‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith

Talented-Mr-Ripley

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…

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20 thoughts on “‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith

  1. I have wanted to read this but I still worry I would have Matt Damon and Jude Law in my head, though the film is absolutely brilliant. Sounds like the book is marvellous, and shames me I have still not read any Highsmith at all. I have always fancied ‘Strangers on a Train’ which sounds like its very, very clever and very, very twisty.
    I think unplanned spells of reading things is the way forward, I am much more enjoying my reading now I am on more of a whim basis.

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  2. This one’s been on my TBR for ages, but like Simon I’m still not sure whether I can overcome the whole Matt / Jude thing.
    I do love a novel that puts you squarely in the head of the baddie. My all time favourite has to be ‘The Collector’ by John Fowles.

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  3. I loved this book and I’m also a big fan of the film, although it is rather different from the novel. I saw the film first and I didn’t have any trouble forgetting about Matt and Jude when I read the book, so I wouldn’t let that put you off reading it – perhaps it’s because the plot and characters are altered in several significant respects?
    I haven’t read anything else by Highsmith, partly because I was so disappointed by the first two Ripley sequels, which I tried but couldn’t finish – I felt that Tom was so different as to be unrecognisable as a character, and also became much less interesting.

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  4. Interesting to read a review by someone who has not read Highsmith before. She’s not to my taste as I personally like some kind of punishment/restitution for crimes committed. But she was one of a kind and ground breaking for her time. I enjoyed the film but Ripley (unsurprisingly I suppose) didn’t look as he does in my imagination.

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  5. Ah, but I have read Highsmith before… I read “Carol”, her “lost” novel, and quite enjoyed it.
    I like crime novels too, but Highsmith isn’t crime, is she? This is definitely in the thriller/suspense category, which is one of my favourite genres.

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  6. That’s one reason why I am glad I read the book first; I didn’t have to worry about certain actors sabotaging my enjoyment of it! 🙂
    And yes, I quite fancy Strangers on a Train too… I’m actually eying up a boxed set of all her novels in hardcover that I discovered on Amazon the other day.

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  7. Oh yes, I loved The Collector when I read it years ago… more recently I’ve enjoyed Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here (reviewed on this blog somewhere) in which the narrator sounds normal enough, if somewhat eccentric, to begin with, but then you start joining the dots and realise he’s quite unhinged. The book is dark but it is also incredibly humourous.

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  8. That’s disappointing to hear that the sequels aren’t as good… I’d quite like to read them at some point.
    First, I need to watch the Law/Damon film though!

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  9. I’d like to read more… Everyman Library does a nice hardcover of the three books in one volume, so next time I’m feeling generous I might buy myself a copy. 🙂

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  10. He’s an interesting character, all right. He actually reminded me a little of Carol in her forgotten novel by the same name… she’s not quite as nasty, but she’s very much a loner, more because she’s a lesbian at a time when such “lifestyle choices” were frowned upon, than for any other reason.

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  11. Great timing on this one — I’ve pulled that Everyman’s Library volume off the shelf because it is time for me to read book three (sorry, don’t have the title at hand). I like the series well enough that I also have books four and five on hand, but will space them out.
    I too saw the film first but did not find that a problem when I read the book. The filmmakers have to leave so much out anyway that it is not really a problem — and I continue to love both film and book.

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  12. My understanding is that the film introduces a character that doesn’t exist in the book and makes one of the minor characters in the book quite central to the film, so it sounds like film and book offer quite different experiences.
    I’m intrigued enough to want to read the other Ripley books… but I’m eying up this lovely collection of hardcovers on Amazon right now and feel a splurge coming on! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Complete-Ripley-Novels-Talented-Followed/dp/0393066339/ref=wl_it_dp_o_npd?ie=UTF8&coliid=I1MA1TG0EUKQQL&colid=FRKUHEINP3U8

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  13. I looked at that collection and was tempted as well — the problem was that I already had the Everyman’s Library hard cover containing the first three of the five. I’ll admit I opted to buy paperbacks of the last two.
    As for the films, the directors of both versions (there is a noirish French version title Purple Noon which is excellent) wisely decided they couldn’t adquately cover ever angle of the book and chose to develop just a few — which does mean adjusting some of the story. In terms of both films, the biggest problem is that you can’t end with the ambiguity that the book does, so they have to force the story (not very successfully). On the other hand, both films have gorgeous settings — hardly surprising.

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