An elderly crime novelist’s last work and a shady crook’s errand overlap in Winner’s (The Cannibal of Guadalajara, 2010) fictional nod to Patricia Highsmith.
Tyler Wilson is eking out a living in Europe as a small-time player in a crime syndicate when a mysterious phone call brings up demons from the past. The caller says he is Cal Thornton, a man who Tyler thought was long dead. In fact, Tyler killed Cal in Stromboli in the 1960s, then promptly posed as Cal to get the Thorntons to send him money. Tyler is rattled by the call from the impostor, but a new errand from his crime boss sends him to New York. He decides to become an impostor himself and change his identity, go to Connecticut, and try to convince the Thorntons that he is in fact the long-lost Cal. Meanwhile, an old woman in France suffering from Parkinson’s disease gets an email from a former lover, Tab, a Dutch performance artist. The woman is frail, incontinent, and impulsive and decides she can't finish her novel unless she goes to the Netherlands to seek out the elusive Tab. Hiring an Ecuadorean driver, the woman and her trusty cahier hit the road, at which time it becomes clear that her fiction is steering the events in Tyler’s life, and he and Cal may be creations of hers altogether. Winner’s characters are drawn in the style of Highsmith novels, with Tyler taking the Tom Ripley role. Born in Queens to a washerwoman mother, Tyler finds himself decades later in a Spanish villa overlooking the Mediterranean, where he “sips more white Rioja and chews spicy grilled squid at his favorite chiringuito.” Like Ripley, he knows the local vernacular wherever he goes, and his not-gay lifestyle involves the obsessive and destructive pursuit of men. The spitfire old woman, as Highsmith herself, weaves a sordid tale on two different, almost delirious levels. Winner’s writing is intense, provocative, slightly perverse, and satisfyingly comic (Tyler “wants to explain to the false Cal Thornton that the real Cal Thornton had absolutely been burned away—blazing petrol from their motorboat plus several bottles of burning booze”). The competing plots and the novel-within-a-novel format are propelled by an earthy and sexual literary voice whose wily sophistication is both coarse and unique.
A brash literary thriller that plunges deep into the mind of a criminal and his creator.