Book Bitches
5 min

The most dangerous woman in literature

Sixty-five years later, Patricia Highsmith still fascinates

In its novel and then movie form, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was a massive hit, an unnerving tale of heterosexuality gone very wrong (seriously, why do we let them get married?) but Flynn admits that she’s merely carrying on the tradition of Patricia Highsmith, lesbian master of suspense.

“She has a strange ability to make completely unreasonable emotions and actions seem extremely reasonable, where you find yourself completely empathizing with a sociopath and murderer,” Flynn told the Wall Street Journal’s book club last year, “There’s something incredibly chilling about that, looking up from a book and finding that you’ve been rooting for an average person’s murder . . . To me, the things that are suspenseful, that I find frightening, aren’t someone jumping out of a closet or those kind of big scares, but instead that slow build of dread, and she does that really well. She kind of takes you by the hand and walks you toward the cliff.”

Highsmith’s first novel was the instant classic Strangers on a Train, in which two men meet and end up forming a strange pact to commit murder on each other’s behalf. The film rights were snapped up by Alfred Hitchcock, leading to a classic film of its own, but surprisingly, Hitchcock’s version defangs the story somewhat. The book is creepier in getting into these men’s heads and their almost homoerotic bond.

And then there’s Tom Ripley, sociopathic star of several Highsmith novels and played in a series of films by actors as diverse as Alain Delon, Matt Damon and John Malkovich, yet always the pinnacle of her sinister style. The Talented Mr Ripley’s blank soul and easy inclination to murder made him terrifying in the 1950s and still fascinating today.

Patricia Highsmith was not what you’d call a people person. She preferred the company of her pet snails and cats while she wrote her stories about how simple it could be to kill your spouse. But just when one might be prepared to write her off as a misanthrope, there’s The Price of Salt, her second novel and a spectacularly swooning romance between women. Inspired by the sight of a woman in a fur coat at a shop counter, Highsmith went home and wrote the entire novel’s outline in two hours. She might have hated people generally, but when she loved, she loved intensely.

Sixty-five years after the release of Strangers on a Train, her menacing mystique hasn’t faded, with most of her novels still in print and future film adaptations still in the works, like the upcoming Carol, based on The Price of Salt, starring Cate Blanchett and directed by queer auteur Todd Haynes. As long as people remain outwardly polite while nursing desperate, even dangerous desires, the world of Patricia Highsmith will still pull us under its deep water.