A mystery writer who fantasizes about killing his wife comes under police scrutiny when she goes missing. Sydney Bartleby, a struggling TV mystery writer, is losing patience with his wife, Alicia. He feels disrespected and often wonders if their marriage, and their move to a small town in the country, were mistakes. His time is spent working on treatments, which he mails to his writing partner, Alex Polk-Faraday. Alicia meets the new next door neighbor, Mrs. Lilybanks, a frail, elderly woman.
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Alex and his wife Hittie come to stay for the weekend and Mrs. Lilybanks joins the two couples for dinner. Tensions between Sydney and Alicia are visible to their guests and later that night, Alex witnesses the hosts in an argument that includes thrown dishes. Sydney frequently fantasizes about killing Alicia, in part because he is so frustrated, and in part because he is working on murder plots for his scripts and finds it useful to imagine crime through the eyes of a killer. His favorite scenario is pushing Alicia down the stairs to her death, rolling her up in a rug and driving her out to the country to bury her. He decides to take the thought experiment further by purchasing a new living room rug and rolling up the old one.
Alicia leaves to cool off for a few days in Brighton. There she runs into a man she once met at a party, Edward Tilbury and the two have a flirtatious lunch. When Alicia returns home, tensions continue and Sydney hits her. Sydney and Alex and having trouble selling their scripts and Sydney resents the fact that most of the couple's money comes from Alicia's trust. Alicia receives a letter from Edward and cannot get him off her mind. She tells Sydney that their marriage is in trouble and that she is leaving town again, for weeks or even months and that she does not want to tell him where she is going or try to contact her. She says she will return in her own time. Sidney is relieved when she goes.
The morning after Alicia leaves, Sydney gets up very early and carries the rolled-up rug to the car, then drives out into the country, digs a deep hole, and buries it. He likes the game he is playing and finds it helpful to his writing. When Mrs. Lilybanks, Alex and Hittie, and Alicia's parents begin to ask where Alicia is and become concerned, Sydney answers flippantly at times, distracted by the plotting game. He often reflects that events are unfolding exactly as they would if he had killed his wife. Alicia's parents contact the police who question and suspect Sydney.
Mrs. Lilybanks tells Sydney she saw him the morning with the rug but promises not to tell the police, saying it is up to him. Meanwhile Alicia has begun an affair with Edward and the two are staying at the beach under false names. Edward wants to marry her and Alicia is delaying taking the next steps because she fears her family's disappointment. The story of her disappearance hits the papers and Sydney is certain she will now get in touch, but she does not. Alicia's parents visit Mrs. Lilybanks and seeing them so desperate changes her mind. She phones the police and tells them about the rug.
Sydney leads the police to the general area where he buried the rug but the search takes days. A script finally sells to a television producer, for a substantial sum. A publisher shows interest in a novel Sydney has written. Alex tells Sydney he fears that the suspicion upon him will cause the deals to fall through and that he does not want his name associated with Sydney's any longer because he thinks he has indeed killed Alicia. He blackmails Sydney, saying he wants a larger cut of the money or he will go to the police. Sydney refuses and Alex tells the police about the argument he witnessed, and about Sydney's jokes about killing his wife.
Sydney goes to Brighton to search for Alicia, sees her with Edward, and notices she has changed her hair color. Instead of clearing his name by sharing this information, he write to Alicia and tells her she must come forward immediately and tell her family she wants a divorce, or he will send the police. Seeing the letter, Edward pressures Alicia to do so. She does not feel ready and says she would rather die.
When the rug is found, Sydney goes to Mrs. Lilybanks' house to tell her and to apologize for scaring her with his flippancy. When she sees him coming in the door, she has a heart attack and dies. Her housekeeper arrives, sees Sydney there and becomes hysterical. The police arrive and once again, suspicions toward Sydney materialize.
Alicia's body is found at the bottom of a cliff on the beach. Sydney confronts Edward who admits that Alicia fled from the pressure and flung herself to her death before he could stop her. Edward is very drunk. Sydney encourages him to take a sleeping pill and then forces him to take more, hoping Edward will die and the shame of the affair will be avoided
The police find out about Edward and Alicia, go to Edward's home and find him near death. He is transported to the hospital but dies. A neighbor tells the police about Sydney's visit. The police question Sydney and suspect him of murder but cannot prove he killed anyone.
Best part of story, including ending:
Taught suspense runs through this story, like all Highsmith's work. It is very frustrating that Sydney does not take steps to clear his name, even though he is not a likable character. It's a strange feeling to emphasize with a character I hate.
Best scene in story:
I loved the scene in which Mrs. Lilybanks confronts Sydney about the rug. I wasn't sure whether he would tell the truth, kill her, or lie to extend the plot he played with, and I could feel her tension and fear.
Opinion about the main character:
Sydney Bartelby is incredibly selfish and arrogant. He judges his wife as shallow though she comes off as thoughtful and creative, if a bit misguided.