Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith

Purchased at Chapters.ca

It was 14 months ago that I read my first Patricia Highsmith — The Talented Mr. Ripley — inspired by a review of a new biography of the author to finally beginning exploring a writer whom I had certainly heard of but never found the motivation to start. I own a copy of the Everyman’s Library volume that contains the first three of the five-volume Ripley series and, it is safe to say, that I was hooked from page one. That experience, bolstered by the positive discussion from commentors on my post who had read more of Highsmith and Ripley than my humble start, left me convinced that I would find further reading of Highsmith’s Ripley rewarding, even if some (perhaps most) critics say the first of the five is the best.

Highsmith has been on a special corner of the bookshelf since, the one reserved for guaranteed winners (Maile Meloy has an honored spot there as well) who are being saved for those times when I know I need a book that I will love. I hefted it several times over the last 14 months but always put it back — that corner gets saved for times of special need. I’ve been on a bit of a rough streak since the start of 2011; the books have not been bad, it is just that none of have been outstanding and several have proved to be challenging reads. The time for Highsmith to prove her worth had arrived and, I am delighted to report, she did. Ripley Under Ground may be 300 pages long — for me, it was a one session read, broken only by a hasty dinner.

Tom Ripley, having escaped the Italian and American authorities and his deserved fate in book one, is now 31, well-married (to a wealthy, young French aristocrat who is as amoral as he is) and living, quite idly, on a very comfortable estate just outside Paris. His gardening is interrupted by a phone call (quickly followed by a letter) which introduces the central intrigue of the novel — Derwatt Ltd., an enterprise Tom had dreamed up and in which he is now a minor partner, is under threat, just at the time when its latest asset (a show of new Derwatt canvasses) is about to open at the Buckmaster Gallery in London (owned by Derwatt Ltd.). An American collector, Thomas Murchison, who has previously bought a Derwatt from the gallery is promising to show up, challenging the genuineness of his purchase.

The last was a point, Tom thought, because Derwatt didn’t exist. The story (invented by Tom) which the Buckmaster Gallery and Derwatt’s loyal little band of friends put out was that Derwatt had gone to a tiny little village in Mexico to live, and he saw no one, had no telephone, and forbade the gallery to give his address to anyone. Well, if Murchison went to Mexico, he would have an exhausting search, enough to keep any man busy for a lifetime.

Let’s fill in some back story. Derwatt was indeed a rising artist, who committed suicide by walking into the sea in Greece, a few years back. The idea for Derwatt Ltd. that Tom came up with was that one of their gang, Bernard, would continue producing paintings. Two other members of the consortium, Jeff and Ed, would set up the Buckmaster Gallery to market them. The four would split the proceeds.

The plan has succeeded beyond all expectations. Derwatt canvasses are highly sought after and now command prices that rank with the most expensive new work in the world (and Bernard has produced 19 for the new show, to be augmented by some loaned genuine works). In addition to Bernard’s forged art works, there is also a lucrative art supply line featuring materials labelled ‘Derwatt’ and

“then there was the Derwatt School of Art in Perugia, mainly for nice old ladies and American school girls on holiday, but still a source of income, too. The art school got its money not so much from teaching art and sellling ‘Derwatt’ supplies as from acting as a rental agent, finding houses and furnished apartments of the most expensive order, for well-heeled tourist-students, and taking a cut from it all.”

A model business enterprise of the 20th century, one would have to say. The only problem being, of course, that it is anchored in the false premise that Derwatt is producing the new paintings — and Murchison is threatening to put paid to that. Highsmith gets her anti-American digs in here, incidentally: Murchison is basing his claim of forgery not on the style or nature of the painting he bought but on a technical observation: for the purple in his recent painting, Derwatt used “straight cobalt violet” but the painter had abandoned that “for a mixture of cad red and ultramarine five or six years ago” and artists never return to previous mixes.

Highsmith builds her first Ripley novel by creating these kinds conundrums for Tom and this one is no different. His solution to the issue is that he will head to London, disguise himself as Derwatt, hold a welll-attended news conference and, in the most important part, convince Murchison that his painting is genuine.

Unfortunately, he does not succeed in that last objective and (this doesn’t seem a spoiler to me, but it might to some) Murchison has to die. Readers of The Talented Mr. Ripley are well aware that there are only two possible outcomes to a Tom Ripley ruse — total success or a death. And, of course, each unsuccessful ruse produces the need for several more which also have only those two potential outcomes.

Yes, the plot stretches credibility, but it is to Highsmith’s credit that readers who are willing to bend their demands for realism are rewarded with the building of an ever-more complex house of cards that, surely, must eventually crumble. And, since we know there are five novels in the series, it is a given that Tom will somehow escape from the resulting chaos and disaster.

I have confessed before to a fondness for novels centred on the business of the art world (Steve Martin’s excellent An Object of Beauty is the most recent example and Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov is on standby). So I started Ripley Under Ground with high expectations on more than one front — and Highsmith exceeded all of them. While the intricacy, intrigue and macabre nature of the plot drive the novel, she diverges and digresses along the way with observations of the era (and her characters) that add immense richness to the experience.

All of which made the reading of this book a total success. My Everyman’s Library volume has been returned to that special corner of the shelf, with volume three (and four and five) of Tom Ripley’s adventures awaiting those times when I know I need a rewarding book. And I’ll be adding a few of her non-Ripley books to the shelf as well — she is an author of the first order.

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27 Responses to “Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Glad to hear that you have the Grushin on standby. I bet that you will love it.

    I read Highsmith’s Strangers of a Train. It’s my favourite Hitchcock film, so I was surprised to find that the book was much much darker than the film. No heroes.

    This made me run out and buy the Ripleys, and yes it is reassuring to know that those volumes are waiting.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sometimes, Guy, you just want to curl up and dive into a book where the author does all the work and, as a reader, all you do is experience the reward. That’s what the two Ripley novels that I have read so far do for me.

    Strangers on a Train will be high on my post-Ripley Highsmith list. The Price of Salt (also known as Carol) will also be there. Since those are her first two, I may just approach the non-Ripley novels in chronological order.

    Highsmith, I think, is going to join Muriel Spark as one of those authors with an extensive back catalogue of books unread by me who will turn into regular ventures.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I should also mention that we watched episodes 13 and 14 of Inspector Montalbano last night — only four more to go, alas. The winter of 2011 promises to go down as the year that Guy Savage put us on to the viewing highlight of the year. Every episode is excellent — and Sheila thinks they have brought her Italian up to what she needs for her trip this spring. Many, many thanks. I’ve bought the first four of the books and will give one of them a try soon as well.

  4. leroyhunter Says:

    Seeing you were reviewing this must have worked on me subliminally Kevin: I started on my tenth Highsmith (Deep Water) the other day. Really glad to hear you are enjoying the Ripley series. She’s an excellent writer, consistent and unsettling.

    Did you think that bit about Murchison’s reasons for doubting Derwatt was a specifically anti-American dig?

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Perhaps “anti-American” was a bit strong — I did think it was a comment on American collectors and what they know about art. ) Martin turns that into a version of farce in his novel.) Having said that, it is a fair observation to say that any collector who pays top dollar for new work is regarded as an unworthy nouveau by parts of the art world. So perhaps I could have better described the dig as an illustration of the cattiness that seems to be a continuing part of the business.

  6. John Self Says:

    I may have commented on Highsmith to you before, Kevin, so apologies if the following contains any repetition.

    For me, the best Ripley novel is the third, Ripley’s Game, where Highsmith seems settled enough into the series to concentrate on the plot (it’s probably the most directly thrillerish of her books), but not so familiar with the setting that she would dust it down to apply weaker conceits to it (as with volumes four and five, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water. The latter was the last novel published in her lifetime and while it is serviceable for Ripley addicts, she was long past her best).

    More significantly, I am strongly of the view that the Ripley books are not the best of Highsmith by any means. I would particularly rate The Cry of the Owl, This Sweet Sickness, The Blunderer, leroy’s current read Deep Water and, to show her capability of going beyond the ‘suspense novel’, Edith’s Diary. Her strongest work is from the 1950s and 1960s. After that she seems variable (though I say that as reported by others; I’ve largely avoided them). Incidentally I don’t rate Carol/The Price of Salt, though it’s interesting in a cultural sense as an early lesbian novel.

    • leroyhunter Says:

      I’ve been looking for The Blunderer and Those Who Walk Away, which are proving hard to find even online.

      John, I agree with your general point that the non-Ripley books are superb and superior to all but the best of Ripley. I’m also with you insofar as I think The Boy Who Followed Ripley is the weakest of that quintet; but I don’t think Ripley Under Water is as far off quality-wise as you say.

  7. Guy Savage Says:

    There are film versions of Cry of the Owl and This Sweet Sickness. I know the first is on DVD but This Sweet Sickness may still be trapped on DVD.

    I didn’t know that Strangers on a Train was her first, so I may follow the chronological route too.

    Have you seen the Criminal Justice 1 and 2 DVDs?

    Camilleri’s fictional Montalbano is a great deal of fun.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I have seen some of your opinions on HIghsmith before, but never in such a well organized form. I will be returning to this comment when ordering time comes. Many thanks for the thoughts.

    My impression from reviews and essays was that her later work did tail off — that tends to support my intention of approaching the non-Ripley books in chronological order. I do see this as a multi-year project. Since I didn’t get to her until more than a half-century after she started, there hardly seems to be a reason to rush things now.

  9. Tom C Says:

    I really must investigate – these books have been on my radar for some time and you make them sound very appealing. I know what you mean about a rough streak in reading – something I usually try to break by taking on something demanding and lengthy, but am often disappointed.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Something I haven’t mentioned in either Highsmith review is the strength of the way that she portrays Europe as when viewed through American eyes (and as I do note in this review, she does take some digs at those eyes). For me, the setting of Italy (both coast and Rome) in Talented and France and London in this volume are part of the attraction of the book. As someone who does his share of European wandering, I think you would find it an interesting aspect of the book.

  11. tolmsted Says:

    Kevin: Highsmith is an author I’ve wanted to read for some time, but keep putting on hold. (The truth is, I still haven’t gotten past those moments in the film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley that had me squirming uncomfortably in my seat). Does the first Ripley book differ enough from the movie to make it required reading… or can a reader jump into book two and go back to The Talented Mr. Ripley once the memory of the movie has faded a little?

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tolmsted: I too saw the movie first (the Matt Damon version, not the European one) and, while I liked the movie, it somewhat put me off the book. I do think the book is much better — there are nuances that just don’t translate to film that well and directors have to leave out a lot that is interesting.

    As for your question, and admitting a bias, I would view reading the Ripley novels as a project and suggest starting with The Talented Mr. Ripley. She builds character (so far) in a pretty consistent line — reading volume one is not required, but it does add depth.

    And, as other comments have indicated, you might well want to start with some of her non-Ripley work. I can’t comment on that since I have taken a different approach.

  13. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve not read any Highsmith, but seeing this review and the comments above has convinced me I need to read her stuff at some point. I do like those Everyman editions, so I might have to hunt this one out.

    As an aside, Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters makes many references to Highsmith, which you might find of interest. http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2008/03/night-letters-b.html

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Thanks for that link and I will keep an eye out of Night Letters. One of my other penchants is a fondness for novels set in Venice.

    I may be projecting my own experience here, but from the comments it seems that once a reader starts Highsmith there is a powerful incentive to explore more of her work. It may take some of us longer to begin that process, but we seem to experience the same phenomenon. From what I know of your tastes, I think you will find Ripley a very enjoyable diversion — books that are both fun and challenging.

  15. kimbofo Says:

    I think you might have made a liar out of me: I’ve just realised I have read a Patricia Highsmith novel before, I’d just forgotten about it. It was her second novel, which caused some controversy because of its subject matter — a lesbian affair. http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2010/08/carol-by-patricia-highsmith.html

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Carol, unusually for Highsmith, seems to inspire conflicting opinions — some love it, others (see John Self above) don’t rate it. I am certainly willing to give it a go, but since there are three more Ripley novels in line, and I am spacing them out at the rate of one a year, it may be a while.

    Always nice to have books to look forward to, even if reading them is years down the road.

  17. Kerry Says:

    Like Kim, I also have never inhaled Highsmith. She actually sounds like an author who might be at the intersection of my and my significant other’s literary tastes. I haven’t seen the movie, so have no qualms about starting with The Talented Mr. Ripley.

    I have really enjoyed the discussion above. All the opinions make me want to read some Highsmith so I can have one too.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I agree with the thought about interesection of tastes — not just in the reading, but with Highsmith also the viewing. We have DVDs of both the American and European versions of The Talented Mr. Ripley (the latter is titled Purple Noon) and enjoyed them both. A number of her other works have also been filmed (as Guy Savage indicates) and I will be checking them out once I have read the books, although as I noted in my comment to Kim that may be a few years down the road.

    I’ll confess that I do love it when I encounter an author that I know I will be still exploring some years from now.

    • Kerry Says:

      Thank you for reminding me of that there are both American and European versions of The Talented Mr. Ripley film. We also enjoy comparing the book with the European film with the American film, when things work out. I think this will be one of those for us. Thanks!

      I hope to get to The Talented Mr. Ripley sooner rather than later, but have no plans to speed through her oeuvre. “Some years from now…”: exactly.

  19. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it Kevin.

    For me the sequels to The Talented Mr. Ripley were solid novels but nothing great. The gay subtext to the original seemed just entirely dropped which made the character quite different and generally he just seems more accomplished. In the original he’s a pathetic character driven to kill from inadequacy. In the sequels he’s a cool sociopath who kills to protect a glamorous lifestyle. For me it was almost a change of genre (almost, it isn’t – it’s more a change of tone).

    That said, I did enjoy them. I just didn’t find them that special and while I might reread Talented I wouldn’t personally reread the sequels.

    If you like these though you might want to check out Cara Massimina and it’s sequel Mimi’s Ghost both by Tim Parks which are similar in theme but which aim more for comedy than suspense. I don’t think either is Parks’ best, but they’re both fun reads and Parks is a talented writer.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I didn’t find this novel great, but then I wasn’t looking for great when I picked it up. I would give it high marks for straight enjoyment and equally good grades for what I will call “chuckles generated by observation, usually catty.” I’d agree that Ripley was a different character in this one, but I chose to regard that as him growing into amoral maturity.

    I have read a couple of Tim Parks ( Dreams of Rivers and Seas and Europa) and enjoyed them — he fits another one of my sub-categories, English authors writing from Italy. I’ll keep the two you recommend in mind (I see they were published under a pseudonym) but warn that it might be a while before I get to them. I don’t visit the genre that often and with more Highsmith on the agenda, together with Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano books (Guy Savage recommended the DVDs and we loved them, so I’m going to try the books), it is already crowded. Not to mention, that Chandler and Hammett do call for the occasional revisit.

  21. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I didn’t know those Parks were published under another name. Interesting. I can see why. His usual stuff is fairly serious whereas those two are comic crime. I suppose it’s like Julian Barnes’ excellent crime trilogy which was also written under a pseudonym (ironically I prefer Barnes as a crime writer to his more literary work).

    Chandler and Hammett always call for revisiting.

  22. Craig D. Says:

    You know, I try not to write more than a couple hundred words when I comment on these articles, and I always fail miserably. I’ll at least try not to repeat much of what I’ve already said in my ridiculously long comments on your “Talented Mr. Ripley” article.

    I’ll add to something you said in these comments, about the portrayal of Europe viewed through American eyes: it struck me in the books that although Ripley’s opinion of America is low and he chooses to live the privileged life in Europe, he is still distinctly American. I don’t agree with the critics who say that Ripley is Highsmith, but they did have their similarities, and this is one of them. I’ve already mentioned that my favorite Ripley film is “The American Friend” with Dennis Hopper, who a lot of people claim is the worst Ripley. As I said in the other article: “He may wear clothing that Highsmith’s Ripley would despise (a mechanic’s jumpsuit and a cowboy hat), but he nails the character.” I think he’s the only actor who has managed to capture the feeling of Ripley’s distinct “Americanness.”

    (The director, Wim Wenders, says on the DVD commentary that Highsmith initially hated the film but changed her mind when she saw it a second time, saying that Hopper had captured the essence of Ripley. I agree with her.)

    As for the gay subtext of the novels, perhaps my own homosexuality has informed my point of view, but I didn’t think the subtext was all that strong to begin with, and I think too much is made of Ripley’s sexuality. I added the “Tom Ripley” section to the “Ambiguously Gay” article on TVtropes.com, and I’ll just quote that here:

    >> In “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he claims not to know whether he likes men or women, and jokingly says that he’s going to give up both. In the same book, his obsession with another young man seems borderline sexual, although he ultimately becomes disillusioned with him and kills him to get his money. In later books, Tom is married to a woman, but his sexual attraction to her seems minimal at best. They sleep in separate beds and rarely make love, and he seems to treat her more as a trophy wife than an object of love. In “The Boy Who Followed Ripley,” he’s clearly attracted to the 16-year-old “boy” of the title, but nothing ever comes of it. He rescues the “boy” from kidnappers while dressed in drag, but he seems more amused by this than sexually thrilled. Tom ultimately has little interest in sex of any kind, although he’s clearly attracted to other men occasionally. <<

    In short, the subtext is absolutely there — Highsmith even described Ripley as "a little bit homosexual" in an interview — but I think anyone reading "The Talented Mr. Ripley" for the gay subtext is going to be disappointed. And if the subtext is dropped in any of the sequels, it's in "Ripley Under Ground" and "Ripley Under Water," but I felt that whatever minimal subtext was there in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is just as prevalent in "Ripley's Game" and "The Boy Who Followed Ripley."

    Depsite my status as a hardcore fan of the Ripley novels, I still haven't read anything else from Highsmith, which makes me feel slightly ashamed. Jonathan Lethem, whose opinion I can usually trust, wrote that "Highsmith's greatest work is in the non-Ripley novels" and he cited "The Cry of the Owl," "The Blunderer," "This Sweet Sickness," "The Tremor of Forgery," "Deep Water," and "A Dog's Ransom" as her best work. I suppose I'll get to at least some these books eventually, but I've got a serious problem reconciling the number of books I want to read with the time and money I have.

    As I said in the other article, my opinions of the individual Ripley novels changed slightly when I read them a second time. "The Talented Mr. Ripley" was my favorite the first time, but "Ripley's Game" is now my favorite. Who knows how I'll feel when I read them a third time? Regardless, you're in for a treat with the third book; even when it wasn't my favorite, I still felt it was better than "Ripley Under Ground." It's downhill from there, unfortunately, although "The Boy Who Followed Ripley" and "Ripley Under Water" certainly have their moments. To make a good film based on those two books, however, I think a screenwriter would have to combine them.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: Your post speaks for itself and, since I have only read the first two Ripley novels, I will refrain from commenting since I have nothing to add. Thank you for those extended thoughts.

  24. Craig D. Says:

    Well, I’ve done it. “The Cry of the Owl,” “This Sweet Sickness,” “The Tremor of Forgery,” and “Selected Novels and Short Stories” (which includes “Strangers on a Train” and “The Price of Salt”) found their way into my Amazon shopping cart. (My apologies to Jim Thompson. I’ll get to you eventually.) I hope Lethem and everyone else is right about the non-Ripley novels being Highsmith’s best work, but since I never seem to agree with the majority on anything, something tells me Tom’s adventures will remain my favorites. Can any of her other characters possibly be as interesting? We’ll see. I’ll be sure to comment on them when you post about “Ripley’s Game” in June 2012.

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: I may get to Ripley’s Game sooner than June 2012. I usually read the IMPAC shortlist but was disappointed in this year’s when it was announced this week and will not be doing that this year. Which means a bit of an opening for titles in May and June and Highsmith certainly does appeal.

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