No more bad witches

William Trevor pays tribute to the doyenne of crime-writers, Patricia Highsmith, and marks an uncharacteristic departure in her last novel
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The Independent Culture
FORTY-FIVE years have passed since Charles Bruno slid into a Pullman seat on the train from New York to Metcalf. It wasn't where he should be sitting, but he was bored and lonely, in search of conversation. The young man opposite him was reading Plato.

It is one of the most memorable begin-nings in modern literature; and Charles Bruno is one of its most memorable nuisances. Within minutes he has drawn his fellow traveller into a world that already smells sour to the unwilling listener. The train moves into Texas, Bruno prattles on. "If you please, Mr Bruno, I'd like a little privacy for a while" doesn't work. Nor does anything else.

What Bruno is particularly keen to relate is that his father collects cookie cutters. His father has animal-cracker cookie cutters framed over his desk. His father calls him a bum. His father wants him to enter the hardware business. Bruno prefers his mother.

Hitchcock made a good film out of Strangers on a Train, but the novel is better. It plumbs deeper, it connects more subtly these two men who do not know one another, it creeps more surely through the labyrinth of Bruno's psychosis. The perceptions that lace its immaculate storytelling lift it to a level that transcends the genre of the thriller. Guy - the Plato aficionado - is already thrashing about in a web of his own making when Bruno delightedly exclaims, "Cheeses, what an idea! We murder for each other, see? I'll kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on the train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis!"

So Bruno kills Guy's plump wife at Lake Metcalf's Kingdom of Fun and the band plays on. The nuisance on the train still friendlily smiles, but he's looking for more than a chat and a drinking companion now. He hangs about, he phones, he writes. The privacy he invades is the very being of his victim.

With this first novel, Patricia Highsmith claimed the terrain she has occupied ever since, until her recent death. It is the terrain of guilt and the effect of guilt, of fear and fear's destructive potency, the territory of pretence and desperation and unease. Hatred has interested her more than love, the skewed more than the normal, the defeated more than the successful. She never wrote carelessly or slackly; she never disappointed.

Between Strangers on a Train and Small g: a Summer Idyll (Bloomsbury £14.99) there are 20 novels and seven collections of stories. Many of these are rooted in domestic pettiness, a whisper of disagreement whirring into a tempest of emotions so violent that only death can quell it. Others spread their complicated plots from simple greed, or schizophrenia lurking beneath a skin of sanity. Fast-thinking, ingenious, gifted with charm and determined to treat himself to the luxuries the gifted deserve, Tom Ripley - possibly the most telling of all the Highsmith criminals - arrives in The Talented Mr Ripley. In a dull grey world Ripley makes his way with bright enthusiasm, disposing of obstructions, human or otherwise.

Patricia Highsmith's hungry curiosity about other people made Ripley what he is. She lived the detail of her char-acters' lives but always she wanted to know more: how people reacted in certain circumstances, the chances people took, the minutiae of physical or mental deformity, the insidious influence of small obsessions. A practical, modest, well- educated woman who believed that Latin should be more widely taught, she gardened and carpentered and brought up her cats, living in the Ticino the expatriate life of Ripley and many of the others she created. When she told of how she drove into a train near Locarno it was fanciful - but only just - to wonder if she'd known what she was doing, if she had sought to learn something from the experience.

She certainly learnt about designer sleaze in Zurich: it's all there in Small g: a Summer Idyll, which the blurb explains is a "departure". Now and again, as if it has been necessary to take a break from an exacting talent, there have been departures before. Death occurs - a murder, in fact - on the first page of this novel, but nothing much in the way of mystery or tension attaches to it, and by the next page it's clear that the summer idyll is a fairy story.

In the mainly homosexual milieu of Jakob's Bierstube-Restaurant the love that is so often absent in Patricia High-smith's fiction is scattered all over the place, but almost all of it is misdirected. Rickie, who's getting on a bit and putting on a bit, wants handsome young Georg, also called Teddie. But Teddie, who's heterosexual, wants Luisa, who in turn is wanted by Dorrie. So Rickie settles for a policeman and Dorrie manages to have her way with Luisa. Teddie ends up confused.

The bad witch who watches and sourly disapproves is a classic Highsmith malcontent, a club-footed fashion queen whose jealousy imprisons the seamstresses who work for her, who detests with a vigour worthy of Charles Bruno the louche world of Jakob's Bierstube-Restaurant (categorised with a "small g" in a Zurich guidebook, which means it is gay but not entirely so). Even more so, she detests the homosexual soul of Rickie, who spends so much of his time there. When Bruno followed the girl he was about to kill in the Lake Metcalf Kingdom of Fun, he "squirmed with disgust at the thought of her wet mouth on his hand". Renate Hagnauer, purveyor of beautiful clothing, is repelled in that same way when she sees Rickie dancing with his dog.

Human nature is as frail here as Patricia Highsmith has ever painted it. In his teal-blue apartment Rickie dreams of what cannot be any more since his looks have left him. His work - composing advertisements for products that don't matter - is trivial. He is HIV positive and so is his policeman.

Then the bad witch is dead, and pretty Luisa inherits. It's all a mistake about anyone being HIV positive. But Luisa isn't certain about herself any more, and how long will Rickie's reprieve last, since he likes to adventure? And his policeman is married.

The fairy tale ends, but there's no living happily ever after. That was never the Highsmith style. Truth was her business.