Or maybe he was afraid. He hated water . . .
In Italy, Ripley soon manages to ingratiate himself with Dickie — he is an expert at manipulation, imitation, flattery — and quickly drops the pretense that he hopes to persuade him to return to New York. Instead, he does what he always wanted to do: He becomes friends with Dickie. Soon their friendship develops to the point where Tom moves in with Dickie, and they start taking trips together and planning more. The only fly in the ointment, from Tom’s point of view, is Dickie’s friend Marge, a plain, good-hearted girl who is in love with Dickie and from whom Tom is unable to conceal his revulsion. Marge suspects Tom of being "queer," a charge Dickie dismisses until one day, returning to the house unexpectedly, he walks into his bedroom to find Tom standing in front of a mirror trying on Dickie’s clothes. Thus Dickie comes to suspect what the reader already knows: Tom doesn’t just like Dickie; he wants to be him. Understandably, Dickie is horrified. Dimly, he realizes he’s being invaded, colonized, just as Guy is colonized by Bruno in Strangers on a Train.
To say exactly what happens after this would, of course, give away the plot. But it does involve a couple of murders, some changes of identity, and lots of lightning-quick thinking by Ripley. It also involves the frank expression of what has come to be seen as Highsmith’s amoral world-view, for Ripley murders his way to a lifestyle without receiving so much as a slap on the wrist from his creator. If anything, she seems to be cheering him on.
Beyond the bare outlines, not much information is available about Highsmith’s life — at least not in English. The rare published photographs of her depict a wary, haunted woman who looks as if she’s just heard the cry of the owl, to quote one of her more evocative book titles. There are a few good critical essays, of which the best known is by Graham Greene ("A writer who has created a world of her own — a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger . . ."), and a generous blurb from Gore Vidal ("For some obscure reason, one of our greatest modernist writers, Patricia Highsmith, has been thought of in her own land as a writer of thrillers. She is both. She is certainly one of the most interesting writers of this dismal century"). There’s also a book about her, by Russell Harrison, a Fulbright lecturer in American literature stationed (according to the book jacket) at Minsk State Linguistic University in Belarus. Mr. Harrison, who appears to have taken a number of courses in literary theory, refrains from telling us what he knows about Highsmith’s life because he does not subscribe to the concept of "author." Instead, he works hard to convince us that Highsmith’s books are really about shopping. As Sydney Greenstreet would say, "You are too kind, sir."
Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921, to a mother who tried to induce a miscarriage by drinking turpentine and a father who moved out of the house five months before she was born. Highsmith disliked her mother, but didn’t hold the turpentine episode against her. There are very few children in Highsmith’s books, and one suspects that she would never condemn anyone for trying to abort a fetus, even when the fetus in question was her. (She once stated that, forced to choose between saving a newborn baby and a kitten, she would choose the kitten.) At age 6, after her mother married a freelance illustrator named Stanley Highsmith, Mary Patricia was taken to New York. She grew up in Greenwich Village and went to Barnard, where she majored in literature and zoology. "The Heroine," a story she wrote while at Barnard, was turned down by the college magazine on the grounds that it was "too horrifying" but was later published in Harper’s Bazaar and collected as one of the O. Henry Prize stories of 1946.
Truman Capote was one of Highsmith’s early admirers. In 1948, he got her into the Yaddo arts colony in upstate New York, where she was able to write most of her first novel, Strangers on a Train. The book is still famous for its plot: Two men meet by chance on a train from New York to Texas, and agree to swap murders: You murder my wife, I’ll murder your father. Actually, they don’t agree, but one of them goes ahead and commits "his" murder anyway. Caked in almost suffocating tension, Strangers on a Train hovers between being unputdownable and too horrifying to read. (The only solution is to read to the end as quickly as possible.) The screen rights were bought for $6,800, and when Hitchcock filmed it, Highsmith’s career was launched overnight.The Price of Salt, Highsmith’s second novel, is the only book she wrote in which women are the main characters, and the only one that seems to have sprung directly from her life onto the page. Ironically, she published it under the name Claire Morgan. There were reasons for this: Highsmith was a lesbian, and The Price of Salt, about a love affair between a married woman and a salesgirl she meets in a department store, would have turned her into a "lesbian" novelist forever had she not used a pseudonym. (In 1991 it was released under her own name and retitled Carol.) Considering that it was published in 1952, the book was hugely successful — in paperback it sold nearly a million copies — but afterward Highsmith returned to writing thrillers. The Blunderer, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Deep Water were all written in the ’50s. During this time she traveled extensively in Europe and Mexico (the inspiration for the character of Tom Ripley came to her on a beach in Positano), and expatriated herself permanently in 1963 when she moved to England. The Cry of the Owl (1962), a brilliant study of small-town hypocrisy that centered on a melancholy voyeur and the girl who invites him in, was the last book she wrote in America. Her books began to feel less and less like "crime" or "suspense" novels in any conventional sense. Those Who Walk Away (1967) contained several murder attempts, but no actual murder, while in The Tremor of Forgery (1969), an American writer living in Tunisia appears to kill an Arab by flinging a typewriter at his head, but doesn’t seem to care much one way or the other. In this book, which Graham Greene considered her best, it’s as if murder has ceased to have any significance whatsoever.
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