A flatlay of some of Patricia Highsmith's most notable works.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Patricia Highsmith, born on 19 January 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas, was one of the most successful psychological thriller writers of the 20th century, whose work continues to be discovered and adapted for film, stage and television today.

Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, published in 1950 when Highsmith was 29, was promptly made into an electrifying film noir by none other than master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Along with her best-known series of novels, about the amoral confidence trickster and criminal Tom Ripley, the book epitomises Highsmith’s obsession with the darker, crueller side of human nature, as well as with sexual ambiguity and its suppression, alongside the power of personal seduction. Much of what she wrote reflected facets of Highsmith’s own personality. She took both men and women as lovers, and was intensely private and a paradox to many who knew her.

The only child of two commercial artists whose parents divorced 10 days before her birth, Highsmith grew up in New York. After graduating from college in the early 1940s she worked as a sales assistant in a New York City department store (the inspiration for her long-suppressed novel Carol, about a lesbian love affair) and also as a writer of plot outlines for comic books.

She travelled in Mexico and America’s south west before setting permanently in Europe – as restless in nature as many of her fictional character – first Suffolk from 1963, and finally Switzerland from 1982, where she died aged 74 in February 1995.

From the outset she raised the bar of the popular crime novel from its pulp fiction origins to bleak, dazzling studies of human psychology worthy of anything by Dickens or Dostoevsky. Graham Greene famously called her “the poet of apprehension”.

Strangers on a Train (1950)

Two men, previously unknown to each other, meet on a train, strike up a conversation and are drawn into a fatal pact. Guy Haines is an architect seeking a divorce from his unfaithful wife so that he can remarry. Charles Bruno is a feckless, spoiled man who wants rid of his domineering father. Why not, Charles suggests, do each other a favour and and commit the perfect murder?

Guy, unsettled, shakes off the suggestion but the sociopath Charles tracks down Guy’s wife Miriam and kills her anyway, then later insists on extracting his side of the “bargain” from Guy, who is about to remarry, by inserting himself parasitically into Guy’s life.

Psychologically, Charles represents the malevolent side – Mr Hyde – to the “ordinary man” persona of Guy’s Mr Jekyll. Highsmith, in a stunningly plotted debut novel, increases the tension wonderfully as Guy finds himself enmeshed in a web of guilt and fear, while also underlining the sexual tension between the pair and their increasing over-identification with each other: a nauseating duality which can only end in the death of one of them.

Carol (1990) (first published as The Price of Salt by Clare Morgan, 1952)

Highsmith was working at a temporary job in Bloomingdale’s department store in New York in December 1948 when she was stopped in her tracks by an encounter with a glamorous blonde woman wearing a mink coat. The woman bought a doll from Highsmith as a Christmas present for her daughter and the brief exchange left Highsmith feeling, as she later wrote in her diary, “odd and swimmy in the head, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.”

After her shift had ended she went home and wrote the plot for The Price of Salt, which, given its content – a love affair between two women – and Highmsith’s fears for her burgeoning literary reputation, was published under a pseudonym in 1952. It was only in 1990, a few years before Highsmith died, that this novel – so personal and so different from the deep misanthropy and violence of her other work – would be republished with a new title and under Highsmith’s own name.

The story of the passionate relationship between 19-year-old aspiring theatre designer Therese Belivet, who, like Highsmith at the time, was ambivalently attached to a young man, and wealthy, older, married mother Carol Aird is one of subterfuge and also exaltation. It is a story of forbidden love in early 1950s America, of secret lunches accompanied by strong cocktails in wood-panelled dining rooms, and delirious nights spent in wayside motels; of high fashion and higher aspirations.

When Therese and Carol go on the run from Carol’s husband, who hires a detective to trail them, the story switches form the pursuit of love to that of a game of cat and mouse. 

The Talented Mr Ripley (1955)

The literary chic, boldly swaggering plots and frequently gorgeous locations of of Highmith’s thrillers seem made for cinema – and perhaps none more so than the first of her five novels about career criminal and imposter extraordinaire Tom Ripley.

Young Tom is a aesthete who yearns for the finer things in life – but because he is poor, and an orphan, they remain tantalisingly out of reach, and he is forced to eke out a living in New York  as a mediocre con-artist. Until, that is, shipbuilding magnate Hubert Greenleaf hires him to travel to Italy to persuade Greenleaf’s wayward son Dickie to return home and commit himself to the family business.

Ripley “befriends” Dickie and his girlfriend, Marge, to the extent that Marge begins to feel left out, and suspicious of their relationship. Tom is fascinated by Dickie’s careless attitude to life and to money and grows dependent on their connection. Dickie, a shallow dilettante, soon becomes bored with Tom and is startled to find him in his room one day dressed in his clothes and copying his mannerisms. On a boat trip the two make together, Tom brutally murders Dickie, dumps his body in the sea, sinks the boat and assumes his identity. Brazenly one step ahead of the police, of Marge, and of Dickie’s father, Tom criss-crosses the Italian Riviera in a nail-biting study of social-climbing gone horribly and deliciously wrong.

The Cry of the Owl (1962)

The writer Brigid Brophy commented on its publication that Highsmith’s novel of a troubled stalker dissects “the psychology of the self-selected victim”. A lonely, depressed divorcé, Robert Forester, moves to a small Pennsylvania town to make a fresh start. There he becomes fixated with Jenny Theirolf, a young, attractive woman living in a secluded house, and begins to spy on her.

Surprisingly, one night Jenny invites Robert into her house, and interpreting their meeting as an act of fate she breaks off her relationship with boyfriend Greg, and begins to stalk Robert in turn – who is also by now being spied on by Greg. Nickie, Robert’s ex wife, is then drawn into  a intensifying drama which will end in tragedy and disaster for the luckless Robert. “Kafka with a vengeance” as summed up by one critic – and Highsmith at her twisty, sinister best.

Edith’s Diary (1977)

Feted on publication as “a relentless dissection of an unexceptional life that burns itself out from a lack of love and happiness” Edith’s Diary marked yet another departure for Highsmith. The author called it “more like a novel than a thriller” in which she used her main character to amplify the emptiness of much of modern life.

A lonely middle-aged housewife, Edith Howland retreats to her diary to fill the pages with the world of her imagination, in contrast to the harsh realities of personal and political events that mark the passing years. Her problematic and sadistic son grows up to be an alcoholic, her husband leaves her for a younger woman, and yet the pages of Edith’s diary are filled with substance and satisfaction of a life well lived, of loving grandchildren, success and friendship. Increasingly paranoid, and acutely aware of the world’s injustices and the hollowness of modern America, Edith, downtrodden but defiant, resists, in a final twist, being committed to a psychiatric institution. 

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