Talented Ripleys: Top Picks for Suspense Fiction Fans | The Reader's Shelf

Beware the charming, social-climbing sociopath! These murderous Machiavellians are a gift to suspense fiction, as they stop at nothing in their ruthless pursuit of success.

Beware the charming, social-climbing sociopath! These murderous Machiavellians are a gift to suspense fiction, as they stop at nothing in their ruthless pursuit of success.
When Patricia Highsmith published The Talented Mr. Ripley (Norton. 2008. ISBN 9780393332148) in 1955, she not only surprised readers with a shockingly unconventional story but also laid the template for a new kind of antihero, an amoral, two-faced killer whose behavior fascinates as well as repels. Small-time grifter Tom Ripley leaves behind his hardscrabble life when he is paid by a wealthy couple to travel to Italy to keep an eye on their wayward son, Dickie Greenleaf. Ripley is utterly captivated by the idle rich young man and strikes up a friendship. When Dickie draws apart, Ripley takes drastic action that leads to his assuming his friend’s identity. No criminal mastermind, Ripley uses quick thinking and audacity to extricate himself from one tight squeeze after another. He may not be admirable, but his determination to achive a better life makes him relatable and even creates a perverse sympathy. Read next: Highsmith continued the story of Tom Ripley in two more novels beginning with Ripley Under Ground.
Andrew Wilson’s first book was a biography of Patricia Highsmith, and it is easy to see her influence in his fiction debut, the atmospheric cat-and-mouse tale The Lying Tongue (Washington Square. 2008. ISBN 9780743293983). Fresh from university, aspiring writer Adam Woods travels to Venice, where he wrangles a job as live-in assistant to the elderly reclusive author Gordon Crace. Though Crace has an aversion to biographers, Woods resolves to become one himself, sneaking off from Crace’s crumbling palazzo so he can stealthily pursue leads into the dark secrets of his employer’s past. As he closes in on his quarry while fending off a rival biographer, questions arise about just how far he is willing to go and how much he will dare to risk in his quest to end up on top. Read next: Wilson’s admiration for the great women of mystery fiction continues in his novels featuring Agatha Christie as crime-solver. The series begins with A Talent for Murder.
Christine Mangan skillfully exploits the atmosphere and tense political climate of 1950s Tangiers in her unsparing noir thriller Tangerine (Ecco. 2019. ISBN 9780062686695). Timid, privileged Alice Shipley has accompanied her hastily married husband to the edgy Moroccan city in part because of a tragic event involving her confident, working-class college friend Lucy Mason. When Lucy unexpectedly appears on her doorstep, Alice feels even more alone, and alarmed, as sinister forces seem to rise against her from the depths of the city—and her own home. Mangan deftly supplies alternating character perspectives, making it clear that Alice’s fears are very real and that Lucy is determined not to lose her friend a second time. Read next: Admirers of Tangerine are unlikely to be daunted by You-Jeong Jeong’s pitch-dark The Good Son, an equally pitiless novel told from the point of view of a disturbed young man.
What is a would-be acclaimed novelist to do when his oversized ambitions far exceed his modest talents? If he is Maurice Swift, the protagonist of John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky (Hogarth. 2019. ISBN 9781984823021), he takes what he needs from his betters while covering his tracks with a well-timed “accident” or two. Boyne displays his own considerable storytelling gifts by dividing his account of Swift’s career into five sections, each varied in style and narration, including one told, daringly, from the perspective of the real-life literary raconteur Gore Vidal. These sections resemble well-rounded short stories while corresponding to the five-act division of classical tragedy. Tragedy requires a nemesis, and Swift meets up with his in a way that both surprises and satisfies. Read next: John Lanchester’s novel in the form of a memoir, The Debt to Pleasure, is a wickedly clever satire of a self-proclaimed great artist whose true talent is eliminating those who cross him.
The title character of Emily Gray Tedrowe’s The Talented Miss Farwell (Custom House. 2020. ISBN 9780062897725) demonstrates that a Ripley need not kill to wreak havoc as she rises to the top. The structure of this novel is simplicity itself: a year-by-year chronicle of the double life led by Becky Farwell, a dedicated and public-spirited controller for a small Illinois town, and, as “Reba” Farwell, a glamorous player in the international art world who regularly tops off her acquisition funds with money diverted from the town’s meager coffers. The scope, duration, and sheer brazenness of her schemes would seem wildly implausible if they did not parallel real-life scams, most notably that of Bernie Madoff. This is a story, though, of obsession as much as deception, in which Farwell’s hunger for victories in the art market consumes her health, happiness, and sense of right and wrong. Her journey is hard to watch, and harder to turn away from. Read next: For an account of an actual high-society female fraudster, readers can turn to Rachel DeLoache Williams’s My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress.

This column was contributed by Steven Jablonski, Collection Development Librarian, Skokie Public Library, IL. 
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