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.


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