Highsmith’s stay in England was brief. In 1967, she moved to a small village outside Paris, and by 1970 she had begun to write about Ripley again, with the character now middle-aged and married and living in moderately high style in the French countryside. Ripley’s Game (1974), the third in the series, was turned into The American Friend by Wim Wenders, with Dennis Hopper playing Ripley, and Bruno Ganz as his anguished victim. Though occasionally muddled and pretentious, the film contained some memorable action sequences that caught something important about Highsmith: the exhilaration, bordering on complete self-alienation, her characters feel when they lose themselves in action. Other European films of her work include Claude Miller’s Dites-Lui Que Je l’Aime (from This Sweet Sickness) and Claude Chabrol’s The Cry of the Owl.
In 1982, impending tax problems in France prompted Highsmith to move to another small village, this time near Locarno in Switzerland. It was there she wrote one of her best late novels, Found in the Street(1986), which sold well in Europe but moved a mere 4,000 copies in the U.S. In an excellent profile of her, the writer Joan Dupont recalled being picked up by Highsmith at the local train station in 1988. Highsmith was driving a two-door VW Derby, and, according to Dupont, "was the most cautious driver imaginable, as if the roads swarmed with small invisible creatures." After Highsmith’s death in 1995, aged 74, from a combination of lung cancer and aplastic anemia, it was discovered that she had left a $5 million estate to Yaddo. Apparently, the memory of the month she had spent there in 1948 was a rare happy one.The Price of Salt aside, the heroes of Highsmith’s books are almost always men. If one had to say what the novels are most often "about" — pace Harrison — the most apt one-line description would probably be that ã they are about a power struggle between two men. A favorite Highsmith motif involves a fight, usually in a deserted alley or dark country road, from which one man emerges as the victor with the other left bleeding and wounded, though certainly not dead, on the ground. Out of spite or possibly guilt (motive is always murky), the loser then goes into hiding until his disappearance is noted. Before long, suspicion of murder falls on the man who saw him last. The murder suspect, of course, is pretty sure that the other man is still alive, though never entirely so.
There then follows a long, exquisitely realized game of cat-and-mouse in which the "dead" man eludes the police while stalking his erstwhile conqueror, who in turn actively searches for him, if only to prove his innocence. This, with considerable variations, forms the plot of some of Highsmith’s best novels, such as Those Who Walk Away, The Cry of the Owl and The Two Faces of January. There is nothing quite like it in literature. Eventually, the two men meet again, only the roles are reversed: The loser of the first fight wins the second fight, and this time the other man goes into hiding, with the result that suspicion of murder now falls on the man previously thought to have been killed.
"The deadly games of pursuit played in [Highsmith’s] novels dig down very deeply into the roots of personality," wrote the English detective-story writer and critic Julian Symons, an early champion of Highsmith’s work. Indeed, beneath the civilized veneer, the behavior of Highsmith’s characters is astonishingly primitive. Society is something to which only lip service is paid, and people are governed by forces they only dimly understand. It’s a very un-American, un–John Wayne idea: not rugged individualism, but malign individualism. Nonetheless, Highsmith cherished her heroes and had a very American love for freedom, even if publishers in her own country failed to understand it. "A book can stand one or even two neurotics," stated an editor at Harper & Row after rejecting The Two Faces of January, "but not three who are the main characters." After being published in England, the book was chosen as the best foreign crime novel of the year.
Not all of Highsmith’s work is entirely dark — and The Two Faces of January is a good example. On one level it’s an adventure story, a thriller for the rootless cosmopolitan in all of us. In Athens, Rydal Keener, an intelligent young American in search of adventure, sees a middle-aged American, Chester MacFarland, who reminds him strongly of his father. Added to this coincidence is another: Chester’s wife, Colette, reminds him strongly of a girl he was in love with as a teenager. Out of curiosity Rydal follows the pair into their hotel, and a few minutes later finds Chester in a corridor standing over the dead body of a Greek police agent. Rydal has three choices: to leave, to notify the police or to help Chester hide the body. On a whim, he chooses the last.
Chester is a minor white-collar criminal on the run — hence the Greek police agent. Chester suspects Rydal of being a blackmailer, but needs him because Rydal speaks Greek and can get him a false passport. About halfway through the novel, Colette dies — accidentally killed by Chester in a bungled attempt to kill Rydal — and the book settles down into a long, increasingly dangerous duel between the two men. At first, Rydal is the one suspected of murdering Colette. The locale shifts from Athens to Crete to Paris to Marseilles; identities and hotels keep changing. In Paris, Rydal walks into a café, sits down for an espresso and picks up the newspaper, only to find his own photograph staring at him from the front page. Shortly after this, he is detained by the police on suspicion of murder. To clear his name, he agrees to turn Chester in. A meeting is set up at Les Halles with the police in discreet attendance, but at the last minute Rydal signals to Chester that something’s wrong. Chester vanishes, and Rydal himself escapes by jumping into a truck.