March 17, 2014
I just finished a classic mystery novel that got me thinking about villains we love to hate. The novel, In a Lonely Place, written in 1947 by Dorothy B. Hughes, is a corker. Though it was written before I was born, it feels as contemporary as the latest version of the iPhone, as suspenseful as an episode of True Detective.
In a Lonely Place was one of the first mysteries ever written from the criminal’s point of view, according to ImPress, which reprinted it in a series called “The Best Mysteries of All Time.” Hughes wrote it in a spare, hard-boiled style known as noir, more commonly used by male writers of her time.
Dix Steele, the novel’s antihero, is chilling from the first page. He’s standing on a Southern California cliff, exhilarated by the beauty of the evening fog rolling in. What does he do with this feeling? He looks for a woman to strangle. He follows a would-be victim, but she escapes – this time. We learn that Dix, a young, attractive man who was a pilot in World War II, is restless and damaged, with a Dark Secret.
He runs into a war buddy, who he finds, to his consternation, is now an L.A. detective with a beautiful, discerning wife. Eventually they will play a key role in his unmasking, but not until the reader has been thoroughly gripped by 222 pages of riveting suspense. The book, written tightly inside the serial killer’s point of view, is irresistible.
Why are we so fascinated by a protagonist like Dix? And what makes some villains better than others? My novel, Saving Texas, features three major villains. Two are men who are brought down by their corrupt use of money and power. The third is a bisexual Peruvian woman with a sordid past who loves to kill. She’s a cold assassin who happily wreaks vengeance on men, but feels remorseful after killing a woman. For some reason, my readers generally enjoyed this character more than any other in the book. Like Dix, she’s a killer with outsize appetites, but she somehow remains appealing. As a veteran reader and a novice novelist, I’m still trying to figure this out.