US author Patricia Highsmith had an insatiable appetite for the grotesque, the cruel and the macabre, according to biographer Andrew Wilson. She is best known for one of her most sly yet likable characters: Tom Ripley. The five novels that tell the story of the impostor, art lover and serial killer have been adapted into many films. Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett starred in the 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, the last Ripley film adaptation so far.

In 2021, the year of Highsmith’s 100th birthday anniversary, the story is to continue with a Showtime series based on the Ripley novels, directed by Oscar-winning Steve Zaillian and starring Andrew Scott in the role of Tom Ripley and Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf.

Alain Delon on a sailboat, still from 'Plein Soleil'

Alain Delon’s breakthrough came with the French-language adaptation of ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ from 1959

A difficult start

Patricia Highsmith, born Mary Patricia Plangman in Forth Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921, felt she was born under an “unlucky star,” as she put it in a poem in 1942. Her mother tried to terminate the pregnancy by drinking turpentine. Shortly before the birth, she divorced Patricia’s biological father.

The young Patricia moved to New York with her mother and her new stepfather, taking his last name, Highsmith.

She was considered to be highly gifted, and was a bookworm who started reading adult literature at an early age.

She was attracted to girls at school and had her first lesbian experiences at the age of 14. Her mother rejected the teenager’s homosexuality. But Highsmith saw herself “as a male in a female body,” she wrote in retrospect in a 1950 notebook.

The tipping point of evil is a major theme in Highsmith’s novels, a topic that already started fascinating her as a child, as she discovered in her grandmother’s library in Fort Worth the book The Human Mind by German-American psychologist Carl Menninger, who ran a clinic for war veterans in the US. Why do regular people become murderers? When do they give up their morals? These questions soon became the focus of almost all of Highsmith’s works.

Breakthrough with ‘Strangers on a Train’

She kept notebooks in the form of diaries from the age of 15. Early short stories about her homosexual longings, including The Price of Salt (later republished under the title Carol and adapted into a 2015 film starring Cate Blanchett), appeared under a pseudonym. 

Highsmith’s breakthrough was the 1950 novel Strangers on a Train, a book about a perfect crime: Two men meet on a train journey and plan a murder.

Alfred Hitchcock filmed the thriller in 1951 and bought the rights to the 30-year-old author’s story for $8,000. At the time, she had just graduated from Barnard College in New York and was working in a comic store to make ends meet.

The reader sides with the murderer’

“She was the first to turn a thriller into literature,” wrote Francois Riviere in a French-language biography. She revolutionized the thriller genre by having “the reader side with the murderer,” Riviere argued.

They even side with a serial killer like Tom Ripley, who cold-bloodedly eliminated all his foes. According to Riviere, the novel’s character Dickie Greenleaf, a rich heir, social climber and upstart, was a kind of Patricia Highsmith doppelganger. When nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe Award for The Talented Mr. Ripley, she penned “… and Ripley” after her name. She is also said to have occasionally signed letters with the name “Tom Ripley.”

All Ripley novels are set in Europe. Highsmith first traveled there in 1949, by ship. In her notebook and diary she notes the lines that are almost visionary from today’s point of view: “My most persistent obsession — that America is fatally (from my point, an artist’s point of view) off the road of the true reality, that the Europeans have it precisely.”

In 1963 she finally moved to Europe: first to Italy, then to Great Britain, France and finally to Switzerland.

Depression, alcoholism and harmful statements

Guilt, identity and a loss of morality are themes running through her work, just like “the illusionary nature of love,” as one of her critics wrote.

Not only the Ripley novels, but also most of her stories such as The Blunderer (1954), The Cry of the Owl (1962), Edith’s Diary (1977) are about outsiders — their abysses and their self-sufficiency.

Patricia Highsmith in 1968

Patricia Highsmith in 1968

She not only wrote 22 novels, but also numerous short stories. Two are about her predilection for snails.

In an interview that she gave in German on Swiss television in 1974, she said that she liked snails as pets. They are interesting “because they have not changed for millions of years.” She is even said to have taken them for walks in her purse.

Highsmith had a troubled personal life. Her intimate relationships never lasted very long, and she was described as “a lesbian with a misogynist streak.”

“I am now cynical, fairly rich … lonely, depressed, and totally pessimistic,” she wrote in a diary of January 1970.

Her chronic alcoholism intensified with age, and she went on to make spiteful remarks about the literature business, as well as Jewish and Black people.

A big name in the film world

In 1978 Highsmith was appointed president of the international jury of the Berlinale, even though she allegedly didn’t like cinema. Still, with 28 film adaptations based on her works, her name was well known to movie lovers.

Filmstill Carol 2015 von Todd Haynes

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet and Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird (right) in the award-winning ‘Carol’ by Todd Haynes

Fame quickly became too overwhelming for the writer. Obsessed with her work, she would often withdraw from public life.

Patricia Highsmith spent the last years of her life in Ticino, Switzerland. She died from cancer there on February 4, 1995, all alone in a hospital.

This article was translated from German.