Patricia Highsmith Essay - Highsmith, Patricia (Vol. 2)

Highsmith, Patricia (Vol. 2)

Highsmith, Patricia 1921–

An American-born British mystery writer, Miss Highsmith is considered the queen of the crime novel. She is the author of Strangers on a Train and Those Who Walk Away. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Miss Highsmith writes not simply fiction about crime but, in the technical sense, crime fiction, instantly recognizable as such by addicts of the genre, which is by now thoroughly established as a distinct sub-compartment within the line of descent from Poe's invention, the detective story. Neither could an addict be disappointed in Miss Highsmith, who is a very good crime novelist. But there's the injustice. For as a novelist tout court she's excellent…. Highsmith and Simenon are alone in writing books which transcend the limits of the genre while staying strictly inside its rules: they alone have taken the crucial step from playing games to creating art….

Miss Highsmith hits on the murder which is in the unconscious and will out. The Cry of the Owl builds up Websterian tragedy. In A Suspension of Mercy, also, the doom is too precisely determined to be dodged, but the story reaches it by the comedic methods of ingenious plot-making and social observation. (As some of the Italian dialogue in The Two Faces of January shewed, Miss Highsmith's ear is a touch faulty for foreign languages, and here her English-born characters sometimes speak American, but there is no mote in her eye for an elderly, middle-class English lady with a novel by Pamela Hansford Johnson beside her bed.) In the characters who voluntarily disappear and thereby assume the condition of having been murdered, and again in the suicidal Jenny in The Cry of the Owl, Miss Highsmith even tackles what Dickens more than once approached but veered away from, the psychology of the self-elected victim….

Simply to take Miss Highsmith straight would do justice to her and the public but injustice to her chosen, and wisely chosen, genre. It says something for it that it can be transmuted into art. I think Dickens was on the point of transmuting it as it then stood established by Wilkie Collins; but it's as if, flinching from his own moral horror and turning on himself the violence Hornung turned on his criminal hero, Dickens died rather than finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Miss Highsmith has superbly carried out Dickens's task of making the crime story literature.

Brigid Brophy, "Highsmith" (1965), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 149-55.

Patricia Highsmith is at her best in exploring a curious symbiosis—almost always of two men. Those Who Walk Away … concerns a husband whose wife has committed suicide and a father-in-law who blames him for her death. B tries to murder A; A, surviving, decides to remain "dead." The peculiar resultant duel, played against a detailed depiction of Venice, is as absorbing as it is inconclusive. There is really no reason why the novel might not have ended 30,000 words earlier—or gone on for another 30,000. This is a book to some extent exasperating…. But is often illuminating—and always compelling.

Anthony Boucher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 30, 1967.

Low-key is the word for Patricia Highsmith. Low-key, subtle, and profound. It is amazing to me that she is not better known, for she is superb and is a master of the suspense novel. Her … book, Those Who Walk Away, is an impressive addition to a body of work which should be among the classics of the genre….

Those Who Walk Away is a measured book. Its skillful narration has an old-fashioned quiet quality about it and conveys a sense of being slightly removed. It may be that it lacks some of the bright color and harsh power of Miss Highsmith's earlier books, most notably Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley; nevertheless, in its deliberateness, in the genuineness with which the vagueness of motivation is conveyed, in its perception of evil, and in its plausibility it succeeds as a compelling psychological study.

Guilt is the theme of all Miss Highsmith's books, and she has consistently used the device of contrasting characters to express it, whether real or imagined. The theme and the method were announced in her first, and probably best known novel, Strangers on a Train, with the confrontation of the attractive, charming psychopath and the innocent bungler who is too indecisive and, at bottom, perhaps, too unwilling to disengage himself from a nightmarish situation. All of Miss Highsmith's later books employ the juxtaposition of similar characters: The Blunderer, A Game for the Living, and The Cry of the Owl focus on the victim of evil who seems rooted where he stands in the middle of horror; while The Talented Mr. Ripley, Deep Water, and This Sweet Sickness portray the seemingly innocent, if slightly purposeless young man who simply drifts into violence and murder….

Those Who Walk Away … introduces something new: the ultimate act of violence does not take place. Yet the book is a study of things moving out of control. This is a masterful stroke, for the particular terror in this novel comes less from the performance of any particular catastrophic act than from the way in which it is being avoided—that is, from chance, coincidence, and stupid misunderstanding. The movement of hunter and hunted, and their occasional contact is seen as less the attraction of opposites, of evil and good, or evil and weakness, than it is as the attraction of like to like. The psychological truth thus implied may be a greater horror than any climactic act of violence.

J. M. Edelstein, "Cat and Mouse," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1967 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), May 20, 1967, pp. 37-8.

Only one of [Patricia Highsmith's] eleven novels is a puzzle and only her first, Strangers on a Train, is founded on a gimmick. However, it may be that her original submission to the conventions of the genre arose from a too modest estimate of her own fictional talents; and she has only contrived to stay within its limits by herself enlarging its capabilities. She has come to worry literary editors, no doubt, who do not know whether to send her out with Mrs. Christie or Miss Murdoch, but she must also cause some anxiety to her admirers…. [Her] work has never, like the Christies and the Deightons, been classifiable by vintage. The carpet she skilfully weaves is of popular material and in strong colours, but the pattern in it is subtle, elusive and unfinished. In Those Who Walk Away the deepest psychological penetration is almost a throwaway affair…. [Though] it may seem ungrateful to crab about the entertainment she offers, one wants her now to develop forms that would extend what after all the "crime novel" cannot properly comprise, the truly serious side of the novelist's art.

Times Literary Supplement, June 1, 1967.

Patricia Highsmith is [a] writer whose work admirably resists pigeon-holing. Thriller addicts can seize on it to prove that Crime has grown up to become Art. In fact, I doubt if there was ever this distinction in Miss Highsmith's mind; so closely are the two elements fused, enriching each other, that a third genre is created.

Her tools certainly are those of a thriller writer. In The Tremor of Forgery, as in her previous books, there is mystery and tension, violence, two—possibly three—deaths (one merely suicidal, offstage)….

Miss Highsmith's hero is detective and suspect, accused and accuser…. Nothing here is as it seems. Miss Highsmith's dry simplicity conceals a labyrinthine complexity it is a challenge and a pleasure to untangle.

Janice Elliott, in New Statesman, January 24, 1969.

[Miss Highsmith's] understanding of criminal feelings and desires is such that she could make crimes like Christie's or those of the Moors murderers appear humdrum rather than horrific. In fact sex plays a small part in her books, which have their origin in some idea like that of Strangers on a Train, 'two people agree to murder each other's enemy, thus permitting a perfect alibi to be established', or of The Blunderer where a clumsy amateur killer tries to copy a crime committed by a more professional one. These are the kind of trickily ingenious plot devices often used by very inferior writers, but she takes them as starting points for profound and subtle studies of character. 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.

The way in which all this is presented can be masterly in its choice of tone and phrase. Her opening sentences are, as she says 'often more stewed over than they appear to be'; they make a statement that is symbolically meaningful in relation to the whole book….

The quality that takes her books beyond the run of intelligent fiction is not [the] professional ability to order a plot and create a significant environment, but rather the intensity of feeling that she brings to the problems of her central figures. The sparking point of a story may be merely sensational, but the development is something different. From original ideas that are sometimes farfetched or even trivial she proceeds with an imaginative power that makes the whole thing terrifyingly real….

In her last novels she has tried to get away from sensationalism, not always with success. On a crude level it is I suppose fair to say that nothing much happens in A Tremor of Forgery. The return of Mr. Ripley, which she is contemplating at the moment, may provide a solution to the problem posed for her by the avoidance of sensationalism, of fitting violent events to the things she wants to say about social morality and personal behaviour. Violence is necessary, because the threat or actuality of it produces her best writing, and she has to find a way of using it realistically. The deadly games of pursuit played in her best novels dig down very deeply into the roots of personality. Whatever the results of her rather hesitant new approach to the problems of writing about criminals in society, she has already produced work as serious in its implications and as subtle in its approach as anything being done in the novel today.

Julian Symons, "Patricia Highsmith: Criminals in Society," in London Magazine, June, 1969.

In his generous introduction to Patricia Highsmith's collection of 11 short stories [The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories] Graham Greene speaks of the author as "the poet of apprehension rather than fear," who in her crime novels has created a world of her own—"a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger." No quarrel here; the terms are fairly accurate…. The mood of nagging apprehension is consistent, skillfully underplayed so that just the right amount of chill is induced with an economy of means. It would be boorish to complain about such displays of competence, but complaint is not the same as indifference, and indifference, I'm afraid, is what the demanding reader is finally left with here: nothing to offend anyone, just well-machined artifacts of malaise.

J. R. Frakes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 19, 1970, p. 30.

It is a characteristic skill of Miss Highsmith's to convey unease and apprehension with an understated narrative style and painstaking description of domestic practicalities. Her characters often seem to counterbalance their expectation of fear by entrenching themselves in domestic routines: making coffee, shopping at supermarkets, comforting themselves with knackwurst and sauerkraut….

Unless it is necessary to the plot Miss Highsmith avoids making claims of generality for her evil: it is usually contained in a specific threat. Similarly, metaphor—a device which might give us a clue to the author herself—finds no place. Furthermore, there is little in the surface of the writing which directly suggests a poetic imagination; but the tenacious efforts of her characters to keep hold of everyday reality and logic serve to heighten the menace and chaos which threaten their fragile domestic strongholds. Technically, A Dog's Ransom is a considerable achievement; as a comment on the morality of American respectability, law and order, and the blurred edges of decency—in the best sense of the word—it is brilliant.

Reg Gadney, "Criminal Tendencies—1," in London Magazine, June-July, 1972, pp. 110-22.

Patricia Highsmith's speciality is young American men in their early twenties, thin, blond and psychotic and given to pestering people. A fine example turns up in A Dog's Ransom, and he is all the better for not being immediately identifiable….

To say a Patricia Highsmith book is very good is something of a tautology and, to anyone interested in crime writing, is probably preaching to the converted in any case. But this is very good Patricia Highsmith. The mechanics of the book are complex and subtle, with each element in the plot neatly dovetailed into the whole.

Diane LeClercq, in Books and Bookmen, August, 1972, pp. 64-5.