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.