Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith review – a mischievous look at the suburban American dream

Even the title is not what it seems in these wicked, funny and unsettling stories

My first thought, before I started reading this overlooked collection, was that it would contain examples, informed by second-wave feminism, of men being nasty to women and being punished horribly by Patricia Highsmith. But by the time the 10th little tale rolled around – “The Fully Licensed Whore, or, The Wife” – I had become uncomfortably aware that most of the time it is the women who are ghastly, and often end up being killed off by Highsmith. The book was first published in 1975 in German, under the title Kleine Geschichte für Weiberfeinde, appearing in English two years later. I should have looked closer at that German title: it means, literally, “little tales for misogynists”. This is not a book to teach the misogynists a lesson: it’s something you might give a misogynist on his birthday.

So the wife in the above-mentioned story, who has become pregnant by a man who is not her husband-to-be two months before her wedding, continues having affairs with the gas meter reader (“to limber herself up”), the window cleaner, their lawyer, the doctor, “a couple of maverick husbands in their social circle”, and so on, all the while withholding sexual favours from her own husband, in perpetuity, once the baby has been born. This time, it’s the husband who ends up dead.

As for the other stories, we are given plots resembling twisted fables from Hilaire Belloc, whereby women – who have either too much or too little sex; or are driven mad by religion or the pressures of keeping up with the neighbours or wanting to be creative – come to sticky ends one way or another. In “The Artist”, someone puts a bomb under the School of Arts, in which talentless but eager women are encouraged to indulge their delusions: “A dancer at last made a few complete revolutions without her feet touching the ground, because she was a quarter of a mile high.”

At that point, where I laughed rather loudly, it occurred to me that the best way to appreciate this book would be as a string of extremely black jokes – in which case it works very well. After all, if there is anyone who knows how to jangle our moral nerves, from what often seems like pure authorial mischief, it is Highsmith. The mischief here extends to what at first glance looks like a single-minded assault on her own sex, until it becomes clear that what she is actually attacking is a range of stupid or vicious behaviours; the charge of misogyny is something of a red herring.

When this book first came out, many readers didn’t understand it, or chose not to. However Highsmith, sexually omnivorous, capable of cruelty, was in quite a few ways a character out of a Patricia Highsmith story. She couldn’t have written in any other way, and to criticise her for the well she drew her inspiration from is as unfair as to criticise someone for the face they were born with. This is not to denigrate her skill: every word is chosen with great care; not one is wasted.

Sometimes you need someone with an acidic vision to clear away the grime of familiarity and ease. It is not chance that among her many fans were Graham Greene, Gore Vidal and JG Ballard, or that she was resolutely unappreciated in her native United States. The majority of stories in this volume could be said to be indictments, and utterly merciless ones at that, of the suburban American dream of the mid-20th century. The critic Brigid Brophy called her a Dostoevsky “whose gifts include humour and charm”. I’m not so sure about the charm here, but these stories, once you get the hang of them, are very wicked, very funny and – this being Highsmith’s mission in life, as far as one can tell – very unsettling.

• To order Little Tales of Misogyny for £3.99 (RRP £4.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846.


Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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