The Best Of Villains; The Worst Of Villains By Marnie Riches
There really is nothing better in fiction than a good baddy. Me and good baddies go back a long way. At the tender age of five or six, I fell in love with Darth Vader. And I mean, in love. I had the blanket; the bedding; the curtains. Hans Solo was okay, but Vader was the star attraction. The black-clad, helmeted ‘Star Wars’ anti-hero sported that perfect mix of effortless cool and evil, with an unexpected vulnerability and sliver of remaining conscience lurking beneath the hardened exterior of a sociopath.
Out of all the crime fiction I’ve read over the years, the villains who really captured my heart and imagination have been cut from similar cloth. The most charismatic who springs to mind is Hannibal Lecter from Thomas Harris’ ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. He’s suave, sophisticated, super-intelligent, witty…but he kills and eats his victims with the (now-proverbial) fava beans and a nice chianti. Years later, I read ‘Hannibal Rising’, which gives Lecter’s tragic backstory. It was revealing yet unsurprising. The prodigious young Hannibal’s boyhood is haunted by a tragedy of the worst kind. And it is his backstory that endears him to me even more, because as a reader, I can empathise with him and go some way to understanding why he does the terrible things he does. He even has his own twisted moral code, punishing his victims for some perceived wrong-doing; loyally supporting Clarice Starling whom he lovingly deems to be unimpeachable.
So the best baddies, like Vader and Lecter, have tragedy in their pasts that sets them a-stalking down the wrong road in life. It was essential, in devising my own baddies in Born Bad, that I also should give a great deal of thought to my characters’ backstories and reasoning.
Paddy O’Brien, king of the south-side of Manchester, endured a childhood that had been overshadowed by his father – a violent drunk – who showed a clear preference for his sister, Katrina – now a nun who heads up a convent and nursing home. The favouritism and beatings have left Paddy feeling helpless and have dented his self-esteem forever. Conky McFadden, Paddy’s right hand man, is paid muscle who completed an Open University degree in literature, whilst in prison. His is a shady past, sullied by the troubles in Northern Ireland and boyhood peer-pressure to take part in politically-motivated, violent scuffles. But he’s erudite, loyal and a hopeless romantic with appalling self-esteem. He’s perhaps a good man who fell into a bad line of work, fighting for a bad man who was never given a chance to be good.
In the north, we have the Boddlington gang. What would my good baddies be like there? Well, the men that head up a people trafficking, drug-dealing, brothel-keeping and counterfeiting operation are Tariq Khan and Jonny Margulies. Rather than the two childhood friends being purely psychopathic, they are savvy entrepreneurs who block out the moral wrong of their business endeavours, wherever possible. Tariq, an Oxford-educated law graduate, is desperate to avoid the life of poverty that his father, Youssuf endured when he came over from Pakistan, swapping an architect’s life for that of a machinist in a clothing factory, working round the clock in sweatshops. Similarly, Jonny Margulies kids himself that he is a pillar of the Jewish community, giving generously to charity whilst he earns a magnificent crust from selling pregnant Eastern European brides to immigrants, threatened with deportation, in order to guarantee their right to remain in the UK. These are men who fear poverty and who have become trapped by their own material ambition. Nothing pays like crime, after all.
Perhaps the most interesting true psychopath in ‘Born Bad’ is Asaf Smolensky, aka the Fish Man. Hiding in plain sight as a Hassidic fishmonger in north Manchester, he is an ex-Mossad soldier, discharged from active duty under a cloud and suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. He too, has a painful story of loss, though his military trials have left him pursuing a career as a hired hit man who guts his victims and leaves them dressed with cucumber pieces like a side of salmon. Is he a good baddy? I think so. He’s a well-trained machine but utterly idiosyncratic with it.
But, looking back at the books I’ve enjoyed, I think about Lionel Shriver’s Kevin in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. He exemplifies the notion of a child who has been born bad – a product of nature, rather than nurture. I loved the vulnerability that lurked beneath his obstinate, malevolent exterior. Does anyone from ‘Born Bad’ compare with Kevin? I’d say Paddy is the closest to him in terms of having been bad from childhood. With such harsh beginnings, it’s easy to see why, among the three O’Brien siblings – Paddy, Frank and Katrina – the eldest, picked-upon boy might turn out to be a bully and a thug himself, always trying to control his weaker, softer younger brother Frank and compete with his positively godly older sister, Katrina. Paddy isn’t articulate enough to speak his frustrations aloud, so he uses his fists, his gun and his penis to punish those around him.
In my George McKenzie books, I have a number of serial killers and multiple murderers. You can’t beat a good serial killer in a book. ‘The Snowman’ by Jo Nesbo is a case in point, as is his Leopard. More recently, I read Graeme Cameron’s ‘Normal’ and adored his killer, who managed to be a grim psycho and highly entertaining all at the same time. But ‘Born Bad’ is different. It’s about good people who have resorted to doing bad things for a living. It’s about the morally grey areas that we all inhabit sometimes, even if our transgressions are merely uncharitable thoughts, not acted out. That requires a different kind of a villain. Why don’t you read ‘Born Bad’ and let me know who your favourite good baddies are?
You can buy Born Bad from Amazon and is available to buy from good bookshops.