My wife Ellen’s maiden name is Highsmith. And yes, she’s related. Which was the entire flimsy reason that I decided to read each of Aunt Pat’s five Tom Ripley thrillers. That and my love of all things Alfred Hitchcock—especially Strangers on a Train, the movie Hitch made from Patricia Highsmith’s first published novel.
If you’ve never read The Talented Mr. Ripley—well, what are you waiting for? Even if you have, and you’ve seen the Matt Damon movie to boot, there’s a lot to be gleaned from a re-reading of her handling of plot, character, and atmosphere.
Villains were her specialty. Start with Bruno Antony, her first baddie, who meets architect Guy Haines on a train. Over drinks, Bruno learns that Guy’s wife, Miriam, refuses to give him a divorce. After a little more conversation, Bruno says, “Want me to dope out the perfect murder of your wife for you? You might want to use it sometime.”
Guy demurs, but Bruno presses on:
“We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on the train, see, and nobody knows we know each other … airtight alibis! It’s the idea of my life! Don’t you get it? I could do it sometime when you’re out of town and you could do it when I was out of town.”
Guy walks away, but Bruno goes right ahead with “his” killing as if they had a deal. Why? Is Bruno simply evil through and through?
No, he’s human. Consider Highsmith’s description of the man at lunch before he suggests swapping murders. “Bruno shot ketchup all over his steak and French fries, then delicately picked up the parsley and held it poised.”
After recounting a laundry list of grievances against his father—grievances that make him “angry enough to kill him”—Bruno turns the tables on Guy. “You’re a nice guy. You take everything serious. You take women the hard way, too, don’t you?”
Guy asks, “What’s the hard way?” And Bruno answers, “All out, with a lot of high hopes. Then you get kicked in the teeth, right?”
Before the first chapter ends, we know Bruno Antony is impulsive, capable of great delicacy, aggrieved (probably in love as well as in life), and an observer of the human condition.
Tom Ripley takes villainy—and humanity—a step further. The author uses the omniscient third-person point of view to put us inside Tom’s head. Here’s the opening paragraph of The Talented Mr. Ripley:
Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.
The penny drops a little bit farther down the page. “Was this the kind of man they would send after him? Was he, wasn’t he, was he? He didn’t look like a policeman or detective at all.”
“Was he, wasn’t he, was he?” tells you everything you need to know about Tom and his fevered, guilty-about-something brain. No wonder he’ll jump at the chance that Herbert Greenleaf from the Green Cage bar gives him: sail to Europe and bring home Dickie, the man’s grown son. And it explains why, seemingly without premeditation, Tom will whack Dickie over the head with an oar while they’re boating and steal his identity: he needs to slip out of his own skin and into another.
Of course, the ruse is that he’s now Dickie Greenleaf, but the ever-watchful, ever-paranoid brain is still Tom Ripley’s.
(In passing, notice those surnames. What does fate have in store for a green leaf except to wither and die after a few brief moments in the sun? And Ripley, believe it or not … well … enough about names.)
So, bad guys are people too. In her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Highsmith writes, “Criminals are dramatically interesting, because for a time at least they are active, free in spirit, and don’t knuckle down to anyone.”
Aren’t active, free-spirited, fearless characters (and people) the kind we’re all drawn to? No wonder Highsmith can make us so conflicted when we find ourselves rooting for them.
The beauty of it, to my mind, is when she shows us the fraudulence of the characters she’s made us admire. Well into the middle of the book and after having committed two murders, Tom can still muse: “If you wanted to be cheerful, or melancholic, or wistful, or thoughtful, or courteous, you simply had to act those things with every gesture.”
Patricia Highsmith cons us into identifying with her very human villains, and then she shows us it’s all been a con. Nice trick.
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Mitch Silver was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. He attended Yale (B.A. in History) and Harvard Law School (“I lasted three days. I know the law through Wednesday, but after that…”). He was an advertising writer for several of the big New York agencies, living in Paris for a year with his wife, Ellen Highsmith Silver, while he was European Creative Director on the Colgate-Palmolive account.
A previously published novelist (In Secret Service, S&S/Touchstone), Mitch and his wife Ellen live in Greenwich, Connecticut, and have two children: Sloane is a nurse at Wake Forest Medical Center and Perry is an actor and the drummer for Sky Pony, a band in New York. Mitch also won the American Song Festival Lyric Grand Prize for “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.” His blood type is O positive, and he always writes his biography in the third person. For more info, please go to mitchsilverauthor.com.