The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

Regular readers may be aware of my fondness for Patricia Highsmith and her interest in the psychology of domestic noir. Her 1957 novel, Deep Water, remains one of my favourites, along with the Ripley series of course. The Blunderer (published in 1954) sees Highsmith in familiar territory, exploring themes of guilt, obsession and the possibility that an ordinary, everyday man might resort to murder if pushed far enough. It’s an intriguing novel, one that will suit lovers of dark, well-crafted fiction with a psychological edge.

The story opens with a swift yet brutal murder, on the face of it a seemingly perfect crime. The perpetrator is Melchior Kimmel, a cuckolded husband who murders his wife on the sly while the latter is on a bus ride from Newark to Albany. To establish a suitable alibi for the night in question, Kimmel buys a ticket at his local cinema, seeks out an acquaintance in the audience who will recall his presence, and then slips out of a side door unnoticed. All that remains is for Kimmel to drive in the direction of Albany to intercept the bus during a rest stop. Once there, he lures his wife, Helen, away from the other passengers and kills her, dumping her body by the highway before returning to Newark.

When the crime is reported in the newspapers, it catches the eye of Walter Stackhouse, a frazzled, thirty-year-old lawyer whose life is being made a misery by his wife, Clara, a successful yet neurotic real estate agent. Clara dislikes pretty much all of Walter’s friends whom she has systematically driven away with her lack or tolerance and unreasonable behaviour. In fact, the situation has got to the point where Walter is no longer invited or expected to be able to go out with the boys, such is Clara’s hold over him. While Walter still finds Clara physically attractive, he is becoming increasingly fed up with her behaviour, especially once she resorts to tantrums or flare-ups. So, when Walter meets Ellie, a generous and attractive young woman who is sympathetic to his situation, it’s not long before the two of them embark on an affair.

While Walter can only fantasise about killing his wife, Kimmel has committed the deed in reality – a point that Walter successfully guesses when he sees the article about Mrs Kimmel in the papers. Thus begins a chain of fateful events as our protagonist becomes increasingly obsessed with Kimmel and his potential involvement in Helen’s murder. The more Walter thinks about it, the more convinced he is of Kimmel’s guilt – to the extent that he decides to take a trip to Kimmel’s bookstore in Newark to have a look at the man himself. In essence, Walter wonders whether he might be able to tell if Kimmel is a murderer just by observing him.

Having found the store, Walter orders a book from Kimmel as a ruse for his visit, but he also makes the mistake of mentioning Helen’s death, a point that immediately puts Kimmel on his guard…

Walter looked at the broad, plump back of Kimmel’s right hand. The light from over the desk fell on it, and Walter could see a spattering of freckles and no hair at all. Suddenly Walter felt sure that Kimmel knew he had come to the shop only to look at him, to assuage some sordid curiosity. Kimmel knew now that he lived in Long Island. Kimmel was standing very close to him. A sudden fear came over Walter that Kimmel might lift his thick slab of a hand and knock his head off his neck. (pp. 72–73)

Then, in a dramatic twist of fate, Walter’s wife, Clara, takes a night-time bus trip to Harrisburg to visit her dying mother. Still obsessed with the details of Helen Kimmel’s murder, Walter stupidly follows the bus in his car, just as he supposes Kimmel would have done on the night of his wife’s murder. However, when Walter tries to find his wife at the rest stop, Clara herself is nowhere to be seen, so he drives home and goes to see his lover, Ellie.

Events take a turn for the worse the next morning when Clara’s body is found at the bottom of a cliff near the rest stop in question. At first, the death is thought to be suicide, a conclusion that fits with Clara’s rather neurotic temperament and medical history. However, once the zealous detective Corby appears on the scene, things begin to look a lot more uncomfortable for Walter, especially once his interest in the Kimmel case comes to light.

In a complex game of cat-and-mouse, Corby begins to play Walter and Kimmel off against one another, primarily in the belief that at least one of them will crack under pressure. Kimmel in particular stands firm; nevertheless, he remains furious with Walter for his reckless behaviour. In effect, Walter’s blundering actions and insatiable curiosity about Helen’s murder have effectively led the police straight to Kimmel’s door. Without the titular ‘blunderer’, Kimmel might well have been home free.

As the suspicions surrounding Clara’s death increase, Walter becomes increasingly isolated as his behaviour, and ultimately his innocence, are called into question – not only by the police but by his closest friends too. Unsurprisingly, the situation intensifies, especially once Walter’s obsession with Kimmel is made public. Even though Walter didn’t actually kill Clara, there comes a point when he virtually imagines having done it, so exhausted is he by Corby’s relentless questioning.

Walter got into his car and headed for Lennert. He should have a brandy, he thought. He felt jumpy, on guard, against what he didn’t know. He felt guilty, as if he had killed her, and his tired mind traced back to the moments of waiting around the bus. He saw himself walking with Clara by some thick trees at the side of the road. Walter moved his head from side to side, involuntarily, as if he were dodging something. It hadn’t happened. He was positive. But just then the road began to wobble before his eyes, and he gripped the wheel hard. Lights skidded and blurred on the black road. Then he realized that it was raining. (p. 104)

The Blunderer is a very effective noir – intriguing, well-paced and compelling. Once again, Highsmith demonstrates her ability to explore the psychological motives and behaviours of a seemingly ordinary protagonist, an everyman trapped in toxic marriage. In this instance, she is particularly strong on exploring the point at which idle curiosity tips over into an unhealthy obsession, signalling the point of no return. There is an inherent dichotomy in the central protagonist’s personality, which is both fascinating and believable; even though Walter knows something is a truly dangerous idea, he goes ahead and does it anyway, irrespective of the consequences. In some respects, this mirrors the push-pull nature of Walter’s relationship with Clara, the dynamic between attraction and repulsion that has characterised their situation in life.

A strange sensation ran through him at the touch of her fingers, a start of pleasure, of hatred, of a kind of hopeless tenderness that Walter crushed as soon as his mind recognized it. He had a sudden desire to embrace her hard at this last minute, then to fling her away from him. (p. 96)

This is a great choice for fans of dark, psychological fiction, particularly Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl or Strangers on a Train. Those of you familiar with the latter may find certain similarities between the two novels, especially in terms of the exploration of obsession, guilt and fate, not to mention the ongoing fascination with murder.

The Blunderer is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

22 thoughts on “The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There are similarities, for sure. It’s another of her early novels in which the themes of obsession, fate and doppelgangers are very much to the fore.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m kind of surprised that it isn’t better known as the plot is so compelling. You have to suspend disbelief somewhat, especially around the incident involving Clara (which is never fully resolved). Nevertheless, it’s a very gripping read – a proper page-tuner, so to speak!

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    The plot of this one sounds great. I have not read Strangers on a Train but I have seen the film and was reminded of that story when reading your review. I also like the title of this book. Based upon your plot description I think that it is witty and fits perfectly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s the perfect title, summing up Kimmel’s view of Walter to a T. If you’re new to Highsmith, this might make a suitable entry point. Maybe not quite her best novel, but certainly up there in my top flight.

      Reply
  2. Radz Pandit

    I love Patricia Highsmith and it’s been a while since the last one i read, which was Edith’s Diary- an excellent novel, one I would highly recommend.

    I do have The Blunderer, so you review is a timely reminder to bump it up the pile.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t she wonderful? So perceptive when it comes to the psychology of her charterers – she really seems to understand how fine the line is between persistent curiosity and unhealthy obsession. Give me Highsmith over Gillian Flynn and her contemporaries any day of the week.

      I’m glad you would recommend Edith’s Diary as it’s a novel I’ve looked at a couple of times in the past without ever actually buying. Backlisted will be featuring it on their next podcast, so it’ll be very interesting to hear what they have to say!

      Reply
  3. madamebibilophile

    This sounds really tense! As I was reading your review I was thinking it sounded reminiscent of Strangers on a Train, and you saying it is similar in themes makes it a very tempting read as I really enjoyed SOAT. She’s so good at what she does, isn’t she?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s brilliant! I was just saying to Radhika how good she is on the psychology of obsession – how easy it is for a seemingly ordinary individual to cross the line in certain circumstances, particularly when put under extreme pressure. She’s not dissimilar to Simenon in that respect, although the latter is possibly more brutal when it comes to punishing his protagonists. I think you’d like this, especially since you enjoyed Strangers on a Train.

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    How fascinating! I’ve not read much of Highsmith, and certainly not recently, but this sounds fab. I love a tangled noir and your descriptions reminded me a bit of the complexity of The Deadly Percheron which I read a while back. I’ll look out for this!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, yes. I remember that reference to The Deadly Percheron on account of the horse. (The Wine Society stock a range of Percheron wines from South Africa, all of them branded with appropriate artwork on the labels!)

      This would be a great reintroduction to Highsmith if you ever fancy reading her again. I think she understands the darker sides of humanity very well, the obsessions and desires that can drive us to destruction. She’s not a million miles away from Simenon in that respect.

      Reply
  5. realthog

    I hadn’t heard of this particular novel by Highsmith, of whose work I’m woefully ignorant. Sounds like a definite must-read. But dare I break my library embargo . . .?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’d say go for it whenever you feel the urge. It’s right up your street. My one caveat would be that you probably need to suspend disbelief at a couple of points in the narrative, particularly in relation to the incident involving Clara. There are one or two elements of the plot that are left unresolved, aspects that may cause some readers to question the credibility of certain developments. Then again, that didn’t seem to hinder Raymond Chandler when he wrote The Big Sleep — a novel that also contains an unresolved murder or narrative glitch, if I recall correctly? If you’re willing to put aside any issues with coincidences then The Blunderer is a great read – very compelling indeed!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Highsmith’s Ripley novels are much better than the Minghella film might suggest. Nevertheless, if you’d like to try a different Highsmith, then The Blunderer would be a pretty good bet. It taps into some of her favourite themes, namely chance, obsession/fascination and fate.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I didn’t! Will look it up – thanks. It did strike me as being just the type of story that would work well on the screen, given the right director and creative team.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome. It certainly has the same kind of vibe. Maybe not surprising given that it was published 3 or 4 years after Strangers. I think you’d like it.

      Reply

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