Ernest Mandel on crime novels

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Jul 31 17:12:55 MDT 2003

I scanned in the final chapter of his "Delightful Murder: a Social History
of the Crime Story" and put it online at:

Here are the opening paragraphs:

In The Road to Gandolfo (1976), Robert Ludlum breaks the golden rule: crime
does pay. And what a crime: nothing less than the kidnapping of a
(consenting) pope, funded by a Mafia boss, a British tycoon, and an Arab
comprador sheikh! In this novel, the borderline between legality and
illegality, high society and the underworld, the state apparatus and
organized crime, diplomacy and treachery, has entirely disappeared. The
hero is an American army general who exclaims at one point:

"Goddam, boy, I've spent thirty-some years in this man's army. You take off
the uniform... I'm as naked as a plucked duck. I only know the army; I
don't know anything else, I'm not trained for anything if you come right
down to it... The only goddamned thing I'm trained for is to be a crook,
maybe ... And I'd probably fuck that up because I don't give that much of a
damn about money."

It would be hard to summarize better the growing symbiosis between state
and crime, under the stimulus of big money! Has the wheel now turned full
circle? Has the systematic recourse by monopolists to illegal methods, the
corruption of themselves and the state apparatus that defends their
interests, reached a point where the universe of the crime story has been
turned upside down and the criminal has once again, as at its origins,
become an object of sympathy?
The trend would certainly seem to be in this direction. Even the late John
Creasey, in his Gideon's Law (1971), portrays police accused of unlawful
brutality as poor victims of persecution, saved in the nick of time from
final disgrace by the righteousness of their commander and the tricks of
their officers. There has been an undeniable tendency in recent years to
justify not merely crime but outright murder - even mass murder. In Adam
Hall's The Damocles Sword (1981), the hero is an upper-class British spy
who infiltrates the Nazi machine in the guise of an SS colonel, in order to
bring out of the Third Reich some scientists capable of working on the
atomic bomb. In the course of his mission, he kills twenty-eight men with
his bare hands, driven more by homicidal rage than by professional duty. It
is true that some of his victims are heinous and sadistic criminals
themselves; but others are minor figures like taxi-drivers or ordinary
police. Nevertheless, this mass murderer is portrayed as just as much of a
knight in shining armour at the end of the horrible story as he was at the
outset, before becoming a maniacal killer.

Eric Van Lustbader's The Ninja (1979) is another recent bestselling
thriller, well researched, well written, and full of suspense, whose
central hero is a murderer. This time he murders to protect an
unscrupulous, murderous American tycoon against an attempt on his life by
an equally murderous Japanese tycoon (or is it really to take his revenge
because the Japanese tycoon stole his girl?). All the author's sympathies
are clearly with the murderer. Although one of the police is presented
sympathetically as well, others are decidedly not. Moreover, the author
closes the story with a broad hint that the murderer will now kill the
American tycoon too - with his full approval.

In The Evil That Men Do (1978), Lance Hill depicts, to quote the book's cover:
"an international assassin [Holland] whose lethal skills are for sale if
the price and the cause are right. He must penetrate the Doctor's defences
and nail his quarry with a single, well-aimed bullet. The Doctor [is] the
most demonic master of torture since the Nazis, who taught the Chilean
generals, the Greek colonels, and the Shah's SAVAK the savage refinements
of his art. Now he lives deep in the Guatemalan jungle, shielded by the CIA."

To think it possible to fight torture by killing a single torturer is pure
Utopia. And to do it for money is not very nice, to say the least. So
whatever sympathies we may have for Holland's political preferences, and
however much we may hate the Doctor's trade and the regimes he serves,
Holland still remains a murderer. This turning of murderer into hero marks
a significant return to the treatment of 'good rebels' in the picaresque
novel from which the detective story originally sprang.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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