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Unsettling prose from author of "Stranger on a Train"

If you are familiar with Patricia Highsmith only through Alfred Hitchcock's classic film of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, you really aren't familiar with Highsmith at all.

By Patricia Highsmith

Edited with an introduction

by Joan Schenkar

Norton. 644 pp. $35

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson

If you are familiar with Patricia Highsmith only through Alfred Hitchcock's classic film of her first novel,

Strangers on a Train

, you really aren't familiar with Highsmith at all.

Hitchcock's film, graced though it is by Robert Walker's unforgettable performance as the eminently creepy Charles Anthony Bruno (called Bruno Anthony in the film), is quite tame compared with the original.

Actually, although two murders form the nucleus of its storyline, Strangers on a Train is a crime novel only in the sense that Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is. For Highsmith, as for Dostoyevsky (whom Highsmith revered), crime is simply a probe useful for exploring the darker, more frightening recesses of the human psyche.

In fact, as a crime novel, Strangers is only fair to middling - the detective Gerard's solving of the crimes seems rather improbable - but as a psychological thriller, it is profoundly unsettling. This has less to do with the psychopathic Bruno than with the ostensibly upright Guy Haines, the young and idealistic architect Bruno seduces into crime, and whose moral core turns out to be like some decaying element.

Bruno can't really help being what he is, but Guy is an accomplice to his own destruction. Add to that Highsmith's own caressing attention to the details of his disintegration, and you have fiction as harrowing as it gets. Strangers on a Train makes for reading well outside most people's comfort zone.

Joan Schenkar, author of The Talented Miss Highsmith, a splendid biography of the writer, has chosen for this volume Highsmith's first two novels and 13 of her short stories - seven early ones, and six late ones. Highsmith was at home in both forms, but her shorter fiction is distinctly different from her novels, and it is easy to see why some readers would prefer one and not the other.

For one thing, while the stories can certainly be dark, occasionally something on the order of a peculiar compassion creeps in, most notably in "The Great Cardhouse," which chronicles the encounter between Lucien Montlehuc, a connoisseur of art forgeries, and Mlle. Duhamel, an aging piano teacher who plays extraordinarily well, but hates music and the piano, because her father "made me study music as a child and as a young girl, study and study until I had no time to do anything else - even to make a friend."

Mlle. Duhamel tells Lucien how ashamed she is: "To pretend to love what I hate! To teach others to love what I hate - the piano!"

Lucien, who "was not good at comforting people . . . wanted to comfort Mlle. Duhamel." And so, "with a graceful movement, Lucien removed his right hand." It is only the beginning, for, as Lucien finally explains, "if I could remove every artificial part of myself, including the silver shin of my other leg and my plastic ribs, there wouldn't be much left of me. . . ."

The two end by bonding over their mutual artificiality.

The later stories reveal a streak of whimsy that is surprising in a writer so characteristically dark. There is, for instance, the two-page tale of "Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman," which is followed by "Two Disagreeable Pigeons," detailing the adventures in London of a pair of pigeons named Maud and Claud, who may well represent the perfect Highsmith couple: "simply mates, for two or three years now, loyal in a way, though at the bottom of their little pigeon hearts they detested each other."

The odd inclusion here is The Price of Salt, Highsmith's second novel, which was originally published under a pseudonym, "Claire Morgan." It is a romance novel, a lesbian romance novel that ends happily. It is also a portrait of the artist as a young woman, for Therese, the budding set designer who falls for the ultra-cool Carol Aird, is clearly none other than the young, alluring, and deeply weird Patricia Highsmith. Every least thing Therese encounters can open a fissure in her psyche, even trying on a dress:

The dress hung in straight draped folds down almost to her ankles. It was the dress of queens in fairy tales, of a red deeper than blood. She stepped back . . . and she looked back at her own dark hazel eyes in the mirror. Herself meeting herself. This was she, not the girl in the dull plaid skirt and the beige sweater . . . .

Therese wishes "she could kiss the mirror and make her come to life, yet she stood perfectly still, like a painted portrait," and soon her mind is "at a distant vortex . . . and she knew it was the hopelessness that terrified her."

Schenkar routinely refers to the landscape of Highsmith's fiction as "Highsmith Country." It is a largely desolate region, as often as not so bleak that, by comparison, even Graham Greene's "Greeneland" can seem warm and inviting.