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"Set a thief to catch a thief."
—Old Greek proverb
"Sometimes, bad guys... make the best good guys."
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 some sort of deal for their services in exchange for a shortened or commuted prison term. 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.
Sometimes overlaps with the Token Evil Teammate, depending on how self-serving they actually are.
- 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 Yu Yu 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 Laughing Man. YMMV however seeing as how his only real crime in the entire series is trying to expose a criminal conspiracy at gunpoint. All other crimes by the Laughing Man were copycats.
- 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 Face Heel 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.
- 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.
- Pretty much the entirety of The Longest Yard is the prison warden demanding an inmates vs. prison guards football game and Adam Sandler's character being forced to recruit the various criminals with no promise of anything but a chance to bash into the guards, humiliate them or both.
- A classic example in The Dirty Dozen.
- 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 and 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 2, 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 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Not to mention Artemis himself - he was a Villain Protagonist in the first book, after all.
- 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.
- 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.
- In the pilot episode of Stargate Universe it wasn't entirely clear if Eli had been involved with dubious computer crimes or not, as the government was only interested in the hidden code he had cracked from a computer game.
- 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.
- 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 TV show It Takes a Thief 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.
- And there's another show called It Takes a Thief which has pretty much the same premise as White Collar.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 another Bioware epic, Dragon Age, you recruit Sten, who has been imprisoned until he dies of starvation for slaughtering a family of farmers due to him losing his sword while he was unconscious.
- 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.
- In two episodes of Justice League, the League faces off against Knight Templar counterparts called the Justice Lords who are willing to kill. In need of a counter-tactic that the Lords don't also have and can't replicate, they recruit Lex Luthor.
- The standard Thief in a traditional Dungeons and Dragons adventure party. Turns out the guy skilled in picking locks and pickpocketing tends to do that for a living, who knew?
- 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 be only the case with non-violent criminals however - thieves, pickpockets, burglars and frauds.
- Plus many large corporations will hire hackers to try to break their systems and advise them on how to beef it up.
- During World War II the OSS obtained a number of skilled criminals from prisons to train it's 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.
- 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 meanial 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.