July 10 – 16: “Why is the combination of villains and beauty so alluring?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Whether the orchids in Heat of the Night, or the exotic tales of Uncle Charlie in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, why is the combination of villains and beauty so alluring? With ThrillerFest in full swing this week, we’re joined by ITW Members Meg Gardiner, Peter James, S. A. Stovall, Holly Seddon, Alec Cizak, Catherine Finger, Billy Lyons, Ellen Kirschman and Meredith Anthony. You won’t want to miss it!


Meg Gardiner is the Edgar Award winning, internationally bestselling author of thirteen thrillers. Her current title, UNSUB (June 2017) has been bought for development as a television series by CBS. She lives in Austin, Texas.



Peter James is one of the UK’s biggest selling crime thriller writers.  He’s had eleven consecutive Sunday Times No 1 bestsellers with his Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series, published in 37 languages in 52 countries, with world sales of 18m copies. He is the recipient of the 2016 CWA Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence, and in 2015 was publicly voted by WH Smith readers as the Best Crime Author of All Time. He lives with his wife, Lara, and a menagerie of animals near Brighton in Sussex, where he was born and raised, and in Notting Hill, London.


Ellen Kirschman is an award winning police psychologist, the author of three non-fiction books and the Dot Meyerhoff mystery series.  Dr. Meyerhoff—too dedicated for her own good—is a spunky 50 year old psychologist who should be counseling cops, not solving crimes. The Fifth Reflection, launching this month, is third in the series after Burying Ben and The Right Wrong Thing.


Meredith Anthony is the author of the new thriller, HELLMOUTH, featured in the July issue of The Big Thrill. She is the co-author of LADYKILLER, which received over 30 rave reviews. Her short stories appear in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE.  Her mystery play, MURDER ON THE MAIN LINE, has had readings and development productions in New York and Philadelphia. She lives in New York City.


Like her heroine Police Chief Jo Oliver, DR. CATHERINE FINGER is committed to protect and serve. But instead of handcuffs and handguns, she uses her wit and wisdom as a high school superintendent and church and community volunteer in northern Illinois. Anchored by Death is the third novel in her Jo Oliver thriller series.


S.A. Stovall grew up in California’s central valley with a single mother and little brother. Despite no one in her family having a degree higher than a GED, she put herself through college (earning a BA in History), and then continued on to law school where she obtained her Juris Doctorate. As a child, Stovall’s favorite novel was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. The adventure on a deserted island opened her mind to ideas and realities she had never given thought before—and it was the moment Stovall realized that storytelling (specifically fiction) became her passion. Anything that told a story, be it a movie, book, video game, or comic, she had to experience. Now as a professor and author, Stovall wants to add her voice to the myriad of stories in the world, and she hopes you enjoy.


Holly Seddon is a full time writer, living slap bang in the middle of Amsterdam with her husband, James and a house full of children and pets. Holly has written for newspapers, websites and magazines since her early 20s after growing up in the English countryside, obsessed with music and books. Her first novel Try Not to Breathe was published worldwide in 2016 and became a domestic and international bestseller. Don’t Close Your Eyes is her second novel.


Alec Cizak is a writer and filmmaker from Indianapolis. His short fiction has appeared in several journals and anthologies. He is also the editor of the fiction journal Pulp Modern.




Billy Lyons became an avid reader and writer of horror fiction in early childhood. He is the author of two published short stories. “Cell 334” was published in the November 2014 edition of Another Realm Magazine. “Black-Eyed Children, Blue-Eyed Child” was published in High Strange Horror, a horror anthology published in 2015 by Muzzleland Press, where Billy is a contributing writer of book and magazine reviews. Blood and Needles is his debut novel.


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  1. Extreme villainy and extreme beauty are two points on the same triangle. I think it’s about the extremes, more than the villainy or the beauty! You could swap ‘beauty’ for ‘wealth’, for example. Most of us spend our lives somewhere in the middle, doing the right thing most of the time. And very few of us are breathtakingly beautiful. The combination of the two is greater than the sum of its parts.

    There’s something incredibly seductive about people on the far end. The ones who ignore the rules, the ones who are exceptional.

    I’m going to really drag this discussion down to the lowest brow early on, but to quote Peter Griffin from Family Guy, “It’s fun to watch rich people be naughty!” It’s even more fun to imagine beautiful people being naughty.

  2. I agree with you, Holly, you make an interesting point! And also I think that we are also fascinated by what is that difference between ourselves and someone who can commit a major crime. Every time a killer is arrested, there is invariably the television crew filming the sweet little old lady next door who says how charming their neighbour was and they always used to feed her cat… That becomes even more intense when the killer is good looking and charismatic – such as Ted Bundy. When we look at truly beautiful people, I’m sure there is something inside all of us that secretly hopes they have some flaw – because we all know that people are not perfect, and we get a kind of vicarious thrill when we realise that beautiful person is very very flawed indeed – and actually evil. Lady Macbeth is monstrous, yet we are riveted by her.

  3. Why do we love the juxtaposition of beauty and the beast? Because we love contrast. We love the unexpected. We love surprise. I think this goes to the core of human intelligence. It’s not the opposable thumb. Not using tools. Not having foresight and anticipating consequences. It’s the ability to be delighted by the unexpected.

    Think of a joke. Did you hear about the blonde who wanted to be a movie star? Yes, she moved to Hollywood and fucked the writer.

    See? It’s the surprise.

  4. Lady Macbeth and Peter Griffin… two great references to start this discussion.

    It’s easy to fear and loathe a villain who’s physically unattractive. It’s more complicated and fascinating to engage with one who’s beautiful — one to whom we’re attracted. Outward beauty that masks evil is a powerful and unsettling combination. Even as we’re repelled by villainous actions, a part of us remains entranced. We can’t look away.

    It’s all about seduction.

    1. I very much agree. Even in real life, people tend to be more forgiving with people who they’re attracted to (making excuses for bad behavior, etc) and I could see how this could go to some people’s heads (especially those with a megalomaniac bent, or those that lacked empathy, like serial killers). Some people realize they can use their beauty as a lure, so to speak.

  5. If I understand the question correctly, I would say this relates to the Romantics’ contention that “Truth is beauty and beauty is truth.” Villains, generally, are what we might call “The Id Unleashed.” If we believe the id actually exists, and we take it with all the other goofy, cocaine-fueled theories and ideas Freud imposed on the world seriously, we must accept that the id represents the mind’s (and therefore the entire person’s) true nature. When we stand in line at the BMV, for instance, patiently waiting our turn while an apathetic bureaucrat gleefully wastes our time insisting we move from desk to desk like pinballs gathering signatures on different pieces of paper, we are holding back what we would REALLY like to do, which is grab the nearest blunt object and bury it in the bureaucrat’s skull. To achieve this moment of truth, therefore, would be to simultaneously achieve a moment of beauty. Villains, good villains, that is, appeal to us for precisely this reason. They open the cellar door and let that old id roam free and the results, while horrifying to collective, so-called “polite society,” appeal to us on a private, individual level, for we are seeing how we would behave if we didn’t allow those pesky finger-waggers, the ego and the super-ego, to suppress our base, animal desires.

  6. The combination of villains and beauty isn’t common, but it represents the seduction and fall of the hero, a fairly standard character arch that’s been around since the tale of Adam and Eve. Beautiful things (be it objects or people) lure otherwise good characters away from the light by promising something impossible. Handsome men, gorgeous woman, fragrant flowers—they cause the hero to falter, or at least tempt them to do so.

    I believe this resonates with the majority of people because of the relatability. It’s understandable to be attracted to beauty. It’s a common mindset that pretty = good and it’s compelling to watch someone struggle with the reality of the situation: sometimes the façade of beauty can be a trap. It adds psychological tension to the situation when the hero struggles with their desires.

    Additionally, if the villain has an alluring presence, it adds another advantage to their arsenal—an advantage the hero may not have. Villains are menacing when their advantages outweigh the hero’s, and each piece of the puzzle builds them into a complex adversary. When the hero wins (if they win) it makes the victory all that much sweeter.

  7. The contrast between external beauty and internal evil, or internal goodness hidden behind an imperfect exterior, can be either a gold mine for writers or a swamp of stereotypes. I think it was Bertold Brecht who asked “Why must lovers in literature always be beautiful?” (I searched for the quote, but couldn’t find it. Can anyone help?). Beauty is often paired with what is good and ugliness with what is bad. Ask any woman. We can all relate. I am reading HUNGER by Roxane Gay, her brave memoir about being fat. How she has suffered and suffers still, despite her many successes — tyrannized by the sacred norms of thinness and whiteness against which she is perpetually measured. Men get this too, but not nearly as often as women do in literature as well as life.

  8. Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere. This question goes to the heart of the sexism that is still inherent in our culture. Look at the great pulp book covers. The dark menacing man is strangling, stabbing, shooting, grabbing, holding, threatening a beautiful woman. He NEVER threatens a fat, homely, old broad. So what’s the message here? Are some animals more equal than others? Is the life of the blonde in her twenties with big boobs more valuable than the life of the flat-chested lesbian with acne and thick glasses? Why does our own secret self-image or avatar always identify with the young and beautiful?

  9. Such interesting points, Ellen and Meredith. Is it that we liken ourselves to the young and beautiful or could it be that we like to see the young(er) and (more) beautiful punished and brought down to our level? And by ‘us’ and ‘our’ I mean readers and viewers, not us specifically.

    Do you think readers/viewers respond differently to a beautiful man committing atrocious acts than to a beautiful woman? Is one more shocking, one more celebrated? There was a great theme in the first season of The Fall (a show that I felt nosedived in the second season for sexist tropes). The serial killer was a very handsome man, played by ex-model Jamie Dornan. And they did well at shining a light on the surprise we feel when someone beautiful does something terrible. Holding a photofit, the investigating detective said something along the lines of “could he really look like THIS?”

  10. There’s a little bit of villainy in each of us, the tiny devil that sits on our shoulder and urges us to do things we know are wrong. As a result, we unconsciously seek out the beauty in our villains, even when they do very ugly things (Night Stalker Richard Ramirez married a female groupie while in prison). Doing so makes us feel a little bit better about our own wicked impulses.

    At the same time, the best villains know how to emphasize beauty to their advantage. Hannibal Lecter seems like little more than a kindly, absent-minded professor, until he chews off half of your face. Similarly, Pennywise the Clown would probably have had zero luck luring children into the sewers had he not appeared to them first as a friendly clown holding a bouquet of balloons.

    1. I think this touches upon what I was saying. Beauty can be a seduction, or temptation, that leads the hero astray.

      Kids wouldn’t follow a hideous spider-alien (which is what Pennywise basically is in his purest form) so appearing as something alluring is what he goes with.

      Just like Dracula appears as a handsome man to lure women. Or how Doctor Elsa Schneider (the secret agent Nazi) duped Indiana Jones by flaunting her good looks.

      Sometimes villains use beauty and charm as a weapon. It’s interesting to watch heroes struggle with a fight that isn’t just kicks and punches.

      1. Exactly. The protagonist may not recognize the character flaw that leaves them vulnerable to attack, but you can bet the villain does,and comes prepared. It’s also a pretty safe bet that whatever weapon the villain’s brings will be beautiful in some way.

      2. Exactly. The protagonist may not recognize the character flaw that leaves them vulnerable to attack, but you can bet the villain does, and comes prepared. It’s also a very safe bet that the chosen weapon will be beautiful, in some way, to the victim.

      3. Great question. Most of my characters (good and evil) are physically attractive, and generally quite affable. This can turn on a dime, however, and usually does. In the worlds I create, if you trust your own eyes, they’ll probably get gouged out.

        1. I like the juxtaposition of something beautiful harboring a dark secret. It takes a skilled writer to pull it off, but those twists are some of the most exciting. Does your novel, BLOOD AND NEEDLES, have an alluring villain?

          1. Absolutely! Both the heroes and villains in Blood and Needles are quite alluring, until they change. Then they resemble sharks in a feeding frenzy more than anything else, which I love. With vampires, the juxtaposition presents itself inside one character.

  11. I recently spent five hours touring San Quentin. I can tell you, firsthand, that criminals come in all sizes and shapes. Some of the men I saw were so scary looking I would have locked my car doors the minute they stepped into the street. Others looked like the proverbial-boy-next-door. The self-disclosed murderers looked normal and the geriatric inmates had grown so feeble it was hard to imagine what they could have possibly done to deserve life in prison.

    My mother used to say, “Never judge a book by its cover.” According to Meredith’s wonderful description of pulp fiction’s what-you-see-it-what-you-get covers, my mother was wrong, especially when it comes to people. This moves the conversation toward standards of beauty based on what is and isn’t familiar and/or culturally taught. Bringing to mind the saying that “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” Do you think this is true? Can we trust our own eyes?

    1. Loved your San Quentin observations Ellen!

      I think great stories rest somewhere between the truth of not being able to trust what we can see, and the heart being ‘deceitful above all else’–as the prophet Jeremiah lamented long ago.

      Kevin Costner’s rendition of “Mr. Brooks” never fails to draw me in, starting with his Rotarian of the Year award for being a great humanitarian, followed by seemingly sincere attempts to work a 12 step program to help himself kick his nasty little habit of killing people…

      I find Mr. Brooks’ ability to charm his wife and business partners in one part of his mind, while chopping up those not making the grade utterly delightful.

  12. Interesting point, Ellen, about the criminals you saw in St Quentin coming in all shapes and sizes. Contrasts are a major tool for any writer, because it is often contrasts that give us, both in fiction and real life, our strongest shocks. I remember the opening line of one Nicci French novel, “Bad things happen on beautiful days…” and in some ways a part of the appalling shock of the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre was that backdrop of the stunning, cloudless blue sky. Ten years ago, a very pretty, blonde four-year old girl, Madeleine McCann, disappeared from her vacation apartment bedroom in a Portugese village, never to be seen again (I don’t know how much this made the news here, if at all). Her parents were both good looking doctors. The story dominated the news headlines for weeks, going on months and every time there is a fresh development, it makes headline news again. The point has been made by a number of people that if she had a fat, mousy haired dumpling and her parents bland and doing mundane jobs, that the story would never have made the news it did and would long have faded from public consciousness. Beauty has an allure, and when something happens that either damages that beauty in some way, or that beauty turns into a monster, we are intrigued. We’ve only to look at the phenomenal and enduring success of the James Bond movie franchise to see examples of it all the time being used to its fullest commercial value. There have been plenty of surprise, beautiful Bond lady villains, as well as some immensely handsome male ones. And equally in Rosa Klebb and in Oddjob, some deliciously ugly ones.

  13. Walking the line between danger and beauty is one of my goals as a thriller writer. We writers are an emotional bunch, given to weeping at spectacular sunsets, sappy movies, or when happening upon the sale of a lifetime at a Coach store. Teasing out readers’ feelings is part of our craft. Drawing them in with descriptions of impossible beauty and then slaying them with scenes of unexpected violence or danger heightens the fear factor—creating a more satisfying ride for the reader. As a writer, creating that kind of tension is a blast and a half—and keeps me coming back to the keyboard.

    What keeps YOU coming back to the keyboard? How do you play with villains and beauty? We’d love to hear from you today!

  14. Ellen, I love your San Quentin observations. I once helped some social workers conduct a series of workshops at Riker’s. So interesting. Terrible thugs nearly in tears trying to think of ways to keep their kids from ending up criminals. Very revealing.

    1. This was a complicated day for me, working both sides of the aisle as I do. I was way more skeptical than others in my tour group -Sisters-in-Crime (NorCal chapter)-some of whom were in tears listening to the inmates stories. I’m try to work out my thoughts (and feelings) in a blog for Psychology Today online. It’s slow going. Stay turned.

  15. Today is launch day for THE FIFTH REFLECTION, third in my Dot Meyerhoff mystery series. (Corks popping, applause). The victim is a beautiful woman and a famous photographer whose stunning, but disturbing, photos of naked children make a her a prime suspect in the disappearance of her own daughter. Are her photos beautiful or pornographic? What does it mean that she sees beauty where others see only danger and exploitation.

  16. All of this commentary on physical attraction has me thinking about creating a tender-hearted, spectacularly unappealing protagonist sporting a mullet and a confederate flag. She’ll have a can of Redman poking out of her back pocket, and a three legged dog…

    1. Who fights with a beautiful adversary? Or does she go up against someone as equally unappealing? Sometimes the Yin and Yang can be interesting.

  17. Looking at my morning face in the mirror leads me to riff on another aspect of beauty and villainy – age. Beauty is as often associated with youth as with goodness. As a woman of a certain age, this ticks me off. Must aging women be crones, witches or cougars (sex-starved and lusting after younger men)? Of course, there are exceptions, like Miss Marple or Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote. So Catherine, have you considered making your mullet sporting protagonist a senior citizen?
    What about our male protagonists? Do they suffer from age discrimination?

    1. Just wanted to mention that my new thriller, HELLMOUTH, features a sedentary, slightly dumpy, middle-aged woman. When she suspects that her husband has killed someone, she goes after the truth. Balls to the wall.

      1. Ah! Here is where age, money, power, and sexism converge. Especially when mixed with money. An older man with money & power is well regarded, despite his looks. Take Aristotle Onassis, for example. Was there ever a man less blessed with good looks and more blessed with a beautiful wife? Looking for more proof? (Dare I say this?) Consider the now famous on-the-bus words of our current POTUS.

  18. I’m thinking about the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho — handsome, wealthy, successful, stylish, sexy, and a stone cold killer. All his assets help conceal his crimes. No one notices even when he becomes blatant and sloppy in his murders, because it’s so unbelievable that he would kill. Fascinating.

    1. Great point, Meredith. Everybody around Patrick Bateman not only fails to see what he’s doing, they willfully ignore the evidence as it unfolds in front of their eyes. They’re so blinded by his facade, and by what they think getting close to him will give them (wealth, sex, reflected glory and popularity) that they walk right into their deaths.

  19. How about settings? I love the British TV series “Happy Valley.” An ironic title, if ever there was. Or the picturesque British Villages that produce more murders on one day than a weekend in Chicago. Are any of your setting villainous? Do your beautiful places hide ugly secrets? My books are set in Silicon Valley, a place of affluence, innovation and good fortune – especially for pedophiles who benefit from technological advances that have made trading pornography as easy as downloading a song.

  20. The oxymoron has been an effective figure of speech for almost 1000 years, because the brain is attracted by the yoking of opposites. A black-hearted villain and a sweet-faced victim, such as in “Beauty and the Beast,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Snow White,” and countless others reflect how people never tire of seeing how the juxtaposition of evil against beauty plays out in literature. Will the villain be so moved by the exposure to beauty that he alters his ways? If so, there is hope that all of the world’s evils can be remedied by loveliness.

  21. I love titles like Happy Valley, Ellen, which hint at promising the very opposite. I think that part of the enduring appeal of Dracula is in the contrasts of his charm, his stunning castle and the beautiful ladies he then turns into monsters. The traditional British crime stories have generally featured terrible things happening in, as you say, idyllic villages or beautiful country houses. Part of the essence of writing compelling fiction is to create conflict,and I think that does’t just mean conflict between characters, but also conflict between setting and events. Villainy within a picturesque setting, or within an affluent, aspirational community (Silicon Valley, as you say) where events impact on the norm and rhythms of everyday life, can be very powerful. I think the concept of the Stepford Wives was very clever and very enduring because that taps into the psyche of so many. Beauty and aspiration.

    I totally agree with your comments about Patrick Bateman, Meg. If he had bad teeth, and a skull and crossbones or swastika tattooed on his forehead, he would never have had the same impact. That’s not to say you cannot have appealing ugly monster. Frankenstein’s monster is a classic of that and Mary Shelley made us feel huge empathy towards him when the says to Dr Frankenstein, “I didn’t want to exist – you made me.”

    But one of my own summary answers to the original question here of why we find the combination of villains and beauty so alluring does go back to aspiration. So many people aspire to beauty. Many of us want to look better, or younger, to live in beautiful places and to vacation on sun-drenched sandy beaches, and when books introduce us to characters and/or places that wow us, and then reveal something very dark beneath the surface, it give us a delicious frisson, and perhaps at a much deeper level makes us realise that actually we are better off as we are!

  22. This juxtaposition of good and evil, beauty and villainy, lives in the minds of many cops. Call it hyper vigilance, paranoia, or good reality testing, it stems from 1) observing the kind of misery people of all stripes can inflict on each other, 2) being lied to and feeling the fool, and 3) a single experience underestimating a dangerous situation or a dangerous person. The result: attending your child’s Christmas pageant, wondering which of the adoring parents in the audience is abusing his daughter. Carrying your weapon to the community swimming pool, just in case. Running a background check on your son’s baseball coach (strictly illegal, but you can’t take too many chances). Going shopping with your spouse at the mall and paying more attention to shoplifters and gang bangers. Dining out, always facing the door, whether you’re at McDonald”s or Maxim’s. This is what cops are looking for – the out-of-place detail, the thorn in the rose. How would your cop characters respond to the question about villains and beauty?

  23. I just got back from ThrillerFest — which was wonderful, as usual. But I was on a panel about the role of women in thrillers and I was shocked at the audience questions and comments. Very dated concepts of morality — for instance, suggestions that if a female protagonist slept around, she has to die. Like the teen slasher movies of the 1960’s. Yikes. As a feminist, I was shocked and appalled. WTF? But back to villains and beauty… Rock on, villains. Rock on.

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