And All the Sinners Saints*

Interesting CriminalsIn 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.


Filed under Angela Savage, Daphne du Maurier, L.R. Wright, Leif Davidsen, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock

24 responses to “And All the Sinners Saints*

  1. My absolute favourite comes in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit. I can’t say more than that, but I re-read it every couple of years, and think there is one of her greatest, and funniest, creations…. & a late reference to someone being sent a christening mug makes me laugh uproariously every time.

    • Oh, yes, absolutely, Moira! That is a classic example. I didn’t mention it because it’s so hard to do so without spoilers, but I’m glad you did. And yes, that line late in the story is hilarious! Thanks for reminding me.

  2. Howard

    Lawrence Block’s Keller. Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder.

  3. The awful Mr Heming from Phil Hogan’s ‘A Pleasure and a Calling’. I wouldn’t say he was sympathetic, exactly, but he’s interesting and it’s fun being inside his head for a while. And Noa from Elizabeth L Silver’s ‘The Execution of Noa P Singleton’ never makes any secret of the fact that she’s guilty of the murder for which she’s been convicted, but as we find out the reasons for it, she’s definitely interesting and the reader isn’t quite sure whether she’s sympathetic or not till the end…

    • Oh, I love those examples, FictionFan. I think A Pleasure And a Calling really does a great job of showing the reader what Hemming is like without making him so horrible that you can’t read about him. He is, as you say, interesting. I confess I’ve not read the Silvers, ‘thought I’ve heard of it. I think those stories where you’re not sure whether to be sympathetic or not can be intriguing…

  4. Some great examples, Margot. I have only read The Suspect by L.R. Wright, but I want to read the others, and just recently purchased The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter.

    • Oh, I hope you’ll like the Glasgow trilogy, Tracy. It’s unusual in some ways, but (in my opinion) is well-written, and certainly worth the read. It does have some interesting characters too.

  5. Col

    Margot – thanks for the mention. I thought of Block’s characters as well – also Bernie the Burglar to add to those mentioned above. The Suspect crops up again in conversation! Plus I bought Loophole on your recommendation. I’d forgotten about Mackay’s Hitman – I need to get back to the third in the series! Great post – cheers!

    • It’s a pleasure to mention you and your great blog, Col. And I appreciate the inspiration. You know, I thought of mentioning, Bernie the Burglar when I was putting this post together, but in the end, I didn’t. So I’m very glad you did, as he’s a good example of what I had in mind with this post. And I hope you like the third in Mackay’s trilogy.

  6. I do like the sound of the Angela Savage short story – I find this device works best for me when the reader has been unaware of the perpetrator of the crime – it is very hard to be truly sympathetic with the knowledge in the background. Having said that I was willing Ripley on to escape justice despite the first-hand knowledge of the absolute awfulness of his actions!

    • Oh, I think that’s part of HIghsmith’s genius, Cleo. She could make you care about Ripley and even cheer for him, despite what you know about him. To me, that takes skill! And I do recommend The Teardrop Tattoos. For the matter of that, I recommend Angela Savage’s work in general; she’s highly talented.

  7. Margot: I wondered if The Suspect would feature in the post. It was my first thought.

    Recently I read Killing Pilgrim by Alen Mattich. In that book the Yugoslavian killer of Olof Palme is a prominent character. What made his character is that Mattich gave him a family. I find it rare that the “bad” guy will have a family.

    • It’s funny, Bill. When I was preparing this post, The Suspect was one of the first examples that came to my mind. I think Wright developed a really interesting character in George Wilcox. And thanks for mentioning Killing Pilgrim; I remember your fine review of it. That’s another well-drawn example of a criminal who is depicted in sympathetic ways.

  8. Margot: Ripley is the first one that springs to my mind.

    • I really should have mentioned Ripley, José Ignacio, as he is such a fine example of a criminal protagonist. I’m very glad you filled in that gap. I think he is a fascinating character.

  9. Ripley and the Phil Hogan book also sprang to my mind, but also TJ Cooke’s ‘Defending Elton’, about a solicitor who tries to cover his own crime by making his client look guilty. Utterly despicable behaviour, and yet you cannot help but feel for him. It takes a lot of authorly skill and belief in your character to be able to do that.

    • It does, indeed, Marina Sofia. I’m glad you mentioned Defending Elton, too. Cooke created a really interesting character in Jim Harwood, I think; as you say, he does some horrible things. But you can’t help having some sympathy for him.

  10. Hannibal Lecter is the first character who comes to mind. In Silence of the Lambs he wasn’t the antagonist, that would be Buffalo Bill, but he certainly was vicious enough for the starring role, as he did with the other books in the series. He was brilliant, manipulative, frightening, and yet likable. Then Dexter, of course, was the protagonist. A serial killer who lives by a code, killing only those who “deserve” it. Because of that character many crime novels emerged using criminals who break the law, whether burglary or murder, to right wrongs–the “Dexter effect.” I’ve used this technique myself, with a thief and a killer, and they are so much fun to write. Actually, I’m updating (code for tearing apart) a book now that uses this type of protagonist. You’ve touched on one of my favorite subjects. 🙂

    • Oh, I think it’s great that you’re exploring this sort of protagonist, Sue. There are some really interesting possibilities, and such characters can allow for all sorts of depths and so on. Making a criminal the protagonist is an innovative departure. And I’m glad you mentioned both Hannibal Lecter and Dexter. They aren’t much alike in a lot of ways; but they both are well-developed characters. They are much more than mindless killers with no personality.

  11. Excellent post Margot- you have me thinking..

  12. Hi Margot A great post on one of my favorite aspects of mysteries – the compelling, even likable villain. I can’t think of any examples in the novels of my favorite mystery author Raymond Chandler of an antagonist who’s almost a protagonist, but this may be because Marlowe is such a dominant force and that Chandler put so much into the character.
    However – I am reminded of the case of the sympathetic assassin in Ian Rankin’s Bleeding Hearts, in which the killer, really the protagonist, is more appealing than the private eye who tails him.
    There’s also the examples in Hitchcock’s movies where the villains are often more handsome and charming, in a word, more appealing than the ostensible good guys.

    • I think that’s interesting about Hitchcock’s work too, Bryan. I think he had a great balance actually between making it clear that the villain is actually a villain, but at the same time giving the villain a certain appeal. That’s not easy at all to do. And thanks for mentioning Bleeding Hearts too. I think it’s another good example of what I had in mind with this post.
      You make an interesting point about Chandler, too. Marlowe is certainly a dominant sort of character, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t see as many appealing villainous major characters in those stories.

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