Patricia Highsmith, mistress of the murder, dies aged 74

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The Independent Online
Patricia Highsmith, the American thriller writer whose first novel rescued the ailing career of Alfred Hichcock and whose later works immortalised the progress of the upwardly mobile, and hugely personable, psychopath Tom Ripley, died yesterday atthe age of 74. News of her death was given by her agent and the Carita hospital in Locarno, Switzerland. No cause was given.

Patricia Highsmith wrote more than 20 novels and seven short-story collections. Her work, which was published in 20 languages, won wide critical acclaim.

Graham Greene described 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." In 1975, the Times Literary Supplement said she was "the crime writer who comesclosest to giving crime writing a good name."

Many of her principal characters, even if they had killed someone, escaped justice - indeed it was the pervasive sense of immorality that attracted her, and the public, to their exploits "Solving a murder case leaves me indifferent," she once wrote. "Is there anything more artificial and boring than justice?"

Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, was published in 1950. With its ingenious plot involving a rising, but bland, tennis player, and a wealthy, manipulative dandy who meet on a long-distance journey and agree to murder each other's hated relative, it became a model for her future literary scenarios.

The following year, the book was adapted for the screen by Raymond Chandler and directed by Hitchcock, whose career was in the doldrums.

But she was probably best known for the character of Tom Ripley, the charming and plausible gentleman-murderer who killed some nine people in the five novels in which he was the hero. In the first of the series, The Talented Mr. Ripley, a young American travelling in Europe murdered a young man and took on his identity. Having become rich on the dead man's inheritance, Ripley gained access to high society. Highsmith said of all her characters, Ripley was her favourite. Her last novel in 1991 was Ripley Under Water.

Highsmith herself frequently used to protest that she was not a mystery writer. "I rather like criminals and find them extremely interesting, unless they are monotonously and stupidly brutal," she once said.

Patricia Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, shortly before her parents divorced. She never hid the fact that she disliked her mother, who married Stanley Highsmith and then took Patricia to New York when she was six years old.

She found solace in books. "I could read like a streak because my grandmother taught me when I was two," she said. She wrote her first short stories when she was 17.

While Highsmith liked to shock with her books, she lived a quiet private life. She lived in Italy, England and France before settling in a quiet sunny corner of Switzerland near the town of Locarno. She never married.

On later visits to London she professed an interest in Peter Sutcliffe and Lord Lucan, though she died before these characters could have found their way into her intriguing plots.