“I want people to be appalled by Villanelle,” says Luke Jennings of the merciless heroine of his thriller that has been turned into a drama by the BBC, “but at the same time cheering her on.” Which is all well and good. Just don’t sit next to Villanelle at the opera.
Sicilian Mafia godfather Salvatore Greco makes that mistake in Jennings’s Codename Villanelle, and receives a poison-tipped hairpin in the brain. When Greco’s bodyguards object they’re dispatched with two head shots. Meanwhile, the female assassin leaves Palermo’s now bloodied Teatro Massimo opera house on the back of a motorbike driven by a rival mafioso with whom she has alfresco sex before threatening to kill him and then setting fire to her knickers, dress and wig in a graveyard.
Racy in several senses and gripping from the word go, you can also see why BBC America commissioned a television version of Jennings’s sensational thriller, which is due on BBC1 and BBC3 next month. Codename Villanelle comes to the screen as Killing Eve, eight one-hour episodes from a screenwriting team led by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator of Fleabag, which, says Jennings, “keeps just how gloriously appalling Villanelle is”
Jennings isn’t a writer who worries too much about the representation of violence. “Pretty much everybody in the book that gets offed is a horrible person. The sort of scumbags the world would be absolutely fine without.”
Jodie Comer stars as Villanelle, the 25-year-old Russian hit-woman-cum-psychopath, born Oxana Borisovna Vorontsova, who adopts the name of the favourite perfume of a guillotined French aristocrat. After murdering the men who killed her father she’s rescued from the Russian prison system by a secretive crime organisation and offered a luxurious life in the West in exchange for the occasional murder.
“It’s a Faustian pact,” says Jennings. “If you could have anything you wanted, but you have to kill people every so often to have it, then would you? We wouldn’t, but she does. Villanelle gets the clothes, the social life and the racing through Paris in an open-top sports car. But she also gets the nightmares and the threat of violent death that lurks around the corner.”
There’s also the threat of arrest. In Killing Eve, Eve Polastri is the MI5 agent determined to stop Villanelle’s campaign of assassinations, and is played by Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh. “BBC America insisted that Eve should be played by a someone relatable to an American audience,” says Jennings, who was closely involved in the production.
“We managed to persuade Sandra. I think of MI5 as a drab place, essentially John le Carré’s Circus but with some decoration since the 1970s. So, Sandra wasn’t how I had envisioned the character, but she was great, she became Eve. When we filmed the first episode she pointed to her feet and she said, ‘All Jodie’s costumes are fabulous, Paris designer stuff, but what do I have? I have sockettes!’ But, to me, that’s perfect MI5 desk ops-wear – sockettes.”
Villanelle was first published as a series of e-novellas for Kindle. “I was writing these stories for myself,” Jennings says, “and for any reader like me who had grown up on James Bond and Modesty Blaise. Those are the books I loved. Ian Fleming at his best is magnificent.”
Fleming may have created Pussy Galore and Vesper Lynd, but he never made two women his protagonists and 65 years later, the paperback thriller is still seen as a male preserve. “Male-led thrillers can be very techy, very gadgety, and have been getting boring,” says Jennings. “I think it’s an American thing. Doorstep-thick novels, dull as dishwater in terms of character, and endless descriptions of whisky brands.”
Not in Codename Villanelle/Killing Eve – the chase becomes a complex psychological game as the two women develop a highly charged, almost erotic fascination with each other. “Villanelle is sexual,” says Jennings. “It’s because she’s thinking, ‘I could be killed tomorrow.’
“None of the behaviour that Villanelle exhibits is so outlandish. There was a Spanish ETA killer, whose nickname was La Tigresa. She killed 23 people, and had an avid enthusiasm of sex, often with policemen and often before killing them.”
The London-based author, born in 1953, has written for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and reported from locations around the world. including Moscow. “You see these extremely tough and capable young women in Russia,” he says, “and you could imagine that there might be no limit to their behaviour and their preparedness to do what was necessary.”
The idea of a rogue Russian assassin is, thanks to recent events, entirely believable. “If you look at Putin’s court, the bizarre machinations, anything is possible,” he says. And the rampage will continue. “There’s another book, Villanelle: No Tomorrow,” says Jennings. “That takes it to the next stage of the story. There’s plenty to come.”