Where to start with: Patricia Highsmith | Books

Where to start with: Patricia Highsmith | Books

American novelist Patricia Highsmith was the author of 22 novels and numerous short stories, best known for writing psychological thrillers. As Netflix’s new TV adaptation of Highsmith’s most famous novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, earns glittering reviews, what better time to acquaint yourself with the rest of the writer’s work? Crime novelist Peter Swanson suggests some good ways in.

The entry point

You can’t go wrong by starting at the beginning. The setup to Highsmith’s first published novel, Strangers on a Train, is well known but irresistible. Two men, architect Guy Haines and independently wealthy Bruno, strike up a conversation on a train, only to discover they both have people in their lives (a despised wife, a domineering father) that they would happily dispose of if they could. A murder-swap is proposed, then discarded. Or is it? All of Highsmith’s strengths are there in her first novel, most notably her ability to drill inside the minds and souls of normal Americans to uncover their moral failings.

The romance

The Price of Salt, or Carol as it is better known since the 2015 film adaptation starring Cate Blanchett, was Highsmith’s second novel. The love story between two women, aspiring set designer Therese and wealthy housewife Carol, was conceived when Highsmith was a temporary sales clerk in the toy section of department store Bloomingdale’s in New York City. Having witnessed a beautiful blond customer buying a doll, the author imagined a story about her and began to write The Price of Salt in the feverish few hours after her shift. The subsequent finished work was rejected by her publisher and later came out under the nom de plume Claire Morgan. The book is an outlier in Highsmith’s bibliography for several reasons besides its lesbian content. For one, it is not a crime novel (at least not in the traditional sense; we do discover that the women are followed by a private investigator at one point), and it focuses much more on women than men. Plus, famously, it has a relatively happy ending, unusually for Highsmith, but also unusually for novels about same-sex relationships at the time. Like her crime novels it is a riveting tale, brought to life by her evocation of 1950s New York, and the culture clash between conservative middle-class values and a burgeoning bohemian scene that Highsmith knew well.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the 2015 film Carol. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

The anti-romance

A recurring theme throughout Highsmith’s novels is the idea that relationships with other people can be treacherous. Her books are filled with metaphorical marriages, often two men (Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, for example), trapped by dangerous symbiotic bonds. The literal marriages in Highsmith’s fictional realm are equally scary, as evidenced by her best marital thriller, Deep Water. Vic and Melinda Van Allen’s marriage is a cat and mouse game, one in which Melinda insists on extramarital flings in exchange for the appearance of devotion to her husband. The novel charts the ways in which the emotional violence of their games quickly turns into physical violence.

The one that speaks to our times

Highsmith was a lifelong diarist, and her 1977 novel, Edith’s Diary, is a wholly original exploration of the psychology of that particular form of writing. Edith Howland’s suburban life is slowly falling apart; her husband has left her, and her adult son is displaying sociopathic tendencies. She uses her daily diary entries to invent a parallel life for herself, one in which she is happy and thriving. It is a devastating psychological study of unhappiness, one that borders on horror at times, as Edith loses touch with reality. Reading it now, it’s impossible to not think about the ways in which current technology allows us to present happier versions of ourselves to the world. If we tell a lie enough times, does it become real?

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The one to persevere with

All of Highsmith’s thrillers are what might be characterised as “slow-burns”. Her early chapters are mostly character studies, imbued with apprehension. But The Tremor of Forgery might be the slowest-burning thriller I have read. There is a crime of sorts, and a resolution to that crime, more or less. But this is primarily a novel of identity and dread. An American writer finds himself marooned in Tunisia, waiting to hear both about a writing job, and from his girlfriend. Unmoored, he works on a novel, meets other expatriates, and maybe discovers he might not be as good a man as he thought he was. This mostly plotless novel will not work for everyone but when I first read it, it cast a dark, unnerving spell over me.

If you only read one

For me, The Talented Mr Ripley stands shoulder to shoulder with F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as one of the best novels of American reinvention. Tom Ripley is a down-at-heel drifter in New York City. He is approached by Herbert Greenleaf, who offers to send him to Italy to convince his wayward son, an acquaintance of Tom’s, to return to the US. What Tom finds in the fictional seaside town of Mongibello is that Dickie Greenleaf’s life looks just fine to him. In fact, it’s a life he’d rather have for himself. The particular subversive thrill of this novel is that the reader inevitably begins to associate with, and root for, the sociopathic Tom. The other notable pleasure, one that is shared by the four sequels that Highsmith wrote (the series is sometimes called the Ripliad), is the way the writing immerses you in the details of mid-century travel. Gin at lunchtime, cafes in the sunlight, lives conducted through letter-writing: all a lovely backdrop to a tale of murder.

A Talent for Murder by Peter Swanson will be published by Faber & Faber on 4 July

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