Curse you, William Shakespeare! Curse you, Albert Broccoli! Curse you, Agatha Christie! You made the villains of the world cookie-cutter characters, literary evil behind a mask of normality. Be it Claudius, Dr. No or any of the initially-innocuous characters in any Christie novel, they are, in the end, all the same: greedy and duplicitous. Worse, they are as predictable as the sunrise and that, in a nutshell, is what WAS WRONG with the mystery, villainy in what used to be called mystery literature.
A decade ago, literary villainy was clearly defined. It was what would sell to Broadway, Hollywood, and the silver screen. That was the route to fame and fortune so, to satisfy audiences in theater chairs and on living room couches, the stories had to have bookends, a murder to start and the unveiling at the end. All in two hours on stage and screen and one hour – with cutouts for advertising – on the silver screen. Formula writing became the order of the day to the point ‘mystery’ meant ‘murder.’ A decade ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a non-murder novel in the mystery section of any bookstore in America.
Enter the internet and the birth of eBooks.
And, at the same time, the rise of Netflix, cable TV, Hulu and the download market.
Suddenly the path to fame and fortune was no longer Broadway, Hollywood or the small screen. The big money in books was gone. Suddenly the book industry was on its own. To become a millionaire, it was now necessary to sell a million books, not wait for a Hollywood agent to ‘discover’ you and let a big Hollywood production company write you a fat check.
This is a gift to writers that keeps on giving. Fortunately for authors such as myself, the bulk of writers in America have yet to get the message. They remain generic, the root of genre’ in more ways than one. Mystery eBooks with cookie-cutter villains are a dime a dozen. Their plotlines are indistinguishable; only the settings change. And, of course, the quirks of the ‘bad guys’ try to make them distinguishable.
Blessedly, the internet has opened the door to a new brand of villainy. Now, in the case of a murder mystery, the body of the deceased can be a doorway to the plotline, but not the focus of the story. As an example, in my book DEAD MEN DO COME BACK, the deceased was shot, frozen solid and then dumped in the Juneau (Alaska) harbor in the closing days of the Alaska Gold Rush. Throughout the book the body will disappear and reappear three times. As the writer, I know readers will be concentrating on the murder. After all, that’s the classical way mystery readers think. They follow the breadcrumb trail of clues to the murderer and that, as they say, would be the end of the story. For me this is great! Because in my book, the murder is a red herring. The real story is three robberies of gold from the mine in Juneau. With a twist. The villains cannot steal the gold in Juneau because it is a small town and you can’t convert 750 pounds of gold to cash in a local bank. And they cannot steal the gold off the steamship on its ten-day voyage to Seattle because that is too much cargo to offload without being spotted. And they cannot steal it off the steamship dock in Seattle because armed guards are going to take possession of the precious metal. So how do the villains steal the 750 pounds of gold? (You’ll have to read the book to find out.)
The literary point of DEAD MEN DO COME BACK is to use the murder as a way of confusing the reader. The reader expects clues leading to the murderer. That has been the time-honored mystery plotline. But this is no longer the case. Worse, from the conventional reader’s point of view, in real life, more often than not, the bad guys ‘get away with it.’ If you do not believe me, consider the subprime mortgage crisis from 2007 to 2009. U. S. households lost an estimated $13 trillion in value and not a single banker went to jail.
To this end, in this new era of mystery writing, we are being introduced to a new breed of both detective and villain. As an example, to keep my novels closer to real life, I write impossible crimes. An impossible crime is one in which the detective must figure out HOW the criminals committed the crime before he can chase the perpetrators. In THE MATTER OF THE VANISHING GREYHOUND (www.authormasterminds.com), a Greyhound bus with four bank robbers, a dozen hostages and $10 million in cash – being followed by the police – disappears off the Golden Gate Bridge. As this is a mystery novel, not science fiction, the detective must figure out how a Greyhound bus could disappear off the Golden Gate Bridge and if the bank robbers already have the cash, why do they need the hostages?
Two decades ago this novel, the first of a series, was turned down unread a laundry list of New York publishers and agents because “it was not a murder.” Today, the commercial definition of “mystery” has expanded to the point that the book is saleable. As another example, nonmurder mysteries that are making big money on the silver screen. NOW YOU SEE ME and GOING IN STYLE did very well as mysteries and there were no murders.
The key to the future of mystery writing can be summed up in my writing motto: “If you do not have something unique, you have nothing.” The future of writing will be with authors who are not on the beaten path. The writing world – along with the silver and small screens – do not need one more murder mystery. To attract an audience – and book sales – the villain has to be unconventional and the crime unique. In reality, this is a lot easier than most writers imagine. The past is replete with unique crimes and villains. And the past is suddenly much easier to access. Any writer can access hundreds of years of newspapers, criminal cases, diaries, letters and other documents online. For the writer looking for a unique criminal mind or villain, he/she should start with one-hundred-year-old newspaper. The smaller the town the better. Why? Because all of the ‘big’ crimes in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have been used in books. Not so much Des Moines, Boise, Riverside, Orlando or Helena. There were very, very bad men in those days and a lot of the local baddies have not been the subject of books – fiction or nonfiction – because writers in Des Moines, Boise, Riverside, Orlando or Helena are under the impression that “nothing exciting ever happens here.” Well, it does, and it did and if you are looking for real life, flesh-and-blood villains in every hue of duplicity and depravity the seeds of your next novel – or biography – might be in a century-old newspaper.
As an example, it was a well-known historical fact that the Alaska Gold Rush ship CLARA NEVADA sank in 1898 and then came back up in 1908. That was as far as most historians and writers went. When I read the newspaper articles on the ship I discovered it had about 100,000 ounces of gold on board. That’s $17 million in today’s dollars. The ship sank in 20 feet of water. OK, what happened to the gold? This sounded like a robbery to me. I took the name of every passenger and crewmember I could find in the newspapers and ran the names through the 1900 Census. I got several hits, one being the captain who had new steamboat on the Yukon. I wrote a nonfiction book on the CLARA NEVADA but if someone were looking for a real-life villain, the personal history of Captain Charles H. Lewis would be perfect. It would have it all: mass murder, a multi-million-dollar robbery, sex, opium smuggling and insurance fraud. It was also the largest mass murder until the Oklahoma bombing and was three times the size of the Brink’s Job. Here’s an unknown villain just dying, so to speak, to be used in a fiction setting!
For the writer looking for a villain, dodge the urge to go cookie-cutter. Go for the real-time villains. They are, figuratively speaking, out there, waiting for you to discover them, hiding on microfilm and no one has told their story – yet.
© 2018, Steven Levi. All rights reserved.
quoted from The Alaska Writers Directory:
"Steven C. Levi is an Alaskan historian and writer. A 40-year resident of Anchorage, he has written 80 books. His nonfiction books on Alaska history include Boom to Bust in the Alaska Gold Fields, a historical forensic investigation into the sinking of Alaska’s ghost ship, the Clara Nevada, as well as a history of Alaska’s bush pilot heritage, Cowboys of The Sky. He is also dedicated to making history interesting to young readers. His Making History Interesting to Students series on Kindle is a collection of eight books specifically written to teach middle and high school students what they are supposed to be learning in their history classes."