Living as we do in the Land of the League Table, there's sadly little call to be surprised by the appearance of what some will see as a prosopographical breakthrough: a book confidently entitled The Most Evil Men and Women in History (Michael O'Mara, £15.99) and with a cover where the word 'evil' appears in black in a type size several magnitudes greater than that of its supporting syntax. Nor should we be surprised for a second time to find that this is a set of potted life-stories to go with a ten-week television series that has just got under way on Channel 5. The 15 historical figures selected to make up what it would be comforting to believe was literally a cast list from hell are no doubt the sediment left behind from a more extensive list of candidates following hours of strenuous haggling as the programme planners argued for their favourites: 'OK, I'll give you Attila the Hun if you'll let me have Vlad the Impaler.' Disappointingly, viewers aren't being asked to work their way up, in reverse order of nastiness, starting with the men and women who were only fairly evil to those who were very evil indeed, with the most evil of all left till last. Rather, the series is tamely chronological, kicking off with Caligula ('The Schizophrenic Emperor', which you'd have thought might let him off the hook) and ending with the one living evildoer, Idi Amin ('The Butcher of East Africa'). As for the three women who were reckoned bad enough to qualify, 'Bloody Mary' ('A Catholic Queen in a Protestant Country', I mean . . .), Elizabeth Countess Barthory ('Countess Dracula') and Ilse Koch ('The Bitch of Buchenwald'), their presence owes more to the Equal Opportunities Commission than to anything they actually did. What with one thing or another, the word 'evil' has never had it so good: according to the latest Harper's, it got five mentions in Bush the Younger's one State of the Union address (Clinton got round to it only twice in all of his), and if comparatism of the Channel 5 kind takes a hold, it won't be long before an enterprising college takes a leaf out of Don DeLillo's delightful White Noise and offers an undergraduate course in Evil Studies.
LRB 25 April 2002 | PDF Download