Murchison was not artistic. Or he wouldn’t be talking like this. Murchison didn’t appreciate Bernard. What the hell was Murchison doing dragging in truth and signatures and possibly even the police, compared to what Bernard was doing in his studio, which was undeniably the work of a fine painter? […] Murchison’s eyes were bright, quite intelligent, and against him.
Ripley Under Ground is the second of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, taking place six years after The Talented Mr Ripley. The opening chapters find the quintessentially amoral Tom Ripley living his dream life of cultured gentility in a French country house. He paints, improves his French and German, listens to classical music (never jazz), and eats out. His wife Heloise is attractively moody, stylish, and conveniently out of the way for long periods of time.
Some years earlier, Ripley suggested a simple forgery scheme to a London gallery. A talented and potentially great artist, Derwatt, committed suicide in Greece. His friend Bernard Tufts was well placed to continue his work – so the death was covered up and people told that Derwatt has moved to Mexico to become a recluse. The gallery would have an ongoing supply of Derwatts to sell. Bernard’s paintings are incredibly successful (more so than the real Derwatt’s), and now Tom derives a considerable income from his 10% share in Derwatt Ltd, an empire which includes a range of paints and an art school in Italy.
However, an American engineer named Murchison has spotted something iffy in one of Bernard’s forgeries, and it looks like he might overturn the whole apple cart. In a typically mendacious act of bravery, Ripley comes over to London to impersonate Derwatt and prove the artist is still alive and painting.
As with The Talented Mr Ripley, the joy is in watching Ripley layer lie on top of lie, sometimes even deceiving himself to keep out of trouble. The problems mount up seemingly insurmountably. Murchison moves from suspecting a single painting is a fake to suspecting a larger conspiracy. Bernard Tufts is going slowly crazy with the pressure. The police are getting more and more interested in Derwatt’s whereabouts and Derwatt Ltd’s accounts are in no condition to receive official attention. And people still remember the suspicious death of Dickie Greenleaf in Greece. Something has to give, or Tom’s perfect life will fall apart.
Ripley has lost some of his ambiguity, which is a shame, and is more obviously practised in what he does. He has moved from being cold-blooded and a bit unbalanced to being merely cold-blooded. However, the sense of precarious improvisation established in The Talented Mr Ripley has been retained as he dashes from London to France to Greece to Austria in an effort to keep the plates spinning. And he is still the determined culture vulture. Here he is in Salzburg.
Tom took a few minutes to breathe, to open his suitcase, and walk in socked feet on the immaculately polished pinewood floors of his room. The furnishings were predominantly Austrian green, the walls white, the windows double-glazed with deep embrasures. Ah, Austria! Now to go down and have a Doppelespresso at the Café Tomaselli just a few steps away.
Nice to see a man enjoying his work.
Existential Ennui [book]: Highsmith professed herself very pleased with Ripley Under Ground when she finished writing the novel, and it’s easy to see why. There’s an unhinged, giddy, almost farcical quality to the book – a grotesque hall of mirrors, with Bernard’s forging of and Tom’s impersonating of Derwatt reflecting Tom’s impersonation of Dickie and forging of his will in Talented. (Derwatt, Dickie… is it a coincidence that their names both begin with “D”…?)
Existential Ennui [film]: There are all sorts of problems with the movie – Barry Pepper’s performance as Tom Ripley is decidedly lacklustre (physically he reminds me of a young Gary Busey, but with none of the intensity or magnetism or, apparently, acting ability); Willem Dafoe as art collector Murchison is pretty bloody awful – but the main issue is that Tom is effectively neutered.