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Literature / Nick Velvet

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Nick Velvet is the protagonist of a series of short stories by Edward D. Hoch. Nick is a professional thief for hire, with a peculiar specialty: for a flat fee, he steals only objects of negligible apparent value. Since his first appearance in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in September 1966, he has stolen such things as an old spiderweb (which he was then obliged to replace), a day-old newspaper, and a used teabag. His original fee for a theft was $20,000. In 1980 he raised it to $25,000 at the urging of his long-time girlfriend Gloria (who met Nick in 1965 when he was burgling her New York apartment); in the 21st century his fee has risen to $50,000. Unlike many fictional thieves, Nick usually works alone on his thefts — in fact, until 1979 Gloria believed that Nick worked for the U.S. government.


The Nick Velvet caper stories generally combine a near-impossible theft with the mystery of why someone would pay $20,000 to have an apparently valueless item stolen. Although Nick often appears as devoid of curiosity as his targets are of value, circumstances usually force him to identify his clients' true motives, making him as much of a detective as Hoch's more conventional characters. Most of the Nick Velvet stories have a light and humorous tone reminiscent of Leslie Charteris' early stories of The Saint. The fundamental immorality of Nick's chosen profession is frequently offset by the larger justice resulting from his detective work.


The Nick Velvet stories contain examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: In "The Theft of the Silver Lake Serpent", local fisherman Mr. Seeley is found dead on the lake shore with his head bashed in. It looks like murder, but he was actually kicked to death by a camel while trying to capture the serpent.
  • Alice Allusion: Nick's frequent rival is Sandra Paris: a Classy Cat-Burglar who specialises in Impossible Thefts. She uses the alias 'The White Queen', and her business card reads "Impossible Things Before Breakfast".
  • Amateur Sleuth: For a professional thief, Nick solves an awful lot of crimes.
  • Angry Guard Dog: In "The Theft of the Overdue Library Book", Nick has to work out how Sandra Paris abducted someone from a men's room that had an angry guard dog outside its only exit.
  • Animal Assassin: In a case of Early Installment Weirdness, Nick (who, for the most part, eschews violence in the later stories) fatally unleashes a tiger on two crooks who try to double cross him "The Theft of the Clouded Tiger".
  • Bad Santa: In "The Theft of the Christmas Stocking", Nick dons a Santa outfit as part of his plan to break into an apartment to steal the stocking.
  • Banana Republic: In "The Theft of the Meager Beavers" (one of the odder entries in the series), Nick is hired to steal a baseball team and deliver them to a specific Banana Republic.
  • Baseball Episode: In "The Theft of The Meager Beavers", Nick is hired to steal a professional baseball team and fly them to a Banana Republic; ostensibly to play a game against a team assembled by that country's president.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: A frequent tactic of Nick's. In "The Theft from the Onyx Pool", he uses it to steal all of the water from a swimming pool.
  • Beastly Bloodsports: Nick gets involved in bullfighting in "The Theft of the Matador's Cape". Nick watches a bullfight at one point but finds the spectacle disgusting.
  • Beneath Notice: In "The Theft of the General's Trash", Nick poses as a milkman in order to gain access to secure apartment block on the grounds that no one notices a milkman. He is right and none of the tenants pay him any attention. While the doorman does notice him, his only question is "Where's the regular guy?"
  • Bluffing the Murderer: Nick does this in "The Theft of Santa's Beard", when he points at the murderer as he is leaving the police station and yells "He's the killer and I can prove it!" The killer panics and tries to flee, and is immediately grabbed by the cops. Nick doesn't actually have any hard evidence, but knows that the police will probably find it if they search the killer's office.
  • Bound and Gagged: In "The Theft of Leopold's Badge", Sandra Paris mugs a dancer for her costume, and leaves her bound and gagged in a closet.
  • Bulungi: Nick gets involved in the politics of the newly independent African republic of Gola in "The Theft of the Seven Ravens" when he his hired to steal the republic's gift to their former colonial master Great Britain.
  • The Caper
  • Car Fu: In "The Theft of the Blue-Ribbon Bass", Nick's client turns up to the meet to discover Nick being held at gunpoint by someone who plans to steal the fish off him before she can collect it. She rams her car into him, knocking him down and breaking his leg.
  • The Casino: In "The Theft of the Cuckoo Clock", Nick is hired to steal a broken plastic cuckoo clock. What makes the theft challenging is the clock's location: inside the manager's office at the centre of a well-guarded casino.
  • Chained to a Bed: Nick wakes up handcuffed to a bed after he is kidnapped in "The Theft of Nick Velvet". He manages to talk his kidnappers into hiring his services.
  • Circus Episode: In "The Theft of the Circus Poster", Nick gets involved in the world of circus performers when he is hired to steal an old poster from a collection of circus memorabilia.
  • Classy Cat-Burglar: Sandra Paris, a.k.a. the White Queen
  • Clear Their Name: In "The Theft of Leopold's Badge", Nick has to prove the innocence of rival thief Sandra Paris, who has been charged with murder.
  • Clock Tampering: In "The Theft of Twenty-Nine Minutes", Nick is hired to ensure to ensure that the passengers on a riverboat cruise 'lose' 29 minutes. Getting a job as a Stage Magician on the riverboat's cabaret, Nick is able to alter all of the clocks on the boat without being noticed. During his show, he collects the watches from all of the guests as part of a trick. As he places the watches in a bag, he uses sleight of hand to wind each one back 29 minutes. As they don't get their watches back till the end of the show, no one notices the change of time.
  • Comic-Book Time: In his first appearance in 1966, Nick is described as 'pushing 40'. In the introduction to Ellery Queen Presents the Spy and the Thief (the first collection of Nick Velvet stories) in 1971, Edward D. Hoch gives Nick's birth date as March 24, 1932. In the introduction to the 1978 collection The Thefts of Nick Velvet, Hoch says that would make Nick 45 as he writes these words and he he doesn't expect Nick will age much beyond that. The stories continued until the late 2000s with Nick seeming to age very little.
  • Cover Identity Anomaly: In "The Theft of Nick Velvet," the killer accidentally exposes himself while claiming to be an artist from Johannesburg and talking about the excellent northern light in his studio. As Nick points out, in the southern hemisphere, artists want southern light.
  • Crime After Crime: A comparatively mild example happens in "The Theft of the Banker's Ashtray", where Nick ends up up having to steal the same ashtray twice (and the ashtray is actually stolen three times). Nick is peeved because he only gets paid for one theft.
  • Cryptid Episode: In "The Theft of Silver lake Serpent", Nick is hired to steal a serpent that has been sighted in the lake near a resort. The 'serpent' turns out to be a fake, designed to generate publicity for the resort. Nick manages to steal the fake serpent anyway.
  • Cuffs Off, Rub Wrists: Nick does this after he released from being handcuffed to a bed in "The Theft of Nick Velvet".
  • Danger Takes A Back Seat: In "The Theft of the Campaign Poster", Nick gets threatened by a thug hiding in the back of his car who puts him in a choke hold and then knocks him out.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: The murderer in "The Theft of Leopold's Badge" is the dancer who was Mugged for Disguise by Sandra Paris and left Bound and Gagged in a closet at the beginning of the story. Being mugged as part of a heist wasn't the dancer's plan, but she decided that it would make a great alibi, so after freeing herself from her bonds and committing her murder, she went back to the closet and pretended to still be bound and gagged.
  • The Don: Nick is hired to steal a Right-Hand Cat from a Mafia don in "The Theft of the Mafia Cat".
  • Dynamite Candle: In "The Theft of the Birthday Candles", Nick is hired to steal the candles off of a birthday cake. The reason for the theft turns out to be to allow the client to replace the candles with a set of explosive ones that are intended to go of as the birthday celebrant is blowing them out.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Nick was originally billed as a 'Thief of the Unusual' rather than a 'Thief of the Worthless'. Several early stories feature him stealing items that definitely have a monetary value. The first story has him stealing a rare tiger from a zoo. It was several stories into the series before Hoch settled on the only stealing items with no value aspect that made the character unique.
  • Fakin' MacGuffin: In "The Theft of the Crystal Crown", Nick deduces that the glass crown he has stolen is a fake when he realizes that he was hired to steal the crown as a publicity stunt and his employer would never endanger the real crown that way.
  • Fixing the Game: In "The Theft of the Lucky Cigar", Nick is hired to steal the cigar that a high roller keeps, unlit, in his mouth during a regular high stakes poker game. The client is convinced that the gambler is cheating and that the cigar is part of it. After stealing the cigar, Nick discovers a small vibrator in the mouthpiece. The gambler has a spotter placed on the opposite side of the room, who transmits the opponents hands via code through the mouthpiece with the gambler sensing the vibrations through his teeth.
  • From Camouflage to Criminal: In the early stories, it is established that Nick dropped out of high school and joined the army; serving in an overseas conflict (before Comic-Book Time kicked in, this would have been The Korean War). It is never plays a major part in the stories, but it is established that it was in the service that Nick discovered his talent for illegal activity that would become his career when he was discharged.
  • Gentleman Thief: Nick
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: This is how Sandra 'steals' a roulette wheel out of a busy casino in "The Theft of the White Queen's Menu". Unknown to the casino owners, the wheel was one gimmicked to drop inside the table when a hidden switch is hit (which is why her client wanted it stolen). Sandra waits till no one is looking, and then hits the switch. She later sends her men in dressed as movers to remove the now 'empty' table.
  • High-Class Glass: In "The Theft of the Crystal Crown", Nick assumes that the man who is acting as gobetween between Nick and his employer is a nobleman because he wears a monocle. Nick notes how much more natural the monocle looks when they are in the Ruritania where the crown is located than it did in New York. Nick's assumption is wrong. The man is actually a Communist agent planning to take advantage of the theft to stage a coup.
  • Hunting "Accident": At the end of "The Theft of the Bathroom Scale", it is mentioned that the man Nick stole the scale from had been shot and killed by his wife (whom Nick suspected of having committed the murder of a cowhand during the theft) in a 'hunting accident'. However, she did not make a very convincing job of it and was arrested a few days later.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: The story titles all begin with "The Theft of..." (or, more rarely, "The Theft from...") followed by the name of the object Nick is hired to steal (or the location he has to steal it from). (The exception is "The Theft of Nick Velvet" which deals with Nick being kidnapped. The actual object he is hired to steal is a page from a ship's manifest.)
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: In "The Theft of the Blue-Ribbon Bass", Nick finds Razor Fitch - a bow fisherman Nick had employed to help him in his latest theft - nailed to the wall of his loft with an arrow from one of his own bows.
  • Impossible Thief: Sandra Paris (a.k.a. the White Queen). While Nick specialises in stealing the valueless, Sandra specialises in seemingly 'impossible' crimes, such as stealing the entire contents of a room, a roulette wheel off a busy casino floor, or a painting off the wall in plain view in a gallery. Her slogan is "Impossible things before breakfast".
  • Improvised Zipline: In "The Theft of the Mafia Cat", Nick sneaks the eponymous cat out of the fortified mansion by placing it in a plastic bag and using fishing line to slide it down a telephone line and over the wall of the estate.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison:
    • In "The Theft of the Lopsided Cobweb", the killer gives themself away when they say Nick should be more careful when being shot at. As no one else was present, only the killer could know Nick was shot at.
    • In "The Theft of the Picture Postcards", Nick deduces the identity of a blackmailer when they mention they amount of money demanded, despite the victim never mentioning it.
  • Intangible Theft: In "The Theft of Twenty-Nine Minutes", Nick is hired to 'steal' 29 minutes from the guests on a cruise ship.
  • Invisible Writing: In "The Theft of the Used Teabag", Nick's client is certain the teabags are being used to pass something along. After cutting the bag open, searching it for contraband and finding nothing, Nick points out the pasteboard tag on the bag could be used to pass on a message. There is the name of a meeting place written in invisible ink that is revealed by dunking the tag in hot tea.
  • Janitor Impersonation Infiltration: In "The Theft of the Used Teabag", Nick dresses as a busboy to gain access to the kitchen and dining room of the club in order to steal the teabag.
  • Last Disrespects: In "The Theft of the Leather Coffin", Nick is attending a viewing, working out how he can steal the eponymous coffin, when the funeral parlour is stormed by armed thugs who steal the coffin at gunpoint.
  • Locked Room Mystery: In "The Theft of the Overdue Library Book", Nick has to work out how Sandra Paris abducted someone from a men's room that had an Angry Guard Dog outside its only exit.
  • The Mafia: Nick (who is Italian-American) gets involved with the Mafia in "The Theft of the Mafia Cat". He notes that a number of guys from his old neighborhood ended up joining the Mafia.
  • Mistaken for Spies: Because Nick frequently disappears at short notice for variable lengths of time, his girlfriend Gloria comes to the incorrect conclusion that he is a secret agent. Because it provides a convenient cover, and ensures that she won't discuss his absences with anyone, Nick allows to labour under this misapprehension for years.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: Nick is employed by one in "The Theft of the Banker's Ashtray". Nick exposes him for defrauding his clients after he attempts to stiff Nick on his fee.
  • Mugged for Disguise: In "The Theft of Leopold's Badge", Sandra Paris knocks out a dancer and steals her costume - leaving the dancer Bound and Gagged in a maintenance closet - to give her access to a gallery where she plans to steal a Van Gogh.
  • My Card: Nick carries a collection of legitimate business cards he has collected over the years in his wallet. He uses these to create cover stories on the fly to help him with his thefts. For example, in one story he uses the business card of a vet to help him buy the tranquilizers he needs to sedate a guard.
  • Pinned to the Wall: In "The Theft of the Blue-Ribbon Bass", Nick finds Razor Fitch - a bow fisherman Nick had employed to help him in his latest theft - nailed to the wall of his loft with an arrow from one of his own bows.
  • Prison Episode: In "The Theft of the Convict's Calendar", Nick is hired to steal a calendar from inside a cell in a maximum security prison.
  • Real Name as an Alias: In "The Theft of the Meager Beavers", Nick uses the alias 'Mr. Nicholas' while posing as a sports journalist.
  • Right-Hand Cat: In "The Theft of the Mafia Cat", Nick is hired to steal the right-hand cat of a Mafia don.
  • Ruritania: In "The Theft of the Crystal Crown", Nick is hired to steal the symbolic (but valueless) glass crown of the Kingdom of New Ionia. New Ionia is a constitutional monarchy on a island between the southern tips of Italy and Greece. The island is 50 miles long and 25 miles wide with one major city. It also has a lot of strange customs, as is to be expected in a Ruritania, and Nick's theft has the potential to completely overthrow the social order.
  • Serial Killings, Specific Target: In "The Theft of Santa's Beard", two men dressed as Santa are killed, seemingly at random. Several large department stores then receive extortion letters warning that their Santa will be murdered in their store unless they make a large cash payment to the killer. However, the first two Santas were the intended victims all along, and the extortion attempt is a smokescreen.
  • Shot at Dawn: In "The Theft of the Meager Beavers", Nick gets caught up in Banana Republic politics and has to thwart an attempt to assassinate the president while making it look like the work of a judicially appointed firing squad of nine foreigners (It Makes Sense in Context).
  • Smoke Out: In "The Theft of the Clouded Tiger", Nick uses a smoke bomb to lay down a smokescreen between himself and the zoo guards, and another to force the tiger out of its cage and up a ramp into the truck.
  • Stage Magician: Nick is an amateur magician who often uses sleight of hand in his thefts. He is skilled enough that he is able to get a job as a magician on a riverboat in "The Theft of Twenty-Nine Minutes".
  • Stick 'em Up: In "The Theft of the Lopsided Cobweb'', a girl sticks a length of copper pipe in Nick's back, convincing him it's a gun and forcing him to accompany her.
  • Stolen by Staying Still: This is how Sandra 'steals' a roulette wheel out of a busy casino in "The Theft of the White Queen's Menu". Unknown to the casino owners, the wheel was one gimmicked to drop inside the table when a hidden switch is hit (which is why her client wanted it stolen). Sandra waits till no one is looking, and then hits the switch. She later sends her men in dressed as movers to remove the now 'empty' table.
  • Surveillance Drone: One appears in the 2005 story "The Theft of the Empty Paint Can". At the time, drone technology was so new that the editor felt compelled to explain that this was a real item, and not something Hochs had invented.
  • Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Charlie Weston who appears in several of the stories. Charlie is originally a cop, and later a freelance security consultant who crosses paths with Nick several times. Charlie is unfailingly honest; a trait Nick finds unsettling.
  • Taking the Veil: At the end of "The Theft of Turquoise Telephone", Nick discovers that a Japanese general wanted for war crimes who was believed to have committed suicide at the end of the war had actually retreated to a Buddhist monastery and been living as monk for 30 years. (The man who committed suicide was actually the general's brother.) As he has spent 30 years atoning for his crimes, Nick leaves him to live out the rest of his life undisturbed, rather than expose him.
  • This Is My Name on Foreign: In "The Theft of the Ball of Twine", Nick uses the alias Mr Velluta while posing as a journalist. Velluta is Italian for Velvet.
  • Time Marches On: Some of the 'worthless' items Nick steals in the early stories would not be considered worthless today. For example, in "The Theft of the Circus Poster, Nick steals an early 20th century circus poster that is described as being maybe worth a few bucks to a collector. Today such an item would be worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
  • We Need a Distraction: In "The Theft of Leopold's Badge", Sandra Paris creates a distraction during an art gallery heist by seemingly setting fire to a Van Gogh (actually a copy she had placed when she swiped the original) so she can escape in the confusion. However, another thief takes advantage of her distraction to steal two other paintings, hoping to pin the thefts on her.
  • When She Smiles: Sandra Paris (a.k.a. the White Queen). In her first appearance ("The Theft of the White Queen's Menu"), Nick is astounded that Sandra has been able to keep him under observation in a casino without him noticing. Sandra replies that no one ever notices her unless she smiles. She then smiles at him, and she goes from looking like an innocent librarian to completely dominating the room.


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