As most cops will attest, your typical criminal is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
According to an oft-quoted statistic, criminals possess, on average, an IQ of 8 to 10 points lower than law-abiding citizens. Naturally, one has to be wary of drawing a correlation between intelligence and illicit behavior. There are an astronomical number of factors that play into an individual’s predilection for wrongdoing, such as socioeconomic status, environment, peer group, and so on.
But, suffice to say, the diabolical geniuses we all know and love to see brought to justice—Professor Moriarty, Bane, Ernst Stavro Blofeld—are more often found on a movie screen or in the pages of a book than roaming the streets of your hometown.
And while I enjoy escapist tales featuring a villain who has a doctorate in chemistry from MIT, speaks nine languages (including Klingon), is a master of an obscure Tibetan martial art, and can jury-rig an incendiary advice with the random contents of a kitchen cupboard, I prefer my fictional bad guys to be a little bit more … pedestrian.
With a quick glance at your shoes, the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes is able to determine whether you breakfasted on eggs or porridge a week ago Tuesday. Bruce Wayne, a billionaire, can afford to indulge a rather severe case of PTSD with a creepy alter-ego and the latest in flying cars and crime-fighting gizmos. James Bond is, well ... Bond. James Bond.
In order to outwit and outfight a Moriarty or a Blofeld, you’d have to be something of a superhero, possessed of a rarified intellect or extraordinary ability—or perhaps just a bit of a sociopath yourself.
But most of us are regular folks, lacking in Batmobiles and an irresistible sexual allure. So, as much as these fictional heroes thrill us, they aren’t like us. We identify with them only on an imaginary—delusional, even—level.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a fantasy. But when I really want to sink my teeth into a story, to feel the grit in my teeth, the sand in my shoes, and the bumps and contusions and torment of the main character, I prefer something that seems a little more plausible. Grounded in reality. A protagonist who is an Everyman, if you will. Someone who could be me, given a few odd circumstances or a wrong turn down a remote country road.
And if my hero is an average Joe, his nemesis can hardly be a mad scientist bent on world domination. Instead, the villain’s motives should be practical. Stuff like jealousy, greed, revenge, anger, or just because being bad is what pays the high-speed internet bill.
The term “the banality of evil” was coined by journalist Hannah Arendt in reference to Adolf Eichmann during his trial for war crimes in 1961. While her exact meaning is open to debate, she observed that Eichmann never finished high-school and expressed himself primarily with stock phrases and clichés. In other words, the guy who managed logistics for the extermination of millions of Jews was, in fact, not especially bright.
From where I sit, a criminal who kills out of simple expediency, cold indifference, or a bureaucratic sense of duty is infinitely more chilling than an evil mastermind with some Mephistophelian axe to grind.
Take, for example, the backwoods heavies featured in James Dickey’s Deliverance, a thriller about four men who run afoul of some locals during a canoe trip through the remote Georgia wilderness. A forbidding tone is set early on when the men encounter Lonnie, an intellectually disabled Albino boy, and the Griner brothers, who are coarse and intimidating as well as openly contemptuous of “city boys.” Later, for motives never clearly elucidated (to preserve the secret location of a nearby moonshine operation?), two of the men are taken into the woods and... Let’s just say that no one who has ever seen the movie adaptation can forget the infamous scene where poor Bobby—pale, chubby and naked apart from a pair of dirty tighty-whities—is compelled to “squeal like a pig.”
Deliverance portrays its bad guys as poor, uneducated—toothless, even—hicks. They live in wooden shacks, without modern conveniences, and it’s even intimated that they are inbred. While these mountain men aren’t necessarily stupid, they are about as far away as you can get from the gentility of a highly educated and cultured sociopath like Hannibal Lector. Despite that, they absolutely reek of menace. Personally, I find them scary as hell.
A character who ranks highly on any greatest villains list is Anton Chigurh, the remorseless, emotionless hitman who looms large over the desolate west Texas landscape like a vengeful Old Testament god in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. Although he is without mercy or compassion, he follows a strict moral code that is twisted but inviolable. When he tells good ol’ boy Lleweyln Moss that he will kill him even if Moss agrees to turn over a case of stolen money, he is just being forthright. Moss has done something he shouldn’t have, and it is Chigurh’s responsibility to see him punished for it.
In the context of the story, Chigurh is not only an unstoppable force of evil—he is a conscientious employee. He was hired to retrieve stolen money, and that is exactly what he does, come hell, rival hitmen, the police, or high water.
A prime example of dim-witted men committing shocking crimes in pursuit of tawdry motives are the real-life murderers and subjects of Truman Capote’s groundbreaking In Cold Blood. The bare bones of the case are that two ex-convicts, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, heard a rumor that a prosperous farmer named Herb Clutter kept a large amount of cash in a safe on his property. They planned to steal it and flee to Mexico. After driving four hundred miles across Kansas, they broke into Clutter’s home and discovered there was no safe and no money. They proceeded to kill Clutter, his wife, and two of their children, aged 16 and 15. According to Capote, Smith later said: “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman... I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”
An evil genius makes for a great adventure story, especially if your hero is equally endowed with extraordinary skills and smarts. But it’s the slightly dull, prosaic, single-minded villain—the one who hurts or kills in a casual, almost blasé manner—that has me watching my six o’clock when I’m walking through a darkened alleyway, or that turns my blood to ice water when I hear a scratch-scratch-scratching at my window in the wee hours of the morning.
Because those sorts of bad guys are out there ... somewhere. And you never know, there might even be one or two right in your hometown.
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Brian Klingborg is a Sr. Vice President at Kumon Publishing. He’s written books on Kung Fu, and he wrote for the Winx Club television series. Kill Devil Falls is his first novel. He lives in New York City.