I was in a mood recently, casting about for what to read next, wallowing in indecision. Let's face it fellow readers, at any given time our to-be-read piles threaten to topple over and crush us. So I decided to step back a few decades, and I grabbed my Library of America American Noir of the 1950's. I realized, not for the first time, that I'd never read Patricia Highsmith's classic The Talented Mr. Ripley.
I am going to talk about the ending of this novel as well as the end of The Killer Inside Me. So read no more if ye be worried about spoilers. (Although both novels are decades old ...)
What's interesting about American Noir of the 1950's, is that the editor elected to follow Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me with Highsmith's Ripley novel. Back to back, these might be illuminating reads, offering insight to the evolution of the genre. The protagonists of both novels are murderers, and the suspense in both cases derives from the protagonists constant fear that their acts have been detected by the authorities.
Much has been debated (and re-debated, and re-re-debated) on the subject of the sympathetic vs. unsympathetic protagonist. In both of the above novels, the authors work some kind of magic that puts us on the side of the murderers, hoping they can escape the clutches of the law.
The unsympathetic protagonist is a subject near and dear to my heart. Although I've been blessed with mostly good reviews, I've had my share of e-mail (some of it surprisingly angry) which criticizes Charlie Swift (Gun Monkeys) for being a killer or dismisses Conner Samson (Suicide Squeeze) for being a loser, etc. I have always maintained that these characters are not aware that there are readers watching their every move, and so they feel no compunction to clean up their acts and act "nice" for an audience. I've always wanted to write about (and read about) characters who show us all sides of their makeup, warts and all.
The actions of Thompson's protagonist ultimately catch up with him, and "justice" is served. With some possible irony to flavor the climax, since it turns out the murder victim is, in fact, still alive after all. But in Highsmith's tale, Ripley gets away with his murders, living to kill and forge and swindle another day. Having read so many reviews and criticisms of so many different novels that insist on a protagonist being "likable" it's difficult to imagine a modern audience taking a shine to Tom Ripley. He's cold, manipulative, and mostly detached from the rest of humanity. He is self-serving and self-centered. His definition of the good life is suspect.
While I might not be attracted to Tom Ripley as a person, I am very attracted to him as a character. Kudos to Highsmith. I'm just sorry it took me so long to read this classic.