Patricia Highsmith: The Black House

Over the past year or two I’ve become a swooning admirer of Patricia Highsmith’s. I had read a couple of the Ripley novels before that, but when Bloomsbury began to reissue her other books in handsome new jackets, I discovered her extraordinary suspense novels. The best of these were her titles from the 1950s and 60s, like Deep Water, This Sweet Sickness and The Cry of the Owl. Three more will be published in October of this year, which seems a long way away; so to tide me over until then I read her collection of stories The Black House.

It’s fairly clear that in 1981, when this collection was first published, Highsmith had her best work behind her, and although it’s a stronger range of stories than 1987’s bizarrely bad Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, it’s a real mixed bag.

Several of the stories, such as “Something the Cat Dragged In” and “Not One of Us,” turn on stretches of implausibility which may have passed unnoticed over the length of a novel, but which jar in a twenty-page story. They feel draft-like, and insufficiently worked out. Others have the air of being workings for her novels, and end abruptly, as though Highsmith ran out of patience, or interest. As ever, her prose is rarely more than functional, and when there’s no distracting style, the weaknesses show all the more clearly.

The best are those which combine Highsmith’s high-grade interest in human venality and perversity, with a snappier storyline. “When in Rome” has a rich society wife bribing her stalker to kidnap her husband. “Under a Dark Angel’s Eye” shows a man who’s had thousands of dollars stolen from him by his lawyer, finding that the world (or Highsmith’s world) has a way of exacting revenge. “Blow It” approaches a potentially farcical situation – one man, two girlfriends – and makes something satisfying and complete from it.

Perhaps the strangest and most interesting story in the collection is “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” where a woman becomes spooked by her own easy ability to repair a basket, fearing that some atavistic impulse or collective consciousness is at work in her, and that “she was part of the stream of evolution of the human race”:

She felt that she was living with a great many people from the past, that they were in her brain or mind, and that people from human antecedents were bound up with her, influencing her, controlling her every bit as much as, up to now, she had been controlling herself.

It shows Highsmith stretching herself beyond her normal boundaries and abilities: though it’s those ‘normal’ abilities that make her such an interesting writer, and that have me counting down the days until October.


  1. I read loads of Patricia Highsmith when I was younger and swooned myself. Really must reread some of them. What I remember most is that she seemed to be taking crime fiction into a new realm of deep psychological analysis of odd and deranged minds, a major departure from the conventional Agatha Christie-style whodunnit formula. I read a lot of Ruth Rendell for the same reason, though her work seemed to get progressively blander as her fame increased and I gave up on her many years ago.

  2. Hi Nick, good to hear from you again. Well it’s interesting you should say that as I have practically no tolerance for crime fiction of any kind, with the exception of Highsmith. I don’t know what it is about her. Part of the appeal may be that when there is a straightforward killing plot, it’s usually more about getting away with it than getting caught (see the ‘Ripleiad’). She even manages in some books, notionally suspense novels of adultery and murder, to have no sex and no death and still make it thrilling. She did try to stretch her wings with later work though it’s less successful: from the 1970s I loved Edith’s Diary but didn’t think so much of The Tremor of Forgery or Those Who Walk Away.

    The next three in October are People Who Knock on the Door and Found in the Street (both 80s novels, should be… interesting) and one from her classic 50s period, A Game for the Living. If you have memories of any of these, please share your thoughts! (Of course I could get US editions easily enough, but I just love those Bloomsbury covers…)

  3. Sorry John, it’s such a long time since I read her that my memory of her books is too hazy to remember the pros and cons of particular titles. Certainly the Ripliad are the ones I remember best – really creepy and sinister and intense. As I said, I must revisit them all one day.

  4. Sorry to dredge up an old post, John, but (given your excellent review of the Cheever bio) I’m wondering if your “swooning admiration” of Highsmith means you’ll be picking up the new Highsmith biography? I’ve never read her (one of those unexplainable gaps) but have the Ripley books on hand and was planning to dip in early in the New Year. I’m not a biography reader, but do find that your reviews of them give me all the information that I require.

  5. As it happens, Kevin, I do have the Highsmith biography (if you mean Andrew Taylor’s Beautiful Shadow), though I have used it so far simply as a reference work when reading her books – after I read each novel I would check the biography to find out about the writing process, publication, reception and so on. I don’t have it on my radar to read anytime soon (as with Bailey’s Yates, which I also have) – in fact, thinking on it, the Cheever is I believe the first substantial biography I have ever read.

    The Ripley books are certainly worth your time, particularly the first three (The Talented Mr Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game) and I also recommend – if I haven’t mentioned them already – titles such as The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water, Edith’s Diary, This Sweet Sickness and The Blunderer. I do look forward to seeing what you make of her.

    1. Actually, I was referring to the new one by Joan Schenkar (NY Times has a review up) — I’d a vague impression of Highsmith as a character, but that was about all. I’m quite looking forward to starting into the Ripley series — there’s nothing quite like a first start on a new author with a lengthy backlist. And then I can start scratching my head about why I never got to her before.

  6. Beautiful Shadow is an excellent portrait of a troubled person with an incredible talent. I’m not sure I would have liked to know her, but she’s one of the few authors whose entire catalogue I’m sure I will one day reread. I’ve read all her stuff and apart from the last couple of novels, I love every single one of them. If I had to chose a couple of favorites, I would mention Deep Water and This Sweet Sickness. Victor van Allen and David Kelsey are characters you can’t forget.

    I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the new Highsmith biography one day, but another book deserves a mention: Highsmith’s own “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” in which she talks about her novels.It’s a great insight into her writing.

  7. Thanks for the comment, Alfred, and for bumping this post up again. I’m eagerly awaiting the reissue of more of Highsmith’s novels in the UK, which has been put off for the last couple of years for some reason. (You’ll see up above that in April ’07 I said they were due out in October of that year… so that’s three years’ delay so far!) Of course I could buy them on imported editions, but I like the way Bloomsbury in the UK have been repackaging them. I agree with you about Deep Water and This Sweet Sickness. I’d add to that list The Cry of the Owl.

  8. Hello

    I’ve stumbled across your blog and am enjoying the eclectic range of work written about.

    I agree with a lot of wat you write about Highsmith but would recommend you try ‘The Tremor of Forgery’ again. I would say it’s her masterpiece. It unravels slowly but brilliantly, goes off on weird strands (the novel within the novel; some Bowlesesque interludes) and at no time do you feel the central ‘mystery’ (man being bashed with a typewriter) will ever be resolved. The novel’s all the better for it.

  9. Thanks Chris. Yes, I should try The Tremor of Forgery again. Your bringing this post up again also reminds me of my everpresent bugbear – when oh when are Bloomsbury going to release those three Highsmith novels (A Game for the Living, Found in the Street and People Who Knock at the Door) they’ve been promising since 2007?? Each time publication date comes and goes with no sign of them. They’re presently listed as having been published in October 2010, but still unavailable.

  10. You’re not alone on The Tremor of Forgery. I got some mild enjoyment out of it, but I doubt that I would have ever picked up another Highsmith if it had been my first. The fact that so many fans and critics call it her masterpiece is a mystery to me. The Cry of the Owl is far better. But then I’m in the minority in thinking that Ripley’s Game is her best novel — so far, I’ve only encountered one other person who agrees with me on that.

    I have Schenkar’s 700-page biography of Highsmith. I started reading it but gave up about 100 pages in, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever continue. It’s disjointed and incoherent and yet incredibly self-indulgent. It starts off with a tiny interesting fragment of the adult Highsmith’s life, then goes back to her childhood, and proceeds to bore the shit out of the reader with useless and irrelevant details. What do Highsmith’s 17th century ancestors have to do with anything? Nothing, and Schenkar should have known better. Looking at the table of contents, I saw that I was in for 14 chapters (?!) devoted to Highsmith’s love life, and I was in no mood for that.

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