The life of Patricia Highsmith was as secretive and unusual as that of many of the best-known characters who people her "peerlessly disturbing" thrillers and short stories. Yet even as her work has found new popularity in the last few years, the life of this famously elusive writer has remained a mystery.
For Beautiful Shadow, the first biography of Highsmith, British journalist Andrew Wilson mined the vast archive of diaries, notebooks, and letters she left behind, astonishing in their candor and detail. He interviewed her closest friends and colleagues as well as some of her many lovers. But Wilson also traces Highsmith's literary roots in the work of Poe, noir, and existentialism, locating the influences that helped distinguish Highsmith's writing so startlingly from more ordinary thrillers. The result is both a serious critical biography and one that reveals much about a brilliant and contradictory woman, one who despite her acclaim and affairs always maintained her solitude.
While British journalist Wilson's portrait of Highsmith (1921 1995) is neither graceful nor fluid, it is as haunting and as chilling as the stories and novels Highsmith crafted over more than 50 productive years. The author of Strangers on a Train and five novels featuring the amoral and murderous Tom Ripley, Highsmith achieved considerable critical acclaim in her native United States, but never sold well here. She was better received in Europe and that was where she made her home. The biographer's exhaustive attention to detail coupled with his access to Highsmith's journals (or "cahiers," as she called them) and letters, and extensive interviews with her friends, lovers and associates, allow him to reveal in excruciating detail this very private person. Highsmith emerges as a woman of great intelligence, candor and curiosity, but also as a racially prejudiced, anti-Semitic and insensitive boor. She was an acute observer capable of seizing a single incident and transforming it into a complex story. But she was unable to transform her own unhappy life. Instead she transmuted her troubles, her experiences, her observations into her work. One of her lovers observed, "If she hadn't had her work, she would have been sent to an insane asylum or an alcoholics' home.... She was her writing." Highsmith's work has had an important impact on both crime fiction and gay and lesbian fiction, and Wilson has impressively documented that as well as the tremendous cost Highsmith paid for her achievements. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.