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The Criminal as Hero

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east of noir — Elisha Cook, Jr., and Marie Windsor in The Killing (1956), directed by Stanley Kubrick, dialogue by Jim Thompson — photo by Robert Couse-Baker

Although this post deals specifically with the crime fiction genre, it might prove informative for any of you working on stories with a main character who stands up against an oppressive or corrupt authority, crosses moral boundaries, or for any other reason challenges readers to think outside the comfort of standard ethical conventions.

An entire subgenre of crime fiction is premised on placing the wrongdoer in the role of protagonist, in both comic and dramatic modes. The moral calculus, rather than Good vs Bad as in much of crime fiction, more resembles Bad vs. Worse, and allows readers and audiences the vicarious thrill of empathizing, even identifying, with the outlaw, who faces an adversary even more committed to immorality than he is.

The techniques for depicting the criminal hero in stories of this kind differ from those of “justifying not judging” the villain/opponent largely in the emphasis placed on his redeeming qualities.

Virtues such as courage, intelligence, cleverness, loyalty, compassion, and fairness will move to the foreground, and his pursuit of crime will typically be justified on the grounds of desperation, irresistible temptation, rebellion against a corrupt or conformist system, loyalty to a culture or brotherhood, a blue-collar/lunch-pail commitment to the job, or a professional’s pursuit of an almost artistic excellence.

This is by no means an absolute. For proof, look no further that the enduringly popular Ripley novels of Patricia Highsmith with the psychopathic chameleon Tom Ripley as their protagonist. It is Highsmith’s signature genius that she not only invites the reader to root for her reprehensible hero but succeeds in doing so.

Stories that employ a criminal hero tend to fall into one the following five categories, though the line between them is often blurred:

The Caper

This story type usually focuses on an elaborate or sophisticated heist. The fact that the crime involves money but is not intentionally or needlessly violent often defuses the reader’s or audience’s resistance to identifying with the criminals. We all have a little larceny in our hearts, the thinking goes.

The complications arise not just from the threat of police detection of the scheme or reprisal from its target, but from betrayal by one’s own accomplices due to the untrustworthiness and suspicion among the criminals themselves or their associates.

The classic films Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, both featuring Sterling Hayden, provide the template, with Michael Mann’s Thief another prime example.

The British seem particularly adept at this genre, with mid-century examples such Nowhere to Go, The League of Gentlemen, and Cash on Demand as well as 1987’s brilliant Bellman and True (based on the equally superb novel by Desmond Lowden) and 21st century representatives Sexy Beast and The Bank Job among many others.

The criminal in such stories is often devoted to excellence—and risk—in a way that others in the society are not. In a very fundamental way, the criminal in such stories is a stand-in for the rebel or the artist. He does not target the innocent but the corrupt, the greedy, the unjustly enriched.

The protagonist may be largely a solo operator, as in both versions of The Thomas Crowne Affair, where the fiendishly clever protagonist targets insurers as part of an elaboriate cat-and-mouse gane. The aforementioned Ripley novels also fall into this categroy, with the protagonist pursuing elaborate schemes to take advantage of the snobbish vanity of his upper-crust marks in order to insinuate himself into their society, the better to enjoy the worldly lifestyle they consider their right—and to prey upon them.

Contrarily, the criminal hero may lead a group of associates each with his own expertise, as in the Oceans 11 franchise. This story type is expecially plot-driven, as it usually develops that, despite the best of plans, something  goes terribly wrong, and the great fun of the story is watching the experts improvise given their individual skills.

This kind of story is often dealt with humorously, as in the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels of Lawrence Block, and both the Dortmunder novels of Donald Westlake and the Parker novels he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark.

But it can also be intensely gritty, as in Richard Marinick’s Boyos and George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, both of which portray the criminal hero as a kind of blue-collar working stiff whose turn to crime is motivated largely by the rough-and-tumble culture in which he lives, where any strategy to maximize one’s own advantage is seen as legitimate.

It can also be extremely poignant, like Federico Fellini’s Il Bidone, in which a small-time hustler in post-war Italy launches a scheme against his hustler confederates to help his daughter pay for school.

The Professional

A descendant of the dark knight, the plains gunman, and the samurai or ronin, this protagonist type possesses a particularly unique expertise that normally conjoins with a moral code the reader or audience finds laudable (or at least acceptable), though that is not always the case, especially in its darker incarnations.

The hitman or assassin hero is one example. He is typically a true lone wolf, hired by some secretive intelligence agency, criminal enterprise, or wealthy individual to neutralize someone in such a way that the murder cannot be traced back to its true source. Often, the client proves as untrustworthy and potentially dangerous as whatever enemy cabal, terrorist cell, mob, law enforcement body, or spy agency comes after the assassin in the wake of the job.

Lawrence Block’s Keller novels and Barry Eisler’s John Rain series exemplify the genre, as does the postmodernist La Position du tireur couché (The Prone Gunman) by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Another variant is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which features a surveillance expert, not a killer.

John D. MacDonald created in Travis McGee a “salvage consultant” who locates and returns “misplaced” property to its lawful if morally compromised owners, who lost it or had it stolen under clouded circumstances, thus eliminating the option of going to the police. George Pelecanos has resurrected this format with his novels featuring Iraq War veteran Spero Lucas, who similarly retrieves missing property from those too embarrassed or too compromised to seek lawful assistance.

The Transporter series featuring former special forces operative Frank Martin (Jason Statham) is another example; here the professional’s specialty emphasizes his driving, but his combat skills inevitably come into play as well.

The unifying theme in all of these examples is the dedicated professional with exceptional aptitude in a specialized if shadowy métier. His chosen field, though dubiosuly ethical if not outright illegal, is also very much in demand, and his talents are enviable to any reader or audience member who sees the world as dark, duplicitous, and dangerous and wishes they could navigate it with the same accomplished panache.

The Outlaw

In contrast to the lone-wolf Professional, this protagonist type often leads a gang of like-minded misfits, similar to his legendary progenitor Robin Hood or Old West counterparts such as Jesse James and Butch Cassidy, and such Depression era folk heroes as Pretty Boy Floyd or Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. He usually stands in contrast to corrupt authority, which forms the premise of the subgenre’s Bad vs. Worse ethos.

In the film Hell or High Water (screenplay by Taylor Sheridan), brothers Toby and Tanner Howard take to robbing branches of the bank that is trying to foreclose on their family ranch. The underlying debt was caused by a reverse mortgage their mother needed to survive during a prolonged terminal illness. Toby is aware that oil has been found on the property, and hopes to save it in time to leave that wealth to his sons. As the brothers conduct their robberies they are pursued by two Texas rangers with an almost antiquated down-to-earth decency, and that standoff forms a strong moral conflict between adversaries each of whom seems justified in his own unique way.

One often finds a similar setup in heist and caper stories such as the ones mentioned earlier. Complex heists invariably require a cunning leader and a crew of skilled technicians, from drivers to explosives experts to safe crackers to fences, and the target is almost always considered corrupt in one sense or another—casinos, banks, politicians, other criminals.

In The Bank Job, the robbery crew, which is largely manned by small-time thieves, finds itself up against not just cops on the take but compromised politicians—including Princess Margaret—MI5 operatives, and exceedingly violent gangsters, all of whom are after what the crew discovered in the safe deposit boxes they managed to steal.

Several other recent examples of this subgenre, by raising the moral status of the law enforcement/authority figure adversary, turn the Bad vs. Worse calculus toward the hero’s criminal associates, making them the true villains.

Richard Price’s Clockers raised the bar for an entire generation of crime writers by placing both the detective, Rocco Klein, and the suspect, street cocaine dealer Strike Dunham, on equal moral footing. Strike was portrayed sympathetically, as someone whose only path to real money lay in the crack trade, and he was paying for his choice with chronic ulcers and increasingly violent pressure from his supplier, Rodney Little.

In Michael Mann’s Heat, criminal mastermind Neal McCauley’s intelligence, bravado, loyalty to his crew, and commitment to excellence serve to elevate his moral standing. His betrayal at the hands of a cutthroat criminal turns the Bad vs. Worse balance in his favor, even as we root not just for him but his law enforcement adversary, Lt. Hanna, who ultimately brings him to justice.

In Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves, which was the source for the film in The Town, Doug McRay leads a top-flight armored car robbery crew comprised of fellow South Boston roughnecks who view the law as a protection racket for the rich. McRay, though, has ambitions to leave his criminal life behind, which puts him at odds both with his criminal overseers and his chief lieutenant and longtime friend, Jimmy Coughlin. He meets his match in the equally competent and aggressive FBI agent Adam Frawley, but it’s his criminal associates who pose the greater threat.

The Gangster

Like the Outlaw, this criminal hero exists in a social element, but that element is usually culturally or ethnically defined, such as Chinese triads, the Japanese yakuza, the Irish mob, the Italian La Cosa Nostra, the Russian Mafiya, motorcycle gangs such as Hells Angels, and Latino and African-American street gangs.

The moral ambiguity and larger-than-life characters typical of this subgenre allow for some truly great dramatic portrayals, as revealed in the films of Martin Scorsese and the Godfather franchise, TV shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire, the novels Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Legs by William Kennedy, and the Joe Coughlin novels of Dennis Lehane. The other appeal of these stories is their depiction of a cultural milieu normally closed to outsiders.

The term “defiant individualism” was used to describe gang membership by sociologist Martin Sanchez-Jankowski in his book Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society. He described how the decision to join a gang was normally motivated by the individual’s belief that gang membership could help maximize his own personal goals by providing protection, support, and income in an environment that was otherwise typically hostile, solitary, and impoverished. He viewed the gang as his best opportunity to succeed in the face of an oppressive social, cultural, and economic system—thus the “defiance” element in the terminology.

Although Henry Hill described being a gangster in the Italian mob as glamorous, exciting, and fun in his memoir Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, he also described the sense of mutual obligation and respect demanded of everyone in the crew—a code he ended up violating by turning informant.

Another particularly noteworthy example is the Chechenskaya bratva or “Chechen brotherhood” in Russia. Its roots lie in the traditional figure of the abrek, a quasi-mythical “Caucasus Robin Hood” whose banditry is seen as a form of honorable vengeance against corrupt authority—especially in the form of the Russian regime, which has historically oppressed Chechnya. An ethos of self-sufficiency combines with an almost maniacal devotion to violence as the individual criminals form ad hoc gangs to pull off daring capers and raids against the rich and powerful for the benefit of the less advantaged, with special focus on targeting their rivals in the Russian underworld.

Stories featuring such criminals in the protagonist role show how the defiant individualist views the world at large as hostile to his interests, but also sees membership in his group as the best means to maximize his own personal efforts at success. This group mentality typically generates a moral code for members within the group, emphasizing loyalty, obedience, courage, and a certain selflessness, with behavior toward those outside the group largely unchecked except to the extent it affects the group. The killing by gang members of police officers or “civilians,” for example, is generally considered off-limits not because of the harm it causes to those individuals but because of the enhanced scrutiny from law enforcement such predation will create. In contrast, attacks against rival gang members are not only condoned but encouraged, the more punitive the better.

In contrast to the utterly self-involved psychopath, the gang member combines a sense of general injustice with group allegiance in justifying whatever harm he inflicts on others. If his actions on behalf of the group betray his individual morality, he may tell himself that “the pathway to heaven lies through hell.”


The term “noir” gets used so broadly and vaguely it’s sometimes hard to know what does or doesn’t qualify:

  • Novelist Jim Nisbet, a great practitioner of the form, defines it this way: “In noir, the protagonist is totally screwed on page one and it just goes downhill from there.”
  • San Francisco film reviewer Mick LaSalle describes it as any story where the protagonist attempts to take some meaningful action in the face of overwhelming conformity and/or corruption.
  • Dennis Lehane likens it to “blue-collar tragedy,” contrasting the humble and morally dubious hero to Aristotle’s “pre-eminent man.” This reflects the fact that the ethos in these stories owes a distinct debt to the tales of the underclass championed by Naturalist writers such as Jack London, Frank Norris, Theodore Dresier, and dramatists such as Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets.

What I mean here by “noir” is any story with a morally ambiguous protagonist who is not by profession a criminal, but who nonetheless pursues a questionable if not blatantly illegal goal. The tone of such stories is one of pathos, where we have a pretty keen sense the story will not end well because the hero is up against an overwhelming adversary or an all-powerful force such as luck, fate, or “the system.”

Such stories can be divided into three main categories: those with a lawman protagonist, those with a criminal protagonist, and those with a “civilian” protagonist.

The lawman subgenre blends elements of both noir and the hard-boiled police detective sub-genre. It’s essentially a much darker version of the latter, with amoral, immoral, substance-dependent, or openly psychotic protagonists with a badge.

Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280  provide chilling psychological portraits of the psychopath as cop. Chester Himes’ Harlem series is brilliant and too often overlooked. More recently James Ellroy in the U.S. and Derek Raymond in Britain have carried the banner.

The latest and perhaps greatest example of the genre, however, is Don Winslow’s The Force, about an elite police unit operating in Harlem that step by step descends into the same level of corruption and criminality as the mobsters, drug dealers, and madams they’re supposed to be investigating.

When the protagonist is a criminal, he typically lacks the skill of the Professional and the group support of the Outlaw or Gangster. He’s an immoral everyman on his own, with no allies to call upon beyond at most a sidekick or a girlfriend—or the ever-helpful “kid or a dog,” to elicit empathy.

As for the civilian category, the hero generally finds himself in some sort of desperate situation, or is tempted into one by an opportunity that seems too good to pass up. The lure of sex or money routinely leads to violence, betrayal, and death.

Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain perfected the form in the 1930s, with Jim Thompson and David Goodis continuing the tradition in the 1950s. An entire genre of film carries this banner, with Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (based on the Cain novel) and Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street three of its most stellar examples.

A neo-noir revival in the 1960s and 1970s provided us with a new crop of such films, including Dog Day Afternoon, Scarecrow, and Mickey One, with later films such as Body Heat, The Last Seduction, Memento, El Aura, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead continuing the tradition.

If you’re writing in the crime genre and are considering using a criminal as your protagonist, which of the subgenres just discussed appeals to you the most? Why?

  • The Caper
  • The Professional
  • The Outlaw
  • The Gangster
  • Noir

 Have you tried your hand at any of these? What challenges did you face—specifically, how did you overcome the reader’s moral resistance to the criminal as hero?

If you’re not working within the crime genre but are working with main characters who test or violate the acceptable boundaries of conventional morality, did any of the subgenres discusses help you think through the problem of overcoming the reader’s resistance to your character’s immorality?

In any event, please feel free to chime in however you see fit.


About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.


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