The Joy of the Heist
“So, Dusty,” you say, “here you are, a writer with a small but devoted following, known for writing what’s come to be called ‘redneck noir’—dark crime fiction set in the American South. Why on earth would you turn to writing something as different as your latest book, ICE CHEST–a comic heist novel?”
To this I would answer, “Excuse me, but who are you and what are you doing in my house?”
But seriously, folks, why would I undergo the perils of changing from gritty thrillers to zany caper novels? Because make no mistake, there is a certain amount of peril to switching up like that. Fans want something just like the thing that made them fall in love with your work in the first place. Publishers want something just like the thing that was successful last time, only different. It’s a little like a restaurant owner going to a table of regulars and saying, “I know you you’ve always enjoyed the steak here, but I’m going to bring you the tilapia. Trust me, you’ll love it.” Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.
But it’s a little scary to make that change, especially when you’re doing something as subjective as humor. There are few things more awkward than telling a joke or making an observation you find hilarious, only to have your listener stare at you blankly and say, “I don’t get it.” Imagine doing an entire book you hope is humorous and having it fall flat. So why do it?
For one thing, I’ve always tried to follow the maxim “write the book you want to read.” I’ve always loved heist novels, especially funny ones. Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels, like BANK SHOT and THE HOT ROCK, have always been among my favorites. Richard Stark’s gritty Parker novels are great reads as well (which is not surprising, since Westlake and Stark are the same person). For years, I’ve enjoyed the classic heist movies like Oceans 11 or The Italian Job (both old and new versions). More recently, I’ve been highly entertained by the TV series Leverage, where a multitalented team under the direction of a disillusioned insurance investigator (Timothy Hutton) plays Robin Hood, stealing from rich and powerful scumbags who deserve to get ripped off and giving back to the true victims.
That is, after all, one of the joys of the heist novel: the delivery of justice and the balancing of the karmic scales by the hands of someone who society might normally regard as the villain. In a regular mystery or thriller, justice is done by catching the criminal (or terrorist or whoever) and sending him or her to prison or to the graveyard. In the heist, the alleged victim is often the real bad guy, and the “criminal” the one who delivers them their just punishment. It provides the reader with the vicarious thrill of being bad, but for a good cause. As Timothy Hutton’s character notes in Leverage: sometimes bad guys make the best good guys.
Also, I have to confess, the research was quite enjoyable, much more so than usual. ICE CHEST is about a group of crooks who plot to steal a jewel encrusted brassiere being displayed at a fashion show by a company somewhat like Victoria’s Secret, but different enough to avoid trademark lawsuits (we hope). So instead of interviewing helicopter pilots on how best to shoot down their aircraft or looking up the procedure for setting up and triggering a Claymore mine, I got to peruse pictures and videos of gorgeous models in skimpy jeweled underwear. The only downside was having to keep one tab on the Web browser open to CNN so I could switch over quickly when my wife walked in the room.
Another joy of the heist novel is that while plot is of course vitally important, what really makes a good caper story memorable is the cast of characters, each with their own quirks, mannerisms, and motivations. The quirkier and more eccentric the characters, the more you move toward the comic (Westlake) side of the aisle rather than the hardboiled side (Stark). That made ICE CHEST fun to write.
Which leads us to my main motivation for writing ICE CHEST: it was fun. Which is not to say it all went smoothly (does it ever?). I got the idea several years ago, wrote a few thousand words, then was disgusted to see the “stealing the jeweled undies” plotline used on an episode of some crime show that was so short-lived I honestly don’t remember the name of it. Then I started it again but got sidetracked when I got the contract to write DEVILS AND DUST, the fourth Jack Keller novel, for Polis Books.
Fortunately, when I pitched ICE CHEST to my publisher and editor, Jason Pinter, he trusted me enough to say “go for it.” I had a blast writing it, and though I was somewhat nervous turning it in (see “few things more awkward,” above) he loved it. I hope you will too, because in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “These things are fun, and fun is good.”