I bought this copy in a stuffy second hand bookshop from my trip to Melbourne and have only just gotten round to reading it. I kept putting it off not because it was off putting but I wanted to savour the joy I anticipated I’d get from reading a Highsmith crime thriller. I have read three Highsmith novels so far and she has yet to disappoint and ‘The Tremor of Forgery’ would have been another glowing recommendation were it not for a few niggling issues.
I don’t want to spend too long on the plot but I feel a rough outline is needed or a lot of my commentary won’t make sense. Howard Ingham, a writer goes to Tunisia expecting to complete a screenplay for a director, who doesn’t arrive. Whilst waiting for him, Ingham decides to start work on his next novel and finds himself embroiled in mysterious robberies and deaths.
The driving idea of the entire novel is to examine how people act and whether this is based on the environment or their own moral compass. This idea is conveniently mirrored in both Ingham’s real life and in the novel he is writing and is best summarised by Ingham when he’s trying to tell his fiancé what it’s about:
“It has to do with the book I’m writing. Essentially, it’s whether a person makes his own personality and his own standards from within himself, or whether he and the standards are the creation of the society around him.”
This concept would have provided endless plot points however, because this story was written in the 60s, it has embedded several biases that would have been considered appropriate then but really out of place now. In other words, in order for Highsmith to drive home the idea that people behave differently when there are different social checks and balances in place, she justifies Ingham’s supposed change in behaviour by suggesting it is because he is no longer in New York but in a foreign land and surrounded by Arabs no less. This racism to Arabs becomes very disconcerting especially given the current political climate (although it really is a case of ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same’).
But, and this is a big but, if we were to discount the above factors then the story is classic Highsmith; an ambiguously bisexual male protagonist with an ambiguous moral code finds himself in something sinister and we, the readers, don’t know if he’s innocent or guilty, but we find ourselves rooting for him nevertheless. However, if you asked me to describe the plot now, I don’t think I could do it because in all honesty, not much happened, but Highsmith was still able to build this highly intricate plot from minute details and then create a claustrophobic world where the readers would never be sure what has happened or what is going to happen.
I think Highsmith has a writing pattern and Highsmith knows it too. She knows what she’s good at and sticks to it, but for some reason, is able to make each story refreshing and new. However, this type of story wouldn’t fly in today’s expectations, given the fact that overall ignorance towards Arabs seem to be an integral feature of the story. The analysis on how people’s morals are developed though, is an interesting psychological insight I would like to see examined in other works, and probably has been dissected better.
On Another Note
I know the focus isn’t romance and I know we are supposed to question Ingham’s character and innocence but my God did I want Ingham and Jensen to get together. The way their relationship progressed was so natural and endearing that for a brief second I’d forgotten that two people have already been brutally murdered. That’s how I like my romance, quiet and fulfilling, even if both the men are hinted to have somewhat violent personalities.