Wo­man be­hind the Tal­ented Mr Ri­p­ley

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Jill Daw­son’s ninth novel, The Crime Writer, about Pa­tri­cia High­smith, is pub­lished by Scep­tre, £18.99

“For Charles with love – April 2 – ’71 from Tom (Pat).”

“She was Ri­p­ley,” La­timer said, “or should I say, she would have liked to have been him.”

“I of­ten had the feel­ing that Ri­p­ley was writing it and I was merely typ­ing it,” High­smith said. The novel won many awards, in­clud­ing the Edgar Al­lan Poe Scroll in 1956, pre­sented by the Mys­tery Writers of Amer­ica.

A few years later, when the cer­tifi­cate be­came mouldy, she re­moved the glass to clean it and de­cided to give credit where it was due. She care­fully added “Mr Ri­p­ley and…” in front of her name.

“I rather like crim­i­nals and find them ex­tremely in­ter­est­ing,” she said, “un­less they are monotonously and stupidly bru­tal.”

The Tal­ented Mr Ri­p­ley wasn’t the first time High­smith had writ­ten about two men who em­u­late and merge with one another, with ho­mo­erotic un­der­tones. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, has the bad-boy Bruno fix­at­ing on up­right Guy Haines, ul­ti­mately per­suad­ing him to com­mit mur­der.

The same theme is ex­plored in The Two Faces of Jan­uary, The Blun­derer and The Boy who Fol­lowed Ri­p­ley. She was con­scious of her own repet­i­tive in­ter­est in folie-a-deux and in her diary she mused on its ori­gins.

HIGH­SMITH’S love-hate re­la­tion­ship with her mother in­evitably came up for in­spec­tion. High­smith’s par­ents had di­vorced a month be­fore her birth in 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas, and her fa­ther had lit­tle in­ter­est in her; they met only a few times.

Mary High­smith was a thwarted and crit­i­cal wo­man, a tal­ented com­mer­cial artist with the poi­sonous habit of telling her daugh­ter at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity just ex­actly what was wrong with her.

In later years, when High­smith was very fa­mous, Mary was once mis­taken for High­smith in the lobby of a ho­tel. Rather than ex­plain to the stranger their er­ror Mary played along and seemed thrilled by the mis­take. She was un­able to un­der­stand why this in­fu­ri­ated her daugh­ter.

Moth­ers who are un­able to form a sta­ble iden­tity – who per­haps do not quite know them­selves where they end and their chil­dren be­gin – are not well placed to pass this gift to their off­spring, as any psy­chol­o­gist will tell you.

If this blur­ring of iden­tity – a self that merges too read­ily into another – can lead to mad­ness and break­down, it can also be used to su­per­nat­u­rally good ef­fect in a nov­el­ist as tal­ented as High­smith.

“It de­pends on a writer’s skill, whether he can have a frolic with the evil in his hero-psy­chopath,” she writes. Frolic she did, and cre­ated one of the most plau­si­ble, charm­ing yet pal­pa­bly evil char­ac­ters in fic­tion.

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