A taste for the morbid an eye for the eerie

PATRICIA HlGHSMITH DOESN'T TAKE kindly to strangers. Lured from her home in Switzerland to promote her latest book, the 71-year-old novelist is sitting in the living room of cousin Dan Coates's ranch in Weatherford, Tex., being pestered with questions about her life and work. She frequently bolts from the sofa and paces the floor; at one point she shifts abruptly from one end of the couch to the other. Finally, she simply flees the house to tend to a stray cat who's holed up in the barn.

Eccentric, reclusive and forbiddingly private, Highsmith has recently published Ripley Under Water (Knopf), her fifth novel in a series about the dastardly deeds of Tom Ripley—a charming, utterly amoral gentleman-murderer whom readers can't help but cheer on. A New York Times reviewer called the book a spectacular introduction for the uninitiated to "a natural novelist." But Highsmith devotees have known that for 42 years, ever since she wrote Strangers on a Train (filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951), moved to Europe and started churning out one award-winning novel after another—unsettling, densely layered psychological tales from the dark side. Highsmith, said the late Graham Greene, creates "a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter into each time with a sense of personal danger."

The author herself gets testy when asked to probe the psyche from which her stones spring. The Ripley character, she says, came to her nearly 40 years ago when she saw a man walking on a beach in Positano, Italy. "I wondered why he was there alone at 6 A.M.," she says. "Later I thought of a story about a man sent to Positano on a mission, and maybe he failed." But beyond that, she insists, "the impulses are subtle and completely buried. I do not ever think of suspense or unease when I'm writing. I can't explain where the ideas come from. No, I never try to analyze that, never."

A native of Fort Worth, Highsmith was the only child of commercial artists Mary Coates and Jay Plangman, who separated before she was born. Her mother later married artist Stanley Highsmith, and the family moved to New York City when Patricia was 6. A precocious girl who learned to read before kindergarten, she developed a taste for the morbid early on. Among her favorite books on her parents' shelves was a history of World War I with black-and-white photographs of the trenches. Another was The Human Mind by psychiatrist Karl Menninger, which she read at age 8. "It was a book of case histories—kleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, serial murderers—practically anything that could go wrong mentally," she says. "The very fact that it was real made it more interesting and more important than fairy tales. I saw that the people looked outwardly normal, and I realized there could be such people around me."

She wrote her first short stories at 16, and kept at it while majoring in English at Barnard College in New York City. After graduating in 1942, she cooked up plots and dialogue for a comic book publisher before turning to fiction full-time. Strangers on a Train is the story of a psychopath named Bruno who meets an unhappily married man, murders the man's wife and then demands that the stranger kill Bruno's father in return. Appearing in 1950, the book immediately caught the eye of Hitchcock (who cannily paid $6,800 for film and stage rights in perpetuity—still a sore point with Highsmith). She has since published 20 novels, including The Tremor of Forgery; Found on the Street and Edith's Diary, and seven short-story collections. Popular in Europe and a cult figure in America, she has received numerous honors—among them the O. Henry Memorial and Edgar Allan Poe awards—and her books have been translated into Turkish, Catalan and Japanese, among other languages. Still, Highsmith seems unimpressed: "It's nothing like James Michener, I'm sure."

As peripatetic as she is prolific, Highsmith lived in Italy, England and France before settling 10 years ago in Switzerland, where she has a home outside Locarno. She spends mornings tending to business correspondence and writing letters to friends. (Longtime pen pal Gore Vidal, who says they both share "the same dim view of America," describes their missives as "the really irritable lamentations of two expatriates.") Highsmith writes, on an old manual typewriter, in the afternoons and early evening. She does her own cooking ("simple boring things like spaghetti") and enjoys puttering around in her carpentry studio or doing pen-and-ink portraits of friends. Never married, she is an animal lover who prefers the company of her cat, Charlotte. "I don't like to live with people," she says. "I don't like to talk all the time and adjust my schedule to others."

Late afternoon approaches, and Highsmith, nearly rid of her visitors, peers out the back window of Coates's house. The winds have picked up, ominous thunderheads are closing in, and huge raindrops start rattling on the roof. "Doesn't that sound good!" she cries, her prickliness melting. When marble-size chunks of hail begin pelting the lawn, she becomes positively giddy. "Hail! Dan, they've got hail! Oh, boy!" Punning half under her breath, she mutters, "Hail and farewell."

PAULA CHIN
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Weatherford

  • Contributors:
  • Michael Haederle.