The Killer in Me Is the Killer in You

Everyone is a potential murderer in the malleable moral universe of Patricia Highsmith

"Little Tales of Misogyny" (1977) translates this message into the human realm. With a shrill, but thrilling economy, Highsmith illuminates how women are treated not much better than barnyard creatures. In "The Mobile Bed-Object," an attractive kept woman finds herself handed from globetrotting millionaires to an Iowa piano wholesaler. A shady crook rescues her from small-town obscurity and whisks her off to Europe, only to toss her into a canal. As Highsmith renders it, she is "thrown away, as one might throw away a cricket lighter when it is used up." Men, however, do not always get the last laugh. In "The Hand," a young man asks for a woman's hand in marriage only to receive the literal object, her left one, in a box. Horrified, he buries the evidence. Meanwhile, his fiancée signs check after check in his name, putting him first into debtor's prison, then into an insane asylum, and finally, six feet under. Shifting her alliance between men and women throughout this collection, Highsmith suggests that it's marriage itself that corrodes relations between the sexes, setting off a chain of cruelty that extends from one generation to the next.

In her collections "Slowly, Slowly in the Wind" (1979), "The Black House" (1981), and "Mermaids on the Golf Course" (1985), Highsmith probes this theme further in tales that are marvelously subtle and sophisticated. Whereas her early fiction revolves around a central conceit, here she focuses on characters, masterfully sketching the contours of a life with a single gesture. In "The Network," a gossipy woman cradles her oft-used telephone "as if it were a furry animal or perhaps the hand of the friend she was speaking to." A doctor in another tale has eyebrows that are "tense with an inward anxiety, which his patients often thought a concern with their problems." Highsmith is sparing with such touches. For the most part, she relies on the snappy, Hammett-like dialogue that lends her stories such cinematic panache. We can infer who her characters are by how they speak.

This peculiar brand of quicksilver storytelling coaxed a million people to read her 1953 lesbian love story The Price of Salt, an unusual bestseller given the mores of the time. Highsmith continued to write about gay and bisexual characters throughout her career, linking the fallibility of conventional romance with her own brooding preoccupations. Somehow, as with murder, sexual variety is natural in Highsmith's fictional world, where no moral high ground exists. That a character would sleep with both men and women seems all too right in light of Highsmith's views that people's morals and boundaries are porous. This sensibility may explain why Highsmith was so much better received in Europe, where she moved after graduating from Barnard in 1942, living reclusively in France, East Anglia, and finally Switzerland, where she died in 1995. Her final novel, Small G: A Summer Idyll (1995), portrayed a bar in Zurich, where gay, straight, and bisexual characters meet and fall in love with the wrong people.

Back in this country, it seems appropriate that filmmakers should have popularized Highsmith's prose, for ultimately her art is cinematic rather than literary. She seduces us with whiskey-smooth surfaces only to lead us into darker terrain. Highsmith's description of a wax museum in "Woodrow Wilson's Necktie" (first anthologized in 1979's Slowly, Slowly in the Wing) serves as a primer for how she accomplishes this: "Inside the establishment you went through a dark passage to get in the mood, and then you were confronted by a bloody murder scene: a girl with long blonde hair was sticking a knife into the neck of an old man who sat at a kitchen table eating his dinner." The violence here does more than shock: It imposes a kind of existential dread. The only way out is to embrace the grisly comedy of it all. As Clive, the boy who wanders the wax museum, thinks while observing the figures, "They were amusing. Why not laugh?"

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