The Talented Mr Ripley (1955): Patricia Highsmith


Tom Ripley: Book 1

Two jolly good books in a row! I had a bit of a head start on Patricia Highsmith’s most famous novel, because I’ve seen the 1999 film adaptation several times. However, it’s been so long since I last watched it that I really couldn’t remember all the details, and had the pleasure of being caught up in the cat-and-mouse game of the plot. Will he or won’t he be caught?! Highsmith’s smart, calculating antihero Tom Ripley must, in a sense, be the patron saint (or devil) of introverts, with the caveat that most of us aren’t psychopaths. There’s a kind of wish fulfilment about this story, in which a mousy, impoverished nobody finds himself thrust into the glittering orbit of an American trust-funder – sampling a lifestyle which proves so irresistible that he is prepared to commit murder in order to keep enjoying it. Highsmith’s genius is to write this story from Ripley’s perspective, making his actions seem so self-evidently logical that you find yourself rooting for him to prevail. A classic thriller, well deserving of its status.

Tom Ripley is nothing: an orphan, raised by an unfeeling aunt, now making ends meet in New York with a series of dead-end jobs and the odd half-hearted fraud. When he’s tracked down by Herbert Greenleaf, Ripley’s first thought is that justice has come knocking for him, but the truth turns out to be far stranger. Greenleaf has been told that Tom is a friend of his son Dickie – true insofar as Tom has met Dickie once or twice, but they aren’t quite the bosom chums that Greenleaf imagines. Never mind: Greenleaf is offering Tom the opportunity of a lifetime: to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy to find Dickie – currently slumming it in some village outside Naples – and persuade him to come home and take up his responsibilities. Tom leaps at the chance, careful not to show it openly, but to appear only as a responsible, reliable, solid young man. But Italy! Naples! And all paid for by someone else! How hard can his mission be?

On arrival in Mongibello (apparently on the Sorrentine peninsula; it doesn’t actually exist), Tom discovers that Dickie has no intention of going home. He is quite happy living on his trust fund, dabbling in painting, swimming, boating and hanging out with his friend Marge, the only other American in the village. And he doesn’t appreciate some half-remembered stooge being sent out to him by his father. Tom realises that he has to do things a different way. He has to win Dickie over. And so Tom turns on all the charm, all the social sleight-of-hand that he can muster, to wheedle his way into his new friend’s objections. It isn’t easy. And there’s always Marge, hovering at the edge, demanding Dickie’s time, watching Tom suspiciously… plus Dickie’s extended circle of American gadabouts in Italy. Very soon, Tom realises that he is growing to enjoy Dickie’s lifestyle far too much; but that Dickie’s affections for him aren’t increasing in turn. Panicking, seeing his new comfort disappearing in smoke, Tom resolves the situation in the only way he knows how – which leaves him with a whole new sets of problems.

Chameleonic and highly adaptable, Tom Ripley can brazen his way through pretty much any situation he tries. But, with Mr Greenleaf asking for results, Marge’s lovelorn need for Dickie, and other so-called friends, like the repulsive Freddie Miles, closing in, Tom is going to have to pull off a tougher con than anything he’s ever attempted before. When a problematic meeting results in yet another murder, the Italian police suddenly realise that all is not well; but how can they find a culprit when none seems to exist? A splendid, gripping story of subterfuge and detection, this takes us onto the less familiar side of the equation and leaves us breathless in the company of the criminal, hoping against hope that he’ll get away scot-free. How far will our Mr Ripley’s talent take him?

Anyone who has seen the film – quite a lot of people, I imagine – will know the answer to that; but I’d urge you to give the book a go even if you’re familiar with the adaptation. Highsmith is a real craftsman and her pacing and nuances can’t really be captured in another medium. As readers, we’re charmed into feeling such sympathy with Tom that everything he does seems normal, acceptable, almost commendable. It’s a delicious thriller set in a golden age of idleness, when one could casually live between Rome, Venice and Paris depending on the season, and life was just a series of attractive crumbling apartments in picturesque towns. In many ways, The Talented Mr Ripley is a paean to the glories of Italian life, although I suspect the days of hiring dilapidated palazzi on the Grand Canal for $50 a month may be over. More’s the pity.

This must have caused quite the stir when it was first published in 1955, and it hasn’t aged a bit. It’s so taut, playful and subversive as to still feel entirely fresh and modern. I’m keen to look out for the other Ripley books, although I must also (at some point) post about Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, which I read earlier this year and which proved to be similarly impossible to put down.

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