A Sophisticated Sociopath on a Rampage

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

By Patricia Highsmith

Psychological thrillers don’t get much better than this. Patricia Highsmith plants you deep within the brain of American sociopath Tom Ripley as he deceives one person after another, assumes the life of a young man he envies, and lashes out murderously to achieve his ends. Even today, more than sixty years after its first printing, with truckloads of psychological crime novels featuring psychos carted of to the remainder bins, and a swamp of crime movies and television shows spilling from our screens, this still stands out as an achievement of perfectly blending literary and hard-edged noir.

Succinctly, Tom Ripley is a young man in his mid-twenties existing in New York City. He really can’t do anything, doesn’t own anything, rooms with friends, and engages in petty forgery and scamming, not to make money but to amuse himself. As he says, he is very disappointed in his life and what he has made of it. Then his life changes. Mr. Herbert Greenleaf approaches him thinking him a close friend of his son, Dickie. Dickie has been taking an extended vacation in Italy trying his hand at painting, when his father needs and wants him back home in the family boat building business. Would Tom, all expenses paid, of course, sail to Italy and persuade Dickie to return home?

Tom connects with Dickie in short order and methodically befriends him. What Tom admires most about Dickie is his smooth approach to life, his nice manner, fueled, naturally, by lots of money. In a letter to Dickie, that is, Tom as Dickie, Marge Sherwood, Dickie’s wannabe girlfriend, writes of Tom, “He’s just a nothing ,,,” Perfect, as Tom is a blank canvas awaiting paint, and Dickie is the paint. Tom hatches a plan, really sort of a scatterbrained plan that feels almost spontaneous, to kill Dickie, which he does. Then the adventure truly begins as Tom dodges, weaves, and deceives (the police, Marge, Mr. Greenleaf, and Dickie’s friends) his way around Italy, subsuming Dickie into the very core of his being. So perfectly does he do this that later in the novel he begins to believe he has a talent for painting and an appreciation of art. And no secret here, as you probably know the Ripley story turned into a five-novel series, he gets away with it.

Highsmith’s Ripley is a brilliant creation. He’s at various times a knockabout, a petulant child, a hedonist, a terrorized boy, a self-doubter, an explosive killer, a conniver, and a man unable to understand or even define his own identity. Paramount, though, above all, he thinks of only one person, only what’s good for Tom Ripley. Striping away Highsmith’s literary polishing, he sounds quite despicable. Yet, credit to Highsmith, you find yourself liking him, hoping, too, that his bobbing will succeed. Forget that you know, like all sociopaths, he doesn’t experience emotion but mimics it. Pay attention to Highsmith’s sentences and descriptions, the declarative style she employs here; you’ll see how it helps us feel Tom’s coolness, his emotional void.

Even her plotting captures the essence of Tom, his lackadaisical ambling approach to life, by giving us the impression stuff just happens. A situation presents itself and Tom improvises on the spot. So we readers feel like we’re just skipping from situation to situation, almost as if Highsmith is making it up as she goes, perhaps chortling at each twist.

A must read for everybody who loves their psychological fiction on the highest order. And after reading it, you might enjoy seeing how Hollywood realized it on the silver screen with a stellar cast. w/c

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