In book reviews, the word wicked is almost always a signal that the reader is about to be conned. (It’s up there with lyrical, luminous, witty, and wise.) Truly wicked writing threatens your comfort and imparts danger, causing a tectonic lurch of your psychological bedrock. But when critics call something wicked, they’re most often referring to a tidy moral tale in which nastily contrived fates are doled out to unpleasant people who fully deserve their unhappy ends.
At its chilling, deadpan best, Patricia Highsmith’s writing is wicked in the old-fashioned, very scary sense of the word. It puts a spell on you, after which you feel altered and even tainted. In a five-decade career that took off when she published the novel that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 classic, ”Strangers on a Train,” the Texas-born Highsmith became a literary lioness on the Continent, where she spent most of her adult life, and a nobody in her home country, where many of her 30 books quickly fell out of print and others were never published at all. Directors in Europe, from fellow exile Samuel Fuller to Claude Chabrol to Wim Wenders, snapped up her work. Americans forgot her.
In a twist that the author herself might have enjoyed for its blunt cruelty, Highsmith’s reputation began to soar in the U.S. immediately upon her death in 1995 at age 74. Her masterpiece ”The Talented Mr. Ripley” and its four sequels gained a cult following thanks to reissues; in 1997, ”Ripley” even made its way into a Library of America volume on ”American Noir of the 1950s.” As the novels passed from hand to eager hand, Hollywood finally woke up, and Anthony Minghella’s sensitive 1999 version of ”Ripley” widened her readership further.
This year, Highsmith is in the final lap of a posthumous victory mile that should cement her standing as a no-longer-neglected master of character-driven suspense fiction: The arrival of The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith launches a 15-book initiative that will bring virtually all of her remaining out-of-print work back into stores. With three more movies, including two new Ripley films, also due, as well as two forthcoming biographies (and the craggy, forbidding countenance of this tough, hard-drinking lesbian expatriate suggests a life fascinatingly lived), Highsmith’s name is unlikely to be forgotten again.
All of which is cause for cheering – except, in this troublesome case, the prose itself. The 64 stories compiled here are not only unlikely to win her writing any new fans, they may cause her devotees to wonder what went wrong. Highsmith’s successful novels – there are many besides the ”Ripleys” – depend on gradualness. Her protagonists are ordinary people who become murderers, or perhaps murderers who seem like ordinary people: Our sympathies with them force us to reposition ourselves almost constantly in the amoral dreamworld she creates. ”Somewhere about the third chapter the frontier is closed behind us,” wrote Graham Greene (another fan), ”we cannot retreat, we are doomed to live till the story’s end with another of her long series of wanted men.”
Highsmith’s short stories, unfortunately, don’t have third chapters, or second ones; Greene himself admitted that ”we haven’t lived with them long enough to be totally absorbed.” Worse still, the tales here are wicked in the book-reviewer sense of the word. ”Selected Stories” opens with 13 fables in which animals kill their unlovable keepers. That’s right – 13. There is variation (elephant, camel, dog, hamster, ferret), but the only shock they offer is the weird single-mindedness of the authorial obsession that’s being worked out. They’re followed by 17 very brief texts collected under the title ”Little Tales of Misogyny,” all written in such a terse, unadorned style that they read like plot summaries, or idea memos. If these are what inspired Gore Vidal to call Highsmith a ”modernist,” he was being uncharacteristically generous.
Highsmith’s later pieces are more polished. In her short work, she favored suburban comeuppances, poison zingers aimed at the complacent bourgeoisie. (Here, her decades abroad hobbled her; her Yanks have names like Elsie and Reg, and many of the details of semi-prosperous American life feel remembered or guessed rather than observed.) Throughout, Highsmith writes in third person – the intimacy and subjectivity of ”I” must have felt toxic to her – with the methodical dispatch of an embalmer. She keeps her characters at arm’s length, patiently waiting 10 or 12 pages for them to fall into the traps – an evil pond, a fire, a border dispute with a neighbor – that she’s set for them. This is bad for her victims, but shouldn’t the reader be the one who feels the noose slowly encircling his neck?
Nonetheless, any disappointment in discovering that Highsmith couldn’t crack the short form should give way to a genuine sense of celebration. A great American writer is back to stay – for better and for worse. This is for worse, but better Highsmith is better than almost anyone, and we’re lucky to have the chance, at last, to sort out her work for ourselves.