Oct 23 2011 10:16am

Why Do I Hate Heists in Genre?

I was trying to write a post about Donald Westlake’s What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, a comic caper novel that I love and have recently re-read. I ran into a problem because it’s a classic, and really, if you read that kind of book you’d have read it. I could write a post saying how great it is and gossiping about the characters, but if I want to introduce it to people who don’t read that kind of thing and who only read SF and fantasy, I’d need to say something about why they’d like it. So I thought about heist novels in genre, and I realised that I hate them all. I’m sorry, but there it is. And yet, I adore Westlake. I even like heist movies.

What I like about them is that they have great characters, and they have a plan, and they do the set up and then the plan goes around and around and comes out completely different from the way you expected but completely satisfyingly. Then the second time around you can see how it did that, all the reversals and everything. There’s generally a certain amount of humour, a certain amount of tension, but it’s that whizz of release when everything comes down like dominoes that I really love. (In What’s the Worst That Could Happen, the villain steals Dortmunder’s ring, while Dortmunder’s trying to burgle his house. Dortmunder then burgles his country cottage, his New York penthouse, his pad at the Watergate, and finally his Las Vegas casino — all trying to get his ring back. It’s wonderful. You’d love it.)

I talked to Emmet about why I hate heists in genre. He suggested that because heists were complex, and worldbuilding was complex, the writers didn’t have room to do character — and not caring about characters is the fastest way to lose me. This sounds convincing, but if this were the case I wouldn’t like any complex SF novels, and complex SF novels are one of my favourite things. Heists aren’t uniquely complex.

There’s something else going on here, and I wish I knew what it was.

So, what have I tried?

I couldn’t get into Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, despite high recommendations and having enjoyed short things of his. Walter Jon Williams’s Drake Majistraal books are the only things of his I don’t like. I waited for years to have all three of Panshin’s Villiers books and then I couldn’t get through them, although I love Rite of Passage.

What else is there? There’s sort of Daniel Keys Moran’s The Long Run, which I sort of like. I haven’t read Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, and maybe I should. I honestly can’t think of anything else, and I’d be delighted with recommendations. I’m hoping I’ve forgotten a whole lot of things and I’m just being silly.

Except that as I was writing this, I thought of something. It isn’t a novel, it’s a short story. It’s Samuel Delany’s Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones. It’s not a story about a heist. It’s a story about a poet who’s into pain, but there are any number of heists going on in the background. The narrator is involved in a novel’s worth of heists, and we also have hawks and helicopters and holograms, and the settled solar system. The existence of Time Considered explodes the idea that you can’t have complexity and characters. But I can’t really say “If you like Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones you’ll like What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” They’re not really alike at all, except having New York in them, and crooks, and being wonderful. And I suppose I love them both with my one and only brain, while hating genre heist novels for no reason that my one brain can figure out. So who knows. Maybe. Give it a go.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Jo Walton
1. bluejo
OK, since I wrote this post I have read The Lies of Locke Lamora, and I liked it. (But I liked the second half of it better.)
Andrew Blackburn
2. ajbcool
Looking for a good heist in genre fiction, with great worldbuilding AND characters? Look no farther than Mistborn: The Final Empire. Serious, it has great elements of any heist story built into it, with the plan by a ragtag group of people against the government that doesn't go perfectly to plan...
3. Lii
Seconded on Mistborn. Also, try Jack Chalker's Rings of the Master series. And if you like that, try his Four Lords of the Diamond series as well. His stuff is all out of print but all easily accessible via Amazon used. :) And if you want something fun, have you tried Asprin's Myth series? Seriously, I think you might just be reading the wrong stuff. :P
John S Costello
4. joxn
Surely you read Brust's Tiassa, which is not just a heist novel, but which includes many heist-like elements even in its non-heist sections? In fact, I would say that all the Vlad novels which are best classified as "crime capers" are more or less heists. Jhereg, Yendi, and Orca come to mind.
Paul Lewandowski
5. Snowkestrel
I must thank-you/praise you/adore you for the mention of Daniel Keys Moran's The Long Run. Considering that you actively don't like heists in genre, I must consider the statement that you 'sort of like' it high praise for a book that I very much like (which I chalk up entirely to having read it first at just the right time in my life, but that's a different story).

Beyond that, this makes you only the third person in the world that I know of who has read this book that hasn't read it because I recommended it to forced it on them. I sometimes wonder if the book actually exists, or if I just imagined it.
Sean Calhoun
6. Musicspren
When I was reading this post, I thought of Mistborn, and I see two people have already recommended it. I will also second (third?) that recommendation. The trilogy is the best completed series ("completed" meaning I'm excluding WoT and Stormlight Archive) of any genre/plot style I know .
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Snowkestrel: My husband loves Moran. So does Kate Nepveu IIRC. I do like The Long Run but I got bored with The Last Dancer.

You might like the semi-official Moran web-page here with news of the universe and his other work and a newish e-book.
8. bmac
As a point of semantics, maybe "caper novel" would be broader term than "heist novel"? Even with that, I'm not sure all the Villiers novels count - the third one certainly owes more to Wodehouse.

It's interesting that you liked The Lies of Locke Lamora - I read it expecting a Dortmunderesque lighter caper novel with amusingly-executed plans, and got one or two minor examples of that before a violent and bloody revenge story set in.
9. Mike G.
If you liked The Long Run, and are looking for heist books, you might like The AI War: The Big Boost, which follows up on The Last Dancer but is Trent-centric so more like TLR than TLD.
10. mattishii
Have you watched Inception?
11. Dr. Cox
Interesting post. I haven't thought much about heist stories yea or nay, tho' I've seen a few episodes of "Hustle" w/out thinking "ugh."
It's also intriguing to read a post on why one likes one example of something but not others. I hated discussion classes in school but enjoy reading the discussion on this and other boards. Yep, go figure.
12. Gerry__Quinn
Could it be the same reason that SF detective stories rarely work? The problem is that in SF we expect to be surprised often by how the world of the story works. But that means we can't understand it fully, and that means we can't appreciate the operation of a well-designed mechanism. A locked-room mystery is not interesting if people can potentially get in via time travel or nanotechnology or something else we don't know. So to work as a mystery, the SF part has to be a bit pedestrian or at least laid out in advance, and the same may apply to a heist.

13. KVFinn

I think of The Warriors Apprentice as a heist novel, though it's mostly improvised.
Rob Munnelly
14. RobMRobM
I second/third/fourth the first Mistborn book, which is essentially Ocean's 11 with magic, an ultra powerful casino owner, and a twist ending. I especially love the scenes where Vin has to turn Eliza Doolittle and go undercover in the nobility debutante-like party scene. Hilarious stuff.

I like the two Locke Lamora books but agree that bad acts by some nasty enemies turned what I expected was going to be an Oceans 11 scenario into cleverly improvisational revenge land. Entertaining but not as much the heist/caper novelsas I was expecting.

I don't think of Warriors Apprentice as a heist novel. Not sure that any of them qualify.

Rob Munnelly
15. RobMRobM
And second Brust's Taltos stories, many of which fall into this category - especially the one where they have to pull the complex multi-person scam up at Castle Black in a way that won't violate Lord Morrolan's guest rights policy.

Beth Mitcham
16. bethmitcham
How about Megan Whelan Turner's first Attolia book, The Thief? It's a kids book, but I think it qualifies as a heist. The other books tend have have heists in them, but aren't about the heist, though.
c t
18. cheem
Do't know why my first comment didn't appear, but I recommended Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells as a good genre caper novel. It starts out with a heist and keeps a number of caper elements throughout.
David Lomax
19. dlomax
Snowkestrel: I second Jo's pointing you towards Moran's website. If I may, here's a review I wrote about his newest book, which I really hope is a return to the kind of pace he used to write at. I always figured, much as you seem to have done, that I was just "at the right age" when I read his stuff, but twenty years later, it still works for me. I really want to spread the word around that he's back, because I want him to succeed and therefore to keep writing.
20. AlecAustin
Unlike many other people on this thread, I am not a fan of the Mistborn books - and though I'm fond of The Death of the Necromancer, it's not really very much of a heist book, though it starts out that way. Even less of one than The Lies of Locke Lamora, in fact.

I think one of the things about caper stories is that they have a great deal of genre-specific structure attendant on them - you need to introduce the crew, pose the problem(s), and then have things go awry, or seem to, which means that, as you say, in the traditional version of the caper plot, there's not a great deal of room for both worldbuilding complexity and all the trappings of the genre that people want both for their inherent interest and reassurance. It's not that it's impossible to pull off, so much as that there are more moving parts and thus more ways for things to go wrong. A high-wire act where the author is juggling chainsaws, if you will.
Ron Hogan
21. RonHogan
Significant chunks of Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold are devoted to heist-like exploits, meticulously detailed.
Kate Nepveu
22. katenepveu
Jo, I am completely unable to answer your question, because all the things I like about caper stories--which are what you like plus the enjoyment of reading about competence--are entirely doable in genre fiction either in part or in whole without the caper/heist plot.

Is it perhaps the social justice issue? We've talked before, IIRC, about Dortmunder & class, and how there are very definite ideas embedded there about the proper uses of power.

I have not read _Mistborn_. I do like _The Long Run_ a lot, but (1) I haven't re-read it for ages and (2) I find it entirely understandable that you might have got bored with _The Last Dancer_. The Majistraal books are fluff of varying quality, I think I like the second best. I love _The Thief_ and think you might find it interesting (booklog).

Final thought: perhaps it's an attitude thing? Dortmunder is not shiny or, hmmm, self-consciously arch? I'm not sure what the best way of putting that is. But when I think caper, I think of a certain lightness of tone that doesn't *limit* the genre but characterizes a good deal of it. And that is also hard to do on paper.
Rich Horton
23. ecbatan
Hmmm -- I loved the Villiers novels (by far Panshin's best work, I think -- I've never been able to get around the moral queasiness of Rite of Passage), but I don't really think of them as caper novels, though I suppose they are close. I do enjoy the Drake Majistral novels.

I didn't read The Lies of Locke Lamora but I did read the sequel, and while I liked some of it I was very disappointed by the central caper, which was a very weak caper.

I love Dortmunder, of course, and great caper movies (like some of David Mamet's stuff, but not like Ocean's 11.)

Rich Horton
24. Michael M Jones
I'm rather fond of Rachel Aaron's Spirit Thief series, as far as fantasy books involving thieves and heists go. They're ridiculously entertaining.
25. Rob T.
The first thing I thought of in connection with this question was Harry Harrison's "Stainless Steel Rat" novels, but in spite of a professional criminal as the books' protagonist I'm not sure any of them can be properly described as a "heist" or "caper" novel ("espionage," maybe).

The second thing I thought of was that the object at the center of most heist/caper novels is usually no more than a MacGuffin, having little interest to the reader in itself except insofar as it serves to motivate the characters. SF and fantasy certainly have their fair share of MacGuffins, but I think fans of the genres--hooked as they are on the "sense of wonder"--expect MacGuffins to be wonder generators in their own right. If What's the Worst That Could Happen? was a fantasy novel, the contested ring could have magical properties and come into play at some point as an Object of Power. (This is, of course, a purely imaginary example that has no relation to any existing works of fantasy.)

The third thing I thought of is the Dortmunder novel I'd recommend to sf fans first, Drowned Hopes. The task laid on Dortmunder and his gang (retrieve buried loot that inconveniently happens to lie at the bottom of an artificial lake) should appeal to fans of the Hal Clement school of "problem-solving" hard sf, and for icing on the cake there's some 1990-vintage computer hacking. I'd love to see you review that one.
26. tarbis
Part of it might be that caper novels tend to have a certain pacing and excess worldbuilding knocks can slow it down. (Which leads back to how much worldbuilding is too much, but that's a whole different issue.)

If I were introducing SF/F fans to Westlake I would start with 'Smoke' his invisible man comedy.
Kate Nepveu
27. katenepveu
_Drowned Hopes_ is atypically dark for Dortmunder; I wouldn't use it as an introduction to the series generally.
28. Plarry
P. C. Hodgell's excellent first novel God Stalk is a heist novel that I recommend, insofar as I understand your usage of the term.
Chin Bawambi
29. bawambi
@RonGriggs - not only is TheHobbit a heist story but I would posit that LoTR and the parts of the Similrillion (sp?) that actually deal with the jewels are heist stories as well.
30. Red Bear
I immediatedly thought of Brust's Vlad stories and Lynch's Locke Lamora novels (the first moreso the second).

I read the Mistborn books, curious about the Brandon Sanderson hype. And after reading them I'm still curious. I guess they're just not for me.
31. OtterB
I'm fond of Patricia C Wrede's Mairelon the Magician, which begins with an attempt at a heist, although it doesn't really follow the classic plot arc.

I'm also fond of the Villiers novels but wouldn't have considered them heist books.

And I love The Thief.
32. The Mad Hatter
I'm a big fan of Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls and Black Lung Captain, which uses the caper/heist theme well. Generally what I like about caper type books is that they just evoke fun and plenty of tension. Hulick's Among Thieves is another I'd recommended especially for Lynch fans.
33. Daniel Keys Moran
"There’s sort of Daniel Keys Moran’s The Long Run, which I sort of like."

Thanks for that. That's the way I feel about it, most days.


"I find it entirely understandable that you might have got bored with _The Last Dancer_."

:-) Me too.
Pamela Adams
34. Pam Adams
I admit, I don't see the Anthony Villiers books as heist books- comedies of manners is where I would classify them.

My issue with heist books is that they often require someone to do something dumb in order to either make the heist work or to bring it crashing down on the hapless protagonist, as Westlake so often does. When I read a book like this, I am annoyed that the dumb thing is happening, so I dislike it.
Marcus W
35. toryx
@ 20 & @ 30:


I think that generally speaking, I'm not particularly fond of heist fiction. It seems to me that if you've seen/ read one you've pretty much seen/ read them all. They all follow the same rules, the same prep and flawless plan, the same reaction to unexpected dilemmas and a twist at the end.

Even Mistborn, of which the only part I liked was the twist, was disappointing because the whole time I knew there was going to be a twist and simply got tired of waiting for it. By the time it finally happened, I already had five possibilities for how it was going to work and the twist turned out to be the second of my ideas.

At this point, I might actually enjoy a heist where everything goes as planned and no twist is needed.
36. Jim Henry III
One genre heist story that works really well is Lawrence Watt-Evans' novella "The Final Folly of Captain Dancy"; it's in his collection Crosstime Traffic. It begins with the accidental death, partway into a complex heist, of the only character who knows the entire plan; the other characters then have to reconstruct the plan and implement it as best they can.
37. Cambias
Let me immodestly point out that I've got a science fiction heist story in the current F&SF. It focuses on the whys more than the how, which I think is important: unless the author happens to be a criminal mastermind, the plan probably won't be all that new, or plausible, but the reasons the characters have for pulling it off are likely to be interesting.

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