I like a good villain. Every hero needs an adversary, and I find the bad guys (and gals) are often the more interesting characters to delve into, as well as frequently being more fun to write than the ones on the right side of the law.
At last, after a few false starts and delays, I have new book out that hits the shelves next week, and deviating from the usual crime fiction script, the villains are as much in the lead roles as my rotund heroine. I didn’t mean it to be that way, but that’s the way the book came about. The crime came first, then the characters, and finally the investigation, all in a rather tortuous but nevertheless intriguing (for me) process.
Thin Ice revolves around a pair of villains, one a hapless character drawn into crime against his own better nature, the other a man without scruples of any kind who is only interested in looking out for number one. Placing these two unlikely partners in crime against each other was interesting, as not only are they the villains of the tale and therefore Gunna’s adversaries, but the two don’t like or trust each other, which also pits them against each other.
A bad guy has to be bad, that speaks for itself. But a bad guy (or gal) should also have some depth. Nobody is 101% wicked, or are they? At any rate, for a villain to be credible, there needs to be some depth to the character, some shades of light and dark, a few redeeming features that stop them becoming cartoon characters.
A well-drawn villain is a pleasure to read. Do we sometimes root as much for the villain as the hero/ine? Anyway here are five of my favourite fictional villains…
Karla is the shadow whose photograph is on the wall of George Smiley’s office in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. The books shouldn’t work – but they do, brilliantly. There’s a lot of people sitting in offices talking, yet somehow the tension never lets up.
Karla himself, the Soviet spymaster, hardly appears other than as an elusive, indistinct shadow, yet his presence runs vividly through the stories right up to the masterful denouement.
Does he even have a first name? Parker is the hero of the series of novels by Donald Westlake, written under his Richard Stark pseudonym. He’s ruthless, not overburdened by scruples and also an efficient and skilled criminal. These novels are unusual, a series featuring a ruthless criminal we shouldn’t sympathise with, but we do.
Most of the time Parker gets away with it, but not always. There was a spell in prison at one point, and an escape, and he manages to stay ahead of the law, most of the time. What makes these books so enthralling is the blurring of the lines. The police chasing Parker are often no angels themselves, so the stories become intriguing exercises in shades of grey, with a few hapless civilians caught up in the crossfire. They’re the ones you can’t help feeling sorry for.
Prosthetnic Vogon Jeltz
Ah, this one really is vile. Prosthetnic Vogon Jeltz if the admiral of the Vogon constructor fleet that demolished the Earth at the beginning of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; an event that Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent narrowly escape by hitching an unwelcome ride on his ship. Blowing up the Earth should make him villainous enough, but on top of that he likes to read his poetry to captives – Vogon poetry being the third worst in the entire history of the Galaxy.
Does he have a soft side to him, any redeeming qualities? Read the books to find out… But he does share with Xaphod Beeblebrox the services of private braincare specialist Gag Halfrunt, so we can assume that Prosthetnic Vogon Jeltz has doubts about being quite as evil as he is and maybe a soft, cuddly side to him, carefully hidden. Or not? Maybe he is just truly evil.
Vanquishing Smaug the Dragon and regaining the gold of the Lonely Mountain is the whole plot of the Hobbit, a quest to right wrongs and regain lost wealth.
A dragon who sleeps on a bed of hoarded gold, can you get much more villainous than that? But for an imaginative ten-year old, is there a cooler villain than a dragon slumbering on a heap of gold and jewels? Put those orcs and trolls, even Gollum, from your mind. Smaug was a villain with real class.
And my all-time favourite bad guy is… The Hairless Mexican
General Carmona, aka the Hairless Mexican, appears in one of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories of espionage during the First World War. The Hairless Mexican is a bizarre, cologne-doused, fur coat-wearing figure who would be ridiculous if he were not also a ruthless killer.
The chilling thing about the Hairless Mexican is that the Ashenden stories are more than likely based on truth to a greater rather than a lesser extent, built on Maugham’s own experiences of spying from Switzerland on the Germans during the war, so much so that some of his stories are believed to have been suppressed before publication at Churchill’s request.
So was General Carmona based on a real character? Could such a flamboyant character be anything but based on someone real? Who was the real Hairless Mexican? Who knows?