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Defector Reads A Book

You’d Better Believe We Read ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’

Cover image: Vintage/Ebury

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our August DRAB selection was Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading

Maitreyi Anantharaman: Hello, it’s me, your colleague Kelsey McKinney!

Giri Nathan: Kelsey, I am an Italian polizzi, we are [makes chef gesture] investigating a boat.

Barry Petchesky: We also do not recognize-a the person if they dye their hair just a little bit. Mamma mia!

GN: I was about to be so, so satisfied if that one policeman recognized some mole on Tom’s hand, which seemed to be on the verge of happening. 

BP: I guess you’ve got to suspend some level of disbelief for a story like this, which is fine, right?

MA: I’m not even sure you need to. At a certain point, I started jotting down page numbers for scenes where someone looked right at Tom’s fake passport and right at his face and didn’t suspect a thing, and I wonder whether the sheer number of times that happened says something true about the flimsiness of documents and credentials, all these made-up systems we have for “legitimizing” people while we really use other cues to do it.

BP: That’s sort of the secret to Ripley’s success, right? How do you live like a well-to-do fellow? Just act like one, and then everyone starts treating you like one. The nasty details of having to actually pay for stuff can be put off till later.

GN: It does date the book really nicely, in the sense that having to pull off this level of fraud now would require way more technical knowhow and stress. This most complex technology used by Tom in service of disappearing and assuming the identity of his friend: peroxide on his hair.

BP: This book being written today would spend half its length on Tom trying to phish Dickie’s Gmail login. Giri, earlier you said you would have been “satisfied” if Tom got recognized. Which leads me to a question I’m still wrangling with: Were you rooting for him to get caught or to get away with it? 

GN: The only consistent rule I had was that I wanted him to earn his wriggling out of the legal system. I liked it a lot when he had to think on the spot and come up with some elegant lie but not as much when he just benefited from the police bumbling around. I was often stressed on his behalf which, I think, means I was rooting for him to pull it off on some level.

MA: I did want him to pull it off! And my sympathy for him built without my noticing it until the very end—a triumphant ending! Il meglio albergo!—when I was like, the mad lad did it! He did it! 

BP: But he’s a fully unsympathetic character, right? There are no redeeming qualities here. This is not an anti-hero. I suspect the simple act of narrative framing, of putting us in Tom’s head, is what did the trick. Alternatively, it could just be some form of pity: this is a deeply unhappy man.

GN: That’s true. If he were really enjoying the fruits of his crime it might be easier to root against him. But he’s just miserable for nearly every page of this book, it’s not a good time.

BP: Toward the end of the book, when he’s wondering if he’s going to see police waiting for him on every pier for the rest of his life, that’s the punishment for his crimes. And it’s a form of punishment more insidious than simply getting caught, which at times Tom admits would have come as a relief.

MA: Oh yeah, nothing about him is redeeming. He never struck me as especially clever. When we meet him, he’s operating an extremely dumb IRS scam that doesn’t even work. And he’s also quite mean? I would sometimes recoil at his catty little asides about Marge—they were almost funny for how abrupt they were, but what a miserable guy! 

GN: The Marge stuff is pretty icky at parts. It gets at one thing that confused me over the course of the book: Does Tom like anything at all? At least before he embarks he has this friend Cleo that he likes. And then he also likes the idea of leaving his past behind. But is there anything in the present that he particularly enjoys? Looking at his possessions and thinking, very vaguely and unconvincingly, about art and architecture. That’s pretty much it. Even the food is not described with much relish. Certainly there is no other person’s company that he enjoys.

BP: “The first step, anyway, was to make Dickie like him. That he wanted more than anything else in the world.” This is, to me, potentially an unreliable narration. Does he want Dickie to be his friend? Does he want Dickie to fall in love with him? Does he want to be Dickie and have his life? I think some of all of those, but also that he doesn’t himself fully know what he wants.

MA: And he seems at once repulsed by and infatuated with Dickie’s lifestyle and social circle. There’s a line about how much Tom loves “possessions,” which “reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed. Not many people in the world knew how to, even if they had the money.” There’s a resentment here for the people on whom the trappings of wealth are lost. 

GN: Anytime he was encountering an ex-pat he was sizing them up for their appreciation of his cosmopolitan lifestyle. It’s like these were the only measures Tom had for how well he himself was doing. Can he intimidate a small-town American on vacation? And then there’s also the resentment for someone like Freddie Miles, who Tom seems to think is wasting his good fortune in life by being boorish and tasteless. Which probably makes it a little easier to kill him.

BP: It’s as if Tom doesn’t know how to like something, so he defines it by the absence of things he dislikes in others. Which by the end of the book sums to just about everything and everyone. Have fun in Greece, buddy! One thing Tom definitely doesn’t like is sex. His repellence at Marge’s solidity, his disgust when suspects he might be gay, his weird, touch-less interaction with Cleo. At first I thought Tom was pretty clearly coded as closeted, but I later read that Highsmith said that wasn’t the case at all. “Tom laughed at that phrase ‘sexual deviation.’ Where was the sex? Where was the deviation?” So maybe this is asexuality, or just boredom with a very human activity.

GN: There’s no indication in the book that Tom is even attracted to another person, yeah. In my head it started melding with his social disgust for everyone else; if I could conceive of him even enjoying the company of someone I could conceive of him being attracted to someone, but by late in the book I had subconsciously ruled out both possibilities.

MA: I thought about this a lot while comparing the novel to a couple of the film adaptations I’ve seen, which go pretty different ways about it. The 1999 Anthony Minghella adaptation with Matt Damon as Tom leans into the angst of his sexuality much more than the novel does, I think. There’s a degree of self-loathing in his portrayal. And it culminates in a strange, maudlin ending that’s different from the novel’s. Then after I read this, I watched the 1960 René Clément adaptation, Purple Noon, which features a—I didn’t think this was true to the book and I didn’t really mind it—STUPID HOT Alain Delon as Tom. And his Tom is basically the opposite, completely blank, not at all tortured in the way Damon’s Ripley is. The ending of Purple Noon even involves him seducing Marge! Hang on, I’m going to drop in a scene where he was so good-looking that I laughed.

GN: This looks like a long-form cologne ad.

BP: Would a man with a face like that do murder? Certainly not. Maybe psychopath Tom really just was so utterly handsome and charming that no one could bring themselves to suspect him of the things he did. That said, it’s hard to imagine Alain Delon moving a dead body. Which I suppose Tom did struggle with.

MA: There’s actually a fabulous dead body–moving scene in Purple Noon. He’s trying to get Freddie’s body out of the apartment, and it’s a shot from the bottom of the stairwell, so you just see Freddie’s limp arm sliding across the bannister. 

GN: Considering how drunk Tom is at the time, and how large we are led to believe Freddie is, getting him out of the hotel and into the car inconspicuously was a superhuman feat. At least his first attempt to dump a body involved the boat spinning out and the possibility that he’d be eviscerated by a propeller.

BP: There was a real black physical humor to both body-disposal scenes that I appreciated. This suave, conniving rake faced with the unglamorous dirty work of cleaning up a murder. It’s the sort of logistics that most books would just skip over, but it made things seem more true-to-life that the closest Tom ever came to getting caught or even dying was just trying to get rid of the damn bodies. Nothing elegant there.

GN: This brings us to the inevitable question: Is Tom Ripley good at murder?

MA: The question is bound up in the issue of my sympathy for him. I was not infrequently trying to give him advice. When he first toys with the idea of writing Dickie’s suicide note and leaving himself all the money, I couldn’t believe how risky he was being. Might as well wear a big sign saying you murdered him! Also in one scene, Marge asks him where he was that winter and he says, “Well, not with Tom. I mean, not with Dickie.” Agh! I think I full-on groaned. 

BP: I don’t know about Tom, but that makes me think that Maitreyi would be very good at murder. But yes, it does seem like he made life harder for himself multiple times, when he could have just let things lie. Just throw out the damn fake will! Why can’t he help himself?

GN: The scene where he briefly flirts with killing Marge sealed it for me: The speed at which his mind finds a solution (an oar, an ashtray, a loafer) and a reasonable means of cover-up (a sunken boat, a fake stick-up, a swimming accident) suggest to me that he is very, very good at murder. Something—maybe his self-preservation instinct—seems to overcome him in these moments and just make every good decision for him. “He worked without a halt, afraid that he would drop in a faint of exhaustion if he allowed himself to relax even for an instant, and that he might lie there until he was found by somebody.”

BP: Let’s all agree that Tom has good murder instincts. I did find it a wonderful choice on the author’s part to have him not kill Marge. A story like this could easily have just been a series of escalating crimes to cover up previous ones; there are lots of stories like that. But Highsmith really masterfully kept me off-guard by ratcheting the tension up and down, rather than a single sloping build. This book was stressful to read! 

MA: Ripley’s something of a sloppy perfectionist in the murder department. It was funny—for all he disliked Freddie, he didn’t really want to kill him. 

BP: Did he want to kill anyone? It’s never quite elucidated what his immediate motivation is for killing Dickie in the first place, beyond some nebulous combination of envy, revulsion, and fury over an unrequited relationship.

MA: The motive’s hard to parse, but he did want to kill Dickie, I think. When he first springs the idea on us, he even says that he’s had the idea several times before. And so I think he’s a little broken up about killing Freddie because it was such a thoughtless panic murder, and he doesn’t like to think of himself as a thoughtless person.   

BP: There’s a good line in Paris, after the first murder, when he’s at a party as Dickie and seemingly content for the first time in his life: “This was the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, who was made up of that past, and his rebirth as a completely new person.” I think that’s where the two murders differ. He believes that killing Dickie, his only real connection in Europe to his own life, will allow him a new one. Whereas he immediately knows that killing Freddie is going to force him to reckon with his past again.

GN: Right after he considers killing Marge there’s a fun semantic game he plays, and it looks like he cares more about not having the identity of “murderer” than about having done murders: “Those two other times were facts, not imagination. He could say he hadn’t wanted to do them, but he had done them. He didn’t want to be a murderer. Sometimes he could absolutely forget he had murdered, he realized. But sometimes—like now—he couldn’t.” He just recognized the part of himself that instantly kicks into gear whenever it seems like murder might be necessary to keep his ruse going, and he isn’t sure he likes it.

BP: Tom seems to draw deep distinctions between who he is and what he does, but blurs those distinctions for others. He has a hint of that full-on narcissism thing where someone doesn’t actually believe any other people are real. Again, I don’t think this man is ultimately going to find the contentment he seeks in Greece.

MA: I realize this makes me one of those people who comes away from The Great Gatsby thinking the theme is “parties rule,” but I badly want to go on vacation now. Go to a café, walk around the cobblestone streets, check my mail at the American Express. (I didn’t realize what the American Express’s original business was.)

BP: What say we do the next DRAB live from the Amalfi Coast or something. Oh wait, I guess Kelsey will be back for next month’s and I’ll be out of here. But maybe not if I lighten my hair a little bit…

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! September is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick soon.