Jake Kerridge enjoys a novel that imagines Patricia Highsmith had dabbled in crime herself
Patricia Highsmith died more than 20 years ago, but Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer is, surprisingly, the first novel to take as its subject that rebarbative, whisky-soaked genius, who liked to take her pet snails to parties in her handbag and could seduce beautiful women as effortlessly as Warren Beatty. Perhaps novelists have so far been daunted by the task of rendering Highsmith plausible – she seems to belong in a book even more lurid and unlikely than the ones she wrote herself. Dawson, though, is an old hand at writing fiction about real people (The Great Lover, her novel about Rupert Brooke, is particularly good) and here she pulls it off again with confidence and brio.
There has been a recent spate of cannibalistic crime novels that have imagined real-life crime writers, from Agatha Christie to Josephine Tey, turning detectives. For Highsmith, though, this won’t do. She was interested in the psychology of criminals, and detectives are only peripheral figures in her novels. It is thus cheeky but apt that Dawson has Highsmith commit, rather than investigate, a crime.
The novel begins in 1963, with the 42-year-old Texan holed up in a cottage in Suffolk, where she hopes to avoid a sinister stalker. Here, she spends hours pining for her lover, a married Englishwoman who seems, despite their new proximity, emotionally further away than ever. In her daily writing, Highsmith takes violent revenge on her enemies; soon, fogged by booze and heartbreak, she struggles to separate her fiction from real life.
Several scenes recall moments from Highsmith’s novels, but The Crime Writer is more than the sum of its pastiche parts. Dawson has drawn a witty, creepy plot as well as a convincing character sketch of a woman all too easy to caricature. The intensely private Highsmith – who would have disapproved of any book in proportion to how accurately it portrayed her inner life – would have loathed this one.