Essays and Criticism
Patricia Highsmith Overview
As the author of numerous short story collections and novels, including the well-known Strangers on a Train, American-born Patricia Highsmith enjoyed greater critical and commercial success in England, France, and Germany than in her native country. As Jeff Weinstein speculated in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, the reason for this is that Highsmith’s books have been ‘‘misplaced’’— relegated to the mystery and suspense shelves instead of being allowed to take their rightful place in the literature section. As far as her ardent admirers in the United States and abroad are concerned, Highsmith was more than just a superb crime novelist. In fact, declared Brigid Brophy in Don’t Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews, ‘‘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.’’
The art in Highsmith’s work springs from her skillful fusion of plot, characterization, and style, with the crime story serving primarily ‘‘as a means of revealing and examining her own deepest interests and obsessions,’’ according to a Times Literary Supplement reviewer. Among her most common themes are the nature of guilt and the often symbiotic relationship that develops between two people (almost always men) who are at the same time fascinated and repelled by each other. Highsmith’s works therefore ‘‘dig down very deeply into the roots of personality,’’ wrote Julian Symons in the London Magazine, exposing the dark side of people regarded by society as normal and good. Or, as Thomas Sutcliffe explained in the Times Literary Supplement, Highsmith wrote ‘‘not about what it feels like to bemad, but what it feels like to remain sane while committing the actions of a madman.’’
Also in the Times Literary Supplement, James Campbell stated that ‘‘the conflict of good and evil—or rather, simple decency and ordinary badness—is at the heart of all Highsmith’s novels, dramatized in the encounters between two characters, often in an exotic locale, where it is easier to lose one’s moral bearings. Usually, we see events from the point of view of the innocent, the blind, as they stumble towards doom.’’
Highsmith’s preoccupations with guilt and contrasting personalities surfaced as early as her very first novel. Strangers on a Train chronicles the relationship between Guy Haines, a successful young architect, and Charles Bruno, a charming but unstable man slightly younger than Haines. The two men first meet on a train journey when Bruno repeatedly tries to engage his traveling companion in conversation. He eventually persuades Haines to open up and talk about feelings he usually keeps to himself, including the feelings of resentment he harbors toward his wife. Bruno, who has long fantasized about killing his much-hated father, then suggests to Haines that they rid themselves of the ‘‘problems’’ once and for all: Bruno will kill Haines’s wife for him, and Haines in turn will kill Bruno’s father. Since there is no connection between the victims and their killers, Bruno theorizes, the police will be at a loss to solve the murders. With more than a hint of reluctance, Haines rejects the plan, but to no avail; Bruno remains intrigued by it and proceeds to carry out his part.
As Paul Binding observed in a Books and Bookmen article, ‘‘the relation of abnormal Bruno to normal [Haines] is an exceedingly complex one which is to reverberate throughout Patricia Highsmith’s output. On the one hand Bruno is a doppelganger figure; he embodies in repulsive flesh and blood form what [Haines’s] subconscious has long been whispering to him. . . . On the other hand Bruno exists in his own perverse right, and [Haines] can have no control over him. . . . As a result of [Bruno’s] existence, and of its coincidence with [Haines’s] own, the rational, moral [Haines] becomes entangled in a mesh which threatens to destroy his entire security of identity. . . . [Haines is a man] tormented by guilt—guilt originally inspired by interior elements. Yet [he becomes], in society’s eyes, guilty for exterior reasons.’’With the exception of the Ripley books—The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley under Ground, Ripley’s Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and Ripley under Water—which focus on the activities of the opportunistic and amoral Tom Ripley, a man incapable of feeling guilt, these themes are at the heart of Highsmith’s fiction.
According to Symons, Highsmith typically launched her stories with the kind of ‘‘trickily ingenious plot devices often used by very inferior writers.’’ He hastened to add, however, that these serve only as starting points for the ‘‘profound and subtle studies of character that follow.’’ As Burt Supree observed in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, most of Highsmith’s characters, none of whom are ‘‘heroes’’ in the conventional sense, are likely to be ‘‘obsessive, unquestioning, humdrum men with no self-knowledge, no curiosity, and Byzantine fantasy-lives—respectable or criminal middle-class, middle-brow people of incredible shallowness. Nowhere else will you find so many characters you’d want to smack.’’ Supree added, ‘‘Like lab animals, [they] come under careful scrutiny, but [Highsmith] doesn’t care to analyze them or beg sympathy for them. They go their independent ways with the illusion of freedom. Contact seems only to sharpen their edges, to irk and enrage.’’ Yet as Craig Brown pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘‘it is a rare villain or psychopath [in Highsmith’s fiction] whom the reader does not find himself willing toward freedom, a rare investigator whom the reader is unhappy to see dead. Those she terms her ’murderer-heroes’ or ’hero-psychopaths’ are usually people whose protective shells are not thick enough to deaden the pain as the world hammers at their emotions. . . . Some live, some die, some kill, some crack up.’’
Sutcliffe echoed this assessment of Highsmith’s characters as basically sane people who commit apparently insane acts, usually while under considerable strain. ‘‘What she observes so truthfully is not the collapse of reason but its persistence in what it suits us to think of as inappropriate conditions,’’...
(The entire section is 2658 words.)