"The two writers stand at the opposite ends of the crime writing spectrum. Christie, still the world’s bestselling novelist, is known for her cosy reads, murder mysteries which often end with the death, suicide or arrest of the murderer. Highsmith, meanwhile, is famous for her creation of Tom Ripley, the psychopath who charms and beguiles the reader into identifying with him and who repeatedly gets away with murder.
Christie started writing crime during the First World War, a time when the world needed the comforts that could be supplied by the reassuring form of the whodunit. “The enemy was wicked, the hero was good: it was as crude and as simple as that,” Agatha wrote in her autobiography. “I was, like everyone else who wrote books or read them, against the criminal and for the innocent victim.”
Contrast this with what Highsmith noted in her diary, as she was penning The Talented Mr Ripley, published in 1955. “What I predicted I would once do, I am doing already in this very book (Tom Ripley), that is, showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and thus rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too.”
The two women were born decades and continents apart; indeed their backgrounds could not be more different. Christie, raised in an upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon in 1890, had an idyllic childhood. Highsmith, however, born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, said she was “born under a sickly star”. Mary, her mother, attempted to abort her by drinking turpentine; when the termination proved unsuccessful her parents divorced. Then, when Highsmith was four or five years old, it seems that she was sexually abused by two strangers at her grandmother’s house in Fort Worth. She grew up with such a loathing of her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, that she dreamt of murdering him. “I learned to live with a grievous hatred very early on,” she said. “And learned to stifle also my more positive emotions. All this probably caused my propensity to write bloodthirsty stories of murder and violence.”
In Christie’s autobiography, published a year after the author’s death in 1976, the writer analysed how crime writing had changed over the course of the twentieth century. She remembers being shocked by the character of Raffles, the gentleman burglar created by E.W. Hornung, whose brother-in-law Conan Doyle had told him, “You must not make the criminal a hero.”
For her part, Highsmith loathed what she perceived as the cozy, nostalgic world of novelists such as Christie, whose books she regarded as nothing more than a kind of animated algebra. “I think it is a silly way of teasing people, who-done-it,” she said of the detective novel. “It is like a puzzle, and puzzles do not interest me.”
When I began my series of novels with Agatha Christie as sleuth I wondered whether it would be possible to draw on these two very different traditions. The first in the series, A Talent for Murder, is a fictionalised account of Christie’s real-life disappearance in 1926. In that novel, Agatha is being blackmailed by a sinister GP, Dr Kurs, who wants her to commit a murder on his behalf, an idea which Highsmith explored in her debut Strangers on a Train. “You, Mrs Christie, are going to commit a murder,” Dr Kurs says to Agatha. “But before then you’re going to disappear.”
During the course of the novel Agatha is also manipulated by another man, John Davison, of the British Secret Intelligence Service, who recognises Christie’s potential talent as an agent. If A Talent for Murder deals with Agatha’s recruitment into the SIS — she suffers in a way that makes it emotionally necessary for her to join forces with Davison — then the rest of the series focuses on how she uses her skills as an expert plotter of fiction in solving crimes. And although these are classic Christie-inspired whodunits — a form which is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment — I hope I’ve invested them with just the right amount of Highsmithian darkness too."
- Death in a Desert Land is the third in Andrew Wilson's Agatha Christie adventures and is published in paperback on 2 April (Simon & Schuster, £8.99). The other novels are A Talent for Murder and A Different Kind of Evil. The fourth book in the series, I Saw Him Die, is published in hardback in August. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith is published by Bloomsbury.