Patricia Highsmith is a literary wildcard.
Her work may be considered amateurish by book snobs whose primary concern is high art, and too fully-formed for genre fans whose primary concern is entertainment.
But I’ve gotten the impression that neither of these phenomena is the norm.
Rather, it seems like readers generally love her for having brought an oft-overlooked wholeness (not to be mistaken for wholesomeness) to literature.
In Highsmith Country (to borrow a phrase used by Joan Schenkar, author of The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith), litheads get their rush of unprecedented intrigue and genre buffs get their bonus dose of intellectual nourishment.
To put it a different way, her books are like banana splits: Depending on your age and other factors, it’s possible you’ve never had one, but they have undeniable, classic appeal, and they have enough heft to be less sweet treats than full-on meal replacements.
If you’re brand-new to Highsmith and her work, here’s the 60-second summary: She was born in the ’20s, wrote for comic books in the ’40s, and went on to author many novels and short stories. She penned one of the first novels involving a lesbian love story that had a relatively happy ending (Carol, first known as The Price of Salt), and wrote some of the most acclaimed suspense novels of the past century. She’s best-known for her books that have been made into better-known films, including The Talented Mr. Ripley—which was adapted for the big screen in 1999 by director Anthony Minghella as well as by René Clément in 1960 under the French title Plein Soleil—and Strangers on a Train (with Alfred Hitchcock doing the honors in 1951). More recently, Carol was made into a film directed by Todd Haynes.
Highsmith had a reputation for being an unpleasant person, but I’m only going to concern myself just now with talking about her personal life insofar as it relates to her work. For the juicy and grisly details, read Schenkar’s book or check out Highsmith’s Wikipedia entry.
I thought about ranking all 22 novels here and putting together an informative summary and assessment of each, but that would probably be just as painful for you to read as for me to write.
So what I’ve done instead is to assemble a few small samplers of what I consider to be the best, the worst and the most oddly compelling of Highsmith’s books. To a certain extent, this is bound to be subjective and flawed: It’s been years since I’ve read some of these, and some of them I’ve only read once (and in between taking phone calls in a cubicle at that). But I have read all of them from cover to cover, and I’ve also read the rest of her novels, the ones I won’t mention today.
I’m biased in that I find pretty much all of Highsmith’s work interesting, but my opinions and impressions may be useful for the fact that I nevertheless think her work spans a huge range of quality and was often flawed.
The below are not necessarily in any particular order, and I’ve said a little about each. There are general but not specific spoilers, nothing that I would personally care about knowing if I hadn’t read something.
I was also considering saving the best for last, but you know what they say: Life is uncertain, and that’s just the way the banana splits first.
We’ll start with the most obvious choice. Well, before 1999, it may not have been the most obvious. But since Matt Damon and Jude Law played opposite each other in the Hollywood adaptation of the book, it’s probably become the Highsmith title that’s the best-known in the English-speaking world. And it just so happens that while certain parts of the movie are vastly different from the book, the actors and director had a pretty meaty chunk of prime material to work with in Highsmith’s novel.
The Talented Mr. Ripley concerns Tom Ripley, a character still eminently relatable for many recent American grads and dropouts. He believes himself to be interesting and useful but can’t seem to stick with one thing long enough to have it pan out.
The first page drops you right into the suspense of a slow “chase” scene, in which Tom believes he’s being followed by an older man, but isn’t quite sure. This first scene sets the pace and tone for the rest of the book: The necessity of any action is uncertain, things never slow down for too long and they never rush forward for too long, either.
The guy following Tom turns out to be the father of Dickie Greenleaf, a young man Tom knew vaguely in school who has been living for some time in a small seaside village in Italy. Dickie’s father is distressed that he won’t come home, as he has plans for Dickie to work at his shipbuilding company. After speaking with the man for a short while, Tom agrees to go over to Italy on Mr. Greenleaf’s dime with the intention of talking Dickie into coming back home for good.
For Tom, this is more than just a free trip to Europe or the chance to do someone a good turn: He sees it as the beginning of a new life, and while he tells himself he has the best and most honorable intentions, he’s above all determined to wring every last drop of opportunity out of the mission. Drugged on a potent mixture of coolheadedness and desperation, he winds up playing the Italian police for far more than double or nothing.
It’s rare to see a story with opposing and complementary elements so well-blended: plot with character, suspense and intrigue with substance, human sympathy with philosophical nihilism. It’s like the literary version of the color wheel put to use in the most fantastic way. Do you usually prefer happy endings or those that tie up neatly? Either way, you’re just as likely to be doubly frustrated as doubly pleased.
So while it pains me to be so obvious, I think this may be Highsmith’s best. But as is so many times the case, if you’ve seen the movie, you have not in any way read the book. Taken in a vacuum, the movie is pretty good (and it’s got Philip Seymour Hoffman, by the by), but still. You’re not ready.
Most of Highsmith’s leading characters are male. Of these, the majority are between the ages of 24 and 34. The Price of Salt, however, her second novel chronologically after Strangers on a Train, features a 19-year-old girl, Therese, who falls in love with an older woman. (Several of the other books in this list are also exceptions to these age and gender rules.)
It’s by far Highsmith’s least violent book, but it reads just as much like a suspense novel as any of her others. It could also be considered, so long as we’re playing the genre game without shame, a legitimate romance. Like Ripley, The Price of Salt sort of reads like one long chase scene, which creates an interesting juxtaposition with the ideal of romance, putting pursuit and flight side-by-side.
Much of the plot is spent on a cross-country car journey the women take together, during which time they start to believe they’re being followed. This element is reminiscent of some parts of the similar trip in Nabokov’s Lolita, and it’s been theorized that Nabokov may have been inspired or at least influenced by The Price of Salt.
While in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the protagonist beats what he sees as an unfair system by circumventing and playing its structures, the two lovers in this book run (or drive) smack up against those structures. The older woman, Carol, has a daughter as well as a husband she’s divorcing, and her relationship with Therese proves to be unfavorable baggage in a custody battle. This creates a situation that Carol can’t back away from but also that offers no end or solution in itself.
The book was inspired by certain events in Highsmith’s own life, it was the early ’50s, and she was initially reluctant to publish Carol under her own name. It ended up being published under the name Claire Morgan until Highsmith was finally willing to claim authorship decades later.
While this book has obvious social significance, it didn’t just confront and reveal certain flaws in the fabric of the times. It didn’t just use these flaws to evoke sympathy, either. It channeled them into an intriguing human study that’s still relevant today. The decisions both Carol and Therese have to make with regards to their relationship and situation throw up certain possibilities around family, self and individuality that go far beyond homosexuality and even the social issues of today.
What is and will remain great about Carol is that it’s a love and coming-of-age story that simply does not care about its social significance or where it falls in the grand scheme of things.
This novel might be the best contender to unseat The Talented Mr. Ripley as #1, and it couldn’t be more different aside from its unmistakable brand of Highsmith-pitched intensity.
It follows a woman who suffers commonplace but still-devastating life disappointments. Chief among these is her husband leaving her for a younger woman and more or less alone with their son, a boy who himself grows into a disappointment.
The central idea is simple: Edith has a diary, only she doesn’t use it to record things that have happened to her. She uses it to record a fantasy life of how she wishes things had gone or were going.
Along with Carol, Edith’s Diary is not classic Highsmith and not classic crime, but it’s one of her very best. It’s also, in my opinion, her most disturbing. It reads more like horror than suspense, and it’s the only Highsmith story that has planted a permanent sense of unease in my mind. I find myself thinking about it sometimes apropos of nothing and it feels closer to me than it has any right to be.
A quick note on The Tremor of Forgery
I felt pressured to include The Tremor of Forgery in this top section because Graham Greene thought it was Highsmith’s best and so have other notable people.
I like to consider myself a fan of subtlety, anticlimax and subverted expectations, of which Tremor has aplenty. But in this particular novel, I appreciate the anticlimax in theory more than in practice. So it’s not officially on the list and I’m not going to get into it here. It might just be like a fine whisky I haven’t learned to drink yet, so I may dedicate a future post to the moment when I truly “get it,” but for now I would feel disingenuous about recommending it to the degree of “best.” Honestly, I just don’t think it has the same raw storytelling power as the books above.
This section can be used for simply knowing which books you can safely avoid if you’re looking to sum up the best or most definitive work of Highsmith’s catalog for a school project, article or your own edification. None of those below are “essential,” in my humble opinion.
However, they all have redeeming qualities, and if you’re curious about whether these might still be worth reading, I’ve tried to give at least a small idea of what to expect.
This is the novel that Highsmith herself believed to be her worst, and while I understand why, I disagree with her. I think it was her second worst. In comparison to her other books, it’s not great, but it’s not so terrible, either. It’s the only “whodunnit” she ever wrote. (If you’re going to use any label, she was primarily a suspense novelist—she didn’t normally write “mysteries” in which past details played an important part in the plot.)
Here, the mystery formula feels forced and the conclusion unsatisfying, but the novel still feels like a complete story and has some interesting bits. You’re probably less likely to enjoy it if you’re a hardcore mystery fan, but if you tend towards slower, more character-focused fiction with a reflective element, there’s a good chance you won’t hate it.
The mystery concerns a murder in Mexico City of a woman who was romantically involved with two men, themselves close friends. At first, they both think the other is guilty of killing her, but their perceptions of what might have happened shift as time goes on.
The story is told from the point of view of one of the men, Theo, a wealthy German living in Mexico. The other man, Ramón, is a poor Mexican whose religious faith conflicts with Theo’s atheistic sensibilities. Another part of the problem with this book, at least potentially, is the cuteness of this setup. It is a bit ham-handed and poorly executed on the philosophical and cultural end of things, but it interested me enough that I did the thing you do with some mysteries where you go back and reread the beginning pages right away.
In other words, I do think that the Amazon user review proclaiming “bad bad bad bad bad” and continuing on in the same vein may be overstating the case. Even when it wraps up later on with the admittedly more articulate “horrible sad dumb loss waste,” I must respectfully disagree. I’ve read a lot of bad writing, and I don’t think things here are quite so dire.
I’m sure this is the most controversial part of this list, but The Two Faces of January is the book that I actually think is Highsmith’s worst. Much of it is more intriguing and reads better than A Game for the Living, and the story comes with much more potential than that book. The main problem I have with it is just that the ending comes out of absolutely nowhere and strikes me as uncharacteristically cheap and sentimental for Highsmith. Unlike the previous book, which is a bit limp all the way through, this one pulls out the rug from under you at the last minute, and it’s a bit disappointing.
The setup is engaging: Rydal Keener, a sketchy young man living in Athens, happens to meet Chester MacFarland and his wife Colette in a hotel. Chester is a con artist running from the police. After Chester kills a cop in his room, Rydal makes the spontaneous decision to help him hide the body and flee the city with him and Colette. Neither Chester nor Rydal trust the other: Chester thinks that Rydal is going to try to blackmail him, and Rydal—who has the hidden motivations of being half in love with Colette because she reminds him of his cousin (yes, there’s a story there) and feeling a connection with Chester because he reminds him of his dead father—realizes things look bad and fears Chester will try to get rid of him.
See? Great setup. Which is why my disappointment was greater with this than any other Highsmith book and why I’m willing to penalize her more here for dropping the ball. I can’t comment on how the book stacks up to the film version with Viggo Mortensen, because I haven’t seen it. Who knows, maybe they managed to improve it.
I enjoyed this one quite a bit and actually wavered between putting it in this section and the following one. I do think there are some major problems with the plot and the characters seem hastily, crudely drawn, which is why it’s one of “the worst,” but I love the slow, calculated drift of relationships and the delicate ending.
The “Small g” in the title is a nickname for a Zurich restaurant and bar, so called by locals because a guidebook categorized it as such to indicate that some, but not all, of the clientele is gay. The main character, Rickie Markwelder, is a 46-year-old man who frequents the Small g. The book opens with the murder of Markwelder’s younger boyfriend, Petey, an event that serves both as a misdirection (as mentioned above, Highsmith only ever wrote one murder mystery) and a link that binds Rickie to Luisa, a young girl apprenticed as a seamstress who was also in love in Petey.
Luisa and Rickie, who are friendly with each other, eventually come to share another attraction in Teddie Stevenson, a young man who happens to drop into the Small g one night, and this time it’s Luisa who appears to be in a better position to get the guy. However, Luisa’s potential relationship with Teddie is complicated by the fact that her benefactor-employer, Renate, is fiercely homophobic and fiercely protective of Luisa’s…honor, we’ll say, regardless of the suitor in question’s gender or sexual preference.
Renate regularly goes to the Small g herself in Luisa’s company, seemingly just to hiss nasty remarks behind people’s backs. She despises Rickie as well as Teddie (who she insists is also gay and just toying with Luisa), and eventually is stuck with the additional threat of Dorrie, a female friend of Rickie’s who also has a thing for Luisa. (By the way, Rickie hooks up with a police officer named Freddie…are you sensing a pattern here?)
Because of legal stuff in the time and place that I don’t entirely understand, Luisa is somewhat contractually obligated to stay within Renate’s employment, which includes living with her. She also feels obligated to stay with Renate because the older woman rescued her by taking her in after she ran away from home to escape sexual abuse.
The above should give a pretty good idea of the tension that builds early on in its lurking Highsmithian manner. It’s a given that Renate is jealous of any attention Luisa gets because of her own repressed homosexual feelings for her apprentice, and this is believable, but at the same time it’s disappointing to see Highsmith slapping a character with this burden of motivation and taking it no further than that.
In this book, Renate plays the part of the wicked witch, and everyone else is more or less blameless—not to mention treated to some incredibly lucky breaks by their creator. Rickie, in whose head we spend the story, has his own struggles, insecurities and issues, but all of the serious jealousy, rage and human suffering present is housed in the vast looming cathedral of Renate, whose inner thoughts we can only glimpse enough to guess what we imagine is the obvious.
The best thing about this book is the way that it continues to subvert expectations about human relationships and behavior the way that Highsmith’s novels usually do. It’s also, in its own way, quite sweet. The only problem is that I’m not buying it. The events in The Talented Mr. Ripley are far more outrageous and incredible than anything that happens in Small g, and yet the people in Small g are incomplete and far less credible as human beings than Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf. It’s unfortunate that the generous openness and affection in this circle of characters is not backed up by more believable dialogue and interaction. Another of Highsmith’s later novels, Found in the Street, suffers from some of the same treatment.
A few pages from finishing the book, I was already disappointed. But the ending itself, which comes just at the right moment and balances the story on its side with light agility, makes it almost possible for me to forgive the rest. Highsmith still gets me in end, and so I like this one more than I feel I should, more than some books that I believe are much better.
The Weirdly Intriguing…
This section is reserved for a couple of less popular Highsmith books that I think have hidden merits that are not immediately obvious, or maybe they’re just books that I’ve enjoyed for weird reasons all my own.
In this novel, the spotlight is set on a young couple living in the English countryside. Sydney Bartleby (ah ha ha) is a struggling scriptwriter and his wife Alicia is an amateur painter. Sydney is the brooding, sulky type, subject to fits of violent anger, and Alicia suffers the brunt of his artistic moods. As Sydney is looking for inspiration to write about a murderer and Alicia fears their marriage may be in trouble, they agree to a trial separation during which Sydney is to pretend he’s killed Alicia.
After Alicia leaves, Sydney goes through the motions of disposing of her body. He takes a rolled-up carpet, imagining he’s rolled up her body inside of it, and walks it out to the car all while knowing there’s a chance the next-door neighbor—an old woman who has moved in recently and doesn’t have long to live herself—will see him. He takes the carpet out into the woods and buries it.
After this, he proceeds to tell all of his and Alicia’s friends that Alicia is at her mother’s house, imagining to himself that he’s lying to cover up his crime. In reality, Sydney assumes Alicia really is visiting her mother, though she hasn’t exactly told him where she’s going. In the meantime, Alicia is actually meeting with another man she’s interested in romantically, and Sydney’s writing is going very well, much better than it was going while Alicia was around. As people begin to get suspicious, however, it becomes clear that neither of them is going to be able to maintain this desireable status quo for much longer.
While it deals with some serious subject matter and contains interesting themes of artistic creation, selfhood and relationships, I find it hard to take this book too seriously, and I think it’s Highsmith’s funniest by far. It may be tempting to compare it unfavorably to some of her other criminal studies, like Ripley, but this is the closest she ever came to straight-on black comedy and I think it reads quite enjoyably from that angle. It explores the idea of art as an inherently criminal act, which sounds snoozeworthy when approached head-on, but which can be quite interesting when portrayed with an inventive sense of humor.
This might be an interesting book to read alongside or after The Talented Mr. Ripley, because it also has the markings of a potentially iconic (anti) Great American Novel. It’s a bit like Edith’s Diary in that the initial setting is normal American family life: Arthur Alderman, a high school senior, lives with his parents and younger brother Robbie in a small Midwestern town. He like-likes a special girl at school. He wants to study biology at Columbia. You get the picture.
The normal-American-boy things Arthur desires soon become threatened by the real world as well as a new religious enthusiasm adopted by his father. As this shift takes place, we see that Arthur thinks of himself as reasonable, as the “normal” one in his family by comparison to both his father as well as Robbie, who seems a bit “off” and forms strange friendships with older men.
When Arthur’s girlfriend becomes pregnant, he supports her decision to have an abortion, and is appalled when his father tries to interfere. When his father goes back on his offer to pay Arthur’s tuition for Columbia as planned, Arthur is determined to make his own way but is highly resentful. For many readers, initially sympathizing with Arthur’s plight will be easy, but as various circumstances are thrown his way, it starts to become apparent that his values, when put to the test, may not be all that different from his father’s.
This book has a rather light authorial touch despite the fact that it contains highly-charged, emotional subject matter. It may be even more interesting to read now considering the current political and social state of the US, since it provides food for thought regarding both religious fundamentalism and “white privilege,” as well as privilege and class in general.
I have more to say about other Highsmith books, but this is just meant to be a relatively quick rundown of works that stand out to me and can hopefully provide a rough framework for those wanting an overall view of her novelistic output.
While I haven’t talked about some of her better-known books, including Strangers on a Train, this is only because this work is what I think of as more “typical Highsmith,” with fewer standout qualities.
I do think that “typical Highsmith” is, at best, highly worth reading.
At worst, it’s just a lot of fun.
(The image at the start of this post is a still from the Strangers on a Train trailer.)