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All About the Bad Guy

Dec 17, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts, Television

western cowboy still lifeA couple of weeks ago, I started watching The Sopranos. I never watched it when it was on television, because at the time everyone else in the world was so over the moon about it. I hate things that other people tell you you should see. It’s the reason I never saw Avatar, and why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is known to me as The Book That Sits on My Shelf. I have no good reason to avoid The Sopranos, James Cameron’s masterpiece, or the tattooed Swede. For no good reason, I just lose interest when the bandwagon fills up. It’s sort of the way George Carlin felt about Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. He refused to get on board with either, because he was “tired of being told who to admire.”

The only flaw in being stubborn and judgmental is that occasionally you end up trailing the bandwagon and looking like an idiot. I walked into the staff room at my school last week and said, “Hey, you know, The Sopranos is pretty good.” I got a look that told me what I had said was about as groundbreaking as “Fire good.”

Indeed, The Sopranos is a good show. I should have tried it sooner, really, because the concept is right up my alley. The show is all about the bad guy.

The three books I have had published so far, and the other three that are still on my hard drive, have all been about a bad guy. It’s never intentional. For some reason, every time I put pen to paper, what comes out of me is never about anyone who is getting into heaven. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Crime fiction is all about the bad guy. But what is it about the bad guy that people love so much?

I have a distinct memory of the first time I ever saw Neil Young. I don’t mean the first time that I saw him in concert. I mean the first time I ever saw what he looked like. He was on MuchMusic — a Canadian version of MTV. He was already old when I was young, and I had no idea who it was I was looking at. At first sight, Neil was entirely forgettable. I remember looking at the disheveled old man and finding his large cowboy hat silly. But underneath the hat and below the wrinkles and stubble was a blue T-shirt. It was the shirt that caught my eye. The shirt had a picture of Geronimo on it and the words “My Heroes Have Always Killed Cowboys.” I remember the shirt because it struck a chord deep inside me. As a child playing cowboys and Indians, I had always picked the Indians. They weren’t everyone’s first choice; the Indians were the bad guys. My choosing to be an Indian wasn’t about wanting to be a bad guy — I didn’t feel bad when I pretended to pull back my invisible bowstring. I think I liked being an Indian because they were the underdogs. The kids playing cowboys always thought they were going to win; as though beating the Indians was some kind of right they were entitled to. It was always sweet taking that win away from them. As a kid, with a piece of cloth around my forehead, fighting the cowboys felt natural. It felt like what I was supposed to do. How could I be the bad guy if I was doing what I was supposed to do?

A few years after I saw Neil on the screen, I found a copy of The Hunter in a used-book store. I met Parker that evening when I touched the first page, and a few months later, I met Mike Hammer. After that, I bumped into Hawk, Earl Drake, Burke, Ghost, Mouse, Joe Kurtz, and a bunch of other men who walked alone on the wrong side of the tracks. Something about these characters has always appealed to me in the same way that playing an Indian did.

My bookshelf has a predominant theme — bad guys. It’s what I’m into, and I know one thing for sure — Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) had something to do with it. Stark’s Parker is the prototypical criminal hero, and if you haven’t read him, I seriously wonder what you’ve been doing with your time. Most, if not all, hard-boiled criminal characters have roots in Stark’s big-handed, cold-eyed Frankenstein. Parker is a part of every good fictitious criminal’s DNA.

The thing about classic hard-boiled criminals like Parker is that they don’t come off like bad guys. They don’t sit around wringing their hands while they ponder evil thoughts and malevolent schemes. Westlake described Parker not as a villainous thief but as “a workman at work.” Parker is someone who does his job; the job might be illegal, but that is what he does. The reason his illegal actions are so easily forgiven is because of the attitude he takes to the job. He, like most great antihero characters, is emotionless. The lack of emotion is important in separating characters like Parker from other literary bad guys. He has no compulsion to kill, rape, or abuse. Parker has no real feelings at all. He is only driven by the job. He works, therefore he is. As Stark said in The Seventh, “The only time he talked about the weather, for instance, was when it had something to do with the job he was on.”

Parker’s lack of emotion is a trait that has been passed on to the bastard literary children he has spawned over the years. The lack of emotion is what makes the great antihero characters such strong protagonists. Readers give men like Parker a pass and start rooting for the wrong things to happen. On the street, I would never cheer for a bank robber or a murderer, but late at night, in my IKEA Poang, I cheer for Parker. I think the pass that I, and other readers, give to bad guys like Parker is rendered so freely because the characters seem so natural doing what they do. Parker is as natural as a tiger in the jungle. No one faults a tiger for eating another animal or even a person. The tiger is just doing what comes naturally to the tiger. In the same sense, Parker is a wild animal loose with the rest of society. When Parker steals something that isn’t his, I give him the same leeway I give the tiger, because he is only doing what comes naturally. He would be no more capable of working a nine–to-five than a tiger would be capable of becoming a vegetarian.

Parker, like the tiger, will never change. I take comfort in that. Concrete jungles would never be very scary if there weren’t a predator out there somewhere, lurking in the shadows.

Mike Knowles studied writing at McMaster University before pursuing a career in education. He is the author of Darwin’s Nightmare, Grinder and In Plain Sight. Knowles currently teaches in Hamilton, Ontario, where he lives with his wife and dog.

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13 Responses »

  1. I just recently finished reading Robert Crais’ THE SENTRY. And when I finished I said I could envision a whole book about his villain, Daniel. He was fabulous! He wasn’t the good guy doing bad things, he was a true villain but he was so dimensional and fascinating that I would read an entire book centered around him.

    Crais also does the good guy doing bad things well. Max Holman is still one of my favorite characters and Joe Pike certainly doesn’t play by the rules – but they’re both “the good guys.” Daniel was a bad, bad man – but boy was he good reading!

    In movies, I’m especially fond of Ed Harris in the bad guy role. He was fabulous as Parcher in A BEAUTIFUL MIND and Carl Fogarty in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. He was also stunning as Remy Bressant in GONE BABY GONE. But, my favorite bad guy is still Jude Law as Harlen Maguire in ROAD TO PERDITION.

    Crime fiction is just filled with great villains!

  2. For films, even though he’s known more being James Bond and singing horribly in Mama Mia, Pierce Brosnan in Polanski’s the Ghost Writer is absolutely sinister, and downright wacky (but still just as evil, albeit insane) in the excellent, underrated the Matador. And can you get anymore frightening than Ben Kingsly as Don Logan in Sexy Beast.

    For books Quarry from Max Allen Collins Quarry novels is pretty damn fantastic (I guess we can consider him and anti-hero, but the way I look at it is a killer’s a killer) The Judge in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is evil personified, same goes for Lester Ballard in Child of God…oogie.

  3. Ah, I forgot, there was a new “bad guy” I read this year: Monty Haaviko. He debuted in the U.S. but has been out in Canada for three books now, I think. He’s trying to go straight after a time in jail, but he’s just not having much luck. Fresh and funny. Really enjoyed it.

  4. You can’t top Parker, that’s for sure, but aside from him I’d say Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, book and movie. There’s a bad guy who seemed to have reached some bizarre state of villain zen. Other humans seemed downright irrelevant to him.

  5. I recently discovered bad guy Oscar Martello in a short story written by Steve Weddle for a collection of short stories by the crew at Do Some Damage. The story is called Walkaways…*sigh* All I can say is there was something about the way Oscar used his ceramic hunting knife to kill a guy that left chills down my spine. Not the creepy chills either. I suddenly found myself wishing I was part of the story! Can’t wait til’ Oscar has his own novel. I’ll be the good girl turned bad, and I won’t care if I ever see the good again! Seriously, I think I’m in love. I’m not quite sure what to make of it myself…

  6. A good guy can only be as good as the bad guy is bad… have to have that foil. Of course, a strongly written antihero gives you the best of both in one. :-)

  7. For sheer, out-of-left-field perversity, I have always had a soft spot for the Kevin Spacey/Joan Severance (Mel/Susan Profitt) duo from the old WISEGUY TV series.(they were in, like, 9 episodes in 1989?)…..such evil hath not walked in a while….anybody else remember that show?

    And I haven’t read any RICHARD STARK in way too long.


  8. Stories from the bad guy’s POV is not new. I remain a fan of Maurice Leblanc’s Lupin. But what interests me most is the line where we stop rooting for them. Parker in “Hunter” never really hurt anyone innocent.

    Scott Phillips wrote the wonderful novel, “Ice Harvest”. I liked Charlie and was enjoying the book until Charlie’s reaction to his daughter Melissa. So cold and heartless, I could not forgive him for that. I could have forgiven him for nearly any crime, but not what he did to Melissa. I stopped reading and will probably never finish it.

    Where is your line? When does the bad guy go too far to be forgiven?

    Should Mr. Phillips reads this, I have “Rut” in my to be read pile.

  9. Michael, I think you did yourself a big disservice by not finishing THE ICE HARVEST. I think it stands head and shoulders above all the other books I see listed on this page. I understand what you are saying about his daughter – and that took me aback as well – but it is a heartbreaking moment in the book that actually proves the braveness of the writing. So many writers want to have it both ways. Their characters are oh so hard, but they have that soft spot that redeems them and lets the reader off the hook at the same time. It would have been easy for the author to do this at that moment in the book. Most weaker authors would have. But this is what separates the art from the chaff. Charlie is the ultimate realist. He loves his daughter, but understands the fate that awaits her and realizes there is nothing he can do about it. At first I wanted to kick Scott in the balls after I read that segment of the book, but then I realized that it was one of the things that elevates him from the rest of us. He can write the hard thing and let it be. And it is not due to a lack of compassion. It is due to an unflinching eye for what human beings are actually capable of. His writing is far more brave than so much of what passes for “hardboiled” these days.

    It’s difficult not to reconsider a lot of today’s tough guy writers as gutless swine after reading a Scott Phillips book. He’s just that good. (And his books manage to also be hilarious comedies at the same time as they are peeling back the thin veneer of civilization that covers society. A pretty good trick.)

  10. Terrill, thanks. I will certainly consider returning to it. What I have done is buy his next book “Rut”. You don’t let go of a good writer just because he hit one of your buttons.

    I learned something about myself from my reaction to “Ice Harvest”. I have no problem reading crimes of violence and/or sex, no problems with soulless characters such as Parker, but a crime of the soul against an innocent child is something I can’t handle. And those crimes are far more common in the real world than the Parkers. That lesson made “Ice Harvest” a success for me as a person more than many of the other books I have read and finished.

  11. THE WALKAWAY is also excellent. And COTTONWOOD is a stone cold classic.


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