Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, first published in the 1960s and now reissued by St. Martin‘s Press, will appeal to two different markets. For aspiring thriller writers, it’s an offbeat and interesting example of the literary how-to book, less practically helpful than some, perhaps, but a good deal wiser and more levelheaded than most. For Patricia Highsmith fans, however, it is something more: the nearest this most enigmatic of American thriller writers (she died in 1995) came to writing an autobiography -- so far as we know.
Although there are few personal revelations, the book provides an oblique but telling glimpse into the mind of the woman who gave us Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January and other inimitably dark masterpieces. (”I do not understand people who like to make noise; consequently I fear them, and since I fear them, I hate them,“ she writes in one passage.) Highsmith was an unusually pure example of the genus ”fiction writer,“ for although her novels were realistic, they seem to have sprung fully formed from her brain with scarcely a trace of her own rather solitary life attached to them. She did find inspiration in the world around her, however, and advises aspiring writers to use a notebook. In the chapter ”Mainly on Using Experiences,“ she describes how a group of noisy boys frequently disturbed her while she was living in a cold-water flat in Manhattan. On one occasion, she writes, they so terrified her that ”[I] was amused to find myself standing in the far corner of the room like a scared rat“ as the boys tore up and down the fire escape outside her window.
The incident provided the inspiration for a short story (”The Barbarians“) about an architect in Italy who is driven to distraction by noisy soccer players below his window. When he asks them to keep it down, they taunt and insult him. The architect eventually reaches ”such a pitch of nerves“ that, out of frustration, he drops a stone on a player‘s head, injuring but not killing him. Instead of reporting the incident to the police, however, the players use the event as an excuse to prey on the architect (who of course can no longer go to the police himself) by beating him up and smashing his windows and generally turning his life into a living hell.
This book may or may not be able to help the reader write suspense fiction, but it does give a sense of how its author did it.