In Review

Book of the week: Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires

Richard Bradford’s biography of Patricia Highsmith portrays a woman who ‘courted emotional violence’

Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires

Patricia Highsmith gave the world an array of memorable villains, said Wendy Smith in The Washington Post – most famously the ambitious psychopath Tom Ripley. Richard Bradford, the novelist’s latest biographer, suggests that such creations were rooted in her own “creepy and unsettling” behaviour. She liked to seduce married women or those in committed lesbian relationships, seeking out affairs “that required subterfuge and lies”. Highsmith, he argues, was someone who “courted emotional violence”, using it as “fuel for her fiction”. An unrepentant alcoholic, she was eccentric – she carried snails about in her handbag – and bigoted: she hated black people, Latinos, Catholics and Jews. Previous biographers have looked for redeeming features: Andrew Wilson, whose Beautiful Shadow appeared in 2003, tried to be her “imaginary empathetic friend”; Bradford insists that Highsmith was rarely anything other than “foul” and “execrable”. 

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, Highsmith “did not have an ideal start in life”, said John Carey in The Sunday Times. Her artist parents, who separated before her birth, “reckoned a child would be an encumbrance” – so her mother drank turpentine in the hope of aborting. Highsmith survived a difficult childhood, and the Spanish flu, and became a “smart, hard-drinking student” at Barnard College in New York, said Scott Bradfield in The Spectator. There, she developed a penchant for “pretty, well-bred girls”. After graduating, she worked for a while as a comic book writer before publishing her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, in 1950. Turned into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, it set a pattern of commercial success that facilitated a life of “obsessive travelling”. She established various homes in Europe, including one in rural Suffolk. 

Highsmith’s unpleasantness – and her tendency to lie – make her a difficult subject, said Ian Thomson in the London Evening Standard. Bradford’s biography, though, is a disappointment, being full of grammatical errors – a surprise given that he’s a university professor – and “crudely reductive” interpretations of her love affairs. Well, I found Bradford’s central thesis convincing, said Roger Lewis in The Times – that Highsmith approached life like a “crazy experimenter”, twisting it into the deviant forms that inspired her crime fiction. And I also “rather concur” with his view that she was “an outstandingly horrible, mad old bat”.

Bloomsbury Caravel 272pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires
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