Author of the acclaimed thriller novels 48 Hours to Kill and Heavy Metal, Andrew Bourelle has also coauthored with James Patterson the New York Times best sellers Texas Ranger and Texas Outlaw. His short stories have appeared in a number of literary magazines and in various anthologies. Two have been included in volumes of The Best American Mystery Stories. A professor at the University of New Mexico, Andrew makes his EQMM debut with the story “Blue Sky,” in our current issue (May/June 2022). In this post he discusses revenge as a motive for behavior pivotal to crime fiction. It’s a topic rarely addressed on this blog, and I think you’ll find his observations interesting! —Janet Hutchings
I love revenge stories.
Revenge can be a powerful motivator for either the protagonist or antagonist. Whether you’ve read the thousand-page epic or not, you’re likely aware of Alexandre Dumas’s famous The Count of Monte Cristo, where the wrongly imprisoned Edmond Dantés exacts long-awaited revenge on the men who betrayed him. Dumas also uses revenge to drive the plot in Twenty Years After, the sequel to The Three Musketeers, only this time it’s the antagonist who seeks it.
How do you create a single villain that’s a worthy adversary for not one, not two, not three, but four of the greatest soldiers/swordsmen/adventurers in all of literature? You make the adversary motivated by revenge. The cold-blooded Mordaunt seems almost superhuman as he seeks to avenge his mother, Milady de Winter, executed in the first book as a result of her quarrels with the musketeers (in which, come to think of it, she too was motivated by revenge).
Recall that as much as Frankenstein is a science fiction novel about the dangers of scientific hubris, the plot itself is driven by revenge. First, the creature seeks revenge against Victor and is so motivated by it that he’s willing to kill innocent people to make his creator suffer. Then it’s Victor who seeks revenge, chasing the creature across the frozen ice fields of the arctic. At the end of the novel, neither character wants to go on living except to punish the other. As readers, I think we can empathize—at least at times—with both of them. Which brings me to what I love most about revenge stories: the moral ambiguity revenge stories must confront.
As readers, I think we can relate to the desire for revenge. However, the question looms: can or should characters go through with it? Even though someone else has committed evil, is the answer for the protagonist to commit evil in response? If revenge was easy, Hamlet would be a much shorter play. Instead, the prince of Denmark vacillates for pages and pages (or hours and hours on stage), debating how and why and if he should avenge his father, only for his journey to end with a long trail of bodies in his wake, including his own. Often, it seems, no one wins in a revenge tale.
We want the bad guys punished, yet we don’t want our heroes to lose their souls in doing so. But a good revenge story recognizes that it’s pretty much impossible to do the first without the second.
Plenty of mystery novels, new and old, grapple with elements of revenge in a variety of interesting and thought-provoking ways, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay to S.A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears. The list goes on. However, my favorite revenge tale isn’t a novel but a short story: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” Pretty much everyone I know read this in a high school English class, but if you haven’t read it since, it’s worth revisiting.
You probably know the plot: In an unnamed Italian city, during Carnival, a nobleman named Montresor invites his enemy, Fortunato, into the catacombs beneath his home to sample the wine he’s recently purchased. Once there, however, we discover there is no cask of amontillado. It’s a trap. Montresor chains a drunk and confused Fortunato to a wall and proceeds to use brick and mortar to cover him up, essentially burying him alive.
The story evokes a claustrophobic dread, but what I love most about it are the indeterminacies that leave the reader wondering throughout. We don’t know what Fortunato has done to Montresor. The narrator claims he’s suffered a thousand injuries, but he doesn’t specify what they are. And Fortunato doesn’t seem to know. Or does he? After screaming for help, and then trying to laugh off what is happening as a good joke, he goes quiet. Is the silence indicative of his realization of what is actually happening—and why? We readers are left wondering just how crazy Montresor is. Or is he even remotely justified?
I love also what the point of view does for the story. This isn’t a third-person story where we’re getting the narrative through the lens of an objective, omniscient narrator. Montresor himself tells the story in first-person, narrating it with a double-I perspective a full fifty years after the events of the story. In short: This story is told by a man who got away with murder. And as much as he seems to come across as feeling no guilt for what he’s done, there are hints that the man telling the story did experience—or still does—at least some moral dilemma for his actions. At the end of the story, troubled by Fortunato’s silence, Montresor says his “heart grew sick”—then he quickly qualifies that this was because of the dampness of the catacombs. What a strange, eerie confession he is making. He readily admits to mocking Fortunato’s screams—of screaming back at him with even more zeal—yet his only hint of regret is excused as something else. The narration is made even more frightening by the fact that this is someone who’s had plenty of time to wrestle with the moral implications of what he’s done and this is the way he’s decided to tell his story? If the story was told in third-person, or in first but without the fifty-year remove, I don’t think it would be nearly as creepy.
I find in my writing that I’m often grappling with questions associated with revenge. In my latest book, 48 Hours to Kill, a prison inmate has a forty-eight-hour furlough to find who is responsible for his sister’s murder. What he’s going to do with the person or persons if he finds them (bring them to justice or exact his own personal revenge) looms in the protagonist’s mind during the hunt. Similarly, my short story “Cowboy Justice,” found in The Best American Mystery Stories 2015, is about two brothers who take the law into their own hands to avenge their other brother against drug dealers. They find that revenge comes with a high, horrifying cost. In my latest story, “Blue Sky,” out in the new May/June issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, revenge isn’t a major part of the narrative, but there’s definitely an “I’ll get you for this” moment instrumental to the plot.
I love revenge stories not because—or not just because—of what the revenge can do for the plot, but because of what the revenge says about characters. The lengths a character will go for revenge—and how they feel about what they’ve done or are doing—says a lot about them. For good or bad. Case in point: Montresor. It’s one thing to bury someone alive for insults, real or imagined. It’s another altogether to live with the crime for fifty years and still tell yourself you’re okay with it.