Crime and dagger: rediscovering the stories of Patricia Highsmith

With a new adaptation on television, the books of the high priestess of crime fiction are being read all over again to find out more about the ‘talented’ Mr. Ripley, and also her other novels like ‘Strangers on a Train’

Published - April 25, 2024 10:30 am IST

A still from The Talented Mr. Ripley.

A still from The Talented Mr. Ripley.

One of the best things to come out of our cannibalistic consumption of content is the rediscovery of absolutely brilliant writers. There was the joy of meeting Monk and reading his alter ego, Stagg R. Lee’s My Pafology, in Percival Everett’s Erasure thanks to American Fiction. There was the shock and awe of revisiting the slicing up of Judgment Day in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem courtesy of the incredibly shallow yet supremely enjoyable adaptation, 3 Body Problem.

Steve Zaillian’s gorgeous black-and-white Ripley is a chance to meet Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley once more. Highsmith (1921–1995) wrote 22 novels, many of which were adapted to film, television and radio, including Alfred Hitchcock’s famous adaptation of her debut novel, Strangers on the Train (1950).

Charming ambivalence

Highsmith wrote the first draft of the novel at a writer’s retreat, which she got on Truman Capote’s recommendation. A taut thriller, Strangers on the Train reveals the seeds for the characters that would populate her later books. An architect, Guy Haines, meets a young man, Charles Bruno, on a train. Charles wants to be rid of his strict rich father, while Guy is going to divorce his unfaithful wife, Miriam. Charles proposes swapping murders to throw the police off the scent.

The tale of nihilistic obsession lays the ground for Highsmith’s following novels, populated with charming, immoral, sexually ambivalent young people, trying hard to make their way in a world that seems at once cold, cruel, grasping and ruthless. The character study with attendant questions of identity and guilt, shared shames, and folie a deux, the hallmarks of Highsmith’s work, make their presence felt.

Strangers on the Train was followed by The Price of Salt (1952). A lesbian romance, Highsmith used the pseudonym Claire Morgan when it was first published. It was published as Carol in 1990 under Highsmith’s name effecting what novelist Sarah Dunant called a “literary coming out”— Highsmith was not at all amused.

The Price of Salt follows the relationship between Therese, looking for a break as a set designer in Manhattan, and the glamorous Carol, who comes shopping for a doll at the department store, where Therese works. The semi-autobiographical novel (Carol was inspired by a blonde woman in a mink coat who came shopping for a doll at Bloomingdale’s where Highsmith was working temporarily) presents a palpable difference from Strangers on the Train, in terms of theme and resolution.

Testing genres

The tentatively happy ending and lack of corpses (though there is a private detective) point to an author testing her wings in different genres. Todd Haynes adapted The Price of Salt into the award-winning Carol with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the lead.

In 1955, came The Talented Mr. Ripley, which captures the zeitgeist of the churn in America. Tom Ripley is a small time scam artist, who sees the chance to make it, and like Caesar, grabs it with both hands. The twinning of Ripley and Dickie, the lengths Tom is willing to go to acquire and keep his way of life, the casual violence and the clever way in which Highsmith gets us, the readers, to root for Ripley makes the gripping novel a perfect gem.

There were four books following The Talented Mr. Ripley. Collectively called ‘The Ripliad’, the books were Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), Ripley Under Water (1991). Ripley Under Ground is set six years after The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ripley is living the good life in France with his heiress wife, and faithful housekeeper. The novel set in the world of art, wrestles with the concept of real and fake, whether it is a painting or an effigy or a body.

Ripley’s Game with mafia hits and sundry improbabilities feels the weakest of the series. The Boy Who Followed Ripley, which features another young American on the run from the law or perhaps himself, is masterful as is the final Ripley book, Ripley Under Water, where things buried in bodies of water refuse to stay submerged.

Ripley set the template for the cultured killer, whose millennial echo can be found in Caroline Kepnes’ Joe Goldberg, the well-read psychopath of her You series. Like Ripley, Joe kills only if absolutely necessary or as a punishment for bad taste.

Comics, short stories

Apart from novels, Highsmith also wrote comic books (at the beginning of her career, between 1942 and 1948) and short stories, starting with Eleven in 1970 with a Foreword by Graham Greene and ending with the posthumously published Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories in 2002. Many of the short stories feature animals’ take on humans from a cockroach in ‘Notes from a Respectable Cockroach’ to a goat in ‘Goat Ride’ from her Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, and the sullen, inadvertently vengeful whale in ‘Moby Dick II, or the Missile Whale’ from Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes.

‘The Snail Watcher’ is an echo of Highsmith’s fondness for snails that she kept as pets going for parties with hundreds of them in her handbag. Snails also feature in Highsmith’s 1957 novel, Deep Water. Adrian Lyne’s dreadful film adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, earned some good karma by keeping the snails in the narrative.

The film also proves no matter how good, bad or ugly an adaptation, the books will always be there in their pristine avatar.

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