A highly regarded author of complex psychological thrillers, including The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith’s fiction comes freighted with a heady mix of cross-purposes and intimate alienations.
Highsmith so abhorred scrutiny that Jeanette Winterson called her ‘as secretive as an oyster’. Highsmith equated enduring an interview with surviving a car crash, claiming she required weeks afterwards for recovery. Yet so much is hidden in the plain sight of her fiction. Much of Highsmith’s work blazes with the sublimated sexual desire between male characters, their conversations often reading as barely displaced hate-sex. Her most famous creation – the sexually ambiguous Tom Ripley – served as a means for Highsmith to test out modes of amorality. Ripley is an avatar for his author, with the addition of a Y chromosome and a predilection for throttling.
Her debut novel Strangers on a Train was first filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, and subsequently sparked no less than 37 further film and television adaptations – most of which she was, at best, indifferent to. Highsmith’s own favourite film was that grandest of melodramas, Gone With Wind, a preference that reveals something about her as a writer; as critic Susannah Clapp commented, ‘Highsmith’s thrillers have the lure of romance’.
A prolific writer who published 22 novels and eight short story collections, Highsmith’s work has never been entirely out of print, yet her writing is regularly being ‘rediscovered’. Pioneering feminist publishing house Virago Press is now in the process of republishing all Highsmith’s work as ebooks, with a proportion of them also arriving in paperback as part of the distinguished Virago Modern Classics series.
Highsmith was always a genre-hopping novelist, whose Dostoyevskian interest in the internal psychology of dangerous minds imbued her work with the complexity of literary fiction. She worked hard to distance her work from any association with pulp fiction, claiming that the only thriller writers she read were Dostoyevsky and Graham Greene. In a modern context, Highsmith’s work is particularly striking. It forms one of the clearest antecedents to the ‘golden age of longform television’, and to series like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, which require viewers to identify with their antiheroes for narrative satisfaction.
From the earliest reviews, Highsmith’s critics were eager to rescue her from the status of a genre writer. They claimed her work was more expansive than anything contained by labels like ‘pulp’ or ‘mystery’. Certainly, her characters are often ingenious dark stars of moral conflict. These centres of eerie gravity are built up through an accumulation of weird and pertinent detail, in narratives centring on soured or souring lead characters who are either amoral or wronged. However, Highsmith’s complex essaying of the human animal in extremis did not necessarily translate into a sure control of prose. Even at the height of her powers, in the period that stretched from Strangers on the Train (1950) to The Glass Cell (1964), passages of Highsmith’s writing hit the reader with all the lapidary quality of a head hitting a doorway. Take this short example from The Glass Cell:
‘The morphine shots came every four hours, and Carter wished they were more often. The doctor tried to be reassuring, but Carter could see that he was worried because the pain did not diminish. His name was Dr Stephen Cassini.’
Compare it to this rather atypical prose from her second novel The Price of Salt (1952), later republished as Carol:
‘Therese was propped up on one elbow. The milk was so hot, she could barely let her lip touch it at first. The tiny sips spread inside her mouth and released a melange of organic flavors. The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo. It was hot through and through to the bottom of the cup, and Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill. Then Carol came and took the cup, and Therese was drowsily aware that Carol asked her three questions, on that had to do with happiness, one about the store and one about the future. Therese heard herself answering. She heard her voice rise suddenly in a babble, like a spring that she had no control over, and she realized she was in tears. She was telling Carol all that she feared and disliked, of her loneliness, of Richard, and of gigantic disappointments.’
Both passages move in a rush, but whereas The Glass Cell’s sentences deliver their information like a fridge being pushed down a set of concrete stairs, The Price of Salt‘s feverish flow is perfectly suited to a character falling in love.
Highsmith herself said she was ‘not interested in style, but emotion’. At its best, her blunt style – what her best biographer Joan Schenkar called the ‘acid bath of her detailed-saturated prose’ – allows nothing to detract from the reader’s identification with her transgressive leads. In this way, it resembles the prose of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, which had a tremendous impact on the young Highsmith when she read the English translation in 1946.
As curt as Highsmith’s writing could sometimes be, her fictional words have an inexplicitness that accounts for much of their staying power. The sharp distinctness of sexual identity that arose in the wake of gay liberation in the late sixties was never Highsmith’s territory. Rather, her world is far more treacherous, and possesses the largeness and ambivalence of the dark.