"I can't think of anything more apt to set the imagination stirring, drifting, creating than the idea - the fact - that anyone you walk past on the pavement anywhere may be a sadist, compulsive thief, or even a murderer," she said later of the book.After reading English Literature at Barnard College, New York - she graduated in 1942 - she read the existentialist masterpieces of Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre and Kafka. As a girl she would immerse herself in Edgar Allan Poe's gothic tales and the lurid case histories outlined in Dr Carl Menninger's 1930 classic The Human Mind. "All this probably caused my propensity to write bloodthirsty stories of murder and violence," she said later.From a young age Highsmith was obsessed with the dark and the deviant. She realised at an early age that she felt different to other girls, but grew up repressing her attraction for her own sex. Highsmith grew to loathe her stepfather, Stanley - she often had violent fantasies about killing him - and did not meet her real father, Jay B, until she was 12. Her parents were divorced nine days before she was born and her mother remarried when Patricia was three.
"It's funny you adore the smell of turpentine," Mary would later tell her daughter, an only child born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921. Indeed, the themes of the work - fractured identity, emotional confusion and relationships conducted within the confines of the imagination - all had their roots in her troubled life.Before she was born, her mother, Mary, tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. "I often had the feeling Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing," she said. It was, he says, "as if she was talking about somebody she knew." After the publication, in Britain, of her second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground in 1971, she gave a copy of the book to her friend, Charles Latimer, with the dedication, "For Charles with love - April 2 - '71 from Tom (Pat)".The first novel in the series - a dark reworking of Henry James's The Ambassadors - took only six months to write.
The painter Peter Thomson remembers how, in 1963, in Positano - which she renamed Mongibello in the first Ripley novel - Highsmith, then a resident of the Italian fishing village, walked up to him and said, "You remind me of Tom Ripley". He is the ultimate expression of ambiguity, a concept that Highsmith believed was the "secret of the universe".Friends testify that Highsmith regarded Ripley as a real person. Ripley, for Highsmith, was a symbol of our times: criminal as perfect existential hero. As you turn the pages of a Ripley novel you identify with the killer and hope that he will escape detection, as indeed he does in each book. She forces us to align our viewpoint with that of a criminal and a psychopath. Philip Roth's Zuckerman series - featuring the self-obsessed Jewish novelist Nathan Zuckerman - and John Updike's "Rabbit" books - about the salesman Harry Angstrom - use this device to capture the essence of 20th-century consciousness However, Highsmith's Ripley series is much more radical.
Her prose was far from self-consciously literary - she admitted she wrote in "a very simple style" - yet her haunting novels have been described by The New Yorker critic Terrence Rafferty as "peerlessly disturbing - not great cathartic night-mares but banal bad dreams that keep us restless and thrashing for the rest of the night."There is nothing revolutionary in the idea of exploring modern life through a single character. Her 22 novels - peopled by characters motivated by irrational desires, strange repressions and often quite violent urges - explore the nature of identity and the extremes of emotional anarchy. In fact, the metaphor of the Belle Ombre - the beautiful shadow - offers a clue to both our increased fascination with the Ripley character and Highsmith's work.Highsmith gives us permission to step into a world where we can relish, in the words of Graham Greene, a variety of "cruel pleasures". He paints and sketches; has a rather fine collection of van Goghs and Magrittes, plus drawings by Picasso and Cocteau; plays Scarlatti and Bach's Goldberg Variations on his harpsichord and relishes the exquisite surroundings of his house in France, "Belle Ombre", with its reassuring aromas of freshly brewed coffee, rose petals and cirage de lavande. Whenever the couple do have sex - which is not that often - it is "as if he derived pleasure from something inanimate, unreal, from a body without an identity."He also has a taste for the finer things in life. Highsmith tells us that during his wedding service at the age of 28, his face turned an unsightly shade of green, while on his honeymoon he felt like he couldn't make love to Heloise because of the noise of a parrot singing a tune from Carmen. From the second novel in the series, he lives with his wife, Heloise, yet remains sexually ambiguous.