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
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
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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Essay by Ted Gioia

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
The Talented Mr. Ripley he is almost an after-
thought, 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
The Talented Mr. Ripley—the narrative instead
develops along the lines of Henry James’s
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
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

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular
culture. His  latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden
, published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011

Further Clues:

Interview with Patricia Highsmith by Gerald

"This Woman is Dangerous" by Michael Dirda

Tom Ripley's MySpace page
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