Bill Petrocelli

How Bad Can the Bad Guy Be?

Spinetingler Magazine is a one-stop cornucopia for mystery lovers with links, reviews, and even a few short pieces of mystery fiction. I decided that I talked enough about my favorite characters in The Circle of Thirteen and that I should turn my attention to the villains.

Many mystery fans will tell you that their favorite character in any crime novel is the bad guy. There’s often a good reason for that. It takes a lot of thought to become a good villain. By the time you’ve been primed to be the heavy in the story, at least half of the responsibility for moving the story forward rests on your shoulders.

Authors who interview evil-doers for starring roles in their fiction rarely hire those who arrive at their villainy by accident, apathy, thoughtlessness, or simple stupidity. The people who wander into a life of crime are usually not very interesting. They are the kinds of criminals you find in real life – and who needs them? A good mystery can sometimes accommodate a few of these types in supporting roles. But if you had to rely on them to sustain the crime-fiction genre, the mystery business would never have gotten beyond the police-blotter stage.

A real mystery bad guy is a person driven by an outrageous compulsion or someone sporting a moral callousness that will make you sit up and take notice. And there’s one other requirement on the hiring-sheet for a good villain that is even more basic: he (or, occasionally, she) must have the kind of superior intelligence that can sustain the story and send law enforcement officials off on wild goose chases. The cops may ultimately bring him to bay, but he has to be clever and resourceful enough to make it interesting. Real-life criminals make silly mistakes. You can’t make even a decent short story with a dumb crook.

The Circle of Thirteen offers an array of petty villains and one really nasty one. The small time crooks include Rick, the son-in-law of one of the main characters. His favorite pastimes are selling drugs to minors, intimidating teen-age girls, and beating up his wife. But try as he may, Rick could never summon up the inspired nastiness that would warrant an entire story. Even shallower than Rick is Myron Lott, who sets out on a terrorist mission to blow up a market, fails miserably, and then spends the rest of his time staring stupidly at the wall in his cell. Myron doesn’t have brain power to know that others are manipulating him, let alone to sustain a 324-page thriller. You might think Major General Curtis Redmon could answer the call to big-time villainy. After all, he managed to work his way up the military ranks to a high-level position. But his vices are too shallow – drunkenness and groping, with an occasional foray into rape and insubordination.

No, there is only one bad guy who can sustain this story, and that’s Jesse. Jesse gets our sympathy early on because of the childhood abuse he suffers. He even has his own perverted standards – he never rapes women, but that’s because he would rather beat them or murder them. But as Jesse ages he develops the type of mad, psychotic power that enables him to build a violent criminal enterprise.

Jesse’s only real virtue is that he has the ability to hold up his half of the story.