Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why does the bad guy always have to lose? by Terry Ambrose

Author Terry Ambrose
I welcome Terry Ambrose to my Travels today! He has a nifty essay lamenting the bad guy's fate for us. I like his thought-provoking questions. (He's my second guest in a row with ties to Hawaii. I wonder if this means I should make a trip there?)

Here's a bit about him:

Terry's island bookstsore

A resident of Southern California, he loves spending time in Hawaii, especially on the Garden Island of Kauai, where he invents lies for others to read. His years of chasing deadbeats taught him many valuable life lessons including—always keep your car in the garage.

He's the author of PHOTO FINISH, "Rockford Files meets Hawaii Five-O". 

          Con men are riding a wave of popularity in fiction these days. From TV shows like Leverage to White Collar, these bad guys turned good are popular heroes. Their popularity seems to indicate that it’s okay to lie—as long as it’s done for altruistic purposes. For me, the con man persona is an emotional playground filled with wonderful toys like guilt, greed, and sympathy. My problem is that once I started playing with those toys, I wonder, why can’t the con artist ever get what she really wants—the big score?

I know, in the mystery genre, good triumphs over evil. But, does the good have to be purely good? Why not good with a little bad thrown in for flavor? After all, if the “bad guy” works hard and is sympathetic and the reader has developed a liking for the character, does the bad guy really have to go to jail? Enter Lawrence Block and his wonderful burglar friend, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Block’s premise appears to have been that Bernie the Burglar solves the murder because not doing so would make him appear to be guilty of murder. So, Bernie must solve a bigger crime so that he can get away with his smaller one. I really like that concept, but would love it if the decision to help out wasn’t forced on Bernie.

Character dilemmas are my favorite toy to play with in my writing sandbox. Much like the classic scene from Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye says, “On the other hand…” the choices facing a con man can make the story so much more interesting. Does he choose the right path for the wrong reasons or the wrong path for the right reasons? To me, this is where the bad guy turned good guy stories take on a new dimension. And in that dimension, if the con man helped out willingly or even against his will, I wonder if it would really be so bad if he won. The result might not be perfect justice, but it might be just for that character.

What do you think? Do you want your stories tidied up at the end? Or are there times when you wouldn’t mind seeing a little larceny win out?

You can visit Terry at his website:


  1. Enjoyed learning about another definitely must read author. Thanks to you both.

  2. Thanks for coming by, Jake. I want to buy Terry's book from his beach bookstore, myself.

  3. I'm a big fan of Frank Parrish's Dan Mallett series, Dan being a poacher and womanizer. But he has this aged mum who needs a hip replacement and refuses to use the National Health....

    Then there's Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder books about a hapless burgler and his screwball buddies. We're always glad to see Dortmunder get away with ... well, with ANYTHING, it seems so unlikely. heh!

    Good post. Good questions. Good pictures. ~grin~

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  4. I'm not familiar with Frank Parrish, Marian. His work sounds worth checking into.

  5. Hey Jake, thanks for stopping by.
    And Marian, I love the Dortmunder books. Westlake was brilliant and we do get caught up and want to see him get away with it. The truth is, I didn't even think about him when writing this post! How could I forget that? Like Kaye, I'm not familar with Parrish, but I'll have to look into his books. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Kaye, about that bookstore...the air conditioning's great, but the roof leaks...guess you can't have it all.

  7. That's OK, Terry. I'll just show up on a sunny day. That's what is for.

  8. I also enjoyed Lawrence Block's brilliant series of stories about a hit man named Keller, a killer for hire who does his job and gets away with it. And who didn't smile when Hannibal walked away at the end of Silence of the Lambs? I wouldn't want it to happen in real life, but a well-written bad guy who gets away with it can make for good reading.

  9. My internet connection has been down all day! Earl, I think writing bad guys is great fun and I love to do it, too!