“Honestly, I don't understand why people get so worked up about a little murder!”
― Patricia Highsmith, Ripley Under Ground
Among the writers of crime novels and offbeat thrillers, few writers have managed to be as enduring in appeal among readers and critics alike as Patricia Highsmith, whose startlingly original creations includes one of the most singularly charming killers in all of fiction.
American novelist and short story writer Highsmith (1921-1995) was born in Fort Worth, Texas, ten days after her parents divorced. Her mother remarried a few years later and the new family moved to New York City, where Highsmith grew up, although most of her adult life was spent in France and Switzerland. She learned to read at age two, and at eight developed an interest in psychological disorders after reading Karl Menninger's The Human Mind, which is reflected in many of her characters, who tend to be amoral, sexually ambiguous, impulsively violent and unstable.
Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, became the first of dozens of film adaptations of Highsmith's work. Alfred Hitchcock annoyed the notoriously difficult and reclusive author when he paid just $7500.00 for the film rights by hiding his identity in the negotiations (see the movie trailer below).
Highsmith went on to write her Tom Ripley crime series, beginning with The Talented Mr. Ripley. Orphaned at a young age and raised by his cold aunt, Tom moves to New York at age 20 and is hired by an acquaintance's father to bring his son back from Europe to join the family business. Instead, the dapper Ripley becomes enamored with the glamorous and self-indulgent lifestyle of his friend, who eventually spurns his friendship, with drastic results.
The four sequels, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water follow Tom's increasingly sophisticated ventures, up to the point when he is living in a small French village with his wealthy socialite wife, Helene, who turns a blind eye to his criminal activities. Although Ripley (played on film by actors ranging from Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich to Alain Delon and Matt Damon) is often described as amoral and sociopathic, Highsmith herself did not consider her character to be either; he only murdered out of self-preservation and was always polite. Tom Ripley was named one of the top 100 fictional characters since 1990 by Book Magazine.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (2000)
The American Friend (2002)
The Cry of the Owl (2010)
Ripley's Game (2004)
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar (2009)
Lisa, love Patricia Highsmith -- love Mr. Ripley! Great article, thanks!
I am excited to read some of her stories!!! :D
Lisa, thank you so much for this note, the picture is amazing. I'll only add that she spent the last 14 years of her life here in Switzerland, in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. It's interesting to note that only one story features this region, while I believe she did study Italian for some time while she was here.
International students Switzerland
Antoine from Lausanne, Switzerland
I am delighted that someone in Switzerland shares my admiration for Highsmith's work! I do wonder what sort of impression she left on the people of Ticino, though, since I suspect she was rather difficult...