The nineteenth of January 2021 marks the centenary of author Patricia Highsmith's birth. During her fifty year career she wrote 22 novels and numerous collections of short stories. Best known for her 'Ripliad' - the five psychological thrillers featuring her compelling protagonist Tom Ripley - and her debut novel Strangers on a Train, Highsmith's work have been adapted many times, increasing her popularity.
As a person, Highsmith was a miserable, depressive, alcoholic, eccentric. She hated most people, including herself. She was openly racist, misogynist and homophobic. Unwanted and abandoned as a child, Highsmith preferred animals to people, and engaged in multiple affairs with married women, often ending due to her infidelity.
Perhaps it was this well of darkness within her that enabled Highsmith to create such captivating noir stories about unlikable people in desperate situations. In his forward to Highsmith's short story collection Eleven, author Graham Greene writes:
Miss Highsmith is a poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear after a time, as we all learned in the blitz, is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably. We have to learn to live with it.
Greene absolutely nails Highsmith's abilities. She lures readers in to an uncomfortable place with characters who make morally ambiguous choices. Her writing is tight and simple, yet the stories are often complex and multilayered. Her novels creep up on you and you cannot put them down.
Perhaps they recognise that you don't come to Patricia Highsmith for goodness or light or comfort. You come to her for uncanny observations about human depravity; you come to her because you've forgotten the sour taste of fear.
My reviews of several Highsmith books can be found on this blog, including:
- Deep Water (1957)
- The Talented Mr Ripley (1955)
- The Tremor of Forgery (1969)
- The Two Faces of January (1964)
- This Sweet Sickness (1960)