Updated: Jul 10, 2020
Written by Elias McClellan
Elias brings us another take on how to do crime right. I think making something believable is key. You get that right, or at least make the reader think it's somewhat plausible, you have them hooked. Get it wrong, and you are screwed.
In 2010 Doug MacRay and a team of five took $3.5 million in cash during a Fenway Park robbery. 1995 Neil McCauley and a crew of three took down a Los Angeles bank and $12.2 million in cash. In 1988 Hans Gruber and a team of 12 (TWELVE!) lifted $620 million in bearer bonds from the Nakatomi Corp. In 1977 Luke Skywalker and three squadrons of stub fighters flew through a barrage of TIE fighters and surface cannons, to destroy the Death Star.
What do these four things have in common? They are all works of particularly well-written fiction. Which of the four is different from the others? Star Wars, as it is FAR more likely for a farm boy with no formal training to to destroy the ultimate power in the galaxy than for the accumulation of cash in one place depicted in the other three.
In 1863 a man shot a Malden Massachusetts bookkeeper and got away with $5000, ($155,000, in 2020 dollars) in what is considered the first recorded bank robbery in America. U.S. News reported the typical take from a bank robbery at just over $4000 in 2006. The available cash on hand continues to trend down.
Sure, Jimmy Burke and Lucchese Crime Family soldiers took $5.8MM ($23MM today) in the 1978 Lufthansa Heist. Allan Pace and a team of five took $18MM, ($31MM today) in the 1997 Dunbar Armored Robbery. Both were the largest robberies of their time. Both were also outliers and resulted in global changes to industry security.
Armed robberies reached their zenith in the 1970s and 80s as thousands of men, (trained in high-risk-small-team tactics) transitioned from Vietnam to high-unemployment and cyclical recessions. Cash-on-hand policies became an important part of security and loss prevention. By the time William Guess, (Polo Shirt Bandit) robbed his first bank, the take was $1000. Carl Gugasian, the most prolific bank robber in U.S. history, only netted $2MM in his 30-year career.
Back at the fiction section, there are folks who get it right. The late-great Donald Westlake populated his world with degenerates who pulled scores for paper bags (opposed to duffel bags) of cash. Elmore Leonard also ducked the retire-to-the-islands-score trope. Most of his baddies fought tooth-and-nail for what would be an annual middle-class salary in the straight world. In Michael Mann’s masterwork Thief, Frank’s paydays are delivered in manila envelopes.
Bottom line, the amounts don’t matter as much as the reasons why. Westlake and Leonard’s baddies have no other options. They cannot function in the straight world. Guess and Gugasian had other options but couldn’t see them. Reasons why are the “but for the grace of God (and allergies to police, handcuffs, and group showers) go the best of us” drama.
Elias McClellan is an accountant for a state agency never to be named but aspires to commi—write, write crime. You can find him on Twitter at @TuttleNTexas. But why would you want to do that?