Monday, February 19, 2007

The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith

With Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith created one of the more memorable sociopath serial killers of fictional history. And, despite the fact that parts of her plot are not quite believable, The Talented Mr. Ripley, written in 1955, has to be considered a classic crime novel.

Tom Ripley was not the kind of man who was willing to work hard for the finer things that he felt that life owed him. Rather, he found it enjoyable to manipulate those around him into giving him some of those things and, if that didn't work, he was more than willing to take those things however he could get them. When Dickie Greenleaf's father asked Ripley to go to Italy in an attempt to talk his son into returning to the family's New York business, Ripley immediately recognized an opportunity to escape his unhappy New York existence at the expense of someone else. Unfortunately, for Dickie Greenleaf, Tom fell in love with Greenleaf's European lifestyle and decided to take that for his own, too.

Patricia Highsmith achieved the difficult task of making the reader, at the very least, sympathize with Tom Ripley, if not actually like him. The reader spends so much time in Ripley's mind, listening to his logic, his fears and his aspirations, that his murders and other crimes seem almost inevitable and beyond his control. He is a true sociopath and has no feelings of guilt about killing when he thinks it is necessary to ensure the lifestyle that he sees as due him. His feeling of invincibility allows him to take chances that a sane person would never take, and he gets away with fantastic crimes as a result. That is where Highsmith's plot loses a few points for not being totally believable: Tom Ripley easily passes for Dickie Greenleaf even when using Greenleaf's passport and being interviewed by the same Italian policeman as both "Dickie" and later as "Tom," Greenleaf's parents accept a forged will in favor of Tom despite the fact that it is not witnessed and a New York bank has questioned recent signatures of their son, and Tom's fingerprints are assumed to be that of the real Dickie Greenleaf when Greenleaf's personal belongings are found in Venice near where Tom is living.

But really these are minor quibbles when placed against what Highsmith achieved in this novel. One suspects that the plot details were always secondary to her and that her goal was to create an unforgettably horrific character like Tom Ripley. And, in that, she was completely successful. In fact, Highsmith eventually returned to the Tom Ripley character for several more novels that I look forward to reading.

Rated at: 4.5

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