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The Essential Patricia Highsmith

Get acquainted with her darkly compelling world

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • May 23, 2023

Crime novelist Patricia Highsmith was a mass of contradictions. She was famously conflicted about her gender and sexuality. Her personal journals reveal her creative prowess, as well as darker aspects of her life, i.e., self-destructive streaks, contentious relationships, and bigoted views such as anti-Semitism. Her internal struggles no doubt fueled her work and her lasting legacy as a master of psychological suspense.

Over the past few months, two upcoming films have been announced that will center on the life of the idiosyncratic author. Helen Mirren will play Highsmith in Switzerland, a fictional thriller whose plot will mirror one of the author's Tom Ripley Novels. The Murderous Miss Highsmith will reimagine the author's life as a horror movie. The film will star Shailene Woodley as Highsmith, as well as Cara Delevingne and Noémie Merlant as two of her lovers. Both films are set to begin filming later this year. In the meantime, here are our picks for the essential Patricia Highsmith reading list, including books by and about the author.

The Talented Miss Highsmith

Highsmith had a life as darkly compelling as that of her favorite "hero-criminal," Tom Ripley. Joan Schenkar maps out the author's richly bizarre life from her birth in Texas to her long, strange self-exile in Europe. It's a compulsive page-turner, a book worthy of Highsmith herself.

Strangers on a Train 

Two men meet as fellow passengers on the titular train. Guy is a successful architect in the midst of divorce. Bruno, a sadistic psychopath, manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. "Some people are better off dead," Bruno remarks. The book is the basis of a 1951 film by Alfred Hitchock.

The Talented Mr. Ripley 

Highsmith compared herself to Tom Ripley, the subject of a series. This thriller, set in seaside Italy, was adapted into a 1999 film, starring Matt Damon as Ripley, a charismatic sociopath who insinuates himself into the life of wealthy playboy Dickie Greenleaf. A new Ripley limited series is set to air on Netflix.

Flung Out of Space

Veteran comics creators Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer have teamed up to tell Highsmith's own story—reimagining the events that gave her the idea for The Price of Salt, her beloved tale of homosexual love that was the first of its kind: one in which the lesbian protagonists find a happy ending.

The Price of Salt 

A chance encounter between two lonely women leads to a passionate romance in this lesbian cult classic. Therese is a struggling young sales clerk, and Carol, a homemaker in the midst of a bitter divorce. This book inspired the acclaimed film Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

Deep Water

The subject of a recent film adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, this novel examines the loveless marriage of Vic and Melinda, held together by a precarious arrangement. Melinda is allowed to take lovers in lieu of a messy divorce. But eventually, Vic's jealousy drives him to extreme measures.

The Two Faces of January

Suffused with a sense of slow, creeping unease, this chilling tale of suspense centers on a grifter who becomes entangled in the sordid schemes of a couple he meets in a grubby Athens hotel. A film version stars Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac.

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction 

In this lively portrait of a novelist at work, Highsmith draws upon her own experience as a working writer. She shares her process from idea to execution, illustrating her points with examples from her own work and sharing her inspirations, false starts, dead ends, successes, and failures.

The Cry of the Owl 

In a small Pennsylvania town, Robert Forrester is recuperating from a nasty divorce and a bout of psychological trouble. One evening, while driving home, he sees a pretty, young woman framed by her bright kitchen window. Soon, he can't keep himself away. A film version stars Julia Stiles and Paddy Considine.

The Glass Cell 

Inspired by correspondence with an inmate who was a fan of her work, Highsmith concocted this tale of a man falsely convicted of fraud and subjected to six lonely, drug-ravaged years in prison. Rife with overtones of Dostoyevsky, the 1964 novel offers a still-relevant portrait of prison life.

You can also check out the documentary, Loving Highsmith, a unique look at Highsmith's life based on her diaries and notebooks, as well as intimate reflections from her lovers, friends, and family.

As always, we love hearing from you. Let us know about your favorite Highsmith titles. You can follow us on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram for daily book recommendations, literary tidbits, and more.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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