Top mysteries challenge review: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Genre: Psychological thriller
Year of publication: 1955
No. in series: 1
Series protagonist: Thomas Phelps Ripley
Setting & time: The USA (beginning chapters), Italy (remaining chapters); contemporary

How on earth do I synopsise the beginning of this story without giving away too much? I’ll try, but don’t blame me if you haven’t read the book and see something in here that you consider to be a spoiler.

A Mr. Greenleaf asks the protagonist, Tom Ripley, to go to Italy to persuade his errant son, Dickie, to come home to America. Once there, Ripley easily befriends Dickie, but when clouds start gathering on the friendship horizon Ripley decides that he deserves to be in the situation Dickie is in: financially independent and living in wonderful Italy; whereas Ripley is poor and unemployed and once his travelling money from Greenleaf senior runs out he must return to the USA to an uncertain future.

Herein you will definitely find SPOILERS.

The book is very well written, the characters are believable and the surroundings so innocuous that you find it hard to believe they are to be used as a backdrop for dark deeds. The narrative starts out innocently but almost immediately starts winding up like a spring until it is vibrating with pent up tension waiting to be released. When it finally is, the events that unfold have become not entirely unexpected, but then the tension starts mounting again and this time you have no idea where the narrative is taking you: if it is going down the inevitable road that psychological thrillers of the time of writing usually took, or if it will take you on an entirely new and (then) relatively untrodden path.

Highsmith has managed to do something in this story that is quite difficult: to create an utterly selfish, ruthless, amoral and unredeemable character who is nevertheless appealing, even sympathetic. That he is unredeemable and sociopathic is important, because there are plenty of selfish and ruthless and even apparently amoral but nevertheless likeable and even charming protagonists to be found within the crime-thriller genre (Sam Spade and James Bond come to mind), but ultimately they are sympathetic because one believes they possess a conscience (even if is underdeveloped) and might be reformed.

Highsmith creates this sympathy by the simple expedient of allowing us to see Ripley from the inside, to travel with him, even become him, and to feel with him all his insecurities and anxieties. At the same time she manages somehow to manipulate us to look past the fact that not for one moment does he ever regret having done what he did, except at moments when he thinks he might have been careless enough to get caught.

An excellently written and executed psychological thriller with an unexpectedly sympathetic criminal protagonist. 5 stars.

Books left in the challenge: After careful counting I believe I have 110 books left to read in the challenge, but don’t take my word for it.


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