Book review: The Crime Writer

Obsessed with the prolific Patricia Highsmith, author Jill Dawson decided to blur the lines between fact and fiction in new book ‘The Crime Writer’. She explains why to Sue Leonard.

Jill Dawson

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SOME years ago the writer Jill Dawson discovered the novels of Patricia Highsmith and became somewhat obsessed. 

She read The Talented Mr Ripley first, then started discussing Highsmith, and exchanging novels with her sister.

“The novels are very, very addictive,” she says, “and before I knew it I had read all 22. Then I read them all again.”

When she discovered that the American author had once lived in England, in a small Suffolk village, she was intrigued.

“It seems so incongruous,” she says. “Highsmith was trying to live incognito and conduct this affair with a married woman.

“If she went to drink in the local pub — as I know she did — they were so unused to seeing women on their own, let alone a hard drinking, smoking, grumpy grouchy American, she is not going to manage to be invisible. That amused me.”

Deciding to write a novel based on Highsmith, Dawson blended fact with fiction. The hard drinking, the affair, the friendship with another writer, and a violent visit from her mother: All true.

“I included a stalker, because the concept occurs a lot in Highsmith novels. And she herself was capable of following people. There is a famous anecdote of her going to see a woman she was in love with, and just sitting in the car outside. And in a sense, I was stalking her myself by writing about her.”

Dawson’s Highsmith comes across as a strange, complex, rather manipulative character.

“I haven’t exaggerated. She was often described as unlikable; the opening sentence of one of the biographies was, ‘She wasn’t very nice’, and clearly she had many unpleasant traits. But reading about her, and conjuring her up, I did feel a lot of affection for her.”

Set in 1964, the novel explores what goes on in Highsmith’s head. When your career involves emulating sociopaths and murderers, could this ever spill over into real life? 

Stunningly written in the likeness of a Highsmith novel, there are lots of twists and suppositions; it shocks you, then reassures you, but ultimately leaves you working things out for yourself.

This isn’t the first time Dawson has drawn on real figures for her novels. She’s also written about Rupert Brooke, and the murderess Edith Thompson. Does this annoy readers who would rather read the truth?

“It’s a funny one,” she says. 

“I know a lot of traditional biographers, and it seems to me that fiction about a character is just as valid as biography. Both of them are intrusive, and both have the potential to create a false impression. 

"Biographers have said to me, ‘I didn’t put that in because it would skew how people read it.’ So we only ever get an edited version.

“Researching Rupert Brooke, I read all 11 biographies, and he was a different man in each. In one he was a self-hating gay; in another he wasn’t gay at all. The authors each had their strengths and bias.

“It seems to me a novelist is working in the same terrain. I have clearly said, this is a novel, but I want to make readers believe in Highsmith. And the skill of both biographers and novelists is in the writing. 

"When Michael Holroyd writes one, the character comes off the page; but in a worthy, dull biography, it doesn’t. It takes talent and ability.”

Fascinated by what it is that makes people violent, Dawson did a great deal of research. 

“What comes up repeatedly is that men in prison had depressingly similar stories of early violent abuse and also of humiliation. If someone has been humiliated, they are left with a sort of violent rage and that is going to come out.”

Highsmith didn’t subscribe to the common crime-writing trope that anyone could create a crime. 

There had to be a murderous feeling and damage to make that person behave in an evil way.

“She was interested in that and so am I. When writers have a perfectly charming person doing violence and murder, it seems ludicrous to me. Highsmith’s hero criminals like Mr Ripley were damaged people.”

Highsmith suffered rejection and humiliation as a child. She fantasied about killing her stepfather. 

“This started that really unhealthy obsessive fantasy of getting rid of people. That was definitely part of her, and something she used very successfully in her novels. But I think it came from a troubled mind.”

Not all Dawson’s novels have used real people. Six have — three have not. 

“Those three were much more autobiographic, but I feel bored when I’m writing about myself. I can go deeper into the things I want to say and the truth I want to tell when I’m in disguise as someone else. I find it immensely freeing, it’s almost like method acting.”

Another trick is to disguise herself as a man. 

“My previous book, The Telltale Heart is written from the point of view of three men.

“No one asked me personal questions. Highsmith used this trick all the time, when she wrote in the third person as a man. That was especially useful to her, writing as a lesbian, which was taboo at the time.”

The Crime Writer came easily to Dawson. The research and writing took a year. Afterwards she travelled to Fort Worth in Texas where Highsmith grew up. 

And browsing in the local bookshop, she was appalled to discover not a single book by Highsmith.

“I said it to the grumpy bookseller. I said, ‘She was a local girl.’ He disappeared and I thought I had offended him. Then he came back with a very old man, and said he had known Highsmith. He said, ‘Do you want to talk to him?’

“He remembered her as a little girl playing in the bookshop with a red-haired girl, called Frances Barber. 

"Highsmith always said she knew she was gay because she had been in love with a little girl, and both biographers had mentioned a flame-haired girl. They hadn’t known who it was. That man had supplied the name.

“I felt I had travelled halfway across the world to get that, so it went into the novel, along with the stockyard scene with her father and anything Texan at all. I threaded it in, and it fattened up the novel. I’m very open to endlessly changing.”

Highsmith died in 1995. Since Dawson started work on The Crime Writer, there has been a resurgence of interest in the author. 

The film Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, was a huge hit when it came out last year. This was based on the lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, which Highsmith wrote as Claire Morgan back in 1952. 

Two Faces of January was filmed; there’s been a play about her, the Ripley novels are being made for TV, and all the books are being reissued.

“I think the timing is right,” says Dawson. 

“Highsmith’s work was subversive and shocking and her sexuality could not be discussed when she was writing. Now we can discuss it. And we can see that she was a more serious writer than she was given credit for.”

Previously shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award and the Orange Prize, Dawson has held many fellowships, and is an award-winning poet. 

Some critics have hailed The Crime Writer as her best novel yet. I loved it — finding it compelling and clever — and I’m not a Highsmith fan.

“That’s good,” says Dawson. 

“My editor who didn’t know much about her said the same thing.” 

The best comment came in an email from Phyllis Nagy, the scriptwriter for Carol.

“She said, ‘You have captured the Pat I knew so well. It was spooky and freaked me out.’

“I loved that!”


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