An Appreciation of Patricia Highsmith.
The American Scream: Road-tripping with Nabokov and Patricia Highsmith by Sarah Hilary
I discovered Patricia Highsmith by way of Nabokov, picking up The Talented Mr Ripley shortly after finishing Lolita. Both books, in their very different ways, are about the Great American Dream.
Lolita is at its core a crime novel, but it’s also a road trip, a chase, even a perverse love poem. The jaded Humbert is a courtly and prudish European who, depending on your reading of the text, either corrupts young America or is corrupted by it. He falls for the American Dream from its bangs to its bobby sox, flirts with its frustrated suburban housewives, covets and corrupts its youth. In the end, it nearly destroys him (some would say not nearly enough).
The Talented Mr Ripley takes an ordinary young man with an extraordinary ambition, and lets him pursue the great dream of bettering himself. Tom goes from impoverished insignificance in New York to a Venetian palazzo overlooking San Marco. Like Humbert, he is driven by obsession and the need for possession. Unlike Humbert, he reaches no particular moment of pathos. Yet each book, as a good friend pointed out, is about the death of conscience. This same friend went on to say, ‘the American Dream insists on creation — on building, particularly the building of a Better Self — and Humbert and Ripley are either helplessly or deliberately destructive.’
This destructive urge is what marks both books as crime novels, whilst at the same time distinguishing Highsmith’s work from so much by her contemporary crime writers. More than anything else, however, it is the style of writing that sets her apart.
Reading Highsmith immediately after Nabokov is a little like cresting a lush and lilac-shadowed road to find the landscape suddenly flatlined, monotone, shrill with silence. No distinguishing features, nowhere to hide, just the glare of sunlight on tarmac and an uneasy sensation of being watched. I wasn’t at all sure, to begin with, that I liked Highsmith’s documentary writing style. But it grew on me. Boy, did it grow. Like the moss on the steps of Tom’s home, Belle Ombre.
Very few writers have the conviction to carry off a style like this. It’s not an easy read. Many people find it too cold and certainly there’s no comfort in it, no corners where you can hide and watch the stories unfold. Reading her books, one after another, made me aware that crime writers (Highsmith preferred to call herself a ‘psychological writer’) tend to write an extra slice of fiction (with a capital F) into their stories, so that the reader is always conscious of the fact that this isn’t real. Which isn’t to say that the best crime writers don’t create believable characters and convincing predicaments. On the contrary. But there is, more often than not, a very clear sense that you are dwelling temporarily in another place. Be it the frozen vista of a Scandi noir, or the mean streets of a Chandler novel.
Highsmith has no hiding places. I love that about her writing. Even when the exploits of her anti-heroes reach implausible heights or her policemen seem to suffer from a fugue-like state of imcompetence, her style remains flat and cool, shimmering just below the surface with menace.
This may well be why so many of today’s crime writers cite her as their key influence. Not because we wish to emulate her style (although some do, and with some success), but because she provides us with a landscape for our mind’s eye. An American Dream landscape: empty, echoing, waiting to be built on. A place of possibility where we can practice our obsession with creating and destroying a world of vanities.
With grateful thanks to John Lyttle, for his company and insight.
Sarah Hilary has worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. Her debut novel, SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN, won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015 and was a World Book Night selection for 2016. The Observer's Book of the Month ("superbly disturbing”) and a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. NO OTHER DARKNESS, the second in the series was published in 2015. The Marnie Rome series continued in 2016 with
TASTES LIKE FEAR out now in paperback. Click on the link to buy your copy!
Sarah has also written the introduction for new re-issues of three Highsmith novels,
This Sweet Sickness, People Who Knock at the Door and The Two Faces of January.
Follow Sarah on Twitter at @Sarah_Hilary