The more work by Patricia Highsmith that I read, the more that two things become very clear. The first is that Highsmith had a fascinating mind for suspense, immersing readers in minds shaped by guilt and perverse impulses that they themselves didn’t understand, and using simple premises to play people against each other. The second fact, though, is that Highsmith is, at best, a decent author, one whose prose often failed to elevate the material around it, and sometimes made it feel as though her books aren’t as good as they really can be. (In other words, Highsmith has a bit of what I’m going to call “Philip K. Dick Syndrome” – great ideas, phenomenal complexity, iffy writing.)
Mind you, it’s possible that I’ve just been picking some of her lesser work since knocking out most of the Ripley books. But The Two Faces of January undeniably fits into this realm; there’s a lot of great psychological tension being built into this story of a trio of Americans whose lives get entangled when they meet over the course of a quick body disposal, only to find things get far, far more complicated. A middle-aged swindler; his much younger, attractive wife; and a young man running from a shadowy reputation and a complicated family life – Highsmith brings them to life and plays them beautifully off of each other, constructing their minds so carefully and intricately that everything feels inevitable, horrifyingly unstoppable, and unrelentingly tense as it unfolds. The plotting is simple but effective, much in the way that so many of Highsmith’s works revolve not just around a crime, but around the repercussions and the way they ripple outward for far, far longer than you would think.
And yet, for all of that tension and craft and psychological insight, The Two Faces of January sometimes feels like a bit of a drag, perking up every so often as Highsmith turns the screws again. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why, but what I came back to again and again was that Highsmith, for all of her thoughtfulness, so often lived so deeply in the mental lives of her characters that she forgot to keep things in motion. More than that, the hand-wringing and internal debating is fascinating up to a point, but ultimately, it takes until the book’s halfway point for things to really take off, when Highsmith plays her hidden ace and we see what the book is really about – at least, until a somewhat disappointing, rote ending that feels like a fizzle.
And so, appropriately enough (given the title), we have a strangely divided book. The characters are rich and intriguing, and when the book is at its best, watching Highsmith pit them against each other as they play their horrifying game, it’s wonderfully taut. But when Highsmith dives too deeply into Freudian motivations or internal waffling, it can feel glacial and overwrought, belaboring material that works best when it’s tense and uncertain. It’s well-crafted, intricate, carefully paced…and also overlong, a little flat at times, and fizzles towards the end. On the whole, there’s more good than bad, but there’s definitely a sense that this isn’t her best work.