Monday, October 28, 2013

The Devalino Caper

The Devalino Caper, by A.J. Russell
January, 1977  Ballantine Books

First published in hardcover in 1975, The Devalino Caper is another heist novel that really promised a lot more than it delivered. I’m unfamiliar with A.J. Russell, but despite the listless plot his writing is pretty good, particularly when it comes to dialog; he doles out some great tough-guy chatter, some of which wouldn’t seem out of place in Gannon. But then, dialog is part of the novel’s problem, as I’ll gripe about momentarily.

The action opens in rural Indiana, where Joe Dev has been flown in by a local crime boss for a specific purpose. Dev is around 30 and Italian born and raised, only having lived in the States for the past decade. He came here with his brother Bruno, who we soon learn is back in New Jersey where he and his wife and child have been taken captive by some Jersey mobsters; if Dev doesn’t pull a job and get them the $100 thousand Bruno owes them, then the mobsters will kill Dev’s brother.

As for the Indiana caper, Dev’s been summoned by Bick Anson, the underworld boss of this section of the state; he runs the place with his assisstant, the Indian. The caper involves breaking into the high security compound of Cugarman, a megawealthy recluse who has gotten hold of a million or so in securities. Anson has hired Dev because he’s legendary for his breaking and entering skills. Dev’s a tough guy for sure, but not a violent criminal; he informs Anson that he never uses weapons on his heists and has never even owned a gun.

Anson puts Dev up in a whorehouse run by a heavyset black madam named Harriet; there are only three prostitutes who live here: Helen, Julia, and Alice, and Russell spends a goodly portion of the narrative building up these characters. Julia and Alice have an ongoing rivalry, which is soon compounded when good-looking Joe Dev shows up and takes an immediate liking to Alice. There’s a fair bit of sex in The Devalino Caper, but Russell shies from the details – his characters all seem to have walked out of a David Mamet production, though, dropping F-bombs left and right.

Which brings me to the dialog. This is one of those novels where a character is introduced and he has this odd way of speaking, odd but memorable, and you think hey, this is pretty cool, a character with such a unique voice. Then another character appears, and he or she also has a unique way of speaking. Then a third and a fourth, until you realize that every single character has a unique way of speaking, and they all talk a lot. According to the author bio Russell was a screenwriter, and I can easily see that -- The Devalino Caper is like a Tarantino film or something, just filled with characters who talk and talk. (Nothing against Tarantino, I’ve always enjoyed his movies, but sometimes I wish his characters would just shut up and DO something!!)

But these chattering characters bring the novel to a dead halt. They chatter on and on, about their hopes and dreams and backgrounds, and the pages tick by, so that we’re almost a hundred pages in and we haven’t even gotten to the caper itself. Even interesting little oddball bits get shunted aside for more dialog, like the bizarre introduction of a cop named Cooley who knocks over gas stations for spare change. (I believe that’s supposed to be Cooley in the cover painting, by the way, illustrating a scene where he brutally mistreats one of Harriet’s whores – again, a scene which itself isn’t described in the narrative, we just hear about it.)

And as for the caper, when it goes down it’s almost laughable, given how lame it is. Dev’s built up as this almost-mythical conman famous for his impossible heists, but all he does in The Devalino Caper is get Julia to take a job as a waitress in Cugarman’s mansion (Julia now being Dev’s girl, once he’s figured out Alice is secretly working for the Indian) and Dev sneaks into the compound in the trunk of her car! He hides in her room’s closet by day and sneaks around the premises at night. After all the buildup I was expecting a lot more.

The final quarter of the novel deals in turnarounds and surprise reveals, but here again it’s more talk than anything. The few action scenes are perfunctorily delivered, Russell telescoping the details so that none of it is satisyfing. For example when Dev takes on the crooked cop Cooley while he’s beating on the hooker, the ensuing fight is flat and over quickly – not that the characters don’t talk about it a whole lot. The finale as well, with Dev fighting the Indian and some goons, is rendered so flat as to be anticlimatic.

Actually the best thing about The Devalino Caper is the uncredited cover artwork. The back cover features art as well, this time illustrating the climax, where the Indian’s goons chase after Dev. Also note how the back cover copy makes the novel sound a whole lot better than it actually is!

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