From the archives
Charlie Stella's review
THE BOY WHO FOLLOWED RIPLEY, Patricia Highsmith
Hedonism or Good Deed Doing?
Dark without gratuitous violence and as existential as it gets, The Boy Who Followed Ripley was (and remains) a wonderful Patricia Highsmith psychological thriller that makes the reader wonder yet again just what it is that motivates her wonderfully dark creation, Tom Ripley. If he’s supposed to be just another hedonist, it doesn’t show in this brilliant offering. Tom shows signs of genuine humanity when dealing with a runaway young man (Frank Pierson, age 16) who has crossed the ocean in flight from patricide (after shoving his wheelchair bound, very wealthy, dear old dad off a cliff).
Never mind the spoilers here, amici; this book is too good not to read (although I’ll do my best to leave you somewhat hanging). This Ripley installment takes place during the Carter (here) Chirac (there) years when Tom is married to a wealthy young French woman (Heloise) and living in France in Ripley’s estate (Belle Ombre). Tom still deals in the world of high end art (frauds and otherwise) and hasn’t lost his sense of survival (at any cost). Whether or not he’s a sociopath is a good question since he thinks/discusses his past murders (yeah, plural) as if he were thinking/talking about cars he’s owned. Although his first and most famous murder, that of Dickie Greenleaf, can at times still haunt Tom, it’s not like he regrets clubbing the rich S.O.B. to death (although let me point out that he does, in fact, regret clubbing a Mafioso, one of his later murders, to the same end).
Ripley is the ultimate survivor who once had nothing more than a suitcase and some clothes, but by book four, through a combination of cold blooded murder(s), an ability to adapt and learn, connections earned through his reputation and (no doubt) a ton of luck, now has everything.
So why take up with this kid who has sought him out from across the Atlantic? Ah, there’s the rub. Has he suddenly become, as the man behind the curtain once put it, a “good deed doer”? Or does Tom see some of himself in young Frank Pierson, a boy who wasn’t exactly crazy about his father but didn’t hate him either; a boy who just might have spotted a golden opportunity when dear old dad was taking his usual gander at a sunset from his favorite spot a few feet from a deadly drop to the rocks way down below.
Tom decides to help the boy evade his family for a few days and puts him up until a pair of suspicious characters he thinks might be kidnappers appear on the scene. Tom then takes Frank to Berlin in an attempt to evade the pursuit of those potential bad guys and the detective the Pierson family has hired to find young Frank. One can only assume it’s a temporary game Tom is involved in; perhaps he misses the intrigue of a life on the run or maybe it’s the potential danger of having his name splashed across the headlines once more in his controversial life, but help Frank Mr. Ripley does (with the caveat that the boy will return to America and his family and the girlfriend Frank is not quite sure really likes him).
A few days on the seamier side of Berlin with some wild nights in a few gay bars, some dealings with people living on the fringe and then a kidnapping and what to do about it makes The Boy Who Followed Ripley a thoroughly entertaining read which will probably find you returning to book one in the series in an attempt to understand this wonderfully complex character who seems to know how to get things done (whatever the cost) and barely flinches in doing so.
There’s more to the story following the kidnapping. The world of Ripley doesn’t portend many happy endings and I’m not about to let you in on the secret(s), but at least in this adventure we can sense Tom’s heart does in fact beat almost, not quite, like the rest of ours.
I never would have thought I could so thoroughly enjoy a crime novel where I had to search for curse words and/or graphic violence, but it’s back to book one in the series for this reader. Highsmith’s Ripley is a mesmerizing character fully deserving of our attention (in whatever order we read him).