I am not really much of a genre reader. By which I mean that while I do enjoy a good thriller when I come across one, I don’t go out of my way specifically to hunt them out. Perhaps the only genre where I do make something of an effort in this respect is the genre of ghost stories – which I find ideal for bedtime reading when the mind is tired and can’t concentrate on anything too demanding – but even here, the range of my reading is nowhere as extensive as that of true devotees. Perhaps this general indifference to genres, even of genres I quite enjoy, explains why it has taken me so long to get round to Patricia Highsmith. I have long read and admired classic American noir writers such as Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M Cain, and have also enjoyed what I have read of contemporary writer James Ellroy, and, had I been less haphazard in planning my reading, I am sure I would have encountered the highly regarded Patricia Highsmith earlier. But in any case, it was worth the wait.
Graham Greene once referred to Patricia Highsmith once as.a “poet of apprehension” rather than of “fear”. It’s an interesting distinction. Much of the tension of The Talented Mr Ripley comes not from what actually happens – although that is horrific enough – but from what Ripley, the utterly amoral and possibly schizophrenic title character, is afraid might happen. And we are invited to share his apprehensions.
This in itself makes for a curious reading experience. For why should we be apprehensive on behalf of a man who is, from any reasonable viewpoint, despicable? Why should we worry that a man might be caught when, away from the spell of the book, we’re in no doubt that behind bars is precisely where he belongs? Yet so skilful is Highsmith in enlisting sympathy for that which should really be outside its bounds, that any moral compass we started with soon becomes well and truly deranged.
The plotting is tight. It starts with the wealthy Greenleafs, under the mistaken impression that Tom Ripley knows well their son Richard, hiring him to go to Italy to persuade him to come home. The set-up is clearly that of Henry James’ late masterpiece The Ambassadors: that novel is even mentioned here by name. And while Tom Ripley is clearly no Lambert Strether, he, like Strether, falls in love with the lifestyle from which he has been commissioned to extricate his friend. But while Strether ponders in characteristically labyrinthine Jamesian prose on the ethics of what he newly perceives, Ripley, described in a prose style somewhat more forthright, appears to have no conception whatever of morality. It is not giving too much away to reveal that, after a while, he murders the man he has been sent after, and then assumes the dead man’s identity. It is not giving too much away because up to the point of the murder, what we had been reading was an intriguing study of character; it is only after this murder that it becomes apparent that this novel is indeed, a thriller.
Ripley’s motives are complex. Money is certainly one of the driving forces; but there is also the excitement of danger. For all his talents, Ripley is no strategist: he can improvise brilliantly, but seems incapable of making long-term plans, and, as a consequence, all too easily and all too frequently finds himself on the verge of being discovered. But he enjoys the danger: it seems almost to give his life a purpose that it had formerly lacked. At one point he reflects that even if he is caught, it would all have been worth it.
But chief among his motives is, perhaps most intriguingly, a certain self-hatred, and a concomitant desire to become another person – actually to become someone whom he seems rather to like, and whom, possibly, he finds desirable. He is never quite so divorced from reality as to completely imagine himself as other than Tom Ripley, but even the extent to which he feels the responsibility for his crime depends on which identity he happens to be assuming at the time. But whatever responsibility he assumes, he never feels the slightest twinge of guilt. Even when meeting the woman who had clearly been in love with his victim, or when meeting the victim’s heartbroken father, the consequence of his crime, the emptiness it has left behind in the lives of others, do not even occur to him. These are indeed things that the readers have to infer for themselves, as Highsmith does not allow us to enter any mind other than Tom’s. And being constantly in the mind of such a person is disorientating, and, frankly, somewhat unnerving. As we worry about the fate of this deeply disturbed and dangerous individual, we cannot help but worry for our own sanity.
The pacing is masterly, as I think it has to be in any good thriller. The opening section, leading up to the murder, is deliberately paced, as it had to be to establish character and situation in sufficient detail. But thereafter, Highsmith knows perfectly when and to what extent to tighten and loosen the tension. The prose tends generally not to draw attention to itself, but in key passages it can become quite explosive.
It would be unfair to reveal any more of the plot than I already have. While it may be argued that the plot is not of central interest – it very rarely is in any fiction of quality, even thrillers – it is not, obviously, unimportant, and the twists and turns it takes stretch Ripley’s apprehensions, and ours, to the very limit. A “poet of apprehension”, as Graham Greene said. The result is a compelling read, but somewhat too disturbing for comfort. I’ll certainly read more by Patricia Highsmith, but perhaps not just yet.