Sunday, April 14, 2024

the last book I read

The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

Meet Tom Ripley. Well, actually, we don't need to do that as we've already met him three times. So here he is, kicking back in his country house, Belle Ombre, in Villeperce, a short drive from Paris, with his wife, Heloise, occasionally trousering a small profit from the sale of one of the fake paintings he has a hand in, but mainly living off his wife and her rich parents. 

While wandering into the village for a nightcap - a bonnet de nuit if you will - and some cigarettes, Tom attracts the attention - the attention if you will - of a teenage boy who also turns out to be American. He says his name is Billy and he's staying in the area doing a series of cash-in-hand gardening jobs, keeping it casual as he doesn't have a proper work permit.

Tom and Billy agree to meet again, but Tom, who keeps a keen eye on the newspapers, both French and American, soon realises that Billy is in fact Frank Pierson, the missing son of a wealthy New England family whose patriarch, John Pierson, recently died in slightly murky circumstances when his wheelchair - ahem - "somehow" rolled off a cliff near his home. Billy readily confesses not only to being Frank but also to the murder of his father by giving him a helping push. 

Nobody knows (well, apart from Tom) about the murder, though; Frank's family are just worried about him and keen to find him. Frank doesn't really want to be found just yet, though, and Tom decides to help him out by arranging to get him a fake passport so he can travel undetected. Once this arrives Tom and Frank head off to West Berlin. The idea here is that this will be further away from the obvious areas where the Pierson family and the private detective they've hired might look for Frank, but it nonetheless carries its own risks, as Frank is recognised and kidnapped by a gang who then make the inevitable ransom demand. The family agree to cough up the cash in exchange for Frank's safe release and entrust Tom with the job of handing it over. Tom isn't especially keen on just handing over a couple of million dollars, though, and after one botched handover where he is regrettably forced to kill one of the kidnappers by staving his head in with the corner of a briefcase he hatches his own plan to rescue Frank. 

This plan, for reasons that are never entirely clear, involves Tom dressing up in full drag and hanging out in a gay bar. Part of it is evidently to be able to observe the kidnappers' attendance at a rendezvous without being recognised, but sheesh, just wear a fake moustache and a hat or something. Anyway, Tom clocks the kidnappers, follows them and ends up scaring them off from the house where they're holed up, rescuing Frank and avoiding any necessity to hand over any of the money.

Tom persuades Frank that now might be a good time to check in with his family and eventually return home; no-one suspects him, all he has to do is keep shtum and he'll be fine. Unfortunately Frank is not quite as untroubled by guilt at killing other humans as Tom is, and is also troubled by unrequited love for a girl back home called Teresa. Tom agrees to come to New England with Frank to ease his transition back into family life and act as some sort of getting-away-with-murder mentor. Tom is showered with praise and gratitude by the family when his role in Frank's rescue becomes clear, but Frank himself is behaving strangely, especially when in the vicinity of the cliff area where John met his demise. Eventually, as Tom prepares to catch a flight home, Frank slips away and throws himself off the cliff to his death. Tom reflects ruefully on this as he makes his way back to Belle Ombre, but eventually concludes eh, whaddaya gonna do, and resumes his comfortable life with Heloise.

As with all the Ripley books (this is the fourth) it's useful to take stock at the end of the book and ask: OK, so who did old Tom actually kill this time? In this particular case, unless he offed someone during the chaotic kidnap rescue and I missed it, it was only the one, the guy he twatted in the noggin with the briefcase during the first botched rendezvous. So the interest has to be found elsewhere, and in this case it's the relationship between Tom and Frank which develops during their meanderings around Europe (mainly Berlin and Hamburg). You might ask why Tom is taking such an interest, and investing lots of his own time and expense for a trip with no particular purpose other than to delay Frank's eventual return to his family. As always there's more than a whiff of suppressed homoeroticism here (not so suppressed during Tom's supremely gay drag excursion to the bar to spy on the kidnappers); other motivations might include a fascination on Tom's part with someone he knows to have committed murder but who seems to feel pain and guilt about it, emotions which are wholly alien to Tom. Some of the obvious potential avenues of criminality are swerved - lots of potentially nickable ransom money passes through Tom's hands without him making any attempt to keep any of it, and while you can sense the thought cross his mind he resists the temptation of offing the Piersons' family friend Susie, the only person who seems to suspect Frank.

It's not really as good as the previous three novels, to be honest: the narrative isn't as taut, even with the kidnapping, which is strangely drama-free, especially the eventual rescue. To put it another way, for a novel that's nominally in the "crime" genre (usual caveats about the fluidity of genre boundaries apply), there's precious little actual crime going on, certainly by our protagonist, who spends most of the novel (one brief murder aside, but, hey, who's counting) in protective avuncular mentor mode. It's fascinating to spend time in Tom's company, nonetheless, and revel in the knowledge that whatever he does he's going to get away with it and be able to return to domestic bliss with Heloise and his wine cellar at the end. Well, that's been true of all four so far; the one remaining book in the series, Ripley Under Water, might end with his spectacular death in a hail of bullets for all I know. Watch this space.

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