When writers die, their popularity often dies with them. Does anyone read John Fowles or Anthony Burgess or Norman Mailer any more?
In the case of their contemporary Patricia Highsmith, the reverse is true. When she died in 1995, she didn’t even have an American publisher.
But 21 years on, she is more popular than she ever was when alive. Two biographies have appeared, both extremely good. Her dark, driven novels are all in print, and four of them – The Talented Mr Ripley, Carol, The Two Faces Of January and The Blunderer – have been turned into films.
Patricia Highsmith never believed in taking things lying down. In her novels, her sympathy was for the murderers, not their victims
Her reputation has grown, too. While she was alive, she was often pigeonholed in the Crime genre, the stuffier critics and academics unable to deal with writing that was quite so compulsively, insanely readable. But not any more: these days, the ghost of Patricia Highsmith haunts our world, like a beady owl crouching on a rooftop, its blood-stained claws at the ready.
Jill Dawson has now had the audacity to push things a stage further. Her new novel, The Crime Writer, is written in the style of Patricia Highsmith and features Patricia Highsmith as its main character. Not only that, but the fictional Patricia Highsmith also commits murder. What would the real Patricia Highsmith have thought of this? Having known her a little, I can be pretty sure she would be bristling with fury.
I suspect Jill Dawson knows this too. Her Patricia Highsmith character rants against this sort of intrusion. ‘Nosy little bitches, biographers, vultures all of them, trying to work their way into your secret heart, winkle out the darkness and deceit, take your life… and make it their own.’
Highsmith never believed in taking things lying down. In her novels, her sympathy was for the murderers, not their victims. She called them ‘my psychopath-heroes’.
I once pointed out to her that Vic, her psychopath hero of Deep Water, is quite weak until he begins to murder his wife’s lovers. She immediately sprang to Vic’s defence.
‘He’s not weak,’ she replied. ‘He’s mentally a bit odd, but at least he has a go. To impress on his wife that he’s not taking any more he eliminates those boring lovers. At least he HAS A GO. At least he TRIES.’
Jill Dawson has chosen to portray Patricia Highsmith in 1964, when she was 43 years old, an American in England, living alone in a cottage in Suffolk.
During that period, she was working on A Suspension Of Mercy, a novel about an American crime writer in Suffolk who is suspected of murder.
So The Crime Writer is a novel about a novelist who is writing a novel about a novelist who is thinking of writing a novel about a man who is plotting to murder his wife. In clumsier hands, this might have emerged as impossibly convoluted and tricksy, but Dawson somehow manages to keep it all very simple. Her novel is, in fact, every bit as gripping as… well, as a novel by Patricia Highsmith.
The real Patricia Highsmith admitted to being confused between real life and fiction.
‘He is a writer who gets life a little mixed up with his plots,’ she wrote to a friend about the hero of A Suspension Of Mercy.
‘Something that may happen to me. I think I have some schizoid tendencies, which must Be Watched.’
Dawson takes this idea a step further, and has her fictional Highsmith bludgeoning to death the boorish husband of the woman with whom she is in love. I remember once asking her if she would ever commit a murder. She told me she abhorred the idea of revenge. But then she added, almost as an afterthought: ‘Mind you, the people I really detest seem to come to bad ends anyway. Car crashes, that sort of thing.’
On another occasion, she told me she had twice dreamed of murder. ‘In one of the dreams, it was a certain person whom I know, an older woman whom I specially dislike; she’s an American but I dislike her because she’s crooked. But the idea that you’ve done it! It’s the most dreadful feeling to me!’
Her overriding theme as a novelist was in fact not murder, but the effect of guilt on the mind of the murderer.
It seems likely that throughout her life she sublimated her almost overwhelming instinct to do away with her paranoid, bossy, bullying mother, who used to boast that she had tried to have her aborted. Her mother puts in an appearance in The Crime Writer, turning on Patricia and attacking her with a coat hanger, just as she did in real life.
She once wrote accusingly to her daughter: ‘I believe you would gladly put me in Dachau if it were possible without a minute’s thought.’ Anyone with a mother like that is surely destined to become a murderer, or a novelist, or both.
The Crime Writer sticks as close to real life as possible: Highsmith really was obsessively in love with a married woman at that time, and she really did love snails, housing 300 snails in her back garden, and sometimes carrying 100 snails in her handbag, along with a big head of lettuce for them to nibble on.
She even used to smuggle them into this country from France, ten under each breast, but perhaps Jill Dawson thought this little detail too outlandish to be credible as fiction.
Dawson reproduces life in Suffolk in the Sixties with amazing skill. I wonder what the great Ronald Blythe, author of Akenfield, the classic work about English rural life, thinks about popping up as a character?
In her acknowledgements at the end, Dawson thanks him ‘for his kindness and generosity’, two characteristics that certainly come across in her portrayal, but it still must be very odd for him in his 90s to read of himself as a young man indulging in an unconsummated bedtime roll with Highsmith (‘I plunge, daringly, with my naughty, wilful, transgressive hand. But there’s no desire for me there: just softness, Ronnie’s sweet kindness, his tender pity for me.’).
At moments like this, Patricia Highsmith sounds to me more sentimental than ever she was in real life (she once described falling in love as ‘like being shot in the face’), but I may be wrong. For the most part, The Crime Writer represents an astonishing act of literary ventriloquism, easily on a par with The Master, Colm Tóibín’s fine novel about Henry James.
Highsmith’s writing style was tight and matter-of-fact and in-your-face, like a clenched fist. It was also very physical, with a powerful undertow of disgust, which Dawson catches uncannily well.
‘Pat clomped home and threw a splat of steak onto the lit fire in the front room, watching it melt into a fat black lump, stinking out the place with its acrid greasy smoke.’ Of the rain outside, she describes ‘the sound of it sizzling, like fat bubbling in a pan’.
In Highsmith’s mind, a pushy young acolyte, to whom she is both attracted and repelled, has ‘breasts like performing monkeys, out to catch the eye’.
Jill Dawson begins a note at the end of the book by saying: ‘I have long been addicted to Patricia Highsmith’s fiction and I hope that fellow fans will enjoy spotting the many references to her novels and short stories… as well as some real events from her life.’
Well, it certainly worked for me. I haven’t enjoyed a novel so much in a very long time. But then, it might almost have been written with me in mind. I have read all her books, and once proposed writing a critical analysis of her work (she declined my offer).
My own house even backs on to the street where she once lived, and the corpse in The Crime Writer drifts in the North Sea past my front window.
Would this novel be as exciting for someone coming new to Patricia Highsmith, someone unable to catch all the references?
Perhaps not quite, but they would, I suspect, still be swept along by a very exciting plot, its playfulness, its instinctive feel for atmosphere, and its exhilarating and very Highsmithian sense of creeping claustrophobia.
And who could possibly resist the tantalising character of Patricia Highsmith herself, by turns bullish and anxious, victim and predator, grasping owl and wriggling mouse?