Ahead of his thriller debut, novelist John Niven pulls on a pair of leather gloves and salutes fiction’s greatest serial killers
Murder. We’ve all done it. Writers that is. Ever since man first gathered round the campfire to swap stories, narrators have known that someone getting bumped off at the right moment raises the stakes and keeps people on their toes.
Having written four novels in the vein of what could be loosely described as ‘black comedy’, I am publishing my first ‘straight’ thriller this month. Cold Hands is a revenge story set in snowy Canada. It’s about a man whose past catches up with him in the bloodiest way possible. When I first pitched the book to my agent, she said, “That’s marvellous. Like Titus Andronicus meets Misery.” Nicely put, I thought – Shakespeare’s most violent play meets Stephen King’s tensest novel.
Of course, I make no claims for the book being as good as either of those, but her comparison got me thinking about how long readers have been in thrall to characters with blood on their hands. So here are 10 of my favourites...
From Macbeth by William Shakespeare
“Oh Macbeth,” you groan every time you read the play. “You stupid bugger. Just leave it alone this time. Don’t listen to the wife. Things aren’t so bad.” And you turn the page and he goes right ahead and does it all over again. Killing begets killing, begets killing. Nearly three decades on from when I first read it, and 400 years after it was written, it is still astonishing how tight, focused and relentless a narrative Macbeth is. It is, by a good distance, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy (almost half the length of Hamlet) and is a masterclass in terms of structure. Aspiring screenwriters: don’t bother with all those ‘Write And Sell A Screenplay In 30 Days’ books. Just read Macbeth over and over again.
From Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment, Raskolnikov decides to murder a pawnbroker and moneylender in order to prove his theory that he might perform good deeds with bad money. He wonders if, in certain circumstances, murder is permissible, even necessary. Needless to say, this doesn’t work out too well for him in practice. A couple of centuries on from Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky used the novel to do what it is really there for – to inhabit the interior of someone. Written at a time when the author was penniless and much in debt to money-lenders, there may be some wish fulfilment afoot, too...
From Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
True, Nabokov’s Humbert only (deliberately) kills one person in Lolita, and that comes right at the end of the book, but he is so seductive. Humbert is the best kind of snob. The fact that his opinions on everything from literature and the theatre (“a crude, communal art form”) to manners and American popular culture are so resolutely spot-on – and gloriously expressed – only draws you closer to him as his deeds tumble out of control, spiralling from paedophilia to kidnapping to murder. Not a character designed to win the hearts of Daily Mail readers.
From The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr Ripley was, in its way, much more of an influence on my second book Kill Your Friends than American Psycho (the book more often mentioned by readers and critics in connection with mine). I liked the idea that here was someone who the world thought charming and boyish but who, behind the mask, would do literally anything to advance and maintain their position. Someone who may truly “smile and smile, and be a villain”. I also liked the fact that Ripley’s murders were messy and desperate, covered up in haste and by luck rather than by meticulous planning. Which is how one imagines it often goes in ‘the real world’, killers more often being scrabbling chancers than Bond baddies.
From American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Obvious, yes. But it’d be ludicrous for me to do a list like this and not include Bateman. I’m probably in a minority here, but I find Bateman hysterically funny. What else are you supposed to do with a character who is so repellent, whose homophobia is so deeply entrenched, that his reaction to witnessing a Gay Pride march is to say: “My mind reeling with the concept that a human being, a man, could feel pride over sodomising another man I took a cab back to my apartment … and tortured to death a small dog I had bought earlier this week”?
From No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Thanks to Javier Bardem’s indelible portrayal in the Coen brothers’ film adaptation of the novel, most people have a very fixed idea of what unstoppable hitman Chigurh looks like. Before that, however, McCarthy had already rendered the character unforgettably. His eyes were like “wet stones”, is his brilliantly underplayed description of the antagonist’s pitiless gaze. If you’ve seen the film but never read the novel prepare to be stunned all over again.
From Filth by Irvine Welsh
The protagonist of Irvine Welsh’s sublimely depraved novel Filth, Robertson is a man whose average day involves a ton of blackmail, extortion, porn, drugs and, of course, murder. Even within the canon of a writer who can lay to claim to characters as shimmeringly violent as Alex ‘Lexo’ Setterington from Maribou Stork Nightmares and Francis Begbie from Trainspotting, Robertson takes the crown as the most dangerous man Welsh has created.
From Misery by Stephen King
“NO ANNIE! NO!” This is a very real one for most writers as novelist Paul Sheldon is introduced to a whole new level of ‘personal nursing care’ by his superfan, the wonderfully demented Annie. If you’ve only ever seen the (also brilliant) movie with James Caan and Kathy Bates, do yourself a favour and read the Stephen King novel. It’s one of his best. And you’re in for a treat when it comes to the ‘hobbling’ scene. Let’s just say that King’s vision was a little more, um, radical than director Rob Reiner’s…
From The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
He’s an unusual kid, our 17-year-old narrator Frank. He reads various portents into the deaths of wasps he feeds into his ‘factory’ – a bizarre device fashioned from an old clock face. In such a fashion, by the age of 10, Frank has come to murder three people. The novel’s bloody climax features a shocking twist that made me drop the book when I first read it, when I was the same age as its narrator. One I won’t spoil here.
From Red Dragon, The Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, all by Thomas Harris
The Prince Of Serial Killers: perfectly mannered Hannibal whose pleasure is murdering and eating people. Sadly no one did more to – and excuse me for this phrase – ‘dilute the brand’ of Lecter than his creator Thomas Harris in the third book in which the killer appears – the truly dreadful Hannibal. Here Lecter was presented free and loose – a dashing, globe-trotting aristocrat who just happens to like eating people. He is also ludicrous. Forget Hannibal and return to the first two novels Red Dragon and The Silence Of The Lambs, where Lecter remains chillingly in captivity. And all the more alive and terrifying for it.
Cold Hands is out now (William Heinemann)
(Main image: All Star)