Conman Chester MacFarland is enjoying a European vacation with his much younger beautiful wife, Colette, when his financial scams in the States catch up with him in Greece. When a Greek police officer – on behalf of the US authorities – approaches him in his Athens hotel with some awkward questions about his identity, Chester panics and kills the man in his suite bathroom. The murder may or may not have been accidental, but Chester does not intend to turn himself in and decides to hide the body in a cupboard down the hall and make a quick escape from the city.
As he is disposing of the body, Rydal Keener, a fellow American comes upon the unedifying scene. Rydal has been travelling around Europe for the past few years, spending an inheritance from his grandmother and he has been living in Athens for several months. He had already spotted the glamourous MacFarlands around town, drawn in by Colette’s beauty and by Chester’s striking resemblance to his late father. In an inexplicable split-second decision, he offers to help Chester dispose of the body and procure a fake passport, thus inextricably tying his fate to that of the absconding couple – one of those chance moments that Highsmith does so well.
Rydal, seeing a chance to get closer to Colette, sets a plan in motion, which will see the trio head to Crete while they wait for their fake documents. His knowledge of the Greek language makes him invaluable to the American couple, but Chester’s drinking and the obvious attraction between Rydal and his wife create tensions and paranoia which threaten derail all their plans. As the issues between the three come to a head at the Knossos (the political centre of Minion civilisation and mythical palace of the Minotaur), there ensues a game of cat and mouse across Europe, which is sure to ruin them all.
I detest him. I think I am fascinated by that. I have no desire to kill him, have never wanted to kill anyone. But I will say I would like to see him fall. Just fall, in every sense of the word.
Like Highsmith’s best work, The Two Faces of January is a story of deception and false identity. Rydal and Chester are two sides of the coin of reinvention, both trying to escape incidents in their past. In Chester’s case, it is his financial improprieties and Rydal is hiding his own murky indiscretions, which have been stirred up by Chester’s resemblance to his father. The pair are rivals and kindred spirits, playing out a father-son dynamic that sees them both rely on each other for an alibi and both as capable of ruining the other to save their own skin.
You can’t really go wrong with Highsmith and on the surface, The Two Faces of January has a lot going for it. The European settings are vivid and impressively drawn; the classical allusions are subtle but effective and as with all her novels, the psychology of the characters is intriguing. However, I did not find this to be as strong as the other novels of Highsmith’s I’ve read. The chase across Europe gets repetitive, with endless hotel check-ins and confrontations in lobbies and by the time the pair make it to Paris, I was hard pressed to work out what either character was planning to do to bring the situation to a head. The ending, when it comes, is a bit of a let-down, relying as it does on a chance drunken encounter rather than on the actions of either protagonist.
My main reason for reading this one was the fact that my Cretan holiday hangover is still lingering and I did enjoy reading about the various places on the island where I had recently been, but as a thriller, I didn’t think this was up to Highsmith’s usual thrilling standards.
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