(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The story in a nutshell:
Known collectively as the "Ripley Trilogy," these three small novels by Patricia Highsmith tell the ongoing tale of one Tom Ripley, one of the more fascinating characters in the entirety of 20th-century literature. (And note, by the way, that Highsmith would go on to pen even two more books about Ripley after this original trilogy; the five-book series is now known by its fans as the "Ripliad.") Charming sociopath, vicious murderer, with a hyper-specific set of ethics that make sense only to him, Ripley and his exploits virtually defined the burgeoning "crime fiction" genre at its beginning, and helped define many of its standards right when it was just starting to become the marketplace juggernaut it still is in America and elsewhere.
That said, I think most will agree that the original 1955 novel that started them all, The Talented Mr Ripley, is far and away the best of the entire series: a look at the young Ripley in his mid-twenties, heading to Europe for the first time, and the experiences that would turn him for good from a "harmless" sociopathic con-artist into the cold-blooded killer he is in the other four books. It's a great little story, in fact, that I won't get into detail concerning so as to not ruin it for you; a story that very clearly defines many of the aspects we now take so much for granted in crime fiction, wrapped in an ingeniously dark plot regarding resort-hopping in Europe with the jet-set during the aesthetic height of the Modernist era. In contrast, then, both Ripley Under Ground and Ripley's Game (set in the same 1970s when they were written) find Ripley himself at a softer middle-age, ensconced in small-town bourgeoisie French life and leaving the "action" part of the crime plots mostly up to others now.
The argument for it being a classic:
As you can probably guess, fans of the Ripley stories claim that they virtually defined the crime genre that now accounts for more book sales in the US than any other type of book that exists; as such, they argue, the books should rightly be considered classics, despite their relatively young age and genre status. And for sure, a different group of activists would argue, the original '55 Talented Mr Ripley was also one of the first mainstream American novels to tackle the issue of homosexuality in a complex and multifaceted way; indeed, Highsmith was known for this subject throughout the length of her career, as well as being a public and practicing bisexual in her real life. It's a stretch for now, even her fans concede, to consider these in the same breath as Great Expectations and the like; the main argument comes from her most diehard fans, frankly, and I think is more about trying to establish how the future and posterity are going to look at the series.
The argument against:
"Really? Crime books from the 1970s? Included in the classical canon of all Western Civilization? Seriously?" I think that's pretty much the main argument against these being a classic, summed up in a smartass nutshell -- that they are simply too new, concern too niche a subject, and in the end are simply not written well-enough to be seriously considered classics, or at least for now. As is the case with a lot of books on the CCLaP 100 list, in fact, even its critics I think would agree that the Ripley books are at least well-written, and still very entertaining to just sit down and read; a strong argument can be made, though, that these books shouldn't nearly be considered by society at large as "books to read before you die."
I have to confess, I ended up with this whole screwed-up story behind trying to read these: I got through the first, The Talented Mr Ripley, fairly quickly and straight-forwardly (mostly because of already being a big fan of the 1999 movie version starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett and a whole lot more cool famous people), but then accidentally read the third book (Ripley's Game) instead of the second (Ripley Under Ground), and didn't really like it so never bothered to read the third (er, second...ugh). But ultimately it doesn't matter, like I said, because it's the first book that really stands out here; I want to make that clear, in fact, that The Talented Mr Ripley is still quite the engripping little yarn, both the book and movie form, despite me not willing to endorse it as a "classic." Ultimately Highsmith does something incredibly smart here in this first story, as far as exploring such dark topics as sociopathy and bisexuality in an age where you could get in real trouble for talking about such stuff too explicitly; she instead turns the subjects inward towards Ripley himself, and shows how it is certain core parts of his personality that manifest such easily-labeled behaviors afterwards, not vice-versa.
In the first novel, in fact, it's hard to definitively state that Ripley has a sexual orientation at all; it's more that he's simply obsessed with the idea of pleasing the people around him at all times, this desperate yearning inside of him to make sure that everyone else is having a good time, in any way that he can provide that. In effect it provides for some really great homoerotically-charged scenes between Ripley and his future victim, globetrotting badboy Dickie Greenleaf, without anything explicitly sexual being said or done; combined with all the cat-and-mouse stuff that happens concerning the ensuing crimes themselves, you can see why so many thousands of authors in the decades since have gone on to copy things from Highsmith in their own crime novels, or copy things from people who copied things from Highsmith.
But alas, that's why my interest dropped so suddenly after the second novel, and why I say that the other two books of the trilogy are essentially interchangeable; because it was by then 20 years later in Highsmith's career, a point when crime fiction really had taken off and become its own booming little industry, and Highsmith was already starting to look at the Ripley character in terms of a franchise-friendly little cash cow. The Ripley of both Under Ground and Game (and presumably the two after those as well) is a fatter, slower, more complacent middle-age Ripley, who mostly now masterminds white-collar crimes as to maintain his provincial middle-class antique-laden lifestyle in a medieval village in France, now in a happy if not passionless marriage and no longer under any particular pressure to have a sexual preference at all. Each book, then, concerns yet another special time where Ripley is called out of this environment, to go on some crazy violence-filled escapade just like from his troubled youth, in many cases with someone else altogether now being the one doing most of the running around and stabbing and garrotting and the like.
Bleh. Skip the ensuing franchise, I say, and simply read the original instead, the strongest argument there is for Ripley to be considered part of the Canon. Oh, and do make sure to see the '99 movie adaptation as well, a truly excellent one that on top of everything else just happened to be directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient).
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
In two Fridays: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
In three Fridays: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne
In four Fridays: The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger