Patricia Highsmith wrote about obsessive love, hate and murder in a series of psychologically disturbing crime novels. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), was adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, and her second novel, The Price of Salt (1952), written under a pseudonym, was more recently adapted by Todd Haynes into the award-winning film Carol (2015). The release of Highsmith’s diaries in 2021 will no doubt arouse more interest in her life and psychology—for Highsmith was, by all accounts, a deeply unpleasant person.
Richard Bradford’s Devils, Lusts, and Strange Desires is the third biography of Highsmith to emerge in recent years, and it is by far the most lurid. As is clear from the very first page, which stopped me in my tracks, this is a biography that relishes in the worst that Highsmith thought, said and did. What is unclear, and on this topic Bradford's analysis is very good, is to what extent the murderous impulses recorded in Highsmith’s diaries were “real” or an imaginative rehearsal for her novels. Bradford suggests that Highsmith embedded as many truths, lies and manipulative games in her diaries as she did in her novels, a strategy possibly designed to frustrate future biographers.
Bradford is primarily interested in drawing connections between Highsmith’s personal life and her psychopathic characters, especially the ones in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). Unfortunately, the effect of this parallelism is that the mid-20th-century closeted world of lesbian relationships (of which Highsmith had many) is portrayed as something out of gay pulp fiction. Highsmith’s love life was a roller coaster of attraction, obsession, alcoholism and trauma, but a more nuanced biography would contextualize this toxic brew within the homophobia and misogyny of the time. This is not that biography. Nonetheless, readers looking to immerse themselves in stories of very bad behavior will enjoy this deadly cocktail.