Ten of the Best Good Bad Guys…
Sometimes we love crime fiction because it shows us the good in people, the efforts made to bring justice for victims and their loved ones. Sometimes we love crime fiction for much darker reasons. It can show us the side of people we never normally see, those of us who go through life without engaging in the worst possible behaviour. It’s not unreasonable to be intrigued by characters who live in the gutter, and some antiheroes can be among the most readable protagonists we have.
Parker – Point Blank by Richard Stark
While The Score and The Jugger may have been his best outings, Point Blank was where we first got a taste of the grim, cold-hearted thug we couldn’t take our eyes off. This is a protagonist with no interest in making the reader love him, but living a life fascinating enough that likability hardly matters as he tracks the man who robbed him, left him for dead, and stole his wife.
He didn’t want Mal to know he was alive. He didn’t want Mal spooked and on the run. He wanted him easy and content, a fat cat. He wanted him just sitting there, grinning, waiting for Parker’s hands.
There’s never any attempt to trick the reader with Parker, to persuade you this is a man in any way like you. From the very first sentence, he’s established as a bad guy.
When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.
A protagonist who would most probably hate his readers but serves as the classic example of a life imagined but never lived by most of us. When you get to look into the dark corners and see how the rats survive and thrive, it doesn’t matter much how charming they are to you along the way.
Jack Foley – Out of Sight by Elmore Leonard
The gentleman thief, a lovable rogue with the force of personality to pull us along for the ride, is a classic good bad guy. Of course, he does things he really shouldn’t, but he does them in ways that make us smile.
Foley held in his hand a credit application brochure that said on the cover in bold letters:
LOOKING FOR MONEY?
YOU’VE COME TO THE RIGHT PLACE
…Foley folded the brochure and put it in his pocket. Now he continued to study the bank layout…
In the hands of Leonard, we know the characters will excel in dialogue and be imbued with the sort of personality that will make rooting for a career criminal seem altogether normal.
Frank Machianno – The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow
The retiree Frankie Machine the hitman becoming Frank Machianno the bait shack owner, trying to get away from the person he was and the things he did. It’s easier to get behind someone who’s moved on to a better life, one more like our own.
Tonight he drives home and there’s a car in the alley.
A car he doesn’t know.
This is the bad guy being dragged back into something he no longer wants to be a part of. A likable person who isn’t being allowed to move on, and we support him because that’s natural, wanting to see someone find his way back to better things. All of which persuades us to ignore the fact Frankie was a hitman, because that was the past and we’re cheering for his future.
Tom Ripley – The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
A different kind of bad guy, conniving and cracked, dangerous in unpredictable ways that we can’t take our eyes off. There’s no attempt with Ripley to seem lovable, only ever-captivating in a desperate sense, holding our breath while we watch his plans play out.
The first step, anyway, was to make Dickie like him. That he wanted more than anything else in the world.
There’s a creeping, cringing sense of inevitability about Ripley’s badness, that he will achieve what he sets out to do but that it won’t be everything he expected.
Dickie gave a groaning roar of protest that frightened Tom with its loudness and its strength. Tom hit him in the side of the neck, three times, chopping strokes with the edge of the oar, as if the oar were an axe and Dickie’s neck a tree.
We know, as we follow the story, that this bad guy is too smart to fail in the ways we might hope he will, and still we read on with him, trying to learn more of a twisted mindset that runs into more complex corners than most other criminals.
Phyllis Nirdlinger – Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
The classic femme fatale, driven by a love of money so powerful it supersedes the respect for life. But it’s not just Phyllis; it’s Walter Huff who goes along with the plan because his willing criminality is motivated by the lust she exploits. Because she’s strong enough to form a plot to kill her husband and he’s weak enough to join her, she becomes the bad guy, but murder doesn’t happen without him.
There’s nothing so dark as a railroad track in the middle of the night. The train shot ahead, and I crouched there, waiting for the tingle to leave my feet.
It’s tempting to treat Phyllis as the only bad guy because she’s sexy and the instigator, but what makes her so captivating is how she can lead others and manipulate events to suit her. That’s the ultimate skill of the good bad guy.
Doc McCoy – The Getaway by Jim Thompson
With so many of Thompson’s antiheroes, we see amorality, something missing in them that we consider vital in ourselves. Thompson’s great skill is giving these people the warmth to make them real, to help us see past the appalling behavior and thoughts to a humanity we want to read more of.
Doc McCoy’s greatest vice and major virtue was his sureness. He had been right so often and so long that he could not conceive the possibility of being anything else.
Doc falls into the category of career criminal, a man in it for the money but hamstrung by his own flaws to an extent that he can never see but we, the reader, can. The attraction of the criminal leading a life we never would, and yet our grasp of where his familiar mistakes in judgment lead can be every bit as strong as the characters. A hint that our lives are maybe not so far apart.
Raven – A Gun For Sale by Graham Greene
Perhaps the most pathetic example on this list, a hitman cut off from the world, a sad and bitter loner living in hope that someone might like him, even fall for him. After killing a politician and potentially sparking war, he’s brought into contact with Anne and that human need to be liked, even loved, turns a killer on his head.
He tried hopelessly to express the deep pain it gave him to see her go; it felt too much like the end of everything. He said, ‘I’ll see you again – some time,’ and when she mechanically reassured him ‘Yes’ he laughed with his aching despair…
Anne is the girlfriend of a cop, and Raven is heading for a finish that was inevitable from the opening page. A killer distant from us in his broken-down mentality but still showing the same needs we all have, just enough humanity to always feel so sadly real. Even a man like Raven can remind us of ourselves and demonstrate the power of a good bad guy.
BIO: Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy has been nominated for several international prizes. The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter was shortlisted for the Edgar Awards’ Best Paperback Original, the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, and the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. How a Gunman Says Goodbye won the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award. Malcolm’s new novel, EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL, will be published by Mulholland Books on April 11th.