Ian Fleming and Eric Ambler do it Better: How to Paint a Villain

I love the James Bond movies so it’s only natural that I’d love the books, but reading the books was always one of those things that fell to the bottom of my “to do eventually (but actually never)” list. Cue “The Spy Novel” seminar, which was the perfect opportunity to finally do so. Though the semester’s winding down and I’ve got holiday travels and two Thanksgiving dinners on my brain, I’m not quite over my Spy Novel class. Like when watching a good James Bond film, I don’t want it to end.

But it must end and I remind myself what matters is the takeaway. From this course specifically, I now have excellent models for plot and pacing, creating (and sustaining) tension and crafting compelling (male) characters. My professor concedes that strong female characters are not one of the genre’s strengths, but it doesn’t mean you can’t see them clearly. Especially when the women are villains or whores. So too, I learned how to paint a vivid villain.

JFK once said that From Russia With Love was one of his favorite books. I wonder too, if Rosa Klebb, the female head of Operations and Executions at SMERSH, the Soviet Counter-Intelligence Agency who wants Bond dead, was one of his favorite villains.

Here, we meet her through her colleague’s eyes. To say that he finds her unattractive is the epitome of understatement:

Rosa Klebb would be in her late forties, he assumed, placing her by the date of the Spanish War. She was short, about five foot four, and squat, and her dumpy arms and short neck, and the calves of her thick legs in the drap khaki stockings, were very strong for a woman. The devil knows, thought Kronsteen, what her breasts were like, but the bulge of the uniform that rested on the table-top looked like a badly packed sandbag, and in general her figure, with its big pear-shaped hips, could only be likened to a cello. 

The tricoteuses of the French Revolution must have had faces like hers, decided Kronsteen, sitting back in his chair and tilting his head slightly to one side. The thinning orange hair scraped back to the tight obscene bun; the shiny yellow-brown eyes that stared so coldly at General G. through the sharp-edged squares of glass; the wedge of thickly powdered, large-pored nose; the wet trap of a mouth, that went on opening and shutting as if it was operated by wires under the chin. Those French women, as they sat and knitted and chatted while the guillotine clanged down, must have had the same pale, thick chicken’s skin that scragged in little folds under the eyes and at the corners of the mouth and below the jaws, the same big peasant’s ears, the same tight, hard dimpled fists, like knockberries, that, in the case of the Russian woman, now lay tightly clenched on the red velvet table-top on either side of the big bundle of bosom. And their faces must have conveyed the same impression, concluded Kronsteen, of coldness and cruelty and strength as this, yes, he had to allow himself the emotive word, dreadful woman of SMERSH. 

Ian Fleming, From Russia with Love 

Lesser writers (like myself, when blogging in a half-assed way) would simply have written, “She was ugly.” Remind me always, no matter how mean, to take it to the next level (but to change names). If anyone reading this went to my middle school, I’m sure Rosa Klebb’s description calls to mind another woman whose last name has a villainous German ring to it. Ahem. (Mrs. Krauser!)

Next up, Eric Ambler, who precedes Fleming and was a huge influence on Bond’s creator (In From Russia With Love, Bond travels with a copy of Ambler’s A Coffin For Dimitrios). Ambler’s novel follows British mystery writer Charles Latimer as he tries to reconstruct the life of the mysterious and notorious Dimitrios, whose body he encounters by chance after meeting a Turkish colonel. He goes from city to city tracking down people Dimitrios used to know, including Madame Preveza, a madame who owns a brothel called La Vierge St. Marie:

Through smarting eyes Latimer was idly watching one of the sinister young men offering a pinch of what might have been snuff, but which was not, and wondering whether he should make another attempt to slake his thirst with champagne, when suddenly Marukakis touched his arm. 

‘That will be her,’ he said. 

Latimer looked across the room […] and he saw [Madam Preveza] standing motionless by the curtained door by which she had entered. 

She possessed that odd blousy quality that is indendent of good clothes and well-dressed hair and skilful maquillage. Her figure was full but good and she held herself well; her dress was probably expensive, her thick, dark hair looked as though it had spent the past two hours in the hands of a hair dresser. Yet she remained, unmistakably, and irrevocably, a slattern. There was something temporary, an air of suspended animation, about her. It seemed as if at any moment the hair should begin to straggle, the dress slip down negligently over one soft, creamy shoulder, the hand with the diamond cluster ring which now hung loosely at her side reach up to pluck at pink silk shoulder straps and pat abstractedly at the hair. You saw it in her dark eyes. The mouth was firm and good humoured in the loose, raddled flesh about it, but the eyes were humid with sleep and the carelessness of sleep. They made you think of things you had forgotten, of clumsy gilt hotel chairs strewn with discarded clothes and of grey dawn light slanting through closed shutters, of attar of roses and of the musty smell of heavy curtains on brass rings, of the sound of warm, slow breathing of a sleeper against the ticking of a clock in the darkness… 

I read passages like that and realize I’ve never truly described anything in my life. Well.

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