A rose by any other name?

Helen Harper


Sometimes fiction collides with reality – and not in a good way. A new series I’ve been working on involves a main character who’s a thief. She generally goes for big ticket items but she’s also a mean pickpocket, although she targets a very specific group of people for her own reasons. I spent a fair bit of time researching how pickpockets operate. It’s disturbing how easy they can find it to steal.


This was terribly apparent a few days ago when I went out with some friends to a pub quiz. Admittedly, we were in a tourist area called Changkat Bukit Bintang. It’s rife with touts but there’s also a great atmosphere and lots going on, not to mention to some staggeringly good bars and restaurants. We were sitting outside on some high chairs. My friend had her bag looped around the back and she was sitting against. After an hour or two had passed (and I’d done the best I could to convince everyone that rhinoceros horns are made out of hair for the animal round) she got up to go to the bathroom and realised her bag had gone. It’s not the first time it’s happened to either her or any of the rest of us but it’s still heartbreaking when you think about the loss of her phone, her husband’s phone, all her bank and credit cards, ID card, driver’s license…


The bar had CCTV and although it was poor quality, we were able to watch the moment it happened. One man walked past and stopped to ‘use his phone’. Needless to say, none of us noticed him. He tried to take the bag, failed and tried again. As soon as he’d grabbed it, another guy sauntered past in the opposite direction and it was passed over. So even if we had spotted the lift, we’d have run after the first man – and he was carrying nothing. These were professionals who knew what they were doing. It sounds strange but the fact that I’ve been enjoying writing about someone who also does this kind of thing for a living – and who’s the heroine – made me feel extraordinarily guilty. It’s not that I’ve not been a victim of such incidents either. The worst was on holiday in New Zealand when the window of our hatchback hire car was smashed open and our suitcases were stolen (along with my passport, I might add – not the greatest way to spend your Christmas).


Unbelievably, the Eiffel Tower was closed in May of this year when staff walked off to protest the rise in pickpocketing (Clever Travel Companion). And while it might seem as if Kuala Lumpur is filled with bagsnatchers and pickpockets, it doesn’t even get a look in on the list of the top ten worst cities. Barcelona, if you’re interested, tops the list and almost all of the less than illustrious named cities are in Europe. Apparently, pickpockets hang out near signs that tell the unwary to ‘Beware Of Pickpockets’ because as soon as someone sees that sign, they immediately pat their pocket to check their valuables are still there – and the pickpocket then knows exactly where to aim for.


There’s lots of advice about how to avoid pickpockets. Use moneybelts, be aware in crowded situations, keep your bag hooked around something and so on. It’s all too easy to forget or to think that you’ve already done enough though. It’s also made me slightly less enamoured of my own fictional thief. Perhaps in book two I’ll have to make sure that she’ll develop a stronger conscience…







Photo by matiasjajaja

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