The Appeal of the Heist

Movie poster: The Italian Job
They’re on the job. No, not that job, the other job.
Heists are a staple of the crime genre. Who doesn’t love stories like Ocean’s 11, The Italian Job, or even A Fish Called Wanda? But, unlike murder and other crimes, heists are crimes we can get behind. We actually cheer on the criminals in their attempt to rob people. But why is that? Why can we get behind a group of people out to steal, yet condemn the mugger?

Heists are always against someone big and oppressive. Either some kind of large corporation or viciously wealthy individual is the target. We dislike the big bad corporations and the viciously wealthy because, well, they’re not us and their character is shown to be flawed in some way, much as Andy Garcia’s character in Ocean’s Eleven. He’s powerful, shows himself to be a jerk, and has very little sense of humor. This last reason is enough to justify robbing him.

There’s also the challenge. Heists are always conceived as impossible jobs. The security is so overwhelming and interconnected that even contemplating the heist calls one’s sanity into question.

Ocean's 11 poster

The crew on the heist—and, by definition, a heist must have a crew—is always a motley bunch with varied skills. Each one has a different criminal specialty that is necessary to get the job done. Invariably there is a safecracker, a pickpocket, a computer specialist, and a wheelman, among others. Part of the fun is watching this motley band, who usually have little association with each other prior to the story, come together to exact social justice on the wealthy and oppressive.

These are the underdogs, and we love them. Heist crews are reminiscent of a group of individuals coming together to undertake a quest as in a fantasy series such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s Hobbit is a fantasy heist. Each dwarf has his own specialty area, but they need Bilbo to fill in the last gap. Why else would they need a sneaky little hobbit for the job?

Heist crews have no chance individually; even together their chances still aren’t great, but teamwork can see them through. When they’re able to get along, at least, which is part of the fun. Who doesn’t want to see the explosives expert argue with the safecracker about the best way to get the job done? Watching the wheelman ask the hacker for help—a la The Italian Job—in getting through the city’s traffic lights is also quite fun.

Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer
The least likely of heist crews
Heists are clever. Brute force cannot get the job done. Not only would the impressive security slow them down, police and other agencies would come in to stop it all. Heist crews need to be smarter. Their disparate nature turned from liability into asset, which brings me to my favorite idea regarding heists.

Heists are the Rube Goldberg machines of the criminal world. You’ve all seen them. Those funny little machines patched together out of whatever’s around all to do something technically simple, such as flipping on a light, but it takes various gizmos triggering off other gizmos along a continuous chain before the light is finally turned on. Rube Goldberg machines are overly complicated, made of incongruous parts, and look as if they’re ready to fall apart at any time. Yet when each element triggers off, it becomes a kind of ballet.

Heists are the same way. The next part of the plan relies on the specialist before completing her part of the plan. If at any point a specialist does not complete her objective, the whole thing fails instantly and spectacularly. And while heists appear overly complicated, they get the impossible job done.

So get into a good heist story. Watch that intricate, disparate Rube Goldberg machine get the job done where nothing else could.

Andy Adams is an adjunct professor of English at various colleges in the Phoenix area. He has an affectation for fedoras as they complement his villainous goatee. He’s been known to poke his head onto Twitter @A3Writer, but he’s never been big into birds. He blogs at about writing, teaching, and the conquest of fictional worlds—they’re more fun than the real world.

Read all posts by Andy Adams for Criminal Element.


  1. Jay Glazier

    The same can be said of a good con, as in The Sting.

  2. Laura K. Curtis

    Jay –

    I think many of the best heists ARE cons, or at least they involve a con of some kind!

  3. Christopher Morgan

    A pretty good but very funny Heist story with a Fantasy flare is THE PALACE JOB by Patrick Weekes. If you don’t mind horny-for-virgin unicorns and not-so-great wizards, then it is definitely worth the read.

  4. Laura K. Curtis

    Oh, that sounds right up my alley. Gotta find it!

  5. Andy Adams


    Cons are coming, too. I just need to get there. Before that I have to showcase some mythological heists.


    That sounds amazing. I’ll have to grab that.

  6. Donna Dale

    The Great Train Robbery.

  7. bigsandwich6

    The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch.

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