Patricia Highsmith and her reputation have long flourished in Europe, where she lives and where she is regarded as a major distributor of angst, dread, and other dark existential commodities. But in her own country (she was born in Texas in 1921 and raised in New York City) she is, like one of her characters, often mistaken for someone else. The author of Strangers on a Train, made famous by Hitchcock’s 1951 movie, and 19 other novels in which somebody usually gets killed, she is taken for a murder-mystery writer. But the unsettling ambiguities, fearful symmetries, and murky psychological depths of her books make such simple classification irrelevant. If there is a thrill in her thrillers it comes not from discovering who did what but from the uneasy complicity into which the reader is inevitably drawn.
Her new novel, Ripley Under Water, is the fifth featuring her chameleon, comedian, and game-playing murderer Tom Ripley, and it’s good to know that Vintage is in the process of reissuing the four previous ones in paperback (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, and The Boy Who Followed Ripley). In The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Ripley is introduced as a rootless young man, full of calculated charm but devoid of moral scruple, assured in deception and forgery but self-hating, probably a repressed homosexual, possibly a psychotic in his detachment and sudden compulsions. He is moved above all by a sense of exclusion and resentment and is an American cousin of the estranged marginal men of modern European literature.
In the subsequent Ripley novels, including this one, he’s a connoisseur of art, food, and wine, living the good life in a small French village, married to a beautiful and rich Frenchwoman, respected by the villagers, but still dabbling on occasion in deception, impersonation, and murder, though it’s clearly more of a game than a compulsion now. This time he’s stalked by a rich American named David Pritchard who moves into the village with his cowed and battered wife and insinuates that he knows a thing or two about some of Ripley’s secrets — the disappearance of Dickie Greenleaf, for whom Ripley developed a deranged, identity-blurring obsession in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and the disappearance of a businessman who was about to blow the lid off Ripley’s art-forgery scheme in Ripley Under Ground.
Pritchard follows Ripley and his wife to Morocco and then back in France begins dredging the rivers and canals around the village for bodies. He isn’t motivated by a thirst for justice; this time he’s the one moved, like the young Ripley, by resentment. ”He thinks,” Mrs. Pritchard tells Ripley, ”you’re too sure of yourself. Conceited.”
The trouble is, she’s right. The perverse, precarious, desperate Ripley of The Talented Mr. Ripley is a much more compelling and disturbing figure. And the villainous Pritchard is too clumsy and easily disposed of to generate suspense. Ripley has become a sort of low-tech James Bond who offers readers vicarious epicurean pleasures while vanquishing such forces of boorishness and boredom as Pritchard: ”A bore, an overweight, everyday, mediocre bore,” who wears a garish gold watch and has ugly furniture in his house. Ripley has turned into a fantasy of a self-sufficient aesthete, moved by style and taste alone, beyond good and evil. No wonder, in an idle moment, he’s made to pay an extravagant compliment to Oscar Wilde (he compares him to Jesus Christ), evidently Highsmith’s patron saint, but Ripley isn’t witty or generous enough to earn the implied affinity with Wilde. Ripley’s ultimate believe-it-or-not is that he has become complacent and something of a bore, if not an overweight or everyday one. Highsmith was at her volatile best in her last book, Found in the Street, but Ripley Under Water is a bit damp. C