The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar
Photo: Marko Metzinger/Studio D

The Talented Miss Highsmith
By Joan Schenkar
704 pages; St. Martin's


Patricia Highsmith wrote brilliant, spooky novels about hot, sexually ambiguous love affairs and cold-blooded killers. Yet her most famous character, the talented Mr. Ripley, is evil in a way that makes him almost sympathetic. "Pat thought about love the way she thought about murder: as an emotional urgency between two people, one of whom dies in the act," writes Joan Schenkar in this compelling, if disorganized, new biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith . Eccentric from girlhood, Highsmith, born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, grew up beautiful, hard-drinking, primarily attracted to women, and with a dark sense of humor that sometimes made even her close friends cringe: She was the sort who thought that swinging a cat around in circles in a homemade sling was hilarious.

In 1948 her friend Truman Capote recommended Highsmith for the Saratoga Springs writers' colony, Yaddo, where she wrote the first draft of her novel Strangers on a Train —later made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Still, she remained better known in Europe, where she lived first in England, then France, and eventually Switzerland, after French authorities raided her house while investigating her for tax fraud in 1980. There, she continued to write novels and engage in gnarly love affairs, often several at a time; at one point she kept a chart comparing her partners' sexual habits and prowess. But it was Highsmith herself whom Highsmith knew best. "To all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envies, loves, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real, the army of memories with which I do battle," she said in a toast to herself. "May they never give me peace." As Schenkar makes abundantly clear, Highsmith, who lived to be 74 years old, would have taken characteristically perverse pleasure in the fact that they never did.