THIS SWEET SICKNESS (1960) by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia-Highsmith-This-Sweet-Sickness-penguin-1982pbIf we’re lucky we’ve all been in love at least once – but can it also be a kind of madness? This is the theme of this novel by Patricia Highsmith, whose unconventional suspense fiction used genre trappings to depict the existential angst of deeply damaged individuals with often queasy-making precision. A study in sexual obsession and deep-rooted insecurity, it also explores her trademark preoccupations with the secret lives of outsiders and the doppelgänger motif.

I submit the following review for Patti Abbott’s celebration of the work of Patricia Highsmith at her fab Pattinase blog; and the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for review links, click here.

“”Without hesitation he had made the split as it remained to this day: the ugly boarding house in Froudsburg where he worked, and the house in the country where he poured 90 per cent of his earnings and as much time as he could”

From Monday to Friday David Kelsey, chief engineer for a plastics manufacturer, lives in a cheap rooming house even though he is pulling in $25,000 a year (this is 1958). He explains this by saying that he is sending the rest of his income to his ageing mother – but actually she died years ago. Instead he has a secret identity as ‘William Neumeister’ [literally 'new master' in German], paying for a tasteful house in a secluded spot an hour’s drive away where at weekends he goes to dream of living with Annabelle, the woman he lost some two years before to an electrician named Gerald. He is determined to win her back, living under the burden of what he terms ‘The Situation’, waiting for the moment to convince Annabelle of the error of her ways. He only has one friend, Wes Carmichael, a recently married colleague who is not very happy at home and so desperate for his company. David however hates hearing about the constant quarrels Wes has with his wife and so is seeing less and less of him. At the boarding house David meets Effie, who is clearly somewhat smitten with him, but he rebuffs nearly all her advances, so dedicated is Highsmith-This-Sweet-Sickness-3he to getting Annabelle back. He writes passionate letters to her and then starts phoning, deriding her life with Gerald, even after he learns that they just had a baby. He even goes up to  see her, imagining that he is keeping her from him when clearly (to us), she is merely responding to his letters and phone calls out of her kindness. Gerald is furious of course and the two nearly come to blows in a slightly farcical but basically sad confrontation. The pudgy Gerald is not much of a businessman and not as bright as the high-achieving David, but he is the man Annabelle chose and father of their child – the importance of the latter being something that in fact David ignores in his fantasy of what his life with Annabelle could be.

“He knew, like a quiet, still fact that she would one day be his”

David persists in writing and one snowy weekend in January 1959 a car draws up outside his house – Gerald has had a few drinks and has brought a gun, determined to warn David away for the last time. There is an altercation, the gun goes off and Gerald falls on to a step, bashes his head and is killed. As ‘Neumeister’, David takes the body to the police station to report the death, claiming not to know who he was. But how did Gerald know where to find him? It turns out that he had made a scene at the rooming house and Effie Highsmith-This-Sweet-Sickness-ebookhad told him where to go. How could she know? Well, it turns out that she is very, very interested in David and has been checking up on his background, even to the extent of following him to his other house with Wes once she found out that his mother was in fact dead. To make matters worse, Annabelle now wants to meet ‘Neumeister’ to ask what happened to her husband – and still David can’t understand why she is so upset about Gerald (or even remember the sex of their baby). He decides to sell the house and move on, denying that he knew either Gerald or ‘Neumeister’ to Effie, Wes and the police. But slowly, inevitably, his lies become less and less plausible and soon both his lives unravel and he finds himself on the run after another death.

“He had been lying steadily since four o’clock that afternoon, and he had been doing it with surprising ease”

Doubles, secret lives and identity switches are littered throughout Highsmith’s often nightmarish fiction in which strong personalities usually smother the weaker in fascinating power plays recounted in a lucid and unsentimental style. Several critics have complained that the supporting female characters in Highsmith’s works are often not as well-rounded as the (nearly always) male protagonists and that is true to a degree with this book, though in fairness everything is seen exclusively though David’s eyes (even though the story is not actually told in the first person). Effie and Annabelle are seen Highsmith-The-Sweet-Sickness-pbprimarily as a function of David’s mental unravelling, which makes the story-telling deliberately limited as he starts to suffer blackouts, having to be reminded of things he did and said. Both the leading female characters tend to be irritating as Highsmith’s intent is not to hide David’s sociopathic tendencies but deep down make us feel his anger that they can’t they see what it is that he really wants.

If the book has a serious flaw beyond this then it is a structural one – having established the main set-up and then using Gerald’s death as a catalyst for the exposure of David’s dual life and for an escalation in his obsession with his dream life with Annabelle, after 150 pages instead of leading to its climax it actually pauses and starts again to go on for another 100 pages, which is ultimately too long. David seems to get away with his deception in terms of the police investigating the death so he sells the house and then buys another one and once again starts to plan his life with Annabelle, who of course is now free to marry in his mind. But she has started seeing someone else and so once again he confronts the new man in his life while Effie visit him for another drunken evening that ends in cruel abuse. This all works very well, but inevitably feels like a variant repetition of what has already gone before. It is not padding but does slow down the momentum somewhat.

” … Mrs Beecham was the only one in the house who counted”

Highsmith dedicated this book to her mother, with whom she had a particularly difficult relationship apparently, but this is a key to understanding the complex fascination that it exerts and what gives this book its peculiar psychological strength despite its longuers. David doesn’t realise it, but it is of course a strong and traditional family unit that he really craves, having been so deprived of it after losing his mother and father early on. This comes through especially well in the scenes with Mrs Beecham, his upstairs neighbour who is an infirm old lady who knits socks for him and which despite himself he appreciates. Towards the end of the story it is she, when he is on the run and everything Highsmith-Wahnseems to be collapsing around him, that he seeks out for some kind of approval and even some sort of absolution, even though he remains to a large degree unaware of just what it is that he has done wrong. What the book explores, coming as it does at the end of the Eisenhower era, is the extent to which the conservative ideal of the nuclear family is by extension all built on a fiction. Due to the repetitive structure and a somewhat over-extended finale, the book paradoxically seems to slow down as we reach its conclusion even though the plot gets much busier as David dashes all over New York. For the most part though the suspense is well handled and even if the set up never feels that credible, the characterisation always feels scarily plausible.

The novel was filmed twice  – first very shortly after its publication as ‘Annabel’ and was screened on 1 November 1962 as the first episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour and then again in 1977 as Dites-lui que je l’aime (Tell Her I Love Her) starring Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Miou. I’ll be reviewing the Hitchcock TV version shortly …

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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29 Responses to THIS SWEET SICKNESS (1960) by Patricia Highsmith

  1. Sergio – No doubt about it; Highsmith was so skilled at writing stories of obsession and breaks with reality. I think that more than most modern writers she did an excellent job at ‘getting in the heads’ of people who start off normal enough (if there is such a thing) but…aren’t. You’ve done a fine job as ever of discussing this example.

  2. Kelly says:

    Highsmith awes me to the point that I find her difficult to write about. I rarely write about the authors I love most, because I find that I feel unworthy to articulate the way they make me feel. This week was a challenge for me, despite the featured author being one I idolize. You did a fantastic job. (Mine will be up tomorrow morning. I cheated a little with the topic.)

  3. Colin says:

    Highsmith is an author I haven’t read a lot of, Strangers on a Train being the only book of hers that I have. Sounds like a fascinating tale though, even if there are problems with the structure.

    • Highsmith is always good value, one way or another. Strangers and Ripley are where everyone seems to start and it is probably the right place though in some ways I prefer less well-known titles like The Blunderer and Dog’s Ransom – the latter seems particularly under=appreciated. Either way, a good investment.

      • Kelly says:

        Those last two are titles I love as well. I remember when reading A Suspension of Mercy (which in my edition was called The Story-Teller) that it bore so much resemblance to The Blunderer that I wondered if she’d decided to rewrite the story with different choices and outcome.

      • Colin says:

        Actually, I quite forgot that I also have a copy (unread as usual) of The Talented Mr Ripley included in a Library of America anthology of 50s crime novels.

  4. Sergio, Highsmith specialized in taking normal emotions (wanting friends, wanting to fall in love) and adds obsession and madness to produce a result that’s wrapped in Strangeness. I find Highsmith’s novels and short stories creepy. But in a Good Way.

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    This is a wonderful piece, Sergio. I think she is a difficult writer for those who want good outcomes or characters they can love. But her view of the world is not that dissimilar from mine so I find her refreshing. I was disappointed in the stories I reviewed though. She is meant to write longer than 1000 words. She is brilliant at fleshing it out not binding it in.

  6. John says:

    This is an excellent essay as ever, Sergio. I think I read the book but I remember better the very creepy Depardieu movie version.

    Kelly’s commetn above has perfectly summed up exactly how I feel about Highsmith and in particular my recent experience of reading THE TREMOR OF FORGERY (post now up on my blog). I have such visceral and personal reactions to her work. It is indeed terribly difficult to convey those very personal emotions in a review without also talking about my own life. I tried to do justice to her fine book, but it’s such a cursory overview.

  7. TracyK says:

    I have always thought Patricia Highsmith would be too creepy for me, but I am determined to try some of her books, and I will start with The Talented Mr. Ripley. This one sounds very creepy, but worth reading. And I appreciate the other suggestions. I will definitely try Strangers on a Train sometime too.

  8. neer says:

    I have read just one of her books: The Talented Mr. Ripley and am not too fond of the ending. Your review, however, makes me want to read this. Thanks.

    • Thanks very much Neer – the ending here, while very extended, is much more linear and concludes the story by putting a great big full stop at the end and is completely free of ambiguity compared with Ripley.

  9. Richard says:

    A fine look at an author who has been a disappointment to me. Sometimes I find I don’t enjoy the way an author’s work feels. Highsmith is one of those. As George said above, “creepy” is one description. Unpleasant is another adjective I’d use, especially after the collection I read with the two stories about snails in it. ** shudder ** I’m not a reader of horror genre and her work more than looks that way.

    • Hi Rich – well, I know what you mean, but predominantly she does fit within the suspense genre but focuses on very dark and damaged characters. The good thing is that she does this so well. This can also be a bad thing, no question about it – my ma won’t even watch the sanitised movie of Strangers of a Train because she finds the main character too dark and crazy. But that remains one of the measures of her success, as is her fine prose style. But it is true, there are very few straightforward identification figures though I personally I find that the things she has to say about the dark and ambivalent parts of people’s nature is well worth exploring (if usually unpleasant, Igrant you!)

  10. Nicely reviewed, Sergio. I haven’t read anything by Patricia Highsmith but after reading some of the reviews this week and the conflicting views about her work, I think she created complex plots and characters that might not be to everyone’s liking. Besides, I didn’t know her work fell under horror, remotely or otherwise. Still, I’d like to read a couple of her books someday and see if they work for me.

    • Thanks for the kind words Prashant. The horror appellation is one that would have to be used very, very sparingly as none of her novels could be classified as such as far as I am aware – a few of the short stories are fantastical however. She was, apparently, personally a highly destructive person and very hard to get along with, deeply unhappy in her own skin, things that got more and more pronounced in her later years. But despite her great ability as a storyteller she is, as you says, still clearly much more divisive than most. She wrote at a time when crime and suspense was rarely taken seriously and gay authors were usually closeted if they hoped to work in mainstream genres. I’m not sure I ‘like’ any of her books but I usually find them extremely powerful … and troubling. I would love to know what you make of The Talented Mr Ripley for instance. In her books the word ‘unbearable’ really can be applied to her tales of suspense but many readers really don’t want to go where she is taking them!

      • Sergio, it was only recently that I found out that THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY starring Matt Damon and Jude Law was based on Highsmith’s book. That’s how ignorant I’d been about her work. Since I have seen the film version, it’d be interesting to read the book. The film was really good and the casting perfect, though I wonder if Jude Law wouldn’t have been equally good as Ripley. Thanks for putting me wise to Highsmith’s writing. It’s important to read authors like her.

        • I would be really interested to see what you make of Highsmith – the Damon/Law version is reasonably faithful though there are also many changes. It was previously filmed as Plein Soleil with Alain Delon, who was probably the perfect Ripley though I really liked the BBC radio full cast adaptations of the Highsmith books featuring Ian Hart as Ripley – you can buy these as downloads very cheaply from the BBC’s AudioGo company here.

  11. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere, September 2013 | Past Offences

  12. Pingback: The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Annabel (1962) | Tipping My Fedora

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