Generally we’re a law-abiding group, we promise. But something about Private Eye July makes us revel in bad behavior. These are some of our favorite crimes and criminals in literature.
An all-female gang of Robin Hood-style outlaws in the Old West, robbing stagecoaches and seeking revenge on horseback? I’m in my boots and already out the door. In Melissa Lenhardt’s novel, the first daylight bank robbery in Colorado was not by Butch Cassidy in 1889, by rather by Margaret Parker and her Parker Gang in 1873. The women on Margaret’s ranch just want to make a home and care for their horses. But men, furious at their success, destroy everything, so the women take up a life of crime. They capitalize on being underestimated and then take what they want, only to use the ill-gotten gains to support their ranch and town. As far as reckless, unrepentant outlaws go, Margaret is one of my favorites, making the most of a lawless West and then distributing the wealth to those who need it most. If you loved Netflix’s “Godless,” then this feminist Western is for you.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
When it comes to trespassing, Claudia and Jamie Kincaid really know how to make a crime count. Twelve-year-old Claudia wants to run away from home, but she knows she doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the wide world, with all its bugs and sun and other trifles. So she devises a plan to disappear in style, by sneaking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and living there with her younger brother until further notice. When I read this renowned middle grade novel for the first time (at age 31), I immediately related to Claudia’s poised practicality and fussy tastes. Why even bother breaking the law unless you’ll get to bathe in a marble fountain and sleep in an elaborate canopy bed? No matter your age, this childhood classic is sure to break and enter into your heart.
—Christy, Associate Editor
I love a good con. Strictly speaking, the events that unfold in Megan Whalen Turner’s series opener, The Thief, are more of a con-heist hybrid, as Gen steals the king’s signet ring, gets caught when he boasts of having done so, is thrown in prison and is freed only under the condition that he steal something even more valuable on behalf of the king. But Gen has as much in common with successful con artists as he does with successful thieves. He’s patient and highly skilled at playing a very long game. He understands the power of misdirection, turning the expectations of others to his advantage repeatedly. The Thief’s best con, however, is on the reader, as Turner gradually reveals that nothing and no one in her story are what they seem. The first time I read it, I was, as they say, a total mark. It was the most enjoyable deception I’d ever experienced.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
The Feather Thief
It’s easy to think of theft as a victimless crime: Items of financial value usually belong to people who can afford to part with them. But in The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson writes about a real-life theft with an impact far beyond the financial. In 2009, Edwin Rist broke into a London museum to steal the skins of 299 rare birds. By the time Rist was arrested, more than half of the skins had been sold or stripped of their valuable feathers. Johnson’s quest to discover why leads him to a network of Victorian salmon fly-tying fanatics who’ll pay to pursue their esoteric hobby, as well as through the history of the birds, many of which were painstakingly preserved for 150 years before their ignominious end. A good crime story says something about the world: What do we value? What is worth protecting? Rist’s crime is a perfect, if heartbreaking, one, because of the answers Johnson finds.
An Unnatural Vice
In K.J. Charles’ atmospheric Victorian romance, Justin Lazarus swindles his trusting clients out of their money by pretending to be a spiritualist. And while, yes, that frequently means taking advantage of people’s grief, it’s hard not to root for him given the desperate poverty of his background and the relative prosperity of his targets, not to mention his habit of taking in stray orphans, whom he in no way cares for, by the way—why on earth would you suggest such a thing? Justin’s love interest, idealistic journalist Nathaniel Roy, admits, in spite of himself, that to actually make people believe you can talk to the dead takes nerves of steel and a keen insight into human psychology. Charles puts readers in the same thrilling, uncomfortable place as Nathaniel: You know that what Justin is doing is wrong, but you also want to keep watching him do it.
—Savanna, Associate Editor