Many of today’s cars and homes have a lock system that operates by code along with (and sometimes instead of) a key. There’s something to that, since it means that one doesn’t have to worry about a key being stolen or lost, or someone being able pick a lock. A good hacker can break through a code, but many people still think it’s better than a simple lock and key system.
They may have a point. If you look at crime fiction, there are lots of examples of characters who are very good at picking locks and cracking safes. They’re important members of heist teams, and those who work alone find lock-picking to be a valuable skill.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s novella Dead Man’s Mirror, Hercule Poirot is invited (‘summoned’ is really more accurate) to the home of Sir Gervase Chevinix-Gore, who believes that he is being swindled. It’s very possibly a member of Chevenix-Gore’s own family, so calling in the police is not an option. On the night of Poirot’s arrival, his host is shot in his study. At first, it looks as though it might be a suicide. In fact, that’s the police theory. After all, the study door was locked, and so was the French window. But there are little signs that the case isn’t that simple. As Poirot looks into the matter, he finds that there is a way that the French window might have been opened – and he learned the trick from a lock-picker he’d once arrested.
Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill is the story of William Decker. He’s a former safecracker and lock-picker who decided to ‘go straight,’ mostly for the sake of his toddler son. But it’s not so easy to do that, especially without a legitimate way to make a living. So Decker had been forced to return to his old profession. One day, he brings his son into a bar where PI Mike Hammer is having a drink. He has a few quick drinks, and then leaves without his son. On the way out, he’s killed in a drive-by shooting, and Hammer wants to know who’s responsible. He’s personally involved anyway, because he’s looking after Decker’s son. At first, it looks as though Decker was killed because he’d bungled a recent job. But things aren’t as simple as that…
One of Laurence Block’s protagonist is bookseller, lockbreaker and burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. For him, it’s not just the things he steals that keep him in the business. He also gets an adrenaline rush from the whole experience. Most people would say that they wouldn’t like a lock-picker, but for a lot of people, Block paints Rhodenbarr as a sympathetic character. He likes books, good wine, and art, and not just for their value as loot. He has a certain compassion, and he isn’t the type to kill. Of course, it can be difficult to convince the police of that when he happens to be on hand when a body is discovered…
Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder is a not-so-very-reformed thief who keeps getting drawn into heist jobs. He’s very good at what he does, especially when it comes to the logistics of pulling off a team heist. He has a small group of trusted colleagues he works with, and each has a particular specialty. One of them is Roger Chefwick, the best ‘lock man’ in the business. He’s a bit eccentric; he’s a major fan of model trains, and he likes nothing more than to spend time in his basement with his beloved cars. But when there’s a lockbreaking job to do, he’s the one to call.
Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender is a Los Angeles-based lockpicker and burglar. He’s savvy, experienced, and successful. He has a sideline, too: private investigator to the underworld. He’s very good at finding people and finding things out, and that comes in handy for those who have a good reason not to want the police involved in their troubles. Bender sometimes deals with some very shady people, so he’s learned a few tricks of the trade to keep himself safe. He has to be as careful to avoid trouble with his clients as he does to avoid trouble with his targets. These novels aren’t what you’d call light. But there is wit in them, and it’s not hard to be on Junior Bender’s side, even if he is a thief.
And then there’s Surendar Mohan Patha’s Jeet Singh. He’s a skilled safecracker and lockbreaker who would like to ‘go straight’ and have some sort of legitimate business. He’s been arrested before, and he has no liking for prison. He’s taken various jobs (taxi driver, keymaker, etc.) to try to stay on the right side of the law. But he does get drawn back to the underworld, especially when he or someone he cares about is in dire need of money. And it’s interesting to see how his good heart makes him a rather sympathetic character, even though he’s been involved in more than one very illegal activity.
There are a lot of other examples, too, of fictional lockbreakers and safecrackers. Those skills are important for thieves, and sometimes, the characters are really interesting in and of themselves. Which ones come to your mind?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bon Jovi’s Joey.
8 thoughts on “He Got the Name ‘Keys’ Picking Locks*”
I’m currently listening to an audiobook version of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, where Chubb locks get mentioned in The Golden Pince-Nez as the acme of locks, and it reminded me that when I was a kid reading the stories for the first time the occasional mentions made me think of Chubb as a kind of trademark of security and a British institution, like the Bank of England. Fast forward several decades and I ended up working for Chubb down in London, where they still have some of the very early model safes in the head office – the kind Charles Augustus Milverton would have kept his blackmail papers in! They all used to laugh at how thrilled I was by that notion… 😉 I never managed to pick any of the locks though…
I can just imagine your thrill, FictionFan! I didn’t know you’d worked for Chubb. As you say, the company’s mentioned in the Holmes canon, and also in Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (which I recommend). That’s a fictional account of that 1855 robbery of the Crimean gold. In it, there’s a whole bit on how secure Chubb safes were, and how impossible it was (well….so they thought) to break into them. No ordinary lockpicker could get past one of them…
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I’m behind on blog reading, but I am so glad I took a few minutes to read your excellent post, Margot. Love how each lock-picking character has depth and interests outside burglary/robbery. The added dimensions create fun characters who can step over the line of the law with reader approval.
I think you hit on something really important, Sue. If the characters are well-rounded and interesting, readers can find them appealing, even if they do break the law. It’s a matter of adding depth to the character, I think. And thanks for taking the time to stop by!
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Good examples Margot. At the same time it is an ongoing peeve of mine that so many fictional police officers and fictional sleuths casually break into homes and businesses as if it was ordinary acceptable conduct. It is wrong legally and ethically. They are pretending to respect the law when they conduct break-ins. As well, I often feel writers resort to the easy plotting of breaking in rather than their characters using skill and intelligence to get the information needed to solve the mystery. Thanks. I feel better for the rant.
Rant away, Bill. I think you’re quite right on that score. I’ve read several novels where characters break in tp get information they want, with no apparent regard for what a serious violation it really is. Not only is it unrealistic, but it takes away from the overall story. It is, as you say, wrong, both legally and ethically, and it bothers me, too, when authors don’t acknowledge that. I like it better when a character is a lockpicker who acknowledges that that’s illegal, and where the story takes off from there, if that makes sense.
I love a thief in my reading. Westlake’s alter ego anti-hero Parker and Max Allan Collins’ man Nolan are favourites. They are probably more prone to using force or the threat of force than actual safebreaking or lockpicking skills.
Characters like Parker and Nolan really are interesting, Col. They do use force sometimes, but they’re not mindless thugs. They have personalities. That’s also what I like about Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr. I don’t, of course, condone picking locks and breaking safes, but if a character like that is well-crafted, I can have sympathy for that character, or at least find something appealing.