Friday, January 22, 2010

Arch-Villains, Nemeses, and "Thorns in the Side"

Many people enjoy crime fiction in part because they want to find out who the murderer is. Very often, too, well-written crime fiction gives readers the catharsis of knowing that a “bad guy” is going to “get his.” But the person who turns out to be the murderer isn’t always the only antagonist in a murder mystery. Some antagonists are arch-villains who don’t get caught for a given murder or set of murders, but we know they’re up to no good, and so does the sleuth. They appear in more than one story, and they always bring trouble. Other kinds of antagonists don’t necessarily murder, but they seem to block every effort the sleuth makes to solve the crime. Those antagonists serve as the proverbial “thorn in the side” of the sleuth, even though they may not have been responsible for a murder.

One of the original arch-villains/nemeses is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, the bane of Sherlock Holmes’ existence. Moriarty is Holmes’ intellectual equal, which makes him no mean adversary. He and his criminal gang are responsible for many thefts and more than one murder, and it’s Holmes’ goal to rid London of Moriarty and his henchmen. In The Adventure of the Final Problem, Holmes has finally collected all of the evidence he needs to put Moriarty and his gang behind bars, but Moriarty has found out that the game is almost up. So he and his gang target Holmes. Holmes and Watson escape to Germany, where Holmes has a final confrontation with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Even after that confrontation, which Moriarty loses, he’s still a factor in Holmes’ cases. In The Adventure of the Empty House, for instance, we find out that some of Moriarty’s chief men have found out that Holmes didn’t die and that he’s back in London. Holmes becomes a target again, and it’s only after careful deduction and a brilliant ruse that he’s able to feel safe in London again.

Another interesting antagonist is Ian Rankin’s Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, nemesis of Inspector John Rebus. Cafferty is a Scottish crime boss whose gang is involved in a great deal of Edinburgh’s criminal activity, including drugs, smuggling, extortion and prostitution. As a rule, Cafferty and Rebus neither like nor trust each other and it seems to Rebus that Cafferty’s name is connected somehow to most of the crimes he investigates. Despite this, the two men sometimes depend on each other. For instance, in Mortal Causes, Cafferty’s son is brutally murdered, and Cafferty and Rebus form a very uneasy alliance to find out who’s responsible. At one point, Cafferty’s arrested, but he soon gets the warden under his influence, so jail doesn’t present a serious barrier for long. In the novels that take place after his release, Cafferty steps further away from the day-to-day operations of his gang, so it’s even harder to connect him with crime. What’s especially interesting about Cafferty and Rebus’ relationship is that they come to have a grudging respect for each other. Although they’re enemies in many senses of that word, they also need one another, and although neither wants to admit it, both are aware of it.

Robin Cook has also created several villainous characters who threaten his sleuths more than once. For example, in both Shock and Seizure, we meet Drs. Spencer Wingate and Paul Saunders, who run the Wingate Clinic. In Shock, the clinics’ directors are responsible for the disappearance of two Harvard graduate students who think they’re getting involved in a simple program of egg-donation in exchange for money. What they find is an illegal and unethical set of practices that include ovary removal without the patient’s consent and impregnating of several of the clinic’s workers. When Wingate and Saunders realize they’re about to be exposed, they flee from Boston to the Bahamas, where we meet them in Seizure. In that novel, their clinic is to play host to a controversial stem-cell procedure that hasn’t gotten approval to be performed in the United States. Drs. Daniel Lowell and Stephanie D’Agostiono go to the clinic to perform the procedure, and soon find out about the clinic’s dubious history. Before they know it, Lowell and D’Agostino targeted by the clinic’s chief guard, a thug who’d like nothing more than to remove both of them.

Cook also created Angelo Facciolo and Tony Ruggiero, whom we first meet in Blindsight. They’re hit-men originally hired by mobster Paul Cerrino. When medical examiner Laurie Montgomery gets too close to the truth about one of Cerrino’s operations involving cocaine deaths and a group of violent murders, he sends his hit-men after her. Angelo and Tony re-appear in several of Cook’s other novels that feature Montgomery, including Chromosome 6 and Critical. They’re arguably not the strongest and best-developed villains Cook’s created, but they’re solid examples of nemeses that can dog the sleuth.

Sometimes, an antagonist isn’t necessarily a murderer or even a villain, but still becomes a “thorn in the side” of the sleuth. That’s the role that Dr. Harold Bingham plays in Robin Cook’s novels that feature Drs. Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton. Bingham’s the head of the New York Medical Examiner’s office and, as such, he supervises Montgomery and Stapleton. Bingham’s quite politically astute, and frequently hampers Montgomery’s and Stapleton’s efforts to find out the truth about the cases they’re investigating. On the other hand, both Montgomery and Stapleton have the reputation of being “loose cannons” who don’t respect protocol. Although Bingham’s a constant source of irritation, both doctors respect his role and they realize that they need his support. In some of Cook’s novels, we see an interesting dynamic between these characters for that reason.

Also very politically astute is Vice-Questore Patta, the social-climbing superior of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. In many ways, he’s the bane of Brunetti’s existence. Patta is far more concerned about his own reputation and that of the local police and government than he is about catching criminals, especially if those criminals happen to be rich and powerful. For example, in Fatal Remedies, Bruentti’s wife, Paola, is arrested for throwing rocks through the window of a local travel agency. Paola’s taken this measure to call everyone’s attention to the fact that that travel agency sponsors sex tours of Thailand. Instead of looking into Paola Brunetti’s accusations, Patta punishes the family by placing Brunetti on administrative leave. Patta impedes Brunetti’s investigation om several other novels, too, and in him, we see the politics of police work personified. For that reason, Brunetti doesn’t always tell his boss what he’s investigating, which doesn’t do much for their relationship.

Even in Agatha Christie’s novels, which don’t usually feature arch-villains, we see some characters who are “thorns in the side” of the sleuth. For example, in The Murder on the Links, Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France, writes to Poirot, claiming that his life is in danger and pleading for Poirot’s help. Poirot and Hastings go to Merlinville, where Renauld, his wife and his son have a villa. By the time they arrive, though, it’s too late; Renauld has been murdered – stabbed in the back. Immediately Poirot is invited to help investigate, but he’s hampered at every turn by Inspector Giraud of the Sûreté. Giraud has nothing but contempt for Poirot’s habit of thinking a case through; instead, Giraud spends his time looking for physical clues – all of which lead him to the wrong suspect. For his part, Poirot has plenty of contempt for Giraud, too and calls him “The Human Foxhound.” He and Poirot get off to a bad start and, in fact, their relationship becomes so acrimonious that Poirot bets Giraud 500 francs that he can find Renauld’s killer before Giraud does. When Poirot wins, he uses the money to buy a model of a foxhound for his fireplace; he calls his model, “Giraud.” Although Monsieur Giraud doesn’t appear to play a role in other Christie novels, his name does come up again in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, Poirot investigates the poisoning death of Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender. Part of the investigation takes place in Paris, so Poirot meets another inspector from the Sûreté, Monsieur Fournier, who’s heard of Poirot from Giraud. Given their animosity, we can only imagine what each has said about the other.

Even when an arch-villain, nemesis or “thorn in the side” isn’t the main villain in a story, that character can add suspense, depth and interesting sub-plots. Who are your favorite arch-villains, nemeses and “thorns in the side?”


  1. Arch-villains can make the most interesting characters when properly developed. That said I can't think of a single one right now because I'm drawing a total blank. I just hate it when that happens.

  2. Cassandra - No worries; that happens to me, too! I agree with you that sometimes, the arch-villain can be a fascinating character. If s/he's developed as a whole person and not as a "stock" character, an arch villain really can keep the reader's interest.

  3. Most thorns in the side that I've run into these day - speaking of crime fiction only ;-)- are the bureaucratic big cheeses who want to hamper the investigation because of their own ambitions or, sometimes, because of political pressures. No-one, of course, beats the arch-villains in Ian Fleming's James Bond. That's more spy-thriller than mystery, though.

  4. Bobbi - You've got a well-taken point about hampering investigations for personal (i.e. political or self-aggrandizing) reasons. Those make very effective "thorns in the side," don't they?

    It's funny you would mention Ian Fleming. There certainly are lots of arch-villains to choose from in those novels, aren't there? Some people don't think of Ian Fleming's work as crime fiction, but I'm not sure. It's certainly fiction, and there's certainly lots of crime. If spy thrillers such as Robert Ludlum's work count as crime fiction, so do Fleming's novels.

  5. I always think of comic books. :) Lex Luthor for Superman. Or movies...Darth Vadar. I haven't seen so many examples in books lately, but I loved the Moriarty/Holmes exchange!

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  6. Elizabeth - You are so right! Comic books are replete with nemeses and arch-villains, aren't they? I think that's part of their appeal. I agree with you, too, about the Holmes/Moriarty dynamic; each is fascinating, and such an even match is compelling.

  7. Margot, by strange coincidence, as we were driving this morning I heard on CBC Radio, on a most-excellent program about the evolution of advertising called the "Age of Persuasion" a whole show devoted to the importance of hero vs villain in developing a strong brand. I only heard half of the show but the narrator mentioned many of the names above. I see, because of a legal impediment, they don't have podcasts of the show but they do have live streaming, time varying in the time zones. Next broadcast of this same program is Jan. 25. Fascinating and so very applicable to mystery fiction.

  8. Bobbi - Oh, thank you, Bobbi!!! Folks, it sounds as though this is definitely worth a listen : ). I'm definitely going to "tune in."

  9. Not exactly an arch-villian but my favourite thorn-in-the-side character is the Reginald Hill creation, Franny Roote. He really manages to get under Pascoe's skin every time.

  10. Actually "Nemesis" by Jo Nesbo, as in the title of your post, is a good example of this. It is the strangest combination of thorn in side, murder case, dissembling clues to the detective and general misdirection that I've come across for a while - but not very realistic when you finally put it together at the end! Still, a nemesis with a difference.

    I think you sometimes get this kind of thing in partnerships, too, when partners rub each other up the wrong way. This happened in the earlier Ruth Rendell Wexford books, when Burden was quite a thorn in the side of Wexford. Later on they ironed out their differences and learned to live with them (maybe this was something to do with the TV series?).

  11. Maxine - You know, I hadn't even thought of Nesbø's Nemesis when I titled this post. Odd, isn't it, how it was appropriate on that level too. I wish I could take credit for cleverness ;).

    I'm glad you mentioned the Burden/Wexford parntership, too. You're right that it's an example, at least at first, of the "thorn in the side" syndrome. So is the first partnering of Martha Grimes' Lynley and Havers. I'm not sure which is more interesting: to have a partnership ironed out over time, or to have a "necessary" partnership that remains uneasy and sometimes unpleasant. Either can keep the reader comoing back for more if it's done right.

  12. I think a bit of dramatic tension between partners helps a lot to make the reader come back for more. Dennis Lehane's pair are like this - one is called Angie and I forget the name of the other one, but they have an on-off relationship. I actually only came to this author quite late in the series so I missed out on a lot of the characters' back story, then after a couple of series novels the author switched to standalones and non-genre.

    The early Jonathan Kellermans were good, too, with the dynamics between Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis. (Pre-degeneration into formula).