Appreciating the Creepiness of Patricia Highsmith

Maria Alvarez in the Telegraph on Patricia Highsmith:

“Patricia Highsmith’s mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. Later in life, she said to her daughter: ‘It’s funny you like the smell of turpentine, Pat.’

“Casually brutal characters are always wreaking havoc in Highsmith’s fiction. …

Highsmith’s understanding of the unconscious and the irrational, coupled with her lucid prose and sophisticated mastery of suspense, are the reasons why many see her as having elevated crime fiction to an art form.” …

“She created unsympathetic protagonists: the seriously unhinged or the dully melancholic. Her endings are rarely predictable; the action is often a demented loop. Victims turn into stalkers, stalkers turn into victims, murders are botched, the eccentric can be harmless or insane. We are anxious because we have no way of knowing: the world is out of control.”

I particularly like that Alvarez compares Highsmith with Alfred Hitchcock, who bought the movie rights to her first novel, Strangers on a Train. She mentions “Highsmith’s subversive touch … [which is to make] the reader complicit with his cold logic,” the same thing Hitchcock does in film after film, particularly by way of camera shots.

Alvarez directly compares Highsmith and Hitchcock:

“He shared her macabre humour, the fascination for perverse natures, for dodgy anti-heroes and conmen, for mistaken or assumed identities. Both of them brought the existential vertigo of the 20th century to a popular audience.”

Alvarez also talks of Highsmith’s characters as pairs or mirrors, which meshes with a Girardian view of human nature and human desire:

“Her work often features contrasting pairs — usually pairs of men in the strangling embrace of attraction-repulsion. In Those Who Walk Away (1967) as in The Two Faces of January (1961), these men often find themselves mirroring each other or merging. Often, like Ripley [In The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)], they experience a vertiginous freedom when they assume a different name or effect their own disappearance. Often the dark ‘other’ will be acting out the hero’s unconscious desires.”

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