Patricia Highsmith

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Patricia Highsmith (1988)
Urn grave of Patricia Highsmith in Tegna, Switzerland

Patricia Highsmith (born Mary Patricia Plangman ) (born January 19, 1921 in Fort Worth , Texas , † February 4, 1995 in Locarno , Switzerland ) was an American writer who, however, spent most of her life in Europe. Highsmith also wrote under the pseudonym Claire Morgan .

Patricia Highsmith wrote mostly psychological crime novels as well as contemporary novels. Her work does not focus on solving crimes (" Whodunit "), but rather on the circumstances and motives ("Whydunit") that drive an inconspicuous average person into crime. She was less interested in the moral aspects of their stories than in the inner workings of their protagonists. With her short stories she moved in all genres, including horror and science fiction .

Her first novel Strangers on a Train was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951 and made her famous worldwide. Numerous other novels and stories by Highsmith have been adapted for cinema or television and edited for radio and theater.

Patricia Highsmith's literary work has received numerous awards. One of her first short stories, The Heroine , published in 1945, was voted one of the best American short stories of the year. The American authors' association Mystery Writers of America (MWA) nominated her three times: 1951 for Strangers on a Train in the category "Best First Novel", 1956 for The Talented Mr. Ripley in the category "Best Novel" and 1963 for the short story The Terrapin in the “Best Short Story” category. The MWA's coveted Edgar Allan Poe statue, however, was denied her life. In 1991 her name was on the list of nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature , but the choice fell on the South African Nadine Gordimer .

life and work

Childhood and adolescence

Highsmith's father, Jay Bernhard Plangman (1887–1975), the son of German emigrants, was born in Fort Worth and was a graphic artist by trade. Her mother, Mary Coates (1895–1991), also worked as a graphic designer. Her parents divorced nine days before Patricia's birth, after only 18 months of marriage. The newborn was initially raised in Fort Worth by his grandmother, Willie Mae Coates. Her mother married in 1924 Stanley Highsmith (1901-1970), also a graphic artist by profession. Highsmith only met her birth father when she was twelve.

Together with her mother and stepfather, she moved to New York in 1927 , where she attended Julia Richman High School until 1938. From 1938 to 1942 she studied English literature with a minor in Latin at the renowned Barnard College , which is only open to women. She also took courses in zoology and Greek at times . After graduating from college, Highsmith worked in various jobs, including as a saleswoman in the toy department of a New York department store. When she was still at school, she had written her first stories and poems and recorded her ideas in notebooks. She also occupied herself intensively with drawing and painting and for a long time wavered which occupation she should devote herself to with all her might in the future. While she was in college, some of her stories were published in the student magazine Barnard Quarterly. In 1943 she got a job as a comic book writer and story developer at Fawcett Publishing in New York. A first attempt at a novel called The Click of the Shutting in the early 1940s remained unfinished.

The author


Highsmith was inspired by the book The Human Mind (not published in German) by the German-American psychiatrist Karl A. Menninger , which she found in her parents' bookcase and began to read when she was eight years old. This book, written in popular science, describes people with a wide variety of psychological defects. Highsmith himself described the influence of this book in 1993 with the words:

“They were case stories - kleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, serial killers - practically anything that could go mentally wrong. The fact that these were real cases made it so interesting and far more important than fairy tales. I noticed that these people looked completely normal outwardly and realized that I could be surrounded by such people. "

Her literary models were inter alia. Dostojewski , Friedrich Nietzsche , Edgar Allan Poe , Joseph Conrad , Franz Kafka , Julien Green , Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus .

Early successes

Her short story The Heroine , written in September 1941 , she was able to sell to the fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar in 1944 , which she published in August 1945. The short story was voted one of the best of 1945 by the O. Henry Prize Committee. In the summer of 1948 she received a scholarship for the Yaddo artists' colony in Saratoga Springs , New York State , a foundation that aims to enable artists to work in peace for a while and at the same time to receive new ideas through contact with other artists. Here she wrote large parts of her first novel Strangers on a Train (German title: Zwei Fremde im Zug ), which was published in 1950 and had great success. Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights for US $ 6,800 and filmed the novel in 1951. Raymond Chandler , among others, worked on the script . The film adaptation of her work made Highsmith world famous overnight.

In 1953 she published the novel The Price of Salt , the story of a lesbian love with a happy ending, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan . An encounter with a customer from her time as a saleswoman in the toy department inspired her to write the novel. This woman cast a strange spell on Highsmith. However, there never was a personal encounter - just like later with the "role model" of Ripley. Highsmith chose the pseudonym in order not to be branded as the author of lesbian stories. It was not until 1990 that she publicly acknowledged her authorship. The novel was also a great success. The paperback edition sold nearly a million copies.

These two early successes gave her temporary financial independence that allowed her to travel extensively. These trips took her mainly to Europe and also served to research new novels. She often went to specific places that should play a role in her latest project. Sometimes, however, she was only inspired to create a new work during the journey, be it through the setting or through encounters with people.

Tom Ripley

Highsmith's work is often identified with her most popular fictional character, Tom Ripley. The sight of a young man, presumably an American, running alone on the beach at Positano , was the starting point for the creation of two opposing, outwardly similar main characters who were later named Tom Ripley and Richard Greenleaf. Ripley is an amoral, hedonistic criminal who doesn't shy away from murder. In contrast to other of her fictional characters, Ripley is not tormented by a permanent guilty conscience, but acts according to the motto "The end justifies the means": Highsmith, well-known in interviews, repeats her fascination for "evil" and its victory over "good". In the first novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley ( The Talented Mr. Ripley , 1955), Ripley murdered a rich American (Richard "Dickie" Greenleaf) and assumed his identity in order to live a carefree bohemian life with his money without regular work to be able to lead. The book was a great success with readers and critics and was among others. awarded the prestigious French Grand prix de littérature policière .

The book gained additional popularity in 1960 when it was made into a film by René Clément with Alain Delon as Ripley (German film title: Nur die Sonne was Zeuge ). The film's conventional ending, however, ran counter to the spirit of the original. 1999 was followed by another film adaptation of the material by Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon in the role of Tom Ripley (German film title: The talented Mr. Ripley ).

Although Highsmith had plans for a sequel as early as 1958, another novel about the dazzling main character, Ripley Under Ground , was not published until 1970 , followed by three more: Ripley's Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley ( The Boy Who Followed Ripley , 1980) and Ripley Under Water (1991) (the German editions have mostly retained the original American titles). Some of these sequels were also filmed; the best known of these is Wim Wenders ' 1977 film Der American Freund (based on Ripley's Game ) with Dennis Hopper in the role of Tom Ripley.

All five novels were also edited as radio plays between 1989 and 1992 under different directors.

Other works

Highsmith's other works also found their audiences, although these enjoyed greater popularity in Europe than in the USA. While the Ripley novels are more superficial (consumption and a refined lifestyle play a major role) and action-packed, one can find descriptions of psychological and social erosion processes in her other novels. A frequent starting point are two antagonizing , apparently opposing, but conscious or unconscious dependencies between protagonists ( Strangers on a Train , The Blunderer , The Two Faces of January , Those Who Walk Away ). In This Sweet Sickness and The Cry of the Owl , she examined characters driven by obsession. In later novels such as The Tremor of Forgery , A Dog's Ransom or People Who Knock on the Door , the criminal act faded more and more into the background in favor of depicting people and milieus.

Her shorter narratives include both pointed short stories with a pronounced sense of macabre and black humor as well as character studies with a startling outcome ( The Terrapin , When the Fleet was in at Mobile ).

In addition to her narrative work, Highsmith published the essay Plotting and writing suspense fiction in 1966 , a kind of workshop report . In 1958 she illustrated the children's book Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda ; her friend Doris Sanders wrote the text. In 1995 Diogenes Verlag published a volume with drawings by Patricia Highsmith. Sporadically, Highsmith also tried scripts, theater and radio adaptations, but with little success.

Life in Europe

In 1963 she moved to Europe, where she rarely stayed in the same place for more than a few years. After spending several months in the southern Italian fishing village and artist town of Positano , she lived in the United Kingdom from late 1963 to 1967 , in France in the Fontainebleau area from 1967 to 1981 and finally from 1981 in Italian-speaking Switzerland.

On February 4, 1995, she died of cancer in a hospital in Locarno . She was buried in the cemetery of her last place of residence, Tegna, in Ticino . She appointed the Yaddo Artists' Colony Foundation as main heir, where she lived for three months in 1948 and wrote her first novel. She had already supported this foundation with several generous donations during her lifetime.


The classification of Patricia Highsmith's literary work is internationally inconsistent. In Europe she is classified as a writer of high literary rank. The American literary critic Michael Dirda wrote about them:

“Europeans revere her as the author of psychological novels, as part of an existentialist tradition to which the writers she admires also belong. In particular, Dostoevsky , Conrad , Kafka , Gide and Camus should be mentioned . "

In her native country, the United States, she was not as highly regarded as in Europe, despite her early successes. To this day, her first novel, Strangers on a Train, is the best-known in the USA, to which, according to Martha Hailey Dubose, the film adaptation by Hitchcock contributed in particular. It has only recently been rediscovered by a wider audience in the United States. Here, more than in Europe, she had to struggle with the pigeonhole thinking of publishers and critics. For some she was too literary for a crime writer, for the writers she was too much a crime writer. Even when she was already an established writer, her books were repeatedly rejected by publishers or asked to rewrite or shorten manuscripts. On the other hand, she was highly valued by many fellow European writers such as Peter Handke , Graham Greene and Gabriele Wohmann . The British literary critic Julian Symons described her as the most important living author of crime literature as early as 1985. Martha Halley Dubose also attributes this different assessment to the fact that her European reading public was more willing to accept a psychopathic hero like Tom Ripley, who not only escapes punishment, but also shows no remorse.

Patricia Highsmith's novels and short stories have been translated into 25 languages, including most European languages ​​and Japanese. The first translations into German were not published by Rowohlt Verlag until the early 1960s . From 1968 her works were published by Diogenes Verlag , Zurich , which has been the worldwide literary agent of her works since 1980. Since 1993 the publisher has held the world rights to their entire works.

Work edition

In 2002 Diogenes Verlag began a complete new translation of their work, which will comprise a total of 31 volumes and a volume of materials and should be completed in 2006. The editors are Paul Ingendaay and Anna von Planta. On this occasion it was also learned that many Highsmith novels had previously only been published in German in abbreviated versions, including by Rowohlt, but also by Diogenes, although the abbreviations were not mentioned. Her first novel Strangers on a Train was shortened by about a third in the German first edition. A later, more complete, but still incomplete edition by Diogenes Verlag was sold as the “first complete edition” in the copyright notice. In the afterwords of the new editions there is no indication of which passages were shortened and why. In addition, the new translations allowed themselves minor freedoms and omissions.

At times, Diogenes distributed the newly edited and supplemented bound editions and the earlier incomplete paperback editions in parallel. The paperback editions are only gradually being converted.

The Highsmith estate, which comprises around 50 running meters of shelf, is kept in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern . In addition to the manuscripts, it mainly consists of letters, diaries and notebooks in which she sketched the ideas for her novels and stories. In 2003, the British journalist Andrew Wilson published an extensive biography under the title Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (Eng. Beautiful shadow. The life of Patricia Highsmith ).


Patricia Highsmith has published 22 novels, five of them starring Tom Ripley. In addition, she wrote a large number of short stories that were published in a total of seven anthologies during her lifetime. The most important stories from the estate were published in two volumes in German in 2002 and in English in a one-volume edition in the same year. The dates of publication of the completed new translations of the Diogenes edition are marked with “Diogenes-WA”.

Ripley novels

Other novels

  • Strangers on a Train (1950; German 1967 Alibi for two , Rowohlt; 1974 Two Strangers on a Train ; Diogenes-WA 2001, translated by Melanie Walz, ISBN 3-257-06401-2 )
  • The Price of Salt (1952, published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; 1990 WA Carol under her own name ; Ger . 1990 Carol ; Diogenes; -WA 2005, Salz und seine Preis , translated by Melanie Walz, ISBN 3-257-06402- 0 )
  • The Blunderer (1954; German 1962 Der Stümper , Rowohlt; 1974 Der Stümper ; Diogenes-WA 2005, newly translated by Melanie Walz, ISBN 3-257-23403-1 )
  • Deep Water (1957; German 1963 Still waters are deep , Rowohlt; 1976 deep water ; Diogenes-WA 2003, translated by Nikolaus Stingl . ISBN 3-257-23405-8 )
  • A Game for the Living (1958; German 1969 Tod im Dreieck , Rowohlt; 1979 A Game for the Living ; Diogenes-WA 2005, translated by Bernhard Robben ISBN 3-257-23406-6 )
  • This Sweet Sickness (1960; German 1964 Der süße Wahn ; Diogenes-WA 2003, translated by Christa E. Seibicke, ISBN 3-257-06407-1 )
  • The Cry of the Owl (1962; Ger. 1964 The girl behind the window , Rowohlt; 1976 The Cry of the Owl ; Diogenes-WA 2002, translated by Irene Rumler, ISBN 3-257-06408-X )
  • The Two Faces of January (1964; German 1966 Accident on Crete , Rowohlt; 1976 The Two Faces of January ; Diogenes-WA 2003, translated by Werner Richter, ISBN 3-257-06409-8 )
  • The Glass Cell (1964; German 1966 The invisible grid , Rowohlt; 1976 The glass cell ; Diogenes-WA 2003, translated by Werner Richter, ISBN 3-257-06410-1 )
  • A Suspension of Mercy (1965, US title The Story-Teller ; German 1967 Murder with two carbon copies , Rowohlt; 1977 The Storyteller ; Diogenes-WA 2006, translated by Matthias Jendis, ISBN 3-257-06411-X )
  • Those Who Walk Away (1967; German 1968 Venice can be very cold ; Diogenes-WA 2004, translated by Matthias Jendis, ISBN 3-257-06412-8 )
  • The Tremor of Forgery (1969; German 1970 Das Zittern des Forgery ; Diogenes-WA 2001, translated by Dirk van Gunsteren , ISBN 3-257-06413-6 )
  • A Dog's Ransom (1972; German 1974 ransom for a dog ; Diogenes-WA 2002, translated by Christa E. Seibicke, ISBN 3-257-20345-4 )
  • Edith's Diary (1977; German 1980 Edith's diary ; Diogenes-WA 2003, translated by Irene Rumler, ISBN 3-257-23417-1 )
  • People Who Knock on the Door (1983; Ger. 1983 People who knock on the door ; Diogenes-WA 2006, translated by Manfred Allié , ISBN 3-257-06419-5 )
  • Found in the Street (1986; German 1986 Elsies lust for life ; Diogenes-WA 2004, translated by Dirk van Gunsteren, ISBN 3-257-06420-9 )
  • Small g - A Summer Idyll (1995; German 1996 Small g - Eine Sommeridylle ; Diogenes-WA 2006, translated by Matthias Jendis, ISBN 3-257-06422-5 )

Stories (collective editions)

  • Eleven (1970, US title The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories ; German 1973 Collected Stories , later Der Schneckenforscher ; Diogenes-WA 2005, translated by Dirk van Gunsteren, ISBN 3-257-23423-6 )
  • The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (1975; German Small Murder Stories for Animal Lovers ; Diogenes-WA 2004, translated by Melanie Walz, ISBN 3-257-06424-1 )
  • Little Tales of Misogyny (1975; German little stories for misogynists ; Diogenes-WA 2004)
  • Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (1979; German 1979 Leise, Leise im Wind ; Diogenes-WA 2004, translated by Werner Richter, ISBN 3-257-06425-X )
  • The Black House (1981; Ger. 1984 None of us ; Diogenes-WA 2005, translated by Matthias Jendis, ISBN 3-257-23426-0 )
  • Mermaids on the Golf Course (1985; German 1987 Mermaids on the golf course ; Diogenes-WA 2005, translated by Melanie Walz and Matthias Jendis , ISBN 3-257-06427-6 )
  • Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987; German 1990 stories of natural and unnatural catastrophes )
  • Nothing that Meets the Eye - The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith (2002; Ger. 2002 in two volumes: Die stille Mitte der Welt , early Stories 1938–1949, translated by Melanie Walz, Die Augen der Mrs. Blynn , late Stories 1952– 1982, translated by Christa E. Seibicke, Diogenes-WA 2002, Volume 1 ISBN 3-257-06429-2 , Volume 2 ISBN 3-257-23430-9 )

Other publications

  • Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda (1958, children's book, drawings by Patricia Highsmith, text by Doris Sanders)
  • Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966, essay; Ger. 1990 Suspense or How to write a thriller )
  • Patricia Highsmith - Drawings (1995, Diogenes Verlag)


  • The Click of the Shutting (1943, unfinished)
  • The Traffic of Jacob's Ladder (1952, manuscript has been lost)
  • The Straightforward Lie (1959/60)

Film adaptations (selection)

In 1982 the documentary Patricia Highsmith: A Gift for Murder ran on the British broadcaster London Weekend Television / ITV's The South Bank Show . In this scenes from Ripley Under Ground were dramatized (with Jonathan Kent as Tom Ripley ).

Radio plays (selection)

  • 1985: The Owl's Cry - Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR)
  • 1989: The talented Mr. Ripley - Hessischer Rundfunk (HR) / Südwestrundfunk (SWF) / NDR, editor: Peter Liermann
  • 1989: Ripley Under Ground - HR / SWF, editor: Peter Liermann
  • 1990: Ripley's Game - HR / SWF / NDR, editor: Peter Liermann
  • 1991: The boy who followed Ripley - HR / SWF / NDR, editor: Peter Liermann
  • 1992: Ripley Under Water - HR / SWF / NDR, editor: Peter Liermann
  • 1991: The heroine - Austrian radio
  • 1994: Two strangers on the train - Süddeutscher Rundfunk / NDR
  • 2003: Enchanted Windows - HR, directed by Norbert Schaeffer
  • 2005: Deep Water - Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln (WDR)
  • 2006: Ransom for a dog - WDR, editorial office Götz Schmedes
  • 2009: The Complete Ripley - BBC Radio 4

Audiobooks (selection)




  • Andrew Wilson: Nice shade. The life of Patricia Highsmith. Translation from English Anette Grube, Susanne Röckel. Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 2004
  • Franz Cavigelli, Fritz Senn, Anna von Planta (eds.): Patricia Highsmith. Life and work. Zurich 1996 (to be reissued in an expanded form as part of the work edition)
  • Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery - The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists . Thomas Dunne Books, New York 2011, ISBN 978-0-312-27655-3 .
  • Marijane Meaker : My years with Pat. Translation from English Manfred Allié. Zurich: Diogenes, 2005. ISBN 3-257-06498-5
  • Joan Schenkar : The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith . St. Martin's Press, New York 2009 (German. The talented Miss Highsmith. From the American. By Renate Orth-Guttmann, Katrin Betz and Anna-Nina Kroll. Diogenes, Zurich 2015, ISBN 978-3-257-06898-6 ( Kathrin Meier-Rust: She hated children, but loved cats , NZZ , January 25, 2015))

Secondary literature

  • Roland Hoja: Ripley & C0. The seven deadly sins of the petty bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie and decadent ingenuity in the main characters in the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Wuppertal 2011. ISBN 978-3-935421-68-3

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 327.
  2. Joan Schenkar "The Misfit and Her Muses" , Wall Street Journal , December 8, 2009, p. A19
  3. Quoted from Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 326. The original quote is: It was a book of case Historie - kleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, serial murderers - practically anything that could go wrong mentally. The very fact that it was real made it more interesting and more important than fair tales. I saw that the people looked outwardly normal, and I realized there could be such people around me.
  4. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 327.
  5. Happily ever after, at last: Patricia Highsmith on the inspiration for Carol. The Daily Telegraph , November 11, 2015, accessed December 22, 2015 .
  6. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 329.
  7. a b Andrew Wilson: Beautiful shadow. The life of Patricia Highsmith , Berlin 2004.
  8. In the Yaddo News, Special Edition, Spring 1998, which was published especially for this donation, the foundation writes: “Patricia Highsmith's bequest of more than $ 3 million is the largest single gift Yaddo has received since it was founded in 1900 (.. .). “ The documents relating to the detailed legacy are in the Swiss Literary Archives (SLA) in Bern, but are blocked until 2013.
  9. ^ "This Woman Is Dangerous" The New York Review of Books . July 2, 2009. The original quote is: Europeans honored her as a psychological novelist, part of an existentialist tradition represented by her own favorite writers, in particular Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Gide, and Camus
  10. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 329.
  11. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 335.
  12. ^ Martha Hailey Dubose: Women of Mystery , p. 336.
  13. See the talented Mr. Ripley as an example .
  14. Belle Ombre (dt. Beautiful shadow ) is the name of the house of Highsmith's fictional character Tom Ripley.
  15. see winner of the category Best First-Published Story at Random House, NY (English)
  16. See AFP breaking news on the death of Patricia Highsmith, February 4, 1995, 3:08 pm Eastern Time
  17. see Patricia Highsmith . In: Internationales Biographisches Archiv 02/2005 from January 15, 2005
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on July 13, 2005 .