Friday, September 23, 2011

Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith

The second novel in Patricia Highsmith's "Ripliad," which began with The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground (1970) came fifteen years after the original novel and received less critical acclaim, but is definitely a worthy read. The book introduces an older, more mature Ripley and a more mature, more accomplished Highsmith.

Tom Ripley is now married to a French heiress, the almost equally amoral Heloise, and lives comfortably in their country estate. He has been peripherally involved in an art forgery scheme where the paintings of dead or missing Philip Derwatt are forged by his old friend and fellow painter Bernard Tufts. Derwatt is dead, but Ripley and some of his old friends have convinced the public that the painter is a recluse living in Mexico and ships his recent work from there. Tufts is nervous, depressed, guilty, and doesn't want to carry on with the forgeries. This is aggravated by an American buyer, Murchison, who comes to England with accusations that his painting is a forgery.

Taking the reigns, Ripley goes to London and pretends to be Derwatt during an art opening and press conference. Murchison is not convinced, so Ripley, as himself, invites Murchison to his home as a fellow collector and shows him similar works by Derwatt. Murchison believes Ripley's paintings are also fakes and tries to explain his theory, which escalates into an argument and Ripley murdering him. He convinces Bernard to help him properly dispose of the body, meanwhile dealing with visits from the police and Bernard's failing mental health. This quickly turns into a juggling act with Ripley bouncing back and forth between Paris and London, where he again impersonates Derwatt, but also to Switzerland, where he must try to pursue the highly unstable Bernard.

In addition to the central plot, a major theme is Ripley's relationship with Heloise. She is immoral, but in a different way than Ripley. It is unclear what kind of relationship they have, though it is marked with an enormous degree of mutual personal and financial freedom. Ripley also receives an unexpected visit from Dickie Greenleaf's younger cousin Chris, which is presumably a tie-in to some of the unresolved questions of the first novel.

Ripley Under Ground presents a larger philosophical debate about the value of real verses fake in regards to art and life. Highsmith barrages us with almost constant visual and thematic links -- real and fake paintings, real and fake murders, impersonations by living people, corpses, and dummies, a "fake" business and a "fake" marriage. It also continues to touch on her favored themes of artists, the creation of art, and mental instability.

I enjoyed Ripley Under Ground almost as much as The Talented Mr. Ripley. It is less chilling, less emotionally profound, but much more philosophically complex. Ripley is no longer the mercurial, sociopathic social climber and con artist of the first book. He is comfortable in his lifestyle, but also seems bored by it and I can't help but wonder if maybe he decides to murder Murchison more for excitement than anything else.

There is a film adaptation of the novel,
Ripley Under Ground (2005), and elements of it are used in Wim Wenders' An American Friend (1977). It is followed by Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water. The book comes recommended and it could probably be read independently of The Talented Mr. Ripley. There's the Vintage paperback, the hard cover Everyman Ripley trilogy I used, or the Complete Ripley Novels hardcover box set.

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