Obituary: Patricia Highsmith
Monday 06 February 1995
Patricia Highsmith was a crime writer of an unusual kind. Her 20 novels and most of her short stories are about criminals, usually about murder; but they are neither what Americans call "mysteries", nor are they what in Britain are known as "detective stories".
Beginning with her masterpiece, Strangers on a Train (1950), turned into an unforgettable film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, and continuing through the five novels she wrote about her favourite character, Tom Ripley, Highsmith focused on the intense relationships, especially between two men, that lead to murder, and also loved to show how people can be drawn gradually into situations from which murder or violence seem the only escape.
Her novels have more to do with the murky, airless worlds of Dostoevsky and Kafka than with the cops and gangsters of the American tradition or with clever ladies and gentlemen of the English "Golden Age" of detective fiction. They are, it has been well said, not "who-dunnits" so much as "why-dunnits". And they are characterised by an urbane contempt for conventional ideas of morality. They were even more popular in France and Germany than in Britain and the United States, and after Hitchcock, two of her Ripley novels were made into memorable films: in 1960 Rene Clement made The Talented Mr Ripley into Plein Soleil, starring Alain Delon, whom Highsmith called "my ideal" actor; and in 1977 Wim Wenders adapted Ripley's Game into The American Friend, starring Dennis Hopper.
Dark, intelligent, cynical and perfectly realised stories in which kindly characters get it in the neck and murderers often get away with it, they are the work of a woman who started as a bright, unhappy child. "Maybe I have a certain contempt for justice", she once said. "Things go wrong in life. Justice is not always done, and people sort of get used to it."
She was born Patricia Plangman in Forth Worth, Texas. Her parents separated before she was born, and when she was six her mother married Stanley Highsmith and moved to New York. She described her childhood, overshadowed by endless rows between her motherand her stepfather, as a "little hell". And she never concealed her dislike for her mother.
She was taught to read by her grandmother when she was two, and she buried herself in books from an early age. "I could read like a streak", she once said, and she raced through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, which were among her favourite writers. While still a schoolgirl at Julia Richman High School in New York she wrote stories which contained premonitions of her taste for the louche. One was about a girl who steals a library book, another about a girl who is lured by a stranger into his car. The first story she sold, sardonically titled "The Cries of Love", was about two old women who live together but hate one another. In 1950 she published Strangers on a Train, a thoroughly sinister story of two men who meet on a train and agree to carry out each other's murders. The success of the book and of the Hitchcock film, which starred Robert Walker and Farley Granger, meant that Highsmith was able to move to Europe and concentrate on writing full time.
Her next book, published pseudonymously in 1952, was The Price of Salt, the story of a love affair between a young girl and a married woman with a small child. Highsmith never married, and never concealed that she was or had been earlier in her life a lesbian.
In 1956 she published The Talented Mr Ripley, the story of a young American - usually described by reviewers as "schizophrenic" or a "psychopath" - who kills for money and gets away with it. Set in Europe, it involves the reader identifying, however unwillingly, with the amoral anti-hero. Patricia Highsmith said later that when she was writing the book she felt Tom Ripley was writing it for her and she was just doing the typing; certainly Tom Ripley gave a subject and a manner that was to make her fortune as surely as his murderous amorality had made his. In 1957 she won the Edgar Allan Poe scroll from the Mystery Writers of America for Ripley, and she subsequently made him the central character of four more novels. The last, Ripley Under Water, was published in 1991. Highsmith completed her last novel, small g: a summer idyll, a few weeks before her death.
Highsmith's novels were widely admired by other writers. Graham Greene, a special fan, praised her as "a writer who has created a world of her own - a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger". Highsmith herself said that "solving a murder case leaves me completely indifferent. Is there anything more artificial and boring than justice? It is not my aim to morally rearm the reader, I want to entertain."
After leaving America for good in 1963, Highsmith lived briefly in England and in Italy, then in 1966 she moved to a small French village. Recently she moved with her cat Charlotte to a hundred-year-old house in Tegna, a village near Locarno in the Ticino, an Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. There, in a quiet sunny corner south of the Alps she enjoyed painting, drawing, listening to classical music and making furniture. She smoked two packets of strong unfiltered cigarettes a day.
Although she lived quietly, avoiding literary luncheons and literary occasions, she had strong political opinions: she described herself as a social democrat, sympathised with the Palestinians, and disliked Koreans because she understood "they ate dogs".Her affection for animals, and perhaps a certain misanthropy, were expressed in one of her books, The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (1975), in which the humans are murdered by animals.
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