Hot Takes: Five life lessons from the greatest heist novels ever written
Everyone loves a heist. They’re simple, satisfying stories, action driven, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Everything is clearly defined. You know where it’s all going - so unlike life, and therein lies their appeal. Perhaps for this reason, heist stories are rarely regarded as serious literature. Nobody reads a chase scene in search of some deeper insight into the human condition, but great writing is great writing, and it always has something to say.
Here are five great heists with more to offer than a shootout at the end…
Swag by Elmore Leonard
The takeaway: You can achieve great things, but without connection, none of it means anything.
Elmore Leonard wasn’t interested in giving life lessons. He always let the story do the talking, and it always did. The heroes of Swag, Frank and Stick, are highly competent armed robbers, but as human beings? Well, let’s just say they’re works in progress. They always plan carefully to avoid shooting anyone. With a few hiccups, their raids run like clockwork, it all pays off and they’re living the good life – cars, girls, and no housework. It works for Frank, who’s a bit of a sociopath, but for Stick ‘the good life’ soon gets stale. He wants the things we all take for granted - friends, relationships, a home – and that proves to be his undoing. There’s a reason we’re not all armed robbers, and it’s not just because we’re scared of going to prison. OK, maybe it is a little bit.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
The takeaway: Being you is the toughest job you’ll ever have.
When a novel is this influential, it’s easy to forget what it’s actually about. Beneath the chrome and neon exterior, Neuromancer is a classic crime caper – one last job for its washed-out hero, Case – and that job is stealing stuff. In a different decade, it would be cash or gold or jewels, or even bearer bonds a la Die Hard (Based on a novel – google the cover for a WTF moment), but Gibson is a writer who tackles big stuff. He does it with such skill, you don’t notice the weight of the thought. The glittering, hard-edged prose of a crime novel disguises a deeper search for identity. The first job Case pulls off is stealing the distilled consciousness of his deceased mentor, Dixie Flatline, a father figure aware of his own inadequacy, but equally aware there are no better alternatives. Who knows whether Gibson intended it as a metaphor for parenthood? But it works. And the ultimate prize is nothing less than the attainment of selfhood.
The Score by Richard Stark
The Takeaway: Leave your baggage behind
Richard Stark does not exist. He never did, but he can still teach you a thing or two about life. Stark is a pseudonym for Don Westlake, the guru of US crime, who created an alter-ego because he felt he’d written too many novels under his own name and saturated his own market. Stark in turn created Parker, the hero of twenty-something of the smartest crime thrillers you’ll ever read. And if you haven’t already, you should read them – all of them, purely for Parker’s insights into humanity if nothing else. Parker doesn’t give a shit. He epitomises what we, as readers, love about criminal protagonists. He’s a Nietzschean creation unconstrained by the dross ordinary people like us fill our lives with. If that sounds unsympathetic, well, it is, and Parker doesn’t care. I’ve picked The Score because it’s a heist, but you could turn to any of the Parker novels for a glimpse of a life unshackled.
The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
The Takeaway: Obedience is a bad habit
From the brain that brought you Jurassic Park, a story about stealing a few quid from a steam train in Victorian Britain. Obviously. And it’s better than any of the dinosaur nonsense. Why? Well, it’s a thorough skewering of the British class system to match anything in Vanity Fair. You could say that’s a pretty easy target, and you’d be right, but this social commentary underpins a story of breakneck action and intrigue. Our hero, Edward Pierce, constantly exposes the pillars of society as weak, vain and vulnerable to manipulation. To anyone who can see that these emperors wear no clothes, the barriers of class and wealth mean nothing, and the world is much more fun. You don’t have to jump on any moving trains, but most of us would benefit from being a little more Edward Pierce.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three by John Godey
The Takeaway: The wheels can come off at any moment, so be thankful when they don’t.
Godey is the second non-existent life coach in the list. Morton Freedgood adopted the pen-name to distinguish his crime writing from his more serious literary efforts. Yet it is his crime fiction, specifically The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, that lives on. That should tell you something. This story of an armed gang hijacking a New York subway car and ransoming the passengers is told from more than thirty perspectives, each with their own distinct experiences of a place and time (Early ‘70s NY). A whole world folds into this pacey, mesmerising, terrifying narrative. All it takes to shatter the humdrum routine of getting to work, and bring a whole city to a grinding halt, is four men with guns and a plan. Read this on the train to remind yourself that commuting sucks, but there are worse things than boredom.
Greg Chivers is author of heist thriller ‘The Crying Machine’ available from HarperVoyager.