I read this ‘psychological thriller’ quickly to coincide with a local book club talk in Suffolk, which was interesting. The main reason they’d chosen the book is because it is set near Framlingham, Suffolk – and Patricia Highsmith, although born in Fort Worth, Texas, actually spent three years living in Suffolk at Bridge Cottage, Earl Soham, after leaving America for good in 1963. It was during that time she wrote ‘A Suspension of Mercy’, first published in 1965 – but it is clearly not one of her best.
Ever since her first book, ‘Strangers on a Train’ (1950), was turned into Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie of the same name, several of Highsmith’s 22 novels have been adapted into films: The Talented Mr Ripley, of course, and also The American Friend (‘Ripley’s Game’), Two Faces of January, and more recently Carol, adapted from Highsmith’s only openly lesbian novel, ‘The Price of Salt’.
Highsmith was a genuine one-off. Her books aren’t really pure ‘crime and detective’ books in the traditional meaning of the genre. Her plots revolve around intense relationships that often lead to murder, usually unsolved, and the ‘psychological thriller’ aspect is centred on how people are often drawn into murder or violence as the only escape from something.
In the same way, ‘A Suspension of Mercy’ is not really a detective story or a thriller. It’s more a ‘whodunnit’ … almost a ‘nobody-dunnit’ because nothing has actually been ‘dun’; it is all based upon a possible murder plot and the subsequent suspicion when the intended victim goes missing … if you follow me.
Sydney Bartleby is an American TV scriptwriter living near Framlingham, who specialises in murder mysteries. To find inspiration for story ideas, he fantasizes about killing his wife, Alicia. With little warning, however (in fact the suddenness is rather incomprehensible in the book), she decides their relationship needs a trial separation. Whilst she takes a long holiday, his imagination (or is it? – that could be the suspense, but it fails) allows him to take his story ideas further. He begins to consider how he could enact one of his plots for real – but as Alicia’s disappearance is prolonged, the police, friends and family all start to suspect she’s been murdered. Think Tom Sharpe’s ‘Wilt’ meets … well, Patricia Highsmith’s Sydney Bartleby.
It’s all set in a Golden Age, pre-internet, pre-GPRS tracking, pre-mobiles, pre-pretty much everything. Leaving all that aside, however, the book still feels dated. It’s not a great read. Highsmith is a brilliant writer, a genius in fact – but this particular book hasn’t aged well, I don’t think. It’s easier to picture it as a 2-part psychological TV drama, perhaps – but it would still need a few more twists and turns to bring it really to life.