In the 1940s, Patricia Highsmith graduated from Barnard, lived in Greenwich Village (it was cheap and bohemian then), and wrote scripts for comic books. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was published in 1950.
Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights, and the film version premiered in 1951. Thanks to its success, Highsmith was a household name at age 20. She wrote 21 more novels and many short stories and lived well off her writing.
She wasn't just lucky. She had a truly great idea. To paraphrase, "You murder my enemy, and I'll murder yours." These are to be the perfect crimes, because the murderer has no motive, and the person with a motive has an alibi.
Strangers on a Train has more than a great idea. The execution is brilliant. We get to know the two men who would do such a thing. We come to believe that such people would enter into such an evil conspiracy.
Hitchcock's film version makes critical changes in the plot so we have a sympathetic character to root for. It's still a great film. Reading the book is a different, great experience.
Patricia Highsmith begins the preface to this book by saying, "This is not a how-to-do-it handbook." Of course the title makes one expect exactly that. Later in the preface, she says, "In this book, I speak a lot about the odd happenings, the coincidences which have led to my writing a few good stories or books." At the time she wrote that, 1966, she had published eleven novels. So then this slim volume is not so much how-to-do-it, but how-she-did-it.
We learn that Highsmith, "never found other writers stimulating. . . . I get along much better with painters, and painting is the art most closely related to writing." She has more to say on this, and, though I'm not convinced, I'm delighted to know she thought so.
In her chapters on "The Germ of an Idea" and "Mainly on Using Experiences" she is eloquent on the subject of keeping notebooks. She relates developing extended descriptions into short stories, but also comments, "Even three or four words are often worth jotting down if they will evoke a thought, an idea or a mood."
I was thrilled to learn she was a fan of afternoon naps, as I am. She says, "I go to sleep with the problem, and wake up with the answer."
She covers lots of grand ideas, and lots of nuts and bolts, but she speaks to me most when she says, "Writing is a way of organizing experience and life itself."
Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith were geniuses at making the bad guy the hero. They didn't invent the idea. For instance, Shakespeare gave us a heroic villain in Richard III. But Highsmith and Thompson created an American art form based on following the bad guy instead of the good guy. Their work carries on today with books like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which, as many have pointed out, every character is a scoundrel.
They seem to have accomplished this almost simultaneously. Thompson published his first suspense novel in 1949; Highsmith published hers in 1950. Thompson published arguably his greatest work, The Killer Inside Me, in 1952; Highsmith published hers, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in 1955.
Their careers ran parallel in several ways. He published twenty-five novels; she published 22. Both of them saw many adaptations for film and television, and their stories continue to be adapted to this day, although Highsmith had notably better luck in her lifetime, beginning with her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's classic film of the same title.
Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921 and grew up there. At that time, Thompson, lived in Fort Worth, working odd jobs, selling his first stories, and gathering experiences that would turn up in his novels.
But for all that, they seem to have been unaware of each other. Andrew Wilson's biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadows, makes no mention of Thompson; Michael J. MacCauley's biography of Thompson, Sleep with the Devil, makes no mention of Highsmith.
Their careers also differ in several ways. Highsmith methodically published a novel about every other year throughout her adult life. Thompson published almost half his novels in just three years: two in 1952, five in 1953, and five in 1954. His biographer, MacCauley, notes these were essentially the only years of his life when he was sober.
The most important difference between them was the point of view they used in their novels. Highsmith wrote in the third person, thus referring to the hero-bad-guy as "he," and she had a good reason for doing so: "I have quite a bit of introspection in my heroes, and to write all this in the first person makes them sound like nasty schemers, which of course they are, but they seem less so if some all-knowing author is telling what is going on in their heads."
Apparently Thompson wasn't concerned what his bad-guys sounded like. He wrote in the first person, referring to the hero as "I." Here's a bit of introspection from Nick Corey the hero of Pop. 1280, recalling why his father beat him, "The fact was, I guess, that he just couldn't stand for me to be any good. If I was any good, then I couldn't be the low-down monster that had killed my own mother in getting born. And I had to be that. He had to have someone to blame."
The Talented Mr. Ripley was my introduction to stories in which we root for the bad guy. I may have read the book before seeing the 1996 film version by Anthony Minghella, with Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwynneth Paltrow, and Philip Seymour Hoffman among others. Either way it was an eye-opener.
Patricia Highsmith's hero, Tom Ripley, seems an ordinary man, just getting by in life, though he does so by running petty scams. In the course of the story he progresses to greater crimes and reaps greater rewards. I admit I was delighted to see it all work out for him. When I shared that with a friend, he said, "No, that movie was a little too dark for me."
Why would we hope he succeeds? Whenever I have encountered grifters and con artists in real life, I have loathed them.
Matt Bird, in The Secrets of Story, says an audience will empathize with any character who is making decisions, doing something difficult, and having to improvise. His prime example is the second half of Hitchcock's Psycho.
So perhaps it's not so much that we are rooting for the bad guy, but rather that we empathize. And maybe we wonder what it would be like to take whatever we want without being bothered by feelings of guilt. But, of course, we would never do that.