I remember reading about the guy in Alaska a few months ago who was caught after he kidnapped and killed a girl in one of those coffee hut drive-thru places. He then confessed to having killed several people and doing it in very methodical fashion. He would visit some place, often out of state, and leave caches of supplies and weapons. He would return a year or two later and commit the crimes, often killing people based on random chance. He said for a long time he assumed everyone had the same murderous tendencies he had but put on a different public face. Then, he realized that he really was different, that he was evil.
But I think people like him are the exception. If you sat down and had a truthful conversation even with the top echelon of Nazi war criminals starting with Hitler, I believe each would have a rationale and justification for what they are doing. None would say, in essence, “I’m an evil person.”
For this reason, I try to build a lot of that ambiguity into the ‘villains’ in my mystery thrillers. In Divine Fury, the second in the Enzo Lee series, a religious man who tries to sabotage the campaign of a gay candidate for governor believes he is saving the world from its sinful self. Then he lets himself be used as an ally of violent people not because he initiates the acts, but because he is able to facilitate them by lending his moral support with barely any effort. A twisted war veteran similarly believes that his violence is a proper response to all the injustices he has suffered and almost feels duty-bound to follow his course.
In Project Moses, the first Enzo Lee book, the corporate executive who sells technology used for bioterrorism justifies his actions by saying that if he didn’t provide this technology others would, comparing himself to arms dealers and arguing that the imperatives of Wall Street leave him little choice.
Anyone who has spent much time in a corporate work environment and seen the changing of top management probably has witnessed how malleable people can be in trying to ingratiate themselves with their superiors. Abuse at the top gets passed down the chain almost as a reflex. It reminds me of a psychological study they did where test subjects were arbitrarily placed in the roles of prisoners and guards. They had to cut short the experiment because people embraced the roles so quickly and without restraint that they were concerned about the ‘guards’ harming the ‘prisoners.’
So, although I don’t necessarily spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing every henchman with a gun in my books, I do devote some attention to the people further up the chain. For me, failing to explain how arrived at where they are and how they justify their actions is a loose end. – Robert B. Lowe