By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
As a writer, Highsmith is pretty much sui generis. She wrote whydunits rather than whodunits, and her novels are closer in spirit to those of her literary heroes — Dostoyevsky, Camus, Poe — than to most books filed under “Mystery.” Graham Greene dubbed her “the poet of apprehension,” and Will Self said that reading Strangers on a Trainbrought him face to face with an almost physically palpable sense of evil. What has most disturbed readers — particularly of the Ripley novels — is the feeling that not only does Highsmith refuse to judge her murderous hero, but she approves of him as well — goading him on, in book after book, to kill and get away with it so he can live the good life in the French countryside. (The name of Ripley’s country home, Belle Ombre — Beautiful Shadow — is where Wilson gets his title.) This amorality is probably why she did better in Europe than in the States.
But too much can be made of the Ripley books, of which there were five in all, and of her psychopathic heroes in general. Some of her greatest novels — The Cry of the Owl comes to mind — feature protagonists who are pretty masochistic and weird, certainly, but far from unsympathetic. Too rarely noted about Highsmith is her mastery of foreign locales, not just in the Ripley novels, but particularly in The Two Faces of January (Greece, Paris, Marseille . . .) and Those Who Walk Away, whose Venice in winter is surely the ultimate setting for one of her inimitable cat-and-mouse thrillers. These amazingly suspenseful books, with their bare-knuckle duels between (roughly speaking) a “good” guy and a “bad” guy, are like the literary equivalent of a boxing match. It’s no surprise that the French, with their love for drames psychologiques, took to them in a way Americans have never done.
They are also surprisingly acute about Continental working-class life. The sections in Those Who Walk Away, for instance — in which the hero, an art dealer named Ray Garrett, is rescued and hidden by a poor Venetian gondolier after his nemesis, an American painter named Ed Coleman, has tried to drown him — are superb, even heartwarming, without being in the least bit affected or sentimental.
Highsmith is an acquired taste, but if you have it, you won’t want to miss Wilson’s biography — though, at $32.50, it’s pricey — which has some penetrating things to say about the books as well as the life. His attempts to draw parallels between Highsmith’s novels and the political situation in America, particularly during the Vietnam War, are bound to feel strained, however, since Highsmith’s political opinions were felt rather than thought, and were completely incoherent. She was a Thatcherite who hated Bush Sr., a liberal who railed against minorities, a lesbian who despised feminism and gay empowerment — it would be hard to build a political platform on all that. Fortunately, her opinions barely touched her work. Even The Tremor of Forgery, set in Tunisia during the Six Day War, is remarkably evenhanded. Highsmith lived in her imagination, and, ultimately, it’s in her uniquely disturbing stories that you’ll find her.
BEAUTIFUL SHADOW: A Life of Patricia Highsmith| By ANDREW WILSON | Bloomsbury | 534 pages | $32.50 hardcover
HIGHSMITH: A Romance of the 1950’s| By MARIJANE MEAKER | Cleis Press | 206 pages | $14.95 paperback