Turning the Tables on Novelists

By Jennifer Levasseur

A novel about a writer can be a dangerous thing. Using a great author’s medium to portray his life and work is fraught with sinkholes and quicksand. Can the words written about a fictional Hemingway or Fitzgerald, Beryl Markham or Henry James match the words those iconic men and women left behind? Why do we need or want a novel about Capote or Thomas Mann when we can read their best instead? There’s something brazen and gutsy about writing a novel about a novelist, particularly those whose styles and personas are immediately recognizable—and are easily parodied but difficult to replicate. Do painters obsessively paint famous painters?

There must be something else going on than a simple reconstruction of known events, lines snatched from letters and famous quips mixed with a little internal dialogue to prove this kind of novel’s worth. They have to push farther (and further) than biographies to do something more than serve as mirrors of a life. Think The Hours by Michael Cunningham, which in part follows Virginia Woolf and the writing of Mrs. Dalloway, or J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, in which Dostoyevsky recovers his dead stepson’s belongings (a stepson who in reality survived him).  

Jill Dawson, one of the latest to publish such a playful revisionist book, delivers a riveting fictionalization of a brief episode in the life of Patricia Highsmith, author of such classics as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train (made into a film by Hitchcock). After her first few books (including the pseudonymous Price of Salt, later reissued under her own name as Carol) and as she’s nominated for the Gold Dagger award, Highsmith retreats to Suffolk to complete several manuscripts—and to have access to her married lover who lives in London. While Dawson captures Highsmith and her quirks and qualities—collecting snails in bowls around her home and in her handbags, drinking to blackout, eyeing the legs of young journalists, suffering no fools—she pushes the narrative into another space. As the novel remains true to the facts of Highsmith’s life and her rough, wry character, The Crime Writer takes on the tone of Highsmith’s novels, and she’s pushed (like she’s pushed many characters) to thoughts of murder and her own capacity to commit it if she needs to. Are the worst of the events that occur actually happening, or does Highsmith have an overactive imagination, fueled by her plotting and drinking? Is someone, or several someones, threatening her, or might she be the villain?

A murderer is cursed with aloneness. Forever. … Not everyone is capable of murder because most people are not brave and are afraid of breaking society’s rules. What goes on in the mind of a man who has killed somebody? Matter of fact, I am interested in that.
— The Crime Writer, Jill Dawson

The Crime Writer honors the truth of its protagonist’s life, but the novel’s really worth reading because of the liberties it takes. We see Highsmith’s romances (some steamy bedroom scenes here), her long hours at the desk, her insecurities and her horrific family story—but we peer at these things through the lens of a typical Highsmith novel, one filled with eerie uncertainty, the ever-present possibility of death, the slipperiness of each character’s personality and ethics.

Even the book’s title is a wink at what we know about Highsmith and how she considered herself. She grizzled at the label: she never wrote murder mysteries or whodunits. She explored the dark heart that many of us carry inside, that we try to tamp down from our own self-knowledge.

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 had protested by naming some of the best-known novels, as if Pat didn’t know her own work, to which she’d patiently explained: ‘Would you call Dostoevsky a crime writer for Crime and Punishment? Edgar Allan Poe? Theodore Dreiser? … There is not much detection in my novels. There’s rarely any police involvement at all…’

The Crime Writer is a page-turner that does what the best author-novels should do: remind us why we love those authors and send us back to the shelves to revisit them—with a new understanding that stretches well beyond the intrigues of their personal lives.

I’m thinking that those who don’t have the skill of being able to make people come alive using only words and paper never appreciate how unique, how supernatural a gift it is. I’m pretending this is a playful discussion rather than a matter of life and death to me.
— The Crime Writer, Jill Dawson




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