Monday, September 29, 2014

What’s Wrong with Tom Ripley, and Why Does He Get Away with Murder?

Tom Ripley is a murderer, and a murderer who shows very little compunction about murdering. He needs to murder, after all, to get what he wants, and what he wants is more important than anyone’s life. So he kills Dickie Greenleaf and Freddie Miles. Brutally.

So he must be crazy, right? I mean, a killing for revenge or a killing done in a white hot rage could be committed by a sane person, but killing to increase your social standing and to acquire some money (which is always good for your social standing—just ask the Kennedys—the money, not the killing, that is) in such a cold, premeditated way must be the act of someone unhinged, right?

Well, we want to believe that. We want to believe that anyone like Tom Ripley, a nice polite boy, a young man on the fringes of polite and gilded society, could not be a murderer (which is perhaps why he gets away with it).

Patricia Highsmith, in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, gives us a type of character so amoral and calculating that society should be barring its collective door against him at night. But instead we worry about home invasions and mad bombers and the like. Ripley is more like an Enron executive, a congenial (except when he is killing, or disgusted, like when he sees women’s underwear. Who couldn’t like women’s underwear, I’d like to know? But more of that later) and even sometimes charismatic fellow type who thinks the money in your pocket is really his money, somehow wrongly displaced from his pocket, and therefore money he is duty bound to liberate from you and return to its rightful owner—him.

But even Ripley, a protean character, Zelig-like, a shape shifter, a chameleon, so studied in his appearance at every moment, becoming whatever furthers his aims with a practiced and perfect spontaneity, slips sometimes. Having killed Dickie so he could be Dickie, to masquerade around Europe and live off Dickie’s trust fund, and then having reverted to the Ripley character (even as himself he is playing a character) when his forgeries on Greenleaf’s bank account have made it uncomfortable being Dickie, he is asked by Detective McCarron whether Dickie could have been the one who killed Miles (whom Ripley has killed for discovering Ripley’s impersonation of Greenleaf), and Ripley responds no and then explains: “Because there was no reason to kill him—at least no reason that I know of.” And McCarron responds (who wouldn’t), “People usually say, because so and so wasn’t the type to kill anybody.” But McCarron doesn’t seem to ever cotton to the idea that Ripley is a sociopath, a psychopath, and potentially a stock broker or investment banker (just kidding there, kind of).

And think of that. No reason that he knows of! As if having a reason to want to kill someone is all you need to do the killing, even though society is based on the premise that we are not going to kill everyone we have a reason to kill. If we did that, I would be guilty of killing many times a day. Just today I would have killed a telemarketer that interrupted my dinner and a supervisor at work who mouthed so many platitudes and clichés in a meeting that some people were actually near comatose by the time it ended.

As much as we may protest all the killing he does, Ripley’s urge to change his identity is a particularly American one. Isn’t Highsmith’s tale an inversion of the classic American Tale? We can see Ripley as an inverted Ben Franklin. Franklin who created a new American character in his autobiography, the American who gets by on pluck and God-given luck, as Ripley gets by on not those but on deception and homicide. Still, wasn’t America often the place where the conmen and horse stealers came to in order to escape the law in Europe? And weren’t you always able to go West and change your name when the elixir you served up in your traveling show killed some babies? Just re-create yourself, Tom, like the way that George Bush transformed himself from a dissolute coke-head into a religious zealot bent on eliminating the middle class.

So what, I ask again, is Ripley’s major malfunction? I mean, let’s assume that he is crazy (it will make us all feel better if we do, which is really why he gets away with it, because we have a need to believe social appearances are real, that all these centuries of civilization have made us civilized, that they, and us, are not capable of casual atrocity), and that craziness has a reason (another comforting thought)—then why?

Maybe it is because he is raised by cold and ridiculing Aunt Dottie, who reminds him often that he is unwanted and a sissy, and that she is somehow eligible for sainthood for taking the time and money and effort to raise him. That could be it. We hope. There are always lots of psychological theories floating around out there, and they get recycled every so often, changing like each year’s styles. Freud thought cold mothering caused schizophrenia. Bruno Bettelheim thought it caused autism. No answers to Ripley there. We might say some of Ripley’s fascination with Greenleaf is repressed homosexual longing, which is perhaps why, in the book’s most excruciating scene, Dickie finds Ripley trying on Dickie’s clothes and practicing being Dickie, and why Ripley finds Margie Sherwood’s panties and bra (Dickie’s quasi-girlfriend, and Ripley’s rival) so revolting. Ripley never comes out, even to himself. Then again, maybe there is nothing to come out to. Margie might be right in saying that he has no sexuality at all.

Another type of disorder, fashionable lately, is borderline personality disorder. Borderlines have a fragile grandiosity, and can’t form close relationships. They don’t manage to take any solace from the continuity of relationships, and every bit of conflict to them seems like the destruction of a relationship, as if its history of goodwill and friendship never existed in the first place. Borderlines also perform what is called splitting. They alternately see people as angels or demons, never becoming able to see people as combinations of both good and bad. Ripley certainly seems to suffer from these symptoms, as his deification and demonization of Dickie proves, along with his highs where he thinks of himself as the brightest and the most cultured guy going, and his lows where he feels like a clown shilling to a disrespecting crowd. And speaking of highs and lows—maybe he is manic depressive. Or suffers from anti-social personality disorder (that seems a no brainer, as the most anti-social thing you can do is murder).

Theories, theories, blah, blah, blah. Theories would reduce the three-dimensional character Highsmith has created to a type, a cardboard representation of someone who comes across on the page as so flesh and blood that he could be sitting next to you (plotting your demise). Maybe he is psychotic, or sociopathic (I was never sure what the difference was, although psychotic seems somehow worse). What does it matter? The chilling thing is that he is so calculating, so false, so completely lacking in spontaneous and true feeling. And the worst of it is that he is not different from us in kind, but only in degree. Who among us does not have a series of masks he or she wears as they navigate through the circles of hell, I mean society? Don’t tell me you don’t.

And so Tom gets away with it. No Columbo to come to the rescue. No great deduction, no analysis of effects leading back inexorably to some inevitable cause. In fact, one of the other chilling things about the book is the way that Ripley finds so many ways to spin the facts of the case to make himself seem like an innocent bystander. The comfort we might feel from a Holmesian critique of the evidence goes out the window. All is muddiness and obscurity, infinite narratives to account for infinitely tangled evidence.

Otto Penzler, editor of numerous Crime Fiction anthologies, made a distinction between hard-boiled detective and noir fiction. In hard-boiled detective fiction, the private eye lives in a debased world of moral dissolution, but is himself moral. In noir, all the characters are immoral, or amoral, are all losers, slaves to their passions, their desire to get away from their grimy world and their grimy selves, and all come to a bad end.
Ripley is amoral and a loser, I think, and even he thinks so , I would posit, at least sometimes, as in his fictional description of his alter ego Dickie’s demise: “He was a very ordinary young man who liked to think he was extraordinary— [his suicide] was because he realized certain failures in himself.”

But Highsmith departs from the noir formula in that Dickie walks away from all he has done without a scratch. It’s enough to make you never trust nice young men again.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Cab Story

One day I left my office and hailed a cab to take me to the PATCO speedline that runs from Center City Philadelphia to Lindenwold, NJ. Many cabdrivers these days stick to chatting to friends via Blue Tooth, but my cabdriver actually talked to me.

“Are you going to Atlantic City?”

“No, I live in New Jersey.”

“What brings you to Center City?”

“I work here.”

“WHAT? At YOUR age and in YOUR condition you WORK?”

Now I do walk with 2 canes and I am a bit slow, but I cover the waterfront.

Before I could respond he added, “You are independent lady. You do not live off government.”

Now this is a sore point for me. If a woman on welfare gets extra food stamp money, she’s a “welfare queen.” Banks that get bailed out are never said to be “living off the government.” But this would be a long argument for a short cab ride and I don’t like to anger a stranger when I’m riding in his moving vehicle.

“How old are you madam? How many hours do you work?”

I was too tired to think of a clever way to evade these questions so I just answered.

“I’m 58. (This happened several years ago) I work a full 40 hour week.”

Pretty soon he was talking to someone in a foreign language. I did not understand the language he spoke but he mentioned “58” and “40 hours.” He was enormously animated.

As I left the cab he said, “It is an honor to assist such a person as yourself.”

“Does that mean a free cab ride? I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m an entrepreneur.”

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, September 26, 2014

Hot-Cha: Covers for your Romance Novels

I may be the last one to hear about this site, or not. If you write romance, though, or sexy hard-boiled, and you self-publish, you can get intriguing covers from this guy Jimmy Thomas, a handsome, well-built model who runs his own romance cover business. He's having a sale this week. Can you imagine? The sale ends today, though. Sadly, I don't get anything out of promoting his stuff other than the satisfaction of staring at pictures of a handsome, well-built model.

I bought one of Mr. Thomas's pictures to use as a cover for my perennial chestnut, THE BODICE RIP'T.  I'm all set now to self-publish the thing. All I have to do is finish writing it.

Here are some other pictures from Mr. Thomas's website. You'll notice that the examples I put up all have watermarks. To buy them for yourself, sans watermark, go to the site:

I wouldn't call this one "Regency" so much. I'm sure that people in the Regency period wore way more underwear than this. Pink dresses are pretty, though.

And here's some plain beefcake. Don't know what's up with the handcuffs. You can make that story up yourself.

And lest we forget we're crime writers, here's a hardboiled detective cover. There are plenty of others, with and without guns.

Check out the site for many more thrills, some of which are a bit too spicy for a family blog. Just remember, if you select one of these pictures for a cover for your book, be sure that the fonts you use for your title and author name are high-contrast and plenty big enough to read. Not all of us can see as well as we used to.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Look, Then a Book

My new Lauren Atwill adventure, NO BROKEN HEARTS, has just been published!

For about six more weeks, my life will be frenzied, as I squeeze in writing guest-blogs, throwing a launch party, visiting bookstores, and preparing for conventions and library events to promote the book, while feverishly trying to finish the next book. 

Kind of what I dreamed about since I was a kid. Of course, in my kid-dreams, I had a secretary who’d take care of the schedule and just point me in the right direction. 

At Goodreads, I’m giving away 20 signed copies of NO BROKEN HEARTS: Enter to Win a CopyPlease put your name in the hat, as it were. Goodreads uses an algorithm to select the winners, on October 31, which takes the selection pressure off the writer. Whew.

Readers often ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I say, “If I knew, I’d have more and better.”

Writers rarely know where inspiration comes from. We understand, sometimes, how to create conditions conducive to leaps of imagination. But then sometimes we’re driving aside the maniacs on the Garden State, thinking about nothing except getting home alive, and suddenly we know how to fix that hole in our plot. How does this happen? We really don’t know.

When I started NO BROKEN HEARTS, I had a (really) vague idea of a story that would involve my amateur sleuth/screenwriter Lauren being loaned out to a second-rate studio by the major studio with which she's just signed a contract for her first screen credit in years. Start with something that would make her really angry! Conflict on page 1!

Then, as I do in all my books, I take a Hollywood scandal (from any era), imagine it into the 1940s and wonder, “How can I make this even worse?”

The scandal in NO BROKEN HEARTS is a Hollywood rumor from the Golden Age that a legendary male star (whose name I won’t repeat because I doubt this story) once accidentally killed someone and his studio paid off an underling to confess and serve manslaughter time for considerations of money and employment afterwards. How could this be made worse? How far would a studio really go to protect a star? Would they cover up a murder? Of course, Lauren would find the body, and be told to go along with the studio’s story. If she doesn’t, nobody would believe her.  And she’d be blackballed. And maybe she really doesn’t think the star did it because of something she saw at the scene. And then the real killer could realize he left a trail and come after her.

Yeah, that would make things worse.

Next, I looked through pictures, for ideas for settings, clothing, period details for the book, but mostly to pull me back into the 1940s and excite me about traveling there again. Pictures open the door to my imagination much more powerfully than music (which works wonders for many other writers).

I flipped through my files, searched favorite web sites, and the pages of books.

And then, there it was.

This is Ronald Coleman, an actor from the Golden Age of film whom I deeply admire. But I had totally forgotten this picture. From it, I began to develop the fictional star Lauren has had a crush on since she was a girl. She finally gets the chance to write for him, and then it all falls apart in a brutal killing that could cost Lauren her career, and maybe her life, too.

Inspiration and its partner, enthusiasm, won’t write your book for you. But sometimes one thing, one thing smoothes the path in such a happy way.

If you’ve never seen Ronald Coleman’s work, I recommend the classic 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda. Based on the wildly popular book by Anthony Hope, it has so many rapturous traits of 19th c. romances – malevolent scheming, wild coincidence, and outrageous twists. (And Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a villain bonus!) 

The charming but blasé Rudolph (Coleman), traveling through the kingdom of Ruritania, notices some odd glances in his direction. It turns out he bears a startling resemblance to the soon-to-be-crowned king. Wouldn’t you know it, an other-side-of-the-blanket birth has led to these men being near twins!! When the real king is kidnapped to allow another to claim the throne, loyalists convince Rudolph to impersonate the king. 

The kidnappers can’t very well say, “Hey, that’s not the king! We stole the king!” 

In the end, Rudolph has turned hero and rescued the king, but not before falling in love with his doppleganger's betrothed, played by Madeleine Carroll. The last scene between these lovers-who-can-never-be . . . 

Well, you should see for yourself.

Copyright Sheila York 2014

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The First of Fall

Summer is over.  As expected, the September weather here in New York has been just splendid—bright days, perfect temperature, cool nights.  Nothing to complain about.

Except that now the daylight will dwindle away.  The cold will come.  It’s the wrong side of winter for me.  It’s no surprise that Seasonal Affective Disorder is abbreviated SAD. 

We will soon need ways to cheer up.  What better cure than dancing!  So I present here cheering performances.  If you get the end-of-year blues, log on to these.  They are sure to make you smile.

My first two choices are pretty obvious, but nonetheless surefire hits.

First Fred, but not with not with Ginger Rogers.  In this case it’s Eleanor Powell.   Rival studio contracts kept Hollywood’s two best dancers apart until they  finally got to team up in 1940.

And then Travolta!

Here a great favorite you may not have seen.  Did you know the mega-talented Christopher Walken could do this?

And speaking of fall, can you fathom why Gene Kelly didn’t?

Annamaria Alfieri