Originally published in 1975.
Nowhere is Patricia Highsmith’s affinity for animals more apparent than in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, for here she transfers the murderous thoughts and rages most associated with humans onto the animals themselves.
You will meet, for example, in “In the Dead of Truffle Season,” a truffle-hunting pig who tries to whet his own appetite for a while; or Jumbo in “Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance,” a lonely, old circus elephant who decides she’s had enough of show business and cruel trainers for one lifetime. In this satirical reprise of Kafka, cats, dogs, and breeding rodents are no longer ordinary beings in the happy home, but actually have the power to destroy the world in which we live.
The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder has been on my radar for some months as one of the more unusual applications of the inverted mystery form. It is a collection of short stories by Patricia Highsmith each told about a different animal (or sometimes set of animals) that will be responsible for hurting or killing humans. I describe it that was because while the book title contains the word murder, many of the stories might well be considered Beastly Manslaughter.
It is an interesting concept and, as you might expect, the results are a rich source of trigger warnings – particularly for those who have a strong sensitivity to animal cruelty. This is a common theme running throughout the stories and means that the stories can sometimes make for pretty uncomfortable reading. Which is, of course, Highsmith’s intention.
What Highsmith is essentially doing is trying to place the reader into the mind of an animal and to encourage them to experience things from their perspective. Sometimes that means inhabiting the mind of a dog or a cat, other times more exotic perspectives like a rat or cockroach. It is surprising how effectively she is able to do this though there are a couple of stories in the collection that feel far more focused on the humans than their animals such as The Bravest Rat in Venice and Hamsters vs. Websters. Unsurprisingly these were the stories I found to be least interesting.
My favorites, though I feel a bit silly employing that word, were those that I felt either stuck very strongly to the murderous brief – such as There I Was, Stuck With Busby and Ming’s Biggest Prey – or that most successfully captured the perspective of an animal such as Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance.
Unfortunately I do have to reiterate though that while I think Highsmith was successful in what she was trying to do, I cannot say I particularly enjoyed the experience of reading it. The collection is an interesting and often quite provocative one, making for an interesting literary experiment but I cannot imagine myself returning to it.
Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance
This is the story of an elephant that was taken from the wild in Africa to be part of a zoo. Highsmith describes a sense of loss about the freedom that the elephant had enjoyed, though also describes some new joys. The issue is that the elephant’s happiness is dependent on the way they are treated and when her kind zookeeper companion retires she finds that his replacement is not as understanding.
Though this is a really short story, I think it is very effective. Highsmith avoids sentimentality and so rather than piling misfortunes upon the elephant, instead encourages us to empathize with it by making the things it feels entirely relatable. Just like Chorus Girl, most of us long for freedom, friendship and to be treated with respect. Her response when she doesn’t get those things is completely understandable. The results are inevitably tragic and upsetting but also very effective.
My only complaint would be that while this story is excellent, it perhaps is an odd choice to start this collection with as it doesn’t really match premise of the collection’s title.
Djemal is a camel who for the past year has lived with his selfish and lazy master Mahmet, giving rides to tourists. Mahmet dreams of owning his own little house and hopes to be able to do this by winning a seven-day camel race across the desert. In the process however he pushes Djemal to breaking point…
This story was closer to my expectations of what this collection would offer, not only presenting us with human cruelty but giving it deadly consequences. The moment of revenge itself is described pretty well emotionally, helping us understand what Djemal is feeling, but not particularly detailed in terms of what is actually taking place. Still, I appreciate the choice of animal and think Highsmith did a good job of describing its thoughts and experiences of the race.
There I Was, Stuck With Busby
The Baron is an aging dog – perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old – who is left living with a man named Busby after the death of his master. He has been trying to appeal to a woman named Marion who he likes much more in the hopes that she will take him to live in her apartment above a butcher’s shop. It is not just that she gives him cubes of raw steak when he visits, it reflects that she is kinder and sweeter with him, making him feel loved.
This story is one of the most successful in the collection, both as a tale and in terms of fitting the collection’s overall brief. Where Djemal arguably commits manslaughter in the previous tale, The Baron will resort to murder in the hope of achieving its aim. Highsmith remarkably makes this feel quite credible, utilizing a method that a dog really might conceivably employ. The reader will have little difficulty in spotting how this may be managed but I give Highsmith a great deal of credit for being able to setup up that situation in the first place and the sequence in which it takes place is written very effectively.
Ming’s Biggest Prey
Ming, a cat, encounters his mistress’ new romantic partner during an outing and the pair take an instant dislike to each other. As with the last story we are in more familiar animal territory and Highsmith does a fine job imagining the personality of a cat. One aspect I like about this story is that while we experience the cat’s perspectives of the events and learn what he thinks, we can also observe and reflect on things that the cat is not aware of using the information it observes.
It’s a solid story and, once again, Highsmith does a good job of imagining how a cat might feasibly commit a murder. I did like the way Highsmith concludes the story.
In the Dead of Truffle Season
In this story Samson, an enormous white pig, is taken on a truffle hunt by his owner and becomes increasingly resentful of the way he is treated. In particular, his realization that while he finds delicious truffles for his owner he never gets to taste them – instead he is given a bit of cheese, a trade that Samson feels is quite unfair.
The story maintains the higher standard of the last few and I found its presentation of the thoughts of a pig to be really interesting. Samson is probably the least sympathetic animal we have seen up until this point, though the sources of his resentment (the truffles and some recent operations that have been performed on him) are understandable enough. That makes some aspects of the ending a little unsatisfying but overall I still felt it was very solid reading.
The Bravest Rat in Venice
This story tracks a rat’s interactions with the two boys who will be responsible for it sustaining some heavy and pretty horrific injuries. Highsmith captures the casual cruelty of children quite well here but eventually these will be returned to their family in one of the most horrific ways imaginable.
Twisted and truly hard to stomach in places, I struggle with any story that sees a character take their revenge against a third party that is innocent of the original crime. As effective as the story can be in places, this is hard to read…
A young couple decide that they will try and commit murder by staging an accident involving an animal. What they fail to recognize is that the animal will have a mind of its own.
I liked this story quite a bit, in part because we are in the more conventional waters of murderous humans. The issue from the point of view of this collection though is that this story, like its predecessor, spends much more time with those humans than it does with the animal who is meant to be the protagonist. The story is clever though and has a strong resolution but animal lovers may find the fate of an animal third party upsetting.
The Day of Reckoning
This thoroughly human story concerns the automation of a battery chicken farm and the relationships between a group of humans connected with it. The animals in this story have no agency at all and while the story presents some discussion of battery farming as a whole, their voices and experiences are completely absent making this feel a little out of place in the context of the collection.
The story is really dark and decidedly twisted and upsetting in spots. While undoubtedly effective, it was perhaps too much for this reader.
Notes from a Respectable Cockroach
This story presents a cockroach’s view of the activities of humans staying in a hotel. It’s incredibly short, not at all criminous and while effective at what it tries to do, offers little to discuss.
Eddie and the Monkey Robberies
Eddie is a young Capuchin who has been taught how to open doors by a group of thieves. This story concerns the way he is treated by a member of the group and how he comes to be involved in the death of that person. Once again this story feels tilted towards the human characters rather than the animal and while effective enough, didn’t engage me as much as some of the earliest stories in the collection.
Hamsters vs. Websters
Of all of the stories in the collection, Hamsters vs. Websters is possibly the oddest. This concerns some hamsters who are living outside in a garden and whose habitat is disturbed by some bulldozing and construction. Once again this story suffers a little from not feeling like it really fulfilled the brief of the collection as they, like the chickens a few stories ago, have little agency in the story and act out of instinct.
Harry: A Ferret
Harry is a ferret who has developed a taste for blood who is bought by Roland, a fifteen year old boy who is delighted by this. He is even more excited when the ferret bites old Antoine, even though it means he is forced to keep it outside. This story follows what happens after this incident and the relationship between the boy and his savage pet.
A solid story, even though it is once more entirely from the human’s perspective. I did appreciate though the somewhat different view it presents by looking at the relationship not of an animal and a human antagonist but rather a human admirer.
This final story concerns a goat who is kept tethered at an amusement park. This is one of the shorter stories in the collection but it does return us to an animal’s perspective of events which is welcome. Highsmith does a good job of communicating the goat’s thoughts and feelings and while slight in comparison to some of the meatier stories early in the collection, it does end things on a relative strong note.
The Verdict: This collection of short stories is certainly original and provocative but often makes for difficult reading with triggers abounding. Definitely not for everyone!