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The Boy Who Followed Ripley

I’ve been reading my way through that series of books by Patricia Highsmith known as the Ripliad – 5 novels all featuring the Tom Ripley character, written over a span of many years. It’s easy to see why she continued to return to Ripley. He’s a fascinating character, charming but amoral, capable of murder at any time.

This is the 4th in the series, written in 1980. The first, The Talanted Mr. Ripley was written in 1955 and the final book, Ripley Under Water was written in 1991. Of the 4 I’ve read so far, The Boy Who Followed Ripley is the weakest. Some of the writing is clumsy, and while there were some interesting ideas in the book I don’t think Highsmith carried it off nearly as well as the others I’ve read.

The Boy Who Followed Ripley is about a 16 year old rich kid named Frank who murdered his billionaire, wheelchair-bound father. He takes off to Europe and meets up with Ripley. I found it difficult to buy into just how the Frank character became aware of Ripley and why he decided to seek him out, but I understand why the author did it. The young man reminds Ripley of Ripley. The book brings out an almost compassionate side to the Ripley character presented along with an unresolved sexual tension between Tom and Frank.

Highsmith introduced some characters of convenience for this book who help out Tom. The young man is kidnapped in Berlin and these characters happily get involved with Tom because they have a mutual shady friend who appeared in the other novels. I couldn’t figure out the motivation for these characters and at one point I was convinced Highsmith was going to try to surprise us by revealing they were behind the kidnapping. In fact I think it was simpler than that. Tom needed helpers to drive the story and Highsmith provided them.

I expected or maybe I wanted, a greater depth of complexity in this novel, either in the characterization or the story. What I was looking for was perhaps hinted at but withheld. For instance, we know the boy killed his father because that’s what he told Tom and we believe it since he seems to be pretty much messed up. At one point I starting thinking, hey wait a minute, what if Frank didn’t murder his dad? Highsmith hinted that his mother was having an affair. What if the mother did it and Frank saw. How would that affect him? However, the mother didn’t do it.

If someone wanted to read just one or two of the Ripley novels, I wouldn’t recommend this one, but if you’re going to read the set, it’s a worthwhile read. I can’t speak to the whole set yet as I still have Ripley Under Water to read but so far The Talanted Mr. Ripley and Ripley’s Game are the strongest of the group by far.


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