Tag Archives: Gretchen Lowell

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.

One Kick – Chelsea Cain

One KickChelsea Cain has created another singular character for her latest bestseller. One Kick introduces Kick Lannigan, a damaged abuse victim who tasks herself with saving children from the same fate.

The blurb practices on nuchunks day and night:

Kick Lannigan, 21, is a survivor. Abducted at age six in broad daylight, the police, the public, perhaps even her family assumed the worst had occurred. And then Kathleen Lannigan was found, alive, six years later.

In the early months following her freedom, as Kick struggled with PTSD, her parents put her through a litany of therapies, but nothing helped until the detective who rescued her suggested Kick learn to fight. Before she was thirteen, Kick learned marksmanship, martial arts, boxing, archery, and knife throwing. She excelled at every one, vowing she would never be victimized again.

But when two children in the Portland area go missing in the same month, Kick goes into a tailspin. Then an enigmatic man Bishop approaches her with a proposition: he is convinced Kick’s experiences and expertise can be used to help rescue the abductees. Little does Kick know the case will lead directly into her terrifying past…

One kick is intended as the beginning of a series, and as a first book in a series it has all the strengths and weaknesses you’d expect.

First up, I like the Kick very much. She’s a complex and well-rounded protag, and one of the most vulnerable kick-ass characters you’ll ever meet. Kick is tough and resilient, but she’s no superwoman.

For someone so obsessed with self-defence and weaponry, she comes out worse in a lot of violent encounters. You get the sense of a little girl playing at being Bruce Lee. She’s created this illusion of a force field around her – a bit like Jeff Bridges believing himself invulnerable in that movie Fearless – and it’s this uncertainty that really powers the character. The martial arts and the Glocks and the throwing stars and all the weaponry and skills she’s accrued are a coping mechanism as much as anything else.

But the story’s narrative stutters a bit, as Cain is preoccupied with establishing the initially hostile relationship between Kick and the man who leads her on a journey into her dark past. Bishop is one of those convenient mysterious characters – a ruthless fixer for a super-rich fellow, a kind of black-hatted Thomas Magnum, with money to burn and access to copters and jets and all sorts. Together the pair retrace her nightmare journey as a child in a bid to find a missing boy. But the investigation struggles to gain momentum, it lurches forward in fits and starts, leading to a somewhat abrupt climax. Happily, Cain knows her way round a set-piece and they’re worth waiting for.

This being Cain, it’s very dark – her other series, of course, features glamorous serial killer Gretchen Lowell – but she’s an old hand at juggling light and shade. The hostile wisecracks between the pair come from a painful place – the enigmatic John Bishop has his own burdens to carry, not least having the same name as a popular UK comedian –  and Kick’s traumatic backstory, of kidnap and abuse, gives Kick’s obsession with saving childen from a similar fate a toxic obsession.

There’s a fine gallery of supporting players, including Kick’s publicity-hungry mother, her computer whizzkid friend James and her creepy kidnapper Mel, with whom she has a sick, insoluble emotional bond. But it’s Kick who takes the centre stage, she’s a brave and compelling heroine, a born survivor, and there’s no doubt that with a lot of the rules of her world established, and some questions left dangling, that Cain is hard at work on the follow-up.

Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for the review copy of One Kick.