Albert Ashforth attended a technical high school in Brooklyn, where he became interested in drafting and illustration, and after graduating served in the Army overseas. After returning to the States and graduating from Brooklyn College, he worked for two New York City newspapers. Although he took his first newspaper job with the thought of becoming a cartoonist, Mr. Ashforth’s first writing was done for newspapers. On the basis of a newspaper article he wrote, he was offered a contract to write a book on the 19th-century English scientist, Thomas Henry Huxley, a project which required two trips to London for research at the Imperial College. Mr. Ashforth subsequently returned to Europe to work as a military contractor, and has done tours in Bosnia, Germany, Kosovo, Macedonia and Afghanistan. Among the subjects he has taught for the University of Maryland’s Overseas Program are Technical Writing and German. At the University of Basel and the University of Bern, in Switzerland, Mr. Ashforth delivered lectures on the acceptance of Charles Darwin’s ideas in continental Europe. He has worked as an instructor at Special Forces headquarters in Bad Tolz and trained officers at the German military academy in Neu Biberg. Mr. Ashforth has written three books and numerous stories, articles and reviews on a variety of subjects. His recently published novel, The Rendition, which unfolds against the background of Kosovo’s struggle for independence, is an espionage thriller which takes the readers into one of Europe’s poorest and most crime-ridden countries. The Rendition received the bronze medal from the Military Writers Society of America as one of the three best thrillers of 2012. Publishers Weekly described The Rendition as “an exciting spy thriller.” Mr. Ashforth is an assistant professor at SUNY and lives in New York City. He has completed the sequel to The Rendition. The title is Afghan Vindication. It takes place largely in Afghanistan and is scheduled to be published early next year by Oceanview.
The brutal secret war to win Kosovo’s freedom from Serbia is in full swing when The Rendition takes readers behind the headlines for an inside look at the United States’ involvement. Alex Klear, a veteran intelligence officer, is sent to the Balkans on a hastily planned rendition which goes terribly bad. Alex decides it’s time to retire. However, when he is persuaded to go to Germany as part of an operation connected to the rendition, he finds himself caught between two dynamic women, an old girlfriend and the female colonel running the ‘op.’ While there, he becomes a target of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a murder suspect to the German police, and for his superiors the perfect fall guy to take the heat for a badly botched secret operation. With Kosovo’s independence declaration coming closer by the day, the secret war heats up and Alex comes to realize that he is at the center of a murky conspiracy aimed at making the United States an international pariah.
A Villain By Any Other Name by Albert Ashforth
The place was a military installation in Germany. The time was the 1970s, smack in the middle of the Cold War. In the course of briefing a number of GIs, an officer announced, “Let’s not forget, we’re here for one reason, guys – and that’s to kill Commies!”
Looking back to that time, I’m reminded that “Commies” was an all-purpose word which served to describe our enemy. A Commie was a person who wasn’t quite human, and you didn’t need to suffer any qualms of conscience in the event that, along the way, you might have killed one or two. Just the opposite was true. As the officer indicated, killing “Commies” was a pastime to be encouraged.
I still remember that briefing, and I have to confess I was mildly surprised at the time to hear our enemies described in such a direct and unsympathetic manner. Didn’t “Commies” have families? Weren’t any “Commies” nice guys? Were there any “Commies” who helped old ladies to cross the street?
Today, military people are still straightforward in talking about the enemy. Commies, of course, are no longer the problem. In Afghanistan, I often heard the enemy referred to as Talibs,” but more often simply as “bad guys.”
But hold on! Our enemies in Afghanistan don’t think of themselves as “bad.” They think of themselves as “good.” For them, we Americans are the “bad guys.” We’ve invaded their country, and in the course of the invasion, we’ve been shooting up the towns, the cities and the landscape. Of course, we would say we’ve invaded for a good reason – to avenge the World Trade Center attack and to help make Afghanistan a more modern and better country. In this case, the invasion is seen from two different viewpoints, and that’s what causes each side to regard the other as “bad.”
Human nature being what it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a phrase in the Pashto language which serves to demean us the way we use “bad guys” to demean them.
Moving into the mystery writing world, I think we writers have a problem similar to that of military people. In talking about their books, mystery writers often refer to the “villains” inhabiting their stories. The term “villain” is interchangeable with “Commie” or just plain “bad guy,” and I think the problem is clear. The character in the story doesn’t think of himself or herself as a villain. No matter what they might be doing, I can assure you the “villain” feels perfectly justified in doing whatever he or she is doing.
In fact the term “villain” often sounds as if the author is writing off the character’s motivations as being unjustified. Or just plain awful. Or illogical. This is unfortunate because the person who is opposed to the hero is frequently the most interesting person in the book – and in fact can often be quite likable.
The best example of a likable villain is probably to be found in a couple of Shakespeare’s plays. Looked at closely, Falstaff is as awful a person as can be imagined. Sir John is repulsive in just about every way, and is everything a knight is not supposed to be. And yet he was the most popular and likable figure in all of Shakespeare’s plays. He obviously has some good qualities. He’s got a sense of humor. He can laugh at himself. He’s imaginative and never at a loss for words.
So take it from the Bard. Where your villain is concerned, give him or her some good qualities – thoughtfulness, generosity, a sense of humor. Let your villain be as likable as you can make him or her.
And give him or her some good lines. What are the most memorable lines in Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most popular play, and who speaks them? Polonius’s words of advice for his son are unforgettable. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” he tells Laertes, who is on his way to Paris. These lines also emphasize his concern for his son. In fact Polonius’s love for Laertes seems so great, it led him to murder King Hamlet. In the course of the play, he wants to kill Prince Hamlet probably to make it possible for Laertes to one day become king of Denmark. Polonius is definitely someone who thinks ahead – and who has an interesting mix of motivations, some good and some not so good.
As I said, the “villain” is quite often the most fascinating and complex character in a thriller or mystery. This means his or her motivations should be closely analyzed and explained in the course of the story.
I think “villain” is a kind of all-purpose term which is thrown around too casually. I prefer to think of people not on my hero’s wavelength as “opponents.” They are people who very definitely have an agenda different from my hero’s. By not thinking of them as “bad,” I find it is easier to make them human and interesting.