After a huge book last week, Dune at 556 pages, it’s time for something a lot shorter and amazingly seventeen of Patricia Highsmith’s short stories fit into this little book of just 90 pages. Although aware of her name I have to admit that I’d never read anything by her before picking up this volume printed as part of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Penguin Books in 1995.
Well for such a short book the death rate was incredibly high, the main question you face when you start each short story is who is going to die and how? That Highsmith manages to keep this to herself until usually the last few lines is a tribute to her storytelling ability and the variety of the situations she places her characters in. What I must point out is that the title is somewhat misleading as both men and women come out badly throughout the book and you wouldn’t want to spend any social time with any of them. The first story has this as it’s opening line
A young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand and received it, in a box – her left hand.The Hand by Patricia Highsmith
Having had that idea a lesser writer would have made the arrival of the hand the punchline to the tale, but no, Highsmith opens with it and then tells the story of what happened next. The book is full of twists, you can rarely guess how a story will turn out, the longest one, at ten pages, is a case in point. ‘The Breeder’ starts out as a simple tale of a newly married young couple who want children but are having problems conceiving; that it turns into a darkly comic tale and a descent into madness could not be anticipated from the homely beginning. Indeed some form of madness or at least a compulsive mania is the basis to several of the plots and Highsmith is clearly a master of the short story genre and some of these are very short. ‘The Hand’ is just two and a half pages long as is ‘The Coquette’ but both manage to tell a full story, you don’t even notice how short they are, there is just so much going on.
This taster of Highsmith has made me want to read more. Along with numerous short stories she wrote twenty two novels, the first of which, Strangers on a Train, was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film although the adaptation strays significantly from the book. She also wrote the much better known novel ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ and its four sequels which continue to follow the exploits of serial killer Tom Ripley, the first three of which have also been made into films.