Monday, October 19, 2015
Steal Big, by Lionel White
May, 1960 Fawcett Gold Medal
Known as the “king of the capers,” Lionel White is apparently most remembered as the guy who wrote the novel that Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film The Killing was based on. That novel was titled Clean Break, and it’s one I don’t have; strangely, for an author who was once so popular and well-published, White’s books appear to be pretty scarce on the used books market. I don’t think any of them have been reprinted, even by Hard Case Crime. At the very least, his books are overpriced these days, but I was able to score this one cheap.
Steal Big is a classic heist story. A professional thief named Donovan has just gotten out of prison and is already planning his next big caper: this one should bring in at least half a million dollars. He’s put together a team of five people, and they’re also the classic diverse lot demanded by this subgenre, from an alcoholic old woman to an ex-boxer. Or as Donovan himself considers them:
An evil old woman who could steal the pennies from a dead man’s eyes. A puny, psychopathic sadist who likes to kill for the fun of it. A punch-drunk moron who by all rights should be in a side show. A college boy who hates the world because he figured he took a bum rap. A girl who isn’t dry behind the ears yet and who only wants to go for the ride because she thinks she’ll get enough money out of it to spring her old man out of the clink.
The putting together of the team is another hallmark of the heist story, but White skips it here; Donovan, who is described himself as getting on in years, has already put his team together when the novel begins. Told in third-person, the book hopscotches across the perspectives of these characters, sometimes jarringly so (White is a firm POV-hopper, with perspectives changing between paragraphs with no space to warn the reader). However, White also plays interesting tricks with time. He writes sequences and then doubles back and write them from the perspectives of other characters, which occasionaly lends the narrative a bit of a surprise factor.
Donovan is an old pro, along the lines of Parker, but more of a cipher. We really don’t get much of a peek into his head or how he even devised this big job, which is the robbing of the Needle Trades Bank in Manhattan. We do know that Donovan found out about the place thanks to Clarence Pachel, the “psychopathic sadist” mentioned above; Clarence is a twenty-something freak who works as a bank teller but years to be a great criminal along the lines of Donovan. Again, though it isn’t really elaborated on in the narrative, it’s apparent via subtext that Clarence is screwed up thanks to his mother, the above-mentioned Mama, a hard-drinking old lady who runs a rooming house in Yonkers where she lives with her son and the rest of the heist team.
Donovan’s right-hand man of sorts is Bill Barker, the “college boy,” who did time for accidentally killing a man in a bar fight. Donovan and Barker were cellmates, and Barker, pissed off at the world for the bad hand he was dealt, became very interested in working jobs with Donovan. Now he lives in Mama Pachel’s rooming house, getting ready for the score and lusting after blonde hotstuff Carol. Carol’s father is another Donovan of sorts, but one who got caught on a big job and was handed over the veritable death sentence of a few decades imprisonment. Barker and Carol sort of have a thing for each other, but spend most of their time fighting and telling each other how much they dislike one another.
Carol is an interesting character who is again lost amid the crush of too many characters and too little pages. It’s vaguely explained that her dad was put away by a corrupt prison board and Carol hopes to buy them off with her share of the Needle Trades score. Meanwhile everyone in the house has made their own plans with Carol for after the job, from Donovan, who expects her to go off with him to Canada “for about a year” until the heat blows over, to Mama and Clarence, who expect her to leave with them – Mama because she’s sort of raised Carol (in her own way) ever since Carol’s father was sent to prison ten years ago, and Clarence because he wants to get in Carol’s pants.
The final member of the heist team also has his own designs on Carol: Jo-Jo, a monstrous ex-boxer with a bad drinking habit who comes on strong to everyone save for Donovan. Jo-Jo is like a loyal puppy to Donovan, doing whatever he demands. Donovan explains to Barker that Jo-Jo once “accidentally” killed a girl while raping her(!) and Donovan, seeing opportunity, saved him from the cops. In exchange, the peabrained lummox became Donovan’s slave. In all honesty, Jo-Jo’s presence on the team is unnecessary, despite Donovan’s constant claim that he’s as central to the score as everyone else. However the reason Donovan gives is very lame – Jo-Jo’s there due to his “artistry” with a shotgun. What kind of “artistry” does one need with a shotgun??
Jo-Jo is there for narrative convenience, so he can add dissension and tension to the team. Mostly because, within the first several pages of the novel, he gets wiped-out drunk and attempts to rape Carol (apparently rape happens frequently in Leonard White’s novels), only stopped at the last moment by Barker, who tries to kill him. In the end Jo-Jo is confined to his room in the rooming house, looked up until the Needle Trades job. Meanwhile Donovan tries to quiet the unrest among his team while taking them on more practice runs; the novel opens with a heist on a Queens bank, and later there’s one on a bank in New Rochelle. Here more tension develops, as Clarence secretly goes on the second job despite being dismissed from it by Donovan.
White excels at the heightened tension of the heist, though when things blow up he doesn’t get very much into the nitty gritty. For here in the New Rochelle heist, Clarence, in disguise, surprises his teammates by just happening to be in the bank they’re about to rob (and they aren’t surprised in a good way, especially Donovan), and he proves his sadistic leanings by blowing away a hapless guard. When Donovan demands Clarence be left behind to fend for himself, Clarence hijacks the car of a random passerby and later kills him, too. This all culminates with Clarence too confined to his room in the Yonkers house!
Meanwhile Donovan continues to plan the big score. White doesn’t really give us the full details, instead taking us through some of Donovan and Barker’s daily planning activities to give us a hint of what’s to come when the job goes down. Donovan also whets our appetite for bloody violence when he buys guns and grenades from the in-jokingly named Kubric Novely Company, which is a front for Donovan’s go-to arms supplier. (And yes, White spells “Kubric” without the “k.”) But there isn’t much violence to be found in Steal Big; when characters are shot, they merely fall down. Same goes for the sex, the closest we get being Jo-Jo’s attempted rape of Carol, which hardly counts, unless you’re into that sort of thing for some crazy reason.
Donovan’s plan is accordingly convoluted, from Barker starting up a fake moving company to converting a stable into a hideout. Mama’s part of the scheme also shows how technology has changed over the decades: she buys a portable tape recorder from a New Yorker company, and it’s not only the size of a suitcase, but, along with a microphone and six tapes, costs her $576.00!! This element was likely considered novel back in 1960, as Donovan records a series of terse commands which are played for the bank patrons during the heist. The end result is they have no idea how many people are actually robbing the bank, and think several people are involved, with guns pointed at them from all directions.
The Needle Trades heist goes down in the final several pages, and plays out very well. Donovan’s point that each member of the team is essential bears out, but at the same time their tasks are so menial anyone could’ve done them. Barker waits in the getaway car, Donovan, Clarence, and Jo-Jo pull off the actual bank heist, Carol drives another car to divert the cops, and Mama waits back in a loft overtop the converted stable, where she’ll operate a gizmo that secretly opens the door so Barker can park the getaway car in there, with the team then getting into the fake delivery service van which is waiting there for them. But as demanded by this subgenre, things don’t go as smoothly as planned.
It isn’t your classic case of a heist gone bad, more so how things spiral apart because of a slight misstep in the plan. Carol turns out to be the cause, as she almost misses the cop she’s supposed to distract and thus ends up wrecking her car into his. Not only that, but due to various reasons the payoff isn’t anywhere near what was expected; despite it being the payday for the various garment district companies the Needle Trades provides banking duties for, the heisted cash turns out to be a lot less than half a million: it only comes out to be $750,000.
The finale is more of a case of everyone turning against one another, with a bad-luck patrolman named Jim Gallagher – the guy Carol crashed into – stumbling onto their hideout after some crude detective work. It’s all sort of like Reservoir Dogs, as a captured and beaten Gallagher is about to meet his grisly end, before Barker announces he’s gotten sick of this whole messed-up heist. Steal Big features one of the more abrupt finales in a novel, with two main characters pefunctorily killed off within the span of a page, and then Barker and Carol announcing they’re going to call the cops and turn back over the $750k!!
While it wasn’t perfect, Steal Big was still fun to read, mostly because I’ve always enjoyed the heist genre. Maybe someday I’ll seek out more of White’s work. Interestingly enough, later in the ‘60s White tried his hand at an installment of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series (The Mind Poisoners, 1966), but his manuscript apparently veered so much from the series formula that producer Lyle Kenyon Engle had to get Valerie Moolman, his go-to fixit author, to rewrite most of it.