Jess Walter on the Highsmithian Principles of Suspense
On Drama, Suspense, Violence, Psychology, and a Dose of Soul
I am an inveterate journal-keeper, and I find myself drawn to the journals and diaries of other writers. When the stories that make The Best American Mystery and Suspense began raining down on my computer desktop, I happened to be reading Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941–1995, a fascinating collection of entries from the great suspense writer’s eight thousand pages of diaries and journals.
Here we encounter the young Pat in 1949, just finished with her first novel, Strangers on a Train (soon to be adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into the classic film). She was also working on a very different novel at the time, The Price of Salt. This was a book she would ultimately publish under a pseudonym, out of fear that her career would be endangered by its lesbian themes and her refusal to “punish” the book’s female lovers—a literary requirement of the time.
It is both sad and thrilling to watch the young Highsmith try to reconcile these seemingly divergent literary ambitions, to battle both her deep self-doubt and the strict cultural biases of the time, all while defining for herself a creative ethos that could contain such an expansive talent. “I am curious as to that part of the mind which psychology (which denies the soul) cannot find, or help, or assuage, much less banish—namely the soul,” Highsmith wrote in June of 1949. “It is this I want to write about next.” Later that month, she added: “There must be violence, to satisfy me, and therefore drama & suspense. These are my principles.”
So, what are the Highsmithian principles I used to assemble the stories in this year’s collection? We started with drama and suspense, some violence and psychology, and a fair amount of what Pat called “soul.” “How little does plot matter,” Highsmith wrote in May of 1953. “The joy and the art is how it is handled.” Joy and art, check and check. Highsmith at another point: “One cannot write, however well, and leave out the heart.” Heart, check again. Still later, “The main thing in any book, for me, is the momentum, the enthusiasm, the narrative rush.” Momentum, enthusiasm, and narrative rush. Check, check, and check.
In addition to these qualities, I have a soft spot for humor in short stories, especially of the dark and unflinching variety, and for writing that is imagistic and inventive. I like settings that I’ve never seen in fiction before, and characters that display a full range of human experience. And fair warning: I don’t mind a quality that (at least according to my emails) drives a few readers crazy—ambiguity.“The joy and the art is how it is handled.” Joy and art, check and check. Highsmith at another point: “One cannot write, however well, and leave out the heart.” Heart, check again.
Finally, there is something that I have trouble defining, but which I think of as snap. I like stories that, at some point in the writing, or in the plot, or maybe even in the conception, shift or pop or crack like a whip. This can take the form of a drastic turn of action, or a surprising revelation of character. It can be a ramping up of stakes or a burst of wonderful writing that makes you wish you’d been the one to compose it. It can be dialogue that crackles, beginnings that cause you to sit up, or endings that make you slap your head.
In the diaries of Patricia Highsmith, you see both the drudgery of daily work, and the small victories that come from it. “Absolutely nothing happens,” she wrote about a book she was struggling to write in 1953. “I try to think intensely about the suspense novel. It will not jell.” During that same month, she noted simply that her publisher didn’t want “another gay book.” But at other times she would write: “I produced 9 good pages,” and, “A splendid morning of sunshine… Came home and finished part one well.” But what really emerges from her journals is that sense of a writer on a longer journey, a quest, over all those pages, to cohere her ambition and talent, her subject and style, into work that might one day transcend.
In 1952, Highsmith was in Positano, Italy, when she stepped onto her hotel balcony and spotted a man on the beach in shorts and sandals, a towel over his shoulder. He was “lost in thought… something enigmatic and captivating about him.” That vision would become the character Tom Ripley, the antihero of her classic novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, and its four sequels. In May of 1954, Highsmith was well into the first Ripley book when she wrote: “I have never felt so sure… The sentences of this book go down on paper like nails. It is a wonderful feeling.”
Amazingly, these were the last words she wrote in her journal for seven years, until, in 1961, she suddenly began the practice again. I am fascinated by this seven-year gap, and by the fact that her final diary entry is about the writing going well. I imagine that gap as the place where the writer finally finds someone outside the self to speak to—namely, the reader. And how lucky that we as readers get to be the ones to encounter those wonderful Highsmith sentences, which, “like nails,” were used to construct rooms where we can be thrilled and disturbed, entertained and edified, where we can lose ourselves for a few hours, or days, or weeks. It is, for reader and writer alike, “a wonderful feeling.”
Excerpted from The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2022. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Mariner Books. All rights reserved.