Sure, we all root for the good guys. But sometimes, a villain’s point of view is what makes a novel extra fascinating. Alex Lake, author of the new psychological thriller After Anna, knows this to be true. In After Anna, a young girl is abducted, and then returned to her family just days later. Troublingly, she remembers absolutely nothing about her time with her captor. The book switches perspectives between the kidnapper and Anna’s mother, giving the reader a frightening look into the mind of the person who took Anna and what happened to her while she was missing. Here, Lake shares with Bookish readers his favorite books narrated by villains.
The point of view of the villain is a feature of many books that I have enjoyed—if enjoyed is the right word—over the years. Sometimes it is the only point of view we have, sometimes it is mixed with other points of view, but either way, done well it is a powerful tool: It can make us uncomfortable (the head of a sociopath or villain is not necessarily a pleasant place to be) but it can also be very compelling. Here are some of the best I’ve read.
Graham Greene described Patricia Highsmith as “the poet of apprehension” which beautifully captures the air of suspense that pervades her books. In a Highsmith novel, normal life is turned into something profoundly unsettling. With Ripley this is writ large: He is completely amoral and will kill, steal, and lie to get what he wants, but—unnervingly—he is also very charming. We see his appalling and abhorrent actions from his point of view, and we are seduced into taking his side. Even though what he is doing is unacceptable, because we are witnessing it through his eyes, we get how it all makes sense. For Ripley, what he does is the only logical way to proceed if he is to get what he wants. The Talented Mr Ripley is a glimpse into the mind of psychopath and it is utterly irresistible and chilling.
This is a profoundly disturbing book, which has stayed with me since I read it a few years back. We learn early (so I don’t think I am giving anything away here) that Samantha, infant daughter of Sherilyn and Brendan, has been locked away and starved to death. What follows is the explanation of this, told from multiple points of view—the police officer who finds Samantha’s corpse, other community members—as well as from Sherilyn and Brendan’s. They, it turns out, are psychopaths who have found each other and made a neat and ordered life together. Then Samantha unexpectedly comes along. She is unwanted and so, with total callousness, they kill her.
Sherilyn and Brendan are an odd couple. They are very tight, closely entwined with one another, and Carol Topolski highlights this with a clever narrative trick: By the end of the novel we no longer have separate points of view for them, we have only one, a composite of them both named Brendalyn. It is a neat way of giving us a window into their strange and deeply unpleasant world.
This book is so unsettling that parts of it are almost impossible to read. Chester Cash, who calls himself Daddy Love, imprisons young boys, brainwashes them into thinking of him as their father, and abuses them for years until he tires of them, when they disappear. We follow the abduction and imprisonment of a five year-old victim, seeing the events from many points of view: the victim, the victim’s mother, and Daddy Love. Daddy Love is monstrous: cold, abusive, grandiose, and utterly indifferent to the suffering of others. As I mentioned, there are scenes that are hard to read, but Joyce Carol Oates does give a genuine insight into the mind of this horrendous villain.
So there are a few books that take us into the mind of a villain! Both Monster Love and Daddy Love pull no punches about their antagonists: They are abhorrent, and we are meant to be—and are—thoroughly repelled by their actions. Ripley, on the other hand, is a more complicated creation. His charm seduces us, and we are left wondering why and how we end up having sympathy for him. In some ways, the fact that this ambiguity is possible is the most disturbing thing of all.
Alex Lake is the pseudonymous author of After Anna, a new psychological thriller, forthcoming from HarperCollins.