(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.