The Talented Mr Ripley

Men and women in evening clothes descending the broad steps of the gambling palace in Monte Carlo, people in bright bathing costumes, light and brilliant as a Dufy watercolour, walking under the palms of the Boulevard des Anglais at Nice… The Côte d’Azur excited him as no other place he had yet seen in the world excited him.  And it was so tiny, really, this curve in the Mediterranean coastline with the wonderful names strung like beads – Toulon, Fréjus, St Raphael, Cannes, Nice, Menton, and then St. Remo

We chose this book as our stylish read in January as it is Patricia Highsmith’s birthday this month and also because we welcomed the much-needed escape to the sundrenched Italian Riviera at this time of year. 

The Talented Mr Ripley is a 1955 psychological thriller introducing the character of the suave and handsome Tom Ripley: a young striver, newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan in the 1950s. At the beginning of the novel he is a small time conman trying to extort money in a half-baked tax scam until offered the chance of a lifetime to travel to Europe and bring home the son of a wealthy businessman, all expenses paid.  A product of a broken home, branded a "sissy" by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Ripley becomes enamored of the moneyed world of his new friend, Dickie Greenleaf. This fondness turns obsessive when Ripley is sent to Italy to bring back his libertine pal but grows enraged by Dickie's ambivalent feelings for Marge, a charming American dilettante. 

Mr. Ripley's talent is an extraordinary gift for forgery, impersonation, mimicry and murder which are all elements of his self-delusion. Added to this are his apparent nerves of steel, making for a fascinating story.  He does not however act like a one-dimensional killing machine.  He displays emotion such as fear at times and although he gets away with murder, one has the impression that he is destined for a life of looking over his shoulder. 

The book, while showing us the darkest aspects of human nature, also paints a captivating picture of 1950s Riviera life in Italy for a group of wealthy ex-pat Americans.  The beach, the parties and the opera form part of their normal life as they live ‘la dolce vita’.  We follow Tom Ripley as he travels from New York first to Palermo in Sicily and then on to the fictional ‘Mongibello’ inspired by Positano but filmed by Anthony Minghella on the islands of Ischia and Procida, about 30km from Naples.  It is here that he spends time getting to know Marge and Dickie before heading off to Rome via Paris and the French Riviera and then ending up in Venice. 

Highsmith describes her protagonist as “reasonably intelligent … and amoral”.  She wanted to create a character who could be both likeable as well as being a cold-blooded killer.  Highsmith is far more interested in the psychology than the crime itself. 

“He is a perfect example of the narcissistic personality disorder. Swinging between the poles of excessive self-criticism and grandiosity, easily to take offence and vicious in retaliation – all to make up for a lack of core self.”

On the subject of Ripley’s much discussed sexuality, "I don't think Ripley is gay," Highsmith said adamantly in an interview in Toronto. "He appreciates good looks in other men, that's true. But he's married in later books. I'm not saying he's very strong in the sex department. But he makes it in bed with his wife." His character is somewhat vague and lacking depth which is usually a weakness by an author but on this occasion Highsmith uses it to the novel’s advantage with Ripley a chameleon who will try to fit into whatever social grouping he finds himself in at the time, ultimately adopting the life of another man.  

Highsmith’s biographer notes in “The Talented Miss Highsmith,” that the author forged, fabricated and altered where necessary, just like her anti-hero Ripley. -She lied all the time — to her lovers, to her friends, to the tax authorities, to publishers, agents, journalists, and to posterity. Lying about the facts was her way of telling the truth — as she understood it.  Concealment was her way of life. 

Highsmith's prose style is economical and sedate but never boring, avoiding any hysteria and hyperbole. We observe Ripley’s actions through a cool veil of detachment, making it all the more fascinating as a portrayal of a criminal’s mind. 

This book is significant because Ripley was a new kind of criminal in the crime/detective/murder genre, one who is amoral and challenges our preconceptions about good and evil and whose bad deeds go unpunished.  The focus has shifted from the detective solving the crime to the inner workings of the criminal mind which makes it an utterly fascinating read.