In "The Talented Mr. Ripley," the first novel of the series in which "The Boy Who Followed Ripley" is the fourth, young Tom Ripley was dispatched to rescue the son of an American millionaire from the fleshpots of dolce vita-era Italy. Instead, Tom fell in love with the fellow's wardrobe, murdered him and assumed his identity.
The tone of that book was half case history, half vicarious fantasy. Unlike most fictive murderers, Ripley got away with it (though in the movie version, "Purple Noon," he suffered a traditional comeuppance), and he has thrived through the intervening 20-odd years.
The present novel discovers him approaching the age of 50 and living the very highest of haut bourgeois existences in a villa near Paris, a prosperous dealer in art forgeries and happily married to an heiress. He passes his sunlit hours by gardening, practicing Scarlatti on the harpischord and exercising his unerring skills as a consumer. ("He had acquired another suitcase, at Mark Cross this time, as Gucci had become so ultra snob.") Not since James Bond have a character's brand preferences been so amply documented.
Readers who first came to know Ripley as a callow youth aspiring toward grand wines and in psychotic flight from the tendency that dares not speak its name will take some small ironic pleasure in his apotheosis as un homme marie , but that, sad to say, is the chief pleasure "The Boy Who Followed Ripley" has to offer.
The novel's premise is not unpromising. Ripley is approached by a run-away teen-ager, Frank Pierson, who has lately inherited a portion of his father's millions. The boy is handsome, well-spoken, deferential and can toss off watercolors of a certain flair.
After very short acquaintance, Frank confesses to having killed his father -- it was, like Ripley's murders, the impulse of a moment. Ripley, with a narcissist's predilection by any doppelganger , is enchanted. By way of assuring Frank that he will outgrow his remorse, he admits to having committed the odd murder himself.
The situation is well devised to shatter Ripley's near-perfect persona; it parallels without duplicating the plot of the first Ripley novel; it is plausible, sneaky and as fraught with potential for devastation as a well-laid minefield.
Then, having set up a lovely chess problem, Highsmith proceeds to play gin rummy. Ripley takes Frank off to Berlin, where the boy is kidnapped in a routine fashion and rescued by Ripley, who (this must have been intended as the book's particular frisson) tricks the guileless kidnappers by wearing drag. James Bond in drag might raise an eyebrow, but with Tom Ripley it's just one more disposable face.
"Tom felt exhilarated and stronger, as if he were having a workout in a gym. No wonder Berliners liked disguises! One could feel free, and in a sense like oneself in a disguise."
The kidnappers are foiled, Tom adds a notch to his six-shooter -- and there are still 100 pages to get through! Highsmith fills them with aimless tergiversations about tourism and what-not. Here is one, but there are hundreds:
"They walked on to the museum of Volkerkunde and Vorgeschichte, where Tom had been once before. Here were table models of the fire bomb impolsions that had flattened much of the Hamburg dock area in World War II: nine-inch-high warehouses on fire, sculpted yellow and blue flames. Frank pored over a model of shipraising, the little ship three inches long resting on sand and under what appeared to be meters of sea. As usual, after an hour of this, including oil paintings of Hamburg Burgermeisters signing this and commemorating that, all in dress of the Benjamin Franklin period, Tom was rubbing his eyes and longing for a cigarette."
After several hours of this, Tom isn't the only one rubbing his eyes and noting the absence of what would be profitable and conclusive.
Ripley's problem is that his creator has fallen in love with him and therefore seen fit to reform him into a respectable man. All those years of marriage and hours at the harpsichord has dulled the edge of his roguery. His murders are now committed not for personal gain but, like those of any licensed Robin Hood, to benefit widows and orphans. He even, unforgivably, funks the opportunity to make off with $2 million in ransom money that could have been his at the cost of a fib! It is as though Huckleberry Finn had become a chiropractor or Fu Manchu had opened a chain of restaurants. The world of fiction has lost a splendid rogue and gained nothing but a stuffed shirt.