Sunday, September 28, 2014

the last book I read

Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith.

So, what's Tom Ripley been up to? When we left him at the end of Ripley Under Ground he'd just about managed to extricate himself from suspicion in the murder of a couple of people and involvement in a convoluted art fakery scam, so he's felt it best to keep a low profile for a bit at his country retreat near Fontainebleau. His crime contact Reeves Minot still occasionally pesters him for occasional favours, but Tom doesn't get involved with the messy stuff.

That's not to say that he might not offer a bit of advice and guidance from time to time, though, and when Reeves contacts him with the suggestion that there's these couple of Mafia stooges who it would be terrifically useful to have rubbed out, Tom has a bit of a flash of inspiration: there's this guy, Jonathan Trevanny, who he met at a house party a while back, who's got some sort of terminal blood disease, but who seems to be generally walking and talking and physically OK. Why not make him an offer? He's going to be less afraid of death than most, and might appreciate the possibility of a nice little nest-egg to bequeath to his wife and young son when he eventually carks it.

So Reeves contacts Jonathan, and dangles the carrot of some pioneering medical research being done in Germany, which Reeves might be able to bump Jonathan up the queue for. Absolutely no obligation, but at the same time Reeves might have a couple of little odd jobs that Jonathan could carry out while he was there, for a substantial reward of course.

Jonathan is persuaded to carry out the first murder on the subway in Hamburg - your classic shoot someone at close range in a crowd, drop the gun, slip away in the confusion kind of job - and is then persuaded to have a go at the second, the murder of a higher-ranking mafioso on a train. This one is a bit trickier, however, as it requires the use of a garrotte, gunshots being too conspicuous. At this point Ripley has a (rare) attack of conscience, and unexpectedly turns up on the train to help Jonathan dispatch the mafia guy and his minder.

So far so good, except that it turns out that not only did the minder not die (despite having his arm severed when the train ran over it) but he reckons he got a good look at the two guys who murdered his boss and then pushed him out. So now Tom and Jonathan are potentially on a Mafia hit-list, not really a place you want to be. Tom persuades Jonathan to hole up with him at his country pile for a bit for their collective safety, and sure enough a carful of goons shows up. Fortunately for Jonathan Tom is by now a bit of a dab hand at the old murdering game and he dispatches most of them, persuading the survivor to phone his boss and tell him that they'd got the wrong man in exchange for his freedom. Or, rather, in exchange for a promise of his freedom from Tom, a promise that turns out to be worthless, since as soon as he hangs up the phone Tom bashes his brains in with a table leg.

So now (in addition to a bit of floor-mopping) there's some corpse disposal to be done. So Tom and Jonathan take the gangster's car (and one of Tom's) plus bodies to a secluded spot a couple of hours' drive away and torch the lot, but not before Jonathan's wife Simone has turned up at the house, seen everything and had to be drugged and sent home in a taxi. Awkward.

So now they're in the clear again, right? Trouble is, the Mafia have got to Reeves Minot as well, and after a few judiciously applied cigarette ends he's coughed up Jonathan's address. So there's another showdown at Jonathan's house in Fontainebleau during the course of which Tom bashes a couple more Mafia heads in, this time with a hammer, and Jonathan catches a bullet in the chest while trying to protect Tom. Tom's complex moral code obliges him to drive Jonathan to the hospital, but, once it's clear that he's died, also allows him to scarper immediately afterwards.

So now Tom's freedom is pretty much in Simone's hands - she can either shop him to the French police, and forfeit Jonathan's generous pay-off, or keep it and ensure Tom gets away. When Tom unexpectedly meets her on the street in Fontainebleau and she spits in his face, he recognises the emotion for what it is: self-disgust. She's kept the money.

This is the third of the five Ripley novels, published in 1974. Ripley is actually a bit more active in the killing department in this one, being solely or jointly implicated in the knocking off of five people (all Mafia types), compared with two in the first book and one in the second. I have to say I didn't find Jonathan Trevanny's transition from terminally ill and impoverished expatriate picture-framer to murderer (and then tragic self-sacrificing hero) to be at all plausible, but as always Ripley is so fascinating as a central character that that almost doesn't matter. A completely implacable killing machine would be relatively uninteresting, but Ripley is devoted (in his own way) to his wife, capable of normal human responses to beautiful music and the like, intensely attached to his home, and capable of occasional moments of generous behaviour that even he himself does not quite understand.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is probably still the one you want, but the two sequels certainly don't sully its reputation. Like both its predecessors Ripley's Game was filmed, once in 1977 as Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend) and again as Ripley's Game in 2003. The latter features John Malkovich as Ripley, who while as compelling as always is probably a little bit too feline and evil to be strictly true to Ripley as written (not to mention being too old). Matt Damon was criticised for being too "bland" in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but actually that's the whole point; Ripley is just this unremarkable guy who happens to also be an amoral killer. Well, you know, nobody's perfect.

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