Emotional Warfare With a Body Count: Some Notes on Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith appearing on British television discussion programme After Dark in June 1988 © Open Media Ltd 1988

The work of Patricia Highsmith never really goes out of style. Last week brought with it the news that the director, writer, and star of the film adaptation of Gone Girl would be following that up with a new adaptation of Highsmith’s first novel, 1950’s Strangers on a Train. (You might recall the name of the first director to adapt said novel, an obscure cinematic figure named Alfred Hitchcock.) Last year also brought an adaptation of Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January, as well as the news that an adaptation of her book The Blunderer was on its way. A couple of years ago, W.W. Norton brought out new editions of Highsmith’s work; unlike some of her contemporaries, Highsmith’s writing can generally be read without the occasionally cringeworthy period-specific detail. That’s certainly one reason for her continuing appeal, but it’s far from the only one.

The best of Highsmith’s work dwells in a memorably ambiguous space. There’s Vic Van Allen, the central character of Deep Water, who occasionally lets the bedbugs he’s researching feast on his arm: a detail that’s every bit as unnerving now as it was in 1957. In her five novels featuring the amoral Tom Ripley -- perhaps the only character to be played by Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon, and John Malkovich on film -- questions of identity, economics, and desire are raised. In The Tremor of Forgery, a writer living temporarily in Tunisia commits an act of violence, but the question of whether or not it was a fatal one hangs over much of the novel.

Highsmith herself did not share the moral ambiguity of these characters. In a 1981 interview, she noted that "I once wrote in a book of mine about suspense writing, that a criminal, at least for a short period of time is free, free to do anything he wishes. Unfortunately it sounded as if I admired that, which I don’t."

The stories Highsmith tells place her characters in isolation, whether by choice or circumstance, and then pushes them to extremes. Hers were not the stories of good people forced to do bad things or bad people exalting in their cruelty. (Try to imagine mapping Highsmith’s characters onto a D & D-style alignment chart and you might lose your bearings.) A Highsmith protagonist can inspire sympathy one moment, terror the next, and confusion immediately following. They often dwell in a sort of self-imposed limbo (it’s not for nothing that Existentialists connected with her work), and even before some sort of punishment is applied, the dread that accompanies the uncertainty seems punishment enough.

Highsmith’s writings contain a wealth of detail, as she minutely dissected the bonds of friendship and marriage that existed among her characters. Her 1952 novel The Price of Salt, originally written under a pseudonym, dealt with a lesbian relationship; it, too, has been adapted for film. Whether a reader seeks crime fiction that delves into unexpected territory, explorations of sexuality and interpersonal relationships, or a masterful attention to detail, Highsmith’s body of work has plenty to offer.

The questions asked by Highsmith’s fiction remain relevant today. Tom Ripley’s ruthless pursuit of wealth and social standing certainly has its echoes in contemporary concerns. Highsmith depicted loveless marriages, marital bargains that ruin both parties, and emotional warfare that leaves a body count. And at times, these books offer little comfort to the characters within them: while understanding oneself better may lead to a brilliant epiphany in most fiction, for Highsmith, that moment often brings only ruin. In Highsmith’s world, the intellectual outsider is certainly the protagonist -- but the most relatable character to the reader may well be the story’s ultimate villain. Highsmith’s penchant for bleakness is yet another reason why her work remains memorable, and why it still stings today.