Monday, May 05, 2008

The Talented Patricia Highsmith and the Mystery Novel

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


Larry Gambone said...

The French Roman Noir crime novelist, Leo Malet, was a surrealist and an anarchist, and his detective was a former (or not so former) anarchist. Of course, Dashiell Hammett was in the CP and was radicalized by his witnessing a massacre of Wobblies when a young man.

jams o donnell said...

Tom Ripley is a marvellous creation. A much loved character.!

Graeme said...

Ripley's game is fine film.

Frank Partisan said...

Jams: Isn't it fascinating how Tom Ripley, the epitomy of amorality, is beloved?

Larry: I didn't know Hammett was CP.

Graeme; I didn't see Ripley's Game yet. I finished reading The Talented Mr Ripley last week.

Larry Gambone said...

I am sorry about that. I meant to say he was sympathic to the CP, not in it.

steven rix said...

To get to the top of the heap under such a system, having superior intelligence is insufficient.
The problems in the world cannot be solved with the level of intelligence that created them (Albert Einstein).

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
It's worse than that, it's the destruction of the american economy that has been ruined by the Congress and the political parties (Democrats and Republicans) and the Federal Reserve (Greenspan). They are all accomplices in this scam. It's not even an american scam, it's a global american scam: nations such a Russia and Europe and China buy T-bonds so that the US can fund her war in Iraq (Hello Keynes, Goodbye Ricardo). In exchange the US government gives taxcuts to their citizens so that they can shut up about the war in Iraq, warming up the economy, inflating artificially the demand, until it comes to a point break. We are in a crisis that is going to last around 10 years. If you think you've seen home foreclosures, then you have not seen anything yet. Be prepared to remove at least +50% on the value of your house.

I don't think people will wake up anyway. Since the 60s, the lack of verificationism in philosophy forbids them to be atheists, thus they are asked to believe in anything even during the worse moments. A good strong psychology unfortunately has always been based on irrealism because it's faith-based.
Down with the Williams James, let's rehabilitate the Thomas Paines! We need to take our country back based on the great ideas of our dear century of Enlightment (Darwin, Hobbes, ...etc)

- What do you mean it's too late?
- Oh crapppppppp


That was a good text, I don't share everything of course but it was fun.

steven rix said...

REn; check this out:

I'm fucking outraged. Humanism is gone.

Frank Partisan said...

I will reply to comments tonight.

steven rix said...

There is an outbreak of civil war as we speak.
Here is what a friend from Beirut told me:

There is an outbreak of civil war, and it started like 2 hours ago with Haraket Amal (Shiite anti government) vs Tayyar al Mostakbal (mini Hariri). It's pretty bad in Ras Al Nabeh right now. There are hunters on a building with RPG launchers. The fight is taking part into the area of Osman ben Afan Musk, Bshara el khoury Area, Mohamad al hout St.A helicopter that belongs to the lebanese army was seen in the area.
Until now there is no wounded people, but so far there is huge loss in materials.
The political movement of tayyar al mostakbal belongs to hariri,and special fighters (sunni extremists) were ordered from akar far north Lebanon to go fight at the moment in Beirut agaist the shi'ite party of Amal and Hizbullah.Many buildings and cars were damaged, some buildings are being evacuated, no civilian loss at the moment.

jams o donnell said...

His utter amorality is his appeal, The Ripley books would be pretty dull if he was a moral and upright character!

Frank Partisan said...

Jams: We like Tom Ripley, because he has a name and face. When you read Highsmith's books, you go right into his mind.

Politiques: I watched part of the video. I liked what I saw of it.

See Marxist from Lebanon's blog, for info about Lebanon.

Take Paris in 1968, or Venezuela in 2002. Sometimes countries go decades in stagnation, than a precipitating event can change everything. who predicted even recent riots in Tibet. Besides a precipitating event, leadership is needed.

Ben Heine said...

yeah, very instructive
thx Ren

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