Tom Ripley in my first book about him is a young man of twenty-five, restless and jobless in New York, living temporarily in a friend’s apartment. He was orphaned early and brought up by a rather stingy aunt in Boston. He has some talent for mathematics and mimicry, and the two abilities enable him to carry on a small game of scaring American tax-payers by letter and telephone: he demands from them ‘further payment’ to an Internal Revenue Service office whose branch, he says, is at a certain address: it is the address of the friend with whom he is staying, and Ripley takes the letters when they arrive, though he can do nothing with the cheques inside them except chuckle with an odd satisfaction.
When Ripley finds himself followed one evening in Manhattan streets by a middle-aged man, his first thought is that the man is a police agent, or could be, sent to apprehend him for his fraudulent tax game. The follower turns out to be the father of an acquaintance Ripley has trouble at first in remembering: Dickie Greenleaf, who is now living in Europe, says the father.
Herbert Greenleaf invites Tom to dinner the next evening, and here Tom meets Dickie’s mother and has a glimpse of the finer things of life: good furniture, silverware at the table, order and politeness. These things, Tom realizes not for the first time, are his aspirations. Furthermore, the Greenleafs offer to pay Tom’s expenses to Italy and back. Tom agrees to go.