Recruiting the Criminal

"Set a thief to catch a thief."
— Old Greek proverb

Sometimes the criminals make the best heroes. They don't have reservations on certain things such as "morals" and they have no qualms with going around the proper channels to accomplish their goals. But since they also have skills that have gone around the more natural education system, they are brought in as specialists.

There is practically a built-in subtrope here specifically where hackers are brought in to do some uber-hacking for the good guys.

Compare the subtrope Boxed Crook, when they are offered immediate freedom upon succeeding at a Suicide Mission. Compare also Trading Bars for Stripes, where freedom is offered after going through a tour of military duty. Although in that case it is more because they are "expendable" than just because of their skills. Also To Catch Heroes Hire Villains, Condemned Contestant, Consulting a Convicted Killer.

Contrast Reformed Criminal, when the character serves the law because of a genuine Heel-Face Turn.

Sometimes overlaps with the Token Evil Teammate, depending on how self-serving they actually are.


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  • Death Note has L hire a con man and a cat burglar during the Yotsuba Group arc. It is stated that he works with them on a regular basis.
    • Light thinks of his recruitment and use of Misa, Takada, and Mikami as this.
  • The manga version of Berserk has the King of Midland, after his regular men and the Bakiraka fail to kill Griffith and the Band of the Hawk following Griffith's rescue, calls upon the Black Dog Knights, made up of the worst murderers, rapists and all around scum that Midland has to offer and led by Wyald, a nasty piece of work of an Apostle, as his last bid for revenge against Griffith.
  • Hiei and Kurama of YuYu Hakusho were partially pardoned of their crimes in exchange for their services in assisting Yusuke with the Four Saint Beasts. Kurama at the least was never dedicated to the criminal lifestyle, only using it for sympathetic reasons. Hiei was the Token Evil Teammate for a few story arcs until a more genuine Heel-Face Turn. But even well into the series, when the team began to discuss what they planned to do now that a particularly powerful enemy was defeated, Hiei responded, "Various crimes."
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex has an example of this trope in the final episode of the first season. Motoko and Aramaki try, albeit unsuccessfully, to recruit the infamous Laughing Man. In a variation, the only real crime in the entire series he actually committed was trying to expose a criminal conspiracy at gunpoint, and all the other crimes by the Laughing Man were copycats.
  • In One Piece, the World Government has the Seven Warlords of the Sea (Shichibukai in Japanese), seven extremely powerful pirates who act as privateers. The Seven Warlords are pardoned for their crimes and in return give an annual piece of their plunder. It's not a perfect system, however — more than one Warlord has used their position to back even more illegal schemes, some are shown to hate the very institution they serve, and even the so-called 'loyal' Warlords have their own agendas (barring Mihawk, who's implied to have joined because he was bored and makes it clear that he can ditch them whenever he wants). However, since their job is to act as a deterrent to prevent more piracy rather than to serve the public at large, the World Government doesn't particularly care, and at points even goes at great lengths to protect them and their reputation.
  • In Bleach, Zaraki considers himself and Yachiru Unohana to be examples of this. He claims the only reason Soul Society hasn't executed them already is because of their combat prowess. Unohana agrees.
    • Kisuke Urahara's backstory shows that he recruited Mayuri Kurotsuchi, who was at that point locked up in solitary confinement, as his personal research assistant, with the clincher being that were he to die, Mayuri would become Captain.
  • In Nanatsu No Taizai, the title characters are criminals themed around the Seven Deadly Sins but are knights that are being regrouped to free a kingdom oppressed by some rather nasty Knight Templars.
  • In Psycho-Pass, many members of the MWPSB are Enforcers, so-called "latent criminals" who haven't physically committed a crime yet, but are judged by the Sibyl System to have a mental state that is conducive to crime. Because they're able to more clearly understand the criminal mind, Enforcers are usually the ones who do the real detective work, while their Inspector partners act mostly as a leash to keep them under control.
  • In the Lupin III manga, Lupin was hired by the Japanese government to rescue a captured spy and recover the intel said spy was after in return for amnesty for all his crimes up to that point. Here, the reason was simply that Lupin's Impossible Thief talents made him the perfect man for the job; if anyone could covertly steal a prisoner and information from under the nose of somebody who'd already caught a spy and was thus on alert, it would be him.
  • In the Attack on Titan prequel, A Choice With No Regrets, rumors that Levi joined the military under such circumstances are confirmed. A criminal that used stolen 3D Maneuver Gear to commit crimes, his skill caught the attention of Erwin and resulted in Levi's gang being hunted down. After being given An Offer You Can't Refuse, Levi was recruited directly into the Survey Corps and would eventually become Erwin's Number Two and humanity's strongest soldier.

    Comic Books 
  • This strategy backfires in Seven Psychopaths, where the group of Ragtag Bunch of Misfits recruited to assassinate Hitler includes a narcissistic con artist and Master of Disguise who joins for the promise of glory. Nobody foresaw the risk in putting an amoral Glory Hound who can impersonate anybody in a situation where the position of "most important man in Germany" has suddenly been rendered vacant.
  • Spider-Man employed the use of the villain Sandman a few times in order to catch up to his old teammates in the Sinister Six. This eventually led to a Heel-Face Turn but he eventually returned to a life of crime. This setback didn't stop Spidey from once again asking for his help in tracking down an alternate reality version of his Uncle Ben who was linked to a crime (long story).
    • Spidey also asked Venom for help almost every time he had to face Carnage since they both had related alien symbiotes.
  • In the Judge Dredd story "The Cursed Earth", Dredd needs to recruit a second biker to deliver a pack of vaccines to Mega-City Two. Though plenty of Judges are willing, Dredd recruits convicted criminal and mutant Spikes Harvey Rotten, who is the best biker in the Big Meg and knows the Cursed Earth very well.

    Fan Fiction 
  • Mercury from the Inheritance Cycle fanfic series "A dance of Shadow and Light" by Ocadioan has become known for doing this on multiple occasions throughout the series. As of Phoenix-fire, he even goes as far as to recruit people that he knows are out to kill or usurp him, because they are particular efficient at what they do.
  • Yuugao in Eroninja recruits Fuuka's help in figuring out a serial killer due to the latter's several decades of experience as a serial killer in order to prolong her lifespan. Fuuka manages to figure out both the order of the killings and why they were killed in said order (namely the killer was seducing her targets and was building up confidence in her looks/abilities).

  • Inverted in Blue Streak, in which diamond thief Miles Logan accidentally gets hired as a cop while trying to retrieve a diamond he hid in the police headquarters. This proceeds a lot like other movies with the same theme, however, as he very effectively teaches his new colleagues (from personal experience) how to think like criminals in order to catch criminals.
    • Interestingly, he seems to have expertise in completely different types of crime from his own. It's hard to believe that a professional jewel thief and safecracker would know so much about drug smuggling.
  • Pretty much the entirety of The Longest Yard is the prison warden demanding an inmates vs. prison guards football game and Burt Reynolds's character being forced to recruit the various criminals with no promise of any reward but a chance to beat up the guards, humiliate the guards, or both.
  • A classic example in The Dirty Dozen.
  • Sean Connery in The Rock
  • Hugo Stiglitz of the Inglourious Basterds.
  • Han Solo of Star Wars is another classic example. Fast transport and don't want any Imperial problems, hire a ship captain who specializes in smuggling.
  • The Bad News Bears: Jackie Earle Haley as local tough guy and best all-around athlete who gets recruited to be on the team.
  • Pretty much everyone in Martin Bishop's team in Sneakers has had a run-in with the law (or at least a higher authority) at one point or another. For example:
    • Whistler is supposed to be one of the best phone phreaks in America (side note: Whistler is also a Shout Out to the phone phreaks John "Captain Crunch" Draper and Josef "Joybubbles" Engressia).
    • Donald Crease got kicked out of the CIA because he couldn't control his temper.
  • Lilo & Stitch: to catch the dangerous genetic experiment, the Intergalactic Alliance sends the Mad Scientist who created him, since he's the only one who knows how to defeat him.
  • As with Firefly listed below, so with Serenity.
  • In Mission: Impossible II, this is subverted. Ethan thinks he's recruiting the master thief in order to steal something, until his Mission Control reveals they only wanted her because she previously had a relationship with the Big Bad, and they want to exploit that to get a person inside for recon.
    • In the first film, he recruits two disavowed agents to help pull off the Langley heist.
  • In Catch Me If You Can, Hanratty recruits the imprisoned check forger extraordinaire Frank Abagnale to apprehend check forgers.
  • John Spartan from Demolition Man is recruited in 2032 to catch the psychopath Simon Phoenix after Phoenix's escape from the cryogenic prison in which he had been incarcerated since 1996. Spartan is actually the cop who caught Phoenix in 1996, but is legally considered a criminal, having been put in the "fridge" at the same time after being wrongly convicted of sacrificing innocent lives in his apprehension of Phoenix, and to the timid bureaucrats of 2032 he is as much an animal as Phoenix.
  • In 48 Hours and its sequel, tough cop Jack recruits loudmouthed criminal Reggie because of Reggie's connection to the case.
  • Escape from New York: In the year 1997, Manhattan is a giant, walled off prison with no guards. When the President is unlucky enough to get stuck there after Airforce One is shot down, condemned criminal Snake Plissken is offered his freedom in exchange for rescuing him.
  • In Thor: The Dark World, Thor is forced go to his brother Loki, who has been imprisoned after The Avengers, for help, as he is the only one who knows how to escape Asgard without the Bifrost.
  • In the last of the Song of the Lioness books by Tamora Pierce, King Jonathon hires King of Thieves George Cooper as the spymaster of Tortall.
  • Mundungus Fletcher from Harry Potter is a known thief, but his ties to the underworld are valuable to the Order.
    • Though he just seems to be a smelly, drunk Del Boy.
    • At least one fanfic features Harry, in need of training to beat Voldemort and unable to get any from Dumbledore, going to Nurmengard to seek help from the prior Dark Lord, Gellert Grindelwald.
  • In the Judge Dee stories, Tao Gan is a master crook, dice cheater, pickpocket and lockpicker. He is recruited by the judge for his many talents, after he saves him from an angry mob.
  • Harry Dresden has done this a couple of times with Gentleman Johnny Marcone, most notably in White Night.
  • In Kiki Strike, Kiki hires delinquent Girl Scouts.
  • This is basically how the Special Corps operates in The Stainless Steel Rat: they recruit non-homicidal criminals to catch the more dangerous ones.
    • The guy in charge of the Special Corps is himself one of the most infamous thieves in the galaxy. He is the one who manages to trap Jim before offering him the job.
  • In Discworld, Lord Vetinari recruits Con Man Moist Von Lipwig to reform the postal office... and the banking system
    Von Lipwig: I've robbed banks!
    Vetinari: Capital! Just reverse your thinking. The money should be on the inside.
    • Before that, Vetinari did this on a grand scale with the Thieves' Guild. Some form of thieves' guild had already existed in Ankh-Morpork, but Vetinari made them responsible for theft in the city, with a professional structure and quotas on thieving. They also have to, and quite take pride in, reducing unofficial theft in the city. Turns out they're much better at reducing crime than the Watch ever were, because all they have to do is work less.
      • It does help too that they have no rules about how they treat unlicensed thieves, unlike the watch.
  • Inverted in The Polish Officer by Alan Furst. A new agent for La Résistance in World War II asks a former detective for advice on how to be a fugitive.
  • Mulch Diggums from Artemis Fowl.
  • In a Bill Pronzini short-short story, a recently released car thief gets the jones and tries to steal a fancy car, only to be found out by the owner. Fortunately for him, said owner is in the repossession business, and now the thief gets to satisfy his craving to steal cars in a perfectly legal fashion.
  • Minor example: in the first Honor Harrington novel, Honor needs some people to do customs work, but doesn't have anyone with the necessary professional background. So she requests that the bosun find her some people with, ah, personal familiarity with the smuggling process instead. (One of whom becomes a series mainstay and, among other things, uses his sneakiness and computer hacking prowess to pull off a truly phenomenal rescue later on. So good move there.)
  • Time Scout's Kit Carson doesn't quite say "Set a thief to catch a thief", but he comes pretty darn close.
  • This happens twice in the Shadow of the Templar series: in the first book, Gentleman Thief Jeremy Archer offers to help the FBI stop his former employer when said former employer turns out to be a terrorist; in the second book, the "set a thief to catch a thief" maxim is played completely straight when the FBI calls him up for help in catching a thief with an identical M.O. and a murderous streak.
  • In Vernor Vinge's novella True Names, the Feds would love to bust the protagonist, Mr. Slippery, now that they've uncovered his real identity, but unfortunately, they need him to help catch the even more dangerous and elusive hacker known as The Mailman.
  • In Chrono Hustle, the TRD hire con-artist Jack Masterson, in order to help them catch con-artist Jack Masterson... time travel was involved.

    Live Action TV 
  • Garak on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was recruited by Sisko for help in planting evidence to convince the Romulans that the Dominion have intentions of invading Romulan territory.
    • In another episode Quark is recruited to help hack into a secured database.
  • Nate in Leverage is the only team member who doesn't have some sort of criminal background.
    • Similarly, Season 3 sees the team blackmailed by an INTERPOL detective to pull off a heist on a banker for criminals.
  • Michael from Burn Notice occasionally employs the services of the money launderer Barry and the gun runner Seymour for various jobs.
  • Parodied in Seinfeld where George hired the best freelance electrician around to wire a battery to a Frogger arcade machine he bought so he could keep his high score. The electrician was disappointed that it wasn't a heist, though George said if he wanted to he could steal the necessary tools.
  • The TV series Fast Lane had a crook named Aquarius the boys used from time to time to "procure" certain "items;" for example, a truckful of blank US gov't paper upon which they'll counterfeit $100 bills. Candy Store leader Billie tried to recruit a criminal to play undercover cop before the series started, but the criminal she chose for the gig turned out to be a backstabbing Magnificent Bastard that tried to kill her and ran away when he couldn't, leading to her decision to recruit Cowboy Cops.
  • Jayne from Firefly. Mal actually recruits him while Jayne and two others are attempting to rob him and Zoe. Granted, technically the whole crew is pretty much composed of criminals, since they're smugglers, but Jayne is of the dirtier outlaw type.
  • Dr. House recruited Dr. Foreman because he had a criminal record for burglary from when he was a poor black teenager, which piqued his interests. House also needed a guy to break into patients' homes to check for drugs and such, since House does not trust patients to be honest about such things.
  • The USA Network show White Collar is a story almost exactly like that of Catch Me If You Can, a criminal being recruited by the FBI. The show's tagline is "To solve the hardest crimes, hire the smartest criminal."
  • The Reality Show It Takes a Thief (2005) is about how to properly prepare for a possible break-in. Then they break in (both hosts are former burglars) and have the homeowners watch the tactics.
  • In Criminal Minds, Garcia got a job at the FBI because she was busted hacking into one the FBI's databases. Her choice was to go to jail or use her skills for the FBI.
  • Guerrero from Human Target is an assassin hired to help protect people. The hero of the story also used to be in the business of killing people.
  • Breakout Kings is about a team of criminals hired to catch prison escapees.
  • Multiple examples from the cops on The Wire, the most prominent being their use of snitches like Bubbles, a homeless junkie. Another plotline involves them cutting a deal with Omar, one of the most dangerous criminals in Baltimore, to get him to testify against the Barksdale hitman, Bird.
  • When when assembling a team of treasure-hunters as the Power Rangers Operation Overdrive, Andrew Hartford included the thief Will Aston for his skills. Given the franchise's usual approach to morality, I think we're supposed to assume he's a Reformed Criminal, but it was never specified. (During a 10-Minute Retirement he was shown doing a legit job testing a place's security.)
  • In Torchwood, Toshiko Sato was facing life in prison without parole for stealing alien technology from the government. Then Captain Jack Harkness, impressed with her engineering skill, shows up and offers her a job. Of course, Jack himself can be considered this, as he doesn't exactly have a spotless record (what with being a conman from the future and all).
  • Alphas has Cameron Hicks, an ex-Marine mind-controlled to assassinate someone in the pilot. At the end of the episode, Dr. Rosen offers him a position on his team of people with superhuman abilities, subtly hinting that he may go to jail for murder if he doesn't (good luck using the "mind control" defense in court).
  • Subverted in The Invisible Man. Darien is recruited by the Agency not for his skills as as thief but because of the "quicksilver" gland in his head that allows him to become invisible. He is kept in check by the fact that only the Agency can produce the "counteragent" necessary to keep him from going insane. That doesn't mean that his criminal skills don't come in handy, though.
  • Any time in Heroes when Sylar helps out the good guys is this trope.
  • Walker, Texas Ranger had an arc that featured Michael Ironside as a Big Bad. The Rangers recruited a young female hacker named Buzz to help bring him down. She ended up having the remainder of her sentence commuted.
  • Agents Of Shield: In the first episode, Skye is caught hacking into SHIELD's computer network. Coulson decides to recruit her for his team.
  • Doctor Who
    • A common format for Fourth Doctor stories was for the Time Lords to force him to do their dirty work, as they have an Alien Non-Interference Clause that he (being a thief, an outlaw and a natural-born meddler) constantly ignores. A notable serial with this format is "Genesis of the Daleks", in which they try to force him to commit pre-emptive genocide against the Daleks on their behalf.
    • In "The Five Doctors", the Time Lords recruit the Master to save the Doctor, who is trapped in the Death Zone on Gallifrey.
  • In his first appearance on Murder, She Wrote, Dennis Stanton is a Gentleman Thief with a grudge against a specific insurance firm. In his later appearances he's an insurance investigator himself.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The standard Thief in a traditional Dungeons & Dragons adventure party. Turns out the guy skilled in picking locks and pickpocketing tends to do that for a living, who knew?
  • In the grim darkness of the far future, the Dark Heresy series tells us that the "rogue" archetype is now called "Scum". While the game book states that such characters don't have to have been criminals, merely growing up as the downtrodden in the Crapsack World that is the 41st millennium, your non-mission monthly income explicitly comes from swindling, pickpocketing, being a card shark...

    Video Games 
  • You recruit a lot of these in Mass Effect 2. In order to stop the threat of the Reapers, Shepard is forced to join with a terrorist organization, Cerberus, and therefore has a few people classified as terrorists under his/her command. Over the course of the game s/he recruits a psychopathic murderer, a (DLC) Classy Cat-Burglar, a (DLC) mercenary, a geth in a universe where AI is illegal, and possibly a serial killer— though she's optional, and probably not the best choice, since she replaces a more reliable party member. In addition there are berserkers, assassins, The Punisher of the Mass Effect universe, and Cowboy Cops among others.
    • In the Citadel DLC of Mass Effect 3, it's shown in a historical archive that the first Spectre was a Cowboy Cop who was imprisoned for using 30 civilians as bait to flush out a criminal.
  • In another BioWare epic, Dragon Age: Origins, you recruit Sten (who has been locked up to die of starvation for slaughtering a family of farmers after freaking out over the loss of his sword), Zevran (an assassin sent after you—just the most recent contract in implied long chain of murders), Oghren (who's a drunken lout and was about to be kicked out of Orzammar anyways) a number of apostates (rogue mages) and even possibly Loghain Mac Tir, the one responsible for King Cailan's death at the start of the game by leaving him to die at Ostagar. As a Grey Warden, you have a right to recruit anyone you wish without regard for local laws. A number of Grey Wardens (including Duncan himself, who was a pickpocket in Orlais) were recruited straight from jail.
    • Depending on the origin, even the Warden can fall into this category. The Dwarf Noble is either tricked into/framed for the murder of their elder brother, the Dwarf Commoner was caught impersonating a Noble in a Proving, the City Elf murdered half of a castle during a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against an Arl's son for raping their cousin, and the Mage Origin is caught helping a fellow Mage try to flee the Circle. All are rescued from a grisly fate by Duncan's intervention, and when you play as other origins it's possible to find signs of what would have happened to you had Duncan not been there, such as finding your alternate self dead in a dungeon cell in Orzammar.
  • In a third Bioware example, during the Sith Warrior prologue, you deal with an assassin who killed a high-ranking operative in the Empire. The jailer, and quite a few other Sith, think that she was hired by the Republic, but it was another third party. The Light Side option is to recruit her into Imperial Intelligence. Your master, Darth Baras, commends you on the decision, saying you should never let an opportunity to recruit a powerful ally slip through your fingers.
    • This actually happens two more times to make another Rule of Three - both conveniently on the Imperial side. The Imperial Agent's first companion, Kaliyo, is a wanted criminal amongst the Empire (or at the very least, they have a file on her.) Keeper offers her a small fortune to keep her quiet and help you out.
    • And Finally, the Bounty Hunter's companion, Gaul. He is (At the time) their current target. He gives a dead-body switch (with someone who can pass for him in almost every aspect) and offers to accompany you in exchange for his life.
  • The Sly Cooper games will invariably have Interpol Inspector Carmelita Fox enlist the aid of the titular protagonist (a thief who only targets other criminals) to take down the Big Bad at the climax of the game. Also occasionally inverted in that Sly and his gang will manipulate her into unwittingly helping them out now and then.
  • The indie game Primal Carnage has the Trapper (A.K.A. Jackson Stone). He is wanted around the world for "uncountable offences". Basically he is prolific poacher and criminal but his experience in capture of large dangerous animals means the "unknown peoples" hand-waved his criminal record because he was much too valuable to pass for the near-suicidal job of hunting Super-Persistent Predator genetically-modified dinosaurs.
  • Played with in the case of Simon Blackquill, the main prosecutor of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies . While he is in jail for most of the game, the skill he's valued for is his psychology manipulation technique, which has nothing to do with a criminal's skillset. Turnabout For Tomorrow reveals that Simon was never a criminal in the first place, going to jail to protect Athena Cykes.
  • Sakura Wars 3: Ogami and co. recruit Lobelia Carlina, a female pyrokinetic who is described as the "greatest villain in Paris" and being single-handedly responsible for 80% of the city's criminal activity, into the Paris Assault Force.

  • In Freefall, the police chief tries to recruit Sam after Sam helped figure out where Florence was. He tells him that catching crooks is even more of a challenge than committing crimes, but Sam still declines.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Truth in Television: Reformed thieves and conmen are invaluable to people designing security systems.
    • The police also sometimes hires them for training the recruits. This tends to only be the case with non-violent criminals however - thieves, pickpockets, burglars and frauds.
    • Plus many large corporations used to hire criminal hackers to try to break their systems and advise them on how to beef up security. This has been taken to its logical conclusion and these days so-called white-hat hackers hire themselves out to find vulnerabilities in computer security and never actually break the law or hack maliciously.
  • During World War II the OSS obtained a number of skilled criminals from prisons to train its agents for specialty skills; most agencies maintain a number of state-sponsored safecrackers, pickpockets, etc. Of course when you think about it, those criminals recruited were the criminals that got caught, but they presumably had to make do.
    • Similarly, the Auxiliary Units deliberately recruited known poachers on the basis that they'd had plenty of practice at sneaking around the countryside in the dark.
  • Averted by casinos (in the US, at least), which DO NOT hire convicted cheaters to catch cheaters.
  • Snitches are 'hired' by wardens and policemen to rat on their underground friends, whether for creature comforts or being left to their menial thievery.
  • According to one CNN documentary, convicted drug dealer Jimmy Keene was recruited by police to befriend convicted kidnapper Larry Hall and get him to admit to a string of serial killings that police had been unable to solve on their own, with Keene getting a reduced sentence out of the deal.
  • Same as how medical shows hire doctors and military shows hire former service personnel, crime shows have been known to hire former criminals as consultants on an ongoing basis, to advise the actors and writers and make sure they get the details right.
  • The MMORPG RuneScape has often had problem with players using bots, and Jagex (the company that made the game) eventually made a major anti-bot update in November 2011. However, someone known as "Jacmob" was still able to make a bot that worked with the game. In response, Jagex offered him a job; he is now working on anti-cheat technology for the company.
    • Played somewhat straight with some sims in Second Life. There are a few sims that have been set up and they invite Griefers to try and crash the sim. If someone manages to do it, they are asked how they did that.
  • Eugène Vidocq who founded the Sûreté Nationale, and is regarded as the father of modern criminology.
  • Frank Abagnale Jr., the inspiration for the film Catch Me If You Can mentioned above, is in fact a Real Life convicted forger and con man who was hired by the FBI after his arrest to advise them on fraud prevention. He also runs an independent firm as a financial security consultant.