Patricia Highsmith | Critical Essay by Armchair Detective

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Patricia Highsmith.
This section contains 664 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Armchair Detective

SOURCE: "Past Crimes," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1994, p. 360.

In the following essay, the critic discusses Highsmith's five Tom Ripley novels, focusing on Ripley's matter-of-fact attitude toward crime.

Through the years we have had the chance to follow the extraordinarily eccentric life of Patricia Highsmith's Thomas Ripley, who surely must be one of the oddest series figures in crime fiction since Raffles, the gentleman crook. The Ripley novels have been appearing since 1955, and the fifth and latest, Ripley under Water, came out in 1992.

The first in the series is the strongest and probably the most bizarre. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) is truly a masterpiece of crime fiction, one to rival in weirdness Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train. At the beginning of this on-going saga the impecunious Mr. Ripley is hired to go to Europe to find the wayward son of a wealthy Boston couple. By the end of the novel, Ripley has not only murdered his quarry, but he has also forged a will in his favor, financially setting himself up for life, and he has done all of this with apparently little cost to his conscience. Tom Ripley has been looking over his shoulder ever since.

By the second novel, Ripley under Ground (1970), Tom Ripley has become a silent partner in The Buckminster Gallery in London which specializes, unknown to its customers, in art forgeries of a dead surrealist artist, Derwatt. In addition, he does a few favors to help a friend who runs a high-ticket fencing operation out of Germany and putters in his garden while enjoying the good life with his wife, Heloise, in their suburban villa, Belle Ombre, situated just outside Paris. Through the rest of the books Tom continues to prosper despite the fact that he continues to break the law, on occasion murdering those who threaten his secure existence. Not that all of these crime stories do not have their strange attraction but once Ripley has married and settled down with his wife to live an outwardly bourgeoisie life, the books lose some of their tension. Part of the problem is that as the series progresses, it becomes increasingly unlikely that he will be caught no matter how dangerous the adventures he experiences.

The action of all of the novels after the first takes place from Belle Ombre and although Ripley jets around Europe and even once in a while to America, he always returns to the safety of his wife and house. In this series however safety is conditional. Ever since the questionable events of the first book, Ripley has existed under a cloud of suspicion, watched by the police and always prey to those who would pry into the mysterious disappearances of the increasing number of people who seem to vanish when Ripley is around. He never quite rids himself of the sins of his past, although he does seem to be able to live with his transgressions with little regret.

What makes the books so fascinating and so eerie is the flat, matter-of-fact attitude toward murder and mayhem which Ripley maintains. He suffers momentary pangs of remorse or disquieting thoughts on occasion, but in general, he slips down the bloody trail he walks with a certain ease. And those around him, even if they know about Ripley's crimes, seem little bothered by them. It is as if the world he inhabits is strangely immune from guilt.

These are unsettling works of fiction, full of macabre humor and devilish insouciance, which play on the reader's fantasies of individual power and choice. In a universe so full of nasty people and random, uncontrollable events, it is awkwardly satisfying to watch someone exercise his personal will unfettered by the normal constraints of legality and civilized controls imposed upon the rest of us. For the successful creation of fiction as powerfully attractive as the Ripley novels are, Patricia Highsmith deservedly has earned her place as a crime writer of exceptional achievement.

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This section contains 664 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Armchair Detective