Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1421
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...
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- Critical Essays
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, and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), could not find an American publisher and was published in England to mixed reviews. Feminists find little support in Highsmith’s work. Feminist critic Odette L’Henry Evans observed in a 1990 essay that the women are not loving wives and mothers, and it is often the father who loves and cares for the child.
If Highsmith has a philosophy, it could best be described as a negative one, difficult to identify except as a rebellion against the moral status quo. In spite of the disturbing and pessimistic conclusion that readers must draw from her work—that justice is seldom truly important in human affairs, that it is a “manmade conceit,” in the words of critic Brooks Peters—she is recognized as a crime writer who has important things to say about human nature and who says them uncommonly well.
Russell Harrison, in the first full-length study of Highsmith, categorized most of the best known of her novels. The early novels may generally be considered stories of American domestic life: Deep Water, This Sweet Sickness, and The Cry of the Owl. In the 1960’s, according to Harrison, Highsmith began to examine U.S. foreign relations and political and social issues in The Tremor of Forgery, A Dog’s Ransom, and Edith’s Diary. Finally, he examines the gay and lesbian novels, The Price of Salt and Small g: A Summer Idyll. Two important novels he does not discuss are The Glass Cell and The Two Faces of January, which might be grouped with the social-issue novels.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Talented Mr. Ripley was the Highsmith’s favorite book, and Tom Ripley is her most popular character. Highsmith once said that writing fiction was a game to her and that she had to be amused to keep writing. The game here is keeping Ripley out of the hands of the police, and much of the fun lies in allowing him to live high on his ill-gotten gains. “I’ve always had a lurking liking for those who flout the law,” Highsmith once admitted. Critic Tolkin described Ripley aptly as “a small-time American crook who moves to Europe and kills his way to happiness.” Highsmith was at odds with herself about Ripley’s true value. He stands in sharp contrast to stereotypical morality, which is often hypocritical, but he also has almost no conscience and so is, in Highsmith’s words, “a little bit sick in the head.”
Dickie Greenleaf, a rich young man who has left home and his disapproving parents to become a painter in Italy, is Ripley’s first victim. Ripley arrives on the scene, sent by the father to persuade Dickie to return. Ripley decides that he would rather stay and share Dickie’s lazy expatriate life. When Dickie becomes angry about Ripley’s imitation of him, Ripley decides to eliminate the real Dickie and take his place. Ripley’s real talent is this imitation—he once thought of becoming an actor—and he succeeds in deceiving everyone until Freddie, an old friend of Dickie, becomes suspicious. It is necessary for Ripley to murder again in order not to be unmasked. Freddie is killed, but the police suspect Tom/Dickie of the crime. So Dickie is twice murdered, and Tom Ripley is reborn—along with a fake will in which Dickie leaves him everything. One critic finds this protean man a very contemporary type, one often found in serious literature. Ripley is indeed a classic of his kind, and while Highsmith’s touch is almost playful, some readers shudder at Ripley’s indifference to his own ghastly crimes. As the Ripley stories multiplied, some readers and critics alike worried that Highsmith had grown too fond of her talented but diabolical hero who is in some ways a monster.
The Glass Cell
The dreariness of the style of The Glass Cell is the dreariness of its prison atmosphere. There is very little relief from the monotony of wrongfully convicted Philip Carter’s life in prison, and there are no scenes of the high life to enjoy. In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Highsmith provides a case history of how three versions of this novel came to be written.
The idea came from a true story, but the story changed as Philip Carter became a Highsmith protagonist. To be interesting, he had to become more active as the novel evolved, and so he kills not once but three times. The alibi he concocts for the murders is coldly calculated; prison has made a ruthless man of him. Highsmith says that she wanted Carter to go free after he commits two postprison murders because he had suffered so much in prison. He had been strung up by his thumbs by a sadistic guard, and he suffers continual physical pain in his hands. The police suspect him of murder but can prove nothing, and Carter and his wife and son are free to go on with their lives together. Highsmith delivers her own kind of justice to a once-innocent man unjustly punished by the courts.