Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Villain, You Say

Is it true that in a mystery novel the author has to keep the villain a secret until the end?  Not necessarily, because the villain isn’t always the killer.   Sometimes the villain is the victim.  Witness Christie’s Murder On the Orient Express.  When I write a mystery novel, I try to mix it up from book to book.  Sometimes the bad guy is the killer, sometimes the victim, and sometimes the villain is just a red herring.  Perhaps in a mystery novel, there doesn’t even have to be a villain, just a killer.  A person can do an evil thing without necessarily being evil.

No matter what kind of book, though, you can’t beat a great villain. The touch of genius in  The Dark Knight’s Joker was that no reason for his evil was ever really given.  The tale the Joker tells about himself keeps changing - is one version true or are they all lies?  His most revealing explanation is when he compares his lust for destruction to a dog chasing a car.  Doesn’t want anything. He wouldn’t know what to do with the car if he caught it.  He just wants to chase it.

One of my favorite literary villains for sheer scariness is  Andrew Carlisle in J.A. Jance’s Hour of the Hunter.  He’s a genius as well as a complete psychopath, and you wonder how he’s ever going to get caught.  The possibility that someone like him actually exists kept me awake for a night or two.  If it can be thought of, it can be.

A brilliant movie villain, in my humble opinion, is Archie Cunningham, the character played by Tim Roth in Rob Roy. He is thoroughly despicable.  He never once in the entire movie does a decent thing.  He also spends a lot of time staring at a miniature of his mother, which he keeps in a locket around his neck.  As for Archie’s father, well, his mother had narrowed his identity down to three possibilities.  Maybe we can guess why Archie is like he is, and even spare him a little sympathy, but he’s such a pig that when he finally gets his comeuppance, it’s only what he deserves and we are entirely satisfied.

That movie, by the way, has several really interesting themes.  How far would you go to survive?  Would you be able to hurt yourself to keep from being killed?  Would it occur to you to climb inside a dead cow to save your life?

But I digress. 

We were speaking of our favorite villains.  Remember Snidely Whiplash? Now there’s a villain.  Isn't that his picture at the top of Vickie's post?


Vicki Delany said...

You're right Donis, in plenty of mystery novels the villain isn't a secret. But that is the traditional form, and I should have specified that.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely that sometimes, the victim is the villain, and I'm glad that you brought up Murder on the Orient Express. It's one of the best examples of the victim getting his or her "just deserts." The same thing happens in Christie's Appointment With Death. I recommend that book, by the way, as a fascinating psychological study as well as a good mystery.
When I write mysteries, I admit that I don't reveal the villain right away. I prefer to trust the reader to pick up the clues and the follow the logic. But I must admit, my victims aren't always nice people. For example, in my book, Publish or Perish -
my victim is hardly a saint, and one reader describes the victim as, "kind of a creep."
In my opinion, a good mystery doesn't paint the characters as all good or as all bad. Rather, the characters are whole people. For instance, the murderer may have what he or she sees as very good reasons for committing murder. That's happened in several Christie novels. In other cases, the murder is an otherwise upstanding person who, because of feeling desperate, commits the crime. That's happened Christie's work, too (and in mine).
You really give us good things to think about : ).

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Good points, Donis! I just love hearing about other writers' favorite books and movies, too. Would you believe I've not seen Rob Roy? Maybe I shouldn't admit it...
It's going on my Netflix list.

Ann Parker said...

Hello Donis,
Oh, I saw Rob Roy and boy, I'm with you on the villain. He was a nasty piece of work!
And I've discovered that, at least in my critique group, people *hate* seeing nice guys die. Most prefer that the victims have something a little "off" about them, some dark secret or nasty bit mixed in.

Donis Casey said...

If your victim is nice, then your villain is usually extra horrible. I think that readers like to see justice done. Either the victim deserved to get it, or the nasty killer gets what's coming to him. Can anybody think of a mystery where both victim and killer are good, or vice versa? That would be interesting to read.