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A Ripley Trilogy:
On Hating Women
and Becoming Dickie

by Charlie Onion

The Talented Mr. Ripley / Ripley Underground / Ripley's Game
Patricia Highsmith
Alfred A. Knopf
877 pp.
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Tom Ripley begins The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first installment in Patricia Highsmith's entertaining five-novel series about him, as a twenty-five year old living from paycheck to paycheck, dodging cops and telling himself that he is "bored, God-damned bloody bored, bored, bored!" Happily, a forgotten friend's wealthy father tracks him down in a bar and poses an attractive offer: if he is willing to go to Italy and talk the man's son out of a misguided life as a third-rate artist, the father will pay all Ripley's expenses, no matter what the final cost.

It's an offer Ripley can't refuse, especially since he'd have to run from the cops again soon, anyway. (He's been using stolen IRS stationary to con checks out of gullible taxpayers, though no one's sent a check he can safely cash, yet.) Unfortunately, Dickie Greenleaf (yes, that's the would-be artist's name) doesn't want to go home, and Ripley has a hell of a time getting Dickie even to remember him, much less like him. The fact that Dickie has a female friend named Marge who fervently wants him to stay in Italy with her makes Ripley's task doubly hard.

Soon, Ripley's goal begins to shift, though. Instead of convincing Dickie to move back home, he decides to insinuate himself between Marge and Dickie, so that he can, in effect, replace Marge in the relationship. For a while, it seems to work (though there are ominous indications that Dickie is, in fact, a raging homophobe). But then things start to go wrong. Dickie spurns him after their friendship seems cemented, and his father sends Ripley a rather cold letter that effectively dismisses him as his emissary. Ripley is crushed.


It's their indifference that hurts him most. Had one of them gotten angry, blown up and demanded he leave, he could have taken it better than their seeming to have looked him up and down and merely shrugged, unmoved. Briefly, Ripley is at a loss. He even tells himself he's angry enough to kill Dickie. Then a thought comes in a flash:


He had just thought of something brilliant: he could become Dickie Greenleaf himself. He could do everything Dickie did. He could go back to Mongibello first and collect Dick's things, tell Marge any damned story, set up an apartment in Rome or Paris, receive Dickie's check every month and forge Dickie's signature on it. He could step right into Dickie's shoes. He could have Mr. Greenleaf, Sr., eating out of his hand. The danger of it, even the inevitable temporariness of it which he vaguely realized, only made him more enthusiastic. He began to think of how.


How? Why, kill the bastard, of course.


Highsmith is a supremely talented writer, with a confident if rather cold style and a wonderful knack for constructing addictive plot lines that translate well onto the silver screen. (Her style--and her penchant for dark comedy--seems perfect for Alfred Hitchcock, who adapted Highsmith's Strangers on a Train quite effectively and got the one performance--from Robert Walker--that Highsmith herself said really got one of her characters right.) But it's Ripley himself who makes The Talented Mr. Ripley so good, I think. He's not merely a forthrightly complex character; he's a character whose Scheherazade-like creator is willing to explicate his psychological complexities only in circumspect, complicated ways. Over the course of The Talented Mr. Ripley's first one hundred pages, Highsmith teases out bits of Ripley's past that are meant to explain (if not exactly excuse) both his penchant for murder and his unrelenting misogyny. (Misogyny: there's another reason Highsmith seems so perfect for Hitchcock.)

Ripley had been raised by an aunt who held the task against him, Highsmith tells us, and she sends him infrequent, miserly checks in odd amounts ("six dollars and forty-eight cents, twelve dollars and ninety-five"), now that he is grown. Here's a splendidly written scene that describes their relationship quite nicely:


He thought suddenly of one summer day when he had been about twelve, when he had been on a cross-country trip with Aunt Dottie and a woman friend of hers, and they had got stuck in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam somewhere. It had been a hot summer day, and Aunt Dottie had sent him out with the thermos to get some ice water at a filling station, and suddenly the traffic had started moving. He remembered running between huge, inching cars, always about to touch the door of Aunt Dottie's car and never being quite able to, because she had kept inching along as fast as she could go, not willing to wait for him a minute, and yelling, 'Come on, come on, slowpoke!' out the window all the time. When he had finally made it to the car and got in, with tears of frustration and anger running down his cheeks, she had said gaily to her friend, 'Sissy! He's a sissy from the ground up. Just like his father!' It was a wonder he had emerged from such treatment as well as he had.


Surely, we're led to believe, if there's something wrong with Ripley (and he himself is ready to admit there is), the aunt isn't wholly blameless. Nor, as far as Ripley is concerned, are women in general. (Isn't it the stolid Marge, after all, who persuades Dickie to edge away from Ripley--at least in part because she thinks him 'queer'?)

Somehow, despite the con games and the cold distance from which he views others (not to mention the murders), Ripley is, at heart, a good person who longs to reach out to others, to have the family he'd been denied--but he worries that he won't find the other person reaching out to him as well. That moment of publicly acknowledged though unrequited need is unthinkable for Ripley, and it's a large reason, Highsmith wants us to believe, for his isolation and unhappiness. (Damn you, Aunt Dottie!)

Of course, Mr. Greenleaf's initially fond treatment of Ripley as a son fuels the flames that lead to his pretending to be Dickie in order to inherit a network of caring friends and family. But the emotions (happiness, feeling warmth towards others, etc.) that came so easily to Dickie are foreign to Ripley, whose rather tortured life hasn't taught him how such things feel. So even well into the impersonation, he has to approach Dickie's outgoing character as if he were a Method actor, rehearsing the lines over and over again until they ring true. In some very real sense, Ripley is only partially human; for the rest, he must pretend, and the fooling begins with himself. In one scene, he even dirties a room he knows he will clean before the police arrive because "the point of the messy house was that the messiness substantiated merely for his own benefit the story that he was going to tell, and that therefore he had to believe himself." He doesn't have complete control over the pretending, though, as he discovers after having to pretend to have drunk too much with one of Dickie's old friends:


Tom tried to reason himself out of the hangover, because he had had only the equivalent of three martinis and three pernods at most. He knew it was a matter of mental suggestion, and that he had a hangover because he had intended to pretend that he had been drinking a great deal with Freddie. And now when there was no need of it, he was still pretending, uncontrollably.


Ripley, it would seem, lives as a rudimentary quality--not mere emptiness so much as an awareness of it: a largely amoral ghost desperately in search of a soul. It's this wonderfully nuanced exploration of a decidedly disturbing character that makes the first installment in the Ripley series so engrossing--and such a grand achievement, I think.


On the other hand, the other two Ripley novels included in the new, beautifully produced Everyman's Library edition are decidedly less interesting psychologically, and their proffered pleasures come mainly from their taut, satisfyingly suspenseful plot lines. Oddly, it's almost as if Ripley is a different character now; the self-doubt is gone, as are The Talented Mr. Ripley's neurotic interior monologues that put us so cunningly inside Ripley's mind. Ripley is in charge now, a born leader concerned with preserving his miniature empire. In fact, Ripley has become the man Mr. Greenleaf wished Dickie would become--on the surface, at least.

Although a scant six years pass between The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground (in Ripley's time, at least; Ripley Under Ground appeared fifteen years after The Talented Mr. Ripley, in 1970), Ripley is now thirty-one, married into a wealthy French family and mellow enough to putter in his garden for an hour every day. But, as he you might suspect, his criminal inclinations are still intact.

As the novel opens, a painting bought through a Ripley-backed gallery in London has been called a fake. The problem is simple: it is a fake. The artist to whom it's attributed committed suicide some years ago, and at Ripley's suggestion, a friend of the dead artist has been painting forgeries with great success, until now. But the astute American art collector who noticed an aberration in the dead artist's most recent work is dangerously close to blowing Ripley's cover story about the reclusive artist sky-high. So after impersonating the dead artist at a press conference (after all, he's good at playing dead guys, right?), Ripley meets the collector and invites him to see his own collection in France, all the while trying to figure out how to silence the man.

How? Why, as you should guess by now: kill the bastard, of course.

Abiding themes carry over from The Talented Mr. Ripley--chiefly, the issue of personal identity and what effects long-term role-playing have on your 'real' self--but really, Ripley Underground is a simple, engaging thriller.

Ripley's Game, the third novel included in the Everyman's Library edition, is likewise a straightforward thriller, with even less interest in identity issues. Six months have passed in Ripley's life since Ripley Underground ended, and Reeves Minot, who is "primarily a fence, but lately was dabbling in the illegal gambling world of Hamburg," has approached Ripley with a request: would Ripley--or some friend of his--be willing to kill a couple Italian Mafia types trying to muscle their way into the Hamburg gambling scene?

Ripley declines the job himself, but later that night, he remembers a man who had slighted him at a party. The man--Jonathan Trevanny--has leukemia, and Ripley decides to play "a practical joke" on him ("a nasty one," Ripley admits, "but the man had been nasty to him"). First, he starts a rumor that Trevanny's most recent medical tests show he will die soon, and then Minot approaches him with the murder-for-hire proposition (after all, he'll need to leave his family money to get by after his death, right?). "Tom doubted that Trevanny would bite, but it would be a period of discomfort for Trevanny, certainly." Yes, it's sadistic, but that's what Ripley has come to, by his third outing. To Ripley's surprise, Trevanny accepts the offer. But as Ripley and Trevanny discover, when you murder Mafia types, they tend to hunt you down, no matter how well you hide.

Ripley Underground and Ripley's Game are, each of them, strong crime novels that will you keep you reading happily (and even, at times, breathlessly). But The Talented Mr. Ripley is in another category altogether, and its publication in such a handsome edition in heartening, indeed.


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