Highsmith, Patricia 1921–1995
Highsmith, Patricia 1921–1995
(Mary Patricia Highsmith, Claire Morgan)
PERSONAL: Born January 19, 1921, in Fort Worth, TX; died February 4, 1995, in Locarno, Switzerland; daughter of Jay Bernard Plangman and Mary (Coates) Highsmith. Education: Barnard College, B.A., 1942. Hobbies and other interests: Drawing, painting, carpentering, snail watching, traveling by train.
CAREER: Writer, 1942–95.
MEMBER: Detection Club.
AWARDS, HONORS: Mystery Writers of America Scroll and Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, both 1957, both for The Talented Mr. Ripley; Silver Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year, Crime Writers Association of England, 1964, for The Two Faces of January; Officer l'Ordre des Arts es des Lettres, 1990.
(Under pseudonym Claire Morgan) The Price of Salt, Coward-McCann (New York, NY), 1952, published under name Patricia Highsmith as Carol, new afterword by Highsmith, Naiad Press (Tallahassee, FL), 1984.
The Blunderer (also see below), Coward-McCann (New York, NY), 1954, published as Lament for a Lover, Popular Library (New York, NY), 1956, reprinted under original title, Hamlyn (London, England), 1978, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (also see below), Coward-McCann (New York, NY), 1955, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 2000.
Deep Water, Harper (New York, NY), 1957, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
A Game for the Living, Harper (New York, NY), 1958.
This Sweet Sickness (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1960, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
The Cry of the Owl, Harper (New York, NY), 1962.
The Two Faces of January, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1964.
The Glass Cell, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1964, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
The Story-Teller, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1965, published as A Suspension of Mercy, Heinemann (London, England), 1965, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.
Those Who Walk Away, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1967.
The Tremor of Forgery, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1969.
Ripley under Ground (also see below), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 1992.
A Dog's Ransom, Knopf (New York, NY), 1972.
Ripley's Game (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1974, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
Edith's Diary, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1977.
The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Crowell (New York, NY), 1980, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
People Who Knock on the Door, Heinemann (London, England), 1983, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1985, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.
The Mysterious Mr. Ripley (contains The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley under Ground, and Ripley's Game), Penguin (New York, NY), 1985, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.
Found in the Street, Heinemann (London, England), 1986, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Ripley under Water, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
Small G: A Summer Idyll, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1995.
(With Doris Sanders) Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda (juvenile), Coward-McCann (New York, NY), 1958.
The Snail-Watcher, and Other Stories, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970, published as Eleven: Short Stories, Heinemann (London, England), 1970.
Little Tales of Misogyny (in German), Diogenes Verlag (Zurich, Switzerland), 1974, English-language edition, Heinemann (London, England), 1977, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1987, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (young adult), Heinemann (London, England), 1975, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
Slowly, Slowly in the Wind, Heinemann (London, England), 1979, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1987.
The Black House, David & Charles (New York, NY), 1979, published as The Black House, and Other Stories, Heinemann (London, England), 1981.
Mermaids on the Golf Course, and Other Stories, Heinemann (London, England), 1985, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1988, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 2003.
The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.
Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Writers Inc. (Cincinnati, OH), 1966, enlarged and revised edition, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1981.
Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, Heinemann (London, England), 1987, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1989.
Also author of material for television, including series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
ADAPTATIONS: Strangers on a Train was adapted as a film, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, produced by Warner Bros., 1951, and also served as the basis for Once You Kiss a Stranger, Warner Bros., 1969; The Talented Mr. Ripley was filmed as Purple Noon by Times Film Corp., 1961 and under its own title, 1999; The Blunderer was filmed as Le meurtrier, 1963, and as Enough Rope, by Artixo Productions, 1966; This Sweet Sickness inspired the French film Tell Her That I Love Her, 1977; Ripley's Game was filmed as The American Friend, 1978, and under its own title, 2004. Many other novels by Highsmith were optioned for film.
SIDELIGHTS: The author of numerous short story collections and novels, including Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, American-born fiction writer Patricia Highsmith enjoyed greater critical and commercial success in England, France, and Germany than in her native country. As Jeff Weinstein speculated in the Voice Literary Supplement, one reason for this is that Highsmith's books were "misplaced": relegated to the mystery and suspense shelves instead of being allowed to take their rightful place in the literature section. As far as her ardent admirers in the United States and abroad are concerned, Highsmith was more than just a superb crime novelist. In fact, declared Brigid Brophy in Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews, "there's the injustice…. As a novelist tout court [Highsmith is] excellent…. Highsmith and [Georges] Simenon are alone in writing books which transcend the limits of the genre while staying strictly inside its rules: they alone have taken the crucial step from playing games to creating art."
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. Among her most common themes are the nature of guilt and the often symbiotic relationship that develops between two people—almost always men—who are at the same time fascinated and repelled by each other. High-smith's works therefore "dig down very deeply into the roots of personality," wrote Julian Symons in London Magazine, exposing the dark side of people regarded by society as normal and good. Or, as Thomas Sutcliffe explained 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." Also in the Times Literary Supplement, James Campbell stated that "the conflict of good and evil—or rather, simple decency and ordinary badness—is at the heart of all Highsmith's novels, dramatized in the encounters between two characters, often in an exotic locale, where it is easier to lose one's moral bearings. Usually, we see events from the point of view of the innocent, the blind, as they stumble towards doom."
Highsmith's childhood prepared her for a fiction writer's solitary life. Her father, Jay Bernard Plangman, separated from her aloof mother, Mary Coates, four months before her birth, and Patricia met her father for the first time when she was age twelve. Plangman was a German American whose family was well-established in Texas, and her mother was of Scottish and Irish descent. Both of her parents were commercial artists. At first, Highsmith was cared for by her maternal grandmother, a hard-headed but jovial woman who treated her indulgently. When the young Highsmith was six, her mother married Stanley Highsmith, another artist, and the family relocated to New York City. Entering elementary school, Highsmith's pronounced Southern accent made communication with other students difficult. In addition, the Highsmith home was chaotic, and she acquired a bleak view of domesticity. Richard Corliss, writing in Time, commented on Highsmith's childhood: "If your father walked out before you were born and your mother says she tried to abort you by guzzling turpentine, you may grow up with a sour view of humanity."
Highsmith attended Barnard College and received her bachelor's degree in 1942. Her first stories, deemed too grotesque for the college magazine, deal with such topics as a homicidal nanny and a murderous son. "The Heroine," a short story, was published by Harper's Bazaar in 1946 when its author was twenty-four. She would continue to write short fiction throughout her lifetime, resulting in the published collections Mermaids on the Golf Course, The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder, and Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, the last which contains twenty-eight stories authored between 1938 and 1982. Commenting on Highsmith's short stories, Library Journal contributor Robert E. Brown noted that, apart from her novels, the story form "might be her best medium, riveting attention on her twists (plot and psychological), her use of language, and her experiments with viewpoint."
After graduation from Barnard, Highsmith found a job writing storylines for comic book series such as "Superman" and "Batman." The money she saved enabled Highsmith to visit Mexico, where she started her first novel, a meandering Gothic romance she never completed. After returning to New York and working in Bloomingdales for a short time—Highsmith's pseudonymly published lesbian romance-novel The Price of Salt fictionalizes this period of her life—she traveled to Europe in 1949 and wrote the manuscript Strangers on a Train. In this book, young Guy Haines meets Charles Bruno, a charming psychotic, on a train. Guy reluctantly becomes engaged in conversation with his fellow passenger, then foolishly reveals a resentment toward his wife. Bruno offers to kill Haines's wife if Haines will agree to murder Bruno's tyrannical father.
Such an entanglement between two men—one innocent but naive, the other intriguing and malevolent—became a recurring subject throughout Highsmith's body of work. Critical outrage over her characters' casual immorality also persisted, some describing her work as "sickening" and "nasty." However, soon after the book's publication, Alfred Hitchcock read Strangers on a Train and bought the film rights for $7,000. Highsmith promptly abandoned her job to become a full-time author.
Highsmith stayed in Europe for two years, sold short stories, and began another novel, The Blunderer. Her next book, The Talented Mr. Ripley, introduces suave Thomas Ripley, who murders a wealthy friend and then assumes his identity. A New Yorker reviewer called Ripley "one of the most repellent and fascinating characters to come along for quite a while." The character was Highsmith's personal favorite, and she wrote a number of sequels, Ripley under Ground and Ripley under Water among them.
In 1953 Highsmith embarked upon a nomadic existence in Europe, and she continued her wanderings in the United States toward the end of the 1950s. She loved to travel, using her experiences to enrich her books. In 1962 she moved to England and lived in a Suffolk village, then moved to France in 1967. At her death in 1995, Highsmith was living near Locarno, Switzerland, on Lake Miggiore.
Highsmith's preoccupations with guilt and contrasting personalities surfaced as early as Strangers on a Train. With the exception of the "Ripley" books, which focus on the activities of the opportunistic and amoral Tom Ripley, a man incapable of feeling guilt, these themes are at the heart of Highsmith's fiction.
According to Symons, Highsmith typically launched her stories with the kind of "trickily ingenious plot devices often used by very inferior writers." He hastened to add, however, that these serve only as starting points for the "profound and subtle studies of character that follow." As Burt Supree observed in the Voice Literary Supplement, most of Highsmith's characters—none of whom are "heroes" in the conventional sense—are likely to be "obsessive, unquestioning, humdrum men with no self-knowledge, no curiosity, and Byzantine fantasy-lives—respectable or criminal middle-class, middle-brow people of incredible shallowness…. Like lab animals, [they] come under careful scrutiny, but [Highsmith] doesn't care to analyze them or beg sympathy for them." According to an essayist for the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, "Highsmith seems very dismissive of the emotional possibilities of innocence. Her characters are all surrounded by circumstantial evidence of their own guilt and complicity in crime, which the truly innocent haplessly internalise and which the truly guilty ignore. Highsmith's writing is thus profoundly ironic in its refusal to recognise the possibilities of justice, and it is appropriately aloof and distanced in its treatment of the moral issues raised." "I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial," Corliss quoted Highsmith as saying, "for neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not."
Sutcliffe echoed this assessment of Highsmith's characters as basically sane people who commit apparently insane acts, usually while under considerable strain. "What she observes so truthfully is not the collapse of reason but its persistence in what it suits us to think of as inappropriate conditions," Sutcliffe assessed. He continued: "Even Ripley, the least scrupulous and likeable of her central characters, has motives for his actions, and though they are venal and vicious they are not irrational. Her suburban killers remain calculatingly evasive until the end…. They don't hear voices and they don't have fun. Indeed in the act of killing their attitude is one of dispassionate detachment, of a sustained attempt to rationalize the intolerable…. In all the books death is contingent and unsought, almost never meticulously planned and very rarely the focus for our moral indignation."
In the eyes of most critics, it is Highsmith's skill at depicting a character's slide into derangement or death that distinguishes her "in a field where imitative hacks and dull formula-mongers abound," remarked a Times Literary Supplement reviewer. Symons declared, "The quality that takes her books beyond the run of intelligent fiction is not [the] professional ability to order a plot and create a significant environment, but rather the intensity of feeling that she brings to the problems of her central figures…. From original ideas that are sometimes far-fetched or even trivial she proceeds with an imaginative power that makes the whole thing terrifyingly real." The world Highsmith creates for her characters has a "relentless, compulsive, mutedly ominous quality," asserted Hermione Lee in the London Observer, one that leaves the reader "in a perpetual state of anxiety and wariness."
The prose Highsmith uses to communicate a sense of chilling dread and almost claustrophobic desperation is flat and plain, devoid of jargon, cliches, and padding. Some critics have described it as reminiscent of a psychological case history: a detailed and dispassionate account of a life moving out of control. According to Reg Gadney in London Magazine, "It is a characteristic skill of Miss Highsmith to convey unease and apprehension with an understated narrative style and painstaking description of domestic practicalities. Her characters often seem to counterbalance their expectation of fear by entrenching themselves in domestic routines…. [Their] tenacious efforts … to keep hold of everyday reality and logic serve to heighten the menace and chaos." New Statesman reviewer Blake Morrison, in fact, believed Highsmith was "at her most macabre when most mundane."
Weinstein wrote that "the reader has no choice but to follow the work, nothing could go another way. You are trapped in the very ease of the reading. The result is like suffocation, losing breath or will." Orhan Pamuk, reviewing the "Ripley" books in the Village Voice, described the fascination: "To know that people really will be hurt bonds the reader, with an almost self-destructive joy, to Highsmith's novels. For the reader has already discovered that the banality and pettiness, which spread like an epidemic in every one of her books, are those of his own life. He might as well begin to loathe himself. We rediscover, in each novel, the vulnerability of our existence."
Symons identified several qualities in Highsmith's work that made the author, in his words, "such an interesting and unusual novelist." He particularly praised "the power with which her male characters are realized" as well as her ability to portray "what would seem to most people abnormal states of minds and ways of behavior." Symons continued: "The way in which all this is presented can be masterly in its choice of tone and phrase. [Highsmith's] opening sentences make a statement that is symbolically meaningful in relation to the whole book…. The setting is also chosen with great care…. [She seems to be making the point that] in surroundings that are sufficiently strange, men become uncertain of their personalities and question the reason for their own conduct in society." In short, remarked Symons, Highsmith's work is "as serious in its implications and as subtle in its approach as anything being done in the novel today."
Highsmith's final novel before her death in 1995 departs from her successful formula of suspense. Small G: A Summer Idyll features almost no mystery, death, or intrigue. Set in Zurich, Switzerland, the novel revolves around a group of characters who frequent Jacob's Bierstuübe-Restaurant, known in gay travel-book parlance as a "small g": a place frequented by both straight and gay patrons. Rickie is a middle-aged gay man who is mourning his dead lover and coping with recent news that he is HIV-positive. He becomes friends with Luisa, a young woman stuck in the unpleasant employ of Renate, a crippled fashion designer who controls Luisa's life and actions. Eventually, Luisa inherits a fortune and gets away from Renate, while Rickie finds out that he is not HIV-positive after all. Many critics expressed disappointment with the novel, noting that Highsmith's trademark strengths are simply missing in this work. New Statesman reviewer Julie Wheelwright, for instance, noted that "the plot moves along pleasantly enough; but for a writer so skilled in creating suspense and insightful portraits, these qualities seem distinctly lacking in Small G. One wishes that, for her final novel, Highsmith had left a more lasting work than this light 'summer idyll.'" While praising the author's "limpid prose" and "deft characterization," Times Literary Supplement contributor James Campbell remarked that "if [Small G] can be read as a final utterance, Patricia Highsmith died having made peace with her demons. Good triumphed over bad. Too bad for her readers."
Highsmith "was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being," publisher Otto Penzler once recalled to Daniel Fierman of Entertainment Weekly. "I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly…. But her books? Brilliant." Fierman pointed out that, like so much of her fiction, Highsmith "was no picnic in real life."
Despite her sometimes cantankerous nature, Highsmith's reputation as a top-notch suspense writer remains secure. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer explained that "she is the crime writer who comes closest to giving crime writing a good name." And J.M. Edelstein in a New Republic article summed up: "Low-key is the word for Patricia Highsmith…. Low-key, subtle, and profound. It is amazing to me that she is not better known for she is superb and is a master of the suspense novel…. [The body of her work] should be among the classics of the genre." The essayist for the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers believed that High-smith "dignified and complicated the forms of crime fiction. Her remarkable output is highly distinctive in its austerity of mood and in its dark brooding qualities. Her characterization and her construction of setting are more subtle and deft than that of any of her contemporaries."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Brophy, Brigid, Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews, Holt (New York, NY), 1966.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 42, 1987.
Harrison, Russell, Patricia Highsmith, Twayne (New York, NY), 1997.
Newsmakers 1995, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Symons, Julian, Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Harper (New York, NY), 1972.
Wilson, Andrew, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, Blooksbury (London, England), 2003, Bloomsbury USA (New York, NY), 2004.
Booklist, September 1, 2002, Frank Sennett, review of Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, p. 63.
Books & Bookmen, March, 1971; March, 1983.
Entertainment Weekly, February 11, 1994, p. 50; January 14, 2000, Daniel Fierman, "Mystery Girl: Deceased Mistress of Suspense Patricia Highsmith Is Finding New Fans with The Talented Mr. Ripley," p. 22; August 24, 2001, Mark Harris, "Strange Magic: Patricia Highsmith's Complex Yet Entrancing Crime Thrillers Find New Life Six Years after Her Death," p. 128.
Forbes, June 15, 1998, "A Dark View," p. 304.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 21, 1984.
Journal of Popular Culture, February, 2004, William A. Cook, "Ripley's Game and The American Friend: A Modernist and Postmodernist Comparison," p. 399.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2002, review of Nothing That Meets the Eye, p. 1268; April 1, 2004, review of Small G: A Summer Idyll, p. 287.
Library Journal, July, 2001, Edward B. St. John, review of The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, p. 127; September 15, 2001, Lisa J. Cihlar, review of Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, p. 90; February 1, 2002, Michael Rogers, review of People Who Knock on the Door and The Blunderer, p. 138; October 1, 2002, Robert E. Brown, review of Nothing That Meets the Eye, p. 130.
Listener, July 9, 1970; February 17, 1983.
London Magazine, June, 1969; June-July, 1972.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 1, 1987; March 13, 1988; February 5, 1989; January 17, 1993.
New Republic, May 20, 1967; June 29, 1974; November 10, 2003, "The Ick Factor," p. 28.
New Statesman, May 31, 1963; February 26, 1965; October 29, 1965; January 25, 1969; March 30, 1979; October 2, 1981; March 17, 1995, p. 38.
Newsweek, July 4, 1977.
New Yorker, May 27, 1974.
New York Herald Tribune Books, February 7, 1960.
New York Review of Books, September 15, 1974; March 31, 1988, pp. 36-37; November 15, 2001, E.P. Sanders, review of The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, p. 37.
New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1966; April 1, 1967; April 30, 1967; July 19, 1970; July 7, 1974; April 6, 1986; July 19, 1987; November 1, 1987; April 3, 1988; December 18, 1988; January 29, 1989; September 17, 1989; December 24, 1989; October 18, 1992.
Observer (London, England), February 12, 1967; January 19, 1969; July 12, 1970; January 9, 1983; March 12, 1995, p. 19.
Playboy, May, 1994, p. 34.
Publishers Weekly, November 2, 1992, pp. 46-47; February 23, 1998, Steven M. Zeitchik, "Highsmith Gives $3M to Yaddo," p. 15; July 2, 2001, review of The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, p. 49; August 6, 2001, "Mysteries of Writing," p. 81.
Punch, January 29, 1969; March 10, 1971; June 2, 1982.
Spectator, February 21, 1969; December 5, 1981; February 12, 1983; October 13, 1990, p. 33; December 7, 1991, p. 34; March 18, 1995, p. 34.
Time, December 27, 1999, Richard Corliss, "The Talented Ms. Highsmith: Ripley's Creator," p. 159.
Times (London, England), February 24, 1983; April 3, 1986.
Times Literary Supplement, June 1, 1967; September 24, 1971; April 25, 1980; October 2, 1981; February 4, 1983; September 27, 1985; April 18, 1986; December 6, 1987, p. 1227; October 4, 1991, p. 26; February 24, 1995, p. 32.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 4, 1992.
Village Voice, November 17, 1992.
Voice Literary Supplement, August, 1982.
Washington Post, June 28, 1980.
Washington Post Book World, September 15, 1985; October 6, 1985; October 18, 1992.
Washington Star-News, November 25, 1973.
Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1995, p. A22.
New York Times, February 6, 1995, p. B8.
Times (London, England), February 6, 1995, p. 21.
Washington Post, February 6, 1995, p. B4.