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Patricia Highsmith's Thomas Ripley

Profile at MysteryNet.com: "The Talented-- and Deadly-- Mr. Ripley" by Charles L. P. Silet

An inside look at Patricia Highsmith's agreeable and urbane psychopath, Tom Ripley.

Through the years we have had a chance to follow the extraordinarily eccentric life of Patricia Highsmith's Thomas Ripley, who surely must be one of the oddest series figures in crime fiction since Raffles, the gentleman crook, left the scene decades ago. The Ripley novels have been appearing since 1955 when The Talented Mr. Ripley first was published. The fifth and last, Ripley Under Water, came out in 1991.

The first novel in the series is the strongest and probably the most bizarre. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) is truly a masterpiece of crime fiction, one to rival in weirdness Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock made into such a wonderful film. At the beginning of this on-going saga the impecunious Mr. Ripley is hired to go to Europe to find the wayward son of a wealthy Boston couple. By the end of the novel Ripley has not only murdered his quarry, but he has also forged a will in his favor, financially setting himself up for life, and he has done all of this with apparently little cost to his conscience.

The first Ripley book begins with an edginess which has carried through all of the volumes in the series. Tom Ripley has been looking over his shoulder ever since. By the second novel, Ripley Under Ground (1970), Tom Ripley has become a silent partner in The Buckminster Gallery in London which specializes, unknown to its customers, in art forgeries of a dead surrealist artist, Derwatt. In addition, he does a few favors to help a friend who runs a high-ticket fencing operation out of Germany and putters in his garden while enjoying the good life with his wife, Heloise, in their suburban villa, Belle Ombre, situated just outside Paris.

Through the rest of the books Tom continues to prosper despite of the fact that he continues to break the law, on occasion murdering those who threaten his secure existence. Not that all of these crime stories do not have their strange attraction but once Ripley has married and settled down with his wife to live an outwardly bourgeoisie life, the books lose some of their tension. Part of the problem is that as the series progresses it becomes increasingly unlikely that he will be caught no matter how dangerous the adventures he experiences.

The action of all of the novels after the first takes place from Belle Ombre and although Ripley jets around Europe and even once in a while to America, he always returns to the safety of his wife and house. In this series however safety is conditional. Even since the questionable events of the first book, Ripley has existed under a cloud of suspicion, ever watched by the police and always prey to those who would question the increasing number of people who seem to vanish when Ripley is around. He never quite rids himself of the sins of his past, although he does seem to be able to live with his transgressions with little regret.

What makes the books so fascinating and so eerie is the flat, matter-of-fact, attitude toward murder and mayhem which Ripley maintains. He suffers momentary pangs of remorse or disquieting thoughts on occasion, but in general he slips down the bloody trail he walks with a certain ease. And those around him, even if they know about Ripley's crimes, seem little bothered by them. It is as if the world he inhabits is strangely immune from guilt.

These are unsettling works of fiction, full of macabre humor and devilish insouciance, which play on the reader's fantasies of individual power and choice. In a universe so full of nasty people and random, uncontrollable events, it is strangely satisfying to watch someone exercise his personal will unfettered by the normal constraints of legality and civilized controls imposed upon the rest of us. For the successful creation of fiction as powerfully attractive as the Ripley novels are, Patricia Highsmith deservedly has earned her place as a crime writer of exceptional achievement.

Buy Patricia Highsmith Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com

Thomas Ripley Novels

The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1955

Ripley Under Ground, 1970

Ripley's Game, 1974

The Boy Who Followed Ripley, 1980

Ripley Under Water, 1991

BIO
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. He is currently working on a collection of his interviews with major contemporary writers.