On the Crime Fiction site, Jean Henry Mead recently initiated a discussion using the key word villain.
What immediately came to mind was the companion word hero, old school, summer blockbuster movies and, of course, the latest from Dan Brown.
Admittedly I had just finished reading a feature article in The New Yorker outlining why the old detective stories were no longer relevant and the jaded South Florida novels of Carl Hiaasen were. As a former Miami Newspaper man he’s blatantly showing us what used to pass for morality is a thing of the past. Corruption, senseless violence and pure chance are now simply taken for granted. No longer can a man who was not himself mean course the mean streets and sun-drenched environs out to right some great wrong. No longer can a heroine seek any satisfactory closure. (After all, Kinsey Millhone is a gumshoe out of the early 1980s.)
As it happens, at the same time Chuck Klosterman just came out with a book on villainy. Straining to be as with-it and ironic as possible, his list includes anyone who wrote a satanic bible, celebrity gossip villainy, heroic villainy, pop villainy and rock bands that are villainously bad.
Then I discovered even the summer blockbusters are fraught with ambivalence. In the movie The Man of Steel we find a lady extraterrestrial from Krypton beating up Superman, telling him he’s weak because he hasn’t evolved and is stuck with a conscience. Since everything is relevant, she’s perfectly happy helping to wipe out earth in order to establish a new Krypton out of the ashes. We’re told The Lone Ranger is doing so poorly at the box office because no one under the age of 70 can recall the days when a masked man in a white hat rode the plains with his faithful Indian companion in search of truth and justice. It seems we know far too much about the actual plight of Native Americans, the settling of the West and so forth. Even when the movie tries to have it both ways and makes fun of the cliché’s of the 1930s and 40s, most viewers find themselves at a loss.
However, back to Dan Brown. When interviewed on the Charlie Rose TV show, while underscoring his sure-fire formula—a code-breaker and his attractive sidekick on the run, betrayed by an ally, shot at by neo-Nazi thugs; the intrepid duo our only hope against a nefarious global conspiracy and arch nemesis brandishing a Dante death mask—I couldn’t help wondering.
Is he on to something? Is there some underlying paranoia at work here? Plus some belief in the forces of good and evil he feels so many readers share?
And on a much more plausible level, can you be relevant and send characters out there who know full well what they’re up against but are still, as they used to say, willing to give it their all?