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Entries in Highsmith (9)


A Suspension of Mercy

Most mystery novels published today follow recipes so tried and true that one cannot but marvel that people still savor them and lick their lips. The mystery is the most elemental of plots, a natural sentiment demonstrated by our own ignorance of the universe and its secrets, yet the novel is startlingly young. Taking (as is often agreed upon) this famous story as its inception, we have only had mysteries for somewhat less than two centuries. Now I am no fan of the plain whodunits that I devoured as a fourteen-year-old because the writing is generally ignored for the sake of momentum, the characters are all stock agents selected for their ability to facilitate that momentum, and the ending is always a bow tied far too prettily to reflect life's incongruities. So even if your neighborhood bookstores disagree in their filing, one should never really call the author of this novel a mystery writer.

Our protagonist is Sydney Bartleby, a twenty-nine-year-old American writer married to Alicia, a somewhat younger British woman who understands her husband because she paints. At least this is the basic assumption made of a couple who devote themselves to the liberal pursuit of creativity. America in the 1950s was apparently not sufficiently inspirational for the fine arts, so although the two meet in the States they quickly take up residence in Suffolk, England for the peace and quiet that can be so detrimental to the young who normally thrive on agitation. This basic premise – two (as we find out, quite immature) young people choosing a rustic retreat over the thrills of London – does not count among the most likely of situations, especially since Sydney has modest talent and Alicia far less. At one dinner they are observed by their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Lilybanks:   

Sydney was a nervous type, perhaps better fitted to be an actor than a writer. His face could show great changes of feeling, and when he laughed, it was a real laugh, as if he enjoyed it to his toes. He had black hair and blue eyes, like some Irish. But he was not a happy man, that she could see. Financial worries, perhaps. Alicia was far more easygoing, a bit of a spoiled child, but probably just the kind of wife he needed in the long run. But the Polk-Faradays were still better matched, looked as if they sang each other's praises constantly, and now were gazing into each other's eyes as if they had just met and were falling in love. And the Polk-Faradays were raising three small children, children raising children, Mrs. Lilybanks felt, and yet she and Clive had been no older when their two had been born.

The Polk-Faradays, Alex and Hittie, are a nice, plump couple (Hittie the wife is repeatedly referred to as something akin to "a blond Chinese") who seem as content and well-fed as Sydney and Alicia have grown loathsome to one another in their two years of acrimony. Sydney and Alex have been collaborating on a series of failed television scripts – those days, there was nothing newer than television – and Alicia hardly conceals her Schadenfreude for her husband's disappointment. A fact not lost on Sydney, who then does what any budding writer might try: he plans his wife's murder.

In a normal detective novel, such plotting would be a lurid, hairy affair mired with unnecessary obstacles and paranoid reasoning. But for all his temper – Sydney, by his own admission, had struck Alicia "once or twice" and early on there is a violent scene over a cup – we note that Sydney is a cool customer, calmer than his nervousness would suggest, and possessor of a very clear, methodical brain. We also learn that he has been considering all his bloody options for quite a while:

Sometimes he plotted the murders, the robbery, the blackmail of people he and Alicia knew, though the people themselves knew nothing about it. Alex had died five times at least in Sydney's imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn't come back. The police wouldn't be able to find her. Sydney would admit to the police, to everyone, that their marriage hadn't been perfect lately, and that perhaps Alicia had wanted to run away from him and change her name, maybe even go to France on a false passport but the last was sort of wild, France involving complications not in character with Alicia.

Later it is revealed that Alicia suffers from a fear of flying, making her absconding to France all the less likely. What happens next, however, is one of the more remarkable experiments in fiction of any kind because it is so undeniably clever. The spouses have another bitter squabble and Alicia does indeed leave without specifying the destination; the departure is captioned as a move to benefit both partners, who really have no business being together. One is always a tad surprised that any woman could stay with an abusive lout, especially as Alicia is the only child of a very well-off couple who naturally disapprove of Sydney and his travails.  But Alicia does not think much of herself, perhaps because she does not really think much of her parents and their dapper and prim ways. She leaves to Brighton, or somewhere near Brighton, and does not report back. Sydney, adhering to their alleged bargain, refuses to try to contact her. Even when Alicia's influential parents get the police to interrogate Sydney and inquire about a rug he recently purchased – and buried.

Sydney's tale could have been made up from whole cloth, but we never quite know until the end and even then a few inconsistencies might point to an alternative interpretation. With virtuoso pacing the novel shuttles between Sydney, alone and highly productive with both his third novel, The Planners (the first two were not reprinted), and a macabre spy serial called The Whip, and Alicia's peregrinations. Apart from a lengthy synopsis of a Whip episode, Highsmith does not give us much of these texts, but they can be readily imagined. Sydney has particular trouble with The Planners although he is an experienced novelist, thanks in no small part to a belief antithetic to those of the mystery writer: 

He had never had much respect for plot, mainly because he thought in real life people were more separate than connected, and the connection of three or more people in a novel was an artifice of the author, who ruled out the rest of the world because it did not contribute.

Since I have never read a review of A Suspension of Mercy, I cannot say whether this is the novel's most-quoted passage, but it is certainly the most relevant. Sydney regards real life as a series of tasks that may or may not provide him with enough material to become a successful writer. Even lovemaking with Alicia is construed as laborious, and we never get a hint that he might utilize some of those experiences in his work, a sign of the prudishness of the times or, of course, something else. Perhaps that month off will do Alicia some good after all.  


Strangers on a Train

He felt two forces, one that would move the arm and another that would not, balancing themselves so perfectly his arm was not even tense.

Have we all plotted murder in our minds? It seems like harsh Philistinism to assent to such a claim; yet we have all had our share of enemies, from the schoolchild bully who reappears as the workplace gossip or the ferociously jealous sibling of a friend or beau. The fact is that few of us have pleased everyone; fewer still have remained unscathed from the welts and scars that terrestrial life begets. As children we found it convenient to dispose of our daydreamed foes; but as adults pangs of conscience, a feeling as nebulous as karma (which, if it exists as I believe it does, is simply the boomerang of moral law), and other such qualms usually whisper that these are dark alleys down which we should not venture. Yet what if, in the bloody thrall of a childish daydream while in the body of a law-abiding adult, we come across a being who proposes a diabolic pact to rid ourselves of the person we loathe? An old question, perhaps, but one explored magnificently in this classic novel.  

The young man who would be our hero if it weren't for some serious character flaws is a budding architect by the name of Guy Haines. Guy is twenty-six, "five-foot nine, and one hundred forty pounds," a small, slender man whose nervousness is not mitigated by his awesome coffee consumption ("ten cups a day," he at one point confesses). His ambition involves nothing less than becoming the greatest architect in America, a desire fueled more by energy and talent than competitiveness: he is passionate about architecture, loves working, and, according to everyone else (Guy will pendulate violently between self-doubt and self-exaltation), could be the most talented young architect anyone has ever seen. If this premise sounds a tad overweening, there lurks a commensurate payoff: Guy has a devil of a wife, Miriam, a plague upon his body and mind, who will not so nonchalantly agree to a divorce. Miriam is cruel, vulgar, and promiscuous (a long-faced, married playboy called Steve initially triumphs over a slew of lesser rivals, although he too will be overthrown) – which should tell you something about Guy. But she is also nubile and cunning, as she must be to overcome such frailties. And in their brief span together Miriam certainly succeeded in carving Guy hollow:

The word 'marriage' lingered in Guy's ears ... it was a solemn word to him. It had the primordial solemnity of holy, love, sin. It was Miriam's round terra-cotta-colored mouth saying, 'Why should I put myself out for you?' .... It was Miriam turning from the tall, thin window in the room in Chicago, lifting her freckled, shield-shaped face directly up to his as she always did before she told a lie, and Steve's long dark head, insolently smiling .... He saw the afternoon in Chicago, framed by the doorway of his room, the image grey and black now like a photograph. The afternoon he had found them in the apartment, like no other afternoon, with its own color, taste, and sound, its own world, like a horrible little work of art. Like a date in history fixed in time. Or wasn't it just the opposite, that it traveled with him always?

Guy is professedly a man of faith, which may not be surprising (his conscience will run a decathlon), but Guy is a man of many things. And while the afternoon "like no other afternoon" might remind a reader of Emma Zunz's tragedy as the sole and eternal occurrence, Guy's destiny is sealed when, on an otherwise uneventful train trip, he meets a tall, alcoholic psychopath from Texas called Charles Anthony Bruno. 

That Bruno is insane can be surmised from this first encounter, which showcases one of the more famous offers in modern literature: Bruno will kill Miriam if Guy will do away with Bruno's greedy and unloving father. This trade scheme of unrelated murders is admittedly not very original, having been lifted from numerous noir paperbacks you and I will never read. Yet to Guy, whose last name recollects the French word for hate just as his first name, also French, makes him an average among equals, merely the thought of Miriam dead is so delicious that he has lunch with Bruno as a sort of vicarious pleasure. Some critics would emphasize the career enhancement opportunity stymied by Miriam's presence, a detail I will not spoil; others might think Guy's current girlfriend, Anne, who will make a legitimate run at the title of Longest-Suffering Significant Other, is reason enough to hope for an end to Miriam's days. But an odd passage when Guy is with Anne and her parents in Mexico City suggests something else at work:

He was staying at the Hotel Montecarlo .... One entered it through a wide carriage drive, paved in black and white like a bathroom floor. This gave into a huge dark lobby, also tile floored. There was a grotto-like bar-room and a restaurant that was always empty. Stained marble stairs wound around the patio, and going up behind the bellhop yesterday, Guy had seen, through open doorways and windows, a Japanese couple playing cards, a woman kneeling at prayer, people writing letters at tables or merely standing with a strange air of captivity. A masculine gloom and an untraceable promise of the supernatural oppressed the whole place, and Guy had liked it instantly.

The chessboard floor tiles, "playing cards," "captivity," empty restaurant," and "untraceable promise of the supernatural" all echo the fateful dinner with an evil man he should have avoided, a gambler not unlike the God of Bargains. The woman at prayer may be Guy's mother, or even Bruno's (Bruno will be portrayed as having an unhealthy interest in his mother's looks), and the black-and-white aspect, the suggestion of both newsprint headlines and strict categories, may be understood as corrosive to Guy's mind. Two images, however, extrude the "stained marble stairs," foreshadowing a hideous crime, and the "masculine gloom," the smell of war, of killing your brothers, of the endless protection of endless things, both of which stand in contrast to what Guy really wants – a wife, family, and home. The path to achieve such goals is undoubtedly facilitated by Miriam's bizarre murder, a murder not so much witnessed as sensed by a few of her libertine friends. A murder that so conveniently takes place when her husband is still in the land of Aztecs, Mayas, and very gloomy hotels. Bruno does not delay in refreshing Guy's memory of their little chat – on the train Guy carelessly left behind his personalized copy of Plato's works – and our game has begun.

Cinéastes recur with pleasure to the film based on our novel, but the two works' discrepancies are so glaring as to beggar belief. Hitchcock's Guy is not an architect, but an "amateur tennis star," which makes so little sense for a number of reasons that we had best forget about it. Other alterations, however, are far less pardonable: Guy cannot alibi for himself in Mexico since the action is transferred to the American Northeast corridor, stripping the film of its heat-induced visions and sleazy sultriness; a feeble political undercurrent is generated – 1950s America, like its present version, was infested with panicmongers – by making Anne's father a United States senator; Anne gets a sister who is mauled by Bruno in a regrettable scene which, alas, triggers even more hare-brained vignettes, including Anne's paying a visit to Bruno's mother; and, perhaps most indicatively, Plato is jettisoned in favor of a cigarette lighter with the initials of a famous amateur tennis player. There is, of course, another difference, one so woeful as to deprive the film of any artistic integrity whatsoever, but we will leave that iniquity for the curious viewer to discover. One of the pleasures of reading Highsmith is her fearless attention to detail: "The voice [was] lewd in the morning, ugly with the complexities of night"; "Like an enormous walnut in feeble, jittery squirrel hands, an idea, bigger and closer than any idea he had ever known, had been revolving in his mind for several days"; "Bruno jumped up and shouted against the roar of her running bath"; "A girl's scream was a long arc in silence and somehow the scream made it final"; "In the mirror his face looked like a battlefield in hell"; "The facts repeated and repeated lost their horror and even their drama for Guy: they were like dull blows of a hammer, nailing the story in his mind forever"; "In the night, one approached truth merely at a certain slant, but all truth was the same"; "When she dabbled her paintbrush fast in a glass of water, the sound was like laughter." And yet the most significant and dazzling of Highsmith's sentences may be one of the shortest: "Every telephone suggested Guy." The suggestion is to Bruno, who "didn't care too much about sleeping with women," deeming such acts "a silly business."  What then is not a silly business?  Well, Guy is not silly, and Guy and Bruno are good friends, aren't they now?  Is that why, upon meeting Anne, Bruno claims he and the architect – who have nothing, absolutely nothing in common – were school mates?  If only Guy were as talented in nature as he is in artifice.



The Talented Mr. Ripley (novel)

Every morning he watched the sun, from his bedroom window, rising through the winter mists, struggling upward over the peaceful-looking city, breaking through finally to give a couple of hours of actual sunshine before noon, and the quiet beginning of each day was like a promise of peace in the future. The days were growing warmer. There was more light, and less rain. Spring was almost here, and one of these mornings, one morning finer than these, he would leave the house and board a ship for Greece.

You may never have considered how you evaluate characters in a work of fiction, but you certainly pass some kind of judgment. For the dreamers among us, there will be a direct correlation between the fictional and real worlds whereby the problems and solutions of one will be transposed into the other. The way in which a character manages his morals should allow you to deselect some of those vapid adventures where "everything is possible" because as one critic noted in a different context, if anything goes then nothing can be funny. How very true. The same can be said of any film or book praised by the irresponsible among us for being "immoral" or "amoral," with some preferring the latter because it seems to involve love. What they are really saying is that they feel repressed by the status quo or normal, good, basic values and this work grants them a fantastic outlet. There is nothing terribly wrong with such a desire provided this outlet is superior to other outlets, which I fear smacks of old-fashioned Victorian dos and don'ts. Good that such simplistic classifications don't really bother the eponymous character of this novel.

Our hero, if that is truly the right word, is first depicted as prey, a role he will come to relish. Whatever we learn of Thomas Ripley in the pages that follow, his innate ability for subterfuge and skulduggery should not be disesteemed. He is tailed into a bar by what turns out to be fortune itself: Herbert Greenleaf, the father of someone he does not know very well has tracked Ripley down as a potential conduit to his self-exiled progeny – if painting and sunbathing in Italy qualify as exile. Words are exchanged that afford the reader far greater insight into Ripley's motives than Greenleaf could ever dream of contemplating and a deal is struck: Ripley is to travel to Europe on Greenleaf's money – the name choice is now painfully clear – to track down Dickie Greenleaf with the aim of homeward persuasion. An odd job for an odd fellow:

A cap was the most versatile of head-gears, he thought, and he wondered why he had never thought of wearing one before? He could look like a country gentleman, a thug, an Englishman, a Frenchman, or a plain American eccentric, depending on how he wore it. Tom amused himself with it in his room in front of the mirror. He had always thought he had the world's dullest face, a thoroughly forgettable face with a look of docility that he could not understand, and a look also of vague fright that he had never been able to erase. A real conformist's face, he thought. The cap changed all that. It gave him a country air, Greenwich, Connecticut, country. Now he was a young man with a private income, not long out of Princeton, perhaps. He bought a pipe to go with the cap.

No other paragraph in The Talented Mr. Ripley more aptly describes its protagonist. So you will not be overmuch surprised to learn what "the world's dullest face" can do when cornered. And cornered he will be when he comes upon Dickie Greenleaf and the nominal woman in his life, Margaret Sherwood.

Margaret, dite Marge, has all the trappings of a standard issue 1950s American sweetheart. Her only added twist are her two distinct ambitions: publishing her book on photography and marrying Dickie Greenleaf. Dickie is indifferent to both these pursuits, but perhaps because his intellect only allows him to remain on the surface of things, be those things emotions, languages, or human psychology. A nice, unintelligent, conventionally handsome fellow of absolutely no talent; and yet Tom never considers that he would have become much like Dickie Greenleaf had he fed from the same silver spoon. The life of the young couple, apparently not yet lovers in the modern sense of the word, is invaded until Tom makes a fateful decision that involves murdering and replacing an indifferent, third-rate painter whose father is patiently awaiting his return stateside. This is done in a boat in San Remo and will foreshadow another murder involving a car at another Italian location, and the plot has all the petrol it will need for a long and high-speed journey. Tom usurps what he wants of Dickie's existence – primarily, the insouciance and principles of easy living – and does not consider the consequences in their dreadful entirety. He learns Italian by studying it with diligence and interest, and continues relentlessly in his attempts to lead a placid post-War life. But he encounters more than a few obstacles: Marge's inquiries, a porcine boor by the name of Freddie Miles, and a platoon of Italian law enforcement officers who resemble each other just as much as Tom looks like Dickie (Tom is actually interviewed in both identities by the same policeman). These omnipresent coppers come off more than once as disturbingly incompetent, an impression unchanged by Herbert Greenleaf's hiring of an American gumshoe to find his vanished son.   

While refraining from acerbic asides, Highsmith directs her genius to the smallest of details with a precision seldom found in modern belles lettres ("They were interrupted for a minute while Mr. Greenleaf saw that they were all seated"; "he stopped in front of an antique shop window and stared for several minutes at a gloomy oil painting of two bearded saints descending a dark hill in moonlight"; "The Via Appica stretched out before him, grey and ancient in the soft lights of its infrequent lamps"). The result is compelling in the same way that all artistic, thoughtful enterprises are compelling: they modulate our own definition of what art is. Ripley may be a sociopath, but the methods with which he hoodwinks and dispatches nuisances (you will never forget the scene with the shoe) speak of a great mind exercising his cerebral precedence over human mediocrity. The tale has been told in many different formats but almost invariably with an amount of disgust for the peon, the ignorant and the uncultured citizen who would never in a thousand moons be able to figure out the machinations of a certain Thomas Ripley. To her credit Highsmith does not pander to this facile conceit, one that is particularly disdained by oversensitive critics who think the author might have in mind these selfsame critics. We end up rooting for Ripley to succeed, and not only because he is smarter than everyone else. He is an atypical underdog, both sexually and intellectually dangerous, and his knocking off of the rich can easily be interpreted in the Robin Hood language we knew as children, bereft of course of the silly Marxist impositions. The difference is that this Robin Hood wants all of Sherwood Forest to himself. 

The original Ripley differs from the dynamic if altered English-language film mainly owing to the engagement of separate agendas. While the film attends to the glamour of Ripley's new world, perhaps as a function of the medium in which he is portrayed, the novel tries to trace, more or less successfully, his moral architecture. I say more or less because there is only so much one can glean from a psyche that yearns for European culture and nonetheless has committed murder. The film also injects much more ado regarding his boat passages that the novel leaves unexplored; specifically, a hint about the character of Peter Smith-Kingsley is realized on the screen. That Mr. Ripley would like to be anyone except Mr. Ripley is overstating the point; what Mr. Ripley would truly like is the ease and fortune that would allow him to be anyone, including an inflated, idealized version of himself, whenever imitation is to his benefit or amusement – which may be the best definition of an actor ever put forth. As evinced by the quote that begins this review, however, there persists a certain pathos to the financially poor and underadvantaged Ripley, a young man who enjoys wallowing in self-pity as much as using his circumstances as undeniable motivation. Believe it or not, indeed. 


Those Who Walk Away

Peggy was very romantic – in a dangerous way. She thought marriage was another world – something like paradise or poetry – instead of a continuation of this world. But where we lived, it couldn't have been more like a paradise. The climate, the fruit on the trees right outside the door. We had servants, we had time, we had sunshine. It wasn't as if we were saddled with children right away and up to the elbows in dishwater.

This novel's title is ultimately explained in a casual aside from our third-person narrator who, we suspect, could have probably devised something saltier. It is only very late in our tale, when the narrator relinquishes her hard-won objectivity to excoriate one of her characters, that we realize the title's appropriateness. The accusation is cowardice, and the accused is a young, rich, intelligent, and decent-looking widower by the name of Rayburn "Ray" Garrett.

Ray has everything a young man could wish for materially, as well as something of infinitely greater importance: a taste and a love for art. He has little to say about literature (he quotes this poem in a fit of passion) or cinema, but this being the 1960s, there may not have been as much access to the plenitude of films now literally at our fingertips. No, Ray's love has always been and always will be painting. It is then a sad discovery, and one that occurs early on in our novel and Ray's fictional existence, that his taste and passion for painting do not extend into any creative talent. That is to say, while Ray Garrett may know a dazzling genius's landscapes and portraitures when he sees them, he cannot possibly mimic their accomplishments. So he is relegated, as are so many professors of English with vast and exquisite libraries, to collecting them. His family's fortune allows him an insouciant existence, one that takes a very unplanned turn when he meets Peggy Coleman. Peggy is even younger and richer than Ray; unlike Ray, however, she has not been afforded the bliss of an unbroken home. Her mother would die young and Peggy grew up with her foul-tempered and hack painter of a father, Edward, who will come to play a far more prominent role in Ray's life than either would ever care to imagine. Especially after almost a year of newlywed bliss, residence on Mallorca with "all the ingredients that were supposed to make a marriage go [–] time, money, a pretty place to live, [and] objectives," Peggy, not yet twenty-two years of age, decides that "the world is not enough," and that getting on in this world is not worth the trouble.

The rest of the novel could easily have comprised Ray's inner thoughts on why this all occurred, a diary, in other words, of his eternal guilt. For very laudable artistic reasons, Highsmith grants us only snippets, distant arias from a world Ray shall never know again. Instead of speculate desperation about someone who remained very much a stranger until her death, Ray digs into his own past, his own shortcomings, with the faint hope of excavating a golden key to his puzzle:

From his father, an oilwell worker in his youth, a self-made man, now a millionaire with an oil company of his own, Ray had inherited wide cheekbones. It was an American face, slightly on the handsome side, hopelessly marred by vagueness, discretion, the second thought, if not downright indecision, Ray thought. He disliked his appearance, and always saw himself leaning slightly forward as if to hear someone who was speaking softly, or as if incipiently bowing, kowtowing, about to retreat backwards. And he felt that because of his parents' money, he had had life too easy.

At first glance this passage may seem rashly composed (witness the echo of "thought" in the second sentence or the pleonastic "retreat backwards"), but this is in all likelihood intentional, the purling brook of worries and images that flow through every mind. A later comment will buttress the notion that Ray's greatest fear involves his own mediocrity, the newness of his family's affluence, and his inability to capitalize on what every artist dreams of having: namely the time and resources to realize his artistic potential. His compromise to himself was to marry a budding painter and establish a gallery of European painters in New York, both of which, of course, substitute a proximity to genius for a share in its creative acts. That Ray ends up in Venice with his former father-in-law, whom he rightly understands as someone of limited artistic ability who has long since forsaken any development in that field so as to cash in on faddish garbage, we must attribute to the conceits of fiction. How and why they will engage in one of the nastiest cat-and-mouse games undertaken by two otherwise well-adjusted citizens, however, we must leave to the curious reader.     

Critics have been predictably dismissive of Those Who Walk Away, perhaps because there are no compelling characters like Tom Ripley to loathe and envy. Yet in one respect, the novel remains one of Highsmith's defining works. You may consider Ripley's harpsichord lessons, leisurely readings in German, French, and Italian literature, and his beautiful French mansion and even more beautiful French wife all indications of high culture and great intelligence, and you may forget that all these niceties swathe a murderous psychopath. Ripley is a marvelously memorable literary creation, one that has been likened to Highsmith herself in her venomous disdain of her birthplace and its social Darwinism, but there is only so much to make of such a comparison. What really drove Highsmith we can only hope to uncover through the medium of her more introspective works, such as the terrible tragedy of Rayburn and Edward. It is in their tale that we find Americans of true artistic sensitivity living in Europe, understated but clear alcoholism, and a certain inability to express oneself fully that is the mark of self-imposed literary exile. The most eloquent words, some of which are quoted at the beginning of this review, are exchanged when the two Americans – one a failed painter, the other a sellout – are not impeded in their locutions by Italians or Edward's French girlfriend Inez. The city of Venice itself assumes the role of hero, an antagonist to both men, whose sins (Ray's being cowardice and, in a way, betrayal, Coleman's being wrath and its explosive consequences) will confound them in the end. So when Ray, who survives more than one brush with death, actually believes he may be dead and that the surrounding realm holds but phantasms and erstwhile joys, he is reminded that Venice's "dark canals were very real." And what could be realer to the weary than time's blackest shroud?


The Blunderer

Walter had a vision of a little window.  It was a beautiful little square window, just out of his reach, filled with light blue sky with a suggestion of green earth below.

Adulthood, you will surely have heard, may be summarized as a series of one's choices (some apply this label to life as a whole; yet in so many instances of our childhood, choices are snatched from our tender fingers), a lovely mantra for your friendly neighborhood Freewill Society.  We are also told by some of the members of this same organization that religious faith is anathema to volition, because the existence of an omnipotent otherness suggests that our fates are already carved out in some dark and distant cave for us, sooner or maybe much later, to discover.  These same board members, whose staffing is replicated in a club almost invariably named, in cruel irony, "humanist," will then advance their theories as to why science alone promotes freewill.  Science, that same discipline that claims everything can be determined by genetics, fossils, and other unstoppable forces well beyond human direction.  Scientists have made some incredible leaps the last century and a half, but they increasingly jump without a moral compass or parachute, instead electing to manipulate whatever earthbound relics to their own evanescent theories.  The fact of the matter is, one can only exhibit freewill when there is a moral dilemma, because otherwise what we might term "volition" quickly devolves into a synonym for "convenience," or, in dire times, "survival."  Being moral means choosing what is right before the ledgers and balance sheets of ease and self-preservation are perused.  A fine way to examine the protoganist's ordeal in this novel.

That protagonist is New York attorney Walter Stackhouse, and from our first scenes with him we understand he will also become – or perhaps has always been – the title character.  Walter is married to a petite, pretty, and squirrelly real estate agent by the name of Clara, and we would do well at this point to recur to that old adage about judging a man by his wife.  It is unclear to even the casual observer why on earth Walter, physically attractive, well-off, and a respected colleague, would have settled in suburban Connecticut with Clara, who does not seem beautiful enough to justify her behavior.  Neurotic in that way unique to unrepentingly smug and selfish people, Clara is a master hand at that oldest of wifely wiles: driving a wedge between her husband and his male chums ("He had already lost five friends").  Her public and private comportment might even lead one to believe she is trying to induce a divorce (a couple of odd reactions suggest she may be having an affair with one of Walter's friends; a later scene reveals staggering emotional immaturity), which, after a few exhausting years of wedlock, Walter is now ready to give her.  And so, our story would likely have been as tedious and commonplace as a bickering couple were it not for Walter's hobby of chronicling ill-matched pairs:

The essays had been Walter's pastime for the last two years.  There were to be eleven of them, under the general title 'Unworthy Friendships.'  Only one was completed, the one on Chad and Mike, but he had finished the outlines for several others – and they were all based on observations of his own friends and acquaintances.  His thesis was that a majority of people maintained at least one friendship with someone inferior to themselves because of certain needs and deficiencies that were either mirrored or complemented by the inferior friend.  Chad and Mike, for example: both had come from well-to-do families who had spoiled them, but Chad had chosen to work, while Mike was still a playboy who had little to play on since his family had cut off his allowance.  Mike was a drunk and a ne'er-do-well, unscrupulous about taking advantage of all his friends.  By now Chad was almost the only friend left.  Chad apparently thought: 'There but for the grace of God go I,' and doled out money and put Mike up periodically.  Mike wasn't worth much to anybody as a friend.  Walter did not intend to submit his book for publication anywhere.  The essays were purely for his own pleasure, and he didn't care when or if he ever finished them all.       

I give away nothing by mentioning one of The Blunderer's more curious aspects: namely, that as compromising as this diary of sorts could have been, it is summarily discarded early on, never to resurface.  Provided, of course, one didn't understand it as a precursor to a few of Walter's future personal relationships, one of which will be with a dreadful beast, a killer by the name of Melchior Kimmel.

We meet Kimmel in our opening scene, which may remind the attentive reader of this film.  The German immigrant's actions are swift, bloodhot, and premeditated, but they are not foolproof, and anyone who encounters this mammoth bookseller whose "main source of profit" is "pornography" cannot abandon a few initial impressions.  The first is that Kimmel is extremely, almost dangerously intelligent; the second is that he is capable of incredible violence; and the third proffers an explanation for his journey hither:    

Then he stood by his bookcase, playing with his carvings, moving their parts at various angles and observing the composition.  He could see them fuzzily against the light-colored bookcase, and the effect was rather interesting.  They were cigar-shaped pieces fastened invisibly together, end to end, with wire.  Some looked like animals on four legs; others, of ten pieces or more, defied any description.  Kimmel himself had no definite name for them.  To himself, sometimes, he called them his puppies.  Each piece was differently carved with designs of his own invention, designs somewhat Persian in their motifs, their brown-stained surfaces so smoothed with fine sandpaper they felt almost soft to the touch.  Kimmel loved to run his fingertips over them.  He was still fondling them when the doorbell rang. 

It might be relevant to note that Kimmel did not "love to run his fingertips over" his wife, unless you include his wicked actions near that bus rest stop, but there are few greater wastes of time than to ratiocinate with a murderer (anyone who "loved white shirts more than almost any tangible object in the world" likely has a baleful deed or three on his conscience).  In the ensuing two months, Helen Kimmel's slaying remains unsolved but not ignored.  The man officially on the case is police detective Lawrence Corby, who will prove himself in more ways than one to be a worthy opponent.  But a certain Connecticut attorney, unhappily married and a very poor prognosticator of future events, decides to clip an article on Helen Kimmel's demise for his scrapbook.  The same scrapbook that Detective Corby will leaf through once Clara, en route to bury a mother she never loved, does not return to her Pittsburgh-bound bus. 

The Blunderer may not be one of Highsmith's very finest works (nevertheless, a new film version is afoot), but it was also one of her earliest.  Its main flaw, apart from the "Unworthy Friendships" cul-de-sac, is the inclusion at the novel's onset of far too many minor characters, suggesting perhaps that a grander scope was initially intended.  Yet the master's touches can be found on nearly every page: "He felt violently bored and annoyed suddenly, the way he had felt in the Navy a couple of times when he had had to wait too long, naked, for a doctor to come and make a routine examination"; "Not simply hatred, he knew, but a particular tangle of forces of which hatred was only one"; "Even if he fought the whole long way back in words"; "A bitter disappointment in Nathan, like a private inner hell, filled Kimmel's mind, balancing the outer hell of the room"; "His heavy body rolled with his movements, and for a few moments his brain seemed to be concentrated in his fat arms and hands"; and "for Walter simply to be near her for a few moments satisfied a deep craving, like the craving he sometimes felt to lie naked in the sun."  The "her" in this last citation is a young music teacher by the name of Ellie Briess, who may or may not be a figment of his imagination since she is so embarrassingly the opposite of dear old Clara.  Or, for that matter, of dear old Helen Kimmel.   


The Boy Who Followed Ripley

It is hard not to like Tom Ripley.  Handsome, educated, well-dressed and mannered, he pursues a life of leisure the only way it should be pursued: with vigor and determination.  Yes, his lovely French wife at times will baffle the reader with her tolerance (what would a pretty rich girl see in a working-class American who, on more than one occasion, has exhibited a certain physical indifference to her charms?), but perhaps what Heloise Plisson needs is the space afforded her by a well-structured if fundamentally loveless marriage.  Loveless?  Very much so, because the only person for whom Tom Ripley can feel anything akin to love is Tom Ripley.  Which may explain the lens through which we may wish to view the events of this novel

We begin one August day in Belle Ombre, that humble French mansion, and Tom's domestic issues with ants, which might lead us to think that he has lixiviated crime from his abiding interest in self- perfection.  But almost immediately we are reminded that Tom is still profiting from the Derwatt controversy, and we know what they say about retired criminals.  Tom's attention is, however, quickly diverted by the appearance of an American teenager by the name of Billy, whom he finds loitering in the vicinity of Belle Ombre.  That Billy more than hints at a knowledge (he stares a little too long at Tom's Derwatts) of the tenebrous reputation of Tom Ripley surprises no one, least of all Tom.  Yet it is Billy's own presence in France – intercontinental truancy is not the most common of occurrences – that makes Tom wonder about the boy's identity.   In our internet age Billy, or whoever Billy really is, could have been traced in a matter of hours.  It takes a couple of days and the perusal of a few newspapers for Tom to make a more than educated guess:

He got up restlessly, went near the window where there was a bit more light, and looked at the People column on the back page of the TribFrank Sinatra was making another final appearance, this time in a forthcoming film.  Sixteen-year-old Frank Pierson, favourite son of the late superfood tycoon John Pierson, had taken off from the family home in Maine, and the family was anxious after nearly three weeks with no word from him.  Frank had been extremely upset by his father's death in July.

It spoils nothing to reveal that Billy and Frank are one and the same (Highsmith apparently subscribes to the anti-whodunit tenets endorsed by, among others, this famous director),  but it is "his father's death in July" that arrests Tom's musings.  John Pierson, you see, had years before been paralyzed below the waist by an assassination attempt clearly inspired (the text admits as much) by the shooting of this politician.  He had coped by burying himself in his work, although without diminishing our pity we note that it is much easier to handle such a situation when you rank among the world's most financially privileged.  His death was mysterious in that he, well, fell off a cliff.  An unrailed cliff where he would watch the sun descend every evening – and off which he could have very easily been pushed.  The death is ruled a suicide, but one domestic employee claims that right before the tragedy she espied none other than Frank lurking nearby.

What happens next does not seem to dovetail with what we know of Tom Ripley.  Usually keen on divorcing himself from scandalous figures, the master of Belle Ombre takes a shine to Frank for reasons that are never elucidated.  Does he empathize with Frank for possibly having killed his father with the same stolid iciness with which Tom once dispatched a close friend?  Is there, as sex-obsessed literary critics love to imagine, a more personal subtext?  Or does Tom simply detect in Frank the banal mendacity of the jilted teenager?  Frank is more than a little infatuated with a coeval called Teresa, although their only carnal experience was woefully unsuccessful.  His account of the events of the day his father died reference this generally forgotten work which could not be any farther from Frank's shallow, untested morals, perfect proof that a bad reader will inflict any interpretation on a text if it suits his purposes.  As Tom contemplates a way to return Frank to his family, who has already set his older brother Johnnie (whose passport Frank pilfered) and a private investigator on his trail, Tom and Frank will become partners – not really in crime but in shenanigans.  One could even imagine that Tom, who comes from a poor family, might take a distinct pleasure showing European culture to his moneyed confederate who cannot be reasonably expected to know much about the world's most glorious continent.  So they traipse across Europe – we will leave it to the curious reader to discover precisely where – and Tom constantly beholds Frank and wonders whether he had the testicular fortitude to murder his own wheelchair-bound father.  A father that really did nothing wrong to his son except ignore him for the sake of accumulating even greater bullion.     

Perhaps the most amazing quality of this series is how intact Highsmith voice remains.  Each segment of the Ripliad was published in a different decade, and yet the works flow as if they were serialized without interruption.  Tom does not age substantially; it is the circumstances and environment around him which vacillate, and he simply responds to their movements.  A much-quoted passage about Tom's lack of contrition will not be rehashed here; suffice it to say that, for all his charm and resourcefulness, Tom Ripley is completely insane.  He is insane because he thinks that what has happened – all the suffering he has caused, all the wealth he has stolen – was the direct result of destiny spurred on by his brilliant schemes.  But what separates Highsmith's most memorable character from other murderous madmen is the noticeable absence of ambition: Tom does not seek renown, does not want for great affluence or power (his marriage to Heloise and the per annum she receives would be enough without his extramarital income projects), and is about as politically and religiously disaffected as an intelligent person can be.  But can we really loathe someone who practices Bach on the harpsichord and reads Goethe?  We might want to ask all those people on Mr. Ripley's conscience.  If, of course, he had one.


Ripley's Game

Jonathan had been imagining Tom Ripley a frequent visitor at Reeves Minot's place in Hamburg.  He remembered Fritz turning up with a small package at Reeves's that night.  Jewellery?  Dope?  Jonathan watched the familiar viaduct, then the dark green trees near the railway station come into view, their tops bright under the street lights.  Only Tom Ripley next to him was unfamiliar.

We all have, gentle Reader, our biases and delusions (despite overwhelming literary evidence to the contrary, until recently I had always thought this actor to be the perfect incarnation of this literary character), even if biases are as much an indication of the dullard as the highly creative mind.  Yet it is rather amazing that one movie critic claimed he had always imagined this actor in the guise of one of English literature's most famous gentleman murderers, a dream fulfilled in this film.  The association seemed particularly egregious given how one of Ripley's victims recalls his assailant:

He had probably already talked about a man in his thirties, with brown hair, a little over average height, who had socked him in the jaw and in the stomach.

The numerous other descriptions throughout Highsmith's novels of the young American socialite and murderer all amount to the same: not bad-looking, fit, a nice fellow, well-dressed and charming in that effusive way that comes naturally to those of immoderate intelligence.  But what he was not was peculiar or remarkable.  One might remember him because "his face stood out among the faces of the French," yet one would probably not be able to determine why one came to that conclusion.  The fact of the matter is that Malkovich was twenty years too old, too bald, and, most importantly, far too eccentric and flamboyant to evoke anything but a caricature of Tom Ripley.   After all, what is easier to portray than over-the-top evil?  Thus the casting of this film is far more accurate: Tom Ripley as a bland and shy everyman who uses such traits to become a master of disguise.  Disguise not of the fake beard and thick glasses stripe, but in the much more subtle vein of being able to cast shadows upon his intentions and motives, to convince people of different truths at different times.  And nowhere is this facet of his unique personality better reflected than in this novel.

The life Ripley has earned for himself – if earned is really the right word – has much of what we have come to imagine as idyllic Europe: a posh mansion in the French countryside; uncluttered days speckled with gardening, reading, language study, good food and, as he himself admits, more than a bit of Sunday painting; a beautiful and unmeddling spouse who cares as little for daily responsibility as he does; and, most importantly for our purposes, a regular stream of side jobs and scams to supplement his in-laws' generous per annum.  Like most people who have gained society's favor through underhandedness, however, Ripley is the target of more than a few wagging tongues.  Everywhere he goes, someone recognizes him from that scandal with Dickie Greenleaf a few years back, perhaps even from the whole Derwatt Ltd. imbroglio.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that an entire novel could be based on a single insult.  What is unexpected is that the insult could come from the likes of Jonathan Trevanny.  Trevanny, as it were, would seem to embody quite the anti-Ripley.  He is British, not well-off, married to a good woman without any materialistic schemes, a decent father to his only child Georges, and more than a bit underemployed as a framer in a small French village not too far from the Ripley estate.  But Jonathan Trevanny has one trump card: he is terminally ill. 

How can looming death become an advantage?  Well, life is full of important decisions that we often dismiss into the glorious sunset for some other day's agenda.  But if our days are necessarily limited, what then?  And what if we are young enough to feel that nothing of any value has been accomplished in this life?  Were Jonathan Trevanny a good and kind man who only wanted the best for his family, few readers would be able to endure the Jobian hardships that batter him from all sides.  But Jonathan is far from a noble soul.  And at a party Jonathan falls victim to the rumors about Tom Ripley and snorts mockingly in his presence, leading the American parvenu to place Jonathan in a special cage in his mind for further reference.  As his leukemia, or whatever he has, continues to plague him, he receives word through the village grapevine that his doctor may be concealing the true severity of his condition.  Jonathan makes a few meek inquiries and is only met with the blushing reticence found in equal measure in the completely innocent and the utterly guilty.  At the height of his neurosis and doubt, Jonathan is approached by a man whose real name we know to be Reeves Minot.  Minot is a career criminal, and a frequent collaborator of Ripley's, and we proceed to learn much more about why Minot and Jonathan meet than Jonathan could ever figure out, even by the end of the novel.  Nevertheless, what seems like a rather banal plot – asking a dying, bitter man to devalue life even more and take a couple of souls with him to hell – turns into a stupendous contract with evil.  The evil, naturally, being Tom Ripley, who allows Minot one opportunity to prove his mettle before interfering to save Jonathan's life – on a train, no less – an act of mild remorse that furnishes us with an impetus for a breathless, if no less elegant second half-novel.  

There are many marvelous features of Highsmith's novels (including, most superficially, how convincingly she is able to convey a male perspective), but despite many critics' clucks and coos amoral or immoral behavior cannot be counted among them.  As it were, Highsmith is almost a textbook moralist.  Every character who chooses the wrong path receives in short order a lovely comeuppance; those who adhere to stronger values – there are, I confess, not that many such heroes – survive danger more or less intact.  That Jonathan finds killing so easy because he himself feels the tip of the shroud rings true, if true only for the snivelling coward that Jonathan most certainly is.  Making the victims interchangeably evil Mafiosi – today we would probably employ a terrorist or two – reinforces the suggestion that crime merely takes a weak will, opportunity, and some kind of immediate reward.   The one exception to this rule seems to be Tom Ripley.  Tom Ripley, you see, gets away with so many crimes that we begin to doubt his subjection to earthly or heavenly laws.  What begins as a cruel prank devolves into an inexplicably fascinating portrait of what seem to be almost comically opposite men devoted to the same murderous aims.  But are these men all that different?  Sure, the talented Mr. Ripley has money, intelligence, and a sufficiently unsavory reputation for people to stay out of his way; the not-so-talented Mr. Trevanny has none of that, nor does he have any time to shunt his wretched track.  Yet both possess what can be labeled hubris, and what is better understood as an overweening belief in the centrality of their own petty existence.  Tempered, of course, with passages like this:

Jonathan was not worried, because he knew he would hang on, that this wasn't death, merely a faint.  Maybe first cousin to death, but death wouldn't come quite like this.  Death would probably have a sweeter, more seductive pull, like a wave sweeping out from a shore, sucking hard at the legs of a swimmer who'd already ventured too far, and who mysteriously had lost his will to struggle.

Ripley has always struggled to stay afloat because he knows he is expected to drown; Jonathan will struggle only because he does not want simply to crumble and die as befits a person of his cowardice.  And what then is cowardice if not death's early and sustained victory?


Ripley Under Ground

Wickedness has its advantages, we are consistently informed by those who do not believe that our life may end in reward (oddly, the whole notion sounds like a credit card jingle), even if the term wickedness is often supplanted by a close cousin, selfishness.  What does selfishness entail?  To those who believe in nothing except dirt and outer space, selfishness is the natural state of man.  It is how we, the talented, distinguish ourselves from you, the mediocre.  And the world is a better place for it: once we, the talented, find other talented people to reproduce with, and you, the mediocre, die in abject obscurity, poor, sick and childless,  there will be more of us and less of you, so therefore, on average, the world will also be more talented.  Sounds like a great deal (we can imagine a well-groomed and affluent audience jumping to its feet in rabid applause) until we enumerate the factions and political entities that have advocated what is generally termed social Darwinism, but which has a lot to do with eugenics and theories about making the strong stronger and the weak extinct.  These pathetic notions continue to our day in various guises, which should sadden more than surprise us.  How pleasurable it is, therefore, to shed any political chain mail and revel in the adventures of one so-called amoralist in particular and this fine book.

We are about six years past the events of this novel: Tom Ripley has remained in Europe and married a moneyed twenty-five-year-old Frenchwoman by the name of Heloise; people occasionally mention Dickie Greenleaf and Freddie Miles, but mostly as a self-important attempt to link past events to the present; Herbert Greenleaf still writes to the sole heir of his deceased son's trust fund, and has even directed Dickie's cousin Chris to Europe with the implicit hope that Tom can inject some sophistication into Chris's plain world view; and having exhausted Dickie's funds obtained through a forged will and testament, Tom has turned his eye to other money-making schemes, including pinching microfilms from visiting guests and an enterprise called Derwatt Ltd.  Derwatt is a gem of modern fiction because its namesake is an old-fashioned Romantic with modern hues and strokes.  A frightfully serious "saint," a "recluse" in Mexico, and someone who has sacrificed everything for his art, the British painter Philip Derwatt has become something of a sensation in recent years, in no small part to the work of Tom and his confederates:

Tom .... stared at the Derwatt above his fireplace.  This was a pinkish picture of a man in a chair, a man with several outlines, so it seemed one was looking at the picture through someone else's distorting eyeglasses.  Some people said Derwatts hurt their eyes.  But from a distance of three or four yards, they didn't.  This was not a genuine Derwatt, but an early Bernard Tufts forgery.  Across the room hung a genuine Derwatt, "The Red Chairs."  Two little girls sat side by side, looking terrified, as if it were their first day in school, or as if they were listening to something frightening in church.  "The Red Chairs" was eight or nine years old.  Behind the little girls, wherever they were sitting, the whole place was on fire.  Yellow and red flames leapt about, hazed by touches of white, so that the fire didn't immediately catch the attention of the beholder.  But when it did, the emotional effect was shattering.  Tom loved both pictures.  By now he had almost forgotten to remember that, when he looked at them, that one was a forgery and the other genuine.

Nothing is spoiled by revealing that the real Phillip Derwatt drowned himself in Byronic splendor in Greece, also about six years ago.  The connection between Ripley and Derwatt – apart from the fact that the former will imitate the latter on more than one occasion – is never fleshed out to our satisfaction: Tom was also in Greece around the time of Derwatt's alleged suicide, and his smug return there later in the novel is told in sporadic detail, almost as if it were a perfunctory exercise.  In the course of the last few years Tom has certainly made a great deal of money on the phony, if essentially aesthetically equal Derwatts painted by the very unstable Bernard Tufts, a trained painter who did not make a name for himself before a different name made him.  The main profiteers from the Derwatt business are Jeff and Ed, a gallery owner and journalist, respectively, who were, like Bernard, not only close friends with the original painter, but also in many ways his disciples in life and art.  For that reason everyone agrees that the best thing is to have Derwatt continue his oeuvres from the anonymous exile of Mexico.  That is, until a snooping, self-righteous businessman by the name of Murchison begins to make inquiries and finds that Derwatt the exile has a lot of friends who would love to see his fame increased even further. 

The critical dismissal of Ripley Under Ground has been mostly based on the assessment that, compared to its illustrious Ripliad predecessor, not much occurs.  And why, pray tell, should much occur at all?  That Tom spends an inordinate amount of time performing stopgap tasks that beget even more problems reflects the life of a criminal, which is rarely as sexy or dynamic as many films would have you think.  Tom sweats, struggles, fabricates and double talks, and lay outs an extraordinary amount of money given his investment in Derwatt Ltd.  And while both Jeff and Ed are mercenary and faceless in equal measure, it is to Highsmith's credit that Heloise is made complicit almost from the very beginning.  A woman may surely marry the wrong man; but she usually sees his flaws as a personal challenge to her powers of reparation.  In any case, it does not take a woman's intuition to realize that Tom, while smart, attractive, and resourceful, shall we say, to a fault, is not quite what he appears to be.  The sophistication he has absorbed through regimented learning would come much more naturally to an educated European.  Like most criminals who wish to lead a quiet life (as opposed to those who live as dangerously as possible knowing that they will meet a young, violent end) Tom lives in perpetual fear of some facet of his game being compromised by another person's malaise, and as the narrative progresses a few too many people have been let in on his secrets.  This criticism of the novel is particularly well-founded in light of its messy twists once the action transposes itself to Salzburg, home to Mozart and a generous selection of lonely bridges.  Unless you consider, of course, that few human beings, even those as baleful and soulless as Tom Ripley, can really keep too much to themselves.  


The Talented Mr. Ripley (film)

Modern critics will be happy to tell you that the best works of literary (and, for that matter, cinematic) art are those which yield numerous interpretations.  For them, the wonderful thing about modernity's sad indecisiveness is that it parallels their own: nothing has any one meaning, thus stripping the critic of his responsibility to understand a work on its own terms.  You will find the most egregious offenders in this regard among those who read philosophy as if they were reading a novel, chopping and picking at whatever appeals to them to formulate their own theories that, upon closer inspection, turn out to distort and disrupt the original.  Does a poem by Cavafy have the same significance if read by a Greek or a Chinese speaker?  Certainly not; yet Cavafy possesses, as all good writers do, a certain frame of reference that might be simplified as his cultural context, but which in the final analysis is nothing more than his own moral structure.  Regardless of where his readers may hail from, Cavafy will ultimately be judged on his ability to delineate right from wrong and convince us that his particular delineation adds to our knowledge of this difference.  If nothing matters to him, it surely will not be worth a damn to us.  My mentioning Cavafy is not a coincidence, nor are any of the details pertinent to the plot of this film.

Our protagonist is a certain Thomas Ripley (Matt Damon), a moody, artistic youth who obviously has never had the opportunities of many other, far less talented coevals.  His surname might have something to do with this phenomenon whose founder died at the peak of his renown a few years before Highsmith's book was published; yet more important is his Christian name, which in Aramaic means "twin."  What we will witness, with the slow precision of a crime planned years in advance, is the twinning of paths, the old and familiar fable of the double: the first path will be the simple, straight road of guaranteed luxury; the second the sinuous struggle of a very intelligent but impoverished young man.  Ripley is playing the piano at a social function when he is approached by Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn),  a moneyed businessman who assumes quite logically that Ripley's Princeton jacket must mean he went to Princeton, and that if he went to Princeton, he must certainly know his famously wayward son, Dickie Greenleaf.  Ripley's response to Greenleaf's conversation sets the tone for the film: he lies, but doesn't simply agree to his mistake, he moves a step further and knowingly asks, "How is Dickie?"  Those three words grasp Greenleaf's weakness in its totality.  And the consummate businessman does what only very rich and arrogant people are accustomed to doing: he tries to purchase Ripley's services and dispatch him to bring his son back from Europe.  Most young men with an easy past and a bright future might find this assignment somewhat humbling; but most young men with an easy past and bright future also have the indelible tendency of never having enough money to satiate their whims.  This Ripley fellow, however, is different.  He is humbler, more sensitive and artistic, probably close to his money, a responsible youth who will go very far.  So when, from a distance, he sees Ripley embrace a girl outside the club and hand over his Princeton jacket, Greenleaf cannot imagine that the girl is not Ripley's significant other, or that the jacket and Princeton degree actually belong to her boyfriend.  Greenleaf sees only what he wants to see; we, the viewers, see the truth as well, as we will at every step of Ripley's journey.

It turns out that Dickie (Jude Law), being the smart boy he is, has made his way to Italy with a pretty young thing named Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his plan is to have no plan at all.  Ripley tracks down the couple, ingratiates himself with the mistake provided by Dickie's father, and soon is sharing in the Byronic decadence that Dickie has so pathetically misidentified as the freedom of youth.  Yet it is on his way to Europe by ship that we first catch a glimpse of Ripley's real intentions.  Upon meeting a young woman named Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) – another bored rich person who doesn't quite feel guilty about her easy life as much as annoyed that she knows she should feel guilty – Ripley introduces himself as Dickie.  Should we nod our politically correct heads at his obvious envy of Dickie's privileges?  Should we snicker at the pun on "Tom and Dick," the original form of the catch-all expression, "Tom, Dick and Harry," which was incipiently a reference to two working-class youths from Bow and Whitechapel?  Should we understand Ripley's lie as an attempt to bed Meredith, who is rich and attractive and more than a little naïve?  Were this a more typical tale of the inequalities of postwar Europe and America exemplified by the ideological war of socialism and capitalism, the answers to these questions might all be yes.  But they are not yes.  We are not confronting rich and poor in an allegory of societal malfeasance and Tom Ripley couldn't care less about Meredith or any other woman.  The only person for Tom, you see, is Dickie Greenleaf.

For better or worse, the film runs through the permutations of understanding Ripley's motives with sufficient objectivity.  When Dickie asks what makes Ripley special ("everyone should have one talent") and Ripley replies that he is particularly skilled at "forging signatures, telling lies, and impersonating practically anyone," we are led to believe that Ripley is evil.  Until we realize, perhaps, that deception is a stereotypically feminine trait, and coyness and an unwillingness to give a straight answer the signs of the coquettish woman who will never directly express her desires.  When a loud, hedonistic boor by the name of Freddie Miles (Phillp Seymour Hoffman) comes racing into town, Ripley hasn't the slightest desire to join the jetset, make love to every woman he sees, or stumble about in the drunken bubble of irresponsibility that is the calling card of wealthy foreigners living the sweet life.  No, what he wants is for Freddie to get as far away as possible from Dickie.  Soon enough, Dickie's true character is revealed through not-so-clandestine arguments with the lovely daughter of a local shopowner, his utter lack of ability in anything useful, creative or smart, as well as Marge's running commentary:

The thing with Dickie is that ... when you've got his attention, you feel like you're the only person in the world... it's like the sun that shines on you and it's glorious.  And then he forgets you and it's very cold.

Ripley, of course, being the sedulous listener that he is (all good impersonators are very good listeners), knows all this, but continues to hope that he will prove to be the exception.  And so, the first and most damning crime takes place one beautiful fall day in Sicily (November 7, we learn later from the police report) and Tom finally gets to become Dickie to everyone who didn't know him, exactly, as it were, halfway through the film.  It has taken him that long to find, catch, and replace Dickie, who did not share his interests or affection; and it will take the film's remainder to make sure that no one learns of the switch, that Dickie's foul temper and general lack of culture will make him an easy frame for other misdemeanors, and that even those who knew him would bow their heads in sullen acceptance of his world gone wrong.  But we viewers see the duel, as Meredith and Ripley attend this legendary opera featuring another tragic duel between friends, and we know what Tom Ripley wants: "to be a fake somebody rather than a real nobody."  If only Dickie Greenleaf were somebody worth being.