Chris Simmons on Patricia Highsmith & The Talented Mr Ripley

CrimeSquad's Chris Simmons

I have always had a love/hate/love relationship with Patricia Highsmith. I have all her novels and have read her since the early nineties. Sometimes I think her work is so sublime that it is almost breathtaking. Then I read another and at the end throw it across the room in frustration. But then I read it again later and it is then I can see the reason why Highsmith took this particular path and it is only then I realise that to cause such rage and frustration in me was exactly what Highsmith was aiming for. Trust me, Highsmith is a writer you never let your guard down when immersed in her books.

Patricia Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas in January 1921 to the artist Jay B. Plangman and Mary Coates. Her parents were divorced shortly before she was born. She was adopted by her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith who her mother had married in 1924. When she was twelve Pat as she was known was taken back to Texas from New York to live with her grandmother for a year. She called this ‘the saddest year of my life’ as she felt abandoned by her mother. Her relationship with her mother always caused Pat consternation as chronicled in her brilliant biography, ‘Beautiful Shadow’ by Andrew Wilson that her mother once said to Highsmith that ‘she was surprised Pat like the smell of turpentine as she had drunk it  when she had been pregnant with Highsmith to get rid of her’. Highsmith’s love/hate relationship with her mother was to plague her all her life.

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in Anthony Mingella's 1999 film adaptation

When Highsmith graduated from Barnard College, she wrote for comic book publishers until she started writing freelance. Highsmith’s first novel, ‘Strangers on a Train’ was published in 1950, but it wasn’t until Hitchcock’s amazing film of the novel was playing in cinemas across the globe that Highsmith’s status as a novelist was cemented. The scene with the carousel is astounding and breathtaking, especially from a film made in the Golden Age of cinema. If you believe you are a true crime fan and haven’t seen this movie… then you can’t be a true crime fan! So go watch it now!!

Highsmith’s second novel, ‘Carol’ was not crime based, but a lesbian love story that was based on a woman Patricia had met in New York. Some of her books were to have an underlying ‘homosexual’ theme especially in ‘Carol’, ‘Small g: A Summer Idyll’ and ‘The Tremor of Forgery’ amongst others. Even in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ her main protagonist, Tom Ripley’s sexuality is ambiguous as he does whatever it takes to get exactly where he wants.

The beginning of the first Ripley novel introduces our hero/villain to Mr. Greenleaf, Dickie’s father. By over playing a very slight acquaintance Ripley takes a chance of escaping his creditors by being send by Greenleaf to keep an eye on Dickie and bring him home to the family nest. And so starts Ripley’s insidious path to gaining wealth at the expense of others. When first published Highsmith’s character caused a great deal of argument: was he a hero or a villain? People in the fifties preferred their protagonists to be clean cut – not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. With Highsmith she has always been perfect at blurring the edges between good and evil/sanity and madness. This she does to perfection with her greatest creation: Tom Ripley.

Ripley was to return in four more novels giving us what is today known as the ‘Ripliad’: five novels involving Tom Ripley and his schemes to make money. And murder really was detestable to him – and only necessary under extreme circumstances. None of Highsmith’s novels are huge tomes – she was one of those brilliant novelists who could say volumes in a mere sentence, such was her skill. She was a mistress of the short story and again could convey menace in a few pages. Her collection ‘Eleven’ is proof of that.

I think it is commendable and exciting that Martyn Waites and the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival have chosen this Patricia Highsmith novel as the ‘Big Read 2011’. I was worried this author would fade in to obscurity, but with this renewed interest in Highsmith I can only hope that more people will continue to read this amazing author’s work and find out what Tom does after the end of ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ plus read her other work. But I warn you – be prepared t o wade through the waters of madness that could only come from the pen of the wonderfully warped imagination of Patricia Highsmith!

Chris Simmons is the online editor of CrimeSquad. www.crimesquad.com