It’s So Good to be Bad!
“In real life,” writes George Meredith, “no villain need be.” That may be true for real life, but it is certainly not true for the world of cozy mysteries, where real villains absolutely need be, else who’s going to do all the killing? Villains are great fun, frequently more colorful and exciting than the protagonist, who sometimes runs the risk of being a bit bland, having never shot, strangled, stabbed or poisoned anybody at all, not even the pet dog. Great villains of the literary world? You can go back to the Greeks and name Medea, who murders her own children rather than see them live with Jason and his new wife. The best villains though probably come from Shakespeare, with Richard III and the despicable Iago leading the parade.
For the mystery writer, creating a good villain is probably one of the most difficult jobs of all. There are several ways to go. The villain can show up early and let us enjoy his/her evil, but that path eliminates mystery. We know ‘who done it’ right from the first, and so there is no guessing game, no red herrings, etc. On the other hand, if the identity of the villain is revealed only at the end, then the evil doer spends most of the book in relative obscurity, playing a nice neighbor, or even an unknown character hiding in the shadows. No fun there.
Also, there is the myth that the villain must always be the killer. Not so. In Sea Change, the first of the Nina Bannister mysteries, our villain is the glamorous land developer Eve Ivory, whom all of Bay St. Lucy ultimately comes to hate. She herself is murdered, though, by the hand of—oops, mustn’t give that away!
So ultimately Meredith may be right in his sentiment—but who cares about real life? Give me a great villain any day of the week! In the weeks that follow, T’Gracie and I will be blogging about bad guys and gals from the worlds of movies and books. We’ll talk about characters you love to hate. Next up: Four villains in classic movies from the 1950’s and 1960’s.