John’s review of The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

HighsmithThe Two Faces of January

By Patricia Highsmith


I have previously written a note for this group about Patricia Highsmith with a focus on ‘The Boy Who Followed Ripley’. There is much in common to be found in the ‘Two Faces of January’. It is well-known that Highsmith likes her heroes to be morally ambiguous but to retain a sense of what is right and decent which emerges from a moral maelstrom. She has also drunk deeply at the well of psycho-analysis and likes to explore male relationships with similar ambiguity. Perhaps coming from a jaundiced lesbian viewpoint, women are often portrayed as ciphers, either often compliant observers or as pretty plot devices which is the case here.

All these influences are at work in this thriller which is currently present in adaptation in local cinemas. The title unambiguously refers to the time of year as well as the warring aspects of two similar men. One is a morally bankrupt and potentially dangerous individual who is never-the-less capable of honourable action in conclusion. The other is a young man with a particular profile that includes oedipal problems linked to a related issue of his evolving sexuality and who is currently living in an undecided undirected condition leading a life of following sheer chance. It is this indecision that leads to the initiation and partial maintenance of actions that would otherwise be much less credible.

An American couple – conman Chester MacFarland and his glamorous wife Colette – are on the run (rather luxuriously) apparently vacationing in Europe. They arrive in Greece in a well-sketched passage through the Corinth canal on the way to Athens.

There, they encounter the footloose Rydal Keener, who, on the basis of Chester’s similarity to his deceased father, becomes involved in what is treated as an ‘incidental’ murder (or, at least accidental killing).

Highsmith uses her own European travels for background colour with occasional classical mythological overtones such as the minotaur and labyrinth to create a dance of accident and incident from Athens to Crete and back including a pivotal death (sacrifice (?) in the deserted palace of Knossos. This event welds the fate of the two men into a unity which leads to a surprising conclusion in France.

Unlike some of the Ripley series, I was not always convinced by the purported motivation and actions of the characters. A great deal depends on the character of Rydal and whether the reader finds it acceptable or not. I will be interested to see how this interaction is presented in the movie based on the novel and currently in local cinemas.


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