There is no doubt that Patricia Highsmith was one of those enigmatic, hard-to-pin-down authors, who hated being labelled a “crime writer”. An author of numerous psychological thrillers and mysteries, including the Tom Ripley series, and Strangers on a Train – which was famously adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock – Highsmith is known for her tales of the dark side of the human mind, about skilled frauds, imposters, murderers and stalkers.
In 1952 she also wrote – under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan – The Price of Salt, an explicit novel about a lesbian love affair, which was partially based on Highsmith’s own experiences. Infamous for her reclusiveness and her occasional unstable mental state, Highsmith makes the perfect subject for Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer, a fictional take on Highsmith’s life that presents an intriguing mash-up of the writer’s real life and her fictional obsessions.
The Crime Writer focuses on Highsmith’s stay in small-town Suffolk, in England, where she is hiding from a stalker, or obsessed fan, and carrying on a secret affair with a married lover. Fond of daytime drinking, breeding snails and avoiding the local neighbours, Highsmith is dismayed when a young journalist named Ginny tracks her down for an interview and persuades her to give an interview for the BBC. Surrounded by potential exposure of her secret life, and with a shadowy childhood past ever looming, events spiral out of control amidst Highsmith’s attempts to live a quiet and simple life away from public attention.
Jill Dawson is an experienced novelist and crafts her plot and characters beautifully. Under Dawson’s well – honed writing skills Highsmith’s life emerges akin to many of Highsmith’s own protagonists, where madness, fear and unspeakable dark acts lurk around every corner, slowly blurring the lines between what is real and what is imagined. None of the characters are necessarily likeable or trustworthy, least of all the fictional Highsmith herself, yet Dawson slowly draws the reader into their fate.
For fans of Highsmith’s writing there will be many detectable parallels between Highsmith’s themes, plotlines and characters, and the fictionalisation of her life in The Crime Writer. A fascinating read to the end, The Crime Writer is also a dark exploration of the process of writing, and the particular demons that might drive us to be creative, but in the end ultimately challenge our sanity.