Woman behind the Talented Mr Ripley
“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.