As any true fan knows, there’s a special darkness to the crime fiction novels of Patricia Highsmith.
Today, more and more, Highsmith seems to be the de rigeur choice for making comparisons to writers who toil in the same edgy corners of the human condition.
Nonetheless, there are many crime fiction readers who remain unfamiliar with Highsmith and the special sauce of her particular brand of gloom. They might know the movies—Alfred Hitchcock’s version of Strangers on A Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley transformed to film with Matt Damon in the title role, or the more recent Carol given a glossy film update with Cate Blanchett (who also plays a role in the film version of “Ripley” with Mat Damon and Jude Law).
But none of the movies capture the intense, tortured darkness of Highsmith’s pages. It’s a distinctive place. Reading her prose, you are drawn into a warped and yet utterly human world. To me, nobody can match Highsmith when it comes to writing about the inner turmoil of troubled men. “Highsmith writes about men like a spider writing about flies,” said a critic in The Observer.
Biographer Joan Schenkar put it this way: “Her great invention was Highsmith Country, the Alternate Earth where all her detail-saturated fictions are set. There, good intentions corrupt naturally; guilt afflicts the innocent; pursuit is everywhere; identities, genders, and genres are undermined; and life is a suffocating trap from which even her most accomplished escape artists cannot find a graceful exit.”
So it is with great trepidation coupled with a keen awareness of Highsmith’s power that I suggest The Circumstantial Man by the late Gary Reilly would fit neatly in Highsmith Country.
The Circumstantial Man is about the divorced and unemployed Pete Larkey. He sets out one morning to go look for work but his car won’t start. He decides to walk to town. His car battery is dead. He stops for a morning beer at the Lemon Tree Lounge. Inside the bar is “the last man on earth” that Pete Larkey wants to see, a guy named Morton. The two have a brief conversation that is part bar jabber and deeply existential.
Morton wonders why Larkey didn’t try wiggling the battery cables. So rather than buying a new battery, Larkey heads back home. On the way, he sees his car driving straight toward him. “It was traveling the speed limit, thirty-five, rolling toward me with every scratch and dent coming into familiar focus … My Ford sailed past with someone else at the wheel. I was dumbstruck. I noted the blue work shirt worn by the driver, a tough-looking character, longish dark hair, staring straight ahead, didn’t appear to see me.”
What happens to Pete Larkey on this day and the one following (the whole story takes place in about thirty hours) starts grim and grows darker. There’s the discovery of a dead body in Larkey’s bathroom, a series of dicey interviews as the police circle around, and a condescending con named Benny. Benny is the kind of needling, cock-sure guy who would show up in the Highsmith novels to egg on the borderline psychopath and who would push him over the edge. Yes, things get bleak for Peter Larkey. At one point, for example, he is forced to dig his own grave. (There’s a moment here that echoed, for me, Ripley Under Ground).
Larkey might be a bit too self-aware to be a perfect Highsmith character. Reilly’s first-person approach takes us up close to the inner workings of Larkey’s ongoing analysis of his increasingly dicey predicament. And Larkey is not only focused on how best to react to various encounters, but he’s also on a search for meaning amid the chaos.
It’s the lesser-known novels of Patricia Highsmith that have intrigued me the most—and are also the push the reader to an uncomfortable place. Highsmith’s protagonists are, at times, truly terrible individuals. Take Vic Van Allen, in Deep Water, who kills two of his wife’s lovers and then kills his wife as well. The psychopath in This Sweet Sickness, William Neumeister, creates a double identity for himself. He’s deluded beyond belief—why, yes, to the point of murder. In The Cry of the Owl, stalker Robert Forester’s obsession with a young woman starts innocently (or close to it) and soon the woman’s former fiancé and Robert’s ex-wife are pulled into a four-way mess that is dripping with dread that leads to a gruesome finish.
Highsmith’s characters dig their own holes, too, but they dig them by the force of an obsession or compulsion or jealousy or yearning that overtakes every other aspect of their humanity. There is a close-quarters confinement to the Highsmith novels, real people trapped by their uncontrollable needs. In Highsmith’s third-person narration is no less intimate, however. Highsmith zooms in to tap the darkest thoughts of her protagonists including, at times, their own self-loathing.
Pete Larkey knows he’s a loser. He’s too self-aware to attack out of the blue, say, like Tom Ripley in that shocking scene out in the canoe. Highsmith said she liked her plots to live in a zone that is “unlikely but possible.”
What will happen to Pete Larkey is unlikely—but entirely possible, too. He’s boxed in by his own decision-making, his personal preferences, and his unchanging nature.
In Deep Water, before the story goes completely off into “unlikely but possible” land, Vic Van Allen states to himself, “There were many times when logic was of no comfort.”
In The Circumstantial Man, when Pete Larkey sees his own car fly by him, he decides to chase it on foot. “It was instinctive, this run, as instinctive as running from danger. The body takes over. The mind is too rattled to make logical choices. The snake brain is activated—something belonging to me is going away.”
It’s that moment when human nature takes over, when the cascading events of the story are set in motion by an essential human emotion that give Highsmith’s stories their juice and power. As Schenkar noted, “Good intentions corrupt naturally.”
Pete Larkey, with all his self-awareness, would understand this concept in a deep, dark way.
Gary Reilly was a writer (among other things) who, when he died in 2011, passed along his serious and genre fiction to his two best friends - Mark Stevens being one of them. The Circumstantial Man has been released, posthumously.
About Mark Stevens:
The son of two librarians, Mark Stevens was raised in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He graduated from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in the suburbs of Boston and from Principia College in Illinois. He worked as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor in Boston and Los Angeles; as a City Hall reporter for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver; as a national field producer for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (PBS) and as an education reporter for The Denver Post.
After journalism, he worked in school public relations before starting his own public relations and strategic communications business. He lives in Denver. Mark and his wife have two grown daughters.
Mark is currently president of Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America and hosts a regular podcast, The Rocky Mountain Writer, for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.
About Gary Reilly:
Gary Reilly was a writer. Simply stated, that was the essence of the man.
Born in Arkansas City, Kansas he spent his early years in Kansas and Colorado in a large Irish-Catholic family–seven brothers and sisters. The family moved to Denver where Gary attended parochial high school, graduating in 1967.
He served two years in the army, including a tour in Vietnam as a military policeman.
After discharge, Gary majored in English at Colorado State University and continued studies at the Denver campus of the University of Colorado.
All along, his overarching ambition was to write fiction. And he did, prodigiously. His first published short story, The Biography Man, was included in the Pushcart Prize Award anthology in 1979.
Later he turned to novels, several based on his army experiences. While he wrote both serious and genre fiction, his greatest invention was the character, Murph, a likable, bohemian Denver cab driver. Starting with The Asphalt Warrior, Gary cranked out eleven Murph novels.
His dedication to writing did not include self-promotion. Instead of seeking agents and publishers, he focused on his craft, writing and rewriting, polishing to perfection. He wrote well over twenty novels before he thought he was ready to make his work public. Unfortunately, he passed away in March, 2011, before he could realize that dream.
Friends and family remember Gary as a fun-loving, generous soul who always had time for other writers, helping them shape their work, getting it ready for print.
Now, through Running Meter Press and Big Earth Publishing in Boulder, Colorado, Gary Reilly’s fiction is finally coming to bookstores in Colorado and across the nation.