Patricia Highsmith: a talented writer who always let rip

Sinéad Gleeson celebrates a great writer 20 years after her death

In 1948, at the age of 27, Patricia Highsmith had an idea for a novel: two men, strangers to each other, meet on a train and agree to swap murders, thus giving themselves an alibi.

As Highsmith struggled to finish the book, Truman Capote wrote her a reference for the Yaddo writer's retreat. She spent six weeks at Yaddo, where she finished a first draft of what would become Strangers on a Train.

The novel was published in 1950, and a year later Alfred Hitchcock successfully adapted it (with a script co-written by Raymond Chandler). The combination book and movie made Highsmith a household made.

Assumptions were made about her work, not just because of the Hitchcock connection, but the sheer number of psychopaths in her writing. But to call Highsmith a crime writer underestimates her versatility. Yes, there are murders, but these stories are psychological tales that happen to be highly literary. They’re also fun, smart and hard to put down. In her books, she created what Graham Greene called “a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger”.

Highsmith died 20 years ago. Now Virago has reissued six of her novels, including The Blunderer and Deep Water. Also reissued is a gorgeous hardback of The Talented Mr Ripley, first published 60 years ago, and the novel that writer Sarah Waters says is the "one book I wish I had written".

Tom Ripley is indicative of many of Highsmith’s characters: sociable, handsome, sexually ambiguous and, as it turns out, psychopathic. He endured in Highsmith’s mind (she wrote five novel about him) and has been represented on film by Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon and John Malkovich.

The director Wim Wenders, who adapted Ripley's Game in 1977 (as The American Friend) said that Highsmith's novels "are really all about truth, in a more existential way than just 'right or wrong'."

As a writer, Highsmith was drawn to fictional men, but she had multiple overlapping affairs with women. In 1953, she published The Price of Salt, about a 19-year-old department store worker who falls in love with an older married woman. Though Highsmith was occasionally demonstrative about her lesbianism, the book was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. (JG Ballard said "Highsmith was every bit as deviant and quirky as her mischievous heroes, and didn't seem to mind if everyone knew it").

Rejected by her own publisher, The Price of Salt was published by a small press and later, as a cheap paperback bearing the tagline "the novel of a love society forbids". A film version, Carol, starring Cate Blanchett, premiered to acclaim at the recently concluded Cannes.

Highsmith loved, and was loved, by many women. But she was complex. There was a difficult relationship with her mother. One ex-lover, Marijane Meaker, was later reconciled with her at the end of her life: “When she came back, she was despicable. I couldn’t believe her hatred for blacks, for Jews in particular, but even for gay people. She hated everybody.”

Highsmith’s drinking was problematic, and she preferred smoking to eating. After years in the US, she left for England, France and finally Switzerland, where she died in 1995. She bred snails and once turned up at a swish London party with 100 of them in her handbag, claiming that they were her “companions for the evening”.

Highsmith left behind 8,000 diary pages, often censoring and curating her own legacy. It’s this duality – and the complexity of her own experience – that makes Highsmith such a brilliant, convincing writer, one who deserves to find a new generation of readers.

Sinéad Gleeson presents The Book Show on RTE Radio 1

* This article was amended on June 13th, 2015. Highsmiths’ novels are being republished by Virago, not Vintage as originally reported

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