Highsmith's books--all of which feature murders--are not typical murder mysteries because Highsmith never leaves the reader in the dark as to the identity of the murderer. (The sole exception runs for only three pages in the third novel, in which Highsmith playfully leaves the reader wondering, with other characters, whether Ripley was responsible for the unnecessary demise of third-tier character.)
A mystery novel that discloses the identity of the murderer may create tension by dealing with the question whether other characters, such as a law enforcement officer or a spouse, will learn the identity of the murderer. The first book contains considerable dramatic tension of this type, but the second two contain considerably less (especially for the reader familiar with the Ripley series).
The strange appeal of these novels--especially the latter two--lies more in their overall lack of dramatic tension. In the second and third books, Ripley's easy, cultured life invites the reader to relax, perhaps brew himself or herself a cup of tea, and, above all, let his or her guard down. Never mind that the purpose of a quick trip is murder most foul; Ripley never lacks the time to pick up a tasteful gift for Heloise, his wife. Never mind that Ripley and a friend must dispose quickly of bodies; Ripley never lacks the time to prepare (true, in this instance, hastily) a sumptuous meal after the murders.
As unusual as these books are in their lack of dramatic tension, they are even more unusual in their presentation of Ripley. Many reviews describe him as amoral. He is amoral, but only if that word permits one to display some morals. In the second and third books, Ripley emerges as a person who is deeply in love with, and committed to, his wife. He is nearly as loyal to his housekeeper, Madame Annette. He is capable of surprising loyalty to others. By the third novel, he has even displayed some growth in his ability to show concern for others (ok, maybe only two other persons).
Undoubtedly, though, the distinction of these three works is the ease with which Ripley murders. He murders as he lives--efficiently and effortlessly. Each murder seems the product of impulse, although Ripley commits each with as much composure as circumstances permit and the murders themselves are never devoid of purpose.
The achievement of the second and third novels, which in many respects are superior to the first, is that the murders blend into Ripley's life in such a way that the reader may not find it jarring that other characters, who discover that Ripley has committed these murders, do not themselves find the acts more repulsive than they do.
Highsmith accomplishes this unusual effect in part by her characterization of Ripley. Most readers will find appealing Ripley's taste and composure. Even more readers will find appealing his loyal devotion to his wife. In the third novel, Ripley's murder victims were dangerous, hardened criminals.
But, most of all, Highsmith eases the murders into her narratives through skillful prose. She writes in a spare, easy style, just as Ripley lives. In short, clear sentences, Highsmith captures the few details that quickly render a scene or a minor character. Her word choice is simple, but apt. Despite her efficiency, Highsmith is patient in dialogue. Heloise asks Ripley if he and another character had a <nice talk.> Never mind that they were discussing murder, Ripley invariably answers that they did.
Above all, read these novels for the rare pleasure that good writing provides.
I must also commend the publisher. Although nearly 900 pages, the book is the perfect size and handles well in a variety of reading position (although I found myself responding to the cultured world of Ripley by abandoning my favored reading position--prone--for the more formal one of sitting upright). The slightly rough texture of the red book (dustjacket removed) also facilitates easy handling. The print is pleasing to the eye. Suggestive of more devotional literature, my book came with a handsome gold ribbon to mark the page on the few occasions that I was able to put the book down.