When The Strand asked me to put together this list, I realized that my definition of “heist” was both more and less flexible than the dictionary’s. The dictionary says a heist is a robbery from an institution such as a bank or a museum with the objective of stealing a large amount of loot. To that definition I’d add: a heist has to be planned, and it doesn't necessarily involve a bunch of guys with masks and guns. Nor does the loot need to be money.
Here, then, is my list of favorite heist novels, in no particular order; note I say “favorite,” not “best,” so if you have favorites of your own, they’re probably good, too.
1. Gerald Browne, 19 Purchase Street (1982). The Mafia has been taken over by the blue-blood WASP establishment with help from the CIA. Drew Gainer, seeking revenge, plots a billion-dollar heist from a massive Mafia money-laundering operation. Browne (11 Harrowhouse) specialized in heist stories and told them extremely well.
2. Michael Connelly, Void Moon (2000). Connelly’s third standalone introduced Cassie Black, his first female protagonist. Cassie is an ex-con in Las Vegas, looking for one last score so she can use the money to snatch her young daughter and start a new life in Paris. An attempted hotel robbery ends in an unexpected death, which launches an intricate Plan B (and Plans C, D, E . . .). I’m still hoping to see Cassie in another one of Connelly’s books, if only as a cameo. It’s a wonderfully plotted story with full, rich characters—one of Connelly’s best, even though it’s not a Bosch.
3. Michael Crichton, The Great Train Robbery (1975). Nineteenth-century trains were banks with steam engines. This classic is a fictionalized narrative about the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, in which 200 pounds of gold were stolen. The conspirators were captured and tried, but the gold remains missing to this day.
4. Steve Hamilton, The Lock Artist (2009). A story of a heist from the point of view of the strangely gifted young man at its center, who does not speak but hears everything and is a genius at cracking safes. Well-deserving winner of the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Novel.
5. Roger Hobbs, Ghostman (2013). One of the most striking debuts of recent years was this story of Jack, who makes his living as a getaway driver —“ghostman”—for bank robbers. Jack is a great deadpan narrator, and you might learn enough from this book to plan a heist of your own. (Nutmeg can be deadly—who knew?)
6. Chuck Hogan, Prince of Thieves (2004). The Charlestown neighborhood of Boston was the bank robbery capital of the US when Hogan wrote this novel (which was filmed as The Town, an excellent movie). Hogan paints an unforgettable portrait of a world that was already disappearing ten years ago. The bank-robbing scenes are authoritative and the love story is bittersweet.
7. Philip Kerr, A Five-Year Plan (1999). Uniquely lighthearted among Kerr’s work, A Five-Year Plan has everything: Russian mobsters, sexy FBI agents, untold wealth and romance on the high seas. Ex-con Dave Delano plans to hijack a freighter that’s carrying secret drug money and put that money in his own bank—within the (then) Soviet Union.
8. Peter Spiegelman, Thick As Thieves (2011). Carr, a former CIA operative, plans to fund his retirement by organizing a massive, multi-continent heist that spans from South America to Miami to Grand Cayman Island. It’s an Ocean’s Eleven-type caper, intricately planned, smart, extremely suspenseful, and wonderfully written.
9. Richard Stark, The Hunter (1962). This is the book that introduced the anti-hero Parker, a professional thief who went on to appear in 23 other books by Donald E. Westlake under the Stark pseudonym. You know this story: it’s been filmed as both Point Blank (1967) and Payback (1999). Parker agrees to be part of a crew that robs a shipment of cash, but one of his collaborators betrays him. Parker wants revenge, and he wants his money back. The Hunter distills the best of 1940s and ’50s hardboiled crime fiction into a modern book that would set a standard for all that followed.
10. Donald Westlake, The Hot Rock (1970). No list of heist novels would be complete without this comic masterpiece, which introduced John Dortmunder, ex-con and thief. Fresh out of prison, Dortmunder agrees to help his friend Kelp steal a $500,000 emerald. The problem is that it’s not clear which of two warring nations owns the emerald, and both sides are willing to kill for it. And anything that can go wrong does.