Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith (January 19, 1921 – February 4, 1995) was an American writer known for novels and short stories best described as psychological thrillers with elements of crime. Born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth Texas, her parents divorced just days before her birth. She acquired the name Highsmith when her mother remarried a few years later.

By age eight she was reading studies of mental illness and, finding them fascinating. Evidently, she tucked away what she learned for later use in her writing.

Highsmith received her education from Barnard College in New York City, where she majored in English, focusing on playwriting and composition. For some years after graduating, she worked as a scriptwriter for coming books, first as a job, then freelance, which left her enough time to work on her personal writing. She burst on the scene with a bang when her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was published in 1950, followed just a year later by the 1951 film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock. With that, her reputation was secured. Her prolific output was dominated by thrillers that didn’t shy away from the dark places of the human psyche. 

Sociopaths and murderers populate Highsmith’s most enduring works, which, in addition to the aforementioned Strangers on a Train, include the “Ripliad” — five novels featuring Tom Ripley, starting with The Talented Mr. Ripley. Several film adaptations emerged from that series, the most successful of which was the 1999 film of the same name starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. Fascinated by the criminal mind, she specialized in creating morally corrupt characters who often managed to escape punishment. “Is there anything more artificial and boring than justice?” she pondered.

Patricia HighsmithHighsmith was bisexual; her relationships with both men and women never lasted more than a few years. She was an alcoholic, sometimes cruel to her intimates, though plenty of people found her engaging and fascinating. Often described as a misanthrope who preferred animals to people, she was known to say, “My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.”

Early in her career, Highsmith took a hiatus from criminals and murderers to write The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. It was first time a published book about a lesbian love affair didn’t end in tragedy — quite a breakthrough for its time. The book sold nearly a million copies. Many decades after its publication, the novel has been adapted for the screen (the 2015 film version is titled Carol), and stars Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett.

Highsmith lived her later years in France and Switzerland. She died at age 74 in Switzerland.

Major Works (fiction)

  • Strangers on a Train (1950)
  • The Price of Salt (originally written as Claire Morgan, 1952)
  • The Blunderer (1954)
  • Deep Water (1957)
  • A Game for the Living (1958)
  • This Sweet Sickness (1960)
  • The Cry of the Owl (1962)
  • The Two Faces of January (1964)
  • The Glass Cell (1964)
  • A Suspension of Mercy (1965)
  • Those Who Walk Away (1967)
  • The Tremor of Forgery (1969)
  • A Dog’s Ransom (1972)
  • Little Tales of Misogyny (1974)
  • Edith’s Diary (1977)
  • The Black House (1981)
  • Mermaids on the Golf Course (1985)
  • Small g: a Summer Idyll (1995)

The Ripley Novels (known as “The Ripliad”)

  • The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
  • Ripley Under Ground (1970)
  • Ripley’s Game (1974)
  • The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)
  • Ripley Under Water (1991)

More about Patricia Highsmith

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Selected Film and Television adaptations

More than two dozen film adaptations have been made of Highsmith’s works. Here are a few of the most prominent.

Quotes by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith“My New Year’s Eve Toast: to all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envies, loves, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real, the army of memories, with which I do battle — may they never give me peace.”

“What was it to love someone, what was love exactly, and why did it end or not end? Those were the real questions, and who could answer them?” (The Price of Salt, 1952)

“I think people often try to find through sex things that are much easier to find in other ways.” (The Price of Salt, 1952)

“Happiness was like a green vine spreading through her, stretching fine tendrils, bearing flowers through her flesh.”  (The Price of Salt, 1952)

“I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me.” (The Price of Salt, 1952)

“One situation – maybe one alone – could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.”

“In view of the fact that I surround myself with numbskulls now, I shall die among numbskulls, and on my deathbed shall be surrounded by numbskulls who will not understand what I am saying … Whom am I sleeping with these days ? Franz Kafka.”

Patricia Highsmith“Who am I, anyway? Does one exist, or to what extent does one exist as an individual without friends, family, anybody to whom one can relate, to whom one’s existence is of the least importance?” (The Tremor of Forgery, 1969)

“When I am thickening my plots, I like to think ‘What if…What if…’ Thus my imagination can move from the likely, which everyone can think of, to the unlikely-but-possible, my preferred plot.”

“I tell him his business, all business, is legalized throat-cutting, like marriage is legalized fornication.”  (Strangers on a Train, 1950)

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