Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Wednesday, April 26, 2023


"Woodrow Wilson's Necktie" by Patricia Highsmith (first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March 1971; reprinted in Highsmith's collection Slowly, Slowly in the Wind, 1979; reprinted many times, sometimes as "Woodrow Willson's Neck Tie" or "Woodrow Wilson's Tie")

Patrocia Highmith may have been was a  mean, unpleasant, horrid person, but she could write.  From Strangers in a Train to The Talented Mr. Ripley to her many other novels and short stories, she was the Queen of Moral Ambiguity.

"Woodrow Wilson's Necktie" concerns Clive Wilkes, a high school dropout and delivery boy for a grocery story.  Clive's father had abandoned him and his mother when the boy was nine and Clive had gotten into some trouble when he was sixteen but seemed to have straightened himself out.  Clive's one obsession was with Madame Thibualt's Waxworks Horrors, a local wax museum; Clive would visit once or twice a week and never tire of it or its bloody tableaus -- Marat in his bathtub, Reginald Christie strangling a woman, the Kennedy assassination, the Tate-Labianca murders, the Lindberg kidnapping -- all seemed to give Clive some comfort and a sense of thrill.

Clive decided he wanted to spend the night in the waxwork.  It took some planning, but one evening he was able to hide in a dark nook while the staff locked up and left for the night.  It was exciting for a while, but then it tired.  To add a little lagniappe to his adventure he stole a necktie from a wax figure of Woodrow Wilson.  (The exhibit had a tableau of Wilson signing the Armistice; why this was a feature of a house of horrors is confusing and never explained.)   A few days later he revisited the museum; Wilson's tie was still missing -- no one on the staff had noticed it; or, if they had, no one bothered to replace it.  Clive could not tell anyone of his great exploit of spending the night in the waxworks and of stealing the neckitie which was now hanging in his closet.

"Clive did get another idea one afternoon, a hilarious idea that would make the public sit up and take notice.  Clive's ribs trembled with supressed laughter..."  The museum had four employees.  One was the ticket-taker who was the first to leave and would lock and bar the front door; the others -- two men and one woman -- would lock the day's proceeds in the office and straighten out the museum before they left through the rear door.  Once again, Clive hid in a dark corner as the museum closed and the ticket-taker had left.  When the woman was about to leave, Clive stepped out, grabbed from behind by the throat and strangled her.  When  one the men started to leave, he did the same.  But this was a man, somewhat stronger than the woman, and he made some noise before he died.  When the second man came out, Clive acted quickly, stunning him with a blow, then smashing his head against the plaster wall repeatedly until he was dead.   Or so Clive thought.  When the man moved slightly, Clive repeatedly stabbed him in the throat with a penknife.  Now all three were decidedly dead.

Now for the real fun part.  Clive took the wax body of Marat out of his tub and put it on the office desk.  In Marat's place, he put the woman's body; he did not bother to remove her clothers because it was funnier for her to be in a tub fully clothed, wearing her fur-collared jacket and with her hat placed at a jaunty angle on her head.  One exhibit had a man eating his dinner while his wife stabbed him in the neck.  He took the man's figure and sat it in a chair in the office and placed one of the dead men in his place, making sure that the corpse was holding a knife and fork in front of the dinner plate.  At the Woodrow Wilson exhibit. he took the seating figure and placed it on the toilet in the bathroom, replacing the figure with the last corpse; that body slumped forward, it's head covering the document in front of him with blood.  Clive then wiped his fingerprints from anything he had touched and left through the rear door, locking it.  "God Lord, it was funny!" -- not just the placement of the corpses but also the placement of the wax figures.

The next morning, he showed up with a few other customers and waited for the museum to open.  The ticket-taker told everyone to just go in, explaining everyone else seemed a bit late that morning.  At first, nobody noticed anything wrong, not the clothed woman in Marat's tub or the dead man at the dinner table.  Then  one woman asked her husband, "Was someone shot when the armistice was signed?"  Suddenly, a woman screamed from the Marat exhibition.  The ticket taker then recognized the body as hiks co-worker Mildred.  Police were called as Clive left he museum, thinking, "That was good.  That was all right.  Not bad.  Not bad at all."

Rather than show up at work, Clive decided to take a long bus ride somewhere.  By that evening, he was in a small town in Indiana, reading the local newspapers; three of them had headlines about the murders.  He took the papers and went to a local bar.  Nobody else seemed excited or concerned about the murders -- not at the bar, nor at the small diner where he went next.  A couple of men sat next to him at the counter, talking about something else.  Clive interrupted them to ask if they read about the murders.  They had, but they were not interested, and continued their conversation.  Clive told them that he was the murderer.  They ignored him and went on talking.  The next day in another town, the papers were still discussing the murders but Clive's name was not mentioned, nor was the funny way he had positioned the corpses and the wax statues.  Again, he told some people that he had done it and got the same reaction.  So he went home and entered the police staion and confessed.  They treated it as a false confession.  Clive was ordered to see a psychiatrist, who also did not believe him.  Clive wondered what deadly thing he would have to do next to convince people that he deserved an exhibit in Madame Thibualt's Waxwork Horrors...

A somewhat darkly humorous, ironic tale.

I read this in Anne Perry's excellant anthology A Century of British Mystery and Suspense.  I'm still wondering why it was included there.  Highsmith was an American, the story was first published in America, and it took place in America.  Yes, the book also had stories by Americans John Dickson Carr and Michael Z. Lewin, but they both might as well have been British, but why Highsmith?

1 comment:

  1. I always think I can read stories about unlikable people, but this one really turns me off. Of course, her writing would elevate any tale.