Almost a year ago (has it been that long? gah) I read Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist. As you will know, I am a sucker for heist stories. That book led me to The Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Art Thief, Rock-and-Roller, and Prodigal Son. Myles Connor was (still is) a primary suspect in the Gardner heist, despite the fact he was in jail at the time. Although Connor and coauthor Jenny Siler discuss aspects of the heist (from a purely hypothetical standpoint), the bulk of this book traces Connor’s origins as a thief, bank robber, and art collector. At times captivating and at other times too sugarcoated for my tastes, The Art of the Heist tries to convince you there is such a thing as a thief with a heart of gold. Whether or not you agree comes down to your stomach for an unreliable narrator, tales that might be taller than they are deep, and how much you—like me—love a good heist story.
It is refreshing to hear about heists from the mouth of someone who pulled them rather than a journalist or a former investigator. Setting aside questions of sympathy and credibility, I definitely enjoyed listening to Connor spin his tales. He puts different emphasis on his jobs than a detective might, and that makes for very interesting reading. He describes his thefts in practical terms, admitting that sometimes what he stole was influenced simply by whether or not he could get it out of the building. Connor also describes the way allegiances shift depending on self-interest or differences of opinion over how to handle a crime. He parallels this with the shifting allegiances and loyalties within law enforcement. As television shows remind us (even as law enforcement tries to minimize it), inter-agency rivalry is a big source of tension. It was interesting to see various detectives, police officers, and lawyers lining up to try to get a piece of Connor or even work with Connor’s interests if it aligned with their own priorities.
The Art of the Heist reminds me somewhat of Making a Murderer. This might seem strange, in that I haven’t actually watched the latter—but I’ve read enough reviews of it to understand what its makers have tried to do. Both of these shine a light on critical flaws in the criminal justice system, flaws that allow innocent people to be framed and railroaded for crimes while guilty people go free. The Canadian system is no picnic and probably too close to the American system for comfort, but at least we don’t do stupid things like have elected judges and district attorneys. Seriously, America: why?? Connor corroborates what other sources have long said: at every level, the system that is supposed to protect us from criminals while also rehabilitate them pretty much just exists to sustain itself, to generate profit, and to let law enforcement do what it wants. From transferring Connor to a facility where they hope he will be murdered by the other inmates to framing him for murders with the help of lying witnesses, certain law enforcement agents give that entire sector a bad name.
For that alone I’m glad I read The Art of the Heist. I’m less enthusiastic about Connor’s voice. The writing isn’t bad, but he doesn’t manage to charm me the way he so obviously wants to. I’m a pretty big bleeding heart liberal, and I’ll be the first to admit I think a lot of “criminals” are simply people caught up circumstances thrust upon them by a harsh and oppressive system. Yet Connor’s constant reminders that he doesn’t like people getting hurt, that he’s only stealing this art because he really wants it, that he’s oh-so-intelligent but just misunderstood by a society hung up on ideas of personal property … these all ring hollow. He might consider art theft a victimless crime, in the sense that he tries not to hurt people in the process and he steals from institutions that are insured or families rich enough to take the financial hits. But he also freely admits to trafficking in cocaine and heroin. Because that stuff is totally victimless too, right? I believe Connor believes he is an “honourable thief” but I can’t really apply that label to him. And while I wouldn’t call him an outright liar, it’s important to view this book as one with an ultimately unreliable narrator: he wants to come off looking good, so take that into consideration.
Reliable or no, Connor’s voice provides another interesting perspective on the world of Boston crime, art theft, and the justice system. Although not as engrossing as I had hoped, The Art of the Heist was at least informative and often interesting.