Can anyone really be surprised that Patricia Highsmith (1921-95), the author who dreamed up the handsome sociopath Tom Ripley, was a petty, ungenerous, often vengeful woman, a bit of a loner, one quick to give offense and even quicker to take it? ''Quarrelling with Pat,'' recalled a friend, ''would be like quarrelling with a dog with rabies.'' One of her publishers was more succinct: ''She was a horrible human being.'' And yet this mean, foul-tempered alcoholic who kept pet snails because she liked to watch them copulate was the genius behind some of the 20th century's most brilliantly macabre novels, like the four Ripley books and Strangers on a Train, as well as short stories, a lesbian novel, a children's book, and countless comics.
To put together this compelling biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith, Joan Schenkar sifted through mountains of journals, letters, and notebooks, not to mention all of Highsmith's possessions, which are kept in an archive in Bern, Switzerland, down to her faded Levi's 501s. She also talked to many of the author's friends and a fair number of her lovers, both female and male. The book is not chronological but thematic which sounds confusing but actually isn't, since each theme is yet another window into Highsmith's psyche. Especially fascinating are Schenkar's extras, such as a reproduction of the list Highsmith made to rank and compare her lovers, and a list of the books on her shelves. The end result is a biography that captures the writer in all her sullen, sinister, ambivalent glory. A