A review of Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Ripley Under Water
by Patricia Highsmith
Bloomsbury Publishing, February 2005

The plot of Ripley Under Water is rudimentary: David and Janice Pritchard, an American couple, take a house in Tom Ripley’s village and begin to delve into his past, in particular into the disappearance of an art dealer called Murchison (someone whom Tom murdered in Ripley Under Ground). The Pritchards threaten what Tom has, and it seems that they may be able to take it away. Tom, a cornered animal, must manage his fear and aggression and survive.

Here as elsewhere, Highsmith has the power to make one’s wounds raw and to induce an enervating anxiety in the reader. The chief way in which this is done in Ripley Under Water is by concentrating most of the writing on Tom’s thoughts, which are genuinely unnerving at times. We are told of the terrors that visit him, the memories he is burdened with, the agonies he suffers and the plans of action he needs to draw up to protect himself, as David Pritchard steadfastly digs into his past. Often, as in Chapter 15, nothing in the way of action occurs; we just see Tom unsettled, on edge, alert. We see the effect of Pritchard’s meddling, how he sours all of Tom’s normal pleasures. It seems meandering, but cumulatively it creates an unbearable atmosphere of anxiety and apprehension.

There is a disconnection, mind, between what Tom thinks and feels and how he acts; Tom feels fear, obsession and annoyance, yet he acts coolly, duplicitously and effectively. Always, Highsmith’s sympathy – and our involvement in the story – is with Tom Ripley; and this is a curious inversion of the normal state of affairs in crime fiction. Pritchard is in the role of the detective (he is a kind of PI, in fact), but he is viewed as an invasive meddler, someone who stalks and persecutes Tom, a nuisance who courts his own destruction. Tom Ripley is an amoral pragmatist, someone who has no qualms about resorting to murder if it should be necessary, and yet we root for him. At one point (p.42) Tom wonders “how many people were like him, with a cynical attitude towards justice and veracity?” And one feels that one such person would certainly have been Highsmith herself. She is a crime writer who has little trust that society and its institutions can deliver justice, and she takes the side of the transgressor against the persecuting mob.

A back-story throughout most of the Ripley books (all except the first, I think) concerns Bernard Tufts’ relationship with Derwatt, and it receives its fullest exploration here. Highsmith mentions in Ripley Under Ground that the verb “to forge” has two meanings – to make and to fake – and this notion was clearly important to her (consider in this respect also the novel The Tremor of Forgery). Accordingly, Tufts’ fate as a forger who assumes the identity of the artist whose works he sets out to forge (or an artist who feels that by striking out on his own he has betrayed his master and model) is resonant with meaning.

Parts of the novel read rather like a travelogue, as when the Ripleys take a trip to Morocco, but it is excellent with regard to character: Madame Annette is an especially vivid creation. And the contrast between Tom and Ed (a partner in crime) is well captured in the denouement.

Some time ago, I read an interview with Norman Mailer where he made the claim that staring at Cubist paintings was good for his eyesight. I forget Mailer’s argument, but I’d make a similar claim regarding Patricia Highsmith: her novels can sooth your nerves. If you are entering a troubling period in your life, read Highsmith. Her fictions are a field in which one’s anxieties can play, so use them to channel your concerns and worries. All will become quiescent and restful. Or perhaps not.

Certainly this, the fifth and final Ripley novel and Patricia Highsmith’s last-but-one novel altogether (Small g: A Summer Idyll came out in 1995, some months after her death), justifies Graham Greene’s description of her as the “poet of apprehension”.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk