Art Attack : Patricia Highsmith – “Ripley Under Ground”

Painting is ALSO the gateway to mayhem in Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley Under Ground.”

ABOVE: R.I.P. Ripley?

When we last saw “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Tom had managed to wriggle out of being incarcerated for the murder of his affluent friend, Dickie Greenleaf. Some years have passed, and Ripley is doing quite well, a dapper respected member of society. Except for the part where he and his friends have gone into the art forgery game, selling paintings by a reclusive artist named Derwatt – who’s no longer even alive. When a nosy American collector shows up at the Derwatt exhibit in London, asking the sort of pesky questions that get people drowned in paint buckets, Ripley must once again use his many skills to gaslight Murchinson into believing that Derwatt is alive and well.

Of course things go wrong.

“Ripley Under Ground” dutifully hits many of the elements of the satisfying original, (escalating deception, deft impersonation, travelogue escapism, and unemotional murder) but it’s not quite the same.

Ripley is a lesser character here, and his actions would be incomprehensible to anyone who wasn’t mad lenient by the first book. Why would a cold-blooded mastermind volunteer the information that he’s a murderer to anyone who will listen? WHY?  Furthermore, friends and family all react to the news with barely raised eyebrows, as though he’s confessed to nicking pens from the office.

Truly the biggest twist is that RIPLEY GOT MARRIED.

He even kisses his wife’s BREAST at one point, and SEEMS TO LIKE IT!

You would not have seen THAT coming!

His wife, Heloise, doesn’t add much, and is absent for most of the book, shopping and traveling in the periphery of the plot. Highsmith doesn’t know what to do with this woman who is comically dimwitted about her husband’s actions, and as much of a “beard” as the one Ripley uses to impersonate Derwatt.

ABOVE: A beard!

Marriage and a boob grab aren’t really enough to dissuade the “Gay Ripley” theorists. If they’re still looking for evidence, there’s always passages like the one in which Ripley reveals that his wedding night was not consummated due to the interference of a loud parrot singing an aria from “Carmen” (which is not likely to have distracted too many hot-blooded straight males.) Or there’s this:

“It had little to do with sex, Tom thought, with any dependence on that. (…) She (Heloise) was a partner, in a way, though a passive one. With a boy or a man, Tom would have laughed more—maybe that was the main difference.”

A BOY? Eeewww. Elsewhere, Tom is grossed out by the scandalous attire of the newly liberated female sex (this is a 1970 novel, but it feels very 50s. The Beatles haven’t quite happened; Ripley is still dealing with shock from the Beats.)

“Girls wore skirts so short that Tom’s eye—unused to such gear—was drawn to intricate seaming of tights of various colors—then repelled. Goony, Tom thought. Absolutely nuts. (…) Was it possible for anybody to imagine approachable flesh under those tights that showed nothing but fortified seams and sometimes more panties under them? Breasts were visible when the girls bent for cigarettes. Which half of the girl was one supposed to look at?”

He’s just as repelled by that wacky formless jazz bebop the kids have been listening to. A question of aesthetic preferences, or is Ripley bothered by a perceived threat to the artistic and social certainties for which he has killed? His  own musical preferences (the overture for Mendelssohn’s ballet of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”) are a reminder that you can’t spell “classical” without “class.” His frequent Pan-European flights, themselves a sign of affluence,  take place in planes whimsically named  after Beethoven and Strauss. The novel’s tense climax – and best scene- is set in the Salzburg house in which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born. (In the midst of action, Ripley finds time to complain about the low artistic quality of the portraits.)

ABOVE: The Mozart Museum in Salzburg. Ripley notes they’ve put some sort of glass lid over the keys so no grubby mortal fingers can touch them.

In this context, art (painted or heard) means money, distinction, privilege. More things worth killing for.


POST-SCRIPT: Listen to Mendelssohn’s Overture for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” while planning some convoluted way of extricating yourself from a murder.


3 thoughts on “Art Attack : Patricia Highsmith – “Ripley Under Ground”

  1. Pingback: Triple Treat : Georges Simenon – “Pietr-Le-Letton,” “The Hanging Man of St. Pholien,” “The Murderer” | THE PAGEAHOLIC

  2. Pingback: Game Over : Patricia Highsmith – “Ripley’s Game” | THE PAGEAHOLIC

  3. Pingback: Patricia Highsmith – “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” | THE PAGEAHOLIC

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