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Critical Essay by Kathleen Gregory Klein
SOURCE: "Patricia Highsmith." in And Then There Were Nine … More Women of Mystery, edited by Jane S. Bakerman, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985, pp. 170-97.
In the following essay, Klein provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Highsmith's works, concluding that the writer challenged the conventions of the mystery genre.
In her refusal to be limited by the conventional considerations of the genre, Patricia Highsmith is, quite simply, one of the best and most significant crime writers working today. Critic Blake Morrison notes that "[T]o call her a 'crime writer' sounds limiting, even patronising, since, like Chabrol, Highsmith is less interested in the mechanics of crime than in the psychology behind them;" while Brigid Brophy extends the praise, "as a novelist tout court she's excellent…. Highsmith and Simenon are alone in writing books which transcend the limits of the genre while staying strictly inside its rules: they alone have taken the crucial step from playing games to creating art." What characterizes Highsmith's work beyond attention to character development and atmosphere is a way of examining human beings which unnerves and disquiets the reader. She takes a grim look at the darker side of human nature, revealing the innate capacity of everyone for violence, even murder. While some readers might deny this assessment of themselves, escaping to the classical puzzle novel with its neat definitions of villainy and while others, preferring those "mean streets," erroneously believe that they are facing death as it really can happen, Highsmith, both obviously and subtly, recognizes a common personality trait. Equally present in everyone, the propensity for evil is inescapable; its execution depends on circumstances, not the will or public posture of the individual.
In accenting dualities, Highsmith further comments on the universal inclination to violence. Her characters' duets of love and hate, power and powerlessness, order and disorder, guilt or guiltlessness never really display the expected results. All virtue can not reside within a single character, not can it invariably triumph. Blended in such a way that lovers hate, ordering disorders, or powerlessness empowers, the dualities are charged with intensity and mystery. Like sexuality, a persistent challenge in Highsmith's works, opposites and pairs reverberate discordantly.
Like only a few of her colleagues, Highsmith has written critically and instructionally about crime fiction. While undoubtedly exaggerating some of her advice and conclusions, nonetheless, she acknowledges the craft involved in writing popular fiction ("popular" is used here to identify that which is widely read and praised, not to make any unnecessary artificial distinctions between "literary" and "popular" fiction). The title of Highsmith's non-fiction, "how-to" book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, provides a significant indication of one approach to her work. It implies that organization of plot elements, development of action and concern for the overall structure of the work are central among Highsmith's concerns. Even a casual consideration of her novels and short stories verifies this obvious fact as the opening paragraph of each work exemplifies perfectly. Succinct, but action-filled, each opening forces itself upon the reader's attention. Four examples from me novels and short stories easily demonstrate the point:
Coleman was saying, "My only child, she was, but it doesn't mean she'll be your only wife. Your last wife."
Those Who Walk Away
"There's no such thing as a perfect murder," Tom said to Reeves. "That's just a parlor game, trying to dream one up. Of course you could say there are a lot of unsolved murders. That's different." Tom was bored. He walked up and down in front of his big fireplace where a small but cozy fire crackled. Tom felt he had spoken in a stuffy, pontificating way. But the point was he couldn't help Reeves, and he'd already told him that.
Greta showed Ed the letter as soon as he opened the door. "I couldn't help opening it, Eddie, because I knew it was from that—that creep."
A Dog's Ransom
When Mr. Peter Knoppert began to make a hobby of snail-watching, he had no idea that his handful of specimens would become hundreds in no time.
Like other famous first lines in literary works (eg. Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina), they orient the reader not merely to characters or plot but primarily to atmosphere, the prose setting. Tightly organized yet never hurried, Highsmith's novels and short stories compel the reader's attention through her careful delineation of contrasts between realistic and improbable detail.
Although Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is extremely varied in its approach—concerned with choosing an agent, expecting advertising of a publisher, recognizing the germ of an idea, or organizing the first page—it is generally chatty and personal in style. Highsmith uses her own ideas and works, her failures as well as her successes to focus the details of her advice. For the reader rather than the writer of fiction, the volume's greatest appeal lies in the important clues it provides to Highsmith's thinking and the perspective on her own work which it articulates; as a volume of criticism of the genre, it is generally unfocused and limited in its concerns.
At the outset, Highsmith claims to accept the trade definition of suspense: "stories with a threat of violent physical action and anger, or danger and action itself." But she refuses to concede the usual limitations ascribed to the genre, believing instead that "the beauty of the suspense genre is that a writer can write profound thoughts and have some sections without physical action if he wishes to, because the framework is an essentially lively story." This contrast between the usual expectations and the expanded form of the genre is at the heart of Highsmith's talent and success. More widely praised in England and Europe than in the United States, she is not limited abroad to a narrow category, rigidly defined and briefly reviewed. Instead she is accorded serious consideration; as a result, she encourages young writers to "keep as clear of the suspense label as possible." She indicates her own limitless conception of the possibilities, free of formulaic blandness of gore and brutality, by citing Crime and Punishment as a perfect example of the genre's possibilities.
The centrality of character formulation and development as a subject in this book belies the title's insistence on "how" to focus on "why;" not being formulaic mystery or detective novels, her works are never concerned with teasing the reader about "whodunit." In fact, the tantalizing question of why crime is planned or committed is seldom answered with satisfying finality. Instead, the reader is treated to a progress report on the criminal's mind and emotions at work. People, then, rather than plots, are at the center of Highsmith's suspense-filled universe. The crucial pair—character and atmosphere—are both defined and placed through a "bit of action" which is focused at the center or the climax of the story. Although this action—such as an imitated murder (The Blunderer) or an exchange of victims (Strangers on a Train)—may often first occur to her without the appropriate characters attached. Highsmith notes, its direction and thrust later serve to identify a major facet of the characters' personalities or wills.
As action determines her characters, Highsmith explains, point of view affects her tone. She abandoned first person narrators as a novelistic device when she "got sick and tired of writing the pronoun 'I,'" and recognized that her scheming characters seemed more sympathetic when filtered through the authorial consciousness. Because Highsmith varies even using two different perspectives in a single novel, most of her works, despite their similarities, have a fresh and unique appeal. She is adamant about the importance of good and careful writing, critical of the gimmickry which pervades many novels and most short stories. Nonetheless she is not tediously serious; the writer must acknowledge the game-playing element in his work, she notes.
Highsmith is thus led to acknowledge the recurrent theme in her own works, which she sees in six of her first ten books—the relationship between two men, frequently strangers, occasionally mismatched friends. These two do not always divide neatly into categories of good and evil, right and wrong, criminal and victim; their relationships, whatever overtones of these they may contain, are based on a real or perceived inequality which Highsmith manipulates, blurs, or emphasizes. She reuses this theme easily, believing that "[U]nless one is in danger of repeating oneself, they should be used to the fullest, because a writer will write better making use of what is, for some strange reason, innate."
Because puzzles and mysteries bore her and because she finds "the public passion for justice" artificial, Highsmith believes in the inevitably interesting and dramatic criminal: "I rather like criminals and find them extremely interesting, unless they are monotonously and stupidly brutal." Naturally, then, she is careful to recognize the necessity of suspending moral judgments and even shutting off one's mind to certain strictures and proscriptions which she would unquestionably acknowledge in daily life. Moralizing and censorship are equally unacceptable to her; recognizing the use the artist makes of experience, she rejects artificial judgments.
When all the subjects on which she cautions other writers to take care are considered in view of her own fiction, Highsmith's concern for character presentation, development and unfolding is clearly at the center of her work. Carefully she builds one detail after another, aiming at a portrait of the person himself. His inclinations are probed; his secret musings revealed; his sudden and often unexplained plunge into criminality is charted. The atmosphere and actions which encourage and reinforce him are painted in. Not only the character alone but also the character in contrast draws her attention; in the recurring thematic pattern of pairs of men, the influence of one upon the other is explored. In the recurring pattern of couples of man and woman, the questions of power and powerlessness are presented and reversed, challenged and enacted. Finally, the pattern of the criminal's interaction with his second, sometimes unknown, self is considered.
Highsmith acknowledges an exclusive use of the masculine perspective in her own fiction: "women are not so active as men and not so daring." Not only are her protagonists male (with only one exception), but also their attitudes toward women are conventionally stereotyped. Almost unconsciously Highsmith validates the concept of women as appropriate victims of murder or violence; they are presented as having deserved punishment for being too available or unavailable sexually, too domineering or insufficiently independent, too loving or too hateful. The short stories collected in Little Tales of Misogyny with their stereotyped titles ("The Fully-Licensed Whore," "The Wife," "The Breeder," or "Oona, The Jolly Cave Woman") are the most openly anti-women. Inasmuch as women are easy victims, violence and crimes against them are easily justified and rationalized.
Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in his characteristic style, is a model for the rest of her fictional canon; in theme and attitude, action and characters it announces her chief concerns and the direction her work will take. Highsmith's concept of the thriller, its attitude and moral posture, is clearly enunciated here; her concern is not with uncovering the roots of a crime already committed in either the classical or hard-boiled style. She does not accept the legalistic notion of justice; detectives, though both private and official ones are included in many of the novels, are not memorable characters, but are overshadowed by the protagonist himself. In a similar way, detection is overshadowed by criminal activity; despite the presence of both, the focus is skewed. Neither the classical detective story with its focus on the investigated nor the hard-boiled with its concern for the detective's interaction with those he chases forms the basis for Highsmith's novels. Instead the criminal, his mind, and emotions, are minutely dissected. His perspective dominates the novels and comes to dominate the reader as well.
A focal concern of this and Highsmith's other novels is the ordinary individual's capacity for violence and murder. Anyone, the characters come to recognize, can commit murder; it is not that the individual must be right for the task but that the circumstances make anyone right. As Guy Haines comes to realize, contrary to his childhood beliefs in the goodness of human nature, love and hate as well as good and evil live side by side in every human heart. There are not different proportions of each depending on the person's temperament; all good and all evil coexist. To find them, it is only necessary to look a little for either one; anyone can be pushed over the brink. As Anne Faulkner expresses it, "Amazing what goes on in people's lives."
The action and situation of Strangers are typical of Highsmith. Two men, meeting accidentally, find themselves, almost without knowing how, caught in a love-hate relationship which puzzles them. As they are almost ignorant of its beginnings, they are unaware of how to bring it to a conclusion even if they were certain they wanted to. The action arises from a simple proposal by Charles Bruno: he will kill Guy Haines' wife if Haines will return the favor by killing Bruno's father; both will be able to escape suspicion since there is no link between them. In conception the plan is successful; its failure comes from both of the men who are to execute it: Guy cannot agree to the plan but can be manipulated five or six months later into meeting his obligation while Charley Bruno cannot keep himself from contacting Guy and trying to be friends. Thus both aspects of the plan's success—mutual consent and complete separation—are jeopardized.
The dualistic male pair is matched in two other all-male combinations: Guy finally confesses his share in his first wife's murder to her lover Owen Markman; Bruno is dogged consistently by Gerard, his father's detective, who eventually overhears Guy's confession. The Guy/Bruno pair thus splits into two less intense and less destructive segments—Guy/Owen and Bruno/Gerard. This is mirrored in the two wives of Guy Haines—Miriam, a redheaded southern girl with limited education, few social graces and too much interest in other men, contrasts with Anne, an intelligent, talented, wealthy woman of tact and sincerity. For all his vacillation, Guy can abandon neither; for all his determined gentlemanliness with Anne, Bruno wants to dispose of both. A pair of mothers, pair of murderers, pairs of houses, parties and hotels carry the point a bit too far in this first novel, but the crucial focus is well-developed and carefully maintained.
Charley Bruno is hardly an appealing character; his physical appearance, personal habits, tendency to whining and self-pity, not to mention his plan for murder, do not appeal to the reader. Yet Guy's tie with him is partially affectionate in nature; not only shared crime and Guy's guilt keep them together. Guy reveals his private feelings and problems believing that Bruno, as a stranger, is an unthreatening listener, but is forced to admit later that this is no ordinary stranger on a train but rather a cruel and corrupt one. Bruno seems incapable of being surprised; details only encourage him to probe for more information. Deciding to kill Miriam, his half of the "deal," he experiences neither guilt nor remorse, only a kind of excitement which gives direction to his life. Afterward he imagines his responses to a radio interview: She was like a rat to be killed; he couldn't say whether he would ever do it again: yes, he rather liked killing her. In the murder, in his plot to have his father killed so he and his mother would be free to live, in his drinking to constant drunkenness and in his reckless pursuit of Guy, Bruno reveals a man who always wants more, who cannot be sated. Although he claims to love Guy like a brother, he fantasizes being rid of Anne so the two men can really be close. His deficiency, Guy notes, is that Bruno does not know how to love, though he needs to learn. "Bruno was too lost, too blind to love or to inspire to love. It seemed all at once tragic." Bruno's only response is to equate love with sex or women and to think that he has never liked either.
Bruno quotes Guy as once having talked about opposites, saying that every person has an opposite, unseen part of himself which is lying in ambush waiting to attack unexpectedly and dangerously. This is clearly how Guy sees the two of them related: and to some degree, Bruno does also. Only metaphorically is it possible to understand the link between these two. Guy Haines is a well-respected young architect who seems to almost fall under the hypnotic spell of another man and his own innate decency. The latter, as much as the former, leads him to murder; because he is racked by guilt for not having prevented or accused Bruno in Miriam's murder, he equalizes his guilt by murdering Bruno's father. Guy is persistently haunted and reassured by the idea that his destiny, which he has always trusted, holds the answer to his guilt. He is convinced, for example, that atonement is part of his destiny and will find him without his searching for it; or, that the murder he's committed might have been part of his destiny—an improbable mixture of arrogance and humility which compels him to obey only the laws of his own fate.
A key to both Strangers and Highsmith's inversion of the standard techniques of the genre can be found in Guy Haines' profession. As an architect he is concerned with design, order, harmony and honesty. When he rejects a beach club commission because of Miriam's new entanglement in his life, Guy is genuinely pained to think of the imitation Frank Lloyd Wright building which will replace his perfect conception; in designing his own Y-shaped house, he refused necessary economies which would truncate the building. His work is, for him, a spiritual act, defined by unity and wholeness; it rejects disorder, fragmentation and shallowness. Contrasted in the two sections of the book are his description of the bridge he hopes to build as the climax of his career and his inability to accept the commission when telegraphed an offer. His dream of a great white bridge with a span like angels' wings is shattered when his feeling of corruption keeps him from his talent.
In Highsmith's fictional world, issues of order, harmony of civilization—whatever it is called—are seldom so simple and traditional. Contrasted with the more stereotyped perspective which Guy accepts is her series character Tom Ripley. His notions of order are equally predictable; Bach, or classical music in general, provide the right stimuli to focus his attention, distill and concentrate his mind. Ripley uses these devices, however sincerely he may value them as entities in themselves, as personal preparations for crime: fraud, theft, murder. Not so amoral, Guy uses them as avoidance mechanisms; he refuses to consider trying to create perfect order out of his own disordered mind. These attitudes toward order mark Highsmith's vacillating and threatening challenge to oversimplified theories of order and disorder, harmony and chaos. Never committing her fiction to either the triumph of order or the inevitability of chaos, she creates worlds which misuse both, locations in which both are equally and simultaneously present; in fact, she suggests that they may be indistinguishable. Highsmith's manipulation of these dualities suggests closer parallels with contemporary absurdists and existentialists than with her colleagues in crime or suspense fiction. Challenging the either or structure of human thinking in a work ostensibly about a pair of murders and murderers is part of Highsmith's conscious expansion of an established genre into a new and provocative form.
Like Strangers on a Train, Highsmith's masterful novel, The Blunderer charts the intersecting lives of two men who plan similar murders. Also filmed, this novel qualifies as one of the 100 best detective novels of all time, according to Julian Symons in the New York Times Book Review. "Unworthy friendships" is how Walter Stackhouse defines the subject of a book he considers writing: "A majority of people maintained at least one friendship with someone inferior to themselves because of certain needs and deficiencies that were either mirrored or complemented by the inferior friend." Coming across a newspaper report of an unusual death, Walter saves the clipping in his scrapbook of notes for his essays; later, he begins to consider how the murder might have been committed by the victim's husband. Miserably unhappy with his own wife Clara, he begins to fantasize committing a similar murder. Like Walter, Clara easily recognizes unworthy friends: she considers most of her husband's companions and even their neighbors in that light. Her critical, unfriendly, insulting manner costs Walter many friendships which he cherishes; he simply cannot forgive her.
Walter's fantasy life is rich and full. Because the world in which he lives does not meet his expectations, he creates an alternate reality in which the ordering of both events and motives are within his own command. Having convinced himself through reading newspaper clippings of Melchior Kimmel's guilt, he travels to the man's bookstore just to meet him, scrutinize him and reaffirm his verdict. Circumstances identical to those surrounding Helen Kimmel's death arise for the Stackhouses; Walter behaves exactly as he believes Kimmel had done, except that he does not kill Clara, although she dies. Initially, Highsmith's intermingling of Walter's fantasy with his actions implies murder; gradually, it becomes clear that Clara's death is truly not his responsibility.
The novel's irony develops from this confusion of reality and questions of responsibility. Kimmel has been a very careful killer; the police cannot prove his crime. Although they are suspicious, they cannot charge him. Nonetheless, he is guilty. Walter, not even sufficiently inventive to create his own mode of murder and then not sufficiently calculating or clever to go through with it, is a blunderer. He has left clues and suspicious evidence everywhere for the police to discover. Yet, he is innocent. The police are only reinforced in their unprovable thesis about Kimmel by the plethora of evidence they find against Stackhouse.
Bonding the two men further together in a strange alliance is their response to the police investigation. Initially both protect each other from Corby, a brutal, driven cop who tries to intimidate both Walter (psychologically) and Kimmel (physically). When their mutual protection breaks down, both men rush to betray each other to Corby; only the liar is believed. In a final irony and gesture of angry frustration, Kimmel kills Walter, taking great satisfaction in his death: "There was Stackhouse, any way! Enemy number one!" Captured immediately, Kimmel is caught killing the man who, he believes, murdered him by the blundering imitation which convinced the police.
Ironically, Walter's inability to acknowledge all the truth about his activities to either friends or the police leads to his being shunned. Neighbors too often questioned by the police avoid him; his respectable housekeeper quits; his friend and intended law partner withdraws from the arrangement; finally, his new girlfriend, a sensitive and affectionate violinist and children's music teacher, frustrated by his persistent evasions and new stories, begins to suspect him and ends their relationship. Even as Clara alive had alienated his friends, he too, responding to her death, achieves the same effect. His alienation is both the cause and effect of Walter's being forced into an isolated position where he feels compelled to create his own reality, ordering events which have no apparent basis in fact.
Walter Stackhouse's almost compulsive fascination with his counterpart is part of his cycle of "unworthy friendships." The ones he had documented for his essays clearly invoked an aura of power whereby the superior friend maintained his status through this relationship. And yet, in the pairing of Stackhouse and Kimmel, Highsmith challenges the foundation of so-called friendship which Walter establishes. The surface of an unworthy friendship implies all power and prestige to the superior partner; yet his dependence on the socially, economically, or morally inferior partner puts him under the second man's power. Should the weaker person withdraw even the slightest, the ostensibly stronger personality would be left without a framework in which to judge himself. Kimmel and Stackhouse articulate this exactly; the imaginative, amoral, clever Melchior Kimmel cannot evade Walter Stackhouse's blundering imitation or undesired attachment. Walter's fascination with this unwilling companion alerts the police and marks his power in the relationship. However, prior to this, his similar fascination had so engaged Walter that he felt compelled to imitate Kimmel's supposed wife-murder, implying that he is actually as powerless to resist Kimmel's subconscious, hypnotic influence as he later is to avoid Kimmel's enraged revenge.
Inverting and reversing concepts of power and powerlessness between the two men, Highsmith here indicates even more clearly her view of human conflict. Frequently, the same issue is raised more covertly in the novels and short stories, shown as male-female struggle. Both men in this novel insist on the unreasonable power which their wives have over them; the extent is more fully described in the Stackhouses' marriage but is implicit also with the Kimmels'. The temporary appearance of female power is shattered, however, when the women are threatened by the power-seeking men. Both women, the novel implies, are justifiably punished; Kimmel shares this attitude when he murders Walter. This parallel suggests a second: in establishing "unworthy friendships," men are looking for the male equivalent of a wife—someone whose inferiority is unquestionable, whose "power" can be manipulated, whose defined existence reinforces the ego of the man who chooses him/her. In Highsmith's novels, true and positive friendships are seen as impossible. Characters feed parasitically off each other, destroying the "friend" for their own needs, having sought someone whose destruction they will not really regret. Even when a character, such as Charley Bruno, sees the relationship as symbiotic—mutual rather than one-sided—he does not recognize how enormously different the intentions of the two friends are. As a result, the same alienation and destruction are inevitable.
The link between power and sexuality is clearly enunciated in The Two Faces of January, recognized in England as the best foreign crime novel of 1964 by the British Crime Writers Association. Ostensibly based on the criminal-accomplice alliance between Chester McFarland and Rydal Kenner, their relationship actually begins with Rydal's surprised recognition of Chester's physical resemblance to his recently dead father, an archaeology professor at Harvard. Seeing Chester in this context, Rydal vacillates between relating to Chester himself or to Chester as a shadow of his father with Rydal alternating between his fifteen-year-old self and his current adult stage. The novel is told from the alternating perspectives of the two men filtered through a central consciousness so that their reservations and curiosity about each other are both documented. Meanwhile, the authorial voice is weighing both. This pairing is further complicated by Chester's wife's (Colette) resemblance to Rydal's first love, Agnes, who had accused him of raping her, initiating Rydal's serious conflict with his father. Rydal's attraction to Colette generates his conflict with Chester, the father substitute.
The dual identities which these characters have in Rydal's mind are matched by their multiple aliases, assumed under a variety of circumstances and for different reasons. Chester's phoney stock dealing has led him to use various names in the U.S.; his flight from murder in Greece forces him to purchase two false passports. Colette, deciding at the age of fourteen that she did not like her given name Elizabeth, renamed herself; marriage changes her name again as does flight with Chester. Suspected of murder, Rydal not only obtains a false passport but also poses as an Italian, his fluency in languages allowing him to blend into crowds in Greece, Crete and Paris also.
Similar to their manipulation of names—accurate and false—is the author's and characters' dealing with truth. Rydal has a juvenile criminal record because of Agnes' accusation of rape and an attempted grocery robbery in bitterness and anger at being disbelieved; nonetheless, he is no criminal. Chester McFarland, who has escaped suspicion, owes his income to deception and fraud, his continued freedom to murdering a Greek police officer, and his conflict with Rydal to the killing of his own wife in an attempt to murder Rydal. However, they both protect and expose each other in the police investigation triggered anew by Colette's death; the unspoken and unacknowledged between them keeps each committed to the other. Finally, in his deathbed confession, Chester continues to lie, freeing Rydal from all voluntary participation in either murder or flight to escape arrest.
It is continually clear that Chester's parental resemblance persists in its influence. Chester's protection of him, clearing him of complicity in any of Chester's crimes, demonstrates a faith in Rydal's essential decency and reverses his father's harsher judgment on that same point twelve years earlier. Rydal considers his own behavior, perhaps also reflecting on the past:
He did not by any means emerge a hero, nor did his behavior appear very intelligent, but none of his actions was labelled criminal.
The final note of reconciliation with his past, father, and himself is signaled in Rydal's decision to attend Chester's funeral although he had deliberately bypassed his own father's, because "Chester deserved more than that." In this, Rydal rounds off his adolescence and frees himself to return to the States. As his paternal grandmother's money, willed as a sign of her belief in him, had freed Rydal to escape to Europe, Chester's money, extorted in exchange for silence and freedom, sends Rydal back home.
In himself, Chester McFarland is not an especially interesting character. A petty criminal in terms of his types of crime if not his financial success, his only complexity comes from Rydal's interest in and confusion about him. Before the police official's death, he is friendly and fairly easygoing; he kills almost by accident, shows little remorse or fear and is surprised by his wife's more emotional response. His attempt to murder Rydal comes from male sexual jealousy and possessiveness over Colette and Rydal's mutual attraction; though he fails to eliminate his rival, Chester does break up the flirtation by killing his wife instead. His reaction is proportionally more one of anger at Rydal for having escaped than of sadness or self-directed anger.
On the other hand, Rydal Kenner is a psychologically complex and even confusing character. Throughout the novel, his actions and reactions are based on a mixture of feelings of anger and betrayal at fifteen and his adult attempt to feel reconciled with his father through an intense attraction to and rejection of Chester McFarland. Immediately involved in Chester's criminal activities, the reverse of his relationship with his own stern father who had him sent to reform school, Rydal begins to confuse the two men, superimposing the image of one over the other. No longer the less knowledgeable child, Rydal assists the unprepared McFarlands, through his knowledge of Greece and the language, to obtain false passports and escape notice; this knowledge is ironically the result of his father's disciplined teaching in Rydal's childhood. Rydal's response to Colette's flirtation because she reminds him of his first love offers him the opportunity to justify his adolescent behavior, avenge the rape charge, punish his father for being wrong, and take advantage of Chester. The mutual seduction of young Rydal and Agnes is superseded by the flirtations seduction of Colette; when she changes her mind, Rydal's acceptance of that decision despite his aroused feelings vindicates his former claims of innocence. Because they never slept together, although Rydal taunts Chester with the idea that they did, he is able to manipulate the sexual situation as Agnes had done, hurting the father substitute/husband.
In most of Highsmith's works sexuality correlates with power and possessiveness. Men generally don't like women as people; Charley Bruno merely speaks more openly than most about the opposite sex as a whole rather than a specific individual:
('What significance did it have for you that your victim was female?')… Well, the fact that she was female had given him greater enjoyment. No, he did not therefore conclude that his pleasure had partaken of the sexual. No, he did not hate women either. Rather not! Hate is akin to love, you know … No, all he would say was that he wouldn't have enjoyed it quite so much, he thought, if he had killed a man (Stranger).
This unadmitted hatred is tied to possessiveness in two ways: jealousy and envy. Men wish to possess both women themselves and what women seem to have simultaneously. To do this, it becomes necessary to destroy women physically or psychologically. Chester McFarland insures permanent ownership of his wife through her death and from this he also gains Colette's possession—Rydal Kenner and his fascination. For Rydal, who had never possessed her in either sexual or legal terms, her murder had to be avenged not so much for her loss as for his own.
This stereotyping of male-female relationships as little more than potentially destructive sexual encounters is typical in Highsmith's fiction. Several causes are worth considering: first, she has totally absorbed social attitudes and is unconscious of the anti-woman tone; second, she is acknowledging a mind-set on the part of her readers which is too strongly ingrained to be easily overthrown; third, having challenged the boundaries of her genre in so many other arenas, she is unwilling to force the issue. Certainly not arguable in most cases is the theory that the portraits of women are ironically inverted as critic Tom Paulin notes of Misogyny (and the point is valid elsewhere): "[I]t would be wrong to read these stories as indirectly feminist satires on dependency because the real centre of their inspiration is the delight Patricia Highsmith everywhere shows for the brutal ways in which these unlikely women are first murdered and then 'thrown away as one might throw away a cricket lighter when it is used up.'" Paulin's "everywhere" must, however, be modified, as must any judgment of Highsmith's treatment of women, to acknowledge her 1977 novel Edith's Diary. Even here, however, the revisionist treatment of women is covertly presented.
Not usually considered a suspense novel, Edith's Diary is unique in Highsmith's canon for its female protagonist. The novel is ostensibly the story of a former New York housewife and writer's move to rural Pennsylvania and of the years which follow during which her son drinks, fantasizes and can't hold a job; her husband divorces her and remarries; his invalid uncle finally dies and Edith's favorite great aunt and supporter dies. Throughout, Edith records these events and others which never happened in a large leather-bound diary she has had since college. It is her confidante and her escape. Finally, her friends and ex-husband accuse her of mental instability and an incomplete grasp of reality; trying to disprove them, she is accidentally killed. In fact, the novel is anything but what it appears to be. Unlike her counterparts in other novels, Edith is never acknowledged as a victim nor is her death seen as murder. While no single individual is actually responsible for killing her, Edith dies as a result of society's pressure to conform to a female stereotype urged on her by her ex-husband. As a representative of the larger community, Brett Howland stifles Edith's psychological life and contributes to the circumstances which lead to her physical death.
In Edith's Diary, Highsmith is following in the tradition of nineteenth century women writers who disguised their tales of anger and frustration in the more conventional and acceptable cloak of punishing women for their independent behavior. As recent feminist literary criticism has noted, a pattern of action was developed in which the assertive, strong-willed, intelligent female character suffered one of three inevitable fates: insanity, suicide, or death, as apparently logical outgrowths of and altogether commendable punishment for their behavior. What critics have also noted, however, is the way women writers have used these surface stories to hide their more subversive underlying message. Certainly, Charlotte Bronte and Charlotte Perkins Gilman provide perfect examples of this; Jane Eyre and the nameless narrator-writer of "The Yellow Wallpaper" are Edith Howland's literary ancestors. They write their own stories because they are unable to create their own lives; Edith's diary becomes a novel, like Highsmiuth's, in which the woman writer tells two stories.
The surface story of Edith's growing madness and apparent personality change is told in two ways: by her ex-husband and her friend, Gert Johnson, and through her diary entries. The people who know her become convinced that she is changing, that she is no longer in control of her own sanity. They verify this change by pointing to four specific activities which they cannot understand and do not wish to accept. Edith, they say, has become unusually and excessively argumentative to the point where she is willing to alienate friends and acquaintances; she has become increasingly conservative in her attitudes and proposes more authoritarian institutions in her writings; she has published parodies or fantasies in underground newspapers. Finally, she has refused a $10,000 check from her husband who offers it as part of the estate of his dead uncle. For the casual reader, Edith's diary entries reinforce the charges of instability: she invents a happy, successful marriage and life for her son Cliffie whose amoral and lazy behavior has remained unchanged since his childhood; and, after their divorce, she writes of her ex-husband Brett's death, not his actual remarriage and new family. In emphasizing her happiness and satisfaction, Edith's diary entries seem directly contradictory to her reality in which anger and frustration surface daily over the divorce and having to continue to care for Brett's invalid, incontinent Uncle George while Brett and his new family avoid the daily responsibility and expense.
If this evidence seems weighted against Edith, it rapidly becomes apparent that the submerged story, carefully revealed and concealed, makes a different point. At the novel's opening, Edith is a young married mother. Her husband wants to live in the country which he believes their child needs and deserves. Although Edith agrees to move, she is not sure she accepts Brett's rationale. Apparently happy in their new home, Edith becomes more tied to her family; even the local newspaper they try to start jointly has Brett, the professional, as the final authority. And, although he delegates the responsibility for their son Cliffie, Brett's advice and criticism make it clear that he still wishes to control how she handles the boy. The pattern is continued when his Uncle George comes to live in the extra room which was to have been Edith's study; almost alone, she cares for the selfish old man. Nonetheless, she has some illusions of control over her own life; she believes she participates in the decisions which direct her life. When Brett divorces her, leaving George and Cliffie behind, pressing money and, later psychiatrists on Edith, she begins to recognize how few of the decisions reflected her own choice.
Unable to change the divorce, Cliffie, or George, Edith takes control of her life in two logical ways: her social opinions alter and her diary records a better life. It is certainly plausible that the liberal Edith should gradually become more conservative and even propose stricter, more authoritarian measures in some of her articles. Even as others have controlled her life, she is demanding a place to control also. Having lost power in her own actual world without being aware of it, she gropes for another part of the world where her knowledge, experience, talent or mere presence will offer her some escape from a powerless position. Yet she also continues to write for Shove It, an underground magazine, which accepts a fantasy deliberately more extreme than her actual beliefs, almost as though to demonstrate how varied her opinions are. In this, she seems to believe that by constantly changing the grounds of her argument, by persistently refusing to be forced into any mold, she can avoid the judgment and limitations society—in the pernicious form of family and friends—seeks to impose upon her.
The diary entries, which seem to demonstrate Edith's decline, are actually very carefully introduced, making clear her awareness of the life she is creating for herself in exchange for the one others would like to force on her:
Edith had in the last month decided that Brett should be dead since about three years now. It didn't matter that this conflicted with George's demise and funeral service. Edith was writing her diary for pleasure, and was taking poetic license, as she put it to herself.
While she does not consistently insist on this fictive approach, occasional reminders do surface to alert the aware reader of her deliberate and conscious creation of an alternative reality. Aware that her husband and friend know that she mistrusts their plotting to get her to see a psychiatrist, Edith, nonetheless, tries to placate them—"make a gesture of goodwill!" Offering to show them a piece of her sculpture, she trips carrying it down the stairs, hits her head and dies. While falling she "thought of injustice, felt her personal sense of injustice combined now with the crazy complex injustice of the Vietnam situation…."
Parallels with the Vietnam war are not inappropriate in this covertly feminist novel; at issue is the repeated question of power and superiority. The traditional American male, secure in the knowledge that his point of view is always accurate, saw himself rushing to defend the smaller and weaker nation of Vietnam as he sees himself hurrying chivalrously to assist the weaker sex, all the time despising these "gooks" and "broads." In unconsciously deliberate power plays, he destroys both. Edith's attempt to placate society, to convince it to leave her alone, are the gestures of the subordinate; her failure to achieve even understanding or an independent life is inevitable. The demands she makes challenge the established order's view of itself and threaten the hierarchical arrangement of power and status.
If Strangers on a Train is the model for Highsmith's later work, then The Storyteller presents a paradigmatic overview of her non-series novels. Highsmith must have enjoyed writing this compendium of good and bad murder-detective-suspense tales enormously. In a short story, "The Man Who Wrote Books in his Head," she creates a protagonist who so completely wrote and polished his novels mentally that he felt no need of committing them to paper; even on his deathbed he is able to quote passages accurately, although he has obviously remembered only some of his works. It is certainly true that, with the exception of Walter Stackhouse, all of Highsmith's characters are inventive and imaginative, however, in no other work as compared with The Storyteller do their stories intersect and yet so completely miss the mark since, after all, the murder they describe here never happens.
The victim is Alicia Bartleby whose accidental death actually follows the investigation of her suspected murder. Accused by a neighbor and his partner is Sidney Bartleby, a novelist and television scriptwriter. Complicating Sid's defense is the diary he kept after Alicia's departure for a secret rendezvous with her lover. Wishing to experience guilt in order to use the material in his writing, Sid has fantasized Alicia's murder and recorded the details in his diary. Hoping to clear himself, he tracks his wife; when she later dies, Sid forces her lover to commit suicide, believing him guilty of Alicia's death.
The novel is an unusual one in Highsmith's canon with far less of the overt brooding and dark atmosphere which marks most of her work; it is even more striking for its apparent lack of or interest in violence until the very end. These factors combine to give a misleading surface impression of the story and the author's intentions. Although the work seems more benign, even positive and relatively harmless, it is actually more negative and critical of human inclination to crime and violence than her more blatant murder novels. Couched almost entirely in stories, fantasies, inventions, novels and TV scripts, the substance of the book seems distinct but unthreatening; the characters seem inventive but non-violent. In fact, the very complex and satisfactory quality of their fantasies seems, through eighty percent of the book, to replace the need for action. Insidiously, Highsmith makes the reader laugh, approve, even easily identify with the story-makers, especially Sid; for who has not imagined what he would never wish to do?
Because Sidney and Alicia Bartleby have marital problems, they decide to separate briefly, she deliberately not telling him that she's going to Brighton where she hopes to meet a new lover, Edward Tilbury. A writer with a growing sense of hostility, Sidney has little success selling his ironically named novel The Planners. Having often imagined the details of murdering many people, including his wife, Sidney decides to use Alicia's departure as an opportunity to visualize her dead and himself the murderer. He even keeps a notebook to help him feel like a real criminal, noting actions and reactions as if for a novel: "Sidney thought automatically and as impersonally as if he were thinking about the actions of a character in a story." When the police find the notebook, Sidney explains his view of it: "The narrative—descriptions in the notebook—is not true. You might say the ideas in it are true. I mean, it's not a diary of facts."
Including Sidney's, which is the most elaborate and most imaginative, six different stories intersect throughout this novel, delighting the reader by Highsmith's adroit parallels. The Bartlebys' neighbor, Mrs. Lillybanks, constructs hers around having seen Sid carrying a rolled carpet over his shoulder out of the house at dawn on the day after Alicia had left. Carrying the carpet as though it contained a heavy body, Sid is fantasizing murder; Mrs. Lillybanks suspects him of just that. Sid's partner in writing TV scripts has a much more self-centered version of the story; Alex Polk-Faraday blackmails Sid for a larger share of their joint royalties when the police are investigating. Refused, he tells a version of Alicia's murder story which claims to take seriously his and Sid's joking repartee about wife-murderers. Unlike Mrs. Lillybanks who has cause for suspicion and remains silent, Alex accuses Sid to the police. Meanwhile, Alicia, under an assumed name, and her lover are deliberately hiding out, refusing to respond to police information requests in the newspaper. Alicia's version of events is based on embarrassment at having to admit where she's been and what she's done; the longer she hides, the deeper this difficulty goes. Edward Tilbury, on the other hand, commutes weekly to his office in London where he tells the false story of his weekend whereabouts over several months. Concerned primarily for his reputation, he urges Alicia to respond to the police; she, with the same concern, refuses. Overlying all these inventions is Sid's newest TV character, The Whip:
The Whip would be a criminal character who did something ghastly in every episode…. The audience saw everything through the Whip's eyes, did everything with him, finally plugged for him through thick and thin and hoped the police would fail, which they always did. He wouldn't carry a whip or anything like that, but the nickname would be suggestive of depraved and secret habits…. He has no police record, because he has always been too clever for the police. And he started young, of course. No, that couldn't be conveyed, because The Whip had no intimates with whom he talked. That would be part of the fascination: the audience wouldn't know what was on The Whip's mind until he started doing things.
Sidney thinks about his journal of Alicia's "murder" and episodes of The Whip: the former "gave Sidney a pleasant feeling of both creating something and of being a murderer"; the latter undoubtedly reinforced it.
Eventually Sidney becomes a killer but not as he had expected, nor is Alicia the victim. Instead, he seems to be responsible for Mrs. Lillybanks' heart attack: he believes she may have died from fear of him. He also forces Edward Tilbury to commit suicide, inaccurately suspecting him of having pushed Alicia off a cliff. Neither death is a conventional murder; neither can be attributed to him. Like The Whip, he eludes capture and is more clever than his detractors; he even recognizes that he could safely write the facts of Tilbury's death in his notebook without attracting police suspicion.
Sidney's claim and belief that he is punishing Tilbury is debatable. It seems far more likely that his actions result from sexual jealousy, guilt for suppressed hostility against Alicia, revenge for the difficulties their hiding out cost him and anger for Tilbury's apparently having done, in supposedly murdering Alicia, what Sidney himself is able only to fantasize doing. Finally, moving confidently and aggressively against Tilbury, he is able to become his own character, to create himself.
Rootless or dissatisfied, Highsmith's characters often need, like Sidney Bartleby, to create themselves. In one of two ways, Highsmith defines this self-creation or re-creation through the concept of dualities which regularly appears in her novels. First, two characters are bonded together in a love-hate relationship as one tries to absorb the essential qualities of the other so that the two seem as one. Charley Bruno does this with Guy Haines in Stranger, leading both of them to murder and rejection; Walter Stackhouse imposes himself on Melchior Kimmel with both success and failure. Otherwise, a single character, equally unsettled about his own nature and personality, divides into two, becoming both what he was and what he hopes to be. Colette McFarland (January) changed her name as a teenager to feel like a different person; Edith Howland writes a second self. In This Sweet Sickness, David Kelsey functions normally in his work world while simultaneously constructing a fantasy-marriage, decorating a home and having conversations with his imaginary bride. With unsatisfying self-images, these characters require an alternative mirror to the one which reflects reality. They remake the world to conform to their needs, even if that leads to murder and violence.
In certain ways, they would all like to emulate Sidney's creation, The Whip. Defined in a phrase—"The Whip acts"—this character serves as a standard against which all Highsmith's characters measure themselves. The reader feels much like the projected TV audience; in the latter case motivation is unknown because The Whip shares none of his thoughts with friends. In the novels, psychological and emotional attitudes are presented and analyzed but no conclusion is ever clearly and incontrovertibly reached. Characters often seem to act and especially to kill, for reasons other than those articulated by the text. If The Whip is a model of the unknowable killer-of-action, then his direct and mirror images among Highsmith's protagonists are like him in the acting and unlike him in being as unknown to themselves as to their audiences. Too few see themselves clearly; their self-images are informed by fantasy and desire.
Highsmith's only series character, Tom Ripley, appears in four novels published between 1955 and 1980: The Talented Mr. Ripley, which won both the Mystery Writers of America Scroll and the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, Ripley under Ground, Ripley's Game and The Boy Who Followed Ripley. Because even the first novel is based more on character alone than on the combination of character development within a self-ending plot and because Tom himself is likeable despite his criminal actions, the Ripley character is one of the few Highsmith creations who can continue. He bears some resemblance to Rydal Kenner in The Two Faces of January; in fact, both Ripley and the young man he befriends in The Boy Who Followed Ripley are like Rydal in their attempts to escape and yet understand the past, to know themselves and comprehend their own often implausible actions. The Ripley novels are also made more interesting in having the usual traits of a series: the recurring cast of supporting characters including his wife, housekeeper, criminal associates and even his first murder victim, Dickie Greenleaf; familiar and new aspects of the protagonist are developed as former episodes and established traits are woven into each additional novel—music, art, the American-in-Europe character. Tom Ripley remains recognizably familiar yet develops interesting aspects as he matures.
The young Tom Ripley introduced in The Talented Mr. Ripley, is gauche, uncertain and not quite immoral or guiltless; he has a strong sense of inferiority and an intense desire to change his lifestyle and himself. Several typical patterns are established here and continue with slight variations in the subsequent novels: the mixture of sympathy and justification Tom feels, his desire to get and then protect exactly what he wants and feels he deserves, his isolation which is not loneliness, and his willingness to kill. The last is the least interesting in itself. The reader's real fascination with Ripley comes from the mixture of all his other tendencies with that one, from questions about the absence of guilt and of any ordinary pangs of conscience.
At the novel's opening, Ripley is reasonably worried about being followed from one bar to another by a stranger since he has been operating an IRS scam. Although the potential difficulty works out well, in accord with Tom's philosophy that "something always turned up," the Ripley status and attitude are established. First, he has cause to be always on guard; secondly, he manages to escape detection. The meeting he has with Dickie Greenleaf's father and the subsequent commission to convince his distant acquaintance, Dickie, to return home from Europe give Tom what he hopes will be an opportunity for a new life. He dwells on his rejection, deprivation, modest and unfulfilled childhood desires and hopes to succeed. Like Lambert Strether in Henry James' The Ambassadors, Tom fails completely in his assignment, the results satisfying him and disappointing his employer. Ironically, this "job" does lead him to a new life, but not as he had anticipated—he does not become the smart, well dressed, clever and successful American in Europe.
Perhaps the results of his trip ought to have been apparent from his interview: he lies to the Greenleafs about how well he knows their son, his education, his former jobs and tells them the truth only about having been orphaned and raised by an aunt. Yet, "he had felt uncomfortable, unreal, the way he might have felt if he had been lying, yet it had been practically the only thing he had said that was true." Feeling rejected by Dickie and his girlfriend and also by Mr. Greenleaf's businesslike letters when he cannot convince Dickie to return home, Tom assuages his genuinely hurt feelings by imitating Dickie, wearing his clothes and mimicking his voice. Caught at it, he is embarrassed and his hurt, angry feelings grow:
He hated Dickie, because however he looked at what had happened, his failing had not been his own fault, not due to anything he had done but to Dickie's inhuman stubbornness. And his blatant rudeness! He had offered Dickie friendship, companionship, and respect, everything he had to offer, and Dickie had replied with ingratitude and now hostility. Dickie was just shoving him out in the cold.
For this, he feels justified in murdering Dickie.
Although Tom occasionally, and once in particular, regrets having killed Dickie and wishes he could change what had happened, he is more often pleased with his cleverness in evading discovery by Dickie's friends and family or the police, in masquerading successfully as Dickie and in forging a will making himself Dickie's heir. It is this last success which finally frees Tom from his early awkwardness, feeling of inferiority and needing the world to approve of him; it gratifies his desire for luxury, importance, self-justification and getting away with something.
When he reappears in Ripley under Ground, Tom has married the daughter of a wealthy businessman and provided himself with an income by participating in an art fraud where forgeries are passed off as the work of a reclusive painter who actually has committed suicide. Disguise is again an important motif as Tom impersonates the painter Derwatt as he impersonated Dickie Greenleaf. Determined again to protect his possessions, he poses successfully and kills where necessary. In this novel, Ripley's material acquisitions and personal taste form an important part of the development of his character; the opportunity to create himself and his life has been used in ways which satisfy him:
Tom loved his leisure, however, as only an American could, he thought—once an American got the hang of it, and so few did. It was not a thing he cared to put into words to anyone. He had longed for leisure and a bit of luxury when he had met Dickie Greenleaf, and now that he had attained it, the charm had not palled.
As well as any other example in the novel, this clarifies his state of mind. He is complacent and self-satisfied, almost a bit smug and superior about others who can not achieve as he has; while the stated goal is appreciation, the means to it was murder—which presumably others could also not handle. He demonstrates no pangs of conscience or remorse; his pleasure is not dimmed by the memory of how it was obtained. Like Sid Bartleby, David Kelsey, and Edith Howland, he has assumed another identity in which his actions are reasonable and logical, his rewards deserved and justified.
The three legal and ordinary pleasures which he enjoys are introduced here and developed in subsequent novels: gardening, music and art. His illegally obtained incomes help him build a greenhouse, purchase a harpsichord and collect fine paintings, both real and forged. Music especially becomes a leitmotif as Ripley uses different types or even individual pieces in varying circumstances to alter or improve his mood. Preparing to impersonate the painter Derwatt, he sends his colleague out to purchase a copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream to inspire him. Jazz, on the other hand, does nothing for him in crucial moments—"only classical music did something … because it had order, and one either accepted that order or rejected it." After a successful shootout with the Mafia and destruction of the bodies, he discusses Bach with his dazed companion, describing the composer's work as instantly civilizing.
Because he is not so frantic for acceptance or affection as he had been with Dickie Greenleaf and because he is now more mature about his role in relationships, Tom can be more introspective about his marriage. Neither sex nor his wife Heloise's family money concern Tom as much as their shared disrespectful partnership, their ability to laugh together at conventional attitudes, their similar though not equal amorality. However, no matter how important she is to him and how much confidence he has in her, he does not tell her what he does or where his money comes from, although she suspects both. Even in lovemaking he preserves a certain separation which might be "shyness or puritanism … or some fear of (mentally) giving himself completely" but may also be a positive pleasure experienced from the "inanimate, unreal, from a body without an identity." And yet, humanly contradictory, he does not want to be rejected, salving his ego when people who've heard rumors about his reputation withdraw by the knowledge that most people really liked him when they got to know him better in his own home where he has created an ambiance of culture, taste and friendliness which charms them. The reader shares his neighbors' vacillating judgments of Tom, subtly drawn to like him despite distaste and revulsion for his actions by Highsmith's refusal to relinquish these contradictions in his portrait.
Ripley's contradictions certainly extend to his crimes and murders: while he gives the impression of being willing to bypass violence and additional crime so long as he can protect his safety and income, he also kills without squeamishness or regret and commits minor crimes virtually without thinking about them except when the arrangements inconvenience him. There is a strange quirk of logic in all but the first novel which allows his actions to seem finally justifiable. The cruelest of Ripley's actions is no crime at all: because cancer victim Jonathan Trevanny had, Tom thought, sneered at him, Ripley begins a cruel game in Ripley's Game to drag the cancer victim into a scheme to murder two Mafia men. He wants to "make Jonathan Trevanny who Tom sensed was priggish and self righteous, uneasy for a time." Ripley succeeds, but Trevanny, who kills one Mafia man alone and three more in Ripley's company, becomes estranged from his wife and child, confused and guilty and finally dies in another Shootout. Although Tom recognizes the role of his own curiosity and later tries to help Trevanny accomplish the murders and make peace with his wife, the casual manner in which he sets all this trauma in motion and his suggestion that medical records be falsified to prod Trevanny to further action are thoughtlessly and needlessly callous. In the end, Ripley can even feel virtuous because the victims were Mafia—"there were people more dishonest, more corrupt, decidedly more ruthless than himself"—and because Trevanny's wife, having not helped the police, seems as corrupt as "much of the rest of the world."
Mixed motives regularly dog Ripley's decisions. To protect the Derwatt forgery schemes, he believes that he would "lay my soul bare, show him the poems I've written to Heloise, take my clothes off and do a sword dance…." (Ripley under Ground): instead, he murders. Death and deception are justified in the name of Bernard Tufts, Derwatt's close friend, admirer, and forger whose conscience drives him toward suicide. Telling himself that he's going to help Tufts, Ripley half consciously urges him toward death, making Tufts doubt his vision and sanity. With this death, two of Ripley's problems seem solved: Tufts cannot now reveal the forgery scheme and his burned corpse can be falsely identified as Derwatt. Though he thinks he might have preferred another outcome, Tom knows he consciously worked the situation out as he really wanted. Even Ripley's apparently generous offer to help runaway Frank Pierson in The Boy Who Followed Ripley return to his family and reject his own feelings of guilt at having pushed his crippled father off a cliff is motivated, in part, by Tom's seeing himself in the boy and wanting to recreate and thus justify his own behavior. How far apart the two are is registered in Tom's attitude about guilt:
How was Frank ever going to achieve the big justification, which would take away all his guilt? He might never find a total justification, but he had to find an attitude. Every mistake in life, Tom thought, had to be met by an attitude, either the right attitude or the wrong one, a constructive or self-destructive attitude. What was tragedy for one man was not for another, if he could assume the right attitude toward it. Frank felt guilt, which was why he had looked up Tom Ripley, curiously Tom had never felt such guilt, never let it seriously trouble him. In this, Tom realized that he was odd. Most people would have experienced insomnia, bad dreams, especially after committing a murder such as that of Dickie Greenleaf, but Tom had not (Boy).
Yet, in taking Frank to Berlin, giving him time to plan, rescuing him from kidnappers and flying home to the States with him, Ripley shows understanding and compassion which almost no one else could. However, his inability to understand Frank's guilt and need for personal salvation eventually contribute to the boy's suicide. Tom's sympathy and recognition of his failure to comprehend leave him as vulnerable as he had been with Dickie Greenleaf's rejection and no more certain how to cope with it.
Tom's guiltlessness and apparent inability to comprehend guilt feelings in others are among the strongest impressions a reader receives from the Ripley series. In the four books Tom participates in over a dozen murders, three extended fraudulent schemes, four major betrayals of trust and dozens of minor crimes. Only infrequently and briefly is he ever even willing to consider the morality of his decisions or the ethical nature of his behavior. Highsmith's conception of the criminal-hero as a superior person (expressed in Plotting) is manifest in Tom Ripley's creation of himself. Once he has justified, however briefly and inadequately, lying to Dickie Greenleaf's father in order to secure the trip to Europe, he recreates himself. Rejecting his unpleasant childhood, all the memories and all the lessons learned in it, he becomes a new-born. His schooling both on the ship and in Italy convince Tom of the futility of moral behavior. Not immoral but thoroughly amoral, he accepts no standards of judgment which would undermine his new status and freedom. In the clear-cut contrast between himself and Frank Pierson, Tom is genuinely bewildered. Intellectually, he knows that some people feel guilty; he takes advantage of this in dealing with them. Emotionally, he no longer comprehends the feeling. Self-serving and self-protective, Tom recognizes that to atone himself to guilt would inhibit his financial and criminal success; so he perseveres in his chosen ignorance of guilt and rejects circumstances which would force the sensation upon him.
Because Tom Ripley, like few other Highsmith protagonists, is a calculating criminal whose behavior is both conscious and deliberate, he poses a dilemma for the reader. On the one side, his actions and their consequences are vicious and destructive; he can be neither enjoyed nor admired in that light. On the other, his motivations and choices are clearly and logically debated; there is a certain fascination to the way his mind works which can intrigue and attract a reader who is simultaneously repulsed. Tom's criminality seems to fit him; it is a part of his everyday life. Side by side in his living room hang two "Derwatt" paintings, one real and the other—"in the place of honor"—forged. He recognizes his preference for the forgery despite his judgment that the other is better art. This image may also represent his life where ordinary activities stand next to criminal ones, the latter usurping the primary place in his life. For the reader, the disconcerting blend of real and ordinary with forgery and crime may discompose; but, at least here, readers understand how Tom operates and where his priorities intersect.
Having considered the extraordinary talent and vitality which Highsmith brings to the genre, as well as the innovations and expansions she uses to extend its limits, the conclusion to this essay is an appropriate place to speculate on her reception by readers. Julian Symons, who admires her work, calling her "the most important crime novelist at present in practice," also recounts an anecdote about mystery publisher and fan Victor Gollancz regarding Highsmith's novels. Having read The Two Faces of January, Gollancz declined to read her works further. Symons wryly remarks that Highsmith is an acquired taste which some never manage. It is possible to analyze, admire and value her contributions to fiction without having acquired the taste and, even, without particularly wishing to read her next published work. While admiration and pleasure need not always go hand-in-hand, some consideration of the divergent feelings her work provokes illuminates her intention.
In establishing the novels' frameworks, atmospheres and, often, characters, Highsmith seems to be providing a realistic perspective. Details are sharp and accurate; settings are reliable, characters behave in ways observable in society at large. While readers of classical puzzle-mysteries look for an intellectual challenge and fans of the hard-boiled expect psychological truth and action, no reader of crime or mystery fiction anticipates deliberate violations of realism. In such circumstances, puzzles cannot be solved or criminals' moves anticipated. Nonetheless, Highsmith violates this convention; unbelievable details, actions, psychology or motives sit side-by-side with realistic elements. If the readers were merely confused, disoriented, or annoyed by these juxtapositions, the novels could be rejected as failures. However, although these reactions are shared by Highsmith's audience, this response must be separate from the judgments. Perhaps one of Highsmith's great strengths is in making readers nervous and uncomfortable with her talent.
Chief among Highsmith's deviations is her presentation of psychological motivation. The characters seem so much like known and understood people in the everyday world that their decisions to kill are unanticipated, unpredicted and baffling. Because the murderers are such ordinary people, the readers initially identify and empathize with them. Highsmith uses the narrators' varieties of omniscience to create sympathy for the protagonist; she manipulates readers to like her characters and understand their lives and feelings. She draws her readers into recognizing themselves in most of the characters' action and behavior. Then a character murders; the readers are faced with accepting Guy Haines' discovery that anyone has the capacity for killing given the right circumstances. Rejecting this idea, which would force them to see themselves as potential murders, the readers attempt to retrace the character's psychological state, mental attitude and reasoning patterns which led to the decision to kill. Frequently, there are none; or, more accurately, none really matter. Only the intersection of victim, killer and circumstances make this occasion different from others. The crime-solution game of conventional detective novels becomes a new kind of psychological scavenger hunt in which all the clues either mislead or direct the readers to vacant lots. Without the explanations which allow the readers a comfortable place from which to contrast themselves and the murderer, their avoidance mechanisms are employed for self-protection. They become irritated with the character, seeing ways in which circumstances could have been avoided, loopholes sought and danger eluded. In this process of criticism and distancing, readers often confuse their dislike for the characters and discomfort with the criminal activity for a valid critique of the novel and its author.
In challenging the readers' self-image of safe innocence and protective, benign behavior, Highsmith risks alienating her audience. Her canon of twenty-two crime books indicates more clearly than any single evaluation how willing she is to take such risks. Her characters are too much like and yet too unlike her audience to be attractive and appealing; their behavior is too close to the dark ruthlessly hidden side of human personality; their actions, however, much they may correspond with readers' fantasies, are too disruptive to be allowed. In showing us ourselves, Highsmith takes the elements of her given genre and creates a sharp, new fictional form.
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