In an interesting post at Col’s Criminal Library, Col makes the point that criminals can be interesting, even engaging, protagonists – at least as interesting as ‘good guys.’ I think he has a well-taken point. There are plenty of cases where a criminal is the protagonist, or at least a strong main character, and is appealing, even sympathetic. It takes a lot of careful work on the part of the author. Most of us aren’t primed to like people who commit crimes. But when it’s done well, having a criminal as the protagonist or a main character can add an interesting innovation to a story.
For example, in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, we meet twenty-three-year-old Mary Yellan, who’s grown up contented in Helford. When her mother dies, she fulfils a promise she made and travels to Cornwall, where her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss keep Jamaica Inn. Even during the trip, Mary’s been warned about the inn, and told she’d be better off not going. But, determined to keep her promise, Mary perseveres. From the moment she arrives, though, she learns that all of the gossip about the place seems to be true. Uncle Joss is boorish, dangerous and abusive. Aunt Patience is mentally fragile and frightened into docility. Mostly out of compassion for her aunt, Mary remains and tries to make herself useful. But it’s not long before some frightening things begin to happen. One of the main characters in this story is Joss’ brother Jeremiah ‘Jem.’ Jem is a self-admitted horse thief and opportunist who leads a far from blameless life. He’s gotten into his share of trouble. But he is portrayed as an interesting, even sympathetic character. He doesn’t make light of the things he’s done; at the same time though, there are positive aspects to his personality and choices, so that he becomes a more rounded sort of character.
Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank is the story of professional thief Mike Daniels and his team mates. They’ve decided to pull off a major heist – one that will set them up for life. Their target is the City Savings Deposit Bank. The problem is that the bank is of course equipped with the latest in surveillance and security. So in order to so the job, they’ll need to work with an architect. Daniels finds such a person in Stephen Booker, who’s recently been let go, and has taken a job as a night cab driver. One night, Daniels happens to be in Booker’s cab, and the two get to talking. As time goes by, they talk more and more; finally, Daniels lets Booker in on the scheme. At first, Booker is reluctant; he has stereotyped views of criminal, and certainly doesn’t want to be one. But Daniels slowly persuades him otherwise. The team now makes its final plans, and the heist proceeds. But then a sudden storm changes everything. In this novel, Daniels and the other thieves are portrayed as friendly, sympathetic characters, whose profession just happens to be illegal.
Stealing is one thing; killing is another. And yet, there are books and series where murderers are portrayed as interesting characters. For example, in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, we are introduced to eighty-year-old George Wilcox. From the beginning of the novel, we know that he has murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. When the killing is reported to the police, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg begins the investigation. It isn’t very long before Alberg begins to suspect that, at the very least, Wilcox knows more than he is saying. And soon, he is sure that Wilcox is guilty. But he can’t get the evidence he needs to link Wilcox to the crime. What’s more, he can’t find any sort of motive. As he gets to know Wilcox better, he learns more about the man, and we find that Wilcox is hardly the stereotypical hardened and unsympathetic criminal. He is a peaceful, garden-loving, (generally) law-abiding man. There’s a lot to like about his character. And yet, he has committed murder, and he knows he’ll need to outsmart Alberg if he’s going to get away with it. So he also shows himself to be a quick thinker and a shrewd one. He’s an interesting character.
So is Vuk, a Bosnian Serb who was raised in Denmark, and whom we meet in Leif Davidsen’s The Serbian Dane. In the novel, he is hired to kill Sara Santanda, an Iranian author who’s been sentenced to die by the Ayatollahs of Iran. He’s up against Per Toflund, who is a security expert with the Danish national police. Toflund and his team have been charged with protecting Santanda during her trip to Denmark, where she is scheduled to give a newspaper interview. As the novel goes on, we learn a good deal about Vuk, his experiences growing up and later, his experiences during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Vuk isn’t portrayed as a unidimensional ‘killing machine.’ Rather, he is given a solid backstory and some layers to his personality.
We also see that with several of the characters in Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy. In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Sudden Arrival of Violence, readers learn about the lives of Glasgow’s crime leaders. We also learn about the paid assassins they hire to take care of their ‘problems.’ These are not mindless brutes, although there is certainly plenty of violence inherent in what they do. They’re people of business, who map out their plans in ways that are similar to those who own legal businesses. And the people they hire to do their killing are just as professional – well, the skilled ones are. This trilogy offers a really interesting look at the lives of those involved in Glasgow’s underworld. On the one hand, they aren’t at all light ‘caper’ novels. On the other, they show these people as interesting, rounded characters.
And then there’s Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos. This story’s focus is a woman who’s recently been released from prison, where she served time for murder. She’s given housing and settles in with her companion, a Pit Bull named Sully. For a time, she and Sully do all right. But then, a woman whose child attends the nearby child care facility complains about Sully. Then the local council gets involved and forces Sully’s human companion to give him up, as he’s a restricted breed. As she plots her revenge, we get to know her and her story. And we see that there is much more to this protagonist than just the fact that she killed someone.
It can be a challenge to create a criminal, especially a murderer, who is interesting and sympathetic. But when it’s done well, such characters can add leaven to a story. Which ones stay in your mind?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.