Sunday, August 12, 2007

Let us consider the best of the worst

Yesterday, in search of inspiration for my own writing, I reread one of the best and bleakest books of 2005: Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. There are many things to praise about this book, including the haunting title drawn from the Yeats poem "Sailing to Byzantium." But as crime fiction, one of its strongest elements is its villain.

Anton Chigurh stands out for several reasons, not least of which is the unconventional device he uses to kill people and open locked doors. If you've never heard of a captive bolt pistol, I guarantee you'll know all about it when the movie opens in November.

Chigurh is a completely evil man, of course, all the more so because he doesn't believe in evil. He sees himself as a kind of cosmic cashier, one who totals up all the bad choices you've made and tenders the bill. Plus tax. If he decides to kill you, it's nothing personal -- blame instead the various paths you've taken that put you in front of him at that particular time and place. In one of the more chilling passages in the book, a victim takes issue with the death verdict Chigurh has delivered by coin toss:

You make it like it was the coin. But you're the one.

It could have gone either way.

The coin didn't have no say. It was just you.

Perhaps, but look at it my way. I got here the same way the coin did.

She sat sobbing softly. She didn't answer.

For things at a common destination there is a common path. Not always easy to see. But there.

Don't you hate it when evil disguises itself in bland existentialism? I know I do.

But the point of this post is villains in crime fiction. Which ones spring immediately to mind, and why? To narrow the field, let's leave out compulsive serial killers. I'm thoroughly sick of that whole subset of the crime genre.


Peter said...

Don't you hate it when evil disguises itself in bland existentialism? I know I do.

Yeah, that passage kind of makes me wish the killer would shut up and get on with it.

The killer in Ken Bruen's Calibre kills people who have bad manners. Here's some evidence in his own words that he's funnier than Cormac McCarthy's bad guy:

"I'm not going to get caught. I'm due for another kill on Friday, a woman this time, keep the balance. The reason I won't get caught is not just cos I'm smart but I have an edge.

"I watch CSI."


"Kids? Would I kill a kid? No way, José. Not unless he was in a boy band."
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Dave Knadler said...

I ordered Calibre a few days ago, just on the strength of those very lines you mentioned. (It's great when Amazon lets you browse the first few pages.) Love the line about the boy band.

I also bought Ammunition today at Border's, but I think I'll wait until I've finished the earlier book to read it.