The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

Many novelists enjoy writing about writing and writers. I can think of a few novels where the main character is a writer. I guess its what they know about. However the main character in The Crime Writer is not Jill Dawson, but Patricia Highsmith.

So why write a novel about a real writer? Well, it allows Jill Dawson to do what she does so well, write fiction about real characters and events, eg Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover (2009) and the mystery of the Penge murder in the 1920s in Fred and Edie (2000). Her subject matter allows her to mix fiction and fact in a way that the reader cannot quite penetrate. Writing fiction about a writer allows her to explore the processes of writing and challenge us as readers. And it’s fiction so the author’s imagination is not bound by inconvenient truth.

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Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote 22 novels, mostly psychological thrillers, and eight volumes of short stories. She was the originator of the stories behind such movies as Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr Ripley and, most recently, Carol. This last was published as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

Her publisher described her as ‘mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving’, according to Wikipedia. These characteristics are evident in the main character in The Crime Writer.

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

The story

It’s the 1960s and Patricia Highsmith has come to a Suffolk village from Paris to escape a stalker, and to work on her novel and a book about writing thrillers. She is interested in what happens in the mind of someone who commits murder. This is what Jill Dawson examines in the novel.

Pat is distracted, first by a journalist, Ginny Smythson-Balby, and then by anticipating the arrival of her married lover, Sam. From time to time her reputation as a writer must be acknowledged. Ginny persuades her to do a radio interview with the cold and calculating Frances. She is awarded a Gold Dagger and must attend the award ceremony.

She mostly wants to be on her own, or with Sam. On her own she writes, draws, paints, and indulges her interest in snails. She also likes woodwork and keeps her tools to hand. One visitor she does welcome is the rather effete but steady Ronnie. He is a version of Ronald Blythe, who wrote Akenfield, portrait of an English village (1969), based on conversations he had with local people.

Patricia Highsmith has her demons. She is revisited by recollections of an unhappy and neglected childhood, and believes that she has been receiving letters from a stalker who may be her stepfather. She lives in fear of being discovered as a lesbian. She is alarmed to find that her stalker knows that she now lives in the village. She drinks and smokes excessively, and suffers something of a breakdown when Sam will no longer continue their affair.

These demons all come together in the climax, the crime at the novel’s centre is committed and hidden, the stalker is revealed, Pat drinks herself into a stupor, and her mother arrives. There is so much mess for Pat to clear up.

The story unsettled me, unnerved me. Perhaps things are not as they seem. Perhaps I just have an overactive imagination, living in a village as I do.

The writing

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

The writing deliberately unsettles the reader, I believe. Some of the text is narrated in the first person, the moments of high tension in particular. Other parts are in a more distant third person, but always from Patricia Highsmith‘s point of view.

The isolation and starkness of Suffolk, and especially of the shore at Aldeburgh at night is beautifully written.

Writing fiction in The Crime Writer

I have tried to be very careful in this review, to allow the fictional Patricia Highsmith to exist within the novel and not permit anything I read about her to intrude. And not to assume either that Jill Dawson is trying to speak through her fictional Patricia Highsmith.

There are some interesting discussions about writing fiction in this novel. Here Patricia Highsmith is rejecting the label ‘crime writer’, in a passage that also foreshadows the events of the novel.

She’d had to explain, for possibly the hundredth time in her career, that she didn’t write crime novels; she wasn’t a crime writer. The damn fool girl [Ginny] had protested by naming some of her best-known novels, as if Pat didn’t know her own work, to which she had patiently explained: ‘Would you call Dostoevsky a crime writer for writing Crime and Punishment? Edgar Allen Poe? Theodore Dreiser? I don’t happen to care for the label “crime writer”. There is not much detection in my novels. There’s rarely any police involvement at all . . .‘ (3)

She prefers to describe her work as suspense, ‘that is, stories where there is felt to be a threat of imminent danger’. (9)

And she is also adamant about the notion of messages in novels. Again she confronts Ginny:

‘Message? Holy crap, not really?’

Her bottom lip comes out then, a little stubbornly.

‘There clearly are messages in your work. You know, the ordinariness of evil lurking in domestic settings, the doppelganger theme, the bad guy and the good guy who change places, who are the same person. And there’s the murderer celebrated as ultimate rebel, an amoral or subversive hero, the forces of law and order as toothless against evil, the victim as repulsive or contemptible, or silly in some way and deserving of death …’

‘I wonder why reviewers and critics always put it like that? As if I’m writing in another language that they need to translate? Why should I go to the trouble to make up characters, plots and settings and all that? You talk as if a story is just a bottle to hide a message in. Ornamental words to hide a rational thought, which no doubt you think is the true thought.’ (134)

Again this works on different ways, as a provocation to those who speak of messages, as a description of the plot and suspense in the novel, and as a challenge to readers of fiction.

Some people will read it as a suspense novel, and I think they will find it works well. But the title, subject matter and the plot all require the reader to consider the art and skill of writing a novel.

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2016. 242 pp

Over to you

I have been unable to find any reviews of this book on-line that add to my understanding or appreciation. Any thoughts?

 

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