Tag Archives: Red Dragon

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.

The Intel: Saul Black/Glen Duncan

Glen Duncan & Saul Black

©HACQUARD et LOISON/Opale/Leemage

In these times of austerity we know you’re always looking for more bangs for your buck. Which is why Crime Thriller Fella is bringing you two intel interviews for the price of one, sort of thing.

The other day we reviewed Saul Black’s The Killing Lessons, and you can see that by clicking here, or scrolling down. It’s a rollercoaster of a novel about the hunt for a pair of serial murderers, alpha killer Xander and his beta buddy, Paulie, and it’s intense, brutal and urgent.

Saul Black is, of course, the nom de plume of critically-acclaimed author Glen Duncan. It’s his first foray into the crime genre. We’re delighted to say that Glen and Saul are here to give us the intel about alter egos, how writing is like probing a wobbly tooth, and why his protag is such a mess…

Tell us about Saul Black

As ‘Glen Duncan’ my writing style has been ironic, digressive, oblique, parenthetical – and my previous books (werewolves excepted) have not been particularly ‘plot-driven’. I knew that if I was going to attempt a thriller I was going to have to develop a more economical style and concentrate a lot more on pushing the story forward in a dramatic, suspenseful way. So I decided to give myself a new identity, to pretend to myself that I was a different kind of writer and see if that helped. Psychologically, it did. Of course the boundary between two writerly selves is permeable: Granted ‘Saul Black’ has no patience with essayistic asides, jokes and literary allusions, but for all that ‘Glen Duncan’ doesn’t quite manage keep his trap shut. The chase is still cut to, but not, I hope, at the expense of psychological depth, decent sentences and fresh metaphors.

It turns out I rather like having an alter-ego. It’s a bit like being in disguise, which has always appealed. What worries me, now that Saul Black is up and running with serial killers, is the potential discovery that he has even worse habits than Glen Duncan… 

What was the inspiration for The Killing Lessons? 

I’m very rarely ‘inspired’, since that suggests either a specific trigger or a mysterious epiphanic moment. It’s much more a process of gradually (and indeed grudgingly) working around a few ideas, the mental equivalent of being unable to stop prodding a wobbly tooth with one’s tongue. WithThe Killing Lessons it was just a case of deciding to write a thriller (see answer to next question) and then sort of mooching about in my imagination for something that would at least get the story off the ground. I had no confidence that it would turn out to be anything more than a false start when I wrote the first five thousand words – but I sent it to my agent and he was very encouraging, so I persisted with it. 

What made you want to write a crime novel? 

The practical part of the answer is that crime is one of the few markets in fiction that’s actually thriving. The nobler part is that it occurred to me (with a laughable belatedness) that although I’d always been writing about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – along with extremes of deviant behaviour and the ordinary human sacraments of friendship and humour and love set against it – I’d never written a straight murder story. So I thought I’d have a go. These days, I’m so old and knackered that nothing gets written unless I set it as a piece of self-imposed homework. I really didn’t know (and in a way still don’t) the first thing about the ‘crime thriller’ genre. It was an experiment. Time will tell if readers think it was a success.

The Killing LessonsHow is your serial killer Xander different from other literary wrong ‘uns?

There are two approaches to writing psychopathic serial killers. One is to invite the reader in to psychological speculation, to suggest toxic seeds or traumatic antecedents such that, given enough shrinks and enough time, we might begin to understand what’s going on in the homicidal head. The other is to present the subject as a closed book, a finished product, a psychology that renders any prospective analysis pointless. (Imagine a globe of impenetrable metal, with the strange consciousness trapped forever beyond view or reach within it.) In Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, this is the way Harris presents Hannibal Lecter. (I understand that later writing delves into the doctor’s past, but for most readers, I suspect, the definitive version is the one found in the first two novels.) My guy, Xander (and his sidekick, Paulie) fall into the former category, which yields, I hope, a believable past feeding into a believable present. There’s nothing wrong with erudite, charming serial killers (I wrote one, in a way, for The Last Werewolf) but I was after something a bit grittier this time around. I haven’t answered your question. I don’t know that there’s that much new or ‘different’ to say about serial killers – but there are new and different ways of saying it, which is always a writing goal, no matter the subject.

Your detective Valerie Hart is a mess what attracts us to such damaged protagonists?

Perfect people are boring. All but inveterate narcissists feel flawed and not-up-to-the-job most of the time, so why should cops be any different? It’s more sympathetic to be dealing not only with someone who has a hellishly tough job to do, but who must do it in a state of emotional frailty or psychological disrepair.

The violence in The Killing Lessons is brutal and twisted why are we so fascinated by dark and horrific stories? 

Because we’re all too often a dark and horrific species. We’re fascinated by our potential, and we crave the false comfort of stories in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. It’s not quite so straightforward in The Killing Lessons, which I’m sure some readers won’t like. Similarly, some readers will throw up their hands at the starkness of the violence. To which I’m afraid I have no reply. I don’t think I have what it takes to write a delicate or decaf serial killer novel, and I would consider it an act of imaginative bankruptcy if I did.

 Who are the authors you admire, and why?

How far back do you want me to go? Milton. Robert Browning. Thomas Hardy. W. H. Auden. D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene. Of more modern (or slightly less dead) writers, Anthony Burgess, Paul Bowles, Mervyn Peake, John Updike, J G Ballard. Among the actually living, Martin Amis, Susanna Moore, Mary Gaitskill. I’m drawn to writers who are first and foremost stylists, whose work relies as much (if not more) on the quality of the prose as it does on plot.

 Give me some advice about writing

Make every sentence the definitive version of itself. Never use figurative language you’ve heard or read before. Treat most adjectives like lice. Don’t write completely drunk. Don’t kid yourself that quality equates with success.

What’s next for Saul?

I’m just about to deliver a second thriller, featuring the same detective, Valerie Hart, from The Killing Lessons. If anything, this novel is darker than its predecessor. What I’ll do after that I’m not sure. With any luck, go on a vacation and catch up on some reading.

TV Crime Log: Hannibal, 24

This week we welcome back to your screen two transatlantic crime thriller icons.


It all looks rather tense.

First up is Hannibal, who returns to Sky Living tomorrow night at 10pm.

The first season of the horror drama about the titular cannibal was one of last year’s most-pleasant TV surprises. It was compelling entertainment: a masterclass in slow-burn storytelling and visually very striking, with all those antlers and suchlike.

Now it’s back for a second series, with Mads Mikkelsen once again playing Dr. Lecter with chilling understatement, a welcome contrast to the scenery-chewing of Mr. Hopkins.

Taking its characters from Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, the series explores the relationship of deranged FBI profiler Will Graham – and the even more insane psychiatrist, and talented culinary enthusiast, who helps him solve cases. Trouble is, at the end of the last series, Graham was in clink, having realised too late that Lecter, who was more than a little implicated in most of the unsolved murders, had done him up like a kipper for the crimes.

Taking his artistic cues from David Lynch, showrunner Bryan Fuller’s stated intention is to explore new stories about these familiar characters in the first three seasons, and then segue into a retelling of Red Dragon, The Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal in the fourth, fifth and sixth seasons. It’ll then be concluded with an original storyline for the seventh. Thankfully, we will live without a reimagining of the masterpiece that is Hannibal Rising.

But it was touch and go as to whether Hannibal would return after the first series. Despite the great reviews, and a vocal fanbase, low-ratings threatened to scupper a second portion of H. It was renewed, however, and this new series introduces classic Lecter nemesis Mason Verger. He’s the chap with the pigs. This year’s US ratings show signs of lifting out of the sludge, so maybe it’ll even return for a third. Fingers crossed on that.

It’s only been a year since we last saw Hannibal and Will, but it’s been an awful lot longer since poor old Jack Bauer went on the run. But now – rejoice! – Jack’s back.

24: Live Another Day

Look, a red telephone box!

The unlucky counter-terrorist agent has been minding his own business since 2010, but you can be sure that nefarious people are going to give Jack a bad day in the new mini-series 24: Live Another Day.

Any time some miscreant smuggles nuclear weapons or assassinates the president they pin the blame on Jack. It’s now happened nine times — someone give the guy a break.

Excitingly, in this 12-part season Jack goes on the run in London! Hackney cabs! Red buses! The Gherkin! Hello, guvnor! Let’s just hope he doesn’t waste a whole hour of his precious day setting up a congestion charge direct debit.

Before the mooted TV return of 24, the original idea was for Jack to return in a feature film – there was even talk that it would be a 24/Die Hard crossover! – but that never panned out.

However, with the real time one hour/one episode format squeezed into half the usual amount of episodes, let’s hope the producers haven’t dicked around too much with what made the whole thing work in the first place.

24: Live Another Day is on tomorrow night at 9pm on Sky1. But if you’re a stone cold 24 fan – or maybe just an insomniac – the first two episodes are being simulcast with the US tomorrow morning at 1am.

Hannibal, Whicher, Blitz And Life: TV Crime Log

Gosh, start looking for the Record Button on your remote, because there’s tons of stuff on the telly this week.

Unknown-3Hannibal debuts on Sky Living tomorrow night, and is a procedural based on the relationship between Dr. Hannibal Lecter and criminal profiler Will Graham – working together to solve crime! – before Dr Lecter’s cannibal antics rather soured their friendship.

Thomas Harris fans will recognise Graham, played by Hugh Dancy, as the damaged FBI man responsible for Dr. Lecter’s incarceration in the novel Red Dragon. It’s an audacious attempt to kick life into a serial killer character who became a bit of a joke with his Young Hannibal Adventures, or whatever that last book and movie were called.

The aim, says series creator Bryan Fuller, is to explore the relationship between Lecter – played by the excellent Mads Mikkelsen – and Graham in the first three seasons, and then dramatise the events of Red Dragon and The Silence Of The Lambs in two final seasons. A terrific idea, but Hannibal’s in the middle of its run on NBC, and despite decent reviews, recent ratings haven’t been hugely encouraging. Fuller is one of those showrunners whose shows – Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies – are well reviewed and pick-up devoted cult followings, but tend to get cancelled quickly.

Fuller has made changes which invest new life into familiar characters. Graham’s boss JackCrawford is there, as played by Laurence Fishburne, but irritating journalist Freddie Lounds is now a woman.

I shall be watching Sky Living tomorrow – that’s Tuesday at 10pm.

images-1There’s another intriguing premise in Thursday night’s Murder On The Home Front, on ITV.

Yes, we’re in the Second World War again, right in the heart of the Blitz, but the concept behind this crime drama is to discover some of the secrets of the early days of forensic investigation.

Here’s some blurb that may enlighten you further:

‘When young women are found murdered DI Freddy Wilkins believes the obvious suspect is the vulnerable loner, Wilfred Ziegler as a result of the swastikas carved on the victims’ tongues. Dr Lennox Collins the passionate and brilliant Home Office Pathologist and Molly Cooper, his vivacious young secretary have their doubts and employ ground breaking forensic techniques to ensure the right man is brought to justice. However, Lennox soon learns that not only is he fighting a battle to modernise the way in which crimes are solved, but he’s also clashing with a government who will go to any lengths to ensure the country’s morale is sustained – even cover up a murder.’

Based on the memoirs of Molly Lefebure, secretary to the Home Office Pathologist Keith Simpson, Murder On The Home Front concludes next week. But if it’s a success, I’d imagine we’ll get more of the same.

Unknown-9Life Of Crime, which starts a three episode run on ITV on Friday night, follows three decades in the career of a policewoman in the Metropolitan Police. The aim is to show how the choices she makes as a rookie officer have explosive repercussions on her professional and personal life.

We first meet WPC Denise Woods in 1985, against the backdrop of the Brixton riots, then in 1997 in the second episode, and then in 2013 when she’s a senior office. Woods is played by Hayley Attwell, who also appeared in the movie version of The Sweeney and William Boyd’s spy romp, Reckless.

Life Of Crime is written by Declan Croghan, who penned some of the better episodes of Waking The Dead, and also Ripper Street. You can watch it on Friday night at 9pm – The Gentle Touch slot!

images-2Cranking out the crime dramas like there’s no tomorrow, ITV has a sequel to The Suspicions of Mr Whicher on Sunday night.

The Murder In Angel Lane follows  19th Century former Met Detective Jack Whicher as he launches on his career as a ‘private inquiry agent.’

Paddy Considine sports an impressive pair of sideburns as Whicher, who’s employed by Olivia Colman – dusting off her trademark bleak expression from Broadchurch.

This blurb will explain the plot better than I can:

When Whicher saves a respectable country lady from a violent robbery in a dangerous quarter of London, he learns that this woman, Susan Spencer is desperately hunting for her vulnerable young niece, Mary. Mary has come up to London in search of a young man, Stephen Gann who has made her pregnant.

Susan commissions Jack Whicher as a “private inquiry agent” to find her niece and the young man and Whicher is drawn irresistibly into a disturbing and puzzling murder case, which brings him up against wealthy and powerful figures and throws him into conflict with his former colleagues in the Metropolitan police.  The investigation leads to a private lunatic asylum where Whicher himself must confront the darkness of his own demons.

I do believe that ITV is smoothing its skirts and batting its eyelids at the possibility of another Whicher drama in the future. The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher is on ITV, Sunday night at 8pm.