Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is not a who-done-it. The page turning mastery here is in putting readers squarely in the criminal mind of Tom Ripley, setting up the unbelievable risks he takes, and convincing us at each turn that he’s sure to get caught in his lies, as we watch him get away with it all.
I can’t compare Highsmith’s techniques to other writers of mysteries and thrillers, because I rarely read them. I don’t find the writing as rich and engaging in these genres as I do in more literary fiction. But Highsmith is one of the best in her field, and by studying how her plot and tension points pay off, we can apply what we learn to other fiction, as well as to thrillers.
Lesson: Foreshadow from the get-go
In the opening scene, Tom Ripley is walking fast, dodging someone. He’s a man with a questionable past, questionable intentions. He slips into a bar. Tom saw the man make a gesture of postponement to the barman, and come around the bar towards him. Here it was! Tom stared at him, paralysed. They couldn’t give you more than ten years, Tom thought. Maybe fifteeen, but with good conduct—In the instant the man’s lips parted to speak, Tom had a pang of desperate, agonized regret.
A criminal so quick to regret? Maybe he’s not such a bad guy. He’s had a tough go in life, and uses his considerable talents and charm to get what he can without working as hard as someone from his background usually must. The dodging and the pang are foreshadowing of action and of character.
When wealthy Herbert Greenleaf asks Tom to go to Europe, all expenses paid, to encourage his son Dickie to return to America, Tom jumps at the chance. This first case of mistaken identity foreshadows the identity theft to come. Tom is not the close friend to Dickie that Mr. Greenleaf assumes.
Lesson: It takes more than plot to engage readers—let them have tension!
Tom kills Dickie in order to become him, and then, through a turn of events, must become Tom again in order to inherit the dead Dickie’s trust fund money. That’s the plot, which Highsmith unfolds at a fast clip. Tom’s chameleon nature and his ability to bluff his way through every situation keeps him ahead of his pursuers.
What keep us engaged as readers is the tension between knowing, along with Tom, what he intends to do and wondering how he could possibly succeed without being discovered. Highsmith asks us to suspend our disbelief again and again —particularly in scenes such as one in which an investigator who questioned Tom posing as Dickie now questions Tom as himself. She accomplishes this by bringing the reader along with Tom’s anticipations and giving him heedless confidence in his brazen plan. [The tenente] was staring at Tom’s hands. Or at least Tom imagined that he was staring at his hands. Tom had his own ring on again, but did the tenente possibly notice some resemblance? Tom boldly thrust his hand forward to the ashtray and put out his cigarette.
The tenente and his assistant are fooled and don’t see Tom’s resemblance to himself when he pretended to be Dickie. Rather than being relieved and grateful, Tom is arrogant. He could have flown—like a bird, out of the window, with spread arms! The idiots! All around the thing and never guessing it! Never guessing that Dickie was running from the forgery questions because he wasn’t Dickie Greenleaf in the first place! The one thing they were bright about was that Dickie Greenleaf might have killed Freddie Miles. But Dickie Greenleaf was dead, dead, deader than a doornail and he, Tom Ripley was safe!
For how long we don’t know, but Tom keeps upping the stakes, taking bolder and bolder moves in a master scheme to gain the trust fund of the man he murdered. Surely, we think, he can’t get away with it.
Lesson: Give your character a complex psychology
The sympathy in Tom’s character comes from Tom’s childlike desire to be admired for being someone he’s not. Who hasn’t felt that way at some point? If Tom didn’t loathe himself so much, the reader might loathe him more. To Tom, money and position will garner love or substitute for the love he’s never had. Through his bold cleverness and some luck, Tom gets away with murder and theft. He even gets the blessing of Mr. Greenleaf, who ultimately believes Tom’s story that Dickie wanted Tom to have the money. But the self-doubt and self-loathing that inspires Tom toward crime, and the successful crime itself, are his nemesis.
Lesson: Create a loop—beginning to end—for story symmetry
At the end, Tom tries to shake the notions that he’s being followed. He’s escaped everything and everyone, and though richer, he has not come far from where he began, glancing over his shoulder. There is symmetry here, a roundness from beginning to end.
He sees police, is sure they’re after him, and heads toward a group of four. For a moment he seems resigned to being caught, and he seems relieved. No fuss, he thought, he’d just tell them himself who he was. There was a big newsstand behind the policemen, and he thought of buying a paper. Perhaps they would let him. The policemen stared back at him from over their folded arms as he approached them. They wore black uniforms with visored caps. Tom smiled at them faintly. One of them touched his cap and stepped aside. But the others did not close in. Now Tom was practically between two of them, right in front of the newsstand, and the policemen were staring forward again, paying no attention to him at all.
Tom can’t get away with it, after all. He can escape everyone but himself, a man painfully alone in the world.