Louis Proyect wrote an interesting story about the crime novels of Patricia Highsmith, the creator of the Tom Ripley series, in Swans Magazine. Tom Ripley is a cynical and amoral character, reflecting the brilliance, sexuality and politics of Highsmith's writing. Read the Swans article to be introduced to an intriguing writer.
Ernest Mandel, the great Belgian Marxist economist and Trotskyist politician, was a life-long fan of crime novels and took time off from his busy schedule to write Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story in 1984.
In the chapter titled Inward Diversification, Mandel treats the class detective story in which the hero (Sherlock Holmes, et al.) outwits the villain as a kind of parable on commodity production in the early competitive days of industrial capitalism:
However, there is a more fundamental quality of the thriller and spy novel that justifies treating them as distinct sub-species of the original detective story, despite all that they have in common. The detective outwits the criminal essentially by means of logical prowess. The paraphernalia of the trade -- Sherlock Holmes's magnifying glass or chemical retorts -- are mere secondary tools, subordinated entirely to Reason. The criminal, too, is clever, and often outwits the police, but cannot outwit the great detective's super-brain.
Here we have the purest, most elementary expression of bourgeois society: commodity production and commodity circulation under conditions of perfect competition. Everything is rational, totally geared to the maximization of income (profits), through continual cuts in production costs and sales costs including profit margins). All's well that ends well. In the end, rational
individual economic behaviour by all will bring the maximum well-being (including the satisfaction of the consumer) to the maximum number of individuals. Let the best one win (Sherlock Holmes, not the criminal), and this will be good for everybody, including the criminal (if not for his body, at least for his immortal soul).
With the arrival of monopoly capitalism, however, reason has more and more trouble triumphing over irrationality, particularly in the era of fascism. A Sherlock Holmes has little chance of coming out on top of a jackbooted SS member who would defy the law even when confronted by his guilt. To get to the top of the heap under such a system, having superior intelligence is insufficient. Instead you need cunning and determination, two qualities that typify Tom Ripley, the quintessential modern man.
The crime novelist of the monopoly capitalism epoch can even decide to subvert the norms of the genre by making the criminal rather than the detective the real hero. Indeed, Mandel points to Patricia Highsmith as best representing this category. In Ripley's world, the criminal always comes out on top. Even if Tom Ripley achieves his goals through brutal violence and a talent for falsehood, he will be a mere piker in comparison to the men who have invaded Iraq and wrought the financial scams that have resulted in the forfeiture of millions of American homes. Unlike Ripley, who retains a raffish charm throughout the series of novels that bear his name, these criminals evoke nothing but disgust and a fervent desire to disarm them before they manage to destroy the planet.Louis Proyect Renegade Eye