Tag Archives: Clarice Starling

Guest Post: V.M. Giambanco

The Devil has all the best tunes. You know that, I know that – it’s why we read crime fiction. A good protag is nothing without an evil antag. A deliciously evil – and yet vulnerable – villain can elevate a good crime book to something great. Just ask Thomas Harris, Stephen King or our old friend Conan Doyle.

V.M. Giambanco knows that as well as anybody. In her Alice Madison series she’s earned herself a reputation for specialising in complex and dangerous bad guys.

In the latest, Blood And Bone – which is out today! – Seattle detective Madison finds herself tracking an elusive killer whose brutality is legendary even among high-security prisoners. If you’re a crime reader or writer, you’re going to want to read Valentina’s terrific guest post for Crime Thriller Fella about what makes a satisfying villain. She talks Hannibal, Ripleys Tom and Ellen, and careless dentistry…

What do I want from a villain?

Valentina Giambanco

As I write this post I’m working on the fourth book of the Alice Madison series and when the issue of a subject for this piece came up I had little doubt that I wanted to talk about: villains. Why? Because, more than in any other genre, villains define the crime fiction novel and it is by what villains do that the other characters come alive.

Where would Clarice be without Hannibal? Or Holmes without Moriarty? Or even Nick without ‘Amazing Amy’? The best villain is the one who gets the best out of the hero and by that I mean that it is the character who pushes all others around him to act in ways that make the story compelling, revealing, multi-layered and memorable. And it’s not a small task, which is why – and I’ve only realised this as I started to think about this piece – I generally start each story by working out who the villain is and why he does what he does. Only when I’ve found something that feels suitably gripping does the story really begin.

I have a theory – and obviously it might just be something that works for me and no other writer or reader – but when I’m trying to build an effective villain I need four elements; a couple are pretty obvious, the others maybe not.

First, and it’s no big surprise, my villain has to give the story a real sense of danger which translates into urgency and keeps the clock ticking. Examples are almost unnecessary but for the sheer creepiness of it I’ll mention Annie Wilkes in ‘Misery’, whose mood swings and inner workings are as terrifying as any serial killer out there.

Second, there has to be a motive, something strong enough that the villain can hang his whole behaviour on it and it has to be so powerful that it can carry him throughout the story. By the way, I keep saying he for ease of writing but, as I have just mentioned, crime fiction villainy is an equal opportunity employer – ever met Chelsea Cain’s Gretchen Lowell?

Third, and here things get more complicated, I really enjoy seeing the story through the eyes of the villain. Take Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley for example, he is the central character and what he does appears merely as a string of necessary actions to further his very reasonable needs. That’s all.

Blood And BoneWhen Thomas Harris inhabits Francis Dolarhyde’s mind in ‘Red Dragon’ he is so skilled at building character that we can’t help feeling a tiny sting of compassion for him even at his most frightening and amoral. I’ve read once that Harris said he was always glad when he knew he was writing a chapter with Hannibal Lecter in it but was also glad when Lecter left and he didn’t have to see the world through his maroon eyes anymore.

Four, I’m intrigued when I can see the humanity of the villains: the unstoppable serial killer without weaknesses does not really interest me because it moves through the story in a similar manner to the alien creature in ‘Alien’ – slaughtering everyone in its path until it gets blasted out of the ship, and where’s the fun in that? I absolutely love ‘Alien’: if we’re talking about slowly building menace and claustrophobia and terror, it’s a classic – and the unusual hero of the series is a resourceful, stubborn woman who can operate heavy machinery. But that’s not where I go if I want a complex, multi-layered villain.

So, I have my four elements: physical danger, motive, a different way to look at life and an ember of humanity – this is what I look for in a villain. Sometime they are all found in one character, sometimes the story will give us more than one straight villain to play with and then we can split these elements. Recently I watched ‘Marathon Man’, written by William Goldman from his excellent novel, and the villain is an old man with a lethal blade hidden in his sleeve and dentist’s tools in his satchel. Szell, the Second World War Nazi, is one of the most terrifying villains ever created because he is a little guy who certainly couldn’t run after the protagonist to catch him but, once he has him tied up on a chair, there is no end to the pain he is prepared to inflict to achieve his end. His age, vulnerability and cruelty make him human and real and more repulsive than someone like Lecter could ever be because we know Nazi existed and we know what they did while a cultured, engaging, sociopath with a perfectly replicated middle finger and a taste for murder is yet to be born.

As a crime writer I’m always looking for a great fictional villain and yet sometimes it is reality that is too extreme to be believed: I’ve read online today that a pharmaceutical company has raised the price of a life-saving pill from $13.50 to $750, not even Hannibal Lecter can match that kind of evil.


Blood And Bone is available now, published by Quercus Books, in hardback, and also in ebook.

Crime Log: The Fall, A Delicate Truth

There’s a couple of things on this week that will stimulate at least a couple of your five senses.

Unknown-2Gillian Anderson, her in the blouse, returns to television tonight in The Fall. She stars as DSI Stella Gibson in the first part of a new investigative thriller. Behold the blurb:

When a murder in Belfast remains unsolved, Gibson is brought in from the London Metropolitan Police to help catch the killer.

As Gibson travels across from London, we are introduced to the murderer himself: Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan). Spector’s dark fascination with a young solicitor Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly) is in stark contrast to his home life, where he has two young children and a wife who loves him

As Gibson looks in to the investigation, she finds similarities to a case from 18 months ago. Believing them to be the work of one man, she’s convinced there is a serial killer lose in Belfast but her superiors at the police are unwilling to make the connection.

Meanwhile, that very serial killer is busy preparing for his next attack. As Spector stalks through Sarah’s empty house, the thrill of his crime clearly excites him. When Sarah arrives home she finds that Spector has left a disturbing calling card laid out on her bed.

For both Spector and Gibson, the hunt has begun.

The Fall is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm. If it’s a hit, I think the idea is to make some more. It’s written by Allan Cubitt, who adapted Martina Cole’s The Runaway for Sky, and has written episodes of Murphy’s Law and Prime Suspect.

Anderson is also due to join the cast of Hannibal in the US this week, as Dr. Lecter’s psychoanalyst. It’s a nice piece of meta-casting. X-Files creator Chris Carter always said that her Scully character was based on Clarice Starling from Silence Of The Lambs.

We discussed  Hannibal last week, of course. It’s currently ‘on the bubble’ at NBC, which means it hasn’t been picked up for a second season yet, unlike a lot of other series that have received renewals. That’s a shame because I liked last week’s first episode on Sky Living very much, and apparently it gets better.

Unknown-10Meanwhile, for those of you who like to doze in bed of a night with BBC Radio 4 burbling in the background, this week’s Book At Bedtime is John le Carre‘s new book A Delicate Truth.

Damian Lewis – or as we call him in our house, that Brody from Homeland – reads this tale of a good man wrestling with his conscience. Let the blurb take the strain:

An undercover counter-operation in the British colony of Gibraltar, a middle-ranking man from the Foreign Office serving as ‘eyes on’ and reporting to an ambitious Minister; the aim to capture a jihadist arms-buyer, the success, assured.

But back in the UK a junior officer has his doubts and commits an unthinkable act. Three years on, he will find himself facing an impossible choice. In a journey that will take him from Cornwall to Wales via murky secrets in the depths of Whitehall, Toby Bell will try to find out the truth about the night on the Rock and bring it the attention and justice it deserves.

A Delicate Truth is on BBC Radio 4 every night this week at 10-45pm.

You may want to take a gander at this nice interview with le Carre here. He has some interesting things to say about the frustration he still feels at being branded the Cold War guy after all these years, and it’s clear that his writing is as important to him as it ever was.