As much as we love rooting for the protagonist in mystery and suspense, ever so often there is a villain who doesn’t leave our mind. What makes a story special? When you find a complicated antagonist that has as much intrigue as their counterpart. Maybe it’s because we identify with their motives, even if their actions are questionable. Or maybe they have a backstory that draws us in. Either way, there is something darkly delightful about a villain who gives the hero—and reader—a run for their money by disrupting what we all know about the bad guys and leaving us curious for more action. Whether you love them or hate them, there is no denying their charisma. Here are our favorite complex antagonists we can’t forget.
Arthur Conan Doyle
James Moriarty, The Final Problem. James Moriarty has all the smarty-pants flare of Sherlock Holmes without the conscience to go with it. A Machievellan criminal mastermind, Moriarty sets out to kill Sherlock Holmes once and for all in The Final Problem, a graphic retelling of the famous Arthur Conan Doyle story. If you love Sherlock Holmes, you’ll also love to hate Professor Moriarty, who matches Sherlock in intellect and enjoys playing cat-and-mouse games with his favorite arch-nemesis. These two gargantuan intellects collide over various crimes until they engage in an epic battle to see who can outsmart the other. Watch Moriarty establish his title as the “Napoleon of Crime,” and the king of crime thrillers by facing the most formidable detective in literature head-on!
Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men. Cormac McCarthy creates one of the most chilling villains of crime fiction in No Country for Old Men. Anton Chigurh, a mysterious and elusive criminal who flips coins to decide the fate of his victims, blazes a trail through the American Southwest and the Texas-Mexico border. Like many of McCarthy’s characters, Chigurh is rough around the edges in interesting ways, presenting a complex villain that has sent chills down readers’ spines for years. Chigurh’s crimes are violent, his patterns of crime reckless, and his motivations haunting.
Hannibal Lector, Red Dragon. What is there to say about Hannibal Lector, the most infamous serial killer in the crime thriller genre, that hasn’t already been said? Red Dragon marks the first novel in the Hannibal Lecter series. It is followed by The Silence of The Lambs, where Hannibal the Cannibal preys on a variety of victims, keeping and eating some of their organs. A culinary genius, Lector creates devilishly delicious gourmet meals out of his victims, taking an illicit joy in feeding them to other people. Yet Lector’s charming wit and banter with almost everyone he meets makes this crime fiction king one of the most enjoyable antagonists in literature.
Henry, The Secret History. Henry breaks the mold of suspense novel antagonist in The Secret History by Donna Tartt, because he is just one character in an incredibly unlikeable group of intellectual friends. That being said, Henry is a fascinating antagonist that separates himself from his fellow classics scholars by being careless for human life in a way rarely seen in crime novels. He doesn’t care because he can’t be bothered to care. As the novel progresses, readers gradually learn about Henry’s many crimes–several of which involve murder–while also falling in love with his charming misanthrope personality. He’s bad, true, but a joy to watch in action.
The Mastermind, Roses are Red. Alex Cross’s nemesis, the Mastermind, is a brilliant opponent that rises to the ranks of crime fiction all-stars. The Mastermind engineers a set of increasingly complex bank robberies, turning a classic crime brutal by killing in the process of stealing. The Mastermind toys with Alex, communicating his plans and mentally manipulating the famous detective for his own psychological pleasure. Crime books don’t always have genius criminals behind them, but the Mastermind proves that his evilness and intelligence are a deadly–and fascinating–combo in Roses are Red by James Patterson.