Susan here. Okay, okay, I’ll restrict myself to crime fiction bad guys although the temptation to stray into real life is strong. So, in print, who stands out in my mind, and why?
Recently, I read Stuart Neville’s THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST, in which there were dreadful Irish mobster characters who cloaked themselves in the righteousness (if that is what it was) of the Irish Catholic position on Northern Ireland as a means of carrying out every kind of nasty crime, from graft to torture to the murder of innocents. It was the hypocrisy on top of the villainy that repulsed me most.
John Grisham has always had a knack for creating immoral men and women who abuse their own intellect, education, and privilege to savage us ordinary people for their own advantage. The powerful jury consultant Rankin Fitch in THE RUNAWAY JURY is a well-drawn example of such a morally bankrupt individual.
Cara Black’s villains are sometimes shadowy ghosts of those who cooperated with the conquerors in Nazi-occupied Paris, and whose actions still taint the lives of her characters decades later. Her first Aimee Leduc novel, MURDER IN THE MARAIS, sticks in my mind. For anyone who has walked Paris’s streets and seen the plaques, the quiet memorials, or the half-swallowed attempts at acknowledging past sins, this kind of villainy is real.
Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter - solitary, crazed villains of this ilk frighten me but don’t affect me the same way. They’re freaks of nature, random nightmares, as little able to make moral choices as cornered cobras or hungry grizzly bears. It’s the calculating, sane people who have the same opportunities to act decently that you and I have and who choose venal or cardinal sin because it benefits them – and who knowingly, unblinkingly, trample on and destroy others in order to get more of whatever it is they want – who form the class of villains that stays with me long after the novels are back on my bookshelf.