Jun 13 2012 12:00pm

The Enigmatic Emperors Of Crime

Ah, the villains! The smooth denizens of the dark. The sharks among minnows. The Napoleons of Crime. Yes, we love our heroes, the square-jawed champions of justice who often use their fists as efficiently as they use their brains. But . . . don’t we sometimes root for the villains in our plays of shape and shadow? Don’t we sometimes think how the villains make the piece, and not the peacemakers?

I do. I have a very healthy regard for the villains, both as a writer and a reader. The following are some of the villains I particularly love to hate . . . or would like to emulate, if my desires for power, destruction, and murder were somewhat more than they are.

Fu Manchu
Most notable now for the name of a mustache from the 1970s, but in his heyday, Fu Manchu was described as an educated intellectual with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan. “Feline” is also another apt description of the deadly gentleman from China. He was created by British author Sax Rohmer, real name Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, and first appeared in The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu in 1913. Fu Manchu is portrayed as an evil genius with special interests in creating poisons for the purpose of assassinating a number of Englishmen who’ve had dealings in India. By the end of this book, the first in what would be a long career of dastardly deeds, Fu Manchu has tried to kidnap a group of European engineers to take back to China for purposes unknown.

Throughout the Rohmer books, the presence of Fu Manchu floats like strange notes of music or the scent of opium wafting in a den of dreamers. Though Fu Manchu may not be onstage in many scenes, he is most definitely a lurker in the shadows. He uses poisons as deadly weapons in most of the books, but is not averse to also using pythons and spiders. Some of the more notable Fu Manchu tomes are  The Mask of Fu Manchu, President Fu Manchu, and The Island of Fu Manchu. The thrust of Fu Manchu’s story is that he seeks to be, of course, the mastermind of a vast criminal network. The Chinese entry into World War II as an American ally hurt Fu Manchu’s reputation as an agent of the “Yellow Peril,” but Fu Manchu is still around in reprints and in comic books. Interestingly enough, Fu Manchu never had a mustache in the books; the movies gave him his mouth brow.

Nick Carter’s Subtle Foe by Nicholas CarterDr. Jack Quartz
What is it about great villains being doctors? Or professors? All that education, I suppose, causes one to go equally evil and cunning. Or just plain crazy. Quartz was the archenemy of the detective Nick Carter, and first appears in Nick Carter Book #13 published in October of 1891. A word about Nick Carter: he was considered by his fans of the 1800s to be the “King Of Detectives,” and his very long career lasted through what is termed the “Dime Novel Era,” the “Pulp Era” of the ’40s and ’50s and up into the 1960s when he became a secret agent code-named Killmaster. An entire universe of recurring characters was built around Nick Carter and he was, in short—and he was short, being described as only five feet four inches tall—the hero of the working man in the late 1800s. He was one of the few detectives with his own yacht, named the Gull.

Dr. Jack Quartz was described as a charming, smooth gentleman who had a commanding presence and the gift of gab. A pity that he could also be a homicidal maniac whose pleasure was cutting women into small pieces. He plans his crimes out in intricate fashion and sends arcane clues to Nick Carter to stop him if Carter can, foreshadowing the relationship between the Joker and Batman. Quartz is also an artist who creates strange art from his victims’ body parts. When he learns that Carter has created a Detective School, Quartz decides to create a Crime School.

Another of Quartz’s talents was the ability to hypnotize his victims, and he creates a chemical that puts others in a state of suspended animation. Quartz’s greatest—if one may put it this way—accomplishment is bringing together a team of Carter’s worst enemies to finish the detective off. They fail. Not for nothing was Carter known as “the Little Giant,” with the ability to tear four packs of playing cards apart between his thumbs and forefingers.

There have been just as many incarnations of Moriarty as there have been of Holmes, but no matter what he’s always evil.Professor Moriarty
One of the most enduring villains in all of literature, whom Sherlock Holmes fears and respects in equal measure and refers to as the “Napoleon of crime,” was actually an invention of desperation by Arthur Conan Doyle. The creator of the Baker Street master detective was tired of his creation and was looking for a way to kill Holmes off. Eureka! A criminal mastermind the equal to Sherlock! Professor James Moriarty, a brilliant mathematician with—as Holmes puts it—a “criminal strain in the blood,” plays a direct part in only two of the Holmes stories. Yet obviously the professor’s power of persuasion in creating a vast network of crime in England and on the Continent is formidable, for he exists today in movies, on television, in the theater, and in many, many books . . . even with himself in the starring role as nearly a noir hero.

Moriarty is described not only as a brilliant intellectual, but as having a fiery temper, an independent streak and a “high, domed forehead.” This last point was used by Doyle also to describe Sherlock and his brother Mycroft, as a way to draw similarities between their intellects and to suggest that Moriarty may be the only man capable of defeating Holmes. Of course Moriarty and Holmes go over the Reichenbach Falls in a deadly embrace . . . but the reading audience clamored for more of the Great Detective, and so . . . the game was again afoot, this time without Professor Moriarty’s sinister presence.

But Moriarty definitely lives! Who can put an end to such inventive evil? He exists today in all manner of media, and obviously his dark career continues onward. He appears as a holodeck simulation in not one but two episodes of  Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Evil incarnateAh. Now here is a character upon which I have most closely modeled my own enigmatic emperor of crime, Professor Fell, in my Matthew Corbett series. The great, strange, compelling and utterly eerie Fantômas. He was created in 1911 and appeared in thirty-two novels written by two collaborators, Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, then another eleven novels by Allain after Souvestre’s death. Fantômas may be the most important villain in the history of crime fiction, for he represents the shift from Gothic to modern-day. He is a sociopath who enjoys killing. He is a master of disguise, sometimes taking on the appearance of a victim he’s just killed. Other times he wears a black hood, black gloves, and black leotard . . . and he is never given a description in the books. He is mostly on his own, acting as a thief, without benefit of henchmen or a crime network, yet one Fantômas is more than enough. Reading these books, you get the impression that Fantômas is a real character . . . and you get the very creepy feeling that at any point you might sense a movement behind you, and get a glimpse of a black-clad figure falling upon you before your heart is pierced by a dagger.

Fantômas is evil personified.

He is a survivor, always out for himself. He is cunning and ruthless and deadly. A man with no face, no friends, no loyalty to any human, nothing in his head but the twistings of his own mind.

He also appeared in five silent-film serials in 1913 and 1914, and a number of movies from 1932 to 1966. There is currently a new Fantômas film in development. Fantômas remains one of the strangest and most brutal villains in literature, a solitary and soulless man who kills for pleasure . . . yet with a certain French savoir-faire. As proof that all roads lead to Paris, Fantômas appeared in two stage plays, Nick Carter vs. Fantômas in 1910 and Sherlock Holmes vs. Fantômas in 1914.

All hail a few of the enigmatic emperors of crime! Where would our beloved crime literature be without them? Pallid, impoverished . . . and a lot less exciting.


Robert McCammon is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen novels, including the award-winning Boy’s Life. His newest book, The Providence Rider is on sale now. There are more than four million copies of his books in print.

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Deborah Lacy
1. DeborahLacy
Moriarty is definitely the smartest and the most evil...
Kristin Franseen
2. musichistorygeek
This is great--I've been on a bit of a Victorian villains kick lately! I just reread Kim Newman's Anno Dracula and Hound of the d'Urbervilles, in which Fu Manchu, Quartz, and Moriarty play significant roles (and, if I'm remembering correctly, Fantomas appears in the second Anno Dracula book, The Bloody Red Baron).

Have to quibble a bit with the claim that Moriarty is always evil in every adaptation. Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Per-Cent Solution features a Moriarty who, while perhaps not entirely blameless, isn't a criminal mastermind. Michael Kurland's series (The Infernal Device, Death by Gaslight, The Great Game, The Empress of India, and the hopefully soon-to-be-released Who Thinks Evil) has Moriarty as a criminal, but one with a strange moral code who uses his illegal activities to fund scientific research.
3. Steven Scearce
A marvellous round-up of despicable characters, Mr. McCammon. Professor Moriarty is a personal favorite. Thank you.
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