Villainy in Crime Fiction

Villainy in crime fiction takes many forms. Writers as different as Wilkie Collins, Sax Rohmer and Patricia Highsmith have created rogues more memorable than most detectives. The contest between good and evil is an eternal theme of mystery writing, but as the certainties of the Victorian era have given way to the moral ambiguities of modern times, so have the genre’s villains become increasingly sympathetic. When Collins was constructing The Woman In White (1860), he regarded the ingenuity of the central crime as beyond any Englishman. As a result, he created in Count Fosco an Italian schemer who seemed all the more sinister because of his gross physical appearance, his habit of allowing pet mice to frolic over his waistcoat and his superficial charm of manner. Equally formidable was Sheridan Le Fanu’s Silas Ruthyn, whose plot to murder his heiress niece was abetted by a wicked French governess, Madame de la Rouguierre. The book was originally to be called Maud Ruthyn, but Le Fanu soon recognised that the dominating presence was the villain’s and changed the title to Uncle Silas (1864.

Less subtle successors also made use of foreign villains, not so much from a desire to make their clever crimes credible but rather from a dislike and distrust of anything un English. Especially popular in the early years of the 20th century were Rohmer’s books about Fu Manchu the classic Oriental rogue and the series in which Sapper pitted his clean cut clubland hero Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond against the arch fiend Carl Peterson. English born villains were often portrayed as members of the upper social class. Professor James Moriarty, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Napoleon of crime” was of good birth and excellent education, as was his sometime chief of staff, Colonel Sebastian Moran. Equally cultivated were gentlemen burglars such as Grant Allen’s Colonel Clay and E. W. Hornung’s amateur cracksman, A. J. Raffles. Doyle expressed disquiet about the way in which his brother in law Hornung celebrated Raffles’ villainy, but writers from afar afield took their cue from the exploits of the man who played cricket at the highest level by day and burgled wealthy families by night. Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin was notable as a master of disguise, but more sophisticated were the stories about the unscrupulous American lawyer Randolph Mason created by Melville Davisson Post. The Strange Schemes Of Randolph Mason (1896) was intended to show how knowledge of legal loopholes could enable the thwarting of justice. Yet it is difficult to write a series about any character, however villanous, without endowing him with some virtues and Raffles, Lupin and Mason, as well as G.K. Chesterton’s daring colossus of crime Flambeau, all eventually decided to put their talents to the cause of justice although in moving away from the windy side of the law, they sacrificed much of their original appeal.

Supercriminals have never fallen altogether out of fashion. Rex Stout matched Nero Wolfe with Arnold Zeck and more recently Ed McBain’s cops of the 87th Precinct have been confronted time and again by the Deaf Man. Even in the post war era, British writers notably Ian Fleming, creator of Auric Goldfinger and Ernst Stavro Blofeld as well as James Bond have on occasion succumbed to the temptation to equate foreignness with exotic villainy. In hardboiled American novels, W.R. Burnet’s Cesare Bandello, alias Rico or “Little Caesar” and Caspar Gutman, whom Dashiell Hammett immortalised in The Maltese Falcon (1930) and whose sinister obesity is reminiscent of Fosco’s, were made all the more menacing by their obsessive single mindedness. In contrast, the tone of books by British based authors such as Leslie Charteris and John Creasey about those “durable desperadoes” Simon Templar (“the Saint”) and Richard Rollison (“the Toff”), both characters firmly within the Robin Hood tradition, are much lighter in tone.

Since the Second World War, writers have increasingly striven for realism in their depiction of villainy. In recent years scenes of graphic violence have become commonplace in books as horrific yet powerful as James Ellory’s The Black Dahlia (1989), and The Silence of The Lambs (1989) by Thomas Harris. In Harris’ novel, the fact that the central character is the serial killer Hannibal Lecter mirrors the fascination of contemporary society with multiple and often motiveless murder. An outstanding British gangster novel of the post war era is Jack’s Return Home (1970) by Ted Lewis, best known as the basis for the Michael Caine film Get Carter, and more recently, several of Ian Rankin’s police novels about Inspector Jack Rebus have featured Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, an Edinburgh crime boss who made his debut in Tooth and Nail (1992), played a central part in The Black Book ( 1993) and who has continued to appear, most recently in Exit Music (2007).

Another strand of writing concentrates more upon explanation of the personality traits which give rise to villainous behaviour than upon the physical effects of that behaviour. Many readers will sympathise with the predicaments of Andrew Taylor’s William Dougal even when, as in Odd Man Out (1993) he kills an acquaintance, while in Walter Satterthwait’s Miss Lizzie (1989), the supposed axe murderer Lizzie Borden turns detective a generation after the killing of her own parents. Patrick Hamilton’s Ernest Ralph Gorse, who first appeared in The West Pier (1951), was an early example of the cold blooded and amoral charmer, but Patricia Highsmith is the writer who has created the most distinctive and memorable modern villains, starting with Bruno, who proposes an “exchange of murders” to the respectable Guy Haines in Strangers On A Train (1950). Her most celebrated criminal protagonist is Tom Ripley, but although he has appeared in five novels over a period of more than thirty years, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), in which he made his debut, remains the most successful: the law of diminishing returns applies even more rigorously to series villains than to series detectives. Ruth Rendell’s insight into the criminal mind is equally acute and A Fatal Inversion (1987), written under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine, is but one of her compelling novels which, whilst never condoning evil deeds, makes them a little more explicable. Thanks to Highsmith and Rendell, above all, mystery readers have come to appreciate that villainy is not the prerogative of those who come from other countries or different social classes. Most of us, in certain circumstances, may be capable of it.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing)