Criminal heroes! Seven of the best

By definition, there are always criminal characters in crime fiction books, and even the good guys sometimes have to take part in illegal or immoral acts. But books where the main character is a full-time professional criminal are surprisingly few and far between. Here’s a selection of some of the best anti-hero criminals we’ve come across…

Parker by Richard Stark
The 24 books written between 1962 and 2010 featuring the professional thief known as Parker remain some of the best crime fiction ever written. Parker is a career criminal who steals things for a living. Get in his way on a job or try to double cross him afterwards and he’ll hurt you. Yet he’s not a psychopath in the vein of so many contemporary literary and film criminals. His only morals are what it takes to survive, no more, no less. He’s almost an anti-character, emotionless, with few social connections and hardly any past that Westlake ever let the reader know about.

Richard Stark was the pen name of Donald E Westlake and 16 Parker novels appeared between 1962 and 1974. Westlake took a rest from the character until 1997, then wrote another eight Parker books. The pre-1974 Parkers are the most hard-boiled, the character having mellowed somewhat in his post-1997 incarnation, but they are all solid, meticulously constructed tales, using multiple points of view – Parker’s and others. Westlake’s writing style is lean and disciplined and he’s a master of less is more. If you haven’t read him, start at the first book, The Hunter and go from there. I envy you.

Wyatt by Garry Disher
Wyatt is the creation of Australian crime writing veteran, Garry Disher. Like his American counterpart, Wyatt is an old school hold up man. The character is unusual for the Australia scene where police procedurals and literary crime fiction rule the roost. Seven Wyatt books have been published to date.

You can start at the beginning of the Wyatt series or jump straight to the most recent, simply entitled Wyatt, released in 2010. Here the score is a jewel heist, presented by an old colleague who fancies a shot at the bigtime. There are multiple double-crosses courtesy of the cast of characters including a bent cop, a wannabe gangster, a stone cold French assassin and an unhinged stripper.

Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle by George V Higgins
Chances are you’ve seen the 1973 movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but have you read the book that inspired it? It’s a no frills depiction of desperate men doing whatever they have to do to stay one step ahead of each other and the law. And the most desperate is Coyle, a 51 year-old ex-con, gunrunner and Christ knows what else in his criminal career. He’s got a wife, three kids and the prospect of a three- to five-year jail stretch for being caught driving a truckload of stolen whiskey, he’ll do anything to avoid.

Crime fiction does not come tougher than this and Higgins’s grasp of Boston’s criminal milieu and language is second to none.

Gloria Denton by Megan Abbott
Denton featured in Megan Abbott’s third book, Queenpin. She was based on the real life character Virginia Hill, a mob luminary around the time of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Denton takes a young woman under her wing to help keep the books at a sleazy mob-run nightclub. But the relationship between mentor and protege is an uneasy one. A chilling depiction of what a woman had to do to survive in the gangster milieu with a wealth of period detail.

Jack Carter by Ted Lewis
Another character better known for his cinematic appearance (Michael Caine in Get Carter) but whose print persona is worth checking out. Lewis wrote three books featuring the English gangster and standover man, Jack Carter. The first was Jack’s Return Home, on which the movie was based, followed by Jack Carter’s Law, then Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon.

Lewis has been called the English Mickey Spillane and the character of Carter is a violent, foul-mouthed, strong-arm man for the London mob. The dialogue is cracking, as is the period detail of the late 60s and early 70s criminal underworld in England. The books are only available second hand but are well worth tracking down.

Carter ‘Doc’ McCoy by Jim Thompson
McCoy only featured in one Thompson book, The Getaway – but what a book! Ex-con McCoy engineers a small town bank heist in order to pay off the corrupt head of the parole board who he bought a pardon from. With his wife Carol he’s soon on the run from a homicidal ex-partner and various other rural sociopaths. Thompson was an expert at depicting an amoral world view dripping with cynicism and this novel is no exception. Thompson does what a lot of others try to in half the words and better. A must read.

Crissa Stone by Wallace Stroby
Crissa Stone is the central character of Wallace Stroby’s 2011 book, Cold Shot to the Heart. Stone is a professional career criminal. She takes her time and never works close to home or with the same crew more than once. But when she has to find the money to help secure the release of her mentor and lover, suddenly she finds herself breaking her own rules with disastrous consequences. Stroby is a great writer and the plot is tight and fast paced.

Who are your favourite criminal heroes? Tell us below…

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13 Comments

  1. Rough Justice Reply

    Great list Andrew. Elmore Leonard says that The Friends of Eddie Coyle was the book that opened his eyes as to what crime fiction could be.

  2. PulpCurry Reply

    Burke is not a bad pick. I’m not familir with Henry Thompson, i’ll check that out. One character I deliberated about including is James Ellroy’s Dudley Smith. He is one one of the most terrifying characters I’ve read. “Knock, knock who’s there, Dudley Smith so reds beware.’ he doesn’t qualify though because he’s a rogue cop. Maybe that’s another CFL feature, best fictional rogue cops?

  3. crimefictionlover Reply

    Oh I reckon Dudley would have been a good pick. Even scarier is the fact that in LA Confidential, the film, he’s played by the same man who plays the farmer in Babe.
    I haven’t read enough Ellroy lately… watch this space.

  4. Mary Daniels Brown, Ph. D. Reply

    What about Lawrence Block’s Keller (Hit Man, Hit List, etc.)? An added bonus is the humor, but Keller’s no clown.

  5. Wallace Stroby Reply

    A great list, and I’m honored to be on it, but you can’t forget Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. If you’re looking for a realistic delineation of the sociopathic mindset, look no further.

  6. Wallace Stroby Reply

    Excellent list, regardless. I have all the Wyatt books *and* the three Jack Carters. Ted Lewis’s GBH and BILLY RAGS are also terrific novels with criminal protagonists, though neither of them end well.

  7. Martin Stanley Reply

    Good list. Although it would have nice to have had James Ellroy’s Pete Bondurant in there. After his cameo in White Jazz he went on to become a major character in American Tabloid and The Cold Six-Thousand. He definitely fits the bill of professional crim and anti-hero. As mentioned by others, Tom Ripley is also a great anti-hero and all-round villain

    1. crimefictionlover Reply

      Hi Martin – that’s a good shout too. One big and scary man, who works with some even scarier men and succumbs, as they all seem to, to his own demons.

  8. Andrew Peters Reply

    Not sure about Ripley as a professional criminal…more a psycho?

    John Gardner’s “Moriarty” series
    The Saint (in his early days)
    Nick Velvet (bit obscure)
    Fu Manchu

  9. John Lowther Reply

    Good list, though I’ve read them all.

    Parker and Wyatt are fabulous. Reading the last Parker novel and knowing there were no more really hurt. I’d been allowing myself one Parker every three months, but eventually I’d read them al… {sigh}

    I like Block’s Keller as well, though I tend to put hitmen & assassins to one column and heisters, thieves, and so on to the other (arbitrary I know, and I like both sorts a lot).

    & I second the suggestion of Wallace Stroby’s “Crissa Stone” series.

    Ripley is in a class by himself imho.

    I’m a big fan of Jim Thompson and James M Cain, both of whom provide many criminal protagonists. See also David Goodis.

    *

    Here are some others that might easily appear in the listing above (I’m only listing books I’ve read, many of these authors have others which would fit the bill)…

    ___Adrian McKinty – the “Michael Forsythe” series

    ___Allan Guthrie – Two-Way Split, also Savage Night (and probably more, those are the only ones I’ve read)

    ___Charlie Stella – Charlie Opera; A Novel of Crime

    ___Chuck Hogan – Prince of Thieves

    ___Craig Clevenger – The Contortionist’s Handbook (so good!)

    ___Dave Zeltserman – Killer, Pariah

    ___Horace McCoy – Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye

    ___James Carlos Blake – A World of Thieves, The Killings of Stanley Ketchel (& others)

    ___James Sallis – Drive, Driven

    ___Jean-Patrick Manchette – Fatale,

    ___Malcolm Mackay – “Glasgow Underworld Trilogy” and others “The Night the Rich Men Burned ” etc

    ___Massimo Carlotto – the 2 ‘Giorgio Pellegrini’ book, also the “Alligator” series has 4 books (I’ve been unable to find #3)

    ___Max Allan Collins – Road to Perdition1, Road to Purgatory, Road to Paradise, Return to Perdition

    ___Michael Connelly – in the same universe as his detective Bosch, there’s Void Moon about a thief named Cassie Black. I wish he’d written more of those.

    ___Mike Knowles – the ‘Wilson’ series (6 books so far)

    ___Paul D Brazill – Guns of Brixton

    ___Peter Rabe – Benny Muscles In The Biography of a Hood

    ___Peter Spiegelman – Thick as Thieves

    ___Ray Banks – California (& others)

    ___Robert Silverberg – Blood on the Mink

    ___Roger Hobbs – Ghostman

    ___Tom Piccirilli – The Last Kind Words, The Cold Spot, The Coldest Mile

    *

    A few other lists I’d be most interested to see;
    __Con Artists
    __Hitters/Assassins
    __Vigilantes
    & that
    __Rogue cops one mentioned above (David Swinson’s Frank Marr books could go there)

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