The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

Okay, so it was with some trepidation that I first opened this book. I am a Highsmith fan – a huge Highsmith fan – and the one thing that repulses me more than walking dog mess into my house is reading someone’s take on who they think Highsmith is/was… that differs from my own.

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Not everybody enjoys a Highsmith novel, but for those who do, reading her work can become near obsessional. So we are a hard audience to please. I went into this book wondering…will it be respectful or exploitative and of course, will it agree with my own, personal imaginations of Highsmith? For a whole month, I didn’t buy The Crime Writer, but then, you know, it’s Highsmith related, so I did.

The Premise

In 1964, Patricia Highsmith moved to Suffolk to finish editing The Two Faces of January and carry on putting together Notes on Suspense in peace, so the story goes. This was a bit of a put-on, as she primarily wanted to be somewhere not too far away from London, where the woman many biographers refer to as ‘the love of her life’, lived with her husband. In The Crime Writer, Jill Dawson uses this detail as a springboard for a book, part biography, part Highsmith tribute novel in which Pat plays the protagonist.

Take Me There

The village setting Dawson creates is a perfect expression of the Suffolk background in A Suspension of Mercy. I found this to be a really good move. Highsmith used this world in her fiction and Dawson does the same. Dawson’s portrayal of 1960’s village life from the perspective of a famous (although not famous in the US) American author, is also spot on and as Dawson delves into her own area of research – Pat’s childhood in Texas – we could start to wonder if this book is just a vehicle for her own biographical urges. However, from the very start, her portrayal of Pat, warts and all, is so recognisable from Highsmith’s novels as well as some other biographer’s renditions that as a reader I was immediately lost and captivated.

Throughout the story, I had to repeatedly remind myself that this was a work of fiction. Patricia Highsmith did not write this story about her own experiences. This story is a perfect rendition of a Highsmith-esque escalation of tension. There is a murder, we care and dislike the person who is murdered but are then drawn into a cat and mouse game of whether this murder will be discovered. This creates a second, more disliked person that we and the protagonist desperately need to see the end of.

A Highsmith suspense often includes a suicide or accidental death and whereas Highsmith often got a lot of slack for this ‘easy way out’, Dawson creates a lovely (from a murderer’s perspective) death which Pat both has a hand in and from which she can be completely pardoned.

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I enjoyed this book thoroughly from beginning to end and felt really thankful that someone with the right amount of obsession, attention to detail and the research skills to carry it off, was able to get it out there.

Well done Jill Dawson.

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