The experience of listening to the Ripley Mysteries on CD sent me hurrying back to Andrew Wilson’s exhaustive biography of Ripley’s creator, Patricia Highsmith. Beautiful Shadow was first published six years ago.and it is a diligently researched and most capably written study of a writer who intrigued yet perplexed Wilson, as she did most of the people she met – as well as many of her readers.
Wilson is an experienced journalist, but this was his first book. It’s quite an achievement, and benefits from very extensive research. Wilson draws on Highsmith’s very extensive archive of unpublished personal papers, as well as on frank interviews with many close friends, to paint a portrait of a woman who, for all the richness of her life experiences, seems to have suffered a great deal of unhappiness. Wilson charts her often troubled sex life, her various health problems, and her curious upbringing - as well as her obsession with snails.
All that the book lacks, for my money, is a real sense of Highsmith’s place in literary history, and an assessment of her contribution to the development of the crime genre. She possessed a remarkable talent, which is shown not only in the Ripley books and Strangers on a Train, but also in that splendid study of a murderer, Deep Water. I believe her influence can be seen in the work of notable contemporary writers such as Ruth Rendell, but Wilson doesn’t explore this. He is to be congratulated, though, for having written an important book about a major novelist.
One unique feature of the book also deserves a quick mention. This is the only biography of a woman crime writer that I’ve read that includes a topless photo of the subject. You wouldn’t find anything similar in a book about Christie or Sayers, that’s for sure. The picture, taken when Highsmith was about 21, shows an attractive young woman, which makes it all the more sad when Wilson relates that, in her later years, Highsmith’s plainness of appearance came in for comment. Time didn’t treat her kindly, but it should do no harm to her literary reputation, which in the case of such a remarkable writer really ought to be assured.