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.