An interesting post from Col at Col’s Criminal Library has got me thinking about how hard it is to escape a criminal life, even if a person is determined to do that. Plenty of people who’ve stolen, or in other ways broken the law, would like very much to ‘go straight.’ And many do. But many are drawn back into the life, even though they are determined to make a legitimate living. There are plenty of examples in crime fiction, too; in fact, you could almost say it’s a trope in the genre.
Col was discussing Max Allen Collins’ Skim Deep, in which a professional thief named Nolan, who’s ready to retire, keeps getting drawn back into ‘the life.’ He ends up getting involved in bank heists, other robberies, and more. I confess I’ve not (yet) read this one, but it’s a clear example of someone who would like to ‘go straight,’ but who can’t seem to do that.
We also see that sort of character in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill. In the novel, Mike Hammer is sitting in a bar when a man walks in with a toddler in tow. He has a few drinks in quick succession, then leaves the little boy with Hammer and leaves the bar. He’s barely outside when he’s killed in a drive-by shooting and run over for good measure. Hammer determines to find out who’s responsible for this murder. He learns that the dead man was a former con man and burglar named William Decker. He’s trying to stay away from criminal activity, mostly because of his son, but he’s been struggling a lot financially. What’s more, his former ‘associates’ are not so eager to leave him alone. As it turns out, Decker’s murder is more complicated than it seems.
Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock introduces John Dortmunder, a professional thief who’s just been released from prison. As he leaves the facility, he decides that from now on, he’s going to live by the law. He’s going to attend his probation meetings, find legitimate work, and so on. Then, he is approached by a former confederate and friend named Andy Kelp. It seems there’s a new heist in the works, and Kelp wants Dortmunder to be a part of it. At first, Dortmunder demurs; he really does want to start over. But the prize is valuable: a gem called the Balobo Emerald. It’s currently on display at New York City’s Coliseum, and Kelp thinks there’s a way to get to it. Dortmunder agrees reluctantly, and he starts to work with his old heist team. They have a very workable scheme, but any fan of this series can tell you that it’s not going to go according to plan…
In Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy, former safecracker and lock breaker Jeet Singh is trying to live a legitimate life. He’s got a kiosk in Mumbai, where he makes keys. Having been to prison, he is determined to steer clear of crime. All goes well enough at first. Then, an old friend, calls to offer Singh a considerable amount of money to be a part of a lucrative job. Singh is planning to refuse, but changes his mind when he gets a visit from an old lover, Sushmita. She tells Singh that her husband was killed in what looked like a carjacking gone wrong. But the police have recently determined that he was murdered. Sushmita is a prime suspect, but she swears she is innocent. She needs money to pay a lawyer, because she can’t touch any of her inheritance if she’s suspected of murder. In order to help her, Singh agrees to take on the job he was offered. This draws him back into the criminal life, and he finds he’s up against some very nasty people.
And then there’s Paul Thomas’ Inside Dope. Former police officer Duane Ricketts has been serving time in a Thai jail on drug-related charges. He is soon to be released, and he has no desire to go back to prison. But a prison friend who’s on the point of death tells him about a valuable cache of cocaine hidden in New Zealand, and asks him to find it. Ricketts is persuaded to agree, and when he gets to New Zealand, he begins looking for the drugs. He’s not the only one who wants to find the cocaine, though, and he’s soon up against the police and some very nasty people who feel the cocaine should be theirs.
There are plenty of people, both real and fictional, who want to ‘clean up their acts’ and earn a legitimate income. Sometimes it works out well for them, and they’re able to stay out of trouble. But sometimes, they’re drawn back in. That conflict between wanting to steer clear of crime, and needing to use one’s skills to earn money, can add a layer of tension to a story. It can also add to a character. It’s little wonder, then, that we see so many of these characters in crime fiction. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from TLC’s Waterfalls.