Walter Stackhouse fantasizes about killing his wife and when she disappears he is relentlessly pursued as a suspect. Walter Stackhouse, an unfulfilled lawyer living in the suburbs of New York City, wants nothing more than to be rid of his wife, until she disappears while traveling and he becomes desperate to convince investigators that he is innocent.
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Walter feels bored and annoyed by his wife Clara and has fallen under the spell of the a sweet, easygoing teacher named Ellie Bries. When Clara accuses Walter of having an affair with the woman he does indeed have a crush on, Walter becomes frustrated and snaps, telling Clara he is no longer in love with her and fantasizes about throwing a heavy, glass paperweight at her head. Clara continues to rant and threatens suicide. Walter can no longer stand the sound of her voice and tells her that he is going out for the evening. When he returns, he finds Clara lying in bed unconscious, with an empty bottle of pills on the nightstand.
Clara survives and as she recovers, Walter feels that he does love her again, perhaps more than ever. But his feelings for Ellie are growing. Clara's jealousy is growing as well. Walter reads a story is the newspaper about a man named Melchior Kimmel, who is suspected of killing his wife Helen by following her on a cross country trip to make it look like she was murdered by a stranger.
Walter becomes increasingly obsessed with the story and goes to meet Mr. Kimmel at the store he runs. He asks questions about the murder and finds Mr. Kimmel to be a horrible brute. Soon after, Clara announces that she will be visiting her mother in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and will be taking the bus. Walter can't help but see this as an opportunity to murder her the way Mr. Kimmel murdered his wife. His fantasies have already become more vivid, and he has confided in a friend that if Clara were to attempt suicide again, he would not save her. At this point, Walter does begin an affair with Ellie.
Walter follows Clara's bus, knowing it will make a rest stop in New Jersey, near a high cliff. He thinks he could push Clara over the cliff but is not sure he can pull it off. When the bus does stop, he parks his car and looks for his wife but can't find her. Confused, he begins to ask other passengers whether they have seen her.
Unbeknownst to Walter, Clara has committed suicide by jumping off the very same cliff. When her body is found, Walter's guilty conscious compels him to make a serious "blunder." He does not tell the investigating officer, Lieutenant Corby that he followed the bus.
Soon, many witnesses come forward to say they saw Walter at the rest stop looking for his wife. Caught in a lie, Walter is a strong suspect. Things get even worse when Mr. Kimmel comes forward to tell Corby that Walter visited him, before Clara's death, to ask about the murder of Helen Kimmel. Walter appears a likely murderer.
Walter continues to make terrible choices, avoiding Corby and clumsily re-explaining his action to friends and colleagues who have lost faith in him. Corby suspects that Walter and Kimmel are in cahoots; that Kimmel has either coached Walter through the murder, or perhaps helped him commit it. Corby is such an unpleasant character that the reader feels sympathy toward Walter, who is arguably just as unlikable. This stylistic choice lends intensity to the story's suspense. The reader feels guilty and pursued. Patricia Highsmith is a master of creating this morally ambiguous tension.
By the story's end, Walter has made every possible mistake and knows he has no choice but to tell the entire truth, or perhaps to go ahead and confess to a murder he committed only in his mind and heart.
Best part of story, including ending:
I loved The Blunderer because of of the almost unbearable level of tight suspense that runs through the whole book.
Best scene in story:
One of my favorite scenes in The Blunderer is near the end, when Walter spends the night at the home of his girlfriend, Ellie. By this point in the book, so much tension had built up, and I was not sure what was real and what was a product of Walter's imagination. The simple, caring things Ellie does. like suggest that Walter take a nap on the couch while she makes some eggs, create a soft soothing mood that is in stark contrast with the long chase we have been following. But reading it, I couldn't allow my mind to relax; I didn't know whether police would burst in, or whether Walter would wake up from a dream.
Opinion about the main character:
I didn't like Walter Stackhouse because he is an incredibly selfish and even evil man, but I found it fascinating that the style in which the book is written somehow encourages the reader to emphasize with this character.