History: This book is a 1955 psychological thriller novel which first introduced the character of Tom Ripley who returns in the five novels collectively known as the Ripliad.Plot: Tom Ripley is a young man struggling to make a living in New York City by whatever means necessary, including a series of small-time confidence scams. One day, he is approached by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf to travel to Mongibello, Italy, to persuade Greenleaf's errant son, Dickie, to return to the United States and join the family business. Ripley agrees, exaggerating his friendship with Dickie, a half-remembered acquaintance, in order to gain the elder Greenleaf's trust.
Shortly after his arrival in Italy, Ripley meets Dickie and his friend Marge Sherwood; although Ripley ingratiates himself with Dickie, Marge does not seem to like him very much. As Ripley and Dickie spend more time together, Marge feels left out and begins insinuating to Dickie that Ripley is gay. Dickie then unexpectedly finds Ripley in his bedroom dressed up in his clothes and imitating his mannerisms. Dickie is upset, and from this moment on Ripley senses that his wealthy friend has begun to tire of him, resenting his constant presence and growing personal dependence. Ripley has indeed become obsessed with Dickie, which is further reinforced by his desire to imitate and maintain the wealthy lifestyle Dickie has afforded him.
As a gesture to Ripley, Dickie agrees to travel with him on a short holiday to Sanremo. Sensing that Dickie is about to cut him loose, Ripley finally decides to murder him and assume his identity. When the two set sail in a small rented boat, Ripley beats him to death with an oar, dumps his anchor-weighted body into the water and scuttles the boat.
Ripley assumes Dickie's identity, living off the latter's trust fund and carefully providing communications to Marge to assure her that Dickie has dumped her. Freddie Miles, an old friend of Dickie's from the same social set, encounters Ripley at what he supposes to be Dickie's apartment in Rome. He soon suspects something is wrong. When Miles finally confronts him, Ripley kills him with an ashtray. He later disposes of the body on the outskirts of Rome, attempting to make police believe that Miles has been murdered by robbers.
Ripley enters a cat-and-mouse game with the Italian police, but manages to keep himself safe by restoring his own identity and moving to Venice. In succession Marge, Dickie's father, and an American private detective confront Ripley, who suggests to them that Dickie was depressed and may have committed suicide. Marge stays for a while at Ripley's rented house in Venice. When she discovers Dickie's rings in Ripley's possession, she seems to be on the verge of realising the truth. Panicked, Ripley contemplates murdering Marge, but she is saved when she says that if Dickie gave his rings to Ripley, then he probably meant to kill himself.
The story concludes with Ripley's traveling to Greece and resigning himself to eventually getting caught. On arrival in Greece, however, he discovers that the Greenleaf family has accepted that Dickie is dead and that Ripley shall inherit his fortune according to a will forged by Ripley on Dickie's Hermes typewriter. While the book ends with Ripley happily rich, it also suggests that he may forever be dogged by paranoia. In one of the final paragraphs, he nervously envisions a group of police officers waiting to arrest him, and Highsmith leaves her protagonist wondering, ".....was he going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he ever approached?"
Review: Tom Ripley is not above any means of gaining a foothold to his vision of betterment. He extorts random people by impersonating an agent of the IRS and although his endeavor does not bring in any great sum of money, it is more of a glimpse into what Ripley is capable of doing. By targeting unassuming, run-of-the-mill, hard working people most likely to quickly pay a small fee to the IRS, Highsmith brilliantly portrays Ripley as clever, calculating and completely amoral. He knows the difference between right and wrong but he is utterly indifferent to either. This makes for a fascinating protagonist.
Highsmith takes the reader on a dark roller-coaster ride of deception, jealousy, deceit and murder, followed by evasion, more deceit, and more murder. Rather than chilling, senseless violence, Highsmith carefully crafts a mesmerizing tale of pursuit and near-miss as Ripley manages to stay just ahead of capture. He is crafty and calm even when in a panic. For the reader, the result is riveting.
In getting into the eerily empty room that is Tom Ripley’s conscience, I never thought I could sympathize with such a cold and calculating character, yet I was captivated. The story spirals horrifically and the building tension was incredible. There is not one fiber of my being that sympathizes with someone who harms others yet I could not bear the thought of Ripley’s failure. Wow!
Written in the 1950′s, Highsmith exquisitely captures the sense of time and place in New York City and of the enviable life of a wealthy American abroad. She describes in lovely detail the nuances that made life so wonderful for those Ripley admired that it made me want to go back and live there too. Her writing is elegant and clear, simple yet with the depth of distinction to deprive the reader from a restful night’s sleep.
It is not stated in the story whether Dickie or Tom is gay, yet Dickie’s relationship with Marge appears to be platonic due to Dickie’s lack of romantic interest. At one point in the story, Dickie becomes overly sensitive to a comment from Marge that Tom is in love with him. He angrily confronts Tom about this, reminding
us of the Shakespearian adage about protesting too much.
Whether or not the characters are meant to be gay, the attitudes portrayed in the book reflect the 1950s historical setting.
Because the story is set in the ’50s there are elements that will seem dated to the modern reader. For example, Tom takes a boat from New York to Naples, and Mr. Greenleaf sends Tom a telegram. It might be argued that advances in forensic technology and police detection methods mean that Tom would unlikely be able to get away with his crimes today. Nevertheless, the novel remains an exciting suspense thriller with fast-paced action, well-drawn characters and a gripping psychological dimension.
Opening Line: “Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of The Green Cage, heading his way.”
Closing Line: “Amelio. Amelio”
Quotes: “Anticipation! It occurred to him that his anticipation was more pleasant to him than the experiencing.”