"The world may be short of many things," writes John Mortimer in the introduction to this marvelous volume, "rain forests, great politicians, black rhinos, saints, and caviar, but the supply of villains is endless. They are everywhere, down narrow streets and in brightly lit office buildings and parliaments, dominating family life, crowding prisons and law courts, and providing plots for most of the works of fiction that have been composed since the dawn of history." Now, in the ultimate rogue's gallery, Mortimer (best known as the author of Rumpole of the Bailey) has captured an arresting collection of crooks, murderers, seducers, con men, traitors, and tyrants--the world's greatest villains, both fictional and real.
Here readers who love mayhem (at least in print) will find villainy in all its shapes and sizes, from pickpockets and pirates to tyrants and financiers. Billy the Kid rubs shoulders with Mac the Knife, Captain Hook with Casanova, Caligula with Rasputin, Fagin with Dr Fu-Manchu. There are master criminals (such as Dr No, Raffles, or Professor Moriarty), minor miscreants (such as P.G. Wodehouse's Ferdie the Fly, "who, while definitely not of the intelligentsia, had the invaluable gift of being able to climb up the side of any house you placed before him, using only toes, fingers and personal magnetism"), and bumbling incompetents (such as Peter Scott, a Briton who in 1980 made seven attempts to kill his wife, without her once noticing that anything was wrong). We meet the soft-spoken murderer Armstrong, a gentle small-town lawyer, whose manners were so good that when he passed his intended victim a poisoned scone he uttered the immortal words, "Excuse my fingers." And we listen as Marlowe, in Heart of Darkness, remembers Kurtz's report to the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs--"This was the unbounded power of eloquence--of words--of burning noble words"--and the scrawled postscript, added much later, that hit Marlowe "like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!'" In addition, there is an account of the death of Billy the Kidd, written by Jorge Luis Borges, and another of the tax evasion trial of Al Capone, by Damon Runyon. Mortimer has in fact ranged high and low, taking excerpts from the greats of literature--from the Bible, Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton (where Lucifer has all the best lines, such as "Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav'n"), Moliere, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, Mark Twain, and many others--and from the leading detective and mystery writers--including Eric Ambler, Dick Francis, Wilkie Collins, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Ian Fleming, Angela Carter, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Attractive scoundrels and incompetent rogues, calculating murderers and unscrupulous swinders pack these pages with a richness and variety that will by turns delight, surprise and chill.