At age 20, Whillans was 5ft. 4in. tall, a blue collar guy with the build of a miniature Atlas. Within a year of entering the climbing world in 1950 he had acquired parallel reputations of great skill and daring on the one hand, and as a hell-raiser with a savage wit on the other-the Villain of the title, who was denied a Knighthood because of a violent brawl with several policemen. His world was miles away from the upper-crust environment of the well-heeled climbers who had for so long dominated the sport, and this itself led to tensions throughout his life. Whillans exuded an aura of invincibility-forceful, direct, and uncompromising. And in the climbing world, his image was that of a superstar, with the flawed heroism of a Muhammad Ali. In his own circle, his image was the working class hero on the rock-face, laconic and bellicose, ready to go to war with the elements or with any human who crossed his path on a bad day.
Unlike many other climbers of his day, Whillans was a regular guy. He wasn't physically impressive and, in his later years, he let himself go seriously to seed. (Elizabeth Hawley didn't believe so fat a man could really be a climber.) He was a very competitive climber, and yet he was also willing to risk his life helping others. While he was, in many ways, the archetypal British climber, he also did important climbs in Europe, the Himalaya, South America and Yosemite. Whillans wasn't an easy man to get to know, but The Villain takes its readers into his world and explores his character as no other book has done.