Friday, September 27, 2013

FFB: The Tremor of Forgery - Patricia Highsmith

UK Edition (Heinemann, 1969)
Despite its exotic and desert landscape filled setting of Tunisia The Tremor of Forgery (1969) covers some familiar territory for Patricia Highsmith. There is the usual assortment of strangers befriended by a somewhat dull American, some overt and covert homoeroticism in male friendships, and perhaps most importantly her obsession with duality be it in personality, cultural mores, or political viewpoints. Howard Ingham, the American protagonist, is also a writer. This strong theme of duality is carried through in the title, also the title of a novel Ingham is writing about a banker who is secretly embezzling funds from his employer. Crime will play a role in Ingham's life just as it does with Dennison, his own protagonist, but it is a murky and ambiguous world that Ingham inhabits. We know that Dennison is a criminal and thief; we never know if Ingham is one though it is strongly hinted he may have killed a man.

Perhaps the most subtle and insidious of her novels The Tremor of Forgery is unusual in how it incorporates criminal behavior into its supposedly simple plot. There are burglaries, thefts, attacks on a dog, one violent death most definitely a murder, and another possible murder. Though crime is present it is a shadow world of ambiguous and puzzling events; mixed perceptions and eyewitness accounts contradict one another throughout the action. We never know whose viewpoint we are to believe -- even that of our ostensibly innocent hero.

Yet crime is not Highsmith's primary concern here. This novel is a study in cultural and political disparity and their effect on visiting long term residents in a foreign country. It is also, strangely, something of a treatise on love. Besides The Price of Salt, I have never encountered in a Highsmith novel more discussions about love in all its forms, from platonic friendship to erotic desire, than I have in The Tremor of Forgery.

US Edition (Doubleday, 1969)
Highsmith's reputation rests largely on her development of what everyone likes to call noir these days - the dark crime novel that explores base motives, criminal impetus and the ugly side of human nature. Ironically, while exploring all these aspects of a noir novel The Tremor of Forgery turns out to be Highsmith's most life affirming and positive work. Even its slightly ambiguous ending is one I would classify as a happily ever after type.

Ingham is in Tunisia at the request of a film director friend who has commissioned the writer to pen the screenplay of a movie he wants to set in Tunisia. But the screenplay is soon abandoned when the director dies suddenly under suspicious circumstances. Ina, Howard Ingham's one time lover, eventually communicates with him via letter to explain the sudden death in a roundabout and vague way. Ingham can't decide whether to return home or remain in Tunisia largely due to the curious and sporadic letters he receives from Ina. Each time he writes he pours out his love to her, but she takes her sweet time replying to his letters. She must be prodded to tell the whole story of John Castlewood's death after Ingham's repeated urgings. One begins to suspect that Ina is complicit in what at first is described as an accident and then a suicide.

In the meantime Ingham toils away on his typewriter turning out page after page of his novel about the duplicitous banker. He is befriended by two men. The first is the overly friendly Francis Adams whose sunny personality masks a political and religious zealotry that will reveal him to be a bigot of the worst sort. The other is the artist Anders Jensen visiting from his native Denmark and making the most of his penchant for sleeping with Arab boys while attempting to bed Howard as well. Jensen has a dog named Hasso that will also play an important part in the story. Jensen tells stories of some attacks of cruelty on Hasso and when the dog suddenly goes missing he fears the worst.

A younger and happier Patricia Highsmith
Since living in Tunisia Ingham has found himself influenced by the apparent lawlessness and amorality of the Arabs he meets. He tells Ina "...if one is robbed five or six times, there might be an impulse to rob back, don’t you think? The one who doesn't rob, or cheat a little in business deals, some comes out in the short end, if everybody else is cheating." Even his discovery of a dead man in the street at night changes him. He finds it unnecessary to report the body and his indifference has dire consequences later when he attacks someone who he thinks is trying to break into his bungalow. Once again he does nothing but discuss the events in a rather vague manner with his true friend and confidante, Jensen, just as Ina danced around Castlewood's death (more duality). But Adams somehow gets word of the attack and begins to suspect that Ingham is trying to cover up the murder of a local thief and outcast who has recently vanished. Adams then shares his thoughts with Ina thus turning her visit from one of a reunion with her lover to one of suspicion, mistrust and betrayal.

The novel unfolds at what some might call a glacial pace. But it is fitting for this languorous story of developing friendships, reconnections, epiphanies and -- yes -- contentment and happiness found at long last. In the final pages Highsmith has a few surprises in store, some of which have been called ambiguous by other reviewers and critics. On closer reading of the subtle clues she drops the unanswered questions all become clearer. The mysterious disappearance of the Arabian thief is suddenly not so mysterious and Ingham may not be the bad man he thinks himself to be. He ends up leaving Tunisia with one final letter in hand, overdue from seemingly endless forwarding, that leads me to believe that he will go on to find the love he had been searching for throughout the book.


  1. After Words on Illinois had a slew of Highsmith books in the basement for $6 each. I picked the wrong one this time and will go back to reading her novels. Thanks for the review, John.

    1. After Words is a good used bookstore for those looking for contemporary books. I don't often visit that store (even though it's a 15 minute walk from my job) because my tastes are for very old books which they don't often carry.

      Though my review doesn't come out and state it clearly I very much enjoyed this one. Very different. Probably the most "un-Highsmith" of her novels.

  2. This the second Highsmith novel I tried, I only got about 30 or 40 pages into it before abandoning it. With my unhappy reaction to the short story collection (my post this FFB as you saw) and to Strangers on A Train and this one, I've given up on this author.

  3. I really enjoyed this one, too. I kept hoping for more crime, but at the same time I remember an atmosphere of unease that was pervasive. That unsettling feeling is one of the things I think she does best.

  4. I haven't read any Highsmith, and I want to. I got The Talented Mr. Ripley at the book sale, but this one sounds different, as you say, and I will add it to my list. And the setting would be nice too.

  5. Great review John - this is one of hers that I have yet to tackle but really like the sound of the political dimension and its attitude to foreign-ess and foreigners - great stuff chum, thanks.

  6. I have yet to read any of her novel-length work. I read her short story collection Slowly, Slowly in the Wind last year and enjoyed it very much. The library used bookshop usually has one or two of her novels (usually a Ripley title) for sale--they keep tempting me, but I haven't given in yet.

  7. Wonderful review! I picked this up on a whim, and it was not at all what I expected after reading The Talented Mr. Ripley. This one is intriguing in a completely different way.