Patricia Highsmith and death in Venice

Patricia Highsmith, Those Who Walk Away (Virago Modern Classics, 2014; first published 1967)

Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) moved to a country cottage in Suffolk in England in 1964, apparently to be nearer the Englishwoman she’d fallen in love with. She wrote three novels there, including A Suspension of Mercy (1965), the only one of the three to be set in East Anglia, about which I posted HERE, and Those Who Walk Away, which is set mostly in Venice.

Patricia Highsmith Those who walk away coverAs Joan Schenkar says in the introduction to this VMC paperback edition, it’s a classic Highsmith exploration of her favourite fictional territory, the ‘infinite progression of the trapped and the hunted.’ Ray’s wife Peggy had recently committed suicide, and her father Ed’s grief twists him into a murderously vengeful monomaniac. Ray becomes ‘fair game’ to him. Ed blames Ray for his daughter’s death, and spends much of the novel trying to kill him. After all, he tells himself laconically, with unintentional irony, ‘he’s asking for it.’

After Ed’s first botched attempt to shoot him dead, Ray follows him to Venice, where a sinister game of competitive mutual stalking ensues. Lines blur between hunter and hunted. Ray seems to be set on a quest for his own oblivion, a liberation from his own identity. ‘Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness.’ This Highsmith quotation in the introduction (no provenance is given) sums up perfectly the cheerfully dark, disturbing tone and plot of Those Who Walk Away.

Venice canal

A typical canal scene in Venice taken by me last March

I wish I’d taken this with me to read on holiday in Venice last spring. Highsmith evokes the beauty and history of the lagoon island with great aplomb. But she also shows the seedier side of the city, the menacing alleys and murky apartments where the poorer folk live. It’s there that Ray finds sanctuary, and the famous tourist honey-pot sites are where he’s most in danger.

The famous Gritti Palace hotel features, for example, a key location in another Venice novel  with an American protagonist that I’ve posted about here, Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees (1950). Thomas Mann’s novella seems to have cast a shadow over novelists who set their stories there, for Hemingway’s slightly sleazy account of an older military man’s love affair with a much younger Venetian woman is also haunted by the imminence of death. Hemingway’s American officer is also a keen hunter – of ducks, not hapless sons-in-law.

I’ve not read Highsmith’s famous debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), but have seen the 1951 Hitchcock film version, so can recognise the common device: two men with unstable identities, locked in a mutually destructive dance-macabre embrace.

12 thoughts on “Patricia Highsmith and death in Venice

  1. Hello, Simon!

    SO glad to see that you are gifting us with your unique and erudite observations on literature and life in general. Was thinking the other day that we all have “THAT” gift to give and how much more joyful we are when we focus on it. It is also a balm for the envious and jealous urges that can overcome us and fill us with bile.

    Love my Patricia Highsmith!! Lord, she sounds like a pill as a human being, but what a talented writer. A bit like loving Muriel Spark’s work, then reading about her human interactions (especially her treatment of her adult son).

    It was SUCH a pleasure to vicariously relive a past trip to Venice through your pictures. The poor, poor Veneto. I don’t know how much human and economic suffering we will live through before this is over, but it has only made me MORE determined to get out there and live, travel, and not put off life until a future date, once we return to some semblance of “normal” life, assuming we survive Trump’s urging that we all “get out and go back to work” in the midst of a metastasizing pandemic.

    Finally, after work today, hope to find my paperback of “The End of the Affair” and tweet out an amazing passage by Graham Greene on “The Novelist In Wartime.” The usual brilliant observations, and so relevant to today.

    Be safe and healthy, my Internet Friend, I hope you and your family are doing OK.

    “Virtual Elbow Bumps”


    • Thanks, Maureen, and my best wishes to you, too. Let’s hope we’re all able to fulfil our dreams when normalcy – or something like it – resumes. Here’s bumping at you, kid 🙂

  2. What is it about Venice that inspires these dark stories?? I get the impression that Highsmith really likes a cat and mouse situation – I wonder what she was like to know in real life?? Not sure I would have felt that comfortable about a friendship with her having read her books!!

  3. This sounds great, and the Venice setting makes it all the more appealing. Obsession is clearly one of her main themes. I suspect it runs through most of her fiction, albeit manifested in slightly different ways.

  4. Highsmith can be an acquired taste, but few writers do stories like this better.

    I’ve never been to Venice, but I did read last week — with the closing down of tourism — that swans and dolphins were now being seen in the canals.

    • Yes, and I saw a picture of a cormorant swimming along a canal. It’s the most fascinating city I’ve ever visited, and late March was a perfect time to go, before the crowds. I hear some people there are relishing the quiet, though of course many rely on tourism for their income. These dark, sinister stories of hers are strangely intriguing, if deeply disturbing, and she’s got the atmosphere of the city just right. A nasty plot and characters, though.

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