6 Novels Inspired by Real-Life Heists

From stolen priceless works of art to infamous train robberies, novelists can always find inspiration in true crime

June 1, 2019 10:05 am
Restaurants in some cities have to take your cash again. (Getty)
Pictures of Money/Creative Commons

What’s not to like about a good heist story? Heists have factored into thrilling stories from the likes of Dennis Lehane and Agatha Christie. And on film, heists have been represented as everything from stark and moody (Jules Dassin’s Rififi) to the sprawling and epic (Michael Mann’s Heat) to the jaunty and ornate (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven). A good heist story can summon up lean storytelling and abundant tension, or abound with reversals and misdirection — it’s not hard to see why they’ve appealed to audiences for decades.

But not every memorable heist has sprung fully-formed from the imagination of a talented writer. More than a few memorable novels have drawn inspiration from heists that took place in the real world. For some writers, this is about finding a solution to a mystery that was never solved in real life; for others, a historical crime might serve as the jumping-off point for something entirely different. The novels that follow each have a real crime at their root — but what these writers did with those events varies dramatically from book to book. But for those who prefer their crime fiction with a dose of verisimilitude, here are six selections to keep in mind.

The Helicopter Heist by Jonas Bonnier

In 2009, a group of robbers in Stockholm came up with an unusual way of arriving at their targeted destination: rather than deal with little things like cars and traffic, they instead stole a helicopter and landed on top of the building they planned to rob. Inspired by those events, author Jonas Bonnier turned them into a novel about one of the most audacious thefts in recent memory. And if the idea of a heist carried out by air sounds cinematic to you, you’re not alone: Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company is working on an adaptation for Netflix.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Some writers find heists deeply compelling; others can’t get enough of writing about the complex lives of forgers. In B.A. Shapiro’s novel The Art Forger, both converge in the story of a young painter asked to replicate a work that was stolen several decades before. In writing this novel, Shapiro drew on the 1990 theft of over a dozen works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in which paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Degas vanished, never to be seen again.

Signal Red by Robert Ryan

One of the most notorious thefts in 20th century British history occurred in 1963, when a group of thieves stole £2.6 million from a Royal Mail train en route to London. The robbery has been referenced in everything from Richard Lester’s Beatles film Help! to an Agatha Christie novel. Robert Ryan, whose fiction encompasses a broad swath of history, has taken these events as the subject for his novel Signal Red, which follows both the thieves and the Scotland Yard officers determined to capture them.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Misdirection and malice take many forms in Unbecoming, Rebecca Scherm’s novel about a young woman living in France after a heist she planned in Tennessee went terribly awry — a quiet life quickly shattered by the repercussions of her past deeds. In a 2015 interview, Scherm cited several real-world events as having inspired her in writing this book — including the 1990 theft of an armored car containing $3 million in Las Vegas.

Northern Heist by Richard O’Rawe

In 2004, a group of thieves carried out a massive robbery at a bank in Belfast. The crime remains unsolved, and given that fact and the amount of money the robbers made off with, you can easily see how an enterprising writer might find this to be good grounds for inspiration. Such was the case with Richard O’Rawe, whose novel Northern Heist was inspired by that theft. The book has been hailed as a gripping narrative, and given its author’s political history, it’s also been viewed as something more than that.

Charlesgate Confidential by Scott Von Doviak

Some heists capture the imagination of multiple writers, and it’s not hard to see why the art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum would inspire numerous narratives of all varieties. Scott Von Doviak’s novel Charlesgate Confidential takes its cues from the same real-world crime as B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, but ventures into very different territory, further fictionalizing the heist and using it as the central motif of a decades-spanning novel.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.