Patricia Highsmith and her alter ego The Talented Mr Ripley

by Jill Dawson

While writing The Crime Writer, whose protagonist is the author Patricia Highsmith, my dreams were occasionally peppered by guest appearances. Highsmith popped up in the mundane and ridiculous ways that only a dreaming self can conjure. I don’t know if other contemporary authors find a character stalking their subconscious while working on a novel but I have no doubt about one writer from the past who did. Highsmith herself.

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Highsmith’s greatest creation was her hero-psychopath Tom Ripley, starring in her fourth novel The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) and thereafter in a further quartet of Ripley books. She says that the inspiration came from a boy she had seen in Positano in 1952, an insouciant young man wandering along a beach, but this glimpsed figure soon became in her imagination two different boys: the eponymous protagonist, and Dickie Greenleaf, the object of Tom Ripley’s adoration and ire. She notes that in starting to write the novel she was “nearly flaccid” and using this startling image, goes on to say; “I decided to scrap the pages and begin again, mentally as well as physically sitting on the edge of my chair, because that is the kind of young man Ripley is – a young man on the edge of his chair, if he is sitting down at all.”

It doesn’t take a Freudian to note how she identifies herself with an erect Ripley, and how much she needed to embody his young and vigorous physical self in order to write about him. The novel – a nod to Henry James’ The Ambassadors – tells the story of Tom Ripley, tasked by an American businessman with bringing his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf, back from Europe. Tom Ripley soon falls under Dickie’s spell, with murderous results.

Highsmith’s intense identification with Ripley is apparent from other clues that she dropped. In a letter to a friend, Highsmith signed herself “Pat H., alias Ripley.” After publication in Britain of her second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground in 1971, she gave a copy to Charles Latimer with the dedication, “For Charles with love – April 2 – ’71 from Tom (Pat).”

“She was Ripley,” Latimer said “or should I say, she would have liked to have been him.”

“I often had the feeling that Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing it,” Highsmith said. The novel won many awards including the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll in 1956, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. A few years later when the certificate became mouldy she removed the glass to clean it and decided to give credit where it was due. She carefully added “Mr Ripley and…” in front of her name.

“I rather like criminals and find them extremely interesting,” she said, “unless they are monotonously and stupidly brutal.” The Talented Mr Ripley wasn’t the first time Highsmith had written about two men who emulate and merge with one another, with homo-erotic undertones. Her first novel Strangers on a Train has the bad-boy Bruno fixating on upright Guy Haines, ultimately persuading him to commit murder. The same theme is explored in The Two Faces of January, The Blunderer and The Boy who Followed Ripley. She was conscious of her own repetitive interest in folie-a-deux and in her diary she mused on its origins.

Highsmith’s love-hate relationship with her mother inevitably came up for inspection. Highsmith’s parents had divorced a month before her birth in 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas, and her father had little interest in her; they met only a few times. Mary Highsmith was a thwarted and critical woman, a talented commercial artist with the poisonous habit of telling her daughter at every opportunity just exactly what was wrong with her. In later years, when Highsmith was very famous, Mary was once mistaken for Highsmith in the lobby of a hotel. Rather than explain to the stranger their error Mary played along and seemed thrilled by the mistake. She was unable to understand why this infuriated her daughter. Mothers who are unable to form a stable identity – who perhaps do not quite know themselves where they end and their children begin – are not well placed to pass this gift to their offspring, as any psychologist will tell you.

If this blurring of identity – a self that merges too readily into another - can lead to madness and breakdown it can also be used to supernaturally good effect in a novelist as talented as Highsmith. “It depends on a writer’s skill, whether he can have a frolic with the evil in his hero-psychopath,” she writes. Frolic she did, and created one of the most plausible, charming yet palpably evil characters in fiction.

Jill Dawson’s ninth novel The Crime Writer, about Patricia Highsmith, is published by Sceptre, £18.99