One of the best-known fictional villains is Shakespeare’s Iago. As you’ll know, Iago plans his boss and friend Othello’s downfall, even as he seems to be Othello’s ally. Iago secretly works in the background, pulling proverbial strings to manipulate situations and further his own agenda.
Iago may be one of the most famous such villains, but he’s hardly the only one. There are plenty of Iago-like characters in crime fiction. Sometimes, they turn out to be the killer in a whodunit type of crime novel. But even when they don’t, they can be treacherous. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting characters, though.
Agatha Christie mentions Iago in Murder in Mesopotamia. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner, who accompanied her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, to a dig a few hours from Baghdad. As is his custom, Poirot tries to get a sense of the victim’s personality, so that he can learn who might have wanted to kill her. One character describes Louise as ‘a kind of female Iago,’ who enjoyed causing drama and setting people against each other. That’s not really the reason she’s murdered. But it’s an important part of her personality.
In one thread of Philip Margolin’s Executive Privilege, former police detective-turned-PI Dana Cutler is hired to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh and find out where she goes, whom she sees, and what she does. Cutler’s not sure why Washington’s top power brokers would be interested in a ‘nobody’ like Walsh, but the fee is generous. At first, not much happens. But then one night, Walsh parks her car at a local mall, is picked up in another car, and travels to a remote house. Cutler follows, and is shocked to find that Walsh’s meeting is with US President Christopher Farrington. With such highly-placed people involved, Cutler decides to quit the job. But it’s not that easy. The next morning, Walsh is found dead in her car. And some very ruthless people discover that Cutler took surveillance ‘photos of Walsh’s meeting with the president. Now, she’s going to have protect herself as best she can. Throughout this novel, there’s a character who maliciously manipulates a number of situations from the background, and it’s interesting to see how that character’s machinations play out.
Peter James’ Dead Simple introduces Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace. He and DI Glenn Branson are faced with a missing person case when Ashley Harper contacts them. It seems that her fiancé, Michael Harrison, went missing after a ‘stag night’ prank. At first, Branson and Grace wonder whether it’s a case of a groom-to-be getting ‘cold feet’ about the upcoming wedding. But Ashley is beautiful, smart and accomplished. There’s no reason anyone can see that her fiancé wouldn’t want to marry her, and Harrison had seemed very much in love and looking forward to the wedding. The team wants to find out what happened during the ‘stag night,’ but all but one of the people who were with Harrison were killed in a terrible accident. That one, injured in the same accident, is in a coma. There’s a chance that Harrison’s best friend, and best man, Mark Warren, might know something. But he was out of town, and didn’t make it back until after Harrison went missing. The more the team looks into Harrison’s disappearance, the less it looks like a stupid stag prank gone badly wrong. What they don’t know is that there’s a character who’s been behind the scenes, manipulating things and setting people against each other. And that ‘Iago’ is a formidable opponent.
In Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders, Dr. Hilla Driver decides to host a sumptuous ‘foodie weekend’ party. The invited guests are, for the most part, members of Mumbai’s glitterati. But among them is also a friend and former police detective, Lalli. In part, the aim of the party is to show Hilla’s guests the beautiful home she’s recently inherited. In part it’s to celebrate the upcoming eighteenth birthday of her niece, Ramona. At the urging of her cook, Tarok Ghosh, Hilla wants to make this weekend absolutely perfect, and
‘‘…put this place on the culinary map.’’
To that end, Tarok has planned a special, seven-course meal, and everyone’s excited about it. Then, on the night of the big dinner, Tarok prepares special, custom-made appetizers for each guest. It’s soon clear from these dishes that each guest is hiding at least one secret, and that Tarok knows what those secrets are. There was already some friction among the guests, but this makes matters far, far worse. Late that night, Tarok is murdered. Lalli begins to investigate, and she finds that Tarok’s desire to stir up trouble turned out to be his undoing.
And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse. Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help investigate the murder of Angel Macritchie. That murder bears a lot of resemblance to one MacLeod’s already investigating, and it’s hoped that, if it is the same killer, joining forces with the Lewis police will help to catch the murderer. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, as he was raised on Lewis. But it’s not a happy prospect; he had his reasons for leaving. As MacLeod investigates, he also has to face his own past. And that turns out to have real consequences. He learns that someone has been manipulating events behind the scenes, much as Iago does.
Characters such as Iago may not be overtly malicious. And, in crime fiction, they may not even turn out to be murderers. But they’re almost always dangerous. And they can add suspense to a crime story. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by S.J. Tucker.