Monday 10 September 2012

The Great Tom Ripley Reread, 1: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (Dell Paperback, 1959)

I'll have further signed editions (and some original artwork) soon enough, but I've been promising for a while now (perhaps 'threatening' is more accurate) that I'd be returning to Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels at some point. And having posted that signed, inscribed edition of Highsmith's Little Tales of Misogyny last week, and having acquired some intriguing editions of the Ripley books, I've finally been inspired to embark on the Great Tom Ripley Reread.

I'll be looking at each of the five Tom Ripley novels in turn (with some non-Ripley posts in-between, I expect), although these missives won't, strictly speaking, be reviews; there are probably quite enough of those online as it is, and my love for the books is such that I'm not especially minded to offer a robust critique. Instead, I'll be sharing some random thoughts, on how Tom comes across on this second (or third or fourth in some cases) go through the books; how he changes; how he stays the same; how the stories work as a whole, and so forth – the aim being to inspire a little debate: I'm as interested in hearing what you make of the Ripley novels as I am in prolixly pontificating about them myself (more so, in fact – which makes a change).

For the record, the five novels featuring Tom Ripley are:

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Ripley Under Ground (1970)
Ripley's Game (1974)
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)
Ripley Under Water (1991)

If you haven't read them yet, well, now's as good a time as any: they're all very good, and a few of them are quite remarkable (as outlined in this post). And let's begin – where else – at the beginning, with a recent eBay win:

Namely the first American paperback edition of The Talented Mr. Ripley, published by Dell in 1959, which I bagged for a very reasonable amount. Proper first editions of Highsmith's fourth novel – as in the Coward-McCann and Cresset Press US and UK hardbacks – go for many hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds these days, so early paperbacks are about the best I can do in terms of collecting; I already own the first British paperback edition, published by Pan in 1960, which you can see below. And actually I think I prefer David Tayler's more restrained cover art for the Pan edition to William Teodecki's art for the Dell paperback; Teodecki's is a terrific painting, to be sure, but anyone who knows anything about Tom Ripley will surely agree that the leering, evil-looking fellow on the Dell cover isn't really an accurate portrait of our admittedly (multiple) murderous, conscienceless non-hero.

The first time I read The Talented Mr. Ripley I hadn't read all four of its sequels, so reading it again this time around was quite instructive. Highsmith didn't have sequels in mind when she wrote Talented, but she was fairly scrupulous in ensuring that the Tom of the later books was in keeping with the Tom of Talented – older, wiser, more settled, more sure of himself, but still the same man. Throughout the series Tom exhibits an attraction to the criminal underworld, something which is established right at the start of Talented, where Tom is engaged in an IRS scam. But there are other examples scattered throughout the book; one episode sees Tom taking Dickie Greenleaf, the idle, well-off fellow American he's come to Italy to befriend in order to convince him to return home – and who he will, in due course, murder – to see an Italian criminal, Carlo, in order to convince Dickie to join him in a bizarre drug-smuggling scheme (a scheme Highsmith later revealed was originally to have formed the basis of the main plot). Dickie is sneering and dismissive of Carlo, an attitude which infuriates Tom, who finds the Italian's reserve and strength of character fascinating.

The encounter with Carlo is important for other reasons too: it is the catalyst for Tom's eventual decision to kill Dickie – although the slightly earlier scene where Dickie catches Tom in Dickie's clothes is also significant – and it neatly encapsulates Tom's attitude towards people in general. In one long paragraph Highsmith details Tom's awful realisation that Dickie is not who he thought he was, and also sets up the tone and tenor of Tom's relationships and friendships to come: 

He stared at Dickie's blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him. You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, to see love through the eyes, the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and in Dickie's eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn't know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them...

I wonder sometimes what would have become of Tom had Dickie reciprocated his love – because it's evident that Tom does love Dickie, in his own way. Would the flowering of and embracing of his sexuality have eased his anxieties? Would he have found an empathy for humanity? Would it have prevented him from becoming a murderer? Somehow, I doubt it. For one thing, it's hard to imagine vain, self-centred Dickie settling down with Tom for good. But more that that, Tom himself is just too removed from his fellow man. There's a lot of truth in the line Tom trots out for his friends in New York about not being able to make his mind up whether he likes men or women, so he's thinking of giving them both up: as he reflects after Dickie finds him in Dickie's clothes, "As people went, he [Tom] was one of the most innocent and clean-minded he had ever known. That was the irony of this situation with Dickie."

In fact Tom is more in love with the idea of Dickie, which is partly why he makes the leap to trying to become him – the other reason being Dickie's easy lifestyle, which Tom covets, having never had the funds himself to pursue the way of life he'd like to pursue. Late in the book, once he has money, Tom ruminates on the possessions – how they "gave a man self-respect" and "reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence" – and the security that wealth brings; how being well-off would allow him "to collect Etruscan pottery if he wanted to... to read his Malraux tonight as late as he pleased, because he did not have a job to go to in the morning". This is the comfortable lifestyle – in particular a comfortable European lifestyle – which he desires in Talented, and it is the lifestyle he has managed to attain for himself by the later books, and which he will go to any lengths to protect.

Another facet of Tom's makeup established in Talented, one which again will play a big part in the sequels, is his aptitude for forgery and impersonation. He assumes Dickie's identity, forges his signature, and even, in an effort to look more like Dickie, tries out (but eventually discards) pencil on his eyebrows and putty at the end of his nose – a theatrical touch that foreshadows elements of the first sequel, Ripley Under Ground.

And then there's the trait, or rather the ability, or perhaps the proclivity, both for the act itself and for getting away with it, which earns Tom his longed-for way of life, and which he is forced to resort to again and again as the series progresses: murder. Dickie's murder, and to a lesser degree Freddie's, in all their horrific mundanity, define Tom, something that he himself comes to understand late in Talented. He can protest that he "hadn't wanted" to kill, that he "didn't want to be a murderer", that "he could absolutely forget that he had murdered" – but a murderer is what he is. The Talented Mr. Ripley could not have existed without murder, and therefore Tom could not have existed, and therefore the series as a whole could not have existed. Murder haunts the sequels, even in those Ripley novels where there's virtually no killing – the next book I'll be looking at, Ripley Under Ground, being a case in point...


  1. How long ago did you first read the Ripley books? I read the first four sometime in the early to mid 1990s. Largely because of EE I've been thinking about reading the last one. But now re-reading the first four seems like the thing to do - and then read the final installment. In fact, EE shaped much of what I read in August - all five Tucker Coe books and Lawrence Block's Hit Man. I just finished the final Parker novel yesterday and was at a lost as to what to read next anyway. (No shortage of stuff to read but sometimes it can be hard to make a choice. A friend of mine is teaching a literature and the law class at a law school in Philly and I was starting to gravitate to her reading list. But now it is Ripley. Unless I start Sweet Tooth. Or Telegraph Avenue.)

  2. I think it was mid-2000s, BG – certainly after the 2002 film adaptation of Ripley's Game, which I saw before reading the novel (although thankfully I'd forgotten the volte face by the time I came to read the book). So later than you read them. I won't be posting about Ripley Under Ground until next week I don't think, so still time to get on board! Sweet Tooth can wait – I've read it, and while it's okay, I didn't find it as rewarding as others seem to have.

  3. Very interesting. I finally got around to watching the 90s film, never having read the book, and wasn't even aware that Highsmith had written any sequels. I think I'll put these on my groaning 'to read' list.

    As an aside, isn't it interesting how closely Dickie on the Pan cover resembles Jude Law from the later film?

  4. Now you mention it, he does rather. Leaving aside all the changes Minghella made, I actually think his film is pretty well cast. Jude Law's a very good Dickie, certainly, and if David Tayler was using Highsmith's descriptions of Dickie as a basis – which I think he must have – then I guess it makes sense that his Dickie and the movie Dickie would match up.

    Oh, you have a treat in store with the Ripley novels, PRP. Especially Ripley's Game, but they're all good in their way.

  5. I remember reading this book after coming across a list which pegged Patricia Highsmith as the best mystery writer of all time.

    Through out the book, I was rooting for Ripley but in the end when he emerges victorious, he suddenly revolted me.

  6. Which was kind of Highsmith's aim with the book, neer. That's something I'll probably be touching on in the next post, on Ripley Under Ground.

  7. How come my comment didn't see daylight?

  8. I didn't know you'd left one, Dave; not until you posted this one. It seems to have vanished into the ether: no sign of it in spam, and I didn't get an email notification. Sorry about that! What was the gist of it?

  9. No biggie. I just noted that as a Crime fiction reader for well over twenty years, I've been woefully ignorant of female Crime writers.

    Nothing planned or prejudicial, mind you. It just seemed the real hardboiled stuff I've always liked was written by men.

    I read the first Ripley at the recommendation of another poster over at VWOP, and I liked it quite a bit. I'm going to try to rectify my ignorance and give more female hardboiled writers a chance.

    Whom would you recommend as the most Hardboiled of female Crime writers?

  10. You've got me there, Dave: I must admit I haven't read that many female crime writers. I've read some Sarah Gainham, but she's more espionage (her early novels anyway), and I keep meaning to give Helen MacInnes a go. The only other remotely crime-themed female authors I can think of that I've read are Belinda Bauer and Kate Atkinson, the latter of whom I love. Neither are hardboiled though!

  11. That makes me feel slightly less sexist, Nick!;-) lol

    I guess there are just not many women who write Hardboiled Crime Fiction. But I will definitely read more Patricia Highsmith. Ripley is a fascinating character.

    He kind of personifies the American Plilospophy of the last 75years. Willing to do whatever it takes, regardless of the cost to others, to maintain his luxurious lifestyle. And easily able to put horrific deeds he's done out of his mind instantly.

  12. I'm reading the Ripley novels for the first time and I've almost finished the last one. Your notes on the books are quite interesting, but I feel you're being a little too hard on the title character. He is often branded a "serial killer" and a "personification of evil", but both characterizations are unfair. The former implies that he is somehow compelled to act on his homicidal urges, but in fact he mostly kills for self-preservation. Being evil would entail Ripley revelling in the suffering he is causing, while in the novels he sees those as a nuisance and can even show compassion from time to time.

    Anyway, The Talented Mr Ripley could be seen as a riposte to The Great Gatsby in which the upstart gets the final word, and those who break their playthings and discard them are broken in their turn.

  13. A belated answer, Anonymous, but yes, you have a point re the phrase "serial killer", which I'm guilty of applying to Tom in my post on the final Ripley novel, Ripley Under Water. Tom isn't a slave to homicidal urges urges at all; he's simply willing to use murder to achieve his aims – a multiple murderer, then, rather than a serial killer.

    Whether that makes him less evil, I'm not so sure. From Dickie's perspective, or Freddie's, or Murchison's, it's kind of quibbling: they're all dead, and at Tom's hands. And while none of them were especially likable, surely that doesn't justify their deaths.