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Highsmith, Patricia (1921-1995)  
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Acclaimed mystery writer Patricia Highsmith is the author of one explicitly lesbian novel, as well as the popular series featuring the amoral bisexual Tom Ripley.

Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921. Her father was of German and her mother of British descent. She was educated at Barnard College, New York, and became a freelance writer a year after she left college. She lived alternately in Europe and the United States, residing mostly in Switzerland. Among her hobbies were "carpentering, snail-watching, [and] travelling by train" (Who's Who 1992).

Crime fiction historian Julian Symons called Highsmith "the most important crime novelist at present in practice." Although now thirty years old, the citation exhibits the respect that Highsmith's writing still commonly commands.

Her first novel Strangers on a Train (1949), later a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, depicts that pattern of peculiar psychological imprisonment between two people that she was to continue as her personal motif.

Instead of an absolutely moral Holmes/Watson type of reassurance at the center of the novel, there is the subversive, explicitly and tortured obsession of two murderers for each other. Although Bruno is the acknowledged "psychopath," the careerist and misogynistic Guy is hardly an attractive hero. Bruno's erotic possessiveness over his mother, his vicious hate of any of her lovers, especially of his father whom he has Guy murder, is suggestively oedipal.

The novel is also concerned with the crisis of individuation between Guy and Bruno: "And Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast off self, what he thought he hated, but perhaps in reality loved."

One disturbing and radical aspect of Highsmith's writing is her firm integration of good with evil, no longer cast out as other, but slipping, undifferentiated, into the totality of human behavior. This is not literature for those who desire positive images; it makes the reader very uncomfortable.

Critic Kathleen Gregory Klein argues that Highsmith has gone as far as creating a new fictional form, citing her introduction of the cult-figure serial killer Tom Ripley as a new type of criminal superhero, prefiguring similar cultural icons that appeared in the 1990s. (The Talented Mr. Ripley was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll by the Mystery Writers of America in 1955.)

The Ripley books are generically akin to a series. Characters reappear in subsequent titles and undergo development, and Ripley himself inspires readerly identification, at least because he is so amorally fascinating. Highsmith's deliberate violations of realism foreground the claustrophobic and violent world of the mind, where simple Manichean moralities break down.

Lesbian and gay readers, themselves positioned in an uneasy relation to the law and its regulation of permissible behavior, find in Ripley the antithesis to state-sanctioned Christian virtue. He pushes transgression to the limit.

Carol, first published in 1952 as The Price of Salt, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, is Highsmith's only explicitly lesbian novel. It sold nearly one million copies in the United States in 1953 alone. Lesbian readers' response was one of gratitude--finally they were offered a novel that did not end in death, despair, or debasement.

Carol is an erotic love story that retains the Highsmith taste for a tightly fought psychodrama. The two central characters, Therese and Carol, are strapped together by a desire tabulated by the intense hold the ordinary, daily exchanges of romance can exert over the self. Ostensibly Carol is the adored, and Therese does the adoring, but Highsmith suggests depths in their relationship, often conveyed by an apparently casual remark, which belie this simple structure.

Carol has the flavor of a psychological thriller in the sense that it maintains narrative anxiety and suspense while exploring the emotional implications of desire and dependency. Its reissue by Penguin Books in 1991 is a testament to its subtly wrought portrait of a relationship.

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A publicity photograph of Patricia Highsmith published in 1962.
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