The Talented Ms. Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

In some ways, I suppose I have always felt a bit alienated by noir fiction, although I adore that smoky, mysterious atmosphere — the hourglass-shaped dame half in the shadows, the cigarette dangling from pouting lips, the impossibly virile man with a gun and a low ball of whiskey.

My early exposure to the genre was mainly film, classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon, and Strangers on a Train. As for noir fiction, however, I often found the characterizations shallow, the prose too spare, the portrayal of women two-dimensional and flagrantly misogynistic. As a young female writer, being neither good girl, nor vixen, nor deranged man-eater, I wondered if the noir greats had much to offer me. Rather than being forged as a writer from this kind of fiction, I came to the party late.

My discovery of Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) changed the way I thought about noir. With her dense characterizations and her subtle, deliberate ratcheting of suspense sentence by sentence, Highsmith captivated me. Her characters – Thomas Ripley, David Kelsey, to name two — are truly haunting, utterly sick and twisted, and yet strangely sympathetic. They’re mentally ill, they’re killers; you really like them anyway.

Highsmith’s carefully evoked images and the desperately unhappy people who populate her novels linger long after the book is closed: In This Sweet Sickness, David Kelsey is so in love with a woman who rejected him that he creates a home where he retreats and pretends they live there as a married couple. Meanwhile, he stalks her. Very, very creepy. In Deep Water, Vic is so desperate to hold on to his loveless marriage to Melinda that he allows her to have affairs, all the while sick with jealousy. Driven to the edge of his sanity by their arrangement, he tries to win her love by inventing a tall tale of a murder he’s committed –one that soon comes true. Unbearable suspense.

Like most noir, Highsmith’s prose is lean but it packs a one-two punch; it’s both beautiful and deep. Highsmith had a strong interest in abnormal psychology and spent a great deal of time reading case studies, making her psychological portraits as realistic as they are disturbing. In her novels, we are on the inside looking out.

Highsmith peeled back the layers of the mundane and the familiar to explore a dark heart of obsessive behavior, dangerous appetites, and mental instability. She was a keen and non-judgmental observer of all the folly and cruelty of the human existence. Largely unrecognized prior to her death in 1995, Patricia Highsmith was a true master of noir fiction. Her work caused me to rediscover and fully appreciate the entire genre with fresh eyes, to finally see it in all its richness and originality. I strongly suggest This Sweet Sickness, Deep Water, and The Talented Mr. Ripley just to start.

Appears in Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir (2007)
Edited by Megan Abbott