STRANGER THAN FIC­TION

The Crime Writer is a fic­tional ac­count of the strange life of Pa­tri­cia High­smith. But what was it like get­ting in­side the head of the au­thor who wrote such chill­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal thrillers?

Crime Scene - - CASE NOTES - By AN­DRE PAINE

Jill Daw­son has writ­ten nov­els about real-life fig­ures, from the poet Ru­pert Brooke to 1920s mur­der­ess Edith Thomp­son. When it came to por­tray­ing a crime writer, Pa­tri­cia High­smith was top of the list. “You’re very quickly drawn into her nov­els – prob­a­bly peo­ple are ei­ther fans or dis­like her in­tensely, she’s that kind of a writer,” Daw­son tells Crime Scene. “I was very much lost in the quite mes­meric style that she has.”

High­smith lived a trou­bled, al­co­holic life up un­til her death in Switzer­land, aged 74, in 1995. Born in Texas, she had a no­madic ex­is­tence in var­i­ous Euro­pean coun­tries. And High­smith had cu­ri­ous habits, such as her fond­ness for trav­el­ling with pet snails in her bra. “She cer­tainly is strange isn’t she?” says Daw­son. “If peo­ple think I’ve ex­ag­ger­ated, flick through the bi­ogra­phies – it’s all in there.”

For The Crime Writer, Daw­son has fo­cused on a pe­riod in 1964 when High­smith was ac­tu­ally living in Suf­folk. She was writ­ing A Sus­pen­sion Of Mercy, a novel about a scriptwriter of mur­der mys­ter­ies fan­ta­sis­ing about killing his wife. “She was writ­ing about the very thing that was in­ter­est­ing me, which is if you spend all your time thinking about mur­der – as a crime nov­el­ist like her would do – how close do you get to that ex­pe­ri­ence?” says Daw­son. “She was im­mers­ing her­self in that on a daily ba­sis.”

High­smith ex­pressed mur­der­ous thoughts – was she po­ten­tially ca­pa­ble of killing? “One of the re­views I’ve most agreed with said that in her work there is a pal­pa­ble sense of evil – I think she was in touch with that.”

As well as read­ing all of High­smith’s work, Daw­son re­traced the nov­el­ist’s early life on a visit to Texas. “She could re­mem­ber thinking about mur­der from the age of eight,” says Daw­son. “So I wanted to think about what hap­pened in her early life to give her such a hor­ri­ble in­ter­est in the sub­ject.”

Daw­son says High­smith was “very hurt not to be taken more se­ri­ously” as an au­thor, but she has be­come more re­garded since her death – and film­mak­ers are al­ways drawn to her work. “She fol­lows who­ever she’s writ­ing about wher­ever they are go­ing, and I think that works very well in film – the sus­pense, the threat, it’s very filmic,” says Daw­son.

Sev­eral High­smith nov­els have been made into films, in­clud­ing The Tal­ented Mr Ri­p­ley (star­ing Matt Da­mon and Jude Law) and Al­fred Hitch­cock’s 1951 adap­ta­tion of Strangers On A Train. So who could play High­smith if The Crime Writer was adapted for the screen? “I think Ni­cola Walker would make a great Pa­tri­cia High­smith,” says Daw­son of the River star. “High­smith had th­ese pierc­ing, com­pelling eyes, as if she was giv­ing you a very fierce stare, and I feel like Ni­cola Walker could do that.”

“SHE THOUGHT ABOUT MUR­DER FROM THE AGE OF EIGHT”

Pa­tri­cia High­smith pic­tured in the 1960s.

The Crime Writer (Scep­tre) is out now.

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