Title: Those who walk away
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Review: ‘The No.1 greatest crime writer’, proclaims The Times on the covers of Virago’s new reprints of some of Patricia Highsmith’s lesser known novels. That’s obviously a claim that could be disputed, but there’s no doubt that she was a very remarkable author. Her books are far more than run of the mill crime novels – best described as psychological suspense, they are dark, disturbing, and unputdownable. Many have been made into films, starting with her astonishing debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), filmed by Hitchcock the following year, and including, more recently, Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film of The Talented Mr Ripley (1955).
Those Who Walk Away is a Patricia Highsmith novel from 1967, which shares some themes with her earlier book, The Blunderer. I happened to read the two novels in quick succession while away on holiday, and so the similarities were quite noticeable. I’ll have more to say about The Blunderer on another day, but overall, I feel that Those Who Walk Away is slightly the stronger of the two books.
An atmosphere of nameless dread, of unspeakable foreboding, permeates every page of Patricia Highsmith, wrote one critic, and certainly that is true of Those Who Walk Away. First published in 1967, the novel is set in Venice, a city Highsmith knew well. It is certainly not a conventional crime novel in any sense of the word, though a couple of crimes are at least attempted. There’s no detective, either, or rather the privately-hired one who puts in an appearance from time to time doesn’t do any detecting and contributes little if anything to the outcome of events.
As the novel begins, Ray Garrett has flown to Rome from Mallorca where he had been living with his wife Peggy until her suicide just ten days earlier. He is in Rome at the request of Peggy’s father, Coleman, who he thinks may suspect him of having driven her to her death. Their meal together is uncomfortable, in an indefinable way, and as they walk afterwards down the quiet street, Coleman suddenly pulls out a gun and shoots Ray, disappearing down the street without waiting to find out if he has killed him. In fact Ray’s wound is relatively slight, and, learning that Coleman has gone on to Venice, he decides to follow him there and attempt to persuade him that he had nothing to do with Peggy’s death.
One reason is that the book gains significantly from its setting, in Venice. Venice is such a strange, beautiful, mysterious city that one can readily believe anything can happen there. That’s why I chose it as the setting for “The Bookbinder’s Apprentice”, possibly the short story of mine that has enjoyed most success; it’s not a story that could really have been set anywhere else. And the labyrinthine nature of the city makes it ideal as a backdrop for the cat and mouse game that is at the heart of Those Who Walk Away.
In fact, the story opens in Rome. Ray Garrett’s wife Peggy has recently committed suicide, and her doting and sometimes doltish father Ed Coleman holds Ray responsible. We never learn very much about Peggy, and no grand surprise about her death is withheld until the end of the story – this isn’t a puzzle mystery, but a book about the mysteries of human nature. Coleman shoots Ray, and although Ray survives, he doesn’t report the incident to the police. Rather, he follows Coleman to Venice, and tries to reason with him.
The rest of the novel tells a most strange and disturbing story of hunter and hunted, though who falls into which category is a moot point. Coleman is absolutely immovable in his conviction that Ray drove Peggy to suicide, but, though obviously rattled on first discovering that he is still alive, treats him amiably enough in public. It’s not long, however, before he makes another attempt on Ray’s life, this time throwing him out of a boat into a freezing canal, from which Ray is fortunately rescued in the nick of time. Ray now decides to disappear to a humble room in an out of the way area, and watch to see what Coleman will do next.
And so things go on. Sometimes Coleman thinks Ray must be dead, and then later, after yet another failed attempt, it is Coleman who disappears and Ray’s turn to wonder if he is still alive. The two men circle around each other, superficially friendly in social situations but filled with anger and hatred under the surface. And all this is played out against the backdrop of the city of Venice, always beautiful, sometimes menacing, where wealthy tourist hotels and restaurants are juxtaposed with the quiet backstreets where Ray takes refuge and is befriended by ordinary, good-hearted Venetians.
The difficulty with Ray (and it’s a difficulty I have with many of Highsmith’s protagonists) is that the tendency to scream at them Don’t be so stupid! is at times overwhelming .To enjoy the books, one has to accept certain premises, and to suspend disbelief – sometimes from a great height! Readers who can manage this will enjoy the book as, with some reservations, I did. However, I suspect that by the time she wrote this novel, Highsmith was coming to realise that she could not successfully play the same games with different protagonists in her novels time and time again, and I think that may help to explain the subsequent trajectory of her career, and her increasing focus on Tom Ripley and on short stories.
It’s difficult to convey the extraordinary atmosphere of this novel, which derives in part from the strangeness of the two characters involved. Coleman, angry and vengeful to the point of obsession, is perhaps the easier to understand, but it is Ray, who seems to pass through all these bizarre events almost in a dream, who is the most mysterious and fascinating. Those Who Walk Away has been called Highsmith’s masterpiece, and though I’m in no position to judge, having not read enough of her other novels to make the comparison, I’m certainly delighted to have had the opportunity to read and review it. Highly recommended.
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