• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

This Woman Is Dangerous

The essential American soul,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in a celebrated description, “is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Of course, he was talking about Natty Bumppo and similar rough-and-tumble frontier spirits. By contrast, the amoral Tom Ripley—novelist Patricia Highsmith’s most famous character—is easygoing, devoted to his wife and friends, epicurean, and a killer only by necessity. By my count, necessity leads this polite aesthete to bludgeon or strangle eight people and watch with satisfaction while two others drown. He also sets in motion the successful suicides of three friends he actually, in his way, cares about. Yet aside from an occasional twinge about his first murder, Ripley feels no long-term guilt over these deaths. (Tellingly, he can never quite remember the actual number of his victims.) He was simply protecting himself, his friends and business partners, his home. Any man would, or at least might, do the same.

Tom, as his indulgent creator tends to call him, first appeared in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). This was Highsmith’s fourth published book, preceded by three highly original novels. In Strangers on a Train (1950)—later filmed (and softened) by Alfred Hitchcock—two men, hitherto unknown to each other, “exchange” murders, Bruno agreeing to kill Guy’s estranged wife in return for Guy doing away with Bruno’s hated father. Each will consequently possess a perfect alibi. In The Price of Salt (1953, published under the name Claire Morgan) the nineteen-year-old Therese falls in love with the married Carol—and perhaps for the first time a novel about lesbians ends happily. In paperback this story of “a love that society forbids” sold over a million copies. In The Blunderer (1954) Highsmith fully established what would become her trademark theme: the blurring of fantasy and reality, usually reinforced by some sort of folie à deux, in which two very different people, almost always men, grow symbiotically obsessed with each other, ultimately to the point of madness and mutual destruction. In this case, a successful murderer is undone because a blundering fool hopes to emulate him.

By the time Highsmith (1921–1995) came to write The Talented Mr. Ripley, she was just entering her thirties. Born in Texas to an overbearing mother whom she grew to loathe, Highsmith attended Barnard College during World War II, where she studied Latin and modern languages, edited the school newspaper, and read widely in American and European literature. From an early age, she drank hard, fell in and out of love with various women (and one or two men), and rather quickly came to understand her own severe and private nature. Far more than Tom Ripley, she fits that Lawrentian description of being hard, isolate, and stoic, especially in her later years, when she grew increasingly cranky and notorious for her caustic remarks and prejudices. In her youth, though, the novelist was more outgoing and distinctly attractive, albeit in a slightly butch way. In Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s her one-time lover, Marijane Meaker, describes her as “tall and thin. Black, shoulder-length hair, with dark brown eyes. She looked like a combination of Prince Valiant and Rudolf Nureyev.”

Highsmith lived all her life by her pen and typewriter (an Olympia manual), starting off by producing copy for comics and later turning out a steady stream of suspense and horror stories, many of which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Her novels never became popular in the US. Here she might sell only four thousand copies of, say, Edith’s Diary (1977)—and ten times that number in France or Germany. Little wonder that she preferred to spend her later years in Europe. The English-speaking world might casually slot her as a writer of crime fiction, but Europeans honored her as a psychological novelist, part of an existentialist tradition represented by her own favorite writers, in particular Dostoevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Gide, and Camus. (That astute critic Brigid Brophy once called her a Dostoevsky “whose gifts include humour and charm.”) Highsmith’s books, after all, explore human souls in extremis, chronicle men and women sliding toward breakdown, probe the fluid nature of identity, and generally conclude that life is little more than an absurdity and a cheat, when not a downright horror.

Such a bleak outlook makes even Highsmith’s best work upsetting and, to some readers, distinctly unpleasant. Yet she’s seldom graphic in her brief descriptions of violence and she never depicts the details of sexual encounters. The hallmark of her work is a calm, hallucinatory intensity built on sentences of unemotional plainness and clarity. Her hypersensitive protagonists, logically, inexorably, spiral downhill from ordinary anxiety to murderous rage and madness. Like animals keenly alert for invisible traps or New Yorkers in the first uneasy months after September 11, Highsmith’s characters move through their lives with an ever-increasing and sometimes justified wariness. Graham Greene famously called her “a poet of apprehension” who had “created a world of her own—a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.”

The Talented Mr. Ripley opens like a classic suspense thriller (with a subdued echo, in fact, of the first sentences of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock): “Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him.” Tom, who at this time is little more than a jumped-up petty crook, has been defrauding people of Internal Revenue payments, and is naturally worried that the police might be onto his scam. It turns out, however, that the stranger merely wants to talk about his wastrel son Dickie Greenleaf, who is idling his life away in Mongibello, Italy. After Tom plays up an extremely tenuous connection to Dickie, he is offered a free trip to Mongibello, with all expenses paid. His commission, like that of Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, is to bring home the wayward scion of this wealthy family.

Highsmith actually refers twice to Henry James’s novel, which provides the general plot line of the book’s first half. But the reader soon starts to pick up on other, darker, literary and psychological associations. In Mongibello, Tom grows enchanted with Dickie’s lifestyle and rich-boy nonchalance; before long, he unconsciously begins to mimic his new friend, copying his mannerisms, even trying on his clothes. And he’s very good at all this, having first come to New York intending to launch an acting career. Before long, it’s hard not to be reminded of doubles and doppelgängers, of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of Poe’s “William Wilson,” of back-stabbing theatrical understudies and Jungian shadows. Nothing good, it’s clear, can come of this mirroring, this psychological vampirism. At least nothing good for Dickie, who—shall we say—just happens to die rather suddenly. For Tom, it’s another matter.

On the simplest level, the second half of Highsmith’s book describes an elaborate con game, in which clever Tom contrives to pass himself off as the dead Dickie Greenleaf. This requires some elaborate masquerading. But Tom has developed a taste for the high life, for fine clothes, expensive objets d’art, first-class travel, and various other amenities, and he’d rather die—or kill—than give them up. Meanwhile, Highsmith ratchets up the tension as Tom twists and turns, struggling desperately to outwit the police, while we are insidiously made to sympathize with him, as if he were Richard Hannay on the run in John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps or the unnamed hero of Geoffrey Household’s cat-and-mouse pursuit classic Rogue Male.

Yet despite all its suspensefulness, The Talented Mr. Ripley when viewed from a slightly different angle approaches the comic: Tom must switch from one persona to another like a vaudeville quick-change artist, even as the plot complications start to recall classic farces about the mixups resulting from mistaken identities. In the later Ripley novels Highsmith will play up this mordant gallows humor. Thus it’s oddly pleasing to remember that when she worked at Yaddo (on Strangers on a Train ), two of the other young artists in residence there would become famous for a similar kind of grotesque comedy—the anarchic crime novelist Chester Himes and the Southern Gothicist Flannery O’Connor.

Between 1955 and 1970, Highsmith produced nine novels, including two of her best: This Sweet Sickness (1960), about a man who leads an increasingly vivid fantasy life with his imaginary lover, and The Tremor of Forgery (1969), set in Tunis, about the tensions between some expatriates and a deeply alien Arab culture. As in work by Camus and Paul Bowles, the action unfolds against a landscape of heat and mirage and fuzzy moral ambiguity. The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories, Highsmith’s first and best story collection (of eight), appeared in 1970. That title story is something of a classic among aficionados of gruesome horror, while another, “The Terrapin,” is an almost unbearable portrait of a callous mother driving her sensitive young son to murder.

In 1970 Highsmith also brought out Ripley Under Ground, and thus established Tom Ripley as a series character. Set five years or so after the death of Dickie Greenleaf, Tom has settled down into the quiet, cultivated life he had always dreamed about. He owns a beautiful house called Belle Ombre some forty kilometers from Paris. He has a treasure of a cook-housekeeper named Madame Annette. More surprisingly, he is happily married to the beautiful twenty-five-year-old Heloise, though their relationship seems more companionate than passionate. Tom quietly spends most of his time gardening and listening to music, improving his French and German, and occasionally visiting neighbors for dinner. In the evenings he sips Margaux while admiring the art on his walls—a Soutine, drawings by Cocteau and Picasso, two Magrittes, and a pair of exceptional paintings by (the fictional) Derwatt, whose intensely expressionist vision resembles Francis Bacon’s.

Of course, one of Tom’s Derwatts— Man in Chair —is a fake.

Despite payouts from a Greenleaf trust and Heloise’s allowance from her businessman father, Tom has become a silent partner in a lucrative art forgery operation. He also occasionally assists a shady American named Reeves Minot, who works as a fence and smuggler in Hamburg. Besides the useful income, these associations provide Tom with occasional excitement, allow him to meet new people, and generate the plots of this and the three subsequent Ripley novels.

Ripley Under Ground focuses directly on the question of what, if anything, is authentic, whether in personal relations or art. After the rising young painter Derwatt quietly committed suicide, a small group of his friends schemed to pretend that he had merely emigrated to Mexico. (This is, in essence, a variant on Tom’s old trick of convincing people that Dickie Greenleaf was still alive.) Gradually, the “reclusive” artist’s work was sold off for ever-escalating sums. Then at Tom’s suggestion, Derwatt’s friend and disciple Bernard Tufts was reluctantly persuaded to start producing a steady stream of “new” paintings. These prove virtually indistinguishable from actual Derwatts.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print