Patricia Highsmith was an accretion of oddities — a woman who doted on her pet snails and carried a selection of them in her handbag, who abandoned her native America for a restless life in Europe, and who turned a habitual paranoia into literature.
Now, 20 years after her death, her reputation has been substantially increased by film versions of her Ripley novels and, most recently, Carol (an adaptation of The Price of Salt, her extraordinarily bold novel of a lesbian love affair). For all that, she is generally classed as a crime writer, albeit a very superior one. As one contemporary reviewer commented, ‘Patricia Highsmith is often called a mystery or crime writer, which is a bit like calling Picasso a draftsman.’
Now Jill Dawson has turned her into the central character of a novel. Ventriloquy is Dawson’s forte — earlier novels have channelled the voices of Rupert Brooke, the Wild Boy of Aveyron and Edith Thompson, executed for murder in 1923. Her novels revel in the way the past infiltrates the present.
The Crime Writer is set in 1964, when Highsmith rented a cottage in a Suffolk village. Her stay there gave her the setting she used in A Suspension of Mercy, a strange novel (even by her standards) in which the boundaries between the real and imagined are shadowy and ill-defined.
The same could be said of The Crime Writer. Highsmith is pursuing a secret love affair with Sam, a married woman she met in London. She is working hard and drinking heavily. The past lies heavily on her — particularly her traumatic experiences as a child with her parents and her step-father. The only bright spot in her emotional life seems to be her friendship with her neighbour, the young Ronald Blythe, who is gathering material he later published in Akenfield.
Highsmith grows increasingly convinced that someone is pursuing her, a sensation that steadily worsens when Ginny Smythson-Balby, a pushy journalist with disturbingly prominent breasts, forces herself into Highsmith’s life. Bunnikins, her neighbour’s pet rabbit, is found decapitated in the garden. Then, when Sam comes to stay, the situation explodes into murder.
Dawson charts with loving attention the slowly unfurling consequences, both practical and emotional, of the crime. The narrative is in Highsmith’s voice throughout; at the start and end, it is in the third person, but the lengthy middle section is in the first person; the reasons for this become apparent towards the end of the book.
Highsmith’s many readers will enjoy how Dawson weaves in references to the novels and stories. True, the historical context is sometimes indicated a little too crudely to be wholly convincing. (And it is a rare pipe smoker who fills his pipe with Golden Virginia cigarette tobacco.) But, taken as a whole, this fascinating, skilfully constructed novel builds a convincing picture of Patricia Highsmith, her spiky, awkward intelligence and (in a phrase of her biographer, Joan Schenkar) ‘the low, flat, compellingly psychotic murmur’ of both her life and her prose.