Sunday, November 12, 2006

Patricia Highsmith's quasi-crime novel

"What the Vietnamese needed, Adams said in appallingly plain words, was the American kind of democracy."

"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

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8 Comments:

Anonymous Maxine said...

Well, I am so ancient I read this when it was first published (in paperback). Naturally I can't remember anything about it except that I enjoyed it a lot.
thanks for the memories!

November 13, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

You must have been a precocious youth. Since you mention having read The Tremor of Forgery early on, it would be interesting to know what readers and reviewers thought of it at the time. The novel is obviously full of provocative sentiments about politics, sex and religion, but it is in no way a typical 1950's or '60s-style message story.

November 13, 2006  
Anonymous Susan Balée said...

I'm sorry, Peter, but I'm not sure where to post this comment. I wish you'd take a look at Kate Atkinson's two most recent books: _Case Histories_ and the just out _One Good Turn_. These are marvelous novels and, among other things, they have a detective in them (does this make them detective fiction?). These are very good, literary, funny novels by a woman from Edinburgh who writes like an angel (she won the Whitbread for her first novel, _Behind the Scenes at the Museum_).

If you get the chance to read _Case Histories_, I would love to see you put up a thread devoted to K.A. I think she rocks and apparently so do loads of other people.

November 13, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks re Kate Atkinson. That's one trouble with this blog format: It's not easy to find a convenient and noticeable place to begin a new discussion.

I took a look at blurbs and opening pages for Case Histories and One Good Turn. It seems like Atkinson moves somewhere near Ruth Rendell territory. That's not a bad place to be.

November 13, 2006  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

I haven't read this one, Peter, and its certainly been over 20 years since I've read any Highsmith, but I think she could be America's equivalent of Simenon, and if Claude Chabrol didn't make any films of her novels I'd have to mark it down as an opportunity missed

May 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But the Ripley movies show that she has enjoyed long cinematic life.

May 07, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

Have you seen Wender's 'American Friend'?
might be my favourite adaptation of hers

May 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nope, I missed that years ago when I saw a Wenders movie or two.

May 07, 2010  

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