Patricia Highsmith 1921–1995
(Born Patricia Plangman; also wrote under the pseudonym Claire Morgan) American-born novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Highsmith's career. See also Patricia Highsmith Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 4, 14.
An American-born author who resided in Europe for most of her adult years, Highsmith is best known for her suspense novels, which challenge many of the conventional precepts of the genre. Highsmith avoided gimmicks and formulaic plots and concentrated on developing the motivations behind criminal behavior rather than apprehending the villain. The presence or absence of guilt for one's actions dominates Highsmith's fiction, and often the innocent characters suffer more than the guilty. Highsmith also frequently employed such dualistic pairings as the weak with the strong, and the sane with the insane to examine such themes as violence, morality, and self-delusion. Although Highsmith wrote numerous novels and short stories, she is most highly regarded for her novels that feature the character Tom Ripley, a charming, intelligent, and sophisticated murderer who is never brought to justice.
Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas. Her parents separated before she was born, and she was raised by her grandparents, who taught her to read when she was two years old. Highsmith joined her mother and stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, in Greenwich Village, New York, when she was six; she has stated that she had an unhappy childhood and youth and that she was not close to her mother. She attended Julia Richman High School, where she was the editor of the school newspaper and read books by such writers as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. After earning a B.A. from Barnard College in 1942, Highsmith published her first short story, "The Heroine," in Harper's Bazaar in 1945. She had originally submitted the story to the Barnard College magazine, but it was rejected as "too unpleasant." In 1950, Highsmith published her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was an instant success. From 1963 to her death in 1995, Highsmith lived in Europe, mainly in England, France, Italy, and Switzerland. A victim of leukemia, she died in Locarno, Switzerland, in 1995.
Strangers on a Train sets the tone for Highsmith's subsequent work. In this novel, Highsmith pairs two men, Bruno and Guy, who, although opposites in many ways, are drawn together into a web of murder and betrayal. The men agree to kill each other's most-hated person—Bruno is to murder Guy's wife, and Guy, Bruno's father—so no one will be able to link them to the murders. This focus on the relationship between two men is common in Highsmith's fiction and is a means by which she explored the nature of good and evil and created psychological tension. The Blunderer (1954) also centers on two men. The protagonist, Walter Stackhouse, attempts to copy a murder committed by Melchior Kimmel, resulting in Stackhouse's own death and the capture of Kimmel. The Two Faces of January (1964) features a young man, Rydal Kenner, who is compelled to pursue a petty criminal, Chester McFarland, because he resembles his dead father. In The Story-Teller (1965), Sidney Bartleby, a writer, is falsely accused of murdering his unfaithful wife after he records his fantasies of killing her. Bartleby's writing partner, Alex, attempts to blackmail Bartleby and eventually turns him in to the police. Highsmith also frequently paired Tom Ripley with another character in her Ripley novels. In The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), the first work in her Ripley series, Highsmith introduces Ripley as an American living in Europe. In this book, Ripley befriends and later murders Dickie Greenleaf, an American heir to a business fortune, and assumes his identity. After forging a will that makes him the beneficiary of Greenleaf's estate, Ripley resumes his own identity and enters Europe's high society. Found in the Street (1986) centers on two men living in Greenwich Village. When Jack Sutherland, a happily married book illustrator, drops his wallet on the street, it is later found and returned by Ralph Linderman, a lonely older man who occupies his time walking his dog. After Linderman returns the wallet, both men become obsessed with Elsie Tyler, a beautiful young woman who is temporarily working as a waitress at a local coffee shop. Eventually Linderman comes to believe that Sutherland has sinister intentions toward the woman and begins harassing the younger man with threatening phone calls and letters. In her later novels, Highsmith began to address contemporary social issues. A Dog's Ransom (1972) comments on urban America and ineffectual law enforcement agencies; Edith's Diary (1977) explores the methods by which society forces women into subservient roles; and People Who Knock on the Door (1983) focuses on fundamentalist Christianity and its influence on an ordinary American family. Highsmith, who some have speculated was a lesbian, also wrote novels that focus on homosexual relationships and issues. The Price of Salt (1952), which was originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan and later reprinted as Carol under the name Highsmith, features two women who become involved in a lesbian affair after meeting at a department store. Highsmith's last novel. Small g (1995), is set in a nightclub in Zurich. The code "small g" is used in guidebooks to indicate "partly gay," and the work centers on the murder of an HIV-positive gay man, Rickie. Highsmith also published several short story collections, including Little Tales of Misogyny (1974), The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (1975), The Black House (1981), and Mermaids on the Gulf Course (1985). Some of her better known works of short fiction include "The Heroine." "The Terrapin," and "Not One of Us." "The Heroine" centers on a young woman named Lucille Smith, who is determined to be successful and content after experiencing an unhappy upbringing. After securing a job as a nursemaid in a household with two children, however, she sets the house on fire. "The Terrapin" concerns a lonely boy, Victor, whose mother dresses him in children's clothes. Alienated from his peers, he grows increasingly hysterical until he stabs his mother to death after she boils a turtle alive. "Not One of Us" depicts a circle of friends that tries to drive a young man to suicide. Highsmith is also the author of Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966), which offers an analysis of her own works as well as a description of her approach to writing novels. Many of Highsmith's novels have been adapted for film, most notably Strangers on a Train, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Although critical reaction to Highsmith's works has been generally positive in the United States, she has gained more critical and popular attention in Europe, where she has not been so readily categorized as a mystery writer. Reviewers have consistently praised her focus on psychological concerns, her rejection of contrived and predictable endings, and her ability to convey emotion, mood, and atmosphere. Most critics, however, have reserved their highest praise for Highsmith's depiction of Tom Ripley. A reviewer in Armchair Detective, for example, stated: "For the successful creation of fiction as powerfully attractive as the Ripley novels are, Patricia Highsmith deservedly has earned her place as a crime writer of exceptional achievement." Highsmith's first Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, won the 1957 Mystery Writers of America Scroll and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Although reaction to Highsmith's work is often laudatory, some have faulted what they consider her detached, matter-of-fact depiction of crime and her negative portrayal of women. Numerous reviewers have noted that female characters in Highsmith's works are often secondary, but some have faulted her short fiction in particular for focusing on brutalized women. The stories in Little Tales of Misogyny, for example, have been dismissed by some reviewers as blatantly antifeminist. Others have contended that the stories were intended to satirize present-day attitudes toward women. In general, Highsmith's novels have been more positively received than her short stories, with some reviewers asserting that her short fiction lacks sympathy and is overly satirical and ironic. Despite such criticisms, Highsmith's work as a whole has generated praise for its ability to create a sense of unrest in the reader and for expanding and challenging conventional notions of crime and mystery fiction. Author and critic Graham Greene, for example, observed that "[Highsmith] has created a world of her own—a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger, with the head half-turned over the shoulder, even with a certain reluctance, for these are cruel pleasures we are about to experience." Another critic, Marcia Froelke Coburn, asserted that Highsmith's "work is an inversion of the hard-boiled [mystery] style, an act of turning it upside down and shaking all the hidden fears and neuroses out of it."