Wednesday, October 12, 2016

My hero / Patricia Highsmith by Peter Swanson

Patricia Highsmith
Poster by T.A.

My hero: 

Patricia Highsmith by Peter Swanson



Highsmith’s thrillers produce an almost queasy feeling – the desire to look away – while being too fascinating and compelling to put down


I
first read Patricia Highsmith while in college, starting with Strangers on a Train. I’d seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film version, so I knew the plot, but I wasn’t prepared for the novel’s sticky atmosphere of guilt and corruption. Hitchcock managed to capture some of it, but he was only skimming the surface of a very murky pond. Highsmith takes her readers right into the muck. Reading it produced an almost queasy feeling – the desire to look away – yet I was compelled to keep turning the pages. That’s not an easy trick, especially for an author’s first book, and that is why Highsmith is my literary hero.

Her crime of choice was murder, but she wasn’t interested in low-rent criminals and gangsters. The murders in Highsmith country are committed, often almost accidentally, by everyday sociopaths, men with masks who find themselves drowning a wife’s lover in a swimming pool, say, just because the opportunity presents itself. This particular act happens in one of her best books, Deep Water, a chilly portrayal of a dysfunctional marriage. What makes it fascinating is not just the horror of the crimes, but the good-natured normality of their perpetrator.


Patricia Highsmith

Brilliant plotting was only one of the things Highsmith did well. She had an economical prose style that was never flashy and never boring. And her characters, especially her male ones, are familiar and alien at the same time. Vic Van Allen, the mild-mannered murderer of Deep Water, keeps snails as pets, as did Highsmith herself. He gets an almost meditative pleasure from watching them mate.
Highsmith, by some accounts, was not a pleasant person. Like the snails she loved, she had a hard exterior, and there is a biography by Joan Schenkar that chronicles the slime Highsmith left in her wake (although her conclusions have been challenged). But she also left behind a treasure trove of great thrillers, most of which do what all great thrillers do: take you on a ride you’re not sure you want to be on, but that you can’t get off.

 Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing is out in paperback from Faber.



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