Discussion Topics

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How might the alienation in Patricia Highsmith’s fiction reflect the period in which she was writing?

According to Highsmith, how do suspense novels differ from mystery novels?

Highsmith’s work is distinctive because of its amorality. What is the difference between amoral and immoral tales?

How does Highsmith use performance and...

(The entire section contains 1593 words.)

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How might the alienation in Patricia Highsmith’s fiction reflect the period in which she was writing?

According to Highsmith, how do suspense novels differ from mystery novels?

Highsmith’s work is distinctive because of its amorality. What is the difference between amoral and immoral tales?

How does Highsmith use performance and imitation in her novels?

What do readers learn from doubles and duality in Highsmith’s novels?

What vision of America does Highsmith’s fiction present to her readers?

Other Literary Forms

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Patricia Highsmith is best known for her highly original psychological studies of the criminal mind, particularly in the Ripley mystery series. She coauthored a children’s book and wrote material for television programs, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A number of her novels were made into films, including the 1951 Alfred Hitchcock production of Strangers on a Train (1950) and another version, produced in 1969, entitled Once You Kiss a Stranger (1969); The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), produced by Times Film in 1961 as Purple Noon and also filmed by Anthony Minghella in 1999; The Blunderer (1954) as Le Meurtrier (1963) and Enough Rope (1966); This Sweet Sickness (1960) as the French film Tell Her That I Love Her (1977); and Ripley’s Game (1974) as The American Friend (1978). In the 1990’s she published the novels Ripley Under Water (1991) and Small g: A Summer Idyll (1995).

Achievements

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Patricia Highsmith won high critical and commercial acclaim in England, France, Germany, and eventually her native country. A member of the Detection Club, she received both the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll of the Mystery Writers of America and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière award in 1957, for The Talented Mr. Ripley. In 1964, she received the Crime Writers Association of England Silver Dagger Award for the best foreign crime novel of the year, The Two Faces of January (1964). She was made an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1990.

Other literary forms

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In addition to her novels, Patricia Highsmith wrote several collections of short stories, including The Snail-Watcher, and Other Stories (1970), The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder (1975), Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (1979), The Black House (1981), Mermaids on the Golf Course, and Other Stories (1985), and Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987). In 1966, she published a how-to book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (reprinted and expanded three times by the author), which provides a good introduction to her work. She also wrote one children’s book, Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda (1958), in collaboration with a friend, Doris Sanders. Although Highsmith wrote prizewinning short stories, she is best known for her novels, especially the Ripley series.

Achievements

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Patricia Highsmith was honored several times. For her first published story, “The Heroine,” which was written while she was a student at Barnard College, she was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1946. The novel The Talented Mr. Ripley was awarded the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 1957 and the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll from the Mystery Writers of America. For The Two Faces of January she received the Award of the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain.

Contribution

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Patricia Highsmith’s novels and short stories have been considered by critics to be among the very best work in modern crime fiction. Her highly original suspense novels, closer to the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevski than to the Golden Age of mysteries, are noted for the intriguing portrayal of characters who inadvertently become involved in crime, perhaps imagining committing a crime or carrying the guilt for a crime that goes undetected. Acute psychological studies of such antiheroes, together with complex plot structure, precise prose, and suspenseful development of unease within a finely drawn context, characterize her work. Highsmith’s focus on crimes committed by ordinary people in moments of malaise suggests that the lines between good and evil, guilty and innocent, and sanity and insanity are indeed problematic.

Bibliography

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Bloom, Harold, ed. “Patricia Highsmith.” In Lesbian and Bisexual Fiction Writers. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1997. Highsmith is discussed by several scholars of gay and lesbian studies, who contextualize her work in terms of that discipline. Bibliographic references.

Brophy, Brigid. “Highsmith.” In Don’t Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews. New York: Henry Holt, 1966. Brophy compares Highsmith’s artistic achievements to those of Georges Simenon to argue that Highsmith’s crime novels, with their moral ambiguity, “transcend the limits of the genre while staying strictly inside its rules.” She claims that “what Sophocles did for the tragedy of fate Miss Highsmith does for the melodrama of coincidence.”

Chin, Paula. “Through a Mind, Darkly.” People Weekly 39 (January 11, 1993): 93-94. A biographical sketch of Highsmith’s eccentric, reclusive, and forbiddingly private life. Discusses her popularity in Europe and her cult status in America; lists her many honors.

Coburn, Marcia Froelke. “And the Enemy Is Us: Patricia Highsmith.” Film Comment 20 (September/October, 1984): 44-45. Argues that Highsmith is something of an anomaly among writers of hard-boiled mystery, since she concentrates on the criminals’ point of view and often allows them to avoid being caught. Notes Highsmith’s focus on the inescapable effects of thought in which consideration of sin is as bad as sinning and often leads inextricably to a forbidden act.

Cochran, David. “’Some Torture That Perversely Eased’: Patricia Highsmith and the Schizophrenia of American Life.” In America Noir. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2000. A work of cultural criticism focused on the repressed tensions of American culture that produce symptomatic structures in Highsmith’s fiction.

Dubose, Martha Hailey, with Margaret Caldwell Thomas. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2000. Highsmith’s works and life experiences are compared to those of Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers, among others. Bibliographic references and index.

Dupont, Joan. “Criminal Pursuits.” The New York Times Magazine, June 12, 1988, p. 60. Notes that although Highsmith is a celebrity in the rest of the world, she is relatively unknown in her native United States; suggests that because Highsmith has lived abroad and has never been in the United States to promote her books, she has never developed a strong link with publishers or readers. Others believe it is because her books are not clearly classifiable as thrillers, mysteries, or literature.

Harrison, Russell. Patricia Highsmith. New York: Twayne, 1997. This first book-length study of Highsmith in English explores the aesthetic, philosophical, and sociopolitical dimensions of her writing. Study of her short fiction is limited to discussion of Slowly Slowly in the Wind and The Black House, which represent, in Harrison’s opinion, the strongest collections.

Highsmith, Patricia. Interview by Craig Little. Publishers Weekly 239 (November 2, 1992): 46-47. A brief biographical and critical discussion of Highsmith, commenting on the Hitchcock film version of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, and her popularity in Europe over the last forty years.

Highsmith, Patricia. “Not Thinking with the Dishes.” Writer’s Digest 62 (October, 1983): 26. Highsmith says she follows no set rules for story writing; she begins with a theme, an unusual circumstance or a situation of surprise or coincidence, and creates the narrative around it. Her focus is on subjective attitudes, what is happening in the minds of her protagonists. Her settings are always ones she knows personally.

Hilfer, Anthony Channell. “Not Really Such a Monster: Highsmith’s Ripley as Thriller Protagonist and Protean Man.” Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought 25 (Summer, 1984): 361-374. Hilfer studies Highsmith’s Ripley as a “subversive variation” of a suspense thriller protagonist, one through which Highsmith flouts moral and literary expectations. He argues that Ripley’s lack of a determinate identity makes his role-playing credible.

Lindsay, Elizabeth Blakesley, ed. “Patricia Highsmith.” In Great Women Mystery Writers. 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007. Essay containing biographical detail as well as analysis of her works.

Meaker, Marijane. Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950’s, a Memoir. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2003. A portrait of Highsmith written by a woman who had a relationship with her.

Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. A definitive Highsmith biography, over 700 pages.

Summers, Claude J., ed. Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage. New York: H. Holt, 1995. Includes an excellent essay by Gina Macdonald on Highsmith’s life work to the time of her death in 1995.

Sutcliffe, Thomas. “Graphs of Innocence and Guilt.” The Times Literary Supplement, no. 4696 (October 2, 1981): 1118. Sutcliffe argues that the uneasy, disquieting force of Highsmith’s works comes from her depiction of reason persisting in inappropriate conditions. Her focus on “what it is like to remain sane” while committing horrendous deeds blurs complacent distinctions. At their best, her short stories are brilliant studies of “fear and loathing, moral absolution and culpability”—“the fragility of untested moral structures.”

Symons, Julian. Mortal Consequences: A History from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. Symons calls Highsmith “the most important crime novelist at present,” more appreciated in Europe than in the United States, but a fine writer, whose tricky plot devices are merely starting points “for profound and subtle character studies,” particularly of likable figures attracted by crime and violence. It is her imaginative power that gives her criminal heroes a “terrifying reality” amid carefully chosen settings. She is at her best describing subtle, deadly games of pursuit.

Tolkin, Michael. “In Memory of Patricia Highsmith.” Los Angeles Times Book Review, February l2, 1995, p. 8. A tribute to Highsmith as “our best expatriate writer since Henry James,” and an excellent analysis of why her heroes, especially Ripley, are not appreciated in America.

Wilson, Andrew. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. This biography of Highsmith examines the author’s troubled life and devotion to her work. A rare source of biographical information.

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