The Murder of Dickie Greenleaf

God only knew how deep the water was… [Nobody] could see anything they did here… he could have hit Dickie, sprung on him, or kissed him, or thrown him overboard.

Talk about your options. If Freud was looking for a poster child for the clashing instincts of Eros and Thanatos he need look no farther than the fog-obscured motor boat off the coast of San Remo where Tom Ripley has a final moment with his obsession, Dickie Greenleaf.

Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley begins with a spool of thread that is rolled out hastily in the first hundred pages. We meet a small assortment of characters who admire the young Dickie Greenleaf, a relic of the Lost Generation, and who have  either indifferent or contemptuous feelings for his new acquaintance, Ripley. But when Tom falls out of favor with Dickie, when he alludes to Tom’s homosexual l

eanings and his (possible) disgust with them, our talented Mr. Ripley decides that instead of a broken friendship with a real Dickie he would prefer an imagined bond with a dead one.

The murder is brutal and sudden and we are then in a whole new literary genre. No longer the love triangle. Now it becomes a thriller. That spool of loose thread begins to wind tighter and tighter as Dickie’s friends, family, and even his bank begins to suspect that the man writing to them, collecting checks, fading in and out of European cities, is not Dickie Greenleaf.

But why does Tom commit the murder? I imagine entire theses have been tried on that question, but my very brief guess is this: Tom Ripley is described to us as a man without any sense of guilt. That is different than having no feelings at all, for certainly Tom has plenty of feelings, but instead of a moral compass delineating paths of right and wrong, Tom only sees the games of life.

Can he “win” at getting Dickie to come home to his parents? No. So Tom creates a new game. Can he “win” at making Dickie his best friend? Again, no. So we enter the third of his games in this novel: Can he become Dickie Greenleaf? Given his track record, I could hazard a guess.

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