A 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.