I love a good heist. The recent theft of paintings by Picasso and Matisse (among others) in Paris has been labelled the "heist of the century" - a bold claim, given we're only a decade in. But what makes a heist a heist, and not a burglary or a plain old robbery? The dictionary definition equates it with all these things, but a heist has a different feel to it, a status and a glamour, that leaves common-or-garden burglaries languishing in the boring realm of Neighbourhood Watch and changing your locks. You'd never say that you'd been a victim of a heist where your telly had been nicked, would you?

Heists are the grandest of crimes, exciting feats of derring-do. They're also oddly cool: the only crimes where you almost want the robbers to get away with it. It's not about (you hope) people getting hurt, or petty cruelty. A heist has to include an audacious act of subterfuge, involving disguises and ingenious ways of negotiating complex alarm systems. It has to build to a final act of theft of such magnitude that it leaves some unwitting security guard - whose life's work had been to watch the Picasso/crown jewels/diamond-studded antique elephant - open-mouthed with astonishment. When you hear of it, you should be thinking, "How did they do that?" and then, "Brilliant."

Clearly, in the Paris heist, the theft of hugely valuable paintings for the probable pleasure of an oligarch who will use the canvases as coffee tables on which to snort cocaine and polish guns is not something to be lauded.

No, the best heists are those in the Ocean's Eleven style, where a big, bad meanie (or Andy Garcia as a slick casino-owner) is shown up by a ragtag bunch of dodgy wheeler-dealers and Brad Pitt; where there's a sense of rebellion, the little guy upsetting the natural order of things, foxing
the staid authorities.

The Ocean's films weren't the first, of course. Heist movies are a genre in their own right. There's even one called Heist, directed by David Mamet and starring Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito (the ideal heisters). It just shows: heists sell. We can't get enough of them.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis