The Talented Mr. Ripley introduced perhaps the most charming and complex sociopathic serial killer literature has ever known. If nothing else, Tom Ripley is one of few characters of his ilk worthy of having a suspenseful, blackly humorous series devoted to his devious and sometimes violent exploits. In Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game(1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water(1991), Patricia Highsmith periodically revisited her creation, developing and exploring the limits of his amorality. Despite his dark side, Tom has many admirable qualities and talents. He is good with numbers. He can imitate other people and drop chameleon-like into any role. He is an excellent forger. He has a good sense of humor. He is clever, resourceful, an eager learner, and adaptable. Tom has his flaws, too: the remnants of a conscience, a fear of water, ambivalence about his sexuality, and total ruthlessness. Like his creator, Tom Ripley has expatriate tendencies, preferring the genteel, slower-paced ambiance of Europe to the bustle of America.
In the first Ripley novel, Highsmith established what proved to be ground rules for the other volumes that followed. The dispassionate third-person narrative provides readers enough distance to avoid identifying too completely with the antiheroic protagonist, yet it is close enough to maintain sympathy toward him. Tom’s progression from minor crook to murderer has a certain twisted logic. It is understandable that he, orphaned as an infant and raised by an insensitive, cruel aunt, would long for more than he has at the beginning of the story. It is unsurprising that a young man such as Tom might turn to petty crime in desperation, and that he would fear exposure and incarceration. It is not farfetched that he who has had nothing all his life might go to extraordinary lengths to acquire the trappings of the good life and do whatever was necessary to hold on to them. Tom may resort to murder, but it is a protective...
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