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Meet Thomas Phelps Ripley
on 20 March 2017
It has been years since I last read this, the first and best of the novels in the Ripley series, or the Ripliad as it is often called. Here we first meet Thomas Phelps Ripley, as he leaves New York to carry out a ‘mission’ in Europe. Patricia Highsmith makes a couple of references in the text here to Henry James’ ‘The Ambassadors’ which was obviously an inspiration for this, as the ‘mission’ that Ripley is to carry out is to persuade an American to return to the USA.
When we first meet Tom he is living hand to mouth in New York, carrying out a confidence scam, but one that will never be able to get him much money, as he hasn’t planned it out fully. His only hope is if someone pays him cash. But then Herbert Greenleaf steps into his life, as Ripley knew his son and Herbert is hoping that if he gives Tom an all expenses trip to Mongibello in Southern Italy, he will be able to persuade his son Dickie to return to the fold and take up a position in the family business.
It is because Highsmith really takes on the task of portraying such a complex character as Ripley that this book has always proved popular. Amoral, certainly a psychopath, Tom is also gay, although very much in the closet, indeed you get the impression that he kids himself that he isn’t, and that although obviously attracted to men, sex is something that he considers a bit dirty. There are so many facets to this person’s character that although we see him killing people we also feel some sympathy for him. We know that he had visions of being an actor and these never came to fruition, but we see him here take on the aspects of play acting as he imagines situations and mimics others so that he can deal with certain situations.
Only of moderate intelligence we read how Ripley murders others, but not necessarily the in depth thought of how to cover his tracks properly, or even committing a crime at a correct time. Thus a game of cat and mouse is played with the Italian police as Ripley has to use all his skills and trust to a certain amount of luck if he is to get away with his crimes.
A quite dark read but one that is fulfilling this is always worth reading, and is a good way to get into the head of a psychopath. Although here we find ourselves strangely rooting for the killer, and hoping that he isn’t arrested.