BE YOURSELF”, goes Oscar Wilde’s famous quip*, “everybody else is already taken.”

Yes, yes… it’s funny because it’s true. Except, strictly speaking, it’s not true. It discounts the quite practical possibility of murdering someone you idolise in cold blood, destroying the body and assuming their identity to enjoy their life for the rest of yours. The rest is mere details: forge some utility bills, change your appearance and mannerisms, decipher their social media passwords and convince the people who love them that they’ve done a runner.

Yes, you’d have to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder. And yes, you’d probably have to murder anyone who gets too close to the truth. But what price is that to pay for the life you’ve always wanted?

That’s the trick according to Tom Ripley, the eponymous psychopath at the centre of Netflix’s new series Ripley, based on the bestselling set of novels by Patricia Highsmith.

The limited series, starring one-time ‘hot priest’ Andrew Scott as our life-shifting antihero, is a moody, noirish, slow-burn of a TV show, shot entirely in black and white with a score that oozes over the action like Marmite.

Scott’s portrayal of Tom Ripley is as haunting as it is enthralling, capturing the character’s complex layers of manipulation and inner turmoil. And unlike Anthony Minghella’s sun-drenched 1999 adaptation, starring Matt Damon and Jude Law, it’s much closer to the book’s dark and morally ambiguous tone, delving deep into the psyche of literature’s most loveable psychopath.

First published in 1955, The Talented Mr Ripley was a massive hit, immersing readers in her murky world of deception and consequence, where the line between right and wrong swirls into a murky grey. And, as decades passed, more books followed, deepening Highsmith’s exploration into the lengths one man will go to escape his own identity and fulfil his desires.

So what are the books, and how should they be read? The short answer is that, while each novel can be read as a standalone story, they are interconnected and depict the evolution of Ripley’s character over time. So it’s best to read them chronologically.

Read on for more (WARNING: this article may include spoilers).

*There is no substantive evidence that Wilde ever said this, but it sounds like a witticism he could have said, so the attribution has stuck.


The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

In the first novel of the series, we meet Tom Ripley, a down-on-his-luck con artist living off his wits in Italy. But, in a chance encounter with the rich and classy Mr Greenleaf, he finds himself on a mission to coastal Italy to persuade Greenleaf’s loafer son to return to the U.S. and get serious.

Does he fall in love with Greenleaf Jr himself, or just with his lifestyle? It’s hard to tell. But gradually he inveigles himself into the doomed playboy’s world and, in doing so, into our sympathies.

But here’s the thing: Tom is so damn likeable. He’s self-effacing, shy and charmingly naïve about the ways of the wealthy – an orphan with a hard past who, through graft, charm, and sheer force of personality, beats the odds to make a success of his life.

It’s just that… the thing he’s really successful at is getting away with murder.


Ripley Under Ground (1970)

Years have passed, and Ripley – despite Highsmith’s multiple hints that he is gay – has settled down with a wealthy French heiress and is moonlighting as a counterfeit art dealer.

But paranoia over his past is setting in. A loose thread from a past art forgery threatens to unravel the life he’s forged for himself. To silence a hungry collector, Ripley improvises a deadly gamble. The move backfires, pulling him towards a closing net.

A relentless detective digs into a missing person’s case, and a ghost from Ripley’s bloody past emerges. Can he silence them before his house of cards collapses, revealing the killer beneath the gentleman’s facade?


Ripley’s Game (1974)

Living the wealthy life in France, Tom Ripley craves excitement. When a shady associate asks him to arrange a murder, Ripley hatches a twisted plan. He convinces a sickly neighbour, Jonathan Trevanny, that the Mafia wants him dead.

Ripley orchestrates a chilling game, manipulating Trevanny and relishing the chaos. But the thrill turns deadly when the real Mob, suspicious of Ripley’s involvement, sends hitmen. Now Ripley, forced to confront his past sins, must fight for his own survival in a deadly game of his own making.


The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)

Living the quiet life in France, Ripley’s world is shaken by a teenage runaway named Frank. The boy harbours a dark secret: he killed his wealthy father. As Ripley recognises a kindred spirit in Frank, they form a twisted bond.

But that bond unravels when Frank inadvertently learns of Ripley’s criminal past. So, in a bid to control the situation, Ripley kidnaps Frank to stop him from talking. Suddenly, Ripley finds himself drawn into Berlin’s criminal underworld as he is forced not only to confront dangerous men, but also the lengths he is prepared to go to save his own skin.


Ripley Under Water (1991)

In his French chateau, Ripley cultivates a garden as scrupulously as his stolen life. Yet, a weed of suspicion sprouts. A new neighbour, the obnoxious Pritchard, seems fixated on Ripley’s past.

As Pritchard probes further, the ground under Ripley’s feet begins to give way. A tenacious detective from Ripley’s past stirs, and a witness emerges from the shadows. Can Ripley silence the hum before it becomes an alarm, exposing the blood on his manicured hands and the chilling truth beneath his masquerade?

A version of this story originally appeared on Esquire UK


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