by Jule Selbo

Just days into the initial thinking on the third book in my Dee Rommel series (this one will be 8 DAYS), I’m focusing on fleshing out my characters and preparing a rough outline. And I find myself, again, faced with the question that always takes me time to ponder:

Who’s the murder victim?

  • An innocent?
  • A semi-innocent who generates a small slip of the readers’ deep sympathies?
  • A non-innocent transgressor? One who is a good part “bad” and/or “evil”? If I choose this, does this person become prey to someone with a deeper degree of depravity?
  • An individual with no ethics, morality or kindness – one the reader may think has “gotten what they deserved” but, because of the justice system, it’s necessary that their death or maiming or whatever,  is investigated and a culprit apprehended. If that is my victim, then do I flip it and have the perpetrator an innocent?
  • Or? (Other possibilities.)

The fact that I do get to select the background of the main (or first) victim is comforting, because, as we know, there is no right or wrong choice – just my choice (one that must fuel my imagination) – but possibilities – and other things – still go through my mind:

If a completely blameless person is traumatized, attacked or killed, does it engender more fear or anxiety in the sub-conscious (or consciousness) of the reader? Because it’s a reminder that no one is ever safe, that “wrong place, wrong time” is always a possibility? Will it/should it bring about worried flashes of “what if”? Could the reader identify in a visceral way by asking: “What if I’m walking down the street, on the way to buy an ice cream cone or maybe a cup of coffee, and something unexpected and untoward could happen to me, and I get dragged into danger?” (Perhaps the start of a woman-in-jeopardy thriller (or man-in-jeopardy)).

But is anyone totally blameless?  If – as the layers of a life are peeled back, will a dark secret or bad karma moment always be revealed? A minor or semi-major mis-judgment or misdemeanor?

My natural guilty feelings aside (I went to Catholic school after all, and the nuns kept telling us we were all sinners, either on the surface or deep down in our young psyches, so how could I not have a rotten layer revealed in my life?) I wonder about the potential reader’s preference. Surely, it’s got to be a victim whose life is a layering of good and bad. Or bad and good. A complete “goodie-goodie” is not that interesting to read about – or write about.

I tell myself to stop worrying about the reader and find the victim that is fascinating to me.

And then, my mind wanders to: Who should be created first? The victim(s) or the perpetrator(s)? Or should they be created in bits and parts at the same time? Should they go hand in hand?  (Would love to hear from others how/when these necessary ingredients are created. Does it change in every new book?)

Next question: Who will be my next “bad person”? The perpetrator who brings on the destruction of body and/or soul.

Questions come up in my conversations with self as I walk around my Eastern Prom neighborhood in Portland.

The website Novel Suspects has a few articles about the literary villains who don’t leave our minds. The un-credited writer strongly infers that the antagonist is the key ingredient in a crime-mystery. I’ve always believed that the antagonist should be as strong (perhaps even stronger through most of the story) than the protagonist to get that edge/anxiety/worry building in the reader. And that the protagonist is also a very key (most key) ingredient.

Novel Suspects also points out that if the reader identifies with the antagonist’s charisma, and their motives (even if their actions are questionable) it can raise the interest quotient.

Everyone will think of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis. Arthur Conan Doyle’s criminal mastermind used his great intelligence to get other people to commit crimes for him. (That is so cool.)

Readers first met Moriarty in Doyle’s 1893 short story “The Adventure of the Final Problem” and then not again until 1914 in “The Valley of Fear” – and then in five other stories. We all love (or at least I do) the “who can outsmart the other” in the battles between Holmes and Moriarty.

In the “Artistic License Renewed, The Literary James Bond Magazine,” a 2020 article takes a look at Ian Fleming’s villains. The article points out that Fleming relished making his villains physically grotesque (football shaped heads, pincer hands, extremely short or tall or heavy or thin, having bad hygiene or massive scars etc.)

Most wielded great power and had great wealth, many loved torture and sadism. (Does everyone believe that Fleming, a Brit private school grad from an uppercuts family and Naval Intelligence officer also liked a bit of sadism?) Fleming lauded his favorite writers (Chandler, Graham Greene, Maugham and others) for creating villains that terrified him with “real blackness” –  and he wanted to emulate them.

Many of Agatha Christie’s books focus on crimes committed because of greed or love, a few deal with vengeance. (Pix of her is from about 1925, she was well into her career by then.)

She mostly created unlikeable, unpleasant or immoral victims (did she prefer to have the victim “deserve” their demise?) as well as unethical, narcissistic, twisted or manipulative villains who go to great lengths to construct their murders and nefarious crimes.

Hieronymus Bosch (created by, as we all know, Michael Connelly, former journalist on the crime beat) often ends up facing big-city villains planning on feeding their greed or settling scores of real or imagined transgressions – and most fall into the purview of Bosch’s work as a detective. Crime mystery writer, Peter Moreira, in his self-named blog, states his opinion that the best Connelly/Bosch villains are: Jason Jessop (The Reversal, 2010) and Robert Backus Jr..

I’ve read (and enjoyed) all the Bosch books, but don’t have the kind of memory that keeps all plots right at hand. So, I looked up Jessop and Backus (yes, the Harry Bosch Wiki has their character bios).  Jessop is a sadistic tow-truck driver who abducted a twelve-year-old girl (Melissa) and eventually killed her. He was apprehended, charged and convicted. Twenty-four years later (when Bosch comes into the picture), Jessop has taken advantage of new DNA techniques and gets his conviction overturned. While a shady lawyer manipulates the media, Bosch and Defense Attorney Haller have to gain new evidence to prove evil Jessop’s guilt – before he can take them down.

Robert Backus Jr., a ruthless, creative killer, appeared in The Poet (1996) and The Narrows (2004); In The Poet, Backus had a highly respected FBI career, he was a special agent in charge of the Behavorial Section of the FBI. His true character reveals itself when his life as a serial killer is exposed. Crime reporter Jack McEvoy (and FBI Special Agent Rachel Walling) are Connelly’s protagonists in The Poet and end the story thinking Backus is dead. In The Narrows, Bosch (and Rachel Walling) realized Backus’ death was a fake when one of the cops who helped take him down (in The Poet ) is murdered. The psychopath is back and Bosch and Walling has to face great evil. lists great villains in the women-in-jeopardy arena (most are domestic – husbands, boyfriends, some are bosses). In the psychological suspense area, it’s also (mostly) familiar entities to the victim who are identified as the perpetrators.

Donna Tartt (I’m still fascinated that she’s only five feet tall and is pretty reclusive) – her 1992 book Henry, The Secret History is praised for its charismatic, charming villain: a “…fascinating antagonist that separates himself from his fellow classics scholars by being careless for human life in a way rarely seen in crime novels. He doesn’t care because he can’t be bothered to care… he’s bad, true, but a joy to watch in action.”

Among other great villains: Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector in the 1988 novel The Silence of the Lambs, 1999’s Hannibal, and the 2006 prequel to the series Hannibal Rising and he also appears in Red Dragon (1991).

Lecter is known for his refined tastes, his sense of humor, his good manners and his penchant for cannibalism. He chooses what victims to eat: people he doesn’t respect, people he thinks are rude, people who have done wrong to others. He’s intelligent, loves music, art, and creating complex dishes from the flesh of his victims. Mads Mikkelson (who played Hannibal in the tv series and one of my favorite Danish actors) in a Variety interview, talked about why he liked to play villains who have a strong point of view of the world, one the reader can almost get behind. He also talked about why he thinks audiences love to try to get into the head of the villain: “We hate them in reality, we don’t want to see them, but there is a fascination. I’ve said (before) that five minutes after we invented God, we invented Satan. Man is driven by both sides, we’re very curious what’s on the dark side, maybe because it’s part of us and we really want to try and understand what it is.”

There are a multitude of great villains and victims in the crime-mystery genre – and my next few days are going to be spent in deciding who will populate 8 DAYS. I’m thinking to nod towards Fleming’s love of grotesqueness, Harris’ twisted but relatable motives, Tartt’s ploy of finding the real evil in a herd of “pretty evil”. But maybe not.

I’m always looking for new books with great victims and villains to read and savor. Would love to hear your favorites.

About jselbo

Jule Selbo's latest book, 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, the first in a mystery/crime series, received a starred review on Kirkus and just landed on Kirkus Top Five List of Crime/Mystery books from independent publishers. It's also a finalist in the best of Foreword Review and Maine Literary Award. She absconded from Hollywood (and her work there as a produced screenwriter)to Portland Maine to write novels. Other books include Find Me in Florence, Dreams of Discovery -The John Cabot Story and Breaking Barriers - Based on the Life of Laura Bassi. The next book in the Dee Rommel series: 9 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery was released in September 2022 and is nominated for a Clue Award and received a starred Kirkus Review. 8 DAYS, the third in the series, is scheduled for release November 2023 and Jule is now working in 7 DAYS.
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  1. John Clark says:

    Great post. Character management is, or can be so much fun.

    • jselbo says:

      And so many options! But- for me – what’s amazing is after I make a list and another list and another list of possibles – one rises to the top of the list through a gut feeling – always wonder how that happens (brain really – not gut… but if feels like gut)

  2. Anonymous says:

    I find it challenging and fun to move between a victim who deserved to die so much there are multiple suspects with motive, to the innocents. Same with the villains. Sometimes they are simply evil, though they would never think this about themselves. Other times, as in my first Joe Burgess book, the killer was one the detective sympathized with and understood, yet the taking of a life could not be condoned. This is a great post, Jule, and makes me go back to my current book and tweak the ending.


    • jselbo says:

      I was so excited to “start” 8 DAYS but once pen got near the paper – I thought AAHHHH! don’t write too soon (I’ve done that before for sure) and don’t get too attached to paragraphs of “stuff” too soon. Look at the possibilities and then MAYBE – JUST MAYBE – you won’t hit so many blocks along the way…

  3. Pingback: VICTIMS AND VILLAINS | Maine Crime Writers – Maine Reportings

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