My mystery book group met last night to discuss Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, a book that indicates we are branching out a bit from mystery fiction to crime fiction more generally. Detectives appear in Highsmith’s book, but only briefly, and they aren’t very good. They are pretty foolish, in fact. The real star of the book is Tom Ripley, the murderer.
What a wonderful, difficult, bizarre book this is. I loved it, but it left me feeling anxious and vaguely guilty, as though I’d done something wrong myself. The reason for this is that the story is told from a very close third-person perspective that leaves the reader in Tom’s consciousness the entire time, with no relief. It’s such a disturbing consciousness that I was both fascinated by the person that Tom is, and deeply unsettled.
As the novel opens, Tom finds himself followed by a man who turns out to be the father of an acquaintance. Tom was worried that the man was following him because of the tax fraud Tom had recently committed (he sent out letters to people telling them they owed more in taxes — just for fun and to see what would happen), but it turns out he wants Tom to travel to Europe to try to bring his son Dickie back home to run the family business. Tom soon figures out that even though he doesn’t know Dickie as well as his father thinks he does, this is a great opportunity to live in the lap of luxury for a while.
He meets Dickie in a small, coastal Italian town and quickly becomes a part of his life. He and Dickie’s friend Marge spend their days swimming, sunbathing, and eating long and luxurious meals. Tensions soon develop, though: Tom is devoted to Dickie but jealous of Marge, while Marge decides that Tom is a bad influence on Dickie and treats him coldly and suspiciously. This love triangle of a sort (Marge is in love with Dickie, although he appears not to return the feeling, and Tom is obsessed with Dickie to a degree that is obvious but ambiguous in nature) gets more and more complicated until one day Tom, in a fit of jealousy and worried that Dickie is pushing him away, kills him in horrifically bloody fashion in a boat on the ocean.
What’s so awful about this murder is that it’s so senseless, so horrible, and yet to Tom it’s simply an unfortunate action that he had little control over. Once the idea entered his mind, he knew there was little he could do except follow through. He’s not remorseful at all, just cautious about what to do next. What he does is become Dickie himself, stepping into his shoes, forging his signature to collect his money, and living the life that Dickie might have lived.
Tom not only lacks any moral sense, but he lacks any sense of himself at all; he’s a cipher, an empty shell who is incapable of caring for another person. He is extremely isolated. The people around him are pawns in his personal game or they are nobodies to be gotten rid of if necessary. What Tom has — or what he wants to have — in place of any sense of self or any emotional connection to others is objects and money. Once he has taken Dickie’s place, he enjoys himself extremely well wearing Dickie’s clothes, eating fabulous meals alone in expensive restaurants, and traveling across Europe seeing the sights. As long as he has the objects that make up the right kind of identity, it doesn’t matter to him that the identity is a sham. For him, it’s real, or, at any rate, it’s enough.
He slips into the role of Dickie frighteningly easily, and not only that, but he quickly forgets what it was like to be Tom:
It was a good idea to practice jumping into his own character again, because the time might come when he would need to in a matter of seconds, and it was strangely easy to forget the exact timbre of Tom Ripley’s voice. He conversed with Marge until the sound of his own voice in his ears was exactly the same as he remembered it.
It’s possible to say that this is a psychological exploration of a sociopath, but I think the book resists psychological explanations and is therefore even more chilling. The narrator explains that Tom lost his parents when he was young and that he was raised by an emotionally abusive aunt. But this history is told so quickly, with so few details, that it’s almost as if Highsmith is playing with our need for an explanation, making fun of it by providing us with one so unsatisfactory. There’s no real reason for Tom, no way of explaining him or of avoiding him.
As other members of my book group said, I loved the book, but I don’t necessarily want to read more of the book in the series or even more of Highsmith’s work at all. It’s good — very good — but so disturbing it’s hard to subject oneself to it.