Chester MacFarland is on the run, the American agencies are catching up with his life of stock manipulation and fraud. We meet him and his wife, Collette, on an extended tour of Europe, changing identities as needs must. But in Greece, a local agent spots them. Within 4 pages, he is dead and Chester finds an unexpected ally in Rydal Keener who helps him stash the body in a broom cupboard and make a getaway. Then the fun really begins.
Told in chapters alternating between the two men’s viewpoints, The Two Faces of January analyses the relationship that begins under these circumstances. You’d think Chester would be grateful – and at first he is – but then he begins to suspect Rydal’s motivations. Why would a stranger put themselves in jeopardy so willingly? He must be a blackmailer. Rydal too is confused by his rash act and subsequent helpfulness. Soon enough, however, he comes to understand his subconscious.
I am using this man for my own inner purposes. He is helping me to see Papa a little better, maybe to see Papa with less resentment, more humour; I don’t know, but God knows I would like to get rid of resentments. …. By an odd coincidence, his wife, much younger and quite attractive and vivacious, reminds me of – that unhappy mistake of my youth.
Rydal’s initially subconscious desires make him accompany the MacFarlands to Crete, where gradually Chester’s suspicions and the flirtation between Rydal and his wife poison the friendship. Far from freeing himself from past resentments, Rydal unearths a host more and the two men become locked in a psychological battle for supremacy – symbolised in the battle for the female. Events can only spiral out of control.
Rydal’s motivations in the second half of the novel are no longer subconcious. His cat and mouse game with Chester is all about retribution.
I detest him. I think I am fascinated by that. I have no desire to kill him, have never wanted to kill anyone. But I will say I would like to see him fall.
This explains why he does not walk away and endangers himself because he is the one sought by the police in connection with events in Crete. And Chester has no moral scruples, he wants Rydal dead. As the two men chase through Europe, the tension escalating with each encounter, the question is not only who will survive but will Rydal maintain a vestige of decency or will he descend to the depths that Chester expects of him?
The complexity of Rydal’s character is the real talking point of this novel. On one hand, he’s young, has a lot to learn and has a decent heart. On the other, he keeps some particularly dodgy company, is an accessory to murder and is not above stealing another man’s wife. Yet he manages to hold the reader’s sympathies – Highsmith manipulating her reader’s psychology as well as she does those of her characters.
As I was reading I couldn’t help thinking that, written today, the details would be differ radically. Most of the fake passports would all be Euro-burgundy (if they were needed at all). Neither would there be the same difficulties with currency. While this may bleach the novel of European flavour, I doubt it would render it less suspenseful. It might actually focus the attention on the psychological battle between the two men – because, if I have one criticism, it’s that this is sometimes lost in the adrenaline and the repetition resulting from the trans-European chase.