Friday, September 23, 2011

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of my favorite literary personalities. She wrote predominantly mysteries, thrillers, and crime fiction, but her work is uniquely nasty, pessimistic and misanthropic. It contains a strong undercurrent of erotic feeling, while also generally renouncing sexual relationships as distasteful power games doomed to failure. American by birth (1921), she emigrated to Europe early in her adult life and has retained a much stronger following there. Partly I enjoy her so much because she represents an intellectual, existential side of crime fiction. The Talented Mr. Ripley is the most famous of her novels and represents all of these themes, along with some dollops of black humor.

Tom Ripley is a working class con man living by his wits in New York City. He has ideas of upward mobility and a sociopathic lack of morality. He comes across Herbert Greenleaf, father of a boy he went to school with, Dickie. Dickie is in Europe, refusing to come home and learn the family business, and his father is distraught. Tom manipulates the elder Greenleaf into sending Tom to Europe with the pretext that he can talk some sense into Dickie.

Ripley finds his way to Italy and reacquaints himself with Dickie and Dickie's friend/girlfriend Marge. Dickie is relaxed and happy with no intention of coming home. He reluctantly befriends Ripley, letting him stay at his house, but Marge instantly dislikes him. Eventually Dickie begins to tire of Ripley's friendship, just as Ripley is becoming obsessed with him. They go on one last trip together, where Ripley has a burst of inspiration and kills Dickie. He hides the evidence and assumes Dickie's personality. He moves quietly around Europe, enjoying a life of leisure as Dickie until the police, Mr. Greenleaf and Marge begin an impassioned search, both for Ripley and Dickie. Ripley unexpectedly runs across an old friend of Dickie's and the bodies begin to pile up.

Written in 1955, Ripley is early in Highsmith's career, but is indicative of the tone of her work. Ripley is a character that you can't help but love, though he is utterly unlikable. His motivations are all selfish and, in many ways, he represents the dark underbelly of the capitalistic drive. Changeable, heartless, deeply prideful, and really only interested in pursuing the life of art and luxury he feels is owed to him, Ripley is the quintessential anti-hero. He gives voice to the hateful thoughts and feelings everyone tries to ignore or repress.

Highsmith's style is recommended for anyone who loves thrillers, mysteries or noir fiction, and, surprisingly, travel writing. Ripley's travels to and around Europe are obviously taken from Highsmith's extensive travels and provide an interesting color to the story. Equally, her obsession with artists and writing about the lives of artists and the process of creating art is a theme touched upon in Ripley that she later explored in multiple novels.

Adapted for film as Plein Soleil (1960) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), it was followed by a series of five novels that stretched throughout Highsmith's career: Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water.

I read and own the Everyman's Library Ripley Trilogy hardcover, which contains the first three books, though there is also the Norton paperback and, better still, the Complete Novels hardcover box set. Highly recommended.

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