The Talented Mr. Ripley
by Patricia Highsmith
If you have any doubts that Patricia Highsmith
(1921-1995) was scarred by a troubled
upbringing, consider the fact that her story
"The Terrapin," about a child who
kills his mom with a kitchen knife and
ends up in a psychiatric hospital, is considered a
largely autobiographical
account of the author’s
own formative years.
Born as Mary Patricia
Plangman, the future
novelist divided her
childhood between Fort
Worth and New York
City, shuttled between
her Texas grandmother
and her overbearing
mother who had divorced
Patricia’s father nine days before their
daughter's birth. Highsmith’s youthful reading
ranged widely, and included Karl Menninger’s
account of abnormal psychology,
The Human
Mind, which the young girl devoured at age
eight—a harbinger of many later characters
who exhibit familiar clinical symptoms of nasty
mental disorders.  Her literary career started at
the very bottom, but Highsmith rose from
writing stories for comic books, via an
apprenticeship in pulp fiction periodicals, to a
frightening maturity in
Strangers on a Train
(1950), an impressive debut novel that served
as the basis for a
classic Alfred Hitchcock film.  
But Highsmith’s most lasting legacy is her
amoral protagonist Tom Ripley, who figures in
five novels—the
Ripliad, in the jargon of her
fans—that obliging psychopath with the smiling
face. Other mystery writers tend to bring back
the detective in book after book, while the
criminal changes in each volume; but Highsmith
took an unconventional route, keeping her
murderer on hand, while the unwary
investigators come and go. But this was only
one of many areas in which our iconoclastic
author defied genre formulas.   For now, her
books are still mixed in with potboilers, but the
day will come when she takes her rightful place
alongside the masters of psychological fiction.
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You will invariably find the books of Patricia
Highsmith shelved with the mystery novels at your
local bookstore or library.  Yet that itself may
present a far more puzzling mystery than any
included in her tales.  Why isn't this probing
psychological novelist awarded her rightful place
alongside the mainstays of
literary fiction?  Her stories
have more in common with
those of Graham Greene or
even Fyodor Dostoevsky
than with detective fiction as
practiced by her shelf mates,
and I can only imagine the
disappointment of readers
who sample Highsmith's
work after a steady diet of
Mickey Spillane, Erle Stanley
Gardner and Ross MacDonald.  
Where are the smoking guns,
the busty femmes fatales, the tough privates eyes
working the mean streets?

Mostly missing in action. Instead Highsmith's
readers get treated to an ongoing primer in aberrant
psychology and enough existential angst to fill a Left
Bank café.  Issues that rarely merit a paragraph in a
conventional mystery story—the nature of evil, the
rationalizations of the criminal mind, the
happenstance events that can define a person's
character and set a destiny in motion—take center
stage in her writings.  As such, she belongs to a
small set of
serious authors (for whom that term is, at
long last, fully descriptive and not merely a value
judgment), alongside more highbrow figures such as
Leonardo Sciascia and Haruki Murakami, who
embrace the ancient concept of mystery as a matter
of metaphysics, in which determinations of guilt
and innocence have little to do with the legal code
or decisions from the bench.  

Highsmith thwarts other genre expectations.  In
most mysteries,  the private eye is the hero, but in
The Talented Mr. Ripley he is almost an afterthought,
a bit player with a walk-on appearance.  In other
detective novels, a trail of clues leads to the perp,
but in this book, the clues lead nowhere, the
important ones missed by American private eye
Alvin McCarron and Tenente Roverini of the Rome
police force. Indeed, for much of the duration of
this novel, readers might wonder if there is a perp.   
No crime takes place during the first third of
Talented Mr. Ripley
—the narrative instead develops
along the lines of Henry James’s
The Ambassadors,
that classic account of friction between New and
Old World values and lifestyles.

Highsmith explicitly references the earlier work in
her reworking of James's plot: Herbert Greenleaf, a
prosperous American businessman wants his son
Dickie to return from Europe and take up a career
with the family shipbuilding enterprise.  After his
own entreaties prove inadequate, he enlists the
support of a young man named Tom Ripley, with
hopes that the latter might exert some influence
over his wayward child.  The elder Mr. Greenleaf
pays Ripley’s travel expenses for a journey overseas
to find Dickie and convince him to come home.  

Bad decision!  Ripley hardly knows Dickie
Greenleaf, and is in no position to fulfill the mission
entrusted to him.  Even worse, Ripley is a small time
con man, currently trying to extort money from
various parties in a half-baked tax scam.  But a free,
expense-paid European vacation is too tempting to
refuse, especially when the police may be on your
trail.  Ripley has soon journeyed abroad, and moved
in with Dickie Greenleaf in the latter’s Italian
retreat.  Here, as in
The Ambassadors, the new arrival
falls under the spell of his picturesque environs, and
events conspire to defer any hopes of bringing the
prodigal son back home.  Instead Ripley’s plans
gradually evolve—at first, he is content merely to
enjoy his Italian sojourn alongside Dickie, but
gradually decides he would rather take Dickie’s

This warped desire to adopt another man's identity
ultimately leads to murder, but Highsmith is far
more interested in the psychology than the crime
itself.   Reading this work, I was constantly
reminded of that both contentious and insightful
claim by theologians, who insist that evil does not
exist—for how could a benevolent God have
created it?—but is merely a negation of the good.   
Tom Ripley is a fully realized fictional embodiment
of that kind of negation.  His personality is so
empty that its contours and content change with his
surroundings.  He aspires to personhood, but
incapable of realizing it within himself, he can only
achieve it by usurping the identity, almost the soul,
of another.  The murder is but the smallest part of
this process—Ripley also takes on the mannerisms,
the speech inflections, the hobbies, the wardrobe,
the very facial expressions of his victim.  

In truth, this book could easily have taken a cue
from Robert Music and been titled
"the man
without qualities."  Here is Tom Ripley enunciating
a core principle of his personal philosophy: "If you
wanted to be cheerful, or melancholic, or wistful, or
thoughtful, or courteous, you simply had to act
those things with every gesture."  Usually when an
author creates a character with such a vague, poorly
defined essence, it represents a failure of authorial
imagination; but Highsmith digs far deeper here,
developing this amorphousness as a tragic flaw.   
Perhaps the strangest sections of this novel transpire
when Ripley takes on a benevolent air, and even
imagines himself as a paragon of virtue—this is not
just boldfaced lying or wishful thinking, but a very
real facet of a man whose nature changes depending
on his context and company.   The same chameleon-
like qualities that raise him momentarily above the
crowd can lead him to the worst sort of villainy just
a few moments later.  Indeed, those who still
subscribe to the once fashionable system (or anti-
system) known as
situational ethics should read The
Talented Mr. Ripley
as a cautionary tale.   Adapting to
the environment can, when taken to the extreme,
become itself a type corruption and self debasement.

A crime story (and an intricately plotted one at that)
is, of course, part and parcel of this psychological
character study, and serves to trigger a chain of
events that puts the talented Mr. Ripley in sharp
relief.  Yet—and what a rarity for a mystery book!—
this author might have written an equally
compelling novel with the same cast of characters,
but without any bloodshed or deductive
ratiocination.  And that may be the creepiest part of
this riveting story: namely, the realization that the
same identity crisis that led this particular man to
commit a murder may actually be fairly common in
our societies, our neighbors, perhaps even ourselves.
In short, Highsmith has delivered a truly existential
mystery story, and for once readers may find a
suspenseful tale disturbing less for what's in the
novel itself as in the new ways they perceive their
everyday world once they put it down.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
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Further Clues:

Interview with Patricia Highsmith by Gerald

"This Woman is Dangerous" by Michael Dirda

Tom Ripley's MySpace page
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