Top five literary villains

The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival begins this Thursday, with four days of events devoted to the genre, from Lee Child and Tess Gerritsen to Howard Marks and Dennis Lehane.

In honour, this year's programme chair, author Dreda Say Mitchell, chooses her top five literary villains.

1. Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

In the genre pioneered by Dashiell Hammett, the line between heroes and villains can be rather blurred. You probably wouldn't lend Casper Gutman a tenner but on the other hand his pursuit of the fabled Falcon in this tale of private eyes, double-crossing and danger is rather like Captain Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick. So obsessive that a little light globe-trotting murder almost seems justified.
2. Lady Macbeth from Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Tragic heroine or a woman who will do anything to help her man get to the top? A definite villain whose deeds come back to haunt her. You wouldn't want to meet a woman who is prepared to bash the brains from her own baby in a dark alley.
3. Pinkie from Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

The average underworld thriller tends not to be too heavy on theology but of course Graham Greene wasn't an average writer. Most of us would be inclined to write off the heartless little thug Pinkie but Greene brings into play the "appalling strangeness of the mercy of God".  Compelling.
4. Professor Joseph Moriarty from The Final Problem by Arthur Conan Doyle

Doyle gives us one of the first ever literary supervillains in Professor Moriarty. Described by his creator as the "Napoleon of crime" Moriarty is a brilliant mathematician gone bad. Cunning, devious, with a deceptive looking "cane" (secret air-rifle) and with his links to the underworld he'd give any modern gangster a run for their money.
5. Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith's leading man always manages to stay one step ahead of the cops. A truly brilliant character who is polite, cultured and well mannered, but step on Tom's toes and he'll unleash the full force of his violent, psychopathic nature. A man who doesn't think twice about bumping people off to prove how good he is at living the high life.

Dreda Say Mitchell is the 2011 programme chair of The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and the author of Hit Girls, out next month in paperback from Hodder.