Thank you, Patricia Highsmith, for writing a terribly thrilling novel about deception and murder and suicide. It was just what I needed on Saturday night to keep me away from that already elusive state called “sleep”. So thank you for writing The Cry of the Owl.
The Cry of the Owl is a suspenseful, moody psychological thriller about a man who stalks a woman, who in turn stalks him back. Robert Forrester, an engineer from New York, abandons the city for a quiet, rural life, hoping that the change of scenery will ease the pain of his volatile divorce. While driving one night, he happens upon the house of Jennifer Thierolf, sees her through her kitchen window, and crosses the prowler line. Robert becomes obsessed with the image of Jenny, living happily with her boyfriend, cooking chicken, planning a wedding. He views her as an object of domesticity and delight, things he never had in his failed marriage. She becomes a solution to his increasing depression. The real Jenny, however, is a dark, melancholic girl. She dwells on death in much the same way that Robert dwells on her.
Because of his propensity for depression and her systematic obsession with death, when the two finally meet, they bond. Jenny becomes just as consumed by Robert as Robert had been by her. She follows him home from work, stays at his house, leaves her fiancé. She is in love with Robert, at least, she is in love with the mystery and darkness that a prowler represents.
The interplay between these two characters is the strength of The Cry of the Owl. Robert’s initial obsession parallels and feeds Jenny’s complete adoration for him.. After Robert has spied on the girl a few times, he knows what he likes about her, “the girl’s placid temperament, her obvious affection for her rather ramshackle house, her contentment with her life” (5). Of course, Jenny’s moods are opposite of the shallow, happy woman that Robert imagines.
Jenny is really in love with Death, and she comes to view Robert as a tangible extension of death meant for her to love. In her final note to Robert, Jenny clarifies this understanding of death and Robert. She writes, “I do love you. Now in a different way and much more deeply…I did not know until lately that you represented death, at least for me” (194). In her last moments, Jenny is able to clearly interpret her affection for Robert.
Highsmith uses these misconceptions as a basis for the other mistakes and misunderstandings seeded throughout the novel. Because Robert loves the image of Jenny, he allows her to stay with him, despite her jealous and violent fiancé, Greg. Greg believes that Robert has stolen his girl, and will stop at nothing to get her back and to punish Robert, even though Robert clearly states multiple times that he is not interested in Jenny romantically. Greg’s disappearance is the ultimate deception based on the misconceptions surrounding Robert’s relationship with Jenny. The entire town willingly believes that Robert is a murderer because they all assume that he and Jenny have a mutually romantic relationship.
By bouncing from one person’s point of view to another, the narrator heightens the confusion and deception between the characters. Robert is set up as the most reliable witness to events, though his own shady behavior in the beginning is enough to cast doubt onto his statements. Jenny’s preoccupation with death is highlighted in the passages where the narrator taps into her mind. Greg’s fury and Nickie’s jealousy seem reasonable when told from their opinions. All of these different voices combine to form a morally ambiguous cloud in which the full truth of the novel, though mostly clear, is still blurred around the edges, much like a shadow.
Highsmith is a master of noir and crime fiction. I worked very hard to give you a taste of the book without ruining it for you. This book kept me awake on the night that I finished it. I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes to examine the dark corners of the human psyche.