A century after the birth of the author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Richard Bradford considers Highsmith's bestsellers in the context of her troubled personal life—her alcoholism, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and abundant self-loathing.
Bradford clearly does not admire Highsmith as a person ... More convincing is Bradford’s appraisal of Highsmith’s genius as a writer ... Bradford makes his case convincingly, and notes that Highsmith chose lovers who were either socially or intellectually her superior ... Others will seek to untangle her tormented psyche, but Bradford’s has the edge over the two previous biographies by Wilson and Joan Schenkar, if only because it is less than half the length of either.
There is something compelling about a person so totally indifferent to social norms, but can you make readers care about her? ... Bradford doesn’t, in contrast to his predecessors ... The merit of Bradford’s book, for those who can slog through all the sordid details and judgmental appraisals, is the substantive argument he makes that Highsmith deliberately courted emotional violence in her life as fuel for her fiction ... Bradford provides similarly interesting exegeses of autobiographical echoes in other Highsmith novels, but this generally valuable material gets lost in an endless parade of lovers and equally endless litany of Highsmith’s appalling personal conduct. Glaringly absent is substantive analysis of the writer’s tortured bond with her mother, Mary, to which Bradford devotes perfunctory attention in a brief chapter on her childhood and declines to evaluate in a peculiarly noncommittal three-page account of Mary’s cataclysmic 1964 visit to her daughter in London ... Later chapters become a depressing catalogue of bad books and bad health ... It’s characteristic of this intelligent but alienating text, which works better as literary criticism than biography, that Bradford feels no need to display any compassion for such a sad, lonely end.
... an engaging life of the author ... Bradford crafts a dramatic portrait ... Bradford illuminates Highsmith’s talents and pitfalls by connecting them to her work. Bradford skillfully argues that Highsmith’s novels, even the ones not as well known, offer clues to the author’s personality. For those familiar with Highsmith’s novels, Devils, Lusts, and Strange Desires should deepen their understanding, while hopefully encouraging those just encountering her work to read further.