Though I have been a reader of crime fiction all of my adult life, I avoided the work of Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) until my early 30s. Bleak worldviews weren’t the issue; perhaps it was the unconscious feeling that spending too much time in Highsmith’s brain might alter mine irrevocably.
What finally opened the trapdoor was Joan Schenkar’s nonlinear, idiosyncratic biography, “The Talented Miss Highsmith” (2009). (Another Highsmith biography, released in 2003, Andrew Wilson’s “Beautiful Shadow,” is also worth seeking out, though I’d skip Richard Bradford’s 2021 effort, “Devils, Lusts, and Strange Desires.”) Schenkar, who died in 2021, made Highsmith seem so relentlessly complicated, maddening and fascinating that I had to know how that specific mind produced her books.
So what is it about Patricia Highsmith that keeps us reading? I’ll answer strictly for myself: Her concepts are daring, her portrayals of men in the throes of personality disorder and psychopathic leanings are equally repulsive and propulsive, and there is enough sublimated autobiography in her work that searching out the facts of her life reveals all manner of infuriating contradictions.
She was a lesbian who identified more with men; an ardent pursuer of pleasure, especially in her youth (which emerges more wholly in a new documentary, “Loving Highsmith”); a devotee of cats and snails; a raging antisemite; and a longtime expat still deeply and identifiably American. Because she could never hold on to happiness, Highsmith subsumed it in her work, always her best and most lasting love.
I’m glad I waited until well into adulthood to read Highsmith, because danger lurks for anyone who might take life lessons from her memorable male antiheroes. Now I have only a handful of later volumes left to read, which I will dole out over the coming years: The thought of having no new Highsmith to read leaves me a little bereft.
Where should I begin if I’m totally new to her work?
Consider “Strangers on a Train” (1950). The setup, of course, is now deeply embedded in popular culture. Two men meet on a train. One, Guy Haines, admits to unhappiness in his marriage and the other, Charles Anthony Bruno, blithely proposes a murder exchange: Guy’s wife for Bruno’s father. Alfred Hitchcock immortalized the story in his film adaptation, and countless books, movies and television shows have repurposed this concept.
Revisiting Highsmith’s novel reveals the true astringency of the premise, that a seemingly cavalier proposition has the power to cause serious and permanent ruin. Just by listening to Bruno, Guy is marked, and Highsmith wrings out every available facet of this cat-and-mouse game that is fated to end badly for all.
I’d like a classic.
“The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1955) is a standard-bearer, indelibly woven into the fabric of contemporary crime fiction. (And it’s been turned into two noteworthy films — I prefer “Purple Noon” (1960) and Alain Delon’s bewitching performance to the more cinematically expansive 1999 Anthony Minghella film.)
Tom Ripley, whom Highsmith identified with, is a shape-shifter, con artist and sociopath who insinuates himself into the life of Dickie Greenleaf, whose rich and fabulous existence he would kill for. Marge, Dickie’s girlfriend and a writer, takes notes even when she knows better. Highsmith compared herself to Ripley, of course, but I’d argue she and Marge resemble each other more than she ever admitted.
There’s so much to sink into: gorgeous descriptions of seaside Italy; homoerotic love sublimated into cold rage; the rich’s casual disdain for the working class; abrupt murder and identity theft. No wonder Highsmith returned to the character four more times; my favorite of the later books is “The Boy Who Followed Ripley” (1980).
I loved the movie ‘Carol.’
In “The Price of Salt” (1952), the movie’s source material, the romance between Therese, a shopgirl, and Carol, a glamorous but deeply unhappy married woman, displays Highsmith at her most vulnerable and autobiographical. The road trip chapters are a special wonder, highlighting the pair’s growing bond in tandem with the expansiveness and possibility of the American landscape. Highsmith wouldn’t claim responsibility for the novel, which she first published under a pseudonym, until the early 1990s, by which time it had sold millions of copies and wowed readers for its happy ending — a rarity for lesbian fiction then and for many years thereafter.
I’m in the mood for creative and destructive examinations of marriage.
My fondness for Highsmith’s third novel, “The Blunderer” (1954), is no secret: I reprinted it in the Library of America collection I edited in 2015, “Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s.” She puts her protagonist, Walter Stackhouse, through some serious machinations. Frustrated in marriage, he drifts toward malevolent fantasies about murdering his wife. But when he reads a newspaper article about an actual wife-killer, Walter begins to stalk the other man. Things grow even weirder, alternately pitch-black to the point of slapstick, when Walter’s wife dies and the two men engage in a strange pas de deux.
What stands out for me, though, is the novel’s depiction of police brutality. Lawrence Corby, the police lieutenant bent on arresting both men, revels in the power afforded to him by the badge. Law, in Highsmith’s world, is never tied to order.
How about even more creative and destructive examinations of marriage?
Few authors begin their careers with such sustained brilliance as did Highsmith with her first five novels, all listed here. “Deep Water” (1957) is a particular standout, exploring the vicissitudes of male impotence, misogyny and murder through the story of Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a married couple whose toxicity rivals that of Nick and Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn’s thriller “Gone Girl.” (Indeed, Flynn cites “Deep Water” as her favorite Highsmith novel.)
Melinda’s penchant for extramarital affairs provokes Vic to maximum jealousy levels, to the point where he brags, falsely, about killing one of her lovers. Actual murder is inevitable, though shocking nonetheless. “Deep Water” may be Highsmith at her darkest and finest. As a bonus, there’s a recent (albeit uneven) film adaptation starring Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck.
What is Highsmith’s most underrated novel?
Highsmith’s 1960s novels are for the most part good, but not as memorable as her earlier work. “The Glass Cell” (1964), however, is an exception, in part because of its unusual back story: Highsmith had exchanged correspondence with an inmate who was a fan of her work, and used his experience as the basis for a novel about what incarceration, especially wrongful, does to a man’s mind. The opening scene of extended prison violence is wrenching and graphic, and the entire story resonates today.
Is there anything for a nonfiction lover?
It may seem counterintuitive, but don’t approach “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” (1966) thinking it’s a guide to writing fiction. Rather, it’s a blueprint of how Highsmith conceived of her own work, and a window into some of the distinct aspects of her intelligence that led to her greatest successes — and books that didn’t quite work. (The chapter on “The Glass Cell” is particularly informative.) Only Patricia Highsmith could write a Highsmith novel, no matter how many subsequent generations of writers attempt to do so.
Give me something short and bitter.
Highsmith was a superb short story writer, dating all the way to her first, award-winning 1945 tale, “The Heroine.” (I reprinted it in my 2013 anthology “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.”) Most of her stories, like the harrowing “The Terrapin,” found an initial home in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine before their book reprints. But “Little Tales of Misogyny” (1975) is a different animal: Originally published in German years before it was translated into English, this collection of linked stories, some just a page or two long, probes all manner of ways that men hate women, women hate themselves and everyone struggles under the weight of patriarchy. Sympathy is in short supply and the pH balance skews wildly acidic. Highsmith spares no one, including herself.
I’ve read plenty about Tom Ripley. What else should I try?
Because Highsmith is so commonly associated with male characters and alter egos, it is something of a shock to encounter “Edith’s Diary” (1977). The book follows Edith Howland, a mid-20th-century, middle-aged woman desperate to hang on to her role as a housewife and mother. In her journals, she comes off as a success, as does her son, Cliffie, and nothing much troubles them. Reality, however, is far more fractured, and the degree to which Edith succumbs to the dreamlike qualities of her diary causes even more damage than staying true to the messiness and ugliness of the real world.
I want to see Highsmith’s complications up close.
Anna von Planta, Highsmith’s longtime European editor, assembled a mammoth volume of Highsmith’s diaries, “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995” (2021), distilled from thousands of pages Highsmith kept over the course of her life. As the New York Times critic Dwight Garner noted in his review, the early sections “comprise one of the most observant and ecstatic accounts I’ve read — and it’s a crowded field! — about being young and alive in New York City.”
I, too, was captivated by Highsmith’s chronicling of what it was like to be a young, queer woman out and about in wartime Manhattan, when the rules were being rewritten, albeit fleetingly. But the later sections of her diaries carry great power, too, illuminating her pursuit of art, her self-destructive streaks, her increasingly virulent anti-Semitism and the costs — to herself and especially to others — of how she created her work.
This marvelous collection will appeal to Highsmith completists, as well as readers tentatively wading into the author’s deeper waters for the first time.