Writers of many talents have created mysteries that have riveted audiences for generations. Often, their own lives are shrouded in mystery. Texas-born mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith, though one of the most respected novelists in the world, lived a life as far from her stories as possible.
She was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth in 1921. Her parents were both artists, but their relationship was a stormy one. The couple divorced just days before the future author’s birth. Her mother remarried when she was three to another artist, Stanley Highsmith, and the trio moved to New York City in 1927. She reported that her mother was often cruel to her as she grew up. She returned to Fort Worth in 1933 and lived with her grandmother for a year before returning to New York.
Highsmith graduated from Barnard College, a private women’s college in New York, in 1942. She hoped to become a writer, but she was rejected for employment at numerous magazines and newspapers. She found work writing stories for comic books. Her first story lines appeared in relatively minor and largely forgotten comics books featuring the superhero The Black Terror and the Fighting Yank, many of which revolved around wartime themes. Some of her early story lines also included stories for The Destroyer, one of the earliest characters created by comic book artist Stan Lee, perhaps best known for creating Spiderman. She quietly continued working on her own materials. In 1946, she earned an award for her short story “The Heroine.”
Highsmith began writing her first novel in 1948. “Strangers on a Train” was published in 1950. The tale of suspense revolved around a jilted husband who had just caught his wife having an affair who met a man eager to kill his father for his inheritance who insisted that the two “swap” murders to throw off suspicion. Director Alfred Hitchcock was so impressed with the story that he adapted it into a popular film in 1951.
She continued writing, mostly suspense and mystery. She managed to get several short stories published, as well as two more novels, including “The Blunderer” in 1954. “The Blunderer” was made into its own movie decades later as “A Kind of Murder,” starring Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel in 2016.
Perhaps her most famous novel was “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” published in 1955. It was the story of a likable con man who eventually put himself into more of a con game than he could handle. The novel was made into a movie three times: a French version in 1960, an Indian version in 2012 and perhaps the most famous version being the 1999 version starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. This version was a hit with moviegoers and critics alike. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor. It was adapted as a stage play in 1998.
After the success of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” she returned to the character for a sequel in 1970, titled “Ripley Under Ground.” She wrote several more books in the series, which she came to call the “Ripliad.” The last of the Ripley novels, “Ripley Under Water,” was published in 1991. While two of the sequels were made into little-noticed films of their own, all five of the novels were performed on radio in Great Britain.
She wrote seven more novels in the 1960s and had a respected reputation in the literary community. In 1966, she wrote “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction,” a guide for up-and-coming writers.
In spite of her talents and great success, she was dogged by bouts of depression. Money and fame could not buy her happiness. Even the esteem of fellow writers and fans never seemed to uplift a difficult and lonely life. Nevertheless, she preferred to live in the shadows, away from the world.
In private, Highsmith was outspoken and controversial. Her ideas on race, politics and religion swung wildly from one extreme to another. She was acerbic and hot-tempered. Her health was poor, and it was made worse by her chronic alcoholism. She pushed people away. Her drinking only became worse as she grew older.
Her pace of writing slowed in the 1980s. In spite of her personal issues, in 1991, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In all, she wrote two dozen books and nine short story collections. She fell ill with leukemia in the last months of her life. She died in Switzerland in 1995.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.