Born Mary Patricia Plangman, 19 January 1921, Fort Worth, Texas; died 5 February 1995
Also wrote under: Claire Morgan
Daughter of Jay B. and Mary Coates Plangman
Both of Patricia Highsmith's natural parents were artists, as was her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, whom her mother married when Patricia was three. By the time Highsmith graduated from Barnard in 1942, she had decided to put her creative energy into writing rather than painting. But she still sees with a painter's eye; the landscapes and cityscapes of her crime novels are cleanly drawn and evocative. By 1949 she was able to travel to Europe, where she eventually settled, first in England, later in France.
It has been recognized for some time, especially in Europe, that Highsmith writes crime novels of great psychological acuity. In 1964 Brigid Brophy ranked her with Georges Simenon, and critical opinion has increasingly confirmed Brophy's judgement. Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), introduced a plot twist of considerable originality: an innocent, decent man meets a man who is evil, or mad, or both, and through this meeting and the collusion of events, the innocent becomes a murderer. The Blunderer (1954) repeats this configuration of main characters and lays heavy emphasis on the power of rumor and sensational publicity in modern society. The court of public opinion convicts Walter Stackhouse of a murder he has twice resisted the temptation to commit.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) won the Mystery Writers of America Scroll and the Grand Prix de Littèrature Policière in 1957. It introduced a genuinely fascinating character, Tom Ripley, who also stars with chilling blandness in two later novels. Rarely has an amoral murderer been so likeable, had such good intentions, projected such pathos. Tom, having met Dickie Greenleaf, a man who has or is everything Tom wants, kills Dickie and then becomes him. Tom wears Dickie's clothes and personality until he has acquired sufficient confidence to reassume his own name. Tom's story is a sort of unholy rite of passage. These three novels introduce the main themes Highsmith's crime novels explore and the central plot device on which she rings a number of variations. Several of her novels revolve around an increasingly compulsive relationship between a good and an evil man.
Highsmith never exploits this device for the same thematic purposes twice. In The Cry of the Owl (1962), the former mental patient and voyeur turns out to be the beleaguered innocent, and the clean-cut American boy is revealed as a natural killer, waiting for the right combination of circumstances to trigger his violence. In The Two Faces of January (1964), which was the Crime Writers Association of England's novel of the year, and Those Who Walk Away (1967), it is the innocent who attach themselves to the guilty and, for their own psychological purposes, haunt them. The main theme of A Dog's Ransom (1972) is the breakdown of the social institutions meant to protect the decent from predators.
In Tom Ripley, Highsmith created the first of several characters who unite terrible innocence and terrible guilt in one personality. Vic Van Allen's well-earned reputation for being the most long-suffering of upright citizens protects him long enough to commit murder twice, in Deep Water (1957). In This Sweet Sickness (1960), when David Kelsey retreats into an imaginary life and personality in order to enjoy the success in love that reality has denied him, he begins a slow deterioration into dangerous madness.
One of Highsmith's major themes, then, is the ease with which a decent man can cross the line into criminality, or a sane one slip into insanity. In her world, society can be counted on to accelerate these disasters in a variety of ways: by protecting the guilty, harassing the innocent, brutalizing prisoners, enjoying innuendo, wallowing in sensationalism, and tolerating terrorism.
As the 1980s approached, Highsmith continued to write psychological crime fiction. Yet it was increasingly not only the criminal mind that attracted her; rather, it was the mind of the person battling against stronger enemies—the shift in emphasis from good and evil to weakness and strength is an important one in much of her later fiction. Edith's Diary (1977) and Little Tales of Misogyny (1977, published in German in 1974) both focus on the lives of women who are trapped by circumstances and by their own unwise choices. In Edith's case, powerlessness is compounded by the character's need to pretend. Edith escapes into her diary in which she creates a happy family with a successful and loving son. The diary becomes more fictitious as the events and the people in Edith's life become more and more disappointing. Many of the sketches of women in Little Tales of Misogyny also highlight the failure of characters to look at reality squarely and to take control of their lives.
The stories, in Andrew Macdonald's words, seem "medieval misogynist tracts," but they are also examinations of how women who are already socially stereotyped accept and abet their limited and limiting classifications. The two books illustrate Highsmith's clear eye for the ways in which power is used to entrap and destroy women, and the author's sense of menace, a hallmark of much of her earlier fiction, is present sometimes in physical, but mostly in psychological brutalization.
With Ripley Under Water (1992), Highsmith returned to the Ripley stories begun in 1955. In this novel, almost the entire emphasis is on psychological one-upmanship as Pritchard, a full-blown sadist, torments Ripley about the one crime Tom wishes he had not committed, the murder of Dickie Greenleaf. The emphasis on weakness and power again displaces the conflict between good and evil, as Tom Ripley (remembered from the earlier books) is far more charming and sympathetic than Pritchard. While this latest Ripley novel is not nearly so satisfying as the earlier ones, it does create a sense of menace and psychological anxiety. The Ripley stories are, according to Julian Symons, Highsmith's most popular because contemporary readers feel "that crime is more interesting than its detection, and that intelligent criminals are to be congratulated or at least admired."
Other books include two collections, Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (1979), a series of stories including tales of revenge, murder, and muggings, and Black House (1981), comprised of tales focusing on violence and the seemingly ordinary people who commit bizarre and outlandish acts. A novel, People Who Knock at the Door (1983), shifts her focus from crime to religion and analyzes the behavior, often malignant, of a fundamentalist religious colony.
Highsmith's last novels returned to the gay and lesbian theme. She had dealt with the topic in her 1952 lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, which was republished in 1991 with a new title, Carol. It is about a department store worker who initiates a relationship with a customer and eventually becomes her lover. Highsmith had originally published the book under the pseudonym Claire Morgan but acknowledged she was the author when the book was reprinted. Found in the Street (1986) is set in New York and is the story of a married couple, Jack and Natalia Sutherland, and their daughter, Amelia; Elsie Taylor, a waitress who is taken up by the Sutherlands and later murdered; and Ralph Linderman, a puritanical security guard. In this novel, too, gay and lesbian homosexuality is a strong issue.
Her last novel, Small g: A Summer Idyll (1995), takes place in Switzerland and has both homosexual and heterosexual characters. Russell Harrison called it "her most plotless creation." It was published in England, Germany, and France. Knopf rejected the manuscript in the U.S.; Highsmith felt they did so out of fear of offending conservatives.
Highsmith had moved permanently to Europe in 1963 and spent her last years in Switzerland, living quietly with her cats and declining most interviews. Although many people know her as the author of Strangers on a Train, her work as a whole has been better known and honored in Europe than in her native United States.
In February of 1995 Highsmith died in Switzerland of lung cancer and aplastic anemia. She left her $3 million estate to Yaddo, the artists' community in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she completed Strangers on a Train, her first and most famous novel. According to Yaddo president Michael Sundell, quoted in Publishers Weekly, Highsmith "felt that she had gained her identity as an artist at Yaddo, and she wished by her gift to provide the same opportunity for future generations of Yaddo guests."
Highsmith should not be approached as a mystery or suspense novelist, since there are very few mysteries and little suspense in her books. At her best, however, she was a sensitive chronicler of psychological stress and deterioration and a clear-eyed observer of social tragedy.
A Game for the Living (1958). Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda (with D. Sanders, 1958). The Glass Cell (1964). The Story-Teller (English title, A Suspension of Mercy, 1965). Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966, 1983, revised 1990). The Tremor of Forgery (1969). Ripley Under Ground (1970). The Snail Watcher, and Other Stories (English title, Eleven, 1970). Little Tales of Misogyny (in German, 1974; in English, 1977). Ripley's Game (1974). The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (1975). The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980). Mermaids on the Golf Course (1985). The Mysterious Mr. Ripley (1985). Found in the Street (1986). Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987). The Talented Mr. Ripley; Ripley Under Ground; Ripley's Game; The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1994).
Brophy, B., Don't Never Forget (1966). Cavigelli, F. and F. Senn, eds., Über Patricia Highsmith (1980). Harrison, R., Patricia Highsmith (1997).
Concise Survey of Short Fiction (1991). CANR (1987). CLC (1974, 1975, 1980, 1987). CN (1976, 1991). Detecting Women (1994). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). FC (1990). MTCW (1991). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996).
Armchair Detective (Fall 1981). Clues (Spring/Summer 1984). London (June 1969, June-July 1972). Midwest Quarterly (Apr. 1984). NYTBR (29 Jan. 1989, 18 Oct. 1992). TLS (24 Sept. 1971, 4 Oct. 1991, 17 Apr. 1992). Vanity Fair (Mar. 1999).
UPDATED BY MARY A. MCCAY
AND KAREN LESLIE BOYD