The title of Orange Prize-shortlisted Jill Dawson’s novel (The Crime Writer) should be taken with a pinch of salt: its subject, Patricia Highsmith, considered herself to be a writer not of crime but suspense fiction: less Agatha Christie, more Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Highsmith’s 1960s sojourn in the quiet Suffolk village of Earl Soham provides the inspiration for Dawson’s own tale of suspense, an unlikely rural interlude during which the Texan-born Highsmith struck up a perhaps even more unlikely friendship with Ronald Blythe, author of the classic Akenfield.
Blythe’s is a steadying presence and, for that reason, a welcome one, since when we meet ‘Pat’ she is embroiled in a tormented affair with a married woman. Worse is to come – a late-night confrontation leads to a devastating act of violence.
This is on one level an assured and visceral page-turner, as convincing as it is bold. But it also offers arresting insights into the craft of fiction itself, and raises provocative questions about the boundary between life and art. Creativity, madness and obsessive love overlap throughout, and the line between fantasy and reality blurs. But while we are drawn into the murk of Highsmith’s childhood, Dawson is far too intelligent a writer to succumb to ‘Freudian voodoo’ in an attempt to entirely explain away the dark genius of her compelling central character.
– Stephanie Cross