Books & Literature

Book Review: Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith, by Richard Bradford

BIOGRAPHY: In this new biography, Richard Bradford brings his sharp, incisive style to one of the great and most controversial writers of the twentieth century.

A strangely critical, yet fascinating, biography

From her first published novel, Strangers on a Train in 1950, Patricia Highsmith was a divisive literary figure. This year, the 100th anniversary of her birth, renowned academic and biographer Richard Bradford has written a book that delves into the enigma that was Highsmith. 

After Alfred Hitchcock snapped up the film rights to her first novel barely before it hit the shelves, Highsmith’s notoriety was assured. She went on to write over 20 novels, and several other works, including short-story collections. Her most famous creation was Tom Ripley, the eponymous anti-hero of The Talented Mr Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, and three other novels. 

Although generally considered a thriller-writer, her work sits uncomfortably across genres. All have aspects of the psychological thriller, yet they rarely follow the expected pattern and rhythm of that style. They are perhaps best described as roman noirs. 

What Bradford digs into most in this book is Highsmith’s private life. He reveals a person of voracious sexual appetite, who left a string of broken women behind her, and yet who was constantly falling in love like a teenager. Her eccentricities, such as keeping live snails in her handbag, often tipped over into unacceptable, and possibly slightly “mad” behaviour, such as releasing them all over the table at a dinner party. Time and again we see her verbally abusing friends, lovers, and family, sinking into unrepentant alcoholism, and swapping affections from woman to woman with dizzying speed. 

Sitting at the heart of this biography are Highsmith’s “cahiers”: the notebooks-cum-diaries she kept throughout her life. Much of what she wrote in them was embellished, or plain fictional. Sometimes she would write one several years after an event. These cahiers are a gift to a biographer, not so much for what they reveal about the writer’s life, but for what they show about her mind. Bradford skillfully weaves the writings in the cahiers to the development of Highsmith’s characters, particularly Ripley. 

There is no expectation that a difficult woman like Highsmith will come out of a biography smelling like roses. Yet this work is unrelenting in its clear dislike of her. Interestingly, Highsmith garnered extraordinary loyalty from friends and ex-lovers, despite her apparently awful personality. It feels as if Bradford has skimmed over this fact, rather than choosing to interrogate it. 

Even more fascinating for a literary biography is the fact that Bradford obviously doesn’t rate her work very highly. Each novel is criticised in terms of plot and character development, leaving the reader to wonder why he chose this subject in the first place. Save us from hagiography, by all means, but is the only other option complete assassination? 

Despite this (or perhaps because of it?), Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires is a riveting read which moves at an unusually cracking pace for a biography.  For those who love her work, it gives insight into the people and events that shaped much of her writing. As far as her life goes, it creates more questions than it answers. 

And it certainly makes one want to dive back into Ripley. 

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten 
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

Distributed by: Bloomsbury
Released: 30 March 2021 
RRP: $39.99

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