Archive for the ‘Highsmith, Patricia (4)’ Category

The Boy Who Followed Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

November 16, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Question: What is the perfect antidote to a string of (maybe too syrupy) sentimental novels?

Answer: Tom Ripley.

By way of background, regular visitors will know that I felt this year’s Giller Prize longlist featured perhaps too many novels centred on abandoned children, abused children or children searching for missing mothers. It wasn’t that they weren’t good books (in fact, one, The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler, was my Giller choice), it was just that the repetition in the story line wore on me.

So I promised myself that once my Giller reading was done, I’d take on volume four in Patricia Highsmith’s series featuring Tom Ripley (The Boy Who Followed Ripley) as a kind of “brain purge” to get me back to equilibrium. I knew from the first three novels that “Tome” (that’s what his French-born and raised wife Heloise calls him) would be the opposite of sentimentality — amoral (or at least “differently moral”), fully capable of murder and yet lovably intriguing in his own way. I was not disappointed in the least.

In The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Tom remains comfortably settled in semi-retirement on his estate in Villeperce, not far from Paris. His wife’s allowance from her family and his own income (mainly from shady dealings in the art world, detailed in volume two, Ripley Under Ground) leave him relatively worry free, since his past criminal excesses don’t trouble him. In fact, his major concerns as the book starts are the carpenter ants that have invaded his bathroom (Rentokill has failed to stop them) and how to avoid going along with Heloise and her friend Noelle on an Adventure Cruise to the Arctic, a proposed distraction that fills him with horror.

Ripley being Ripley we know that some form of adventure will soon introduce itself. Highsmith is not one for delaying the inevitable, so that takes place on page four and five when he notices that a boy he had observed outside his estate a few days earlier is now looking at him from across the room in bar where Tom has stopped for a drink. The plot thickens quickly when the boy departs at the same time as Tom:

Now it was dark. Tom crossed the main road under the not very bright light of a street lamp, and entered the darker road on which his house sat a couple of hundred yards away. Tom’s road was almost straight, two-lane and paved, and Tom knew it well, but was glad of the approach of a car whose lights enabled him to see the left side of the road on which he was walking. As soon as the car had passed, Tom became aware of quick but soft steps behind him, and turned.

A figure had a flashlight. Tom saw blue jeans and tennis shoes. The boy from the bar.

“Mr. Ripley!”

Tom tensed. “Yes?”

“Good evening.” The boy stopped, fiddled with the flashlight. “B-Billy Rollins, my name is. Since I’ve got a flashlight — maybe I can walk you home?”

Ripley’s curiosity has been sparked. It doesn’t take him long to hypothesize that he is being followed by a kindred soul and he asks “Billy” in when they get to the estate. He quickly learns that the boy is an American on the run (not that different in age or circumstances from the Tom of volume one of the series) and offers to drive him the seven kilometers home to Moret where the youth is working as a part-time gardener.

Tom watched him walk to the dark gates, shine the torch on the lock, then turn the key. Billy passed through, waved at Tom, then closed the gates. As Tom backed to turn the car, he saw number 78 plainly visible on its blue official metal plaque beside the main door. Odd, Tom thought. Why should the boy want a boring job like this, even for a short time, unless he was hiding something? But Billy didn’t look like a delinquent. The most likely thing, Tom thought, was that Billy had had a quarrel with his parents or suffered a disappointment with a girl, and had hopped on an airplane to try to forget it. Tom had the feeling the boy had plenty of money, and was in no need of garden work at fifty francs a day.

Tom’s feeling intensifies three days later while he is reading the International Herald Tribune:

He got up restlessly, went near the window, where there was a bit more light, and looked at the People column on the back page of the Trib. Frank Sinatra was making another final appearance, this time in a forthcoming film. Sixteen-year-old Frank Pierson, favorite son of the late super-food tycoon John Pierson, had taken off from the family home in Maine, and the family was anxious after nearly three weeks with no word from him. Frank had been extremely upset by his father’s death in July.

Needless to say, the death of the enormously wealthy John Pierson had questions surrounding it. He had been confined to a wheelchair for a decade, following an unsuccessful assassination attempt on him (business-related). His death came when his wheelchair went over a Maine cliff on his Kennebunkport estate, either an accident or suicide, or perhaps not. Okay, this is Highsmith, so pretty obviously “not”. (Aside: And, for modern readers, there is the additional head-scratcher of how she happened to feature Kennebunkport decades before the Bushes and Romneys made it a household name as a coastal retreat for the wealthy.)

That’s enough plot set-up (and hardly a spoiler — we know all this by page 26 in the edition I read). His curiosity now fully engaged, Tom in the succeeding pages will develop and maintain a friendship with Billy/Frank that will take them to West Berlin (this is the mid-1980s so the Berlins are still separated), Hamburg, Paris and, finally, Maine. Rest assured, for those who love Highsmith’s noir action, there is a lot of intrigue and violence along the way.

While The Boy Who Followed Ripley and volume five, Ripley Under Water, are regarded by some as not up to the first three Ripley volumes, I found this one to be every bit as good. That endorsement does come with a couple of caveats, however.

The first is that you do need to have read the first three volumes before trying this one — it makes frequent reference to “character-developing” incidents for Tom that take place in the first three books and those references are important. As well, as a reader, you need to have emerged from those books with at least a grudging respect or admiration for Tom, rather than regarding him as evil incarnate (which, it has to be said, would be a perfectly reasonable option).

Secondly, this novel is not nearly as cinematic as the first three — which might explain why they all have been made into movies (at least two of the three have been done twice) and this one has not, at least to my knowledge (and please correct me in comments if I am wrong). Indeed, the first half of the book is almost introspective: Tom discovers in Frank a younger version of himself, a character who, not totally unlike Tom, became a murderer more through circumstance than any kind of personal failure or planning. While amoral Tom quickly got over that, Frank is still troubled by what he did. Highsmith uses the first half of the book to firmly establish that tension between the two of them — the dramatic action returns to cinematic Highsmith form in the latter half.

Those qualifications aside, The Boy Who Followed Ripley was a complete success for me and not just in removing any lingering after-effects of sentimentality. I look forward with much anticipation to the final Ripley volume, although I intend to again leave it on the shelf for perhaps another year — that spacing has worked so well for me with the first four volumes that I see no reason to rush into reading the final one.

Ripley’s Game, by Patricia Highsmith

April 18, 2012

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.

Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith

February 13, 2011

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.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

December 25, 2009

Purchased at Chapters.ca

There is a special pleasure in discovering an author whom you have overlooked. Patricia Highsmith has more than 20 novels to her credit — and, due to a personal bias against crime fiction, I had never read any of her work. I’d seen the movie version of The Talented Mr. Ripley and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was only in trolling around various forums and book blogs (especially John Self at The Asylum on Highsmith) that I realized my bias has prevented me from reading a very sigificant author. A new biography (NY Times review here) was a timely reminder that it was time to remedy that shortcoming. I’m glad that I did.

(Note: This review is going to assume that through the movie or simple gossip visitors here know the plot of the book. If not, you might want to stop here because there will be spoilers.)

Tom Ripley may be one of the most amoral characters in all of fiction — as we discover in the opening pages of the novel. He is in New York and on his way out of the Green Cage, a bar, he becomes convinced that he is being followed. He opts to stop in at Raoul’s, another bar:

Was this the kind of man they would send after him? Was he, wasn’t he, was he? He didn’t look like a policeman or a detective at all. He looked like a businessman, somebody’s father, well-dressed, well-fed, greying at the temples, an air of uncertainty about him. Was that the kind they sent on a job like this, maybe to start chatting with you in a bar, and then bang — the hand on a shoulder, the other hand displaying a policeman’s badge. Tom Ripley, you’re under arrest. Tom watched the door.

Ripley has been running a scam. He scouts out free-lancers — artists, writers — whom he figures (usually correctly) have probably been cheating on their taxes. He sends them a NOTICE OF ERROR IN COMPUTATION on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service, dunning letters which instruct them to make a remittance made out to Collector of Internal Revenue. He has a number of cheques, which of course he cannot cash — the thrill is in the crime, not the result. As I said, Ripley is amoral.

As it turns out, the man who follows Tom into Raoul’s is, in fact, someone’s father and a businessman as well. His name is Herbert Greenleaf, the son is Dickie, whom Tom knows, albeit only vaguely. Dickie has spent the past few months in Mongibello, Italy (a thinly disguised version of a town on the Amalfi coast) and his father wants him back. He is willing to underwrite Ripley’s excursion to Italy to retrieve his son.

If this is starting to sound like Henry James The Ambassadors, Highsmith wastes little time in acknowledging the debt. Herbert asks Tom if he has read James’ book — he hasn’t, but tries to find it in the ship library on the way to Europe. Turns out it is only available in cabin class, an irony that James would certainly appreciate.

Ripley finds Dickie with little trouble. He is one of two Americans in the town; the other is Marge Sherwood and the two have a bit of local notoriety, if not fame. The timing is the mid-1950s and the U.S. dollar goes a long way in post-war Europe. Dickie is persuing his painting (he’s not very good); Marge is writing a novel. Okay, that is another cliche of the time but it is worth noting that Highsmith wrote this novel in 1955 — her observations are creating the cliche, not exploiting it.

Highsmith was, and is, known for her ambiguous sexuality and denial of her own attraction to women. While Ripley is male, he is generally regarded as a representation of herself. If I can borrow a quote from the NY Times review:

Men never fired her imagination, except in her fiction, where her males, especially Tom Ripley, are versions of herself. It was women she wanted, and she found them in bars, on boats, at parties and, best of all, in settled relationships with other people.

Highsmith loved a triangle, and she liked to destroy it, axing the part of the couple she didn’t want, but usually sleeping with her first. Hers was a life jammed with encounters, and it is not by chance that her novels obsessively use the unexpected life-changing/life-threatening encounter as the drive into the narrative — think “Strangers on a Train” or any of the Ripley series.

While we never do find out if Dickie has slept with Marge — most likely not — there is no doubt that Marge is in love with him. And it doesn’t take long for Tom to develop his own crush on Dickie which leads to a deep jealousy. He eventually resolves it by bludgeoning Dickie to death, tying his body to a cement block and dumping block and body into the sea off San Remo. He had envisioned the possibility just days before:

Tom fixed himself an iceless drink. His hands were shaking. Only yesterday Dickie had said, ‘Are you going home for Christmas?’ very casually in the middle of some conversation, but Dickie knew damned well he wasn’t going home for Christmas. He didn’t have a home, and Dickie knew it. He had told Dickie all about Aunt Dottie in Boston. It had simply been a big hint, that was all. Marge was full of plans about Christmas. She had a can of English plum pudding she was saving, and she was going to get a turkey from some contadino. Tom could imagine how she would slop it up with saccharine sentimentality. A Christmas tree, of course, probably cut out of cardboard. ‘Silent Night’. Eggnog. Gooey presents for Dickie. Marge knitted. She took Dickie’s socks home to darn all the time. And they’d both slightly, politely, leave him out. Every friendly thing they would say to him would be a painful effort. Tom couldn’t bear to imagine it. All right, he’d leave. He’d do something rather than endure Christmas with them.

With the crime committed, Tom assumes Dickie’s identity and begins life as Dickie Greenleaf. Most of the novel is devoted to his convoluted efforts to escape detection — since there are five books in the Ripley series and this is the first, it is no secret that he will succeed. Highsmith’s interest is in the components of that story, not its resolution, and she delivers them with panache. The result is a book that is both entertaining and intriguing.

Like Crime and Punishment, or The Ambassadors for that matter, The Talented Mr. Ripley is not actually a crime novel, it is a novel about the aftermath of crime. It is exceedingly well done and in many ways I am very happy that I never got around to reading it until now. I look forward with anticipation to the next two Ripley novels (I am reading the Everyman’s Library edition which has all of the first three — I gather that the final two are not very good). And I am delighted to head into 2010 with a new author — for me, at least — to look forward to. Sometimes these gaps in reading turn out to produce wonderful new opportunities.


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