Paperback Writers: Classic Patricia Highsmith

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Guilt was Patricia Highsmith’s great theme. In her books even the good know they’re not innocent, and they carry an apprehension that they too will be found out. “Night was falling quickly, with visible speed like a black sea creeping over the earth,” reflects Robert Forester at the beginning of “The Cry of the Owl” (Grove: 272 pp., $14), one of her lesser-known works from 1963 and one of her most unsettling. Which is saying plenty.

Forester is driving through the woods of Pennsylvania, about to do something he knows he shouldn’t. He’s an ordinary, decent guy and has a good job as an engineer with a firm called Langley Aeronautics. But he’s recently divorced and depressed, and he likes to stand in the dark, watching a woman he doesn’t know through her kitchen window. He sees her frying chicken or hanging the curtains or setting the table for dinner. He never gets close enough to tell whether she’s pretty or not, but he already knows she has a boyfriend she likes. She drives a light-blue Volkswagen. The happiness that Robert imputes to the life of this woman he’s never met calms him and gives him comfort. He genuinely wants the best for her. Yet he’s a voyeur, and doesn’t he deserve to be punished? He will be, beyond all measure.

Highsmith is famous for her story set-ups, the sometimes outrageous twists that get her books going: the murder-swap idea in “Strangers on a Train,” or Tom Ripley whacking Dickie Greenleaf with the boat-hook and then fearfully and compulsively assuming his identity in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” In “The Cry of the Owl,” this moment occurs when Jenny, the woman Forester has been watching, sees him and doesn’t call the cops or run away. Rather, she invites him in, and they start to talk. His plight calls out to her own inner darkness and need.

The relationship between stalker and victim is subtly turned on its head, as so often in Highsmith, and that’s the beginning of a nightmare whose active demons will be Greg, Jenny’s seemingly clean-cut and ordinary boyfriend, and Nickie, Robert’s ex-wife — a scheming, taunting, psychotic painter, a character whom Highsmith vengefully modeled on a former girlfriend. Thereafter Forester is caught up in a series of deaths and accused of murders he didn’t commit.

Highsmith’s happiest book, her only happy book — and it’s nonetheless filled with spiky shards — is “The Price of Salt,” a lesbian love story she published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. When I mentioned it to her in a hotel in London in the 1990s, she said, “Please don’t say I wrote that.” The request couldn’t have been more polite, but Highsmith’s chilling tone, allied to an almost indiscernible movement of her big and rather mannish hands, suggested that if I disobeyed, Ripley himself would arrange for me to be found floating dead in some stinking canal. She had that kind of aura, as if her fictional world might spring to life and start a nasty plot just for you.


“Obsessions are the only things that matter,” Highsmith once said, and in her stories sublimated sexuality turns into psychological threat, creating a sinuous thread that usually leads to violence somewhere along the line. “The Cry of the Owl” involves more blood than many of her novels, concluding with a truly shocking scene that Forester doesn’t quite manage to avoid. Maybe he secretly wants to die, and in this almost loss of the will to live lies the true nature of his guilt.

The crime writer Elmore Leonard has written a host of novels with the same basic plot: Plans go wrong. The story message driving all of Highsmith’s work is similarly simple and clear: We live on thin ice. Highsmith revolts some readers, yet hypnotizes many others. She’s sui generis, a writer of almost occult power.


Similarly original is Donald Antrim, whose crazy and dazzling 1997 novel, “The Hundred Brothers” (Picador: 208 pp., $15), now appears in a new paperback with an introduction by Jonathan Franzen. The hundred brothers — and they’re all named, by the narrator, Doug, who is one of them, in the opening pages — come together (minus one) with the aim of finding the urn containing their father’s ashes. “I love my brothers and I hate their guts,” says Doug, who, as Franzen points out, emerges as a kind of scapegoat, not so unlike “The Cry of the Owl’s” Robert Forester. “The fact that we all abide depression does not lessen the pain of the lonely sufferer lost among raucous celebrants,” Doug notes.

The brothers bicker and squabble through the course of a delirious single evening, and their different characters are delineated with a skill that demonstrates how good a realist Antrim can be when he so decides. The aim here, though, is surreal.

“I stepped over Virgil,” notes Doug. “Brothers ranged all around. The library was busy with activity. Barry on the floor rubbed his eyes and shook his head. Jeremy on the purple divan complained loudly: ‘My neck, my neck.’ Twins in pairs leaned over to stroke Jeremy’s face and his hands.”

Antrim nods in the direction of Donald Barthelme, but Poe and Dostoevsky too, and his tales moves from elegant comedy towards a horror-show cilmax. This book, with so much knowledge and elegance crammed into it, is really about how we’re only moving backwards in time. “It is a little-discussed fact that human sacrifices are not strictly ancient occurrences. The practice continues, among certain peoples in certain places, to draw adherents,” notes Doug, roaming his father’s decaying library. “These stacks, certainly, were dark and haunted by demons.” A gorgeous book, and unsettling in its own way.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age.” Paperback Writers appears monthly at