The Killer in Me Is the Killer in You

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

Patricia Highsmith was born in Texas, which seems fitting somehow: The only territory more murder-obsessed than her native state might be the one created in her imagination. Highsmith's fiction teems with untoward deaths. Hapless victims are felled by rifle butts, blows to the head, strangleholds. One unlucky Frenchman suffers the indignity of being stomped to death by his enormous, truffle-hunting pig. Such wicked demises have attracted directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Minghella to Highsmith's singular oeuvre. What Minghella couldn't capture onscreen in The Talented Mr. Ripley, however, is the sly, subversive way Highsmith dispatches her characters. What makes these crimes chilling is not their vividness--though Highsmith is no stranger to gore--but how mundanely they are executed. For Highsmith's characters, murder is about as exciting as pruning a hedge or shopping for vegetables. Death is not a dramatic conclusion, but merely another gag in the farce of life, where the stage is most often a domestic scene. As Highsmith wrote in her 1966 book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, "Art has nothing to do with morality, convention, or moralizing."

Given this mordant philosophical bent, it's no surprise that Highsmith's profile has languished in America. Yanks like their suspense stories with strong-jawed heroes, as Raymond Chandler (who adapted Strangers on a Train for film) and Dashiell Hammett knew well. Taking the ripples of Ripley as an excuse, Norton is republishing Highsmith's backlist, starting with a rich volume of stories and two devilishly good novels, Strangers on a Train and A Suspension of Mercy. Reading these three books together, one is struck by how Highsmith uses crime as a lens to peer into the sinister machinations of human behavior. At the core of her philosophical tales lurks a deep belief in our malleability: We will do anything as long as it suits our needs.

This notion forms the crux of her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950) in which a famous architect and a traveler named Bruno strike up a long conversation in a Pullman car. Locked into a dead-end marriage and pining for a flashy sweetheart, Guy confesses to Bruno that he'd like a divorce. Bruno surreptitiously guides their conversation to murder and delivers an opinion that could have come straight from Highsmith's mouth: "Any kind of person can murder. Purely circumstances and not a thing to do with temperament! People get so far--and it takes just the least little thing to push them over the brink." When Guy agrees with this in theory, Bruno offers an ominous bargain: "Hey! Cheeses, what an idea! I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on a train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?"

What unfolds is a virtuoso performance of suspense plotting. Having extracted from his companion an unintentional complicity, Bruno strangles the architect's wife. Guy is appalled. Bruno has no qualms about her death, however, and expects Guy to return the favor. Although Guy attempts to disengage from Bruno, he becomes embroiled in the crime's aftermath. Upping the ante, Bruno insinuates himself into Guy's social circles, daring him to expose the whole caper.

The first of many sociopaths who stalk Highsmith's fiction, Bruno is cleanly and compellingly drawn--cool, winning, and likable, a precursor to Hannibal Lecter. Watching Bruno operate his charm on a friend, Guy "saw that same combination of wistfulness, awe, determination, and humor that he had seen the first moment he met him." By contrast, Guy seems like a ninny, melodramatic and indecisive. The reader almost wants him to kill Bruno's father, an effect Highsmith achieves knowingly.

A Suspense of Mercy (1965) also manipulates the reader's loyalty, but to a greater degree. Set in the English countryside, the novel depicts a writer's slide into madness. Sydney Bartleby, a failing novelist eager to break into television, retreats to the country with his wife Alicia, hoping that fresh air will revive his work. Once there, he blames his continued stasis on his wife, whom he beats and berates. He daydreams about offing her and even paces through the motions of how he would dispose of the body: roll it in a carpet and dump it nearby. He records his reactions to his imaginary crime in his diary. Ironically, these exercises rekindle his prose. It's too late, however, to patch things up with his wife, who decides they need some time apart.

So enraptured is Sydney with his fantasy that when his wife turns up missing he thinks his script has come to life. Soon he plays the part of the guilty killer, furtive and cagey, bizarrely divorced from his wife's fate. Highsmith blurs the line between reality and delusion, affecting this change with such wit and subtlety that the reader sympathizes with Sydney. As Bruno explains in Strangers on a Train, "Everyone has wished at one time or another that someone close to them would just die." Highsmith's gift as a suspense novelist is to show how this secret desire can bridge the normal and abnormal. All of us, when provoked, can be killers in our minds.

 

The pieces collected in The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, a compilation of five story anthologies, reveal the author wrestling with her themes--injustice, moral ambiguity, the blade of cruelty at the heart of human interactions--more nakedly than in her novels. "The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder" (first published in 1975) showcases a handful of delightful revenge yarns, in which subjugated dogs, goats, elephants, and the aforementioned hog strike back at their abusive owners. Narrated from each animal's point of view, the stories encourage us to side with the beasts over man. Their simple needs are often ignored--and so they act upon the animal instincts we often suppress. In "There I Was, Stuck With Busby," a dog passed down from a deceased man to his son is whipped into a rage by too many swats on the rear and, Cujo-like, mauls his owner. While the moral calculus here is relatively straightforward--Busby, the big jerk, had it coming--the other tales are decidedly more disturbing. In "Goat Ride" and "In the Dead of Truffle Season" animals kill not so much out of vengeance, but because they can.

"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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