The Talented Miss Highsmith, Joan Schenkar

This untraditional biography traces the life and loves of Patricia Highsmith, writer of such classics as The Talented Mr. RipleyStrangers on a Train, and The Price of Salt. Characterized by one editor as "the most unloving and unlovable person I've ever known ... a really terrible human being," it's nonetheless hard to look away from these fleeting glimpses of an eccentric. I'd read it again for the disquieting anecdotes alone:  at various points, we see Pat smuggling snails into France by concealing them under her breasts, toting tortoises along to parties, spooking house guests by jumping out at them from behind a tree, flinging dead rats through open windows, leaning over a burning candle at a dinner party to set her hair on fire, scrawling love notes for her mistress on her mirrors with red lipstick, and posing "with terrifying hostility" amid a wall "hung with her saws and hammers."

A fascinating, if rather long, exploration of a woman who perhaps remains unknowable in her strange genius.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith

I've been picking through Highsmith's work here and there, and as many well know, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a classic thriller. Tom Ripley is a model anti-hero, disconcertingly sympathetic even as he's drowning a pal and assuming his identity or thudding the friend of a friend over the head with a heavy ashtray to kill him. Highsmith may have been one of the first to evoke a psychopath so clearly and dispassionately; I saw a bit of her influence in Alissa Nutting's Tampa, where the character of Celeste is a well-drawn predator with a lack of remorse similar to Ripley's own.

Highsmith's life was colorful in its own right; in Carmela Ciuraru's Nom De Plume, I seem to remember an anecdote about Highsmith (who used the pseudonym Claire Morgan to write The Price of Salt) smuggling snails into a country by nesting them in her bosom. Joan Schenkar's The Talented Miss Highsmith is calling to me from the shelf, but it might have to wait until I read the rest of the Ripley books.

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