What would a crime novel be without its bad guy? Nothing. The villains create nuisance, monger mischief, and are there for the hero to pummel. But if one takes a closer look at the baddies, one might wonder if these guys are for real—and the answer is: not very much.

Most crime novelists use stereotypes for criminal opponents—either Professor Moriarty clones with evil chromosomes whose raison d’etre is to simply be a “Napoleon of Crime", or maladjusted types with bad childhoods who go nuts at the mention of being the fat ugly child who never got the chick, which is why they now want to destroy the world. Open any run-of-the-mill detective novel and look for the criminal’s confession page—it’s all there in black and white.

Alain Delon (left) in the thriller Purple Noon. AFP

So authorities agree that the best evildoers belong to a pre-modern era, and only two out of the abovementioned five star in crime novels.

Now why is that? One reason could be that it is tiresome for authors to invest energy in creating bad guys who are bound to lose—and usually die—in the end, which means that they won’t make it to the sequel anyway. And the more stereotypical among current villains can’t, of course, measure up to the primordial evil of ancient literature. By ancient I mean anything written before the 1930s, when American pulp crime fiction made us modern.

Psycho: The beautiful but sinister Ripley played by Matt Damon. Keystone/Getty Images

Then there’s Tom Ripley, introduced in Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley (1956), who is also a protagonist in some five movies including Purple Noon (1960), in which Ripley was played by none less than Alain Delon, and Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977).

Ripley is that rarity in crime fiction: a sympathetic psychopath who becomes something of a hero. It essentially goes against our moral sense to follow, with interest, the exploits of a murderer, and to sympathize with a person who ruins other people’s lives, so how did Highsmith achieve this?

Also Read Zac O’Yeah’s previous Lounge columns

My theory is that Ripley is an evolved, ironical version of Holden Caulfield, the young protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (incidentally published just five years before the first Ripley novel). Although there are hints of much earlier American novels by Henry James (The Ambassadors) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night), Ripley essentially is Holden who decides to, instead of going on cribbing and sulking, escape the rat race, the miasma and success mantras of Western civilization and forge his own dream life. Where Holden is caught in that rye field dream, Ripley makes a getaway.

He goes from New York to Italy where he takes over the identity of his soft-boiled untalented compatriot Dickie Greenfield, another escapee, after clobbering him, tying an anchor to his foot and sinking him in the Mediterranean. The novel picks up from there as Ripley turns himself into what Dickie could have been if he had realized his potential—an arts connoisseur living the good life in a palazzo, instead of beach-bumming. Ripley’s talent lies in how he is able to impersonate the ultimate expat.

Anthony Hopkins’ on-screen version of Hannibal Lecter. AFP

So reading about Ripley is not just a matter of following a murderer through a psychopathic spree. The author transposes the moral issues on to a practical level and tries to discuss what career options there are for a psychopath. To his surprise Ripley finds that it may occasionally be better to not kill a person. He also takes a perverse joy in being privy to the investigation into the case—the Italian police know that somebody has been killed, either Ripley or Dickie or some other tourist, and Ripley keeps switching identities and eluding them.

Patricia Highsmith specialized in such psychopathic/neurotic heroes and in her guidebook, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, she discusses the problem of making the criminal hero likeable “or at least not repugnant".

She suggests giving “the murderer-hero as many pleasant qualities as possible—generosity, kindness to some people, fondness for painting or music or cooking, for instance. These qualities can also be amusing in contrast to his criminal or homicidal traits." Read that carefully: Here’s the blueprint for Hannibal Lecter & Co.

Authors generally don’t explore their crooks as much as these crooks deserve. The trick is to make the character natural—and that is what Highsmith did. She says, “No book was easier for me to write, and I often had the feeling Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing." And that is why Ripley is my No. 1 crook. Anybody who has a better suggestion can email me and we’ll rewrite the list of the best baddies.

Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based writer of Swedish fiction and the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.

Write to Zac at criminalmind@livemint.com