We love mystery!

Villains We Love

Bad guys or misunderstood? In this week’s episode, Brook and Sarah discuss all things villainous, including anti-heroes and what makes a good villain.

Discussed in order

“The Final Problem” (1893) Arthur Conan Doyle
The Valley of Fear (1914) Arthur Conan Doyle
Moriarity (2014) Anthony Horowitz
“The Ides of March (1898) E.W. Hornung
“The Arrest of Arsène Lupin” (1905) Maurice Leblanc
Lupin (2021) Netflix
Catch Me if You Can (2022) Steven Spielberg
Toy Story
Darth Vader
Hannibal Lector
The Grinch
Breaking Bad (2008-2013) AMC
Tom Ripley
Tony Soprano
Ocean’s Eleven (2001) Warner Bros.
Hustle (2004-2012) BBC
Gone Girl (2012) Gillian Flynn
Counterfeit (2022) Kristin Chen

For more information

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Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com


This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. How are you doing today?
SarahI’m doing really well. How about you?
BrookI’m really excited because I can’t wait to talk about villains with you.
SarahYes. Criminals and villains have long held a special appeal for audiences and in this brief overview I’m going to mention a few that have proven popular for years, starting with Robin Hood. Historical references to the thief date back to the thirteenth century and literary references to the fourteenth and fifteenth century poems and ballads. And there are many television and film adaptations of the character, so he remains someone who is certainly popular with audiences today.  

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will know professor James Moriarity as the famous detective’s foil. Though he actually only appears in two stories, “The Final Problem” and “The Valley of Fear” and he is mentioned in five others. I really loved how Anthony Horowitz handled him in his book Moriarity. Fans of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson will see parallels with A.J. Raffles and his sidekick Harold “Bunny” Manders. Raffles is a cricketer by day and amateur cracksman or burglar by night and the stories that I read were largely about how he committed his thefts and evaded capture with bunny recording the exploits. The first story featuring Raffles was published in 1898 and written by E.W. Hornung. The character was first inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Hornung had a bit of an advantage in that respect since he was sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, so no doubt the two of them had plenty of opportunity to compare notes.  

Raffles is not the only popular gentleman thief. In 1905, Maurice Leblanc introduced his character Arsène Lupin to audiences and he features in a total of 17 novels and 39 novellas the character serves as inspiration for a modern Netflix series Lupin. And interestingly, in several stories, Lupin actually meets a character who is not so loosely based on Sherlock Holmes. Initially he did call the character Sherlock Holmes until Doyle complained and then renamed him Herlock Sholmes and ah and they meet in several in several stories and Holmes, Lupin, and Raffles share a lot of qualities, including sharp wit and an affinity for disguise. As a reader or a viewer it can create conflicting feelings if we’re rooting for the bad guy. But when it’s done well, it can be really satisfying. Brook, what do you think about this?
BrookI think that that was a fantastic introduction, first of all, Sarah, so good. And yeah, absolutely I was um, reminded of a quote by Alfred Hitchcock, who of course is the master of suspense, and he says “The more successful the villain the more successful the picture.” And I think that that’s exactly right and that does bring up what you said that sometimes they are the most compelling figure in the story. We find ourselves rooting for them.
BrookOne of the stories that you mentioned in the intro reminded me of a more modern take on that, which is Catch Me If You Can. I believe that it’s also a book, but I’ve seen the film with Leonardo Dicaprio and you’re very much rooting for the quote unquote villain to evade capture. I mean he’s doing these amazing, smart creative feats and then you know we watch to see if he’s going to be able to evade capture from the bumbling detective, which doesn’t hurt I mean that’s just always a fun addition to a story, too.
SarahWhat you’re talking about the bumbling detective, it sort of throws the hero detective trope on its ear, right? So if we’re going to be rooting for the criminal or the villain, I think the detective almost needs to be someone who’s you know, not as clever as the as our “hero” who’s actually the villain.
BrookYeah, and that brings up um a really good thing when you you know we put quotes around hero and I’ve always been a little confused in my head. We have the villain and then we have the anti-hero. I poked around in that to clarify for myself what the difference is between those two characters in a story and so um, villains are the characters who are motivated by evil or darkness. Their ultimate motivations are not sympathetic. It’s pretty hard to get behind these guys. And they are wanting their protagonist’s demise or the opposite of what the protagonist wants. But an antihero’s motivations, we can get behind them. They’re sympathetic to a reader or a viewer. And often because they’re working for the greater good and it’s what you reference, Sarah. It’s the Robin Hood scenario. He does some bad things, but it’s to help others. Um so some examples of villains are um so the truly dark guys. We’ve got Syd from Toy Story. He doesn’t have very many redeeming quality qualities. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector, the Grinch. So these guys are just kind of rotten to be rotten. And then antiheroes. We’ve got Dexter, Walter White from Breaking Bad, Tom Ripley.
BrookTom Ripley is a bit of a question mark for me. So maybe we can talk about him. But you know, Walter White is a great example of an antihero because he does all sorts of really horrible things. Um, you name it on the list of crimes and he and Jesse probably carry them out. However, from the first episode we learn that he believes he’s dying and he’s got all these intellectual skills and so he’s going to start dealing drugs to hopefully care for his family after he’s passes away. So you can get behind that as a viewer you can understand on some level. The dire need that he found himself in. So, I think that that’s the kind of character that is the most fun to root for in in a film or in a book are probably more on the spectrum of the antihero.
SarahYeah, I that’s a really great distinction, Brook. And I think I’m with you I don’t think I would put Tom Ripley in the antihero I think he was much more of a villain than that. But you know if I think about antiheroes. It’s um, maybe Tony Soprano maybe Danny Ocean and you know Ocean’s Eleven, because you know you’re watching that film and you’re really hoping that they get away with robbing this casino.
SarahObviously, audiences have enjoyed that franchise because I think there’s even another one that was recently announced that they’re that they’re looking at doing. So you know you know I think I think if as a reader or a viewer you’re cheering for someone who in the real world would be considered a criminal, um then that’s ah, that’s a really effective antihero. Um, but then there’s some like yeah like Tom Ripley is makes you really uncomfortable. Maybe that’s that’s how you know that that’s a villain.
BrookYeah, absolutely. And I agree I’m not sure about Tom Ripley on that list to me. He feels like straight up villain. But another way to make the distinction is to ask yourself. “If this character won if they got what they wanted at the end of this story. What would the outcome be?” And many times if the antihero wins. It’s still the greater good. Even if they had to do some pretty bad things to get there. So yeah, exactly, Sarah.
SarahWell, ah, and that’s the thing with Dexter, right? Like he has a moral code in terms of who his victims are um, but if you look at it. He’s a sear like if you look at it. He’s a serial killer.
BrookYeah, that was such an interesting um and ground-breaking series right to have us all rooting for the serial killer and I think when a villain, and we’ll just say villain because overall we know what we mean the bad guy in the in this story. When a villain is done well, it really can cause us to ask some of those bigger questions. It really can show us that good and evil and right and wrong aren’t black and white. It’s shades of gray because can you say what Dexter was doing was right? Or wrong? I mean these are these deep dinnertime conversations you get into with people and you could argue it forever because there isn’t a right answer to that and so I think it’s really cool what a villainous character can bring out in a story.
SarahAbsolutely. And you know I think about a lot of the examples perhaps, with the exception of Dexter, are nonviolent right? I think there’s this universal appeal of someone who is getting away with either pulling one over on the authorities or on the wealthy, like Robin Hood or you know the Ocean’s gang right? Where are they really harming someone by stealing that money.
BrookYeah, exactly and those are definitely my favorite. Like I love a good heist story. I think there’s so much fun. And yeah, there’s a feeling that like there really isn’t a victim here because it’s like the big rich casino or it’s the you know the wealthy billionaire who can do without that $100,000 you know or something that really no one’s getting hurt. But you get to see the tricky behind-the-scenes attempt for them to steal this.   And I think that another reason that we really like this is sort of the same thing we talked about in the true crime episode where you get a little hit of adrenaline by watching these people commit crimes and yet we’re rooting for them and we’re still at that safe distance. It’s fiction. It’s just for fun.   The other thing that I thought about is the fact that many times in a story, a villain is actually the underdog even though they may appear at the beginning to be the strongest and most equipped in the story. We know that in the end they’re probably going to lose the hero is going to prevail. And so it’s always fun to root for an underdog.
SarahI agree and just picking up on one of the comments that you made earlier about kind of getting that view into how they commit the crime. So it’s you know a little bit different than in detective fiction where the detective is trying to figure out kind of what happened in a lot of these, particularly the ones that we see on screen, you get to see you know either the planning that goes into the caper or the um you know there’s that kind of scene at the end where they show how the painting actually hadn’t been stolen until they came in later and they and they grabbed it right? I’m thinking there was a series by BBC called Hustle and it was you know a group of con artists slash thieves who would plan these thefts where they would you know go into a museum and take an expensive painting and you would see the different characters that they would take on the different personas so that they could do that and you see the same thing in the Netflix version of Lupin and as well as you get that in the um stories about Raffles or Lupin the original um stories you you kind of get that insight into you know how did they very cleverly come up with ways to commit those crimes.
BrookYeah, that’s right, It’s the inverse almost of the detection novel but to me it’s the same type of satisfaction that you get. It’s rather than unraveling the crime um setting up the crime. Yeah, they’re great. It’s great fun.
SarahWhen I was thinking about some of this ,Brook I was thinking about unreliable narrators and how they I mean they’re often the bad guys right? And you know we as an audience don’t often realize that they’re unreliable until that big reveal that happens later in the book like we talked about in the episode that we did about unreliable narrators. And some of them are I think these antiheroes that we’ve been talking about and that kind of yeah adrenaline rush that you were talking about that you get as a reader or a viewer when you realize oh, they’ve been bad all along.
BrookYeah, and you’re one of their victims because you’ve bought into their to their lies.
SarahTotally yeah.
BrookI listed both Moriarty and Gone Girl on my list of like kind of my some of my favorite villain based ah reads and noted the same thing you did that for a long time into this story. You don’t realize that they’re the villain and that is exactly like you said because of the unreliable narrator component that’s laid over. Um, so yeah, when you look at it that way the way that Flynn and Horowitz wrote the stories. It’s very um, the way that Flynn and Horowitz constructed these stories. It’s extremely clever as we would expect from both of those authors.
SarahI read one recently called Counterfeit by Kristin Chen where I still think about this book because I think about like ok “Whose story was the was the true story?” It was done really well and it’s about um that counterfeit goods. And it was it was quite good.
BrookI’m writing it down right now because that’s a litmus test for me if you are continuing to think about a book days, weeks, probably even months later that’s one I want to have on my TBR, Sarah.
SarahI think one of the things that happens with the antihero is the way that they’re portrayed as being misunderstood. And there’s an element of that in some children’s books that um, that I’ve encountered where the character that we traditionally think of as being a bad guy is portrayed as just being misunderstood. I mean there’s a whole series called The Bad Guys where this is the part of the original premise of the books um is that you know these characters that are traditionally um, considered bad or are actually out to do to do good things. And I think that’s really interesting that kind of playing with that even at a um, an early reader level.
BrookYeah, yeah, and that takes us back to that antihero right? But it also I think is a very important part of creating any villain because they need a backstory and many times when we find out what the rest of the story is for them. There is a little part of us that that sympathizes and realizes that oh well, if people really understood then they would get this person better I mean I think. Even though we put the Grinch in the villain category straight up villain, there is some good in the grinch and we also know that there’s a twist at the end and he becomes good. I um, think that that’s also a trend that we see in many of these ah the Catch Me If You Can story ends that way. Um, Abignail becomes an FBI, I believe, officer. Um, so you know there are redeeming qualities. Maybe they’re just misunderstood.
SarahYeah, and there’s you know I think maybe that’s one of the things that as audiences we like is that redemption that happens at the end, right? And you know thinking about a backstory and you know understanding that maybe this character only had bad choices available to them or you know when we think about our What Would You Do episodes where this is the only choice that the character could make that led them to being a villain or being an antihero.
BrookSo, Sarah that gives me an idea. Maybe one of our upcoming What Would You Do episodes will be one of these stories that are villain based and we can put ourselves in the shoes of the villain character rather than the hero.
SarahYeah I love that idea, Brook.
SarahWell, Brook I think this has been a really great conversation.
BrookYes, this has been so much fun and we’ve talked about some of our favorite types of stories today as usual, but before we say goodbye, I would like to share two great reviews that we recently received on Apple Podcasts the first is from Stella Bixby and Stella gives the show five stars. She says great podcast easy to listen to voices great content and good resources. The second one is from Ross Girl who also gives the show five stars and says. Don’t let the chill vibe of Clued in Mystery fool you these ladies know their stuff I’ve learned so much I’ve added to my want to read list and discovered TV shows that are fantastic. If you’re a mystery lover this is a must listen podcast. Want to thank both of you for taking the time to rate and review the podcast it truly means the world to us to hear listener feedback reviews definitely help new people find our show. So if you would be willing to leave a review on the platform you listen from. We would be so thankful. Until next time, thank you for listening to Clued in Mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.