A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

The novels of Patricia Highsmith, with their focus on the darker side of the human psyche, continue to be a source of fascination for me. First published in 1965, A Suspension of Mercy is another of this author’s domestic noirs – probably not quite in the same league as the marvellous Deep Water or The Cry of the Owl, but still very enjoyable nonetheless.

The novel revolves around Sydney Smith Bartleby, an American writer of crime fiction, and his wife, Alicia, who dabbles in painting. The couple have been married for around eighteen months and live in a quiet neighbourhood near Framlingham in Suffolk – the idea being that a remote countryside cottage would prove a suitable environment for them to engage in their creative pursuits.

While the Bartlebys’ lifestyle may on the surface sound very appealing, it soon becomes clear that the marriage itself is far from ideal. Following a series of rejections from publishers, Sydney is struggling to finalise his latest novel; furthermore, the TV scripts he has developed with his writing partner, Alex Polk-Faraday, have also proved difficult to place. Moreover, Alicia has little faith in her husband’s ability to write successful fiction. This, together with the Bartlebys relatively meagre income – mostly the allowance Alicia receives from her devoted parents – means relations between the couple are somewhat strained.

Sydney, however, has a very active imagination, perhaps too active given the nature of his fantasies. He is continually thinking up scenarios for the demise of both Alex and Alicia, the latter proving to be a particularly rich seam of morbid fabrications.

Alex had died five times at least in Sydney’s imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn’t come back. The police wouldn’t be able to find her. (p. 33)

The couple’s problems are evident to those closest to them, their quarrels having being observed by Alex and his wife, Hittie, during their occasional trips to Suffolk – and by Mrs Lilybanks, the gentle old lady who has just moved in next door.

Now and again, Alicia goes away on her own for a few days, just down to London or Brighton for a breather from Sydney. It is on her return from one of these trips that she wonders if a more extended break might be in order, particularly when she suspects Sydney of deliberately refusing to come to a party just to annoy her.

‘You’d really like to kill me sometimes, wouldn’t you, Syd?’

He stared at her, looking tongue-tied.

She could tell she had touched the truth. ‘You’d like me out of the way sometimes – maybe all the time – just as if I were some character in your plots that you could eliminate.’

He looked at the half-peeled potato in her left hand, the paring knife in her right. ‘Oh, stop being dramatic.’

‘So why don’t we pretend that for a while? I can be gone for weeks. Work as hard as you like—’ Her voice shook a little, to her annoyance. ‘And we’ll see what happens, all right?’

Sydney pressed his lips together, then said, ‘All right.’ (pp. 69–70)

Having floated the plan, Alicia insists that Sydney should not try to contact her while she is away; she will get in touch with him when she wants to, but not before. Somewhat nonchalantly, Sydney agrees.

With Alicia gone, Sydney is free to immerse himself in the mindset of a murderer – possibly for research purposes, possibly for more sinister reasons. Allowing his fantasies to play out to the full, Sydney imagines that he has killed Alicia by pushing her down the stairs on the day of her departure. Moreover, the following morning, Sydney gets up at the crack of dawn, carries a rolled-up carpet (large enough to conceal a body) to his car, drives five miles to a secluded spot of woodland and buries it in a shallow grave. All the while, he behaves as if the carpet contains Alicia’s body, stiff and heavy following a night in the house.

As the weeks go by, many of the couple’s friends begin to express concern at not having heard anything from Alicia – surely she would have called or written to them by now? At first, Sydney implies that his wife has probably gone to stay with her parents, the Sneezums, down in Kent; but it turns out they haven’t heard from her either. (Alicia, as it happens, is holed up near Brighton, happily playing ‘house’ with her new lover, Edward Tilbury, whom she first at met a party some months earlier.)

Mrs Lilybanks too has her doubts, particularly as she was birdwatching from her bedroom window on the morning of the carpet episode, something she hints at when she drops over to see Sydney one evening. In this scene, Mrs L is enquiring about the carpet that used to be in the Bartlebys’ lounge, the very one she’d seen Sydney take to the car the morning after Alicia’s disappearance.

Mrs Lilybanks sat down slowly on the sofa, watching Sydney. ‘I really quite liked the old one you had here. I’d buy that from you,’ she said, forcing a chuckle.

‘But we haven’t got it. I took it–’ he smiled. ‘I took that old carpet out and dumped it. We didn’t want to give it house-room, and I doubt if anyone would’ve given ten shillings for it.’

Mrs Lilybanks heard her heart pounding under her green cardigan. Sydney had turned a little pale, she thought. He looked guilty. He acted guilty. Yet her unwillingness to believe he was guilty was keeping her from labelling him guilty, definitely. Now he was watching her carefully. (p. 116)

Soon the police become involved, and the finger of suspicion falls squarely on Sydney. The Polk-Faradays and Mrs Lilybanks are questioned about the nature of the Bartlebys’ marriage and Alicia’s state of mind at the time of her disappearance. The deeper the police dig, the worse it begins to look for Sydney: reports of the couple’s quarrels emerge, the burial of the carpet – albeit empty – comes to light; and Sydney’s notebook is found, a book which contains all manner of macabre fantasies on how to do away with one’s wife.

That’s probably all I ought to say about the plot; to reveal any more would spoil it, I think…

What I like about this novel and this author’s work in general is the exploration of the characters’ psychology and motives. In her 1954 novel, The Blunderer, Highsmith considers the possibility that any of us might resort to murder if pushed far enough. There is perhaps an element of that here too, although Sydney is not quite the ‘everyman’ we see in The Blunderer. There is something unhinged about Sydney and his overactive imagination, a blurring of the margins between the fantasies of his crime fiction and the mundane realities of everyday life.

While I couldn’t quite rationalise some of Sydney’s behaviour – there are several opportunities when Sydney could put a stop to the game that he and Alicia are playing, and yet he refuses to do so – I ended up going with it, largely under the assumption of there being some troubling mental health issues at play. Alicia ends up getting out of her depth, too. There comes a point when she can no longer face the shame of admitting she has been living in sin for several weeks, knowing that it would ruin her reputation and cost Edward his job.

In summary, this is a very intriguing novel, one that explores the dangers of allowing one’s fantasies to play out in real life. Definitely recommended for fans of this writer’s work.

A Suspension of Mercy is published by Virago; personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

34 thoughts on “A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

  1. heavenali

    This sounds so good. I finished The Blunderer yesterday and so enjoyed it. Highsmith is so good at toying with the reader’s sympathies. Interested to see you mention The Cry of the Owl as being particularly strong as that’s one I bought recently.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly! It’s so clever the way she does that. Before you know it, you’re cheering on a sociopath, egging them on with their various actions. I’m so looking forward to your thoughts on The Blunderer – one of my favourites, I think.

  2. A Life in Books

    I can see why Highsmith’s writing fascinates you, Jacqui. She’s an author whose work I keep meaning to explore but somehow never do. I’ve been sent the short story collection, published to celelebrate her centenary and although I suspect I won’t be reviewing it I’ll certainly be dipping in.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, lovely! The new one from Virago? I have a copy too – it looks beautifully produced. I don’t think I’ve read any of Highsmith’s stories before, so it’ll be interesting to see how they compare to the novels. I can image her being quite striking in the short form!

  3. Cathy746books

    I’ve just finished Strangers on a Train and there do seem to be similar themes going on. I really like Highsmith’s work and plan to read a few of her books this centenary year.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The question of whether any of us might commit murder, if pushed far enough, is something she explores in a number of her books. It’s certainly there in Strangers on a Train – and The Blunderer, too. Obsession and desire are also central to much of her work. A fascinating writer, for sure!

  4. Julé Cunningham

    The only Patricia Highsmith I’ve read is ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and a couple of scattered short stories. Going by your wonderful write-up, I should really try some of her other books, especially if this isn’t one of her best. I’ll be listening to you and Ali for some knowledgeable guidance.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I love Ripley! He’s one of her most complex creations, for sure – but it sounds as if it didn’t necessarily encourage you to read much more of her work. You might want to take a look at Carol / The Price of Salt, which is somewhat different in style and tone to her other books. The central themes of obsession and desire are still there, albeit in a very different context. I think it’s one of her most interesting and impressive books.

      1. Julé Cunningham

        I did really like Ripley, sorry for being as clear as mud! But I’ve just never picked any more/ Thank you for the suggestions, I’ll definitely take a look at those and the two you feel are even stronger than this one.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fair enough! I do think the plot stretches the bounds of credibility at some points: Why doesn’t Sydney put at stop to it all? Why doesn’t Alicia declare that’s she’s still alive after her disappearance? Nevertheless, I was happy to go with it, partly because I like the way PH toys with her characters, pushing these situations to the limit.

  5. Jane

    Gosh, I was sold at Sydney and Alicia in 1965! I haven’t read any of her books yet but am familiar with the films Strangers on a Train and of course, Carol. I think I’m going to have to put some serious effort in!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I adore this milieu/era too, and Highsmith captures it so brilliantly. If you like the sound of this, you’ll love Deep Water. It’s probably the best of her domestic noirs, with plenty of outrageous behaviour thrown in for good measure.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I do find her novels very compelling and entertaining in a psychological sense. They’re not as twisted as some of Shirley Jackson’s fiction (which I also love), but in a way they’re more frightening for being grounded in reality. One can imagine elements of her stories playing out in real life, especially when circumstances conspire to push her characters over the edge…

  6. buriedinprint

    I’ve only read a couple of her Ripley novels and watched the film “Carol”, but I’m always interested to read more about her and her books. Over the holidays, updating my somewhat-neglected-but-not-abandoned Virago Modern Classics project, I suddenly realized just how MANY of her books they’ve republished in recent years: and what a striking cover this one has, too, apparently. Do you have others in the wings?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do have another couple in this VMC livery. Plus, there are some lovely reissues coming from Vintage, beautifully produced with smart new covers. I may well have to indulge…

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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s interesting. I’ve seen a few people saying that they find her stories a lot weaker than the novels. And yet, I would have imagined of her as someone with the potential to be very effective in the short form. Virago have just sent me a whacking great big doorstopper of selected stories, so I think I shall have to approach it with muted expectations!

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  9. Radz Pandit

    I love Patricia Highsmith! I have this one as well as The Blunderer but it’s the latter that’s calling out to me more. The non-Ripley books I have read so far and loved are Deep Water, Cry of the Owl, This Sweet Sickness and Edith’s Diary.


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