In her journals and later interviews she built up her childhood as 'a blend of fear, self-loathing and hatred for her close family'. Her mother abandoned her with her grandmother for a year when she was 12. 'Thus,' wrote Highsmith, 'I seek out women who will hurt me in a similar manner.' From Bradford's close examination of her life, it becomes clear that no women hurt Highsmith as much as she hurt them. She was an inveterate deceiver and two-timer. She drove Ellen Hill to attempt suicide by overdose, after their exhausting drive through Mexico in 1954 during which Highsmith had drawn creative energy from a partnership which she knew would end in disaster.
Richard Bradford’s oddly disapproving, compelling new biography of the novelist Patricia Highsmith, born a hundred years ago in Texas, sets out to uncover the truth behind the image. Other biographers have admired her as the inventor of memorable characters such as the conspirators in Strangers on a Train or her amoral anti-hero Tom Ripley. Bradford gives us Patricia Highsmith the predator, arch-manipulator and sadist, whose characters’ worst attributes belong to their creator.
There’s a similar stiffness when Bradford writes that Tom Ripley is “so well crafted that we begin to feel that the detached, entitled figures upon whom he revenges himself deserve what comes to them”. Why not just say the reader wants Ripley to get away with murder? I would have appreciated some quicker statements about Highsmith’s technique. You almost always want her villains to get away with it, which is a reversal of the normal, moralistic crime-fiction paradigm. The reader identifies with the killers because they exist within salubrious middle-class settings. They go to dinner parties, have drinks in smart bars (many drinks — Highsmith herself was addicted to gin) and have a lot to lose, so everything is at stake all the time.
Andrew Wilson wrote the first big biography of Highsmith in 2003 based on a meticulous fingertip search of the Bern archive buttressed by interviews with surviving lovers, many of whom have since died. Quite what Bradford brings to the table, unless it is to remind us that this month is Highsmith’s centenary, is unclear. Wilson worked hard to show how Highsmith’s psychic fractures were a consequence of being a clever, gay woman in newly Conservative postwar America. Bradford is much less interested in this sociological approach, preferring to pathologise Highsmith instead. At one level this makes sense – her virulent antisemitism, misogyny and general awfulness really can’t be explained away by cultural fault lines. But at the other it does mean that Bradford’s Highsmith becomes a figure bordering on the grotesque... The result is a biography that manages to be both plodding and salacious at the same time.
Bradford makes his case convincingly, and notes that Highsmith chose lovers who were either socially or intellectually her superior. For all her flamboyance, she was driven by self-doubt and a sense of inferiority, like Tom in The Talented Mr Ripley. Others will seek to untangle her tormented psyche, but Bradford’s has the edge over the two previous biographies by Wilson and Joan Schenkar, if only because it is less than half the length of either.
Bradford is reliant on the excellent previous biographies by Andrew Wilson (2003) and Joan Schenkar (2009) for background research and interview quotations, and these sources are always cited and acknowledgments duly and fully made. The chief new slant here is that where other scholars saw Highsmith as a manipulative jeans-wearing handful, Bradford, who hates his subject with a passion, prefers to see an outstandingly horrible, mad old bat. I rather concur — with the key demurral that this didn’t stop her being a supreme literary artist who described what it is like when everything is about to come crashing down.
Bradford makes a good case that Highsmith used fiction to resolve the ineluctable perversities of her nature; but he ends his book too abruptly to explain adequately why her novels continue to be read, and why so many of us still enjoy reading them. My own summation might go something like this: Highsmith was one of the first American thriller writers to take crime out of the ‘urban night’ of film noir melodramas and put it in middle-class, suburban living rooms where it more properly belonged. Her villains are superficially normal husbands, wives, office workers and cops, all of whom mean to do well but end up doing horrible things instead.