The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

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Almost 20 years after her death, the crime novels of Patricia Highsmith are enjoying another revival in print and now ebooks, as well as on the big screen. The adaptation of The Two Faces of January, scripted and directed by Hossein Amini, will be followed by movies of Carol and The Blunderer. Publishers Virago and Sphere are reissuing all her books.

First published 50 years ago, The Two Faces of January has been reprinted to tie in with the film starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac. It’s a stylish adaptation from a director who clearly gets Highsmith: Amini has been trying to make this film for almost two decades.

It’s certainly easy to become obsessed with Highsmith, whose chilling psychological novels feature amoral anti-heroes who cheat justice and have no need for redemption, such as the psychopathic charmer Tom Ripley who featured in five novels including The Talented Mr Ripley. The Texan author’s reputation has grown since her death, so that in 2008 it seemed entirely understandable for The Times to put her at number one in its list of the 50 greatest crime writers.

The Two Faces of January is among the best of Highsmith’s work, though it proved a difficult book for the author. Her American editor considered the characters unlikeable and the final reader’s report stated that a “very unhealthy air hangs over it”. Highsmith had to find another US publisher, though in the UK it won the 1965 Silver Dagger for best foreign crime. In fact, she was always more admired in Europe than the US and ended up exiled in Switzerland.

The novel is certainly lacking a typical American hero. Chester MacFarland (not ‘MacFarlane’ as the careless blurb on the book has it) is enjoying a European vacation with his younger wife, Colette, when his financial swindles back home catch up with him in Athens. Confronted at his hotel by a Greek police officer working with the US authorities, Chester kills his inquisitor in the bathroom. He insists it was an accident, though the con man appears to feel little remorse about his first killing.

When Chester tries to hide the body in a cupboard, he runs into Rydal Keener. Chester was already wary of Rydal, who he assumed might be following him. In fact, Rydal is another American tourist, who’s been living in Greece after law school. Rydal’s become a little obsessed with this glamorous American couple he’s seen around town. He’s drawn to Chester, who looks remarkably like a younger version of his overbearing father, and he’s smitten with Colette. In that split second of recognition in a hotel corridor, Rydal suddenly decides to help Chester hide the body. It’s a moment that binds these men together – a common theme in Highsmith’s novels.

Highsmith’s strength is complex, contradictory male characters whose impetuous acts seem entirely believable. Rydal may have acted foolishly, but it means Chester now relies upon him. Rydal knows the right people to arrange fake passports and, while he sees himself as a poet and thinker, you wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up a crook (Amini plays up Rydal’s dishonest tendencies in the film).

With Rydal taking charge of their flight from justice (he speaks Greek fluently), the trio head to Crete to await fake passports. As Chester drinks more whiskey and spends the dollars stashed in his suitcase, he becomes paranoid about Rydal. He’s convinced his newfound accomplice is holding out for a bigger prize – a blackmail payout and maybe his wife, too, as Colette seems keen on the younger man.

It all comes to a head during an expedition to the labyrinth in Knossos – once the dwelling of the mythical Minotaur. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues between Rydal and Chester is tense and gripping, because each of these complex, haunted characters could be capable of anything. Written with sharp, efficient prose, this is a Greek tragedy that combines the author’s psychological insight with a suspenseful pursuit across Europe. If it’s your first encounter with Patricia Highsmith, you might find yourself becoming obsessed with this unique and remarkable author.

Read our features on Strangers on a Train and the Ripley novels.


CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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