The author of numerous novels and short stories, Patricia Highsmith examines moral values from unexpected perspectives, challenging conventional ethics and exploring questions of guilt and culpability, aggression, self-doubt, and alienation. The clinically detached voices and amoral points of view of her narrators are compelling, disturbing, even chilling.
Highsmith’s childhood was an unhappy one, and she felt distanced from both parents, Mary Coates and Jay Bernard Plangman. Her mother drank turpentine to try to miscarry Patricia, and shortly after Highsmith’s birth, her parents divorced. Highsmith was raised by her grandparents. Her grandmother taught her to read when she was two years old; in Highsmith’s own words, she could “read like a streak.” At age six, she joined her mother and stepfather, both commercial artists, in Greenwich Village, New York City, and took Stanley Highsmith’s last name. Highsmith detested her parents; years later, though she paid for her mother’s nursing home, she refused to visit her. She did not meet her real father until she was twelve. One of her doomed heroines describes her family as Highsmith would her own: “blind” and “uncaring.” Precocious and driven to reach outside this disturbing family setting, she had read the Sherlock Holmes stories by nine and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) twice by fourteen; she read the dictionary and, at fifteen, started keeping “cahiers”–records of dreams, satiric observations, and germs of ideas.
At Julia Richman High School in Manhattan, Highsmith edited the school newspaper and contributed short stories. Later, while an undergraduate at Barnard College, New York, she wrote comic strips (Superman and space stories). She graduated with a B.A. degree in 1942. She published her first short story, “The Heroine,” in Harper’s Bazaar in 1945. The terse style and the depiction of irrational compulsions beneath the surface calm of her early stories established the distinctive voice that Highsmith used throughout her life.
In the late 1940’s, like her female protagonist in Edith’s Diary, Highsmith became a political activist and won the attention of Truman Capote, who helped her enter the Yaddo artists’ colony in upstate New York. There she began her first novel, Strangers on a Train, a perceptive psychological thriller, which has become a suspense classic; it became popular after being adapted into the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title. Tasting success, Highsmith determined to reject hack work and to devote herself to her craft, though at times financial necessity made doing so difficult. She traveled to Europe for the first time in 1949 in celebration of her success. The Price of Salt, a lesbian love story tracing a passionate relationship between a young salesclerk and a married customer, was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. Other novels dealt with the concept of the Doppelgänger and the interplay of hunter and hunted.
Highsmith’s highly popular, prize-winning Ripley series features the charming, amoral, psychopath Tom Ripley, a criminal on the run without a shred of guilt, yet a protagonist for whom readers inevitably cheer. A French film based on The Talented Mr. Ripley, entitled Plein Soleil and starring Alain Delon, proved successful, as did a later American version starring Matt Damon. Highsmith believed, however, that the literary quality of her books, which were respected in Europe for their psychological insights, moral ambiguity, and irony, was too often ignored in America, her books being dismissed as simple crime stories. Despite wide sales, they did not receive critical respect or analytical treatment. Highsmith’s engaging stories study the criminal mind–particularly the minds of murderers–and they focus on human psychology, especially that of men in pairs, rather than on detection or suspense; they make the depraved or psychopathic intriguing and comprehensible. Renowned novelist Graham Greene praised her craft as admirable. Her prose is spare and incisive, her portraits of human folly haunting. In an interview with Village Voice reporter Joan Dupont, Highsmith asserted her belief that a writer should talk about “adult human emotions” and the “nitty-gritty,” which she defined as “anger and a sense of injustice.”
European enthusiasm for her writing made Highsmith settle in England in 1963. A visit to Tunisia provided details for the setting of one of her finest novels, The Tremor of Forgery. It inspired Greene to call Highsmith the “poet of apprehension rather than fear.” Her short stories transform the normal into the abnormal, provide fresh horrors and dark potentialities, and trace controversial modern issues to horrifying conclusions. In 1974, Highsmith moved to a farmhouse near Fontainebleau, France, where, by Dupont’s account, she continued smoking, drinking, swearing, and writing from a male perspective. Eventually, investigations by French tax inspectors led to her final move–to Switzerland. In her later years, she was an enthusiastic gardener; she painted, sculpted, and did carpentry, accompanied by her cats, but she continued to write eight pages daily, happier with fine craftsmanship rather than quantity.
Although engaged to be married at one time, Highsmith preferred solitude and kept her life and loves private. Suffering for ten years from lung cancer and a wasting blood disease, she spent her final years a recluse in a house she designed in the Maggia valley of Switzerland. Her posthumous novel Small g: A Summer Idyll, set in Zurich, is about a youthful love triangle in which the boy loses: Girl gets girl. At her death in 1995, Highsmith left a fortune of six million dollars, an indication of the popularity of her works in spite of their challenge to moral complacency and the demanding participation in unconventional mindsets and perspectives.