What is crime fiction without its villains? Without villains, crime stories would be without their much-needed antagonists, and we would have no story. It’s time to admit it. As much as we champion the heroes when we read these books, the villain is who we’re really here to read about. The most famous villains are complicated, dynamic, and keep us guessing. So let’s just say it. We love a good villain. So with that in mind, here are six of the best villains in literature.
Arthur Conan Doyle; Scott McKowen (Illustrator); Arthur Conan Doyle
Professor Moriarty — When you're dealing with a detective as intelligent as Sherlock Holmes, you need a really formidable villain to face off against him. And that's what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave readers with Professor Moriarty. While Holmes solves many crimes and encounters plenty of bad guys throughout the 56 stories and 4 novels that feature him, Moriarty is the one who really becomes the biggest threat to Holmes. Professor Moriarty is a criminal mastermind who doesn't commit the crimes himself but rather uses his intelligence and charisma to get other people to get their hands dirty for him. In "The Adventure of the Final Problem," Holmes calls Moriarty "the Napoleon of Crime," and says, "He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city."
Moriarty first appears in the 1893 short story "The Adventure of the Final Problem." His next appearance wasn't until 1914 in a short story called "The Valley of Fear," written after "The Final Problem," but set before it. Holmes also mentions Moriarty in five other stories. And yet while Moriarty only appeared in a small handful of Holmes' short stories, he has been an extremely influential character, leaving a lasting impression not only on Holmes but on readers everywhere.
Marcel Allain; Pierre Souvestre
Fantômas — Fantômas is one of the most popular villains in the history of French crime fiction. The character first appeared in the 1911 novel Fantômas by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. In total, the villain appeared in 32 books written by the two collaborators, and later Fantômas returned in 11 more books written by Allain after Souvestre's death.
Fantômas is a criminal genius who is likely the man behind every unsolved crime. He is highly intelligent and especially difficult to catch because he has the ability to impersonate basically anyone. The only person who has ever come close to catching Fantômas is Inspector Juve, a man who relentlessly pursues the ruthless criminal. Fantômas is a merciless killer who delights in finding creative and increasingly sadistic ways to murder. And because he is a master of disguise, his true identity and appearance remain unknown.
Hannibal Lecter — Hannibal Lecter is a notorious serial killer who eats his victims. The character was created by Thomas Harris and first introduced in the 1981 novel Red Dragon. Hannibal Lecter was also a major character in the 1988 novel The Silence of the Lambs, 1999's Hannibal, and the 2006 prequel to the series Hannibal Rising. The villain is famously played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs and the 2001 film Hannibal. Mads Mikkelsen plays the famous character in the television series Hannibal.
Although Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer with cannibalistic tendencies, the villain is known for his refined tastes and his good manners. In fact, Hannibal is deeply offended by rudeness, and in the novel Hannibal, he claims that he prefers to eat the rude. Lecter is a notable and memorable villain because he is a different kind of serial killer. While media often portrays serial killers as outright monsters, Hannibal is more complicated than that. He's extremely intelligent, and he loves music, art, and fine cuisine. In fact, Hannibal disturbingly loved to create complex dishes from the flesh of his victims.
Anton Chigurh — Anton Chigurh is the antagonist of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel No Country for Old Men. The character was famously played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem in the award-winning 2007 adaptation, and Bardem received multiple awards for his performance, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA.
But what makes Anton Chigurh so compelling? Chigurh is a serial killer who kills without remorse, but not without morals. As strange as it might seem, this ruthless murderer has his own set of rules and sense of purpose, and he follows that code of conduct when deciding who to kill and who to spare. For instance, he gives many of his victims an opportunity to escape death by making deals with them or by flipping a coin.
Mr. Mercedes — Mr. Mercedes is the villain in Stephen King's Bill Hodges trilogy, which consists of the novels Mr. Mercedes (2014), Finders Keepers (2015), and End of Watch (2016). The character was also featured in the short story "If it Bleeds," which was part of the 2020 short story collection of the same name.
Mr. Mercedes's real name is Brady Hartsfield. Brady Hartsfield is a young man in his 20s who's described as a psychopath who delights in tormenting his victims. The killer was first given the name "The Mercedes Killer" after stealing a car and running over and killing 8 people at a job fair. Brady's sigil is a disturbing smiley face, but he also delights in leaving police several clues and notes in order toy with the authorities.
Edgler Foremann Vess — Dean Koontz's 1995 thriller novel Intensity introduced readers to the self-described "homicidal adventurer" Edgler Foremann Vess. In the mini-series adaptation of the novel, Vess was played by John C. McGinley.
Edgler Vess is a formidable antagonist for his sheer strength, his keen intellect, and his charismatic personality. Vess started murdering people in childhood, and he has killed dozens of people since. The motives behind Vess's murders are particularly disturbing. Simply put, Vess kills for the thrill of it. The villain sexually assaults, tortures, and murders his victims for the exhilarating feeling it gives him.
What to Read Next