Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley

Appreciated more in Europe than in her native America, Patricia Highsmith is the author of 22 suspense novels, 5 of which feature the engaging sociopath, Tom Ripley. Like Ripley, Highsmith divided her time between Europe and the United States, and like him, was raised in a highly dysfunctional family. Highsmith’s writing career spanned 40 years, and the Tom Ripley novels were her only series books. Her work has won the Silver Dagger, the Edgar Allen Poe, the Officer l’Ordre des Arts es des Lettres, and the O. Henry Memorial awards. The Talented Mr. Ripley also won the Mystery Writers of America Scroll Award and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Many of her novels have been filmed.

Highsmith’s work is difficult to categorize. “She broke most of the rules that govern the writing of crime fiction,” Marcel Berlins (2008) claims. “She followed none of the usual formulae. There are no heroic cops, tough private eyes or amateur sleuths; often there is no mystery and therefore no solution; good does not necessarily triumph over evil.” In an interview with Highsmith, Joan Dupont maintains,
It’s hard to pin down what happens in a Highsmith book, for almost nothing does. Are they thrillers? Mysteries? Murder is not really the point; it is merely a metaphor. The novels are hardly whodunits, since we always know who did it – or will be driven to do it. The mystery is in the protagonist’s mind, his makeup.
The Talented Mr. Ripley begins with a meeting between Tom Ripley and Herbert Greenleaf (the father of an acquaintance). Greenleaf asks Tom to travel to Italy and convince his son, Dickie, to return home. Tom agrees, but after arriving in Italy, conceives a plan to kill Dickie and take over his identity. The novel turns the plot of Henry James’s The Ambassadors (which is referred to in the novel) into an in-depth exploration of the mind of a sociopathic killer.

In a New York Times review of Highsmith’s newest biography, Jeanette Winterson asks,
How good a writer was she? Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt and The Talented Mr. Ripley are hypnotic and amoral novels, pushing past any genre, unsettling the reader and using the limitations of her prose style — her karate-chop syntax — to create a powerful effect.
The novel is indeed powerful and disturbing. The reader watches as Tom escalates in criminal behaviour from concocting a tax fraud plan to executing two murders. The narrator gives a dispassionate and clinically detached account of Tom’s extraordinary actions. What makes the novel particularly unsettling is the way Highsmith combines deviant behaviour with everyday life as she focuses on the criminality of ordinary people (Knight 2004, 147-48). As Dupont points out, the “sense of the ordinary gone askew creates an uncanny atmosphere.”

The mystery does not revolve around the identity of the murderer; we know who did it. We are in constant suspense, though, about Tom’s fate. Will he get caught and when? A sense of impending doom grows stronger as the novel progresses. Throwing himself into increasingly dangerous situations, Tom deliberately lives on the edge, always looking over his shoulder. His exuberance, resiliency, and ability to nimbly extricate himself from catastrophic situations is a marvel to observe.

The ultimate mystery in the novel is the criminal psyche of this intriguing protagonist. A master at reinventing himself and adopting new roles, Tom thrives on acting out his fantasies. When he arrives in Palermo, he creates one of his many new personas:
He altered his behaviour slightly, to accord with the role of a more detached observer of life. He was still courteous and smiling to everyone, to people who wanted to borrow his newspaper in restaurants and to clerks he spoke to in the hotel. . . There was a faint air of sadness about him now. He enjoyed the change. He imagined that he looked like a young man who had had an unhappy love affair or some kind of emotional disaster, and was trying to recuperate in a civilized way, by visiting some of the more beautiful places on earth. (176)
The name “Tom” means “twin.” Tom’s doppelgänger and double, Dickie Greenleaf, looks so much like him that Tom can easily pass for Dickie. Tom believes that by killing Dickie, he can rid himself of an unwanted side of his personality. But like most doppelgängers, the second self starts to haunt Tom once people begin to suspect foul play.

Winterson claims that Highsmith’s background as a writer for comic strips influenced the shape of her plots: “The comic strip formula of threat/pursuit/fantasy life/alter ego/secret identity was the formula she used in all her work.”

This brooding introspective novel is not, as Janet Maslin puts it, “everyone’s cup of poisoned tea.” Unlike classic mystery novels, order is not restored or the threat neatly banished at the end of the novel. But for those who like psychological thrillers that question moral certainties and probe the depths of criminal minds, The Talented Mr. Ripley will not disappoint.

Berlins, Marcel. “Patricia Highsmith; The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.
Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley. 1955. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.