‘The Talented Miss Highsmith’ by Joan Schenkar

“She was a horrible human being,” recalls Otto Penzler, one of her publishers. It’s an apt eulogy for a novelist whom Graham Greene, rather more charitably, dubbed “the poet of apprehension,” a 20th century demiurge whose “world we enter each time with a sense of personal danger, with the head half turned over the shoulder.” The first words of Joan Schenkar’s splendid, sinewy new biography, “The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith,” concede the point: “She wasn’t nice,” Schenkar admits; “She was rarely polite.” Yet the “toxic brilliance of [her] trail goes on glowing” 15 years after her death in 1995 -- when “she drove a last, devoted visitor from her hospital room and then died unobserved.”

She, of course, is crime novelist Patricia Highsmith, born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, later creator of Tom Ripley -- whose exploits, chronicled in the five-volume “Ripliad,” have inspired numerous films, including Anthony Minghella’s 1999 poisoned Venetian valentine “The Talented Mr. Ripley” -- and author of “Strangers on a Train,” which Hitchcock adapted in 1951. Misanthropy seeped through her work like blood into terrazzo (one short-story collection even features homicidal pets exacting lethal vengeance on their masters); she hated Jews with rancid fervor; she “seemed to be the sole curator of a Museum of Twentieth-Century American maladies,” suggests Schenkar.

But throughout 22 novels and dozens of short stories (if not her improbable children’s book, “Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda”), Highsmith revolutionized the field of suspense fiction, perverting and inverting a genre once synonymous with moral education and civic virtue. Her output rebuked the essentially wholesome stories of Chandler and Hammett, in which detectives punish felons, restore order and admonish readers; “Nothing,” Schenkar argues, “could have been more American” than the scenarios Highsmith fashioned in turn: “two men bound together psychologically by the stalker-like fixation of one upon the other.”

Greene noted that Highsmith’s “characters are irrational, and they leap to life in their very lack of reason; suddenly we realize how unbelievably rational most fictional characters are as they lead their lives from A to Z, like commuters always taking the same train.” Biography, too, tends to trundle along settled tracks, departing from the childhood platform, admitting and ejecting passengers at intervals, finally arriving at the terminus of legacy and legend -- a linear transit in many ways ill-suited to the reversals and revisions of subjects’ lives. Dispensing with the familiar acorn-to-oak approach, Schenkar instead declares that "[o]bsession . . . will be the organizing principle of this work,” and exhumes Highsmith via a taxonomy of neuroses.

There is family, of course; Highsmith hated her stepfather, whose surname she adopted, and for years swapped impassioned Oedipal correspondence with her mother, both of them writing “with the venom and energy of disappointed lovers.” There is romance: Highsmith, both a lesbian and, confoundingly, a virulent misogynist, never sustained a relationship beyond a few years. And there is work -- that evil oeuvre, “probably the longest perp walk in American literary history.”

Schenkar has raided Highsmith’s voluminous archives, including more than three dozen “cahiers” -- notebooks in which the author documented story ideas -- and an assortment of diaries: “eight thousand pages of work . . . she set down her states of mind, the color of her current lover’s hair, the quality of a past relationship, the cost of a Paris hotel breakfast, the number of rejections she received from publishers, the fees, the fears, the falsehoods.” (Highsmith maintained these records with scrupulous attention and ceaseless paranoia: “From her very first entries, Pat flogged herself into double duty by keeping her notebooks and diaries in five languages.”)

Schenkar, too, seizes on minute details -- Highsmith’s breasts, for example, “too small to conceal anything” (in a typically peculiar anecdote, Highsmith claims to have smuggled snails into France beneath her diminutive bosom), and her preferred brands of cigarette (Gauloise) and beer (Valstar), and her many real-estate transactions; elsewhere, Schenkar writes like a woman besotted, extolling “the marmoreal beauty” of the young Highsmith, “with her bowed-down head and piercing dark-eyed glance darting up and out from under the fringe of hair.”

But the effect is electric. Throughout nearly 700 pages of lustrous text, Schenkar’s prose is as supple and shapely as Highsmith’s was flat and functional. She exposes Highsmith’s stint as a comic-book writer -- a seven-year episode virtually expunged from the archives -- and reminds us that she “did the same things over and over again” in her writing, which never “ ‘matured’ or ‘developed.’ ” (Schenkar nods to Wilde, who claimed that "[o]nly mediocrities progress.”)

“The Talented Miss Highsmith” is both dazzling and definitive -- the latter nearly by default; it’s only the second life of Highsmith, following Andrew Wilson’s sturdy “Beautiful Shadow” (2003). Its scope and scholarship are unassailable, and its vigor indefatigable.

It’s a volume as original as its contemptible, miserable, irresistible subject.

Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford.