Books discussed in this essay: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and The Blunderer (1954). Slight spoilers.
Patricia Highsmith could have been a character in one of her novels, a dark and distinctly odd personality. She was a smoker and an alcoholic, a bisexual who never stayed in a long-term relationship, and supposedly, a cruel misanthrope who preferred animals to people. She published her best-known novels in the 1950s and 1960s, of which her most famous is The Talented Mr. Ripley.
In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith’s writing style is a little old-fashioned by today’s standards, perfectly conveying the time and place of the story, but her word choices are so precise and evocative that when reading it, I could almost see the action unfolding in technicolor in my imagination’s eye. I hope it’s not spoiling anything to tell you that there is a scene where a murder takes place, and that scene is so well narrated that I actually felt like I was the one committing the crime. At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy, I don’t know if people write like this anymore.
Her antihero, Tom Ripley, is a character who is impossible to like, or even to sympathize with, but he does fascinate. Tom is not particularly clever or charming, or even that self-aware. Rather, he is a very lucky opportunist who wants to be anyone other than who he actually is — he despises himself — and he gets away with what he does through a combination of skillful lying and unthinking brazenness. Therein lies Tom’s talent: He doesn’t just lie effectively, but he convinces himself that his lies are what actually happened. Since he believes them so sincerely, everyone around him must believe them too.
We may not like Tom Ripley, but we do love his story, as it goes completely against the kind of story we’ve been conditioned to expect, in which the good guys triumph and no one gets away with murder.
The Blunderer, which was published a year before Ripley, might have been a warm-up for the later novel. Highsmith does nothing to dispel her reputation for misanthropy with this thriller. First, let’s take a look at the women characters, such as they are. Two of them are shrill, nagging wives who both die violent deaths, and it seems they deserved them. The last is pretty much a non-character, who falls in love with Walter (the most non-romantic person imaginable) without any provocation whatsoever and spends the rest of the novel not doing much.
Highsmith is obviously more interested in her men than her women, specifically three men. The first is Walter, the titular blunderer, who when his wife supposedly commits suicide by jumping off a cliff during a rest stop on a bus trip, he does pretty much everything he can to make himself look guilty of murder. Walter has none of the misplaced charisma of Ripley. He is milquetoast, indecisive with his feelings, slow on the uptake, “nothing but a pair of eyes without an identity behind them.” After reading a news story, Walter becomes obsessed with a man named Kimmel, who really did murder his wife at a bus stop (as revealed in the first chapter). Kimmel is in every way repulsive, who considers himself so much above the rest of humankind that he can get away with murder; he thinks of himself as “powerful and impregnable as a myth.” Highsmith takes care to mention Kimmel’s physical appearance at every opportunity, his fatness, his lack of grace and bad eyesight, his repulsive thick lips like a heart.
It takes a lot to get the reader to feel even a modicum of sympathy for such a man, who did, after all, brutally strangle his wife without any sense of remorse whatsoever. However, when Corby, Highsmith’s third man, comes into the book, she almost manages to do so. Corby is the police detective obsessed with pinning both deaths on the husbands, by any means necessary. While Walter is stupid and Kimmel is arrogant, Corby comes across as nothing less than evil, which is all the more shocking because he represents justice.
Again, Highsmith brilliantly turns our expectations upside down and has us rooting for Kimmel and Walter to triumph over Corby. She is an expert manipulator, and it shows in this novel, but after finishing it, I felt icky, contaminated. These are not people I’d care to know, and Highsmith offers no alternatives, not even a hint of one. The world is full of people like these, she seems to be saying; take a close look at anyone and you’ll find something to disgust you. So while The Blunderer is a well-written novel and an effective piece of horror, it is not a book I can say that I liked.
Highsmith was clearly a talented writer who adroitly explored the dark side of human nature, but is she a writer that many readers could love? For this reader, the answer is probably not.
If you want to see if you can love Highsmith, check out her 10 best books according to her biographer. Highsmith also wrote a lesbian novel under a pseudonym, The Price of Salt, that has recently been adapted into film; read the story behind it.