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Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

I read The Talented Mr. Ripley for the “R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII” challenge. It was the first time for me to participate, and I joined on a whim as Hamburg was beginning to turn autumnal and I had visions of myself curled up on my sofa with a blanket, sipping tea, and being thrilled in an autumnal, sofa-curling, tea-sipping fashion. Things turned out a little different, as I read The Talented Mr Ripley on a business trip to Latin America, on planes and in hotel beds. But thrilled I was.

Not least because it was made into a very famous film (which I haven’t seen, so I can’t judge), the plot is so well known that I’m not even sure it’s worth summarising. But just on the off chance that you’ve been living under a rock for the last few decades, like me, here’s a quick roundup. Tom Ripley, a mousey American who enjoys tricking people a bit just for the sake of it, gets the chance to travel to Italy. A rich businessman engages him to get his son, Dickie, back to America (by the way, how annoying is the name “Dickie”?! No offense, it sounds like a chubby five year-old). Dickie has run away to Italy to lead the life of a wannabe painter – he doesn’t seem to have much talent – and seems to have no intention of returning to the States. So Tom is sent off to retrieve him, well stocked with money, and jumps at the chance of living it up in Italy for a while.

As you may have imagined, things go pear-shaped quite quickly. Tom develops an unhealthy obsession with Dickie, and his jealousy eventually leads him to kill his friend, as well as another guy. Because when you’ve just killed a guy, what you do is to assume his identity, right? And of course if you’re in danger of being discovered, you kill the potential whistleblower too. And so begins a chase around Europe, with Tom eventually transforming back into himself, whoever that may be.

The chase is very thrilling indeed. Will he be discovered? Will the police start asking questions Tom can’t answer? Will someone realise that post-mortem “Dickie” and Tom are actually the same person? There’s more than enough in The Talented Mr Ripley to keep you on your toes and reading on to find out what happens next.

But since this is a very good thriller, I was also fascinated by Tom’s personality. He’s evidently not quite sane. His obsession with Dickie begins with him wanting to be liked by Dickie at all costs:

“The first step, anyway, was to make Dickie like him. That he wanted more than anything else in the world.”

But he doesn’t just want to be liked by Dickie, he wants to be like Dickie, more and more so. At one point, he puts on Dickies clothes, and upon being surprised by a very consternated Dickie, nothing is ever quite the same again. This obsession comes to its logical culmination: Tom has to become Dickie.

I love how Patricia Highsmith crafted this character who is so uncomfortable with being himself that he has to become someone else and is ready to kill in order to do that. And when he is forced to switch back, he loathes it:

“He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time.”

Passages like this make the reader sympathise so much with this awkward guy that his criminal behaviour becomes completely understandable. Highsmith turns the traditional crime/thriller chase around, you’re with Tom Ripley, not with the police trying to catch him. And again and again introduces new turns that makes you go “oh no – don’t do that Tom, it’ll make it worse, don’t do it!”, and of course… he goes and does it.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a real classic of its genre that I enjoyed a lot. There are, by the way, a number of sequels, so if you’re not satisfied you can keep on reading.

German title: Der talentierte Mr. Ripley
Spanish title: El talento de Mr. Ripley