Light Fingered

06.06.14

Book Bag: The Best Heists in Fact, Film, and Fiction

Even honest people like a great heist in film or fiction. As for the rest of us, we’ll watch anything with turtlenecks and dynamite. But for connoisseurs, here’s the cream of the crop.

I love all the trappings of a classic heist plot: stopwatches and masks, grappling hooks and black turtlenecks. The story moves through the familiar arc: the gathering of the team, the fondling of the gadgets, the break-in, and the moment when the false dawn of getting the loot gives way to the third act reversals. It’s tempting for an author; early in the writing of my new novel, The Directive, the clichés lured me in. I even toyed with the idea of air ducts and tunnels. But soon I realized that they were a shadow of a shadow, endlessly recycled Hollywood clichés. The real-life bank heist was perfected around 1917 by a former Prussian soldier named Herman Lamm, appropriated by John Dillinger, and has been copycatted and watered down in countless fictions ever since.

I used to be a reporter, and there is no better way to procrastinate while writing than research. I decided to approach the book as if I were really pulling the job. First I found a target too good to believe: a real-life, little-known trading desk at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that trades $5.5 billion worth of bonds a day and is responsible for controlling the value of every American dollar in circulation.

Next I assembled the gang. Today there is a thriving industry of “red team” security experts who break into restricted buildings in sanctioned test heists known as audits. I sought them out and mapped out what a true-to-life 21st-century caper would look like at the most powerful bank in capitalism. Instead of the old standbys, I learned about spear-phishing hacks, Trojan horse cameras, and social engineering techniques that let you bypass access control with two cups of coffee and an inkjet printer.

I’ll never stop loving the classics, but nothing excites me like discovering a new technique from a real-life B&E expert. Here are a few books that sketch out the myths and realities of how to pull a heist.

Du Rififi chez les Hommes
by Auguste le Breton

This bad French noir novel became the seminal heist film of all time thanks to director Jules Dassin’s adaptation. Asphalt Jungle is sometimes considered the first heist movie, but for me it all starts with Rififi. You see things that you’ve seen a thousand times in later works, and then realize, with awe, that Dassin invented it here. Rififi is still brutally realist despite having discarded some of the novel’s worst elements, and the best part is the safe-cracking sequence. The director had commissioned a beautiful orchestral score, then trashed it and left only near-unbearable silence, not even dialogue, during the 30-minute heist. The American Dassin had fled the U.S. after being named a communist and blacklisted, and there are haunting parallels, personal and political, between his life and the fate of the film’s crooks as they name names to the French police. For other related classics, check out Bob le Flambeur and Topkapi.

Prince of Thieves
by Chuck Hogan

Hogan brought new life to the bank heist genre with a heavy shot of realism, both social and criminal. He writes with ease and an understated mastery of the ways of both FBI agents and blue-collar criminals: Bearcat scanners, b-packs, and morning glories. I used to live in Boston, and I’m a sucker for the local color. At the end of the opening heist, I could practically feel my feet sinking into the grimy sand of Revere Beach.

The Lock Artist
by Steve Hamilton

As I learned to pick locks for The Directive, I was surprised how I had rarely, if ever, seen a good account in fiction. Then I found Hamilton’s novel. He not only has the best and most accurate lock-picking and safe-cracking passages I’ve read, he grounds them in an emotionally-involving story told from the point of view of a young man with a dangerous gift who hasn’t spoken a word since a childhood trauma.

Unauthorized Access
by Wil Allsopp

What could be more thrilling than a book subtitled “Physical Penetration Testing for IT Security Teams?” As I tried to figure out how to break into the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, this book became my roadmap for a real-life 21st-century heist. It has straightforward guidance on casing the target, as well bypassing guards, security, cameras, and access control. It introduced me to social engineering—essentially the hacker version of con games—which allows you to break into secure areas without touching a lock. I cased the New York Fed in person for The Directive, and was astonished how easily these techniques let me access a secure floor high in the building. Use with caution!

Locks, Safes, and Security: An International Police Reference
by Marc Weber Tobias

This is the bible. Wrapped in a plain black cover, these 1,411 pages describe how to defeat every layer of security known to man, past and present: locks, safes, vaults, strong rooms, cameras, fences, motion detectors, and alarm systems. It comes in several different versions. One is available only to locksmiths, and the most heavily restricted is accessible only to the U.S. government’s own break-in teams (though I suppose it’s possible a stubborn enough author might find a way to get a look at it while researching his heist thriller).