Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book 30 – A Dog’s Ransom

Patricia Highsmith

Synopsis from the Wikipedia:

One day, publishing house executive Ed Reynolds finds a disturbing ransom note in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife: "Dear sir: I have your dog, Lisa. She is well and happy... I gather she is important to you? We'll see."

How can anyone resist this clever premise that begins with the meaninglessly cruel act of dognapping?

The novel starts off in a straightforward manner then gradually escalates to nightmarish proportions though Highsmith maintains a level of realism throughout, never stooping to gut-wrenching melodrama (like Strangers On a Train did at times). Since I’m feeling a little lazy, I’ll let this Bros Judd review summarize A Dog’s Ransom in a nutshell:

Familiar to most readers via her Ripley books and Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith specialized in creepy portraits of sociopaths as their paths crossed and destroyed the lives of ordinary folk. This less well known little gem starts out innocently enough with a wealthy Manhattan couple and their missing dog, but gets ugly fast as the dognapper proves to be obsessed with teaching them a lesson and the young cop investigating the case turns out to be equally obsessed with protecting the couple and imposing justice.

With the kooks on both sides of the law this time there's an even more claustrophobic effect, as she shows just how frightening the people around us may be and how dangerous everyday life is, but it's all offset by a dark sense of humor. It's not as good as her best, but it's worth seeking out.

If you don’t mind spoilers, then read on.

It’s a great summary, but I disagree that A Dog’s Ransom is not as good as her best work. I certainly thought this was better than Strangers On a Train, mainly because it’s in her subsequent novels where the motivations of her characters maintain believability, even after they’ve become unhinged and commit heinous crimes. Clarence is a young cop who volunteers to help Ed  and Greta Reynolds find their dog, simply because no one else in the department gives a rat’s ass. He is obviously idealistic and naive, but nevertheless a rarity in the force where corruption runs rampant, even in the lowliest ranks.

But poor, misguided Clarence gets too emotionally involved with the Reynolds, makes a fatal mistake in his investigation and ends up paying for it dearly. You soon realize how weak a person Clarence is (another fictional example warning parents to never spoil your only son), and that he is not that much different from Kenneth the dognapper.  Both characters are pathetic yet still sympathetic.  Highsmith also provides a dark backdrop of a morally indifferent and fragmented New York City that swallows up innocents whole, but again, she never over-dramatizes anything.

As I said about A Suspension of Mercy:

I really appreciated how Highsmith set up a situation where you understand the characters underlying psychology and background. Whatever issues that lurk in their veneer of normalcy creates the required conflict to get the plot moving. And as the characters dig themselves into a crazier and self-destructive situation, you may think what an idiot or nutcase this person is, but at the same time, you totally see where they’re coming from. The choices they make, however irrational, makes sense according to their motive. This makes for an intelligent and satisfying suspense novel that also succeeds in being genuinely tragic.

A Dog’s Ransom is no exception.

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