So, what happened to the villains then, those exciting bad guys who featured so prominently in crime and adventure fiction over the years? To my disappointment, most of the thrillers I’ve read recently have been sadly lacking in decent bad guys. I wonder why the paucity?
For me, as a reader and writer, the villain of the piece is every bit as significant and essential to the success of the narrative as the protagonist; sometimes more so. After all, it’s the cut, thrust, and parry between the hero and the villain that creates the conflict and mayhem that is at the heart of the drama. A hero is a hero, but it’s more often the quality of the villain that transforms a good thriller into a great one.
By way of example, we can do no better than observe the way the great master, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, fashioned the many antagonists that challenged Sherlock Holmes. The magisterial Professor Moriarty is, of course, well known. But my personal favorite was the pitiless blackmailer, Charles Augustus Milverton; a more complete villain never existed. Holmes held Moriarty in some respect, but he loathed the slippery Milverton.
I find that some writers take the easy route. They make their villains as evil, vicious and hateful as possible; like the sick, antisocial psychopath I had the great displeasure of meeting in a recent novel set in Bangkok, Thailand. This serial killer kidnaps young girls, does awful things to them in a secret chamber and then kills and burns them. He is, of course, trapped, caught and brought to a form of justice. The writer no doubt assumed it’s easier and far less controversial to make his baddie truly loathsome, possessed of a satanic kind of evil that is easy to hate. But having such a pathetic, repulsive creature without a single redeeming feature as your villain is not, I contend, a good idea.
I have no time for “bad” villains. I have no desire to read stories of pedophiles, mindless psychopathic serial killers, mass murderers and abusers of young women, being hunted down by self-righteous cops and PIs. Such sad, sick people do exist I know, but a writer who uses them as the foil for his protagonist is on a lee shore in my view.
Villainy should have a purpose. Villains should be at least fascinating; attractive even. Good looks coupled with a bizarre sense of humor can do wonders. Rather like Phillip Vandamm, the character played by James Mason in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, ‘North by Northwest. And a villain who can win female hearts and minds is armed with special weapons.
Though his books are not popular nowadays, set as they were in the time of the Cold War, I always enjoyed the villains of Ian Fleming. Fleming revealed a keen awareness of the villain’s importance. He abandoned credibility and tended to create villains a little larger than life. He also gave them slightly cartoonish qualities that made them even more memorable and entertaining.
Beginning with the cold, reptilian Le Chiffre, in Casino Royale, and ending with Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, we were entertained by a superb cast of outrageous bad boys. Sir Hugo Drax, the suave missile building card cheat in Moonraker. The mad, Auric Goldfinger, who was so obsessed with the stuff that dreams are made of. The dreadful Dr. No on his island, Crab Key. Emilio Largo, the swaggering nuclear bomb thief in Thunderball. And that splendid black villain, Buonaparte Ignace Gallia: “Mr. Big” in Live and Let Die.
In From Russia With Love, Fleming had Bond contend with three determined enemies bent on his destruction; Red Grant, the psychopath assassin; Kronsteen the SMERSH master planner, and the ghastly Rosa Klebb, who showed us that not all Bond girls are beauties.
And one should not forget Bond’s #1 adversary, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the SPECTRE chief, who features in three of Bond’s adventures.
Fleming also seems to have taken delight in terminating his villains’ existence with “extreme prejudice.” Le Chiffre, who, in a towering fit of frustration, is on the point of emasculating Bond when he gets a SMERSH bullet in the brain. Mr. Big was taken down and eaten alive by a pack of sharks and barracudas. Red Grant, on the losing end of a long knife fight with Bond aboard the Orient Express, bleeds to death on the carriage floor. But the best death was reserved for Dr. No, the tall, skeletal creature with pincers for hands. He was buried alive under several tons of guano (bird shit) dropped on him by Bond, a well-deserved death that added greatly to this reader’s pleasure. And Blofeld got his when Bond strangled him in Japan.
Elmore Leonard was perhaps my favorite crime and suspense writer. I’ve read most of his books. First I read his crime fiction set in Detroit and Miami and then I backtracked to read his early work with westerns. I also re-read him often; he’s that good. As readers we enjoy him; as writers, we can learn much from him.
Leonard produced a regiment of villains far too numerous to mention. And all of his bad boys, both big and small were credible; many amusingly so. But the villain who stands out for me is Mr. Tanner; the hard-bitten cold fish rancher who featured in the western novel, Valdez is Coming.
I confess I love villains. It’s a love affair that began as a child with Long John Silver, the peg-legged pirate from R.L. Stevenson’s, Treasure Island. Rebels, bandits, gangsters, train robbers, scoundrels, conmen and scallywags fascinate me. And not just in fiction. I remember as a boy in Manchester in 1963 waking one morning to hear that the Glasgow – London mail train had been stopped and robbed in what became The Great Train Robbery, and how excited I was.
I confess to admiring John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and many others. Top of my list was, is and always will be, Salvatore Giuliano, the great Sicilian bandit. And the list continues to grow.
In fiction, I like subtle, complex villains, bad guys I can relate to and even sympathize with. Such a villain was that stylish rogue from my boyhood reading, Raffles.
Raffles is a mannered, articulate, gregarious and charming English gentleman with superb credentials. He’s a well-attired bachelor, a cricketer for England with many friends, memberships to fine clubs and rooms in exclusive Albany. But he has a dark side. Secretly, after nightfall, he’s a cat-burglar and safe cracksman, raiding the homes of the rich and famous for their valuables.
Mario Puzo’s Godfather, Don Corleone, is an exceptional example. The Godfather was a tour de force. In making a villain his protagonist, Puzo delivered a literary coup, albeit risky. Though an organized criminal, a Mafiosa chieftain to be sure, the Don was no thug. And he meted out the kind of justice we all seek in our hearts, but never seem to find in the “system.” Who can forget the moving drama of the pathetic little undertaker, let down by the police and courts, making his tearful pitch to the Don, seeking justice for his raped and beaten daughter? And the beautiful way the Don handled it; spirit moving to say the least. Don Corleone had credibility in spades.
Another complex villain/hero of mine was Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s creation. She wrote a series of books featuring Tom, who combined the roles of both protagonist and villain. A villain he certainly was in murdering his friend Dickie Greenleaf and assuming his identity; a killing that kicks off his career, but he comes to regret. But yet, as we follow his criminal exploits, we like him.
A more recent villain I enjoyed was John Dolan’s Jim Fosse, who features in Dolan’s, Time Blood and Karma series of books. Fascinating and lethal as a cobra, Fosse is a smooth, urbane, charming conman; a shamelessly self-centered rogue.
I believe there are two main types of villains: the credible and the incredible; I like both, but with a strong preference for the former. There are also other categories; accidental villains and reluctant villains are possible areas worthy of a writer’s consideration.
Some time ago I wrote my first novel: The Iran Deception. In doing so I fashioned several villains. But my main villain I was determined to make attractive, especially to women. Shai Katsav is in so many ways a reluctant villain, a victim of circumstance. He’s also a handsome, dissipated rogue who given half a chance would charm the pants off a nun.
I want to see more female villains in crime literature. Men tend to be crude and use muscle to get their way. Women use craft, feminine wiles, and sex to manipulate men and overcome obstacles and adversaries. A strong, believable woman, operating in what is a man’s world has always had powerful potential for crime writers; especially if she’s beautiful. Brigid O’Shaughnessy of The Maltese Falcon, Phyllis Diertrichsons of Double Indemnity and Cora Papadakis of The Postman Always Rings Twice immediately spring to mind. But my favorite femme-fatale villain was not from a book, but a film; Matty Tyler in Body Heat played to perfection by Kathleen Turner. Matty was surely a villain to be reckoned with. We need more like Matty in crime fiction.
There’s one thing I’m sure of. No matter if the work is plot driven or character driven, writers do well who take time and care in their crafting of villains. Ideally, the villain and the hero should complement each other.
As David Lubar put it: The villain, “may be driven by greed, neuroses, or the conviction that his cause is just, but he’s also driven by something, not unlike the things that drive the hero.” A shrewd observation.
For me, villains don’t do different things. They do things differently.
So, hats off to splendid rogues.