"She is the crime writer,'' a British reviewer once observed, ''who comes closest to giving crime writing a good name.'' Hyperbolic as that sounds, it's also indicative of the esteem in which Europeans hold Patricia Highsmith, the Texas-born, Switzerland-dwelling novelist whose reputation as a master of psychological suspense rests secure in every country except her homeland. Highsmith, now 73, started her literary career 43 years ago with Strangers on a Train, which became one of Hitchcock's best movies. Since then, her two dozen novels have quietly explored, with a limitless supply of insight and ingenuity, the characters of good men drawn to evil. Readers abroad have been dazzled, while in America, her books have inexplicably drifted in and out of print.
The dawn of an American Highsmith renaissance may, however, be approaching, thanks to Vintage Books' Black Lizard trade paperback imprint, which is reissuing her series of Tom Ripley novels, the most sinister and strangely alluring quintet the crime-fiction genre has ever produced.
Highsmith has showcased Ripley only sporadically: first in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), then in Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley's Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1991). Her trepidation about revisiting Ripley is understandable; this young, charismatic American protagonist is, it turns out, a murderer, a gentleman of calm amorality.
It's an unnerving characterization, and time and again Highsmith pulls it off, using all the singular tools of her trade: fierce sangfroid, wit so dry it snaps off the page like a static shock, and attention to psychological nuance and practical detail -- how to tell the lie, perfect the forgery, dispose of the body, hide the bloodstain -- that forces the reader into queasy identification with this appealing, appalling man.