How much do I love criminal heroes? The scruffy lawbreakers, the talented thieves, the charming con men and women? They make a great change from traditional mystery law enforcement heroes. The plots of capers and heists, like the mystery novel, involve a crime. But instead of trying to solve the crime, in the heist plot (and often the caper as well) the reader is rooting for the criminal to get away with their nefarious schemes. They can blend mystery and suspense, or mystery and humor, and I love it when they blend in a romance on top of all the hijinks. While I think the heist plot works even better in the movies (see yesterday’s post!) due to medium’s ability to convey visually the tension and intricate scenarios that would take a lot more time to paint with words, there are quite a few authors who write heist stories that are almost as gripping as anything put on film. Here are some of the best crime novels where criminals take the spotlight:
Dortmunder series by Donald E. Westlake; start with The Hot Rock
The prototype for the caper heist novel, the Dortmunder books by Westlake are some of the best examples of comedy wed to crime. Although he also wrote crime novels under pen names in a more serious vein (see below), the 14 Dortmunder books are goofier, funnier, and more audacious in their plots. While they often showcase the elaborate planning of a typical heist film or novel, things always go wrong, usually in a hilarious way. For example, in the first novel of the series, The Hot Rock, Dortmunder is fresh out of prison. He gets back together with a crew of familiar criminal associates and they plan to steal a famous emerald. Things go wrong and he tries to steal the gem again. And again. And again. It’s absurd, but really fun. I think of these short books (most are well under 300 pages) as quick, light reads that would go down perfectly on vacation or on a lazy afternoon.
Parker series by Richard Stark; start with The Hunter or The Man with the Getaway Face
Before he invented Dortmunder, Westlake wrote more gritty, dark crime novels under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Completely different in tone, they also focus on the criminal activities of an unrepentant crook. Parker is much more of a thug, though, not hesitant to hurt people who stand in his way or double-cross him. This ruthlessness makes the Parker books very different from most of the heist canon where bloodshed is usually kept to a minimum. Parker has a code of his own, though. He does what he’s hired to do, carefully and efficiently planning and carrying out a job, and he’ll never double-cross you unless you cross him first. He’ll work with a team if he needs to, but he’s not one for camaraderie. And warning for those who have personal triggers – he’s an equal opportunity brute to women as well as men. The first novel in the series is pretty much a revenge story, as he goes after the people who betrayed him, stole his money, and left him for dead. Following books in the series are usually more traditional heist plots where Parker is hired to steal something.
Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block; start with Burglars Can’t Be Choosers
Second only to Dortmunder in the criminals-you-root-for olympics is Bernie Rhodenbarr, hero of a long-running series of comic mysteries. Although the structure of the typical book in the series does start with Bernie plotting and executing a clever burglary, they often switch over to more of a traditional mystery investigation. In the first novel Bernie takes a job from a stranger to steal something from a wealthy man’s home. Unfortunately the cops catch him in the apartment. And really unfortunate for Bernie is that they find a dead body in the apartment as well. Now Bernie has to escape from the police and find out who killed the man or he’ll always be on the run. It’s a twist on the formula, and one that might make this a more obvious choice for those who like traditional mysteries. The whole series is a lot of fun.
Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard
Leonard is a master of crime fiction, and his novels are often from the point of view of the criminal rather than any kind of law enforcement. He probably has done a heist book (I really need to read more Leonard) but most of the books I’ve read have been more in the vein of the criminal caper. In Get Shorty (and its sequel Be Cool) we have as our hero Chili Palmer, an east coast loan shark who heads to Las Vegas to shake down a dry cleaner who faked his own death. But that’s just the appetizer: in Vegas Chili takes a job for a casino trying to recoup money owed by Hollywood producer Harry Zimm. Obsessed with the movie business himself, Chili is happy to track down Zimm and get a look at the Hollywood scene. It all gets hilariously complicated from there, with Zimm convincing Chili to help him get a hold of a script that will finally yield him a hit film so he can pay off his debts. Made into a very funny movie with John Travolta (even though he’s not what I pictured for Chili Palmer), this is a sly and clever mockery of the movie business and the crime business.
Junior Bender series by Timothy Hallinan; start with Crashed
Known among the criminal underground as a kind of private eye for fellow crooks, burglar Junior Bender works for dangerous people. In the first book of the series, he is blackmailed (honestly, the guy is constantly being blackmailed) by a criminal kingpin in Los Angeles to investigate sabotage taking place on the set of the kingpin’s porn production. The star of the film is Thistle, a drug-addicted former child actor beloved by middle America, and Junior knows he should help the girl get away from the production but he has to figure out how to do that without crossing the man who can have him killed or arrested. These are funny and fast reads, although the premise is sometime a bit far-fetched. Apparently the series is being turned into a TV series by Eddie Izzard, so that could increase the profile of the books quite a bit, especially if Izzard stars as Junior.
The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan
Charlie Howard writes crime fiction featuring a world-class thief named Faulks. The research end of things is pretty easy for Charlie as he happens to be an accomplished thief himself. while in Amsterdam working on a new book, Charlie is hired for a small job stealing a set of figurines. Seems like an easy job until he realizes that he not only has competition for the theft, but the American who hired him winds up beaten to death. These books (there are 4 more set in other cities. Heist fans will particularly like the Vegas entry) inevitably get compared to Block’s which also feature a burglar who has to solve crimes to stay ahead of the law. While they never quite have the cleverness and wit of Block, this series is light-hearted and amusing, with the shifting settings to add interest. They’re pretty good as audiobooks as well, with Simon Vance narrating.
Faking It by Jennifer Crusie
Although I also adore the first book Crusie wrote featuring the Dempseys (Welcome to Temptation), the follow-up is more of a traditional caper, although still with a romance at its heart. Matilda Goodnight’s family run a respectable art gallery that harbors a secret — Tilda is a masterful forger. She had put her forging days behind her, but social climber Clea Lewis bought one of her fakes and Tilda is determined to get it back. Meanwhile Davy Dempsey (from Welcome to Temptation) is trying to steal back some money from Clea. The two break in to Clea’s house the same night and have the ultimate meet-cute while hiding in the same closet. Davy offers to get back Tilda’s painting, but brings back the wrong one. The two spend the rest of the book trying to retrieve Tilda’s fakes and of COURSE they fall in love. But can two repentant crooks fly straight together? This has all of the classic Crusie ingredients (she is hands down my favorite writer of romantic comedy): flawed, believable heroine, zany cast of secondary characters, scruffy but charm-tastic hero, and laugh-out-loud dialogue. If the plot sounds very like How to Steal a Million, Crusie gleefully admits she was inspired by that film.
Flirting With Danger by Suzanne Enoch
My favorite thing about the Jellicoe/Addison series (of which this is book 1 and probably the best) is that Enoch flipped the trope and has her heroine be the crook. Samantha Jellicoe and Rick Addison have a “meet cute” that is hard to beat: she breaks into his mansion to steal a rare stone tablet, gets caught by Rick and then saves his life when a security guard hits a trip wire that sets off a bomb. Although Sam is an expert cat burglar, she didn’t set the bomb that ended up killing the guard and didn’t even get away with the tablet. So who did? Before she gets framed for murder, Sam asks Rick to help clear her name. He agrees not only because he owes her his life but also because he finds her incredibly hot. If you’re looking for more romance in your capers, this opposites attract series might be just the ticket.
The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldburg
Although I freely admit to having bailed on the Stephanie Plum series around book 12, I do like this collaboration she did with Lee Goldburg (who has mostly written TV tie-in novels for Monk). Kate O’Hare is an FBI agent who has been after con man Nick Fox for practically her whole career, but she’s strangely unsure what to do with him when she finally catches him. Luckily her dilemma is solved when Fox escapes, and the next time she sees him he’s working for the FBI. The bureau is using Fox to catch an even bigger con man, and wants O’Hare to work with him. The two assemble a team and plan a caper to trap their target that’s as absurd as it is elaborate, but it is entertaining. Evanovich shows her usual comedy chops, especially in the wacky cast of bit characters, and the chemistry between Fox and O’Hare works. Empty calories for heist fans.