The Bad Guys | Reader's Digest

The Bad Guys

How pulp fiction has used "Oriental" villains, from Fu Manchu to modern Arabs, to raise a ruckus in second-rate fiction.

By Jim Menick

Good thrillers require good villains. Or more to the point, bad villains. Really bad. Writers have to work hard to come up with these satisfying bad guys. Unfortunately, we have a long history of writers not working quite hard enough.

When I first got into publishing, every bad guy worth his salt was a Nazi. You couldn’t go wrong with Nazis, because they had no saving virtues whatsoever. They were racists, they were power-mad, and they were ruthless. (In the movies they had the added attraction of speaking with nasty accents.) And they were always plotting something, even long after WWII was in the history books. Sometimes Hitler still lived, often it was only his ideas, sometimes it was just his methods. It didn’t matter. We had villains who were intrinsically villainous, and that was the whole point of the exercise. The thing is, writers haven’t always had convenient Nazis, and nowadays, well, most of your surviving Nazis are in nursing homes. Other villains are required.

Robert Irwin writes a long essay about this for England’s The Sunday Times in a review of the book Spies and Holy Wars by Reeva Spector Simon. He talks about various breeds of villains that are based on Asian models, from the so-called Yellow Peril of Fu Manchu to the more recent appropriation of Muslims into not merely villains but often supervillains. It’s racism, pure and simple, and usually not very good literature:

“Spy thrillers are pointlessly didactic. They teach one how to do things that one is never going to do in real life, such as disassemble an automatic rifle with one hand, fly a helicopter at street level, or launder money… The didacticism extends beyond merely giving lessons about how to be a man of action, for as we have seen, the authors of Middle Eastern thrillers like to instruct their readership about the future of the region and the threats to Western civilization that will emanate from it. They want the readers to be excited, but also fearful about what is to come.”

What is to come, presumably, is the takeover of the West by villainous Muslims who are, for all practical purposes, the new pulp novel Nazis.

Read Pulp orientalism: Thrillers and their crude caricatures of villainous Arabs, apocalyptic plots and even jihads inspired by Fu Manchu.

  • Your Comments