By Wm. Garret Cothran
While this series has tended to focus on crime in a general sense, it has been shifting to focus more on how people write crimes. Last time, we got to see how various folks planned a murder. Murder most foul.
Cue the lightening strike and the cackling of the culprit. This time around, we're looking at a heist. People were asked to come up with a heist, and it could be taken apart with all the good points focused on, and all the bad parts examined.
Turns out… not many folks are that much into heists, as only one person came forward. Not an issue, half the point is in viewing how crimes are mapped out and pointing out flaws both in the fact based and literary sense.
The Case of the Awful Accountant
“Our character is an accountant, who has worked for various Catholic dioceses for the past decade. A standup guy, if a little boring. But he realizes that his new boss, the Bishop, isn't exactly a financial whiz kid. So he decides to hatch up a plan to siphon off all that money, supposed to go to poor parishes or Catholic schools or to keeping the physical plant maintained.
So he sets up accounts, named seemingly legitimate things, like "tax payments," or "special physical plant," things like that. Only they aren't legitimate accounts, he is the only one that controls them. But they look legitimate enough for most non-accountants. Every time some crisis happens due to non-payment, he waves it off as a processing problem and simply makes the minimum payments necessary to not get the utility company, or the Catholic schoolteachers, any more than vaguely uneasy.
Once he gets enough money, he empties all the spoofed bank accounts, purchases himself a ticket to a country reluctant to extradite to the United States, and makes off with millions of dollars of other people's money, some of it literal candy money stolen from babies. What a great grift, our "hero" thinks.”
Let us start off with the first thing which springs to mind. This is not a heist. At least not in the sense most use the term. The crime above is called embezzlement, and if one is in a civil or common law country it is the idea of a person entrusted with specific property stealing said property. Now, there's nothing wrong with picking another crime. This looks at first glance to fall into the “grift” category: Conman stories, Ponzi scheme, Robbing Peter to Paul, Kansas City Shuffle, and more. Grift stories are amazing. It is the luck, the charm, and the sheer audacity of the criminal set against the victim or more commonly called the mark.
Above, though we have… it is not even really a grift, as grifting tends to require no pre-existing relationship. What's above is embezzlement. It is certainly an attemptto separate others from their money and abscond with the ill-gotten gains, and it goes to show how creative the human brain can be when confronted with a task. The suggestor thought around it and came up with another crime that would achieve a similar aim. All of which means we can widen our discussion a little, which is no bad thing.
It has its merits. First, the victim in this case is not so much the Catholic Church, but the Bishop running it who lacks knowledge in finance. This is what W. R. Burnett, writer of perhaps the genre defining heist novel Asphalt Jungle, would call “a cherry.” A victim which requires little effort on the part of the criminal to steal from. In the above example, the Accountant is shuffling funds around to make it look like said funds exist but in reality are being “siphoned off.” On the surface… good grift. Solid grift. All the money, an escape route, and more. It seems on the surface like that idea every businessman or woman has from time to time. You know that idea. The one where you cannot take the job any more and decide it “would be so easy” just to take what you want and flee.
That mentality is what makes a really good crime story. That mixture of justification and simplicity. Issues, however, arise in the execution of things.
The first major issue is that the person is taking all of the money. So, as the example itself says, when a payment is not made the accountant makes up an excuse why the Catholic Church cannot pay. Think about that for a moment. This means this is not a long term theft but a short one. A theft in the span of weeks - not months, or even years. For you cannot avoid paying the light bill for very long. Nor can you keep the school cafeteria budget empty without someone noticing. A Bishop may well be bad at accounting and book keeping but anyone can see the bills have not been paid just by services being denied. So right off the bat we see a limitation to the crime, and more over what someone can notice before the crime is finished.
The second is emptying all the bank accounts. Now set this story back in the 1930s to even the 1960s and a person can in fact empty out an account, put all the money in a suitcase, and travel where ever they wish. However, think about that for a moment. Take a ship or a plane and carry a big pile of cash on to it. Someone will ask questions. Worse still, you risk someone taking your ill-gotten gains by nothing more then picking up your suitcase and walking away rather quickly. Set the story in the era from the 1970s to now and… you are not getting anywhere with a suitcase full of money.
As a total side note to aspiring crime authors: how much is millions of dollars of other people’s money in terms of volume? No doubt the image is a single black leather attaché case moving through customs with ease. In reality it is kind of big. Assume you use only $100 US currency and a million dollars is 10,000 $100 bills. Just as an experiment, try and see what $100 in pennies looks like. The sheer weight of it all will make you rethink writing about carrying millions in a suitcase.
Third, and last: “purchases a ticket to the country reluctant to extradite to the United States.” So this means picking a country which is reluctant to send a criminal back to the USA. Right off the bat… does the accountant speak another language? If not that limits where the person can go. Yet let us assume the accountant flees to Europe. That vague Europe in cinema and novels where it is all French style cafes and long lazy days in some Mediterranean villa. The only thing to focus on is how does one immigrate as a criminal and live in such a society? Most nations take a dim view of letting a criminal into the country, and outside crimes where the death penalty applies most nations which a person wants to escape to would readily send them back.
Of course, given that we are writing a story, most of the issues above can provide useful hooks for plot events and twists, but what if you wanted to make it tighter? The initial draft above provides a useful starting point to work from.
Well, it's rather simple. Take your time and only steal most of it. That is it.
Instead of taking everything and shuffling money into various accounts the effort should be to leave just enough money to cover the basic costs of the “poor parishes or Catholic Schools.” It may only be that you're taking ten cents on the dollar. While that doesn't seem like much, over time, it adds up. When making a criminal, a writer should focus not only on the crime, but why the criminal is performing said crime.
A prime example of this is the character Parker by Richard Stark. Most would know Parker (sadly) as the Mel Gibson character from the film Payback but he is a very popular career criminal and often has some form of heist going on. Yet why does Parker do what he does?
So he can live in Las Vegas or some beach town for 49 out of 52 weeks a year. That is it.
A nice relaxing life. For the Accountant, I would ask first why the man wants to leave the country? If it is to escape with his ill-gotten gains… why risk it? Why not steal a little and get a better house or a better car?
As stated above the example given is not so much a heist but a form of a grift. So what exactly is a heist?
Well in literary terms it is more often then not a single person or a group stealing from someone. Now, that is the most basic definition, because there are so many variations on what a heist actually is. If you look to Richard Stark and his Parker novels, a heist is a career criminal plotting, prepping, planning, and, in one single moment, moving with military precision - only for either something to go wrong due to unexpected security or betrayal from within the team.
At the same time a heist can be Danny Ocean robbing a casino with a rag tag group of wild personalities and even more wild skills. Or a heist can be some group of hackers planning and prepping only to never set foot in the place they are stealing from thanks to the hand waving magic of the internet and computers.
Now, nothing mandates that a heist has to be such things. Yet more often then not a heist story has certain elements within that are always present.
These elements stress:
And above all else the fort.
The "fort" is that heavily defended, hard-to-enter place which has whatever one wishes to steal.
Any good heist begins with a solid explanation of what the fort is, and why it is so hard to get into. A con, or a grift, meanwhile is not about the fort or the difficulty of entering the place that holds what one wishes to steal, but instead the efforts gone to convince someone to trust the criminal to willingly give them what seek to steal.
And either can give you so much scope for a gripping crime story.
Wm. Garrett Cothran is the author of How Tall Is The Grass In Germany? published by Sea Lion Press