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?
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.