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If there’s one thing I love almost as much as a Patricia Highsmith novel, it’s a film adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel. So I was duly ecstatic to discover writer/director Hossein Amini has made a film of Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January (1964), which is in Australian cinemas Thursday, 19 June (you can watch the preview here). Now, Game of Thrones has taught me to always, ALWAYS read the book first (#TheMountainAndTheViper What. The fuck.), so read The Two Faces of January I did.
The plot is classic Highsmith. The story opens in Athens where Rydal Keener, a young American with a Past, helps another American, Chester MacFarlane, dispose of the body of a police officer who was investigating MacFarlane for fraud. Keener won’t accept any money for his efforts, but organises false passports and flees with MacFarlane and his young wife, Collette, to Crete. It quickly becomes clear that the MacFarlanes need Keener in order to escape detection. However, while Keener isn’t interested in money, he is drawn to Chester and also takes a shining to Collette. And so the fun begins. And by fun, I mean coercion, blackmail, sexual tension and murder.
The language is fabulous—clean and sharp as a knife. Highsmith isn’t one for adjectives or lengthy descriptions. Every sentence, every word, keeps the story moving, and yet it plays in your mind clear as film. She doesn’t give a shit how the morning light looks coming through the window; there are corpses to hide, detectives to evade and schemes to hatch, and somehow this doesn’t come across as shoddy.
Unlike many of Highsmith’s novels, The Two Faces of January is told from both Keener and MacFarlane’s perspectives. In theory getting two ‘hero-criminals’ for the price of one sounds like a sweet deal, but I’m not convinced it quite pays off. It should heighten the suspense, with the reader knowing each man’s move to trap the other, but while it was intriguing to get two different sides of the same story, I found the dual perspective took away from rather than heightened the tension. To be clear, it’s still a Highsmith novel, and still a real nail biter. I suspect she was also trying to illustrate something subtle about the men’s relationship, but writing characters’ feelings for one another is not her thing, especially when those feelings are awfully complex.
The characters also aren’t Highsmith’s strongest. Highsmith’s talent lies in detailed plotting and utterly dark characters that move from murder to cocktails without a change in tone. Next to her psychopaths, Patrick Bateman is cartoonish. The trade off is that she doesn’t write Feelings well. They come across as something she read about in another book and doesn’t quite get. Unfortunately, Keener has a lot of feelings, mostly to do with with his past and it’s all a bit clunky. There’s also the love triangle, which involves about as much chemistry as a computer manual.
So this book is basically terrible? NO! It’s actually pretty awesome. It’s just not The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), Deep Water (1957), The Cry of the Owl (1962) or Strangers on a Train (1950). All of which you should and must read. I’ll be very interested to see what Amini makes of it all.