The Friendly Animals of Patricia Highsmith: An Appreciation of The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder
About a decade ago, I had a quiet literary love affair with Patricia Highsmith (1921–1995). She was a difficult person apparently, but a hell of a writer. Over a couple of years I read, in an occasionally feverish state, about 21 of her books, including all of her major novels but one—This Sweet Sickness—which I am saving for the apocalypse. All told, this is a lot of blithe psychopathy and casual murder to digest.
For readers of crime fiction, death and mayhem are naturally the standard currency. Violence is punished and moral order is temporarily restored, or violence goes unpunished and moral order remains upended. Either way, the moral order is recognizable and reliable. Highsmith, on the other hand, can be counted among the crime fiction writers who disturb this moral order—or write as if it doesn’t authentically exist. In her world, murder comes without a simple or graspable moral valence. Highsmith is sometimes called a noir writer—she is canonized by the Library of America in the volume Crime Novels: American Noirs of the 1950s—but hers is not the world of traditional noir.
In Highsmith’s novels, characters seemingly murder for standard reasons: out of anger, envy, jealousy, greed, or some happy combination of these noble emotions. And yet, Highsmith’s characters themselves do not seem fully convinced of their own motivations. Why do they really attack? Out of petty annoyance, convenience, casual animosity or impulse, maybe even boredom. (Highsmith loves to employ variations of arguably the most dangerous word for writers: “boring.”)
Highsmith’s murderers are usually her protagonists, the organizing consciousness of her stories. Tom Ripley most famously, but also Vic in Deep Water, Sidney in A Suspension of Mercy, and others. They are smart, funny, and observant, sometimes charming. They often make the other characters, notably their victims, seem like pod people. In the eyes of animals, Highsmith discovered, human characters might appear even more worthy of easy dispatch.
Highsmith, by all accounts, tended toward spleen and misanthropy; and fittingly then, she was a friend to animals. She studied zoology for a year at Barnard, and over the course of her life she had several companion cats and kept snails as pets. She carried snails in her purse and claimed to have smuggled her dear gastropods into France, concealing them under her breasts. She wrote her early animal story “The Snail-Watcher” in 1947, which details a man’s gruesome death at the hands—or rather, feet—of his pet snails.
In the 1950s and 60s, Highsmith was relatively prolific, and when she was writing, she worked steadily. She often worked on a novel during the week, and then as a “break,” wrote short stories on the weekend. Another animal story, “The Terrapin,” was published in 1961 and won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best short story of the year. In this story, a young boy takes a liking to the terrapin that his mother has brought home to cook in a stew. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that things do not go well for mother or reptile.
Both of these earlier animal stories have some affinities with the stories that make up The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder (1975), but with one crucial difference: for the most part—though not always—the animals of Beastly Murder provide the point of view. This vantage stretches Highsmith’s imagination—and the reader’s too—and it puts pressure once again on our moral understanding of the world. It is hard, for instance, to judge a spirited goat who just does what goats do—a little butting and ramming.
The animals are to some extent very human-like; they have a gamut of emotion and preferences, relationships, memory, and some understanding of human speech. But they are still animals as we know them—sometimes slow of thought (the horse Fanny), selfish (the cat Ming), pig-headed (the pig Samson), and so on. They are distorted humans—and they are a dangerous reminder that humans are animals, too. Like Highsmith’s human protagonists, her animals can be charming, impish, anxious, and—watch out!—hateful.
The Beastly Murder stories mostly follow a few narrative patterns—animals kill their masters or people who threaten them and their relationships with their masters. We can often see where the stories are headed, and we’re there to witness the gruesome unfolding and aftermath. Knowing the general outcome makes these outcomes seem all the more natural, despite the sudden violence, the human bodies graphically maimed and disfigured.
In “Goat Ride,” Billy the goat hardly notices that he kills his owner Hank because the action falls nicely in line with his usual pattern of destruction. Like many of the animals in the collection, Billy has his pride and predilections—and he loves attention and mischief. Highsmith underscores his joie de vivre: Billy is “the most amused” participant in the goat ride attraction at Playland Amusement Park; Billy “quite like[s]” Mickie, the boy who drives the cart; Billy takes “satisfaction” in his ability to tear the ground.
Billy’s popularity and goatish behavior—stubborn and destructive—convince Hank to sell the animal, but Billy continues his spirited mayhem with his new owners. He breaks an outdoor statue to which he is tethered, eats up flowerbeds, and finally gives chase to a dog that has angered him with its laughter. In the ensuing pursuit, while rounding a greenhouse, one of Billy’s horns catches a pane of glass. “Blind with rage, Billy attacked the greenhouse for no reason—except that it made a satisfying sound.”
What has put Billy on the attack? Highsmith offers three unfolding contradictory explanations, “rage,” “no reason,” and “a satisfying sound.” The murkiness and inconsistency of motivation are quite natural yet unsettling all at once. Billy eventually winds up back with Hank—and circumstances, Billy’s natural behavior, and perhaps no reason at all combine to leave Hank a soft, bloody pulp.
In other Beastly Murder stories, animal behavior is not always quite so fickle and random. In “Engine Horse,” Highsmith pits two competing tableaux—animals vs. humans—against one another to great effect. In the farmhouse, a ne’er-do-well grandson attempts to wheedle cash from his grandmother and displace her from her home; he eventually crafts a murder scheme. In the barn, a stray kitten befriends Fanny, a large elderly mare. Which of the pairs is more beastly?
Highsmith’s writing may be largely cold and cruel, but she could also capture vulnerability, affection, and warmth. She writes at length about the kitten’s playful antics and the horse’s responses. When the kitten cozies up to sleep, “The mare was somehow pleased. Such a dainty little creature! That size, that weight that was nothing at all…. To the little grey cat, Fanny the horse had become a protectress, a fortress, a home.”
Highsmith earns our affection for the animals, so the kitten’s random death is especially heart-breaking. We are comfortably and horrifically allied with Fanny when she metes out her revenge.
While “Engine Horse” has glimpses of warmth and compassion—animal and human—Highsmith is at her most nasty in “The Bravest Rat in Venice.” Two young Venetian brothers idly capture and badly maim a young rat—cutting off two of its feet and gouging out an eye.
Highsmith adds shape to the boys’ characters by digressively noting one casual daydream: “The downstairs room fascinated Carlo. He had fantasies of gondolas floating through the door, dumping passengers who would drown in that awful semi-darkness, and finally cover the marble floor with their corpses, which would be seen only when the tide ran out.”
The rat eventually takes its revenge on the family—but in a wholly vicious and unredeeming way: It crawls into a cradle and chews off the baby’s face. This might be the most uniformly unpleasant moment in the book. It is hard to abide the suffering of the innocent. But, then, the poor rat suffered with less cause himself.
The stories of Beastly Murder are, for the most part, great fun—macabre, droll, disturbing, and more. But for even casual fans of Highsmith’s novels, they should be required reading. They can be taken as a lens—or perhaps, a flavor enhancer—for the novels. I’m curious to return to the novels to see if Highsmith associates her psychopaths with the animal kingdom. Is murder, then, not just an art, but also a basic natural act?