The Highsmith Blather by Chris Rhatigan and Pablo D’Stair

41v6YOX9hKL

Chris Rhatigan: I’ve been trying to pinpoint why Highsmith’s work is so compelling and timeless. And I have not succeeded.

 

But one element I appreciate is the sense of dread that’s the heartbeat of each novel. The main character is doomed from the beginning, either due to their own poor choices or fate or some combination of the two. This, in my estimation, is noir in its purest form.

 

Take Walter Stackhouse in The Blunderer. He only thinks about killing his wife after she tortures him psychologically. She then commits suicide, but one cop believes that Walter killed her. Walter hasn’t committed a crime and yet he becomes ensnared in the possibility of being a murderer, gradually morphing into the criminal he was desperate to prove that he wasn’t. 

 

The reader knows almost all of this from the beginning. There are no twists, no surprises, only the steady march toward the inevitable. 

 

Pablo D’Stair: And you’ve hit exactly what I feel is the majesty of Highsmith – she’s not there to tell us a story, she is there to curate an examination, her talents a kind of Virgil shepherding us through the, well, more the Purgatorio of the human psyche than even the Inferno.

 

I often joke how it’s so frustrating that she thinks up the best stories, the most finely wrought plotlines, the sort of “elevator pitches” one would murder for (which might as well be the opening of a Highsmith! haha) but only to use as a tease, a jumping off point for existential, nuanced excavation of the nightmare which is human perception. ‘Perception’ being the bogey, the plump little worm in all of our fore-brains (“conscience does make cowards of us all” taken to a giddily perverse extreme, perhaps.)

 

In the simplest way, just taking from your observation, yes: Highsmith perfects the philosophy that when we enter her noir world, we are not there to “see if this person gets out of this mess” but to “watch exactly how they don’t” and, most important, to experience the irrevocable for ourselves – to pull on the skin of someone doomed and walk the plank with them.

 

And what planks!

 

She is the most courageous and uncanny writer precisely because she has the gall to almost be … boring! While most authors are looking to provide a thrill, she is so sinister she teases the thrill to perfection in whichever novels premise and then refuses readers even the catharsis of breakneck pacing or “there it is!” twists and turns. She makes us dwell, know (as we would in life) the absurd moments between the moments of an endlessly forking disaster of a situation.

 

In Found In The Street (perhaps my personal favorite of her work) the gloom, the ingress toward such an absolute yet somehow unexpected undoing of everyone is so much an undercurrent, so coded in banality and the glacial loneliness of life and self-obsession that when a reader, upon finishing, tries to re-read in order to spot any MOMENT any SCENE wherein “oh, there’s that bit where it all went to Hell” … THEY CAN’T FIND IT! It almost feels like “Wait … did any of what I felt actually …happen?”

 

Another joke of mine is how it’s always a risk to recommend a Highsmith (especially some of her more perfect works like Found or The Blunderer, A Dog’s Ransom or – another fave – The Cry of the Owl. Why a risk? Because the lurking suspicion in you that the experience of the book was so personal, so absolute that it won’t exist for another reader – instead, it will reveal one of your own secrets, show you for what no one ever thought you were, the person you recommended it to will look at you like you’re a madman once they close the cover!

 

See, I always found it funny how Highsmith’s notions, her “plots” were so mesmeric that OF COURSE they are widely adapted into film … but film never, ever gets it right. All movies (with few exceptions) built from her work make some version of “the Hitchcock mistake”, as I call it, of taking something like Strangers On A Train and making it about “a bad man proposing something to a good/ordinary man who makes a mistake and gets embroiled in something he didn’t bargain for” – turns it into a White Hat v Black Hat situation, an adventure, a “story” wherein we need to witness “a regular decent chap get in over his head and find his way out.” Turns one of the most inimitable, piercing, and pure noir novels ever written, one wherein there is not a semblance, even, of good versus bad or right versus wrong and morphs it into something sadly ordinary – a thrill ride, a potboiler, a vehicle for popcorn delight. (because it’s a very FUN film, don’t get me wrong)

 

But: Hitchcock, in his version, takes US out of it – allows US a kind of removed, moral high ground, as though “well, we’re not like at least one of these people” – lets us choose a side (and makes perfectly clear while one side may be “flawed” the other side is “batshit awful” – and this is no kind of truly noirish soil to till) whereas Highsmith’s whole modus operandi is to show us how exactly “we are like them all” and to dispense with the semantics and the sophistries we use as “moral compasses” so-called.

 

That is: while we read Highsmith, the sinking feeling that everyone gets what they deserve and, well, we deserve exactly what they deserve, too – thus curiously feel guilty how our uppance has not yet come, but may be waiting in the post in forms we cannot even begin to plan to protect against.

Highsmith documents the ways in which her protagonists fall short of their expectations, how they will continue to make immoral decisions, or decisions that appear to be moral but originate from immoral intents, leading to their demise. 

 

I always found my draw to Highsmith was in her inimitable ability to dispense with “outward morality” (that there is Concrete Morality from a third party source or even a common understanding in people acknowledging a like-concept amongst us) – not even to comment on the notion of Morality to dismiss it in some way, but to deftly ignore it – or moreso, to unacknowledged it, as though such a consideration is dreamland fancy, akin to how a piece of literature written by someone who neither believes in God or who has never, in fact, considered a god one way or the other would not address the discussion of a “possible God” but simply write from a place removed of the question, versus someone who even peripherally entertains the question as relevant, wonders “do I believe that?” and so, in their piece of writing, would give credence to the “possible existence of God.”

 

Highsmith does not acknowledge, even, the “possible existence” of Morality (a reader might bring their feelings to her work, but they will be inducing the ideas, not finding them there) and this gives an incredible insight and imperativeness to situations in her novels wherein characters might even address their lives/actions in such words – we feel, or at least I do (and I might be inducing my worldview as much as anyone else, I acknowledge this) the wholly personal, invented identity of each individual grinding against things which to them are imaginary. Just like, to a criminal, consequences are imaginary. Until they aren’t. And even then, they somehow become so doubly. Which you touch on in how you say their intent does not match to their fate – to a Highsmith character, even their worst fear realized immediately feels prologue, levels out to the status quo, to the inevitable, the blasé blasé.

 

I’m repeatedly drawn to what I consider the best scene in fiction from Strangers on a Train. Guy goes to kill Bruno’s father, and as he sneaks into the house and ascends the stairs, he feels he’s already done this a hundred times before. It both works as a classic scene of suspense–with the patient build toward irrevocable action–and as the final revelation to show Guy as the equal of his tormentor. 

 

This scene, I realized over the years, had a profound influence on me. Now: I hasten to say it was not because it was the first time I’d encountered such a moment, nor was it what introduced a new idea for where a story could go. See: I’d watched the Hitchcock film before reading the novel so I think when Guy kills the father in the book (as I’d always said should have happened in the goddamned film!) I literally whooped for joy, clapped my hands, felt in the presence of the ACTUAL way the story was always SUPPOSED to be (which … well … obviously, hahaha, but I felt really smart and in the presence of a comrade). In the novel, in that scene, I discovered something from my aesthetic so perfectly rendered by another author it stunned and halted me – especially because it was handled more innocuously and with such a deft hand than I could conceive of!

 

While it was The Point of everything (Guy not only going through with it but it being the moment in which all his protestations and inner quaking fall away to such pretense) it also just … well … happened. The same as anything. The same as any other moment. As it would in life. The book didn’t slow down or speed up. No sudden, world altering commentary was given … because the world was not altered.

 

The smallest sequence of a Highsmith book, the “moments where nothing is happening” matched this moment tick-for-tock. Guy did that. And in that moment (and to this day re-reading) the feeling in me is: of course he did, because he was always going to, he always had … and he did, always would, always will … because I wanted him to. I KNEW he would.

 

The utter lack of surprise in the exquisitely rendered moment of the axe falling is a trick Highsmith pulls like no other.

 

 

It’s interesting that you bring up that she’s not telling a story, which is an odd thing to say about a crime writer. But it’s nevertheless accurate; Highsmith is more concerned with psychological examination via the guise of a story. And this may be why her work feels fresh and modern forty, fifty years on: it’s never about the particular situation a character faces but their weakness, their inability to alter fate, their certainty that they’ll become all things they despise. 

 

 

Yep – and to piggyback of what I was driving at about Strangers and Guy’s killing – she doesn’t have to tell a story, because it’s a story everybody knows. There isn’t so much a reveal of a character’s character, so to speak, but an acknowledgment.

 

I say it’s funny about Highsmith that “the moments we never see coming are the moments we see coming a mile away” – that she can craft suspense out of not only the mundane and the minute, but almost out of a spoiler! “She’s going to kill him and get away with it” or whatever. And then she writes about her killing him and getting away with it and right up to her getting away with it (knowing she was going to, knowing she will) one is viced in a rattling sense of noia and disquiet.

 

That Highsmith teases us with the conventions of storytelling but then refuses to truly utilize them, that she takes away the imaginary in her fiction is a dastardly masterstroke, in my opinion. Part of our brain wants the artificial rules and agreements of genre or storytelling, we want “what would happen in the movie,” so to speak, to happen in the novel, in life, in us … but we know it doesn’t, it won’t ever, and so are simultaneously bored with our inscrutable flaws and titillated by being recognized.

 

A Highsmith novel makes me feel caught. It makes me feel Other. It makes me feel suspicious to those I love.

 

9780802126924

Then she takes those elements in plays with them. In Those Who Walk Away, Ray Garrett experiences crushing guilt about his wife’s suicide, despite seeming to play no role in her death. His guilt is so consuming that he resigns himself to allowing her father–who blames him for her death–to kill him, and yet he fails at this, escaping attack after attack in increasingly absurd ways. Here she rotates the formula a bit–the character wants punishment that may not even be deserved, yet can’t endure it.

 

Oh – Those Who Walk Away! Is there another novel like it? The prototype of the anti-thriller, in many ways, but so much more. I could sit around and unpack the ten thousand ways I think every turn and notion of this novel is genius, but will settle for an exploration of its pure, daredevil simplicity.

 

The book feels like the headspace of crime and guilt – the exact way it feels to get away with stealing oatmeal cookies from the drugstore and getting nabbed for stealing cigarillos from the same place, years later. All at once. Oh, the novel just teeters on the sensation of “something irreversible is about to happen” and teases, teases, teases the psychology in us all that insists “things can go back to being exactly the same as they were”. The sadness of the former, the horror of the latter; the horror of the former, the sadness of the latter. And it blunt-force-traumas the reality that: the same thing never happens. Even when it’s the same thing.

 

In a romance, this might be a nice sentiment: every “I love you” is unique, a set of words which repetition makes anew! But in the grip of Highsmith’s ink? Jesus … the notion that this cat-and-mouse, catch-and-kill game could literally go on forever and represent a new mundanity, a day-to-day no different than anything else, no different than if Ray’s wife had never offed herself – that the novel “makes it point” but then “makes it point, again” but the “again” isn’t “again” it’s “another” even though the “another is the same” is intoxicating.

 

It lives in the exact moment of inertia before a climax begins to rise (or, though this would necessitate a whole other exploration of the novel and so a different answer: the entire novel is post-climax, the violence, the irreversible moment being the suicide, the husband and father the roiling victims of it regardless if they remain “in limbo” or not). Delicious!

 

And just the motherfucking title “Those Who Walk Away” depicting a world in which such a thing is proved obsolete, impossible – no one walks away, yet “those who walk away” is the most accurate thing to call us all!

 

“…the notion that this cat-and-mouse, catch-and-kill game could literally go on forever and represent a new mundanity…” That is a brilliant trick. There’s often talk of “cycles of violence” in crime fiction—which does mirror the real world—but in this book it’s a cycle that has no beginning and extends infinitely because it keeps evolving in minute ways.

 

Beneath this is the creeping sense that not one iota of it matters. In Those Who Walk Away, Ray is quickly convinced that all his work to cover up the murder attempts was futile, because no one cares that Coleman is determined to kill him. While in another writer’s hands this would be melodramatic, with Highsmith it feels completely in line with the world she’s created, almost—to steal your word—blasé that someone would be accused of murder, a fact not worth interrupting anyone’s day about.

 

Higsmith has this underlying sense of noia as you described, with an intense, claustrophobic view entirely from the perspective of the main character. I’m curious as to how you see this operating in the Tom Ripley novels versus her other work. Ripley seems to stand alone, in my estimation, as someone who is comfortable being a criminal and very good at it. Yet the cracks in the façade are what make the character memorable.

 

Well, where even to begin with Ripley!?  Rr with the Ripley/English analogs, for that matter …

 

Just to have a jumping off point regarding the latter consideration, I can admit it was not until after I had penned the opening scene of the first Trevor novella that it occurred to me what an unconscious lift (or let’s say … homage? riff?) on the opening of the first Ripley offering it was. The classic “someone unknown walks up to the protagonist under a wrong impression of the protagonist’s character and makes a simple proposition” which then careens unpredictably in directions wholly unique – in Ripley it was Greenleaf Sr. offering to foot Ripley’s bill would he traipse to Italy and make attempt at convincing the wayward Greenleaf Jr. to return home (Greenleaf Sr. under the assumption Ripley and Greenleaf Jr. would have been acquainted at school) while in Trevor it is the unnamed fellow whose wallet English had lifted offering him cash money to hop cross country to deliver a letter.

 

As I’ve mentioned to you on another occasion (at least I think I did) the Trevor English sequence, while I was writing it, had (never something intended for the publication, just an inside-joke with myself) secondary title “The Talentless Mister English.” hahaha

 

But let me backtrack to Highsmith, because that is the meat of this …

 

And you are spot on that, while not exclusively, Ripley is Highsmith’s uniquely criminal criminal. Yes. But even in this, he is so much a criminal as to somehow come off as being altogether nothing of the sort.

 

I always (and it’s a trait I wrote Trevor with, though tilted in a different attitude) looked at Ripley as an artistic criminal – certainly I never viewed him as purely sociopathic, in the common sense, as so many do (and, well, as he indeed may be). Because in a certain sense, his criminality (from the start) is so nonchalant it is hard to call it that. He deceives. He takes advantage of situations as they present. He has ambitions (of a sort). Yes yes yes. But I always read him as one who (which is suggested he was at the start) is perfectly comfortable to skate along as some penny-ante nobody, not putting effort toward any great larceny one way or the other. A dilettante who could just as easily be perfectly legitimate if the breaks shook out a bit different. When a situation presents itself, he has an uncanny ability (in my eyes) not to so much bilk it for all its worth, but to understand the inherent nature of the world it presents and to take what, for all intents and purposes, is on offer. Things go sideways? He is a true tap-dancer and can roll with it.

 

But … there’s more than that. Ripley I read as an individual who sees himself as naturally outside of the world – is almost saddened by it. He is conscious of how he would be romanticized if not actual, but knows he is actual and therefore criminal, unable to move to the same music, to proceed as he naturally is in the world he must inhabit. He is conscious of being an Element with a Nature and a Function and he understands he is one who, if examined, will never be understood for precisely what Element he is, Nature he has, or Function he serves. No – motives, attitudes, ideas will be assigned to Ripley if caught and, if caught, he will lose his very identity, his very nature will be forfeit to the whim of whichever force nabbed him.

 

…If that makes sense …

 

No one will appreciate Ripely for what he is but for what they make him into – and, perversely, this allows him a kind of righteousness in making himself whatever and whoever he wants. He plays an almost childlike chop-logic with his amorality – it seems okay with everybody (at least everybody he acquaints himself with) that he is who he is and does what he does until something goes wrong – at which point other people suffer pangs of guilt or conscious or suddenly desire an outside, legitimized lawfulness to come in to referee – they break the game and want him to pay so they can overlook the very nature of their lives, the worlds they are fine with inhabiting – “Make Ripley the problem, the intruder!” even though Ripley is, for the most part, an interloper who was welcomed in if not outright solicited.

 

I feel for Ripley – he is constantly turned against when (it is perfectly clear, to me at least!) if left to his own devices he would live quite simply.

 

I mean, what is his big crime after the initial novel? Forgery. Dealings with forgers. It is an exquisitely harmless crime! It is Ripley down to the marrow. Who fucking cares? You can almost see him being baffled when things start going shifty in Ripley Under Ground – and it feels more like he is trying to right the world to order than he is trying to make off with the boodle!

 

I always picture Ripley just wanting to step back and go “Hey now, hey now – let’s everybody just calm down” and as though a kid playing Jacks think he can simply say “Nevermind” and give everybody back their wagers or toys or whatever and let the game end.

 

My favorite Ripley novel is the third (Ripley’s Game) and it is the novel which I think is most revelatory of Ripley as a character – indeed, another Trevor parallel is that it is in the center of a five-novella set (Helen Topaz, Henry Dollar) where I found Trevor most fully understood, most nakedly expressed.

 

See, in Ripley’s Game, the honest *envy* Ripley seems to have for Trevanny is one of the most beautiful and nuanced things the sequence of books has to offer. I step away from the standard of treating Ripley as a self-serving sociopath, as I said earlier, but rather as a person so outside the world he accepts that the nearest thing to an inroad to “society” he has is to play a part in the world of crime (as he likewise plays a role in the world of law-abiding).

 

But in the machinations leading up to allowing it possible (necessary in his view – even charitable!) to arrange for Trevanny to commit the murders which had been asked of Ripley and which he had refused – is the rarest, irresistible opportunity for him, nothing at all to do with profit, revenge, or crime at all. No -in all of the intricate reasons which would allow for such an opportunity to come about what he sees is that he has been granted the opportunity to watch himself in a way he has never been able to before. He (in my reading) *is* Trevanny – identifies, empathizes incredibly deeply, sees Trevanny caught up in a plot (albeit at Ripley’s own hand) observes him making considerations, choices, regards him as he goes through the unthinkable motions he does – but motions which Ripley all too well understands and finds natural. The relationship is almost erotic and the closest to intimacy Ripley has even approached.

 

The giddiness Ripley exhibits in the scene where he has to assist Trevanny in violently dispatching with some threats is one of the defining moments of the character (and of the novel sequence) to me. For in that moment we see a Ripley who has forgotten even his own hand in the mechanism of events, we see a protector of the one individual we, the readers, would be legitimately be rooting for (though we haven’t forgotten the reason we are rooting – we are rooting for him against what Ripley has done to him! – we see Ripley loving Trevanny and wanting him to come out unscathed – or as unscathed as possible. They meld into (in Ripley’s mind) a perfect, singular unit – he gets to live the fantasy of himself in the reality of someone else and the reality of someone else in the fantasy he has forced them into.

 

Anyway … I obviously could go on about Ripley at great length, yet! Hahaha.

 

To just explain the Trevor (book three) connecting: all that I have said above regarding Ripley’s Game is one of the many reasons why the scheme Trevor hatches is book three is so self-referenced – a pretend blackmail against himself which he enthusiastically proceeds with only to have it morph into a kind of perverse other-pretend-blackmail orchestrated by a party who doesn’t know his initial blackmail was fake – Trevor finding himself, in a perverse way, as “in the right” as he could ever imagine being when he decides to turn the tables to his advantage – and of course he is left, in the end, in the worst situation he could have ever envisioned … yet somehow, despite it being all his orchestration at the onset, he cannot be faulted for feeling he has been wrongfully accused and treated quite shabbily!

 

That is the primary Ripley/Trevor connection: they are perverse innocents, they are irrevocably not-what-can-be-in-the-world but not through maliciousness, not through anything normally associated with the criminal class – but through acceptance of nature and a curiosity toward its place in the world.

 

51oTSWV5D2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

In “The Roots of Ripley,” K.A. Laity explores the idea that Ripley is more comfortable with things than people: “the feeling that after all, it was safest to be on your own luxuriating in all your nice things.” As you noted, he has no propensity for violence and, in some respect, would be perfectly happy leaving everyone else alone, to have the pleasures of civilization without ever interacting with anyone.

 

It is in this way that he appears to be a sociopath. He can put on the guise of the way other people act, he’s finely attuned to everyone around him, and yet he has no interest in other people beyond a sort of benign inclination to push people away from those ugly, clashing emotions that will lead to disorder. Yet his addiction to the game of crime—he is, after all, a master strategist—keeps him coming back.

 

One of the things I find interesting about your series about blackmailer Trevor English is that it’s never clear what he would do if he got everything he wanted. While Ripley’s boredom and restlessness will always get the better of him, Trevor has far more mundane desires—he’s always pursuing cash to keep on living his drifter lifestyle and he never, ever gets a step ahead. So what would Trevor do if he actually landed the big score (something he, of course, never pursues)? In crime fiction the trope is that the criminal would retire to some Caribbean island and live off their earnings, but that’s certainly not the case with the Talentless Mr. English.

 

Now *that* is rather large and probing question – in a way it’s the self-same question I always had to ask when I approached writing Trevor …

 

… though not exactly, as I suppose I knew the ‘answer’. More true is to say: the trick was to navigate the vessel of this ‘answer’ (tease that I am, you see, I hold off articulating it even now – or try to even for a few parentheticals longer hahaha) through the vast seas of the raconteur element of noir, to wrangle the ‘plot part’ of a novella *around what Trevor is* – he, himself, is the pebble the puddle puts up with and closes over (no – I would never call his the boulder the stream must bend to, as everything about my Trevor must remain paradoxically effacing!).

 

Your (and Laity’s) remarks on Ripley are very apropos, here. Sociopath or not sociopath to one side (as it is, perhaps, irrelevant to a literary creation of the calibre of Ripely and to a set of volumes so rich and expansive in treasure) the idea of his wanting to be left to himself, surrounded by his worldly things (ill gotten? Who cares!) content with his own ideas and aesthetic – this is certainly true (and, to me, a beautifully melancholic thing in the character – though there is not *to* the character himself) and if coupled with his noiac (if self-induced) idea that this ‘peace and quiet’ could all be torn asunder if ever he is squinted at too long, that his ability to live as and with himself is always at risk from outside elements, we see how it oddly compels him (even more than an ever present itch toward the ‘game of crime’) to trespass back into interaction with others. A defense posture. Criminality allowed him what he has so therefore it follows that criminality must safeguard it. The notion of interaction with people, to Ripley, is fused irrevocably (an unconscious, a part of his lizard brain) with crime, with manipulation. That is: the only reason Ripley interacts with people is to actively use, and he sues them to keep them, in effect, away from him. If someone comes knocking? Then there is a kind of sigh in his soul – he knows they don’t know what they are asking for just the same as he knows he has nothing to offer but deceit (deceit which might incidentally – especially in Ripley’s Game or, for another example, in his feelings of remorse for the poor forger who entered his orbit in Ripley Under Ground – allow glimpses of unconscious intimacy and genuine emotional connection/regard).

 

Trevor is not dissimilar. The main difference in he and Trevor is down to how they want to be regarded.

 

Ripley: he wants no true self, but rather to be the surface people admire (if he has to consider people) and to keep to himself.

 

Trevor, though …

 

(well, let me digress and then I will return to that ellipsis.)

 

Trevor, in my mind when I wrote, is not a criminal. Not exactly. He is written as a Writer. And not as a writer with ambition for ‘the big leagues’ or ‘renown’ but rather as a writer who, like the unnamed narrator in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, is genuinely attracted to the purity of the Idea and its nuance in execution – the Art, to him, is the reward; and the Art, when shared, should elicit a deep appreciation, no matter the content (the crime) – especially as he is, so to speak, an undergrounder, just a blithe nobody hand stapling his zine! Hahaha

 

Trevor becomes overwhelmingly, almost erotically attached to the *notion* of a scenario his mind recognizes, and the inner drum of him compels his every breath to suck the marrow of every potential he recognizes out. To let an idea or an opportunity go slack, be left unplumbed or unexplored? This is something he is literally incapable of! And he pursues at his own expense, with a childlike innocence and glee, whichever track is the most genuine, the fullest, the purest.

 

From the beginning, when this offer from someone to deliver the letter cross country for cash is presented to him – let’s break it down as the story of the artist:

 

Trevor had picked someone’s pocket (the very fact he is tracked down shows the amateurish hand he has, despite the aptitude he must admittedly possess to pull such a trick). Translation: some scribbler just passing out broadsides of his work has been recognized and approached – his unique voice pleasing to someone who wants to see more!

 

The bag of money and the letter? Sure, the money is important, but let’s be real: throughout the entire Trevor series the poor guy never shows a lack of willingness to work, even the lowliest little crumb-bum job, it’s all the same to him! So, why does he fixate on trying to preserve the two thousand as long as possible? Because it affords him the ability to continue creating on his own terms, outside of the ‘mainstream flow’ – like holding onto a kind review or a generous remark from an audience – he cannot let it dwindle or become just a momentary flash in the pan – who knows when someone else might even read anything he writes, whatever little review must mean *the world*.

 

But he opens the letter (at first, if you recall, quite bored and not even with an angle in mind, doesn’t even get to the ‘juicy bit’ until his second or third attempt to get through the missive!) – and upon doing so gets the greatest gift a writer can stumble on: A New Idea. And this idea *must* be explored. And Trevor *must* be what Trevor needs to be to have it explored. And when he sees an undeniable, aesthetically pure and pleasing avenue the idea can fork – well, he *must* explore that idea too!

 

And again.

 

And again.

 

Sometimes Trevor has to act as the agent, the instigator which ‘causes something’ – but not out of avarice or monetary or even criminal desire, but rather because the *idea demands it*. He never quite knows what to do with himself. Getting money, losing money, it’s all the exact same driving wheel to him, the fuel to make the narrative go, the poetry flow, the idea keep birthing another.

 

His victims are his audience – oh my goodness, Trevor so wants them to be able to appreciate the interesting subtleties and nuances of his ideas, even if he has to expose himself more, risk himself more – he doesn’t need to come out on top, he just needs to know they *read the fucking book he wrote*, did not skim or overlook – Trevor cannot, in his soul, bear being misunderstood!

 

Now, I will not go through the entirety of the series right now, breaking down each mechanism of how it is constructed, sufficed to say each book starts with an idea (based on an observation of something which happens across his path and titillates the Author Soul in him) and intently examines the life of that idea (the writing of that work).

 

There’s a terrific line in David Mamet’s Heist where one character says to another ‘You should see this plan – it’s beautiful. If I were a publisher I’d publish it’ to which another replies ‘So why not publish it?’ to which the first guy remarks ‘I’m saying: that’s what I’d do if I were a publisher. But I’m a thief. So I’ve gotta do that thing.’ Trevor is like that.

 

cover-dstair-norman-court-300x480pxTo return to my earlier ellipsis:

 

Trevor though … wants to be *anything but the surface*. He wants his actual personhood not to matter. He wants to be the underneath, the idea, his own particular existence hardly worth mentioning – but the *ideas* he litters life with, the things he shares and reveals through his observations – he wants those known so very badly. And he wants them admired! He just wants everyone to be pleased with what he thought up and then to understand he’ll go away, leave everyone alone, get another idea and be too busy following it to bother with them again so it doesn’t matter anymore.

 

But, sadly, like Ripley … he’s borderline deranged (so far as the common man’s sensibility) and what he does with his ideas is not the sort of thing people admire and let just fade away. Trevor, like Ripley, certainly *knows* this. And in a subconscious way likely gets off on it (hence neither of them ever seem to ‘learn their lesson’ – or rather, they learn the lessons very well just don’t ever apply the lessons previous encounters have taught them in any way except to dig themselves in deeper next time!)

 

I feel I have rambled around, but that it was necessary – because to get to your big question: what would Trevor do with The Big Score?

 

Because you’re right – he would never go looking for it – he would not even *think* (as a writer) of ‘getting an agent and trying to be the next Steven King’ or what have you. No no – he’s the consummate underground artist and needs to prove it by never being anything else but it – continually, unthinkably, absurdly enlarging and aggrandizing what it means to be nobody. Until the non-entity he is is so unique a prize no one, no matter how well off or famous – can say they have the ability to do and to live how Trevor does. Everyone else’s success or ‘normalness’ in fact *proves* the uniqueness of Trevor. And there is an agitation in him at this not being recognized – the old ‘If you gave me a million dollars and said I could spend all day writing, sure, I could probably be as good as any of the big dogs – but could any of them produce work of their calibre for nothing for no one over and over and over without ever even reaching for more or taking a rest? I could do what they do, but could they do what I do? And so who should we be admiring here!?’ hahaha

 

The easiest way to answer the question is to say Trevor would not recognize The Big Score. The only prize he would see is what new idea it allowed.

 

Remember, I made him a blackmailer and all his acts are through the filter of blackmail – at least once he ‘discovers it’ while riding on the train, reading through the letter. That is the moment he moves from being a wannabe, ‘I’m a writer because I did some stories for class at school’ to – BANG! – ‘I’m motherfucking Dostoyevsky just because I goddamn say so!’ It’s Eureka. Inspiration. Birth. And we witness it and watch how it goes.

 

But see: to stick with my artist analogy: Trevor is a novelist – not a short story writer or a playwright or a filmmaker or a musician or a painter etc. And so if he’d been offered Twenty Thousand in the first book, that would have been all the same. The story of Trevor starts when he reads that letter and gets the idea (the idea that he could do something better than whatever the schemer having him deliver the letter had in mind). Two thousand, five hundred, ten thousand – it’d just have been the new hook, the new potential, the new atmosphere and he’d see what he could do.

 

Trevor gets continually fixated on the amount of ‘criminal money’ he has because ‘the artist is supposed to sustain himself with his art alone’. It is radically appealing and important that he scrimps and saves to keep this technically true of himself. When he hits bottom (which does happen somewhere in the series, not to spoil things too much) we see what happens: he goes on. Bottom feeder, works little jobs, or stays at a shelter – waiting, like any true artist, for another idea to come along.

 

But it needs to be a *new* idea, not a retread. It needs to further his themes, not restate them. Like any artist, he is perfectly satisfied to not exist, but would rather die than suffer the pangs of repeating himself.

Mask of the Nice Guy by K. A. Laity

deep water

If you know much of anything about Patricia Highsmith, you probably know her love for snails. Okay, maybe it’s not the first thing you learn, but it should be. It tells you so much about her. Smuggling them through customs in her bra – the thought of it makes me want to boak even now. She has several stories that feature them, even one where they are giant-sized and man-eating. Sure, she liked cats, too, but she never had the same affection for them that she did with her snails.

In her novel Deep Water, they are the beloved pets/keenly-observed obsession of the main character, Victor Van Allen. Highsmith’s only tender love scene that I can think of in all her writing is about the snail coupling that takes place in this book between his two favourites. He gives them conventional male and female names, though one of the things that most intrigues Highsmith is the fact that snails can morph their sex almost at will.

Hortense and Edgar were making love, Edgar reaching down from a little rock to kiss Hortense on the mouth. Hortense was reared on the end of her foot, swaying a little under his caress like a slow dancer enchanted by music. Vic watched for perhaps five minutes, thinking of absolutely nothing, not even of the snails, until he saw the cup-shaped excrescences start to appear on the right side of both snails’ heads. How they did adore each other, and how perfect they were together! 

[Spoilers here on in]

Vic first poses as a murderer, then becomes one. He gets a thrill from starting a rumour that he had something to do with his wife’s (probable) lover who suddenly disappeared then is found brutally murdered. He tells her new fave, ‘I don’t waste my time punching people on the nose. If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him.’ Vic has been telling himself he handles everything fine. His wife can’t face his oddness directly so she takes up with new men, hoping they’ll sort things for her somehow.

But Vic finds power in pretending to be a murderer. He realises his calm has discomfited the new lover, and further that ‘Vic had frightened him’ and further understands how his own uncanny nature makes that work: ‘People who do not behave in an orthodox manner…are by definition frightening.’ But it’s only at this intimate level that Vic’s strangeness can be seen.

To his neighbours and colleagues, he does all the right things: runs a fine art small press, keeps a nice home (though most don’t know that he lives in the workshop in the garage and not the house itself), has patience in the face of his wife’s flirting, and is a kindly dad to his daughter. People like him and disapprove of Melinda, who’s seen as a bad wife.

When Vic does actually kill her latest lover on a whim, in a fairly obvious way, not one person suspects him (well, maybe his wife). The police who rightly think it’s a bit odd are quickly dissuaded by all the neighbours who vouch for the upstanding-quiet-keeps to himself Vic. They double down on their disapproval of Melinda, too. She brought trouble to their quiet town after all. For a time she is contrite.

But then a mystery novelist comes to town and makes friends with Melinda. ‘People in Little Wesley had not been particularly friendly to the Wilsons since their arrival, and Vic thought it was Don’s fault. He was humourless and standoffish at social gatherings, perhaps because he considered smile and conviviality unintelligent or unbecoming in a writer.’ Highsmith having some fun with her own image here, perhaps. Also Vic publishes poets and important things. ‘[Don Wilson] was such a hack – western stories, detective stories, love stories, some of which his wife collaborated on, though Vic had heard from somebody that her specialty was children’s books. The Wilsons had no children.’

Comic book writer Pat never much reconciled herself with that past. She was quite a snob about things and hated being seen as a niche genre writer. Some of that ambivalence comes through. Yet who unravels the next murder Vic commits? Part of it is simply his arrogance. It’s not enough to plan the murder; he needs to gloat over it with his wife nearby.

At one point as they argue and he baits her with a dare to kill him, she says, ‘You’re so – nuts! I don’t suppose you’d mind that very much. I’d like to smash your lousy ego.’  He explains to her with great patience, ‘”No, not ego. Just the pieces of myself that I can put together and hold together – by force of will. Will power, if you like, that’s what I live on, but not ego. How could I possibly have any?” he finished desperately, enjoying the discussion immensely and also enjoying the sound of his own voice, which seemed to be objective, like his own voice on a tape-recording machine being played back to him.’

So uncanny and he doesn’t even see it, but neither do his neighbours and friends. They all see the mask as real. Such a nice guy. Right down to the end, Vic retains a belief in his superiority, dismissing Wilson and all the rest as ‘ugly birds without wings’ and mediocrities

Playing Ripley by K. A. Laity

ripley

I was watching a TIFF interview with Phyllis Nagy who adapted Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt as the 2015 movie Carol directed by Todd Haynes, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and Sarah Paulson. Among the bon mots – along with her story of her first fascinating meeting with the author herself – was the fact that she had adapted The Talented Mr Ripley as a play right around the time Anthony Minghella’s movie came out. I vaguely recalled a production of the play some years back, but didn’t realise who had written it. 

Fortunately the play is easy to get hold of especially in comparison to the more recent Ripley and Highsmith play Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith, which I also missed seeing. That one is much more meta, but Nagy’s adaptation is full of surreal touches that call it and Highsmith’s obsession with the character to mind. Some first thoughts:

I enjoyed it. Like most play scripts, it’s a quick read, though this is a really fascinatingly complex narrative. The play boils down the events of the novel into signal moments, often overlapping. Nagy’s imaginative positioning of the characters and their interactions make the most of the space of theatre and the flexibility it has to allow simultaneous things to be happening and affecting the audience’s interpretation of that overlap.

It has a lot of mirroring, sometimes literally, as [SPOILERS, SWEETIE] Tom kills and absorbs ‘Rickie’ (not Dickie here, though his character name is always Richard), rather than simply eliminating him. Even after he kills Rickie at the end of the first act, the victim hangs around to encourage, argue and sometimes taunt his killer. There’s a lot more of the influence of the past, both Greenleaf parents, and Tom’s Aunt Dottie, but also Tom’s friend from NY – not the artist he hangs out with in the novel, but an adaptation of the housemate who is much more deliberately coded gay. Tom’s sexuality, or at least some version of it, in tune with Minghella’s film version much clearly positions him as gay rather than Highsmith’s own odder, more fetishistic Ripley, whose only real ecstasy comes when he contemplates all the things that once belonged to Dickie now belong to him.

Like the modern description of Ripley as ‘charming’ which is completely wrong; contemporary reviews were much more aware of his abjectness. Nagy repeats that misapprehension in her character description of Riply: ‘an utterly compelling, fastidious, charming and measured psychopath’. He becomes that psychopath, but there is little charming about him. In the original novel that couldn’t be clearer. Highsmith humiliates him upon arrival in Mongibello with a terrible bout of diarrhea. Nagy calls him ‘charming’ but doesn’t really present him that way. Ripley finds a way to be who he wants to be when he meets Rickie/Dickie. For a time he wants to be that spoiled, untalented but oh so self-assured rich kid. Circumstances only allow that for a short while before he has to once more become Ripley, but the value of the experience remains and gives him the power not only to survive murder whenever necessary, but to make Tom Ripley into the psychopath he never knew he could be.

‘It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else.’

Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley

Noir Classics: Those Who Walk Away – Patricia Highsmith by K. A. Laity

those who walk away

Don’t let the pull quote form Slavoj Zizek put you off. This too-little read classic by Highsmith is a cracking read. It’s suffused with an existential dread so thick you could cut it with a Derwatt paint knife. It starts in Rome and quickly moves to Venice, currently repopulated with swans and dolphins, which is no less bizarre than this book.

Adding to the head-jerking oddness, it’s dedicated to Lil Picard, ‘painter and writer, one of my more inspiring friends’ in Highsmith’s words. The Jewish artist was once part of the Dadaists scene in Berlin, hanging out with Brecht and Dix, then fled to New York where she hung out at Andy’s Factory and made performance art with Caroline Schneeman and Yoko. It’s a surprising choice for the notoriously anti-Semitic writer (they’d not spoken in a decade) but it speaks volumes to her yearning for art and artistry.

Art permeates the story: Ray Garrett is thinking of starting a gallery as he grieves for his wife’s suicide, fearing that he might have been able to save her if only he’d seen the clues (Highsmith dealt with the same when her lover, the artist Allela Cornell, committed suicide). This is the least of his problems, however.

The book opens with Garrett walking through Rome with his passive-aggressive father-in-law who, quiet suddenly, takes out a gun and shoots him, and then runs off. More shocked than injured, Garrett panics and runs back to his hotel to put a Band-Aid on the graze and clean the blood from his shirt. And to think: how did Colemon get a gun? What would he do when he discovered Ray was not dead?

This begins a weird tale of cat and mouse that quickly moves to Venice. ‘If he saw Coleman alone again just once, he could say it all plainly in words—say the plain fact that he didn’t know why Peggy had killed herself, that he honestly couldn’t explain it.’ But her father won’t accept the truth. So much so that Ray begins to wonder if he does bear some guilt. When Coleman shoves him off a boat into the wintery canal, Ray goes into hiding to let him believe he’s been killed. It may, in part, be fueled by the fever he catches from his soaking. But it becomes quite surreal.

He begins to think like a criminal, inventing lies sometimes for cover and sometimes just for a kind of romanticised desire to disappear from himself. Ray tells himself he’s not trying to change his appearance with the beard at the same time he’s cautioning himself to invent a ‘decent’ story: ‘The nearest to the truth was best, or so he had always heard.’ I love how Highsmith tips her hand here about her own easy story-making. Ray looks at himself (oh the cliché but this is 1967) and sees a lot more than he wants to:

It was an American face, slightly on the handsome side, hopelessly marred by vagueness, discretion, the second thought, if not downright indecision.

As gruesome as this all sounds, there is actually a lot of humour in the novel. Ray and his partner consider opening the Gallery of Bad Art in NYC, if they can’t find enough good painters to share. ‘Call it Gallery Zero, for instance. The public’ll soon get the idea.’ Highsmith obsesses over art and its quality in a very different way from Ripley’s blithe assurance that forgery is better than ‘good’ art. The humour pops out quite unexpectedly (like Highsmith’s own ‘jokes’ apparently) and so do the astute observations, like a sharp knife in the dark. I think Camus and Sartre would approve of this one which seems to sum up so much of her work:

Perhaps identity, like hell, was merely other people.

F is for Fake, V is for Vermeer by K. A. Laity

Van Meegeren

I am probably always thinking about fakes and grifters, but just lately thinking about art forgery (see also this). Of course this is part of my ongoing thoughts about Patricia Highsmith’s Ripliad (so many thoughts), but just in general my obsessions with con artists and fakes.

In Ripley Under Ground, Highsmith has her alter ego muse on the superiority of forgers to artists, concluding ‘An artist does things naturally, without effort. Some power guides his hand. A forger struggles, and if he succeeds, it is a genuine achievement.’ Never mind that as an artist herself she knew just how much effort the work requires. I am fascinated with the concept that the forger works ‘harder’ or somehow ‘better’ than the artist because seemingly divine inspiration.

Ripley namechecks Han van Meegeren, one of the most notorious forgers of the 20th century. He forged Vermeers—you know, Girl with the Pearl Earring? Yeah, but he was smart enough not to try to forge classic Vermeer. He went for the missing period between the painter’s earlier, funnier period and the moody classics like The Art of Painting, inventing a bunch of religious-themed paintings that suggest the transition to the later secular works with a suggestion of the effort whilst he was still working up to genius.

He got others to buy in and then there was the weight of excitement and possibility—not to mention the war and rapaciously greedy Nazis. Oh and he might have been a collaborator and he might have enriched himself buying up property from the Jews sent off to the camps. At his trial he decided to keep the focus on the forger angle instead of the collaborationist one, even whipping off a quick Vermeer for the jury (I dunno, maybe he had Hedy Lamarr in mind that day). Yeah, he was convicted but managed to drop dead before he could serve any time. 

See this doco on Van Meegeren if you’re interested in seeing more.

Consider also watching Orson Welles’ fun F is for Fake.

 

Existentialism in Noir by K. A. Laity


shoot

A few years back I was on an existentialism panel at NoirCon that went a bit off the rails (those who were there may recall why) so we never really got deeply into the topic. It’s hung around in the back of my brain pan for a while and two recent reads pinged a few sparks around that got me thinking about different ways of embodying existentialism.

The first book had been one of those gaps in my noir reading: Down There AKA Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis. You probably know the Truffaut film even if you haven’t read the book. I sort of thought I had, but I hadn’t. If you know Goodis at all, you know not to read his books when you’re feeling low. The most painful sort of existentialism that might be summed up as the “just put one foot in front of the other because that’s all there is” school. Edward Lynn is the titular player and he’s playing hot music when his brother Turley staggers into the bar and upends his life.

But we find that’s not the real beginning of the story. We backtrack eventually to find out how this prodigy went from concert halls to an ex-wrestler’s dive bar. And we meet Lena, the first bright ray of sunshine and an all-right dame who makes Eddie remember what it’s like to want to live.

Things don’t stay that way: this is bleak stuff with some great jazzy prose in between. The last line, “He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard” epitomises the alienation Goodis makes you feel. There is no hope. All you can do is just soldier on.

tremor

In some ways, the existentialism of Patricia Highsmith’s The Tremor of Forgery is even more disturbing. Howard Ingham goes to Tunisia to work with a director on a screenplay only to find out the director has committed suicide back in New York—in Ingham’s own apartment no less. He decides to hang around anyway and work on his book about an unrepentant con man, feeling superior to both the locals and to the other American resident, Francis J. Adams, the purveyor of All-American propaganda behind the Iron Curtain (it’s 1969) arranged by a private donor.

Without all his normal social interactions, Ingham goes to pieces. His moods swing, he loses interest in then fanatically loves his lukewarm girl friend. His writing goes great. His writing stops. He enjoys Tunisia. He hates it. In short he has no moral centre. And things get weirder. The director may have committed suicide because of Ingham’s gal. Adams is maybe CIA or something or maybe it’s all his imagination.

Maybe Ingham kills someone. But if he does, no one seems to care.

He travels. He moves out of the hotel. His girlfriend visits. He’s not going back. He’s going back. It gets to the point you don’t know what’s real. Ingham certainly doesn’t. How much of this is Highsmith’s own xenophobia, racism and misanthropy? It’s all subsumed in the noise. Even Ingham’s final words are obscured, “unheard in the shuffle of sandals, the din of transistors, the blare of the unintelligible flight announcements” and the possible and ever so apt murder weapon, “the typewriter in his hand weighed nothing at all now.” It’s all messed up. As Denise Mina warns in the introduction, “Her books will make you reckless.”

Think I might be up for a trip to Tunisia. It’s not like anything means anything, right?

K. A. Laityis an award-winning author, scholar, critic and arcane artist. Her books include How to Be Dull,White RabbitDream Book, A Cut-Throat BusinessLush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet DreamsChastity Flame, and Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering UterusRespectable HorrorWeird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Follow her on TwitterInstagram or Facebook.

She also writes crime as Graham Wynd and historical fiction as Kit Marlowe.

The Mike Hodges School of Writing School by K A Laity


mike hodges

“I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me.”

Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

If films about writers are to be believed, all you have to do is live an interesting life, write it down, and change the names. Making things up always fails, like Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. Mike Hodges goes further to suggest that cynically manipulating the truth is the true way to success. The director whose work spans gritty neo-noir like Get Carter and the sublime silliness of Flash Gordon, made two films about writers decades apart, but they share some interesting qualities.

pulp

Pulp (1972) features the legend Michael Caine as the man who grinds out the titular tripe, first glimpsed in an office where panting typists churn out his fevered stew of sex and violence to support his indolent emigrant lifestyle in the Mediterranean. He’s tapped to ghost a veteran actor’s memoirs (Mickey Rooney in top form) then everything starts to get strange. Generally thought of as a cult classic, it mixes in a host of winking nods to the genre and ambles along to an odd conclusion.

I’ve only recently got around to Croupier (1998) thanks to Anne Billson and I can’t believe it took me this long. I think a lot of it had to do with how it was marketed as a crime film—which it is, but that’s not what’s interesting about the movie. From the first Clive Owen voice over he sounds like Guy in Your MFA who is writing ‘noir’ in his ironic Chandler persona. I may never get over the first shock of Owen as a blonde though. His girlfriend (fabulous Gina McKee) is clearly keen to think of him as a writer—so romantic! She’s disappointed when he takes a job as a croupier though  astonished at how much he’ll make.

Croupier-2

One of the things I appreciate about the script is how his whole back story in South Africa is built in little pieces throughout the film but never spelled out completely. Owen’s Jack is so tightly wound yet so clueless about himself. Gradually he begins to think about writing a novel about his co-worker, then at last just straight up autobiography (released anonymously). Of course it’s a success: imagination is overrated.

Bonus Alex Kingston, too.

paul mayesbergThe weirdest thing may be the writer, Paul Mayersberg, who has worked in and written about the film industry, as well as penning the Pulp-worthy erotic novels Violent Silence and Homme Fatale. Better known for scripts like The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, he also wrote and directed The Last Samurai (1988). No, not the Tom Cruise one: the Lance Henrikson one. Who knows what happened between script and release, but the results were not stellar. On IMDB there are several scathing one star reviews along with a ten out of ten stars review, so who knows? Maybe it’s a hidden gem. I suspect it’s not.

Writing is hard. Live a life someone else can write about and you will probably be better off in the long run.

K. A. Laityis an award-winning author, scholar, critic and arcane artist. Her books include How to Be Dull,White RabbitDream Book, A Cut-Throat BusinessLush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, Chastity Flameand Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering Uterus, Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Follow her on TwitterInstagram or Facebook.

She also writes crime as Graham Wynd and historical fiction as Kit Marlowe.

LAITY author photo

 

Tom Ripley’s Film Career by K A Laity

talnted ripleyThe film version of The Talented Mr Ripley from 1999 did a lot to bring some attention back to the works of Patricia Highsmith. By the time of her death in 1995, she had done a lot to drive people away from herself (read Joan Schenkar’s biography to get a vivid picture of the author’s demons). Her pet snails probably didn’t help either. While her own demons may have drowned her, her novels live on with surprising strength due to her keen psychological insight.

Tom Ripley was by all accounts her favourite character, one she identified with to the extent that she signed a letter to a friend “Pat H, alias Ripley” and claimed that he was writing his own adventures through her. He’s an intriguing character: one who wants the good things in life and will go to great lengths to obtain them—including murder. But I’m always mystified when people call him charming. He’s anxious, needy, resentful even and short on empathy.

plein.solei_purple.noon_

I guess the films create that impression. In Minghella’s film, Matt Damon plays Ripley as bumbling and gauche at first and definitely attracted to Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf. Highsmith didn’t think Ripley was gay but she had him wonder about it without really pursuing the question. The 1960 film Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) avoided that complexity all together. Instead Alain Delon’s Ripley is hot for Marie Laforêt’s Marge and kills Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to get her as well as the money.

The 2005 film of the sequel Ripley Under Ground follows the anti-hero into his new sub-rosa career in art forgery. Barry Pepper’s Ripley is gagging for the ladies yet so blandly uninteresting. He’s far too wacky, too—hiding his landlady’s cat so he can return it for her gratitude and little latitude on the rent. He bumbles into the art forgery world and stumbled into crime. For Tom forgery is really the highest calling, more taxing than ‘real’ art (according to his creator). In the novels Heloise is the shallow rich bourgeois wife who might guess that her husband has shady dealings but would never look deeply into the matter because the nice surface is all that matters. In this film, she’s his partner in crime. This film wastes a terrific cast in minor roles (Willem Defoe, Alan Cumming, Claire Forlani, Ian Hart, Simon Callow, Tom Wilkinson), which is always unforgiveable.

americanfriendposterThe two versions of Ripley’s Game come off a bit better. Wim Wenders’ Der Amerikanische Freund pits Dennis Hopper’s Ripley against his dying neighbour Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) who gives him the high hat at an art auction. With the help of fence he knows, Ripley gets him involved in the assassination of a criminal in order to have money to support his wife and child after he dies. Then things get more complicated. Hopper’s Ripley is a cool, calculating loner with a collection of art and American kitsch. It’s very much a Wenders film (so enjoyable and engaging with great music) but not entirely a successful Ripley.

ripleys gameThe 2002 version directed by Liliana Cavani exchanges France for Italy. Ripley is played as a sensual aesthete by John Malkovich. Most reviewers were swayed by that factor alone to hate or love it. Like Purple Noon, this highly sexualized Ripley misses the mark. Highsmith’s character is most passionate about things not people. It follows the novel in most other regards. Poor Dougray Scott’s dying framer insults Ripley at a party and pays the ultimate price after being seduced into crime.

Malkovich aims to make Ripley charming, but Ripley’s appeal is not the seductive charm but the ordinary—his embodiment of the familiar yearning we all have for things out of our reach. Life is unfair. Maybe if we had a little more talent or daring we’d be more like Tom Ripley. At least it’s fun to daydream about a little murder. As Highsmith would say, ‘Honestly, I don’t understand why people get so worked up about a little murder!’

LAITY author photoK A Laityis an award-winning author, scholar, critic and arcane artist. Her books include How to Be Dull,White RabbitDream Book, A Cut-Throat BusinessLush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, Chastity Flameand Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering Uterus, Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Follow her on TwitterInstagram or Facebook. She also writes crime as Graham Wynd.