The dark magic of Patricia Highsmith

I discovered Patricia Highsmith’s malevolent genius earlier this year when I read The Talented Mr Ripley (1955). I’m a sucker for a good thriller, and the actions of Highsmith’s lovable psychopath, Tom Ripley, had me on the edge of my seat until the very last page. Since then, I have only just managed to desist from overdraft-inducing Highsmith book splurges due to my attempt at a year of no book-buying. However, all was not lost as I already own a clutch of her novels, and I did manage to pick up a few extra from the library.


I was so intrigued by the psychological make up of Ripley as a character, I had to read another novel in his saga. Fortunately I already owned a copy of Ripley Under Ground (1970) so that was my second foray into the dark and sinister mind of the author. Having established a taste for the finer things in life, Ripley has started supplementing his nefariously gained inheritance by setting up an ingenious and highly lucrative art forgery ring. When the authenticity of one of the fake paintings is called into question, Ripley’s co-conspirators panic.

Able to keep a cool head under pressure, Ripley once more turns to the art of impersonation to ease the situation. In disguise, he makes a surprise appearance as the reclusive painter Derwatt, at an exhibition of his work, in order to state for the record that the painting which had been cast doubt on, was in deed, his own work. When his impersonation fails to convince the art-buyer who rightly suspects his painting his a forgery, Ripley has to take drastic action to silence the man who is so close to blowing their whole operation. Once more, he has blood on his hands, and again, as a reader I found myself not wanting him to get caught, whether by his wife, his house-keeper, his neighbours or the police. If this was not enough to deal with, the other members of the forgery ring start to buckle under the pressure and he has to take action to preserve his freedom, even if that is at their expense.

I won’t give any further details for fear of spoiling the plot which was as gripping and enjoyable as Ripley’s first outing, but I do highly recommend that you seek out a copy for yourself. The plot is as taut as a whip, but it is the characterisation that elevates this from other thrillers. Tom Ripley is a psychopath, and yet Highsmith has us rooting for him to escape capture at every turn, even after he has committed terrible crimes. Through his eyes, we see these acts as unfortunate but necessary responses to inconveniences – a testament, surely, to the dangerously heady power of charisma when twinned with evil.

I have a couple of non-Ripley Highsmith novels on my shelves that I’m saving as winter treats, but once my secondhand book-browsing begins again in earnest in the new year, I’ll be keeping my eyes alert for more Ripley titles to indulge my darker side with – I can’t wait!