Crime fiction is typically the discovery of a murder, a set clues that explain how it happened, why it happened, and who is responsible. There are three stories in this formula: there is the story of a crime, the story of solving it, and the reader’s own story of trying to solve the crime. It’s fun maybe the first ten or twenty times you read it.
But what I love about Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is how artfully the formula is subverted. A brief synopsis: young Tom Ripley has been sent to convince Richard Greenleaf to return to his wealthy family—who have no idea that they have just bankrolled the man who will murder and impersonate their son.
For a story about a cowardly, elusive murderer, it is hard to not like Ripley. As the story unfolds, we can see that he’s smart, eager to please—it’s just that there’s something off about him. For example: as an aspiring actor in New York, he throws a truly ghastly one-man show starring as Eleanor Roosevelt in a clinic for unwed mothers (a scene that the 1999 Matt Damon film tragically did not include). His dire financial situation has lead him to a fraud-by-mail scheme, which seems to be working, although he can’t muster the courage to cash the checks. He’s convinced that he’s being followed by police. He is almost good; or almost bad. The book is his villain’s journey.
When he’s approached to find Dickie Greenleaf, in one of the most awful misunderstandings in detective fiction (he is assumed to have been a friend of Dickie’s, largely because no one cares to remember who Ripley is), it could be the moment of redemption that Ripley desperately needs. It’s just that Ripley just doesn’t care for the idea.
What I love about Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is how artfully the formula is subverted.
Ripley doesn’t seem to ever enjoy being a criminal mastermind. He frequently puts himself down as a dullard. He isn’t particularly strong or athletic; he has no wealth or allies; he doesn’t own any kind of weapon (unless you consider an oar, an ash tray, and a shoe to be weapons), and his plans seem to be created just seconds in advance. He might be a decent counterfeiter, but some of his forgeries are detected. Strangest of all, he appears to have no real gift for disguise. Ripley relies on physical tics, speech patterns, posture to assume the identify of Greenleaf—but not in the presence of someone who actually knows Dickie. He thinks of himself of having Dickie’s warm smile, when meeting strangers:
He wore a smile that was dangerously welcoming to a stranger, a smile more fit to greet an old friend or lover. It was Dickie’s best and most typical smile when he was in a good humor.
I am going out on a limb here and say that a smile is nothing like a disguise,—and it doesn’t sound like Dickie Greenleaf, who is scowling in the photographs that Ripley first sees. But it’s clear that Ripley feels that Dickie is this sort of person, if only in contrast to himself.
So when Tom claims to be eating dinner rolls the way that Dickie Greenleaf ate dinner rolls, I don’t buy it. I think the character is more in love with the idea that he’s doing this, perhaps because he really enjoy dinner rolls, or perhaps because it assuages his guilt after murdering Dickie. Dickie isn’t dead, how could he be? He’s eating!
And yet there is a genius to Ripley, certainly many talents. Behind a face that no one seems to care to remember is a mind that’s working twice as fast as anyone else’s. And that’s where the thrill of the story is: watching Ripley rabidly collect information and then exploit it. He recalls conversations from years ago, knows about the student life of colleges that he’s never been to, knows ways to describe himself that will make him above suspicion. And he’s much better at being bad than he is at being good.
Highsmith had already found literary success before she first started writing this book, which would later spawn three sequels. She wrote Strangers on a Train, which had been adapted into the noted film by Alfred Hitchcock.
Knowing this, I feel a little guilty that that my fascination with Highsmith really took hold when I read not one, but two stories by her about being eaten to death by snails, one with one big snail (The Quest for Blank Claverengi), the other with lots of little snails (The Snail Watcher). But I digress.
Tom’s immoral activities seem so natural that it’s only after you’ve put the book down that you realize that you’ve seen a criminal at work.
I read Ripley Underground, the second book in the series, before Talented, when I was in high school, and experienced what many describe in reading the Ripley books. Tom’s immoral activities seem so natural that it’s only after you’ve put the book down that you realize that you’ve seen a criminal at work. There are no meditations on evil, no handwringing, nothing like what you see in Shakespeare with Iago or Hamlet; or Alex’s “all right, I do bad” monologue in A Clockwork Orange; Harry Lime’s chilling speech from the ferris wheel in The Third Man. Not having found that moment, I kept thinking, “I must have missed something.”
At one point, Ripley is moments from killing Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge, who he’s quietly targeted for all kinds of abuse. Early on, he imagines choking her for his own amusement, a fantasy that he revisits until the moment when he actually plans to kill her.
He doesn’t kill her, and then he experiences a new kind fear:
. . . what seemed to terrify him was not the dialogue or his hallucinatory belief that he had done it (he knew he hadn’t), but the memory of himself standing in front of Marge . . . imagining this all in a cool, methodical way. And the fact that he had done it twice before. Those other two times were facts, not imagination.
Ripley has to remind himself that he’s killed two people. I can’t think of any book or film where I’ve ever seen a scene like this. Ripley could just be a collection of delusions, wreaking havoc on those in his way. And really, do we even know his name is Ripley?
In researching this essay, I’ve seen lots of attempts to diagnose this character, and have even fallen into the trap of reviewing him as a character rather than the book as a narrative. The reader has so much access to his thoughts, memories, feelings, but he’s full of surprises and contradictions.
This is what makes Ripley such an impressive thwarting of detective fiction: that it is not about whodunnit, or even why they did it. The three stories of The Talented Mr. Ripley are not like other crime fiction narratives. There is the story our narrator is telling himself, there is what he tells others, and then there is how the reader reconciles these lies and deceptions.