Why Should I Read?...
The Talented Mr Ripley
Patricia Highsmith, 1955
If you’ve been following this series so far, you will have formed a picture of my reading tastes. You will have noticed that I enjoy books with a cool narrative tone, that I often come back to the thriller format, and that a morally-compromised protagonist is often appealing. It is not from this point a great leap to find Patricia Highsmith on the list. The Talented Mr Ripley is the first and best in a series of five novels exploring the career of Tom Ripley, con-man, art-swindler and unrepentant murderer. Best of all, he gets away with it.
Highsmith is in many ways reminiscent of Richard Stark. Ripley, like Parker, does what he needs to do without any kind of commentary by the author. Unlike Stark, though, Highsmith gives us much more of her protagonist’s inner life. We don’t just see what Ripley does, we see why he does it. Most of his crimes are for financial gain, or self-preservation, but his first murder, of idle rich Dickie Greenleaf, whose identity Ripley assumes, is triggered at least in part by pique at Dickie’s rejection of his friendship. Ripley being Ripley, he also manages to turn the situation to his financial advantage.
Ripley is not without a conscience, but it’s a rudimentary one, and he doesn’t pay it a lot of attention. It comes to the fore when he feels in danger of being caught, and if his dreams are troubled at night, it’s because he always feel the authorities on his tail, not because he’s really troubled by what he’s done.
Highsmith does not set out to make Ripley sympathetic. She does not elaborate on his difficult childhood (although there are hints) or justify his actions. The prose is cool and uncluttered, even when Highsmith is revealing Ripley’s inner thoughts. He acts as he acts, and the reader must take him or leave him. Given the continuing success of the novels, readers seem to have been happy with that bargain.
How has it influenced me?
Highsmith is a comparatively recent discovery for me: she is not in my DNA in the way of Jack Vance, for instance. Nonetheless, The Dog of the North is in one sense an anti-hero novel, and Highsmith is up there with the best of them. In deciding to write a novel in which the protagonist unapologetically makes a living from crime, gets away with it, and whose thoughts and emotions are retailed without stage-villain mugging, then The Talented Mr Ripley, which I read soon before starting my own book, can certainly be seen as a distant cousin.
Lessons for the aspiring writer
The reader will identify more readily with a strong rogue as a protagonist than a feeble hero (the latter device really only being effective in comedy)
Criminals need not be caught at the end of the novel (especially if you plan a sequel…)
When exploring the mind of the amoral or sociopathic, a cool narrative tone works best
Overt moralising does not lead to good fiction
A great story, that explores with a sharp and detached eye the complexity of the human mind.
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