Patricia Highsmith Highsmith, Patricia (Vol. 102) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Strangers on a Train (novel) 1950
The Price of Salt [under pseudonym Claire Morgan] (novel) 1952
The Blunderer (novel) 1954
The Talented Mr. Ripley (novel) 1955
Deep Water (novel) 1957
A Game for the Living (novel) 1958
Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda (juvenilia) 1958
This Sweet Sickness (novel) 1960
The Cry of the Owl (novel) 1962
The Glass Cell (novel) 1964
The Two Faces of January (novel) 1964
The Story-Teller (novel) 1965
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (nonfiction) 1966
Those Who Walk Away (novel) 1967
The Tremor of Forgery (novel) 1969
Ripley under Ground (novel) 1970
§The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories (short stories) 1970
A Dog's Ransom (novel) 1972
Kleine geschichten für weiberfeinde [Little Tales of Misogyny] (short stories) 1974
Ripley's Game (novel) 1974
The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (short stories) 1975
Edith's Diary (novel) 1977
Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (short stories) 1979
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (novel) 1980
The Black House (short stories) 1981
People Who Knock on the Door (novel) 1983
Mermaids on the Gulf Course and Other Stories (short stories) 1985
§§The Mysterious Mr. Ripley (novels) 1985
Found in the Street (novel) 1986
Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (short stories) 1987
Ripley under Water (novel) 1992
Small g: A Summer Idyll (novel) 1995

∗This title was reprinted in 1984 as Carol under the name Patricia Highsmith with a new afterword by the author.

†This work was published as Lament for a Lover in 1956.

‡This title was also published as A Suspension of Mercy in 1965.

§This work was published as Eleven in 1970.

§§This work contains The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley under Ground, and Ripley's Game.

Patricia Highsmith with Diana Cooper-Clark (interview date 19 August 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Patricia Highsmith, in Armchair Detective, Vol. 14, No. 4, Spring, 1981, pp. 313-20.

[In the following interview, which was conducted on August 19, 1980, in Moncourt, France, Highsmith discusses such subjects as the philosophy of criminology, her portrayal of female characters, and critical response to her works.]

[Cooper-Clark:] I recently read, and you can clarify or correct me, that you are not enamoured of the human race. Is that accurate?

[Highsmith:] Not really. I often talk with a sociologist friend, and her opinion is that most people are quite ordinary, that universal education hasn't brought the happiness and...

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Erlene Hubly (essay date Spring/Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Portrait of the Artist: The Novels of Patricia Highsmith," in Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1984, pp. 115-30.

[Hubly is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, she discusses how Highsmith's portrayal of artists in her novels advances such themes as identity, homosexuality, and the real versus the imagined. The critic focuses on the character Sydney Bartleby, the protagonist of A Suspension of Mercy, and Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley.]

Patricia Highsmith's artists, those characters who create works of art and often themselves in the process, form, even when compared to some of her other...

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Anthony Channell Hilfer (essay date Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Not Really Such a Monster': Highsmith's Ripley as Thriller Protagonist and Protean Man," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 4, Summer, 1984, pp. 361-74.

[In the following essay, Hilfer characterizes Tom Ripley as a particularly "subversive variation on the possibilities of a suspense thriller protagonist" as well as a "strikingly original exemplar of a contemporary character type, protean man."]

Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith's most memorable character, is a problem from the conventional point of view, an opinion enunciated, for instance, by Simone Trevanny, a character in Highsmith's Ripley's Game, for whom his appeal makes no sense: "'I cannot...

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Washington Post Book World (review date 6 October 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of People Who Knock on the Door, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XV, No. 40, October 6, 1985, p. 6.

[Below, the critic offers a negative review of People Who Knock on the Door.]

Even good novelists occasionally have a lapse, and Patricia Highsmith had a very bad lapse of several hundred pages when she wrote People Who Knock on the Door. It's the story of Arthur, 17, and the effects on him and his family when his father becomes a born-again Christian and tries to revise all their lives and impose his moral views on others.

Things come to a head when Arthur's girlfriend reveals that she is pregnant and opts for an...

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Kathleen Gregory Klein (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Patricia Highsmith." in And Then There Were Nine … More Women of Mystery, edited by Jane S. Bakerman, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985, pp. 170-97.

[In the following essay, Klein provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Highsmith's works, concluding that the writer challenged the conventions of the mystery genre.]

In her refusal to be limited by the conventional considerations of the genre, Patricia Highsmith is, quite simply, one of the best and most significant crime writers working today. Critic Blake Morrison notes that "[T]o call her a 'crime writer' sounds limiting, even patronising, since, like Chabrol, Highsmith is less...

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Ursula Hegi (review date 6 April 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Little Tales of Misogyny, in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 91, April 6, 1986, p. 22.

[In the following review, Hegi criticizes Highsmith's portrayal of women in Little Tales of Misogyny.]

Punishment is the central theme of this collection of stories about women that was first published in a German translation in the mid-70s. The titles of the stories give an indication of their content: "The Mobile Bed-Object," "The Middle-Class Housewife," "The Breeder," "The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife." Patricia Highsmith's women destroy men and, as a result, most of them are punished. Yvonne, "The Coquette," is killed by two of her suitors "with...

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Christopher Ricks (review date 7 August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Death for Elsie," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 14, August 7, 1986, p. 21.

[In the following excerpt, Ricks provides a positive review of Found in the Street, focusing on Highsmith's depiction of crime and her portrayal of the protagonist, Elsie Tyler.]

Patricia Highsmith has been praised by Graham Greene in the good old way as 'a writer who has created a world of her own'. She can be even better than that—when she takes a world and makes it not only her own but ours. She lurks in the murk where you have to peer to check if this is an—or the—underworld. In her seething city-settings, paranoia may be the saving of you, and yet paranoia...

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Carol Ames (review date 1 November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Found in the Street, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 1, 1987, p. 4.

[In the following review, Ames praises Found in the Street.]

Found in the Street is a complex character study of New Yorkers brought together by chance. Elsie is a vivid, young waitress with the magnetism and energy to break into the modeling world. Ralph Linderman, an atheist with a dog named God, is the aging security guard who becomes obsessed with protecting Elsie's innocence. And Jack Sutherland is a wealthy, aspiring artist with a mostly happy family life. He has the fortune—or misfortune—to have his wallet returned by Linderman with all $263, as...

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Richard Burgin (review date 1 November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Found in the Street, in New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1987, Vol. 92, p. 24.

[In the following positive review, Burgin discusses the psychological elements in Found in the Street]

Patricia Highsmith writes compellingly about those ambiguous boundaries that are supposed to separate rational behavior from irrationality and beautiful lives from grotesque ones. Her 19th novel [Found in the Street] centers on Elsie, a pretty 20-year-old waitress who has moved to Greenwich Village from upstate New York, dreaming of modeling or becoming an actress. Friendly, earnest and preternaturally charismatic, she captivates everyone who meets...

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Charles Champlin (review date 13 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Black House, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 13, 1988, p. 13.

[Below, Champlin offers a positive review of The Black House.]

The Black House is a collection of stories by Patricia Highsmith, the Texas-born author long a resident in Europe. Like Ruth Rendell, she keeps a very, very cold eye on the world. Her protagonists are apt to be as amoral as other writers' villains.

She is at her most characteristically cynical in "Not One of Us" in which a circle of his friends conspire in the most subtle ways to drive a decent but boring fellow named Quasthoff to suicide.

In the title story, murder...

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Robert Towers (review date 31 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Way We Live Now," in New York Review of Books, March 31, 1988, Vol. XXXV, No. 5, pp. 36-7.

[In the following excerpt, Towers offers a mixed assessment of Found in the Street, expressing reservations about Highsmith's "downplaying of the dramatic."]

[Highsmith] is prolific, with nineteen novels to her credit, together with six volumes of short stories…. [She] frequently writes from the point of view of one or more of her male characters, who may or may not be "straight"; in fact, taken as a group, Miss Highsmith's characters, male and female, represent a wide spectrum of what used to be called the perverse….

Highsmith is one of...

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Alex Raskin (review date 5 February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 5, 1989, p. 4

[In the following review, Raskin offers a mixed assessment of Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, commenting on Highsmith's "wry portrayals of human folly."]

The catastrophes [in Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes] actually are all "unnatural," prompted when Patricia Highsmith's bizarre, blundering characters attempt to defy nature: the defense tactics of a high-rise crumble against a crawling army that fumigation can't kill; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finds that its hiding place for nuclear waste isn't...

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Odette L'Henry Evans (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Feminist Approach to Patricia Highsmith's Fiction," in American Horror Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King, edited by Brian Docherty, St. Martin's, 1990, pp. 107-19.

[In the following essay, Evans relates Highsmith's exploration of the unconscious in her novels and short stories to feminist critical theories.]

A critical examination of the work of Patricia Highsmith from a feminist standpoint unavoidably presents a number of challenges, the first being the difficulty of ascertaining precisely to what genre her novels belong. To see her as a 'crime writer' would be inaccurate as well as limitative, since it would mean ignoring certain elements of her...

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Noel Dorman Mawr (essay date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Villain to Vigilante," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 34-8.

[Mawr is an American educator and critic who has written works on Romantic poetry. In the following essay, she discusses the development of the character Tom Ripley in Highsmith's Ripley novels, stating that the series shows Ripley's "progression from a villain to a vigilante as the world becomes even too evil for his taste."]

Have you ever wondered how the criminal mind works? Patricia Highsmith has. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, focused on the pathology of a central character; and her only series character, Ripley, is a professional criminal. Some...

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Susannah Clapp (review date 10 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lovers on a Train," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 10, 1991, p. 19.

[In the following positive review of Carol, which was originally published as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, Clapp discusses the plot of the novel, focusing on Highsmith's depiction of landscape and homosexuality.]

'Beautifully written' is novel-reviewer's shorthand for 'written by a woman'. So is 'slim'. And 'slender'. I began to note these casual condescensions when I was helping to judge last year's Booker Prize. But then, prizes bring out prickliness. 'Do you think,' asked one contributor to the London Review of Books, 'that...

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Pat Wagner (review date June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Price of Salt, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, June, 1991, p. 16

[In the following review of The Price of Salt, which Highsmith published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, Wagner examines Highsmith's depiction of homosexual love.]

To risk love is to risk unhappiness, but for those whose love goes against the main currents of society, punishment and tragedy are certain. The only way, in fact, that generations of writers who discussed "forbidden" love could get away with creating three-dimensional and sympathetic characters is to make sure everyone suffered by the final curtain. A publisher, editor, or even a...

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Armchair Detective (essay date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Past Crimes," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1994, p. 360.

[In the following essay, the critic discusses Highsmith's five Tom Ripley novels, focusing on Ripley's matter-of-fact attitude toward crime.]

Through the years we have had the chance to follow the extraordinarily eccentric life of Patricia Highsmith's Thomas Ripley, who surely must be one of the oddest series figures in crime fiction since Raffles, the gentleman crook. The Ripley novels have been appearing since 1955, and the fifth and latest, Ripley under Water, came out in 1992.

The first in the series is the strongest and probably the most bizarre. The...

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MaryKay Mahoney (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Train Running on Two Sets of Tracks: Highsmith's and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train," in It's a Print: Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, edited by William Reynolds and Elizabeth A. Tremblay, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994, pp. 103-13.

[In the following essay, Mahoney provides a comparative study of Highsmith's novel Strangers on a Train and Alfred Hitchcock's film adaptation of the work, concluding that "the two works are substantially different in focus and direction."]

Highsmith's Strangers on a Train provides a psychological analysis of Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno and their intertwined relationship....

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Lorna Sage (review date 13 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Savage Swiss Army Knife," in The Observer Review, No. 10612, March 13, 1995, p. 19.

[In the following review of Small g: A Summer Idyll, Sage discusses the plot of the work and examines Highsmith's characterization and depiction of sex.]

Patricia Highsmith's (posthumous) new novel [Small g: A Summer Idyll] starts out in cool, utterly characteristic vein. A beautiful boy, a character we've hardly had a chance to meet, is murdered on page two by strangers who'll never be caught—not in any story she's responsible for. And, to add insult to injury, Lulu, a self-possessed performing dog ('a circus dog, from circus stock'), is introduced as a...

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Geoffrey Elborn (review date 19 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mellow at the Last," in Guardian Weekly, Vol. 152, No. 12, March 19, 1995, p. 29.

[In the following positive review of Small g: A Summer Idyll, Elborn states that the work "has a serenity rarely found in Highsmith's world."]

No other crime writer came near to possessing Patricia Highsmith's particular gift. Highsmith, who died last month, had an ability to stretch the nerves by teasing out the tension of some trivial domestic incident, or to describe suffocation by a cluster of snails, was entirely her own. Small g: A Summer Idyll is unlike any of her previous books, but from the first page, it is recognisably authentic Highsmith. Perhaps...

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Brooks Peters (essay date June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stranger than Fiction," in Out, June, 1995, pp. 70, 72, 150.

[In the following essay, Peters provides an overview of Highsmith's career, focusing on her fascination with death and murder, her lesbianism, and critical reaction to her work.]

"Sometimes I think that the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and I am sorry that is so." This quote, from Oscar Wilde's personal letters, was used by writer Patricia Highsmith in a foreword to one of her 21 extraordinary novels. It might as well have been her epitaph (she died of leukemia at age 74 in Switzerland on February 4), for the statement sums up so simply the eerie melancholy that colored her lifework....

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Campbell, James. "Criminal Negligence." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4795 (February 24, 1995): 32.

Negative review of Small g: A Summer Idyll in which Campbell states that the work is repetitive and lacks suspense and sympathy.

Dowell, Pat. "Gentleman with a Past." The Washington Post Book World XXII, No. 42 (October 18, 1992): 9.

Positive review of Ripley under Water in which Dowell discusses Highsmith's depiction of the character Tom Ripley.

King, Frances. "Perverse and Foolish." The Spectator 274, No....

(The entire section is 309 words.)