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“I Would Prefer Not To”

Mystery Writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)

The words are those of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener in his story of the same name. In that story, a clerical worker refuses outright to continue to do his work and pays the price for his obstinacy. In Patricia Highsmith’s A Suspension of Mercy, Bartleby is the last name of writer Sydney Bartleby, a man who is every bit as obtuse as Melville’s scrivener. He is married—not entirely happily—to Alicia Sneezum. They live in the English countryside, with Sydney trying to publish a novel and television scripts, and Alicia trying to paint abstracts. At one point they decide to split up for a while and maybe come together only when they had gotten the ya-yas out of their system.

So Alicia is put on a train at Ipswich, telling her husband to tell people she had gone to stay with her parents. Except, she doesn’t in fact tell her parents anything. In the meantime, Sydney plays with the idea of having his friends and neighbors suspect that he had murdered Alicia. He even rolls up an old carpet, imagining that he had hurled Alicia down a flight of stairs to her death and rolled the body into the carpet. He buries the carpet early one morning in a forest some distance from his cottage.

In the meantime, people keep calling Sydney asking to speak to Alicia. He tells them she is staying with her parents. When they call the parents, and find her not there, the suspicion arises that Sydney has murdered her. A neighbor had seen him struggle to load a heavy rolled carpet into his car.

Enter the police. Sydney leads them to the buried carpet, which they find minus the body of Alicia. That only makes the police more suspicious. They start digging other holes in the area to search for the body. Interestingly, Sydney finds Alicia, with her new inamorata whom she had met at a party, but he doesn’t alert her or, in fact, anybody. So the suspicions continue to mount.

Nasty. Nasty. Nasty. This is clearly a story by Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955). It is delightful how the mutual obstinacy of Sydney and Alicia lead to the police, the press, and the general public to assume the worst. At several points, Bartleby (or Alicia) could have short-circuited all this needless mountain of false news, but, like the original Bartleby, preferred NOT to.

This is without a doubt the most obstinate mystery ever written, and great fun withal.