The Cry of the Owl is a classic of bleak, psychological despair and suspense.

Image provided by Amazon/Grove Press

Patricia Highsmith’s 1962 novel fits the late writer’s mold quite effectively, a portrait of how the main characters’ poor judgment and bad choices ruin their lives. When The Cry of the Owl opens, 30ish Robert Forrester has taken refuge in a small town engineering job. Robert’s fled the collapse of his New York marriage to the poisonous, unstable Nickie. Who taunts him long distance, for no reason other than to be a bitch.

Fighting depression and alienation, Robert finds an odd solace in spying through the kitchen window of Jenny, a lovely young woman living in a remote house. Watching Jenny go about her domestic routine brings Robert a kind of peace, though he knows his “hobby” is a foolish risk.

Jenny’s discovery of Robert is swift and inevitable. But instead of fear, Jenny finds herself drawn to Robert and forms an intense attachment to him. Jenny’s sudden devotion becomes so powerful that she breaks off her engagement to the possessive, brutish Greg. Getting to know Jenny breaks the spell for Robert, and yet he indulges Jenny’s desire to be close to him.

An increasingly violent Greg refuses to accept Jenny’s rejection and begins a campaign to discredit Robert in his small town. He’s egged on by Nickie, whose distorted tales of her and Robert’s life together fuel Greg’s vendetta. When Greg goes missing after a violent encounter between the two men, suspicion falls on Robert. A chain of tragedies inevitably unfolds, as darkness follows Robert and his life slowly unravels. Robert suspects there’s more to Greg’s disappearance than is apparent, but has so thoroughly compromised himself that getting anyone to believe him before it’s too late may be an impossible task.

Patricia Highsmith: Image provided by Wikimedia

Like most Highsmith novels, The Cry of the Owl isn’t plot-intensive. Instead, it relies on a slow build of ever-tightening psychological suffocation to powerful effect. Highsmith was among the vanguard of 20th century writers who weren’t especially concerned with readers “liking” their lead characters. Indeed, while readers will be able to sympathize with Robert and Jenny in some regards, neither is easy to warm up to. But each is fascinating in different ways and are apt vessels for Highsmith’s dark psychological explorations.

In Robert, Highsmith sketches a convincing portrait of a man struggling with depression, loss and an uncertainty of his place in the world. His fallibility and struggle to make sensible choices generates some empathy, even as his cavalier treatment of Jenny and maddening passivity ignite the tragedies that ensue. Jenny is a much darker creation. The seemingly sweet façade covers a morbid fascination with death. Readers can’t help but question the stability of a darkly philosophical young woman who falls quickly and passionately in love with her own prowler. The Robert/Jenny relationship is complex, jagged and unsettling, providing an emotional engine that propels the story through its many tragedies to its bleak ending. And of course the end is bleak; Highsmith wasn’t often given to allowing her characters to stroll happily into the sunset.

The Cry of the Owl was remarkably frank for its time. Highsmith outright acknowledged her characters’ pre- and extra-marital sex lives without particular judgment, though she accurately reflected prevailing notions in the scandalized opinions of the town’s “Greek chorus.” Highsmith also took on depression, mental illness and suicide in a forthright manner that wasn’t common for the era. She never pretended that Robert, Jenny, Greg or Nickie was entirely well or rational and her sharp characterizations effectively communicated how damaged each was in his or her own way.

With moody, evocative writing that immerses the reader in a dark, disturbing world of doomed attachments and an inevitable descent into darkness, Highsmith made The Cry of the Owl an essential entry in mid-20th century suspense fiction.

Originally published at on March 30, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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