Patricia Highsmith’s advice to budding writers was to begin a novel with events of everyday life that may spark off a story, and then capture the reader’s attention with invention.
Sounds simple, but it would coming from an author who turned the psychological thriller into a high art form.
At the age of 29 she wrote her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, a plot that captured the imagination of one generation after another. It was adapted as a film by Alfred Hitchcock a year later in 1951, and then re-used in several other adaptations in one form or another, including films, television, theatre as well as in other novels.
Highsmith’s book in my opinion was superior to Hitchcock’s version, which proved to be his comeback film after a couple of flops. Hitchcock chose the novel because it had the right type of material for him to work with. He was confident at the time that no other director would have spotted the book’s potential as a film. But converting the prose into a suspenseful script proved much harder than he imagined. Big names like Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck turned down the opportunity to work with him. He finally got Raymond Chandler to produce a script, which proved to be a disaster, and in the end Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, came to the rescue with the help of other scriptwriters.
The story begins with an everyday occurrence of two strangers sitting on a long train journey chatting. Then the tempo rises when Guy and Bruno discuss carrying out murders for each other to solve their problems. Such random acts would make it almost impossible for the police to connect them to the victims.
On reading Strangers on a Train it reminded me more of Crime and Punishment than a contemporary thriller of its day. The two men could be one man, conflicted with guilt. Good at odds with evil.
The guilt of Guy when Bruno suddenly murders Guy’s wife without his agreement is palpable. But if that is not enough Highsmith adds more tension when Bruno blackmails Guy into honouring his part of the bargain of murdering his father. And if that is not ratcheting it up enough, a private detective gets wind of their pact.
In her book to help young aspiring writers, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, she explains she always likes to thicken the plot by bringing in new complications to freshen up the story. It certainly works well in the case of Strangers on a Train.
Her next book The Price of Salt, later retitled Carol, was also a big hit and was written under the pen name Claire Morgan. The story of a young shop girl falling in love with a married woman was recently adapted by Phyllis Nagy into a successful film in 2015.
Then in 1955, Highsmith created the wonderful psychopath anti-hero in The Talented Mr Ripley. She went on to write several more Ripley novels and then continued writing more novels exploring characters with a dark side.
My particular favourite The Cry of the Owl (1962) was a psychological thriller that she didn’t care much for. It was apparently based on her own experience of stalking a woman, the same one that inspired her to write The Price of Salt. There have been three film/television adaptions of the book, including one by the renowned French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who was of course a great admirer of Hitchcock.
Highsmith didn’t see herself as a crime writer and preferred to be called an entertainer. According to friends, she didn’t suffer fools but her troubled life tended to follow her wherever she went.
She moved to Europe from the US in the early 1960s and surprisingly enjoyed a higher recognition there than in her native country. She eventually settled in Switzerland in the 1980s where she remained until her death in 1995, aged 74.
The Times once named her number one in their list of the greatest ever crime writers, although her ranking elsewhere is inexplicably much lower.
She completed 22 novels and eight books of short stories, but she admitted rather candidly in her handbook on writing that the possibility of failure was always ever present for the author. It is difficult to believe that she had suffered failures of her own, but she viewed every failure as teaching her something.
Highsmith was an admirer of Graham Greene and he reciprocated by describing her as “the poet of apprehension.” He said that she “created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational, which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.”
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