Vigilantes and Other Rogues

on November 8, 2012

What is it about vigilantes, rogue cops, and superheroes that keep us captivated?

This trend is nothing new, though over the last few years the vigilante-as-hero has been on the rise. I look back to Westerns as the rise of vigilante justice. When America was a new country and there wasn’t any real system in place to keep people safe. People were responsible for each other–families for their own, neighbors for their neighbors, towns for their towns. Someone comes onto your land to steal your cattle, shoot them. Someone rapes your wife, shoot him. Someone robs the bank? Hunt them down and hang them.

Standard set-ups in vigilante stories is usually heart-wretching. The hero (or anti-hero) has someone he loves violently taken from him, and he hunts down the people responsible. There’s a clear “good guy” and a clear “bad guy” and no doubt that the bad guys deserve to be shot or hung. As society has grown, laws made, law enforcement spread throughout the land, there’s less need of vigilante justice because there are protections in place. Some people own guns. Some people have security systems. Some people know self-defense. There are security cameras protecting businesses, security cameras on public streets and in homes, cops paid to respond and investigate crimes. A court system that wrings out the bad guys and sorts the truly evil from those who just made a mistake. Prisons to keep them in check.

Except, the system doesn’t always work. It’s a good system, but no system is perfect. Sometimes, innocent people end up in prison. Other times, bad guys are let free on technicalities. Sometimes, the bad guys are never caught. We all know a personal story, something that happened to us or to a loved one where justice was not served.

And that’s why vigilante stories remain popular. Westerns, Robin Hood, THE EQUALIZER, DEATH WISH, and others. It’s why superheroes have always been popular, but we’re seeing a resurgence. It’s why shows like JUSTIFIED and PERSON OF INTEREST and ARROW become popular. Why we can root for the anti-hero because he’s meting out justice when the system has failed.

In LOVE ME TO DEATH, the first Lucy Kincaid book, I tackled vigilante justice. A group of vigilantes were targeting convicted sex offenders who were released from prison early. Statistics show that sex offenders are the most likely to reoffend; these are predators who take pleasure in hurting those weaker than them. As I wrote the book, I was having a hard time seeing what was wrong with what they were doing–these guys were bad news, and they were going to hurt another woman or child. Why not kill them? In fact, when I was looking for a new agent in 2010 and LMTD was written, I used it as my WIP for the new agents I was interviewing. One agent didn’t like it–the first victim in the book, Roger Morton, was a bad guy and he was shot in the head. The agent commented that no one is going to feel bad about him, or the other victim who was a convicted rapist, and she didn’t see how readers were going to care about solving these crimes. She only read the first third of the book, and I can see why she would think that. But isn’t that one of the great hooks in stories? To see these crimes as justified … and then when do they step over the line?

Even Lucy is torn. From LMTD:

In the back of her mind, Lucy realized that she was relieved they were off the streets. But she couldn’t accept cold-blooded murder. If vigilante justice ruled, anarchy would soon follow.

“The system is far from perfect. But your way is not the answer. It’s premeditated, cold-blooded murder. That makes you as much a monster as they are.”

In most vigilante stories, the hero (anti-hero) is torn because of this exact idea–that they, too, are monsters. Monsters hunt monsters. They can justify it because they’re saving innocents and taking down bad guys, but it takes its toll on them, even superheroes. It’s what makes them compelling characters–alpha, damaged, brutal, compassionate.

Why do you think vigilante stories are so popular and compelling? What’s one of your favorite characters from film, television, or literature?

Good news! I found out yesterday that STALKED, the latest Lucy Kincaid thriller, is debuting at #10 on the New York Times bestseller list. Thank you to all my readers who helped put Lucy on the list. AND our own Laura Griffin’s SCORCHED also hit the NYT extended list, the first time her Tracers series has made a showing. I am SO thrilled for her because her series rocks.

To celebrate that Laura and I are on the same list, I’m giving away a $25 gift certificate to the on-line bookseller of your choice. One lucky commenter will be our random winner–check back on Sunday for the announcement. Whoot!