In 1948, aged 27, Patricia Highsmith had an idea for a novel: two strangers, both men, meet on a train and agree to swap murders, thus giving themselves an alibi. Struggling to finish it, Truman Capote wrote Highsmith a reference for Yaddo writer’s retreat on condition he could stay in Highsmith’s Manhattan apartment. She spent six weeks at Yaddo, finishing a first draft of what would become Strangers on a Train. Published in 1950, just one year later Alfred Hitchcock successfully adapted it (with a script co-written by Raymond Chandler) making Highsmith a household name. 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 were murders, but these stories are psychological tales that are 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, and Virago have reissued six of her novels, including The Blunderer and Deep Water. Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn says the latter “marital thriller” hugely influenced her blockbuster. Also reissued is a gorgeous hardback of The Talented Mr. Ripley, first published 60 years ago, and the book that writer Sarah Waters says is the “one book I wish I’d written”. 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 books about him) he has been represented on film by Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon and John Malkovich. Wim Wenders, who adapted Ripley’s Game said, ‘her 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, over-lapping affairs with women. In 1953, she published The Price of Salt, about a 19-year-old department store worker who falls in love with Carol, an older married woman. If 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, it 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 has just premiered in film at Cannes, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara).
She loved, and was loved, by many women but was Highsmith was complex. There was a difficult relationship with her mother (her parents divorced before she was born). 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 who deserves to find a new generation of readers.