Anyone who watched the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi recently was treated to the spectacle of Vladimir Putin and Bernie Ecclestone, two of the planet’s more interesting villains, cosying up to each other. Ecclestone is the billionaire ‘supremo’ of Formula One, who has reportedly got £31 million a year out of the Russians for the privilege of holding the race – so you can see why he was happy to give Putin a manly hug.
Putin is trying to ‘make nice’ on the world stage and avoid sanctions and other financial repercussions from his covert invasion of Ukraine.
Watching these two strut their stuff is fascinating because as a crime writer the most important character to consider is the villain.
There are plenty of fictional examples out there from the Bond villains to Hannibal Lecter to serial killer Paul Spector, about to return to our screens in BBC 2’s drama The Fall. But getting a glimpse of the real thing is always illuminating because it reminds us that the best villains are never simple monsters.
I’m sure that neither Putin nor Ecclestone regard themselves as anything other than a statesman and a businessman respectively. Opinions will differ as to where to place them on any moral spectrum.
However, it is the creation of a fictional villain that will be the fulcrum of any crime story. The protagonist or heroine will only be as good as the antagonist she has to fight and overcome.
In The Informant the main character is Kaz Phelps, released from prison on licence and desperate to get her life back. She faces a range of antagonists – the police, who put pressure on her; a cousin, an old school gangster who wants to put her in her place. But the real villain of the piece is her brother.
Joey Phelps is a psychopathic killer who loves his sister to the point of obsession and wants her back in the family firm. He regards himself as a businessman, as many gangsters do.
He is also self aware enough to know that his lack of debilitating emotions makes him different. But he sees this as a gift. His capacity to commit murder makes him a better survivor and a more evolved human being in his view.
The logic of the villain is crucial to any story. We all need self belief and a sense of our own rectitude. We can also argue and disagree about the morality of all kinds of behaviours. Is euthanasia always murder? Is adultery a sin?
It may be easy to dismiss someone who sits at the far end of the morality spectrum as deluded. But then we’re all a little deluded at times. A good villain makes us shudder in horror at the possibility that, in spite of their heinous crimes, we might just see their point of view. Or even admire them.
The Informant is published by Macmillan