The Art of the Heist: Interview with Matthew Quirk

The Secret History of Art loves a good heist, whether it comes in the form of a novel or a film.  And the rest of the world seems to agree, as we’ve got a new best-seller from Daniel Silva called “The Heist,” and an art theft movie, “The Art of the Steal,” and those are just within the last week.  In the shameless self-promotion department, you might also refer to the author’s own heist novel, “The Art Thief,” for his thoughts on the matter.

Few know how to script a heist plot as well as Matthew Quirk.  The New York Times best-selling author of The 500 has a new book out, The Directive, which will surely hit the list as well.  The Secret History of Art and Matthew Quirk talked heists, what makes for great ones, and the difference between filmic and literary heists.

1.      What are three of your favorite heist books, and three of your favorite heist films?  And what isconsistent about them that you particularly like and feel works well?

The list is always changing, but for books I’ll say Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton, and I just started The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and that’s a contender for a top spot. For films: Le Cercle Rouge, Heat, and Reservoir Dogs. I tend to like heist fictions at the extremes: realistic and gritty or smart and stylized. I’m always looking for stories that break out of the genre’s clichés with hard-won new details of how criminals really operate (like Hogan and Hamilton’s books) or a true sense of place. You can also do a great, sensational caper plot that riffs on the clichés. In my own books, I try to split the difference, and map out a fantastic plot that’s firmly rooted in reality, place, and character.

2.      Why do you think we so often find bad guys, or flawed good guys, to be more interesting than your standard heroic protagonist?  We tend to cheer for thieves in heist stories…

The villains have always been more compelling than heroes. William Blake claimed that John Milton was rooting for the devil without knowing it when he wrote Paradise Lost. We read thrillers to safely get a taste of danger and excitement. That’s the bad guy’s job, so he tends to steal the show. The standard advice when writing a book is that your villain and his or her designs are the most important part of your story. It seems like the big hits of the past decade or so have caught on to that and the cultural standard may have shifted from a troubled hero to a borderline villainous one (e.g. Tony Soprano and Walter White). I dug into that theme with my main character in The Directive: the temptations of returning to his criminal past, and the pleasures of breaking the rules.

Heist stories are a special case, because it is typically a much less bloody crime than others, so you can root for the crooks in a way you couldn’t with, say, a serial killer story (though Dexter put a great Robin Hood twist on that rule). It’s a tricky balance in fiction between the attractiveness of fictional outlaws and the real-life repulsiveness of crime. You want to be true to life, but actual crime is typically sad and seedy and violent and futile. I like to play with that tension and show both aspects of the criminal world.

3.      How did you go about mapping the plot for your latest novel?  The clockwork crime-procedural requires a great deal of preparation on the part of the author.  And it always strikes me as necessary to come up with a plot that “works” without cheating—without a deus ex machina and with “honest” surprises, plot twists, and so on.

I was a reporter for a long time and research is the best way to procrastinate on writing. I approached The Directive as if I were actually robbing the New York Fed. I learned to pick locks, which has come in handy in real life. To plot the heist, I worked with lock-pickers, hackers, former and current Fed employees, and “penetration testers”—experts who are hired to break into secure facilities in order to find security weaknesses. The most interesting part was learning how different a real 21st-century heist is from the old Hollywood tropes. The modern break-in depends less on brute force and stealth and more on social engineering techniques—similar to con games—that use deception and the abuse of trust to get inside. That was a nice find, because con games are already deeply entwined in the books and my main character’s past. Armed with that research, I went to New York Fed and cased the place. I was very surprised by how easy it was when I sneaked off and accessed a high floor. At first I thought, “Cool, this stuff works,” and then I thought, “What the hell am I doing? I could get arrested. This isn’t a novel.”

I completely agree with you on cheating. Logic is more important than trickiness in a thriller. Look at Day of the Jackal. The suspense comes from watching it all unfold in plain sight with a growing sense of dread. I like to have a few surprises, but you can get into trouble when you hope a big reveal is the main payoff of your book. Then you are writing a thriller and a mystery. Tackling one genre is hard enough.

4.      How important is plausibility for you, when reading or watching a movie?  Do you prefer realism or are you happy with a plot twist that is a bit out there, but provides good spectacle.

I like both realism and a stylized spectacle, as long as the tone is consistent throughout a book or film. With a couple of exceptions, the Steven Soderbergh crime movies are terrific, over-the-top capers. But if a writer has something nonsensical happen because he’s showing off or needs to fix a plot hole, it often feels like laziness, or a lack of a respect for the reader who has given up very precious time and trust to believe in the world of this book or film. What kills me is when a jokey movie suddenly goes dark and ultra-violent, or a tense, realistic plot does something loopy to please the crowd at the end.

5.      What has to happen for you on page one, and in chapter one, of a good thriller to make you want to read on, and convince you that this is a book you’ll really enjoy?

It’s hard to pull off, but those first pages have to make it impossible to put the book down without finding out not only what happens next, but also how the book ends. In a well-built thriller, the first pages will establish everything the reader needs to understand the sort of climax the book is racing toward. Not the specifics necessarily, but the main contours: this hero will face this killer by the end and justice will be served or denied. It helps if I have characters that I’m dying to learn more about and can stand to be around for five or six hours.

6.      Does the advent of computing take anything away from heist plots?  So much stealing goes on by computer hacking, and less by stealthy on-site burglars.  Have we lost anything, in terms of entertainment value, because of this?

I have a friend who only writes historicals because he thinks cell phones have made suspense impossible. Computers make it harder to write a good heist, for sure. How many times have you seen the same scene, with a pale young hacker lit only by a bank of monitors as he listens to electronica, taps at the keyboard, and tries to make code sound exciting? How about the guy in the second season of House of Cards who kept stroking the pet gerbil like a Bond Villain? I love the show, but that was a real Fonz-over-the-shark moment for me.

For The Directive, I used a few tech elements, because it’s what real thieves would use, and it was more accurate than the usual hand-waving “and then we crack the system and can do anything” depictions of hacking. But the technological tricks in the book require Mike to be on-site and at-risk. I did track down the technical details of the Federal Reserve System’s secure document network, but I deviated from reality in the book in order to make for a big-time cinematic climax.

I don’t know if we’ve necessarily lost entertainment value because of new technologies. Hopefully we’ll come out ahead. It ups the ante for authors to do their research and rack their brains for even more crafty ways to create suspense in the world as we know it.

Learn more about Matthew Quirk by clicking here.

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