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A new introduction to Patricia Highsmith

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This month we are delighted to welcome four more brilliant Patricia Highsmith novels to the Virago Modern Classic list. In case you missed us tweeting about them (and the frenzy of responses), here’s a short recap:

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Edith’s Diary is a tautly written tale of an ordinary woman whose life is slipping out of control. Many call it Highsmith’s masterpiece.

The Blunderer – a thriller about the rise and fall of a faithful suburban husband plotting his wife’s death – is soon to be a major film starring Jessica Biel and Patrick Wilson. Find out more on the Hollywood Reporter.

Deep Water is one of Gillian Flynn’s favourite books and greatest inspirations.

And then there’s The Tremor of Forgery – whose brilliance is perhaps best put by Graham Greene: ‘Highsmith is the poet of apprehension rather than fear . . . Highsmith’s finest novel to my mind is The Tremor of Forgery, and if I were asked what it is about I would reply, “apprehension”‘.

We were absolutely delighted when Denise Mina, the brilliant Scottish playwright and crime writer, agreed to write us a brand new introduction for these editions – and as an exclusive treat, you can read it here first.

 

If great writers had an oath it would begin: First, do not lie.

Fiction performs many roles in our lives. Some reading does nothing more than keep our eyes busy on a dull train commute. Some reading is cheering and lets us believe, however fleetingly, that life has a narrative arc. The world makes sense, or will, by the time we get to page 343. Some writing lets us identify with characters who are slim, successful and likeable. But truly exceptional writing – writing with a ringing resonance that the reader can feel in their chest long after the book is shut – touches on truth. It does not flinch from the gorgeous-hideous facts of the human experience. Regardless of genre or form, it is touching on truth that gives writing real weight and profundity. Patricia Highsmith is a great writer. Her truths are not always comfortable. They’re not easy to own, but we know them when we read them. We might flinch at what she points out, but we can’t deny it. Truth not only makes fiction more believable, it is what makes reading potentially life-changing.

Lesser writers with Highsmith’s insight might shoe-horn their observations into an implausibly articulate character’s mouth. For Highsmith the story was the thing. She embeds her truths so deeply into the narrative that the reader can often feel them as a realization that they themselves have arrived at. From the comforting lies we tell about our lives in Edith’s Diary, the nescient murderer in all of us in The Tremor of Forgery, to the prurience of the crime reader in The Blunderer, she lets the world unfold gently and envelop us.

Highsmith does try to lie, sometimes. Occasionally she dissembles or spins for the sake of pace or narrative completeness, but she cannot bring herself to lie about the heart of things. Andrew Wilson’s excellent biography Beautiful Shadow: A life of Patricia Highsmith quotes Wim Wenders, then trying to secure the film rights to The Tremor of Forgery. He said, ‘Her novels are really all about truth, in a more existential way than just “right or wrong”. They are about little lies that lead to big disasters.’

Wilson gives a very clear sense of how this inability or unwillingness to lie haunted and shaped Highsmith’s own life. She believed in personal honesty, relentlessly expressing how she felt at any given time, whatever the consequences. In one incident, awkwardly hosting a dinner party of people she barely knew, her girlfriend at the time recalled, ‘She deliberately leaned towards the candle on the table and set fire to her hair. People didn’t know what to do as it was a very hostile act and the smell of singeing filled the room.’ She found it hard to keep friends. You might not want to go on a long motoring holiday with Highsmith but you should read her.

Possibly because of her misanthropy, she remained a literary outsider all of her life. She was awarded many prizes, was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and participated in juries and festivals, but after seeing Susan Sontag speak in Paris she noted in her diary that she shared Sontag’s belief that she ‘did not belong to any group of writers nor would care to’. It is possibly this isolation that gave her such insight. The closer one is to the centre of a consensus, the more coloured one’s assessment of reality is by it. Communists see a world full of collaborators and anti-communists. The fervently religious see angels and demons everywhere. Highsmith was never at the centre of any consensus but her own. Like a depressive, she sees the world in a bright light and through a clean lens. Worse, one feels, she must have often seen herself that way.

In The Blunderer, an unhappily married man, Walter Stackhouse, becomes obsessed with the true-crime story of a man he suspects of killing his wife. Who among us hasn’t become slightly fixated on a true-crime mystery at some point? Who hasn’t speculated about what really happened in a famous case? Whole TV channels and magazine genres are built around the impulse to imagine solutions to real-life crimes. Yet a pall of shame hangs around this prurient interest. Often we disguise it as outrage, disgust or a thirst for justice. In The Blunderer Highsmith doesn’t allow us the luxury of that lie. Instead she looks it dead in the eye. She captures that queasy sense of baffled fascination, the thrill at a new development in the case, the weird desire to visit the sites, read more, see pictures. And then she takes it further: Stackhouse’s interest in the story implicates him in a suspicious death. And then she takes it further still: everyone in Stackhouse’s life, from his love life, to his neighbours, to his work, finds out about his shameful interest in the story, compounding the suspicion hanging over him. She brings Stackhouse and the man whose murderous career he has been following together. ‘You are my guilt,’ Stackhouse tells him. What she is really talking about is the relationship between the reader and the author of such tales. The ending, dramatic as it is, perfectly sums up the theme of guilt, transferred and owned.

In The Tremor of Forgery, a writer, Howard Ingham, is exiled in Tunisia, waiting for a writing partner to arrive. Graham Greene called this her best novel, saying, rather pompously, ‘If I were to be asked what it is about I would reply “apprehension”.’ Ingham waits and waits, hearing about major developments in his life through delayed letters and three-day-old newspapers. The exhausting tension of his off-stage life makes Ingham, and us, the reader, turn to the details of his present circumstances for succour, leading Ingham to commit an appalling act that fundamentally changes him. She examines how the beliefs we hold dear about ourselves are not innate qualities but contextual and cultural. Ingham’s personal morality slowly melts into the worst of Tunisia. She doesn’t allow us just to observe this, blame him and walk away though. She creates a foil in the playfully named ‘Francis J. Adams’, a pro-American propagandist for ‘Our Way of Life’ or ‘OWL’, who acts as an external conscience with just enough sanctimonious bile to spoil Ingham’s delicious slide.

Ripley, much filmed and imitated, is her most famous creation. But if you really want to wonder at Highsmith you have to read off-road. My own gateway drug for her writing was Edith’s Diary. Patrick Millikin, bookseller at The Poisoned Pen, the worldfamous crime and mystery bookshop in Scottsdale, Arizona, pressed it into my hand.

An inveterate diary keeper herself, Highsmith gently explores so many unpalatable truths in this book that it can leave an uncomfortable mental residue. Edith’s Diary is not just about the fictions involved in diary-writing, it is about the fictions inherent in being part of a family. Universal is the hope that the people we love deeply are not, in fact, total arseholes. Just as universal is the knowledge that sometimes they are. In Highsmith’s hands blind mother-love becomes an analogy for all those selflies we cherish about our politics, about our values, about ourselves. Again, what sets the book high above others is not just her acerbic observations, not even her spare, taut style, but the framing of these universal truths within a pacy narrative full of apprehension and dread. Edgar Allan Poe was one of her literary heroes. If he had lived after her, Highsmith would certainly have been one of his.

Highsmith has been accused of misogyny or, more kindly, of having a conflicted attitude to her own gender. She responded to the allegation by publishing a book of brutal, satirical short stories, Little Tales of Misogyny. Arguably, she was an equal-opportunities misanthropist. It does highlight the nonsensical notion that there are men or women, somewhere, who are in no way conflicted about their gender roles. That somewhere, somehow, there are men and women who are not always secretly wondering what the hell role they’re supposed to be embodying and whether they measure up. Highsmith has to be judged in the context of her time. Gay men and women of that generation inhabited lives constrained in ways that most of us can barely conceive of now. But in The Price of Salt (later published as Carol), which was first issued under a pseudonym, Highsmith had the audacity to write a tender love story between two women, with a happy ending. It was outrageous at the time. A more acceptable ending for lesbian narratives would have the gay character either die, marry a man or end up committed to a mental hospital. People like Highsmith came out in a deeply hostile world and it must have cost for them personally. We should honour that struggle by seeing their courage in context, because the beneficiaries are our own sons and daughters.

Her famously pared-down style has been imitated often, sometimes in a rather poor, mannered fashion. With Highsmith it is all purpose. She does not want the writing to intervene between the story and the reader. She said, ‘The real joy of the writer – or any other artist – is amusing people.’ And elaborate writing is like watching a child do the splits over and over again: you may be acutely aware that not everyone can do the splits, but that doesn’t make it any more entertaining to watch.

Highsmith’s writing won’t make you feel that everything will be all right in the end. It won’t make you feel taller or thinner or smarter. She won’t just keep your eyes busy for a commute, but she might prompt you to walk out of that job you hate. Her books will thrill you with the truth of things. Her books will make you reckless.

Denise Mina, 2015

Praise for The Red Road by Denise Mina:

“Denise Mina grows in assurance and becomes more accomplished with every book; and this one is a cracker…this is that rare thing, a crime novel that invites, and benefits from, a second reading” Allan Massie, Scotsman

“Mina continues to enthral with her astute perceptions an descriptions of Glasgow’s underbelly . . . Her novels tell you more about the crime landscape of Glasgow than a host of sociological surveys” ‘Books of the Year’, Marcel Merlins, The Times

Denise Mina’s new book Blood, Salt, Water is available in hardback and ebook on 30th July from Orion, £14.99.

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