Mr Ripley: 21st century hero

He's a cold-blooded killer, a psychopath who lives to reinvent himself. But as other icons of modern literature start to look dated, Patricia Highsmith's alter ego just gets bigger and badder. What on earth does that say about us? Andrew Wilson explores a man for our times
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'Tom yanked the garrotte viciously ... and saw the nylon disappear in the flesh of the neck ... Marcangelo's gurgle stopped, his tongue began to protrude from the awful wet mouth, his eyes closed in misery, then opened in horror... Lower false teeth clattered to the tiles ... Tom picked up the teeth, and dropped them into the toilet ... he wiped his fingers with disgust on Marcangelo's padded shoulder."

Meet Tom Ripley, one of the most fascinating characters in modern fiction. This gruesome scene is typical of the charming psychopath - it comes from American novelist Patricia Highsmith's 1974 novel, Ripley's Game, which is released as a film starring John Malkovich this week. Malkovich's is not the first interpretation of the charismatic murderer. Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper and Matt Damon have all played Ripley, and next month filming starts on Roger Spottiswoode's Ripley Under Ground, with Barry Pepper in the leading role.

Further adaptations are inevitable. For eight years after Highsmith's death and nine years after her last novel was rejected by her US publisher, her most important character is being claimed as a hero for the 21st century; Highsmith herself as potentially the most significant author of our times. "She was better than American writers such as Philip Roth and Norman Mailer," says Daniel Keel, Highsmith's literary executor and the president of the Swiss publisher Diogenes Verlag. "She'll be remembered long after more fashionable novelists have faded into obscurity."

Ripley made his first appearance in Highsmith's 1955 novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, filmed in 1959 as Plein Soleil starring Alain Delon and again in 1999 by Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon. Tom Ripley is an insecure young American enlisted by the father of an acquaintance to travel to Italy and bring back his estranged son Dickie. Tom falls in love with Dickie's lifestyle - and a little with Dickie himself - but when he realises that he will never, ultimately, be able to be part of that world he kills Dickie and assumes his identity.

Most of us have dreamt about what it would be like to shed our selves and become a different person. Ripley does more than imagine. His reinvention of himself is spectacularly successful and the murder serves as a passport out of his humdrum existence and into a new glamorous lifestyle. "In the first Ripley he was quite green and young," said Highsmith of her favourite character, "just learning about Europe, about what he thought was culture and sightseeing... He decided to lift himself in his own eyes."

By the time we meet him in Ripley's Game, the third of Highsmith's five Ripley novels, we realise the emptiness of the motto, crime doesn't pay. Murder, forgery and other misdemeanours not only give the enigmatic, amoral killer financial security, but provide him with a great deal of pleasure. He revels in disguise and impersonation. He laughs as he watches a couple of victims burning in a car and the sound of a body dropping into a grave gives him a delicious thrill. "He's rather free in spirit and audacious," Highsmith said of Ripley, "and occasionally amusing to me."

He may be a murderer, but that does not mean he does not have a fine - and quite delicate - sensibility. Ripley cries at the sight of Keats' grave and cannot bear the sound of a lobster being boiled in a pot. From the second novel in the series, he lives with his wife, Heloise, yet remains sexually ambiguous. Highsmith tells us that during his wedding service at the age of 28, his face turned an unsightly shade of green, while on his honeymoon he felt like he couldn't make love to Heloise because of the noise of a parrot singing a tune from Carmen. Whenever the couple do have sex - which is not that often - it is "as if he derived pleasure from something inanimate, unreal, from a body without an identity."

He also has a taste for the finer things in life. He paints and sketches; has a rather fine collection of van Goghs and Magrittes, plus drawings by Picasso and Cocteau; plays Scarlatti and Bach's Goldberg Variations on his harpsichord and relishes the exquisite surroundings of his house in France, "Belle Ombre", with its reassuring aromas of freshly brewed coffee, rose petals and cirage de lavande. In fact, the metaphor of the Belle Ombre - the beautiful shadow - offers a clue to both our increased fascination with the Ripley character and Highsmith's work.

Highsmith gives us permission to step into a world where we can relish, in the words of Graham Greene, a variety of "cruel pleasures". Her 22 novels - peopled by characters motivated by irrational desires, strange repressions and often quite violent urges - explore the nature of identity and the extremes of emotional anarchy. Her prose was far from self-consciously literary - she admitted she wrote in "a very simple style" - yet her haunting novels have been described by The New Yorker critic Terrence Rafferty as "peerlessly disturbing - not great cathartic night-

mares but banal bad dreams that keep us restless and thrashing for the rest of the night."

There is nothing revolutionary in the idea of exploring modern life through a single character. Philip Roth's Zuckerman series - featuring the self-obsessed Jewish novelist Nathan Zuckerman - and John Updike's "Rabbit" books - about the salesman Harry Angstrom - use this device to capture the essence of 20th-century consciousness. However, Highsmith's Ripley series is much more radical. She forces us to align our viewpoint with that of a criminal and a psychopath. As you turn the pages of a Ripley novel you identify with the killer and hope that he will escape detection, as indeed he does in each book. Ripley, for Highsmith, was a symbol of our times: criminal as perfect existential hero. He is the ultimate expression of ambiguity, a concept that Highsmith believed was the "secret of the universe".

Friends testify that Highsmith regarded Ripley as a real person. The painter Peter Thomson remembers how, in 1963, in Positano - which she renamed Mongibello in the first Ripley novel - Highsmith, then a resident of the Italian fishing village, walked up to him and said, "You remind me of Tom Ripley". It was, he says, "as if she was talking about somebody she knew." After the publication, in Britain, of her second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground in 1971, she gave a copy of the book to her friend, Charles Latimer, with the dedication, "For Charles with love - April 2 - '71 from Tom (Pat)".

The first novel in the series - a dark reworking of Henry James's The Ambassadors - took only six months to write. "I often had the feeling Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing," she said. Indeed, the themes of the work - fractured identity, emotional confusion and relationships conducted within the confines of the imagination - all had their roots in her troubled life.

Before she was born, her mother, Mary, tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. "It's funny you adore the smell of turpentine," Mary would later tell her daughter, an only child born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921. Her parents were divorced nine days before she was born and her mother remarried when Patricia was three. Highsmith grew to loathe her stepfather, Stanley - she often had violent fantasies about killing him - and did not meet her real father, Jay B, until she was 12. She realised at an early age that she felt different to other girls, but grew up repressing her attraction for her own sex. "All this probably caused my propensity to write bloodthirsty stories of murder and violence," she said later.

From a young age Highsmith was obsessed with the dark and the deviant. As a girl she would immerse herself in Edgar Allan Poe's gothic tales and the lurid case histories outlined in Dr Carl Menninger's 1930 classic The Human Mind. "I can't think of anything more apt to set the imagination stirring, drifting, creating than the idea - the fact - that anyone you walk past on the pavement anywhere may be a sadist, compulsive thief, or even a murderer," she said later of the book.

After reading English Literature at Barnard College, New York - she graduated in 1942 - she read the existentialist masterpieces of Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre and Kafka. She was particularly drawn to the writings of Soren Kierkegaard and she transcribed his words "Truth is subjectivity" into her anthology of his work. The following words - taken from the anthology - about a man desperate to lose his identity, sum up the motivation that governs Ripley. "Such a despairer, whose only wish is this most crazy of all transformations, loves to think that this change might be accomplished as easily as changing a coat ... he recognizes that he has a self only by externals."

Her sexuality was neither easily codified nor well-defined. Her lovers - most of whom were women - told me that she was a contradictory figure: at times warm and tender and yet on other occasions cold and sometimes clearly quite disturbed. One confessed, "If she hadn't had her work she would have been sent to an insane asylum or an alcoholics' home ... It took me a little while to figure this out, but all those strange characters haunting one another, and thinking and fantasising about them - they were her. She was her writing." The writer Roger Clarke - whom Highsmith met in 1982 - believes that the amorality in Highsmith's work is genuine. "Some writers, like Martin Amis, do a very good job of amorality, but the bottom line is Amis is probably not an amoral person. I think Pat really was amoral. There was this strange blankness about her."

So if Ripley is, indeed, destined to become an Everyman for the 21st century, what does this tell us about ourselves? Certainly, when I first read The Talented Mr Ripley I was intrigued by the dizzying promise of recreating oneself anew and astounded by its radical transgressiveness. It suggested to me that one could shape one's life like a character in a story, an alluring prospect for anyone interested in the magic of the imagination. And the Ripley novels give us an outlet through which we can channel our deepest, darkest desires and as such they stand as a symbolic expression of the power - and perversity - of the unconscious.

It's only now, after her death - in 1995, aged 74 - that the power of her writing is finally being appreciated, especially in America. For although Highsmith enjoyed both critical praise and occasional bestseller status in Europe - when she walked down the street in Germany she would be stopped for her autograph - towards the end of her life, sales of her novels in the US never topped 8,000. European literature has always been much more comfortable with the exploration of dark themes, and perhaps the US of the past was too complacent to appreciate her. An America which has experienced the trauma of the Oklahoma City bombings, the Columbine shootings and the 11 September attacks is more tuned into Highsmith's dark vision. Readers are looking for writers who can, if not explain, then at least describe the terrors, ambiguities and uncertainties of the modern world. According to Keel, Highsmith is "going to get bigger and bigger; she's going to become a classic."

'Ripley's Game' is released on Friday. Andrew Wilson's book, 'Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith' is published by Bloomsbury on 6 June, £25.