Feb 21, 2019
Henry James's famous and difficult 1903 novel, "The Ambassadors" tells the story of Lambert Strether who travels to Europe at the behest of his fiance to persuade her son from a former marriage, Chad, to return to the United States. The climactic scene of "The Ambassadors" takes place in a small rowboat in the middle of a lake with the famous admonition to "Live all you can. It's a mistake not to."
Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" adopts many of James' themes in a modernist, noir story. The protagonist of the story, a young man in his mid-20's named Tom Ripley travels to Italy at the behest of a wealthy businessman, Greenleaf, to persuade his son Dickie Greenleaf to return from Mongibello,Italy to assume what the elder Greenleaf believes to be a life of responsibility in working for the family firm. Dickie has dreams of becoming a painter. With some reason, Dickie's father believes his son has little talent.
Thus far the story closely resembles its model in James, and Highsmith makes several references to the book of her predecessor. Dickey's life of leisure in Italy is somewhat appealingly described, although the young people are wealthy, and self-centered. The reader can sympathize with Dickie's desire to make his own way in life rather than return to the life his father envisions.
The parallels between the novels soon end, however, as Highsmith takes her own direction. Tom Ripley, the protagonist, and Greenleaf's "Ambassador" is a rootless, shifty young man who had known Dickie only casually some years before Greenleaf finds Tom in a bar and persuades him to undertake the mission. Tom is living in a run-down New York City apartment and working a fraudulent scheme posing as an I.R.S. agent collecting underpaid taxes. Tom has dreams of better things for himself, and seizes the unexpected opportunity to travel to Italy on an expense account and turn around his own life.
Tom finds Dickie and his girlfriend Marge. The two young men become friends, at first, as Tom reveals that he is acting on behalf of Dickie's father. The young woman complicates the situation. She loves Dickie, but he is cool towards her. Marge and Tom become jealous of the other. There is more than a hint of latent homosexuality in both young men. After a lengthy stage-setting interlude Tom brutally murders Dickie on a small rented boat in the middle of a lake. (This makes a sharply ironic twist on the climactic moment in "The Ambassadors".) Tom then assumes Dickie's identity and soon commits another murder of an American friend in fear that his cover is about to be blown.
The story develops as Tom assumes the identity of Dickie Greenleaf before passing back to Tom Ripley again. The story builds in tension as Tom attempts to evade the Italian police, Marge, Mr. Greenleaf, and a private detective. Dickie Greenleaf (in the person of Tom) is suspected of the two murders, and when Tom switches back to himself, he is in serious danger of being found out. Tom/Dickie is clever and becomes increasingly suave and urbane. He learns to keep his head. For all his brutality and psychopathic character, I was almost rooting for Tom at times. Violence in this book wears a light veneer.
This is a distinctively American noir novel set primarily in Italy. The European setting gives the book a cosmopolitan feel. The story of double identity and uncertain sexual orientation give the book a modernist tone. The book is the first of a series of novels by Highsmith involving Tom Ripley. The character has also inspired a series of movies. This was my first exposure to Highsmith or to Ripley. I read the book as part of an exploration of American noir. With its setting and suavity, the book has an individual character and shows the flexibility of American noir writing. The novel is available in a single edition or as part of a Library of America volume "Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s: The Killer Inside Me / The Talented Mr. Ripley / Pick-up / Down There / The Real Cool Killers" devoted to American noir of the 1950s.
Oct 9, 2008
Patricia Highsmith was a unique artist, a keen observer of character and incident, as well as a master storyteller, at least as intriguing as the best purveyors of modern thrillers that have populated our bookshelves and absorbed our film screens for decades. Her novels are more than the film adaptation of "Talented Mr Ripley", interesting and engaging though that was. Her writing deserves to be read for the pleasure of reading itself.
The Everyman edition of her works is wonderful, and contains all the major Ripley novels. It is a fine volume, and a pleasure to read and keep.
Aug 20, 2007
Of an earlier generation of mystery writers, Patricia Highsmith and Cornell Woolrich plunge the reader into a profoundly sinister world of obsessions. It's a measure of their success that Alfred Hitchcock adapted their novels into films: Highsmith's "Strangers on a Train" and Woolrich's story, "Rear Window."
The Talented Mr. Ripley turns on the exchanging of characters and identities, and the title character Tom Ripley's chameleon-like talent for evading legal guilt. There is a homoerotic current between Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf whom his father requested that he bring back to Europe, and it is seen in Ripley's persistent denials of that desire. The accountant Ripley also feels a nagging class envy for the rich, glamorous Gatsby-like Dickie and in fact longs to be Dickie.
While the novel is densely plotted, its pleasure derives from Highsmith's understanding of Ripley's essentially hateful, envious, misanthropic personality (his misogyny toward Dickie's Platonic friend Marge, who is seen as something of a dim bulb from Ripley's perspective, is also evident). This class resentment and malice leads to two murders.
The novel does hang on a considerable suspension of disbelief: Ripley's ability to fool the Italian police by playing a double role, but even the principals involved in the classic film noir "The Big Sleep" claimed not to understand its plot. The fascination lies here in character, and Highsmith is masterful in her creation of the talented Mr. Ripley.
1 Silent Rating