To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.
The voice of John Watson and the opening sentences of A Scandal in Bohemia (1891) by Arthur Conan Doyle. We all know Sherlock Holmes of course, but in these lines, Watson is referring to Irene Adler, an iconic crime fiction character, and the inspiration for today’s post about villains. Whether they be thieves, murderers, psychopaths or sociopaths we, it seems, love a villain. Today, I’d like to explore what makes a good bad guy, or bad girl in the case of Adler, and I’d like to offer a few of my personal favourites.
Across crime fiction, it is rare to find a villain who appears frequently, probably because that very thing would scratch away at the credibility of the genre’s hero and lifeblood, the detective. The longer the villain survives, the more that survival threatens to erode the hero. For writers, particularly writers of long-running series, it is perhaps easier to assert the character of the detective, precisely because there are more opportunities to do so. Rarely though does one find a villain so well defined and so compelling that they begin to define the genre in their own right. Detectives tend to stay the course, particularly over a long-running series, but their prey is generally different from case to case. When writers deviate from this tried and tested pattern, or in the case of Arthur Conan Doyle and Irene Adler, they get it so perfectly right in a single story, the villains are the characters we remember. It is as if they become part of the detective’s own character and help to define them every bit as much as the detective’s own nuances and habits. It is one of the reasons why super-hero fiction is so popular. For every hero, there must be a villain and vice versa. They are, in effect, two sides of the same character and cannot exist without the other.
Personally, I’ve always preferred the villain or at least had a soft spot for a good one. After all, without a villain, what need do we, the reader, have for a detective? And even if we do have the need, why should they win all the time? Of course, if you focus purely on the villain then the story drifts into a sub-genre, one where detectives still exist, but they are minor background characters. The works of George V. Higgins and Mario Puzo spring most immediately to mind as writers who created stories based around criminals, or a whole generation of them in Puzo’s case. The stories do contain detectives, but we don’t remember their names. Instead, the names of characters such as Eddie Coyle and Vito Corleone stick with us. Within the gangster crime sub-genre, there are many excellent examples of villains, but sadly there are also too many poor copy cat versions which underline the point I made last week about parody and homage only stretching so far. For me, however, one example stands alone.
Thomas Anthony DeSimone was a real-life gangster and a member of the famed Lucchese crime family in New York. He was the real-life inspiration for my favourite gangster character, Tommy DeVito, played to stunning, and Academy Award-winning, effect by Joe Pesci in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas (1990). DeVito’s response to being described as a funny guy is the perfect illustration of a sociopath.
You mean, let me understand this, ’cause, ya know maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but I’m funny how? I mean funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny? Funny how? How am I funny?
Here then are some of my other personal favourites, from just a few of the sub-genres we have explored in these pages over the last year.
- Professor James Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes canon. Whilst the Napoleon of crime, as Holmes called him, appears in a smaller body of Conan Doyle’s work than you might imagine (whilst mentioned in passing in a handful of stories, he appears directly in only two of them), he has been reinvented and reimagined in recent years as a central character. Whatever your view of him, he is, along with Irene Adler, one of only two characters that can genuinely claim to be the equal of the great consulting detective. Between them, Moriarty and Adler appear directly in only three stories. But so well crafted are they as characters that we remember them so vividly.
- Amy Dunne from Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn. There is a point in the book where you notice your hands are gripping the pages tightly. A masterclass in how to build, slowly, the horrible realisation that you are looking at a completely terrifying individual.
- Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy. A serial killer with principles who kills on the toss of a coin. Joel and Ethan Coen’s film version won a clutch of Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actor for Javier Bardem and his stunning portrayal of Chigurh.
- Marquise de Merteuil originally from Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1792) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos but more recently a play and Academy Award-winning film, both written by Christopher Hampton. If you concentrate you can hear Glenn Close speaking the terrifying line when one woman strikes at the heart of another she seldom misses, and the wound is invariably fatal.
- Francis Dolarhyde from Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris. If you haven’t read this book you may wonder why I have picked Dolarhyde over Hannibal Lecter. If you have read it, you won’t. Terrifying, in every way.
- Annie Wilkes from Misery (1987) by Stephen King. Kathy Bates won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes in a 1990 film adaptation by Rob Reiner. As excellent as this film is the sledgehammer scene is tame in comparison to what Annie Wilkes does to Paul Sheldon in the book.
- The Hooded Claw from The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, a Hanna-Barbera Productions cartoon which first aired in 1969. The Hooded Claw was in fact the dark side of Sylvester Sneekly who was Penelope Pitstop’s guardian. This may sound frivolous but if you think about it this is genuinely frightening. A cartoon about a guardian who repeatedly tries to harm a child in his care. It would never get made today.
- Mrs Danvers from Rebecca (1938) by Daphne Du Maurier. One of the stars of Du Maurier’s gothic romance and revenge masterpiece, Mrs Danvers is manipulating, scheming and has an almost psychopathic desire for control. Nobody really believes she dies in the fire, do they?
You’ll have your own favourites I’m sure, and if you get a chance do let me know who they are. Also, if you haven’t read Misery then I urge to do so. I guarantee that when you do, you’ll choose the sledgehammer every time if you are Paul Sheldon. I shudder just thinking about what Annie Wilkes does to him in the book.