Classic Crime

Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas. She was the only child of artists Jay Bernard Plangman (1889–1975), who was of German descent, and Mary Plangman (née Coates; September 13, 1895 – March 12, 1991). The couple divorced ten days before their daughter's birth.

In 1927, Highsmith, her mother and her adoptive stepfather, artist Stanley Highsmith, whom her mother had married in 1924, moved to New York City. When she was 12 years old, Highsmith was sent to Fort Worth and lived with her grandmother for a year. She called this the "saddest year" of her life and felt "abandoned" by her mother. She returned to New York to continue living with her mother and stepfather, primarily in Manhattan, but also in Astoria, Queens.

According to Highsmith, her mother once told her that she had tried to abort her by drinking turpentine, although a biography of Highsmith indicates Jay Plangman tried to persuade his wife to have the abortion but she refused. Allegedly, Highsmith’s mother said this was why her daughter couldn’t stand the smell of turps.

There is much about Highsmith which has been documented. Since her death there have been at least two biographies. She was a well-known anti-Semite, preferred the company of men although the few affairs she had with men had felt ‘wrong’. She was never particularly any kinder to the women she had short affairs with, many of them Jewish women. Highsmith was a drunk, cruel, ugly inside, really only loved animals to people, especially snails and despite being a lesbian, was a homophobe towards gay men. One wonders if Highsmith even liked herself. But as with most astounding writers and artists, there always tends to be a person in conflict, as though this is the only way Highsmith could produce the soul-searching and suspenseful novels she did, by being contradictory, spiteful, maybe even unhappy with herself. Highsmith isn’t the first, nor will she be the last artist to become just as interesting as their work.

Highsmith’s words have the capacity to spellbind her reader, to take them, sometimes unwillingly, by the elbow with a firm grip and lead you through that dangerous path through the woods. As the trees become dense and the light from the sky above fades, you can feel eyes watching you, whispers and movement on either side of that path of Highsmith’s. This is what she does so perfectly. Her books sometimes have the familiarity of the best fairy stories, how you may not immediately recognise the wolf through his finery and impeccable manners and diction. And that beautifully leads me to her greatest creation, Tom Ripley, the impeccably dressed wolf with the beguiling manners. Just don’t turn your back on him. Ripley arrived in 1955 and bowed out in his last novel in 1991. This suave man with the silver tongue has gripped the imaginations of the public, with his novels being filmed five times and a TV series now in development. It appears our long affair with Tom Ripley is far from over. Again, this shows Highsmith’s craft as we root for the man who has no worries about killing if it means he stays out of trouble from the law.

Towards the end of her career Highsmith tended to write more short stories, a craft she said had earned her money at the early start of her a career as a writer. Highsmith travelled widely, ending up in Lacarno, Switzerland. It is here she died in February 1995. ‘Small g: A Summer Idyll’ was published posthumously in the UK the following month.

Review: Under A Dark Angel's Eye

To celebrate the centenary of Patricia Highsmith’s birth, Virago have delivered this gorgeous collection of Highsmith tales. Sadly, nothing new here, but having a good excuse to re-read Highsmith’s short stories after so long is always a treat.

My first introduction to Highsmith in the early 90s was via her stories in the collection, ‘Eleven’ a.k.a ‘The Snail-Watcher’ in the US. A couple of the stories were heavily swayed by snails – and not knowing at the time of Highsmith’s penchant for snails – I thought it was quite delightfully bonkers. Of course, this didn’t put me off and I have been reading Highsmith off and on for years, most recently pulling my socks up and finally getting round to complete The Ripliad. But her stories are where I started with Highsmith and I go back to them time and again. The stories from ‘Little Tales of Misogyny’ are so tongue in cheek that you can only ever imagine someone like Highsmith, cackling away as she hammered out these weird little tales on her typewriter and then getting away with publishing ‘Oona, The Jolly Cave Woman’ which is barely two pages long alongside others in the same vein.

As with all selected stories, there are some that are going to missed out that are favourites, but there are plenty here to sink your teeth into. An early story, ‘The Heroine’ shows Highsmith cutting her teeth on the suspense she would end up fine tuning and make her own. This is not as subtle as her later work, but provides a shock nonetheless. Some stories feel like a frieze depicting an incident, a moment in time. Even across the years I still remembered with clarity ‘The Cries of Love’, which is sublime. That is what is amazing about Highsmith, despite the thirty year gap, her stories zinged so much that they embedded themselves in my memory and popped up complete, as a whole before I even started the story. Highsmith is like the proverbial box of chocolates. You may not like everyone, but there is plenty to choose from, even from the opener of this collection, ‘Primroses Are Pink’ which has such a simple premise and yet it still follows me about in my head. Highsmith tells her story, but ends it in such a subtle way that there is that note of the situation continuing, building up, but Highsmith hasn’t filled in the gaps, the what ifs… she leaves that to her reader. Could a squabble over the colour of Primrose cause depression, mental instability, even murder? It is these deft touches that makes Highsmith’s writing remarkable and addictive. Whatever you say about the woman herself, with this new volume we get to enjoy her words, her style, her wit, her mannered savagery and be led happily and meekly down that path, deep, deep into the woods…

Reviewed by: C.S.

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