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Tuesday 29 April 2014

A writer’s research – cat-burglar

One useful avenue to tread when writing about crime in a novel is the confessional book. Eye-witness accounts (America’s Master Detective magazines spring to mind), memoires of detectives and prisoners can provide that additional glimmer of realism. It’s not a case of plagiarising, but of absorbing the details and translating them in your own fiction as appropriate.

Nine Lives by Bill Mason was published in 2003 with the subtitle, Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. Mason was born in 1940; both his parents were teachers in West Virginia. But the family moved so his father could get a better job and they ended up in Shaker Heights, Cleveland. He was fascinated with how things worked – engines, machines, locks… It fell apart from him when his father died. He got caught robbing a gas station with a pal and afterwards vowed he’d never use a partner again. He was self-taught, though kept his eyes and ears open when mixing with other criminals. Many a heist he performed was put down to a gang, rather than an individual. He was able to rub shoulders with the rich and famous and robbed them; victims such as Robert Goulet, Johnny Weissmuller, Truman Capote and Phyllis Diller (twice!)… He broke into Bob Hope’s hotel room but there was nothing worth stealing. He only stole high-end quality jewels. He planned his robberies meticulously and wasn’t an opportunist. He didn’t need the money from the fenced jewels, though it clearly came in handy when he wasn’t on a payroll. He confesses to suffering from a personality defect: he enjoyed the buzz, the adrenaline rush of the score.

Anyone who writes about cat-burglars will find this book instructive. Indeed, I would hope that security firms have taken note about some of his comments. It is not a handbook on how to crack a safe – those details are left out. But in every other respect it offers an insight into the mind of a professional thief. He admits he wasn’t a Robin Hood, either.

Mason’s marriage suffered and eventually died; he was imprisoned after a ‘five-year manhunt’, though he got off lightly in terms of years behind bars. He never used violence, attempting always to burglarise when the owners were out. He offers some interesting details about the quality of gems, too: the four Cs – carat, clarity, cut, colour.

Told in the first person (aided by Lee Gruenfeld), it reads in places like a suspense novel. At the time of his scores, he didn’t feel anything about the people he robbed. If he had, he probably wouldn’t have done it. Towards the end of his criminal career, as intimations of mortality hit home, he did regret what he’d done, even if it was of little consolation to his victims. He admits that often the owners of the jewels were hurt not at the loss of the monetary value of certain precious items; many were without price, being heirlooms or personal mementos from loved ones, valued for sentimental reasons.

Urged to write this book by friends and family, he is donating a portion of the royalties to victim compensation organisations in Ohio and Florida, his hunting ground when active. A film option was taken up in 2010 but a movie has not materialised.

He also admits, late in the day, that he never appreciated the ‘depressing and disturbing feeling of violation on the part of the victims’. He saw them as puzzles to solve, scores to resolve, a challenge.

Having been burgled, I know what it’s like and have conveyed this feeling in my novel Sudden Vengeance. Truth is, the majority of criminals don’t possess anything that resembles a conscience.  They’re self-centred, self-obsessed, thoughtless and don’t give a damn for their loved ones who will suffer if they’re ever caught and imprisoned. And of course there’s always keeping an eye out for ‘the big one’, the final score that will set them up for life.
It’s just possible that Mason’s book (notably the final pages of contrition and remorse) would deter potential burglars; if they have a conscience, of course. Well, we can dream…

Though a little out of date, this page may be of interest, too; Bill Mason is #7 in the top ten infamous cat-burglars:
Other blogs to come will look at some of my non-fiction reference books on crime, espionage and police.

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