Of The Fine Line Between Civility and Sociopathy: “Ripley Under Water”

The Talented Mr Ripley’s sequels continually suffer from comparison with its original. As the series reaches its end, the disconnect between the first dark thriller and the novels that followed it is more obvious than ever. Ripley is no longer the menacing psychopath we once met on the beautiful coasts of Italy back in 1955; here, he almost feels like an old friend, save for the homicidal tendencies. How easily Highsmith can make us sympathise with a serial killer is proof enough of her writing talents; how melancholic it feels to finally leave him, even more.

We’re back once more in the familiar settings of Belle Ombre, along with the characters that have been the stars of Tom’s little world since his arrival in France: Héloïse is as charming as ever, Madame Annette her good old generous self, the neighbours still just as rich as they are kind, and the people from the gallery in London as unbothered by crime as could be expected from forgery experts. The neighbourhood thrives still on routine as much as gossip; and even the small trip that Tom and his beloved wife take to Tangier do little to dissipate the resolutely French rural atmosphere of the book.

The only new addition to the tried and tested cast are the Pritchards, a couple of Americans disturbing the picture perfect scenery of Belle Ombre. At this point, we all know where this is heading: someone will get a little bit too close to figuring out Ripley’s true nature, and there will no doubt be a couple more dead bodies found along the way too.

There is absolutely no denying how formulaic this series of books is, but that is what makes it so strangely comforting. We know exactly where this is going: there’s no mystery to solve apart from Tom’s existence itself. How can someone be so devoid of empathy at times and still be so dangerously close to being sympathetic? His affection for forged paintings makes perfect sense: he is in many ways the near perfect copy of a human being. It is only in the rare small imperfect stroke or slightly offputting choice of colour that his true nature can be detected.

A great main character doesn’t necessarily make a great book, let alone five — but Highsmith is smart enough to realise when the right time to stop has come. If the third and fourth instalments of the series sometimes felt, if not bad, at least slightly superfluous, the twelve year break that the author took before writing this conclusion shows a new, more reflective understanding of the character that ties everything that came before it together. Even the less successful of the sequels get a new glow.

If the series had its ups and downs, there is an unmistakable sadness that comes with finally reaching the end of the Ripliad. Tom is still as indecipherable as he was back when we first met him in his American home, and the kindness and sheer normality of everyone around him only serves to highlight how truly deranged he is — just in case we get too tempted to like him. There’s no one quite like Ripley, and no author quite like Highsmith, but the melancholic experience of reading Ripley Under Water will give any fan many reasons to miss them both.

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