Posts Tagged ‘Patricia Highsmith’

strangers on a train

Patricia Highsmith is one of several writers who I’ve read for the first time this year. In her; I have discovered a writer who was a wonderful creator of mood and suspense her characters explored with psychological acuity. Strangers on a Train was her first novel.

Strangers on a Train, is a story I have been broadly familiar with for many years, I vaguely remember having seen the 1951 Hitchcock directed film. I’m sure many people already know the brilliantly simple premise; two strangers swap murders – what could possibly go wrong?

“People, feelings, everything! Double! Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.”

Up and coming architect Guy Haines badly wants a divorce from his difficult, promiscuous wife from whom he has been separated for three years. He wants to start his new life with Anne and as his career begins to take off the last thing he needs is for Miriam to hold him back. On a train journey to Metcalf, Texas to meet with Miriam at her request, Guy meets Charles Bruno – on his way to Sante Fe. Bruno is a hard-drinking young man, the son of a wealthy household, he deeply resents his father – and with several drinks already inside him he engages Guy in conversation. Bruno is not an attractive proposition as travelling companion, and Guy is reluctant to engage with him yet gets drawn into a bizarre conversation despite himself. Bruno has a private dining car and invites Guy to join him, here we begin to see Charles Bruno as a very troubling, psychopathic personality. He tells Guy all about his father and how he hates him, and almost against his will Guy finds himself imparting a lot of information about himself and his estranged wife Miriam.

“For here it was now, as clear as it had ever been. And, worst of all, he was aware of an impulse to tell Bruno everything, the stranger on the train who would listen, commiserate, and forget. The idea of telling Bruno began to comfort him. Bruno was not the ordinary stranger on the train by any means. He was cruel and corrupt enough himself to appreciate a story like that of his first love.”

Charles Bruno makes a dreadful, drunken suggestion – they each want rid of someone – so why not help one another out, if he were to kill Miriam there would be nothing to connect him to the crime, it would be a perfect murder. Then, in return a few months later Guy would kill Sam Bruno – Charles’s hated father. Guy is repelled by the suggestion – and fatally doesn’t take it too seriously. Once off the train, he reflects upon the meeting with a shudder, feeling that he has met with evil. Following an unhappy and unsatisfactory meeting with Miriam, Guy travels to Mexico to spend a few precious days with Anne. While he is away, Charles Bruno decides to put his plan into action, and using the small amount of information Guy unwittingly gave him, he tracks Miriam down, and follows her. Bruno’s personality is such that it is the idea of committing the so called perfect crime that appeals to him almost as much as the idea of ridding himself of his father. He strikes.

“People talked about the mystery of birth, of beginning life, but how explainable that was! Out of two live germ cells! What about the mystery of stopping life? Why should life stop because he held a girl’s throat too tightly? What was life anyway – What did Miriam feel after he took his hands away? Where was she? No, he didn’t believe in life after death. She was stopped, and that was just the miracle.”

In Mexico Guy receives a very odd note from Bruno – and soon there follows the most shocking news about his wife. A dreadful idea occurs to him, an idea too terrible to contemplate and Guy immediately holds on to the idea of an unknown maniac stalking the neighbourhood where Miriam lived.

Deep down of course Guy knows the truth about what happened to Miriam, but as the police make it quite clear that they believe Guy to have a perfect motive he isn’t keen to go to them with the preposterous story of a stranger on a train. Guy is running scared, of both the police and of Bruno. Charles Bruno is a manipulative young man, and he begins turning up unannounced, writing letters, gradually increasing the pressure on Guy to fulfil what Bruno considers his part of the bargain. The pressure becomes almost unendurable, and the longer he stays silent of course, the more Guy implicates himself in the crime. Highsmith brilliantly portrays Bruno’s psychological manipulation, how he gradually wears Guy down, turning him into a nervous shadow of himself.

At Guy and Anne’s wedding there is the inevitable uninvited guest – as Charles Bruno ratchets up the pressure. Sending Guy detailed plans of how to carry out the murder of his father, Bruno gets under Guy’s skin – to such a degree that Anne begins noticing that things aren’t right.

Strangers on a train – which I read most of aboard a train, travelling back and forth to Cornwall last weekend – is a brilliantly intelligent page turner. Guy is an ordinary man as the novel begins – ensnared in a terrifying series of events, brought about by the horrifying trap he finds himself caught in.


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I read my first ever Patricia Highsmith novel; Deep Water, in February, I realised I had been overlooking a superb writer, and consummate storyteller.

The Talented Mr Ripley, the first of a series of five novels, is probably her best-known novel, made into a film starring Matt Damon and Jude Law in 1999. I saw the film, although it was a long time ago, I realised as I was reading the book that there were some notable differences between the book and the film. This irritated me – everyone knows the book is always better – so why do filmmakers go to the trouble and expense of adapting a book for film, and then change the original story? Argh, it makes me cross!

I feel as if everyone knows the essential outline of the story – so I do hope that I’m not going to give away any major spoilers.

Patricia Highsmith is noted for writing likeable anti-heroes. Tom Ripley must surely be the best of these. A small time con artist, we first encounter him in a New York bar. He realises he is being followed and thinking he is about to be arrested is surprised to be approached by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf instead. Mr Greenleaf has lost sight of his son Dickie who is living in Italy, he wants him home to work in his business. His letters having failed to have the desired result, Mr Greenleaf – recognising in Tom an acquaintance of his son’s – asks Tom to go, all expenses paid to Mongibello in Italy, intercept Dickie and persuade him home to the United States. Seeing a wonderful opportunity, Tom grossly exaggerates his friendship and possible influence with Dickie – and agrees to the trip.

“Mr Greenleaf was such a decent fellow himself, he took it for granted that everybody else in the world was decent, too. Tom had almost forgotten such people existed.”

Tom has been struggling to make a living, lives in a fairly insalubrious apartment, committing pointless acts of fraud, bitter at the lot he has been dealt in life. Tom despises himself – he longs to be someone else, having lost his parents young, there is a hated aunt somewhere in the background who rubbished him as a child, and to whom he writes dutifully from time to time. He looks at families like the Greenleafs and imagines how it might have been had he had the life he deserved. He gets invited to a gracious dinner at the Greanleafs enviable house – and is soon enough on his way to Italy to look up Dickie Greenleaf – living the charmed life that should have been his.

Arriving in Mongibello Tom wastes no time in running into Dickie and his friends on the beach below the house Dickie has taken, Dickie hardly remembers Tom of course, but invites him to lunch. Dickie is in the company of Marge – an aspiring writer, who Tom instantly realises feels more for Dickie than he does for her. Slowly, bit by bit – like the hustler he is, Tom insinuates himself into Dickie’s life. Tom can’t help but notice how alike he and Dickie are physically, apart from a slight difference in hair colour, he watches Dickie – how he moves, how he dresses – how sure of himself he is – how different to how the world sees Tom Ripley.

“He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed. Not many people in the world knew how to, even if they had the money. It really didn’t take money, masses of money, it took a certain security.”

ripleystillTom likes to boast how he can imitate people easily, change his appearance, forge signatures. Marge doesn’t like Tom, and he feels just the same about her. She tells Dickie that she thinks Tom is gay – and has designs on him, Dickie laughs it off – but is surprised when he catches Tom trying on his clothes. Tom talks himself out of awkward situations quite easily – and he is soon back in Dickie’s good books, planning trips to other parts of Italy, laughing about the deal Tom made with Dickie’s father. Dickie agrees to joining Tom on a short break to Sanremo where they plan to hire a boat, Tom is delighted that Marge won’t be joining them, but he does fear that Dickie is beginning to tire of him. Tom realises that in order to live the life he wants with Dickie’s money he must take drastic action – kill Dickie, and assume his identity somewhere else.

What follows is an extraordinary cat and mouse game – can Tom really pass himself off as Dickie – avoiding people who knew Dickie – slipping in and out of personas? How long can this double life last?

“This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time. He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes.”

The Talented Mr Ripley is a brilliant examination of a fascinating personality – Highsmith explores Tom Ripley’s psychology through the games he plays, the chances he takes and the split-second decisions he makes. He is an outsider more comfortable as someone else than himself. He is undoubtedly a sociopath, but he is also a thief, a liar, and of course in time, a murderer – and yet Highsmith portrays him in such a way that we are able to sympathise with him – at least some of the time. He never quite emerges as the monster we know he should be.

I really need to read more Patricia Highsmith – he writes such compelling, intelligent thrillers. I will certainly look out for the other Ripley books. But the one I really want to read next is Strangers on a Train.


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Deep Water was Virago Press’ pick for their February book club. I had wanted to join in with the book club at least once – so was delighted they picked a book I hadn’t read and one by an author I have wanted to read for a long time. Patricia Highsmith is probably best known for the Ripley novels and Strangers on a Train, this novel perhaps one that is less well known. Based solely upon the evidence of reading this, I will be reading a lot more novels by Patricia Highsmith.

Deep Water isn’t a typical mystery/thriller, it is deeply psychological, suspenseful and subtle. Highsmith forces us to side with a murderer, against all his potential victims. Somehow, we see their faults before his, feel his frustration, wanting him to succeed, against our reason.

“Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reason that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance. His rationalization of his attitude was a flimsy one and didn’t fool him for a minute, though it crossed his mind every time he saw Melinda dancing: she was insufferably silly when she danced. She made dancing embarrassing.”

At the centre of this novel are married couple Melinda and Vic Van Allen, a couple whose marriage has descended to one of mutual destruction. Neither of them seem to wish to end the marriage, each completely caught up in their peculiar brand of domestic misery. They have one young daughter Trixie, who is six, and since her birth Melinda has had no interest in her husband. Vic now sleeps in another wing of the house on the other side of the garage. He has his own interests outside his small printing press business, including the breeding of snails. He is an affable, likeable man, intelligent and studious, a good friend, neighbour and father. The Van Allens live in the quiet, affluent, town of Little Wesley, where Vic is highly regarded by his friends and neighbours.

Although Melinda has no interest in her husband, she does have quite a lot of interest in other men. Vic now finds himself in a rather embarrassing position. Melinda entertains her series of male conquests at their house, evening drinks, turn into very, very late nights. Vic, happily stays up to thwart Melinda’s plans. She insists that these men accompany her and Vic when they are invited to friends’ houses, where she dances with them, not her husband. It is a world of cocktail parties, pool parties, barbecues, and practically all day drinking. Vic and Melinda are invited everywhere, and wherever they go, Melinda brings a third guest.

Every few months, Melinda seems to have a new friend – and Vic is never quite sure just how far things go, though it is generally assumed these men are Melinda’s lovers. Everyone in their social circle sees how Melinda acts, and what Vic must put up with, and how it appears he is doing nothing about it. With Vic out each day at the Greenspur Press of which he is justly proud – employing two other equally enthusiastic local men – Melinda is free to please herself. She takes very little interest in her young daughter, and is drinking more and more. Her misery is evident, and yet cleverly, Highsmith makes her anything but sympathetic. Melinda is unfaithful, an inattentive, uncaring mother, she drinks heavily – so naturally the reader has little sympathy for her. Highsmith understands exactly how her readers will react to her characters – we fall into her trap and it is quite brilliantly done.

A few months before the novel opens, one of Melinda’s previous conquests was murdered in New York, the culprit not yet found. As Melinda continues to flaunt her affairs right under Vic’s nose, Vic decides to try and frighten the most recent off. He hints that he was responsible for the murder – and that if he ever had a problem with one of Melinda’s friends he would just kill him. The man concerned is seriously rattled, and gossip begins to seep through Little Wesley. Many of Vic’s friends immediately suspect the truth of what Vic was doing in saying what he did. There are other people, who know Vic less well, who seem to take it seriously. Melinda thinks the whole story is ridiculous, it gives her just one more reason to scoff.

However, Vic hadn’t counted on the real murderer being unearthed and splashed all over the newspaper. Vic is right back in the embarrassing position he was in before, and Melinda has a new man on the go. The lines between Vic’s real self and the one he has pretended to, blur, and it isn’t too long before Vic really does have blood on his hands.

“Vic watched the next few seconds with a strange detachment. Melinda half standing up now, shouting her opinions at the coroner – and Vic felt a certain admiration for her courage and her honesty that he hadn’t known she possessed as he saw her frowning profile, her clenched hands – Mary Meller rising and taking a few hesitant steps towards Melinda before Horace gently drew her back to her seat.”

Wilson, a local resident and part of the same social circle as the Van Allens, though not really a friend, watches Vic closely – joining forces with Melinda against him, Wilson becomes a thorn in Vic’s side.

“Vic kept looking at Wilson’s wagging jaw and thinking of the multitude of people like him on earth, perhaps half the people on earth were of his type, or potentially his type, and thinking that it was not bad at all to be leaving them. The ugly birds without wings. The mediocre who perpetuated mediocrity, who really fought and died for it. He smiled at Wilson’s grim, resentful, the-world-owes-me-a-living face, which was the reflection of the small mind behind it, and Vic cursed it and all it stood for. Silently, and with a smile, and with all that was left of him, he cursed it.”

Highsmith is apparently known for writing charming, likeable psychopaths and villains and in Deep Water she does just this.

This was an excellent read, intelligent and compelling, it is also very hard to put down. I am looking forward to exploring more by Patricia Highsmith.


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