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The darkly talented Patricia Highsmith

The author's five Tom Ripley novels, collected in a boxed set, place average readers discomfortably at home in the mind of an amoral criminal mastermind.

October 26, 2008|James Sallis | Sallis' omnibus volume, "What You Have Left: The Turner Trilogy," will be published in December.

"Ripley's Game" begins with a slight at a social gathering, escalates into murder when Ripley jokingly recommends the slighter as a contract killer, then becomes a full-tilt thriller as Ripley joins forces with the surprise assassin against Mafia henchmen.

"The Boy Who Followed Ripley" holds a mirror to Ripley's own history of violence when a young man with an assumed identity turns up at Belle Ombre to seek his help. The boy turns out to have killed his father and is soon kidnapped by Berlin thugs.

"Ripley Under Water" appeared 11 years after "The Boy Who Followed Ripley" and was the second to last of Highsmith's novels. Ripley, once again the unremarkable well-to-do homeowner, is disturbed by phone calls that purport to be from the man he killed in "Ripley Under Ground" then by a couple who move in next door and, in the course of an evening's dinner, inquire directly about this man. Here the focus is more on the interior, the blandness of Ripley's outward life belied by the memories and terrible anxieties pushing up from below.

Novel after novel, the waters are troubled, masks rearranged on the face, as Highsmith shows us an individual unencumbered by constraints of legality or morality. Ripley is truly a self-made man, bringing us to silent recognition of the selfsame treacherous longings coiled and waiting in our hearts.

These are powerful books for their compelling character and the force of their narrative, certainly, yet still more so for all that goes on underneath. On the surface, we have imminently readable, fairly straightforward novels of suspense. But lurking in depths are coded tales of repressed sexuality; ontological questions of identity; an apologue of adolescence mimicking (lying) its way into adulthood; an allegory of the creative imagination and its perils. These are not things that we take away from the reading; rather, they are the things that take us, even if unaware, ever more deeply into the reading.

Just a few years ago, Highsmith seemed all but lost to the reading public. Then with the refilming of "The Talented Mr. Ripley," with a fine biography, "Beautiful Shadow," by Andrew Wilson, and with reissues of several novels, the horizon brightened. W.W. Norton, which earlier gave us "The Selected Stories" and the first American edition of the final novel, "Small g," with this boxed set makes a high bid for the recognition the author so greatly deserves.

Highsmith forever pushed things to the very borders of expectation, civility and reason. If America's tale has always best been told by the frontiersmen, the Tocquevilles and Thoreaus among us, the artists who by sheer force of will turn themselves into outsiders, then Highsmith made herself, or found within herself, the perfect outsider. Her characters and her novels refuse to fulfill our expectations; instead, they challenge all that we know. Can there be a higher art?

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