The Five Faces of Patricia Highsmith

Posted on 3rd June 2016 by Sally Campbell
Jill Dawson is an award winning poet and author who has taught creative writing for over twenty years; she was a Royal Literary Fund Advisory Fellow, a Creative Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia and she is a regular teacher of UEA/Guardian creative writing masterclasses. Her new book The Crime Writer is both a portrait of Patricia Highsmith and a jet-black tale of duplicity, madness and murder. Here, she shares her five favourite Patricia Highsmith novels. 

The Talented Mr Ripley (1955)

If you haven’t read the highly addictive author Patricia Highsmith, this, her cool classic is probably the place to start. Tom Ripley is a unique creation, the original and most believable serial killer in literature. Highsmith’s gift is to enter Ripley’s consciousness so profoundly that the reader finds herself not just understanding the moment Ripley commits murder for the first time but rooting for him to get away with it, too. Pacey, suspense-filled, and with a palpable atmosphere of evil, this is the first in a quintet of Ripleys. All are worth reading.

Deep Water (1957)

This is probably my favourite; I’m surprised it isn’t better known. It’s so sexy, sinister, and strange. Again Highsmith’s intelligent rendering of highly plausible wickedness is what makes it a haunting read. Also that sly tone of her prose style:  action-led and unfussy, sometimes ‘as relentless as a headache’, slowly building up disturbing feelings. In this case the disturbance is all about the character of Vince Van-Allen. Vicious, restrained but angry, tortured by his sexy, faithless wife, he is driven by his overwhelming desire to punish her and all those who fall for her.


This Sweet Sickness (1960 and about to be reissued) 

David Kelsey is sure that the object of his affections, Annabelle, despite being married to someone else, is still in love with him and only pretending to resist him; he will win her in the end.  But is he right? Along with Highsmith’s usual mesmeric readability are more of her insights into madness. She is subtle and intelligent and seems to have a spell-binding and quite singular access to what really makes the darkest of human hearts tick.

The Cry of the Owl (1962)  

Robert Forester is another brilliant creation: a man whom we know to be a voyeur and prowler but still invokes sympathy. ‘I’m not a criminal. I was lonely and depressed and I watched a girl in a kitchen.’ Highsmith’s genius for the supressed longings and painful failures of her characters is beautifully rendered here. We know that Robert had a breakdown and we know his ghastly wife Nickie had a role in this; so when he is accused of being a murderer we soon suspect that Nickie has a hand in that too….


The Two Faces of January (1964 and reissued in June 2016)

This was a recent film with Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen a couple of years back – I wonder what Highsmith would have made of it? (She often disapproved of film adaptations of her work). It explores the intense relationship between two men, a sort of son and father folie a deux that has echoes of her first novel Strangers on a Train.  Highsmith’s first novel The Price of Salt (Carol) is the only one where she dealt openly with lesbianism, but there is a homoerotic  current in much of her work, where themes of love - unrequited, painful, taunting and tantalising - twist through it like a thread of fire, adding to the page-turning, hunted atmosphere. 


Jill Dawson will be appearing at the Sceptre Salon tonight at Waterstones Piccadilly, along with with authors Sjon and Thomas Keneally

The Crime Writer is out now in hardback.



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