Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley puts an unsuspected twist on the genre of mystery

Image Credit: Rebekah Paerels

Let’s face it — mystery is a bit of a clichéd genre. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with a well-written mystery, but the fact of the matter is that most mysteries follow very similar patterns: a seemingly unsolvable crime occurs, a witty protagonist looks for clues, the protagonist (and sometimes the reader) has a big “eureka moment,” and the mystery is solved — all in a day’s work, as they say.

Patricia Highsmith doesn’t follow these tropes in her 1955 novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. In fact, it can very well be argued that this work doesn’t even belong to the mystery genre in the first place. But I argue that it is a mystery — and a damn good one at that. Personally, I think we’ve all become so accustomed to the aforementioned mystery format that we often forget that there is no one way to write a mystery (or any work of any genre, for that matter).

Photo Credit: Kali Desautels

In Highsmith’s novel, the perpetrator’s identity is no mystery, and the protagonist is certainly no hero. Instead of immersing oneself into solving the crime at hand, readers are given the thrill of trying to figure out Tom Ripley’s mind, motives, and movements. The real mystery doesn’t lie in how the crimes were committed, but rather in how Tom Ripley is supposed to find his way out of trouble. From a twenty-first century perspective, it’s hard to imagine any of Ripley’s tricks coming to fruition; with how strict airport security is nowadays, there’s no way anyone would ever make it on a plane in 2018 the way Tom Ripley achieved in the 1950s. Yet, in some ways, that’s a big part of the thrill of the story, trying to figure out how he’s going to manage to slip by unsuspected every time!

Ripley is an enigma. It’s clear to any reader that he’s not the most likeable (or sane) individual in the world; and yet, despite that, it’s almost impossible not to feel engrossed in his situation, impossible to not want him to succeed in getting away with everything! Perhaps it is a testament to Highsmith’s writing ability that she is able to craft a protagonist who is so obviously bad yet still intriguing and seemingly worthy of a reader’s support. Her 3rd person limited POV puts readers right into Ripley’s mind without the off-putting, hyper self-awareness that often comes with 1st person narratives.

Admittedly, Highsmith’s manner of storytelling does allow for some rather slow scenes to trudge through. At times, Ripley’s incessant inner monologuing can make a reader feel much like Ripley himself back in Raoul’s Bar — “…bored, goddamned bloody bored, bored, bored!” Truth be told, I was a bit worried early on that the excitement I was hoping to see was never going to come. Then of course, Ripley lets his most intrusive of thoughts get the better of him, and thus the more action-packed sections of the work ensue. However, in retrospect, perhaps those scenes of Ripley’s “boredom” with others serve to heighten the reader’s connection to him. I mean, who hasn’t had their moments of wishing everyone would just shut up and give us some peace and quiet every once in a while? Maybe we’ve all got a bit of Tom Ripley in us after all, no matter how hard we may deny it…

The Talented Mr. Ripley certainly takes a route not commonly inspected in the mystery genre. With its total flip on the stereotypical structure that most mysteries choose to explore, this novel feels like a breath of fresh air (despite the rather tense, uneasy feelings that constantly permeate Ripley’s thoughts). Patricia Highsmith is a master of her craft, spinning a tale that allows Ripley to carry out his grandiose plans while still maintaining the sense of reality that is key to a well-developed mystery. While it may not be the first work people think of when they hear the word “mystery,” The Talented Mr. Ripley is surely deserving of great praise.