A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
I recently did a short review of John Gardner’s Moriarty books (The Return of Moriarty and The Revenge of Moriarty) and it got me thinking about other novels that focus on a criminal protagonist rather than your run-of-the-mill heroes. Not those grittier noir type criminals that are usually just sympathetic victims of circumstance, but criminals with a spark of genius or a flare for the dramatic, the ones that make it seem fun to be a bit evil.
Robur the Conquerer by Jules Verne: Dirigibles are a lousy way to get around, it’s a fact. But that still doesn’t give mad scientist Robur the right to use his own invention—a gigantic, multi-propellered helicopter—to kidnap the world’s leading dirigible expert and his beautiful daughter. Nor does it give him the right to go around vandalizing the world’s tallest monuments, terrifying innocent Victorians with flashing lights and phantom trumpets, and incessantly lecturing everyone about their lack of intelligence. But alas, such are the whims of genius.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith: Tom Rippley’s genius is not in his ability to commit crimes. In that sense he’s a bit of a bumbler really. But he is singularly adept at getting away with them anyway. Each Ripley book follows the same basic pattern. Every lie, every con, and every murder builds and builds until each scene is a new adventure in seat squirming tension. We feel Tom Ripley’s discomfort, we relate to it, and in the end we find ourselves actually relieved that the villain manages to get away.
The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza by Lawrence Block: Bernie is a bookseller who loves to burgle. It’s not that he needs to steal to live, his bookstore is usually enough to provide for him. It’s just that, for Bernie, burgling is a gift. It’s an innate talent that he really gets a kick out of, so why waste it? Well, for one, because the people around him, like Abel his Spinoza reading fence, tend to get killed. And two, it usually falls to Bernie to figure out who done it.
Fantômas by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre:
‘What did you say?’
‘I said: Fantômas.’
‘And what does that mean?’
‘But what is it?
‘Nobody… And yet, yes, it is somebody!’
‘And what does the somebody do?’
Fantômas is the mystifying master of disguise and sadistic criminal that thrilled French readers in 32 hugely popular novels published between just 1911 and 1913.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch: In a fantasy world based on renaissance Venice, Locke Lamora leads the Gentlemen Bastards, a band of thieves that refuses to abide by the “Secret Peace”–an agreement between organized crime and the authorities that gives criminals free run as long as the nobility isn’t targeted. It’s a coming of age tale, a fantasy world-builder, a crime novel, and a bit of a swashbuckler, with shades of Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers, but most appealing of all is Locke Lamora’s swaggering genius for clever confidence games.
More criminal masterminds can be found in these free eBooks from Project Gutenberg:
List by Matthew