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?
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.