Patricia Highsmith was born in 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas and died in 1995 in Switzerland, aged seventy-four. She appears to have had a fairly unhappy early life (not always a bad ingredient for a writer it seems), disliked her adopted father, whose surname she kept, and had a lifelong love-hate relationship with her mother who pre-deceased her by only four years. She had relations with both men and women, however none of her relationships lasted very long it seems. Highsmith considered herself to be creatively at her best when she was alone, although she shared her home with animals, particularly cats, which she found preferable to people. Highsmith wrote about thirty books; she reprised the character of Tom Ripley through five novels, produced over an incredible thirty-six years.
In The Talented Mr Ripley (1956) we are introduced to Tom Ripley, a sexually ambiguous, slightly neurotic, insecure character, who has already been dabbling in fraudulent activities in New York by the time we first meet him and lives in some fear of getting caught by the authorities. He appears to know a number of shady characters in the city who he’s keen to disassociate himself from; homosexual relationships were of course very much illegal in the US and Europe at that time. At the start of the book, Ripley is approached by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf who erroneously believes that Tom Ripley knows his son Dickie far better than he actually does. Herbert Greenleaf tries to enlist Tom’s help to encourage his prodigal son to return home from Italy where he has taken up residence. Unbeknown to Herbert Greenleaf, it is without much coaxing and some relief that Tom Ripley abandons life in New York and sets sail for Europe. Once he reaches Italy, Ripley’s unvocalised but unmissable sexual attraction and infatuation with Dickie Greenleaf develops to monstrous proportions. He is especially jealous of Madge, Dickie’s girlfriend; he resents her presence and influence over Dickie, is disgusted by her femininity, and in his thoughts constantly berates her, finding her ‘gourd-like’ shape utterly loathsome. Ripley fantasises constantly and obsesses about being alone with Dickie, and when he realises this isn’t going to happen, he opts to kill Dickie and take on his identity (come on, it’s the natural solution to an unrequited love problem for any psychopath worth their salt!). There is of course a lot more story; Highsmith clearly had a wickedly dark sense of humour. To my mind The Talented Mr Ripley is a definite classic of that literary genre known as the psychological thriller. At her best Highsmith is without any doubt an accomplished novelist, and should be regarded as far more than just a writer of competent thrillers. Definitely recommended reading.
Ripley Under Ground (1971) is set in the village of Villeperce a short distance from Paris, where Tom Ripley, some three years on from his murderous and larcenous activities in Italy, enjoys a leisurely existence of rural bliss at Belle Ombre, the pleasant residence he shares with his beautiful, rich, French wife Heloise and their devoted housekeeper Madame Annette. Those deeply insecure character traits that made Tom Ripley such a fascinating character in The Talented Mr Ripley have almost completely been ironed-out and we are now presented with an urbane, nearly benign man who is fully in command of himself - no hint of sexual ambiguity about his personality at all, although he is prepared to commit murder for the sake of a peaceful life. I must admit, it all seemed like a bit too much of a credibility leap for me - as did the story of art forgery and physical impersonation, that Ripley, still dabbling in dodgy activities (thank goodness!) becomes embroiled in. I enjoyed reading the book for Highsmith’s robust prose, although I wasn’t really convinced by the caper or its denouement. This isn’t a bad book, however, it is flawed and not in the same league as its forerunner.
In Ripley’s Game (1974) we are once again transported back to the rural idyll of Belle Ombre, Ripley’s house in Villeperce, France. The game of the title refers to a rather nasty little rumour Ripley has spread about Jonathan Trevanny, who lives nearby and who Ripley feels has slighted him in some (unexplained) way. The story also involves another character from the previous book, Ripley Under Ground, Reeves Minot, who is a fence living in Hamburg who Ripley assists in various ways from time to time. In Ripley’s Game, Reeves Minot asks Ripley to suggest someone with a clean and untraceable CV who might be prepared to assassinate some members of the Mafia for a large sum of money. Ripley suggests that he approach Trevanny, who he knows is terminally ill, not believing for a moment that the man (who is in reality desperate to leave his wife and son with some financial legacy), will actually consider going along with it. Ripley becomes involved himself and by the end of the book there is a sizeable body-count. This is a well crafted, hugely enjoyable crime thriller, although not quite as fine a book as The Talented Mr Ripley. Very good.
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) was, I am very sorry to say, a bit of an ordeal. If it had been anyone other than Patricia Highsmith I think I would have stuck to my fifty pages rule and jumped ship! The story had potential but Highsmith just meanders and rambles on, giving us page after page of detail about the most inconsequential details of domestic life. There is also a strange sexual ambiguity about Ripley’s association with Frank, the boy of the title, which I found repetitious and annoying. Highsmith seems to find it amusing to place Ripley with Frank in gay bars, or having to share a three-quarters bed; Ripley actually dresses up in drag at one point. The only action in the book is confined to one short rather poorly set up section of the story; it’s never really explained why Ripley suddenly acts on impulse quite in the way he does. Here’s a (mercifully) brief example of some of the superfluous prose Highsmith subjects us to in this book:
Antoine and Heloise exchanged French kisses at the door, smacks on the cheek, one, two. Tom hated it. Not French kisses in the American sense, certainly nothing sexy about them, just damned silly.
I had planned on completing what is known to Highsmith fans as the Ripliad but this book has put me off the idea; also the reviews on Goodreads for the final book Ripley Under Water would suggest it’s little better than its predecessor. So I think I’ll bail out on Ripley and concentrate on discovering Highsmith’s earlier more celebrated books.
Finally, a little bit of news about my own psychological thriller Roadrage. The Kindle countdown promotion which ran over last weekend was very satisfying. Roadrage actually made it into the Amazon UK top 100 psychological thrillers and was (if only briefly) alongside some illustrious names in crime fiction. Who knows, after a few more reviews and if the people who downloaded it this time recommend it to their chums - it might get back up into the charts and start climbing again!
Anyway, thank you to everyone who tweeted, liked, reviewed, bought or recommended it during the countdown. I have absolutely no budget for promotion so your help is always most gratefully received. Again, thanks.