Crime Stories

When your protagonist is a criminal, he may "be either admirable or evil. The evil protagonist is usually mentally unstable rather than rationally motivated, because his crimes can be made more horrifying and suspenseful that way than if the reader can sympathize with his reasons: one of the most frightening villains is the utterly unpredictable man. Perhaps the best suspense novel using a madman as its lead character is Stephen Geller's phenomenal She Let Him Continue, also published under the title of the movie version, Pretty Poison. In this masterpiece of horror, the protagonist is an extremely unbalanced young man who has convinced himself that he is employed by the CIA and that it is his duty to investigate and kill those "subversives" working around him. He enlists a young, sexually precocious but utterly vicious girl in his campaign, and their activities lead the reader rapidly to as spectacular and gruesome a climax as anything ever written in the genre. Because readers tend to identify more readily with fictional characters they can like, the evil protagonist should be used only rarely. When a story demands him, he should get his just rewards in the end.

If your hero is an admirable criminal, in the vein of Donald E. Westlake's Parker or Dan Marlowe's Drake (in Marlowe's Operation Breakthrough, Operation Flashpoint, Operation Fireball, and Four for the Money), he will not kill unless forced to do so to save his own life. Usually, he does not kill innocent bystanders or policemen (those he simply outwits), but he will use bullets on other criminals and crooked cops who have him marked. After killing, he will evidence either overt or covert remorse for what he has had to do, though he will always be too pragmatic to moan and weep about death.

If you choose to use a protagonist who is an admirable crook, do not fall into the moralistic trap of using the cliché ending in which, after all his trials and tribulations, the lead loses the stolen loot either through a quirk of fate, the machinations of an even more crooked partner, or the cunning of the police. If you have established your crook as a sympathetic character and have gotten your reader to root for him throughout the bank robbery (or whatever), your audience will only be frustrated when he loses everything simply because you feel that you must prove "crime doesn't pay."

Do not confuse your reader by trying to establish a sympathetic criminal protagonist who commits a crime that is grossly unpleasant—stealing from hardworking folks, stealing from invalids, rape, murder of innocent bystanders —and at odds with what is expected of a hero.


In these tales, the protagonists are ordinary, everyday people, going about average jobs, minding their own business—but are suddenly thrown into a violent confrontation that shatters their complacency. The appeal in this kind of story lies in its verisimilitude, the readers' certainty that this kind of thing might happen to anyone. Few of us ever meet spies or know professional crooks, but any one of us might become the victim of a psychotic killer.

John D. MacDonald's The Executioners is a sudden terror story of formidable proportions. Sam Bowden is the protagonist, fourteen years out of the service after having testified against a shipmate who criminally assaulted a young girl. The rapist, Max Cady, was sentenced to life at hard labor; in the intervening years, Bowden has married and fathered children including a lovely teen-age daughter. When Cady gains his freedom, he has only one desire: revenge on Bowden for testifying against him. Cady is a dangerous man, clever enough to work clandestinely and keep the police out of the picture, unsettled enough to want to kill Bowden's entire family and rape his young daughter. As the story unfolds, Bowden can find no help from organized authority and must learn to overcome his natural decency in order to fight for the lives of his loved ones. The heightening suspense and hard, reasonable climax are unforgettable.

The most famous suspense novel in this form is Joseph Hayes' The Desperate Hours, which has sold nearly four million copies, world-wide. The story deals with a fine, happy family whose home is taken over, without warning, by a desperate group of sadistic escaped convicts who have nothing to lose by murder and much to gain if they can use the Milliard family to prepare and accomplish their own escape from the search area.

In all of these sudden terror tales, the main theme is that, in this less-than-perfect world, the completely civilized man cannot survive unless, in times of peril, he can reject his civilized veneer and act with the cunning and the sense of self-preservation that for most of the tale has made the villain superior to him. The protagonist should triumph. The writer who lets him die is, in effect, saying that the civilized man never stands a chance against the savages in society, and the reader will rarely tolerate such a frighteningly pessimistic attitude.

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