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Reading Like a Writer: Ripley Under Ground and Suspense

Posted on Fri, Sep 19 2014 9:00 am by Allison Wyss

I find myself thoroughly creeped out, yet again, by Patricia Highsmith's character, Tom Ripley, of The Talented Mr. Ripley. I've just read Ripley Under Ground, the second in the Ripley series, a few years after freaking out (in a good way) about the original.

Tom Ripley is an American in Europe who murders freely and without regret to protect his lifestyle and reputation. For the reader, there's horror as well as voyeuristic pleasure in watching Ripley commit his crimes. Suspense builds as we suspect what is coming, but don't know for sure.

It's chilling. And it's compelling.

One of the hardest things to pin down, when studying books and how to write them, is what it is that makes a story compelling. There's a magic that happens when we're told just enough that we need to know more. Finding the balance of what to tell and what to withhold is an art. Finding a voice that can maintain that balance is perhaps even harder.

In Ripley Under Ground, Highsmith has found an intriguing way to uphold that balance in Tom Ripley as narrator. He's the sort of fellow who can tell everything but still keep secrets. He's not exactly unreliable—not in any typical way. He lies to other characters, of course, but he's perfectly honest with the reader, confessing his hopes, his fears and describing his crimes.

So how does Highsmith make this happen? I think there's a clue in the following sentence:

Through the closed door that led to the gallery came a hubbub of voices, lots of voices, out of which a woman's laugh leapt like a porpoise over the surface of the troubled sea, Tom thought, though he was not in the mood for poetry.

It's not a creepy sentence, or even one that matters much to the plot, but it reveals an important truth about Ripley and the way his mind works. (I'm not talking about the "poetry" he claims.) I'm struck by the bold act of making a character think what he's not in the mood for. He's not in the mood! So how can he think it?

The sentence seems to break the most basic rule of POV, which is to include only thoughts that your POV character would think.

But maybe Highsmith isn't violating the rule. Maybe her character actually thinks in this bizarre way.

The sentence reveals something profound about Ripley. Because he can have a thought counter to his mood, his mood must not be controlling his thoughts. It hints at a spectacular separation of mind, half of his brain split from the other. We might even speculate that his personality is split.

Yikes. This gets me into scary territory. I don't want to psychoanalyze characters. I don't care whether Ripley is clinically insane (for the record, though, I don't think he is). I'm more interested in what Ripley does with his split mind. I'm interested in taking it as a given and watching how it affects him. And I'm exceptionally interested in how Highsmith uses the characteristic to write a compelling novel.

First, Ripley as character. What's fascinating to me is that Ripley knows about his split mind. In fact, he fosters it.

When Ripley decides to impersonate a man, he refuses to arrive early or practice very much so there will be "not enough time to grow nervous." He's hiding thoughts—not from the reader, but from himself!—in order to control his mood and his feelings.

Now for a spoiler: Ripley haunts a man. He haunts him to death. We watch him do it, unsure of his intentions, yet suspecting them all the time.

The suspense is enabled by Ripley's "split mind," by the way he can think of "poetry" even when he's not in the mood, by the way he can willfully remain unconscious of his own plans. Ripley says he knows how to handle Bernard but doesn't tell the reader his intentions. It's a tease, of course, but it's a forgivable, logical tease, because we know that Ripley is not looking at his solution any closer than he tells us. Even as he's doing it, he's pretending—to himself—that he only wants to help Bernard. One part of his mind knows, but keeps the plan a secret from the other part—the part telling the story.

Ripley's horrific actions, his casual murders, can only mesh with his sense of self because he cultivates this odd mindset. The split mind might even make it easier for readers to engage with him. We can be both intrigued and horrified because there are separate parts of him to intrigue and horrify us.

Ripley's "split personality" allows Highsmith to intensify suspense. Because Ripley doesn't know his own mind, and because he willfully doesn't know it, he can be an intensely honest narrator without giving away too much too early. So Highsmith can withhold information while remaining true to the voice of her character. I suppose Ripley is, technically, "unreliable," but he's unreliable in a strange and useful way.

Which novels have kept you on the edge of your seat in suspense? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.


Allison Wyss is teaching "Reading Like a Writer: The Best Book Club Ever" this winter at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.