If it’s a cozy environment, why have villains in it at all? In a word, contrast. As Shakespeare wrote: ‘How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world’. Our warm and fuzzy setting, while not a naughty world, has dusky elements that only our bright and plucky main character, usually female in this genre, can overcome.
The Scale of Villainy
Baddies come in various degrees of baddiness. On one end we have the uncontrollable psychopaths with no moral compass whatsoever: Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Mr Hyde from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
With reference to the photo above, this is a lookielike of James Bond arch-villain Blofeld’s cat. A mention therefore must be made of villains you love to hate. From the beginning we don’t take them seriously so there is a diminished sense of threat. They openly revel in their misdemeanors so there is no mystery.
Next, there are those who perhaps did once have a sense of right and wrong but are overcome by emotion, for example, jealousy: Mrs Danvers in Rebecca and Iago in Othello.
Finally there are good people who do bad things. Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester makes the best of a bad situation with his first wife. He arranges for private medical care, as it were, while living a lonely and despairing existence. Rochester fights against his growing attraction to Jane which manifests itself as abruptness. However, at last, out of desperation, he attempts a deception that, exposed, leaves Jane traumatised. Good person; bad deed.
The Way You Tell ‘Em
Where do these figure in cosy mystery? Turning to the queen and godmother of the genre, Agatha Christie, we observe her treatment of villains. The author has ‘evil’ in one of her titles and even the apparently mild Miss Marple uses the adjective ‘wicked’. Christie’s murderers are cold, calculating killers who, in pre-1965 Britain would have faced execution.
In the cosy genre we eschew the gore of the rampaging axe-wielder using unacceptable language to express his dissatisfaction. However, we do have our pick of the scale if we present them apparently palatably. Christie accomplished this cleverly. Her murderers appear normal, even likeable or sympathetic, until the dénouement, the unmasking at the end. Then the part of our cosy world with the dark patch of unsolved crime is lit with the beacon of truth.
This leads me to believe that the secret to wring baddies in a cozy mystery, is to do with presentation.
Learning on the Job
I developed much of my own method courtesy of TJ Brown author of The Unhappy Medium, when I had the privilege of top editing his novel Tom Fool, second in the comic paranormal series. Top edit? This is the final check for continuity, flow, and includes analysis of the mental and emotional terrain of the book. The editor looks at how well they work and suggests any way that they might be improved. And here I learned about how to write villains in a fun read.
Tim’s principle baddies are evil, so evil that he nudges them into caricature. His lesser villains he renders ridiculous in their obsessions. (Rather like Cruella de Ville in The One Hundred and One Dalmations) There are scary scenes, moments of chilling fear and split seconds of shock that, with a word, a phrase, or sentence, he artfully switches to helpless giggles on the part on the reader. Tim’s tools: absurdity and diffusing. Of course, all nasties come to a sticky end and justice is served while the heroic goodies live to fight another day.
I learned so much from those weeks working with Tim, who finally convinced me I could write a novel of my own. That was when he told me of a genre hitherto beyond my ken: cosy paranormal mystery.
The Miscreants of Amanda Cadabra
The baddies in the Amanda Cadabra series, similarly to Tim’s approach, are in two tiers: the shadowy witch-clans of the Cardiubarns, Granny’s family, and the Flamgoynes, their cold-war-style foes. From birth, the threat to Amanda is very real and dictates her secretive life-style. Although I prefer to avoid such weighted words evil and wicked it is clear that both clans are thoroughly ill-intentioned. Nevertheless, the amoral fashion in which they do not hesitate to bump each other off tips edges them towards comic.
Each book has its own mystery. However, there are no psychopaths among the criminals, who are driven by emotion such as jealousy and fear. But wrong has been committed and fairness to the victim dictates that they are brought to justice, which of course they are.
This being the world of warm and fluffy (with an edge), no character to whom we have become attached perishes. However, even if it is an outsider, it is still a case for our heroine of ‘ritin’ ‘rongs’, in the words of Richmal Crompton’s incomparable William. When Amanda does so we share the moment with her and our sense of balance in satisfied, our faith in the ultimate victory of light and right restored.
The subject of villains and their treatment in literature is a vast and deep one. This is but my take of an overview and a how-I-do-it.
The manuscript of Book 5 is now laid out on my carpet, a crucial stage in its development. It is growing into the dish that I hope will be for your cozy delectation.
Back next week with more ponderings, revelations and news.
Happy Winter Days,
PS If you want to start the series: