My hero: Patricia Highsmith by Peter Swanson

Highsmith’s thrillers produce an almost queasy feeling – the desire to look away – while being too fascinating and compelling to put down

I first read Patricia Highsmith while in college, starting with Strangers on a Train. I’d seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film version, so I knew the plot, but I wasn’t prepared for the novel’s sticky atmosphere of guilt and corruption. Hitchcock managed to capture some of it, but he was only skimming the surface of a very murky pond. Highsmith takes her readers right into the muck. Reading it produced an almost queasy feeling – the desire to look away – yet I was compelled to keep turning the pages. That’s not an easy trick, especially for an author’s first book, and that is why Highsmith is my literary hero.

Her crime of choice was murder, but she wasn’t interested in low-rent criminals and gangsters. The murders in Highsmith country are committed, often almost accidentally, by everyday sociopaths, men with masks who find themselves drowning a wife’s lover in a swimming pool, say, just because the opportunity presents itself. This particular act happens in one of her best books, Deep Water, a chilly portrayal of a dysfunctional marriage. What makes it fascinating is not just the horror of the crimes, but the good-natured normality of their perpetrator.

Brilliant plotting was only one of the things Highsmith did well. She had an economical prose style that was never flashy and never boring. And her characters, especially her male ones, are familiar and alien at the same time. Vic Van Allen, the mild-mannered murderer of Deep Water, keeps snails as pets, as did Highsmith herself. He gets an almost meditative pleasure from watching them mate.

Highsmith, by some accounts, was not a pleasant person. Like the snails she loved, she had a hard exterior, and there is a biography by Joan Schenkar that chronicles the slime Highsmith left in her wake (although her conclusions have been challenged). But she also left behind a treasure trove of great thrillers, most of which do what all great thrillers do: take you on a ride you’re not sure you want to be on, but that you can’t get off.

• Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing is out in paperback from Faber.

Peter Swanson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How Patricia Highsmith became hip
Big names are lining up to make films and books based on Highsmith's novels. John Dugdale finds out what it is that makes her work so adaptable

John Dugdale

16, May, 2014 @3:00 PM

Article image
Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith – review
When friends mean less than plots ... a flawed portrayal of the noir novelist as a figure bordering on the grotesque

Kathryn Hughes

22, Jan, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson review – inside the mind of Patricia Highsmith
Fantasy turns to violence as Highsmith, the protagonist and subject of this novel, becomes fixated on her female lover

Joanna Briscoe

08, Jun, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith review – a mischievous look at the suburban American dream
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: Even the title is not what it seems in these wicked, funny and unsettling stories

Nicholas Lezard

20, Jan, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
Carol: the women behind Patricia Highsmith's lesbian novel
Todd Haynes’s film of Highsmith’s only openly lesbian novel, Carol, is about to premiere in Cannes, starring Cate Blanchett. Novelist Jill Dawson writes about the women behind the book

Jill Dawson

13, May, 2015 @9:40 AM

Article image
Creative writing lessons from Patricia Highsmith
Highsmith’s book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is an inspiring primer for budding psycho-crime novelists

Sam Jordison

16, Jun, 2015 @4:19 PM

Article image
Switzerland review – Patricia Highsmith plots a playful murder
The writer gets a mystery visitor in Joanna Murray-Smith’s smartly self-referential salute to her riveting crime tales

Michael Billington

09, Aug, 2018 @10:00 PM

Article image
My hero: Agatha Christie by Sophie Hannah
Christie's psychological insight is profound, and is present in the formal structures of her novels as much as it is in Poirot's or Miss Marple's shrewd one-line analyses of motives for murder, writes Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah

15, Feb, 2013 @6:00 PM

Article image
There’s more to Patricia Highsmith than Ripley
With her novels reissued as Modern Classics and a Todd Haynes adaptation on the way, the master of the psychological thriller is about to have a moment

Rachel Cooke

08, Nov, 2015 @12:00 PM

Article image
My hero: Elmore Leonard by Philip Hensher
Leonard's many crime novels will find a lasting place in history because he knew how to make words sing, writes Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher

23, Aug, 2013 @3:29 PM