Patricia Highsmith Essay - Highsmith, (Mary) Patricia (Vol. 4)

Highsmith, (Mary) Patricia (Vol. 4)

Highsmith, (Mary) Patricia 1921–

Ms Highsmith is an American-born novelist now living in France. Low-key, realistic, and carefully wrought, her tales of murder are terrifyingly plausible. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

It is difficult to find ways of praising Patricia Highsmith that do not at the same time do something to diminish her. To say that among crime writers she is extraordinarily subtle, wise and complicated is by now a reviewer's commonplace. With each new book, she is ritually congratulated for outstripping the limitations of her genre, for being as much concerned with people and ideas as with manipulated incident, for attempting a more than superficial exploration of the psychopathology of her unpleasant heroes—for, in short, exhibiting some of the gifts and preoccupations which are elementarily demanded of competent straight novelists. She is the crime writer who comes closest to giving crime writing a good name.

And this is not a contemptible niche. In a field where imitative hacks and dull formula-mongers abound it might seem easy enough to achieve some measure of distinctiveness, but Miss Highsmith's distinctiveness is of a special kind: it has to do not with strategies but with sensibility. From her first novel, Strangers on a Train, right through to her latest [in 1971], Ripley Under Ground, she has persistently used the crime story as a means of revealing and examining her own deepest interests and obsessions….

In Strangers on a Train Miss Highsmith demonstrated a fairly conventional moral attitude towards her characters—Bruno and Guy both meet sticky ends, and although (in the case of Guy, at any rate) one can hardly detect any overt condemnation, there is throughout the book a clear suggestion that the only possible outcome of all this is a disastrous one. With Ripley, she has a clear affection for her hero; he is the least sinister of her murderers. Miss Highsmith has often been accused of carrying her identification with her psychopathic characters to the point where she actually seems to be preferring their interesting evil to the mediocre virtue of their victims. In a sense this is true, but only in the Milton-preferred-Satan sense. One of Miss Highsmith's most remarkable gifts is her ability to chart the moral consciousness of the immoral; her killer heroes do have consciences, they do tend obsessively to examine and question their behaviour, but at the centre of even their most intricate self-interrogations there is a crucial blankness, a missing ingredient, an impassable limitation, and it is this that makes it possible for them to kill. Nearly all Miss Highsmith's murders are conducted in a chilling, dead-pan fashion, with the murderer seeming to view what he is up to as a mere job of work, to be done with neatness and efficiency—it might seem squeamishly obliging of her that few of her murder victims feel pain when they are killed, but this is really just another of her ways of signalling the killers' deadly anaesthesia….

[A] general susceptibility to received formulas (and not just the received formulas of crime writing) does tend to pervade her work and to render it persistently uneven. The strenuously touristy employment of foreign settings, the slackly contrived coincidences, the slovenly dealing with minor characters, the often effortful knotting of loose ends—much of what seems mechanical and manufactured in Miss Highsmith surely derives from her awareness that what she is writting is; finally, just another crime book. To say merely that it never is quite that is certainly to cheat her of the tribute that her gifts deserve, but until she does break out in some complete and ambitious way she will go on cheating herself.

"The Talented Miss Highsmith," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), September 24, 1971, pp. 1147-48.

The writer who fuses characters and plot most successfully is Patricia Highsmith …, the most important crime novelist at present in practice…. Perhaps it should be added that Highsmith is an acquired taste, which means a taste that some never acquire….

Most of Highsmith's books have their origin in some sensational idea. In her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1949), a young man who meets another on a train proposes that each of them shall murder a person whom the other wishes to see dead. Since neither killer will have any connection with his victim, there is no reason why these should not be "perfect murders." In The Blunderer (1954), a clumsy amateur killer sets out to copy a crime committed by a more professional one and finds himself being pursued by the murderer. Such tricky plot devices are often used by very inferior writers …, but in Highsmith's hands they are starting points for profound and subtle character studies. She recurs often to the attraction exerted on the weak by the idea of violence. In The Two Faces of January (1964), when the emotionally footloose Rydal Keener sees the petty crook Chester MacFarland kill a man, his immediate reaction is to attach himself to Chester and his wife rather than to report the affair to the police. In the opening scene of Those Who Walk Away (1967), Ray Garrett is shot at and wounded by Coleman, but again his reaction is to link himself more closely to the would-be murderer rather than to attempt to escape from him. It may be said that this is not true to "life," but this means only that it is not the way most people would behave. It is true and convincing in the life of Highsmith characters, who find themselves linked to each other by the idea of crime. There are no more genuine agonies in modern literature than those endured by the couples in her books who are locked together in a dislike and even hatred that often strangely contains love….

Without being directly concerned with politics, Highsmith implicitly suggests that in a society where most people are imprisoned within the mechanisms of organizations, social groups, or families, criminals are potentially free. Her heroes are therefore often criminals, heroic in the sense that they are the most likable people in the story….

But it is not the ideas behind her books so much as the intensity and skill with which they are presented that make her such a rewarding novelist. The original ideas on which her plots are based are sometimes far-fetched and in her early work much marked by coincidence, but she treats them with an imaginative power that gives the problems of the criminal hero a terrifying reality. Her settings—Venice, Crete, Tunis—are chosen with care. In strange surroundings her characters become uncertain of their personalities and begin to question the reasons for their own conduct. She has a professional ability to order a plot and create a significant environment, but what takes her books beyond the run of intelligent crime stories is the intensity of feeling brought to the central figures. Violence is necessary to her, because the threat or actuality of it produces her best writing, and the problem she faces in relation to its use is a way of coordinating sensationalism of theme with subtlety of treatment as she has not always been able to do in the past. The deadly games of pursuit played in her best novels are as subtle and interesting as anything being done in the novel today.

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 182-84.

In the chilling, clinical presentation of a wholly twisted world Miss Highsmith has managed an achievement—the creation of an ambience—perhaps superior to that of the early Eric Ambler novels.

But there is something else about her work, which came over even more strongly in conversation than it does on the printed page. Miss Highsmith is an excellent hater, and however patiently she unravels the criminal motivations of her characters, and with however much sympathy she delineates them, there is a powerful rage for justice always to be sensed just beneath the surface. "I hate," she said, "the Mafia above all" and, in Ripley's Game there is a clear distinction drawn between different kinds of baddie, different kinds of evil. Her instinct seems to be that, the normal world—the world of good policemen, good detectives, good heroes—being unable to assert itself against the underworld, the underworld itself must find some way of keeping order. And behind the perception lies another awareness that dominates her books—the awareness of nemesis. As in a tragedy events seem to acquire a momentum of their own, so that as the villains weave their webs, the reader can sense an approaching, impersonal doom. The extraordinary power and intensity with which this sense of doom and nemesis is sustained throughout a book is the most distinguishing mark of the Highsmith creation, probably the most consistently excellent body of work of its kind produced since the war.

"Crime Compendium," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), March 23, 1974, p. 366.

It is some years since, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith created her monstrous paranoiac Tom Ripley, who reappears yet again in Ripley's End, to satisfy his megalomaniacal ego by perpetrating a string of unnecessary, messy and sadistic murders and destroying the body and soul of a casual acquaintance, Jonathan Trevanny, who is already dying of an incurable disease, and whose only offence is the complete moral gutlessness which makes him a suitable toy for the odious Ripley to amuse himself with.

In her first novel, Strangers on a Train, Miss Highsmith handled a brilliantly ingenious plot with psychological insight and a craftsman's mastery of words. The craftmanship is still there, but something very sad is happening to the talented Miss Highsmith, and unless she hardens her heart and puts an end to her horrible brain-child, for whom she appears to have conceived an inexplicable affection, the fate of Baron Frankenstein will be hers also.

Tony Henderson, in Books and Bookmen, May, 1974, p. 84.