Multi-Million Dollar Heist*

HeistsHave you ever seen George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)? If you have, then you know its focus is an outlaw gang called the Hole in the Wall Gang. One of their goals is to rob the Union Pacific’s Overland Flyer, and the gang makes preparations to do so – twice, on both the eastward and westward run of the train. The first time they’re successful. The second train’s arrival, though, sets off a chain of events that changes the story dramatically. Throughout the story, though, the two lead characters, played by, respectively, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are portrayed sympathetically.

More than that, Hill built the tension in this film not through a murder (or murders) and the investigation, but through the plans and execution of a heist. And that makes sense. Fictional heists can add at least as much conflict and tension as a murder can, not to mention another layer to a plot. It’s little wonder, then, that they figure so often in crime fiction.

Many heist novels do include murders or other deaths. It’s just that it’s the heist that’s the main plot, rather than the murder(s). There are a lot of heist novels out there. I’ll just mention a few; I know you’ll think of more.

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole, or: How to Rob a Bank, we are introduced to professional thief Mike Daniels and his teammates Harry and Gardner. They decide to pull off a difficult, but potentially very lucrative job – a theft from the City Deposit Bank. It’s a heavily guarded bank with the latest in security, so it’s not going to be easy. In fact, in order to carry their plan out, the thieves will need the services of an architect. They find one in the person of Stephen Booker, who’s recently been laid off from his job and hasn’t been able to find another. In fact, he’s been driving cab at night to pay the bills. That’s how he meets Daniels, who finally convinces Booker to join the thieves. They prepare very carefully for the heist, and on the day of the job, all goes well at first. Then a sudden storm blows up, and changes everything for the men.

In Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock, we are introduced to professional thief John Dortmunder. He’s recently been released from prison, and the plan is that he’ll ‘go straight.’ But that’s before he meets up with his old friend and co-conspirator Andy Kelp. Kelp tells Dortmunder that a new heist is in the works, one that’s worth ten thousand dollars to each member of the team. The target is a valuable gem called the Balabomo Emerald, currently on display at the Coliseum in New York. While the African nation of Akinzi claims ownership, another African nation, Talabwo, contests that claim. Talabwo’s Ambassador to the US, Major Patrick Iko, wants the gem, and is willing to pay the heist team to get it. Dortmunder, Kelp, and the rest of the gang meet and plan the heist very carefully. But almost from the beginning, things don’t go at all as the team planned…  Westlake’s Dortmunder series sees the heist team get in several serious situations as they plan and try to carry out difficult heists.

Fans of Lawrence Block will tell you that one of his series features Bernie Rhodenbarr, who’s a New York bookseller. But he’s also a burglar. In fact, he served a prison sentence as a young man. Now he’s determined not to get caught again, so he’s very careful when he plans a heist. He’s good at what he does, but he sometimes has a habit of finding bodies when he’s actually on the trail of some other prize. Bernie is well aware that it’s illegal to break and enter, but he’s what you might call addicted to the thrill. This series is lighter than Block’s Matthew Scudder series. Although I don’t usually like to compare series, it has a hint of similarity to Westlake’s Dortmunder series on that score.

In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we are introduced to Vincent Naylor. He’s recently been released from prison, and has no desire to go ‘back inside.’ So he’s careful about avoiding risk unless the payoff is very much worth it. He meets up with this girlfriend, Michelle Flood, his brother Noel, and some other friends; together, they come up with an idea for a heist that will set them all up for life. The target is Protectica, a company that provides secured transportation of cash among different banks. The heist is planned down to the last detail, and everyone is hoping it’ll go smoothly. At first, things do go well. But then, there’s a tragic turn of events that changes everything.

And then there’s Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State. Gary Chance is, among other things, a professional thief who’s been lying low in South Australia. A union leader friend of his named Lawrence convinces him to work a robbery so he can have money to care for his wife Faye, who has cancer. When that robbery goes wrong, Chance knows he has to get out of the area. So he heads for Brisbane. There, he meets Dennis Curry, who runs certain non-casino poker games. Curry wants to rob wealthy Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao, who’s one of his high rollers. Chance meets the rest of Curry’s team and takes the job. Not one of the other team members is a reliable, straightforward sort of thief, but they’re the people Curry has picked. Despite the fact that he doesn’t really trust them, Chance has to work with them to plan the heist with as few risks as possible. But this doesn’t turn out to be anything like the sort of job Chance thought he was taking.

There are, of course, many other kinds of heist novels. Some, such as Gunshine State, are a little grittier. Others are lighter. But all of them have an added layer of tension that comes from the heist and the planning that leads up to it. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blue Meanies’ Big Brother’s Watching.


Filed under Andrew Nette, Donald Westlake, Gene Kerrigan, Lawrence Block, Robert Pollock

34 responses to “Multi-Million Dollar Heist*

  1. Pingback: Multi-Million Dollar Heist* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. Tim

    Well, it ain’t a book but a great film: The Lavender Hill Mob.
    ‘Tis one of the best heist films!

  3. In truth, I’m not a big fan of heist novels or films – I find it hard to get behind the characters as heroes and that stops me enjoying them. It always surprises me in real life how much heists seem to capture the public imagination with a kind of admiration for the criminals – like the Great Train Robbers or more recently the guys who broke into the safe depository in Hatton Gardens. But especially the ones (like the Great Train Robbery) that result in innocent people being murdered – that baffles me. But presumably it’s that same kind of admiration that makes the books and films so popular. Maybe it’s seen as the little guy winning over the big organisations or something?

    • It may be, FictionFan. I’d suppose a lot of people get fed up with big corporations and banks and so on, so that makes sense. You make a good point, too, that if you think about real-life heists, innocent people do get hurt or killed. And sometimes that fact is glossed over or completely ignored in fiction and film – or even the popular media. I’ve read heist stories that acknowledge that, but it’s not easy to do well. You also make a good point that it’s hard to really enjoy a novel or film if you can’t behind the protagonist. I think that’s true whether it’s a heist story or not.

  4. Reblogged this on Bum's Landing Memorial – Andrè Michael Pietroschek at and commented:
    By whatever fancy or foolishness took me I hinted at Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid in one of my own stories. A movie I would add is ‘The usual suspects’.

  5. By whatever fancy or foolishness took me I hinted at Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid in one of my own stories. A movie I would add is ‘The usual suspects’.

    Beyond that: A true thief knows that life itself dishes the real opportunities. No sick wife, no good cause, no legitimate Robin Hood number which can enforce success… I once called such the ‘magick of the moments’.

  6. Col

    I do like heist/robbery books! I’ve enjoyed Westlake’s alter ego Richard Stark novels with professional thief Parker and also Max Allan Collin’s Nolan series. Most of the books haev them planning and executing robberies.
    I bought the Pollock book on your recommendation – not got there yet and I’m also looking forward to Gunshine State when it’s published.

    • I’m glad you read this, Col, as I know you do enjoy heist stories, and I hope you’d be able to add some suggestions. And you didn’t let me down – thanks! The Stark/Parker novels and the Collins novels are good examples of the sort of novel I had in mind. I hope you’ll enjoy both Loophole and Gunshine State.

  7. Can’t think of any novels at the moment, but there is something about a heist-themed story that captures your attention and stays with you. The only thing I keep thinking about is the real case of D.B. Sweeney and the case the FBI just closed without ever really having answers.

    • Oh, that case is interesting Mason! I wonder if they’ll ever find out what happened to D.B. Cooper and that money. It’s definitely a fascinating real-life heist mystery.

  8. I’m neutral on heist stories on the whole – but Butch Cassidy is one of my favourite films. Last year I read The Fat of Fed Beasts by Guy Ware – a very strange, but very good, book about a bank robbery. I didn’t even understand the title, let alone the complex plot… but enjoyed it anyway.

    • I’ve read books like that, too, Moira, that I enjoyed even ‘though I didn’t understand them. And I agree about Butch Cassidy…. It’s really a classic film, I think.

  9. I think heist films work better than heist novels. It’s a very visual thing. But I do like the Westlake and also Richard Stark’s book-the title is eluding me. Parker? Hunter? I guess I will never understand why a reader has to be behind the characters. If they are interesting, if the plot is clever, I don’t know why that isn’t enough in this sort of book.

    • I think everyone’s different about whether they need to find a character appealing in some way, Patti. Some readers don’t find that necessary; others do. And you have a very well-taken point about the visual aspect of a heist story. There is something about watching it on screen that can work very well. Heist stories are that way. Oh, and good memory, too; the Stark character is Parker.

  10. I’m so glad to see you mention the Westlake series, which is one of my favourites. Of course, it’s fictional, but no one gets killed, and the reader has some laughs in the process.

    • I really like the Westlake series, too, Debbie. There are some good laughs; yet, there are solid stories there. They stretch credibility at times, but they’re still fun reads.

  11. Wings of Mayhem. Shameless plug. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. 🙂

  12. Thanks for mentioning GUNSHINE STATE, Margot. Needless to say, I am a huge fan of Donald Westlake books. Other ‘heist’ novel that I’ve enjoyed include Wallace Stroby’s Crissa Stone novels & Garry Disher’s Wyatt books. I recently read a terrific 1953 heist noir called BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL by Elliot Chaze. Very dark and very entertaining.

    • It’s a pleasure to mention Gunshine State, Andrew. Folks, do check it out. I agree with you about Donald Westlake, and I’m glad you mentioned Garry Disher’s work, too. That was a gap that I left. I’m less familiar with Stroby’s work, so there’s an author for me to explore. The Chaze, too. Some of those 1950s noir novels really are well worth the read.

  13. Margot, some of the best heist novels I have read (three in all) are by American crime writer Lionel White. I could read his paperbacks in a couple of sittings which, I have realised, is not easy as I grow older.

  14. kathyd

    Agree quick reading is not what it was when we were younger. It just isn’t. A 400-page book is a project and often is work to get through.
    I grew up watching heist movies as my father loved them, but haven’t read many books with that theme. In Denise Mina’s The Red Road, there is a bank robbery.
    And, of course, when TV first came out, Westerns were many of the programs aired — and there were always bank robberies in those shows in Gunsmoke, Paladin, etc. I’m dating myself here.
    And there is a wonderful movie called “Inside Man” with Clive Owens and Denzel Washington, which features a bank heist. And then there was “Dog Day Afternoon,” very popular when it came out. And there were so many more over the years.
    Bernie Rhodenbarr was great at heists. Those books are fun. But my favorite of his lines is, “Whenever I get the urge to jog, I lie down and let it pass.” My philosophy exactly.

    • That’s a funny line from Rhodenbarr, Kathy; thanks for reminding us of it. Your comment also reminds us of how many great heist films and TV shows there’ve been. I that kind of story lends itself well to the screen, so it doesn’t surprise me that there are so many. I’m glad you mentioned a few of them.

  15. tracybham

    I have read books in the Donald Westlake series and also books in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block, but it has been years and I want to reread them. I just got my copy of Gunshine State so hope to read that soon.

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