Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

tom ripley

If you’re in search of a suspenseful crime saga, this article might be the answer. Patricia Highsmith is a master of her craft who won countless prizes for her novels. Tom Ripley is her most well-known character, a ‘devil incarnate’ who will keep you enthralled page after page. So who is he?

Meet Tom Ripley, an orphan from Boston who marries a French heiress and leads a prosperous life in the countryside. The key to his success? Deceit and murder. The Ripley books consist of 5 volumes written by acclaimed author Patricia Highsmith between 1955 and 1991. Here are their titles and respective plots:

1st volume: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

The Talented Mr. Ripley

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Young Tom Ripley goes to Italy to find Dickie Greenleaf and convince him to return to his family in the U.S. Tom falls in love with Dickie’s lifestyle, so he dreams of starting a new life. Unfortunately, a quarrel with his new friend forces Tom to make a reckless decision. How will he keep the secret from Marge, Dickie’s fiancée?

This first volume has been adapted for the screen twice: once in 1960 as Purple Noon with Alain Delon as Ripley and then in 1999 with Matt Damon playing the titular character.

2nd volume: Ripley’s Game

Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

Ripley Under Ground

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Years later, Tom Ripley gets married to Heloise and lives in the French countryside. He’s a partner of an art gallery in London, who sells fake paintings. The forgery scheme is close to being revealed by Murchinson, an American art collector. Tom tries to convince him that the paintings are genuine, but things take a dark turn very quickly. How will Tom explain everything to the police? Will they believe them?

3rd volume: Ripley’s Game

Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

Ripley’s Game

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After feeling insulted by Jonathan Trevanny, Ripley decides to retaliate through scheming and persuasion. As a result, Jonathan finds himself on a mission to kill some mob members in Germany. When the Mafia seeks revenge in the peaceful France village, Tom and Jonathan pair up against them. Who will survive, and for how long?

4th volume: The Boy Who Followed Ripley

Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

The Boy Who Followed Ripley

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A gardener boy follows Tom Ripley back home one night, asking for his advice. Tom discovers that the boy is the heir of a wealthy New York family who ran from home after his father’s death. It turns out that Frank and Tom have more in common than meets the eye. Moreover, Frank is kidnapped, and Tom feels responsible for it. Will Frank get back home safely? How will he live with his tedious deed?


5th volume: Ripley Under Water

Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

Tom Ripley is a charming killer and 5 books that prove it

Ripley Under Water

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Tom’s past finally catches up with him. The Pritchards, his new neighbors, are an odd pair who aims to destroy him. When they dug up the Murchinson affair, Tom has to take action before it’s too late. From France to Tangier and London, Tom Ripley fights for the life he has built and he doesn’t refrain from anything.

A not so credible story, but the protagonist makes it up for it

I’m not afraid to state that the plot is ridiculous at times. When you write a saga in almost four decades, some novels are bound to be poorer than the others. If I were to pick any favorites, I’d say the first one and the third. The fourth novel was unnecessarily long. Highsmith hinted at a ‘taboo’ aspect of Tom’s personality but didn’t go all the way with it, so she distracted the readers with a watered-down plot instead. The last novel could have been great with a few changes, but it was just all right instead.

My main criticism is that Tom Ripley always seems to get away with his tedious deeds, despite the evidence that points towards him. Even if the action took place when police resources were rudimentary, I can’t get over Tom’s almost divine luck. Although I enjoyed his adventures, I would have liked to see him get out of them scarred somehow, changed. Instead, he’s allowed to continue his peaceful life no matter how many skeletons (and desires) he hides in his closet.

Another aspect I disliked about the books is the lack of nuanced female characters. As a reader, I couldn’t empathize with Heloise, Tom’s superficial wife. She never confronts him about the mysterious red stains in their cellar or the flux of shady people that come to their house to speak with Tom. The episodic female characters (such as Simone in the third novel or Cynthia in the last one) have more potential. Still, they barely make an appearance here and there as nuisances in Tom’s way. Perhaps Patricia Highsmith Highsmith’s choice in character design reflects Tom’s view of women; he tolerates them as long as they don’t get nosy or whiny.

If I have so much against the books, then why would I recommend them?

Two words. Tom Ripley. Even if her plotting is not always spectacular, Patricia Highsmith managed to create one of the most intriguing characters I have ever encountered. Tom Ripley’s charm, combined with his other psychopathic traits, makes him a dangerous predator who can not only take your life but can also own it. Let’s delve a bit deeper into his mind, shall we?

Tom Ripley, the anti-hero you’ll love to hate

Tom loves gardening, painting, playing the harpsichord, and traveling. His language skills and artistic knowledge evolve in time, making him a cultured man. But beneath this surface lies a ruthless, sharp, and downright evil mind, preoccupied only with his wellbeing.

Despite expectations, Mr. Ripley is not a violent person. Cruel, remorseless, devoid of empathy – yes, but he resolves to violence only as a last resort. He tries to make things go his way using his power of persuasion, his gentleman façade, and manipulation. Even so, trouble always finds him, and Tom becomes responsible for at least one death per novel.

What makes Tom Ripley the charming anti-hero is his capacity to adapt and transform himself, a talent he cultivated from his 20s. His evolution from an unpleasant nobody to a respected, wealthy man and feared in some circles speaks volumes of his tenacity.

Tom’s complexity captivated me. He’s a criminal who despises violence yet resorts to murder as a means to obtain what he wants. He punishes poor taste and lack of education when he is no saint. Tom shows generosity to people, but he has no problems discarding their corpses a few pages later. I’ll finish this review by saying that Tom Ripley is a fascinating case study for whoever likes to read between the lines. As much as I enjoyed his misadventures, I hope I will never meet somebody like him in my life.

If you need more reading suggestions, be sure to check out this list of 5 memorable spring reads!


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