NEARLY A DECADE AFTER HER DEATH, Patricia Highsmith is finally coming into her own in America. W. W. Norton is reissuing her entire body of work, and the dimensions of her oeuvre continue to impress. Highsmith can no longer be thought of as merely a gifted genre writer; her range of interests and accomplishments far surpasses the limitations of a particular type of fiction. Highsmith resisted being branded, preferring to think of herself as a novelist rather than a crime writer. But American publishers wanted labels. Thus her first book, Strangers on a Train, was published as a “novel of suspense.” And so to avoid another label—“lesbian-book writer”—Highsmith used a pseudonym for her second novel, The Price of Salt, a sensational narrative of an affair between two women.
It is time to stop categorizing Highsmith in either of these terms. Perhaps Graham Greene, a devoted admirer of her work, put it best when he called her a “poet of apprehension.” Indeed she is. To read a Highsmith novel is to suspend one’s moral judgments. She irresistibly persuades the reader to side with killers and other amoral characters. Her world is perverse and curiously animated: As though they were cartoon objects, guns “look” at their targets (in the forties Highsmith wrote copy for comic books); characters are propelled by unstable psychologies. Much of her fiction reminds me of Flannery O’Connor without the theology. Highsmith was a master of the macabre as well, especially in her short stories. A typical one, “The Hand,” opens this way: “A young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box—her left hand.” She published a volume of short stories about pets killing their owners. A wonderful writer, she didn’t believe in anything, and in her free-floating misanthropy she approaches Swiftian levels of disgust toward feelings that most people cherish.
Thanks to Andrew Wilson’s excellent biography, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (2003), we now know where all of this anger came from: Texas. According to Highsmith, who was born in 1921, her essential character was formed by age six, and those first six years were spent in Fort Worth. Trouble began early, in the womb. Her mother, who eventually turned into a kind of monster and lived nearly forever, tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. Later both mother