My Accomplice: Patricia Highsmith by Sarah Hilary

My Accomplice

Sarah Hilary picks her accomplice - Patricia Highsmith

Posted on July 27, 2016 in My Accomplice
Tags: Author Content, crime thriller, patricia highsmith, sarah hilary

I started, like most people, with Tom Ripley. And I started the way Tom did: trepidatiously, stumbling a little; did I like this book? Something in the chill that came off the pages made me think of a pathologist’s lab, as if the bits of the story were in lidded jars, suspended in formaldehyde for my inspection. Of course things hot up when Tom gets into his stride: jaunts to Rome, to Venice; he’s unstoppable, we realise. And somewhere along the way, he becomes irresistible.

Highsmith wrote four novels with her amoral anti-hero. And many more without him. In notebooks and interviews, she wondered about murder, about guilt: ‘Murder, to me, is a mysterious thing,’ which perhaps explains the clinical, dissective quality of her prose. It’s her style that traps us rather than any red herrings or twists. Did she identify with her murderous hero? It was a question of empathy: ‘(A writer) has to feel anything is possible.’ This, for me, is the key to why Highsmith makes such a great accomplice. She understands how our imaginations work, how they must work. She believes the best writers are ‘freewheeling,’ and it’s this battle cry for freedom – for jumping off and diving in – that makes Highsmith my writing hero.

Of course there are other ways of writing. When I sit facing the edits to my freewheeling first draft I feel a pang for all the pre-plotting I never did. Why didn’t I do it? Because my brain doesn’t work that way. But neither did Highsmith’s. Her favourite obsessions are at the heart of my Marnie Rome series. Marnie’s parents were murdered by her foster brother, Stephen, whose guilt she shoulders because he refuses to acknowledge it. She needs answers, which he withholds, using his silence to keep her close rather than to push her away. This thing between them – obsessive, dangerous, reductive – feels to me very Highsmithian.

I have to share my accomplice; lots of crime writers rate her ahead of the field. She has many fans amongst my fellow Killer Women, busy plotting London’s first female-led crime writing festival. Would Highsmith have approved? Possibly not, since she held the strong belief that writers are solitary beasts. But I see very clearly the debt we owe to her fascination with guilt and the human condition. I couldn’t hope for a better accomplice.

Sarah Hilary’s debut novel, Someone Elses Skin, won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015 and was a World Book Night selection this year. The Marnie Rome series continues with Tastes Like Fear in 2016. Follow Sarah on Twitter at @Sarah_Hilary.

Killer Women is a collective of crime writers launching a new one-day crime writing festival in London on 15th October, with headliners including Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid. More details are here: Killer Women Crime Writing Festival.

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