Patricia Highsmith made a career for herself as a master of suspense.Graham Greene dubbed her, "the poet of apprehension" which is an apt description. Her protagonists inhabit a world where something bad is bound to happen and it's often in form of a past error coming back to haunt them. Her work isn't horror in the normal sense but she skirts along it with her novels that have an ever-present dark side to them.

Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was a promise of great things ahead for her. Two random men meet on a train, one of them proposes the idea they would swap murders to avoid suspicion. In Hitchcock's adaptation, the main protagonist doesn't become a murderer but the novel is much darker. This was my first of her books and has stayed with me long after reading it.

In The Talented Mr Ripley, our hero Tom Ripley is a small-time con artist who is sent to Europe find an old school friend Dickie Greenleaf. He comes to envy Dickie, murders him, and assumes his identity. The rest of the novel follows him as he weaves a web of lies to cover himself. This isn't just a chronicle of a sociopath but a novel of ever-stretching suspense. This is a pattern that several of her novels follow. A man tells a series of lies that may or may not condemn him to being a suspect.

This happens in The Blunderer when a man who contemplates killing his wife follows her as she goes on a trip but backs out of committing the act. Regardless, he does a great job making himself look culpable after his wife is found dead. What follows is a nerve-wracking series of events that sees him run afoul of a brutal detective, verbally fence with a murderer, and gradually lose the support and faith of his friends. One way or another, his days become numbered. I have rarely seen anxiety so powerfully evoked.

Similarly, in A Suspension of Mercy (AKA The Storyteller). A man and his wife don't get along and so they agree that she can go disappear wherever she wants. The husband is eventually suspected of murdering her and has a rough time of looking innocent. This one is another effective suspense story in which the mercy of his exoneration is unmercifully stretched out.

The wife in Deep Water repeatedly cheats on her husband. He tries to ignore it but at a rare opportunity, he drowns her current lover and spends the rest of the story trying to lie his way out of it. The back and forth between those fighting for and against his innocence drove me crazy. It's a good book but like most of her novels it's a war of words with liars, murder, and a glut of irrational people.

This Sweet Sickness tells of an obsession that a man has for a married woman and an improbable web of lies he creates to cover himself when he kills her husband. This touches on horror somewhat because of the unhealthy, unreasoning degree that this guy is fixated on this woman to the point that he is inflexible in his designs for her. It ended in a way I didn't expect and wasn't wholly satisfied with. Regardless, it's still worth reading.

Highsmith had a rich career that I would like to explore further, particularly with her short fiction. More on her another time.

Written by Nicholas Montelongo

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