It’s a Mystery: “There’s no score worth dying for”
By Wallace Stroby
In crime and mystery writing, a theft may be the criminal act that the detective must solve. But often it’s presented as a caper, a subtype of the genre whose formula includes fast-moving action perpetrated by specialists—the gentleman thief, for instance, or the Robin Hood figure—who precisely plan and execute daring heists before making their escapes. Frequently their best-laid plans go awry forcing the protagonists to improvise with consequences that run the gamut from humorous to disastrous.
Historically, the caper is an outgrowth of the gentleman thief tradition, exemplified by E.W. Hornung’s A.J. Raffles. He appears in Hornung’s short stories published between 1895 and 1923. Hornung was, not so incidentally, inspired by his brother-in-law Arthur Conan Doyle. The epitome of the English gentleman by day, Raffles is a highly accomplished burglar by night, using his social connections to gain entry to wealthy homes. He enjoys confounding Scotland Yard by robbing seemingly impregnable institutions. In “A Jubilee Present” from the collection A Thief in the Night (1905), he celebrates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria (he is intensely patriotic) by sending her a gold cup that he has audaciously stolen from the British Museum. Hornung’s stories established the prototype for a host of gentleman rogue figures in popular fiction. Ellery Queen has described Raffles as the “inspiration for the whole school of devil-may-care adventurers on the borderlines of the law, not least the eponymous James Bond.”
Many detectives, such as Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion, Anthony Morton’s (a.k.a. John Creasey) Baron, and Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar, known as The Saint, have criminal pasts. Campion, was first a con artist who lived by his wits, and his unorthodox manservant and assistant, Magersfontein Lugg (my most favorite sidekick of all time) was a convicted cat burglar. The Saint is a notorious jewel thief turned adventurer who takes the law into his own hands throughout his career. The Baron also began as a jewel thief and later became a legitimate antiques dealer and consultant to Scotland Yard. And speaking of dealers in old objets d’art, there is Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy, the reprobate English antiques dealer who is always eager to make an honest (or even reasonably dishonest) penny. Ferreting out forgeries is his forte. He also excels at fashioning them.
The Parker novels, written by Donald E. Westlake under the Richard Stark pseudonym, center on the adventures of Parker, a ruthless and cunning thief. He lives for the perfect crime, and refuses to die committing it. He’s the non-hero: the callous, unrepentant, single-minded operator in a humorless and amoral world. His high-stakes capers, starting with The Hunter (1962), filled with unforeseen twists and quadruple-crosses are unparalleled.
Westlake is also the undisputed master of the comic caper. In The Hot Rock (1970), he created John Dortmunder and his bumbling band of thieves. They steal the same diamond over and over again. In Bank Shot (1972), they rob a bank by towing it away. And in Castle in the Air (1980), the Dortmunder gang makes off with an entire castle.
Then there is the prolific Lawrence Block, whose Bernie Rhodenbarr is one of New York City’s Prince of Thieves. Introduced in Burglars Can’t Be Choosers (1977), he was last seen in The Burglar on the Prowl (2004). His creed is simple:
I don’t play cards with men named Doc, or eat at places called Mom’s. Or drink before I burgle…. It is, I should point out, not a career I would recommend for anyone. The fact that I evidently can’t give it up doesn’t mean I’m not well aware of the disagreeably sordid nature of what I do.
Which is as good a segue as any into an exploration of the distaff side of the criminal population. The adventuress is a term that appeared in fiction written toward the end of the nineteenth century and during the early twentieth century. It applied to a woman who took unscrupulous risks for financial gain, and knew full well that her behavior was immoral.
One of detective fiction’s most famous or, should I say infamous, female characters remains Irene Adler—even though she appeared in just one story in the Sherlock Holmes canon, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” wherein she is described to Holmes by the King of Bohemia as “the well-known adventuress.” Her claim to fame is that she is the only woman to dupe the Great Detective and earn his admiration afterwards. He calls her “the woman” (high praise for Holmes) and accepts her portrait rather than the King’s showy jeweled ring in payment for his services.
It is an interesting phenomenon that, until recently, women dominated the genre as sleuths, not crooks. They ranged from amateurs to professionals, spinsters and debutantes to bona fide P.I.’s. From Miss Marple (introduced in 1930) to Kinsey Millhone (1982), from Violet Strange (1915) to V.I. Warshawski (1982), to name but a few who don’t swindle but snoop.
Then in 2008, along came Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the rest, as they say, is history. Larsson turned in three Salander novels before he died an untimely death in 2004. First published in Sweden and then worldwide, by the time the second one, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) appeared here, Salander was everybody’s charismatic bad girl. When the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010), arrived, the number of copies already sold was astronomical! Lisbeth is a pierced, anorexic punk with Attitude. The computer doesn’t exist that she can’t hack. By the end of what became the Millenium Trilogy, Lisbeth was rich beyond her wildest fantasies—her gains often (masterfully) ill gotten. I called her “intriguing, mesmerizing, and addictive.” I added, “…one of the most original female characters in twentieth and twenty-first century fiction.” Not surprisingly, Lisbeth spawned a slew of tough fictional females: “hand grenades in high heels.” To this day she remains the gold standard against which all others are compared and too many, sad to say, are found wanting.
Which brings me to Shoot the Woman First, Wallace Stroby’s third Crissa Stone thriller. She’s a professional thief who listens to Bach between gun battles. She made her debut in Cold Shot to the Heart (2011) and instantly became the hottest new bad girl on the block.
When Shoot the Woman First opens, Crissa and her team are in Detroit and about to steal half a million dollars in drug money. Faster than you can say “Take the loot and run,” the heist goes astray in a hail of bullets. Crissa finds herself alone with a duffel bag of stolen cash, fueled by a promise to deliver part of the take to the needy family of one of her slain partners. She’s got moxie and her own brand of morality.
Once her mission of mercy is accomplished, she’s determined to get her lover Wayne out of a Texas jail. She’s got her New York lawyer greasing a lot of palms to that end. She also hopes to finally settle down with her daughter Maddie, 11-years old and being raised by a relative who the child thinks is her mother.
Luckily, Crissa has a cool head and is used to having a lot to deal with all at once. She knows it’s only a matter of time until the guys who betrayed her and killed her partners, not to mention other extremely interested parties, are going to get to her. So in a stolen car, she takes the kind of circuitous route she excels at to her newly owned house on the Jersey shore. Secure in the knowledge that so far she hasn’t been followed, she stashes the cash and heads for the man she trusts above all others except maybe Wayne. His name is Jimmy Peaches, he’s legendary, her mentor, and resides in a retirement home in Atlantic City.
When they are seated on the boardwalk (out of earshot of his bodyguard), Jimmy, puffing on one of the expensive cigars Crissa has brought him, says:
“It’s none of my business what you do. But these days I worry when I don’t hear from you for a while.”
“I do, though. How did things go this time?”
“Not worth it?”
“The money end was fine. Too much drama getting it, though.”
“It was a four-man string. I knew two of them, had worked with them before. They both went down. I got out of there with my split but it was a close thing.”
“Then I was right to be worried. Any fallout? Anything you need to worry about going forward?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s over.”
He puffed on the cigar, not looking at her. “That thing with Benny Roth. The money from the airport job. That went well didn’t it?” [Kings of Midnight, 2012].
“Biggest take-home in a while?”
“Then why’d you go out again so soon?”
…’I’m just not sure what the answer is.”
“You have a home now. A real one. Some money put away too, I’d think. And more set aside for emergencies.”
…”Then why take unnecessary risks? Why do the work when you don’t need the money?”
‘You can’t always control it,” she said. “Sometimes it comes up when you don’t need it. Other times, you need it bad, it’s nowhere to be found. You have to take it as it comes.”
“You believe that?”
She took out her sunglasses. “I don’t know.”
“The money’s supposed to be a means to an end, not the end in itself. You keep doing it just to do it—whether you need it or not—it’ll go bad. I’ve seen It happen.”
…”A couple bad breaks in a row, I could end up back where I was, with nothing. I need to earn while I can, enough to keep me going if things go bad.”
“There’s no score worth dying for.”
“I know that.”
With that she heads out to her dead partner’s family in Florida. Hard on her heels is Markey Johnson, reborn as Marquis, a drug kingpin accompanied by his lethal lieutenant Damien. They want the money back and her head on a platter. Also in pursuit is Burke, a down and dirty ex-cop. He’s signed on as Marquis’s newest “helper” with his own chilling agenda for Crissa.
As the finale approaches, Stroby skillfully ratchets up the tension. We get taken down to the wire and then some. Nothing is as it appears. In the final analysis Crissa shows what grace under pressure is all about. Not for nothing has she been called crime fiction’s best career criminal since Richard Stark’s Parker.
The dedication in Shoot the Woman First reads: “For Dutch Leonard, who set the bar so high for the rest of us.” It’s fitting because Stroby, like Leonard, knows a thing or two about tight plotting, vividly drawn characters and seamless dialogue. The vernacular of the criminal class is captured with perfect pitch. Like Leonard, he shows us how fragile the connection is between machismo and angst, bravado and dread.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.