Vintage Crime Fiction: Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripliad’

If you are looking for a good crime novel, you could do a lot worse than Patricia Highsmith’s five-book Ripley series, which tells the story of Tom Ripley, an ever-so-charming art aficionado, con man, and cold-blooded killer.

Collectively referred to as the ‘Ripliad,’ the crime series consists of five highly readable novels: ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ (1955); ‘Ripley Under Ground’ (1970); ‘Ripley’s Game’ (1974); ‘The Boy Who Followed Ripley’ (1980); and ‘Ripley Under Water’ (1991).

A renowned American novelist and short-story writer, Highsmith is known for her psychological thrillers, which are typically peopled with troubled characters and imbued with a deep sense of foreboding.

Before passing away in 1995 at the age of 74, Highsmith wrote 22 full-length acclaimed novels and a myriad of short stories throughout a literary career that spanned almost five decades.

In 1950, she wrote her first novel, the critically-acclaimed ‘Strangers on a Train,’ which was shortly afterwards made into a film, now considered a crime classic, by the ‘master of suspense’ himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

Tom Ripley, Anti-Hero

But it is Tom Ripley, her dark anti-hero, who is undoubtedly Highsmith’s most iconic literary character by far.

Affable and cultivated (he actually plays the harpsichord in his spare time), Tom is, nevertheless, utterly amoral. With a selfishness of sociopathic proportions, he will go to any length, including murder, to get what he wants.

Yet despite this homicidal egocentricity, the reader can’t help but sympathise with Tom, who, we learn, was orphaned at a very young age and unfortunately raised by an abusive aunt.

His criminal career begins in the very first book, when, at the age of 20, he moves to New York City. Here he is employed by a shipping magnate who asks for Tom’s help in finding his wayward son, Dickie Greenleaf.

After tracking Dickie down in an Italian seaside resort, Tom befriends him and soon becomes enamoured of the young man’s opulent lifestyle. He also gradually becomes obsessed, to a harrowing degree, with Dickie himself.

From here, needless to say, things get very dark, very fast.

Page Turners

Highsmith’s crisp prose, coupled with her stark insights into her protagonist’s troubled psychology, makes for deeply engrossing reading.

All five of the Ripley books are page-turners, to the point that you’ll likely need treatment for osteoarthritis by the time you’ve finished reading them.

The first novel has led to two different film adaptations: ‘Purple Noon’ (1960) and ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ (1999), the latter of which features Matt Damon (an excellent performance) in the title role.

And later this year, Showtime will reportedly begin airing its first season of ‘Ripley’, a television adaptation of Highsmith’s ground-breaking, if disturbing, literary quintet.