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Patricia Highsmith: A writer fascinated, perhaps obsessed, with obsession

Is it possible that she's at last beginning, here in the U.S., to get the attention she's so long deserved? Do I really no longer have to explain who she is when the name comes up, and go on at length about This Sweet Sickness, Edith's Diary, the Ripley novels? W.W. Norton has brought out two collections of stories to excellent notices. A number of articles on Highsmith have recently appeared, two in the current issue of the journal Paradoxa. Now at a blow we have both an excellent, intelligent, wonderfully readable biography of Highsmith from Andrew Wilson, Beautiful Shadow (Bloomsbury, £25), and from Marijane Meaker a striking memoir, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s (Cleis Press, paper $14.95).

Founded squarely on Highsmith's journals, hundreds of interviews and a close reading of her work, Wilson's is one of the best biographies I've come across in years. There's no reductivity here: he aims to show the woman in all her various forms both public and private, all her contradictory nature, all her vulnerability, all her strength. It's a work of exquisite scholarship and — from the graceful ease and, yes, the beauty of its writing — much more.

There are few more stubborn or contrary writers than Patricia Highsmith. Like other highly individual artists, she found herself unable to make concessions to market forces, and pursued a career unparalleled among contemporaries, often baffling readers and critics. Here in the States, when known at all she's known as a mystery writer; her books have fallen from and returned to print in odd cycles. In Europe, where she spent much of her productive life, Highsmith won wide recognition as simply a fine novelist.

With Strangers on a Train and subsequent meta-mysteries, Highsmith tapped into genre energies, but she also inflamed bare-rubbed spots of the American soul others had agreed to leave alone. Writing of psychopaths and killers, taking the reader into their minds and worlds, she pushed things to the very borders of expectation, civility and reason — even of humanity. And if America's tale has always best been told by outsiders, by the frontiersmen, Tocquevilles and Thoreaus among us, then Highsmith made of herself, or found within herself, the perfect outsider.

Half a century before the term came into general usage, Highsmith's work was deeply transgressive not only of received wisdom, prescribed behavior and social attitudes, but also of conventional notions of fiction. She makes little concession to supposed axioms of character development, proper motivation, the necessary shape of a story. Narrative lines may diverge sharply on the third or fourth page, or in the second paragraph. A story's end is likely to find us with recomplication in resolution's place. Characters act, even kill, arbitrarily and without reason, while others for similar lack of reason fail to take the simple decisions and actions that would save them. Spinning like slow pinwheels on the axis of their obsessions, her characters refuse to fulfill our expectations. They duck and dodge, shimmy, signify, dive and resurface, trailing behind them all the complications, self-contradictions and endless codicils of messy, lived lives.

Even those who know Highsmith may find Marijane Meaker an unfamiliar name. As M.E. Kerr she has produced close to two dozen popular and award-winning children's books. But for those of us devoted to crime novels and the fascinating world of paperback originals, Meaker's fame predates 1972, when she began writing the Kerr novels. We revere her as Vin Packer, author of seventeen extraordinary novels for Gold Medal in the Fifties.

Not only were Vin Packer's novels — including Come Destroy Me, The Damnation of Adam Blessing, Dark Intruder, Intimate Victims, Spring Fire, Something in the Shadows, The Thrill Kids, The Twisted Ones — as transgressive in their own way as Highsmith's, they were reviewed in the New York Times side by side with the like of Ross Macdonald and John O'Hara.

Marijane Meaker's memoir is immensely welcome, a wonderful book. It's a great evocation of an era, a marvelous portrait of a New York long past, an invaluable remembering of gay life at a time when women wearing trousers were routinely denied admission to restaurants, and a fine personal story. A romance in so many ways.

Highsmith was 38 when they met, Meaker 32. To the world at large, Pat was known as author of the book from which derived Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 Strangers on a Train. To those in the Village, though, those frequenting L's, the lesbian bar where they met, she was first and foremost the pseudonymous author of The Price of Salt, a lesbian novel published in 1952 by Coward-McCann.

"Pat had become my idol," Meaker writes.

    Although we were both reviewed in Anthony Boucher's mystery column in the New York Times, she was published in hardcover by Harper Brothers. As Vin Packer, I was one of Gold Medal Books' mystery/suspense paperback "tough guys," and, as Ann Aldrich, a softcover reporter on lesbian life....

    Pat was tall and thin. Black, shoulder-length hair, with dark brown eyes. She looked like a combination of Prince Valiant and Rudolf Nureyev.

Mostly, Highsmith deals with their two-year affair, but Meaker doesn't shy away from presenting in her epilogue the later, fully-blown misanthropic Pat who, following on years of silence, thrusts herself again, not long before her death, into her old lover's life, bringing with her a gallon of cheap whiskey and endless harangues against Blacks, Jews and the impoverished.

    It took me a while to see the remembered young face in the old one. Still, she was nowhere near as unattractive as were most of the photographs I'd seen of her in magazines and newspapers. The sly eyes and the slanted grin were familiar. I recalled how handsome she was once.

Patricia Highsmith was always a difficult woman, and grew ever more difficult with time. But she was from the first also a fine, original writer, a novelist and short-story writer on a level with the best of her contemporaries. It's a blessing to have these two fine books, and a great pleasure to see evidence of such renewed interest in her work.

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