Peter Ritter, 20, leaves a cinema in Zurich around midnight one Wednesday. He takes a shortcut through an alley on the way back to his parents’ house. There he’s mugged and stabbed by two men. He’s dead on arrival at the hospital.
Peter is the boyfriend of Rickie Markwalder, a 46-year-old illustrator who creates images for advertising campaigns. Rickie lives with his dog, Lulu, close to his studio and a Bierstube-Restaurant called Jakob’s.
This was known as the Small g at weekends, but that name wasn’t appropriate around 9:30 A.M. on any day. One of the guidebooks on Zurich’s attractions so categorized Jakob’s – with a ‘small g’ – meaning a partially gay clientele but not entirely.
The locals frequent Jakob’s on a regular basis, including Luisa, who had a two-month crush on Peter, and Luisa’s boss, Renate. Renate’s around 50 ‘somehow a spy, hostile’ and has a club foot which she hides with long skirts and high shoes with one sole thicker than the other.
Renate’s behind rumours that Peter was murdered in Rickie’s bed by a stranger he picked up whilst Rickie was working late in his studio. Rickie suspects she’s engaged Willi Biber, a local who seems to be intellectually disabled, to spread these lies. Her motivation?
‘It’s these homos everywhere that are the problem! So many – you’d think AIDS didn’t exist!’ She forced a titter. ‘They are the silly ones. Always changing partners. They have no partners, just sex en masse, you know. At the same time they flirt. They think they are handsome.’
Despite Renate’s opinion, Luisa and Rickie become friends after Rickie presents her with Peter’s scarf, a token for her to remember him by.
The tension in the novel comes largely from Renate’s attitude towards Luisa. Luisa arrived at Renate’s after being sexually abused by her stepfather and running away from home. A job and a place to sleep seemed like ‘the luckiest thing’. But Renate tries to control Luisa, ridiculing her, expecting her to wait on her, dictating whom she can see, sending Willi to spy on her and setting a curfew which, if broken, will result in the door being bolted.
Renate enjoyed her near total control of Luisa, though at the same time realized that it had a sadistic element. Whenever these self-critical thoughts crossed her mind, she absolved herself utterly from blame or overcaution by remembering Luisa when she first presented herself – unkempt, even in need of a bath, broken fingernails, hair cut short and abominably by herself, Luisa had admitted.
The more involved Luisa becomes with Rickie and his group of friends at the Small g, the more sadistic Renate’s behaviour.
In Small g, Highsmith explores attitudes to homosexuality. She tackles prejudice by associating homophobia with the characters who are vicious and susceptible to manipulation whilst showing a group of friends – gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual – having fun but ultimately being supportive, caring and understanding towards each other.
Small g was Highsmith’s final book. Having previously only read The Talented Mr Ripley, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I’d hesitate to call it a crime novel: if Peter’s murder’s ever solved we aren’t told about it and the other crime that’s committed midway through the book has a fairly obvious culprit and functions as a plot device to bring Freddie, a police office, back into Rickie’s life as well as further expose Renate’s shocking behaviour towards Luisa and her friends.
What this novel does do, however, is highlight friendship and its role in life; expose some unfounded attitudes towards LGBT communities, including a shocking scene regarding the HIV virus, and include two bisexual characters. The later isn’t without issues – one is a young woman whom it seems to suggest might be in an ‘experimental phase’ and the other is a married man – but it’s notable these characters exist when bisexuality’s often erased from culture.
Small g is an interesting read but probably not an essential one unless you’re a Highsmith completest.
Small g is reissued by Virago this week along with A Game for the Living, A Dog’s Ransom and Found in the Street.
Thanks to Virago for the review copy.