Tag Archives: murder

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

26th June 2012

*I borrowed this book from my brother while I was in NYC & read it on the subway.

Tom Ripley is a bit of a snake. He lives in New York, bumming money from an aunt he detests and running a fraud, just for the fun of it. He’s a bit concerned he’s been caught when he thinks someone is following him, but it turns out to be the father of an acquaintance. Dickie Greenleaf fancies himself a painter and has taken off for the coast of Italy, Mongibello to be exact, to paint and drink his days away. Dad isn’t amused. He runs a business he wants Dickie to run, and his wife is very ill. Though Dickie sends the occasional letter, he has given no indication that he’ll head back home any time soon. When Tom’s offered an all-expense-paid trip to Mongibello to lure Dickie home, he is as happy as the proverbial cat with its cream. He’s off to Europe on another man’s dime…legally. But Dickie isn’t having any of it, and Tom decides to work this from a slightly different angle. What if he can become pals with Dickie and live off him instead? The only problem is Marge. A writer in love with Dickie, Marge is always around, and she isn’t Tom’s biggest fan. It is evident that Tom’s jealousy and sense of entitlement will be his downfall, but he might just be sly enough to get away with murder and impersonating the man he’s killed

Not having seen the 1999 film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley with Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this novel, but my brother had asked several times why I hadn’t read it, so I picked it up to read on the subway while I was in the city.

Tom is quite easily one of the scariest characters I’ve ever come across (I’d put him up there with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Perfume). Why is Tom so scary? First of all, his delusions of grandeur are quite shocking. He honestly thinks he is meant for the high life. He doesn’t understand why Dickie would deny his birthright when it’s so simple for him. Dickie doesn’t have to work for his money but pulls a hefty allowance from his father. The irony is that Tom doesn’t work either, spending money grudgingly sent from his aunt. The difference? Dickie comes from money, and Tom doesn’t. Tom also expects Dickie and Marge will love him, so when neither is enamored with him, his disappointment and anger are stark and aggressive. Dickie warms to him, but Marge never likes him and isn’t afraid to tell Dickie.

However, I didn’t dislike Tom as much as I marveled at his audacity. Who was this man? How could anyone expect what he expected from life? Plus, this novel is written in such a way that Tom seems innocuous, murderer or no. He doesn’t kill in self defense, yet Highsmith doesn’t mete out justice in the way you anticipate. In fact, the suspense comes in as Tom goes about fixing his life and juggling the lies he’s told, always a few steps ahead of the authorities. I would argue that the only real punishment is that Tom must stop impersonating someone he is not, going back to being “old Tom.”

The implication is that Tom’s craftiness and Dickie’s flaws cancel out one another, as though the fact that Dickie is callous and unfeeling makes his death deserved in some way while Tom’s sly nature and adaptability prove him far worthier.

For a suspenseful novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley was a really interesting psychological adventure as well, undercut by themes of homophobia and a skewed morality, making me curious as to what Ms. Highsmith’s other books are like.

Read this: to escape to Europe/follow a well-mannered killer/delve deeply into a narcissist’s psyche/before you watch the film.

An Unsuitable Day for a Murder by Catriona McPherson

19th April 2012

*Kat Bozowski at Thomas Dunne Books kindly sent this to me after I loved the last one so much. Thanks, Kat!

Star-crossed lovers. Mirren Aitken and Dugald Hepburn are destined to be opponents, but they love one another. Their families are adamantly against the match because the two families are business competitors – each owns a department store across the street from the other.

When Mirren goes missing, Mrs. Ninian Aitken, businesswoman and matriarch of the family, sends for Dandy Gilver. Dandy senses there is something more going on between these two families, and her suspicions are confirmed when Mirren is found shot in the head. Is it suicide? Murder? But another death confirms to Dandy that something is rotten, especially after both families tell her in no uncertain terms that the investigation is over.

Along with Alec and Bunty, her aging Dalmatian, Dandy uncovers family secret after family secret and wonders if these two young people will receive any sort of justice.

This particular installment of Dandy Gilver’s adventures was as fun as ever; however, with so many Aitkens who are often called, alternatively, Mary Aitken or Mrs. Ninian Aitken, Bella or Mrs. John Aitken, and Abigail or Mrs. Jack Aitken, I was very often confused as to whom was being discussed. Plus, when some of the family secrets come out, the confusion only got worse. As a frequent reader of mysteries, I pride myself in following along and even determining part of the mystery myself. Though I must say Dandy was just as confused as I was, it was still too much at times. In fact, I passed this one on to my mom, and she texted me several times: Who is this character? What happened? I giggled because I totally did the same thing. There is a family tree in the front of the book; however, I don’t like having to flip back and forth so often.

In the end, Catriona McPherson’s An Unsuitable Day for a Murder is a fast, fun read, and though the path to resolution is a bit circuitous, it’s also very well thought out.

For the record, I only mildly liked After the Armistice Ball, but I loved Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains and The Burry Man’s Day.

Preorder your copy from Indiebound or for preorder it for your Nook. Or buy others in the series here.


Audiobook Review: Asylum by Patrick McGrath

3rd April 2012

*I bought this audiobook from Audible. Buy yours here.

“Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know,” intones Dr. Peter Cleave, the senior psychiatrist in the mental hospital central to Asylum by Patrick McGrath. Asylum is a story of obsession.

Stella and her husband Max have moved outside London for Max’s job. Hoping to eventually become superintendent of the facility, Max is quite involved in the asylum’s day-to-day activities, and the couple’s home is on the property. Max has big plans, including renovating the conservatory and gardens of the home. Some of the better-behaved patients are allowed on work teams, and Edgar Stark, a former sculptor, is given the task of carpentry work in the conservatory. Charlie, Stella and Max’s son, is fascinated with the work and the gardens and the pond, spending many of his days outside. When Stella encounters Edgar while outside with Charlie, she is drawn to him. Edgar doesn’t look insane. He is polite and talented. The two become friendly, and Stella, lacking passion in her own marriage, falls in love with Edgar.

Edgar Stark is Cleave’s patient, and Edgar’s intelligence fascinates the doctor. Edgar murdered his wife and brutalized her body after suspecting her of multiple infidelities for many years. Edgar feels completely justified in his actions, and Cleave counts Edgar one of his more interesting patients because of this. It is only when Cleave observes subtle changes in Stella that he suspects the impossible. When Edgar escapes from the facility, Max and Stella both come under scrutiny, leading to a chain of events that is both disturbing and engrossing.

McGrath’s Asylum is an elegant novel. Gothic and dark, it explores the nature of love and obsession as well as mental illness. The novel is, in many ways, timeless, and particularly, it was some time before I could have stated with any assurance the time period in which Asylum is set. Late 1950s, to be exact.

Cleave is narrating the novel, yes, but he is doing so after discussions with Stella, after something has apparently gone badly wrong, and the impending sense of doom only adds to the novel’s complexity. Not that Asylum is a mystery. It isn’t. Edgar murdered his wife. He escapes from the asylum. Stella goes to him. Nothing surprising here. When Edgar begins exhibiting erratic behavior, though, she runs. However, the story doesn’t take the reader into the places you’d think it would. Stella is not repentant. Instead, she feels torn from her lover and sorrowful that she ever suspected his behavior. Willing, even after knowing the full extent of his crime, to go to him and be with him, and Cleave notes this:

At root, I suppose, in spite of everything she loved him, or told herself she did, and women are stubborn in this regard. She had made her choice, she had gone to him willingly, and it was unthinkable to run home because he was ill and his illness robbed him of responsibility. What did surprise me was that she could ignore the proliferating signals that an act of violence was imminent.

Just as Edgar seems to relish the idea of bedding a psychiatrist’s wife, so too does Stella enjoy her role as caretaker. Edgar is ill; therefore, Stella must take care of him, even if it means abandoning her husband and her child. The child she increasingly grows to resent because he is part of his father and therefore part of the imagined trap she feels exists around her.

If you have not yet picked up on it, this is an unreliable narrator speaking to another unreliable narrator. Both Stella and Cleave are obsessed with Stark, Cleave referring to Stark as “my Edgar” many times, a point of pride that Edgar is his patient. So we know what the characters intend to tell us, emphasizing that we never truly know the nature of anyone, much less someone with a mental illness.

The nature of these obsessions is, of course, destructive, and everyone involved hurtles toward that destruction in ways both expected and unexpected. I listened to this on audiobook, and I usually stick to my time on the elliptical only to listen to audiobooks. This was one, however, that after a certain point in Asylum, I had to put my headphones on for the rest of the day, no matter what else I was doing to absorb it all. Unlike Cleave, I don’t think Stella’s is the saddest story I know, and I had very little sympathy for her outside her feeling of entrapment, but I was still completely captivated by her ability to dismiss all rational thought in the face of the man she loves.

The narration by Ian McKellen is absolutely first rate, and Asylum is a story that will sink in slowly, insidiously, forcing you to think about the characters and their decisions long after the end.

Buy this from Audible, Indiebound, or for your Nook.

P.S. Thanks to The Literate Housewife for her recommendation of this book.

Other reviews:

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook

Coffee and a Book Chick