In which I review The Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel about the smooth-talking psychopath Tom Ripley who murders his best friend and assumes his identity, double-crossing his way through the glamour spots of post-WWII Italy.
What it’s about: Italy, the 1950s. Tom Ripley, an intelligent and anxious young man, lives a life of petty crime in New York City after failing to become an actor. A chance meeting with wealthy businessman Hubert Greenleaf sends Tom to Italy, to persuade Greenleaf’s son and heir Dickie to return to America. Dickie lives a mock-Bohemian lifestyle as a painter in a village near Naples, with his charmless American girlfriend Marge, an aspiring novelist. Tom insinuates himself into Dickie’s company, and the two become friends. Tom moves in with Dickie, encouraging a distance between him and Marge, who suspects that Tom is “a queer”. Tom and Dickie holiday in Naples and Rome, where they meet Dickie’s unpleasant pal Freddie Miles. Dickie grows bored with Tom and wary of his possessiveness. With his money from Mr Greenleaf cut off, Tom faces a return to America and his old life. Tom and Dickie have a farewell weekend in San Remo. Tom decides to kill Dickie and assume his identity, and bludgeons him to death in a rented sailboat, throwing the body overboard. Tom relocates to Rome and proceeds to live as Dickie, wearing his clothes and jewellery, dyeing his hair, forging Dickie’s signature and claiming his monthly trust-fund allowance. He writes to Marge as Dickie, explaining that their relationship is over. Freddie turns up at Tom’s apartment demanding to see Dickie, and quickly clocks that Tom is impersonating him. Tom bludgeons Freddie to death with an ashtray and dumps his body in the outskirts of Rome, staging a robbery. The Italian police investigate Tom-as-Dickie, who was the last person to see Freddie alive. Tom avoids capture by shifting between his two identities, eventually deciding to “kill” Dickie by writing a fake suicide note, and relocating to Venice as Tom. Mr Greenleaf and Marge turn up in Rome with an American private investigator, and question Tom about Dickie’s disappearance. Marge stays with Tom and accidentally discovers Dickie’s rings. Tom prepares to kill her, but holds back when Marge concludes that Dickie must have killed himself. The Venice police find Dickie’s suitcases, which Tom had deposited at the American Express. Terrified of being caught and charged with Dickie’s death, Tom travels to Greece, trying to reconcile himself to his fate. On his return, he learns that the police have found only Dickie’s fingerprints on the suitcases, and concluded that he has died or disappeared. Tom receives a letter from the Greenleafs, who have accepted the suicide verdict and plan to transfer Dickie’s inheritance to him, in accordance with the terms of a fake will Tom composed on Dickie’s typewriter. Tom contemplates his future as a wealthy man living a life of ease, and tries not to be ruffled by the sight of policemen and the ongoing fear of arrest.
Why it’s a classic: The Talented Mr Ripley was the first of Highsmith’s five “Ripley” novels, coming on the heels of Hitchcock’s 1951 film of her debut novel Strangers on a Train. The one-two punch of these achievements brought Highsmith considerable commercial success as a crime writer, though never the pinnacles of literary fame that she craved (more on that later). The Ripley novels were a genuine revelation in the crime fiction genre, combining the tawdry world and cheap thrills of pulp fiction with the glamour of international travel and exotic European locations. (Early on in The Talented Mr Ripley, Mr Greenleaf asks Tom if he’s read The Ambassadors, a Henry James novel about young Americans travelling in and becoming corrupted by decadent Europe, a theme that Highsmith puts her own ironic spin on). Like Agatha Christie, another massively successful writer whose reputation suffered from genre-pigeonholing, Highsmith was able to spin pulp into gold, elevating a grubby story of murder and deception into bona fide literature.
Unlike Christie, Highsmith turned the conventional morality of crime fiction on its head, making her murderer both antagonist and protagonist and allowing him to get away with his crimes. In Tom Ripley, she created a character who was both antagonist and protagonist, with a complex inner life and clearly-delineated desires and intentions. Tom is clearly a psychopath, but he’s also horribly and painfully human – desperate to be approved of, embarrassed by his own awkwardness and anxiety, and striving for those most American of virtues: wealth, success, happiness and self-transformation. Through precise psychological portraiture and deft handling of plot and suspense, Highsmith forced her readers into identifying with a killer, admiring his “talent” for deceit and cheering on his escape from capture.
Highsmith became consumed by Tom Ripley, returning to him again and again over fifty years – the fifth Ripley novel, Ripley Under Water, was published in 1991, and was debating titles for a sixth and seventh novel at her death in 1995. “I often had the feeling Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing,” Highsmith said, and Ripley became for her a kind of avatar, in which she could characterise her own anxieties and express her deeply misanthropic views about life. Biographers and critics have been quick to point out the similarities between Highsmith and her creation – both came from unhappy homes and had difficult, combative relationships with their parents and caregivers; both were gay in a virulently homophobic age (though Highsmith was a little more open about her sexuality); both nurtured dreams of their own greatness and a corresponding resentment about their lack of good fortune; and both embodied the narcissist’s aversion to other people with a desperate need for approval. Highsmith seems aware of the connection herself, often signing her letters as “Tom” or “Ripley”, a gesture both whimsical and deeply disturbing.
In more recent years, Highsmith has been praised for her pitiless dissection of class warfare and the ugliness of the American Dream. Though there’s not much love for women in The Talented Mr Ripley – the whiny Marge becomes the dumping ground for Tom’s misogyny, described as having “the general air of a Girl Scout“. However, the novel seems to savour (and slightly resent) the freedom in being a white American man, tripping heedlessly around Europe and given the benefit of the doubt wherever he goes – a freedom not extended to Marge, whose identity exists solely in relation to Dickie. The queer subtext of Ripley’s character (which isn’t really subtext at all) has also made it a minor classic of LGBT literature, with Ripley as an archetypal “Bad Gay” in whom sexual and criminal desires are indistinguishable. Tom’s ability to dissemble, to take on other more glamorous identities and hide his own abject self, and to lie effortlessly to the world, can be read as a shorthand for gay existence in Cold War era American, beset by anti-Communist and anti-gay witch hunts and requiring gay people to repress their true selves.
The Ripley novels have been filmed many times, which isn’t surprising, given their irresistible combination of psychological thriller, crime caper and sun-drenched Mediterranean locations – but the character of Tom Ripley has been particularly difficult to get right. The French actor Alain Delon played Ripley in Plein Soleil, René Clément’s 1960 adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley, though with his clean-cut good looks and charisma, he was closer to Dickie (or Tom’s imagined version of himself as Dickie) than the anxious, corduroy-jacket wearing Tom. Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film brought the novel a new generation of readers (including me). Despite that film’s many pleasures, including sun-drenched Italian locations and the stunningly beautiful Jude Law as Dickie, the film softens and sentimentalises Highsmith’s cold-blooded vision. Matt Damon’s Ripley is a sweet-natured Bach-loving innocent who falls by accident into a life of crime and murder, and martyrs himself for his sexuality by killing another man with whom he’s fallen in love. This revision pushes the film into a much conventional moral framework, in which Ripley is punished for his sins and must live with the consequences of his actions. Minghella was praised at the time for “opening up” Ripley’s homosexuality, but in doing so, he smoothed away the troubling ambiguity of Highsmith’s book, in which good and evil aren’t so clearly delineated.
The best Ripley performance so far, in my view, is John Malkovich in Ripley’s Game, Lilliana Cavani’s criminally underrated 2002 film, in which a middle-aged and married but still sexually ambiguous Ripley glides calmly through another series of murders. The film wasn’t a success, largely due to its accurate rendering of the lead character, who proved too unpleasant for mainstream audiences to digest. Maybe Andrew Scott (aka Hot Priest from Fleabag) will have more luck with Ripley in an upcoming TV series. Or perhaps, like all great literary creations, Ripley is perhaps best experienced on the page, where he can live in the reader’s imagination and haunt their dreams for years to come.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge bouquet, though in the shape of an ashtray, heavy enough to batter a man’s brains out. Graham Greene called Highsmith “the poet of apprehension”, which perfectly describes the state of pleasure and anxiety experienced when reading (and in my case re-reading) The Talented Mr Ripley. From its opening lines, it’s an astonishing read: Highsmith’s prose is crisp and precise with not a word wasted, deftly pulling you into the furtive claustrophobic world of Ripley’s real and imagined worlds. Highsmith employs an intriguing sleight-of-hand with her narration, at some points peering over Ripley’s shoulder and showing us what he sees, at other times hacking open his brain to pick apart his messy Freudian backstory and lay bare his desires. Like every other reader of this novel, I reveled in his talent for switching identities and cheered when he escaped capture, aware that I was cheering on a violent psychopathic killer. We read on, not able to look away, because Tom is us, or at least the worst, most wormlike and abject versions of us: alone, insecure, needy, desperate for approval, dreaming of a better life than the one we have.
On this re-read, I was struck (as I was with my recent revisiting of Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms) by just how queer this novel is. The opening sequence is especially delicious, setting up the criminal and sexual nuances of Ripley’s anxiety: he’s aware that he is being followed, but unsure whether it’s a detective about to spring him, or a “pervert” attempting to cruise him. The criminal mind – self-conscious, anxious, continually on edge – becomes indistinguishable from the homosexual mind, forever scanning the horizon for double entendres or looks that linger slightly too long. The sleazy demi-monde of Ripley’s New York life is filled with suspiciously effeminate “friends”: Bob Delancey, a “freelance window decorator for shops and department stores” whose flat is littered with “big chi-chi smoked-glass bowls“; Marc Priminger, an “ugly mug of a man with a private income and a hobby of helping out young men in temporary financial difficulties“, whose “ugly hands with the gaudy rings” wave through the air, “ordering this and that from everybody“; and Paul Hubbard “who taught music at a girls’ school in New York to earn his living” but “preferred to compose music on his own” which Tom “enjoyed … immensely“.
The homoerotic atmosphere intensifies when Tom meets and becomes infatuated with the beautiful if shallow Dickie. When he’s not looking at himself, balefully, in a mirror, Tom is forever looking at Dickie: lingering over photos in Mrs Greenleaf’s photo book, remembering “his big smile, blondish hair with crisp waves in it, a happy-go-lucky face“, spying on him and Marge swimming on the beach, and flying into hysteria when he spies them in an embrace; studying his sleeping face on the train to San Remo with “[a] crazy emotion of hate, of affection, of impatience and frustration“, like a lover. Even the killing has a homoerotic edge:
While Highsmith never has Ripley admit his own sexuality, Highsmith takes great glee in having everyone around him name it, at various pitches of accusation. There’s the Freudian nightmare of his Aunt Dottie, who describes the child Tom as “Sissy! He’s a sissy from the ground up. Just like his father!” (The next line, in Tom’s voice, “It was a wonder he had emerged from such treatment as well as he had“, plays like an in-joke on a repeat read, since we know exactly how “well” poor Tom the Sissy emerges). Similarly, it’s Marge who first labels the adult Tom as “queer”, earning his eternal hatred and resentment. Dickie clarifies to Tom that he isn’t queer, to which he vehemently affirms his own heterosexuality – all of which we now read as textbook behaviour for a closeted gay man. The tipping point for the crime is when Dickie mocks him for admiring acrobats on the beach at Cannes: “All right, Tom thought, the acrobats were fairies. Maybe Cannes was full of fairies. So what? [….] Did he have to act so damned aloof and superior all the time? You’d think he’d never seen a pansy!” A page later, Tom is coolly plotting Dickie’s homicide (or homo-cide?). There’s even an erotic undertow to the murder: “he could have it Dickie, sprung on him, or kissed him, or thrown him overboard, and nobody could have seen him“, and he waits until Dickie pulls down his trousers (to go swimming) before bringing the oar down on his head. After the murder, Tom’s sense of loneliness also feels very queer – the self-imposed isolation of the outsider who knows he will never fit in: “He would have to keep a distance from people, always…. He was alone, and it was a lonely game he was playing.”
All of this could read as camp, especially to contemporary readers for whom descriptions of life in the closet could seem quaint. But Tom’s shame around his sexuality and his desperate need to disguise it is central to his sense of alienation, and his desire to escape his own life. As Emily Temple notes in her excellent article “A Close-Reading of The Talented Mr. Ripley as Coming of Age Story”, the novel functions as a perverse spin on a bildungsroman, in which the main character grows into his own identity, but by becoming someone else. Appearing as Dickie at a Christmas party in Paris, Tom “felt completely comfortable, as he had never felt before at any party that he could remember. He behaved as he had always wanted to behave at a party. This was the clean slate he had thought about on the boat coming over from America. This was the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, who was made up of that past, and his rebirth as a completely new person.” Gradually, the effort of playing Dickie wears away, giving his new existence “a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that… which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else. He was himself and yet not himself.” When he has to escape Dickie and leave Rome, he hates becoming Tom Ripley again, “hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again…. He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes, a grease-spotted, unpressed suit of clothes that had not been very good even when it was new.”
At the risk of sounding high-falutin’, this is where Highsmith’s writing transcends the crime thriller genre and breaks into Existentialist literature. Identity becomes a mask to be taken on and off, and in Tom’s case, the mask becomes his real identity. But whereas the Existentialist anti-heroes of Camus’ The Outsider and Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky stroll calmly towards their own annihilation, uninterested in obeying any moral code other than their own, Tom Ripley lives very much in the real world. Despite all his crimes, he’s still haunted by the prospect of punishment and still embarrassingly eager to be well-thought of, making him a scarily relatable villain for an uneasy post-WWII age.
These days we’re more comfortable with bad behaviour – our own and other people’s – and yet, Tom Ripley’s crimes still resonate, with the power to shock and enthrall. I finished The Talented Mr Ripley with a gasp, realising I’d been holding my breath through the final few pages, and felt suddenly relieved to be released from its claustrophobic grip. I immediately took a long hot shower, trying to scrub away my sense of complicity in Tom’s grubby crimes. It takes a great writer to generate that visceral response to chasing a few words on a page – and while Highsmith’s world isn’t one you want to live in forever, it’s definitely one to take a bracing holiday in now and again.
Quotable Quote: “[Tom] 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, truthful 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, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realisation seemed more than he could bear.“
Brilliant. I have this on my TBR this year as I bought all the Ripley books 2nd hand last year. I also experienced for the first time the story via the Jude Law and Matt Damon movie. Your review has put this up on my TBR list however, and I now really look forward to taking it in off the page for the first time.
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