Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Be sure to check the newspaper

Among the now quaint touches in the mid-century work of writer Patricia Highsmith is that there are almost always newspaper reports of the crimes or disappearances involved in the story, and Highsmith uses these articles to keep both characters and readers up to speed on plot developments.

For example, take Those Who Walk Away, an unremembered but very representative work. In the novel, two classic Highsmith characters oppose each other: the protagonist, a man in his late 20s who is somewhat at loose ends, and the antagonist, a middle-aged, well-to-do American who is both a busybody and a bully. Early in the book, the middle-aged man, Edward Coleman, attempts to murder the protagonist, not once but twice, and the second time the protagonist lets him think he's gotten away with it. Not quite knowing what to do next, the protagonist, Ray Garrett, leaves his luggage and passport at the Venitian hotel he's staying in (that's another hallmark of classic Highsmith, Americans in swanky European locations; it's a wonder more of her books weren't turned into films on the order of "Charade") and hides out in a rooming house under an assumed name. The hotel notices after a few days that he's vanished and reports it to the American embassy, and like clockwork, there's a notice in the newspaper.

"Perhaps you should speak to the police, Edward," Inez said.

"Wait till I see the paper. I'll speak with them if I have to."

The paper and [breakfast] arrived.

Ray Garret's picture, probably his passport picture, was one-column wide on the front page, and the item below it some two inches long. It stated that Rayburn Cook Garrett, 27, American, had not returned to his room at the Pension Seguso, 779 Zattere, since last Thursday evening, November 11th. His passport and his personal effects were still in his room. Would anyone who had seen him that evening or since come forward...

A chapter or two later in the book, the disappeared man picks up the next day's newspaper:

Ray bought a Gazzetino, scanned the first page before tucking it under his arm, and was relieved to see there was nothing about him, at least not on the front page.

The author uses this trope in many books. Sometimes the protagonist has been accused of a crime, or questioned by the police in someone else's disappearance; in this case it's the protagonist himself who has disappeared, but it's still a news story.

It struck me as I was reading today how quaint this will seem to future readers, who will have no idea of the significance that the story appeared on "the front page" or not, and how many "inches" the story ran. But it's not just the anachronistic nature of the newspaper trope that struck me, because it's just as easy for an author today to say that a character subscribes to the tweet feed of a news organization and gets little updates on his phone. What struck me is the need for the story to have this whole external witness -- a news organization reporting the movements of characters, sometimes of the police. It's sort of a way to tell the reader that the characters have a certain level of substance, that they're capable of doing something that floats for a moment to the "front page" of the news, even though they are, for Highsmith's own purposes, deliberately obscure and anonymous people.

A little later in the book Highsmith introduces another familiar trope: a private detective, hired by the missing man's father, comes on the scene to investigate -- just as in The Talented Mr. Ripley. In fact, the farther I read in Those Who Walk Away, the more it seems like a by-the-numbers effort by Highsmith, a work consisting of no elements not found in her previous works, with the familiar elements re-arranged somewhat. Still, I like reading it. It's certainly better than some of her later efforts, such as People Who Knock On the Door, which is frankly dull.

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