Patricia Highsmith Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2523

Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train demonstrates her ingenious opening gambits (two strangers agree to murder each other’s logical victim, thus allowing for alibis while avoiding all suspicion), her depiction of the double, and the play with and against the strictures of crime fiction. Carefully developed suspense leads not...

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Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train demonstrates her ingenious opening gambits (two strangers agree to murder each other’s logical victim, thus allowing for alibis while avoiding all suspicion), her depiction of the double, and the play with and against the strictures of crime fiction. Carefully developed suspense leads not to the detection or punishment of the criminal but to an odyssey through the minds of the perpetrators of violence.

Within the bounds of the suspense thriller genre, as Anthony Channell Hilfer observes, Highsmith capitalizes on various features: the psychological dimensions of a hero whose morality tends toward the unconventional and the absence of the central detective figure. She builds suspense in Strangers on a Train, as in The Talented Mr. Ripley and other novels in the Ripley series, by the vacillation in the characters’ minds that may or may not lead them into murder and the fear or danger of exposure for criminal acts. A counterpoint between the thoughts and deeds of a seemingly ordinary person and one who invents his own rules, or “morality,” creates a riveting psychological tension that focuses the works.

The reader is thus thrilled and intrigued, waiting to see what will happen next while experiencing a precarious excitement in a world not exempt from violence, nerve-racking police visits, and corpses. Nevertheless, the genre’s array of devices is handled adroitly by Highsmith, who can make of improbable situations a believable and illuminating relationship between characters and their social milieu. Her originality resides, to some extent, in her refusal to tie up ends into a comforting package for the reader. Unexpected endings provide a twist of sorts, but the reader is prepared for them because of the gradual buildup of motifs in contrast to sensational devices used by less skillful writers. The presence of suicide, doubt, or anxiety rather than neat resolutions marks her novels from beginning to end.

Highsmith’s most daring departure from the crime-fiction genre is the total evasion of conventional morality intrinsic in even the hard-boiled detective stories. She indicates one reason that she rejects “boring” expectations of justice: “The public wants to see the law triumph, or at least the general public does, though at the same time the public likes brutality. The brutality must be on the right side however.”

The intense engagement of readers in the novels’ psychic process is especially noteworthy in Highsmith. Her readers feel anxiety and confusion not unlike that of the characters. For example, the moral dilemmas experienced by Bernard Tufts in Ripley Under Ground (1970) or Howard Ingham of The Tremor of Forgery (1969) are placed squarely on the reader. One is drawn inside the skin of one or two characters who in turn obsessively observe one or two others. This compulsive spying within the novel has its counterpart in the reader’s voyeuristic role. Readers’ discomfort also stems from the narrator’s abstention from explicit moral judgment, effected both by the apparently logical, impartial presentation of events told from the interior view of one or two protagonists and by the fact that criminals are not apprehended (their apprehension would restore order). Furthermore, most readers would find it difficult, indeed morally repulsive, to identify with psychopaths such as Charles Bruno of Strangers on a Train or Ripley. Nevertheless, Ripley at least has enough charm, verve, and plausibility to awaken fascination and abhorrence simultaneously. The reader’s unease is a mirror of the process in the interior world: Guy Haines reacts to Bruno in Strangers on a Train and Jonathan Trevanny to Ripley in Ripley’s Game (1974) with a similar love/hate, as both Guy and Jonathan are insidiously induced into acts they would not ordinarily contemplate.

The uncanny relationship between pairs (of men, usually) is a recurrent theme that Highsmith discusses in her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966): Her recurrent pattern “is the relationship between two men, usually quite different in make-up, sometimes obviously the good and the evil, sometimes merely ill-matched friends.” Acknowledging the necessity of sympathy for criminals, because she writes about them, Highsmith finds them “dramatically interesting, because for a time at least they are active, free in spirit, and they do not knuckle down to anyone.” Ripley, with his bravado and creative imagination, is a perfect example of the criminal-as-hero who can be liked by the reader. His ability to influence others, as well as his willingness to take great risks to fashion his own life and identity, make him in some sense “heroic.” Bruno of Strangers on a Train is of a somewhat different ilk, as his creator points out: “I think it is also possible to make a hero-psychopath one hundred percent sick and revolting, and still make him fascinating for his blackness and all-around depravity.” Bruno’s evil character is necessarily offset by the good character of Guy, who thus provides the reader with a likable hero. Other Highsmith characters, such as Howard Ingham of The Tremor of Forgery, are less attractive to readers because of their indecisiveness, but few are as repulsive as the obnoxious Ralph Linderman of Found in the Street (1986) or Kenneth Rowajinski of A Dog’s Ransom (1972).

Highsmith’s male characters are rather a sorry lot—hopeless, weak, suicidal, or psychopathic—while the women depicted are usually vapid and secondary. Her male protagonists are nevertheless compelling, probably because they are more true to life than readers may like to admit—perhaps also because of the intensity of their depiction, a point stressed by the author herself and the critic and novelist Julian Symons.

Like her audacious creature Ripley, Highsmith pushes things to the limit, not only problems of reader identification but also plot plausibility. She has a predilection for unusual plots that “stretch the reader’s credulity.” If the plot idea is not entirely original, she finds a new twist. To make the corpse-in-rug theme amusing (in The Story-Teller, 1965), she decides to have no corpse in it at all:In this case, the person carrying the carpet would have to be suspected of murder, would have to be seen carrying the carpet (perhaps in a furtive manner), would have to be a bit of a joker.

To this renovated device, she adds the idea of a writer-hero who confuses the line between reality and fiction, thus exploring the everyday schizophrenia that she believes all people possess to some degree.

Although Highsmith stated that entertainment was an explicit goal and moral lessons have no place in art, her desire to explore human behavior and morality are demonstrated by the precise social milieu and character development in her work. Part of her success can be attributed to the accurate conveyance of emotions and “felt experiences.” Murder, as she says, “is often an extension of anger, an extension to the point of insanity or temporary insanity.” Furthermore, Highsmith was interested in the interplay between social issues and psychological factors, as demonstrated by her depiction of the deleterious effects of incarceration on an individual in The Glass Cell (1964) and the degraded position of women in society in Edith’s Diary. The characters who reflect a standard morality gone awry—Ralph and his old-fashioned views in Found in the Street or OWL and his patriotic fervor in The Tremor of Forgery—are often depicted quite negatively. Social criticism, though, is less important to Highsmith’s work than the exploration of human psychology.

Although violence, aggression, anxiety, guilt, and the interplay between the hunter and hunted are essential to her novels, Highsmith was a master at conveying a range of emotions, sensations, and moods. She recorded minutely her characters’ physical appearance, dress, and surroundings along with their musings and actions; in her view, “The setting and the people must be seen clearly as a photograph.”

Strangers on a Train

The stylistic arrangement of words on a page, intrinsic to narration, is particularly important in the rhythm and mood set from the beginning of any Highsmith novel. Highsmith said that she prefers a beginning sentence “in which something moves and gives action,” for example, the opening words of Strangers on a Train: “The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.” Very quickly, she sets up the initial situation of the novel: Guy, as restless as the train, wants to divorce his wife, Miriam, but fears that she may refuse. Thus, the reader understands his mood, appearance, and problem within the first page. Guy’s vulnerability and initial outflow of conversation with the manipulative Charles Bruno prove to be his undoing. Their ensuing relationship fulfills Bruno’s plan that Guy murder Bruno’s hated father in exchange for the murder of Guy’s wife.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The opening paragraph of The Talented Mr. Ripley is a fine example of the economical use of language:Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt that the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.

The sentences are brief and direct and immediately create a mood of apprehension. The dramatic, “frenetic” prose as Highsmith described it, is in perfect consonance with Ripley’s character, the rapid action of the plot, and the underlying Kafkaesque tone. Very soon, readers realize that Ripley is afraid of being arrested, a fear underlined subtly throughout the series even though he is never caught. His choice to live on the edge, perfectly established in the beginning, has a rhythmic counterpoint in Ripley’s humor and élan that come into play later.

Ripley Under Ground

As the Ripley series develops, there is an escalation in crime, and Ripley’s initial (faint) qualms give way to a totally psychopathic personality. At the same time, by the second book in the series, Ripley Under Ground, he is very suave and aesthetically discerning. The ambience of life in Villeperce, the town outside Paris where Ripley resides, complete with small château and wealthy wife, Héloïse, faithful and circumspect housekeeper, Madame Annette, and the local shops and neighbors are recorded thoroughly. The precise sensory descriptions in all of Highsmith’s novels reveal her familiarity with the geographic locations she evokes.

The Boy Who Followed Ripley

Highsmith also conveys meticulously Ripley’s sometimes endearing and more often horrifying traits. For example, he is very fond of language and wordplay and often looks up French words in the dictionary. His taste in music, finely delineated, has a theatrical function that weaves through the entire series. In the fourth of the Ripley series, The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), Tom enjoys the good humor of a Berlin bar:It gave Tom a lift, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture always gave him a lift before he went into battle. Fantasy! Courage was all imaginary, anyway, a matter of a mental state. A sense of reality did not help when one was faced with a gun barrel or a knife.

He buys presents for Héloïse at the most improbable moments (right after successfully accomplishing a murder, for example).

In contrast to Highsmith’s often depressed or anxious characters, Ripley’s humor is highlighted: As he sees advertisements for inflatable dolls in the newspaper, he muses,How did one blow them up, Tom wondered. It would take all the breath out of a man to do it, and what would a man’s housekeeper or his friends say, if they saw a bicycle pump and no bicycle in his apartment? Funnier, Tom thought, if a man just took the doll along to his garage with his car, and asked the attendant to blow her up for him. And if the man’s housekeeper found the doll in bed and thought it was a corpse? Or opened a closet door and a doll fell out on her?

The reader might surmise that Highsmith pokes fun at and lauds her own craft simultaneously. With Ripley, Highsmith has created a character who is so inventive that he seems to write himself. Ripley is one of those rare “persons” who does not feel enough guilt to “let it seriously trouble him” no matter how many murders he commits.

The Tremor of Forgery

Other Highsmith novels, such as her favorite, The Tremor of Forgery, deal with less dramatic characters and plots. Although this novel portrays Ingham’s fascinating experience in Tunisia, the pace is deliberately slower and the implications of Ingham’s moral judgments are probed in a subtle way quite different from that of the Ripley series. The vertigo of Ingham’s Tunisia, as he attempts to grasp the meaning of love, morality, and his own emotions, is reminiscent of the work of Henry James, E. M. Forster, and André Gide rather than a typical suspense novel. Indeed, Howard Ingham never discovers whether he inadvertently killed an unknown intruder one evening, an incident that carries a symbolic significance throughout most of the novel (and one that remains an open question at the end for the reader as well). The novel ends with the same sense of slow expectation with which it commenced, perfectly in tune with Ingham’s doubts. Readers are even more engaged in the puzzling world of this novel than in that of the Ripley novels, simply because the latter are more resolved, more pat perhaps. In her fiction, Highsmith conjures up a variety of worlds in their interior and exterior facets, with a style that transcends simple categorization and delights her uneasy readers.

During her lifetime, several of Highsmith’s works were the basis for screen adaptations, including Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful rendering of Strangers on a Train in 1951 (another remake, Once You Kiss a Stranger, was released in 1969) and René Clement’s stunning Purple Moon (from The Talented Mr. Ripley) in 1960 starring Alain Delon. While both the Hitchcock and Clement films were cinematic classics, Highsmith later revised her thinking on granting film rights to her books. She disliked the tampering usually dictated by Hollywood, the omissions and additions to curry favor or in pursuit of maximum appeal—so she insisted on a contract clause that her books not be mentioned as the basis for a film unless she expressly gave her approval to do so. Such a clause, while legally difficult to enforce, did not give all directors pause as evidenced by the number of her books optioned for films.

At the end of the twentieth century, scores of filmgoers were given a new taste of Highsmith, with a stunning version of The Talented Mr. Ripley from Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella. Starring Matt Damon as Ripley, the film was both a critical and box office success, replete with Oscar nominations. Although Minghella was not completely faithful to Highsmith’s 1955 masterpiece, he believed that she would have appreciated the finished product had she lived to see it. “If I were to please anyone with this adaptation,” Minghella noted in a press release, “I would have liked it to have been her.”

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