A Gift for Killing: Patricia Highsmith’s legacy for today’s crime writers

Categories: Author post,Upcoming Books

Crime author Sarah Hilary writes on the legacy that Patricia Highsmith has left for today’s authors of grip-lit and domestic noir. 

Sarah Hilary Patricia Highsmith


There’s a deliciously domestic moment at the very start of Ripley Underground as Tom tackles a build-up of moss on the back steps of his home, Belle Ombre. Here is Highsmith’s notorious anti-hero, who will later batter a man to death with a bottle of Margaux, pottering around his garden with a trowel. Highsmith’s books are full of such moments, that lure us in and set us up so neatly for her punchlines of violence, death and guilt.

Today we may laud the new generation of psychological thriller writers, appending the latest buzzwords such as domestic noir or grip lit. But there’s nothing new under the sun – and certainly nothing new about leading your readers up the garden path (mossy or otherwise) only to trip them with revelations of depravity.

In my introduction to the latest Highsmiths being reissued so beautifully as Virago Modern Classics, I talk about what Terence Rafferty called, ‘[her] annihilation of our comforts’. While the nature of these comforts may change — yesterday’s net curtains are today’s smartphone, you might argue — Highsmith’s style of annihilation remains the height of fashion for thriller writers.

Patricia Highsmith Virago Modern Classics

What makes people tick? is a perennial source of fascination. This was the fertile earth in which Highsmith chose to dig and if she didn’t always go deep — preferring to lay her characters bare for us to judge them — it’s plain as day that her gift for killing is one which keeps on giving.

Writing in Tastes like Fear about a man whose past has set him on a dangerous path, I was conscious of how adroitly Highsmith planted those little seeds that sprout trouble — her own psychotic harvest. The high-octane enjoyment of a car chase or gun fight will always have its place in fiction where our first aim is to entertain. But there’s a special joy in pursuing and grappling with a character’s inner demons; Highsmith wrestled the descriptive ‘psychological’ from the broader tag of ‘crime fiction’ and for that we owe her a debt which we are happily paying.

This autumn, the first female-led crime festival comes to London. The Killer Women Festival is a day-long demonstration of Highsmith’s legacy, with many of today’s best psychological thriller writers taking part. Sponsored by Audible (for those voices in your head) and HW Fisher (her accountant was the last person to see Highsmith alive), this is a great chance to scratch that itch of — What makes people tick? and if Tom Ripley doesn’t get a name check, I’ll be baffled.

We publish Patricia Highsmith’s People Who Knock on the Door, This Sweet Sickness, and The Two Faces of January as Virago Modern Classics this June. 

Sarah Hilary’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015 and was a World Book Night selection this year. The Marnie Rome series continues with Tastes Like Fear (Headline, April 2016). Follow Sarah on Twitter at @Sarah_Hilary.

Killer Women is a collective of crime writers launching a new one-day crime writing festival in London on 15th October, with headliners including Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid. More details are here: Killer Women Crime Writing Festival.

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