Highsmith spent some time in Mexico trying to write whilst living cheaply. This is her only novel that takes place there. Dorothy Hughes did not think highly of this effort, nor that Highsmith had much success in capturing the country and its people (something Hughes managed with much more insight and finesse). Highsmith had no high opinion of the novel, either — her attempt to write a traditional ‘whodunit’ failed:, resulting in ‘the one really dull book I have written’ (Plotting andWriting Suspense Fiction ).
Highsmith has a hard time working up interest in hiding clues and providing red herrings. If you can’t figure out almost at once who the real killer is I’d be surprised. Her protagonists are seldom ‘likeable’ but they’re usually more interesting than the cold and self-possessed artist Theo Schiebelhut, a rich German who lives a meditative life of comfort with multiple houses in Mexico. He returns from a painting trip (for a novel about artists, there is almost no interest in art itself and only occasional, intriguing references to the work of the artists) to discover that his lover Leila has been brutally killed and disfigured in a misogynous rage.
His friend Ramon Otero, who is also Leila’s lover is the first suspect. In contrast to the cold, rational, existential Theo, Ramon is highly emotional, Catholic and prone to exaggerated demonstrations of passion — which seems to be Highsmith’s impression of Mexicans as a whole. Her racism is cringingly on display here, even referring to a suspect as ‘disappearing’ into the sea of apparently identical Mexican faces.
The recognisable part of the story that interests her is the debates about philosophy between Theo and Ramon, the former mystified (ahem) about the latter. Theo (and presumably his author in some respects) is drawn by the passion of his faith but completely nonplussed by it, too. Ramon’s free-floating guilt drives him to confess to the murder, but even the police don’t take it seriously for long. Theo believes rational and above all that — except when he gives in to morbid musings like wondering why his brilliance could be overlooked:
He wondered if it happened to other people as often as it happened to him. More insignificant-looking men than him were listened to, no matter how stupid their remarks were.
Poor Theo: discovering in 1959 the triumph of mediocre men. Despite her success, Highsmith always felt as if she lacked proper acknowledgement. Perhaps it was just the ambivalent dis/approval of her mother that she could never get beyond.
You can glimpse the beauty of Mexico working on her despite her efforts to contain it: The melancholy yet hopeful signs at the graveyard, the subterranean cache of mummies, the natural glory of Acapulco away from the tourist glut. Made me long to go back — and of course there’s the fact that Leonora Carrington’s house is being turned into a museum.