Friday 17 June 2011

The Tom Ripley Novels: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith (Chancellor Press Hardback, 1994)

This, it turns out, will be the final post in Patricia Highsmith Week; I do have one other fairly recent Highsmith acquisition, a short story collection, but I haven't read it yet, and I think I'd struggle to say anything about its background or cover design, chiefly because there's no design credit on the dustjacket and, well – I haven't read it yet. So instead let's round things off with this:

This is a UK hardback omnibus of four of the five Tom Ripley novels, published by Chancellor Press in 1994. The only one excluded is the final book, Ripley Under Water, although I'm not sure why that is; that novel, the last of Highsmith's works to be published in her lifetime (she had one final book, Small g: A Summer Idyll, published posthumously in 1995), debuted in 1991 (at least in Britain; in the States it didn't appear until the following year), so it could've easily made it in. In any case, there have been a handful of omnibus editions of the Ripley stories over the years, but most of them only contain three of the novels; the only one that doesn't is the 1992 Penguin edition, which contains the same stories as the Chancellor Press hardback. That Penguin collection, however, is a paperback, so for my money, the Chancellor Press omnibus is the best bet if you fancy a great big wedge of Ripley.

The cover design is by Button Design Co, but the illustration is by Mark Taylor, who I've blogged about before: he created the cover illos for the UK first editions of Elmore Leonard's two (so far; Leonard's working on another) Raylan Givens novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap. As to why I acquired this omnibus when I already own copies of all of the Tom Ripley novels... y'know, I'm not entirely sure. I think I was just intrigued by it when I saw it online and fancied having a look at it (and blogging about it, obviously). I suspect I'll release it into the wilds of Lewes's charity shops once I'm done with this post (so keep 'em peeled, fellow Lewesians), but it does at least give me the opportunity to write about Ripley again, something I never tire of doing.

See, I love Tom Ripley. I love Ripley as a character, and I love the books in which he appears. The best of the five novels, at least in my opinion, is 1974's Ripley's Game, but they all have their merits, and anyone thinking of reading them should put no stock in the received wisdom that the first one, 1955's The Talented Mr. Ripley, is the best one and that it's a law of diminishing returns thereafter. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if I were to rate each of the novels out of 10, and then chart them on a graph, that graph would look something like this:
You'll see there that we start fairly high with The Talented Mr. Ripley – it is, after all, a fine novel – then move up a notch for 1970's Ripley Under Ground; hit the high water mark with 1974's Ripley's Game; and then there's a fairly steep decline towards 1980's The Boy Who Followed Ripley and 1991's Ripley Under Water, although those last two still sit at 7/10 and 6/10 respectively. I realise this won't tally with everyone's assessment of the Ripley novels, but if you approach them with an open mind, I think you'll find that Tom is at his very best – most fascinating, most bizarre, most compelling – in Ripley Under Ground and Ripley's Game, and that, structurally, and in terms of story and the moral quandaries at its heart, Ripley's Game is the Ripley novel supreme.

There's so much to explore and discuss with the Ripley novels. For me, Tom becomes more interesting once he's ensconced in rural France as of Ripley Under Ground, having achieved his goal of a comfortable, cultured existence, and yet still drawn to the dark. Looked at as a part of Highsmith's wider body of work, it's notable that her familiar device of having two male protagonists becoming unhealthily fascinated by and intertwined with one another is also present in the Ripley novels, with the possible exception of Ripley Under Ground; indeed Ripley's Game could be said to be the ultimate expression of this, dividing its time between Tom and the hapless Jonathan Trevanny. And then there's Tom himself, about whom one could sermonise – or possibly evangelise, or perhaps even rhapsodise – endlessly, from the dichotomy of his manipulative nature versus his unexpected loyalty and bravery, to his eventual body count throughout the books (not as great, nor always as indefensible, as you might think).

In fact, there's so much to examine, scrutinise and mull over with the Ripley novels that one could write a whole series of posts on each of the books. So that's precisely what I will be doing before too long, taking each book in turn and really digging into them to identify themes and try and work out exactly who Tom Ripley is. That's for the future, however; for now I'm afraid that's all from Patricia Highsmith... and indeed that's nearly all from me, because Existential Ennui will be going on its summer holidays for a week or so. But I do have one last post for you before I depart, a little tease of things to come on this blog, plus a bit of housekeeping. Look out for that over the weekend... 

UPDATE, 22/4/13: Unusually for me, I actually made good on my promise and reread each of the five Ripley novels, after which I revisited the Tom Ripley Graph; the results can be found here.


  1. While reading this I got a bit bored and could not help but wonder if you are circumcised

  2. Frankly I'm not surprised; I frequently bore myself writing this toss. But to answer your question – because I'm sure we'd all like to know – nope.

  3. So you didn't even like the Ripley graph? I made it specially.

  4. I started rereading these while waiting on the maintenance crew. We had flooded th dude below. Ripley Under Water seemed appropriate.

    I'm glad you also appreciate these books beyond their limited genre. There's something about the delicious irony and almost whimsical pragmatism that speaks to me.

    I was recently in Vegas. Talented is selling for $4500 at the rare book store. Under Ground is going for $1100. It was tempting, but I didn't think it wise to spend that kind of cash on three hours and a hangover.

    Thanks! -- fellow Ripley lover, Ellie.

  5. Maintenance crew? Flooded the dude below? Where are you, Ellie: on a submarine?!

    I agree the books transcend genre though; that's something I'll be addressing when I get round to writing the series of Ripley posts I promised.

    Wow, those are high prices, even for Talented. Ripley Under Ground you'll be able to find in first edition – US or UK – for around the £50 mark on AbeBooks or Amazon Marketplace. I've actually got a spare copy of the Heinemann first edition of Under Ground which I'm planning to sell soon, if you're interested...

  6. There are some interesting quotes on that dust jacket:

    "They have achieved cult status for their insight into the mind of a remorseless psychopath."

    I don't think Ripley is quite the psychopath that literary critics make him out to be. It's true that he can commit some horrible acts without feeling much remorse, but if he was the total sociopath/psychopath he's always labeled as, he wouldn't have felt guilt over his murder of Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, he wouldn't have gone back to help Jonathan on the train in Ripley's Game, and he wouldn't show the kind of loyalty and support that he does throughout the series. The guy's not exactly Hannibal Lecter.

    "Tom has managed to keep his reputation amazingly clean, considering all he has done."

    Actually, his reputation is quite a bit tarnished in the sequels. He's never caught but always suspected, and his reputation as a crook is what sets the plot of Ripley's Game in motion.

    "Tom Ripley ... finds his security threatened. In order to protect himself, two men must die."

    Huh? Tom doesn't find his security threatened until after the two men die, which was part of a plot that he set in motion, mostly out of boredom.

    Anyway, I agree that Ripley's Game is the best, but I think I like The Talented Mr. Ripley ever so slightly more than Ripley Under Ground. At any rate, the three make a great trilogy. As much as I like The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water, they're really for fans only. I can't imagine anyone who isn't a Ripley fanatic like myself enjoying them too much. They're good, but I don't think they would illustrate to a newcomer what's so great about Highsmith.

    It's kind of a shame that we only got five Ripley adventures. I'm surprised that Highsmith's publisher hasn't hired another author to take over and write some new ones, not that I would have any hope of that being any good at all. According to Joan Schenkar's biography The Talented Miss Highsmith, Pat was writing notes for a sixth novel titled Ripley's Luck at the time of her death. It seems she never fell out of love with him. Neither have I.

  7. You shouldn't be too surprised about a jacket blurb being inaccurate, Craig: I think most authors read the blurb their publishers concoct for them – usually written by a very junior member of staff with little knowledge of the book in question – with a mixture of horror and hilarity. And then despair.

    I think the only reason I prefer UNDER GROUND to TALENTED is I much prefer older Tom to his younger self. Taken purely as novels, you're right: TALENTED is probably the better book. I reckon you're selling BOY short, though: all that stuff in Berlin is fantastic. Surely Tom in drag would make a confirmed Ripley fan of anyone.

    Interesting that Highsmith had notes for a sixth novel. She just couldn't let him alone, could she? The way the Ripley sequels are summarily dismissed critically really grates with me: one could make a case for RIPLEY'S GAME being her best book, and certainly UNDER GROUND is among her best. I'm still intending to write those follow-up posts to do what I can to address that injustice.

    Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful comment!

  8. Oh, I'm not surprised about jacket blurbs at all. I suspect that most jacket descriptions are written by interns who are bullshitting their way through the plot summary, like hack movie critics who review films they haven't seen by extrapolating from the trailers.

    Don't get me wrong about Boy and Water. I like them both very much, and I actually consider them underrated. It's not fair the way they're so often dismissed by critics, as if they're frivolous sequels that should be avoided. But as much as I enjoy them, I'm in agreement with most people that they're not as good as the first three novels. My graph would probably look the same as yours, only with Talented and Under Ground swapping scores: 9, 8, 10, 7, 6.

    Of all the Highsmiths I've read, and I've read plenty (she's my second favorite writer, after the other great master of philosophical fiction, Philip K. Dick), Ripley's Game would get my vote for her masterpiece, and I'm happy to see that I'm not alone here. It's bad enough that Boy and Water are dismissed, but ignoring Game is just a crime.

    It also angers me that the first Ripley's Game film adaptation, The American Friend (which gets my vote for best Highsmith adaptation ever), is also so often dismissed, but that's another rant entirely...

  9. Sounds like that could be quite an interesting rant, Craig. I've still not seen Wenders's film (I liked the Malkovich adaptation a lot though), but I'd be very interested in your thoughts on it versus the novel. Fancy a guest post?

  10. Heh, I don't think I'm guest post material. I'll be happy to discuss any of this in comments, but I'll leave the blog entries to you. I hope you can find The American Friend and form your own opinion of it, even if it ends up being at odds with mine.

    And it's not like I have a whole lot to say. The jist of my thoughts on the 1977 film are this: It changes the plot more than the 2002 film, and Dennis Hopper's Ripley seems nothing like Highsmith's at first sight: he wears a denim jacket and cowboy hat, has a pool table and a jukebox. But Hopper captures the character better than any other actor I've seen (it's a much more quiet and subtle performance than can usually be expected of him), and the tone of the film captures the atmosphere of apprehension and dread that Highsmith was so good at.

    I like Ripley's Game (the film) quite a bit, but it drives me nuts when critics claim that Malkovich is exactly like the Tom of the books. Like I said in my recent comment on your Philip K. Dick entry: "The 2002 film is more faithful to the novel's plot, but it turned Ripley into a rude, smug psychopath who revelled in violence, while the 1977 film preserved the book's calmly menacing but polite and friendly character who despised violence and considered it a last resort." I can enjoy it the same way I can enjoy Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. It's good, but it ain't Highsmith.

    Oh, and it might interest you that The American Friend is sort of a double adaptation. It mostly adapts Ripley's Game, but it also combines it with elements of Ripley Under Ground. The artwork forgery scheme, someone noticing that a forged painting has a different shade of blue, etc. And it has Derwatt as a character -- yes, alive. It's quite interesting just as a study in adaptation. I still haven't seen the Barry Pepper film, since it seems impossible to find, but if your blog post about it is anything to go by, it sounds like I'm not missing much.

  11. You're really not – which, from my perspective, was even more disappointing because the screenplay was co-written by one of my favourite writers: Donald E. Westlake.

    I'll have to watch Ripley's Game (the movie) again; I remember Malkovich obviously looking nothing like Ripley, but actually capturing the tone of Tom in that particular story: the vindictiveness in initially entrapping Jonathan, and then that curious almost-friendship that develops. Maybe I'm recalling the book more than the film though. At least the film keeps the brilliant volte-face on the train.

  12. I read an interview with Westlake right before his death. He mentioned Ripley Under Ground and said that he wrote it a decade before, and that someone else rewrote it beyond recognition. It doesn't surprise me. One thing I've learned about the movie business is that some of the names you see in the credits belong to people who contributed little or nothing. It's all very political. Anyway, I'm still interested in seeing the film (if anything, just for Tom Wilkinson), but I'm not going out of my way to do so.

    I'm still mixed on Ripley's Game. I don't have many complaints about the quality of the film; I think it's very well-directed, well-acted, and I love the music. I just don't understand the common wisdom that Malkovich perfectly captures the character of the book. The plot is there, the relationship with Jonathan is there, Tom's about-face is there, all the important elements are there, and it's very well-done. I just can't reconcile Malkovich with Highsmith's Tom. He's gleefully beating a man to death in the opening scene (a totally unnecessary murder that Highsmith's Tom would have gone out of his way to avoid), he's threatening to kill every innocent person on a passenger train if his wristwatch breaks (and he sounds like he means it), and he's walking around with a smug look on his face and insulting people left and right. He's far too psychotic and far too impolite to be the Tom that I know. Whatever politeness he gives off feels like an act, whereas Highsmith's Tom is genuinely amiable. Malkovich is a snake. A fun snake to watch, but not someone you'd want to know.

    The film also seems eager to explain Tom with philosophy -- he's always talking about how the game is played, the rules of the game, etc -- whereas the Tom of the books isn't so simple. He's an almost Nietzschian character, beyond good and evil; he just is. The Matt Damon film also made this mistake, while the Alain Delon and Dennis Hopper films just let him be. (The Delon film is terrific, and doesn't stumble until the end, when Tom gets caught by the police.)

    And this is just a matter of preference, but I prefer Hopper's quiet performance to Malkovich's loud one. The scene in which Jonathan insults Tom is a good example. In the Malkovich film, Jonathan is drunkenly ranting in front of his friends about how Ripley is an ugly American with no taste, and when Tom hears this, Malkovich opens his eyes as wide as possible for the camera and looks like he's barely containing his rage. It's about as subtle as gang rape. In the Hopper film, Jonathan is introduced to Tom, refuses to shake his hand and walks away, and Hopper just cracks a tiny "oh, really?" smile and watches Jonathan leave. It's quietly menacing and much more effective. And although I like Dougray Scott in the Malkovich film, Bruno Ganz wipes the floor with him in the same role, and the interplay between he and Hopper seems more friendly and genuine.

    Again, I don't want to sound too harsh toward Ripley's Game. I consider it a very good movie, and I can even point to some areas in which it improves upon The American Friend. (Ray Winstone is a better Reeves than his 1977 counterpart.) I just don't think it's quite as good as the previous film, and I don't think it's quite as faithful to the book as it's made out to be. But it obviously strikes a chord with a lot of people and their interpretation of the book, and that's fine with me.

  13. Ta for all that, Craig. Looks like I extracted a guest post out of you after all!

  14. Not sure if you're interested in this, but the BBC produced radio versions of all five Ripley novels in 2009, and I found them to be quite good. Ian Hart (who I understand played Bernard in the Ripley Under Ground film) plays Tom, and he's excellent in the part. It's the only interpretation I've encountered that's completely faithful to the books (although the plots are compressed, since each novel is squeezed into a one-hour episode), and the only one with the same actor playing Tom in every installment. You can find all five episodes if you buy the CD set, buy the MP3s on iTunes, or pirate them with your file sharing service of choice, but I found that someone has uploaded the first episode (The Talented Mr. Ripley) to YouTube. It's in four parts, 15 minutes each, and I've posted the links below.

  15. I did catch a couple on Radio 4 – RIPLEY'S GAME and THE BOY WHO FOLLOWED RIPLEY I think – either at the time or when they were repeated. Must admit I was a bit put off by Ian Hart's American accent – it sounded a bit broad to me. But then I'm not American, so I'm probably not the best judge! I'm willing to give 'em another go though, and I definitely didn't hear TALENTED, so ta for that.

  16. Hart's American accent doesn't bother me, but my only real complaints with the radio series do involve his voice. He sounds exactly the same as Tom as he does when he's impersonating Dickie in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and the accent he uses when he's impersonating Derwatt in Ripley Under Ground not only sounds ridiculous, he's still recognizable as Tom. It never seems believable that anyone would be fooled by his disguises. I think this is why the films have avoided his masquerading; it's easy to read the books and imagine him becoming someone else entirely, but for an actor to actually pull it off in a film or radio dramatization requires a skill that few of them have. As good as Hart is, he's not quite that good. I think the ideal movie or radio Tom would be played by an actor who's a real chameleon, a Gary Oldman type.

  17. Gary Oldman would be good, but I always thought that, now he's a bit older, Matt Damon might have made a good fist of the sequels. I liked him as Tom in TALENTED, and a more mature Damon might make for a good Tom.

  18. I wonder if Matt Damon was ever asked to do the sequels. He would have been a good choice.

  19. No idea if he was asked, but yep, I agree. Dunno if Craig will though...

  20. Oldman is too much of an oldman now (hardy har har), but he would have been great in the late 80s or early 90s. I also remember watching The Third Man and thinking that Orson Welles would have been perfect in the 40s. His character in that movie is very similar to Ripley, albeit a bit more evil. It's too bad Highsmith didn't write The Talented Mr. Ripley a decade sooner than she did.

    I didn't have much of a problem with Damon, aside from his Boston accent. My problems with that movie stem mostly from the script. Damon seems to have agreed with me; I read an interview with him in which he complained about the changes made to the book and said that he wanted to do the movie again. It's not a bad film, but I have to completely forget about the book to enjoy it because the script didn't seem to understand the character at all. If Damon were cast in a new film as Ripley late in his career, Under Water era, I wouldn't object too much. As long as it's a reboot that's not in continuity with The Talented Mr. Not Ripley At All.

    What I would really like to see is a miniseries, ten episodes, two 45 minute episodes for each book, with the same actor playing Tom, with all five stories in the same continuity. As much as I enjoy some of the films, it bothers me a bit that all of them were made as standalone films.

  21. Want another "guest post"? I posted a long comment on another blog last night about why I think Ripley's Game is the best of the series, in response to someone who didn't enjoy it very much. Link if you're interested:

  22. Heh heh, you seem to be turning into a Patricia Highsmith-focused version of Interpol, Craig: policing the internet for any and all mentions of Highsmith and Ripley. Fair point well made in those comments, though. Interesting that Sheila didn't like the narrative being split between Tom and Jonathan's viewpoints, but then I guess she hasn't read others of Highsmith's novels that also do that, and so for her singular viewpoint of the first two Ripleys evidently feels more natural. But the split viewpoint of Ripley's Game does, of course, allow that brilliant train twist to take place, which is one of my favourite moments in all the Ripley novels.

  23. I'm always checking out blogs for posts about my literary obsessions, namely Philip K. Dick, Patricia Highsmith, H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Albert Camus, and Richard Matheson. I could write a book about any one of them, and I probably have written at least a book's worth of overly verbose blog comments for each. I have no interest in keeping a blog of my own, but I'm usually bored enough at least once a day to flush the toilet of my brain onto someone else's. Start blogging about Hammett and we'll be doing this all over again. ;)