Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

I really wish I’d read Patricia Highsmith’s book The Talented Mr. Ripley before I saw director, Anthony Mingella’s 1999 movie adaptation by the same name, because the entire time I was reading the book I kept envisioning, Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Miles and Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge Sherwood. Oops, now you will too.

It never occurred to me that The Talented Mr. Ripley was a book before it became a screenplay, but when I recently did a search for “best thriller books ever,” it popped up on every list, along with The Killer Inside Me, which I previously read and reviewed. So I went into the book knowing who does what, and thinking that would diminish my enjoyment. It didn’t. First, I want to tell you a little about the author, Patricia Highsmith (pictured), mostly because I so loved her writing style, which was smooth, intelligent, and so subtly terrifying (Graham Greene called Highsmith "the poet of apprehension"), but also because she’s a Texas gal, born in Fort Worth, and a pretty interesting character herself.  

Highsmith grew up in Texas and New York, but spent most of her adult life in England and France. During her life, Highsmith was a popular author in Europe, however, her books went in and out of print for decades in the US. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train did gain Highsmith considerable fame after Alfred Hitchcock made it into a film. And then there’s  Danny DeVito's Hitchcock spoof Throw Momma From the Train. Also of interest is that many of Highsmith’s books, including The Talented Mr. Ripley, have very, very, subtle homosexual undertones. In Ripley it was an intriguing part of the mystery. Was he? Or wasn’t he?

Tom Ripley is one of those psychotically insecure people who wants to be a member of high-society, all the while hating them because they were born into it, while he must work for it. Problem is, because he blames the world for his ill fortune, he believes that he is justified in doing anything, anything to achieve social status. Shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf approaches Tom (a former classmate of his son’s) to travel to Italy to persuade the errant son, Dickie, to return to New York to join the family business. Ripley agrees, exaggerating his friendship with Dickie, and off to Italy he goes, all expenses paid by Dickie’s dad.

Before long, Tom’s extreme jealousy of Dickie and his lifestyle, his girlfriend, and his happiness turns deadly! I remember early in the book thinking, Tom wasn’t such a bad guy. He’d just had a hard life. That is until he described how he wanted to stab his annoying aunt to death with her brooch. OK, I thought, this guy is pretty sick. Then he dresses up in Dickie’s clothes and pretends he is Dickie. Really sick! Then it goes downhill from there. Not the book though. It’s all uphill, as is the murder count.

The book is suspense upon suspense upon surprise done well. And the ending, well, let’s just say it was a surprise. Snuggle down with it. You’ll be glad you did. Highsmith, wherever you are, I salute you!

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