The Bad Guy Gets Away With It

by Huw Nesbitt

Patricia Highsmith, Under A Dark Angel’s Eye: The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith
Virago, 640pp, ISBN 9780349014760, £20.00

It’s nice to think that the world isn’t run by arseholes, but as history attests, sadly it is. Prime ministers lie, presidents perjure and declare wars under false pretences, and princes fraternise with paedophiles. On top of this, our leaders have been known to starve us; murder us; beat us; torture us; tell us lies; commit genocide; subject us to abject living conditions; deny our right to free expression; use weapons of mass destruction; prevent us from communicating with one another; force us to act against our interests; cut us off from welfare, safety and justice; make us undertake pointless, thankless tasks for little reward, and — worst of all — encourage us to blame each other for these miseries.

Over the centuries, humanity has tried to prevent or lessen such abuses of power through legal and democratic checks and balances, but at one time or another, our courts and parliaments have all proven fallible and useless. In light of this, societies have, since antiquity, reconciled with injustice through art and literature. One of the most recent additions to these efforts, relatively speaking, is crime fiction, a genre where the goodies chase the baddies, detectives get their man or woman, and ne’er-do-wells get their just desserts — or so it seems. Now and then, as in Patricia Highsmith’s fiction, the genre plays other games, too. Here, it allows us to see things from the perspective of the criminal, bringing into question the nature of justice by probing what a crime story is and does.

Although the Texan author, who died in her adoptive home of Switzerland in 1995, aged 74, is known for her best-selling novels Strangers on a Train (1950), The Price of Salt (1952) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), Highsmith cut her teeth as a short story writer. According to the author, she published her first story, ‘Primroses are Pink’, in her Manhattan high school gazette in 1936 — though no one can find a copy. While few of the stories gathered in Under a Dark Angel’s Eye, a career-spanning collection published last year, are unrelated to crime, each of them deals with transgression, and nearly all frustrate conventional storytelling without disappointing entirely. In ‘Primroses. . .’, for instance, Theodore Fleming buys a paint-it-yourself portrait of an old famous race horse. Guided by the horse’s entry in a sporting almanac, he paints its livery primrose, ‘pale-greenish yellow’, only for his wife to object. ‘Mother always kept primroses in the garden,’ she says. ‘They were pink.’ And so the tale finishes without resolution, the joke being that, in American English (or the Merriam-Webster dictionary at least), ‘primrose’ is merely a type of primula with ‘variously coloured flowers’, the story’s significance split between these two seemingly irreconcilable conclusions.

Later, Highsmith transformed this knack for ambiguity into a sadistic talent, promising her readers nice, neat endings while whipping the carrot away. Unlike the playboy psychopath Tom Ripley or Strangers’ arch-villain, Charles Bruno, Highsmith’s typical crime story protagonist is a repressed, awkward nobody whom no one takes seriously, even when they’re confessing to murder. In fact, Highsmith loved to torture this type of character so much, she made him repeat the same charade over and over again.

In ‘A Dangerous Hobby’ (1960), ‘Andrew Forster, thirty-seven, married, the father of a fourteen-year-old-girl’ leads a secret life. Behind his wife’s back, he dupes women into meeting him using false identities, pretending to be working in their field (journalism, acting, academia). He then steals a trophy from them and disappears. After one scam too many, however, he gets caught. A previous victim turns up at his latest mark’s apartment and recognises him. Panicked, he kills one of the women and runs off. Months pass. He reads a newspaper. The woman that survived has died of cancer. His guilt becomes unbearable, so he hands himself in for the murder, but the cops don’t believe him. In desperation, he begs them to call in one of his previous victims. Yet, when she arrives at the station, she doesn’t know who he is, and the officers turn him loose. Back on the street, he throws himself ‘in front of an onrushing train.’

The end. Or is it? A few pages on, it looks as if Forster is back from the dead. This time he’s called Clive Wilkes, the teenage loner protagonist of ‘Woodrow Wilson’s Necktie’ (1972). Wilkes has an unhealthy obsession with his local wax work museum. One night he breaks in, stealing the model of the 28th US president’s tie as a souvenir. Unsatisfied, he goes back after-hours again, kills the staff and arranges their bodies in place of the dummies. On the lam, he brags about the slayings to two cowboys who tell him to get lost. Insulted, he runs home and goes straight to the police who listen to his confession in disbelief. They send him to a shrink, and while on the couch, he contemplates a mass shooting. ‘They’d have to come up in the building to get him,’ the narrator ends. ‘They’d know then. They’d treat him like somebody who existed.’

Highsmith’s Forster/Wilkes archetype turns up in other stories, too. These include: (i) Stephen McCullough in ‘A Curious Suicide’ (1973), an unhappily married American doctor who stops off in Geneva on a European break to murder an old love rival, goes to ’fess up but chickens out; and (ii) Roland Markov in ‘The Button’ (1985), who gets away with randomly killing a passer-by in so-called ‘revenge’ for his new-born son having Down Syndrome, and who keeps a button from his victim as a trophy as reassurance he can ‘face the years ahead.’

Granted, the McCullough/Markov type does not share the Forster/Wilkes compulsion to place themselves at the law's mercy. This aside, the results are the same. In each tale, guilt goes unrecognised, crime goes unpunished, innocence goes unavenged, and the bad guy gets away with it. The slayings seem pointless and arbitrary, and between this and the absence of retribution, the expected narrative pay-off of a crime story doesn’t arrive. Instead of justice, these men escape punishment either to take their own lives, fret or plan worse things. And instead of clear motives and psychological explication, these tales serve up red herrings.

By subverting these generic expectations, Highsmith probes notions of right and wrong. She was — obviously — not the first crime writer to do so either. While her work is often written about alongside hardboiled and noir novels, which frequently focus on murder’s existential implications, Highsmith’s fiction is drawn to the relationship between crime and justice, where one ends and the other begins, and who chooses. Far from innocent, her lowlife murderers are, in strict juridical terms, not (yet) guilty either. They instead subsist on the apparent threshold between justice and criminal violence in a state of ‘uninnocence’ or ‘not-not guilt’, ostensibly subject to the law’s authority but defying it without judgement or punishment. As such, these outlaws resemble another figure that similarly eludes the law’s normal machinations: the sovereign.

In 1922, the German jurist and legal theorist Carl Schmitt published Political Theology, a book in which he argued that, rather than being only based on laws and norms, Western sovereignty is in fact founded on killing and torturing people, among other unspeakable acts. ‘Sovereign,’ the text begins, ‘is he who decides on the exception.’ According to Schmitt, political authority is based on the ability to monopolise violence. Through this monopoly, he argues, the sovereign is able to determine when the normal state of law is in force, and when it may be suspended — the exception — as in emergencies and political crises, so that acts normally prohibited in everyday life (e.g. murder, etc.) may be undertaken without penality. Schmitt subsequently contends that political power is not defined by rules, but by the use of violence often characterised by dictators and coup d’états: ‘The exception does not only confirm the rule; the rule as such lives off the exception alone.’ Political Theology, therefore, not only makes a compelling case for the intrinsic relationship between justice and violence, but argues that, as the supreme subject upon which law’s existence depends, the sovereign paradoxically belongs neither ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ the legal order, but lingers on the threshold between.

Schmitt’s giddy enthusiasm for tyranny later transformed into Nazi party membership, the 1934 reprint of his book coyly contemplating the ‘additional instances to which the idea of political theology is applicable.’ His work nevertheless informed a range of left-wing thinkers including Walter Benjamin, Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben (latterly a doddering Covid truther), who used Schmitt’s affirmation of ‘might is right’ to conversely illuminate the flaws and contradictions of Western politics, showing why, perhaps, so many of our leaders are arseholes, a gesture also discernible in Highsmith’s short stories. Like Schmitt’s sovereign, Highsmith’s characters transgress the law in its twilight, acting ‘legally-illegal’ since the force of law has not been applied to them, their crimes demonstrating the nature of sovereign brutality in miniature.

An example of Schmitt’s thesis at work in Highsmith’s fiction is ‘Operation Balsam’ (1987). In it, Benjamin M. Jackson, head of the US Nuclear Control Commission, is in charge of covering up the 'careless disposal of nuclear waste'. An agent of government power, he is a lawful criminal, responsible for telling falsehoods ‘to suit Washington.’ Having overseen the illegal, clandestine storage of radioactive material in a complex underneath a new football stadium, however, an accident threatens to reveal this subterfuge. After a visit to the secret facility, a colleague, Doug Ferguson, goes missing. Once it transpires Doug was probably locked in one of the bunkers, Jackson concludes his co-worker is dead and starts to worry: if news gets out, so will the stadium’s real story. After a sleepless night, he pleads mercy to his anonymous ‘Washington hotline’, only to be told the ‘trouble’ has been dealt with. The voice informs him that the head of the facility, Frank Marlucci, 'got fired' and the issue is closed. A few days later, Jackson learns Frank has been killed, and that the USNCC line on Doug is simply that he ‘disappeared — that he’s maybe dead.’

Highsmith also brings her outlaws into parallel with sovereign authority in ‘Woodrow Wilson’s Necktie’, where Wilkes’s crime-scene token acts as an emblem for the type of dominion he desires and mimics. Despite this, Wilkes and Highsmith’s other characters don’t have Jackson’s advantage of government power. Instead, their sovereign-esque position on the law’s threshold has to be constituted, requiring the transformation of transgressive desires and fantasies into material realities — murder and lies. In order to remain beyond the law’s reach, however, these characters have to evade justice, concealing their role in these crimes. This consequently undermines the process of turning their ‘dreams’ into real life, since the absolute truth of their killings, the whodunnit, has to remain a mystery. In turn, this renders their crimes and subsequent deception perverse, fragile fictions; grim tall tales liable to come crashing down should the truth be discovered.

Like ‘Woodrow Wilson’s Necktie’, one of Highsmith’s favourite emblems for her murderous characters’ precarious realities is the dummy. Simulacra, these figures help her protagonists construct their depraved fantasies while inadvertently signalling their own artifice. This is the situation in ‘Slowly, Slowly in the Wind’ (1976), where Edward ‘Skip’ Skipperton, a recently divorced management advisor of 52, survives a coronary, moves to rural Maine with his teenage daughter Maggie, and buys 'a seven-acre farm' complete with a scarecrow. Told to quit smoking and drinking, Skip is looking for the good life. All is well until he becomes obsessed with a patch of land overlooking a stream owned by his neighbour Peter Frosby, ‘a real s.o.b.’, who refuses to sell, sparking a feud. To make matters worse, Maggie starts dating Frosby Jr. and runs away to get married. Furious, Skip hatches a plan. He invites Frosby Sr. over to bury the hatchet, kills him with his rifle butt and hides the body by dressing it as his scarecrow so he can ‘look at it through his binoculars’. After a police search turns up nothing, it seems as if Skip’s warped desires have been fulfilled. Then Halloween arrives. Some children go running through the cornfield, shouting about burning the scarecrow. Skip tries to stop them from finding the body, but when they start screaming, he knows it’s too late. Realising his fantasy ‘had come to an end’, Skip attempts to remove himself from the law’s clutches in the most extreme way possible: by sticking his rifle in his mouth and blowing his brains out.

During Highsmith’s life, suicide was still classified as a crime in several US states, an offence originally inherited from English law (hence the expression, ‘to commit suicide’). Highsmith therefore often presents it as her protagonist’s ultimate attempt at posting themselves, sovereign-like, beyond the police and courts through one last, and effectively unpunishable, ‘transgression’; a final act also intended as a means of having the last word and completing the transformation of their dreams into reality. Forster, for example, jumps on the tracks not only out of guilt, but as a way of returning to the stage of a plot the cops have written him out of. McCullough, on the other hand, resolves to kill himself ‘when the planes of cowardice and courage’ align, his inability to confess making him a nonentity, ‘a walking dead man’, in his own drama. In ‘The Stuff of Madness’ (1985) there’s also Christopher Waggoner, who overdoses on sedatives after unsuccessfully trying to kill his wife by scaring her to death with a mannequin dressed up as his former mistress, his lifeless body found as ‘stiff as the dummy’ itself.

Of course, you don’t need to be Schmitt or even Sigmund Freud to deduce that dead men are really neither above the law nor capable of having any desires left to satisfy. Suicide therefore ironically severs their relationship with both the judicial sphere and reality, leaving them and their macabre dreams as inanimate as the dummies they so often employ. Despite this, these futile deeds don’t render these stories meaningless. On the contrary, these efforts to remain on the legal order’s boundary, both in and out, enact Schmitt’s sovereign paradox, where justice and violence cannot entirely be distinguished.

As Andrew Wilson's formative Beautiful Shadow (2003) and other biographies attest, Highsmith was a bit of an arsehole herself. A racist, an antisemite and a spiteful drunk, she once dumped a bag of pet snails on the dining table at a dinner party. Be that as it may, her rogues’ gallery of unhinged killers allow her readers to ponder the flaws in the world around them. And although her stories don’t offer simple solutions, they point to a way of reconceptualising the problems. By acting out Schmitt’s thesis through grisly tales of everyday life, her fiction tacitly prompts us to consider the issue from the perspective of people normally subject to political oppression rather than those perpetrating it.

In doing so, these stories seem to imply that, if it is possible to conceive a world where everyday people also straddle the threshold of legality, it might also be possible to conceive one where, contra Schmitt, human beings are not divided into those with rights and those exposed to death and unpunishable violence; a world in which the very fact of human existence might entail protection from such brutality. Realising that he’s caught in a similarly false dichotomy, Theodore Fleming in Highsmith’s early short story eventually sees a way out. Intuiting that primrose is a flower, and not necessarily a colour, he discovers that, like the destiny of human history and politics — arseholes included — the details of his race horse’s livery might also be an open-ended affair. ‘That’s primrose,’ he explains to a visitor. ‘English primroses are yellow, you know.’