Patricia Highsmith investigates the religious right

Set in the early 1980s during the Reagan era when Christian Fundamentalism was on the rise, Patricia Highsmith’s People Who Knock on the Door chronicles the events which move a middle class American family out of their comfort zone into the world of uncertainty.

Highsmith, best known for her crime stories based around the character of Tom Ripley and, more recently, for her lesbian novel Carol demonstrates her superb plotting and storytelling skills in this novel. Naturally, there are crimes in the novel but not the kind of Highsmith-type crime we are used to. These are moral crimes set against the backdrop of the belief system.

The issues at the heart of this novel are the effects that any kind of religious (or, for that matter, political) fundamentalism has on family and friends and changes the attitudes and behaviour of the believer. When Richard Alderman becomes a born-again Christian he becomes enmeshed in the world of the fundamentalists with their counselling sessions, preaching, outreach groups, knocking on doors, gossip-mongering and pamphleteering.  In his zeal he cannot appreciate that his elder son, wife and mother-in-law do not share his beliefs and have a right to their own viewpoint.

He manages to convince his gullible youngest son that he has been “saved” from near-death and indoctrinates him. Highsmith shows the way in which a vulnerable teenager can easily fall prey to such a rigorous influence when there is no credible opposition. Richard uses his new-found religious faith to alienate his eldest son and to punish him for being a nice kid who is not taken in by the mavericks.

The novel covers television evangelism, prolife vs abortion debate, class, religious freedom, politics and the American obsessions with guns. All this is done is a very readable story which jogs along until the explosion towards the end.

The novel did not get particularly good reviews when it was first published despite being, in my opinion, one of her best novels. Her US editor did not recommend it to his publishers, Harper & Row so it was picked up by Penzler Books. Marilyn Stasio, in the New York Times of November 24, 1985 did not regard it as one of her better books. There are some aspects of the novel which jar, and which have been picked up by reviewers on Good Reads, namely that the young Arthur and his friends seem to drink a surprising number of adult drinks rather than beer (e.g. Old Fashioned cocktails) and hang around old people a lot (e.g. Norma).

Having read many of Highsmith’s books over thirty years, I am now persuaded to return to her as a storyteller.

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