BBC Radio 4, 28 March 2009
In the previous four episodes of this five-part series of adaptations
of Highsmith's novels, we had become accustomed to Ripley's (Ian Hart's) macabre adventures, as he pursued parallel careers
as forger, money-grabber and murderer in 1950s Europe. He remained a cheerfully amoral figure, describing his reactions in
voice-over, neither soliciting our sympathy nor coming across as especially evil. In Ripleyspeak the words 'good' and 'evil'
did not exist; he just lived for the spur of the moment.
In Ripley Under Water it seemed as if he had at last met his match, as he
was pursued by David Pritchard (William Hope), a shadowy American expatriate who appeared to know everything about Ripley's
past; his callous murders of Dickie Greenleaf and Merchison, and his decision to throw Merchison's corpse in a river in the
hope that it would decompose. Pritchard could have used this knowledge to bring Ripley to justice; instead the expatriate
preferred to taunt Ripley in the malicious belief that Ripley would eventually break down and admit to everything. On the
surface Ripley appeared unconcerned as he passed comments to the listeners, but for the first time in the five-play sequence
we were aware that events had got the better of him. Pritchard fished out Merchison's corpse and deposited it in a sack outside
Ripley's front door, roughly wrapped in a blanket.
Why should Patricia Highsmith have changed her stance so radically towards her fictional
creation? We have no way of knowing, but my suspicion is that she tried to find ways of keeping him under control. However
as the story unfolded, we realized that she has forced herself into a corner; while reasserting her authorial power over Ripley,
she does not want to put him in prison. The only way open for her is to invent a contrived conclusion in which Ripley and
his sidekick Jeff (Stephen Hogan) dump Merchison's body in Pritchard's garden pond. Pritchard comes out to investigate, trips
over the edge of the pond and drowns in four feet of water. This unexpected quirk of fate leaves Ripley in the clear, enabling
him to continue his malevolent progress across Europe. In Steven Canny's production Ripley delivered his final lines in a
tone of relief, as if glad that his creator had let him off scot-free.
There's no doubt that the entire Ripley series proved riveting listening, a tribute
both to Highsmith's skill as a storyteller and to the ingenuity of the BBC Sound Effects Department, which conjured up wonderfully
authentic aural images of the various deaths, buryings, disinterments and and killings littered throughout the cycle. Nonetheless,
I believe that Ripley eventually outgrows his creator, forcing her at the end of Ripley Under Water to let him go
in spite of her earlier efforts to punish him.