The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

A review of the literary crime thriller novel The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

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As a crime novel, The Talented Mr Ripley does not necessarily fit the rules. Similarly, as a thriller, it is once again outside of the regular parameters. In fact, it is more a character study than anything else.

The novel follows Tom Ripley, a petty con artist who is sent to Europe from New York to find one Dickie Greenleaf. He lands this fortunate task by claiming to be a friend of Greenleaf’s when approached by Dickie’s wealthy father, and is dispatched to Italy to bring back his charge. Using his knowledge of confidence tricks, Ripley befriends Dickie and his girlfriend, Marge, integrating himself in their lives. Whilst Dickie quickly warms to Ripley, Marge is sceptical and attempts to drive a wedge between them.

Tom Ripley has an extraordinary talent: he can impersonate almost anyone; their voice, mannerisms, even—to some degree—their appearance. As his obsession with Dickie grows, so does his desire to impersonate (and eventually become) him. Unfortunately for Ripley, the young Greenleaf is growing tired of his company. The fracture growing in their friendship drives Ripley to increasingly desperate measures to keep himself part of Dickie’s life, and, eventually, to his first murder.

What makes The Talented Mr Ripley a truly wonderful character study is Highsmith’s dedication to sharing the mind of Ripley with us. He is relatable, yet not someone we could be. We can understand him, somewhat, and even empathise with him to a degree, but the brilliance of Highsmith’s writing is her ability to draw us in as observers. We watch Ripley; we obsess as he does with Dickie. The tension comes not from cheap tricks, but instead watching authority figures—the police, Marge, Dickie’s father—circle around him and his often rash attempts at outmanoeuvring them. Tom Ripley is not ahead of the tide; rather he is desperately paddling to stay afloat as it washes in around him.

Much could be said about Highsmith’s choice of protagonists and her frequent interest in amoral and immoral characters, yet she always allows an entry point to all the deviousness she creates. In that vein, Tom Ripley is her masterpiece. He warranted several sequels, all of which continue his story as he manipulates and kills and obsesses and craves, and in all of which we once again are voyeurs to his distorted—yet crystal clear—mind. The Talented Mr Ripley is the essence of observation with understanding, and is a book which should be savoured by all.

Originally from Thanet, J A DuMairier enjoys writing and long walks in the country.

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