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Highsmith's hard-boiled Greek tragedy,
This review is from: The Two Faces of January (Paperback)
"The Two Faces of January" is a typically warped noir from Highsmith which, even by her own peerless standards, is remarkable for the fluid ease with which its central characters adopt and discard identities as they spiral unerringly towards catastrophe.
Rydal Keener is a young American idling his days away in Athens. Rydal becomes fascinated by couple of fellow Americans whom he's noticed in the city, professional fraudster Chester MacFarland and his pretty young wife Colette. Chester, physically at least, reminds Rydal of his recently deceased father with whom he had a troubled relationship, and Colette likewise resembles his teenage sweetheart Agnes, whom he was accused of raping when he was fifteen. Rydal's fate becomes fatally intertwined with the MacFarlands when he stumbles upon the aftermath of Chester's killing of a Greek detective. For reasons which are never entirely clear, even to himself, Rydal helps Chester conceal the body and then to escape the mainland under a false passport. Arriving in Crete, Chester and Rydal's oddly symbiotic relationship becomes increasingly toxic under the spectre of blackmail and the blossoming attraction between Rydal and Colette.
Highsmith pits Rydal and Chester in an increasingly bitter and dangerous battle of nerve and will, with suspenseful sequences in the labyrinthine Palace of Knossos and, later, in Paris. Highsmith devotees will appreciate the atmospheric travelogue she provides as a backdrop, in particular a vividly conjured portrait of off-season Crete. As her characters flit between destinations and identities, with Rydal in pursuit of Chester and the police in pursuit of them both, we are treated to a fascinating snapshot of travel in Europe in the mid-20th Century, a period that now seems curiously quaint.
There's nothing quaint about the disturbed psychologies of her three protagonists, however. As together they weave an ever more tangled web of violence and deception, Colette, the seemingly innocent bystander, remains strangely untroubled by the brutish criminality of her husband, or the insidious amorality of young Rydal. While Chester is a more or less old-fashioned con-man, bullishly proud of his ability to evade detection, Rydal is an altogether stranger breed of criminal, a parasitical character who simultaneously appears as both architect and victim of Chester's accumulating transgressions. Highsmith fans will know all too well that as this trio becomes inextricably bound together by mounting guilt, plotting their road to redemption is the last thing she has in mind.