John Sutherland on Mr Ripley, ‘our most favourite psychopath’

Categories: Uncategorised

2015 is the sixtieth anniversary of Tom Ripley’s first introduction to the world, in The Talented Mr. Ripley – one of the most influential crime novels ever written.

To mark the “birth” of our favourite psychopath, we’re delighted to have published new editions of two of Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking Ripley novels this month: The Talented Mr Ripley and The Boy Who Followed Ripley.


Our own Sarah Waters is ‘a huge Highsmith fan. If there’s one book I wish I’d written, it’s The Talented Mr Ripley; and the Daily Telegraph says ‘Ripley – amoral, hedonistic and charming – is a genuinely original creation. It is hard to imagine anyone interested in modern fiction who has not read the Ripley novels.’

Both of this month’s new editions come with a brand new introduction by the brilliant John Sutherland, which you can read exclusively below. The Talented Mr Ripley has been the Guardian‘s Reading Group choice across June; you can read a great article about Tom Ripley, the likable psycopath, and also the Reading Group verdict, on the Guardian website. And if you head to the Guardian for 1pm on Friday 26th June, John Sutherland will be joining Sam Jordison for a live webchat. You can post him all your Highsmith-related questions here now.



Thomas (‘Tom’) Ripley was introduced to the world sixty years ago, in December 1955, when the first of the novels chronicling his life and unusual ‘talent’ was published. His historical birth we can calculate as 1934.

It is pleasant to think of our anti-hero, now in his eighties, in Belle Ombre (Beautiful Shadow), his little chateau, surrounded by his beloved paintings (most beloved, of course, his authentic and Ripley-forged Derwatts), tinkling Bach on his harpsichord (not, alas, quite as well as Wanda Landowska) and ‘cultivating his garden’ – particularly his prize peonies and dahlias. Outdoors he is assisted by the horny-handed Henri. Indoors all is made smooth, and the table laden with haute cuisine, by the house-keeper, Mme Annette. Faithful retainers, both of them. Alongside Tom is his wife, the beautiful Heloise, heiress to her industrialist father’s ill-gotten millions. There are no offspring to vex the couple.

It is less pleasant, perhaps, to imagine Monsieur Ripley killing any visitor who dares threaten the even tenor of his life. He has amassed an impressive body-count over the years (1955–88) that the novels chronicle: a dozen or more victims. But Tom Ripley is not, as that number might suggest, a serial killer. Serial killers have what detectives call a ‘modus operandi’. They do the same thing over and over again – one of the principal reasons they are caught. Tom has no MO. His first victim, Dickie, he bashes to death with an oar. Others he garrottes, pushes over cliffs, drowns, or – like the tormented artist, Bernard Tufts, in Ripley Under Ground – drives to self-destruction. When forced, Tom will resort to the banal firearm or knife.

Murder, Tom discovers, is a risky business, but ‘risks were what made the whole thing fun’. Ripley murders are, typically, passionless. He betrays little emotion during their commission except – tellingly – an occasional ‘mirth’. It recalls Shakespeare’s Puck: ‘what fools these mortals be’. Tom, we conclude, is a very puckish murderer. He is also curiously snobbish. He clubs Thomas Murchison (the most innocent and likeable of his victims) with a bottle of ‘good Margaux’. We are told that fact in several of the novels: always with the accompanying epithet ‘good’. What on earth does it matter whether the bottle that smashed Murchison’s skull contained a fine vintage or cat’s-piss plonk? It is almost as if Tom thinks the American tycoon ought to be flattered to have been dispatched from the world with such a well-chosen wine. Tom, we gather, does everything, even homicide, with style.

Nemesis, poetic justice, ‘comeuppance’? They never happen to Mr Ripley. Remorse? Forget it. He exterminates his victims with as little moral concern as he sprays the carpenter ants threatening his exquisitely chosen antique furniture, or the aphids on his roses. His dozen murders serve two purposes: they keep him safe from the law and they maintain the income stream his refined lifestyle demands.

They also serve a ‘higher’ purpose. Murder, proclaimed Highsmith, ‘is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing’.

Homicide fulfils Tom Ripley emotionally – it is for him what the act of love was for Casanova. Most would think this a quite grotesque proposition. But such is Highsmith’s seductiveness as a narrator that we go along with it – at least, while reading. Then, having closed the book, the spell is over and we feel uneasy. We have – thanks to Highsmith’s narrative mastery – become, somehow, complicit. Accomplices. It is a strange but fascinating aftertaste that Highsmith’s fiction leaves us with. Why, against all the facts presented to us, do we persist in ‘liking’ Ripley and ‘rejoice’ (Highsmith’s word) in his ingenious, last-minute escapes from the clutches of the law? Whatever the reason, we do.

Highsmith has been well served by biography, and it makes painful reading. Her life, we now know, was lifelong torment and confusion. Although American, she was constitutionally unable to live in that country as she found it ‘hollow’, and spent much of her adult life moving from place to place in Europe, not fitting in anywhere. The majority of her books are set in the US, but only a minute particle of the Ripley narrative takes place there – perhaps because she saw Ripley as an alter-ego. She was chronically unsure of her sexuality and incapable of lasting relationships. She embarked on the first of the Ripley series with throbbing toothache, racked by insomnia, on the rebound from her latest lesbian love affair. While writing the Ripliad, she was at constant odds with her mother who, divorced during pregnancy, had tried to abort the unwanted foetus by drinking turpentine: ‘It’s funny you like the smell of turpentine, Pat,’ her mother had once observed. Ever perverse, Highsmith claimed to find the aroma of the fluid erotic in later life. Her childhood was a ‘little hell’.

The young Highsmith had been stunningly beautiful, something memorialised by the photographer Rolf Tietgens’s artistic studies of her naked form. In middle and later age (the years in which she wrote the Ripliad) she was wrecked by alcohol and spinal deformity. Ugly, in a word. She seems, at times, to have loathed the human race. Herself not least. She felt no kinship with ‘ordinary people’; snails, for which she had an idiosyncratic affection, meant more to her.

It was only in writing, and pre-eminently in the creation of Tom Ripley, that Highsmith could achieve any integration of the chaos of her life. She would, one suspects, have agreed with Jeanette Winterson’s assertion: ‘Men never fired her imagination, except in her fiction, where her males, especially Tom Ripley, are versions of herself.’ ‘Versioning’ meant ‘making sense of’. On occasion she would sign letters to close friends as ‘Pat, alias Ripley’.

Ripley was not something over which she had the normal authorial control. He was something she had, almost unwittingly, loosed, like the genie from the bottle, and which now had control of her. ‘I often had the feeling,’ she said, ‘that Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing.’

Highsmith gave careful thought to the titles of her novels, often changing them several times before publication. Two titles are particularly useful as keys to the five-volume Ripliad. The early sections of The Talented Mr Ripley harp on the titular word ‘talent’, stressing that Tom has it; Dickie, the would-be artist, and Marge, the would-be writer, haven’t. What, precisely, is Tom’s ‘talent’? We first encounter him living an underground life in New York, running a smalltime mail scam. He doesn’t bother to cash many of the cheques his spurious income-tax letters yield. That isn’t what the scam is about. The point is that he is making fools of the suckers who make up the mass of the human race. ‘Playing’ them.

For Ripley, life is a game – Ripley’s Game. His evasion of punishment is proof that he plays winningly: that he has superior talent. But Tom ‘plays’ both as a gamester and as an actor. ‘Impersonation’ – playing a part – is central in the commission of his major crimes. He ‘plays’ the part of Dickie Greenleaf, whom he has killed, in The Talented Mr Ripley, and of Derwatt, whom he has reincarnated, in Ripley Under Ground. He has a drawer full of false passports.

The last novel in the sequence, Ripley Under Water, opens with the extended description of a computer game being played in a French bar. Two drinkers are competing. It’s a banal, pass-the- time bar activity. Enter a rival, the malign Pritchard, who thinks he can outplay Tom Ripley. Game on. The interplay that ensues is anything but banal and, as usual, ends with bodies. Game over.

The one game Ripley does not enjoy is sex. His sexuality is one of the more teasing elements in the large design. As far as one can make out, he ends the first novel as virginally as he started it. He has killed but has never copulated: or even, it seems, been inclined to make love to either sex.

When we encounter him, six years later, in Belle Ombre, he has, in the interval, married a svelte, ultra-Parisian wife. It is not (entirely) a mariage de convenance, nor (entirely) a mariage blanc. Intercourse between the Ripleys is ‘infrequent’, and unproductive of children. And Heloise’s family wealth supplements, conveniently, Tom’s income from various services for his criminal friend, Reeves Minot, in Hamburg, and his larcenous misappropriation of Dickie Greenleaf’s trust fund. His merchandising, through the London art world, of forged Derwatt pictures also brings in something. But Tom’s own earnings are insufficient for the bon viveur, connoisseur lifestyle he now, in his mid-thirties, must have. Would he have proposed had Heloise been penniless? The question answers itself.

Every reader must wonder whether, au fond, Tom is – as his aunt and Marge (Dickie’s girlfriend) allege, and many episodes hint – ‘queer’. Mischievously, Highsmith tantalizes us in the most outrageous of the series, The Boy Who Followed Ripley. It is set in the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War (Highsmith’s handling of historical backdrop, one should note, is masterly in all the Ripley novels). Tom’s bedside reading, we are told in passing, is Christopher and his Kind (1976), that candid reminiscence of how Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, great writers of the thirties, went to Berlin primarily to have sex with Junge – boys.

Somewhat inexplicably Tom and his ‘boy’, Frank (a sixteen-year- old disciple, already a murderer), also take themselves off to Berlin where they hang out in the Glad Ass Bar. The name is not one of Highsmith’s happier inventions but we see what she is getting at. In the most surreal episode in the series Tom later dresses in drag to facilitate one of his necessary murders. Nonetheless at the end we find him returned to the delectable Heloise and, one presumes, their infrequent intercourse. He is, of course, still wearing the ring he took from dead Dickie’s hand, before disposing of his body. It has been on his finger much longer than his wedding ring.

Highsmith is playing with the reader as a cat (her favourite animal) plays with a mouse. She knows what we’re thinking: is he? Isn’t he? Tom ‘might’ be gay, she once conceded. But she wasn’t sure. And if she didn’t know, how can we?

Highsmith was an avid reader of books on psychology. Particularly influential on her fiction was Hervey M. Cleckley’s treatise, The Mask of Sanity (1941). It was Cleckley who first introduced to the general public the idea of the ‘psychopath’. Typically, Cleckley observed, psychopaths grew up in ‘non-family’ environments. Ripley’s parents, we recall, were drowned in Boston Bay and, as a young orphan, he was looked after by an aunt who disliked him as much as he hated her. From the age of eight, Highsmith herself fantasised about killing her stepfather; had Ripley not run away, aged seventeen, he would surely have killed his aunt. As Cleckley notes, psychopaths are, typically, charming, manipulative, narcissistic, self-seeking, ruthless, anti-social, and utterly conscienceless. They are usually male. And incurable. Tom Ripley fits the bill to a ‘T’.

Highsmith is recognized as one of the artists who popularized Cleckley’s theories about psychopathy. Jim Thompson, author of The Killer Inside Me (1952) was another, as was Alfred Hitchcock when he made Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho (1959) into a film that captured the imagination of millions. But Ripley is not, Highsmith insisted, a ‘classic’ psychopath. She complicates the Cleckley template. Ripley, she argued, was not a deviant but merely more ‘rational’ than most of the human race. He does what we would all do, if we had the nerve. ‘A psychopath,’ she said, ‘is someone living more clearly.’ One hears echoes of Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

It is only very recently that popular crime narrative has fully taken on board what Highsmith pioneered with Tom Ripley. Consider, for example, the following scenario: if a doctor told you that you had only months to live, would you feel constrained by normal moral or legal rules in providing for the welfare of your loved ones, after your departure? Or would you do what you felt you had to do? This is the central plot hinge in Ripley’s Game. Also, of course, in Breaking Bad, currently the highest-rated TV series of all time. Is dying Jonathan Trevanny, who provides for his widow and child with a couple of contract killings, a psychopath? Or is he a good husband? Is dying Walter White, who aims to provide for his family after he’s gone by turning his talents to drug manufacture (and, where necessary, murder), a psychopath? And is there not part of us which, perversely, admires these bad men? Dexter Morgan – ‘Our Favourite Psychopath’, as the billboard advertisements for the TV series mischievously label him – is clearly another fictional offspring of Tom Ripley, our most favourite psychopath.

Patricia Highsmith opened a new door for crime-based fiction with the creation of Tom Ripley. It has taken a long time to catch up with her but now, with a new generation of crime writers citing her as their inspiration, we can appreciate her extraordinary achievements and, for the more thoughtful reader, what masterworks can be produced out of an unutterably sad life.

John Sutherland, 2015


Leave a Reply