That rarest beast: a villain that is somehow evil AND sympathetic?

I’ve waxed lyrical on here before about my love of Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson books, and am working my way steadily through the stories. Each one seems¬†better than the last, which is quite some feat, but there is no doubt this is crime writing of the highest order, with a cast of characters that I now find utterly indispensable. However, while reading The Broken Places, the third in the Quinn Colson series, Atkins managed to do something rare, unexpected and, I would imagine, damn difficult – and that is to create a villain who is so awful yet so pitiable, that you can’t help feeling sorry for him.

There be spoilers ahead, so fair warning….

The book opens with two convicts (Esau and Bones) escaping prison, and heading off for Jericho – the town where our hero, Quinn Colson, is the sheriff. They’ve got business with Dixon, a convict turned preacher, who just so happens to be seeing Quinn’s sister Caddy. In basic terms, Esau and Bones pulled off a bank heist, and told Dixon where the money is hidden while inside. They¬†head off to get their money, but believe Dixon has screwed them and taken the money for himself. So far, so very good indeed.

Esau is a foul, fascinating creation: a stinking, nihilistic hulk who shoots people in cold blood for next to no reason. He’s a user, a man of extreme violence, a thief and a bully… BUT… his character is multi-layered in the darkest of ways. I can’t recall him doing a single ‘nice‘/redemptive thing in the entire book, but I still couldn’t help feeling sorry for him in a way at the end.

He has principles, that in his warped mind he thinks are enough to live by. He’ll kidnap a woman and child, hold them at gunpoint, but apologise for it. He still does the foul deed, but he doesn’t necessarily have to feel good about it.

He repeatedly accuses his ‘woman’ Becky of cheating on him and trying to screw him out of the money too, but soon apologises and shows genuine affection for her.

He looked after Dixon in jail, because he was being worked to death in the fields at the penitentiary, and Dixon got him a job in the cafeteria, thereby saving him. He worked with Dixon in prison while he started to preach, and began to feel close to God himself – all the while planning to bust out to get his money back.

He beats Dixon to a pulp when he thinks he’s holding out on him, even shoots him in the leg, but stops short of killing him, aware of how much Dixon helped him in jail.

He is a myriad of the nastiest contradictions, a man who exists solely on his own jet black terms. He navigates life according to a moral compass that only has the tiniest sliver of morality to it. As a villainous creation he is one of my utter favourites, in that he was wildly unpredictable, yet somehow relatable, on the most base levels possible.

This is no mean feat, and my favourite part about the book. A villain like this, who has conflict, is so much more interesting than a one dimensional ‘baddie‘, and it’s the little things like this that elevate books and crime writers to other levels entirely – not to mention inspiring other writers to try to bring something new to the table, and to challenge themselves and their readers. It has certainly done that to me.