Jon McGoran: How Bad Is Too Bad?
Jon McGoran writes a cracking thriller — I love the ecological spin his first two books took, books with murder at their heart but that also deal with biotechnology or honeybees. Original voice with an original premise. He’s back with a new Doyle Carrick book, and he wanted to jump in and talk about a real juicy subject: BAD GUYS.
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There is a piece of writing advice I often hear, that your bad guys shouldn’t be all bad. This makes good sense. Nobody is all anything, and depicting them as if they were makes for shallow and unbelievable characters. But there’s a related dictum that bad guys don’t think of themselves as bad guys — that in their minds and in their stories they are the stars, the protagonists, the good guys. To this I say: yes, yes, and …maybe not so much.
When writing any character, no matter how minor or major or good or evil, it’s important to keep in mind their point of view, their motivations and justifications. But make no mistake, some people are just assholes. Look at the news. Look at any comment section. Look at human history. There are plenty of villains out there who are pretty unabashedly villains.
There are some very interesting antagonists in fiction who are conflicted and misguided, doing terrible things for what they consider justifiable reasons. And I love them, the sick, twisted, confused bastards. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of jerks out there knowing full well that what they are doing is wrong. And that doesn’t mean they’re twirling their mustaches and cackling while rubbing their hands together and contemplating “evil” (that’s “ē-vĭl,” not “ē-vəl”). Most of them simply want something, and they are willing to let bad things happen to other people in order to get it. They know the collateral damage is wrong, they just don’t care. Or they don’t care enough.
I write a series of biotech thrillers in which some of the villains are people in control of big corporations. Much of the wrongdoing in the books is collateral damage these characters are willing to accept in order to achieve the goals of the company.
I, personally, am not an bad guy (I’m pretty sure). But there are parts of my brain that think like one. I take great delight in coming up with dastardly and ingenious schemes (I don’t have a mustache to twirl, but I’ve been known to wring my hands and cackle). Every now and then, though, I find myself thinking: “That’s pretty harsh. Would someone really do that?”
And after a moment of reflection, I am plunged into an emotional abyss as I realize that yes, of course they would. That kind of wrongdoing goes down every day. Think Enron, the mortgage crisis, the daily willful and tragic violations of workplace safety regulations that get people killed to save a few bucks, even Volkswagen, doing its best to carpool us all to the carbon tipping point.
A few years ago, a book called Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children detailed how the lead industry worked to hide the dangers of lead paint. For fifty years — from the 1920s to the 1970s — they pushed back against regulations and forestalled the banning of its products. One expert says that, among other consequences, the lead exposure from that delay led to a five-point drop in the American population’s average IQ — doubling the number of children considered “retarded” and reducing by one half those considered “gifted.” But the lead companies made tons of money.
Maybe the best example of the worst was in the 1970s and 1980s, when companies like Nestlé marketed infant formula in developing countries by sending sales reps dressed like nurses into the maternity wards. Breastfeeding was “old-fashioned,” they explained to the new mothers, and infant formula was the “modern way.” Never mind that breast milk was free and infant formula prohibitively expensive, or that many of these mothers didn’t have access to clean water to mix the formula. The “milk nurses” would even give the mothers free samples to last just long enough so the mothers would stop lactating and were no longer able to breastfeed. Countless babies dies of malnutrition and parasites from unsafe water, but sales skyrocketed. Brilliant! (Nestlé continued to provide villain-fodder a few years back when Chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck defended privatizing water supplies with the assertion that humans do not have a right to water.)
People sometimes ask me why I write thrillers about big food and biotech corporations. Partly it’s because I think it’s fascinating and important. But I also think it’s scary. Part of what makes thrillers thrilling is tapping into legitimate fears of real threats. Corporate malfeasance is far from the scariest threat out there, not compared to the likes of ISIS and Boko Haram. But I’ve seen some bad stuff done in the name of shareholder dividends, and I’ve seen it directly impacting more people than any terrorist attacks.
The people responsible for these things might be kind to their friends, loving to their families, and generous to their charities — as with all people, they are complex and multifaceted beings. But when they make decisions that hurt thousands or millions of people, they know they’re doing evil. In their minds, in their stories, they might think of themselves as the stars or the protagonists, but they know they’re not the good guys. They’re the bad guys. They’ve chosen to be, and they’ve chosen to be okay with it. And lots of times, that’s the biggest part of what evil is.
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Detective Doyle Carrick is awakened in the middle of the night by frantic banging on his front door, followed by gunfire. Ron Hartwell, a complete stranger, is dying on his doorstep.
A halfhearted investigation labels the murder a domestic dispute, with Miriam, Ron’s widow, the sole suspect. Doyle discovers the Hartwells both worked for a big biotech company and suspects something else is going on, but it’s not his case. Then Miriam tracks him down and tells him her story.
Miriam and Ron had been working in Haiti and visiting her friend Regi Baudet, the deputy health minister, when they stumbled upon a corporate cover-up of tainted food aid that sickened an entire village—and was one hundred percent fatal. They were coming to Doyle to blow the whistle. Before Miriam can say more, they are attacked by gunmen and she flees, then disappears.
Doyle tracks her to Haiti, a country on the brink of political chaos. Working with Miriam and Regi, he must untangle a web of deceit and unconscionable corporate greed in order to stop an epidemic of even greater evil before it is released onto an unsuspecting world.
Jon McGoran: Website