by Patricia Highsmith
There was a specious ease about everything, like the moment just before something was going to explode.
Tom Ripley, right off the bat known as a spurious character as he ducks into a bar to hide from an unknown pursuer who could be after him for numerous reasons, finds himself conning a new target and is enlisted by a Mr. Greenleaf to travel to Europe and convince his wayward son, Dickie, to return to the U.S.
Tom accepts and makes the all-expenses-paid voyage and locates Dickie. But instead of influencing the young man to return home, he instead settles into a comfortable friendship with Dickie and Marge. When the friendship starts to wear thin, Tom must decide whether to return home or embrace his inner sociopathic monster.
With relatively little action for a novel considered a thriller, this book not only keeps readers on the edges their seats but proffers a dazzling display of mental acrobatics that has you not only sympathizing with ‘the bad guy,’ but rooting for him, even against your will.
An example of how this incredible feat is managed comes in an early section where Tom had already lied his way into the Greenleaf’s sending him to Europe after their son. He has their expense account to buy Dickie a few opening gifts, and Tom found a shirt he wanted for himself. Instead of putting it on the account he bought it himself, and this little bit of information is told matter-of-factly and almost immediately forgotten, but it leaves an impression nonetheless. It’s interesting in that Tom’s already into the con, he’s established himself to the reader as a habitual liar and manipulator, but he still chose not to take advantage of the account in this situation. Little details like this make all the difference in the world in adding up the complex character of Tom Ripley.
And there are many instances where Tom is not only sympathetic and likeble, but vulnerable in the way that heroes are, not villains. Take for example the following passage:
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.
It’s not just the deconstruction of a sociopath that’s important here. Besides the character, and the manipulation of the reader’s conscience to follow the character as we do, it’s a damned interesting story in textural quality, painting rich, pastoral scenes of Europe with such color you can taste the flavor of the countryside in the air. The Italian espressos, the warm food for lack of refrigeration, the sea, the soot of the larger cities…all of it. You can feel it. And all of this is accomplished between alternating scenes of teeth-grinding tension and heightened anxiety we’re just not used to experiencing from books.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is a master class in multiple areas, including tension and texture. But eclipsing both is the author’s uncanny ability to force to the surface your all-too-carefully hidden desire to see the compelling monster win at the expense of everyone else.
His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.