Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr Ripley

The Talented Mr RipleyThe Talented Mr Ripley
Patricia Highsmith
First published in the US, 1955, Coward-McCann Inc
First published in the 1956, UK, The Cresset Press
This edition: 1999, Vintage
ISBN: 9780099282877
249 pp
Source: M. and A. C. Thompson Books, Wymondham

The story opens with a chance encounter in a New York bar. Tom Ripley, our hero, is accosted by an older man he assumes is either a cop on his tail or a ‘pervert’. In fact the man is Herbert Greenleaf, a millionaire boat-builder. Herbert has a son, Dickie, a would-be artist living a life of idleness in Italy. Herbert wants Dickie to buckle down to a career, and also to come home to see his sick mother. Dickie won’t come home, so Herbert wants to recruit one of his friends to bring him home. His talent scouts have led him to Ripley.

Tom isn’t Dickie’s friend – in fact he isn’t anybody’s friend – and in fact he has only met Dickie once – but he jumps at the chance to go to Italy on an all-expenses-paid trip. Not least because he’s living on the sofa circuit and also has a small matter of tax embezzlement catching up with him.

Ripley’s talent, it soon becomes clear, is lying. He takes pride in his ability and works hard to perfect his deceptions.

Mr Greenleaf was beaming. ‘Did he ever show you his frame models? Or his drawings?’
Dickie hadn’t, but Tom said brightly, ‘Yes! Of course he did. Pen-and-ink drawings. Fascinating, some of them.’ Tom had never seen them, but he could see them now, precise draughtsman’s drawings with every line and bolt and screw labelled, could see Dickie smiling, holding them up for him to look at, and he could have gone on for several minutes describing details for Mr Greenleaf’s delight, but he checked himself.

Once in the small Italian fishing port of Mongibello, Tom succeeds in worming his way into Dickie’s life. It’s never quite clear how welcome he is, but he embeds himself pretty thoroughly and has soon moved in. Any initial thoughts of persuading Dickie to go home are soon abandoned in his enjoyment of the golden lifestyle of a wealthy American in Italy.

Tom has a rival for Dickie’s attention. Marge is a fellow American, a would-be writer who has some kind of relationship with Dickie. Marge is the ‘good egg type’, a Girl Scout who comes in for a lot of Ripley’s contempt.

Or was it jealousy? She seemed to know that Dickie had formed a closer bond with him in twenty-four hours, just because he was another man, than she could ever have with Dickie, whether he loved her or not, and he didn’t.

Is Marge in love with Dickie? Yes. Is Ripley? Maybe, but not in a particularly healthy way.

No, not that! But there is a bond between us!

(That’s Ripley fantasising about killing Marge, whilst dressed up in Dickie’s clothes)

Ripley is certainly in love with Dickie’s lifestyle, and that becomes the mainspring for the rest of the book. Ripley will do almost anything to carry on living the dream. And proceeds to do just that, without a trace of guilt or regret.

The moral of the story could be summed up as ‘what a tangled web we weave…’ and the authorities are soon following up Ripley’s fibs. The forces of justice (as embodied in the Italian police and the ever-optimistic Marge) get closer and closer to Ripley as the story moves inexorably towards his final deception. Additional tension comes from our gradually dawning realisation that Ripley isn’t quite the flawless and gifted liar he believes himself to be.

The setting – a slightly seedy and rundown, but still defiantly glamorous Italy – is brilliantly realised. There are occasional lapses into guidebook writing, but I can excuse these because they are conscious – Ripley is a tourist and decides he should do and think touristy things.

Scene from the film

I recently watched the 1999 Anthony Minghella movie starring Matt Damon as Ripley and Jude Law as Dickie. Whilst the film departs wildly from the novel (possibly borrowing from the sequels?), it looks great, accurately captures the tone and spirit of the novel, and more convincingly explains what Dickie sees in Ripley.

The Talented Mr Ripley deserves to be a classic. A must-read.

See also: Moira’s guest post on Strangers on a Train. A review of the film at Beyond the Film.

I am entering Ripley in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Get out of jail free category – which is sort of appropriate.

Final destination: A keeper

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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10 Responses to Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr Ripley

  1. Great review Rich – Highsmith was a remarkable author but hardgoing all the same (just gearing myself to read THIS SWEET SICKNESS). I thought Minghella’s remake was too long and slowed down horribly at the end but none the less is often brilliantly made and remarkably performed (Damon really starts to look like Law at one point in an amazing transformation)


    • westwoodrich says:

      Thanks – I agree about the pace. I have to find out whether the ending was entirely original or borrowed from the other Ripley books. It was the first time I’d ever considered Matt Damon as an actor, and I thought he was great in it.


  2. MarinaSofia says:

    One of my favourite classic books, and the film is luscious (despite the differences). I too fell in love with Dickie.


  3. Book and film are both clever, creepy and compelling. I admire the way she has us rooting for Ripley to succeed. But in the end, too cold-hearted for me. I think the character of Ripley got much firmer in the later books, he is more real in this one: later he became more machine-like. I read them all, once…. but Highsmith is never on my list of favourites.


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