on 14 June 2011
One might expect a book set in the early 1970s of New York at the time of the Vietnam War and the counter culture to feel dated. However, the psychology of Highsmith's novels always transcends historical location. Equally Highsmith had the uncanny ability to cause the reader to identify with the guilty - in this case a murderer - even when we share the distaste of those around him. It makes for an uncomfortable but compelling ride.
Beginning with a number of poison pen letters sent to wealthy, middle-aged Ed Reynolds, a publishing editor, and his wife Greta, this creepy, oddball thriller gradually turns into a murder mystery of deep psychological interest. The letters are sent, we are very soon aware, by Kenneth Rowajinski, an oddball, reclusive disabled man, and culminate in Rowajinski kidnapping the Reynolds' dog, Lisa, a sweet little poodle. It's not until rookie cop, Clarence Duhammel becomes involved in the case that anything much is done. Clarence rapidly becomes the book's main protagonist. He doesn't fit in with the precinct life-style - a little corruption, back-handers, etc., he's a bit of an innocent, a college graduate with principles. He feels uneasy in the company of the precinct stalwarts and knows he is looked down on for not taking graft. All he really cares about is his left-wing girlfriend Marilyn, but their relationship is faltering under the pressures of Clarence's job.
As the case escalates and a ransom is demanded, Clarence becomes more and more involved; then a murder is committed and Clarence becomes a suspect.
It's a great read, but the ending is a horribly abrupt shocker.
on 26 September 2007
The New York police, broad-hipped with night sticks, handcuffs and guns: how seriously would they treat the kidnapping of a dog?...Lisa a French poodle belonging to Ed and Greta Reynolds, disappears on her evening walk. And the Reynolds receive four amateur poison-pen letters. What sort of person threatens them? And how far into the grime of Manhattan's minor underworld will he lead the naive but well-meaning patrolman Clarence Duhamell?
A Dog's Ransom is a fine little thriller that is deceptive in more ways than one. Starting out initially indeed as a ransom case perpetrated on a well-off middle-aged couple by a discontented and unbalanced Polish immigrant who has been writing them anonymous hate letters, the novel soon develops into something else entirely when a young enthusiastic and impressionable police officer volunteers to look into the case.
More than just the unexpected turns that the case follows, the novel is a superb and realistic character study of everyday characters from several levels of Manhattan society and how they interact, throwing up interesting conflicts between them and revealing underlying bitterness in their attitudes towards migrants, crime and the police. Rather than there being the hard edge of hatred and bitterness that might have been expected from the outset, Highsmith takes an unexpected angle and rather reveals a core of kindness and trust in people that is gradually eroded and twisted as events take unexpected turns.