Monday, November 15, 2010

Patricia Highsmith part three - RIPLEY'S GAME

RIPLEY'S GAME was Patricia Highsmith's third book about ex-pat American Tom Ripley, who now lives the life of a gentleman at Belle Ombre (which translates as Beautiful Shadow), a small estate in France that was given to Tom and his beautiful wife Heloise by her wealthy French parents.

This third book differs from the previous Ripley books in two ways: one is the start. Highsmith puts the reader into the action on the first page, where the other Ripley books have a meandering (but effective) opening. Tom learns from his friend Reeves Minot that Reeves needs to have an assassination performed, perhaps two. It's to do with the Mafia in Hamburg, where Reeves lives. His plan is to kill two opposing Mafiosi and start a war between the gangs. This war will prevent the Mafia from penetrating Reeves's interests in the Hamburg nightclub scene.

Ripley turns him down because he's not a hired killer; rather, Ripley has killed only three times in the course of the first two books. In the first book, he kills to gain Dickie Greenleaf's fortune and – for a while – his identity. Ripley longs to live the life of gentleman. Once the police close in, Ripley must go back to being himself, so Ripley reinvents himself. In the second book he's married and has a wonderful home and beautiful wife. The second book deals with art forgery, and Ripley kills to protect the interests of his friends and, to a much lesser degree, himself.

In this third book, Ripley tells Reeves he ought to try Jonathan Trevanny, an Englishman who lives nearby with his French wife and son. Treavanny has cancer, with only a few years to live. Ripley suggests he start a rumor that Trevanny's demise is much more imminent, and then Reeves can approach Trevanny with his proposition: kill two men and earn $96,000.

Why does Ripley put Trevanny in the crosshairs? At a party Trevanny sneered at Ripley when they met, saying, "I've heard of you." Ripley is sensitive about his shadey reputation, resents Trevanny, and thinks this would be an excellent payback.

The second way RIPLEY'S GAME is different from the first two books is that Highsmith, starting in the second chapter, takes Trevanny's point of view. We don't even see Ripley again until the book is a third of the way through. But his hand is present in the events that dog Trevanny – going to Germany, getting a second opinion from a specialist that his condition is worse (Ripley's idea), and eventually agreeing to kill the first man on a crowded train platform with a gun. Trevanny thinks this will provide a better life for his wife and small son after he is dead.

Trevanny collects about $30,000 and heads home. But Reeves needs the other man killed as well. He pressures Trevanny to see another doctor, with the hopes that Trevanny will agree to the second kill and collect the rest of his money. The problem is the second killing must take place on a train, using a garrote. This is much harder than simply shooting a crook in the back on a crowded platform.

Yet Trevanny agrees. The third doctor's report is, at this point, irrelevant. Trevanny wants the money to provide for his wife and boy. So Trevanny waits in the space between cars on the moving train, knowing that whether he succeeds or not, he will be killed by the mafioso's two bodyguards. All is lost.

Then Ripley appears. Trevanny is surprised as Ripley asks him for the garrote, then has him stand guard as Ripley kills the Mafia capo Marcangelo in the restroom:

Just in front of Tom, Marcangelo opened the door of the w.c., and Tom sprang forward like a person who was determined to get into the toilet first, but at the

same time he flipped the garrote over the head of Marcangelo whose cry Tom hoped he stifled as he dragged him, with a jerk of the garrote like a boxer’s right cross, into the little room and closed the door. Tom yanked the garrote viciously — one of Marcangelo’s own weapons in his prime, Tom supposed — and Tom saw the nylon disappear in the flesh of his neck. Tom gave it another whirl behind the man’s head and pulled still tighter. With his left hand Tom flicked the lever that locked the door. Marcangelo’s gurgle stopped, his tongue began to protrude from the awful wet mouth, his eyes closed in misery, then opened in horror, and began to have the blank, what’s-happening-to-me stare of the dying. Lower false teeth clattered to the tiles.

Tom was nearly cutting his own thumb and the side of his forefinger because of the force he was exerting on the string, but he felt it a pain worth enduring. Marcangelo had slumped to the floor, but the garrote, or rather Tom, was holding him in more or less a seated position. Marcangelo was now unconscious, Tom thought, and it was impossible for him to be breathing at all. Tom picked up the teeth, dropped them into the toilet, and managed to step on the pedal which dumped the pan. He wiped his fingers with disgust on Marcangelo’s padded shoulder.

Then Tom enlists Trevanny's help in cracking the skull of a bodyguard and tossing both bodies off the moving train. They succeed in this second murder, but their troubles are far from over.

This book has been made into a movie twice: the first time in 1977 by Wim Wenders, starring Dennis Hoppper as Ripley; and again in 2002, by Liliana Cavani, with John Malkovich as Ripley. Both films are well worth seeing, and it's fascinating to see how these two actors tackle the role of Tom Ripley.

One of things that strikes me about the Ripley character is how polite he is, and concerned for the welfare of those around him. Highsmith goes to great lengths to give us a close view of Ripley. In many ways, he's like us. This makes for a compelling read, and in this third book, a suspenseful one.

Highsmith also gives Ripley a dark sense of humor. I think this is one of her great achievements in what may be considered noir literature – the dark sense of humor, almost running like a pulse, throughout the Ripley books. Here's a passage after the killing on the train:

Tom found what he was looking for at the bottom of page one, a short item about three inches long. Italian garroted. Another gravely wounded. The garroted man was identified as Vito Marcangelo, fifty-two, of Milan. Tom was more interested in the gravely wounded Filippo Turoli, thirty-one, who had also been pushed from the train and suffered multiple concussions, broken ribs and a damaged arm that might require amputation in a hospital of Strasburg. Turoli was said to be in a coma and in critical condition. The report went on to say that a passenger had seen one body on the train embankment and alerted a train official,’ but not before kilometers had been covered by the luxurious Mozart Express, which had been going towards Strasburg. Then two bodies had been discovered by the rescue team. It was estimated that four minutes had elapsed between the fall of each body, and police were actively pursuing their inquiries.

Obviously there would be more on the subject, with photographs probably, in later editions, Tom thought. That was a nice Gallic touch of detection, the four minutes, like a problem in arithmetic for children also, Tom thought. If a train is going at one hundred kilometers per hour, and one Mafioso is tossed out, and a second Mafioso is found tossed out six and two-thirds of a kilometer distant from the first Mafioso, how much time has elapsed between the tossing out of each Mafioso? Answer: four minutes.

With a mind like this, Tom Ripley seems likable, as well as unstoppable.

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