The appeal of con artists and elegant thieves in fiction

posted in: Dave, New Release, Writing | 0

If one steps back, probably way back, it might seem a little weird how so many normal and moral people really enjoy crime, caper, heist, con, and scam stories.  The gentleman thief who walks away with a multi-million dollar painting, a gang of skilled criminals who concoct and execute an elaborate plan that lets them waltz in and out of a big bank with sacks of cash, or even the street-scammer who uses a smooth tongue and fast hands to crank out a living ten and twenty bucks at a time; we’ve all seen and read — and liked — these stories.  They’re a popular and reoccurring genre, even though, again stepping quite a ways back and looking academically at the tales, they’re all about a criminal winning.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work is it?  The ‘good guys’ are supposed to win, and ‘bad guys’ are supposed to lose, aren’t they?  But millions and millions of people continue to engage with these kinds of stories, and root for the bad guys all the time.  When Clooney and Pitt and their gang empty the shared vault of three major casinos in Vegas in Ocean’s 11, the audience cheers and walks out happy.  Even if you take away the section of that story where Clooney’s character earns back his ex-wife’s love, the audience still enjoys the criminals winning in the end.  When De Niro and his crew in Heat rob a downtown LA bank, and then nearly all die or go down at the hands of Pacino’s cops, the feeling and emotion of most of the audience at the end is of sadness and tragedy.  Even though, on the surface, crooks paying for their crime is supposed to be the happy ending; and it isn’t in Heat.

Now, there are some obvious things working in these kinds of stories.  Audiences tend to gravitate and identify with a story’s main characters, but I really think it’s more than just that.  I think there are two big ones that come into play.  First, people like to root for skill and courage, even if — especially if — it’s the skill and courage to break the law successfully.  And second, fiction allows us to live vicariously in ways we’d never otherwise have a taste of in “real” life.

The first, skill and flair and boldness, has a unique appeal.  Audiences like to insert themselves into fiction, and it’s a very rare person who hasn’t ever imagined themselves as not “just a normal” person.  A brave soldier, the hero who saves the day, the girl who gets the guy, the smart researcher who finds the cure, the athlete who wins the big game, and — yes — even the crook too smart to get caught.  Arguably, the single most common trait of all popular characters in stories is boldness and courage; that of individuals who are always stepping forward, jumping in, speaking up, and putting themselves front and center.  When Something Big happens in real life, most of us stand around and just watch.  Some few might be alert enough to dive and run and flee away from the Big Thing, but fewer still are those who unglue their feet and intervene.

The intervention is the key.  Most of us are just normal little people, living our normal little lives.  We don’t wander around expecting to leap into action at a moment’s notice, and when something happens, most of us don’t.  We stand, we stare, we gape.  It’s entirely normal.  People take time to process things.  It’s only later, usually well after the fact, that we start thinking about what we could have done, should have done, that might’ve altered events.  If only I’d tripped that purse snatcher as he ran off.  If only I’d ran forward and caught that child falling off the second floor stairwell.  If only I’d swerved out of the way when the truck inexplicably veered across five lanes of traffic.

It takes quick wit and courage to act when something startling happens.  Most of us lack one or both, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s why societies since time immemorial usually celebrate those who step up and do great things in the heat of an unexpected moment.

Even the most good and wholesome person has, fleetingly, occasionally, wistfully, had the thought of how much money is in a bank, and how useful or fun it would be to just have that cash.  It doesn’t make you a bad person to have thought that.  In fact most of us would not believe someone who said the thought had never crossed their mind, ever.  In a caper story, in a tale of heists and crime, we see characters who do more than think about it.  And more than just doing it, they do it well.  Few caper tales revolve around a bad criminal; that’s boring.  These larcenous accounts focus on characters not just bold and brash enough to cross the line and steal, but who do it with skill and planning and careful forethought to cover all the angles so they’ll get away with it.

That’s the other part; the skill.  Anyone with the nerve can pull a gun and walk into a bank.  We all get that, we all know it is just that easy.  And most of us even know that — from stores to banks — the policy of nearly all these establishments is to comply and hand the money over.  After all, what’s the point of resisting?  Give the robber the money, so he’ll leave.  The trick is actually getting away, and we all know I’m not just talking about making it out of the building.  We’re talking about getting away, clean, without being found and arrested and punished.  To not only walk into a bank, but walk out, disappear into the sunset, and relax on a beach somewhere earning twenty percent.

The skill is the second big part of the appeal of these kinds of stories.  We admire the technique, the thought, the practice, that go into covering those angles and anticipating all the counter-moves the Good Guys will take.  Everyone loves a good plan that works.

Frank Abagnale was popularized in the film Catch me if you Can.  While the movie takes a certain amount of fictional license with some of, and how some of, the events and how they played out, Frank was a real person, and he really did take millions from banks while flying millions of miles all over the world for free as an ‘airline pilot’.  He wasn’t just bold, though he absolutely was.  He was clever and skilled in how he identified the weak points in society that let him do what his nerve made possible.  He figured out and assembled all the pieces necessary to successfully impersonate being a PanAm pilot; where to get the uniform, how to wear it, where to get and how to display the ID and License cards a pilot might have to flash, what the terminology and lingo was and how to speak it to pass in conversation with other pilots … all of it.  The same went for his check fraud schemes, his impersonation of a doctor, of a lawyer; even those of us who frown at his criminal antics admire that he was able to accomplish so much with them.

Apollo Robbins is many things, but most of them revolve around his mastery of that most criminal of skills; pickpocketing.  Anyone who’s ever lost, or had stolen, their wallet knows how upsetting it is.  Yet Apollo hasn’t just made a career as a ‘security consultant’ where he works with police and defense agencies to know how to spot and protect against such crime; he’s turned his skill as a pickpocket into a stage act that people pay to see.  Audience members walk in knowing what he is and what he can do, and he still empties their pockets with such casual ease that it’s more than a little frightening to think of what he could do on any busy street anywhere in the world if he got backed into a fiscal corner and had no other option but to start lifting wallets or starve to death.  And the audiences who’ve paid for tickets to his shows applaud him each and every time he removes a wallet or phone or money clip from someone’s pocket on stage, when he deftly slips a watch or necklace right off someone’s arm or neck without notice.

The skill is admired.  People might not go the next step and admire what can be done with such skill, but it’s the rare person who doesn’t admire the talent and dedication it takes to have become so good at something so few can do even poorly.  It’s the same thing that lets even those people who are spoilsports who study and learn the fully story behind magic tricks, then still smile and nod approvingly when they see something that they know how to do done.  Penn and Teller even have a show running on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean where they challenge other magicians to do just that; and it’s even more popular in some ways than the duo’s own acts.  Because most of us know how good of magicians Penn and — especially — Teller are, and we like to see them applaud a skilled fellow practitioner.

Top athletes, successful business-people, people who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than five seconds, people who can tie a cherry stem into a knot with their tongue; just about anything that most people can’t do, even if the thing is silly and borderline useless for any ‘useful’ purpose, people like to see demonstrated skillfully.  Because people admire skill.  You don’t have to be a skateboarder to appreciate how much practice and talent it takes to kick the board up from the ground and land it on a stairwell railing, grind down without falling, and spin three-sixty before landing wheels down and still rolling at the bottom.  You don’t have to be a ‘gun person’ to admire how a pistol sharpshooter can empty a magazine in seven seconds and score straight bullseyes on every target on the range.  Because talent and dedication are heralded traits worldwide and throughout history.

Caper stories tap into these things; the nerve and courage, and the talent and dedication, to do things most of us can’t.  Some of us might have the boldness to stick up a store, but we know we’d never pull it off.  Some of us might know how to plan a perfect robbery, but we’ll never ever follow through because we’re too scared to do it.  Just like there are people who know anatomy inside and out, but can’t countenance being a doctor because we can’t even dissect a frog without vomiting.  Or others of us who can deliver a perfect full opera in our showers, but choke up incoherently the moment anyone asks us to sing a single line.

Nerve and verve, that’s what I think makes crime capers appealing in fiction.  Like all good stories, it takes us out of our normal lives and lets us live vicariously in someone else’s shoes for a while.  And even if a ‘bad guy’ isn’t supposed to win, so what?  It’s just a story.  It doesn’t matter that some of these heist-masters make it to Mexico and enjoy the fruits of their thievery; the story was theirs, and we cheer for them because they did it with style and panache.  Most of us aren’t ever going to be soldiers or prom queens or game-winning athletes either; that doesn’t make stories about those things any less fun or valid or engaging.

I have never, will never, rob a store or con a mark or scam someone; but I’ve always loved tales and stories — true and fictional — of those who do.  For all of the above reasons, definitely.  They’re just fun things to contemplate.  They’re a release, a vicarious trip out of my law-abiding normality into a time and place where, for a little while, I can kick back and imagine what it might be like if I did plan out the perfect bank heist.  If I did short-sell the same car to five different people before vanishing with their money.  If I did decide I need money and come back ten minutes later from a short jaunt down the sidewalk with seven wallets that aren’t mine in my pocket.  I’ll never do anything of the sort, but in the safe confines of fiction it’s fun to think about.

These things are what motivated me to write my latest story, Grift Girl Gone.  It’s up for preorder on Amazon now, and releases on 11-April.  For that little piece of larceny in all of us, to egg on that tiny bit of “what if” we all harbor, I offer the story of the daughter of a career con man who has to choose her own path forward.

I hope you’ll take a look.