Today's blog post is a guest offering by Michael Nutt, who has very kindly reviewed Patricia Highsmith's novel 'The Two Faces of January' for me. The novel has been made into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst. Take it away, Michael!
A rather curious title...
Patricia Highsmith was the finest exponent of the psychological thriller. Her most famous works - 'Strangers on a Train' and the Tom Ripley cycle of novels - are some of the most enjoyable reads of my life. And now I must add the recently filmed 'The Two Faces of January', her ninth novel, first published in 1964, as one that I can thoroughly recommend.
The rather curious title refers to the connection between the month of January, in which the story unfolds, and the Roman god Janus, in whose honour the Romans named the month. Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, as he looks both to the future and to the past. To the ancient Romans, Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions, and thereby associated with gates, doors, and passageways, as well as endings and time. You can find these themes appearing throughout the novel. The story begins with a passenger ship slipping through the Corinth Canal at night. On board are an American couple - Chester MacFarland and his young wife Colette - taking a vacation in Europe and arriving now in Greece. The opening descriptions are of a passage from one world to another, a transition between countries, but also an image that evokes birth, a new beginning. We soon learn that the man is a shyster on the run from the American authorities, trying to escape his past.
Locked in an unspoken pact of murder
They are observed by a slack young American, Rydal Keener, who is struck by Chester's resemblance to his recently deceased father (whose funeral he chose to miss), while Colette reminds Rydal a little of his cousin Agnes, his first, ill-fated love from some ten years ago.
Rydal is using an inheritance to fund a couple of years away in Europe writing poetry and avoiding a planned career in law back in the States. He amuses himself by playing games of chance, and starts to include the American couple, so uncannily reminiscent of those people from his past, in his latest scheme even if he is unsure quite what it might be yet.
Rydal is a particularly Janus-like character, looking both to the past and to the future. He carries the psychological scars of his relationship with his late father and his cousin Agnes, and this unfinished business in his past keeps drifting into the present and casting a fog over his future. Unwittingly, Chester and Colette drift onto his radar. By chapter three their worlds have collided - or dovetailed, it would be more accurate to say, as Chester and Colette find themselves locked in an unspoken pact with Rydal over an incidental murder.
A tale of two Ripleys
It is typical of Highsmith that these are deeply flawed characters, psychotic anti-heroes whose appearance of normality hides psychopathic personalities and murderous tendencies. As in her 'Talented Mr Ripley', she describes a world of European exoticism, as her characters tour the sun-drenched Mediterranean; the novel was published a year after its American author had permanently relocated to Europe. Highsmith keeps the reader guessing about the games these three con artists might be playing. It is a tale of two Ripleys, as Chester and Rydal manoeuvre warily around each other, with a devious woman thrown into the mix for good measure. Gradually, insidiously, Chester becomes increasingly dependent on Rydal as the trio go on the run to Crete, while taking in a spot of tourism along the way as they travel the island. And all the while Colette seems to be taking a seductive interest in Rydal... You know that things can only go badly for these people, and it is not long before the body count rises and events take on their own crooked logic.
Highsmith is always adept at pulling off a surprise, taking the story in an entirely different direction from where you thought it was heading. Like a card sharp flicking an ace from the palm of her hand, she throws in a key scene set in the deserted Temple of Knossos that causes the narrative to lurch into a crazy, unexpected turn, tying the two male characters to each other in a mutually destructive relationship. Rydal now plays a dangerous game with Chester, who finds himself unable to free himself from the deadly grasp the other has on him.
Dark but humorous stuff...
This is dark but humorous stuff. You suspend any feelings of disbelief and go along with these miscreants for the ride, which takes us across Europe. Rydal works out his latent hatred and resentment of his father on Chester, who has assumed the role of his substitute father. It is a poisonous relationship reminiscent of that between Guy and Bruno in Highsmith's 'Strangers on a Train', except here both parties are as cracked as each other. Who will come out on top? The drink-addled con artist or the hate-filled chancer? And what sort of game is Rydal playing by the time the players get to Paris? Each chapter leaves you eager for the next and every time I picked up the story again I was excited to be reacquainting myself with these rather nasty people. Highsmith conjures a strange yet satisfying ending that tidies up some unfinished business, completing a transition of sorts. I look forward to reading more of her novels someday soon.
Thank you, Michael!
Thanks to Michael for a very thorough and informative book review.
Disturbing the past can destroy the present...
The Lewis Man is an excellent read. It's a murder mystery, centring on the death of a young man found buried in a peat bog on one of the Outer Hebridean islands. The only clue to the identity of the corpse is a D.N.A. sibling match to a local farmer, an elderly man suffering from dementia. A man who has always claimed to be an only child.
The novel is narrated through third person chapters spliced with those related by the dementia sufferer, Tormod MacDonald. These chapters are poignant, contrasting his present-day mental confusion with his clear memories of the events of fifty years ago. His story is moving, portraying the religious bigotry souring his childhood, his harsh teenage years at the Dean Orphanage, together with his determination to keep the promise he made to his dying mother.
When the story reverts to the present day, we meet Fin MacLeod, a former policeman battling to rebuild his life after his son’s death and his subsequent divorce. Will he find the resolution to his problems in his childhood home of the bleak Lewis landscape? And how does Marsaili, his former girlfriend and mother of his other son, fit into the picture?
Wild flowers, biting winds and peat bogs...
The Lewis Man is set against the backdrop of the unforgiving Hebridean weather and is richly evocative of the landscape, with May's descriptions of soft black peat, skin-scouring winds, wild flowers and bog cotton. Peter May also details the close Hebridean community of Lewis, strongly rooted in island culture, a way of life that draws Fin MacLeod back for good when his life reaches a crisis point.
The issue of Tormond's dementia is handled with sensitivity and the novel gives a touching portrayal of the effect this condition has on those who care for dementia sufferers. Tormond's childhood, and the cruel treatment of orphans by the Church and local authorities, is also handled well, although those parts require the reader to suspend belief, given that they are narrated by an elderly man with dementia. That doesn't detract from their poignancy, though.
The novel delivers an engaging read that never fails to entertain. The twist at the end is satisfying, and the last few paragraphs are truly moving. I'll definitely be reading more from this author.
More about Peter May and his novels
The Lewis Man is the second in the Lewis trilogy, all set on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, although the book works perfectly well as a standalone novel. The other titles are The Blackhouse and The Chessmen.
In The Blackhouse, a bloody murder on the island bears the hallmarks of a similar one in Edinburgh. Fin Macleod, still working at the time as a police detective, is sent to investigate.
The Chessmen sees Fin discovering the body of his friend, musician Roddy MacKenzie, who disappeared seventeen years previously, in the wreckage of a light aircraft. Roddy's corpse reveals that he was savagely murdered...
Peter May was born and raised in Scotland, and before turning to writing novels he enjoyed a successful career as a television writer and producer. He now lives in France. He has also penned the China Thrillers, featuring Beijing detective Li Yan and American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell; the critically-acclaimed Enzo Files, set in France, featuring Scottish forensic scientist Enzo MacLeod; and several standalone books, the latest of which is I'll Keep You Safe. You can find out more about him and his novels via his website www.petermay.co.uk.
Affiliate links have been used in this blog post.
High suspense meets the legal thriller
Apple Tree Yard is a psychological thriller about one woman's adultery and an insightful examination of the values we live by and the choices we make, from an acclaimed writer at the height of her powers.'
The novel is written in the first person, present tense, which I find always adds a certain punch to the prose. Doughty presents the story through an internal conversation between Yvonne and her unknown lover, who she believes to be a government spook unable to reveal details of his work. Although an intelligent woman, a respected scientist and married, she’s naive around this man, believing herself in love. The thrill of this illicit relationship, combined with risky sex, whisks her away from a life that’s become predictable and dull towards events that almost destroy her.
Excellent courtroom drama
Genetics versus gender issues...
Here comes the science bit! Louise Doughty weaves elements of genetics into the novel, playing on the fact that her protagonist is a geneticist. Yvonne refers to her unnamed lover as X, focusing on how they've reversed roles, he being an X and she a Y. Furthermore, her family have names or nicknames that begin with the letters A T G & C, another nod towards the field of genetics in which she works.
Doughty also examines issues of women's place in society. Yvonne has struggled to balance her career with motherhood, reflecting with some resentment how her husband's role in child-rearing appears to be an opt-in one, whereas hers has defaulted to an opt-out one. Although her marriage is good, the cracks exist, fissures that eventually lead to her susceptibility to a passionate affair with a stranger.
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong man
Louise Doughty also touches on the vulnerability of women. Yvonne is a woman who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man, and the results are catastrophic for all concerned. Women can have careers, children, successful marriages, and yet they are ultimately vulnerable to overheated testosterone, and it can be the seemingly nice guy next door who poses the danger.
Moving on from this, Doughty looks at how the legal system can be skewed against women, illustrating her point by citing the case of a fifteen-year-old girl, not very bright, who suffers a gang rape by five men. She then has to face not one but five defence lawyers, all insinuating she was a drunken slut who asked for what she got. If a highly intelligent woman like Yvonne Carmichael can be broken in the witness box, what chance do any of us have?
Self-preservation versus a loved one...
Doughty examines the question of how far each of us would go to protect a loved one, or whether self-preservation will always win out in the end. She cites some distinctly unpleasant animal experiments that demonstrate that even maternal love can't compete with the innate urge in all of us to save our own skins if push comes to shove. Altruism will only stretch so far, a principle that will eventually lead to Yvonne's meltdown on the witness stand.
George Orwell examines the same topic in his novel '1984'. The way Yvonne's lover behaves is no different to the way Winston Smith eventually breaks down in front of his tormentor O'Brien. In screaming the words 'Do it to Julia! Do it to her, not me!', he cements his own brainwashing. The ultimate betrayal. So too with Yvonne's mystery lover, as he turns traitor on her in court, leaving her vulnerable to a sharp defence lawyer as the truth about Apple Tree Yard is revealed.
More about Louise Doughty
Louise Doughty is the author of eight novels, including Apple Tree Yard. Her novels have been shortlisted for various awards and she has also won awards for her radio drama and short stories. She is a critic and cultural commentator for UK and international newspapers and broadcasts regularly for the BBC.
In 2007, she published her first work of non-fiction, A Novel in a Year, based on her newspaper column of the same name. She has written major features, columns and cover articles for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday. Her broadcasting career includes presenting radio series such as BBC R4′s A Good Read and Writers’ Workshop. She is a regular guest on the radio arts programme Saturday Review.
Doughty was born in the East Midlands and grew up in Rutland, in a rural area that later provided the setting for her third novel, 'Honey-Dew'. She now lives in London.
You can find out more about Louise and her books at www.louisedoughty.com. To view Apple Tree Yard on Amazon, click or tap the book cover image at the start of this post (affiliate link).
Have you read Apple Tree Yard?
If so, what did you think? Leave a comment and let me know!
A rollercoaster ride of a thriller...
‘Witness The Dead’ is the first novel by Craig Robertson I've tried; based on my enjoyment of what I’ve read, it won't be the last. The novel delivers a rollercoaster ride of a thriller, dealing with the exploits of a serial killer in modern-day Glasgow. Here's an extract from the back cover blurb:
‘Scotland 1972. Glasgow is haunted by a murderer nicknamed Red Silk - a feared serial killer who selects his victims in the city's nightclubs. The case remains unsolved but Archibald Atto, later imprisoned for other murders, is thought to be Red Silk. In modern-day Glasgow, D.S. Rachel Narey is called to a gruesome crime scene at the city's Necropolis. The body of a young woman lies stretched out over a tomb, bearing a three-letter message from her killer - the word SIN scrawled in lipstick upon her body.
Now retired, former detective Danny Nielsen spots a link between the new murder and those investigated in 1972 - details that no copycat killer could have known about. But Archibald Atto is still behind bars…’
A novel laced with tension and intriguing sub-plots
The tension in the novel ratchets skyward as more dead women are discovered, each one posed on a tomb in a different Necropolis. A race against time to prevent further deaths ensues, with the murders mirroring the 1972 Red Silk killings. The plot weaves through sharp twists and turns, as Archibald Atto dispenses information that may be accurate, or simply the warped machinations of a crazed mind.
‘Witness The Dead’ is an unusual novel in that it doesn’t have a protagonist as such. Danny Neilsen, his nephew Tony Winter and Detective Inspector Derek Addison are given equal prominence as the team intent on unearthing the link between Archibald Atto, the murders and the significance of the dumpsites at the city’s Necropoleis. Detective Sergeant Rachel Narey plays second fiddle to this trio in a side role as Tony Winter’s former love interest.
Overarching the main players is the chilling character of Archibald Atto, a psychopath who revels in baiting Winter when he detects the guilty thrill the man gets from photographing dead bodies. Robertson doesn’t flinch in portraying his characters with all their flaws. Danny Neilsen is haunted by a terrible mistake he made in 1972, one that has estranged him from his only daughter. Tony Winter struggles to accept his failed relationship with Narey, as well as his self-disgust at his enjoyment of what he sees as the beauty of death. In an amusing subplot, Addison is both taunted and attracted by a member of the forensic team on the case, whilst battling his hatred of his superior officer and struggling to hold the investigation together.
Hotpants, kipper ties and Glaswegian slang
The backdrop to the narrative is the vibrant city of Glasgow, both in its modern-day incarnation and in 1972. The latter is played out in a nightclub called Klass, with its patrons sporting platform shoes, kipper ties and hotpants. They dance to music from The Sweet and Johnny Nash, richly evoking the zeitgeist of 1970s Glasgow, whilst defying the murderous danger posed by Red Silk. Robertson peppers his narrative with Scottish slang such as 'gallus', 'hen' and 'blootered', thus further immersing the reader in the spirit of the novel.
‘Witness The Dead’ is not without its flaws – some of the plot elements didn’t stack up for me, but that’s a minor criticism, given the overall thrill supplied by the narrative. Having started with 'Witness The Dead', I’ll be looking for more Craig Robertson novels to add to my reading list. And thanks to Craig, I now know that the plural of necropolis is necropoleis!
More about Craig Robertson
Craig Robertson is a Sunday Times bestselling author, and his debut novel, Random, was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger. His novel Murderabilia was longlisted for Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2017 and the McIlvanney Prize 2017.
You can find out more about Craig and his novels from his website, www.craigrobertsonbooks.co.uk, and I'll be interviewing him in a future blog post.
Have you read 'Witness The Dead'?
If so, what did you think of it? Or do you have any recommendations for other Craig Robertson novels? Leave a comment for me!