Thursday 27 September 2012

The Great Tom Ripley Reread, 3: Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann First Edition, 1974)

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

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...

Monday 24 September 2012

Book Review: The Art of Denis McLoughlin by David Ashford; Edited by Peter Richardson (Book Palace, 2012)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

Of all the designers featured on the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s permanent page, there are, at time of writing, just two who can boast more than five covers to their names in the gallery. One of those is Val Biro, an incredibly prolific artist with an instantly recognizable style who I've written about repeatedly (and who I'll be returning to shortly). The other is Denis McLoughlin, an equally prolific artist with a style just as distinctive, who again I've spotlighted a number of times on Existential Ennui, primarily in relation to the wonderful dust jackets he designed for British publisher T. V. Boardman's Bloodhound Mystery imprint in the 1950s and '60s – around 550 of the buggers – and especially the jackets he created for Boardman's editions of Donald E. Westlake's earliest novels (see this post on Westlake's 361 for a recent example).

McLoughlin's striking, evocative Boardman jackets are, to my mind (and to many other avid collectors), among the best ever to wrap around a novel – let alone a crime or spy novel – and a new illustrated book celebrates those spectacular wrappers alongside the hundreds of other covers and comics McLoughlin created during his near-fifty year career.

Published by Book Palace Books, David Ashford's The Art of Denis McLoughlin is a sumptuous hardback expansion of Ashford's own rather shorter 1994 tome The Hardboiled Art of Denis McLoughlin, which has been revised, added to and given an all-round spit and polish by editor and designer Peter Richardson. The result is 272 pages of glorious cover and comics art, interspersed with essays by Ashford, recollections by the late McLoughlin and checklists of every dust jacket and comic strip McLoughlin ever worked on (plus some he didn't, included to avoid confusion).

Here in the UK, McLoughlin is still probably best know for his comics: his Buffalo Bill western strips for Boardman, his war and adventure comics for IPC (in Wizard, Warlord, etc.) and DC Thomson (a twenty-year run on Commando: War Stories in Pictures from 1982 to his death in 2002), plenty of which is showcased in the book, and which, taken on its own, would be enough to secure him a place in the pantheon of top flight British illustrators. But add in those Boardman covers as well, and the scope and scale of McLoughlin's achievement becomes breathtaking. All told, McLoughlin must have created well over 800 covers for Boardman – not just for crime and suspense novels but also romance, westerns, and even the odd bit of science fiction – almost all of them hand-painted and lettered.

Ashford and Richardson rightly dedicate well over half the book to this remarkable but rarely seen (a good many of the Boardman Bloodhounds are extremely hard to come by) body of work, tracking the development of McLoughlin's Boardman covers from 1944 to 1968. Ashford's personal preference is for the "glorious" full colour covers McLoughlin painted up to the late 1950s, rather than the later duo-tone or restricted palette jackets, which he calls "a pale shadow" of the earlier works, and which are perhaps under-represented as a result. For my money, however, it's those later covers – including some of the Donald Westlake wrappers, notably Killy (1964, and sporting a self-portrait of McLoughlin) and The Fugitive Pigeon (1966) – with their masterly deployment of chiaroscuro and command of negative space, that are the more inventive, innovative and experimental, and even Ashford has to admit that they're "arresting and imaginative".

Much is revealed about how McLoughlin created the Boardman covers, some of which information I previously suspected but didn't know for certain – such as the fact that he almost always painted the lettering directly on top of the artwork (rather than as an overlay), making it intrinsic to the overall design (see also the aforementioned Val Biro), and that he made a point of reading every one of those novels, often illustrating scenes lifted directly from the stories (see the apocalyptic climax depicted on the wrapper of Westlake's Killing Time). Ashford and Richardson even include some of the posed photographs McLoughlin took for reference, many of them featuring McLoughlin himself or his brother Colin as models, sometimes dressed up for the part as gangsters or cowboys (Dan Dare creator Frank Hampson, working around the same period, did something similar); when McLoughlin was particularly pushed for time, he'd occasionally collage the photos themselves into his cover designs.

Other revelations abound. I wasn't aware that McLoughlin took his own life, for example, shooting himself – with "the only non-replica gun that he possessed and for which he had only the one bullet" – at the age of eighty-four because he was "worried about the loss of feeling in his right arm and feared that he wouldn't be able to draw again". I'd also seen scant few of his comics stories, one of which, a 1954 crime tale titled "Roy Carson meets Waldo the Mystic", is reproduced in full; the dialogue, by brother Colin (who took over the writing from Denis after the initial outing), is an uneasy, haphazard mix of hardboiledisms and British comics exclamations ("ouch!"), but the art, staging and pacing are surprisingly good, and in places quite modern.

If I had to level a criticism at the book, it would be this churlish and rather childish one: I'd like to have seen even more Bloodhound covers. I certainly don't begrudge the space taken up by the comics material, but a volume showcasing every single T. V. Boardman dust jacket McLoughlin created: now that would be a thing to behold. But given how many hundreds are present and correct in this book, that really is an ignoble sentiment, and one that, frankly, I'm embarrassed to have shared. So let's forget I said anything, and instead end on a positive note: The Art of Denis McLoughlin is a beautiful and fitting tribute to an astonishingly talented artist, illustrator and designer, and deserves a place on the shelves of every discerning appreciator of fine dust jacket design.

The Art of Denis McLoughlin is limited to 950 regular editions and 120 signed editions, and is available to buy from The Book Palace. For more on McLoughlin, click here, here, here, here and here.