Creating a villain

‘Out of the Smoke’ Author’s Commentary

Chapter 3: The Devil’s Lads

Halfway across the river Tosher nudged Billy again.
“Look out,” he muttered, and this time there was no humour in his voice. “Here comes trouble.”
A rabble of boys and young men was striding along the pavement towards them, spread out from the parapet to the kerb. Billy recognised them instantly: a notorious gang who called themselves the Devil’s Lads, and who prided themselves on a fearsom reputation on both sides of the river.
[…] Swaggering along at the head of the crew was their captain, Archie Miller.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 3: The Devil’s Lads

Every good story needs a villain – but when I began writing ‘Out of the Smoke’ I didn’t have one in mind. The original plan for the story had Billy and Tosher escaping from Gerard and getting mixed up with a street gang, with Billy very much becoming an antihero: a main character who slowly turns into the villain of the story. The resolution came when Billy inadvertently hurt (or, at one point in the plotting process, killed) Tosher, which made him realise the error of his ways so that he sought help from Lord Shaftesbury.

That was still the plan when Billy and Tosher began crossing Westminster Bridge; by the time they reached the other side, however, the plan had changed.

As with many things, I’m not entirely sure where Archie Miller came from. The first I knew of him was when Tosher nudged Billy in the extract quoted above. It was one of those occasions where I just felt that something had to happen, and there was a certain inevitability about the crossing of the bridge and meeting something dark and terrible in the middle.

Archie was a fearsome sight: a beast of a man standing a full head taller than Gerard, with bulging muscles and a thick neck that made him look like a bull.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 3: The Devil’s Lads

Archie went through a few revisions as I wrote and edited the book. At first he was a lot more violent, outwardly aggressive and threatening to Billy and others. But as I went on I realised that true villains don’t need to be performative with their evil; true villains can sit quietly in the corner of a room and still exude an air of menace. And so Archie morphed into the quintessential ‘mob boss’ type character: smart, well-educated, savvy, but physically intimidating and with a murderous edge. On the rare occasions that Archie uses physical violence himself, it’s a shocking thing: an explosion of his calm, collected exterior that effects everyone around him, like a bomb going off.

One thing I don’t think we ever quite landed on was Archie’s age. Age was an issue with many of the characters in the book, with my publisher voicing the opinion that their relative youth strained credulity. It’s true that to many modern readers the idea of virtual teenagers running these criminal empires much seem unrealistic, but the fact was that children started their criminal careers early. In my mind Archie is between sixteen and eighteen, but more than a match for adults many years older than him. I’ve called him a ‘man’ in the finished text, but his original description made it quite clear that he was not:

… a country lad who (so it was said) had come up to London to seek his fortune and found he was more skilled with his fists than with his tongue. The story went that he had worked as a grocer’s boy for two days, serving a master who cursed him and beat him at every opportunity, before he snapped and knocked the man out cold with a single punch. Other variations on the tale claimed that Archie had stuffed the man’s own produce so far down his throat that he choked (the precise nature of the vegetable varied from teller to teller), or else that he had driven the man’s own cart over him and broken his back.

‘Out of the Smoke’ – Author’s notes

The name of the gang – the Devil’s Lads – was one of my own, but it was entirely based on the lurid and often fantastical names that some of these Victorian street gangs gave themselves. These included:

  • The Skeleton Army
  • The Jovial Thirty-Two
  • The Monkey Parade Gang
  • Corcoran’s Roosters
  • The Baxter Street Dudes
  • The Crazy Butch Gang
  • The Tub of Blood Bunch

The south bank of the Thames was as poor and run-down as the north bank was majestic. Shabby houses teetered precariously over the scummy brown water, shored up by rotten timbers but looking as if they might tumble into the river at any moment; wharves and jetties littered the water’s edge, their posts mired in green weed, backed by ramshackle sheds and workshops crowded together in a jumble of grimy brick and decaying wood.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 3: The Devil’s Lads

London in the 1860s was a city well and truly under construction. Some might say it still is today! A challenge for me was accurately imagining the condition of certain parts of the city at the time, particularly along the bank of the Thames. I had to look up when certain prominent landmarks were built, which was fascinating:

  • Westminster Bridge: 1862
  • Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament): Rebuilt 1870
  • Victoria Embankment: 1870
  • Tower Bridge: 1894

I wanted to get the feel of a city in transit from the past to the future, the old city being gradually built over by the new. The images above were helpful to get a feel for the ‘old city’ – although some remnants can still be seen today if you walk along the Thames shore when the tide is out.

[They] followed him deeper into the maze, passing shuttered shops, looming tenament houses, and smoky pubs from which the noise of raucous laughter and frantic music wingled with the fumes of whisky and gin. Street children scuttled in the shadows, their eyes wider and their bellies more shrunken than any of the boys who trailed after Gerard. Hard, suspicious faces glared out of doorways as they passed, men and women whose expressions were a mixture of defiance and creeping fear: fear of living, fear of dying, fear of cold, hunger, thirst and pain.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 3: The Devil’s Lads
Seven Dials, a Victorian slum

The Victorian slums are notorious, and doing them justice without being lurid was difficult. The image above was a huge influence on my description of Billy’s home neighourhood of Lambeth, even though the picture is of Seven Dials (more on that location later).

Again, it was an issue of balance: how much to include, how much to leave out. Jaime, my editor, made a comment along the lines of the misery and suffering becoming oppressive; I argued that this was the whole point; she argued that you didn’t want to lose readers by depressing them!

You can, of course, visit these locations today, in the streets around London Waterloo and London Waterloo East stations. These days you’ll find them packed with artisinal bakers and street food vendors, as well as theatre-goers and city commuters. But back in Billy’s day it really was a slice of hell, and it’s hard to imagine just how grinding life was for the inhabitants.

Header illustration copyright Jaime Dill, 2020

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