The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

Purchased at Chapters.ca

There is a special pleasure in discovering an author whom you have overlooked. Patricia Highsmith has more than 20 novels to her credit — and, due to a personal bias against crime fiction, I had never read any of her work. I’d seen the movie version of The Talented Mr. Ripley and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was only in trolling around various forums and book blogs (especially John Self at The Asylum on Highsmith) that I realized my bias has prevented me from reading a very sigificant author. A new biography (NY Times review here) was a timely reminder that it was time to remedy that shortcoming. I’m glad that I did.

(Note: This review is going to assume that through the movie or simple gossip visitors here know the plot of the book. If not, you might want to stop here because there will be spoilers.)

Tom Ripley may be one of the most amoral characters in all of fiction — as we discover in the opening pages of the novel. He is in New York and on his way out of the Green Cage, a bar, he becomes convinced that he is being followed. He opts to stop in at Raoul’s, another bar:

Was this the kind of man they would send after him? Was he, wasn’t he, was he? He didn’t look like a policeman or a detective at all. He looked like a businessman, somebody’s father, well-dressed, well-fed, greying at the temples, an air of uncertainty about him. Was that the kind they sent on a job like this, maybe to start chatting with you in a bar, and then bang — the hand on a shoulder, the other hand displaying a policeman’s badge. Tom Ripley, you’re under arrest. Tom watched the door.

Ripley has been running a scam. He scouts out free-lancers — artists, writers — whom he figures (usually correctly) have probably been cheating on their taxes. He sends them a NOTICE OF ERROR IN COMPUTATION on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service, dunning letters which instruct them to make a remittance made out to Collector of Internal Revenue. He has a number of cheques, which of course he cannot cash — the thrill is in the crime, not the result. As I said, Ripley is amoral.

As it turns out, the man who follows Tom into Raoul’s is, in fact, someone’s father and a businessman as well. His name is Herbert Greenleaf, the son is Dickie, whom Tom knows, albeit only vaguely. Dickie has spent the past few months in Mongibello, Italy (a thinly disguised version of a town on the Amalfi coast) and his father wants him back. He is willing to underwrite Ripley’s excursion to Italy to retrieve his son.

If this is starting to sound like Henry James The Ambassadors, Highsmith wastes little time in acknowledging the debt. Herbert asks Tom if he has read James’ book — he hasn’t, but tries to find it in the ship library on the way to Europe. Turns out it is only available in cabin class, an irony that James would certainly appreciate.

Ripley finds Dickie with little trouble. He is one of two Americans in the town; the other is Marge Sherwood and the two have a bit of local notoriety, if not fame. The timing is the mid-1950s and the U.S. dollar goes a long way in post-war Europe. Dickie is persuing his painting (he’s not very good); Marge is writing a novel. Okay, that is another cliche of the time but it is worth noting that Highsmith wrote this novel in 1955 — her observations are creating the cliche, not exploiting it.

Highsmith was, and is, known for her ambiguous sexuality and denial of her own attraction to women. While Ripley is male, he is generally regarded as a representation of herself. If I can borrow a quote from the NY Times review:

Men never fired her imagination, except in her fiction, where her males, especially Tom Ripley, are versions of herself. It was women she wanted, and she found them in bars, on boats, at parties and, best of all, in settled relationships with other people.

Highsmith loved a triangle, and she liked to destroy it, axing the part of the couple she didn’t want, but usually sleeping with her first. Hers was a life jammed with encounters, and it is not by chance that her novels obsessively use the unexpected life-changing/life-threatening encounter as the drive into the narrative — think “Strangers on a Train” or any of the Ripley series.

While we never do find out if Dickie has slept with Marge — most likely not — there is no doubt that Marge is in love with him. And it doesn’t take long for Tom to develop his own crush on Dickie which leads to a deep jealousy. He eventually resolves it by bludgeoning Dickie to death, tying his body to a cement block and dumping block and body into the sea off San Remo. He had envisioned the possibility just days before:

Tom fixed himself an iceless drink. His hands were shaking. Only yesterday Dickie had said, ‘Are you going home for Christmas?’ very casually in the middle of some conversation, but Dickie knew damned well he wasn’t going home for Christmas. He didn’t have a home, and Dickie knew it. He had told Dickie all about Aunt Dottie in Boston. It had simply been a big hint, that was all. Marge was full of plans about Christmas. She had a can of English plum pudding she was saving, and she was going to get a turkey from some contadino. Tom could imagine how she would slop it up with saccharine sentimentality. A Christmas tree, of course, probably cut out of cardboard. ‘Silent Night’. Eggnog. Gooey presents for Dickie. Marge knitted. She took Dickie’s socks home to darn all the time. And they’d both slightly, politely, leave him out. Every friendly thing they would say to him would be a painful effort. Tom couldn’t bear to imagine it. All right, he’d leave. He’d do something rather than endure Christmas with them.

With the crime committed, Tom assumes Dickie’s identity and begins life as Dickie Greenleaf. Most of the novel is devoted to his convoluted efforts to escape detection — since there are five books in the Ripley series and this is the first, it is no secret that he will succeed. Highsmith’s interest is in the components of that story, not its resolution, and she delivers them with panache. The result is a book that is both entertaining and intriguing.

Like Crime and Punishment, or The Ambassadors for that matter, The Talented Mr. Ripley is not actually a crime novel, it is a novel about the aftermath of crime. It is exceedingly well done and in many ways I am very happy that I never got around to reading it until now. I look forward with anticipation to the next two Ripley novels (I am reading the Everyman’s Library edition which has all of the first three — I gather that the final two are not very good). And I am delighted to head into 2010 with a new author — for me, at least — to look forward to. Sometimes these gaps in reading turn out to produce wonderful new opportunities.

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41 Responses to “The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith”

  1. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Highsmith was a ‘new’ author for me too in 2009, and she is someone I intend to read more of in 2010. I have a soft spot for amoral characters, so perhaps this will be the next one on the Highsmith list (plus the Everyman edition looks tempting).

    Have you seen Purple Noon? I preferred it to The Talented Mr Ripley.

  2. Trevor Says:

    I first read The Talented Mr. Ripley only a few years ago, and it is still the only Highsmith I’ve picked up, despite the fact that I really enjoyed it and despite other’s claims that it is not even her best work. Initially I had mentioned to Mrs. Berrett that a boxed set of the Ripley books might make a good Christmas present from me, but that mention got drowned out by others so my days with more Ripley are still a ways in the future. I am excited to see her other books, too. John has mentioned several of them as being excellent indeed, suggesting that Highsmith is remembered for the wrong books.

  3. Trevor Says:

    By the way, I just noticed Guy’s comment about Purple Noon. I am not sure if it was just me, but it was only a few months ago that I tried to sit down and watch it and didn’t get much more than a half hour into it. I’m willing to accept that I was at fault, since many trusted sources have said it was very good, but for some reason I liked my memories of the book more than that presentation.

  4. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Hey Trevor: I’m a bit of a film NUT, so I always go for the book/film connection. I can’t comment (at this point) on the book vs the film, but I suspect that based on reading Strangers on a Train, the Ripley book will surpass any film adaptation.

    Strangers on a Train is my favourite Hitchcock film, but the book was immensely superior. Dark, much more dubious morality. I had a bit of a laugh thinking about Hitchcock toning it down.

    I preferred Purple Noon to the Matt Damon American version, but I know others who argue with that opinion.

    I think it was fortunate that I saw the film first because all too often when I read the book and then see the film I am sadly disappointed.

    Interesting point about Highsmith being remembered for the wrong novels. I have a couple of her books on my shelf (not Ripley) and will return to her soon.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I saw the Matt Damon version, not Purple Noon, so can’t really comment. I’ll admit that I was very partial to the film for the setting (I have this weakness for the Amalfi coast) as much as the story. And I do think the darkness of the book and its deeper exploration of morality are something that — while it makes for a much better book — probably would have made the film less interesting. As for amoral characters, I’m now reading Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country again. Undine Spragg may not be a murderess but on every other count she gives Tom Ripley a serious run for the money in the morality department.

    Trevor: I looked at the full Ripley hard cover collection but opted for the EL volume at a fraction of the price when I found a number of critical sources that said the last two Ripley volumes simply didn’t rank with the first. Given the high opinion that people I respect have for a lot of other Highsmith books, my thinking is that three Ripley’s will be a good start and then I’ll move on to some of the others.

  6. Guy A. Savage Says:

    The Custom of the Country is my absolute favourite Wharton–too often neglected by university courses, I think. I look forward to the post.

  7. Colette Jones Says:

    I have only read “Carol” so far (recommended if you liked “Brooklyn” as I know you did). Your review (I stopped at the spoiler warning) has prompted me to move this one up in priority.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Without spoiling anything, I’d say the Ripley series is an excellent example of “challenging escapism”, if that oxymoron makes any sense to you. I’m looking forward to volume two.

  9. Ronak M Soni Says:

    One of the best things about the movie was that it actually kept you guessing whether Ripley was actually amoral or just deeply disturbed. I can see how fixing on amoral would finally make for better reading.
    I’ll probably get down to these if I see them, but somehow don’t feel like going out of my way.

    The film of the third book Ripley’s Game is on Roger Ebert’s great movies list. Link.

    [Blog pimp alert]I remember you were interested, so I’m telling you that my review of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games is up on my blog.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the link to the film review, Ronak — and also for the heads up on Sacred Games (I’ve commented on your blog).

  11. tolmsted Says:

    I’ve only seen the Matt Damon version of The Talented Mr. Ripley (I had no idea another one existed), and unfortunately that sad, sad adaptation of Ripley’s Game with John Malkovich. I’ve never read the books so thank you for the review. Actually, what intrigues me most is the biography you mention. I’ll have to pick up both. Thank goodness for gift cards!

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    tolmsted: I’m not an avid reader of author biographies, but do like reading reviews of them — and I was intrigued by the review of this new biography. Ripley interests me enough that I’ll read the succeeding two volumes next, but as my review indicates I intend to do more exploring of Highsmith’s other work. I don’t often discover authors with such extensive back catalogues that interest me.

  13. Deb King Says:

    I actually was a little frightened of the The Talented Mr. Ripley film previews, so I stayed away. The book however appears to be a read I would enjoy. Escapism sounds good.. and I may just be up to “challenging escapism”. Thanks for the blog, Kevin.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Deb: We watched the film again the other night — obviously it has better scenery (and some of it is wonderful) but the demands of film mean there is more plot and less introspection (e.g. “amorality”) than in the book. And the great thing about the book is that you know there are more in the series — it is definitely worth reading.

  15. blithe spirit Says:

    I like both film versions of the Talented Mr. Ripley, but give the nod to Purple Noon. Think of what the other movie would have been if Jude Law had played Ripley instead of Dickie – that will give you a sense of the deliciously added cat and mouse suspense between the two men that Purple Noon has. Plus the endings of the two movies are very different and Purple Noon’s is just perfect. Kevin, try and rent it – I think you’d enjoy seeing the differences. I think Purple Noon follows the spirit of Highsmith a bit more.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    blithe spirit: It is on the list for the next time we stop in at the art film rental place. Reviews do indicate that Purple Noon is probably closer to my interpretation of the book.

  17. Colette Jones Says:

    An excellent recommendation, Kevin. I do wish I didn’t know of the Ripley sequels, so that I wouldn’t have known he must get away with it. No way to not know that though, which puts us at a disadvantage to those who read it in the first 15 years it existed.

    Still, the storytelling is good enough to overcome that disadvantage, and I do have Ripley Under Ground on the shelf…

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: It is true that you just have to accept knowing the plot outcome with some of these classics — then again, that allows you to pay more attention to the character portrayal, which I think is the real strength of the book. The Damon movie actually illustrates that with the additional story lines that were inserted to support the plot line, which I think led away from the character examination. When I do get Purple Noon, I’ll be interested in how that aspect is treated.

  19. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It’s excellent, definitely, the sequels are enjoyable but to my mind not in the same league. They’re good crime, whereas this is crime at its best.

    Not sure why you think it’s not a crime novel though Kevin, lots of crime novels are about the aftermath of crime (Killing Roger, by Tim Parks, leaps to mind) and this is generally regarded as being an excellent example of the genre – as a classic work of crime fiction in fact. There’s a reason independent booksellers specialising in literary fiction usually carry some crime too (but not SF, or romance say), of all the genres it has the most crossover with literary fiction, as there’s a focus on character and psychology. I wouldn’t recommend you start reading Agatha Christie or similar, but there’s a lot of extremely intelligent and literary crime fiction, some of which you might well enjoy.

    Colette, the joy of the book is in Highsmith’s talent at portraying Ripley, an inadequate and a sociopath, and making us root for him. The reason the sequels are less successful is Ripley is more confident and competent (and, for some reason, no longer gay) – he’s glossy whereas in the original novel he’s frighteningly credible. Highsmith makes us want a monster to succeed, which is no small achievement because his monstrousness is never elided.

    Tim Parks wrote a very similar novel, albeit more aimed at comedy, called Cara Massamina. Not my favourite Parks, it’s a lot of fun but it’s back in the world of good crime rather than great crime I think.

  20. Ronak M Soni Says:

    Max:
    Your omission of Macbeth and Crime and Punishment is unacceptable. ;)

    Are there any great crime novels about the build-up to a crime?

  21. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Crime and Punishment predates the whole genre I suspect, when does crime start anyway? With Murders in the Rue Morgue or earlier?

    Macbeth, Ronak, surely that’s horror? :-)

    In answer to your query, almost certainly, but I’ll have to cast my mind about. The best crime tends to be focussed on issues of society and the individual, studies of character, analyses of place, that sort of stuff. After the crime tends to support that better I think.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I misspoke (miswrote?) myself in saying it wasn’t a crime novel. What I meant, as your comment points out, was that the crime is not the centre of interest in the novel, but rather that plot device that serves other interests. I guess that illustrates one of the reasons why I am reluctant to use genre labels since I think they mainly become short-form assumptions which may or may not apply to an individual book.

    On the build-up-to-a-crime front, what about Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy? Although, Auster being Auster, there is an argument about whether there ever really is a crime. And the trilogy is a perfect example of why I avoid genre labels, because I am certain no one would ever describe it as representing the “crime” genre.

  23. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve not read New York Trilogy yet actually, I took it to New York with me but the reading I did was mostly the Dos Passos and I never got to it. Interesting suggestion though.

    Auster intentionally plays with genre I think, it’s part of what makes him interesting (save to James Woods of course). But yes, genre does tend to be a sterile debate, the real question as ever is simply is it any good? With The Talented Mr Ripley, the answer I think is a straightforward yes.

  24. Ronak M Soni Says:

    Macbeth, horror? Seriously, you need to either read the play, or watch Throne of Blood.
    There is a ‘ghost’, but only for one scene, and besides the point is what the ghost says about Macbeth’s mental state; it’s basically about how his guilt after he kills the king.

  25. leroyhunter Says:

    Kevin, as a huge fan of Highsmith I’m glad you’ve taken the plunge and enjoyed your first visit to Ripleyland.
    I’m not sure where you got the impression that the latter novels are inferior, but having read all 5 I would disagree with that assessment. In fact I thought the final book (Ripley Under Water) to be superb, on a par with Talented and Ripley’s Game. The other 2 are weaker in my view, especially The Boy Who Followed, but you will want to read all of them I’m sure.
    When you exhaust Ripley I strongly recommend Highsmith’s other novels, such as Strangers On A Train, Cry of the Owl, This Sweet Sickness. If anything, they are even stranger and more intense then the Ripley books. All involve crime in some shape or form, but are really about deception, pressure, lonliness and how these shape the protagonists acts.

    Max: not sure I agree with your comment about Ripley’s persona & orientation in later books. Without wishing to spoil things for new readers, I think that Tom has parlayed his spoils from Talented into a series of protective veneers which circumstances then threaten. I think it’s fairly clear what we are to make of his subsequent domestic arrangements ie they are a convenience, nothing more.

  26. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I wasn’t serious Ronak, note the smilie…

    I’ve seen the play a few times, obvious choice as it may be it’s my favourite of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

    The ghost is I think plainly psychological, you could read it as a revenant were you so minded but Macbeth’s already had hallucinations by the time Banquo shows up shaking his gory locks so there seems no strong reason to suppose Banquo’s actually there. The supernatural element in Macbeth is the witches. There was a stage production recently starring Patrick Stewart and when the witches were on stage the costumes, music and set design altered as if another reality were pushing in to the conventional one of the play. A device I loved, but my wife to be fair thought intrusive (which it was, but whether good intrusive or bad is a matter of taste of course).

    But possibly we digress from Patricia Highsmith.

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Thanks for your comment. I can’t remember where I read what I did about the final two Ripley books — what I do recall was that it observed she wrote them because she needed the money. I tend to be a completist anyway, so I will probably get to them in time. Although my current Highsmith plan is to read the next two Ripley books and then move on to some others (probably a New York book or two — I’m interested in the way authors portray the City).

    I’ll sit out the discussion of the Scottish play, although visitors are welcome to continue it.

  28. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Leroy. Fair enough, it’s been a while since I read them. I’ll look forward to Kevin’s take and his view on the issue.

    I do recall I liked the first far more than the sequels, I found it much subtler. I also recall that among the sequels some were definitely stronger than others (though I can’t now recall which).

    Still, I didn’t regret reading the whole series, and though I liked the sequels less than you I wouldn’t seek to deter Kevin from reading them. I enjoyed them overall, just not as much, and Kevin may be of your view and enjoy some of them equally after all.

  29. Ronak M Soni Says:

    I thought the smiley was out of place.
    The only reason I didn’t say everything you did, Max, is that I’ve heard that some people prefer to think that it is real (can’t imagine why, though).

    On digression, the comments section is for discussion and on-topic discussion is a myth best avoided.

    On the Scottishness of the play, I’d say about as much as the Romanness of Julius Caesar.:)

  30. Ronak M Soni Says:

    I saw Ripley Under Ground, which is not a particularly well-made movie. More to the point, I didn’t think the story matched up to that of Talented.

  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ronak: In the theatre world, uttering the actual title of the play in the rehearsal hall or theatre is regarded as an invention to doom for whatever production your are rehearsing — if you say the title inadvertently, you have to leave the room and turn in three full circles with your hand in the air to remove the curse. I am not kidding when I say this — the entire crew is very insistent. Because of this, it is known as The Scottish Play in rehearsal hall, since that does not bring on a curse.

  32. Craig D. Says:

    The consensus is that The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water aren’t quite as good as The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is true, but neither are Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game. If you like the first two sequels, you’ll like the last two. The people who say that they suck outright seem to be in the minority. I think their opinions are unfairly influenced by them *expecting* them to suck.

    I feel strange being a big fan of the Ripley books because I haven’t read a single other thing by Highsmith. It’s not that I don’t want to, I just keep getting side-tracked by other authors and good editions of their books. “All five Dashiell Hammett novels in one Library of America volume for only $24? Hot damn! Sorry, Patricia.” I don’t think there’s any excuse for me to have eleven Philip K. Dick books and only five from Highsmith. I’ll fix that problem eventually.

    Funny thing about “genre.” In America, we’re obsessed with categorizing everything; but in other countries, especially those in Europe, they view crime, science fiction, and other “genre” writers the same way they view what we pretentiously call “literary” writers.

  33. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: Thanks for the comment — and you are four Highsmiths ahead of me at this point. I do intend to read all the Ripleys and then move on from there.

    Your comments about “genre” are interesting. I tend to agree that there is much more crossover in Europe, although I think a large part of the American is driven by supportive genre readers, rather than some kind of establishment. I’ll keep pondering the issue.

    And stay tuned for another Highsmith review — I’m looking forward to getting into volume two.

  34. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I think Europe is much like America in this I’m afraid Craig. Certainly in Britain the genre hierarchies are just as rigid as in the US, and it’s much the same in France and Italy (and I think Spain, but I’m not so familiar with their scene).

    In Britain I’d say it’s literary fiction at the top, general and historical, then crime, then sf which sits roughly alongside chicklit and airport thrillers, then romance right down near the bottom. Not quite sure where military fiction goes, under literary, general or airport depending on how well written it is I suspect.

    On Dick and Highsmith, I know what you mean, but personally I’ve more Dick than Highsmith too and to be honest I think that might be about right. Highsmith from what I’ve read is a vastly more reliable author than Dick, who veered all over the place, but at his best he really is quite something. Not sure the something involves mastery of prose style, I grant, but something all the same.

  35. Craig D. Says:

    Max: Surprising to hear. I’ve had so many people tell me that Europeans take genre more seriously than we do that I’ve just taken it for granted. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since the literary snobs will always be looking down their noses at something, and genre readers everywhere are incredibly supportive. Not to mention that so much genre is now being inducted into the “canon,” as they call it. The Library of America has three Dick volumes, for crying out loud. Amazing.

    As for Dick, I think I’m done buying his books for now. You’re absolutely right about his quality being all over the place, ranging from excellent to terrible, and I think I’ve got most of the books that are agreed to be his best (every novel included in the first two Library of America volumes, plus a couple of others). Thank God we have the internet to easily find what most people agree are an author’s best books.

    I’ll certainly buy more Highsmith in the future, but there’s just way too much stuff out there that I’m dying to get, and I’m not currently dying for more Highsmith (unless someone discovers an unpublished Ripley novel in her basement or something). Also, my income isn’t exactly abundant right now, so I have to prioritize. Unfortunately, I can’t stand ordering used books, since they never seem to arrive in the condition described (“like new” apparently means bent covers, coffee stains, and a mysterious odor). I wish I could, because I often see books I want selling on eBay and the Amazon Marketplace for pennies.

  36. Craig D. Says:

    Just wanna add, I’d love to see the Library of America publish a Highsmith collection. They included “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in their “Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s” volume. Jonathan Lethem remarked in a Washington Post article that “The Cry of the Owl,” “The Blunderer,” “This Sweet Sickness,” “The Tremor of Forgery,” “Deep Water,” and “A Dog’s Ransom” would “make a core curriculum.” Obviously not all of those could be included in a single volume, but I often see the first four cited as some of Highsmith’s best. I suspect the editor of such a volume would want to include “Strangers on a Train” and “The Price of Salt,” though.

  37. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: My guess is that the reason for a lack of Highsmith volumes in the Library of America (or Everyman’s Library for that matter — which does have the first three Ripley books in a volume) is that her estate is protecting copyright, since most of her work is still in print and her publisher is paying much more than LofA or EL would.

  38. Craig D. Says:

    Sounds believable. I’ve read that the reason there’s no Hemingway volume in the Library is that the rights holders are asking for an arm, a leg, and a dump truck filled with gold for the rights. I’m surprised the Library stays in existence at all, considering their nonprofit status and that the prices they charge don’t cover the printing costs. Even more amazing when you consider that they keep *every* volume in print, no matter how poorly it sells. I’m grateful to every donor they have.

    I’ve got the Everyman’s Library edition with “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Ripley Under Ground,” and “Ripley’s Game,” and it’s kind of screwed up that it was *more* expensive to buy paperback copies of “The Boy Who Followed Ripley” and “Ripley Under Water” to complete the series, though I guess I’ve just been spoiled by the low prices that the Library and Everyman’s charge. I’ve also been spoiled by the Library’s kick-ass thin Bible paper. I wish Everyman’s would use it; my three-novel Ripley volume from Everyman’s is a doorstop compared to my five-novel Dick and Hammett volumes from the Library.

  39. Craig D. Says:

    Forgive me for reviving an old topic and for the ludicrously long post that follows, but you rekindled my interest in this series when you posted this entry and I decided to re-read all five novels since it had been awhile. I started on “The Talented Mr. Ripley” roughly around the time of my first comment and I’ve been alternating the sequels with other books (I figured that all five in a row would be too much), and I just finished with “Ripley Under Water” last night.

    As is usual with re-reads, my opinion of the series has changed a bit. Before, I felt that “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was the masterpiece and that the sequels were of roughly the same quality; all good but none of them matching up to “Talented.” That’s the only novel on which my opinion hasn’t changed; I still think it’s excellent, although I’m not sure I would call it the best of the series any longer.

    Why? Because my opinion on “Ripley’s Game” went up. A lot. How I ever considered it to be on par with the other sequels is beyond me. It not only towers over the other sequels, it’s now my favorite of the series. It’s the only book in which we see the story not only through the eyes of Ripley but also through those of the victim he’s manipulating, which gives us a change of pace while simultaneously giving us an outsider’s view of Ripley. (Even when Ripley isn’t “on camera,” he’s clearly still the main character. Think Stoker’s “Dracula.”) The relationship between Ripley and Jonathan, starting with hostility and evolving into a strange bond, is more interesting than the relationships between Ripley and pretty much anyone else, including Dickie. There’s also more action than in the other books combined, and a major role for Reeves Minot, easily most interesting of Ripley’s criminal buddies.

    As for “Ripley Under Ground,” “The Boy Who Followed Ripley,” and “Ripley Under Water,” my opinion of them went down, but not much. They’re not bad or even mediocre, just disappointing compared to the first and third books. They all have their highlights — art forgery, public disguises, murder, and cover-ups in “Under Ground;” a hostage rescue by Ripley wearing drag (!) in “Followed;” neighbors trying to expose Ripley’s crimes in “Under Water” — but they spend too much time with Ripley simply traveling around Europe for one reason or another, with little impact on the plot, and we don’t get any real sense of the effect that Ripley’s actions have on others. Again, I think they’re good, but they’re not much more. “Talented” and “Game” are much more.

    I also Netflixed the four available Ripley films (there are five total, but “Ripley Under Ground” hasn’t been relased on DVD in North America), since I also hadn’t seem them for awhile. My opinion on “Purple Noon” hasn’t changed; Alain Delon is an excellent Ripley, and his is the face I see when I read the novels, but the ending almost ruins the film. I’m apparently in the minority on “The American Friend” with Dennis Hopper, often called the worst Ripley. He’s my favorite. He may wear clothing that Highsmith’s Ripley would despise (a mechanic’s jumpsuit and a cowboy hat), but he nails the character. It has great style and atmosphere, and Bruno Ganz is fantastic as Jonathan.

    “Ripley’s Game” with John Malkovich is decent, but it doesn’t hold a candle to “The American Friend.” I won’t spend a lot of time comparing the two; I’ll point you to this article (tinyurl.com/yersqed) instead, since it outlines pretty well why I prefer “Friend.” (The article calls it a draw, however.) Then we have the ugly duckling: “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which I didn’t like when I first saw it and I still don’t like it. They turned a wonderfully complex and fascinating character into just another generic queer serial killer, and there’s nothing talented about Ripley. Everything just falls into his lap. He doesn’t decide to imitate Dickie; he only gets the idea when someone mistakes him for Dickie. He doesn’t forge Dickie’s will; Dickie’s father just decides that Dickie would have wanted Tom to have his money. He impressively imitates the voices of Dickie’s father and Freddie, but never uses this talent to deceive anyone.

    Sorry again for a ludicrously long post. I go through phases like this for a month or so at a time, with my attention and interest focused on a single book or series, and everything else is just a distraction. My Tom Ripley fanaticism will die down now. Promise.

  40. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: It is not a ludicrously long post, it is a most welcome one. I’ve been contemplating returning to Ripley (and intend to read them in order) so I will approach the next volume with the knowledge that book three is the one I should most look forward to. Many thanks for your thoughts.

  41. Craig D. Says:

    I don’t want to hype up “Ripley’s Game” too much. Keep in mind that the majority still considers “Talented” the best of the series, as I did before the re-reading sessions; although, based on the comments I’ve heard, they do consider “Game” the best sequel.

    I should also add that a re-reading of “The Great Gatsby” came in between Ripley sequels; I was always aware of the similarities, but I wanted to read “Gatsby” while knee-deep in Ripley. I’ll spare you a long post on my thoughts on this, since there’s a New York Times article you can look at (link: tinyurl.com/ycd23az) that echoes many of them if you’re interested (it’s a long article; just search for “Gatsby”). In short, I thought it made for very interesting reading (and comparing) and I recommend it if you’ve got a copy of “Gatsby.”

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