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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 conventions of the genre. She avoided gimmicks and formulaic plots, concentrating on developing the motivations behind criminal behavior rather than on 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. Critics generally agree that Highsmith’s subtle, restrained style emphasizes her premise that anyone is capable of murder.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921, the only child of jay Bernard Plangman, a graphic artist, and Mary Coates Plangman, an illustrator and fashion designer. Patricia’s parents divorced five months before her birth, and she was raised with her cousin Dan Coates by her maternal grandparents in Fort Worth. She did not meet her father until she was twelve years old, and even though she found him likable, they had nothing to say to each other. in 1925 Patricia’s mother married Stanley Highsmith, an advertising illustrator, and the family moved to New York City two years later. Patricia Highsmith recalled in a 1979 interview with Noelle Loriot the trauma she suffered because of the move: ”Something went to pieces in me when i left my grandmother. i completely withdrew into myself.” Stanley Highsmith did not officially adopt his stepdaughter, but her mother registered her as Patricia Highsmith when she enrolled her in elementary school. Patricia later decided to keep the name as a tribute to this extremely patient and upright man.
New York Stories
While she liked her stepfather, High-smith did not love her mother and, as she revealed to Loriot, blamed the failure of her second marriage on her mother’s quarrelsomeness and selfishness: ”Why don’t I love my mother? First, because she turned my childhood into a little hell. Second, because she herself never loved anyone, neither my father, my stepfather, nor me.” Her feeling that she was unloved and unwanted was confirmed when her mother confessed that, while she was pregnant with Highsmith, she had unsuccessfully tried to induce abortion by drinking turpentine.
in an attempt to escape the frequent quarrels that she was forced to witness in the cramped two-room apartment in Greenwich Village, Highsmith immersed herself in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hugh Walpole, and T. S. Eliot. She was also fascinated by Karl Menninger’s The Human Mind (1930), a book including case studies of kleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, and serial killers, because she realized that the man, woman, or child next door could be strange even while appearing normal and that anybody one met on the street could be a kleptomaniac, a sadist, or even a murderer.
Upon graduating from college in 1942, Highsmith moved into a room of her own on Sixtieth Street in Manhattan and eked out a living by composing text for comic strips such as Superman and Batman. She wrote short stories and immersed herself in the bohemian life of Greenwich Village, meeting Truman Capote, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Carson McCullers. In 1943 she spent five months in Taxco, Mexico, where she worked on an unfinished novel titled The Click of the Shutting and considered becoming a professional painter. The novel revolves around the relationship between two New York boys, prefiguring the pattern Highsmith later followed in many of her works.
Murder Most Interesting
Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), set the tone for her subsequent work. In this novel, Highsmith brings together two unhappy men who, although opposites in many ways, are drawn into a web of murder and betrayal. The financial success of her first two novels enabled High-smith—who had visited England, France, and Italy briefly in 1949—to begin a European sojourn in 1952 that lasted more than two years. She traveled in the footsteps of her literary idol, Henry James, from London to Paris, Munich, Salzburg, Trieste, and Florence. In the southern Italian town of Positano she rented a house and, watching a young, possibly American man walk along the deserted beach one morning lost in thought, she was inspired to invent a story about a young American vagabond who is sent to Europe with the mission to convince another American to return to the States. After returning to the United States at the beginning of 1954, Highsmith moved into a cottage near Lenox, Massachusetts, where she began writing the first in a series of five adventures featuring her best-known creation, Tom Ripley.
Life and Death Abroad
After Highsmith settled in Europe permanently in 1963, she only grudgingly promoted her books and avoided book signing tours and readings as much as possible. Even though she granted interviews, she ferociously protected her privacy and deliberately shocked her interviewers with such outrageous statements as her 1976 assertion to Peter Ruedi: ”If I saw a kitten and a little human baby starving in the street, I would feed the kitten provided no one saw me.” Otto Penzler, one of Highsmith’s American publishers, attested to her abrasive personality in a quote for Entertainment Weekly: ”She was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being. I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly…. But her books? Brilliant.”
In the last ten years of Highsmith’s life her literary output dwindled considerably, and the writer isolated herself more and more. In 1982 she moved from France to Switzerland, first settling in Aurigeno and then in Tegna, where she withdrew into a house that she had built according to her own designs. The home resembled a bunker: situated at the foot of the Alps, it kept the world at bay. In 1990 Highsmith was honored by the French government when she was named Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, and in 1991 she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The same year she published Ripley Under Water (1991), the last novel of the cycle, in which Ripley is the victim of a meddlesome American couple.
Highsmith died in a Locarno hospital on February 4, 1995, of cancer, and her ashes were interred in Tegna on March 11. Her legacy lives on through her books and their movie adaptations, and critic Ed Siegel, writing in the Boston Globe, believes that changes in American society have contributed to the reassessment of Highsmith’s importance: ”In the wake of September 11, Highsmith’s world is not only more like ours, where crime and punishment or cause and effect don’t necessarily go hand in hand, she seems a more important writer than ever.”
Works in Literary Context
Strangers on a Train established a pattern that recurs, with variations, in many of Highsmith’s works. In her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966), Highsmith describes this motif: ”The theme I have used over and over again in my novels is the relationship between two men, usually quite different in make-up, sometimes an obvious contrast in good and evil, sometimes merely ill-matched friends.” Much of her writing is about this often symbiotic relationship that develops between two people (almost always men) who are at the same time fascinated and repelled by each other.
Guilt and Pleasures
Highsmith’s preoccupations with guilt and contrasting personalities surfaced as early as her very first novel. Strangers on a Train chronicles the relationship between Guy Haines, a successful young architect, and Charles Bruno, a charming but unstable man slightly younger than Haines. The two men first meet on a train journey when Bruno repeatedly tries to engage his traveling companion in conversation. They discuss troublesome relationships and speculate on striking a deal: Bruno will kill Haines’s wife for him, and Haines in turn will kill Bruno’s father. Since there is no connection between the victims and their killers, Bruno theorizes, the police will be at a loss to solve the murders. Haines dismisses the plan as mere fantasy, but Bruno takes their bargain seriously and proceeds to carry out his part. This type of cold-blooded killing recurs in the Ripley novels, where the title character is cool and calculating about his crimes.
Works in Critical Context
The art in Highsmith’s work springs from her skillful fusion of plot, characterization, and style, with the crime story serving primarily ”as a means of revealing and examining her own deepest interests and obsessions,” according to a Times Literary Supplement reviewer. Highsmith’s works therefore ”dig down very deeply into the roots of personality,” says Julian Symons in the London Magazine, exposing the dark side of people regarded by society as normal and good. Or, as Thomas Sutcliffe explains in the Times Literary Supplement, Highsmith wrote ”not about what it feels like to be mad, but what it feels like to remain sane while committing the actions of a madman.”
The Talented Mr. Ripley
In Highsmith’s best-known and arguably most accomplished novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, the ”criminal-hero,” as she calls him in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, receives no punishment for his misdeeds. A reviewer for the New Yorker called the novel ”remarkably immoral” and its protagonist ”one of the most repellent and fascinating characters.” Craig Brown stated in the Times Literary Supplement: ”it is a rare villain or psychopath whom the reader does not find himself willing toward freedom, a rare investigator or victim (sometimes the one becomes the other) whom the reader is unhappy to see dead.”
- Bronski, Michael. ”Patricia Highsmith.” In The Gay and Lesbian Literary Companion. Edited by Sharon Malinowski and Christa Brelin. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1995,pp. 253-258.
- Brophy, Brigid. “Highsmith.” In Don’t Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967, pp. 149-155.
- Cavigelli, Franz, Fritz Senn, and Anna von Planta, eds. Patricia Highsmith: Leben und Werk. Rev. and enlarged edition. Zurich, Switzerland: Diogenes, 1996.
- Harrison, Russell. Patricia Highsmith. New York: Twayne, 1997.
- Symons, Julian. Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
- Wilson, Andrew. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
- Tuss, Alex. ”Masculine Identity and Success: A Critical Analysis of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.” Journal of Men’s Studies 12 (Winter 2004): 93-102.
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