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The Talented Ms. Highsmith

Tom Ripley's creator shoots from grave to screen

“I do not understand people who like to make noise,” novelist Patricia Highsmith once said. “Consequently I fear them, and since I fear them, I hate them.” What if you asked respectfully for the noise-maker to desist? Would he be contrite or aggressive? If he apologized, the anecdote comes to an uninteresting end. However, if it becomes the starting point for a feud that escalates to nastiness and violence, you have the beginnings of something captivating. And if it turns out not to be the noisy lout, but the meek, quiet person who acts in the cruellest and most vengeful manner, you have a Patricia Highsmith story.

“I can’t think of anything more apt to set the imagination stirring, drifting, creating, than the idea—the fact—that anyone you walk past on the pavement anywhere may be a sadist, a compulsive thief or even a murderer,” she once told an interviewer. That dark confluence where psychopaths meet innocents is the hub of her fiction.

Graham Greene referred to Highsmith as “the poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear … is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably. We have to learn to live with it.”

The protagonists of Highsmith’s suspense stories are not detectives, but their putative quarry. She brings us into close proximity with the people we ordinarily avoid, like the fawning Charles Anthony Bruno of her celebrated debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), and Tom Ripley, her most famous creation, who recurred in five books over four decades.

The conventional literary approach is to give readers a lead character with whom they will readily identify, for whose ultimate triumph they will root. There’s a widespread perception in the publishing trade that a book adopting the point of view of someone who is thoroughly unlikeable will alienate readers. Highsmith never pandered to this opinion (consequently, her popularity suffered, particularly in the United States), emphasizing instead the importance of her characters being cared about, as distinct from liked.

The murder-mystery genre exists on the tenet that it is thrilling to pass time—always, of course, from the safe remove of the printed page or movie screen—with someone whose actions defy predictability. When the sociopath Bruno proposes swapping murders to his new acquaintance Guy in Strangers on a Train—the two men each commit the other’s murder; since there is nothing to connect either killer to his victim, both are sure to escape scot-free—Guy dismisses the idea as idle, if unpleasant, chatter and doesn’t expect to ever see Bruno again. Except that Bruno is taken with his idea and kills Guy’s philandering wife, Miriam, anyway. “People talked about the mystery of birth, of beginning life, but how explainable that was! Out of two live germ cells! What about the mystery of stopping life?” says Bruno, marvelling at the awesome power he wielded while strangling her.

Bruno then stalks Guy, haranguing him to fulfill his part by murdering the overcontrolling father Bruno loathes. He threatens to reveal to the police the details of the conspiracy, which they’d surely believe, he argues, because he had no motive whatsoever to kill Miriam. Guy feels overwhelmed, suffocated by Bruno’s repeated appearances, by the sinister infiltration and cruel manipulation of his life. Driven to utter desperation, he succumbs and dispatches Bruno’s father. The murder wasn’t something he’d wanted to do; but it was a viable solution to a difficult predicament. Which is how Highsmith typically presents murder.

“In Highsmith’s world, crime may be ugly, but it is also something born of psychological necessity and described in such a logical, detached manner that the reader is tricked into believing it is simply part of the continuum of normal behaviour,” writes her biographer, Andrew Wilson, in his nuanced and insightful study, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury, 2003).

Strangers on a Train marked the start of a prolific career. Highsmith went on to write twenty-two novels and nine short story collections. She remained, however, difficult to market, frequently changed publishers and faced rejection of manuscripts right up to her last novel. (Norton has been reissuing a number of Highsmith books over the past several years, including Strangers on a Train, Deep Water and Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith.) Small g: A Summer Idyll, written in 1995, will be released in North America for the first time next spring.

It is one of those discouraging facts of literature that novelists often depend on screen adaptations of their work to bring them notice, only to find that work then more widely associated with a filmmaker than themselves. Far more people would identify Strangers as an Alfred Hitchcock movie than as a Highsmith novel. Doubly unfortunate since the film, with its stark and unsubtle moral polarities, is drearily predictable. Highsmith “voiced her disapproval at the way Hitchcock drained the work of its power to shock,” according to Wilson.

Drained, as well, were the suggestions of Bruno’s homosexual attraction to Guy. Risqué at the time, homoerotica was a subtext of much of her work, as she attempted to express her own repressed longings in a less than accepting society. Though she didn’t deny her lesbianism (and wrote about it in her second novel, The Price of Salt, albeit under a pseudonym), she was private about her personal life. “Homosexuality,” contends Wilson, “its theory as well as practice, informed all of Highsmith’s writing.”

Her personal life was an unhappy one. Her closest relationships were generally tumultuous, in part because she was susceptible to feelings of intense love that petered out after a few years. As a young woman, Highsmith was greatly concerned about her homosexuality and sought a psychiatric “cure” so that she might marry, but she soon abandoned this course. Her ambivalent attitude toward women—a destructive blend of hostility and promiscuity—may explain why almost all her protagonists are sexually ambiguous men. She expressed concern with being identified as a gay writer—as she did with being identified as a thriller writer—but, as novelists extrapolate from their own experiences of the world, she didn’t reject those psychological forces closest to her own makeup.

Highsmith died in 1995 in Switzerland. Her work might have drifted off quietly in her wake were it not for another film, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, released in 1999, based on her 1955 novel. (Her cinematic appeal is growing, with Ripley’s Game due out later this year and an adaptation of Ripley Under Ground currently in production.) The Talented Mr. Ripley is a wonderfully complex book about the charming, repugnant, slithery Tom Ripley who is sent to Italy at the behest and expense of the rich Mr. Greenleaf to convince Greenleaf’s son Dickie to return home to the family business and his ailing mother. Once it becomes clear, however, that Dickie has no intention of returning, Tom is cut off—first from the money, then from Dickie’s charmed life of idle painting and sailing—and faces the unpalatable prospect of returning to the seedy existence he left behind in New York. Ripley solves the dilemma by deciding to kill Dickie and appropriate his identity. He goes about the deed with cool precision, pulling it off with careful planning and creative improvisation. You recognize he ought to be punished, yet, in spite of yourself, at every turn when Ripley seems to be trapped, you feel his tension and applaud his escape.

Minghella took it upon himself to make Ripley a more haunted figure than he is in the Highsmith novels. At the end of the book, he reverts to being Ripley, but not before forging Dickie’s will, leaving himself the proceeds of Dickie’s generous trust fund. The final scene of the film, however, finds him aboard a ship bound for Greece in the company of Peter Smith-Kingsley, who knows him as Ripley, and promises him the possibility of love. A chance encounter with several others who know him as Dickie forces him to kill Peter, leaving him alone, disconsolate and filled with remorse.

Highsmith, in contrast, is uncompromising about Tom’s amorality. She revived him in 1970 for Ripley Under Ground. Anything but contrite, he is ensconced in a gorgeous villa in the French countryside living off Dickie’s income, the allowance of his vapid wife, some illicit jobs he does for an American criminal in Hamburg and the profits of an art forgery ring he established in London. In this installment, he confronts Thomas Murchison, a collector who has found compelling evidence of the fraud. Ripley tries to convince him not to pursue the matter, even going so far as to confess the truth. Murchison refuses, leaving Tom no option but to bludgeon him to death. Ripley disposes of the body in a river several kilometres from his home. While the disappearance of still another acquaintance is remarked on by the police, they fail to uncover any evidence against him; indeed, without a corpse, they don’t even have proof that Murchison has been murdered.

This storyline was picked up again in the final Ripley thriller, Ripley Under Water (1991; all five Ripley novels are available from Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard). When the Pritchards, a thoroughly loathsome American couple, take up residence in Tom’s village, he fears their efforts at friendship. His carefully honed fugitive instincts cause him to worry they might be police or detectives sent to probe his past. David Pritchard goads Tom with prank phone calls in which he claims to be Dickie and stalks him during a trip to Morocco. He even drags the local waterways in search of Murchison’s remains. Tom deserves all this—he is, after all, a multiple murderer—but Highsmith nuances her anti-heroes against their victims so that we can, if not condone their conduct, at least empathize.

“I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not,” Highsmith declared. This truth unsettles, and is why we enter her world, as Greene explained, “with a sense of personal danger, with the head half turned over the shoulder, even with a certain reluctance, for these are cruel pleasures we are going to experience.”

But we enter with relish, too. Because we will be exploring a world we’ve not been to before, where order hasn’t predetermined consequences, where ruthlessness can prove one’s greatest talent. Where a clever person might get away with anything.