Suspense novels are often described as "chilling," but no one turns down the reader's emotional thermostat quite like Patricia Highsmith, author of such haunting psychological thrillers as Strangers on a Train and creator of the sociopathic series protagonist Tom Ripley. During her life, Highsmith was a popular author in Europe, where she lived; in her native United States, however, her books went sporadically in and out of print for decades. Now, the writer whom Graham Greene called "the poet of apprehension" has finally gained recognition in the States -- not only as a master of the suspense genre, but as a literary author of rare talent.
Highsmith grew up in Texas and New York, but spent most of her adult life in England, France and Switzerland. By most accounts she was a loner who avoided other people, including other writers; but she did have early help in her career from Truman Capote, who got her a stint at the Yaddo writers' colony in New York. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, tells the story of an architect and a psychopath who meet on a train and "swap" murders. The book gained Highsmith considerable fame, especially after it was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. A second novel, The Price of Salt, was printed under a pseudonym after her first publishers turned it down. Though her subsequent works didn't sell well in her home country, she kept turning out the kinds of novels and short stories the New Yorker called "bad dreams that keep us thrashing for the rest of the night."
Several movies have been loosely based on Highsmith's books, including Danny DeVito's Hitchcock spoof Throw Momma From the Train; Wim Wenders' The American Friend, adapted from Ripley's Game; and Purple Noon, a French film based on The Talented Mr. Ripley. But it was Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella's lush screen adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, released four years after Highsmith's death and 44 years after the book's publication, that introduced Highsmith to a wider audience and led to a rediscovery of her works.
Subtle enough for a seminar yet entertaining enough for the beach, Highsmith's coolly narrated tales of terror display an observant eye for social behavior as well as individual psychology. Most books in the suspense genre provide a hero whose fundamental honesty and decency stand as bulwarks against the evil he or she confronts. But in a Highsmith novel, the reader is alone with victim and victimizer -- and an unsettling sense of empathy with both.
As Francis Wyndham has noted, Highsmith's "peculiar brand of horror comes less from the inevitability of disaster, than from the ease with which it might have been avoided. The evil of her agents is answered by the impotence of her patients -- this is not the attraction of opposites, but in some subtle way the call of like to like. When they finally clash in the climactic catastrophe, the reader's sense of satisfaction may derive from sources as dark as those which motivate Patricia Highsmith's destroyers and their fascinated victims."
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Patricia Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman; her parents divorced soon after she was born, however, and she was given her stepfather's last name. After Highsmith graduated from college, she lived for a time with her mother and stepfather in Greenwich Village, where she wrote comic books to support herself, including scripts for the Superman series.
A lesbian herself, Highsmith is thought to have written the first American novel in which a homosexual love story has a happy ending. The novel, The Price of Salt, was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; it was reissued in 1984 (as Carol), but didn't appear under the writer's real name until 1991.
Highsmith once told an interviewer that the only suspense writer she read was the master -- Dostoevsky, over and over. In her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, she wrote, "I think most of Dostoyevsky's books would be called suspense books, were they being published today for the first time. But he would be asked to cut, because of production costs."
The premise of The Talented Mr. Ripley was inspired by Henry James's The Ambassadors, in which a widow sends her fiance from America to Paris to fetch her wayward son.
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|Patricia Highsmith Home
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|Patricia Highsmith Movies
Signed, First Editions by Patricia Highsmith|
|Strangers on a Train, 1950|
|The Price of Salt, 1952|
|The Blunderer, 1954|
|The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1955|
|A Game for the Living, 1958|
|This Sweet Sickness, 1960|
|The Cry of the Owl, 1962|
|The Two Faces of January, 1964|
|A Suspension of Mercy, 1965|
|Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, 1966|
|Those Who Walk Away, 1967|
|The Tremor of Forgery, 1969|
|Ripley Under Ground, 1970|
|A Dog's Ransom, 1972|
|Little Tales of Misogyny, 1974|
|Ripley's Game, 1974|
|Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder, 1975|
|Edith's Diary, 1977|
|Slowly, Slowly in the Wind, 1979|
|The Boy Who Followed Ripley, 1980|
|The Black House, 1981|
|People Who Knock on the Door, 1983|
|Mermaids on the Golf Course, 1985|
|Found in the Street, 1986|
|Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, 1987|
|Ripley Under Water, 1991|
|The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, 2000|
|Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, 2002|