Sunday, June 23, 2013

the last book I read

Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith.

Impulse. Men just can't help acting on it. Least of all Tom Ripley, as we know from our previous encounter with him in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Five or six years have passed since the events of the first book, but has Tom Ripley shed the impetuous habits of his youth, like murdering people and then assuming their identity to snaffle flipping great wodges of cash? Hell no.

Having been provided with a fairly comfortable income from Dickie Greenleaf's trust fund, and augmenting it by having married the lovely Heloise, daughter of a rich French family, Ripley is now living a life of leisure in his country residence a short drive from Paris. This life of leisure is occasionally interrupted by Tom's dabblings in various shady schemes, including an art scam involving a dead artist by the name of Derwatt, a couple of unscrupulous blokes in London, and Bernard Tufts, an artist friend of Derwatt's whom Tom has persuaded to knock out some Derwatt fakes and pass them off as genuine.

Obviously for this to work the subterfuge of Derwatt still being alive must be maintained, and this is where Ed and Jeff in London come in, with guidance from Tom. All goes well, and lucratively for all concerned, until an American, Murchison, turns up in London claiming that his Derwatt is a fake. Which of course it is, since Derwatt is dead and it was painted by Bernard. Everyone in London is getting a bit twitchy, so Tom steps in to try to calm things down. First he appears in London as Derwatt (courtesy of a fake beard) to reassure everyone that he's definitely still alive, he's just been living a reclusive life in a remote Mexican village, and he's just dropped into London in passing so he thought he might as well say hello. When Murchison isn't immediately mollified by this, Tom reappears as Tom and invites Murchison down to his French residence to have a look at his Derwatts and assess their bona fides. After Murchison takes up the invitation but still insists on being suspicious, Tom is left with no option but to regretfully murder him by bashing his brains in with a bottle of wine in the cellar and burying him in the garden.

Tom has covered his tracks by dumping Murchison's luggage at Orly airport as if he'd dropped him off there to catch a plane, but the police are asking questions, both in London and in Paris. Tom is well-equipped to handle all this, but some of the others are a bit flaky, especially Bernard, who seems on the brink of cracking up and revealing everything. When Bernard turns up at Tom's house, Tom takes him into his confidence and reveals that he has killed Murchison, and enlists Bernard's help in removing the body from its shallow grave and dumping it in a river. Bernard's mental stability is not improved by this, strangely, and after a botched attempt to kill Ripley he flees to Salzburg.

Tom follows him there, and after a slightly comical sequence of near-meetings during which Bernard seems to think he's seen a ghost (since he doesn't know Ripley survived the murder attempt), Bernard finally goes over the edge, both metaphorically and literally, by hurling himself off a cliff. Never one to stand around moping after being the (albeit indirect in this case) cause of someone's death, Tom arms himself with a big rock and some petrol, smashes Bernard's teeth in and then sets fire to the corpse. He then reports the death as being that of Derwatt, while implying that Bernard has also probably topped himself somewhere, perhaps by throwing himself in a river. Thus all the loose ends and possible sources of trouble are tied off, and Tom can return to the arms of his incurious wife and his former life of leisure.

So in a sense this is a retread of the first book, in that Tom does some murdering - regrettable but necessary and unavoidable murdering, in his view - and gets away with it, while in the process finding some ways to snaffle more money without having to do anything as coarse and vulgar as get a job. Tom is actually only directly responsible for one death (Murchison) in this book, though he bears some responsibility for Bernard's. Like the first book, how much you enjoy this one will depend on how much you share Highsmith's glee at having Ripley do all manner of horrific stuff and not only get away with it, but get rewarded for it. Also like the first book, Tom's sexuality is shrouded in some mystery - yes, he's got married, and seems genuinely fond of Heloise, but one of the reasons he seems to like her so much is that her sexual demands are fairly modest. So perhaps not so much The Talented Mr. Ripley as The Latented Mr. Ripley, amirite?

Overall it's probably not quite as good as The Talented Mr. Ripley, but that's just standard sequelitis, as it's still wickedly entertaining, despite not much in the way of actual action happening between the murder of Murchison quite early on and the Bernard/Derwatt real/fake death dénouement stuff at the end.

Ripley Under Ground was published in 1970, fifteen years after the first book - having succumbed to the temptation to revisit Ripley Highsmith did so three more times over the next twenty or so years. I fully expect to work my way through all of them.

Like The Talented Mr. Ripley (and indeed the third Ripley book Ripley's Game) Ripley Under Ground was filmed, in 2005, with a fairly stellar supporting cast but featuring Barry Pepper (of whom I'd never heard) as Ripley, and with some fairly radical re-engineering of the plot. The only trailer I can find is in German, unfortunately, but judging just by the visuals I'd say Pepper's portrayal is a bit too floppy-haired and rakish and charming to be quite right; Ripley is meant to be a bit awkward. And an amoral psychopath, con-man and murderer, but hey, nobody's perfect.

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