Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“A few moments earlier, on the other side of the estate…”

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(Note: This post is the nineteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 18. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Heist stories are fun for many reasons, but a lot of their appeal comes from the sense that they’re veiled allegories for the act of storytelling itself. We see this clearly in a movie like Inception, in which the various players can be interpreted as corresponding to analogous roles behind the camera—Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the set designer, Eames the primary actor, and Arthur is, I don’t know, the line producer, while Fischer, the mark, is a surrogate for the audience itself. (For what it’s worth, Christopher Nolan has stated that any such allegory was an unconscious one, although he seems to have embraced it after the fact.) Even in a novel, which is produced by a crew of one, there’s something in the structure of a heist that evokes a writer’s tools of the trade. It involves disguise, misdirection, perfect timing, and a ticking clock. If all goes well, it’s a well-oiled machine, and the target doesn’t even know that he’s been taken, at least not until later, when he goes back and puts together the pieces. And it’s no surprise that the heists contrived by writers, who spend most of their time constructing implausible machines, tend to be much more elaborate than their counterparts in the real world.

When I realized that I wanted to put a heist at the center of The Icon Thief, I was tickled by the opportunity, as well as somewhat daunted by the challenge. On the bright side, I had a lot of models to follow, so cobbling together a reasonable heist, in itself, was a fairly straightforward proposition. The trouble, of course, is that nearly everything in the heist genre has been done before. Every year seems to bring another movie centered on an impregnable safe or mansion, with a resourceful team of thieves—or screenwriters—determined to get inside. Audiences have seen it all. And I knew from early on that I wanted to make this heist a realistic one, without any laser grids or pressure-sensitive floors. I wanted the specifics to be clever, but not outside the means of a smart thief operating with limited resources. (A movie like Ocean’s 11, as entertaining as it may be, raises the question of why a group of criminals with access to such funding and technology would bother to steal for a living.) As I result, when I began to plot out the heist that begins to unfold in Chapter 18, I had a clear set of goals, but I wasn’t quite sure what form it would take.

The obvious place to begin was with the target itself. Consequently, I spent a memorable afternoon with a friend in the Hamptons, walking along Gin Lane, peeking over hedges, and generally acting as suspiciously as possible. The house that I describe here is a real mansion with more or less the physical setting that appears in the novel, with a mammoth hedge blocking it from the road, but a relatively accessible way in from the ocean side, where the property goes all the way down to the beach. I quickly decided that I wanted my thief to escape out the back way, onto the sand, where his getaway car would be waiting. On the way in, however, I wanted him to drive right through the gate. The crews in pickup trucks that I saw doing maintenance at many of these houses suggested one potential solution. And while I can’t quite remember how I came up with the final idea—a mid-engine pickup with an empty space under the hood large enough to allow two men to hide inside, undiscovered by security—I knew at once, when it occurred to me, that I’d found my way in.

The rest amounted to simple narrative mechanics. Following the anthropic principle of fiction that I mentioned earlier this week, I knew that I had to introduce the pickup early on, at least in the background, to make its ultimate use seem like less of a stretch—hence Sharkovsky’s enthusiasm for trophy trucks, which pops up at several points earlier in the novel. This chapter also includes one of the rare scenes told from the point of view from someone other than one of the central characters, since I wanted to put the reader in a shoes of a security guard who checks the truck thoroughly before letting it through the front gate, but neglects to look under the hood. The result is one of the novel’s more gimmicky moments, but I think it works. (Whether the arrangement that I describe in the book would actually function in real life is another matter, but at least it’s not entirely implausible, which by the standards of the genre is more than enough.) Sometimes I wonder if it’s too gimmicky, but that’s one of the pleasures of suspense: I can honor the heist genre with a quick nod in its direction, then move on as realistically as I can. And this heist is far from over…

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

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