In crime fiction, we usually think of the protagonist as ‘the good guy’ – the one who catches ‘the bad guy.’ But people who break the law can also be really interesting protagonists and even sleuths. Having a criminal as a protagonist gives a really interesting perspective on a crime. It also allows for some solid depth of character.
One of G.K. Chesterton’s well-drawn characters is Hercule Flambeau, who is a master jewel thief and criminal. He’s usually able to outwit the police, but when he encounters Father Paul Brown in The Blue Cross, Flambeau finds he’s met his match. In that story, Father Brown is en route to a large gathering of priests. With him he’s brought a silver cross set with turquoise – a very attractive prize to a thief such as Flambeau. The story of how the two men interact and of how Father Brown deals with Flambeau is interesting and certainly from Flambeau’s perspective, unusual. We meet Flambeau in other stories too where he is at least the co-protagonist and although he has a criminal past, he’s painted quite sympathetically.
Agatha Christie takes an interesting look at the criminal-as-protagonist in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). Ten very different people receive invitations to stay as guests at a house on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts. On the night of their arrival, the guests are shocked when each is accused of being a criminal, specifically of causing the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. It’s soon clear that they are trapped on the island with a murderer. As more guests begin to die, the survivors have to find out who the killer is while at the same time staying alive themselves. As we learn the backstory of each person on the island, we also learn why their un-named host considers them criminals. But they’re not entirely unsympathetic people and we can feel for them as they try to decide who can be trusted and who not.
Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank is the story of a group of criminals led by professional thief Mike Daniels. The team decides to try for a very big prize: a theft from the City Savings Bank. Their bold plan is to use the sewer system to tunnel under the bank. For that though they’ll need the help of an architect. They find their man in the person of Stephen Booker, an unemployed architect who’s taken to driving a night cab to put food on the table. He’s desperate for money so against his better judgement he falls in with the thieves. The group makes elaborate preparations and as they do, Pollock shows the thieves in a sympathetic light. Here for instance is Daniels’ description of thieves:
‘Thieves. You might just as well say salesmen or clerks in an office. It’s their business. It’s what they do. There’s nothing strange about it, not to them anyway…They do what everybody does. They have girlfriends or wives and children and hobbies. They build shelves in the kitchen and clean their cars on Sundays.’
The day of the robbery arrives and at first everything goes well. Then a storm moves in, bringing a lot of rain with it. Now the thieves face a literal life-or-death struggle as they try to go for their prize.
In Tony Broadbent’s The Smoke, we meet Jethro, a professional cat burglar living in post-World War II London’s West End. He tries to convince the world that he’s ‘gone straight,’ so he takes a job in the theatre district. His real goal though is easy access to the wealthy homes in nearby Mayfair and Belgravia. At first, he’s able to go fairly un-noticed even though most people in the criminal world are convinced that he has no intention of living an ‘upright’ life. Then Jethro decides on a real coup: emeralds belonging to the wife of the Russian Ambassador. That break-in gets the interest of MI5 and Jethro soon finds himself facing off against them, the police and fellow criminals. While it’s quite clear that Jethro’s a criminal, it’s easy to feel sympathy for him.
In Jeffrey Stone’s historical novel Play Him Again we are introduced to Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson. Hud has dreams of becoming a film-maker in the growing world of Hollywood. But at the moment he’s a ‘rum-runner’ – a smuggler of then-illegal alcohol (the novel takes place in the 1920’s). Hud is devastated when his friend Danny is murdered, Hud wants to find out who killed him and get revenge. There are plenty of suspects too. For one thing, a very nasty criminal gang has moved into the area and wants to take over Hud and Danny’s operation. There are rival smuggling groups too whose members would be all too happy to have the field cleared as the saying goes. As Hud searches for answers, it’s clear that he and several of the people he deals with are criminals – thieves, con men and smugglers. But Stone presents a lot of them sympathetically and it’s not hard to wish Hud well as he tries to find out what happened to his friend.
Even when criminals aren’t ‘official’ protagonists, they can play important roles in novels and be depicted sympathetically. For example, Andrea Camilleri’s series featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano includes a very interesting ‘regular’ character Gegè Gullotta. He’s a drug dealer and local criminal leader who runs a notorious area of the town of Vigàta. This area, called The Pasture, is a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients and for small-time marijuana and other drug deals. Gullotta and Montalbano went to school together and they’ve maintained a cordial relationship since then, although both of them find it more expedient to keep their friendship discreet. Gullotta wants to run a trouble-free operation; as he sees it he’s a businessman, nothing more. In his way Montalbano helps Gullotta by not making public examples of the people involved in Gullotta’s ‘enterprises.’ Gullotta appreciates being able to run a peaceful trade and he does his part by not letting things in The Pasture get out of control or trouble people who don’t want to be involved in what goes on there. He’s also quite tuned in to the Vigàta criminal community so he hears a lot of what goes on. More than once Montalbano benefits from what Gullotta finds out.
It’s always interesting to see stories from different points of view. When criminals are portrayed as protagonists, it’s important for authors to acknowledge that they’re lawbreakers. But at the same time, a criminal with a sympathetic character can make for an effective perspective in a crime novel. Which ones have you enjoyed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd.