The Historical Villain: A Whodunnit in One Dimension

Andrew Scott plays the hyper-rational Moriarty.

The golden age of the fictional villain—twirling his moustache, laughing Frenchly, tying women to train tracks—was the 19th century. In that innocent age, you could actually spook readers with a one-dimensional madman; you didn’t have to bother much with a motivation (unless it was money). But then the modern era came along and started producing real villains with such terrifying efficiency, villains beyond anything we could have imagined or would wish to exist in the world, that crime novelists were forced to respond.

What was a crime really for? What made a person do evil things? Money was still an answer, but there were others, too. Love—passion—the sick, logical, bureaucratic madness of the age. The villains of the hard-boiled genre that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s, in books by Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Dashiell Hammett, often combined those reasons, a whole host of contemporary reasons in service of a larger feeling of meaninglessness.

I write Victorian mystery novels. That means I exist on either side of that divide, writing in our own day, when we’ve spent a hundred years thinking about the complexity of crime and evil, but writing about a different, inarguably more sheltered time. (The real views of the average Victorian, even an enlightened one, were reprehensible to our taste – on matters of race, feminism, poverty, justice. 40,000 people came to the last public hanging in London, including many aristocrats—the snack vendors never had a more successful day. Dickens was sick to his stomach for a week. Jack the Ripper hasn’t even come along yet in the decade I’m describing now, the 1870s, much less the more gruesome serial killers who were to follow. Villains were portrayed as either hyper-rational (Moriarty) or comically mad (anyone in an Edgar Allen Poe story). They were rarely human. It’s a question I struggle with, therefore: do I have my detective confront his kind of villain, or mine? 

Not all villains sport the curly mustache.

Geniuses always see these things coming first. There’s Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose novel Crime and Punishment describes with eerie prescience how we would come to see crime, the impulsivity, randomness, anger, despondency, and unknowability that all have to be present to make a murder; or Joseph Conrad, whose Professor in The Secret Agent always has on his person a bomb that can kill him and anyone nearby in twenty seconds. While others in their time, the 1860s and the 1900s respectively, were happily sketching the same blank-motived old villains, those authors were actually looking into character, into what crime could mean about the souls of men and women.

Now that we’ve almost caught up with their perceptiveness, it’s our job to do the same – without forgetting how much simpler it seemed to ordinary men and women back then, or how little they could have comprehended all the secrets we now know their futures held. To me, the critical thing about writing historical fiction is respect. Just because we’ve come along a few steps later in history doesn’t mean that we’re smarter than the Victorians were. They were facts, as Robert Lowell put it, real people, alive, worried, loving, anxious, complicated, unhappy, strange. You have to breathe on that ember. Otherwise, all the characters will be just as flat as all those villains they read.

 

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Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. He lives in Chicago.

Comments

  1. Sheila Korman

    I love Finch’s work—thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of this book!

  2. Fred Gillis

    Count me in.

  3. Gordon Bingham

    In my 20 + year law enforcement career, I’ve had had reason to speak to more than a few muderers. Most are normal seeming people who either chose horrendously wrongly in a very stressful situation or chose to end an intolerable problem via exterme violence. The few true sociopaths though are a very different story… I truly enjoy Charles Finch’s writing and am looking forward to this title.

  4. Francis Cardosi

    Looking forward to reading Finch.

  5. Pat Dupuy

    I’ve enjoyed all the Victorian mysteries Charles Finch has written.
    I’m looking forward to reading his latest.

  6. Alexis T

    Would love to lose myself in this book!

  7. Amanda Leigh

    I would like this.

  8. Jen

    Love his work. Would love to win this book.

  9. HESTER MAYO

    The author is a writing genius!!

  10. Ch. Finch

    Thank you everyone (and ellhesmay – wow!!)

  11. rickel bart

    i’d love to win it

  12. LuAnn Mujica

    I think Mr. Finch is absolutely correct, in that we sometimes forget that Victorians had the same feelings and desires we have now. We have more conveniences, money, education, but that doesn’t stop us from having horrible crimes done today. I’ve read other novels set in this time but maybe the behind the scenes thinking and researching that Mr. Finch does, is what makes his villians more than just a 1 dimensional charactor in his books. This was a great article and really got me thinking.

  13. Terrdu

    I enjoy his books. Would like to win.

  14. A Wright

    Personally I’m a bit tired of the super heroes and their super villains. Give me a well-written Victorian mystery where the evil doer may be the very upstanding individual next door, say something written by Charles Finch, any day over the somewhat trite super evil mastermind.

  15. Alice Wright

    Personally I’m a bit tired of the super heroes and their super villains. Give me a well-written Victorian mystery where the evil doer may be the very upstanding individual next door, say something written by Charles Finch, any day over the somewhat trite super evil mastermind.

  16. palwords

    Charles Finch, you are a master storyteller. Lenox and his lady are my favorites and I look forward to each and every book. Love the heroes, love the villains! Superb!

  17. Andrew Gordon

    awesome

  18. Cindy Johnson

    Most modern day murderers are described by their neighbors as nice, helpful, kind, etc. – so we realize they are complex and devious creatures. Love your writing – your villains, too!

  19. Jen Bowman

    Great article! Sometimes I think villains who are just flat-out crazy without motivations are scarier than those who might be motivated by money, love etc. Motivations are relatable but a serial killer who just kills for the thrill of it? *Shudder*

    I love the gentleman detective Lenox and can’t wait to read the next installment!

  20. Patricia LaRue

    Charles Finch, you are a master storyteller! Lenox and his Lady are my favorites and I look forward to each and every book. Love the heroes, love the villains! Superb!

  21. Rachelle Foster

    On a whim, I picked up “The Fleet Street Murders” at a library book sale. Charles Finch immediately became one of my favorite authors. I read all the Lenox books as soon as I could and am anxiously waiting for the new one to come out. I agree with those above me, you are a master storyteller! Thank you for introducing us to the world of Charles Lenox.

  22. Ch. Finch

    What a nice story Rachelle, thank you!

  23. Linda Kridel

    Charles Finch is one of my favorite authors. Looking forward to November.

  24. Judy Elliott

    I much prefer the villains that you describe in your books. There is so much mystery surrounding them, but the clues are there for us to find.

  25. Michelle Fidler

    I love historical mysteries, especially Victorian ones. I have two of the books in this series.

  26. Helen Geng

    People’s emotions were the same, but each era has some attitudes that another would think strange & bizarre. That’s one reason why I like reading Charles Finch’s books.

  27. Shannon Baas

    I would like this.

  28. Joyce Lokitus

    The worst villian is the one who can cover up his evil so well in his everyday life, whether Victorian times or modern, that his own family cannot even sense it.

  29. Barbara Lima

    I love the perspective!

  30. Jerald Dyson

    I have read all of Charles Finch’s books. Terrific writer. Can’t wait for the new one.

  31. Debbie Austin

    You definitely show respect in the way you write your characters. I love your books. Can’t wait for the latest!

  32. Linda Peters

    great writer, great stories, thanks

  33. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    Setting aside the fact that I’m a died-hard Lenox fan/a Finch devotee from “Beautiful Blue Death” and onward to the present (IN WHICH I would love(!) to receive a copy of this new novel), let me chime in a hearty d’accord to what you’ve had to say here. My one-and-a-half cents worth? Thinking about the query that appeared on the web site, it seems to me that the essence of true villainy is not outward appearance “smile and smile and still play the villain” – NB: may be slightly misquoting here – may well lie in how the protagonist perceives and/or reacts to him or her. In Victorian terms, think Reverend Brocklehurst in “Jane Eyre”for example. He’s presumably a pillar of the community and yet, seen through Jane’s eyes, he’s her worst nightmare come true. Or take Richard III…one of history’s ‘classic’ villains, but Josephone Tey spends a whole book “Daughter of Time” debunking the idea because her protagonist Grant is NOT willing to accept that label about the man whose portrait he admires. I think it’s important too to note that historically or otherwise, a character (although usually both) can be villainous without being criminal. Bill Sikes is murderer but Fagin is considered (in the world of the novel) to be a villain.

  34. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    SORRY! for the double post! I forgot to sign in until after the fact. If anyone can help get rid of the <smile> illegal one, that would be great!</smile>

  35. Mina De Caro

    I like villains, sometimes as much as I like heroes. Villains are often the most interesting part of a story. Besides, creating despicable and believable characters requires remarkable writing skills.

  36. jeannie kraber

    Love Charles Lenox and just finished an Old Betrayal…so ready for the next one.

  37. Todd gordinier

    Have read each book in the series. Would love a copy of the new one

  38. Robin Darby-Bridwell

    There’s no better company than the sexy Lenox during my morning commute. If I win, I’d like to opt for the audio version… *sigh* Oh, and by the way, just where does one pick up those flannel-lined boots mentioned in ABBD? Lady Jane and I are desperate for a ladies pair, if available… Preferably in pink. And as for ‘baddies’, the more average and unassuming, the more frightening.

  39. Beth H

    Count me in! Sounds like a good one.

  40. lasvegasnv

    Intriguing

  41. Shakeia Rieux

    I would love to read this book

  42. Vicky Boackle

    sounds like a good book to me.

  43. Raymond Stone

    In it to WIN it! Thank You!

  44. Bonnie F

    The fact that so much research must go into your historical novels makes them all the more enticing. Would love to win this and thanks for the opportunity.

  45. Carl Ginger

    This looks great! I am in for it.

  46. tammypooser

    love to win it

  47. ron frampton

    like to read

  48. Sharon Kaminski

    This sounds like a exciting book, would love to win. Thanks.

  49. runner

    Groovy the Historical Villain: A Whodunit in One Dimension!

  50. Anne Hoile

    I appreciate a villain with a self-interest in the crime, not a psychopath. In fact, I like a villain who becomes the hero in the next book even better. Redemption is a great vehicle for a storyline.

  51. cheryl wong

    thanks for the chance

  52. Linda Knowles

    I need to read this!

  53. Linda Dietz

    Actually, I appreciated the post. I have never thought much about all that goes into the making of an interesting villain. I have always enjoyed stories that don’t make the villains too villainous. I like to know that he can’t jump out of the pages of the book & “get me!”

  54. Linda Dietz

    I registered!!!!!! See comments above under the name, Linda D

  55. mary essex

    Villains do and always have existed. What changes, perhaps, is society’s willingness to either acknowledge the existence of evil or to explain it away. There are universal qualities to villainy that transcend eras; for example, the murderer almost always feels that he/she has no choice but to perpetrate his/her heinous acts. The great success of the author occurs when the reader closes the book with the realization that there is ALWAYS a choice.

  56. Karen Mikusak

    Would love to win!

  57. Lori Walker

    Want!

  58. george ashmore

    This sounds like a great read

  59. Karen Hester

    New series for me

  60. Joyce Benzing

    Yay!

  61. Mary Ann Brady

    I love it and hope I win. Thx.

  62. lynette thompson

    This looks like a real winner, its the book for me. Love It!

  63. Jeffrey Malis

    Looking forward to reading Finch’s latest offering… Thank you for the opportunity!

  64. Lisa Eickler

    I’m highly anticipating reading The Laws of Murder. Reading this makes me wonder how difficult it is to not let what you know of modern crime and times influence you while writing a historical. Great piece!

    Lisa

  65. jennifer sullivan

    would love it

  66. Charles Volstad

    This sounds like a good book

  67. keith james

    I look forward to a new read.

  68. Margit Curtright

    I look forward to reading a new Charles Finch novel.

  69. Joe Hauser

    Very nice!

  70. JAMES LYNAM

    FINCH is AWESOME.
    Hope I WIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  71. Lee Knieper Husemann

    Sounds very interesting!

  72. Leisa Peterson

    I can’t wait to read the Charles Finch novel!

  73. v cess

    I am a lover of the hunt, the spotlight on the villain, the endgame….delicious. Lead me into another fantasy search for justice, Mr. Finch, I so look forward to it!

  74. Margaret Eveleigh

    I think in VIctorian times some lives were considered more valuable than others so the corrollary might be that a killer of some people might be less/more evil than a killer of another type of people . For example, a killer of street urchins might have been considered less ‘evil’ than a killer of the aristocracy. {In some countries it’s still like that today unfortunately.}

  75. Ryan Scott

    I am such a huge fan of this mystery series. I hope I win.

  76. Pdx Irish Girl

    I would SO love to read this! Mystery is my
    favorite genre. Thank you for the giveaway.

  77. Andrew Kuligowski

    As a kid, I can remember DC and Marvel comics diverging on a couple of points – one of them was “WHY is the villain doing / wanting / etc-ing that?” Marvel often attempted to answer the question, to various degress of success. At the time, DC didn’t – evil doers were simply bad, ’nuff said! Can’t get away with that anymore. YES, the bad guy can simply be a bad guy – BUT the author has to EXPLAIN that, the reader won’t/can’t take it for granted any more.

  78. Janice Santillo

    sounds good. would love to read!

  79. Cindi Hoppes

    This article made me really stop and think about villians
    now and then! I am a huge fan of Agatha Christie’s books
    and the adventures of the original Sherlock Holmes! This
    author is new to me and I find him and his writings, quite
    fascinating…
    Many thanks, Cindi
    jchoppes[at]hotmail[dot]com

  80. KAFW

    The Patricia Highsmith-type villian always works for me.

  81. Norma

    I’ve read all your books and love them all. Looking forward to reading your newest ” The Laws of Murder”. Thanks for the chance to win.

  82. Jane Schwarz

    I have read some of your books and like them very much. Thank you for the opportunity to win this latest one.

  83. Crystal Blackburn

    I haven’t read Finch but I’d love to.

  84. Joanne Mielczarski

    Looking forward to the read.

  85. Daniel Morrell

    sounds like a fun one!

  86. Shauntea Crutcher

    I love a good mystery. Hope I win.

  87. Martha Gifford

    Love Victorian mysteries, this one sounds good.

  88. Lori Ringel

    This would be a great read for me. I am getting burned out on romance novels.

  89. Clydia DeFreese

    I haven’t read any Charles Finch…..I’m not sure how I feel about Victorian mysteries. I guess as long as the story is interesting, I’d enjoy it.

  90. Susan Craig

    I think both the bad guys and the good guys have gotten more complicated – which is good.

  91. Barbara Bibel

    Very interesting article. I think that good and evil have become more complex over time. The Victorians had very strict conventions. Ours are more fluid and there are more ways to be evil.

  92. Dakota Brown

    I really want to read this. I hope I can win. Thankyou.

  93. Marsha

    Victorian historicals are my favorite genre and Charles Finch is always a must read.

  94. Daniel Morrell

    sounds like a fun one!

  95. Bob Alexander

    I grew up with Snidely Whiplash. I evolved into a Sherlock Holmes fan. I have read and enjoyed Charles Finch’s books and look forward to join the next Charles Lennox mystery.

  96. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  97. Chuck Aeschbacher Jr

    I’m new to the author but intrigued.

  98. Laurie Nutter

    Read one of Charles Finch’s books and really look
    forward to reading this one. I will keep my fingers
    crossed to winning this one! Thank you for the chance!
    Love Victorians!

  99. Ronald Roseborough

    Egads! Foiled again. Still haven’t won a book. Maybe this is the time.

  100. Phoenix Vie

    Interesting article.

  101. Doc RedBat

    Good article.

  102. Jim Belcher

    I am probably in the middle. I want to know why a villian is doing what (s)he does if I can, but I do not want page after page of the tortured thoughts of a crazy person. Move the story on. On the flip side, I wish more of the good guys would just pull the trigger when they can and rid us of obviously evil, worthless people so we do not have to support them the rest of their lives with the possibility they will escape or some bleeding heart liberal judge will set them free to prey on innocents again. If we need a new vilian next week or book then lt’s have one.

  103. Debra Kidle

    Wow, this sounds like a cool read!

  104. Lisa Pecora

    I’d love to read this!

  105. Crystal

    I really enjoy both types of villians. I think our society has reduced the more innocent of the villians to be something more acceptable for children than they are for adults.

  106. Karen Mikusak

    Would love to win!

  107. Edd

    I want to read the work of Charles Finch.

  108. Ed Nemmers

    I want to read the work of Charles Finch.

  109. Susan Smith

    Sounds great!

  110. elaine fisher

    nice short histroy lesson
    all hallows eve to everyone … wicked as you wish it to be … may a mad person of your choice find you
    MUST think in the new centry … a few writers wrote ahead of their time
    not my genre, but will make a great gift … thanks

  111. denise a

    sounds good!

  112. Richard Brandt

    Very perceptive look at the two big issues of a villainous character: Why do they do what they do? And how did they get that way?

  113. teresa sopher

    I’ve enjoyed all the books in this series. Looking forward to this one as well.

  114. Buddy Garrett

    It sounds great. Thanks.

  115. Laura DeLaRosa

    Yes please!

  116. Michele Baron

    My husband would love this book…thank you for the opportunity to add this to his holiday gifts

  117. Julie N

    I feel lucky

  118. Kristina Faricelli

    I would love to win this exceptional book by Charles Finch. Thank you for offering this giveaway!

  119. Tim H. Moss

    Good deal, count me in!

  120. Heather Cowley

    This will be my first!

  121. Carl White

    [b]Who does not enjoy a good book about murder…aahhh…I remember my first murder…[/b]

  122. Daniel Vice

    I would like a copy of this

  123. Stacie Clark

    I haven’t yet read Finch, but I’m curious!

  124. CherylMc

    would love this

  125. Regina Marlborough

    Finch writes a great mystery. Can’t wait to read this one.

  126. Alyson Widen

    Mysteries have sure progressed since EA Poe’s time. Two of my favorites are Les Roberts and Joseph Finder. I think there are more layers and variables tossed in nowadays. I do love a historical fiction or a cozy mystery, especially ones that have food as a character.

  127. Stephen Saunders

    I’ve been hearing some good things about this author.

  128. Karen Koziczkowski

    I love Murder Mysteries. Thanks for the chance to win!

  129. Jeanette Taylor

    Just discovered you at my new library where we look for dvds of Detective Frost, and books about mysteries….when we two retired folks aren’t reading we watch dvds of Murdock Mysteries, Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse, Rumpole, Inspector Lewis, Foyle’s War, Poirot, John Cleese anything, and of course, anything of Agatha C’s work…so you are a great find……in addition to Jeremy Brett’s Holmes and all of Doc Martin…..back to your stuff…thanks so much for being a great writer…..

  130. Gregory Sparks

    Looks like a book I should read.

Comments are closed.