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.