I’m not sure how, in close to 58 years on the planet, I failed to read any of Patricia Highsmith’s novels. Recently we watched the Wim Wenders film, The American Friend, based on Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, and we loved it. Soon after, we watched the second film based on the same book, (also titled Ripley’s Game) and directed by Liliana Cavani. Here was two very different Tom Ripleys, played by Dennis Hopper in the earlier film and John Malkovich in the second. What a fascinating character.
There is an interview with Wim Wenders on our DVD copy of The American Friend and in it he speaks of his admiration for Highsmith’s work, and his attempts to option one of her novels for a film. It was after watching this interview I thought I ought to read Highsmith’s novels.
She has written quite a number of novels, including Strangers on a Train, the basis for the Hitchcock film of the same name. Should I go back to her early work and start there? I considered that but instead decided to first follow the Tom Ripley character and first read the 5 novels known collectively as The Ripliad: The Talented Mr. Ripley; Ripley Under Ground; Ripley’s Game; The Boy who Followed Ripley; and Ripley Under Water. These 5 novels were published over a considerable span of time, from 1955 to 1991.
I gobbled up The Talented Mr. Ripley. I think part of the strength of this novel is that we find ourselves liking the anti-hero Ripley while at the same time realizing he is a cold-blooded, twisted murderer. One of the ways Highsmith achieved this is taking her time before killing off Ripley’s first victim. By the time he does the deed, we’re already invested in the character.
It’s chilling to read how Ripley imagines the possibility of murdering his first victim, then knowing he was going to do it, then carrying out the deed swiftly and violently. He doesn’t exactly like murder. In fact he seems to have some distaste for it, and only kills again because he sees it necessary in order to protect himself. We learn how perfectly capable he is of making a split-second decision to take a human life.
Tom Ripley may have no morals and no conscience but he is certainly subject to fear – fear of getting caught, something which he feels is inevitable in parts of The Talented Mr. Ripley. He imagines police waiting for him, taking him away.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is a compelling psychological page-turner based on a strangely compelling murderous sociopath of a character. I’m looking forward to digging into Ripley Under Ground.