Open Book: Into the minds of criminals, and hostages


Frightening and often amusing insight into the criminal mind was delivered during Packaging the Truth at the midday Open Book session on Friday.

Swedish author Jonas Bonnier, who wrote the novel Helicopter Heist, and Anneliese Burgess, author of Heist!, a deep dive into the South African cash-in-transit heist phenomena, told us how criminals see themselves, while Guy Delisle, who drew and wrote the graphic novel Hostage, spoke about depicting long stretches of time in which nothing happens.

Jonas had lengthy interviews with the four guys put behind bars after pulling off a daring and glamorous robbery of Sweden’s biggest cash facility, before putting it all together in a novel published this year. In and Oceans Eleven style operation, the robbers stole a helicopter and broke in through the roof to get their hands on piles of cash, making a clean getaway with no one harmed in the process. Their daring caught the imagination of the nation and although they were caught, the money was never recovered.

Anneliese studied 10 more gritty and deadly cash-in-transit heists in South Africa, poring over court documents, interviewing cops, prosecutors, heisters, and anyone with any info for her book about this criminal specialisation.

They were smoothly chaired by Andrew Brown, a reservist cop who has written the insightful Good Cop Bad Cop. What he drew out of Jonas and Anneliese was that criminals at this level consider themselves professionals. They take it very seriously and graduate through smaller jobs to working at higher levels. It’s a career and spending time in jail merely an occupational hazard, not a deterrent.

Jonas says the question of not returning to crime after their sentences (they served seven years in a Swedish prison) never crossed the minds of the Swedish Oceans Four. One of them, when asked about the prison experience being a deterrent, was nonplussed by the question. When Jonas pressed that surely his first spell in prison made him rethink his career choice, the guy responded ‘Oh, the first time I went to prison? Well, afterward I was offered much better jobs (in the underworld)’.

Likewise for those Annaliese interviewed.

“We’re professionals. We’re going up against the cops and let’s see who wins. Us, probably,” was what Annaliese says she was told. And the heist gangs are made up of a bunch of friends who decide to try get rich quick. The heist are put together by a main organiser who recruits people for their skills and ability to aact calmly under pressure.

Both Jonas and Annaliese discussed how the guys they interviewed took inspiration from crime movies, such as Heat. In one heist Anneliese researched, “the robbers had made chains they pulled across the road to make the cash van stop. They’d seen this in a movie called Heat”.

She said after her book was published, “one of the robbers (that she’d interviewed) called me and told me A Den of Thieves was what robbers were now watching to get psyched (before going executing their heist).” They studied these films for tips and tricks.

“They knew every line of Heat,” said Jonas of his crooks. The previous generation of robbers had studied Scarface.

In the South African context, the use of traditional medicine is common.

“There are hardly any heists where mysticism doesn’t play some role. They meet with traditional healers beforehand ‘om die pad to sien’.”– Anneliese

Not so in Sweden. The only ritual Jonas uncovered was that one of the robbers ritually ate a McDonald’s Happy Meal before going on the job.

Given the personal details from the interviews, Jonas decided to let the robbers check what he had written about them before publishing. These details included their family lives, their upbringing, their relationships and other intimate information, but the only complaint from one guy was that he was depicted as buying clothes from H&M. “Do I have to do that?” he asked of Jonas.

Anneliese talks of how calmly South Africans accept violence. She trawled through Youtube, finding screeds of footage bystanders who had caught cash-in-transit heists on their cellphones.

“We are a nation suffering from PTSD – (how else can you explain it) when you see how calm people are.”

The comments from people hunkering down behind cars to avoid being caught in the AK47 crossfire while steadily recording on their phone would be only a level ‘hey bru, are you okay?’

In one clip showing a cash van being blown up, all the guys behind the phone say is ‘hey, gee! That’s radical’.

“There’s this completly weird calm South African response to what is an incredibly hectic crime.”

Guy Delisle, who wrote a fantastic and intriguing graphic novel about Medicines sans Frontiers worker Christophe André who was kidnapped in the town of Nazra in Ingushetia and held hostage in Chechnya for four months before managing to escape, had a different, more subtle story to tell. His book is as faithful as possible to the true story the NGO worker related to him. Delisle is astounding in how he creates a visual representation of suspense despite nothing much happening for large periods of time as the protagonist is locked up in a room with nothing but a mattress on the floor and a bar lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. His book demonstrates how small changes in a panel of drawings can create suspense, and he talked about the psychological effects of being held captive, as told to him by Christophe. One of the things Christorphe would do to hold onto his sanity was recreate the details of Napoleonic battles – historical battles being a hobby of his – in his head.

The depiction of the isolation and lack of information and how it makes even the most mundane of incidents – like a pot boiling in another room or the sound of a boy kicking a ball down the corridor on the other side of the locked door – gather insidious meaning within his astounding book.

But as to the motives or insight into the minds of the kidnappers, who they were was never known and what they might have to say will remain a mystery.

Discussions continue at Open Book today and tomorrow, and the books are available at The Book Lounge and in the temporary bookshop set up in the District 6 Homecoming Centre for the duration of the fest. Check out the programme here.

Open Book is sponsoring The Critter’s coverage of the fest.

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