of Forgery is a crime novel only indirectly. After the movie deal falls through, Ingham works on -- and eventually finishes writing -- a novel he at first calls The Tremor of Forgery about an embezzler who steals from his company, gives the money to people in need, and can never quite understand that he is a criminal. He is a man, in other words, without a clear identity, a kind of Ingham in action. "The tremor of forgery," Highsmith tells us, is the slight shake that even the most expert forger produces at the beginning and the end of his false signatures. But nothing is certain; nothing is resolved. Ingham changes his novel's title. In the end, there is no Tremor of Forgery in The Tremor of Forgery.
© Peter Rozovsky 2006