Patricia Highsmith, the ultimate purveyor of what Graham Greene called “cruel pleasures”, was born 100 years ago this month. The dark celebrations for this most misanthropic of modern novelists are about to begin with the publication of Under a Dark Angel’s Eye, a new collection of her short stories.
And that’s not all. This month there’s a new biography of the writer by Richard Bradford. Highsmith’s eye-opening diaries and notebooks — which I drew on for Beautiful Shadow, the first biography of the author — will be published in the summer. This year we should see the release of the first series of Showtime’s big-budget television adaptation of the Ripley novels, starring Andrew Scott as the charming psychopath and Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf. Then in August Highsmith’s 1957 novel Deep Water will get the big-screen treatment with Adrian Lyne directing Ben Affleck as the murderous, snail-obsessed Vic Van Allen, and Ana de Armas as his wife, Melinda.
So what’s the continuing allure of the Texan-born author?
“Equal Opportunity Offender”
“You don’t come to Patricia Highsmith for goodness or light or comfort,” the American short-story writer and essayist Carmen Maria Machado writes in her introduction to Under a Dark Angel’s Eye, the collection published by Virago. “You come to her for uncanny observations about human depravity.” She singles out “violence, torment, obsession, all bubbling beneath a cool veneer” as the signature themes of her fiction.
While I was writing Highsmith’s biography, one of her close friends told me that the writer was “an equal opportunity offender”. She was a lesbian who held suspect views about women; she felt unsettled by the idea of women in libraries in case they might be menstruating and regarded members of her own sex as “a bunch of pushovers” and “whining”. As she aged she held increasingly antisemitic and racist views. While no one can excuse this kind of prejudice — Machado describes Highsmith as a “hateful person — shockingly so” — it’s useful to understand the dark roots of the author’s early life.
A lesbian who held suspect views about women and regarded members of her own sex as “a bunch of pushovers” and “whining.”
Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921, under what she described as “a sickly star”. Before her birth her mother, Mary, tried to abort her by drinking turpentine; later she would taunt her daughter by saying: “It’s funny you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat.” Her parents divorced before she was born and she grew up to hate her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, from whom she got her surname. As a child she harbored fantasies of killing him.
At some point between the age of four and five it seems she was sexually abused by a couple of male strangers at her grandmother’s house in Fort Worth. And then as she passed through puberty, as she was beginning to find other girls attractive, her mother asked her, “Are you a les?” before adding cruelly: “You are beginning to make noises like one.” This “frightening remark” made her feel even more alienated and introverted. “It reminds one of ‘Look at that hunchback, isn’t he funny!’ on the street,” she said. “I was not a cripple on the street, but a member of my mother’s family.”
Getting Away with Murder
We are often drawn into Highsmith’s claustrophobic world like flies tentatively exploring the gossamer strands of a spider’s web. The author’s seemingly simple style and the deliciously dark rewards of the crime genre lure us in, but beware; soon after entering her claustrophobic universe we find it is impossible to escape. Her domain is one of warped infatuation, her characters driven by irrational responses and perverse reasonings. It’s no surprise to learn that she chose to call one of her novels This Sweet Sickness, a book about the obsessive nature of love. The title sums up her twisted appeal.
Greene, writing in the introduction to Highsmith’s short-story collection Eleven, described the author’s sphere as one without moral endings. “Nothing is certain when we have crossed this frontier,” he said. “It is not the world as we once believed we knew it, but it is frighteningly more real to us than the house next door. Actions are sudden and impromptu and the motives sometimes so inexplicable that we simply have to accept them on trust. I believe because it is impossible. Her characters are irrational, and they leap to life in their very lack of reason.”
Since Greene wrote those words in 1970, our worldview has become arguably even more skewed and jaundiced. The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the financial crash of 2008, the anxieties surrounding a post-Brexit world, the rise of populism and Donald Trump and the realities of living through a global pandemic have left many of us feeling more than a little despairing about the state we are in. Suddenly concepts such as certainty, natural justice and fixed moral codes seem so old-fashioned.
The author’s seemingly simple style and the deliciously dark rewards of the crime genre lure us in, but beware.
As early as 1942, when she was 21, Highsmith wrote in her notebook about her inability to write prose that focused on the positive aspects of life. Rather, her metier was the perverse, the unnerving, the unbalanced. She decided that the best way to capture the spirit of modern times was through a deviant point of view: the everyman for the new age was the psychopath.
“The abnormal point of view is always the best for depicting 20th-century life, not only because so many of us are abnormal, realising it or not, but because 20th-century life is established and maintained through abnormality,” she wrote. She stated that one day she would like to write a book with all the literary virtues of Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel The Red Badge of Courage, but seen through the eyes of an “abnormal” character, “until, at the end, the reader sees, and with very little reluctance, that he is not abnormal at all, and that the main character might as well be himself”.
“Her characters are irrational, and they leap to life in their very lack of reason.”
The entry summarizes the method she would use when it came to the creation of her most famous character, Tom Ripley, her aesthete psychopath who would make his first appearance in her 1955 novel The Talented Mr Ripley. By the end of that book — and throughout the four subsequent Ripley novels, published in 1970, 1974, 1980 and 1991 — we are actively hoping that Ripley gets away with murder. “What I predicted I would once do, I am doing already in this very book (Tom Ripley), that is showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it,” she noted in her journal in 1954. “I shall make my readers rejoice in it too. Thus the subconscious always proceeds the consciousness, or reality, as in dreams.”
Ripley, like Gatsby before him, also embodies another modern obsession: our fascination with self-reinvention. In the age of Instagram and Facebook it’s never been easier to become a different person, at least on the surface. In this regard we are all Ripleys now.
At the beginning of the first novel Ripley is a penniless young man scraping a living from a sordid apartment in New York, but by the end, after killing Dickie and forging his will, he has transformed himself into a wealthy playboy touring Europe. In the later books he is living as the husband of a rich heiress in a large house near Fontainebleau, and is the owner of a fine art collection, including Picassos, Magrittes and Van Goghs. This is the man who is a dab hand with the garrotte, yet is so sensitive he cries at the sight of Keats’s grave.
Ripley, like Gatsby before him, also embodies another modern obsession: our fascination with self-reinvention. In this regard we are all Ripleys now.
There’s a queer element to Ripley too, something that in the novels often hides in the shadows. In The Talented Mr Ripley Tom is both fearful of homosexuality — he regards “queers” as “perverts” — and attracted to it; he doesn’t know what would give him the greatest thrill, to sleep with Dickie or become him. In The Boy Who Followed Ripley the reader is treated to a bizarre scene in which Tom drags up, complete with makeup, wig and high-heeled patent-leather court shoes.
Andrew Scott, who is serving as a producer as well as the star of the forthcoming Ripley TV series, is the perfect choice to play the transgressive character, bringing together the sinister intensity of Moriarty from Sherlock and the sexy charm of the hot priest from Fleabag. “You know what, they’re not that different in a sense,” Scott has said about the hot priest and Ripley. “What connects them in my mind is an idea of vulnerability.”
Vulnerability is key to understanding Highsmith herself. One of the reasons why the author remains so intriguing is her eccentric personality. She was fascinated by snails — she studied zoology for a year while at Barnard College, New York — and one of her early stories, the supremely disturbing The Snail-Watcher, is included in the new Virago anthology. Witnesses say she would take the creatures to parties in her handbag, while there is a report of her smuggling the gastropods between France and England in her bra.
Her relationships were intense and passionate, but they did not last; a number of women she fell in love with took their own lives. However, she channeled her feverish obsessions into her writing. “All my life work will be an undedicated monument to a woman,” she wrote in her diary.
And it was the discipline of her work, and the release it provided, that saved her and continues to obsess us. “She was one of the great misanthropists, and there was something almost Swiftian about her,” her friend the writer Roger Clarke told me. “I could imagine her committing unspeakable crimes if she had no outlet, the outlet of her writing.”
Andrew Wilson is the author of several books, including Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith