Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Dose of Vintage Noir

I was in a mood recently, casting about for what to read next, wallowing in indecision. Let's face it fellow readers, at any given time our to-be-read piles threaten to topple over and crush us. So I decided to step back a few decades, and I grabbed my Library of America American Noir of the 1950's. I realized, not for the first time, that I'd never read Patricia Highsmith's classic The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I am going to talk about the ending of this novel as well as the end of The Killer Inside Me. So read no more if ye be worried about spoilers. (Although both novels are decades old ...)

What's interesting about American Noir of the 1950's, is that the editor elected to follow Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me with Highsmith's Ripley novel. Back to back, these might be illuminating reads, offering insight to the evolution of the genre. The protagonists of both novels are murderers, and the suspense in both cases derives from the protagonists constant fear that their acts have been detected by the authorities.

Much has been debated (and re-debated, and re-re-debated) on the subject of the sympathetic vs. unsympathetic protagonist. In both of the above novels, the authors work some kind of magic that puts us on the side of the murderers, hoping they can escape the clutches of the law.

The unsympathetic protagonist is a subject near and dear to my heart. Although I've been blessed with mostly good reviews, I've had my share of e-mail (some of it surprisingly angry) which criticizes Charlie Swift (Gun Monkeys) for being a killer or dismisses Conner Samson (Suicide Squeeze) for being a loser, etc. I have always maintained that these characters are not aware that there are readers watching their every move, and so they feel no compunction to clean up their acts and act "nice" for an audience. I've always wanted to write about (and read about) characters who show us all sides of their makeup, warts and all.

The actions of Thompson's protagonist ultimately catch up with him, and "justice" is served. With some possible irony to flavor the climax, since it turns out the murder victim is, in fact, still alive after all. But in Highsmith's tale, Ripley gets away with his murders, living to kill and forge and swindle another day. Having read so many reviews and criticisms of so many different novels that insist on a protagonist being "likable" it's difficult to imagine a modern audience taking a shine to Tom Ripley. He's cold, manipulative, and mostly detached from the rest of humanity. He is self-serving and self-centered. His definition of the good life is suspect.

While I might not be attracted to Tom Ripley as a person, I am very attracted to him as a character. Kudos to Highsmith. I'm just sorry it took me so long to read this classic.


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

One of the most interesting comments made by an audience member at my seminar came from James Patrick Kelly. Jim pointed out that, when reading SF or fantasy, we willingly suspend disbelief. When reading crime novels like THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE or GUN MONKEYS (the three I assigned), we willingly suspend morality and become, in a sense, complicit withthe protagonist.

What do you think?

And by the way...of the proganists in question (Lou Ford, Frank Chambers and Charlie Swift), the students agreed that Charlie was the most sympathetic.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Pardon the typos in that mesage, please.

Victor Gischler said...


I never thought of it in those terms, but I think that's an interesting way to think about it. But I think a lot of people are maybe NOT willing to suspend morality (or disbelief) and end up not enjoying a particular work.

As far as Charlie Swift goes, I never intended him to be utterly unlikeable. Rather, I wanted to stretch what the reader would accept, yet still have Charlie be liked to some extent. There were one or two sepcific scenes where I threw down the gauntlet hard, and I know I lost a few readers.

Such is life.


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I want characters of complexity, ones that are not easily shoved into boxes marked "hero" or "villain."

For me, the things that ground Charlie Swift and make him likeable are his devotion to his family, friends and boss, and his relationship with Marcie. Like Whitman said: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."

My protagonist is also a hit man, but I think I have done my job and made him a character readers can get behind.

Anonymous said...

Charlie Swift is one of my favorite guys, but more because of his attitude and his humor than anything else. It's the way he likes his coffee, and his frustration with stupidity that makes him sympathetic. The relationships with other people help, but there were just so many moments where I thought, yeah, I know just what he's saying, and he's right.
Victor, I had the same experience with the Ripley book (just a couple of months ago). I was blown away. What I don't know is how the sequels (?) go. Also, whether Strangers on a Train matches the movie. If it does, there's one where the hero and villain are split back into two characters, but they're both still sympathetic. But I haven't found a copy yet.

John D. said...

I tend to gravitate to books with criminal protagonists. Does that make me a bad person (or a closet evil-doer)?

I think that the key to creating a good "bad guy," is understanding that he doesn't think of himself as a bad guy. He may have to do some serious psychological/moral gymnastics to justify his actions, but on some level, he thinks what he is doing is the right thing; or at the very least, not the wrong thing.

Steve Allan said...

Ripley is most certainly an intriguing character. I think Highsmith's greatest achievement is that we do root for this villain. And I think the reason she gets away with it is that the reader starts to live vicariously through Ripley. He's smart and can scheme his way through the upper class, something that we have all thought about at one time or another. We want to be smart, we want to be as smart as Ripley. We want to do the things he is capable of. However, many of us would stop at encompassing his immorality, at least in the real world - but in a fictious setting, where we're safe from real world consequences, who wouldn't want to be the villain once and awhile? Highsmith starts out with Ripley's smaller crimes - forgery and deceit, and gradually works our way up to murder and theft - in which we willingly agree to follow due to our dark side (and if we don't have a dark side, why the fuck do we read crime fiction?). And what Highsmith furhter does is take that deep seeded desire and gives us motivation. Whether one determines if Ripley's affection toward Dickie Greenleaf is of a homosexual nature or more of an intense admiration, it is a powerful emotion for Ripley, and when he is ultimately rejected by Dickie, we can understand why Ripley does what he does. And there lies our sympathy - we may not have done the same thing, but who has never been rejected at a similar level as Dickie's snub of Ripley? Highsmith makes us understand because we have felt, well maybe not the exact same way, but at least comparatively.

Another technique that Highsmith uses is writing the Ripley books in the third person. We may read what Ripley is thinking, we may experience things through his senses; but we do not 100% embody Ripley. He remains a bit of a mystery in which we fill in the blanks with our own experiences and prejudices, putting a little of ourselves into the character. Which is something that we cannot do with Thompson's The Killer Inside Me due to the first person narration. Between Ripley and Thompson's narrator, I think Ripley is more sympathetic because of the slight unknown, whereas Chambers folds everything out for us (well, not everything - he is not a very reliable narrator) in terms of his perception, with little room for us to fill any holes.

Did any of that makes sense?

Victor Gischler said...


I haven't read the sequels yet either, so I'm curious how they go.


Good thoughts. It all made sense. Good sense.


Nathan Rideout said...

I believe the best way to look at this issue is to take their complaints with a grain of salt. Odds are you have more positive feedback than negative.

But anyways, The protagonists, in your novels arent perfect and I believe that is what is so likable to the vast majority of the readers. I know from my point of view its a way of connecting with the characters in the story. Afterall society doesn't spit out the perfect person, so why should it be listed as such in a novel. Why not just make it to reality so that the readers who don't have a blindfold over their eyes can closely relate to such events occuring in the novel in some way or another.

ps. sorry for grammer errors if any..