From Books

Ripley and the Talented Ms Highsmith


The Talented Mister Ripley coverIt was only five years ago that I first read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. I read it this week because it is on my self-assigned “reading list” and also because, since finishing the “Ripliad” a couple of years ago, I’ve wanted to go back and re-read the first book in the series and witness, again, the birth of one of the truly unforgettable characters of 20th century fiction.[1]

I must say that the experience of revisiting this after having read through the rest of the series was somewhat disorienting. I found it hard to reconcile the 25-year-old boy Ripley, an insecure, self-loathing, repressed homosexual and a sloppy, rash murderer, with the self-assured, suave, dutiful-if-not-passionate husband to Heloise, and carefully calculating criminal of the later novels. Tom Ripley is 31 or so in the second book and would have naturally matured, of course, but as I re-read his debut he didn’t quite jibe with the character that had developed in my head over the course of the series. This quite likely says more about my memory and/or imagination than any real flaw in Highsmith’s portrait of Ripley. But in any case I doubt she had anticipated a “Ripliad” at the time she wrote this book (it would be fifteen years before she wrote a sequel), and her conception of the character undoubtedly evolved during those years from 1955 to 1970.

Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley is listed at #3 on Bachblog’s 46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels. It was first published in 1955.

Highsmith’s psychological crime thrillers deserve more attention than they get. I am amazed that only this one made the list of great crime novels I put together based on critical and popular opinion as reflected in “best in genre” lists gleaned from the Internet. Strangers on a Train (even better than the Hitchcock movie that is somewhat loosely based on it) belongs on any list of this sort. I would pick the second Ripley novel (Ripley Under Ground) over the first, and at least four of the five in the series are top-notch. Her highly-praised The Price of Salt (I haven’t read it–yet) is said to have been a major influence on Nabokov’s Lolita. The Blunderer and Suspension of Mercy are brilliant IMHO, and The Tremor of Forgery (I haven’t read it–yet) was called her finest novel by Graham Greene.

Reading list be damned! I am looking forward to reading and re-reading her novels, and to Andrew Wilson’s Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. From what little I know about her–much of it unflattering–it is clear that she was a character as interesting as any she created. And that says quite a bit.

Notes

  1. My “self-assigned reading list” consists of the 113 Great 20th Century Novels, 46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels and 45 Great 20th Century SciFi/Fantasy Novels and I have set a goal to read as many of them as I can during my retirement (which began in August 2011). [^]