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In the middle of the afternoon, she went down to the first floor and bought a card in the greetings-card department. It was not a very interesting card, but at least it was simple, in plain blue and gold. She stood with the pen poised over the card, thinking of what she might have written – ‘You are magnificent’ or even ‘I love you’ – finally writing quickly the excruciatingly dull and impersonal: ‘Special salutations from Frankenberg’s’. She added her number, 645-A, in lieu of a signature.

Patricia Highsmith’s books are tightly plotted and emotionally jagged noir mysteries. From the chameleon-like Tom Ripley to Strangers on a Train’s Charles Anthony Bruno, the author specialized in characters with a lump of ice in their hearts. The Price of Salt is something quite different. It has the requisite Highsmith paranoia and emotional blackmail common to her other novels, but it draws upon her own life, the plot inspired by a brief period the author spent working in a department store. It is a story about an affair between shopgirl and aspiring stage designer Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Unusually for a Highsmith novel the book is ultimately hopeful, the love between the characters genuine and was considered revolutionary at the time of publication for being a story about homosexuality with a happy ending.

Therese is a young woman just out of boarding school with artistic ambitions trying to make it in New York. Estranged from her family, who packed her off to boarding school once her father died, she has become solitary and possessed of changeable moods. She is in an unfulfilling relationship with an aspiring artist named Richard, who is a lot more secure than she is, both emotionally and financially. He also seems to merely be dabbling in art, whereas Therese pounds the pavement trying to get stage designer jobs with theatre companies. To make some extra cash she takes a job working in Frankenberg’s department store selling toys in the run up to Christmas. The monotony and boredom of the job suddenly evaporates one afternoon when she meets a customer named Carol, whom she helps find a doll to give to her daughter as a Christmas gift. Therese leaps at the chance to strike up a friendship with the cool and contained woman, who is involved in bitter divorce proceedings. As the two grow closer, Therese realizes that she loves Carol and that she feels nothing romantic for the feckless Richard. However, the more she gets to know this woman who seems so self-assured and calm, the more she realizes that it is Carol who has everything to lose, as her ex-husband Harge is eager to use whatever leverage he can to win full custody of their daughter. What possible future do the two of them have together, if their love carries such a terrible price?

Highsmith writes with a singular intimacy and intensity, establishing the conflicting thoughts that rush through Therese’s uncertain mind. When Therese meets the elderly shop assistant Ruby Robichek one night for a quiet meal, the encounter proves to be a brief vignette on a life wasted by loneliness and failure. Ms Robichek is a presentiment of what could happen to Therese if she gives in to convention and abandons her desires. We also begin to understand just how pressurized Carol Aird’s life has been to date, with her husband and in-laws arrayed against her. She describes how Harge chose her to be his wife in the way he might have chosen a carpet, as an object he could possess. Her crime is not that she is a lesbian per se, but more that she refuses to toe the line and lead a conventional life as a doting wife. Richard’s confident belief that Therese will agree to marry him is also rooted in the narrative conventions of typical male and female relationships. He has put the time into getting to know her and surely this is what happens next?

This edition of The Price of Salt comes with a quote from Terry Castle of The New Republic arguing that the transgressive sex and climactic cross-country car chase of the novel inspired Nabochov’s Lolita. I feel this is a tacked on conclusion that risks equivocating Humbert Humbert’s paedophilia with homosexuality. The novel is a corrective to the dour fates assigned to lesbians in pulp fiction, (suicide; acceptance of a dutiful husband).

An underappreciated classic.

To the left of this blog’s main page, there’s a display of the most commonly used terms in the last thirty two reviews. With every reoccurrence of a search term, the display of that particular word or phrase begins to grow, to indicate how often I have mentioned it. Alan Moore’s name has been growing I noticed, so I thought I should actually write about something he has done.

A Small Killing was welcomed as a departure for the comic writer sometimes referred to as the Northampton Magus. No superheroes, no deconstruction of American comic book tropes, just a simple story about a man who works in advertising looking back on his life. Oh and giant insects.

Timothy Hole has landed the contract of a lifetime, marketing a major cola in Russia. A successful advertising creative based in New York, he decides to go on a holiday to his hometown of Sheffield, so he can recapture his spark and come up with some ideas for the campaign. While he’s managed to achieve a lot in his professional career, his marriage to his college sweetheart failed, due to an affair he had with an artist named Sylvia. Timothy obsesses about whether or not he was at fault, more troubled by his later being dumped by Sylvia than his betrayal of his wife Maggie. Going over and over the events of years ago in his mind, he finds himself unable to focus on his job. Then a mysterious boy appears and Timothy is compelled to follow him. At first he catches glimpses of the figure in the distance, but soon he begins to suspect that the boy is trying to lead him into danger, even kill him. When Timothy flies to London he discovers the boy is somehow already there, a phantom presence taunting him.

Timothy’s troubled thoughts are relayed to us by Moore’s precise prose, while Zarate conjures up nightmarish crowded scenes – a party filled with advertising colleagues, a long queue at customs, a packed plane journey, a London pub exploding into violence – to contrast with the main character’s inability to think about anyone else. The people in his life are excuses for his own failings, somehow always at fault regardless of what he has done. The title refers to the little sins in our past that we cover up, never revealing to anyone no matter how close we are, in the hope that the guilt will somehow disappear.

This being Moore there’s a healthy amount of intertextuality as well. Timothy finds himself relating to Nabokov’s Lolita, although he can’t decide if he’s the predatory Humbert Humbert, or the eponymous innocent girl. Nabokov’s book was written as a twisted love letter of sorts to America, summing up the Russian émigré’s feelings about the country he had come to call home. Timothy, conversely is going to Russia to sell images of capitalist excess to the Russians, marketing Americana to them and disregarding the socialist imagery he was so fond of as an over earnest teenager –

“Blue jeans. That’s it, isn’t it? Blue jeans is it. Whatever the West means to them, that’s what we associate Flite with…They want to be American. It’s obvious. No point second-guessing their needs. We just sell them ours. Our culture. Our appetites, our..”

A Small Killing itself was Moore’s break from the over commercialised American comic’s scene, so choosing an ad-man as his protagonist is certainly interesting in that respect. Babylon by Victor Pelevin is an interesting contrast, being a Russian novel about the divide between advertising and art.

Zarate’s artwork is beautiful, matching the reflective tone of the writing by resembling the drawing of an adult who never stopped using crayons. The imagery is childlike, yet disturbing also. The abovementioned crowd scenes are filled with freakish grotesques and animalistic facial expressions. Timothy himself is a needle-thin adult version of Harry Potter (although this predates Rowling’s books by some time), surrounded by overweight bodies and skinhead boozers. The boy he keeps seeing is depicted with a wicked, mocking smile, that perfectly captures the puckish spirit of the character.

Alan Moore is one of the most important creators of the last thirty years. If you want to avoid the cape and tights brigade in sampling his work, you should check A Small Killing out. A confident, heartfelt reflection on past mistakes and the broken promises we make to ourselves when we are young.

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