Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 2009.
I seem to be going through a minor, and completely unplanned, phase of reading suspense novels right now, so what better book to continue the theme than Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, a classic of the genre? This is where I also stick up my hand and confess that I’ve never seen the film, so I came to the book with no preconceptions whatsoever. I had no idea of the plot, nor the wickedness of the central character Mr Ripley either.
A suspense novel of the finest order
First published in 1955, the book is a suspense novel of the finest order — precisely plotted, written in concise but stylish prose, and filled with brilliant characters.
But unlike many suspense novels, where you fear for the good guys that have found themselves in a difficult situation, in this fast-paced story you actually cheer on the perpetrator. In this case it is Mr Ripley, a 23-year-old loner, who commits two atrocious murders.
From the outset, we learn that Tom, who lives in New York, isn’t the most honest of characters. He hates his circle of friends, lies about his job and commits tax fraud under a false name. Raised by an aunt, whom he detests, he continues to accept the cheques she sends him, because he’s desperate for the money.
But when he is offered the chance to go to Europe on an all expenses paid trip, Tom sees it as an opportunity to start his life afresh.
A trip to Italy
The trip, however, is not without its strings, for Tom has been “hired” by a wealthy industrialist, Herbert Greenleaf, to go to Italy in order to convince his wayward son, Dickie, to return home. It seems that Tom once met Dickie at a party, but for some reason Mr Greenleaf thinks they are close friends — Tom, knowing a good deal when he sees one, does nothing to disabuse him of the idea.
In the seaside Italian village of Mongibello, Tom befriends Dickie, an artist, and his American girlfriend, Marge, a writer. He is greeted with contempt at first, but soon worms his way into Dickie’s affections and the pair become inseparable. (There are hints of unrequited homosexual love, on Tom’s part, but they remain just that: hints.)
Of course, it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the plot, but let’s just say that Tom’s hunger for money gets the better of him and he decides to bump off Dickie. Later, when one of Dickie’s friends suspects that Tom is hiding something, he, too, is done away with.
Two murders down and with the police on his trail, the book’s suspense element goes into overdrive as Tom tries to keep two steps ahead in order not to be caught. The story moves from Mongibello to Rome, Sicily to Venice, and all the while he covers his tracks so superbly you begin to wonder if he will ever make a false move. Surely Marge can see through his lies? Doesn’t Mr Greenleaf suspect him of evil doing? Can’t the police tell he is making things up? And won’t the private investigator, brought in at the last minute, find him out?
Cheering on a killer
Funnily enough, even though Tom is a killer and a wicked, manipulative little man, you can’t help but cheer him on. Yes, he’s probably a psychopath — he certainly doesn’t show empathy for any of his so-called friends or victims — but it’s hard to dismiss him as evil. He is so lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem, and so desperate to be liked and accepted by his peers, that you end up empathising with his conniving ways and become enamoured of his quick wit and ability to think on his feet. Essentially, you appreciate his talent as a conman and killer.
And that, I think, is the real success of this novel, because Highsmith really gets inside the heads of her characters and so expertly depicts the complicated tangle of human relationships — people’s loyalties, their weaknesses, the things that make them tick — that the characters and their predicaments seem entirely plausible. You can appreciate why Tom is jealous of Marge, can see that Marge is foolish to pin all her hopes on a man who doesn’t truly love her, and that Dickie is self-centred and spoilt. And you understand completely their motivations, which probably explains why you can never truly condemn Tom for his actions. He wants money, freedom and success — don’t we all? — he’s just gone about achieving it the wrong way.
I read The Talented Mr Ripley in two longish sittings, because I just had to know whether Tom would get away with his crimes. If you want to know if he gets his just desserts, beg, borrow or buy a copy…