Monday, March 16, 2009
Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s
How great is it to discover that two of your favorite mystery writers had a love affair, worked each other into various books, and eventually (after breaking up) killed each other off in fictional guises? Pretty freakin' great.
In the late 1950s, Gold Medal paperback writer Marijane Meaker (aka: Vin Packer; M. E. Kerr) met Patricia Highsmith in a lesbian bar. Highsmith was already well-established as a mystery writer--her work having been adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train--but in the lesbian community she was a legend for having written the first/then only lesbian novel with a happy ending (The Price of Salt as by Claire Morgan).
The writers hit it off and left their respective comfort zones/current lovers to attempt an idealic life in the country. This ended pretty much as you would expect from a relationship between:
a) two writers
b) specialists in borderline personalities
c) out lesbians in a time when women could be turned away from restaurants for wearing pants.
But along the way you learn some great details about Highsmith's habit of gardening with a switchblade, having "dinner drinks", "walking drinks", "picnic drinks" and "breakfast drinks" as well as Meaker's insecurity about being a "lurid paperback writer" (even though she made twice what Highsmith made per book) .
The book is short (about the length of a classic Gold Medal paperback), intimate and paints a vivid portrait of upper-class lesbian life in the 1950s. The epilogue--when the writers reunite after 27 years and Highsmith has become obsessively bigoted and bitter--feels like it could have been drawn from either of their classic books.