Book review: The talented Ms Highsmith

By Stephen Jewell

A different side of Patricia Highsmith comes to life in a new book, writes Stephen Jewell.
Jill Dawson.
Jill Dawson.

"Reflecting Patricia Highsmith's antipathy towards the so-called Golden Age of Mystery Fiction, The Crime Writer -- the title of Jill Dawson's new book about the late American-born author -- is intended to be ironic.

As Dawson writes in the novel, Highsmith believed she had little in common with the likes of Agatha Christie and our own Dame Ngaio Marsh.

"What she was trying to distance herself from was the detective novel," says Dawson. "So there's never any detection or whodunnit in her books; there's no set-up with a load of clues. It's not puzzle fiction, which Highsmith always said she despised."

However, crime was always at the centre of her novels, which ranged from her 1950 debut Strangers on a Train to the five novels she wrote starring amoral sociopath Tom Ripley, brought to life on the big screen by Matt Damon in 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley.

"That's something I wanted to flag," says Dawson. "Her argument was that nobody calls Edgar Allen Poe a crime writer for writing Murder in the Rue Morgue.

He was just a great writer. The same is true of Dostoevsky, who wrote Highsmith's favourite novel, Crime and Punishment. She resented the term, but I'm bringing it back in a rather playful way."

With the release last year of Todd Haynes' film Carol -- an adaptation of Highsmith's 1952 second novel, originally called The Price of Salt -- and the Viggo Mortensen film The Two Faces of January in 2014, Highsmith is enjoying something of a revival.

"All writers go in and out of fashion," says Dawson. "When I began this book neither Carol nor The Two Faces of January had come out and her books weren't being republished and reissued as they are now, so I had to find a lot of them on the internet.

"Writing the book has coincided with a renewed interest in Highsmith, so there must have been something in the air as both of those films were in production, but I didn't know that. It does feel she is right for the time right now. She was subversive for the time she was writing in but we accept her more readily now."

In contrast, Ngaio Marsh has recently been neglected, although that may change after the announcement that author Stella Duffy is writing a new Inspector Alleyn novel based on an unfinished manuscript by Marsh.

"Ngaio Marsh seems to have been forgotten, but she would have been enormous in terms of sales and her importance in the time that Highsmith is speaking of, which is the early 60s," says Dawson. "It's clear she had a very loyal following but these days, compared to Agatha Christie, she's not so well known. So it may be Ngaio Marsh's turn next for resurgence, as has happened with many other writers in the past."

Having based 2000's Fred and Edie on the case of 19th-century murderer Edith Thompson and explored Rupert Brooke's sexuality in 2009's The Great Lover, Dawson has plenty of experience in writing about real-life figures.

"It helps if they're dead -- as Highsmith is -- because then they can't answer back," says Dawson, who attempted to highlight a side to Highsmith's character not previously documented in any non-fiction account of her life.

"Most of her biographers have claimed that they know everything that there is to know about her," she continues. "But that's not possible for anyone, as even our closest lovers, partners, children and parents know only a version of us.

"If you're a writer, you know we endlessly recreate ourselves, so I was also interested in that idea of selves, and how we all have many different selves. I never met Highsmith and I was very reliant on the biographies, the research that I did and reading her work. With the help of all those things, I felt that I was creating my version of her, although I'm not at all claiming that it's objective or accurate. I'm sure that if she was here, she would dispel it."

Opening in 1964, Dawson focuses on the period Highsmith rather improbably spent living in Earl Soham in rural Suffolk.

"She bought the cottage, she didn't rent it for the time she lived there, so when I found out that detail, it was like a gift," says Dawson, who lives in nearby Cambridgeshire. " I tried to imagine how Highsmith, as an American eccentric, would have been perceived in the village, and what she would have made of England and English village life.

"Also the starting premise of the novel was that all her demons would come with her, because they're all inside of her, as she was a troubled soul. She had an intense and imaginative inner life and the solitude would have suited her, so being there in that little cottage and just thinking about things would have been perfect for her."

Highsmith had moved to Suffolk in a forlorn attempt to pursue her latest lover, a married woman who apparently never had any intention of leaving her husband.

"This woman was a major love for Highsmith, as she changed her will for her, which is something she didn't do for her other girlfriends," says Dawson, who believes Highsmith was quite open about her sexuality, even though she loathed discussing her private life in public.

"She was reluctant to talk about it but it's there in the work. What she often did was to write as a man, which I've also done in my other novels. It gives you room to explore things men might feel and do, including falling for women.

"She often had a very powerful homoerotic relationship between the male characters in many of her novels, such as that between Dicky Greenleaf and Tom Ripley in the Ripley books."

Dawson pits Highsmith against Virginia "Ginny" Smythson-Balby, an inquisitive young journalist, who succeeds in getting under her skin. When she began the book, Dawson imagined herself in the role of Ginny.

"It was as if I, Jill Dawson, was going to interview Patricia Highsmith because I was writing a novel about her. It was a transgression because I was going to poke my nose into her business."

With Dawson describing Ginny as "a bit out there with her flamboyant outfits and little sporty number", the relationship between Highsmith and the fledgling reporter eventually veers off in an unexpected direction.

"There's some flirtation between them and Highsmith senses there might be something there but neither of them wants to acknowledge it," says Dawson. "And then Ginny turns out to be more than just a journalist and something of a stalker. I thought this was quite fun; this idea of being pursued by someone and then it becoming onerous."

THE CRIME WRITER
by Jill Dawson
Paperback, $38
Sceptre

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