The late Donald Westlake was a modern master of the mystery/crime subgenre known as the “caper”. He was not the originator, however, and the form seems to have really come into its own in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Editor Michael Sims has collected a dozen representative short stories from the era in The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime, a delightful compendium of the exploits of aristocratic jewel thieves, crafty smugglers, and dashing purloiners of Old Masters.
“And what about the term thief?” Sims writes in the introduction. “These pages are decidedly not populated with the usual suspects. The criminals herein arm themselves with wit rather than with guns. You will run into con games and burglaries, art forgery and diamond smuggling, but you will not stumble over a corpse in the library.” And the stories are not all just about the thief’s desire to enrich himself. “Aside from profit, incidentally, motives in these stories include financing true love and balancing the scales of justice.”
There are some old standbys here – E.W. Hornung’s Raffles, for example – but also a number of stories that represent major departures for authors otherwise well established in other provinces of fiction: O. Henry, Edgar Wallace, William Hope Hodgson. One of my personal favorites is by Sinclair Lewis, of all people, a brilliant tale about a larcenous bank teller whose fictional alter ego, created as part of his carefully thought-out plan to rob the bank where he is employed, actually comes to dominate and finally obliterate the original’s personality, resulting in a peculiar sort of justice.
Perhaps it is Arnold Bennett’s character, Cecil Thorold, who best states the creed of the grafter in “A Comedy on the Gold Coast”. He is enjoying a holiday at a wealthy watering hole in Ostend, and talking to his friend, the American financier, Simeon Rainshore:
”The difference between you and me is this,” Cecil was saying. “You exhaust yourself by making money among men who are all bent on making money, in a place specially set apart for the purpose. I amuse myself by making money among men who, having made or inherited money, are bent on spending it, in places specially set apart for the purpose. I take people off their guard. They don’t precisely see me coming. I don’t rent an office and put up a sign which is equivalent to announcing that the rest of the world had better look out for itself. Our codes are the same, but is not my way more original and more diverting?”One might question the morality of such a philosophy, but that worldview does make for some very original and diverting yarns, which I believe you might enjoy.