The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder by Patricia Highsmith

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.

Story-by-Story Thoughts

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’s Revenge

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…

Engine Horse

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.

Goat Ride

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!

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Originally Published 1950

The world of Patricia Highsmith has always been filled with ordinary people, all of whom are capable of very ordinary crimes. This theme was present from the beginning, when her debut, Strangers on a Train, galvanized the reading public. Here we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. “Some people are better off dead,” Bruno remarks, “like your wife and my father, for instance.” As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world, where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.

Most of the time on this blog I write from the perspective of someone who is encountering a story for the first time. In those few instances where I have revisited a book, I have done so many years after reading it for the first time which helps me to approach it fresh.

Strangers on a Train is a very different case. It is a book I have read three times in the space of four years having previously seen the Hitchcock film adaptation a number of times. It is possible that this review may read a little differently than many of my others as a result.

Each time I have read this book I have done so from a slightly different perspective. The first time I recall looking for the differences between the movie and its source material. The second, I was looking at in a more structural sense, looking to understand Highsmith’s themes and perspective on her characters. What motivated this third look at the book, other than the desire to simply enjoy it once again, was to see whether I would consider it to be an inverted mystery or if it is something else.

Before I start to discuss that question and the book’s themes, I need to describe what it is about. The book concerns a meeting on a train between two men and the way that meeting affects their lives. One, Guy Haines, is a celebrated architect trapped in a marriage to his unfaithful wife Miriam while the other, Charles Bruno, is a playboy who is doted on by his mother and feels deeply resentful of his stepfather for controlling his allowance.

During the journey Bruno proposes that the pair exchange murders, each committing a crime to which they have no obvious personal tie. While Guy does not really take Bruno seriously, a while afterwards he receives letters from Bruno reminding him of this plan. When Miriam is murdered he does not go to the police and tells himself that it is coincidence. Some weeks pass and then Bruno starts to contact him, pressuring him to fulfil his end of the bargain.

If you have seen the famous movie version of this story be aware that the stories diverge after this point leading to decidedly different conclusions and developing somewhat different themes. What remains constant is the toxic relationship between Guy and Bruno which in the book has hints of homoeroticism (the film is far more overt) and a murder plot that, were it not for Bruno’s obsessive behavior towards Guy, would be almost certain to work.

We see the danger early in the novel, even when Guy is oblivious to it, because we can see that Bruno feels bound to Guy and that once that murder is committed that bond becomes even the stronger. From that moment Guy is the only person who can really understand Bruno and the guilt that eats away at him only leads to him indulging more heavily in his self-destructive vices.

Raymond Chandler apparently considered this novel to be ‘a silly little story’ which boggles my mind. Certainly the idea of the murder swap could be treated as little more than a colorful story hook but Highsmith does not use it that way, instead developing the idea that Guy becomes trapped by his inaction and compelled into following a particular course. To me it is really rich in character and theme and develops its plot with a powerful predictability where the reader can see where the tale is ultimately headed, even if they are not sure how it will get there.

I find both characters to be interesting in their own right though they become compelling in combination. Guy is cautious, practical and sturdy while Bruno dreams and seeks to find something that will give him a sense of happiness and fulfilment. One of my favorite passages in the book relates to one of Bruno’s ambitions for how he might spend his money by giving away a sizeable sum to a random beggar. He has developed a romantic image of a way in which he can achieve a sense of personal satisfaction and yet the reality of human nature turns it grubby and disappointing. In fact I would suggest that Bruno is happier imagining his stepfather dead than he is at any point once he begins to enact his plan.

With so much of a focus falling on Guy and Bruno, it is perhaps inevitable that the other characters feel far less dimensional. Only Guy’s girlfriend (and later wife) Anne comes off as a fully realized character though I felt a little disappointed that Highsmith does not directly address her situation at the end of the novel or allow her to play a more direct role in the conclusion. In spite of this I found her to be very sympathetic and I did appreciate that she is presented as a professional woman in her own right. It was easy to see why Guy so desperately wants to be with her.

I mentioned in my introduction that part of my motivation in revisiting this book now was to consider whether it is an inverted mystery. I think, on balance, that it is although I would say that because there is a sense of forces inexorably pushing the characters towards an outcome that there are few developments in the narrative that are truly surprising. Nor does Gerrard, the Bruno family’s private detective, really exercise much deductive reasoning during his investigation and, in any case, we spend surprisingly little time with him.

In spite of that however the reader can engage with the story by pondering what evidence might exist and how it may be interpreted. There is even the question of how the relationship between Guy and Bruno will be resolved. As much as I love the movie version of this story, I think the book takes a more interesting and subtle approach to the latter and while I wish that the ending had struck a slightly different tone in places, I think it very effectively resolves the main themes of the novel.

While Highsmith’s text is sometimes a little ponderous, particularly during Bruno’s drunken outbursts, I am impressed by how polished it feels considering it is a first novel and I do think that those moments fit the character even if they drag on a little. I am particularly struck by how well she captures a sense of paranoia and the different ways that guilt can affect a person, making the reader feel Guy’s hopelessness at being trapped in a situation that threatens to destroy him completely.

I said earlier in this review that it is rare for me to revisit a book. It is even rarer for me to get more out of it on subsequent reads. That I have found it a rewarding enough experience to revisit it twice now speaks to the book’s striking premise, bold characterization and interesting discussion of guilt and justice. The only thing that is likely to keep me from revisiting it any time soon is the sense that I should probably try reading another Highsmith at some point…