Chris Holm’s Top Five Antiheroes
The best of the worst...
Posted on August 24, 2015 in Guest Author
Tags: Chris Holm
I love me a well-wrought antihero. I’m not talking about some tarnished man of honor who drinks too much and sleeps around and maybe cuts a legal corner or two, but ultimately does what’s right. I’m talking the sort of murky, morally compromised character that you feel a little guilty rooting for – as if, by doing so, you’re somehow complicit in his or her misdeeds.
Apparently, I’m not alone. Thanks in part to groundbreaking shows like The Sopranos, antiheroes have experienced a pop cultural resurgence in recent decades. We live in a glorious time when Breaking Bad is somehow considered mainstream entertainment, and Gone Girl is a runaway bestseller.
In The Killing Kind, I’ve done my best to craft a protagonist whose moral compass is severely out of whack, but who is sympathetic and compelling nonetheless. That seemed as good an excuse as any to talk about some of my favourite antiheroes.
To narrow down my list, I had to be brutal. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, while more tarnished than most, seems solidly a hero underneath. The Wire’s Omar Little is an occasional point-of-view character, but could hardly be called the show’s protagonist. Owen Laukkanen’s The Professionals and Criminal Enterprise lead readers down a primrose path with antagonists who seem deeply sympathetic until they don’t – but still, it’s clear his series law enforcement agents are the ones for whom we’re meant to root.
Point is, it was tough – and loads of characters I love didn’t make the cut. That said, let’s dive in.
Walter Neff from Double Indemnity
While I’m a fan of James Cain, I’m not thinking of his novel’s protagonist, Walter Huff – I’m specifically referring to Fred MacMurray’s character from the movie. For my money, Double Indemnity is the perfect film noir – as one might expect from Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler adapting the likes of Cain – and the charming, handsome MacMurray is perfectly cast as the amoral everyman whose confession provides the movie’s narrative frame.
Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Tom Ripley is cultured, charming, and intelligent. He’s also a con man, a sociopath, and – by series end – a serial killer. There’s no reason whatsoever we should root for him, but we do. It’s a testament to Patricia Highsmith’s abilities as a writer that Ripley’s such good company on the page, because lord knows you’d never want to meet him in person.
I’m a Donald Westlake superfan. His Parker books – written under the name Richard Stark – might be my favorite series of all time. Parker is, by all accounts, a bad man. He’s a thief – and not the charming Danny Ocean type, either. I’m talking ski masks and stickups, busted kneecaps and broken jaws. What makes him so compulsively readable is the fact that he’s very good at his job, and he goes about it with his own peculiar code of conduct. You’d think folks would eventually learn it doesn’t pay to double-cross him – but then again, no one ever lives long enough to spread the word.
Unnamed Narrator from Queenpin by Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott’s Queenpin is at once a love-letter and a feminist response to early crime pulp. Abbott crafts a period crime story so convincing, it feels like a lost gem of the era – but for the fact that it centers on two strong women, and is absent pulp’s unfortunate misogynistic streak. The unnamed narrator is an ambitious young woman from a working-class family who’s well aware the deck is stacked against her. Female antiheroes are sadly rare – which could be the subject of an essay in its own right – but Abbott’s got a knack for them. It’s one of many reasons I count her among my favorite writers.
I don’t pretend to have any special insight into Matthew Weiner’s process, or Don Draper’s inception. But Don Draper always felt to me like a grown Baby Boomer’s attempt to contextualize, and therefore understand, his inscrutable – and, to his eyes, archetypically masculine – father. It’s as if, when he was young, his dad walked out the door every morning in a crisp shirt, sharp suit, and snappy hat, and stumbled back in late at night, disheveled and reeking of (perfume?) smoke and whiskey – and Weiner used his imagination to fill in the gaps. I’m sure the truth is more prosaic, but the beauty of Don Draper is, he’s anything but.
He’s a bad man, but a good killer… The Killing Kind is an explosive and original thriller for fans of I Am Pilgrim.