Monday, March 6, 2023

Reassessing Patricia Highsmith


by Linda Rodriguez

Patricia Highsmith was the writer of powerful, compressed narratives of psychological complexity and transgressive violence. Her short fiction and novels are gems of tight, spare narrative that carries an outsized emotional impact. Her reputation was often injured because she wrote almost exclusively crime fiction of one kind or another.

 When a biographer of Patricia Highsmith interviewed Norman Mailer about Highsmith, Mailer said, “Remind me? Who was Highsmith? A high-class detective novelist?” Well, not really. She rarely created detectives and when she did, they were failures at solving crimes. All of Highsmith’s authorial sympathies were with the performers of the criminal acts. In Highsmith’s works, the suspense is usually whether or not the protagonist will be able to get away with one or more violent acts.

Highsmith wrote 22 novels, a number of which have been made into successful movies. Her protagonists were usually outsiders—neurotic or even psychotic—and they usually carried out criminal acts, for which most often they were never caught or punished. She records extraordinary characters acting out bizarre fantasies and strange intimacies in precise, flat, simple prose.

 There is little resolution in a Highsmith novel. Her characters succeed or fail in their (mostly criminal) endeavors, but they almost never work anything through or develop. Her books and stories are usually explorations of morbid psychology. Her psychological thrillers, however, are often loaded with satire and black humor. Many European critics see her as an “existential” writer.

 Disturbing violence was one of her trademarks. Murderous impulses lurking behind facades of normal lives was another element of the Highsmith brand of chilling psychological suspense novels. A third element was always her emotionally and morally ambiguous young men of uncertain sexuality who served as her protagonists. Told in stark language, her startling and ironic books have long been admired for their daring themes and uncompromising vision.

 Filmmakers were always drawn to her work, and a number of successful movies have been made from her books, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, made from the novel of the same title. The Talented Mr. Ripley was made into three different movies, and Ripley novels, Ripley’s Game and Ripley Underground, were also filmed.

In later years, her misanthropic and misogynistic tendencies, not to mention her racism and anti-Semitism, became more and more prominent and pronounced. This and her choice to live abroad helped to keep her reputation in the United States lower than it should have been. Highsmith had spent a great deal of time at the writer’s colony, Yaddo, during her early career, and though she became an expatriate in Europe for the last half of her life, she left her $3 million estate to Yaddo when she died.

Highsmith books that I particularly recommend are Strangers on a Train, The Blunderers, The Talented Mr.. Ripley, This Sweet Sickness, Edith's Diary, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories, Little Tales of Misogyny, The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder, and Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories. That last book was published posthumously. Highsmith also wrote an excellent book on writing, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. I think you'll find that Highsmith stands the test of time.


Linda Rodriguez's 13th book, Unpapered: Writers Consider Native American Identity and Cultural Belonging, will publish in May 2023. She also edited Woven Voices: 3 Generations of Puertorriqueña Poets Look at Their American Lives, The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, The Fish That Got Away: The Sixth Guppy Anthology, Fishy Business: The Fifth Guppy Anthology, and other anthologies.

Her Skeet Bannion mystery novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, Every Last Secret—and books of poetry—Skin Hunger, Heart's Migration, Dark Sister—received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Oklahoma Book Award finalist, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. She also published Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop.  Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in Kansas City Noir, was optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Native Writers Circle of the Americas, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Learn more about her at or follow her on Twitter at  or on Mastodon at



  1. Interesting stuff I didn't know. Thanks Linda.

  2. Fascinating. Although I've seen all the cited movies, I've not read any of her books. She seems the perfect author for a dark winter night.

  3. She seems to be the progenitor of all the thrillers and psychological suspense novels that are so popular today.
    What a burn from Mailer! Funny - all the films made from her books and the influence of The Talented Mr. Ripley point to a more successful author than he imagined.

  4. A woman got the best of Norman Mailer! I've seen/heard of the movies based on Highsmith's works but have never read her books. Time to remedy the situation.

  5. Always a favorite (up there with Margaret Yorke, whose psychological thrillers are not nearly as complex)

    I don't think I ever realized she was not appreciated for her talent, although I have always been a bit unhappy with her apparent intolerant views.

  6. I’ve admired her writing for years. In a way, I think The Talented Mr. Ripley prefigured Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs by introducing an amoral psychopath the reader somehow sympathized with.

  7. Jim, she's a fascinating writer and person. Not someone I think I would have wanted to be around, but fascinating nonetheless.

  8. Kait, that she is. She's a very dark writer with a very dark view of humanity all dressed in quite lovely writing.

  9. Shari, Miller really disliked, disrespected, and was terribly threatened by women, especially women that he couldn't attract and control. Since Highsmith was a lesbian, I would imagine she fell smack into that latter category.

  10. Margaret, yes, Norman Mailer did not like smart talented women. I think you'll be quite happy with your decision to read her. She's a really fine writer, and she initiated a number of categories of thrillers that are very popular today.

  11. Km, she was definitely a racist and an anti-semite. She spent the last half of her life as an expatriate living in France.

  12. Martha, I think you are absolutely right. Also, her Ripley was much more charming and lovable then Hannibal Lecter ever was. I think that's because Highsmith herself fell in love with all of her villainous protagonists.