Say That We’ll be Nemeses*

A recent post from Sue at Novel Heights has got me thinking about fictional nemeses. I’m not talking here of one antagonist in one novel. Rather, I mean a recurring character who serves as a ‘bad guy,’ or at least an antagonist, in more than one novel.

It’s not easy to create such a character. By and large, crime fiction fans want their characters to be believable. So, if a character is going to, say, be arrested in one novel and imprisoned, there’d have to be a credible reason that character would show up in another.

Sue’s post (which you really do want to read) mentions Dean Reeve, whom we first meet in Nicci French’s Blue Monday. That series’ protagonist is London psychologist Frieda Klein, who encounters Reeve in the course of linking a decades-old disappearance with a contemporary one. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers. Reeve’s role in the series doesn’t end with that novel, though. He returns later in the series and upends Klein’s life. And his role in the novels is a clear example of the way nemeses can add to a series.

But Reeve is hardly the only example of a fiction nemesis. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will know that his Sherlock Holmes goes up against Professor Moriarty more than once in the course of his career. In fact, he has what Conan Doyle originally thought of as a final showdown in The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Holmes and Watson have to leave London, and end up in Switzerland. There, Holmes has a confrontation with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Fans of the Holmes stories didn’t want them to end, though, and Conan Doyle was persuaded to bring Holmes back in further stories.

In Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to the campus of Holm Coultram College. A body has been discovered in the course of some campus renovations, and Dalziel and Pascoe investigate the death. One of the people they encounter is brilliant and enigmatic student activist leader Franny Roote. He’s a thorn in both detectives’ sides during this novel, and his role doesn’t end there. Roote makes appearances in A Cure For All Diseases, Death’s Jest-Book, and Dialogues of the Dead. And in each one, he proves to be a more-than-worthy adversary, especially to Pascoe. Roote’s an interesting character in his own right, and his presence in the novels arguably adds leaven to the series.

We might say the same thing about Ian Rankin’s Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Caffery. As fans of Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus series know, Cafferty is an Edinburgh crime boss, who makes his first appearance in Tooth and Nail. He goes on to appear in several other Rebus novels, and the two have an interesting relationship. On the one hand, they are antagonists. Cafferty is a criminal and Rebus is a copper. Rebus will do whatever it takes to put Cafferty behind bars, keep him there, and stop his operations. And, of course, Cafferty has no intention of letting that happen. On the other hand, the two develop a grudging respect for each other over time. And there are cases in which they end up helping each other. As time goes on, we also see how the face of Edinburgh crime and law enforcement change. Those changes impact both men, so that each one wonders, in his own way, where he’s going to fit in in the new order of things.

Not all fictional nemeses are criminals. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch contends with Irvin Irving in more than one of the Bosch novels. Irving is a very politically astute member of the LAPD, who’s involved in several of Bosch’s cases. For various reasons, mostly to protect himself or other, highly-placed, members of the police force, he often tries to limit what Bosch does. He’s been responsible for disciplining him, having him transferred, and so on. Later in the series, Irving runs for, and is elected to, political office. But that doesn’t mean he and Bosch no longer interact. Irving isn’t an evil, twisted serial killer, nor a crime boss. But he isn’t above squashing investigations and muzzling the police detectives who want to pursue them, especially if his name is connected to anything. And he’s not at all afraid to threaten Bosch’s job and career if that’s what it takes. Bosch, of course, isn’t willing to shut up and go away, or ‘rubber stamp’ an investigation. It makes for an interesting adversarial relationship as the series goes on.

And that’s the thing about nemeses. When they’re well drawn as characters, they can add suspense and strong story arcs to a series. They can also be interesting characters in their own right, so that we want to know more about them, even if we want the protagonist to ‘win.’ These are only a few examples of nemeses; I know you’ll think of more.

Thanks, Sue, for the inspiration! Now, folks, may I suggest you pay a visit to Sue’s excellent blog? Fine reviews and news await you there.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jonathan Coultron and John Roderick’s Nemeses.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Reginald Hill

23 responses to “Say That We’ll be Nemeses*

  1. How lovely – I’m not often anyone’s inspiration! Interesting post – the counterpoint to the detective is equally important and in these long running series you’re right that it’s difficult to keep the villain both bad and credible through more than one book.

    • It’s my pleasure to mention your blog, Sue, and I do appreciate the inspiration. You’re right, too, that it’s just as important to consider the antagonist as it is the sleuth. I think that’s especially true, as you say, over a series. That question of credibility is always there…

  2. Christine Poulson

    As usual, a very interesting topic, Margot. The Deaf Man in the Ed McBain series returns again and again, though I don’t think we really get to know him as a person.

    • Thank you, Christine. And, oh! Of course! The Deaf Man! I’m so glad you mentioned that character, because I’d forgotten about him when I was planning this post. Thanks for filling in that gap. We may not get to know him as a complete person, but he’s certainly a nemesis.

  3. Rex Stout created a repeating super-villain for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to handle in three books. Arnold Zeck is sort of an American Moriarty. I love Archie’s description of Zeck’s eyes when the two meet: “The eyes were the result of an error on the assembly line. They had been intended for a shark and someone got careless. They did not now look the same as shark eyes because Arnold Zeck’s brain had been using them to see with for fifty years, and that had had an effect.”

    • Thank you, Les, for reminding me of Arnold Zeck. He’s a great character in terms of being a nemesis for Wolfe. And you’re right; that description of Zeck’s eyes is pitch-perfect. Thanks for filling in that gap I left.

  4. One other note: I’m not a huge fan of the Bulldog Drummond books by “Sapper,” but Drummond did have a repeating villain, particularly in the first several books: a megalomaniac named Carl Peterson. Wikipedia also tells me that Peterson’s daughter replaced her father as Drummond’s arch-enemy later in the series.

    All of which reminds me somehow of that enemy of civilization (and of Nayland Smith), the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, in Sax Rohmer’s series…

    • Ah, yes, Dr. Fu Manchu! Now that’s a nemesis, Les. I have to confess I’ve not read the Drummond books. But I’m glad you mentioned them, even if they’re not tops on your list. An interesting point there about Peterson’s daughter. Hmm….I’m thinking now of other crime-fictional children who follow in their parents’ (illegal) footsteps. Hmmm…

  5. tracybham

    Les beat me to Arnold Zeck, and I haven’t been successful in thinking of any others. I have read several of the series you mentioned but haven’t met any of the nemeses yet, so will have to read more.

  6. I always think recurring nemeses have to be handled quite carefully or they can end up making a series feel a bit repetitive. I like Big Ger Cafferty, for instance, but it seems as if he’s been in too many of the recent Rebus’ books, and I kind of long for Rankin to give us something different. I’m always intrigued by how Moriarty has become such a huge nemesis for Holmes in all the various adaptations and follow-ons, because if I remember rightly he only appeared in a couple of the original stories, with passing references in a couple of others.

    • Now, that’s an interesting point, FictionFan! Moriarty doesn’t get a lot of ‘airplay’ in the actual Holmes stories, although he’s certainly painted as a ‘bad guy.’ And, yet, on screen and so on, he does. Hmm…perhaps to ramp up the drama? On the other hand, as you say, Cafferty shows up in a lot of the Rebus novels. And I can see how that might get too repetitive after time. It’s hard to know just how often to have a nemesis make an appearance, how dangerous, and so on, isn’t it? That’s part of what makes them tricky as characters, I suppose.

  7. Col

    I was struggling for examples. I wouldn’t have recalled Irving from the Connelly novels. I do need to read a few more Rankin/Rebus books.

    • The Rankin series is a good one, Col. In my opinion, well worth reading as and when. As for Irving, I think that one thing that makes him interesting is that he’s not a more traditional ‘bad guy.’ He’s a little more complex than that, in my opinion.

  8. Moriarty was the name that first came to mind! Thanks for the other examples…some fun reading here!

  9. Alex

    What’s so much fun about your posts, Margot, is all the comments they generate from such knowledgeable readers, like you, who come up with all sorts of information I either (a) never knew or (b) had forgotten about. They are as enlightening for their contribution, and inspiration for my own future posts.

    • I couldn’t possibly agree more, Alex, about the fantastic people, such as yourself, who stop by my blog and teach me every day. I learn so much every single time someone leaves a comment. And I benefit from all of the different perspectives that people bring. I’m a fortunate woman!

  10. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on how nemeses can pop up in multiple books.

  11. Arnold Zeck was my first thought, just like some of your other readers! and thanks for the reminder of the Franny Roote character – he was very creepy, and Reginald Hill used him to great effect. I would like to re-read those books (if I only had time…)

    • I know just what you mean about having enough time, Moira *sigh.* I wish I had time to read a quarter of the books I’d like to (re)read. Unfortunately, there is that issue of earning a living. And family. And…And….

      Thanks for mentioning Zeck. He is a good character and an effective nemesis, and I’m glad you good people have filled in that gap!

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