Patricia Highsmith Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Patricia Highsmith Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Patricia Highsmith remains less a household name than other, more traditional crime novelists largely because she wrote about good men who turn bad and bad men who escape punishment. A moral compass is missing in her work, and guilt is hard to assign. She is better known and more interesting to critics in Europe, especially in England and Germany, than in her own country, which she left permanently in 1963. In a final tribute at the time of her death in 1995, critic Michael Tolkin wrote that the Hitchcock adaptation of her first published novel, Strangers on a Train, in which only the psychopath is permitted to kill, “is a perfect example of the kind of American cultural repression that I like to imagine as one of the reasons she left.”

In Europe, too, her heroes who “kill not without feeling,” says critic Susannah Clapp in London Review of Books, “but without fear of reprisal” have brought cries of disapproval. In a 1965 review of The Glass Cell, one critic declared, “There are not many nastier fiction worlds than Patricia Highsmith’s and soon they sicken.” Margharita Laski wrote in The Listener, “I used to be the only person I knew who loathed Patricia Highsmith’s work for its inhumanity to man, but our numbers are growing.” On the other hand, a number of respected crime writers, including Julian Symons, consider her among the best crime writers and at least one of her novels a work of true literature. American novelist and critic Gore Vidal wrote, “She is one of our greatest modernist writers.”

Highsmith’s killers or near killers are middle class and intelligent; they are usually artists or professionals, and they often have sophisticated tastes. In a 1980 interview with Diana Cooper-Clark, Highsmith explained why this is so. Since she believed that most criminals are not particularly intelligent, they do not interest her very much. She chose middle-class characters because she thought writers can write successfully only about their own social milieus. Since “standards of morality come from the society around,” pleasant, well-mannered men often commit murder in her fictional world: “The contrast between respectability and murderous thoughts is bound to turn up in most of my books.” The five novels about Tom Ripley focus on an otherwise nice young man who gets away with murder. Critics have analyzed this unlikely killer in considerable detail.

The 1980’s and 1990’s saw a renewed interest in Highsmith as a lesbian writer. In most of her novels women are not the active center; they do not commit murder. When asked about this, she explained that she found men more violent by nature than women. Women seemed passive to her, less likely to create action. Her women characters are among her least admirable. They often seem present only as decor or as a means of furthering the actions of the male characters. There are three novels that represent a degree of exception to this pattern. The Price of Salt (later published as Carol) is the story of two women who fall in love, and the novel—“a very up-beat, pro-lesbian book,” according to its editor, Barbara Grier—has a relatively happy ending. Edith’s Diary, the only other Highsmith novel with a woman at the center, was viewed more as a commentary of American political and social life in the 1960’s than as a suspense novel. Her last book, Small g: A Summer Idyll, about gays, lesbians,...

(The entire section is 1421 words.)