Twisted Sister 

The strange world of Patricia Highsmith

San Jiro Minamikawa

Almost half a century after Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Strangers on a Train, novelist Patricia Highsmith is back on American movie screens. She’s been gone too long. Several films have been made from her novels in Europe — René Clément’s Purple Noon and Wim Wenders’ The American Friend are the best known — but Hollywood has kept its distance from the woman who is arguably America’s greatest suspense writer. A more serious problem is that American readers have as well.

Why this is so is slightly mysterious. In the past, the explanation was that her books were too amoral for American tastes, that her obsessions (doppelgängers, alienation, sexual ambivalence) were too Old World and, most damning, that her criminals got away with it. But now, all of these characteristics seem downright contemporary, and with the imminent release of Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, it will be interesting to see if, four years after her death, Highsmith finally catches on.

Imagine Kafka as a writer of thrillers, and you’ll have some idea of what reading Highsmith is like. In the United States, 16 of her 30 books are in print, and three of her five Ripley novels have just been brought out in a one-volume edition by Everyman. Nonetheless, her books sit much more heavily on the shelves here than they do in Europe, where she enjoyed a steady and enthusiastic readership for decades. On a book tour in Spain she was invited out to dinner by the prime minister, and in Germany she was regularly stopped on the street for autographs. Her last novel, Small g: A Summer Idyll, which appeared in Europe a month after her death in 1995, sold more than 45,000 copies in French translation within months of publication but was rejected by Knopf and has never appeared in the United States. Editors from England, Spain, Italy and Germany all delivered eulogies at her funeral in Switzerland, but, as if to underline her native country’s lack of interest in her, no American editor showed up. After the funeral her Swiss publisher, Daniel Keel, stated: "She’s going to become a classic. Her country has treated her poorly."

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If Minghella’s film is as good as it’s rumored to be, perhaps this will change. The young New Yorker Tom Ripley is one of the more convincing psychopaths in modern fiction, and 45 years after its publication, The Talented Mr. Ripley remains a mesmerizing and creepy novel. As is the case in almost all of Highsmith’s novels, the book’s subject matter eludes easy definition other than that it has something to do with the merging of identities. The opening paragraph is a good illustration of Highsmith’s style:

Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.

Many of Highsmith’s signature moves are here: the relentless forward momentum, the queasy sexual anxiety, the weird ambiguity as to what exactly is going on. The result is that you keep reading. What is going on is that Tom, a smart, jobless, sexually ambivalent 25-year-old who’s been dabbling in mail fraud, thinks the man following him must be either an undercover cop or a "pervert" (this being 1955). In fact, the man is Herbert Greenleaf, well-heeled father of someone Tom knew at school, and he has been looking for Tom because he is under the mistaken impression that Tom is a good friend of his son Dickie, who has been in Italy for two years and won’t come back. Mr. Greenleaf has a proposition: If he pays Tom’s way and gives him $500, would Tom be interested in going over to Italy and trying to persuade Dickie to return? Tom, pretending to be the friend of Dickie’s Mr. Greenleaf thinks he is, accepts. He has no job, no real friends, and he’s using an alias. In short, he’s a typical Highsmith hero — rootless and hovering on the edge of arrest. As the day of his departure approaches, Highsmith suggests Ripley’s pathology in a memorably indirect way:

The atmosphere of the city became stranger as the days went on. It was as if something had gone out of New York — the realness or the importance of it — and the city was putting on a show just for him, a colossal show with its buses, taxis, and hurrying people on the sidewalks, its television shows in all the Third Avenue bars, its movie marquees lighted up in broad daylight, and its sound effects of thousands of honking horns and human voices, talking for no purpose whatsoever. As if when his boat left the pier on Saturday, the whole city of New York would collapse with a poof like a lot of cardboard on a stage.

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