Tag: Patricia Highsmith

The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

Posted August 14, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Crime, Thriller / 0 Comments

The Two Faces of January by Patricia HighsmithTitle: The Two Faces of January (Goodreads)
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Published: Sphere, 1964
Pages: 306
Genres: Crime, Thriller
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Con artist Chester MacFarland is wanted by the police back in America, but here in Greece, he feels free to roam with his young Colette. That was until he accidently kills a police officer in his hotel room. The young American law graduate, Rydal Keener is there to help them escape the city. This accident has brought the three together but is this for the best or is there something else at play?

Patricia Highsmith is often referred to as the queen of suspense and The Two Faces of January does not do anything to contradict this. The title alone gives the reader a pretty clear idea of what to expect; the month of January is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus has two faces, one looking to the future while the other looks at the past. The term Janus-faced means “having two sharply contrasting aspects or characteristics”. In the biography Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson, Highsmith stated that the title was a reference to the flux-like nature of the characters that she likes to create.

When it comes to character development, Patricia Highsmith really shines like no other. She has a great ability to create complex characters that feel authentic, and that is an ability that I find lacking in a lot of suspense novels. In The Two Faces of January, Highsmith creates a love triangle that is actually interesting to read about. There is the homoerotic relationship between Chester and Rydal and Colette is also quite taken by this young law graduate. This turns the book into more of a psychological look at the shifting nature of relationships rather than a thriller. It does depends on how the reader decides to read The Two Faces of January but for me the depth is what stood out for me.

I probably should mention that The Two Faces of January was adapted into a movie back in 2014 starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac. This was the directorial debut for Hossein Amini, who is best known writing the screenplay for the novels Drive and Our Kind of Traitor; he even wrote the script for The Two Faces of January. I know I need to have more Highsmith within my reading life and I am thinking about re-reading The Talented Mr Ripley, before continuing on with the series. I have noticed there are new editions of the Highsmith’s novels lately and I think I should take advantage of the availability while they are easily accessible.

Why I Read by Wendy Lesser

Posted December 10, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

Why I Read by Wendy LesserTitle: Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (Goodreads)
Author: Wendy Lesser
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Pages: 240
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Wendy Lesser is the founding editor for the American literary magazine The Threepenny Review; she is lucky enough to spend her days with books. She is a bibliophile with a lifetime of reading experience to offer as well as an eclectic taste. Why I Read is a collection of essays that explores Lesser’s thoughts and ideas on literature in through the lens of different topics like character and plot.

This sounds like the type of book I should love and it ticked all the right boxes for what I look for in a book about books; eclectic taste, part memoir and offering some literary criticism. However I felt a huge disconnection with this book and I spend a lot of time just trying to pin-point what wasn’t working. Clearly Wendy Lesser is passionate about books and is well read, though I felt like that passion didn’t translation into her writing. This felt more like academic writing, so all emotion felt removed from Why I Read, but this is the type of book that needs that emotion and passion.

I enjoyed the fact that Wendy Lesser jumped from Henry James or Fyodor Dostoevsky, to Jim Thompson, Ross MacDonald, Patricia Highsmith and other crime novelists. It was fascinating to see crime novels used as examples in literary criticism, I was happy to see examples of science fiction, and fantasy also included rather than sticking to just literary fiction or classics. It is a real shame that the writing was so flat; the concepts and ideas were great and with some polishing this could have made for a wonderful book.

I am disappointed that this book never grabbed me and the writing held the book back. There are plenty of interesting ideas and literary criticism worth exploring but the dull nature really made that difficult. I sounds like Wendy Lesser is passionate about books and would have a lot ideas worth listening to if only that passion was visible in the writing.

Judging a Book by its Cover

Posted October 10, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 0 Comments

They say “never judge a book by its cover” but why can’t you? You can tell a lot about a book by its cover. You can tell if a book is self published, get a sense of the genre and even the blurbs on the front of the book might give you an idea. To test out this theory, I thought I might play a little game. I recently got a gift certificate for a commercial bookstore and I was struggling to work out what to buy (I had three books that I was definitely going to get but I wanted to use the entire voucher). So I picked up a book that I’ve never heard of and I’m going to read and review it.

The book is called American Dream Machine by Matthew Specktor; I have never heard of the author or the book before. Judging by the cover I assume it is set in the 1960’s and the title suggests it’s about the great American dream, maybe on the lines of Revolutionary Road. There is a blurb by Jonathan Lethem, which makes it sound promising.

I know Jonathan Lethem mainly from Motherless Brooklyn and believe he writes literary mysteries. I know Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick and Patricia Highsmith influence him so if Matthew Specktor is anything like Lethem then I’m in for a treat. Watch out for my review of American Dream Machine and who knows I might try this again.

If you want to try for yourself, the rules are simple. Go to a bookstore or library and pick a book by an author. The only real rule is you are not allowed to read the synopsis or look it up online. I’ve still not read the back of the book; I’m just going to start reading it. This is going to be fun…I hope.

In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Posted April 16, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Pulp / 0 Comments

In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. HughesTitle: In A Lonely Place (Goodreads)
Author: Dorothy B. Hughes
Published: Penguin, 1947
Pages: 186
Genres: Pulp
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Post World War II Los Angeles, the place you go to find the great American dream, but a stranger is preying on young women. Ex-airman, Dix Steele offers to help his detective friend solve the case and catch the serial killer in the hopes it will help him with the crime novel he is writing. Along the way he meets the luscious Laurel Gray—the femme fatale. The queen of noir, Dorothy B. Hughes blends psychological suspense with conventional hard-boiled and noir styles to give us In a Lonely Place.

Dorothy B. Hughes is known for her crime novels, 14 books primarily in the hard-boiled and noir genre and In a Lonely Place would be her most recognisable. This could be because of the Nicholas Ray adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame or because of the psychological elements she brings to the genre. A lot of people will compare this novel with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and while they are very similar I can’t help but thinking of the works of Jim Thompson as well. This might be because they all share the same influences Kafka, but more importantly Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In a Lonely Place starts off like a typical noir novel and immediately the reader suspects there is something not quite right with Dix Steele. Could it be the fact that he is pretending to write a crime novel to sponge off his friends and family? Or the fact that he is a cynical misogynist? Maybe, but if you look a little closer at the writing you will find the answer. This is told in the first person but not by Dix Steele himself, like this person is with him at all times and sees everything Dix does. This sets up the psychological portrait of a woman-hating serial killer that really makes this novel work.

Towards the end of the book when Laurel Grey and the detective’s wife discover that Steele himself is the murderer, it comes as no great surprise. The book builds up like this big great reveal but there are so many elements throughout the book that give it away. I don’t think it was ever meant as a twist, just a way for Dix to find out himself. But through the whole book I was waiting and waiting for it to happen, I never really thought it would happen so late in the story.

The movie In a Lonely Place is vastly different to the book; for one thing Dix Steele is a successful screenwriter not a conman pretending to be a crime writer. Also true to Hollywood form, during the whole film everyone suspects Steele to be the killer but he turns out innocent. He still was a cynical vet but he never really had a chip on his shoulder towards the opposite sex, it felt like it was towards everyone. Also femme fatale Laurel Gray really wasn’t sassy or strong minded in the movie which was the biggest disappointment of them all.

Dorothy B. Hughes wanted to expose the misogyny of American society at that time with this book and she did a great job. The end result is this dark psychological tale that the movie adaptation butchered. Problem is I’ve seen the movie many times before finally reading the book, so it took me a long time to really get going. Both stories are worth checking out but trying to connect the film to the book doesn’t really do either of them any justice.

In a Lonely Place is worth reading; it’s nice to read a woman’s take on the noir genre. This really is a male dominated genre but women like Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith and Megan Abbott prove they can write noir just as well. The thing I loved most about this novel was that the influences of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment were written all over this and yet Hughes made it her own. Make sure you check this novel out if you are a fan of hard-boiled, noir or even psychological thrillers.