The Top Five Heist Novels of All Time
Gary Phillips’ Picks
Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett
Not remembered as well as he should be these days, William Riley Burnett was an agile crime fiction writer from Little Caesar to High Sierra to one of my favorites by him, the Asphalt Jungle. What always struck me about his work was how the flaws of his characters invariably put them in motion to commit the crime, in this case a supposed foolproof heist, and how those same failings would come into play later as the thieves try and get away.
Deadly Edge by Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark
I’ve read most of the Parker heist novels — terse, stripped down tales of a professional thief only referred to by the one name, an amoral physical expression of Id; an existentialist criminal whose interior landscape is little revealed as what he does defines him. But now and then, you did get a glimpse inside him. “That was the edge Parker had; he knew that survival was more important than heroics. It isn’t how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose.” It says something that Parker onscreen has been black, a bald guy and in one instance, a young Danish woman.
The Last Days of American Crime by Rick Remender (writer) and Greg Tocchini (artist)
In this graphic novel set in the near future, it’s a week before the U.S. in secret will broadcast a signal that alters your brain making it impossible to commit an illegal act. So of course a crew of thieving individuals plan a heist of all heists before the big signal is broadcast. What could go wrong…heh.
Richard Brewer’s Picks
Assault on a Queen – by Jack Finney: copyright 1959.
What is great about this heist novel is the sheer spectacular audacity of the robbery itself. In the best tradition of noir fiction, Hugh Brittain, a former U. S. Navy submariner is made one of those offers, an illegal job that will bring him “More money then you’ll ever get your hands on in any other way.” The job? To work with five other individuals to raise an abandoned WWI U-boat, make it sea worthy and use it to rob the Queen Mary. Finney spins a great yarn. The book is of its time and therefore a bit creaky in places, but the interactions between the characters, the adventure of the whole caper, these aspects hold up to this day. Some may quibble about the ending itself, but the final chapter closes things out in classic style of heist novels.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – by John Gody: copyright 1973.
A gritty book from the 1970s when political motivated airline highjacks seemed all the rage. But this book gave us a different type of highjacking, that of a New York City subway car. Four gunmen, a full car of passengers turned hostages, and no political agenda in sight. This highjacking is done for only one thing…cash, one million dollars to be exact and the city of New York has one hour to deliver the money into the hands of the highjackers or hostages will begin to die. Gody presents the reader with an exciting race against time adventure that also doubles as a well-developed character study, and like other heist novels mentioned here, the ending is a satisfying doozy.
Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips are the editors of the new anthology CULPRITS: THE HEIST WAS JUST THE BEGINNING, a collection of heist novels, available now from Polis Books. The previously edited the anthology OCCUPIED EARTH: STORIES OF ALIENS, RESISTANCE, AND SURVIVAL AT ALL COSTS, also available from Polis Books.