Monday, August 19, 2019

The Anderson Tapes

The Anderson Tapes, by Lawrence Sanders
January, 1971  Dell Books

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for quite a while. First published in hardcover in 1970, The Anderson Tapes was a big seller in its time but seems to be forgotten today, perhaps most remembered for the 1971 film adaptation starring Sean Connery – which itself is pretty obscure. At least, I had never heard of it until coming across a mention of it when I was actively looking for ‘70s crime movies a few years ago.

And the thing is, the film – directed by Sydney Lumet and co-starring Dyan Cannon – is actually pretty cool, plus it features a bizarrely young Christopher Walken in a supporting role. And also there’s a wacked-out Quincy Jones score, filled with “sci-fi” bloops and bleeps. But now that I’ve read the book I see how much of it didn’t make it to film, and also it’s clear that Connery was miscast, though he’s good as ever in the role.

The book was hot for its time because it brought to life the surveillance and monitoring that was becoming increasingly commonplace; this was a few years before Watergate. Lawrence Sanders broke his teeth writing crime stories in skin rags (I have an anthology of his pulp work, Tales Of The Wolf, which sounds cool – save for the upsetting tidbit that the tales have been “modernized” for the 1986 republication date). He the big league with The Anderson Tapes. Today it seems mostly known for being the first appearance of a character Anderson brought back in later novels: NYPD Captain Edward X Delaney. However Delaney doesn’t even appear until late in the narrative and doesn’t make much of an impression on the reader, or at least he didn’t to me.

The conceit of the novel is that it’s presented as a report “the author” has put together about the organized robbery of an upscale apartment building in Manhattan on Labor Day weekend of 1968. To this end the novel itself is comprised of conversations which have been secretly recorded, either via wiretap or hidden microphonees. The implication is that Big Brother is encroaching on us little folk, however the main failing for me with this conceit is that it ultimately has nothing to do with the plot of the novel: simply put, The Anderson Tapes is the story of how a career criminal attempts to heist an entire apartment building, but is ultimately foiled by a handicapped kid with a shortwave radio. It’s a simple story made complicated.

While the “transcripts” nature of the book must’ve seemed revelatory in its day, or so contemporary reviews would imply, today the whole thing just seems tedious. And it’s not even just that I’m viewing it with a modern eye. The Anderson Tapes still seems sluggish and bloated; at 337 pages in this Dell edition, it is much longer than it has any right to be, and a lot of it is due to needless repetition and tedious overexplanation of mundane things. And in fact by novel’s end I was longing for basic narrative stuff like “He said” or “She said;” the conceit that the entire thing is a “case study” soon becomes a deadweight around the reader’s neck.

Anyway the novel such as it is opens with a secretly recorded conversation between John “Duke” Anderson and Mrs. Everleigh, an attractive married woman who lives in a posh Manhattan apartment all by her horny lonesome. Here we get a taste of what’s in store for us, with long dissertation on how and why this recording was gathered (in this case, the woman’s separated husband, who owns the apartment, placed a bug in it under the suspicion that his wife was cheating on him). This gets to be a beating as the novel goes on, though sometimes there is some humor in it. However Sanders’s “Big Brother” paranoia rings hollow here because the majority of these people are planning crimes, thus the wiretapping and etc was justified.

In this case the illegal recording is also justified, because Mrs. Everleigh is indeed carrying on extramarital affairs, and proceeds to have sex with Anderson – not that anything is described. In another of those quickly-grating narrative quirks, we are informed that “ten minutes of silence pass on the recording” and such. In fact hardly anything is described in the novel, which also quickly becomes a bummer – in some of the explanatory introductions to each excerpt we might get a brief, Wanted Poster-esque description of some of the characters, but otherwise the reader’s imagination has to do all the heavy lifting.

Contemporary reviews made a big deal out of the “kinky sex” of The Anderson Tapes, but what it boils down to is that Anderson gets off on sadomasochism, mostly thanks to an old flame of his, a pseudo-hooker from Germany named Ingrid. Much is made of “getting out” in the dialog; Anderson to Everleigh, Ingrid to Anderson: “Do you want me to get you out?” and the like. I assumed this meant climaxing but by novel’s end it seems to have a darker connotation. Also, a few of the characters are gay. This was heavy duty stuff in 1970, and the industry reviewers hyped it up accordingly. But again, there’s no meat to any of it – it’s all talk, zero show. It’s like Sanders, in his quest to make this seem like a legitimate case study, forgot the most basic storytelling requirements. 

The story itself is pretty cool, though, and reading the book made it clear that Hollywood saw the potential and skinned away the flab. Some characters were removed, others were skillfully combined; for example, Mrs. Everleigh doesn’t exist in the film, however elements of her character were combined with Ingrid. Thus in the movie Ingrid lives in the apartment building Anderson plans to rob, and becomes his inside woman, as it were. And they also renamed the character “Ingrid Everleigh!” But in the novel Ingrid lives in her own pad and is basically there for Anderson to exposit on his schemes – her place is secretly wired too, of course, “on suspicion of prostitution.”

While in Ms. Everleigh’s apartment Anderson starts to wonder how much he could score from such a luxury establishment. He’s already done time for various robberies, but he’s looking for the next big hit. He starts planning the heist, going to the Mafia for some backing, putting together a group to reconnoiter the premises via various sneaky means. All this is relayed via wiretapped phone conversations or secret recordings in various locations, with the now-mandatory explanation of why things were being taped there in the first place. In an interesting foreshadowing trick we also know that some of Anderson’s comrades will be captured, as two of the characters “speak” via interviews or testimonies they’ve given to police after their arrest.

I’ve always been a fan of the heist genre, and this is basically a heist book, but we’re robbed of much of the fun, given how it’s told. The usual elements of the genre, from planning the heist to assembling the team, are all rendered via dialog, which robs the tale of the tension and atmosphere it needs. And only a few of the characters are able to transcend the limitations of the conceit, in particular a black criminal acquaintance of Anderson’s who raps instead of talks…well sort of a proto-raps, in that his statements rhyme. But even Anderson himself is lost to us, though this would seem to be intentional, as the book is about his plot but we never actually “meet” him. Not that this should’ve prevented Anderson from being more memorable. We never “met” Shark Trager in Boy Wonder, either, but damned if he wasn’t a memorable character.

As part of the mob’s buy-in on the job, Anderson is given a kill assignment; they want to get rid of a torpedo who has gotten a little out of hand, and Anderson’s told if he kills this guy during the heist, the mob will fund the operation. Anderson, who like the heister in The Devalino Caper never carries a gun on his jobs, agrees to this requirement, and there follows some material where he exposits about it with Ingrid. Speaking of which there is a lot of stuff that could’ve been cut from The Anderson Tapes, and not just the expository dialog scenes. It just seems that Sanders has taken a short and sweet story and bloated it beyond all rational proportions.

The heist doesn’t even begin until over 200 pages in, and here of course the novel finally kicks in gear. But again it’s all relayed via dialog, from either eyewitness testimony of the apartment occupants to the interviews with Anderson’s imprisoned comrades. Anderson and team wore unusual masks in the film, but here they go for the basic pantyhose over the face ensemble. They’re a bit more violent than in the movie, too, particularly the mobster torpedo (who doesn’t even exist in the film), however none of the apartment occupants are killed. The plan is to round up the few people still in the building over this Labor Day weekend and put them in the apartment of two old ladies…whose testimonies are perhaps the most irritating of all in the book, given that much of it is comprised of them bitching at each other.

Anderson is undone same as in the film, thanks to a wheelchair bound kid who happens to be a genius…however here in the book he too is more irritating, going on at great self-congratulatory length in his testimony. What I found interesting is that Sanders didn’t even tie in the “Big Brother monitoring” conceit of the novel into Anderson’s foiling; the kid’s short wave radio has nothing to do with any of that, proving once again that this could’ve been done as just a “normal” novel. But of course this way we also get to read a lot of intercepted short wave radio broadcasts to fill up more pages.

The film did change the finale, though: Anderson doesn’t get out of the building in the movie, but in the novel he’s able to escape and get back to Ingrid…for another conversation about “getting out,” believe it or not! Actually the novel just sort of limps to a jarring close, with the final pages focusing on what’s happened to Ingrid, even though she was at most a supporting character. I would’ve preferred more info on what happened to the other criminals, but again the conceit holds that all at bay, given that this “report” has been put together shortly after the heist, thus most of the criminals are “still under investigation.”

I’m not sorry I read The Anderson Tapes, but the time I spent reading it could’ve been spent on more entertaining – and shorter – novels. Readers of the day clearly felt differently, as this book put Sanders on the map, and he went on to a successful mainstream crime fiction career.


Zwolf said...

Wow, spooky... I just started reading my first Lawrence Sanders yesterday. I've been buying these old used hardbacks with multiple novels by the same author, and the Lawrence Sanders version contains The Anderson Tapes. I skipped over it to start reading The First Deadly Sin, though, which so far seems to be shaping up to be kind of an American Psycho sort of thing. It's going to be a LONG book, though, and considering I just finished reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (which turns out to be one of the best books I ever read, although it's LAAAAWWWWNNNG, son!) I maybe should have picked something shorter to read next. Anyway, so far the prose is good. Weird synchronicity that the very next day I find a review of another Sanders book, though. :)

John Nail said...

I've seen the movie adaptation of The Anderson Tapes, and your review has convinced me to be content with just that. I've read more than a few Lawrence Sanders books and I've found him very inconsistent. Sometimes his books are page-turners (Sullivan's Sting, The Case of Lucy Bending), sometimes they're boring slogs (The Tangent Objective), and sometimes they're just goofy (Stolen Blessings, a novel that I think is meant to be read to "Yakety Sax"). I've read one of his Edward X. Delaney novels, The Second Deadly Sin and remember it as a fairly solid mystery novel, but nothing special.

A lot of reviewers make a big deal about the sex in his books, but as you discovered with The Anderson Tapes, it's way overstated (a blurb on the paperback of Sullivan's Sting makes mention of how "erotic" it is; it isn't, but maybe just mentioning a sexy female FBI agent is sunbathing topless did it for that particular reviewer). I've heard some of his '80s novels were a little more explicit, but I don't think he ever got into Harold Robbins/Jackie Collins territory. Probably the trashiest Lawrence Sanders book I've ever read is Guilty Pleasures. It's not very explicit, but there's a whole lot of incest ickiness. I couldn't put it down, but I found more guilt than pleasure in reading it.

In short, choose your Lawrence Sanders carefully.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys, and the extra thoughts on Sanders!