Untalented Ms Ripley

There’s a certain type of person who describes all clothes and vehicles primarily by their brand name. “A toning Hermes bag and a pair of huge Tom Ford sunglasses dangled from her hand,” she would say, instead of telling you what colour or shape those items were. She also makes it a point to stay in the most fashionable hotels in Vienna, Venice and Ibiza, and has the most discerning eye for art with a capital A. And she’s not averse to kinky sex at the drop of a hat with powerful people.

Apparently, this is also the type of person who can cold-bloodedly kill everyone in their way. Or that is what L S Hilton would like you to believe about her heroine Judith Rashleigh, who was introduced in her first book, Maestra, and now returns in Domina.

Judith has started from humble beginnings. She has worked in a menial job in London, but using her cunning, ruthlessness and art training has made herself into a high-society girl. To put her chequered past behind her, Judith uses a pseudonym now, and, as we meet her in the beginning of Domina, runs an art gallery in Venice. She’d like to leave the skulduggery of her past behind and settle into this new comfortable life.

And when she receives an invitation from one of the world’s leading art collectors, Pablo, to perform a valuation of his collection, it seems like a validation of her arrival. But the extreme value of the collection makes her queasy, and she drops out of the offer. And then, suddenly, it seems that Pablo is out to harass her and make her fulfil her verbal contract. He even murders her language tutor.

To make things worse, it seems like the past is not quite behind her. Pablo’s wife somehow knows her real name, and of the crimes she’s committed on her way. At her command, Judith must steal a very valuable painting by Caravaggio from the collector’s estate. But where is the painting? Pablo seems to think Judith herself has it, while she knows she’s never seen it. To make things even worse, Judith is quite confident this painting is a forgery. She knows this because she’s spent a whole afternoon in a library, reading up Caravaggio’s life story (one wonders why the collector never did this). So now, to clear things up, Judith must (a) find the painting (b) get it to Pablo (c) convince Pablo it’s a fake (d) convince him to give it to his wife anyhow... or some such thing.

As if all this wasn’t enough, she can’t contact Pablo directly. She must get to his lawyer. To get to the lawyer, she must make friends with his gay lover, and also with a feared weapons dealer. All while she’s running out of money, on the run, and also being stalked by Pablo.

The astute reader will spend the book counting the various influences that make up the book. First, of course, is the uncanny resemblance to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Like Ripley, Judith is decidedly amoral and doesn’t see any problem in murder, as long as it gets her where she wants. She’s also interested in high life, hopping from fashionable hotels to shops throughout Europe. But also like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, she is brand-obsessed and decidedly shallow (but is of course more sympathetically treated). Considering the success of the Fifty Shades trilogy, explicit sex scenes are a must, preferably multiple-pages long and with a variety of characters.

But the biggest thematic similarity here, even if Hilton has never seen the movies, is to the works of Abbas-Mustan. The same kind of inane twists, characters following an outline instead of actions growing out of characterisation, the sudden appearance of stereotypical people to further the plot, and the same focus on glamorous locations. Hilton has sat down with a notebook, listed a set of surprises she wants in the book, and force-fitted everything to deliver those surprises.

It’s clear that the target market for this book is not the hardcore thriller reader. Hilton aims instead at the aspirational, casual reader who would like to be daring, brutal and trendy like Judith Rashleigh. This reader doesn’t care much about well-written sentences, and hasn’t heard of Patricia Highsmith. She imagines the high life to consist of brands and glamour, and thinks of herself as put upon by life.

The fact that the first part of this series, Maestra, sold well is proof that Hilton has her strategy right, even if not her writing. Based on reviews on the net, this first part was better put together. But Domina, by no means, is up to the mark. Readers should also be aware that the story here is not complete — it literally ends with a gun pointed at Judith and a ‘To Be Concluded’ tag. Recommended only if you’re already a fan.

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