Thursday 29 September 2016

Crime: The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

Virago, €10.99

Anne Cunningham

Published 11/07/2016 | 02:30

The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith
The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

"Cherchez la femme." That's always the case in those old noir movies, where the men all wear fedoras and the women are immaculate, even in their bathrobes. The situation inevitably deteriorates when the femme fatale gets involved.

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Patricia Highsmith knew the formula and this 1964 novel remains fresh and as taut as a violin string. This is one of a Highsmith trio republished by Virago, presumably for a new generation of fans. And reading Highsmith's spare, cool, prose, with its smoke and mirrors and perpetual intrigue, convinces me they're on to something. Conman Chester MacFarland is touring Europe with his pretty young wife, Colette. Actually, he's on the run since several of his scams have been uncovered back home in the States. In Athens they meet Rydal Keener, another American, who's spending his inheritance money on "seeing the world".

A Greek policeman arrives in MacFarland's hotel room with some awkward questions about MacFarland's identity (he has several). MacFarland accidentally kills the policeman, and persuades Keener to help him hide the body. Keener quickly fixes his eye on the femme, in this case Colette, and Chester notices. Colette is not oblivious to Keener's attentions and from there, things get steadily worse for all three of them.

It's a classy little novel, tight as a drum. Highsmith pulls the reader into her world of mutual mistrust and fear feeding on fear in much the same vein as Graham Greene, although she's not quite as bleak. But she's almost as polished.

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