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The Talented Ms Highsmith

Photo of Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith

It’s an obsession of sorts; if I’m passing a charity shop and have time on my hands, I slip in off the street to look for Patricia Highsmith books. I’m in the hands of fate and it’s often a fruitless task. But last year, just before the pandemic hit, I found Strangers on a Train in an Oxfam shop. Of course, I’d read it before, years ago, when I first became a fan. I’m saving this copy for an emergency Covid-19 re-read.

            It’s a crazy story; Bruno wants Guy to murder his father for him. In return he’ll rid Guy of the wife who’s proving difficult to divorce. Because victims and perpetrators can’t be connected, says Bruno, it’s the perfect crime. And he won’t take no for an answer. Raymond Chandler, hired by Hitchcock to write the screenplay for the film, thought the story was preposterous and unrealistic.

            But that’s to miss the point. Highsmith admitted her novels were at the edge of believability. As such she creates fiction in which everything is unstable and coming apart at the seams. It’s a metaphor for, rather than a description of, the world. In her work everything is on edge.

            A man watches a woman through the window of her remote house; she spots him and invites him in. A lonely security guard finds a wallet in the street and returns it to the owner, whom he begins to suspect of corrupting the young woman he is obsessed with. A humiliated cuckold hints to his wife’s lover that he has killed his predecessor. A writer fantasises about killing his wife and rehearses disposing of her body. All these beginnings lead somewhere else, a place you don’t expect. They often end with things falling apart, a great unravelling into madness.

            Grudges and slights often motivate her characters. They are always on the edge, desperate to find agency. They do irrational things. What disturbs the reader is that it’s always possible to empathise with them. After all, who hasn’t harboured a grudge or felt trapped? We all want agency in our lives, and if it’s not forthcoming, we might become desperate and unravel.

             There is a terrible sense of foreboding in her writing, an unrelenting tension. But her style is deceptively simple, unshowy, with mere hints of description; she advises would-be writers not to overdo describing things. The result is a clarity of expression, a difficult thing for any writer to pull off, that makes the self-justifications of her characters seem ever more reasonable.

            Graham Greene called her the ‘poet of apprehension’ and it’s there in all her work, even Carol (originally titled The Price of Salt), a love story with, of all things, a happy ending. Set in the nineteen-fifties, the lesbian affair between Therese and Carol is illicit and frowned upon, and they head off on a road trip from New York to be alone together. But they’re followed by a private detective, and there’s a handgun in their luggage. It isn’t used, but there’s always that awful threat it might go off.

            Apart from Carol, all her books feature male protagonists. She didn’t like writing women, not in her novels at least. She thought they were too passive. A male point of view gave her a certain freedom, even if misogyny is apparent in some of the heterosexual relationships she describes. Nor was she comfortable with writing in the first person. She couldn’t stand the repetition of ‘I’.

            Highsmith didn’t particularly like to be characterised as a writer of crime novels. Even if considered as such, her work is unique in terms of the genre. In the end, because the world likes categories, she settled on ‘novels of suspense’. Distinctions aren’t really helpful except to the marketing people.  She admired Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which isn’t particularly thought of as a genre crime novel. But unlike Raskolnikov her protagonists don’t find redemption, despite their travails. They either get away with it or they don’t.

            Her most famous creation is the cultured murderer Tom Ripley, who appears in the five novels that make up ‘The Ripliad’. In The Talented Mr Ripley he kills Dickie Greenleaf, the scion of a wealthy WASP family, who he is desperate, not just to be liked by, but to emulate. He gets away with the killing by impersonating his victim until he can fake his suicide. With that he inherits his victim’s money and lives a comfortable life with his beautiful wife in a beautiful house in rural France.

            Like some of her other characters, Ripley takes umbrage rather easily. When Dickie tells Tom he finds his attentions sexually perverse he ends up dead. When an American art collector calls him a fake, it’s the insult, not just the fact that his art forgery business has been rumbled, that provokes Ripley to smash him over the head with a bottle of vintage wine. And when he is insulted by a picture framer at a party, Ripley tricks him into carrying out a contract killing for the American criminal, Reeves Minot. Thereafter, Tom kills to prevent himself getting caught or to get out of a jam. The trouble is that his past, the killing of Dickie Greenleaf, always comes back to haunt him.

            In her books, violence isn’t far below the surface, but it’s never graphic. The weapons used aren’t like the revolver hidden in Carol’s underwear. They tend to be more basic, often whatever comes to hand, like that bottle of wine or an ashtray or an oar. In Ripley’s Game he uses a garotte, and wonders, as he pulls it tight around the neck of a Mafiosi in the toilet of a train, how long it will take to kill the man. Thirty seconds? A minute? 

            It’s possible to think of Ripley as Highsmith’s male alter-ego living with the beautiful, ethereal Heloise in a house called Belle Ombre, Beautiful Shadow. He lives on a perpetual edge, even as he enjoys his garden and his cultural pursuits; the life he always dreamed of. The art forgery business involves a London gallery that employs a disturbed young artist to produce new work in the style of the dead, but in demand, painter, the fictional Derwatt. Tom owns both an original and a forgery. He prefers the fake.

             As a guest on Desert Island Discs in 1979 Highsmith was softly spoken, and calm, her choices mainly cultural; Mozart, Bach, Mahler. Early photographs show a beautiful young woman, but alcohol and cigarettes took their toll. She had her demons; they are there in her books, always on the point of unravelling. She knew, one thinks, how it goes sometimes.

Patricia Highsmith in later life


About the author

Mike Golding

Mike Golding is a member of the Lit and Phil. A former academic, he completed an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University in 2012, and has written the psychological thriller Bad Magic under the nom de plume of A. M. Stirling. He is now writing his third novel.

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