Ripley’s Game, by Patricia Highsmith

Purchased at Indigo.ca

I’ve been working my way through Patricia Highsmith’s five Ripley novels at the leisurely pace of one every year or so (and Tom Ripley has kindly been providing the KfC blog strap line for the last few weeks). The first two (The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground) are generally regarded as the best and for me both certainly lived up to their high reputation. Given that critical opinion, it is fair to say that I approached Ripley’s Game with suitably lowered expectations.

Two bits of background first, however. For those who don’t know Tom Ripley, he is one of fiction’s most amoral, arguably immoral, characters, blindly pursuing his own devious ends without regard to anyone — or any recognizable moral code — around him. The result, for readers, is an intensely charming rogue. Highsmith is also much loved (with good reason) by movie directors and Tom is a natural subject. I’d tracked down the DVD version of Ripley’s Game (starring John Malkovich and available from Amazon.UK for the bargain price of £3.49 if you have an all-region DVD player) some time ago and Mrs. KfC and I jumped the gun on my reading of the book some months back. Yes, that means a bit of a spoiler, but we already know Tom is a killer and, since there are five books, we know he escapes punishment, so it didn’t prove to be a major one.

Highsmith supplies a new twist to her title character in this one. While Tom was a singular villain in the more gruesome aspects of the first two novels, he is more of a manipulative one in this novel.

Ripley’s Game opens with Tom receiving a shady acquaintance, Reeves, at the Ripley estate, Villeperce, in France — Ripley’s wife Heloise comes from an aristorcratic family so he lives a life of idle comfort there. (Aside: For those who have seen the movie, my observation would be that the estate of the book is not nearly as luxurious as the estate of the movie, atlhough it is still pretty grand.) Tom has done odd jobs for Reeves before, passing on or retrieving parcels of stolen goods or “recovering from toothpaste tubes, where Reeves had planted them, tiny objects like microfilm rolls from the unsuspecting toothpaste carriers”. He’s done those jobs more out of relieving boredom than anything else, but the “game” that is about to start is of a different order:

Now Reeves wanted Tom to provide someone, suggest someone to do one or perhaps two ‘simple murders’ and perhaps one theft, also safe and simple. Reeves had come from Hamburg to Villeperce to talk to Tom, and he was going to stay the night and go to Paris tomorrow to talk to someone else about it, then return to his home in Hamburg, presumably to do some more thinking if he failed. Reeves was primarily a fence, but lately was dabbling in the illegal gambling world of Hamburg, which he was now undertaking to protect. Protect from what? Italian sharks who wanted to come in. One Italian in Hamburg was a Mafia button man, sent out as a feeler, Reeves thought, and the other might be, from a different family. By eliminating one or both of these intruders, Reeves hoped to discourage further Mafia attempts, and also to draw the attention of the Hamburg police to a Mafia threat, and let the police handle the rest, which was to say, throw the Mafia out.

Tom doesn’t like Reeves much (although he has no time for the Mafia at all, regarding them as an unacceptable version of “bad”, a rather odd judgment given his own character), so the proposal as stated is not of much interest to him. But, twisted soul that he is, he sees another aspect to it — the chance to corrupt an otherwise moral person and introduce him to Tom’s amoral world — that does have appeal. And, selfish devil that he is, he has a possible candidate whom he had recently met at a party in a nearby village:

He recalled a tall blond Englishman with a certain resentment and dislike, because in the kitchen, that gloomy kitchen with worn-out linoleum, smoke-stained tin ceiling with a nineteenth-century bas-relief pattern, this man had made an unpleasant remark to Tom. The man — Trewbridge, Tewksbury? — had said in an almost sneering way, ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard of you.’ Tom had said, ‘I’m Tom Ripley. I live in Villeperce,’ and Tom had been about to ask him how long he’d been in Fontainebleau, that perhaps an Englishman with a French wife might like to make acquaintance with an American with a French wife living not far away, but Tom’s venture had been met with rudeness. Trevanny? Wasn’t that his name? Blond, straight hair, rather Dutch-looking, but then the English often looked Dutch and vice versa.

Readers who know him know that it is a bad, even fatal, mistake to piss Tom off (and also that, as in this case, he gets pissed off rather easily). Trevanny (that turns out to be his name after all) has quite unwittingly done that, setting the stage for the game. Trevanny runs a not-very-successful picture framing shop and has money troubles. Ripley is also aware from an art dealer friend that Trevanny is suffering from a serious case of leukemia, likely in its final stages. All of which gives our anti-hero a twisted motive — and elements of opportunity — to make him a “victim” by turning him into a contract killer.

Ripley puts Reeves in touch with Trevanny — Tom’s perception that he is corruptible proves true and the first ‘simple murder’ takes place. Alas, the killer/victim still has shreds of conscience and, while the act has not attracted police attention to him, it has introduced a slew of personal and family crises.

Those start to come into play when it turns out that a second murder will be required. Trevanny by this time has a case of cold feet but Tom, intrigued by the evil plot he has set in motion, steps in to push it along. From this point on, Ripley’s Game turns into a bit of a thriller (and Highsmith does thrillers well) but it should be understood from the start that the author is more interested in her study of character (or lack thereof) and inherent weaknesses — she keeps both elements in balance as the novel proceeds to its conclusion.

How good is Ripley’s Game? Judged strictly as a stand-alone book, it isn’t as good as the first two Ripley novels. On the other hand, if you have come to appreciate Ripley as a character (and I have) it is an entirely worthwhile extension of the portrayal of an evil rogue who is completely absent of any guiding force beyond his own selfishness. The thriller part works just fine; the development of fractured characters even better.

So it is a further-developed Tom Ripley that I send back to the shelf for another year — come back next spring for a look at volume four, The Boy Who Followed Ripley. Ripley is certainly proving to be worth an annual visit so far.

A note on the text: The three Ripley’s that I have read so far all are contained in the Everyman’s Library edition pictured at the top of this review — the next two will be the paperback Norton versions. If you think you may be a real Ripley convert, Norton has a wonderful looking hardback collection (here’s a link) which I may just invest in down the road. Once I have completed my leisurely first read, I think Ripley will be worth a second visit.

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22 Responses to “Ripley’s Game, by Patricia Highsmith”

  1. Craig D. Says:

    April! You beat my prediction by two months. ;)

    I don’t think Tom is quite as amoral as he’s made out to be, and I certainly don’t think he’s immoral or a psychopath. There’s a good quote from the introduction to the Everyman Library’s edition that I agree with: “He is not amoral (which is how he describes his wife Heloise) because he is aware of his own immorality and harbours a detached interest in the morality and the ethical behaviours of others. … He is not psychopathic for he is able to imagine the lives and feelings of others.”

    Whatever your feelings on his actions, the fact is that he does have ethical standards and a sense of right and wrong. He’s not a total monster like Hannibal Lecter (which is how Malkovich played him, which is why I don’t like that movie quite as much as so many others do). And anyone who says he doesn’t feel guilt must not be paying much attention: he doesn’t feel guilt over killing Mafia hitmen, but he does feel guilty over the murder of Dickie Greenleaf, and he feels guilty about coercing Jonathan into murder. He doesn’t exactly torment himself with guilt, but it’s there.

    Anyway, I’m sorry to see that you didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first two, but then again, neither did I when I first read it. It wasn’t until I read the whole series a second time that I really started to appreciate Ripley’s Game. I think it’s deeper than it gets credit for, deeper than I saw the first time I read it. I left a comment on another blog not long ago explaining this depth, and I’ve posted the link below if you’re interested in reading it. My comment is at the very bottom.

    http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=46636

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome back, Craig — I’ve missed you (and am happy I beat your prediction by two whole months :-) ).

    I appreciate your point about “amoral”. I would still apply the description, but in the sense that whatever his code is (and yes there are certainly elements of one) it doesn’t fit with normally accepted ones. And it does seem to be evolving as the series unfolds. To me that fits with definition of “amoral”, although not the most conventional one.

    In that sense, I think there is much more of an evolution in whatever his code is in this novel than in the first two. In the first novel, the two murders and his cover-ups seemed more a path of least resistance than anything else — and a certain surprised relief that he had actually pulled it off.

    The forgeries at the start of book two indicate that he’s developed a certain confidence in his ability to pull off illegal behavior. I felt the more serious crimes came from a need to protect that scam — they certainly broke conventional moral codes, but he was operating (or improvising) under a much different one.

    The Ripley of this book is much colder and more calculating. He doesn’t even care about Reeves’ project — he’s more interested in what he can influence Trevanny to do. It is fair to say that Ripley can only influence someone who already has some flaw (as in, you can’t con an honest man), but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t contribute mightily to expanding it.

    I enjoyed the book every bit as much as the first two, in some ways even more. I tried to qualify my judgment with the “strictly as a stand-alone book” phrase — to appreciate this one, I do think you need to have read and liked the first two. As I said in the review, after finishing this one I now have a more “fully-developed” Tom Ripley to contemplate.

    As for the movies, including the Malkovich version of this one, I’m inclined to give the directors and actors quite a bit of leeway. Highsmith certainly has cinematic appeal (which is why so many movies of her work get made) but she is also incomplete for those practitioners. Ripley as a book character has to be ambiguous and morally fluid (hence our discussion) which is impossible to carry off in a 90-minute movie — so the character is inevitably a simplified interpretation rather than an indication of all the possiblities. And part of the beauty of the books is the way the author deliberately doesn’t resolve all the story lines (so that we readers can contemplate alternatives, which I certainly love to do) — that’s a sentence of death for modern movie audiences who want tidy resolutions. (Actually for modern readers as well — check the comments stream on my review of The Sense of an Ending for the frustration that some see with a deliberate ambiguity of plot rationale and resolution.)

  3. buriedinprint Says:

    I have only read the first book in this series, but you’ve reminded me that it’s one that would be worth revisiting. This year I am making an attempt at moving ahead in some other series that I’ve been reading (well, I say reading, but in some cases it’s been years since I last picked up one of the installments). My habit of starting too many and leaving them unfinished is niggling. But I like your approach, in planning to read one book each year, and that’s likely how they were intended to have been read anyhow; I think I shall adopt that!

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BIP: Well, it is certainly working for me with Ripley. I’ll admit with most series I’m inclined to pick them up more quickly — this just seems to be the right pace for Highsmith. I am thinking I might try one of her other novels next since they were highly recommended in comments on my previous posts. Tom is now enough of a developed character for me that I know I will be returning.

  5. Craig D. Says:

    KFC:

    I would comment more if you would post about some of my other literary obsessions, namely Philip K. Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Albert Camus, and Richard Matheson. Until you do, I’ll have to be the resident Highsmith nutjob.

    Anyway, Tom certainly evolves throughout the series — my favorite moment in the entire series is when he goes back to help Jonathan on the train. What started as cruel, sociopathic manipulation turns into genuine friendship. (Or rather, as Tom says, he would very much like Jonathan’s friendship, but he turns away from it because he thinks it would be too dangerous.) This is one of the reasons I refuse to view Tom as a monster, despite the acts he occasionally commits that are undeniably (and indefensibly) awful. Something in Jonathan brings out the humanity in Tom.

    I don’t think your interpretation of Tom is much different than mine, if at all. I won’t argue against the claim that he lives outside the popular moral universe, because he inarguably does. I just take issue with words like “immoral” and “psychopath” because they imply that Tom is a man with no moral standards at all who indiscriminately harms those around him with no remorse whatsoever, but he’s not quite *that* bad. Again, whatever he is, he’s not Hannibal Lecter, but a lot of people seem to describe him as if he were. I don’t think I would have trouble sleeping if I were a guest in Tom’s house, as long as I didn’t threaten to expose his artwork forgery scheme…

    As for the movies, I’m not a purist, and I have no problems with filmmakers making whatever changes they see fit and bringing their vision to life instead of the author’s. It just annoys me when I hear critic after critic claim that Malkovich is the perfect Ripley and that he captures the character of the books with total accuracy. I appreciate the filmmakers for not watering down Tom (as he was watered down in the Matt Damon film), but they went too far in the opposite direction and turned him into a reckless psychopath who beats people to death every chance he gets, and he’s far too smug and rude to be the polite and charming gent Highsmith wrote about. It’s a very good movie; I’m not criticizing the quality of it — but hearing critics consistently praise Malkovich as the first actor to really capture Ripley makes my head spin. (It makes my head spin even more when they call Dennis Hopper the worst Ripley, since I feel that he came closer than any of the other actors, but that’s another rant entirely.)

    Anyway, I certainly recommend giving one of the non-Ripley Highsmith novels a try. I’ve read through a handful of them since my comments on your last Ripley entry, and I’ve quite enjoyed Strangers on a Train and The Cry of the Owl. The Tremor of Forgery was decent, but a little disappointing considering that Graham Greene called it her best novel. There seems to be a disconnect between the Ripley and non-Ripley novels, since the former concern a man who commits crimes and gets away with them, escaping both the police and (mostly) a guilty conscience, while the latter concern people who don’t always escape the police and they suffer tormenting guilt over their actions. The Tremor of Forgery is basically 200+ pages of a man going insane with guilt over his attack on another man who broke into his apartment. The man may not even be dead for all he knows, and even if he is, the attack was still more or less self-defense. Quite a different animal than the Ripley novels; if Tom had done what this man had done, he would have forgotten about it immediately and gone into his kitchen to read the morning paper and enjoy his coffee.

    Buried:

    Highsmith actually wrote these things over a period of 36 years, so anyone following the series would have needed to wait a lot longer than a year for the next installment. In that regard, I can understand why so many people found the last two books disappointing: if I had read Ripley’s Game when it was released and had to wait six years for The Boy Who Followed Ripley, I probably would have been a bit let down with Boy, and even more let down when Ripley Under Water followed eleven years later.

  6. Guy Savage Says:

    You have to love the quote “one or two simple murders.” Thanks for the reminder that I need to get back to Highsmith. Your review brought the film back. I haven’t read the Ripley books, but I’ve read two novels and a collection of short stories

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Think what a great experience awaits you. :-)

    I’m sure you will find Ripley fits your tastes to a T when you do get to him.

  8. kimbofo Says:

    As you know, I read the first Ripley earlier in the year and loved it. I’ve been eyeing up that Norton collection but my budget can’t stretch that far. Instead, I’ve bought the Everyman edition that you have and am looking forward to reading the next two in the series at some point in the future. (So many books, so little time)

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Given my own experience, I can only say that stringing them out over time works very well. I know that characters like Tom appeal to you (as they do to me) and he is well worth the wait for when you are in the mood.

  10. Lee Monks Says:

    I’m a big Highsmith fan (haven’t read one for a while – this compels me to rectify that) but I’ve only read the one Ripley novel as yet. Craig mentions The Cry of The Owl: that’d be my favourite of my limited exposure to the author. Disastrous film version, but still…(and Malkovich can never resist at least gnawing on the scenery: casting him as Ripley was asking for trouble. I think Michael Shannon might do a good job…).

  11. Craig D. Says:

    Lee:

    I’m certainly in the minority here, seeing as it has a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I loved the 2009 film version of The Cry of the Owl. It’s my second favorite Highsmith adaptation after The American Friend, whose version of Ripley I also find quite underrated. I tried watching the 1987 version of Cry, which was supposed to be much better, but I found it so boring and lifeless that I turned it off before an hour had passed.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee, Craig: Okay, I will order both The Cry of the Owl and The American Friend on DVD. I don’t mind watching adaptations of Highsmith because I know that the books contain much more nuanced and subtle aspects.

    And, at the risk of annoying you both, I did not think Malkovich was all that bad — he certainly was not the “perfect” Ripley (someone yet to be discovered, although Craig is going to argue for Hopper I am sure) but he was a reasonable interpretation.

    Once the DVDs have arrived and been viewed, I will check back with a rating.

  13. Craig D. Says:

    I didn’t think Malkovich was bad at all. In fact, I’m quite fond of him. (I liked the film enough to buy the DVD.) I just take issue with the legion of critics who claim that he perfectly captures the Ripley of the books, because he doesn’t. Highsmith’s Tom is a polite and likable man who considers violence a last resort, while Malkovich’s Tom is a smug and rude prick who always looks as if he’s just itching to beat someone to death. I enjoy Roger Moore’s Bond as much as the next guy, but if someone starts claiming that he perfectly captures Fleming’s Bond, we’re gonna have words.

    And while Dennis Hopper is by far my favorite on-screen Ripley, he’s also not a perfect representation of Highsmith’s Tom. He’s more lonely, lost, and confused about who he is, and I don’t think the Tom of the novels would ever walk around in a denim jacket and cowboy hat, or live in a dilapidated old mansion with a pool table and jukebox. The truth is that Highsmith’s Tom hasn’t made it to the screen completely unchanged yet. You have to remove the books from your mind to enjoy any of the Ripley films. I think Hopper comes the closest to capturing him, but others are free to disagree.

    Even though I’m right. :P

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: I have observed earlier (perhaps not on this thread) that one of the joys of Highsmith is that she gives us such a nuanced and complex Tom that I don’t think any director/actor combination could successfully capture him . That’s why, like you, I both like to read the books (which I think are excellent) and appreciate the movies, which I agree are a completely different kettle of fish.

    I will let you know whether or not you are right in a couple of weeks. The UK version of Hopper is one-third the price of the NA one, so I decided to wait a week or so for it to arrive. I can’t believe the price differential on much of this stuff — my all-region DVD cost me $60 (thank you Guy Savage for convincing me) and I save more than that every month on cheaper European DVD costs.

  15. Craig D. Says:

    I was surprised when I recently saw the American Friend DVD selling for around $30. I was lucky enough to get mine (brand new) from a private seller for $8. Purple Noon also goes for ludicrous prices, made even more ludicrous by the lousy picture quality on that release. If I had my way, both films would be remastered and released by Criterion.

    The most nuanced and complex portrayals of Tom are Hopper and Damon. Hopper seems to be playing a combination of Highsmith’s Tom and himself, sort of a wandering expatriate cowboy version of Tom, but he’s not watered down like Damon, whose Tom was made too innocent and guilt-ridden. Delon’s Tom is the simplest portrayal; it’s a fine performance, but it’s not terribly deep. Malkovich is a little more complex, but the screenplay seems a little too eager to explain him with philosophy, with his musing on the “rules of the game” and how “we’re constantly being born,” et cetera. I like Purple Noon and The American Friend the most because, like Highsmith, they refuse to explain Tom, but Hopper captures the complexity that Delon doesn’t.

    But like I said, none of them capture the character with total accuracy, and that’s fine. When I watch these movies, I’m watching them on the filmmakers’ terms, not Highsmith’s. Same with Strangers on a Train and The Cry of the Owl. I think some of the adaptations come closer to Highsmith than others, but if you don’t remove the books from your mind before watching them, I don’t know how you’ll be able to enjoy them.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting discussion of Ripley’s character. I enjoyed all of the books, but for me the Ripley of the first was plainly a psychopath and his character changed in the later books. I recall thinking they weren’t really entirely consistent, not that that matters.

    I definitely agree that spacing them out as you are Kevin is the best way to go, and while I may be critical even not the best Highsmith is pretty good by many writers’ standards. I enjoyed all the Ripleys after all.

    Craig, “Philip K. Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Albert Camus, and Richard Matheson”. No love for Chandler? Also, have you read Runyon? If not, you probably should.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Very clever the way you snuck Runyon in there. I still have a revisit on my agenda, but I may wait for a while yet. Horse-racing and the spa meet at Saratoga Springs are somethiing that I continue to watch from across the continent — some August I will complement that with a Runyon revisit.

  17. Craig D. Says:

    Max:

    Never even heard of Runyon. (Forgive my ignorance. It can be shocking to people sometimes.) I’m familiar with Chandler but never read him. I’ve noticed that my tastes are wide and eclectic but narrow. My favorite writer is Philip K. Dick, but I rarely read any other science fiction. I’m a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, but I don’t read or watch any other mysteries. I love Patricia Highsmith and Dashiell Hammett, but I rarely read any other crime. (I just recently bought my first copies of Jim Thompson and Richard Stark.) As for horror, I love H. P. Lovecraft and Richard Matheseon (and a little Poe), and two of my favorite movies are Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, but I rarely read or watch any other horror. I should probably read a Chandler at some point, but I’m more likely to grab whatever’s left of Hammett that I don’t already have, for better or worse.

    As for Ripley, the first book is certainly unique among the series, the only one in which I’m willing to call Tom’s actions and feelings “psychopathic” and/or “immoral.” It’s the only one in which he plans a murder, it’s the only murder in which the victim wasn’t a threat to him in some way, and it’s the only time he kills someone he likes. After that, he only kills in the spur of the moment to get himself out of a jam, and his later victims were far less sympathetic. He’s never seriously troubled by guilt, but that first murder is the only one that he’s genuinely contrite about, and he thinks back on his younger self as stupid and reckless. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I prefer the older Tom of the sequels; you can root for your antihero when he’s strangling a Mafia hitman, but it’s just unpleasant when he’s beating an innocent friend to death.

    • Craig D. Says:

      “wide .. but narrow.” Ugh. I’ve never been terribly good at expressing myself in words, but I think I could do better than that. You probably get what I mean.

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Craig, I get what you mean. Speaking from my own deep love of Hammett and Lovecraft I really would suggest you check out respectively Chandler and if you haven’t already Clark Ashton Smith. If you like HPL’s dreamlands stuff also Lord Dunsany (who I cover some of at mine, but I have to admit my love of HPL is born of his horror rather than his more fantastic stories).

        Everyone should check out Runyon. America’s PG Wodehouse, which gives an utterly misleading impression of what and how he wrote, yet for me remains true.

        • Craig D. Says:

          Thanks, I’ll add the names to my TBR list. (I actually keep one of these in a little notebook.) Knowing how long it usually takes me to get around to the names on that list, I predict that I’ll start reading these authors sometime in 2050. But I’ll try for sooner than that.

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