Contemporary fiction is filled with bad guys, but how many stories put you firmly in the head of the nasty perpetrator and present their side of the story as a fait accompli?
Here are five novels that come to mind, all of which feature characters with skewed moral compasses.
They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):
‘The Book of Evidence’ by John Banville (1989)
The wicked protagonist in this 1989 Booker shortlisted novel is Freddie Montgomery, a scientist, who steals a painting from a neighbour and accidentally kills a servant girl in the process. He then goes on the run to avoid detection. This dark and disturbing tale, which is told from Freddie’s point of view, recounts events leading up to his arrest — and it soon becomes clear he does not believe he has done anything wrong. The story is all the more disturbing given it is based on a real-life case, about a nurse murdered in Dublin, from 1982. (Note I read this before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review.)
‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy (1955)
The Ginger Man recounts the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who does everything a married man should not do: he spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol; staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife; and conducts numerous adulterous affairs. He’s thoroughly unlikable and completely selfish, and everything he does is outrageous. The book treads a whisper-thin line between comedy and tragedy, and while you don’t exactly cheer on Dangerfield’s exploits, you do keep reading in order to see what amoral thing he will do next!
‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
Tom Ripley, the talented one of the title, is a truly wonderful creation. A 23-year-old loner, he wants the finest things in life but cannot afford them — well, not until he bumps off a rich friend and acquires access to his monthly trust fund cheque first. While Tom’s actions are far from moral, or legal, you can’t help but cheer him on, as he moves from one Italian city to another in order to avoid the law which is breathing down his neck. The fast-paced narrative means you keep turning the pages to see whether our anti-hero gets away with his dastardly crimes! The ending may just surprise you.
‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe (1992)
Francis ‘Francie’ Brady is the meanest and most deranged schoolboy you’re ever likely to meet in modern fiction. He comes from a dysfunctional family — his mother is beaten up by her husband, his father is an alcoholic — and when a neighbour calls his family “pigs” he takes it to heart and wages a campaign of abuse and retaliation that does not end well. The story, which is told stream of consciousness style with no punctuation, follows Francie’s exploits, which include running away from home, going to a special school for boys where he is sexually abused and later committing a quite atrocious murder of his own. This incredibly dark and hard-hitting novel earned McCabe a place on the Booker shortlist in 1992 and still remains one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. (Again, I read this before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review.)
‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)
Matt, the 30-something narrator of this novel, seems harmless enough to begin with. He’s a brand-obsessed businessman with a penchant for shopping, and while it’s clear that he’s obnoxious and self-centred, the further you get into the story the more you realise he is losing his grip on reality and is quite a dangerous and manipulative character. As he becomes more and more troubled, he begins committing more and more offences which will land him in serious trouble should he ever get caught. But because he is delusional, Matt cannot see that he is doing anything wrong, which makes for some incredibly funny set pieces. While I can’t say I cheered Matt on while I read this book — I felt far too worried for his sanity — I did get some good laughs out of his exploits and just hoped he’d get the medical help he so clearly needed!
Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend some other reads that place the bad guy (or girl) at the heart of the story?
17 thoughts on “5 books starring amoral protagonists”
A week in December does it to some extent, but Seb Faulks also wrote Enderby. Evil man!
This looks like a great list of books, but I haven’t read any of them so I can’t comment on their evilness. One of the most horrific books I’ve ever read was the memoirs of a serial killer . I’m afraid I can’t remember the title (just googled it and came up with 100s of books with similar titles and can’t be sure which it was 😦 )Seeing inside the head of a real killer was very scary indeed.
some great choices ,I racked my head and Alex from clockwork orange as he is a bit of the rails teen but also not till much later in the book see the cause of his actions ,all the best stu
Yes, someone on Twitter mentioned Alex from Clockwork Orange. Other nominations (on Twitter) include Pinkie from Brighton Rock, Jacob Smith from Mike Thomas’s Pocket Notebook, Jamie Thornberry from Hugh Cornwell’s Window on the World and the narrator in Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks.
“Dirty Tricks” is a great book, and I first saw it as on TV with Martin Clunes (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0260862/).
I’m currently reading another book I first saw on TV – “The Charmer” by Patrick Hamilton (famous for writing “Rope” amongst other things). Nigel Havers played the evil Gorse seducing a rich widow on TV – it’s quite dated in lots of ways but still a marvellous read.
John Lanchester’s _The Debt to Pleasure_ has a wonderfully warped amoral protagonist. It’s one of my favourite reads.
I must look that one up, too.
Ive reserved a copy of the Dibden book at my library, as it sounds *exactly* like my type of read. Not sure about the Martin Clunes version though; I simply cant take him seriously in any dramatic role after Men Behaving Badly!
Re: The Charmer, is that the same Patrick Hamilton as Slaves of Solitude and Hangover Square — two books Ive been meaning to read forever — ??
Oh easy, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Suskind’s Perfume. I always trot him out when people say they didn’t like a book because they didn’t like the characters!
I haven’t read it – have seen the film – but I guess one would have to add Hannibal Lechter from Silence of the lambs.
I haven’t read your 5, though I have seen the Ripley films. I don’t think he’s a patch on Grenouille (or Lechter)! But he’s not good! I’d like to read the Banville.
If I was to describe Dirty Tricks in two words, they would be “wickedly funny” – Clunes is great in it.
Yes, the same Patrick Hamilton – Hangover Square is on my list too.
I have just finished reading The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt and it presented the central character, who was a killer by trade, as a sensitive guy who just wanted to be loved. A great read. I am so pleased that you did the Shadow Giller Kimbofo, I’ve read quite a few of the short list books now and have loved every one of them. I hadn’t read much Canadian fiction before then.
I remember once I hired the film Butcher Boy on DVD. I had no idea of the story and so I was expecting some sentimental tale set in Ireland. Oh I got a hell of a shock LOL
I think the one novel like this that spring to mind is Lolita
Oh my goodness, I bet you got a shock! I went to the cinema to see the film — there was a discussion with McCabe beforehand. I remember him saying that he thought the book was probably unfilmable.
Glad you’re discovering some good Canadian fiction. I’m the same — never really read it before Kevin asked me to take part in the Shadow Giller, and now I’m on the lookout for it.
Of course! I read Perfume in the early 1990s… what a great book.
I liked “The butcher boy” very much. The film by Neil Jordan is very good, too. Did you see it ?
How about Frank Cauldhame from The Wasp Factory?