Crime Wave #3 – Picking Locks with Ryan Wick

Picking Locks with Ryan Wick


Crime in the Time of Corona

March 2020

Crime Wave is a monthly crime fiction column on Ink Heist that will cover an array of genre topics, from giants such as Chandler and Stark to the modern day masters like Megan Abbot, from essays to interviews to bloody knuckled arguments. Today we’re talking to author Ryan Wick about the criminal skills he employed to write the forthcoming novel, Safe Cracker.

John Foster: Were you a master of the criminal arts before you sat down to write Safecracker or did the book inspire you to develop felonious skills?  

Ryan Wick: I would say that my “felonious skills” were rudimentary, at best, before setting out to write this book. Aside from growing up around several people who turned out to be actual criminals in my hometown, I’d say that most of my prior criminal knowledge came from films, TV and books. And, as with any entertainment medium, it’s hard to assess to just how much real-world practicality you can gleam from those little nuggets of illicit wisdom. Can someone figure out how to rob an armored car by watching Heat or reading a Richard Stark book? Maybe. But when I started writing Safecracker, I wanted my protagonist, a master thief, to be as authentic as possible. I did as much research as I possibly could. On weapons, on security systems, on how career burglars have actually broken into places. I also spoke with several different experts who have been picking locks and cracking safes for a very long time.

Foster: The protagonist in Safecracker is, as one might guess, a professional cracker of safes. What are the top three skills you might need to develop to become a pro? 

Wick: In my opinion, the number one skill that anyone needs when trying to crack a safe is patience. It doesn’t matter who you are or how many safes you’ve opened before, it’s still going to take time. In certain situations, with certain safes, a very, very long time. It’s not sexy or exciting. It’s just you alone with a metallic box that’s manufactured for the sole purpose of keeping people from ever doing the one thing you’re attempting to do.  

The next skill that I think is most important is focus. The ability to zone in on the task at hand and avoid all of the distractions taking place around you. No matter how large or sophisticated the safe, there is a sequence that you need to work through. Whether you’re doing it the most common way, by utilizing sound to listen through the door or you’re one of the very few people in the world (like my protagonist), who can do it simply by touch, it doesn’t change the fact that you still have to work through everything as a series of steps, in order.

Third, is determination. Again, to get good cracking safes, you need to practice. All the time. Francesco Therisod, a safecracker in Providence, R.I., says it takes twenty years to get good at it and since he’s been “walking the walk” for four decades now, I’m inclined to believe him.

Foster: Lock picking. I’ve seen it on TV but I have no idea how it’s done. Can you walk me through the basics of lock picking and how you developed your skill? Are there certain locks that are harder than others? Lay it down for me. 

Wick: This is yet another thing, like safecracking, that takes a lot of practice if you want to get good at it. But I will say it’s a lot easier than I ever thought it would be. That’s not to say that all locks are simple to open, because most are not and there are always new, more advanced ones coming out on the market that build upon security measures from the past. But, with a basic pin tumbler lock, which is the most common lock that you’ll find on doors throughout America, I’ve gotten pretty fast at getting them open.

First, lets discuss the parts of a lock and how they actually operate. Pin tumbler locks consist of an outer cylindrical casing inside, in which a plug is housed. The small gap above the outer casing and the plug is called the shear line. Now, the plug has the opening for the key and when the proper one is pushed in, the plug can rotate, which unlocks the door. On top of the plug, there is a series of five holes that contain what we call “key pins” of different lengths. Above each key pin is a driver pin that’s spring-loaded. In order for the plug to rotate, without using a key, you need to lift each of the key pins and driver pins to the correct height one at a time — until the gap between the key pins and driver pins reaches the shear line. When all of the pins reach this position, the plug can turn—thus opening the lock. 

So, the first thing you do when aiming to pick a lock, is slide what’s called a tension wrench into the bottom of the keyhole. This is one of two tools that will be used. Once it’s pushed inside, begin applying slight pressure in the direction you would normally turn the key. The amount of force you use here is important, because you need to have enough give to let the driver pins rise above the shear line, but also enough torque that when they start dropping down, an edge of the pin catches the plug as it starts to rotate.

The second tool, which is physically pushing the pins up above the plug, is the actual pick. And there are many different variations, depending on which kind of lock your tackling. There are small hooks, large hooks, single balls, rakes and many others. A small hook, or singular pick, has just one point at the end, and you use that little point to push each pin inside the lock upward, one at a time, until they are above the shear line. 

When that happens, you’ll feel the tension your keeping on the mechanism (with the wrench) give way and the lock will turn. Bingo. The door opens.

Fun fact: for anyone that wants to try their hand at picking locks…there are several “practice” locks you can buy on Amazon that have transparent casings so you can see inside of them while you work. I own quite a few and they are a great way to introduce yourself to the craft.

Foster: The criminal world is a dangerous place and a safecracker needs to know how to take care of himself. The book has some incredible fight scenes – how did you learn to capture such realistic fight scenes? 

Wick: Well, I’ve been training in martial arts for quite awhile. I think it’s been almost twelve years now. Starting with Jeet Kune Do (the art Bruce Lee Founded) and then moving on to Filipino Martial Arts (Kali / Eskrima), which is what I now teach, when time allows. The thing I like most about both of these arts, and what I think helps me with crafting such realistic fights scenes, is that they are both geared for real-world self defense. They aren’t based on tournaments or competitions. They are training you to defend yourself in the event you’re attacked on the street by multiple people who may or may not be carrying weapons. A lot of what Filipino martial arts teaches is how to counter other fighting systems. So, what to do if you’re tackled in an alley by a guy who studies BJJ, or attacked by a boxer or Muay Thai practitioner. What if someone who studies Judo tries to throw you? We work through all types of different situations and try to figure out the best, most effective way to defend against any type of attack. There is a lot of striking, joint locks and breaking bones involved. On top of all that, a lot of our training involves improvised weapons. What objects are around you at any given time, that you can you use to defend yourself?

What I tried to do with the fight scenes in this book, aside from shine a light on Filipino martial arts a bit, is describe realistic confrontations. How do highly skilled individuals really attack and defend when their lives are on the line. Nobody is doing jump kicks. Nobody is doing spinning back fists or anything like that, because at the end of the day, if you try that in the street, during a real confrontation, it most likely will not end well for you.

Foster: What’s one criminal skill you don’t have but wish you did? 

Wick: Computer hacking. The idea of living on a tropical island somewhere and only needing a laptop and a VPN to steal millions of dollars from large corporations whenever you need it, sounds incredibly appealing (especially right now, with the current Coronavirus situation.)  

Foster: If you’re on a job outside of the city, what’s your prefect getaway car? 

Wick: This is tough because part of me wants to say a 1970 Dodge Challenger so I can feel, however briefly, like Kowalkski in Vanishing Point, but I think the better choice would be a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT. Is it the fastest car ever built? No. Does it have the best handling? Absolutely not. But it’s sexy as hell and you would look amazing tearing through the streets in one. Plus, Ferris Bueller drove one, so you’d have to assume that everything would work out just fine at the end of the day. 

Foster: Can you name a couple of real life criminals that inspire your work? 

Wick: I’ve studied and read about so many famous thieves over the past few years and a lot of them have incredible stories. However, the one I’ve always been the most fascinated with is an African American woman by the name of Doris Payne.

She grew up in West Virginia, with a coal miner father, yet somehow became a 50-year career jewel thief in America and Europe. She didn’t use any fancy tools or gymnastic abilities to steal things. Instead, she just walked into stores and sweet talked sales clerks. She’d try on multiple items, get the clerks confused or distracted and then just sneak out with one or two pieces before they noticed. She stole millions of dollars worth of jewelry over her lifetime and was in and out of jail many times. She’s now in her 80’s and the last time she was arrested was on July 17, 2017 for stealing $86 worth of merchandise from an Atlanta area Wal-Mart. The best part is that she was still wearing the ankle bracelet from her previous arrest.

Foster: James Bond drinks a martini, shaken, not stirred. What does Ryan Wick, lock-picker drink? 

Wick: I’m a fan of many, many different scotches and bourbons but Old Pulteney 21 (from the Isle of Wick of all places) is hands down my favorite whiskey. I also drink quite a lot of wine, but…if any readers of this interview out there would like to send over a quarantine gift-pack to help me through these trying times…several bottles of Old Pulteney would be an excellent choice. 

Foster: What else does the novice criminal need to understand before embarking on a life of crime? 

Wick: Well if popular culture is any indication, always have one additional job lined up. Because as long as the current job you’re on isn’t your “last one” before retirement, then you’ll never get caught.

Foster: Now that we’ve established your underworld bonafides, tell me a bit about Safecracker and when we’ll get a chance to read it! 

Wick: The short version is that Safecracker is about a professional thief who inadvertently witnesses a murder and finds himself being pursued by a relentless female assassin working for the Sinaloa drug cartel. It’s set to be released on June 2nd, 2020 and if you’d like to find out more info about it or pre-order a copy from your preferred bookseller of choice, you can do so at www.ryanwickbooks.com. If you want to chat with me on social media about movies, books, criminal activities or how to stay sane in the midst of the coronavirus, I’m around! Feel free to hit me up on twitter, IG or Facebook at @ryanwickbooks. 

Ryan Wick is an award winning Director, Editor & Author who lives in New York City.  He has been directing for over 12+ years has taught cinematography classes at the New York Film Academy and Princeton University. Aside from working in film and TV, he has also directed numerous commercials (for brands such as Nike, Gatorade, NBC, Pepsi & Versace) and music videos for artists such as The Game, Tinie Tempah, Charlie XCX and Grammy Award Winner Melanie Fiona. Several of his documentaries have been nominated for both Shorty and Webby awards and the “One of a Kind” docu-series he produced and directed for Dr. Pepper in 2015 won the Digiday Award for Best Branded Content Series of the Year . His first novel, a crime thriller entitled SAFECRACKER is due out on June 2nd, 2020 from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press).


John C. Foster was born in Sleepy Hollow, New York, and has been afraid of the dark for as long as he can remember. His most recent novel, The Isle, grew out of his love for New England, where he spent his childhood. He is the author of three previous novels, Dead Men, Night Roads and Mister White, and one collection of short stories, Baby Powder and Other Terrifying Substances. His crime novel Rooster will be published in 2020 and he’s currently working on a second crime novel, Mister Madame. His stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including The Seven Deadliest, Dark Moon Digest, Strange Aeons, Death’s Realm and Lost Films, among others. He lives in Brooklyn with the actress Linda Jones and their dog Coraline. For more information, please visit www.johnfosterfiction.com.

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