Bibliophile | ‘Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith’

Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith
by Richard Bradford
Bloomsbury Publishing

Born in Texas in 1921 at a time when sexuality was, in varying degrees, hidden and fluid, Patricia Highsmith became famous for writing dark psychological thrillers. Notably, many have been made into unforgettable films – including The Talented Mr Ripley, Strangers on a Train and Carol (published as The Price of Salt).

The author claimed that she was a terrible bigot who didn’t like anyone, including her close family. Writing with an overriding cynicism about human transactions, her fascinating characters all lack any form of decency and could best be described as ‘morally unhinged’. Her “murderous psychopaths with no apparent moral compass” are seen as “a strange mixture of excitement and contentment”.

Research Professor at Ulster University, Richard Bradford, parallels Highsmith’s stories with her troubled life, even though there is plenty of evidence that she compulsively blended the real with the invented. “Long before Highsmith had written her first adult fiction, she viewed reality as something that could be routinely manipulated and distorted.”

Claiming to be a man who loved women, Highsmith enjoyed affairs with married women but also took pleasure in breaking up lesbian couples and having multiple relationships at the same time. She was fascinated by women she had only met for a few minutes, and how love can mutate into hate.

Although lesbianism was not seen as a criminal offence like male homosexuality, it was still seen as social and moral degradation and could be used by a man to claim custody of his children in a divorce. Publishers suggested Highsmith use a pseudonym during the first years of printing her work and she received on average 10 – 15 letters a week expressing gratitude for creating a universe in which readers “might freely live their undercover existence”.

Highsmith was to become more and more detached from the rest of the world and by middle-age she tried to remain drunk from breakfast until bedtime. But her characters that are often full of self-loathing and unfulfilled longing have remained fascinating one hundred years after her birth.

Bradford’s comprehensive investigations into the devils, lusts and strange desires in the works and life of Patricia Highsmith inspire further reading of her masterpieces.

Lezly Herbert

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