Safecrackers and Safecracking: Books and Movies

Murder mysteries abound, but there are precious few books, fiction or otherwise, for the general  public about safecracking. Murder mysteries have more appeal to writers, readers, and moviegoers.  It's hard to maintain reader or moviegoer interest for very long when the topic is safes and safecracking.

It can be done, though, and if you keep your eyes open, however, every once in a while a book or a movie about safecracking and safecrackers comes along. Aside from relatively recent and well-known safecracking-themed movies like The Italian Job and The Score, here are a few books and movies I've uncovered:

The Great Train Robbery Fiction, by Michael Crichton, the man who brought us Jurassic Park --- This book is easy to find, and was made into a very good movie with Sean Connery (opinion of course).

This is the fictionalized account of a real and daringly well-planned heist that took place in England aboard a train carrying safes loaded with the British Army payroll for troops during the Crimean War. Whether you read the book or see the movie, (I recommend both), you'll enjoy it either way.

Final Score Fiction, by Emmett Grogan. This is a very good story about two safecrackers who go to New York City to finance a very big score by committing a series of smaller ones, while one of them is the unknowing target of a serial-killing religious fanatic.

As far as I know, this was writer Emmett Grogan's only novel. Emmett Grogan was a transplanted New York-to-California free lance writer, and social activist. He was one of the driving forces behind the Diggers in San Francisco, when the doings of free-thinkers in the Haight-Ashbury commanded worldwide attention in the Hippie era. Grogan was one of the people who begged, borrowed, and stole the food used to make the free soup that was for a time served daily to all comers in the Golden Gate Park Panhandle. 

Even more surprising to me was that Final Score was never made into a movie. It has the look and feel of a natural success if ever there was one.

The Napoleon of Crime Nonfiction, by Ben Macintyre --- also easily available, this one made the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list a few short years ago. The funny part was that the author, who was Paris bureau chief for the Times of London, got diverted and sucked into the subject of safecracking in much the same way lots of safemen get sucked in.

The author was granted access to the archives of the Pinkerton private detective agency while researching a book he was planning about the O.J. Simpson trial. Some archived files about bank burglars in the late 19th century caught his attention, and he was hooked.

The resulting book is a biography of Adam Worth, a bank burglar extraordinaire in 1880s New York and Europe. Adam Worth was the real life model and inspiration for a great many arch-criminal stories and characters over the next hundred-plus years. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once admitted that Sherlock Holmes's nemesis Professor Moriarty was modeled on Worth, and numerous caper, heist, and spy movies involving timed and choreographed efforts by groups of criminal specialists all owe their inspiration to Worth's real life exploits and modus operandi. The Napoleon of Crime is a very worthwhile read.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Autobiographical, by Richard Feynman. Richard Feynman was a Nobel Laureate physicist, who, while in the course of doing work at the Los Alamos facility, amused himself by learning all about the mechanical combination locks that were used to secure the government security containers that were used to keep classified information secure. He used what he knew about the locks and human foibles to cleverly open his workmates' classified storage containers all over the facility as an ongoing prank that mystified and horrified his "victims."
Feynman's logic regarding how his colleagues chose, set, and used combinations was very sound, as he demonstrated numerous times. He did very serious work, but he never lost his sense of humor or let any of it go to his head. An entertaining read.
Breaking In, Movie, starring Burt Reynolds. Despite being a B-minus production at best, this movie was really good in my opinion, because it depicts a lot of actual methods used by criminal safecrackers with respect to how they went about planning and executing their work.

The plot synopsis: An aging safecracker (Burt Reynolds) tries to school a willing but not super-bright apprentice. The movie makers had the benefit of consulting with a convicted safebreaker. When interviewed about the movie, Reynolds confessed that playing his role made him wish he'd been a safecracker.

Boxman Nonfiction, by Harry King/as told to Richard Chambliss. Long out of print, but findable with book search companies. An autobiographical account of a west coast safe cracker's career. I named my industry newsletter after this book.

Boxman is about the life of a lone operator safecracker who worked the West Coast from San Francisco to Portland and Seattle around the 1940s and 1950s. At the behest of the college professor who met him (Richard Chambliss), Harry King, a convicted safecracker, told his story to a series of college classes in Los Angeles. Chambliss later published King's reminisces as Boxman.

Crime As Work, Nonfiction, by Peter Letkeman This is another little gem that will require a book search, but it's worth it. The author was a Canadian sociologist who was given access to inmates in the Canadian prison system. He interviewed nothing but convicted safecrackers and convicted bank robbers, recording details about their tradecraft in their own words, then analyzed both from a sociologist's point of view.

Safecracking, Nonfiction, by Richard Byrne. Possibly the best nonfiction book ever written about safe makers and safe breakers, their history, craft, and development.

Though fiction lovers might find it dry going in places, I have to say that based on my knowledge of my industry, the author did his homework very well. In my opinion, he only got a couple of things wrong.

This book is not only somewhat rare even in paperback, it can be comparatively pricey when you do find a copy. I've seen copies listed for over $100.00, but the copies I've bought were appreciably less.

The titles I've covered here are by no means all that I've found, but it's still true that murder-themed mysteries outnumber safecracking stories many times over. Those presented here are all good ones, though.

If you know of any good safecracking yarns, feel free to add them in the comments section.


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