Barry: There's a kind of subterranean
strain of story in crime fiction, where the murderer,
criminal, or villain actually becomes the focus of
the piece. Interestingly, this style may have come
out of the movies, where you had appealing character
actors playing the bad guys. I think of James Cagney
in White Heat, or Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo.
Even today, I know more people remember Hannibal Lecter
than any other characters in the Thomas Harris books.
I wonder if it comes out of the old adage of actors
saying villains are more interesting to play than heroes?
Maybe it's more interesting for writers to write bad
Paul: It would be challenging in different ways. While
I think that, in this genre, good people are made interesting
by their situations:"how do I get through this
without doing anything bad?", bad people are interesting
by their very existence. The problem a writer has is
to make them believable.
Barry: I think writers probably sense the freedom
of these individuals, the fact that they are capable
of anything. And as a reader I feel the same thing
and this makes the story more thrilling in its unpredictability.
The most compelling example that comes to mind is Jim
Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, where the book follows
the central character's inner monologue. The character
is a sheriff in the book, but he's also a homicidal
maniac. That's the earliest book I can think of that
did it well and probably started a trend.
Paul: Loved that book and
how long it took me to truly grasp the nature of the
sheriff since from his point of view he's just doing
a job that needs to be done. One of my favorite writers
who has deeply immoral and destructive protagonists
is James Ellroy where the cops are very dirty and often
worse than the criminals they pursue.
Barry: The effect is often stronger through setting
a realistic tone which lulls you to the aberrations
of the character. They present the characters as they
are, with no comment from the author and let the reader
make up their own mind as to their morality. Charles
Willeford takes this to the limit when he takes the
rough but good Hoke Mosely and after a number of books
has him become the type of man he was often after.
This was quite a contrast from the amiable but disheveled
version presented in the film Miami Blues.
Paul: You couldn't really say Ellroy is much of a
realist. His almost hallucinogenic prose mirrors the
unsettling amorality that pervades his books. I find
that I am almost flabbergasted by the wide swath of
destruction these lead villains leave in their wakes.
Murder is just another one of their tools and the utter
pragmatism of their actions is astonishing.
Barry: That comes across well in the Ellroy-based
film L.A. Confidential. You get to that point of comparing
degrees of bad rather than the usual bad versus good.
And I find that a nice change. Ultimately though, as
enthralling as these characters might be, I prefer
the more nuanced and thus difficult examination of
the good person surviving bad times.
Paul: I agree. A book with a lead bad seed takes you
on a holiday to that colorful unpredictable foreign
country but the struggle for good deepens your understanding