Jul 6 2011 1:57pm

Imperfect Crimes

Having something stolen from you is a pretty crappy experience. There’s the building sense of stress when you realize that whatever-it-is isn’t merely mislaid, and the secondary jolt when you go through it mentally and come to the conclusion that someone’s actually taken what was yours. It’s an impersonal betrayal, but it’s still a slap from the universe. And add to that the hassle involved in needing something that’s no longer in your possession, and there’s just no fun to be had there.

And yet, when it comes fiction, we love a good thief.

Some of the pleasure lies in the mechanics. Who doesn’t enjoy the chance to vicariously pull off a high-end caper? I’m talking about those Pink Panther/Mission Impossible/Alias-style escapades where snatch artists dangle from ceilings and help themselves to a valuable, heavily-defended bauble. 

They’re oddly beautiful, aren’t they? The deliciously intricate challenge posed by the security system, the wild equipment, the gymnastics routines through laser grids. There’s the suspense of knowing an alarm will be triggered by the slightest mistake, the split-second timing required to get in and out before the guards get back. And something always goes wrong, forcing the thief to improvise.

High level thievery of this type is a form of dance, a pas-de-deux where the thief pits their wits and intellect against vast and faintly inhuman resources as they creep through the one crack in a hyper-active (and sometimes hilariously complicated) defense system.

We’re rooting for them all the way. This type of thief isn’t just admirably smart or mindbogglingly nimble. Their choice of crime lets them — and us — avenge ourselves on the wealthy, and that’s what makes them heroic even though they’re on the wrong side of the law.

(There’s a lot of class politic in storybook thievery, when you look for it, a lot of Robin Hood versus the Man). 

One rung down from the spiderweb complexity of this stealing ballet is the bank job. You’ve all seen this one too: it’s still tech-intensive, but there are guns and hostages, and often a police standoff. There are more variations on this story: sometimes the bad guys are actually bad-assed bastards. Other times they’re goodhearted souls who never meant to hurt anyone — it’s just they need the $34,567 for the balloon payment on the mortgage, and they’ve picked as their target the heartless banker who’s chucking them out on the street Monday morning.

In books, people — basically good ones and thoroughly bad ones — steal all sorts of things. They take money and gems and weapons and criminal evidence; in the last few decades, they hack crucial information from government and corporate computers. On one end of the spectrum they take out of need: the desperate parent stealing food or meds for their hungry brood. Sometimes they’re motivated by sheer greed, looking to make their fortune, and woe unto anyone who gets in their way. In between, in the gray areas, like some of the most interesting thefts: the attempts to borrow something, with the need to safely unheist it later, for example, and crimes of opportunity, driven by random temptation or to relieve emotional pain. Remember Dawn on Buffy, with her shoplifting habit? 

Much as we like to imagine ourselves as the cool techno-burglar, those revealing moments of weakness might be the easiest for a reader to relate to. Most of us, at one time or another, have probably felt the urge to grab some appealing thing that was left unattended, in plain sight.

When I was talking about blackmail, what intrigued me about it was the fundamental sleaziness of it all. The blackmail victim had some unpalatable secret; the blackmailer was exploiting their shame or fear of exposure. Blackmailers are rarely good guys, and even when their cause is just, their actions are a little seamy.

Theft is easier, emotionally. We get it. We all want stuff, after all, more of it than any of us can afford to buy. The desire for more, new, and shiny never goes away, and it’s easy to understand that passing temptation: it’s just sitting there, they’ll miss it, nobody will ever know. It’s easy to blame the target: who gave Johnny Welloff the Foruth all these trinket-laden mansions anyway, and who told him to leave this stuff lying about?

One of the terrific things about writing for a living is you get to be a master criminal without suffering any consequences: you can think your way through a bank job or a gallery hit without risking imprisonment. So, whether they’re picking pockets or staging an elaborate heist, consider letting even your good characters get light-fingered now and then.

You never know — you might give them the feet of clay they need... or you might even make them into heroes.


A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on—an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

Kevin Maroney
1. womzilla
Two great robbery films of the 1980s that you didn't mention show the extremes of the genre: Michael Mann's early Thief, which presents the main character as broken and the entire enterprise as sordid and sad; and Die Hard, where the criminal is elegant, urbane, an ubergenius who only occassionally lets slip his mask of supervillainy--"I am an EXTRAORDINARY thief!"
2. DragonRose
I didn't read Megan Whalen Turner's "The Thief" until I was out of HIgh School, but it remains one of my favorite books/series.
Brian R
3. Mayhem
There is a brilliant character moment in Going Postal by Terry Pratchett.
Part way through, you learn the main character (a forcibly reformed lovely rogue conman) had forged a bunch of cheques after a bank clerk gave him an old ledger. "That had been a good day" he says in wistful rememberance.
A few chapters later, you learn his love interest was fired from her previous banking job after allowing several forged cheques to pass.
"That *had* been a good day", he repeats but this time you can feel the sinking feeling in the stomach.

Its one of the very few times I've seen a rogueish character feel remorse for their behaviour in any work of fiction, and it only makes the character more endearing, as it nicely sets him up as being fundamentally better than his slicker yet more callous rival.
4. myself
Jules Dassin did it before these guys and did it as plausible as it gets in Top Kapi
( )
Alyx Dellamonica
5. AMDellamonica
I had DIE HARD very much in mind when I wrote this, Womzilla, but I couldn't find a way to work it in that wasn't covered by other references. Though Alan Rickman deserves mention and kudos everywhere he goes, as far as I'm concerned.

As does Pratchett, Mayhem.

THE THIEF is in the household Kindle, Dragonrose, waiting for me to a) finish JANE EYRE and b) grab a minute.
Jimmy Stamp
6. LifeWithoutBuildings
My favorite of the recent heist movies has to be Inside Man. Not only does the seemingly straightforward bank robbery turn out to be something more complex, the robbers themselves are exceedingly clever (of course) and their escape is one of the most original I've ever seen in film. Not only that, but the movie opens up with an incredibly monologue that, if it were the first paragraph in a book, would have me immediately hooked:

"The room I’m in could most readily be described as a prison cell. But there’s a vast difference between being stuck in a tiny cell and being in prison. And I am not in prison. Recently, I planned and set in motion events to execute the perfect bank robbery. Why? Beyond the obvious financial motivation, the reason is exceedingly simple. Because I can. How? Therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub.”

Alyx Dellamonica
7. AMDellamonica
I will now put Inside Man on my to-see list. Thanks, Life!

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