Crime, Mystery & Suspense Short Stories This Whole Writing Thing

Borgias, Bother, and Bad Ideas: Behind “Book of Hours”

So I had this idea for a novel.

There was this gentleman thief, see, and he needed to steal something. Wait. There was more. This something, see, was hidden in the pit network underneath the Colosseum. The hypogeum, if you’re into archeology. A caper in front of ten thousand tourists. Say crooks or spies did drop exchanges there, payoff money or hacked secrets. Glam Rome, high stakes, chases through crumbling passages. Toss in the yucks. It sells itself, right?

Some ideas know better than to come together. I worked on the first draft, got 15,000 words in. And froze. Several times. Even with the leeway of a comic premise, story problems kept clogging the works. No thief, see, could get past modern security, polizia squads, and ten thousand smart phone cameras. And why the hell would any mobster anywhere choose the Colosseum to stash diamonds or jump drives? The pits where tour groups flock through all the Italian day? Out of a million less complicated alternatives? No, my idea wouldn’t be selling itself.

But the first chapter worked. It stood alone more or less, no Colosseum-sized plot problems. Our hero, see, just had to steal something stealable from a place such things get stolen from. A super-valuable book. The scene zipped like a Bond movie opening, a slam bang action setpiece launching into the main plot.

We’d last left our hero in a bad way. Ed, our once-brash gent, had been outfoxed by a mademoiselle high on Holmesian deduction and low on morals (“Aix to Grind,” AHMM September 2014). Now a few months later, Ed is in crushing debt to the Corsican mob for his Aix sins, and worse, he’s in the cold, cold clutches of the Marchesa Isabella Ruggieri. In “Aix,” Ed bragged over stealing a haul from her. The haul, it turns out,

Crime, Mystery & Suspense

So You Want to Pull an Art Heist?

So you want to pull an art heist. Not the most noble of goals, is it? Or the simplest. I mean, if somebody could waltz into a major museum–I assume after hours is the plan–and pluck a masterpiece off the wall, then lots of somebodies would be waltzing and plucking masterpieces by the vanload.

Oh, sure, there are real-life crews who try the waltzing route, a less-delicate kind where they bring Uzis for dance partners. Norway, 2004: a team smashes and grabs Munch’s The Scream and The Madonna from an Oslo museum. Norway, 2006: police smash and nab the crew and find The Scream and The Madonna tucked inside an Oslo mattress.

Still hot to try? Okay. I’ve done some research here–for authorial purposes only, mind you–and here’s a feel for what you’re up against.

Cameras. Guards. Metal detectors. Docents trained to spot bad actors. Motion detectors. Glass break sensors. More cameras. More guards. Heat sensors. Security doors. Silent alarms. Yet more cameras. Yet more guards. The tech they don’t tell you about. And that’s just to get at the painting. If it’s sculpture you’re after, bring a crane and winch.

That’s what you can rule in. Here’s what you can rule out: convenient skylights or air shafts, Batman-style tech-disabling gear, an acrobat with half a brain (or would you train to reach the pinnacle of agility just for the chance at uncertain paydays and associating with Uzi-toting gangsters?). Stay realistic.

Let’s say you hatch a brilliant scheme, maybe blackmail an insider or stumble on that one-in-a-billion unscrupulous acrobat. Boom. You’re in. There you are, and all that stands between you and your masterpiece of choice is a hundred-pound frame secured by maze and/or one-way screws. We’ll assume no bullet-proof glass casing. Hell, you think, it’s canvas. Just cut it free.

Well, that’s an idea. And admittedly a crime of a century-grade idea. Boston, 1990: thieves posing as cops talk their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and made off with $500m in Rembrandts, among other pieces.  Boston, 2014: the FBI is still looking for robbers and the paintings they cut from the frames.  See, slicing a masterpiece isn’t ideal for preserving its value. Nor is rolling it up in an art tube, in case that was next in the master plan. What do you think happens to long-set oil and canvas when you start folding?

Okay, so you’re standing there in a major museum foyer, 80% of fresh-sliced masterpiece creaking at the rough treatment, any number of silent alarms bringing any number of squad cars swarming your way. And you get out, past the guards and cameras and security doors, past the traffic and private cameras out on the street, past random witnesses wondering who were those guys with ski masks and a canvas carrier.  You pile in the getaway van, and off you go, hell-bent for big money.

Next you discover you’re not the only one with a taste for art crime. Interpol, for example, thinks old-fashioned heists have a certain je ne sais quoi. Thanks to them every police force everywhere has your video footage and M.O. The Art Loss Register has your masterpiece of choice on file, where any reputable dealer not already wondering how you came into a Pollack will find out said Pollack is as hot as the breath of the FBI on the back of your neck. You may have read right past that cautionary fact a few paragraphs up. The FBI is still working a 1990 case in 2014.

That $500m payday from the Gardner heist? No evidence the crew ever got a penny. See, you don’t sell stolen masterpieces. Who would buy it? That’s not a rhetorical question. Think long and hard about the number and sort of buyer interested in one-of-a kind, immediately recognizable treasures that the whole world knows is stolen. Then think how many cents on the dollar this war lord or “legitimate businessman” will offer and how receptive they are to negotiation.

You could trade the haul for guns or similarly dicey contraband. It happens, but then I worry for the thief bringing a Cassatt to a potential gun fight.

Small wonder stolen paintings wind up at garage sales and flea markets.

What you do, you ransom masterpieces back to the museum or collector. Except you’re not dealing with some committee of white-haired oldsters anymore. Nope. Now it’s the insurance company and the tiger sharks they call their recovery teams. Oh, and the freelance bounty hunters less than gentle in their pursuit. Heck, even the ALR is on the recovery action. Best I can tell, the only real money seems in tracking art theft, chasing down art thieves, or paying near-zip for thieved art.

So. Want some good advice?

The best way in and out of a museum is to buy a ticket.


Reprinted in January 2015 Sisters in Crime Middle Tennessee newsletter.

Crime, Mystery & Suspense France Short Stories This Whole Writing Thing Travel

Behind The Short Story: “Aix to Grind”

Yes, I was in Aix-en-Provence, and sure, I was studying a Picasso in a museum’s first room, only a token velvet rope between me and it, and okay, I even thought, “man, this is how many million euro hanging how many steps from the door?” But no, I wasn’t casing the joint. I’m no thief. I am a writer, though, and here’s the thing about writers: we dream all day.

The heist was on.

Ahem. The heist story. Story. Yeah.

So. What makes a caper story click? I studied a different artistic master: Donald E. Westlake. My takeaways: Humor, sure. The expert-ish crew, absolutely. Both serve to pull a reader in, get them ready to root for the real driver: audacity. Impossible odds and Improbable success. A big and bold plan. A big and bold disaster.

For “Aix,” one painting wouldn’t be audacious enough. Stolen art devalues remarkably, usually fenced or traded for cents on the auction-value dollar. Not that I’ve done it, mind you, but this story required its share of research. No, audacity demanded a major haul. A retirement-plan haul. I don’t know, like maybe the museum’s upstairs collection of Cézannes.

So how do you knock over an art museum? Well, based on my research, you don’t.

I mean, you can try, but with modern security tech, go ahead and plan on a lengthy prison term. The daring cat burglar and their zip lines and their laser-dodging acrobatics? There’s a reason the Pink Panthers go after jewelry shows, not museums. And the art thieves these days ain’t no gentlemen. “Aix” tries both to honor and debunk the Hollywood-style caper, stripping it down without spoiling the fun.

Where were we? Ah, museum theft. To get the past the video cameras, past the motion sensors, past the alarms, past the watchful docents and the patrolling guards, past the one-way and maze screws securing the hundred-pound frames to the wall, you need real help, not science fiction. You don’t beat the security system. You find someone willing to turn it off.

Enter our anti-hero Ed. A supposed chameleon and cocksure thief, smart enough to see his career winding down but dumb enough not to see how. Then there’s Gustav, his partner, the shady art dealer and master planner. Together they’ve carved out a niche of country chateau jobs, picking off ruined aristocratic family treasures, but their bubble of relative safety is collapsing inside the now-organized world of art theft. Ed talks Gus into going after our load of Cézannes as their ticket to retirement. All they need is…

The insider: Sadie Lannes, blond art student one part Holmes and two parts Moriarty. A natural genius at crime, not that smitten Ed can admit it fully. She proved difficult to write. Guarded, even to the author, and with quasi-Holmesian deductive powers. Whenever she stepped onto the page, I had to fake being as smart as her bent genius.

She can get them in, but how to get them out? Any good job needs a diversion.

Spend a few late afternoons in France, and you notice a pre-dinner rush on fresh bread. In December, the crowds shift toward the Christmas markets. Aix’s market isn’t the most quaint, but it is huge, with carnival rides and food châlets and santon figurine stalls packed along Cours Mirabeau. The Christmas Eve Thirteen Desserts that Gus seizes on is a real and delicious French tradition, and we sampled all baker’s dozen there at the market. I bet the lady who sold me a vin chaud had no clue I was wondering how to use the market to distract the cops. Or maybe she did. Aix is that kind of town.

And now, for the getaway.

In my experience, like a caper the most powerful endings come early in the planning, and I had this one from the first. That freedom let me deepen “Aix” and set up a slam-bang twist finish where–sorry, no spoilers. Buy the AHMM. Hell, subscribe to AHMM. You’d be doing yourself a reading favor. If you want to know more still, buy me a biere belgique sometime. We’ll talk it out.

“Aix” itself is strange to write about. I wrote the first draft riding the trains across France, simultaneously with what became “The Carcassonne Dream” and “La Upsell.” This group has deeply personal meaning, for those weeks of vin chauds and Provencal  towns and Roman ruins that brought them to life.

And then there’s “Aix” catching the eye of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Consider me honored to appear in this latest round in AHHM’s stellar history.

Oh, and to repeat because this kind of important, I never knocked over any museum. Nope. My characters did, though, and I hope you enjoy reading about it.