• Slideshows
  • Videos

Twisted Sister

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."

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.


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.

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.

He wants the game to continue:

The driver made a left turn that rolled Rydal against the truck’s right wall. Rydal huddled behind the short door again. They were now in a district with less lights. The truck stopped for a red. Rydal jumped out. His rubber soles made a slapping noise on the street, but he doubted if the driver heard. Also, a man and woman walking under an umbrella saw him, but so what, Rydal thought. People rode trucks sometimes, drivers let off their workers here and there, and his clothing was not so good that he couldn’t be taken for a truck-driver’s assistant. Besides, it was dark. Besides, the man and woman walked on. Besides, he was free!

. . . He could not go back to his hotel for the rest of his clothes or his notebooks of poems or his few books, and he was being sought by the police at this minute, and he was without a passport or identification. But he had thirteen thousand dollars in his pocket, and he was free, as only a nameless person of his time could be free. It would not last long, he knew. But for these few hours, he would have it — freedom — he would savor it, he would rejoice in it, and he would never forget it. It was like being suspended in some element that did not really exist on Earth, like the element in which angels flew, or spirits communicated with one another.


This passage, extraordinarily lyrical for Highsmith, comes as close as any in her work to touching on the secret of her appeal. Disturbing as her novels are, it would be churlish to deny the heady pleasures — the weirdly intimate excitement — her existential adventure stories afford. Highsmith’s genius was to tap into some element that does not really exist on Earth but rather in some secret recess of our brains where we fight with our doubles, hunt and are pursued, change identities like clothes and wake up to find our photographs staring at us from the front page of the newspaper. She would have agreed with T.S. Eliot that poetry is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. "Write what you know" is what creative writing teachers tell us, but Highsmith did no such thing. She wrote what she dreamed, what she imagined, what she suspected — and the result is fiction unlike any other. Her novels are hard to categorize and even harder to describe, but perhaps this shouldn’t bother us. "I like to avoid labels," Highsmith wrote. "It is American publishers who love them."

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >