Patricia Highsmith Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
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...
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