We've reached the halfway mark now in the Great Tom Ripley Reread, with a book which is not only my personal favourite of Patricia Highsmith's five Ripley novels, but one of my favourite books full stop. And this particular edition – which is becoming quite uncommon these days – also holds a special place in my heart, because it's one of the first books I bought when I started collecting first editions, lo those many moons ago (er, about three or four years ago, for anyone counting):
It's the British first edition of Ripley's Game – the third Tom Ripley novel, following The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground – published by Heinemann in 1974 under a dust jacket featuring photography by Graham Miller (and scanned for me by the estimable Ellie Wilson). I bought this copy in a Cecil Court bookshop which has since disappeared, but I read the novel itself some years prior to that and fell for it in a big way. It's an atypical book in the Ripley series – although not in Highsmith's oeuvre overall – in that it's related from two perspectives, rather than just Tom's. In fact Highsmith preferred to write from two viewpoints whenever possible, and did precisely that in, to name but a handful, Strangers on a Train (her 1950 debut), The Blunderer (1954) and The Two Faces of January (1964). So that might be one reason why I rate Ripley's Game so highly, and linked to that, the way in which Highsmith, by practically sidelining Tom in parts, brilliantly shows not only his malicious and manipulative nature, but his admirable resourcefulness, bravery and even, bizarrely, loyalty.
Set six months on from the events of Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game further explores the notion of Tom as malevolent spirit, an idea never really touched on in The Talented Mr. Ripley – Tom is too young and headstrong in that novel, too impetuous to be pinpointed as a master manipulator – but instead raised in Under Ground, where Tom identifies himself as "a mystic origin, a font of evil". At the heart of Game is "...nothing more than a practical joke... a nasty one", as Highsmith/Tom puts it: as payback for a perceived slight at a party, Tom suggests local framer – and what an apposite occupation that is – Jonathan Trevanny, whom Tom learns is slowly dying of Leukemia, to his shady associate Reeves Minot, who is looking for an innocent to commit one, perhaps two murders of Mafia men in Germany. Despite the fact that "Tom detested murder unless it was absolutely necessary", he puts Trevanny's name forward purely out of malice, because it amuses him to do so. Thus begins Ripley's game.
Thereafter, Tom effectively vanishes from the narrative for sixty pages, and events are related from Jonathan's perspective, as Reeves convinces him to come to Hamburg to seek a second medical opinion on his illness and, it transpires, carry out the first of the two hits. Even so, Tom is a constant presence: Jonathan wonders who it was who spread the rumour that his condition had worsened, and who might have suggested him to Reeves; and in a more general sense Tom is a corrupting influence: Jonathan is forced to lie to his wife, Simone, to explain the money he's been paid by Reeves, a lie which grows in size and becomes ever more toxic as the novel progresses.
Once Tom reenters the tale and hears that Jonathan has actually carried out the first assassination, he briefly speculates, "Could it be that Trevanny was one of us?", but quickly decides that "us to Tom was only Tom Ripley". It's additional confirmation that Tom is fully aware of who and what he is – not only a font of evil but "a man on the borderline of the law" – and how different he is to most, if not all, people. And by and large he can live with this knowledge, even revel in it to an extent; certainly he takes pleasure in shocking his friends around Villeperce, the (fictional) village in France where he and his wife, Heloise, live, telling Antoine and Agnes Grais, a couple who live locally, that he's "thought of a wonderful way to start a forest fire", to which Antoine "chuckled grudgingly" and Agnes and Heloise "gave appreciative shrieks of horror". That Tom has been mixed up in one or two murky episodes is evidently common knowledge, something he himself is cognizant of:
He was aware of his reputation, that many people mistrusted him, avoided him. Tom had often thought that his ego could have been shattered long ago – the ego of the average person would have been shattered – except for the fact that people, once they got to know him, once they came to Belle Ombre and spent an evening, liked him and Heloise well enough, and the Ripleys were invited back.
On the other hand, when a Mafia man later cowers in fear at Tom's feet, Tom confesses, "For once [he] was proud of his reputation." He does, however, admit to feeling "vaguely ashamed of himself" for having got Jonathan involved in Reeves's scheme – especially the planned second hit, which proves rather trickier than the first – and his guilt motivates him to offer assistance to Jonathan, and consequently become more involved in his affairs – much to Simone's alarm. Simone is afraid that Tom has corrupted Jonathan, which is precisely what he has done. But he's also, in a way, made him more alive: Highsmith never lets us forget that Jonathan is dying – will die sometime within the next few years no matter what he does – and so securing some kind of financial future for his wife and son gives him purpose. Of course, the money too is tainted; Jonathan cannot confess to Simone how he earned it, and his feeble excuses – supplied by Tom – for how he obtained it only make it more suspect in her eyes. And in the end, even Simone will be corrupted by it, and by Tom.
Unlike, arguably, Talented and Under Ground, where Tom often seemed to be at the mercy of events, trying to stop them spinning out of control, in Game he's as in command as we'll ever see him. His superhuman intuitiveness again plays a big part in this: his leaps of logic and ability to anticipate what might or will happen – "...those inspirations that came sometimes while he was under the shower, or gardening, those gifts of the gods..." – inspirations which also, handily, assist Highsmith in keeping the plot moving. In Game Tom explains this acuity of vision: "I'm the worrying type. You'd never think so, would you? I try to think of the worst before it happens. Not quite the same as being pessimistic."
Reading a novel for the second or even third time, naturally one notices things that either initially passed one by, or that now spark as a result of things one has since become interested in. Early on in Game, Tom ruminates on Reeves's "microfilm activities", the smuggling operations that Tom sometimes acts as a middle man for, and "which presumably had to do with international spying". When I originally read Game my passion for spy fiction had yet to ignite, but this time round I found Tom's thoughts on espionage wryly amusing. Highsmith came to identify strongly with Tom Ripley, and every now and then it's possible to detect her voice rather than his, such as in this passage, which could be taken as a commentary on the 1960s spy boom, the aftereffects of which were still being felt in fiction in the early 1970s:
Were governments aware of the insane antics of some of their spies? Of those whimsical, half-demented men flitting from Bucharest to Moscow and Washington with guns and microfilm – men who might with the same enthusiasm have put their energies to international warfare in stamp-collecting, or in acquiring secrets of miniature electric trains?
Much later, Tom is subjected to Simone's righteous fury, and his reaction again seems to reflect Highsmith's own attitudes and feelings, in this case her tempestuous relationships with other women:
To Tom [her fury] was a circular chaos, a ring of little fires, and if he successfully extinguished one, the woman's mind leapt to the next.
Numerous links to the previous two books litter the text – mentions of Dickie Greenleaf from Talented and Murchison and Derwatt from Under Ground; Tom using the fake passport Reeves supplied to him in Under Ground – but something we learn for the first time in Game is Tom's (skewed, of course) politics. Noting that Heloise is reading a book he bought on the French socialist movement, he reflects:
That would not improve relations with her father, Tom thought. Often Heloise came out with very leftist remarks, principles which she had no idea of practising. But Tom felt he was slowly pushing her to the left. Push with one hand, take with the other, Tom thought.
Set against these reread revelations is the fact that the terrific twist, or rather reveal, in the middle of the novel loses its impact on second reading. At the same time, on this go round I was struck by the level of violence in the book. Much of this is blackly comic, but even so, Game is by far the most bloodthirsty of the Ripley novels, boasting a succession of shootings and garrotings, bludgeonings and burnings, all climaxing with a full-on Mafia assault. During the course of all this Tom and Jonathan go from being antagonists to allies to friends – almost; or at least brothers in arms: eating steak together prior to a battle, defending and saving each other again and again, like protagonists in a prototypical 1980s buddy flick, complete with narrative back-and-forth and a sprinkling of verbal sparring. There's even, ultimately, what appears to be a noble sacrifice, although little in the way of redemption; this is, after all, a Ripley novel.
By story's end it's clear that Highsmith has once again returned to her frequent theme of two men who become oddly fascinated by one another – see, among others, Strangers on a Train, A Game for the Living (1958) and, of course, The Talented Mr. Ripley (Tom and Dickie) and, to an extent, Ripley Under Ground (Tom and Bernard Tufts). And see also the next book in the Ripley series, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, in which, just for a change, it's Tom who becomes the object of a bizarre fascination...