The Talented Mr. Ripley book review
The genius of Patricia Highsmith in this, her first Tom Ripley novel, is to create a villain so complex and vulnerable that you can’t help rooting for him. He cons his way through life, defrauds and exploits those who trust him, and even commits murder. Twice.
And yet you want him to get away with it. At least, I did. I’ll admit that successive Ripley novels (she wrote four more about Tom between 1970 and 1991) haven’t affected me in quite the same way. Tom is older and less conflicted about his sociopathic behaviour, more able to justify that what’s good for Tom Ripley is good, period.
But the first book in “the Ripliad”, published in 1955, presents us with a young man whose working-class background and insecure nature has made him jealous of the rich, self-assured New Yorkers he sees around him. Highly intelligent, with a gift for mimicry and deception, he has a chameleon-like ability to blend in with whatever company he keeps. And Tom very much wants to keep a better sort of company.
When we first meet Tom, he’s sharing an apartment in a shabby brownstone building, trying his hand at some small-time forgery and extortion. He loathes his friends, detests the woman who brought him up after his parents died, and is currently without a job. A chance meeting in a hotel bar with the wealthy industrialist, Herbert Greenleaf, turns all that around. Greenleaf’s son, Dickie, has been living the good life in the small Italian village of Mongibello, and seems inclined to stay there. His father wants him to come back to New York and join the family business and offers to pay Tom to go to Italy and persuade him. Mr. Greenleaf is under the impression that Dickie and Tom are friends. In fact, they scarcely know each other but Tom knows a good thing when he sees it. He exaggerates his friendship with Dickie, gains the older man’s confidence, and departs for Italy.
Once there, Tom manages to “bump into” Dickie and his girlfriend, Marge, and insinuates himself into their company. Sensing that Dickie is growing tired of Marge, whom he cares for but doesn’t love, Tom becomes Dickie’s new best friend; he moves into the house Dickie’s renting and for the next few weeks they spend all their time together, with Marge and without her. She quickly begins to resent the intrusion, and tells Dickie his new friend is sponging off him. She also implies that Tom is gay, which certainly may be the case. If it’s true, it’s not something Tom can consciously deal with. This is 1955, after all, when homosexual activity was still a crime. All Tom knows is that he’s repulsed by Marge and attracted to Dickie, to the point of wanting to be him.
Identity, in the hands of a writer as gifted as Highsmith, is a mutable thing. It can be put on and taken off like a suit of clothes. And Tom does just that: one afternoon, when he thinks Dickie is in bed with Marge, Tom goes into Dickie’s bedroom and puts on his clothes. He stands in front of the mirror, aping Dickie’s mannerisms and gestures. Dickie enters unexpectedly, shocked and then angry. From that moment on his behaviour towards Tom changes. He resents his presence and wants him gone. Tom has to face the painful fact that he and Dickie are not friends. They never have been:
“Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had suddenly been snatched away from him. . . . 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, 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”.
Mr. Greenleaf writes to say that as Tom hasn’t been successful at getting Dickie to agree to come home, their contract is finished. But Tom is nowhere near finished with the luxurious lifestyle he’s been enjoying and he’s definitely not ready to go back to being poor old Tom Ripley. He convinces Dickie to join him on a short trip to San Remo. They rent a small fishing boat and, once they’re out in the water a good distance from land, Tom kills Dickie and throws his body overboard, weighted down with a large anchoring stone. He then scuttles the boat and heads to Rome, where he rents an apartment in Dickie’s name and lives off Dickie’s trust fund. He writes letters to Marge, forging Dickie’s signature, in which he says he needs to be alone for a while, in order to work on his painting.
His idyllic life in Rome is interrupted by a visit from an American friend of Dickie’s, Freddie Miles. When Freddie sees Tom in “Dickie’s” apartment, dressed in some of Dickie’s clothes, he becomes suspicious. Tom insists Dickie is out at the moment and sends Freddie on his way, but, heading back downstairs, Freddie stops to talk to the landlady. Tom can hear the landlady telling Freddie that “Signor Greenleaf” lives alone, and that he’s upstairs now. Freddie turns around and comes back up the stairs to confront Tom, who promptly kills him with an ashtray, and then gets him out of the apartment later that night by pretending Freddie’s too drunk to walk. He drags him downstairs and into his car, then drives out to a remote section of the cemetery and dumps Freddie’s body behind a tombstone.
The next morning, Freddie’s body is found and the police come to question “Dickie Greenleaf”. Tom says he and Freddie had a few drinks together; Freddie, he says, was definitely not too drunk to drive. The police accept his explanation but ask him to stay in Rome while they pursue their investigations. Shortly afterwards, a possibly blood-stained boat is found near San Remo, and the police begin to speculate that Tom is the one who’s been killed. Dickie Greenleaf is now a suspect in two possible murders – Freddie Miles and Tom Ripley.
A less confident, perhaps less deranged, individual would lose his cool at this point, having to speak on the phone to Marge as Tom, and masquerade as Dickie to everyone else. But this is where sociopaths are different from the rest of us; with a breathtaking facility of reinvention, Tom switches back to being “Tom”, moves to Venice, and persuades Marge, Dickie’s father, and the American detective Mr. Greenleaf has hired, that Dickie, depressed about his painting, has committed suicide.
Tom sails to Greece, wondering if he’s going to be arrested when the boat gets to port. The Greenleafs, however, have accepted that Dickie is dead and, even better, have given their blessing to a will, forged by Tom, in which Dickie leaves everything to Tom. Our hero is rich, safe, and no longer under suspicion of murder. He’s free – or is he?
As he leaves Athens and prepares to make his way to Crete, he imagines four Cretan policemen waiting for him on the pier. “Was he going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he ever approached?”
Tune in to the sequel, Ripley Underground, to find out.