Patricia Highsmith’s cycle of novels about the affable sociopath Tom Ripley — The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Ripley Under Water — have been reissued as an attractive but rather pricey boxed set. There are cheaper ways to get acquainted with Ripley, an art forger whose taste for the finer things in life leads him to wrack up a formidable body count, but anyone with a taste for pitch-black humor and writing of almost claustrophobic intensity should make it a priority to arrange the introduction, whatever the price tag.
I’ve already argued for Highsmith’s inclusion in the pantheon of great American authors. This Michael Dirda piece in The New York Review of Books is an excellent summary of the five “Ripliad” novels, as well as a fine overview of Highsmith’s backlist for novices:
Tom, as his indulgent creator tends to call him, first appeared in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). This was Highsmith’s fourth published book, preceded by three highly original novels. In Strangers on a Train (1950)—later filmed (and softened) by Alfred Hitchcock—two men, hitherto unknown to each other, “exchange” murders, Bruno agreeing to kill Guy’s estranged wife in return for Guy doing away with Bruno’s hated father. Each will consequently possess a perfect alibi. In The Price of Salt (1953, published under the name Claire Morgan) the nineteen-year-old Therese falls in love with the married Carol—and perhaps for the first time a novel about lesbians ends happily. In paperback this story of “a love that society forbids” sold over a million copies. In The Blunderer (1954) Highsmith fully established what would become her trademark theme: the blurring of fantasy and reality, usually reinforced by some sort of folie à deux, in which two very different people, almost always men, grow symbiotically obsessed with each other, ultimately to the point of madness and mutual destruction. In this case, a successful murderer is undone because a blundering fool hopes to emulate him.
Dirda sums up the Highsmith worldview as “life is little more than an absurdity and a cheat, when not a downright horror.” That may not be your idea of entertainment, but even Highsmith’s most devoted fans readily acknowledge that her writing is an acquired taste:
Such a bleak outlook makes even Highsmith’s best work upsetting and, to some readers, distinctly unpleasant. Yet she’s seldom graphic in her brief descriptions of violence and she never depicts the details of sexual encounters. The hallmark of her work is a calm, hallucinatory intensity built on sentences of unemotional plainness and clarity. Her hypersensitive protagonists, logically, inexorably, spiral downhill from ordinary anxiety to murderous rage and madness. Like animals keenly alert for invisible traps or New Yorkers in the first uneasy months after September 11, Highsmith’s characters move through their lives with an ever-increasing and sometimes justified wariness. Graham Greene famously called her “a poet of apprehension” who had “created a world of her own — a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.”
That “calm hallucinatory intensity” is what impresses me most about Highsmith’s work, but it also makes necessary a layover between novels. I once read a bunch of her books in sequence and spent a long time afterward feeling like I’d just had a bad acid trip.
What’s amazing to me is the thought that when Highsmith went to the Yaddo writers colony to spend some quality time on the manuscript of Strangers on a Train, her colony-mates included Chester Himes and Flannery O’Connor. I would love to have been in on those dinnertime literary conversations.