Beautiful Shadow is a very good title for any book, and it's very suitable on several levels for a biography of Patricia Highsmith. Andrew Wilson's book was first published in 2003 and it's been on my shelves ever since. I pored over it from cover to cover in preparation for the Highsmith panel at Harrogate. And it was a fascinating, if lengthy, read.
Highsmith's life was remarkable, and in some ways very sad. She had a deeply troubled family background, which set the pattern for a complex and often unsatisfactory personal life. She had many relationships with other women, and a startling number of people in her life either committed suicide or attempted to do so. Perhaps this tells us something about those to whom she was drawn, but the overall impression I had was one of sadness, that such a gifted woman should have led an existence that was often so melancholy.
She didn't help herself, it seems fair to say. In her youth, she was lovely to look at, and this is the only biography of a crime novelist that I've ever read which includes a nude photograph of its subject. This is, some might say, not something that should be encouraged! Be that as it may, what is startling is her evident physical deterioration within a relatively short time. She drank far too much, and didn't look after her health. As a result, she was plagued with health problems, and I feel sure that these must have affected the quality of some of her later writing. A terrible shame.
Highsmith plainly had several unappealing characteristics, not least a tendency towards racism, but she also had a (very dark) sense of humour,and this shows up often in her fiction; it's a quality of hers that seems to me to be under-estimated. Perhaps suffering and unhappiness helped to make her a great writer - and that's what I think she is. Wilson does, in my opinion, a good job in presented a rounded portrait of a complex woman, and makes excellent use of the private papers to which he had access.