'The World of Fear': Engendering Unease in the Novels of Patricia Highsmith
Julie Walker, Lancaster University
'You're coming into their place but really you're taking them to your place: which is the world of fear. Which you know like the back of your hand. And they've never been there before, even though it's home.' 
The character quoted here, Steve Cousins, who is a professional petty criminal and hard man, is musing upon what would happen if he were to break into the home at which he is gazing idly and to torment the mother and child whom he can see within. His sense of place, his differentiating between the tangible, physical space in which his victims live and the psychological space where he can take them is the difference between his lifestyle, his world, and theirs. As he implies, if he were to act upon his desires and attack them they simply would not know what had hit them, they would be in a completely different place from the one in which they thought that they lived. This can be said to mark the difference between the detective novel and the crime novel. If the detective novel is about the restoration of order, the imposing of the detective's will upon the situation with which he has to deal, and therefore the restoration of order - as is demonstrated by his eventual telling of the 'real' narrative, then the crime novel, specifically those of Patricia Highsmith, demonstrates what happens without that looked-for restoration of order, when 'their place', the normal, contented order of things, becomes 'your place' which is the place where anything can happen as long as it is terrifying. 
When reading Patricia Highsmith's work, the reader enters into an uneasy complicity with her protagonists: from Ripley to Bruno it is very difficult not to feel drawn into their very personal worlds, but this process is not one from which the reader can emerge with any real sense of justice having been achieved or wrongs righted within the text; one tends to be left numbed by events and unsure with whom sympathies should lie. Highsmith's narrative voice is very largely responsible for this - throughout The Talented Mr Ripley for example, the sole point of view belongs to Tom, making it very difficult to see any of the other characters as separate from Tom and therefore from his perceptions of them. The same can be said of Victor Van Allen, the main protagonist of her later novel Deep Water, who appears as a far more sympathetic character; it is shocking to discover his actual role in the text is that of killer-who-is-to-be-punished, after his having been characterised as an unassuming and tolerant family man who endures the constant infidelity of his wife whilst trying to simultaneously run his business and parent his daughter. Guy Haines is helpless in the face of events stemming from merely having been indiscreet towards a chance-met travelling companion. The linking factor within these texts is not only the singular narrative voice - in Strangers on a Train, more than one character is given narrative space - but that they are all living in 'the world of fear' described by Steve Cousins and, with the exception of Guy, 'know [it] like the back of your hand' The other characters, Dickie, Marge, Anne, Melinda, to name a few, are unaware of this; they live in the conventional space inhabited by the majority and are therefore left vulnerable to those who do not.
When looking at The Talented Mr Ripley, the sense of place is vital. Tom is 'displaced' by his life in America but hacks out a place for himself in the 'old world' of Europe. In America, although only the first four chapters of the book are set there, Tom is characterised as an unsuccessful - although beautifully mannered - snob. He knows that he is more tasteful, more worthy of material success, more special than his friends (one of whom is providing him with rent-free accommodation for which Tom is not grateful as it does not meet his exacting high standards). Tom just needs an opportunity to both demonstrate this talent for unspecified excellence, then claim any rewards accruing. New York does not offer him any outlet for these; the impression given is of a place where his ability to live off wealthy, artistic people is no substitute for hard work as a career. In Europe, his talents are more than appropriate; his pretence of privilege and subsequent displays of (Dickie's) wealth securing him the lifestyle he feels that he deserves. There seems to be a sly running comment about the American Dream here - Tom managing far better in old, class-ridden Europe than egalitarian America where hard work rather than old money are theoretically privileged. Europe belongs to Tom in a way that America never could: it is his place where he can murder and steal and enjoy; he can be said to 'know' it in a sense in which he never 'knew' New York. This landscape functions as a character, Tom's friend and accomplice, often in a far more sensual and more perfectly realised manner than the other, human, characters with whom Tom interacts. 'Then there was Siracusa to the south, scene of a mighty naval battle between the Latins and the Greeks. And Dionysius' Ear. And Taormina. And Etna! .Sicilia! Stronghold of Guiliano! Colonised by the ancient Greeks, invaded by Norman and Saracen! Tomorrow he would commence his tourism properly, but this moment was glorious.'  The itinerary here is worth noting: Tom is clearly planning the old-fashioned 'Grand Tour', which, while taken by Americans as well, has a reputation of being the 'finishing' of young men of privilege. It also demonstrates that Tom still needs finishing himself; his very personal using of Europe as the land of opportunity is not over yet. The choice of language is also telling; apart from Dickie, who Tom perceives as an object to be acquired, no human being recieves this degree of breathless scrutiny.
Slavoj Zizek refers to Patricia Highsmith as 'depict[ing] the whole diversity of contingencies and psychological impasses that could induce an apparently 'normal' person to commit a murder. In Strangers on a Train she established her elementary matrix: that of a transferential relationship between a psychotic murderer capable of performing the act and a hysteric who organises his desire by means of a reference to the psychotic.'  This quote comes from a note to a passage where he is discussing the attributes of the 'hard-boiled' detective figure: he claims that 'the hard-boiled detective gets mixed up in a course of events that he is unable to dominate..The deceitful game exposes a threat to his very identity as a subject.'  The detective figure, however, is conspicuously absent within the texts under discussion, although Highsmith does play with the concept. Her rendering of investigative figures as shadowy, insubstantial figures, easily vanquished by neighbourhood opinion or satisfied with superficial answers to indifferent questions is far removed from the powerful subject who can bring order back to the community with his, usually accurate, search for justice.
There are two actual private detectives in Deep Water, for example: the first from the optimistically titled Confidential Detective Service hired by Vic's wife and nosy neighbour, both of whom suspect - quite rightly - that Vic has murdered Melinda's most recent lover, the second from a different firm who turns up to investigate the 'disappearance' of Tony Cameron, who is dead in the quarry. Both of these characters are not only unsuccessful but, more importantly, un-charismatic. The former is incompetent; he poses as a new friend to Melinda but Vic sees through this quite rapidly and himself calls the agency to cancel the job - he has even been paying for this incompetent and so is perfectly entitled to cancel the contract - and while the latter is open about his profession and tries to be thorough, he is treated with disbelief and dislike - 'And then Havermal suddenly left.'  Vic's suburban exterior suffices to protect him from the potential suspicions of his neighbours; the subjectivity of the actual detectives is left unruffled, although their professional competence may be called into question. Don Wilson, Melinda's friend, is a more functional detective figure; he neither likes nor trusts Vic and certainly appears to believe him capable of murder. The resources at his disposal, however, are only those of rumour and innuendo. The same suburban carapace that protects Vic defeats his (lacklustre) efforts to expose him until the end of the novel when, although he does catch Vic out, it is Vic's final losing of control which exposes him. Vic is clearly the figure whose sense of place is the most accurate here.
The lack of a strong detective figure present in The Talented Mr Ripley, Deep Water and Strangers on a Train, even though in the latter text such a figure actually exists (he is an irrelevancy) is a major contributory factor to the appropriation of the fictive space by the murderers themselves. In the world of her fiction - a bleak and frightening place - there is no space for even 'the tough, often cynical loner who, in Raymond Chandler's now-famous phrase, walks 'the mean streets' ('...But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean - who is neither tarnished nor afraid...'  ). The bleakness of these fictions is often only apparent in hindsight, however, as after having shared Tom's or Vic's point of view the reader is habituated to their lack of any of the usually expected responses to violent death. Living in 'the world of fear' is no longer remarkable.
The absence of a strong detective figure does contribute enormously to the sense of narrative unease; if there is no figure striving to re-establish normality, then, perhaps, within the landscape of Highsmith's fiction, normality belongs to these protagonists who know that they are living in 'the world of fear'; the other characters, like Steve Cousin's mother and child, may find this out at any moment. Although the detective figure is, at best, an unobtrusive presence in these texts (with the notable exception of Strangers on a Train where he is an irrelevancy instead) the protagonists all do react to the low-key investigations which occur. Guy Haines is terrified by the spectre of the police but has few dealings with the actual police; in a confusion of roles, Bruno extorts him to co-operate with him instead in order to maintain his freedom. This freedom is illusory as is made apparent by Guy's increasingly fraught mental state. Tom Ripley, whilst holding them in the same sort of careful respect he likes to maintain towards authority figures, manages convincing interviews with the same set of detectives, first posing as Dickie, then posing as Tom-the-bewildered-American; neither of which encounters proves either problematic for him or illuminating for justice. Marge can be perceived as a detective figure; she is bothered enough by Dickie's disappearance to both keep in touch with him while she thinks that he is still alive and she is a continuing presence in the narrative almost to the end when she finally accepts that Dickie is either hiding or dead. She is also given a fairly privileged position in the narrative in that her letters to Dickie are the reader's only opportunity for any insight and for any view of Tom other than his own. '[H]e is using you for what you are worth....he may not be queer. He's just a nothing, which is worse....You act vaguely ashamed of being around him when you are around him....it's greatly to his interest to keep you muddled and string you along...' (106-07). Leaving aside her mentioning of Tom's sexuality, this is either a perceptive analysis or a simple statement of how Tom's character is seen by anyone who knows him. The reader has no way of knowing as Tom's voice is the only one heard. Marge's account - and her distress - are already discredited by the contempt with which she is habitually described; Highsmith has had Tom turn her into both a representation of universal American womanhood and a bad joke; neither of which, considering Tom's earlier comments about his American acquaintances, inspires faith in Marge's opinions. This has effectively robbed her of any credibility; she is perceived as an object, as are the other detective figures present within these narratives. They do not have the 'I' of the subject. Although certainly 'mixed up in...the deceitful game'  these characters are not fully involved enough to be considered players; they may think that they are in 'their place' but they are in the claustrophobic 'world of fear'.
The 'diversity of contingencies and...impasses,'  however, is another story. Within the texts mentioned, the reader is presented with two omniscient protagonists, Tom Ripley and Vic van Allen, each of whom kills several times, one unstable instigator who kills once, Bruno, and one initially upright citizen who is driven to kill. Each of these presents perfectly justifiable reasons for their acts within the perameters of the text (with the possible exception of Guy Haines to whom I will return later) and certainly both of the multiple killers are not morally concerned about their actions, nor are they distressed by possible repercussions. Their reasons for killing are all those of self-interest; their psychological impasses, which I will discuss later, are rather different.
With the apparent amorality of these protagonists (again with the exception of Guy) coupled with the lack of any investigative prowess, one would imagine that their psychological tale was told. Tom Ripley, for example, does fret about these to some extent, but even then this is more from a housekeeping perspective than from a fear of capture. What Tom does fear is unmasking; not merely the unmasking of himself as Dickie or even the unmasking of himself as a killer but the unmasking of his lack of a real self and therefore his self-perceived inadequacy in the face of others - there is no appreciable difference between fear of discovery for his tax scam or for his murders. His main fear is that of socially not quite making the grade. 'He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time....His tears fell...' (p 164). Tears which fall only at times of great personal chagrin, Tom's most pressing emotional reaction. Becoming Tom again does have its compensations however. 'He took a pleasure in it, overdoing almost the old Tom Ripley reticence with strangers, the inferiority in every duck of his head and wistful, sidelong glance. After all, would anyone, anyone, believe that such a character had ever done a murder? ... Being Tom Ripley had one compensation at least: it relieved his mind of guilt for the stupid, unnecessary murder of Freddie Miles' (p 166). The correct answer to Tom's rhetorical question, within the confines of the text, is, of course, no. What is interesting here is his lack of the 'I' necessary to comprehend that the murderer of Freddie is himself; he is all exterior.
Vic van Allen is an exterior being also; one whose exterior is so well drawn as belonging to an intelligent, kindly yet long-suffering individual that, at the close of the novel when he is taken away by the police, there is a palpable, although inappropriate, sense of injustice. He has committed three murders by this point yet it is almost impossible not to feel great sympathy for this character, even when, for example, he is actually committing a murder. He even tries to revive his victim afterwards. 'He realised for the first time that, if De Lisle were revived, he was doomed. That hadn't even crossed his mind while he had been giving him artificial respiration. He had simply done the best he could with the artificial respiration, he was sure of that, made the same movements he would have made if it had been Horace under his hands. He had gone through the proper motions...' (94-5, my italics). Throughout the novel, Vic is characterised as one who goes through the proper motions. Highsmith provides a very detailed and thorough ongoing account of his and Melinda's domestic arrangements; who shops, who cooks, who cleans, who raises their daughter and leaves no doubt that Vic is responsible for the smooth running of the household. He also finds time to run his own specialist printing press, garden, study, breed snails, build furniture and perform numerous helpful odd jobs for his neighbours. His wife, who does not work, fills her time with affairs and alcohol. The contrast between their two lifestyles is visible to all. 'It was a fine picture that he and Melinda made, and Vic knew it: he in his shirt sleeves, vacuuming the living-room, and Melinda on the sofa with a highball, not even looking particularly tidy in her cotton blouse and skirt and her sandals and no stockings' (116). This is an accurate representation of the front presented by Vic and Melinda to their neighbours; sympathising with Vic in his role of Cinderella with no ball[s] is difficult to avoid. Again however, it is Vic who is the dominant, aggressive figure despite his domestic servitude; he is in the place where he can kill and his wife is not; she may be unpleasant but it is Vic, the character with whom the reader is complicit, who is dangerous.
The opening chapter of The Talented Mr Ripley follows this type. Its first page gives us a description of Tom being aware of being followed, being afraid of the follower, expecting the follower to be a policeman of some sort, and, crucially, aware that he deserves to be followed. By the close of the chapter, Tom is established as a man of some charm, some cunning, with no job and willing to take advantage of any opportunities offered; the guileless Mr Greenleaf is convinced of his decency. Tom is also, as demonstrated by the 'Tom-being-followed' sequence of events, clearly some sort of criminal (5-11). Therefore, by the end of chapter two when Tom's worries are seen to be occasioned by a whimsical fraud from which he has no intention of profiting, the reader is relieved that this is all, rather than made wary by a character who can behave like this. The psychological landscape here is now in place with Tom very much in control, his handling of the Greenleafs demonstrating that he will readily manipulate and exploit if necessary - bringing people to 'his place' whenever appropriate.
With Vic in Deep Water, the impact of his murders is diluted by his very reasonableness and likeability; where it has been made plain that he will be returning from these crimes to his lazy shrew of a wife, with no comfort other than his daughter (whom his wife also ignores) and his solitary pursuits, at which she sneers. This makes the fact of his murderous habits easy to ignore. With Tom, this is done by the amount of narrative given to describing the actual murder as opposed to that given to describing the extraordinary physical difficulty posed by concealing the bodies: Dickie takes one page in which to die but four pages make up the immediate aftermath consisting of disposal of the evidence and also Tom's coming close enough to drowning to distract attention from the young man who has just died (91-5). Again with the treatment of Freddie's murder; the deed itself takes up a paragraph, whereas the aftermath of arranging the room to look like the site of an epic drinking session, the arrangement of the corpse and the final struggle to plant it in a place from where all suspicion from our hero will be removed, lasts for a full seven pages (124-31). These protagonists' penchant for taking away the life away from others dispassionately, as a convenience, can be said to pass, not exactly unnoticed, but generally unremarked; Highsmith's prose tending towards the avoidance of sympathy and therefore the maintenance of complicity with these characters.
The only character for whom the taking of life has an obvious and distressing impact upon his psyche is poor Guy Haines. The realisation of his, albiet unwitting, complicity in the death of Miriam horrifies him; he plainly neither wished her dead nor feels that he has profited from it. The attention paid him by an increasingly uncontrolled Bruno is dreadful to him - not merely for the inconvenience caused or because of the threat of official repercussions due to Miriam's death, but for the actuality of having forced contact with a killer. Bruno wears Guy down to the point where he is willing to commit murder; his shooting of Samuel Bruno follows the narrative pattern of a short death scene followed by a difficult and protracted getaway, but the difference here is that Guy is deeply affected by having killed.
'He dreamt in half-sleep that he crossed the lawn towards the house....And he stood there unwilling to shoot, determined to fight it to prove he could conquer it. The gunshot awakened him. He opened his eyes to the dawn in his room. He saw himself standing by his work table, exactly as he stood in the dream, pointing the gun at a bed in the corner, where Samuel Bruno struggled to sit up. The gun roared again. Guy screamed.' (145)
While Guy is Zizek's hysteric, organis[ing] his desire; his desire was for the removal of his wife from his life in a socially acceptable and forgettable fashion; the substitution of Bruno for Miriam has profound and disturbing consequences which Guy is powerless to avoid.
He has also a femme fatal with whom to contend in the shape of Bruno who helps himself to the space in Guy's life vacated by Miriam with gusto. Any potential trouble Miriam may have posed to Guy's planned future is effortlessly outclassed by her murderer's annexing of his time and peace of mind. While Guy thinks of Bruno with dread, Bruno dwells upon Guy like a teenage girl with a crush. 'The one thing Bruno needed to make his happiness complete was to hear Guy's voice, to have a word from him saying he was happy. The bond between Guy and him now was closer than brotherhood. How many brothers liked their brothers as much as he liked Guy?' (97). He certainly likes Guy far more than he likes women - apart from his mother. 'He was not happy if he were long away from his mother, was he?' (95). They even have the appropriate confrontation at the end of the novel; after having been harried by the detective hired to find Samuel Bruno's killer, during whose visits they are obliged to work together and after increasing amounts of hostility from Guy towards Bruno, they take a boat trip together from which Bruno has a rather ambivalent accident. Upon realising this, Guy flings himself into the water as if after a lover. 'Where was his friend, his brother?' (239). Bruno's death is the real close of the novel although it actually ends when Gerard traps Guy by means of eavesdropping on his confession to the father of Miriam's child - who also did not love her. This absence of caring is the final knife in the back of Guy's view of the world; he goes with Gerard, when he triumphantly appears, without a murmur, and the reader knows that any sense of victory felt by the detective is a hollow one; Guy needs no official confirmation of his guilt; he has been compelled by Bruno to live in the place of fear but as it is a place whose psychological geography he never wanted to learn it can be said to have killed him.
In conclusion, to quote Mark Seltzer again;
'This is the madness of the sheer conformist to social forms who at the same time merely simulates those forms: the subject hollowed out and captivated by the social-symbolic network who at the same time ceaselessly simulates his captivation, reducing the social order to a 'pretendsy' signifying game.' 
He goes on to describe: 'the serial killer as 'the professionally perfect person' who is also the simulated person, a 'type of non-person'.  The four homicidal protagonists of the novels under discussion can all - even Guy - be likened to the conformist described here, as could, probably, Steve Cousins the originator of the 'their place' 'your place' differential on which I have based this essay. They all impose their own version of reality upon the symbolic order represented by their chosen community, are all observers rather than participants. Their attribute of manners rather than emotions illustrates this point; they inhabit the social order rather than making a life within it, Their life is lived within the space described by Steve Cousins, that 'world of fear' which is superimposed so seamlessly over the social-symbolic network to which Seltzer refers that it becomes difficult for the reader of Highsmith to remember that it is there.
Copyright © 2003 Julie Walker
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Zizek, Slavoj, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (MIT Press, 1992)