Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith

Sometimes you read a sequel and find yourself half-incredulous of where you find the protagonist when the curtain rises. Granted, I wasn’t surprised that Tom Ripley, the sociopathic forger/imitator/high-class fraudster who got away with a couple murders in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, was living the good life in the French countryside and enjoying some steady income from a few rackets. What threw me was his being married, for one, and also his now having co-conspirators.

And the award for murkiest jacket design goes to...

This is the guy who spent months on his own European Grand Tour after murdering his acquaintance and assuming the victim’s identity. Part of the intensity of the first Ripley novel was that 25-year-old Tom was so utterly alone. He was the killer Raskolnikov was trying to be– nearly unflappable in his scheme to hide his crimes and faintly misanthropic to the end.

Now he has a practical Ocean’s Eleven of Idiots.

Tom is orchestrating a great art scandal: the famous painter Derwatt, once thought dead from suicide, is alive and producing pieces that continue to sell for the highest sums. In reality, Derwatt is dead, and Tom has another painter, Bernard Tufts, forging his former mentor’s work. The only other individuals in on the con are the two boobs who run the gallery and the man who oversees the Derwatt art school/supply arm of the operation.

Donning a fake beard, Ripley is called upon to assume the role of Derwatt in public (we’re going off the assumption that growing a beard would make you unrecognizable), because along comes an American collector who is convinced the new Derwatt paintings are fakes. The facade doesn’t hold up, and Ripley is interestingly more pissed that the American sees through his Derwatt performance than the forged paintings. Well, one wine bottle to the head later, Tom’s killed somebody.

Perhaps Tom has changed enough in the last five years that he can tolerate the meddling and dependence of a wife and some partners-in-crime, but even allowing that, Ripley Under Ground becomes a slightly different book from what I wanted. The crime caper of this sequel may not be as fun and inventive as the first novel’s, for reasons aforementioned, but there’s still some fascinating stuff going on.

Digging Himself Deeper

The forger Bernard is the hapless pawn in all this, which doesn’t go unappreciated by Tom: being himself a forger of identities, Tom sympathizes with the painter who must commit his artistry to being something other than himself. At one point Tom argues that the forger must be more skilled than the original artist; great art comes naturally to the artist, but the imitator must sweat and toil harder to produce the convincing fake.

What kind of painter would Bernard be if he didn’t have to be Derwatt? What kind of man would Tom be if he could live an honest life? Could he?

“Tom could have wept for Bernard… Bernard was as miserable as someone, who was not an actor, trying to act on a stage and hating every minute of it.”

Bernard is more like…us, and he cannot handle the identity crisis inherent in spending several years being someone else. Not only is Tom trying to keep the Derwatt operation from being exposed, he’s trying to keep his Talented Mr. Tufts from snapping and confessing everything to the authorities.

The Tom-Bernard interaction is a fascinating one, and it becomes darkly amusing when Tom cooly demands the neurotic artist to help him exhume a body and lie to the cops. But they are two false halves of the same dead artist, each with authentic skill that begs reevaluation of creations we dismiss as “fakes.”

The book’s events are far more morbid but somehow less disturbing: Highsmith is playing Ripley’s callousness for laughs now, having him literally rise from the grave to go take a bath and fix himself a sandwich. This robs the story of the gravity it otherwise deserves. People have toyed with the idea of canonizing Highsmith not only as one of the 20th century’s crime novel greats, but the American literary fiction greats. If she wanted to, she probably could have been. But in this second Ripley book I felt her shying a bit from the dark, personal cellar that made The Talented Mr. Ripley impossible to confine to a genre.