"James Bolivar DiGriz, I arrest you on the charge –"
I was waiting for the word charge; I thought it made a nice touch that way. As he said it I pressed the button that set off the charge of black powder in the ceiling, the crossbeam buckled and the three-ton safe dropped through right on the top of the cop's head. He squashed very nicely, thank you. The cloud of plaster dust settled and all I could see of him was one hand, slightly crumpled.
It twitched a bit and the index finger pointed at me accusingly. His voice was a little muffled by the safe and sounded a bit annoyed. In fact he repeated himself a bit.
--Harry Harrison, "The Stainless Steel Rat"
Many are the stalwart and noble heroes of fiction, clean-cut, upright, honorable. You can depend on them to do what's right, to help the helpless, to oppose the evil, to leave the world a better place, and never demand a reward for all of this.
And then there's James Bolivar DiGriz, AKA The Stainless Steel Rat.
The creation of science fiction great Harry Harrison, DiGriz is a classic Crook with a Heart of Gold. Able to crack any lock, master of unarmed and armed combat, fast-talker and a devious plotter second to none, DiGriz is something like James Bond seen in a darker, sardonic mirror, down to his womanizing ways (although his later marriage reduces this tendency). Early in his first story ("The Stainless Steel Rat") he is finally captured – after a long interstellar crime spree – by the Special Corps, who offer him a classic choice: join them and help catch the criminals that are much worse than he is, be mentally "adjusted", or go to jail for a long, long time.
While DiGriz is, in many ways, antisocial, he is truly a good man somewhere in his heart, and he really doesn't have to think too long to make that choice. DiGriz does not permanently injure people, and does not kill unless he has absolutely no choice; in fact, when we first meet him, he has never actually killed anyone (the "cop" in the quoted section above is a police robot), and as far as I can recall through the series his body count never rises out of the single digits. Given that he's a master crook trying, usually, to stop psychopaths or worse, that's pretty impressive.
I first encountered James DiGriz in The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat, an omnibus collection of his first three adventures ("The Stainless Steel Rat", "The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge" and "The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World"). This shows off Harrison's strengths to best advantage, allowing us to follow Jim's career through a considerable story arc. DiGriz begins as a loner, is sucked into the world of espionage, tries to leave, and finally realizes that he really is needed for these jobs – although he will still register his independence in various ways.
In many ways, the Rat's adventures in this book remind me of a Joss Whedon series; the heroes are quick with quips in danger, competent, smart, and dramatic in almost every way. Also in the fact that the single most dangerous person in the entire series is not, in fact, Jim DiGriz, nor his boss in the Special Corps; that honor belongs to his delicate, harmless-looking wife Angelina – once the most dangerous criminal Jim ever encountered, and still far more willing, and able, to kill than he ever was or will be.
Jim's adventures are clever in numerous ways. Harrison has a gift for figuring out entertaining problems to present to our hero, or tense situations to put him into, and then let him work his way out of them in style. Some of these are very memorable; the Gray Men are particularly chilling adversaries, and have a method of torture and brainwashing that may well be one of the most convincing I have ever read about in terms of believing that it would detach the sufferer from a clear grasp of reality.
Some years later, Harrison returned to DiGriz' world, releasing other books such as The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, The Stainless Steel Rat for President, and A Stainless Steel Rat is Born. They were not terrible additions to the canon, but I honestly felt that all of them did not clear the bar set by their initial predecessors; in fact, their quality declined linearly in order of publication, pretty much. That is, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, being the first of the new Rat novels, was the best of the follow-ons, with the others of steadily decreasing quality.
Part of the decrease was a "Flanderization" of the Rat – his characteristics became exaggerated to the point that he seemed to me to be approaching self-caricature – and Harrison's writing quirks began to dominate the story, rather than merely accent it. There was also something of a power inflation, though not a regular one, and at times it felt like Harrison was stretching himself thin – trying to write a James DiGriz story when he didn't really have a good James DiGriz idea.
The first three stories, however, remain some of my favorite SF works, and are still very much worth reading. If you want an adventure with a roguish thief who's still (mostly) on the side of the angels, give the Rat a try!