By definition, the majority of crime fiction characters are criminals or at least commit illegal and/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.
It’s worth noting that when this post originally appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website, readers came up with several good additions, including Andrew Vachss’s Burke, Charlie Huston’s Henry Thornton, Lawrence Block’s hitman character Keller and Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. I had originally thought of including the James Ellroy character Dudley Smith (“Knock, knock, who’s there, Dudley Smith, so reds beware”), but he’s a bent cop so not eligible. However, Ellroy’s Pete Bondurant would definitely make the cut.
Please leave a comment if you can think of any others.
Parker by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake)
The 24 books written between 1962 and 2010 featuring the professional thief known as Parker remain some of the best crime fiction ever written. Sixteen Parker novels appeared between 1962 and 1974. Westlake took a rest from the character until 1997, then wrote another eight Parker books.
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.
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 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 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 you jump straight to the most recent, Wyatt, in 2010. In Wyatt the score is a jewel heist, presented by an old colleague who fancies a shot at the big league. 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 whisky, 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.
Denton featured in Megan Abbott’s third book, Queenpin. She was based on a 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 protégé 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 portrayal (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 sixties/early seventies criminal underworld in England. The books are only available second hand but are well worth tracking down.
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. He and wife, Carol, are 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, 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.