Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Killers Who Refuse to Die

Sandra Parshall

Oh, how I hated to see Nicole Wallace go. She was such a bitch, and evil right down to her toes. I loved her.

Nicole, played by the wonderful Olivia d’Abo, was the only villain who’d ever outwitted the brilliant Bobby Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. And Bobby was the only man who ever wandered into this poisonous spider’s web and lived to tell about it. They were perfectly matched. She should have gone on forever, making well-timed return appearances in Goren’s world. But last Sunday night she died, in a peculiarly unsatisfying fashion – not in a confrontation with Goren, but offstage, at the hand of another twisted soul who thought he was doing Goren a favor. Since we didn’t actually see her die, and we all know that on TV shows DNA results aren’t necessarily final, I hold out hope that we haven’t lost one of
the crime genre’s creepiest and most fascinating recurring villains.

The majority of crime novels and all of television’s crime dramas are built around recurring heroes or heroines, but the villain who refuses to die and keeps popping up again and again seems to have fallen out of favor with most writers. The few authors who attempt such characters don’t always handle them well.

The most famous recurring villain in mystery fiction is Professor Moriarty, who tested Sherlock Holmes’s skills many times, and disappeared over Reichenbach Falls while locked in combat with the great detective. That was supposed to be the end of both of them, but readers wouldn’t let Arthur Conan Doyle get away with it.

Hannibal Lecter was a charismatic recurring villain until his creator decided to explain what made him the way he was. In the novel Hannibal, we were asked to believe that seeing enemy soliders make a meal of his little sister awakened Hannibal’s own appetite for human flesh. In fiction as in real life, there is such a thing as Too Much Information. I have no interest in ever reading about Hannibal again.

Chelsea Cain has created a female version of Hannibal in Heartsick and her upcoming book, Sweetheart. Her beautiful serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, is in prison, and Detective Archie Sheridan is the one victim who escaped before she got around to cutting out his heart, but he can’t shake off the psychological hold she has on him any more than Clarice Starling can rid herself of Hannibal Lecter.

On TV, Gil Grissom of CSI spent a couple of seasons pursuing a killer who created miniature replicas of her crime scenes before she actually committed the murders. An intriguing premise, but the killer, when she was tracked down, was sadly disappointing and unworthy of the long buildup.

The Joker in the Batman stories finally got an actor capable of playing him in all his twisted glory when Heath Ledger took on the part for The Dark Knight. Ledger’s performance is the only thing worth watching in that film. He made The Joker sick and menacing and genuinely scary, and his future portrayals of the character are among the many brilliant performances we will never see from this talented man who died too young.

One of my favorite recurring killers in crime fiction was the female contract assassin pursued by Lucas Davenport in a couple of John Sandford’s Prey novels. She wasn’t Lucas’s equal – who is, after all? – but she came close, and I was sorry to see her die.

Patricia Cornwell was quite a bit less successful in creating her own recurring villain. The French “werewolf” who bedeviled Kay Scarpetta (she insisted on calling him le loup garou) was alternately laughable and disgusting, but never believable. Without believability, a killer isn’t going to be frightening.

James Patterson did somewhat better with the determined killer who went after Alex Cross and his family more than once, but the overall quality of the stories wasn’t high enough to allow the character to shine.

There are a few more, but even the complete list of continuing villains in modern crime fiction is sadly skimpy. Why don’t more writers attempt to write recurring villains? Are they afraid to show their heroes and heroines as fallible beings who don’t always close the case? Or have they simply bowed to the marketing notion that every book must be self-contained?


Laura said...

Such a great, exhaustive list, Sandra!

I have to go with Tom Ripley. I know he's maybe arguable as a villain because Highsmith makes him so sympathetic, but he is delightfully ruthless.

On film, forget Matt Damon--John Malkovich was the perfect Ripley in Ripley's Game!

Anonymous said...

Oh I agree with you about Nicole Wallace. She was so creepy. I loved the way she called Goren 'Bobby' with that slick accent.

And the Joker - I've seen Dark Knight 2 times and plan to see it again before it leaves theatres, mostly on the strength of Heath Ledger. He was magnificent. I would love to create a bad guy as strong as that.

I never liked Lecter and stopped reading Patricia Cornwell's books a while ago. Same with CSI. I stopped watching it.

A good villain can make the weakest protag shine. Definitely worth spending time developing.

Sandra Parshall said...

Ripley and Dexter are both great characters -- killers we can't bring ourselves to hate. Few writers can pull that off.

Susan D said...

About the dearth of recurring villains...

I wonder if it's because the reader or viewer really wants a solid sense of closure when the protagonist restores order at the end of the book or movie. If there's the feeling that the villain will just keep coming back in the next story, then the hero's victory might just lose credibility after a while.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Oh fooey, I liked Nicole Wallace too. I liked how she kept Goren off balance. Sigh, must we so often lose our fave bad guys?

Clair Dickson said...

Am I nuts to think that a skillful writer could do a bit of both? Develop a villian over a couple books, culminating in a final showdown? Or is that bad because if the villian shows up, justice has to be done and they have to die/go to jail. I think it'd be fun to read something where the problem is wrapped up, for now. But tune in next time--!

Sandra Parshall said...

Remember the end of Silence of the Lambs, when Hannibal phones Clarice and tells her he's "having a friend for dinner"? Nobody can tell me that wasn't an effective ending. However, Clarice did catch the other bad guy, the serial killer they were after in the beginning. Hannibal became involved along the way. That can be entertaining and satisfying, I think -- let the hero/heroine solve a major part of the mystery, but leave one part unsolved and one villain in the wind. Readers know the bad guy is going to show up again and will come back to see if he gets caught next time.

Carole Shmurak said...

I think someone who did this well was Ed McBain with his character The Deaf Man. I was so happy to see The Deaf Man return in Hark! I miss McBain and The Deaf Man.