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Murder most casual: why Patricia Highsmith’s thrillers are so chilling

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith Richard Bradford

Bloomsbury Caravel, pp.272, 20

Patricia Highsmith’s life was filled with more eccentric, disturbing brilliance than most readers can normally handle; and so the chief attraction of this third biography in 18 years (released to commemorate her 100th birthday) may be its brevity.

From the time Highsmith was born (after a failed abortion attempt by her parents), her story starts off dark and then gets much, much darker. Raised in Fort Worth, Texas by the granddaughter of former slave owners, she survived the Spanish influenza to become a smart, hard-drinking student at Barnard, where she exploited, at every opportunity, her affections for pretty, well-bred girls. She wrote comics for a while (even going on a date with Stan Lee), and suffered from a lifetime addiction to gin — which she consumed from breakfast until bedtime. But her chief activity was lurching from one intensely passionate affair to another. Rarely did any of the relationships last more than a few months.

‘O the beautiful world!’ she typically enthused in her diary at the start of each affair, exalting the ‘timelessness’ and ‘oneness’ of each shiny ‘true love’. But within weeks or months, either she was distracted by someone new, or grew so obsessed that she felt ‘nearly sick… and must get hold of myself or crack up’. Never did she enjoy the sort of happy ending that made her pseudonymously published novel of a lesbian couple, The Price of Salt(1952), so unusual. (It was later reissued under Highsmith’s own name as Carolin 1990, and eventually filmed.) But then Highsmith never considered writing fiction to be about representing life; it was, rather, ‘a way of getting rid of reality’. And as far as she was concerned — good riddance.

For Highsmith, each passionate attraction usually led to obsession, despair, anger, flight and, of course, more gin. Like her characters Bruno and Guy, who meet in Strangers on a Train to entangle one another in a mutually convenient murder plot, she found human relationships to be irresistible, tortuous and inescapable. (Only in fiction could she imagine ways out of them — usually through murder.) She once said in her diary that the ‘most beautiful thing in the world’ was to see ‘trust in the eyes of the girl who loves you’. Unfortunately, either the trust soon dissipated, or Highsmith did.

Deeply peculiar, she was known to carry around dozens of her beloved snails feasting on a globe of lettuce in a huge handbag; on at least one occasion, she accidentally set them free at a dinner party. (For some reason, she was constantly being invited to dinner parties.) At another time, she provided a romantic hideaway for copulating snails in her bra — while she was wearing it. She was known to eat raw bloody ‘lumps’ of meat fresh from the butcher; and seems to have lied to or cheated on many, if not most, of her partners. She was called many terrible things by people who knew her — such as a ‘compulsive perennial liar’, a sadist and a pervert — and that was just by her mother. Others fondly recalled the intense interest she showed them (today some might call it stalking). From most reports, her sexual energy sounds exhausting.

Then there was the obsessive travelling — she was, like her most famous creation Thomas Ripley, an American who went to Europe and never looked back. She established homes in London, the Suffolk countryside, France, Italy and finally Locarno, Switzerland, where she died in 1995. She was always fleeing one person or place while simultaneously rushing towards another. But in her final, solitary years, dying of lung cancer, her lasting companions were the glistening snails in her garden and a cat that she occasionally popped into a burlap sack and swung around over her head.

Meanwhile, she wrote brilliant, disturbing novels and short stories with the same hard, unwearying intrepidity as she marched from one failed relationship to another. An admirer of Poe and Conrad, her view of human beings was similarly cruel, and she routinely put her characters through unrelenting psychological pain. In one of her best (and my favourite of the Ripliad), Ripley’s Game (1974), Ripley decides to take revenge on a small-time picture-framer for treating him rudely at a party. So he convinces him he has terminal leukemia, and tricks him into committing murders for money. A monster, obviously; but Ripley was also ‘a person who was very close to her’, one journalist recalled from interviewing her in the early 1980s. But that’s what Highsmith was looking for as she grew older — a long term relationship with someone who would never leave.

Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires is succinct and brisk, and the life it describes is as irresistibly horrifying as the plot of any Highsmith thriller. Yet while previous biographies (by Andrew Wilson and Joan Schenkar) presented much raw new material — interviews with surviving friends and partners, letters, diaries — Richard Bradford doesn’t add much to the record. Instead, he often spends time picking small fights about how to interpret the already existing data. At one point, he argues for half a page that Highsmith might not have visited Harry’s Bar with Peggy Guggenheim in 1951, even though a previous biographer says she did. I couldn’t help wondering: who cares? At least she wasn’t putting snails in her bra.

Bradford makes a good case that Highsmith used fiction to resolve the ineluctable perversities of her nature; but he ends his book too abruptly to explain adequately why her novels continue to be read, and why so many of us still enjoy reading them. My own summation might go something like this: Highsmith was one of the first American thriller writers to take crime out of the ‘urban night’ of film noir melodramas and put it in middle-class, suburban living rooms where it more properly belonged. Her villains are superficially normal husbands, wives, office workers and cops, all of whom mean to do well but end up doing horrible things instead.

Even Ripley doesn’t intend to murder the handsome young Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley; those things just seem to happen and, when they do, Ripley happily rides along and gathers up Dickie’s trust-fund money. And in A Dog’s Ransom, when an earnest 24-year-old police patrolman, Clarence Duhamell, investigates a dog- napping in Manhattan, he sincerely wants to do the good things a good cop is supposed to do — such as find the lost dog and comfort the family. But then he loses his temper and beats the dog-napper to death. (Perverse, uncontrollable rage is the prevailing motivator in Highsmith’s world.)

Certainly the film adaptations haven’t stopped coming. And ever since Hitchcock’s classic Strangers on a Train (1951), Highsmith grows more filmable every year, perhaps because our world is so swiftly catching up with the sort of people she wrote about: men and women who lie, commit forgery, and develop manipulative fictions to damage everyone around them. On occasion, they even lead nations.

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