When I saw The Talented Mr. Ripley movie in 1999, I had no idea it was based on a novel by the same author of the famous Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train. I loved both movies. When I finally did learn that, I also learned that the author, Patricia Highsmith, wrote five novels starring the sociopathic anti-hero Tom Ripley. (The novels are known as the Ripliad.)
Written in 1955, The Talented Mr. Ripley is about a twentysomething con artist and social striver named Tom Ripley living in New York. He is allergic to honest work, but loves the finer things in life -- nice clothes, luxury travel, and perfecting the fine art of doing nothing. How fortunate for Tom that a man tracks him down and asks him to travel to Sicily to convince his wannabe-artist son to come back and join the lucrative family business. The man thinks that Tom is a close friend of his son, and Tom does nothing to correct the false impression (he barely knows him), because he's eager to take an expense-paid trip to Europe.
Tom travels by boat to Sicily, and when he meets the man's son, Dickie Greenleaf, he gets the cold shoulder. Dickie doesn't remember Tom and resents his presence. But Tom's charm wins Dickie over, and the pair become fast friends. Dickie even invites Tom to move in with him.
None of this sits well with Marge, another young American who is friends with Dickie. She is romantically attracted to Dickie, and becomes jealous of Dickie and Tom's increasingly close relationship. She tells Dickie that she suspects Tom is gay, and when Dickie discovers Tom in his bedroom, wearing Dickie's clothes and affecting his mannerisms, it creeps Dickie out and the friendship takes a nosedive. Dickie becomes interested in Marge as more than a friend, and Tom feels betrayed and becomes murderously furious, but keeps his anger on ice as only a cunning psychopath can.
What follows is a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game involving more than one murder, suspicious friends of Dickie, and the Italian police.
In the same way that Vince Gilligan made Breaking Bad's Walter White an awful person that I took a guilty pleasure in rooting for, Highsmith made the detestable Tom Ripley an intriguing character that I hoped would get away with his crimes. I have four more novels to find out if he ultimately does.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects