Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Novels of psychological suspense have been written since the groundbreaking work of early psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and his colleagues. But it wasn’t until the 1940’s and 1950’s that this sub-genre began to hold its own. One of the best-known authors of psychological suspense novels is Patricia Highsmith, so let’s take a look at this sub-genre through one of her novel. Today let’s turn the spotlight on Ripley Under Ground.
As Ripley Under Ground begins, Tom Ripley, whom Highsmith readers will know from previous Ripley novels, has settled in the French village of Villeperce-sur-Seine with his wife Heloise Plisson. He’s doing reasonably well financially, chiefly for two reasons. First, Heloise comes from a very wealthy family. Second, Ripley and his friends Jeff Constant, Ed Banbury and Bernard Tufts manage a successful “business enterprise” of Ripley’s creation. They’ve convinced a Bond Street gallery called the Buckmaster Gallery to handle the work of painter Philip Derwatt, a relative unknown who died a few years earlier. Tufts, who is a painter himself, has started creating new “Derwatt” works. Constant, a photographer, publicises the work and Banbury, a journalist, writes up articles to keep Derwatt’s name in the public eye. The business is doing quite well and has actually grown to include a painting school among other things.
Then everything begins to fall apart. It all starts when American art enthusiast Thomas Murchison visits London for a Derwatt show at the Buckmaster. Murchison is particularly drawn to Derwatt’s work and is especially knowledgeable about it. He begins to ask some questions about the authenticity of the work when he notices subtle but real differences between the genuine Derwatts he’s seen and one of the Derwatts that are really Tufts’ work. When Ripley hears about this, he decides that the best plan is to disguise himself as Derwatt, go to London and identify the painting in question as his. Ripley’s partners agree and the plan is carried out. But even though Ripley’s Derwatt disguise is successful it’s not enough to convince Murshison absolutely, and Murchison decides he’ll go to the authorities about this case of possible fraud.
Ripley comes up with what he thinks will be a successful way to get rid of Murchison. In his own identity, he approaches Murchison as a fellow Derwatt enthusiast and invites the American to his home in France to see his Derwatts. Murchison agrees to go and during his stay, Ripley tries to persuade him not to take his concerns to the authorities. His campaign is not successful though and Ripley now knows he’ll have to take more extreme measures. He deals with “the Murchison problem” only to face an even bigger one.
Bernard Tufts has begun to crack mentally. He feels he cannot go on any longer as Derwatt since he’s failed to capture the real Derwatt’s spirit. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that his girlfriend Cynthia has ended their relationship. When Tufts finds out what Ripley’s done to protect the group from Murchison’s inquisitiveness, he finds himself drawn more or less against his will to help Ripley cover up what he’s done. This drives Tufts even more over the edge as he begins to blame Ripley for all his problems. Then, the police begin to make enquiries about Thomas Murchison. Now Ripley has to deal with that as well as the increasingly unhinged Bernard Tufts. In the end, Ripley finds a way to extricate himself and his friends.
This is a classic novel of psychological suspense, so the focus isn’t really on what you might call a mystery. We know from the beginning who does what, so to speak. The real interest in this novel comes from the buildup of psychological tension. For instance, Ripley has to keep a lot of what he does secret from his wife Heloise. During parts of the novel she’s away, but the tension only mounts when she’s at home or when they travel together. He has to find ways to tell his wife just enough but not too much. He’s also got to keep what’s happening secret from his housekeeper Mme. Annette. And then there’s Inspector Webster from London, who begins to poke around too much in the Murchison case. There’s real suspense as he and Ripley square off against each other. There’s also Ripley’s Derwatt disguise. There’s a lot of suspense as to whether he can be successful at imitating the late artist.
Another layer of suspense in this novel comes from Bernard Tufts’ gradual psychological breakdown. Bit by bit he becomes more and more unreliable and unhinged. He’s caught in a web, so to speak, because if he reveals what he knows, he also has to reveal his own part in the forgery/fraud scheme. He blames Ripley for the falling-apart of his world and it’s easy to see why. And yet, the reader still sees Tufts becoming more and more dangerous and so does Tom Ripley. There’s a real buildup of suspense as Ripley slowly realises that Tufts cannot be trusted and is a real threat to him physically as well as in terms of what he knows.
One of the other interesting elements of this novel is the character of Tom Ripley himself. Highsmith described him as amoral and it’s easy to see why, considering his actions in this novel. On one level, he is utterly self-protective and he does whatever he needs to do to keep his world safe, so to speak. For example, his concern for Tufts’ mental state isn’t compassion because Tufts is a friend who’s at the breaking point. Instead, it’s concern about what will happen to his, Ripley’s, comfortable world if Tufts cracks completely. That said though, Ripley isn’t an all-too-stereotypical psychotic serial killer who delights in murder and those who dislike gore need not worry. There really isn’t any gore in this novel. He doesn’t look forward eagerly to murder and he doesn’t take pride in killing. And he feels the anxiety that you’d expect as he faces off against the police while trying to keep as much as possible from his wife and housekeeper. He does what he feels he has to do in a very pragmatic way; he’d rather not kill, but he does when he needs to. He’d rather not keep secrets from his wife but he does when he needs to. So in that sense, he is an amoral person without what many of us would call a conscience. He’s a complex character and that adds to his interest.
Ripley Under Ground features suspense that comes not from a fast pace or a lot of action, but from character interactions and psychological confrontations. It also features a main character who’s complicated and interesting – the kind of character one can find both amoral and conscienceless and fascinating at the same time. But what’s your view? Have you read Ripley Under Ground? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 21 May/Tuesday 22 May – Never Apologise, Never Explain – James Craig
Monday 28 May/Tuesday 29 May – The Ice Princess – Camilla Läckberg
Monday 4 June/Tuesday 5 June – The Legal Limit – Martin Clark