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The Mystery of Patricia Highsmith’s Diaries

What made her so interested in cold-blooded, apparently motiveless killers?

A curious habit of euphemism governs our way of talking about that genre of novel which has mainly to do with killing people. Mystery and crime: So libraries and bookstores advertise the relevant section of their shelves. But life abounds with mysteries; very few of them have to do with the true authorship of gruesome murders. Detective fiction supplies another common designation for novels and short stories about homicide, but, again, detectives also have plenty of other crimes to investigate—not to mention that cops and private dicks haven’t been the automatic protagonists of such fiction for 75 years or so. The main character of Dorothy B. Hughes’s great study of misogyny, In a Lonely Place, from 1947, is the self-justifying serial killer himself; and The Expendable Man, a 1963 novel by the same pioneering writer, focuses on a young Black doctor wrongly suspected of tossing the body of a white teenager into a canal.

Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941–1995
by Patricia Highsmith, edited by Anna von Planta
Liveright, 1,024 pp., $39.95

Suspense fiction was Patricia Highsmith’s term for her own novels of guilty or innocent men, in which detectives merely figure as foils, if at all. Highsmith explained that she used the term suspense fiction “in the way the book trade uses it,” to refer to “stories with a threat of violent physical action and danger.” Despite this evasive phrasing—notable in a writer otherwise unafraid to shock or outrage readers—in Highsmith’s work, too, we are dealing not really with novels of all-purpose suspense or multifarious detection, of generic mystery or overall crime, but with what might more honestly be called murder fiction, given that these books, like others in the same department of the library or bookstore, are obsessively concerned with one specific and terrible kind of violence, namely the killing of one person by another. Why do we refuse to describe murder fiction—which is, after all, one of the principal genres of modern literature—as what it is? No doubt the customary euphemisms help to spare connoisseurs (like myself) from having to explain our endless appetite for imaginary killing to others, or ourselves. The fascination of murder evidently goes without saying. But, in doing so, what does it say?

The question of what accounts for the peculiar fascination and allure of murder is not answered so much as exacerbated by the 21 novels Highsmith wrote under her own name. (She also published a lesbian romance, The Price of Salt, in 1952, under the pen name Claire Morgan, the one novel of hers without a corpse in it; she didn’t publicly acknowledge the book’s maternity, as it were, until 1990, when it was republished, now called Carol, under her own name.) Highsmith’s distinctiveness as a writer of murder fiction has a lot to do with her rigorous exclusion from her novels and short stories of any of the analysis, on the part of the author, or introspection, on the part of her characters, that might explain the relentless preoccupation with killing.

Highsmith left few clues to the origins of this obsessive theme in her Diaries and Notebooks, covering the years from 1941 (when she was still an undergraduate at Barnard) to 1995 (the year of her death), and published for the first time this year. The Diaries instead record her exultation upon realizing the kind of murder-minded writer that she is. As she writes in October 1954, in the midst of drafting what will become the first of five novels about the unrepentant and unreflective killer who is her most famous character, “What I predicted I would once do, I am doing already in this very book (Tom Ripley), that is, showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too.” Elsewhere, she confirms her choice of theme with similar conviction: “To hell with reader identification in the usual sense, or a sympathetic character.” But this is to revel in her path, not to account for why she took it.

For Highsmith and her homicidal men—none of the main characters of her novels, outside of Carol and Edith’s Diary, is a woman—the attraction of murder is simply a given.* The explicit appeal of the deed, prior to its commission, consists, at most, of its convenience: It gets a frustrating person out of the way. And then, after the fact, murder (or the appearance that you have committed one) becomes, more troublingly, an inconvenience, in that it presents all sorts of annoying practical problems: disposal of evidence, maintenance of an alibi, et cetera. The scandal of Highsmith’s murder fiction is that her murderers and would-be murderers are not themselves the least bit scandalized by murdering people, and regard it as merely a hassle. They appear no more troubled in their conscience than someone changing a tire or rebooking a flight.

In Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, published in 1950 when she was in her late twenties, this was not yet the case. A devotee of Dostoyevsky, with his philosophizing villains and his persistent theme of the double (the main character being pursued by a sort of troubled mirror of an alter ego), Highsmith concocted a philosophical suspense story in which dissimilar men who meet by chance are united by trading murders: Bruno the drunk will get rid of Guy the architect’s nettlesome wife, and respectable Guy get rid of debauched Bruno’s stingy father, without anyone being the wiser, because neither killer would possess any apparent motive for his act. What is uncharacteristic for Highsmith about this narrative arrangement is not the frigid romance of male malefactors who, in spite of appearances, perceive each other as kindred spirits; many of her later plots consist of similarly bloody masculine pas de deux. The anomaly is the explicit psychology of remorse attached to Guy (“Society’s law was lax compared to the law of conscience,” he reflects) and the speculative metaphysics of crime in which Highsmith indulges: “All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it, the male the female, the positive the negative ... And Bruno,” Guy thinks, “he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.” Ultimately, Guy is fingered for his crime because a detective eavesdrops on his conscience-stricken confession.

Highsmith’s mature work is marked by the absence of such psychology and introspection, such philosophy and speculation. The nightmarish quality of her novels derives in large part from the nature of her plots as pure situation; here are desperate predicaments deprived of either the mitigations of conscience or the consolations of philosophy. The remainder is simply trouble and fear. Much of the trouble, in fact, stems from the impossibility of the (anti)hero explaining what he has done—an impossibility Highsmith reproduces by foregoing any psychological explanation for his deed. In the case of the most notorious of her genuine murderers, the suave serial killer and parvenu Tom Ripley, made a rich man through his receipt of the inheritance of his first victim, for him to explain his acts is impossible for the unimprovable reason that he couldn’t confess without opening himself up to prosecution. But many of Highsmith’s characters are not straightforward killers, in the way of her famous and talented Mr. Ripley. The impossibility of her characters’ explaining themselves—silently mimicked, again, by Highsmith’s refusal to give an account of these men’s deep motivation and true feelings—just as often concerns circumstances in which her protagonist looks guilty of murder, but isn’t, exactly.

How to explain, in other words, that a newspaper article about another man’s crime has led you to contemplate following the bus on which your detested wife is a passenger to a certain rest stop, and shoving her off a nearby cliff, only to discover that your obnoxious, suicidal wife has of her own accord leaped to her death in the very same spot (The Blunderer, 1954)? Or: how to explain that when confronted by the husband of the woman with whom you’re obsessed, after he’s tracked you down to the house that you’ve set up, under a different name, for future cohabitation with this woman, you shoved him on the pathway, without meaning to kill him, and he split his head when he fell, and now the police are looking for a murderous homeowner with a fictitious name (This Sweet Sickness, 1960)? It is similarly impossible to explain to anyone that you met your girlfriend when she discovered you were the Peeping Tom outside her window, and that now her previous beau has gone missing after he provoked a fistfight with you, the prowler, and may have slipped into a raging river (The Cry of the Owl, 1962). And good luck explaining, when your partner visits you in Tunisia, that you fear that the local man who has disappeared may be the same person at whose head you threw your typewriter, one night, when there appeared to be an intruder in your cabana, but you’re really not sure (The Tremor of Forgery, 1969).

For every one of Tom Ripley’s nonchalant murders, there exists, in Highsmith’s work, another, more ambiguous act, in which homicidal intent is only apparent, not actual. And it is part of the beguiling perversity of her work that, while Tom Ripley goes scot-free and gets to live in a stately French chateau, her more innocent blunderers—guilty in their thoughts, but not their deeds—almost invariably pay for the crimes they have entertained or rehearsed but not committed. In her work, impunity generally corresponds to real murder; real punishment, on the other hand, is meted out to stifled malice. It’s as if crime were finally a matter of wrong appearances rather than bad acts, and no jury might be empaneled to whom you could testify that the guilty swervings of the heart are not the same as the fatal actions of the hand. The feeling of hopeless perdition in Highsmith—the entrancing mood of the irretrievability of all happiness, of permanent damnation by way of petty complication—comes from the sensation that her characters couldn’t explain themselves if they wanted to, and that their creator refuses to do so on their behalf. They are utterly, absolutely, on their own.

The publication of a document like Highsmith’s Diaries and Notebooks would be an event in the case of any major writer. It provokes a special interest in Highsmith’s case, because it is in the nature of diaries and cahiers to engage in precisely the psychological and philosophical reflection, the confession and self-scrutiny, that she systematically excludes from the pages of her fiction and denies her characters. The result of such a revelation, however, is less to clear up than to deepen the mystery of this writer of “mystery novels.”

Highsmith was born in 1921, in Fort Worth, Texas (also the home state of her first homicidal hero, Guy Haines, from Strangers on a Train), as Mary Patricia Plangman. Her parents had divorced before she was born, and she acquired the last name by which we know her in 1924, when her mother, a commercial illustrator, married a graphic designer by the name of Stanley Highsmith. Many of her characters are likewise professional or amateur visual artists of some kind (if not architects or engineers, who must also produce drawings to earn a living), just as Highsmith herself painted and sketched throughout her life. And it is tempting to suppose that in her fiction she adopted something of the anti-introspective mode of visual art, according to which figures can be seen, but not seen into. (No doubt the absence of deep interiority in Highsmith is much of what has lent her novels to successful film adaptation.) Nor should the commercial nature of her parents’ art be ignored, as a possible source of identification. At times, Highsmith implies that she writes murder fiction mainly because such books have a reliable market. In her nonfiction manual, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966), she suggests that “most of Dostoyevsky’s books would be called suspense books, were they being published today,” but that he would be asked to cut his “profound thoughts” in consideration of “production costs.”

Something like the fundamental dynamic of Highsmith’s life and work is established early on in the Diaries and Notebooks. (The distinction, meanwhile, is her own: A diary is for recording the events of one’s life; a notebook is for setting down ideas that might prove useful in one’s fiction.) The insistent theme of her life in these diaries is the hypothetical possibility, and practical elusiveness, of lasting sexual love between her and another woman—how “human beings,” as she writes in 1942, “could make a paradise with their own love if they but knew how.” (Twenty years later, she is still meditating fruitlessly on “my ideal, to live with the person I love.”) From a literary standpoint, alas, the preoccupation with love leads nowhere, since “I don’t care to start first on a lesbian novel.” A few weeks later, Highsmith, aged 21, records in her notebooks what will be the overriding concern of her fiction: “My very first story was ‘Crime Begins.’ I tend to that and do suspense well. The morbid, the cruel, the abnormal fascinates me.” The next half-century of her life, by her own cumulative account, consists of a pair of parallel developments: on the one hand, a series of dramatic love affairs with other women, each embarked on with adolescent fervor, and none of them enduring; and, on the other hand, a series of murder novels, all of them written from the point of view of men, which supply her with income and purpose. The two processes rarely intersect, unless a lover complains about the noise Highsmith’s typewriter makes in the morning. At such times, she considers that it may be better to spend her life alone.

What was the deeper relationship between Highsmith’s love life and her suspense fiction? The sole directly homicidal impulse to which she confesses has to do with a girlhood wish to do away with her stepfather (with whom she later got along better than she did with her mother). As for the closest pragmatic approach to murder, it involves her lover Ellen Hill, who in 1953 attempted to terminate their affaire maudite in Highsmith’s presence by swallowing sleeping pills. Coolly, Highsmith left Hill alone in her apartment, and went out to spend the evening with friends: “I did not get home until 2 A.M. & found Ellen in a coma.” Hill recovered after several days in the hospital. In her diary, Highsmith complains of Hill’s “magnificent talent for saying the harsh, the inhuman, the unhumanitarian, hence the cruel, excoriating phrase at exactly the moments when it hurts.” As Anna von Planta, the exemplary editor of Highsmith’s Diaries and Notebooks, observes, the relentlessly grousing wife in Highsmith’s third novel, The Blunderer, who has unsuccessfully attempted suicide and whom the main character thinks of killing himself, “bears an uncanny resemblance to Ellen.”

Elsewhere, however, the imagined murderee to Highsmith’s imaginary murderer, seems, in her journals, to be no less than God himself: “My Dear God, ... one day I shall take you by the throat and tear the windpipe and the arteries out, though I go to hell for it. I have known heaven. Have you the courage to show me hell?” This fury against God or the universe appears somehow connected to his, or its, denying Highsmith the heaven of lasting sexual love. The next entry, less than two weeks later, describes “The trust in the eyes of a girl who loves you. It is the most beautiful thing in the world... It can make the coward brave. It is his shield against all his enemies. It is the source of his energies and of his courage.” Here, as in many other passages, Highsmith casually refers to herself with male pronouns. Her public explanation for the use of male protagonists in her fiction was that men possessed more opportunities for action, presumably including murder, than did women, whom society required to be comparatively passive. But in her diaries something more personal seems at stake: “Said that if I were a man (so many of my fantasies begin that way: If I were a man—), I would venture to marry her,” she writes in 1948, about another lover. The journals and diaries do a great deal to establish the following chain of associative equivalence: The longing for love equals Highsmith, Highsmith equals men, men equal murder, murder equals the destruction of (lesbian) love. Some knot of mortal frustration is thereby diagrammed, again and again, across a lifetime, but not in any way untied.

The most plausible psychological interpretation for the preoccupation with murder in Highsmith’s work might see killing as a sort of allegory of serial monogamy. “Is it not violence, of one sort or another, that ends all homosexual relationships?” In killing someone, as in breaking up with them, you get rid of a person who has afflicted you; the trouble is that—in killing someone, as in breaking up—elimination of the loved one ensures they will haunt you forever. So it is that severance of the bond between two people establishes their perpetual union. Highsmith seems to have believed that her lesbianism granted her special insights into the hearts of men: “The homosexual is a higher type of man than other men,” she writes to herself in 1948. “Inevitably, he partakes less of the physical and biologic forces for his passions... Is his sexual love not entirely within the highest faculty of humans, the imagination? And danger, uncertainty, incompleteness, an imposed and loathed philosophy of transience [this appears to refer to the difficulty for gay people of settling down, and the impossibility of their marrying, at the time] ...makes him philosophically and artistically productive.”

But to link Highsmith’s real-life disposition to her female lovers to the fictional activities of her homicidal male protagonists would be to engage in exactly the sort of psychological speculation that she rejected in her novels. In her journal from 1961, she writes: “The eternal, unanswerable questions, the efforts to solve the mystery and the intent repeat themselves through the centuries ... Psychology and psychiatry, the new sciences, are peculiar in that dealing with the mind ... they have not brought us closer to the solving of this mystery.” She had also enunciated her rejection of psychology as a device of the novelist eight years earlier: “The psychoanalysts have torn open his soul, everyone has taken a look, and no one is any longer interested in the little gemlike gallstones the writer may pull out of himself.” An intensely private woman, who ultimately chose to expatriate herself to France and then Switzerland and live alone with her cats, Highsmith kept her psychological gems and philosophical gallstones to herself. And she stripped them from her work, too, leaving behind a shelf of psychological thrillers that withhold from harrowing situations the balm of any psychological reflection. None of her books is truly a “mystery novel” in the ordinary sense, since the reader is never in doubt as to who did, or didn’t, do what to whom. Her great contribution to the mystery genre turns out to be nothing else than her diaries and journals. Even these pages conceal with one hand what they display with another: “It is curious that in the most interesting periods of one’s life, one never writes one’s diary.”

* This article originally misstated that Carol was the only Highsmith novel with a woman as the main character.