Ripley's appetite

Food - Bee Wilson wonders at the shockingly self-indulgent diet of a skinny murderer

It is a truism that watching the film of a book destroys the way you imagine the original characters. I had this experience again watching the recent film of The Talented Mr Ripley. Now, when I read Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels, it's hard to get the image of Matt Damon off the page, even though he was all wrong in the lead role. Damon's main characteristic as Ripley was his skinniness. To make himself look scrawny and outsider-like enough to play a murderer, Damon lost 20lb. He ran five miles a day. His co-star Gwyneth Paltrow told the press how brave Damon was, dining on steamed chicken breasts while the rest of the cast "gorged themselves" on wonderful pasta on location.

But Highsmith's anti-hero isn't really like that. Reading the books, you never doubt that he's thin, but thin in the feckless style that clever young men sometimes have, not thin in a steamed-chicken-breast kind of way. If Damon had wanted to get Ripley-thin, he should have ditched the nutritionists and adhered to a careful diet of Gauloises, too many cups of cafe creme, and an indulgent but never gluttonous regimen of classic cuisine bourgeoise. The real Mr Ripley, if one can talk in such terms about a fictional character, is a very talented gastronome.

Ripley's path to murder begins with "a gourmet's dinner" chez Mr and Mrs Greenleaf in New York. Over canapes, celeri remoulade and "a whole cold chicken in aspic", Mr Greenleaf puts the proposal to Tom Ripley to go to Mongibello in Italy and retrieve his rebellious son Dickie. In Naples, Ripley suffers a distressing meal of miniature octopuses, but soon arrives in Mongibello, where Dickie and his annoying girlfriend Marge are living the good life Ripley yearns for: martinis on the terrace, spaghetti and salad on the table, artichokes on the hob, roast chicken in the oven and Picassos on the walls.

After he murders Dickie and takes over his money, he can live it for himself. Twisting and turning to elude the police, talented Tom breakfasts on sweet rolls and cafe latte and goes to the kind of party where butlers serve "pates en croute, sliced turkey, and petits fours, and quantities of champagne". In Paris, where he eats ham sandwiches on "long, crusty bread", Tom enjoys his new identity. "Wonderful to sit in a famous cafe, and to think of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow being Dickie Greenleaf!"

His fine tastes almost betray him. Marge is suspicious about Dickie's disappearance, so, to reassure her, Tom gives her lunch at his apartment in Rome.

But his hospitality is out of keeping with his supposed poverty. "Tom regretted very much that the main dish was cold roast beef, a fabulously expensive item on the Italian market." Luckily, Marge, the kind of "good egg" who likes Christmas turkey "with marrons and giblet gravy", is too stupid to notice.

In the later Ripley books, Tom has no such worries. He uses Dickie's money to settle into a respectably affluent lifestyle at his house in the French village of Villeperce, with a charming wife, Heloise, and assiduous housekeeper, Mme Annette. Ripley enjoys satisfying little chats with Mme Annette about the tournedos with sauce Bearnaise or mousse au chocolat she will cook for dinner, or whether she can get him "soles" for lunch. The more murders Ripley commits, the more comfortable his diet becomes.

Not that he is unaffected by killing. After bumping off an American businessman in his cellar, he asks Mme Annette to cook some calves' liver. "The butcher at the moment has beautiful gigot!" she replied. "Tom was not in the mood for anything with a bone in it, somehow. 'If it is not too much trouble, I think I prefer calves' liver.'" It is Ripley's casual self- indulgence, rather than his skinniness, that is so shocking.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs