If you check out just about any list of classic mystery novels, you’re likely to come across The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1921-95). And it’s easy to understand why. When it was published in 1955, it must have created a sensation. Kirkus published a brief spoiler review of the book on November 30, 1955, noting “The virtuosity here—more than anything else—will pin you to the page.” In other words, the reviewer may have hated the book but admired Ms. Highsmith’s writerly talents. Which neatly sums up my own feelings about it.
It’s not terribly complicated why I didn’t enjoy this book. In a word, Tom Ripley is a creep. A sociopath. He’s a masterful liar, a con man, a social climber, a deeply repressed homosexual, and, as you will not be surprised to learn, a murderer. A serial murderer, in fact. I prefer reading books about people I can respect.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Ripley #1) by Patricia Highsmith (1955) 288 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
A classic mystery novel about a creep
So, okay, here’s the story in a nutshell. Tom is approached by Mr. Greenleaf, a wealthy shipbuilder who believes Tom is one of his son’s best friends. The son, Richard (Dickie) Greenleaf, styles himself as a painter and has moved to an Italian village. Mr. Greenleaf wants Tom to bring him home, presumably so he can go to work in the boat-building business, and he’s willing to pay the cost for Tom to travel and camp out there for a time. Since Tom is poor and has no fixed address, he looks on this as a terrific opportunity.
Spoiler alert: here’s what happens
Once in Italy, Tom skillfully embeds himself in Dickie’s life. The only problem is Marge Sherwood, another American expat who lives in the village and is in love with Dickie. Marge suspects Tom of inappropriate motives; in fact, she believes he’s gay and is trying to steal Dickie from her. So, that’s the setup.
It’s not long before Tom finds a way to murder Dickie, hide the body, and impersonate him brilliantly enough to start living off of Dickie’s trust fund. And when a friend of Dickie’s threatens to expose the scheme, Tom murders him, too. Somehow, then, he manages to convince the Italian police, Marge, Mr. Greenleaf, and an American private detective that it was Dickie who probably committed the second murder and then killed himself in remorse. In other words, the creep gets away with it all. It’s all very clever, and very disturbing.
Sorry, Ms. Highsmith. Classic mystery novel or not, that’s not my kind of story.
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