Drinks with the TT: Tom Ripley

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

As part of my persistent ambition for the Financial Times to treat me to lunch (or breakfast or tea or anything that involves an interview and food), here is another installment of my Trade Tripper interviews. Considering that psychologically problematic people seem to be in vogue nowadays (at least in the Philippines), I’ve decided to invite Tom Ripley for drinks.

The venue was Georges and Marie’s bar-tabac in Villeperce-sur-Seine, which I’ve chosen for the convenience of my guest (who lives a mere walking distance away) and for my own personal safety. After all, this is a guy who, as of last count, killed nine people (and indirectly caused the deaths of four) and each time getting away scot-free. The mere fact that I’m writing about it and him still not getting caught is a testament to his extraordinary cunning and, well, talents.

The bar-tabac was getting noisier so I moved over to a quieter area near the window. The clientele, mostly drivers and workmen having their after work tumblers of pastis, were arguing politics, Sarkozy, and how le bleu will likely be found wanting in the coming World Cup. The motorcycle video game is still there, as well as a flat screen TV set tuned in to football. And there, just entering the door, taking off his scarf, is Tom Ripley.

Impeccably dressed, Ripley however is the type of guy who could stand next to you and you wouldn’t even notice he’s there. A remarkably commonplace face, with a bland deferential expression to go with it. He quietly walks up to me and we shake hands. We both order a café cognac and settle back. He offers me a Gauloises. I waive it off but told him to go ahead. Naturellement, this being France.

I ask him about Heloisé. He smiles: "She’s fine. She’s in Morocco now traveling with her friend Noëlle." But weren’t you in Morocco before already? I ask. "Yes," he answers, "but you know how Heloisé is. And besides, we wanted to go back because our last trip was kind of interrupted by some unpleasant people." He’s referring to the Pritchard couple, who, incidentally, would be both found dead, drowned in a pond inside their own home. So what are you doing here? Well, my three weeks was up, Heloisé wanted to stay, and something came up which compelled me to go back to Belle Ombre." I’m not going to ask what.

I asked him about his relationship with (the now deceased) Patricia Highsmith. "We never really mingled a lot," he said, leaning back and taking a drag from his cigarette. "We talked over the phone, exchanged some letters, and she just had the talent to make something of the somewhat boring events that I happened to come upon." Apparently, she found you a fascinating character, I said, and would continually talk about you to her friends. Ripley nods his assent: "It’s interesting how people get fascinated by my troubles."

In fact, people find Ripley so interesting that movies have been made about him. "Yeah, I know," he perks up, "and not all very good. Matt Damon I’d rather forget, Alain Delon is OK, John Malkovich is fine. Although I must say that Jonathan Kent is frightening, it’s like looking at a mirror." He chuckles and waves to Marie behind the bar.

It has always been assumed that Ripley is a serial killing psychopath. He dispatches his victims coolly, meticulously, and, except for Dickie Greenleaf’s murder, normally feels no remorse about the deaths. The violence he causes is shocking not really for its brutality (murdering either through beatings or strangling) but more for how casually he does it. His ability to lie and act his way out of tight spots is remarkable, to the point that one sometimes get to think he actually believes his lies. Strangely, though Ripley could unperturbedly slaughter people, for some reason he couldn’t stand the sound of live lobster being cooked in a pot.

Nevertheless, despite it all, I have to (guiltily) confess that I sometimes find Ripley saner than a lot of people I know. His amorality seems to outrage only the self-righteous, repressed, or hypocritical. And it must be said about Ripley that he would go to extreme lengths to reason with his victims and, in the end, it is their neurosis that actually does them in. Indeed, perhaps we label Ripley a monster because, unlike most people, this elegant suave polite killer who spends most of his days gardening and dabbling in art, and who simply wants to be left alone, gets away with it.

Ripley stands up to leave. I commend him for seeming to age quite gracefully. He grins, "I’m certainly wiser now, more patient."

And more talented? I add, getting the bill, just happy to have survived.

Georges and Marie's bar-tabac
2 x cafe cognac

Total (including service charge) €8.40