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Mystery Girl

Deceased mistress of suspense Patricia Highsmith is finding new fans with "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

She was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being,'' says Otto Penzler, owner of Manhattan's Mysterious Bookshop and publisher of seven of Patricia Highsmith's works. ''I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly.... But her books? Brilliant.''

It's not usually good policy to speak ill of the dead, but Highsmith (who died of leukemia in 1995 at 74) probably wouldn't mind. Her 22 novels, including 1955's The Talented Mr. Ripley, are marked by dark sentiment, suave killers, clammy death pacts — and she was no picnic in real life, either. But with director Anthony Minghella's Ripley adaptation (starring Matt Damon as the titular murderer) reminding audiences of her innovative style and tremendous influence, Highsmith never looked better.

''She introduced things never before identified with suspense novels,'' says playwright Phyllis Nagy, who befriended the author in 1987. ''Pat tackled messy questions of identity, sexuality, displacement — the themes of great novels — and stood singularly alone in her genre for doing so.''

Despite the respect of her peers and success in Europe (where Highsmith lived her final 32 years), she achieved only cultish Stateside success. Her sales numbers weren't helped by her nasty persona and controversial views. Her falling-out with Penzler, for example, occurred after he published one of her books without an intended dedication to ''the courage of the Palestinian people.'' Highsmith hissed to The Washington Post's David Streitfeld that Penzler stood in her way because ''he's a Jew.''

''She was very rough, very difficult,'' says Gary Fisketjon, who published most of the author's late novels with the Atlantic Monthly Press and Knopf. ''But she was also plainspoken, dryly funny, and great fun to be around.''

Born in Fort Worth in 1921 and raised by her grandmother in New York City (a childhood she later termed a ''little hell''), Highsmith had an early career writing for comic books. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was published in 1950 and became a 1951 Alfred Hitchcock movie, and her second, the lesbian-themed The Price of Salt, was actually published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. (Highsmith's own lesbianism would eventually become an open secret in publishing circles.) The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first of five Ripley books, was adapted once before — as the acclaimed 1960 French-Italian film Purple Noon; director Wim Wenders' 1977 The American Friend was taken from the third book in the series, Ripley's Game.

Many speculate it was the potent mix of a hard childhood, hidden sexuality, and near-total isolation that drove her work and behavior. ''She had a dissatisfaction with life,'' says Nagy. Recalls Penzler: ''We had this publicity girl who idolized Pat and brought her flowers. She looked at the flowers and threw them on the ground without saying a word. That was typical behavior.''

Perhaps, then, it's best to remember Highsmith for her work. ''Her legacy was as a beautiful writer and near-perfect student of human psychology,'' says Fisketjon. ''That, and lessons like, Don't be offended if someone insults your taste — just bash their heads in with an ashtray.''

Originally posted Jan 14, 2000 Published in issue #521 Jan 14, 2000 Order article reprints
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