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Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Book review - The Two Faces of January

Patricia Highsmith’s psychological crime thriller was published in 1964 and the Crime Writers Association voted it the best foreign crime novel for that year. 
Highsmith ploughs the same territory as she covered in The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train – delving into the lives of not particularly sympathetic characters when they rub against each other. As the interaction deepens, the story grips.

Rydal Keener is a bit of a loser, a young American travelling Europe on an inheritance, castigated by his family for not attending his unsavoury father’s funeral. While in Athens he spots a man called Chester MacFarland who reminds him of his father. Chester’s young wife Colette coincidentally evokes memories of Rydal’s disastrous relationship with an under-age Agnes ten years ago.

Chester is a con-man, dabbling in stocks and shares and not averse to the odd Ponzi scheme. Unfortunately, it seems that the forces of the law are catching up to him and he’s glad he’s not in the US. His wife Colette is quite aware of his dubious business and is happy to spend his money.

When the law catches up with Chester, it all goes wrong and a death occurs. At this pivotal point, the fates of Rydal and Chester become entwined, with Colette a tantalising attraction between them. The MacFarlands’ reliance on Rydal is complete, for he is versed in Greek, Italian and French. There follows an intriguing cat-and-mouse chase to Crete and France, with another quite unexpected death in the mix.

Highsmith’s plot and her insight into her two main characters maintain interest and kept me turning the pages to find out how it would end. I found it interesting that it began with an unattended funeral and also one that would be attended.

The book’s title is purported to relate to the Roman god Janus, the book emphasising the two faces presented by Chester and Rydal. Some classic tragedy allusions have been credited by the occasional reviewer, though I find those to be quite a stretch. Titles can of course relate to a book’s theme rather than its textual content. The events begin in January.

It is not a particularly well written book, beginning with lengthy backstory ‘tell’ for both main protagonists. There are some very lengthy paragraphs – two pages (pp3/4), one and a half (pp10/11), and the point of view jumps between characters in a few early scenes. And what on earth is a ‘ball point fountain pen’ (p274)? And yet the situation and the characters hold until the redemptive end.

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