5. Nick Corey (Pop 1280 by Jim Thompson). Many would pick Lou Ford in this spot – Thompson’s greatest villain and antagonist of The Killer Inside Me – but there’s something about Sheriff Corey that always appealed to me more. Could be that, as a symbol of the darkness that exists in everyone, Thompson wanted Corey to be that much more relatable; as such, he’s every bit as psychopathic as Ford, but with just enough of the rough edges knocked off – and the humour amped up – to make it very hard not to root for him.
4. Francis Dolarhyde (Red Dragon by Thomas Harris). No, he’s not even the most famous villain in his own book (although, at this point, is Dr Lecter even a real villain anymore?) but there is something utterly terrifying about ‘The Tooth Fairy’s’ utter commitment to the horror he wreaks. Might be that I’m swayed to include him by Tom Noonan’s monumental portrayal of the character in Michael Mann’s adaptation of the book, Manhunter.
3. Francis Begbie (Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh). When I set out to make this list, I didn’t expect the most commonly-occurring name to be ‘Francis’. Most villains in crime fiction are terrifying, memorable or otherwise engaging because of their otherworldly capacities – either for violence, charm, cunning, brutality or some combination thereof. Begbie is the opposite; he’s the everyday psychopath you could run into in any pub in the country – and come away with a glassing for your troubles. That’s what makes him so frightening. But he’s also utterly unpredictable – and that’s what makes him so compelling.
2. Judge Holden (Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy). What to say about the Judge? Fans of McCarthy’s seminal and brutally brilliant work have speculated that he’s anything from the devil to god himself. Seven feet tall, corpulent, hairless, preternaturally intelligent – even from the first description of him he’s unforgettable. There is no vice or evil he doesn’t embrace. But the kicker? Simply put: he gets all the best lines. Who could forget his lyrical threat before his final murder at the book’s conclusion, “‘Drink up,’ he said. ‘Drink up. This night thy soul may be required of thee.’
1. Dudley Smith (LA Quartet by James Ellroy). I’ve never hidden my love of Ellroy’s work, so it’s perhaps no surprise that his most enduring character tops this list. Much of Smith’s brilliance lies in the way he’s written; he’s often on the page, and when off it never far from the protagonists’ thoughts – and yet neither we nor the characters suss the full extent of his schemes until it’s too late. He’s evil that hides in plain sight, that still manages to surprise with the depths of his malice. And yet…to top that, more often than not, he provides whatever few moments of levity Ellroy offers up with his special brand of silver-tongued blarney. It’s a rare villain that is charismatic enough to be both the scariest and funniest player in the piece.
Black Night Falling by Rod Reynolds is published in August by Faber & Faber (£12.99)