Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
$13.95 at Bn.com ISBN: 0413732207
Wow, what a story! Made into a movie with Matt Damon, the film is a mediocre copy of an outstanding work of fiction. This book has it all! Tom Ripley is a twenty-something bachelor living paycheck to paycheck in New York City. As far as the reader can tell, he doesn't have a conscience. He tricks people into sending him checks as a hobby, and murders several of the novel's other characters not out of malice, but because they're inconvenient to his plans. Most of the story is told through his inner monologue, so you can always tell exactly what he's thinking. Most of it isn't very nice, although he can be quite charming when he has to be.
Tom is hired by the wealthy Mr. Greenleaf to go to Europe and find his son, Dickie, and convince him to come back home. In exchange for this he's given a stipend and travels to Mongibello, Italy, all expenses paid. Tom takes to life in upscale Europe like a fish to water, and ingratiates himself to Dickie when he arrives. The two young men become friends, and stay in Europe living off the money Greenleaf paid Tom to bring Dickie back. As the money starts to run out, Tom has decided he's going to stay in Italy and plays his wealthy benefactor and his son against each other to keep himself in luxury. Fraud, counterfeiting, murder, and betrayal are the talents Ripley uses to keep himself from returning to his former life of poverty and anonymity in New York.
I'm not going to give away the whole story here. Let's just say that it's a fast-paced crime novel that involves traveling across Europe in the 50s, frequently on the run from the law and always using trickery and subversion to keep the money coming in. Fun times in posh European hotels aren't cheap, after all. Highsmith has remarkable talent for capturing the flavor of Mediterranean travel, and the psychology of the criminal mind gives it plenty of edge. Ripley is a criminal, but he's still an awkward and somewhat insecure guy who's trying to keep his cover from getting blown, so you're strangely drawn to him. Overall, this is easy and exciting reading (only 100 pages!), but still complex and elegantly written. Pick it up if you're looking for a thrill!