Beautiful Shadow: a life of Patricia HIghsmith by Andrew Wilson

The talented, and scary, Ms Highsmith
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An "extract" from this book, taken almost entirely from the introduction and the epilogue, appeared recently in another paper. This review will be concerned with the meat in the sandwich. That metaphor itself is unsettling in connection with Patricia Highsmith, student of the macabre, for whom a trouser-press suggested an instrument of torture.

But the ambience of menace with which Andrew Wilson surrounds the American-born crime novelist reveals a new hazard for the relationship between biographer and subject. It is, of course, essential for the biographer to have some liking for the person under scrutiny. It had not occurred to me that it is also necessary that he should not be afraid. And Wilson, who scared himself silly by pulling round his shoulders an old dressing gown belonging to the creator of Ripley, seems terrified of Highsmith.

He has done an enormous amount of research and meticulously charts her antecedents, finances, a succession of unhappy lesbian affairs. Wilson unearthed the fascinating story of a beautiful society woman with whom Highsmith fell in love when working in Bloomingdale's department store. The novelist traced her to her home, and used the incident in her lesbian love story The Price of Salt.

This alarms Wilson greatly, and he turns Highsmith into a very scary lady. At one point, she is getting through a bottle of Scotch every four days! More seriously, he accuses her, on flimsy evidence, of anti-Semitism and racism. She was certainly anti-Zionist, but her American publisher told her to tone down support of the Palestinians with the words "The publishing and reviewing worlds are very heavily populated with Jews" - a remark that hardly reflects badly on Highsmith. In fact, the novelist had an admirable libertarian record, although she liked Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps Highsmith fancied her; she did seem to have a penchant for blondes.

Wilson is keen to present Highsmith's writing as mainstream, "literary" work, being rather snobbish about the mystery genre and comparing her to Camus and Dostoyevsky. Highsmith was a fine author, but she owed a big debt to the lean tradition of American popular fiction. Her plotting skills and narrative drive are hallmarks of the best crime writing, and she is wonderful at handling clues and red herrings; but this craftsmanship seems a bit lowly for Wilson.

His preferred version is the writer as emissary from hell, identifying Highsmith with her most famous creation, that amoral sociopath Tom Ripley. Admittedly, Highsmith herself perceived this, but she is surely not to be taken too literally, any more than Flaubert was for his famous comment: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi!"

Wilson quotes recent comments about Ripley as a hero for our times. But the attraction in The Talented Mr Ripley is surely the image of post-war America, glamorous and beloved, epitomised by Ripley's victim, Dickie Greenleaf. The US now has become a country of instant moral judgements, further than ever from Highsmith's complex images of guilt and manipulation.

Jane Jakeman's latest crime novel is 'Death at Versailles' (Allison & Busby)

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