(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Andrew Wilson is a fortunate biographer. His subject preserved her diaries and a mountain of other papers for him. She also refused all requests from others to write her life while she was alive, and she left in place a regime of literary executors who not only anointed Wilson but apparently also did everything possible to facilitate the research and writing of this biography. It requires, however, a shrewd and diligent biographer to take full advantage of so much material and access because there are pitfalls: The authorized biography is often full of details that congest the narrative, and the biographer is perhaps too keen to defend his subject. Wilson is a discriminating writer with an excellent sense of humor and a fondness for his subject’s quirky behavior, so this long book never bogs down in data. Additionally, because Highsmith held back so much, not only from prying biographers but also from interviewers, this biography is bursting with news.

In his introduction, Wilson gloats about his good fortune, describing those other erstwhile biographers as swooping vultures wishing to feed on Highsmith’s life while she was alive. Almost giddy over his prize, the biographer confesses he had a dream about his dead subject in which she appeared and gave him the nod. A similar scene occurs in Henry James’s tale “The Real Right Thing,” in which the biographer is dismayed to discover that he has mistaken the hovering presence of his recently departed subject for approval, when he is, in fact, being admonished to abjure his projected biography. Wilson considers whether his dream is only “wish fulfillment” and, in Jamesian fashion, is chilled when he opens one of Highsmith’s diaries to read a poem: “Look before and look behind,/ There’s still time to change your mind;/ Perfidy no time assuages;/ Curst be he that moves these pages.”

Certainly Highsmith understood that biography is a transgressive genre, but then her own stories are about normal people’s affinity with the criminal mind. Readers are seduced, Wilson writes, into identifying with Highsmith’s most famous character, Tom Ripley (about whom she wrote five novels), “until by the end our moral responses have been so invaginated, we are actively on the side of the killer, hoping he will escape punishment, as indeed he does, with increasing bravura, in each book.”

Wilson has done something similar for biography, making his a bravura performance that seduces the reader into relishing all the confidential and secretive aspects of Highsmith’s life. The parallels between the biographer and his subject are revealed when—long after the fact—he discovers the identity of a woman whom Highsmith had stalked after waiting on the woman in a department store. Just like his subject, the biographer is a tracker. Indeed, Wilson learns more about the woman than Highsmith ever did, incidentally emphasizing the difference between biography and fiction. Highsmith imagined in a novel what the object of her fascination was like; Wilson interviews the woman’s daughter to find out what the real person was like.

Wilson triumphs as Highsmith’s biographer and shows why biography is crucial: It is, in the right hands, a continuation not only of the writer’s life but also of her work. Through her biographer, Highsmith continues to write herself into the imagination of her readers. Wilson, then, has a right to gloat, for the joy he takes in appropriating Patricia Highsmith’s life is akin to the criminal gaiety she so treasured in Ripley.

Not the least of the pleasures of Wilson’s book is a surprising vocabulary—for example, “invaginated” (to insert or receive, as into a sheath). The suggestive humor behind such a word indicates that the biographer can be as sly as his subject was in linking sex and crime in her tales of human passion. Wilson observes that Highsmith had a dysphoric familial history. In other words, she had an anxious youth because her mother was so unsympathetic—asking her...

(The entire section is 1635 words.)