American Writer Patricia Highsmith in Front of Fountain (Photo by Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
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The talented (if very odd) Patricia Highsmith

On the 100th anniversary of her birth, Highsmith remains one of the great uncompromising writers of the last century

There has been a cliché – perhaps a rather misogynistic one – that women who write crime novels must themselves be benign and unthreatening figures. From Agatha Christie to Dorothy L Sayers, not forgetting the contemporary likes of PD James, Ruth Rendell and Val McDermid, there has been an expectation that, whatever the dark horrors to be found in their books, their creators should be twinkly and jovial, even cosy.

No such expectation has ever been made of their male counterparts, but the tradition of the unthreatening female crime writer should have been definitively upended by the American novelist Patricia Highsmith, who was born a hundred years ago today. Highsmith led a torrid, often miserable private life that was only rivalled in its byzantine complexity by the brilliance of her writing.

Immersing yourself in Highsmith’s universe is a fascinating yet harrowing experience

To read Highsmith’s novels is to leap into a strange, rather frightening world where traditional values of good and evil, or law and order, have been entirely upended. In her books, the biggest and nastiest crooks are usually the ones who prosper most impressively, and the timid and law-abiding are left bewildered and often penniless on the sidewalk, jetty or runway. If, of course, they’ve made it alive until the end of her books, which is by no means a given.

She is most famous today for her creation of Tom Ripley, the anti-heroic protagonist of five novels, but over the course of a career that spanned nearly half a century, she wrote dozens of other books and collections of short stories. Immersing yourself in Highsmith’s universe is a fascinating yet harrowing experience, and one that should be approached with both excitement and a certain amount of justifiable trepidation.

Highsmith was born in Texas in 1921, to a hostile mother who once informed her that she had attempted to abort her by drinking turpentine. Thereafter, a withdrawn but brilliant child, she immersed herself in both crime novels and works of Freudian analysis, both of which would later inform her career. After a fruitless attempt to find work on magazines, she published her first book, Strangers On A Train, in 1950, the story of two men who agree a scheme to “exchange murders” and rid each other of a figure in one another’s lives who is causing them difficulty. One of the protagonists, the Oedipally fixated Charles Bruno, was the first of Highsmith’s portrayals of sexually ambiguous, sinister figures who come to take over apparently innocent lives, tearing apart the all-American milieu in which they find themselves.

The novel was an immediate success and received the accolade of being filmed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock the following year, with a script co-written by Raymond Chandler. Hitchcock made the homoerotic relationship between the two men more explicit while turning Bruno from a threatening, overtly psychopathic character into a charming and dangerously charismatic one, in the tradition of Hitchcockian anti-heroes that included everyone from Cary Grant in Suspicion and Claude Rains in Notorious to Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Barry Foster in Frenzy. The film softened Highsmith’s bleak ending but was otherwise reasonably faithful to Highsmith’s narrative: she said of it that “I am pleased in general. Especially with Bruno, who held the movie together as he did the book.”

In Ripley, Highsmith created her own alter-ego

Although Strangers On A Train, which is now regarded as one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, was not an especially big hit, it helped to establish Highsmith’s reputation, which was then confirmed four years later with the publication of her best-known book The Talented Mr Ripley. In Ripley, Highsmith created her own alter-ego, a criminal whose superficial charm and endless adaptability to circumstances cannot fill the essential vapidity at his core, which he attempts to combat by killing anyone he needs to in order to further his nefarious aims. Highsmith said, approvingly, of her creation that he was “suave, agreeable and utterly amoral”, and over the course of the novels that he appeared in, Ripley became her defining character. Sexually ambiguous (“I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department. But he makes it in bed with his wife” his creator commented in 1988), possessed of increasingly grand and expensive tastes and perfectly prepared to commit any crime to achieve his ends, Ripley is undeniably one of the greatest literary creations of the twentieth century.

It is little wonder that he has attracted the attention of many filmmakers, all of whom have chosen to interpret the character entirely differently. I think that the most accomplished is Anthony Minghella’s soulful, sad version of the story in his 1999 film of The Talented Mr Ripley, in which Matt Damon thrillingly interprets Ripley as a man who gains the world but loses his soul in the process. All the same, I also have a great deal of time for John Malkovich as an older, moneyed Ripley in Liliana Cavani’s 2002 adaptation of Ripley’s Game, especially a hilarious extended scene of multiple murders on board a train that would have done credit to Hitchcock, and Alain Delon as a smouldering, dashing Ripley in the 1960 version of Talented Mr Ripley, Plein Soleil. The news that the chameleonic Andrew Scott is to play Highsmith’s protagonist in a new TV series, Ripley, opposite Johnny Flynn as his prey Dickie Greenleaf, can only be welcomed.

Yet even as Highsmith reaped the benefits of fame and fortune, she embraced a cold-hearted misanthropy that would lead her own publisher Otto Penzler to say, after her death, “she was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being … I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly”, even as he acknowledged that her books remained “brilliant”. She was a lesbian who despised women, even as she was having sex with as many of them as ten a day, mainly strangers who she picked up in bars. She was a committed racist and anti-Semite who proudly called herself a “Jew-hater” and described the Holocaust as a “semicaust” on the grounds that she believed that Hitler should have gone further than he did. At one dinner party, she decided to liven the evening up by disappearing from the room, returning with a concentration camp number written on her wrist: unsurprisingly, her appalled guests left the room immediately.

There can be little doubt that she was, at best, a challenging woman to be around

Even the few unfortunate women who engaged in longer-term relationships with Highsmith were treated by her with contempt and derision. Two of them, Ellen Blumenthal Hill and Marion Aboudaram, were Jewish, and therefore subjected to both abuse and, perhaps even more frighteningly, outbreaks of apparently sincere love and affection. It was unsurprising that Hill attempted suicide in 1953, nor that Highsmith, apparently unmoved by her lover’s near death, simply continued her sexual intrigues with other pliant women. Although she found sex with men unpleasant, comparing it to “steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place” and necessitating a bowel movement afterwards, she continued to sleep with them if she found no suitable female company, later saying “I like most men better than I like women, but not in bed”.

Writers who have written lives of Highsmith, including Andrew Wilson, have attempted to be generous towards her, but there can be little doubt that she was, at best, a challenging woman to be around, and, at worst, a monumentally unpleasant bigot whose undoubted literary talent could only compensate so far for her inadequacies as a human being. Her most recent biographer Richard Bradford calls her simply “foul” and “execrable”.

Yet despite or, more likely, because of her failings, her books remain fascinatingly unrestrained delves into the darker aspects of the human psyche. The writer and editor Gustav Temple, a noted Highsmith aficionado, says of her that:

In the novels of Patricia Highsmith, there is no moral compass, not even a moral windsock. The characters drift into their misguided actions, driven by nothing more than whim or gut feeling, usually resulting in disaster. With the exception of her final, posthumous novel, Small g, a Summer Idyll, no-one ever helps anybody out or learns anything useful, yet she somehow manages to make the reader root for the most appallingly base protagonist, as if their selfish urges are the last word in human dignity. Reading Highsmith makes a refreshing change from fiction that presupposes the right of the reader to be satisfied by the cast achieving any form of redemption.

Certainly, her lesbian love story The Price of Salt aside (which was originally published pseudonymously as “Claire Morgan” and later filmed as the Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara vehicle Carol), Highsmith’s novels are a bracingly bleak walk on the wild side, with plenty of black humour and mordant wit but very little in the way of human sympathy. It is this that makes them both challenging and endlessly, compulsively readable, and why Highsmith, for all of her apparently limitless flaws as a human being, remains one of the great uncompromising writers of the last century.

Cosy and maternal she was not, but it remains unfair that many similarly awful male writers are celebrated purely for their work while their equally dismal private lives are simply brushed away. We should, in the interests of equality, now extend the same treatment to Highsmith, who was undeniably as talented as any of them – even if you wouldn’t have wanted to meet her on a night out. 

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