Patricia Highsmith, American author of novels and short stories, primarily psychological thrillers, turns a 100 today. Her best known works are the series featuring the con-man–murderer, Tom Ripley which comprises of five books starting with The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and Strangers on a Train (1950), her first novel about two strangers who meet on a train and exchange ‘murders’, tying their lives together. The Talented Mr. Ripley has been called ‘the most significant success of her career’ and the Ripley books have together sold millions of copies the world over. Her writings included novels, short-story collections, essays, and even a book on Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966).
Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth Texas on 19 January 1921. Highsmith’s parents separated before she was born and she was brought up by her mother (with whom she had a difficult relationship) and stepfather. She suffered a number of health problems including depression, and had a rather troubled personal life. She also held some controversial (and contradictory) views on race and ethnicity, and politics.
I am yet to read Highsmith’s books, and the one I am most interested in picking up is Strangers on a Train, and while I do plan to do that as soon as I can (hopefully within the year), since I couldn’t do that in time for her anniversary, here are a few interesting facts, mostly about her books that I came across. (Of course, these may not be as interesting for people who have read her works and more about her than I have.) So here goes:
Highsmith was taught to read by her grandmother when she was 2 and immersed herself in books from when she was very young, enjoying among others the works of Dostoevsky (who incidentally turns 200 this year) and Tolstoy.
She is said to have been ‘deeply influenced’ by existentialist philosophers like Albert Camus and Søren Kierkegaard.
After graduation, between 1942 and 1946, Highsmith worked first with comic book publisher Ned Pines and later as a freelancer writing scripts for comic books.
Her short story ‘The Heroine’ published in Harper’s Bazaar won the O’Henry award for best first story in 1946. In 1945, it was selected as one of the 22 best stories that appeared in American magazines.
Her first novel was Strangers on a Train which appeared in 1950; it was adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock within days of publication, the film being released in 1951, and has since been adapted several times since in different versions including in the ABC series Castle.
In her career, Highsmith published 22 novels and several short stories.
Her novels are said to have been more popular in France and Germany than they were in England and the United States.
Highsmith was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1991.
She was also known to be a prolific letter writer, writing several hundred letters each year.
She is said to have been very happy among cats. According to Ulrich Weber, curator in charge of her literary archive, cats ‘gave her a closeness that she could not bear in the long-term from people’.
She lived in ‘self-imposed exile’ in Europe for almost 40 years; in fact she died in 1995 in a hospital in Locarno, Switzerland.
Her diaries–totalling to some 8,000 pages–are to be published this year.
Have you read any of Highsmith’s books? Which one/s and how did you like them? Are you planning to pick up any to celebrate her centenary? Looking forward to your thoughts!
- Sources: ‘Patricia Highsmith’s Secret Life Revealed’, March 29, 2006, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/patricia-highsmith-s-secret-life-revealed/14856
- ‘Patricia Highsmith’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patricia_Highsmith#Writing_history
- ‘Patricia Highsmith’, https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7622.Patricia_Highsmith
- ‘Patricia Highsmith’, https://www.sunsigns.org/famousbirthdays/d/profile/patricia-highsmith/
- ‘The Cantankerous Ms Highsmith’, https://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/the-cantankerous-ms-highsmith-20030816-gdw74m.html
- ‘Obituary: Patricia Highsmith’, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-patricia-highsmith-1571740.html
- ‘Texas History Minute: Texas Born Mystery Novelist was Nominated for Nobel Prize’, https://www.heralddemocrat.com/lifestyle/20180719/texas-born-mystery-novelist-was-nominated-for-nobel-prize
- ‘Diaries expose ‘strong brew’ of Ripley novelist Patricia Highsmith’s dark thoughts’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/26/patricia-highsmith-diaries-published-controversial-views
- ‘Patricia Highsmith Diaries to Be Published in 2021’, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/news-and-features/articles/diaries-patricia-highsmith-published-in-2021/