In Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires, Richard Bradford casts a different, darker shadow on the life of Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith - dangerous to know. Picture: Getty Images
Patricia Highsmith - dangerous to know. Picture: Getty Images
  • Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith, by Richard Bradford. Bloomsbury, $45.75.

Great writers are often not very nice people. Think Charles Dickens, Jean-Paul Sartre, Philip Roth and Philip Larkin, while Lady Caroline Lamb famously labelled Byron, ''mad, bad and dangerous to know''.

Patricia Highsmith certainly falls into that category. Richard Bradford, Research Professor at Ulster University titles his biography Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires. He takes this from Highsmith's 1947 New Year's Eve toast, "to all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envies, loves, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real . . .with which I do battle - may they never give me peace ." Highsmith never found that peace before her death in Switzerland in 1995.

She spent a number of years living in Europe, where her books had a huge following. The publication of her extensive diaries later this year will stimulate more interest in a writer now regarded as being in the pantheon of leading American writers of the 20th century. Her literary career spanned nearly 50 years with 22 novels and nine short story collections. In 1991, Highsmith was a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature .

There have already been two significant biographies of Highsmith - Andrew Wilson's Beautiful Shadow (2003) and Joan Schenkar's The Talented Miss Ripley (2009). Bradford thus covers a lot of already familiar ground but benefits from producing a book in the centenary of Highsmith's birth as well as a more concise biography.

Born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas in 1921, Highsmith had an unhappy and turbulent childhood which she remembers as "a little hell". Her mother who divorced her father nine days before she was born had tried to abort Highsmith through drinking turpentine.

Highsmith was kissed by her biological father in a way, she said, "not exactly paternal", profoundly hated her stepfather and was molested as a young girl by two males at her grandmother's house. As a teenager she was anorexic but, according to her biographers, was a strikingly beautiful young woman.

By the time, however, she entered Barnard College she was a heavy drinker, starting at breakfast with a large gin. Her subsequent excessive consumption of cigarettes, gin and whisky would lead to significant health problems and ultimately an appearance, in the words of Terry Castles, resembling "a sullen gargoyle".

Her first novel, published when she was 29, Strangers On A Train (1950), which follows two men who agree to "exchange murders", became a bestseller and film in 1951 by Alfred Hitchcock. It foreshadowed some of the themes which became a standard part of the psychological, homoerotic Ripley novels, where normal standards of good and evil are turned on their head.

Highsmith is probably best known today for the five Ripley novels, the "Ripliad", which have spawned five films and a soon-to-be Netflix series. The first of the Ripley novels, The Talented Mr Ripley, was published in 1955. Bradford writes that, in Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley, Highsmith eroded "the boundaries between crime writing and literature as a high art".

Highsmith portrayed Ripley as "suave, agreeable and utterly amoral". She once wrote that "murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing", traits amply demonstrated in The Talented Mr Ripley, where Tom loves Dickie Greenleaf but then kills him and assumes his identity.

Highsmith's lesbian love story The Price of Salt (1952), published pseudonymously as by "Claire Morgan", was filmed as Carol (2015), starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Highsmith was sexually very active, mostly with women.

She was a lesbian, however, who despised women, commenting, "I like most men better than I like women, but not in bed". Her sex with Arthur Koestler, another "tormented soul", she described as "a miserable joyless episode".

Bradford terms her "an emotional vandal", exemplified in her treatment of two of her long-term female lovers, one attempting suicide in 1953.

The fact they were both Jewish didn't help, given Highsmith publicly called herself a "Jew-hater". Her numerous racial hatreds also included Hispanics and African-Americans.

In that context, it is perhaps no wonder she preferred the company of snails, seeing them as "self-sufficient" and indistinguishable in gender. Bizarrely, she often carried several snails around in her bra.

Bradford argues that Highsmith's novels constitute "a lifelong autobiography", although it was not a life to admire.

Her final publisher, Otto Penzler, labelled her, "a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being", yet an author who wrote "brilliant" books that transcended genres.

This story Devils, lust in Highsmith Country first appeared on The Canberra Times.