The Top Ten Thieves in Pop Culture
by Glen Erik Hamilton
We love thieves. Not in real life, naturally; the commandment and laws against stealing exist for good reason. But on the page, short of a character seeking justice, there’s hardly anything readers root for more than a protagonist who’s trying to take what they oughtn’t.
But which fictional thieves are the greatest? Not those who’ve scored the biggest hauls, I’ll argue, but the characters whose influence can be traced to many pop culture descendants, sometimes across many centuries. Those who set the standard. And, ironically for a profession requiring secrecy, those with the greatest fame.
The roguish requirements: This is a list of thieves, characters whose primary occupation is stealing, usually from the legal if not rightful owners. And I also require that they do so directly, by their own skill and daring. Characters who steal as an occasional tactic or who have other, broader criminal ventures are hereby disqualified. Including the following:
- Simon Templar, the Saint (an adventurer and righter-of-wrongs with thieving skills);
- Tom Ripley (con man);
- Professor Moriarty (first in a long list of criminal masterminds who rarely do their own dirty work);
- Fantômas (certainly a thief, but also of the mastermind ilk. Also, he gets as much thrill out of murdering as stealing. Terrible company to keep);
- Irene Adler (not a thief in the original stories, and where possible I’m sticking with the canon);
- Tricksters of myth and legend such as Loki, Hermes, and Raven of the Pacific Northwest First Nations tribes (who steal, but often on the orders of other gods or as an offshoot of their troublemaking nature)
Now that we know the rules, here’s my list of the Top 10 larcenous leaders in pop culture.
The most lasting example of a simple but absolutely brilliant premise: The thief who steals for the right reasons, for others, for justice. Suddenly it’s okay to cheer for the bad guy, because he’s really a good guy, and the bad things he does are good things. (Hmmm, maybe the first example of moral gray areas, too…)
– See also: Arsène Lupin; Alexander Mundy (It Takes a Thief); any thief inspired or recruited to work on the side of righteousness
From the writer Hanna Diyab to the Disney film, the tale of this impoverished hero who ultimately finds fortune and, just as important, true love, is timeless and timelessly influential. Any fictional guttersnipe of good heart who only steals to survive owes a nod of thanks to Aladdin and his Jinn buddy.
-See also: Artful Dodger; all manner of lovable street rats
The archetypical gentleman thief–and cricketer! Does it get more posh than that? A.J. Raffles was the creation of E.W. Hornung, brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle. Fittingly, the character steals a few attributes from Sherlock Holmes, not least a strong sense of patriotism and a Watsonesque partner in Bunny Manders. Unlike Robin of Sherwood, Raffles steals for himself, desiring both the intrinsic value of the boodle and the emotional value of the challenge. A sportsman in all things.
– See also: Danny Ocean; John Robie (To Catch a Thief); Sir Charles Lytton, aka The Phantom (Pink Panther); and any chap in a bespoke tuxedo eyeing your diamond necklace
Of course Selina Kyle was going to make the list. Even setting aside countless interpretations of the character across comics and television and films, just saying “cat burglar” almost inevitably brings to mind the most alluring and unpredictable member of Batman’s rogues gallery. She’s stolen the very term. That’s influence.
-See also: Black Cat (Marvel Comics); almost any female thief who prizes stealth, ingenuity, and agility over brute force.
Tony “le Stephanois” (Rififi)
Rififi is so good it’s inspired or cemented at least three major tropes: The assembly of the gang of specialists for the score, the long silent tension of the job itself, and above all, the luckless fate of its protagonists. The closer the gang gets to success, the closer their inevitable doom.
-See also: Johnny Clay (The Killing); Stony Newsome (Set It Off); Charlie Croker (The Italian Job, the comedic flip side); and Dortmunder (pretty funny too, see below)
And speaking of ruthlessness… Richard Stark’s (Donald E. Westlake’s) antihero is as absent of mercy as a shark. He has something vaguely like morals, but they don’t extend much farther than not being the first guy in the crew to pull a double-cross. And woe betide the fool who makes that mistake. Hollywood keeps making Stark books into decent films while changing up the character’s name (Walker, Porter, McClain, et al), but in my head Parker will always be Lee Marvin, implacable and unstoppable.
– See also: Wallace Stroby’s Crissa Stone; any robber who’s all about the money, ’cause emotions and human connections just complicate life
Across two dozen video games, animation, and every corner of the globe, the mysterious and slippery Ms. Sandiego is probably the greatest thief who ever lived, even fictionally. What can you say about a villain who’s successfully purloined the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Abominable Snowman, and even the entire island of Bali?
– See also: Ever-elusive, Carmen owes some debt to T.S. Eliot and her obvious ancestor, Macavity (“He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair: For when they reach the scene of crime – Macavity’s not there!”)
Equation-wise, Raffles plus Parker. The rare thief who can hold a conversation with the same adroitness with which he plans heists. Charming right up to the point where he shoots people in the face. Maybe even beyond; he’s that charismatic. There’s little question Gruber is the smartest guy in the room and no doubt he likes to demonstrate that. The panache of the gentleman thief with the ruthlessness of the stone killer.
– See also: any articulate, educated gang leader from the last thirty years, bonus points if his tailoring is on point
While a logical descendant of both Parker’s single-minded professionalism and Tony from Rififi’s gang of specialists, McCauley deserves his own spot in the pantheon. Heat is so influential there’s hardly an armed robbery scene of the past quarter century that hasn’t cribbed from it. And that goes double for Robert DeNiro’s obsessive McCauley, who remade the template for the guy in charge of the crew.
– See also: any thief who’s the negative impression of their cop nemesis, or who follows rigid self-imposed rules
The most recent addition to our list, The Wire’s indelible Omar preys on the predators, wears a distinctive costume, and even has a theme song. Hear the whistling of A-Hunting We Will Go echoing down a city street, and you know Omar’s comin’.
These thieves might not have the same cultural impact as those above, but are worthy of notice (or of looking the other way as they get on with their business)
Ah, Bernie. My favorite on this list, and certainly the one with which I’d most like to share a drink and book recommendations. While he may be prone to stumbling over victims while engaged in burgling, the Picasso of the Picklocks is a peaceful fellow and an animal lover to boot. Who else would name their cat Raffles?
The Stainless Steel Rat
Harry Harrison’s criminal extraordinaire of the future does many nefarious things, but first on the list (and often second and third) is theft. Almost infinitely clever, the best and most frequent trick Mr. James Bolivar diGriz plays is talking himself into yet another scheme.
How amazing was Donald E. Westlake? Two of his protagonists made this list (see Parker, above). Like Neil McCauley, Dortmunder’s gang of oddballs and hapless adventures owes a lot to Rififi’s Tony. If Dortmunder is leading the score, it’s going to be brilliant, it’s going to get complicated fast, and it’s very likely going to flop on its face.
A dash of A. J. Raffles, a spoonful of Catwoman, mix well with James Bond… The amazing Ms. Blaise became an adventurer, but she started as a thief and leader of organized crime on an international scale.
Bodhi (Point Break)
Like many of our light-fingered lot, Bodhi just wants to keep living in the style to which he’s become accustomed–which in his case means an endless summer of surfing, beach football, and philosophical musings. If that requires a little bank robbery, it’s all part of the universe’s plan, man. Righteous waves, if not righteous morals.
Glen Erik Hamilton writes crime thrillers. His novels have been called “outstanding” (Publishers Weekly), “perfect mix of serious crime and caper movie” (Criminal Element), and “a must-read series” (Mystery Scene Magazine).
Glen’s debut novel Past Crimes won the Anthony, Macavity, and Strand Magazine Critics Awards, and was also nominated for
the Edgar®, Barry, and Nero Awards. Kirkus called Past Crimes “an exciting heir to the classic detective novel.” Each of his subsequent books in the Van Shaw series have earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and more, and been published in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Israel, and Japan.
A native of Seattle, Glen was raised aboard a sailboat and grew up around the marinas and commercial docks and islands of the Pacific Northwest. He served as President of the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America from 2018-2019 and is also a member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. He now lives near Los Angeles with his family and publicly acknowledges his addiction to Columbo.
His latest novel is A Dangerous Breed. Track him down at glenerikhamilton.com