Friday, June 12, 2015

FFB: A Dog's Ransom - Patricia Highsmith

In the hands of other writers the simple story in A Dog’s Ransom (1972) might have been ripe material for low comedy. An anti-social misfit sends anonymous letters to randomly selected people he dislikes for various reasons eventually leading to a dognapping scheme and a demand for $1000. The dog’s owners don’t know the dognapper, have never encountered him even by chance, and have never done anything to merit their dog being snatched and held for ransom, nor has the dog misbehaved in any way to deserve such an attack. You can see the potential for farce here. But this is a Patricia Highsmith novel and the first crime, legally considered a misdemeanor, is handled with her usual flair for sinister and a malicious acts. When the dog is not returned as promised Ed and Greta Reynolds fear the worst. Soon the dognapping spirals out of control into more violent acts. There isn’t any real trace of humor in this book. It’s a study in urban alienation and enmity.

In the eyes of the Manhattan police the crime of dognapping is right down there in the priority list next to jaywalking and parking violations. No one Ed approaches seems to care. Until that is rookie patrolman Clarence Duhammel gets word of his colleagues' indifference. Duhammel -- whose name is often pronounced Dummel by his fellow cops -- is no dummy at all, but there is something a little bit off about his somewhat distant, all too officious behavior. He is primarily interested in helping Ed retrieve his poodle because no one else wants to. And unusual crime like the theft of a dog and a demand for ransom money is a lot more exciting than his uninspired street beat.

Clarence finds his routine life of arresting lowlife junkies and chasing after juvenile delinquent teens pilfering goodies from the local bodegas to be tiresome. Here is a chance to use his college education in police work. Clarence is a graduate of Cornell University where he studied psychology and sociology and he decides to put to use all he learned in textbooks to finding the dognapper. Clarence is on a quest. He is the do-gooder cop defiant of the buddy tactics and cronyism inherent in the NYPD. Using only instinct combined with college boy psychology and some incredible luck he actually finds the dognapper in two days. But the sociopathic Kenneth Rowajinski cleverly manages to implicate Clarence in the dognapping plot. Now the rookie cop must clear his name and do right by his promise to Ed and Greta.

A Dog’s Ransom shows Highsmith at her most misanthropic. It’s more of an indictment against the way Americans live in cities than it is a crime novel. Highsmith’s New York is a sinister city where hostility and self-interest are guiding principles, where contempt for one’s neighbors displaces any warmhearted feelings. Wariness and suspicion override trust and giving anyone the benefit of the doubt. Take the example of Mrs. Williams, an intolerant landlady. When the cops start asking questions about Rowajinski Mrs Williams follows up with her own interrogation and a warning. She’ll have no one living in her home who draws the attention of the police. "I'm not having any creeps in my house," he tells him, "...because I don't have to have them." No matter that he pays his rent on time and is basically invisible. The police visit automatically makes him an undesirable and she gives him an ultimatum. If they show up again she promises he will be evicted on the spot.

Clarence who is too much of an individual and too focused on doing good and too much of an intellectual is ironically a failure as a policeman. His biggest fault is not fitting in, not being a team player. He’s targeted by other patrolman as not being one of the guys, not honoring the tacit policeman’s code of watching out for each other first. And oddly Clarence's sympathy for the Reynolds plight gives way to a weird devotion to the Reynolds, a misplaced friendship that at first is met with feigned politeness but becomes increasingly disturbing to the couple, especially Ed. This relationship is contrasted with Clarence's cold and distant attitude with his mother and father. Ed and Greta become almost surrogate parents to him while his blood relatives continue to be puzzled by Clarence's aloofness, his refusal to introduce them to his girlfriend Marylyn and his reluctance to visit them though it's only a short ride on the subway to Queens.

There aren’t many nice or even likable people in this book. Everyone has it in for someone. And most of the antipathy is unfounded. To use the juvenile defense of pre-teens they dislike one another just because. While there are outright villains like the vile Rojanowski who finds his only joy in unsettling complete strangers with his creepy behavior and violent acts the rest of the cast of characters are really no better. A runner-up for the most detestable character of the lot is Manzoni, a bigoted hostile patrolman who is determined to prove Clarence was in on the dognapping. He cruelly harasses Clarence, his parents and his girlfriend Marylyn. He relentlessly follows Marylyn, interrogating her and insinuating that she is a prostitute being kept in a lust pad. He impersonates a detective in the process when he is not more than a beat cop just like Clarence.

"Why such malice?" Clarence keeps wondering. But when events lead Clarence to committing a crime himself he finds himself trapped and Mazoni's pursuit of him intensifies with determined hostility and a thirst for retribution.  Clarence turns to the only people he thinks will believe him and help him -- the Reynolds and Marylyn -- making them all complicit in his criminality.


The book is drenched in hatred in all its forms. Racial epithets are thrown around casually to further isolate the characters from one another. Rojanowksi is called the Pole or the Pollack, Manzoni is referred to as the wop. Marylyn, who is a symbol for the 70s counterculture type mistrustful of any authority figure, after being followed, questioned and insulted by Manzoni begins to hate all police including Clarence.  She calls them fuzz, pigs and worse. A dognapping which should've affected only two people infects the entire cast like a virulent disease and unleashes the worst in their personalities. And though Highsmith lulls the reader into thinking all will turn out well she still manages to pull off a few unexpected sucker punches in the final pages.

It's a fascinating book in the way that the sideshow of circuses long gone have been fascinating. We stare in disbelief, sometimes laugh self-consciously, or shake our heads in pity, but never truly see the manifestations of disfigurement and genetics gone haywire as a metaphor for the ugliness that lies deep within us all. In A Dog's Ransom Highsmith shows that all of us have the capacity to be creeps and freaks. Why is it that we decide to hate someone for no good reason? Why is that sometimes truly awful things happen to decent good people? She has no real explanations for this true mysteries of real life. She only holds up a mirror to ourselves and allows us to see the sudden bursts of unwarranted violence, the vulgar words, the betrayals and deceit and all sorts of freakishness that lie deep within most of us.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space I3 - "Animal in the title"

17 comments:

  1. Hello chum, this has long been a favourite of mine for its Darwinian nihilsim, which is horrible but handled so well. Really enjoyed your thoughtful review, though is it possible there are a couple of words missing from the end of the penultimate paragraph?

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    1. .....has a few tricks up her sleeve ?

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    2. Almost right, Santosh. I've fixed it and corrected a few typos that slipped by me. That's what I get for working on this in the wee hours of the morning when I should've been asleep in bed.

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  2. There must be something in the water at the moment, John: I read this one recently for the first time and was planning on writing about it next week (I'm not sure if I'll bother now after your thorough examination), and I also finally got round to Carol (The Price of Salt) – which I'm still reading – with the intention of blogging about it, only to find Sergio had got there before me. Maybe I'll knock the book-reviewing on the head; I can't keep up!

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    1. Don't fell this post says it all, Nick. There's still a lot left to discuss in this dense book. I only addressed what I saw as an overarching motif. I didn't talk about the dog's strange name, the fact that the dog seems to be a surrogate child, what happened to the Reynolds' daughter, Greta's German background, etc. etc. Also I wanted to quote a handful of sublime sentences, but I just ran out of steam and was rushing a bit to get this up before turning in for the night...or rather morning. And the three of my earliest readers have already seen the hazards of that practice.

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  3. It was shown in TV as part of the serial Armchair Thriller (Season1, episodes 5 to10, 1978)

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    1. I saw it at the time Santosh as I was living in the UK then - the scene with chocolate box has stayed with me forever (I have bought it on DVD since). A pretty good adaptation, acceptably transplanted to the UK.

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    2. Chocolate box? That's not in Highsmith's book. [...pause...] I just watched that scene over at YouTube. Strange. Seems drastically rewritten for TV not just adapted.

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    3. Adapted with reasonable fidelity, honest, though i admit, now I can't even remember if there is an equivalent scene in the book or notas I was so scarred by it :)

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    4. I just saw the chocolate box scene at You Tube. What exactly are the "chocolates" ? Something disgusting ?

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    5. Let's just say Santosh that they look like chocolates, same colour, but are something a bit more 'persona'l ...

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    6. The person who sent them must be a real nasty character !

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    7. Thanks, Sergio. I was going to make an allusion to the line of dialogue that the woman wearing glasses says about the guy who pissed on something. That's the only thing that confirmed what I thought the "chocolate" was made of. I have no clue who those people are supposed to be. They look too young to be Ed and Greta. And whose the third woman? Lily? The dialogue seems to indicate that the dog belongs to only the woman who screams at the end of that scene. That's what makes me think this TV adaptation is quite different from the novel. Plus of course that this scene occurs nowhere in the book and there is nothing remotely as repulsive that might be considered analogous.

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  4. Oh no, no, no thanks, John. No book with this premise and with this cast of nasty characters can have a good end for the dog. I've never read any Patricia Highsmith and the more I read about her books the more I think I haven't missed much.

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    1. Yes, I knew this wouldn't be for you, Yvette. According to one of Highsmith's biographies her friends said she hated dogs. Dogs do not fare well in any of her books. It's interesting that she used to live in the part of Greenwich Village where much of the action takes place. I see this as a purge novel in which she wreaks revenge in fictionalized form on all those who did her wrong. Supposedly the dog is named Lisa after one of her ex-girlfriends! Her past life in New York must not have been a happy one. Based on how she talks about NYC, the NYPD (who come off very bad in this book), and American city life in general, it's no wonder she emigrated to Europe.

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    2. She sounds like an unhappy woman. How can anyone hate dogs? I'd never want anything to do with her. That's probably how people reacted to her. You know, you hate dogs, you're not gonna' have a lot of sympathetic pals.

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