Now Win <i>This</i>!: Yule Be Sorry Sweepstakes Now Win This!: Yule Be Sorry Sweepstakes Crime HQ All I want for Christmas is you (to die)! <i>A Nip of Murder</i>: New Excerpt A Nip of Murder: New Excerpt Carol Miller A robbery gone wrong leaves Daisy scrambling. <i>Thief</i>: New Audio Excerpt Thief: New Audio Excerpt Mark Sullivan Could the secret to eternal life really reside in a remote South American tribe? Fresh Meat: <i>Kill 'Em with Cayenne</i> by Gail Oust Fresh Meat: Kill 'Em with Cayenne by Gail Oust Rachel Kramer Bussel Murder wasn't supposed to be on the menu...
From The Blog
December 19, 2014
Number 1 of the Scams of Christmas: Santa Letter Scams
Terry Ambrose
December 18, 2014
Number 2 of the Scams of Christmas: Holiday Heartbreakers
Terry Ambrose
December 17, 2014
Number 3 of the Scams of Christmas: Season's Breachings
Terry Ambrose
December 16, 2014
Number 4 of the Scams of Christmas: Sly Shipping
Terry Ambrose
December 15, 2014
Number 5 of the Scams of Christmas: Grumpy Greeting Cards
Terry Ambrose
Showing posts by: Brian Greene click to see Brian Greene's profile
Nov 24 2014 12:00pm

Lost Classics of Noir: Whip Hand by W. Franklin Sanders (and/or Charles Willeford)

In case you’re confused by the author credit in the heading here, let me just say that I join you in your befuddlement. This 1961 noir novel was originally published as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original, with W. Franklin Sanders tagged as the writer. But over time it came to be revealed that Charles Willeford wrote some, if not all, of the book. Sanders may have been his co-author, but then Sanders may have also been a make-believe person. If you’re interested in reading up on that intrigue, there is no shortage of material available on the web. I’m going to leave that subplot alone and just focus on the book, which is a gem of a read.

But first a couple words on Willeford. I doubt I need to sell many readers of this site on the merits of his writing. Some Willeford fans might think of his Hoke Moseley series as his finest work, while others might prefer his earlier titles such as Cockfighter (1962) or The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971). Of the Willeford books I’ve read, it’s his second novel, Pick-Up (1955), that I value the most. When I first started this column, I drew up a shortlist (well, it was actually long) of books I might cover, and Pick-Up was among those. I haven’t gotten around to writing an appreciation of it, and maybe I never will for this series, as I have purposely been avoiding covering the same writer twice, in order to spread the hardboiled love. In any case, Pick-Up is a hell of a noir novel. If you like this kind of stuff and haven’t read it, do so. And while you’re at it, read the one I’m about to discuss; because whether it was written by Willeford or this Sanders guy, or some combination of the two of them, it’s pure.

[Back to Whip Hand...]

Nov 9 2014 12:00pm

Fresh Meat: The Art of Robert E. McGinnis by Robert E. McGinnis and Art Scott

The Art of Robert E. McGinnis by Robert E. McGinnis and Art Scott is a coffee-table book that highlights the illustrious career of one of America's most recognizable artists (available November 11, 2014).

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that while I have long been an admirer of particularly striking covers of what we now call pulp novels, I’ve never learned all that much about the artists who create the images that grace those book faces. I’ve only recently started to learn some things about this particular corner of the visual art world, via an especially enjoyable Twitter connection (@PulpLibrarian) who is a great source of stunning book covers and information about the artists who made them. Something else that’s added to my knowledge of this terrain, and given me a thirst to be educated about it even more, is this glorious new coffee table book which celebrates the career of  visual artist Robert E. McGinnis.

[It's one of those books that never grows old...]

Oct 31 2014 10:30am

Lost Classics of Noir: Criss-Cross by Don Tracy

So this is the next in my line of posts where I’m going to write about an underappreciated vintage noir novel, and in so doing, discuss a movie that was made from its story (sometimes it’s the other way around, but you get the idea). Robert Siodmak’s 1948 (referenced as ’49 in some places) film Criss-Cross, which stars Burt Lancaster, Yvonne “Lily Munster” DeCarlo, and Dan Duryea, is an example of film noir of which most aficionados of that genre are likely familiar and appreciative. Don Tracy’s 1934 novel of the same title is less known but as worthy of recognition.

Tracy may not have been James M. Cain, but judging by this novel, he wasn’t all that terribly far behind. Honestly, if someone new to the world of classic hardboiled fiction asked me for a good example of such a book, I would be perfectly comfortable pointing them in the direction of Criss-Cross. Likewise, I’d gladly tout the book to knowing noir heads who haven’t read it.

[Let's change that...]

Sep 18 2014 1:00pm

Get Carter by Ted Lewis: Crime Fiction’s Open Source Blueprint

I’ll get right to the point here; Ted Lewis’s 1970 novel Jack’s Return Home (re-titled Get Carter so I’ll call it that from here on) is one of the most influential works of crime fiction in existence. In the world of U.K. hardboiled literature it’s had the kind of impact that books by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler had on the genre in the U.S. In the new edition of Get Carter being put out by Syndicate Books, the back cover and inside pages contain jaw-dropping laudatory praise of the novel by the likes of Derek Raymond, Stuart Neville, Dennis Lehane, James Sallis, and John Williams, the last of whom says Lewis’s book is “the finest British crime novel ever written.” When I researched Lewis’s life and work several years back, one person I interviewed was David Peace; Peace told me, about Get Carter, “I very consciously used it as a blueprint for Nineteen Seventy-Four, my first novel.”

Before further discussion of the book, I’m going to pause and say a few things about the film that shares its title. Because you can’t say the words Get Carter without thinking of the 1971 big screen feature that stars Michael Caine and was directed by Mike Hodges (Hodges supplies the foreword to the new edition of the book). I’m not going to go into any detail about the movie, because a prolonged analysis or appreciation of it deserves its own space. Suffice to say that it is not only a classic film; it’s an institution. It holds high places on best-ever film lists issued by entities such as The British Film Institute, Empire magazine, Time Out, and The Guardian. If you’ve seen the movie, you likely don’t need me to try and convince you of its quality. If you haven’t, and if you care anything about film noir, gangster cinema, Michael Caine, or classic films period, just go watch it. If you’re like I was after my first viewing, when it’s over you’ll find you have a hankering to run it again.

[And probably a third time...]

Sep 11 2014 1:00pm

Lost Classics of Noir: Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes

I didn’t set out to make a habit of, when writing appreciations of books for this site, also commenting on movies that were made from the novels. Ditto discussing the books that were converted into the films I cover. But oftentimes it just makes sense to do this. There’s usually something interesting in the connection between books and the movies that get made from them, and when you know one but not the other, then experience the other, you often come away with some new insights into the story in the medium to which you were already hip.

Anyway, when writing about the novel that was turned into the classic 1947 movie Out of the Past, there’s just no way around commenting on the film. Ask 100 film noir buffs to list their all-time top 10 examples from the genre, and my guess is at least 80 of them (if not more) would include Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 masterpiece on their tally. Yet I wonder how many of those 80 or more have read the book – Build My Gallows High (1946), penned by Daniel Mainwaring under the pseudonym of Geoffrey Homes – that is the foundation of the big screen feature. I’ve been an avid watcher/reader of both noir film and fiction for decades, first saw and was blown away by Out of the Past many years back, but I’ve only just now read the novel. The book is out of print, as best I can tell was last issued by Film Ink in 2001. And there is no e-book version, at least that I can find. So it’s fair to say it’s a lost title. And, having just taken it in (I got it in one of the Ace 2-for-1 editions, with a Harry Whittington novel attached), I can say it’s a classic.

[You owe it to yourself to check it out...]

Aug 20 2014 10:00am

Lost Classics of Noir: The Baby Doll Murders by James O. Causey

We noir heads love the covers of the classic paperback editions of what we now call pulp fiction. You know, the ones with the deliciously lurid images and the zinging plot teasers. The funny thing about the zingers is that, as often as not, they are misleading in giving an indication of the story’s actual plot, if not outright false. But we don’t care about all of that. We enjoy the catchy phraseology and we know it’s just some words that read well on the book cover and that were put there to hook readers.

The cover of James O. Causey’s 1957 noir novel The Baby Doll Murders is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. A Fawcett Gold Medal title, its face shows a sexy redhead in a negligee, her back turned to a guy who is intently staring at her while he holds a cigarette in his mouth and a cocktail in his hand. And the tagline reads, “She could look like a wistful child and she loved to play games – such as murder, men, and marijuana.”

Now, there is a carrot-topped femme fatale in the story, she does use drugs, and there is a guy who is hooked by her charms. But the truth is that she is only one of about eight main characters in the saga, and the leading man’s attachment to her is only one element of the plot, no more central than the several other subplots that drive the tale. So the main story is really not one of a trouble-making babe who lures a hapless fella into her web of mayhem, as the cover suggests. But who cares? The cover rocks.

[Sex has always been the best seller...]

Jul 31 2014 11:45am

Somewhere Between French and American: Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

We know about the appreciation of, and contributions to, noir film and fiction by the French. We know that they celebrated the likes of Jim Thompson when the now-revered American noir author was kicked to the curb in his home country. And in 1960 another striking example of U.S. noir being recognized by the French occurred when rising star French film director Francois Truffaut used a novel by American David Goodis as the basis of his second film. Truffaut had come across Goodis’s bleak 1956 title Down There along the way, was enthralled by it, and had one of his legal reps buy the movie rights. Then, after dazzling the movie-watching universe with his groundbreaking debut, 1959’s French New Wave classic The 400 Blows, Truffaut wanted his next film to be something less blatantly French and something that showed the influence American cinema had on him. Cue Shoot the Piano Player and Goodis’s downbeat tale of a once-famous musician, who is now playing tacky fare in a rank-and-file bar, was the perfect vehicle through which the director could put these desires into effect.

[First, we move from Philly to Paris...]

Jul 24 2014 10:00am

Erotic, Gothic, Belgian Vampires: Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Atmosphere is such an important aspect of movies. I’ve never attempted to make a film, so I can’t intelligently discuss the techniques involved in pulling off this vital part of the endeavor, but I know quality cinematic atmosphere when it crosses my path. If someone asked me to explain what I mean by this facet of movies, I might either try to describe it verbally, or I might just sit them down and have them watch the 1971 erotic/gothic vampire film Daughters of Darkness.

The spellbinding atmosphere in the movie is there from the opening scene and is strong enough to keep a hold over a bewitched viewer throughout the duration of the story. It’s there in the mesmerizing speaking voice of Delphine Seyrig, who plays an ageless and exotic Hungarian countess who also happens to be a lesbian vampire who feeds off the blood of young girls. The mood is present in the striking physical beauty of Valerie (played by Danielle Ouimet), a young Swiss woman who is unlucky enough to, while on her honeymoon, wind up staying at the same hotel where the Countess decides to stop. It’s in the stormy soul of Stefan (John Karlen), Valerie’s new husband, a blue-blooded Englishman who’s a nice enough guy most of the time but who is prone to sudden and inexplicable violent outbursts and who is drawn to the Countess in a love/hate sort of way. And the atmosphere exists in the personality and look of Ilona, the Countess’s personal secretary and co-drinker of young female blood: Ilona is a moody/sexy Goth girl who is constantly both on the brink of suicidal despair yet ready to seduce somebody.

[Watch out!]

Jul 16 2014 1:00pm

Ringin’ Around the Rosie with Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1969)

I’m part of a group of friends who have been dazzling one another with movies for decades now. We’re all cinephiles and we have similar tastes in films, yet each of us has our own individual slant on flicks. We like to get together and watch movies, each of us taking turns at being the one to pick the titles. When you make a selection for viewing among this group, you’re of course hoping to show the others movies they haven’t yet seen. Beyond that, you just want your choices to be films that will be enjoyable and memorable. Sometimes you go for cinematic fare that’s just straight-up good, sometimes you shoot for weird and good, other times your aim is at so-bad-it’s-good camp. Just give them something that will engage them on some level during the watching and give all of us things to talk about after, and you’ve scored a winner.

I think I can say I have a fairly high success rate in picking films that work for this group. But there has been the occasional misstep. I once cleared a room with a showing of a moody early Wim Wenders title, and another time left everyone feeling deranged after presenting the bent 1973 drama The Baby. Another “mistake” on my part was when I offered the group Girly aka Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (it went under the longer title upon its 1969 theatrical release and was shortened to the one-word name for the 2010 DVD issue – I’m going to use the shorter title from here on in). The problem was timing and setting.  This was during a beach vacation and maybe that isn’t the most ideal backdrop for a viewing of a twisted British horror/dark comedy film. But our annual beach weeks are generally the only time all of us are together these days, I had just recently happened on to Girly and was knocked out by it, and I couldn’t wait for my friends to see it. And it’s not like the idea of me championing weird movies was a new idea to this set of people.

[That should tell you how weird this one is...]

Jul 9 2014 11:00am

Moving In, Creeping Out: Roman Polankski’s The Tenant (1976)

One could reasonably expect that if a Criminal Element blogger were going to single out a Roman Polanski film for appreciation, the chosen title would be Chinatown (1974). But at the risk of committing sacrilege in the eyes of my fellow cinephiles and while I certainly appreciate the brilliance of Polanski’s classic work of film noir, a couple other cinematic works of his have always worked for me in bigger and deeper ways. One of those is his debut full-length feature: 1962’s Knife in the Water, the taut drama about a bourgeois couple who takes a nonconformist young man on a boating excursion. Another of my favorite Polanskis, and the one I’m about to discuss here, is 1976’s The Tenant.

I’ve just been watching the movie again, this being my fourth or fifth viewing. Before I dusted off my DVD, though, I sought out and read the novel from which the story originates. Although I’ve been an avid fan of the film since I first took it in decades ago, I had never before considered whether it was based on a book. I figured I should learn about that before writing this article, and now I’m glad I had the notion. The Tenant is indeed based on a novel of the same title and was written by Roland Topor and originally published in either 1964 or ’66, depending on the reference you’re checking. The book is a strong work – an absurdist, hallucinatory tale that combines nightmarish elements with black humor and which has a penetrating philosophical framework. Topor was an interesting guy: a writer, visual artist, filmmaker and actor who specialized in surreal works. I’ve been reading some of his other stuff since polishing off The Tenant. His books are something like Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays mashed with Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

[Apartment for rent...]

Jun 25 2014 10:00am

Punishment Far Beyond the Crime: The Last Detail (1973)

When I decided to do a run of film appreciation pieces for this site I thought, “Ok, so I need to go through my DVD collection and pick out some favorites that have some kind of crime/suspense angle to them.” That wasn’t hard to do and it’s really not all that limiting. And of course, one of the great things about Criminal Element is the wide range of film, fiction, and TV, etc. fare that gets covered here.  I knew I could be loose in my interpretations of what movies might be suitable for appreciation posts on the blog. So, the crime involved in the movie I’m about to discuss now – 1973’s The Last Detail – is a laughable offense. But then the triviality of the violation and the ridiculously harsh punishment visited on its offender is a big part of what drives the story.

Before we get into the details of the offense and what happens as a result of it, I just want to say a few words about the book that served as the film’s basis, and its author. In an earlier post here I singled out The Last Detail as an example of a rare instance (IMO) where a movie far outclasses the book it came from. After that piece ran I felt bad about picking on Darryl Ponicsan’s 1970 novel (same title as the film), because it’s really a perfectly good read. So is Ponicsan’s 1973 title Cinderella Liberty, which has a similar theme (foibles of life in the U.S. navy for enlisted men), and which was also made into a noted movie. So, sorry Darryl. Your books are aces.

[But now back to the film...]

Jun 10 2014 9:30am

A Western for the B-Movie Junkie: The Female Bunch (1969)

When Thelma and Louise hit the big screen in 1991, it stood out in the world of mainstream movies for being a film that portrayed women as badass renegades who fought against abuses from men and took the law into their own hands. But it was hardly the first film that had that kind of plot background. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, there was a whole slew of motion pictures that had women taking things over and ruling the society around them, and living in ways that suited their own desires rather than following any ordained laws of men.

Most of these titles were B-movies and being a B-movie junkie, I’ve seen a silly number of them. Russ Meyer’s 1965 drive-in classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is an obvious example of the kind of movie I’m talking about, and one of the very best. But there are hordes of others. There are futuristic films that have women lording over some colony, or female biker gang flicks, or the Bee Girls, about which I’ve already written. But the example I’m about to discuss is a Western that features women as outlaw toughies: 1969’s The Female Bunch.

Before I get into a plot summary and critical analysis, a couple of interesting side-notes about it: First, and creepily, it was shot on the infamous Spahn Ranch when the Manson Family was living there.  Second, it was the last movie role for Lon Chaney, Jr., who died four years after its release.

[Now onto the plot!]

Jun 4 2014 10:00am

Dario Argento’s Giallo Thriller: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

The term giallo gets thrown around a lot by people talking about certain films. Sometimes I wonder how diverse are the definitions of the genre held by those of us who use the word. I’m sure the description giallo film could be stretched to include a lot of different things, but for me it means a kind of movie that comes from Italy and that began in the 1960s but enjoyed its heyday in the early-to-mid ‘70s. These gialli generally include some combination of the following elements: Hitchcockian suspense, slasher film gore, softcore sexuality, beautiful people wearing chic European clothing, and an overall feel of daring experimentation. And there’s usually out-there music, sometimes composed by Ennio Morricone who is mostly known for his spaghetti Western soundtracks but who did so much more. So I say a giallo film is a stylized Italian crime/suspense/softcore movie with a cool soundtrack. If you disagree, well, say so.

[Or don’t...]

May 17 2014 12:00pm

Borderline by Lawrence Block

Borderline by Lawrence Block is a hard-boiled thriller, originally published in 1962 and now available for the first time in 50 years, about the intertwining lives of a handful of people on the Mexican-American border as they encounter sex, drugs, and a serial killer (available May 20, 2014).

Before cracking the first page of Borderline—which was called Border Lust when it was originally published in 1962, under one of its young author’s many pseudonyms: Don Holliday—I told myself, “This is not a book by Lawrence Block. This is an early ‘60s paperback original by a writer you’ve never heard of before, and you’re reading it because it was suggested to you by one of your noir-loving brethren. Now let’s see what this Holliday guy had going on.”

So, it turns out the fella was a sure hand at penning a hardboiled yarn of the steamy variety.  For a noir lover, there’s a lot to like just in the backdrop of the story. The setting is fertile ground for this kind of tale: everything in the book happens on the U.S./Mexico border, the netherworld between El Paso and Juarez. The characters are ideal, too. There are eight or ten players in the story, but ultimately the focus is on four of them: two men (a professional gambler and a psycho killer) and two women (a divorcee out for kicks and a teenage runaway).

[This is not for the faint of heart...]

May 14 2014 11:00am

It’s Only Reich and Roll: A Degree of Murder (1967)

When I read Scott Adlerberg’s excellent appreciation of the gangster film Performance on Criminal Element last summer, I thought, “At some point I should do a piece about that other Rolling Stones-related crime movie I like so much, A Degree of Murder.” So, nine months or so later, here I am doing that.

A Degree of Murder is a German film from 1967. While it is next to completely unknown now, it won some prestigious awards in its home country at the time of its release, and it was Germany’s entry into the Cannes Film Festival in ’67. It was directed by Volker Schlöndorff, the second film made by the man who was then part of the New German Cinema movement that also included the likes of Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  Schlöndorff was just starting an illustrious film career that’s still active and that reached its high point when he won both an Oscar and the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes in 1979 for directing The Tin Drum.

[One man is about to learn you can't always get what you want...]

May 7 2014 3:00pm

Fresh Meat: The New Black: A Neo-Noir Anthology edited by Richard Thomas

The New Black: A Neo-Noir Anthology, edited by Richard Thomas, is a collection of twenty dark and twisted tales from assorted genres: horror, crime, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, and the grotesque (available May 13, 2014).

I tend to not get bogged down with defining genres. I’m sure some would question whether all or even any of the 20 stories in this collection can rightfully be called “noir.” But although I write about noir fiction I’ve never tried to define it, and when I hear or read someone else doing so, generally close my ears or turn the page or leave the computer screen. So whether these stories are truly noir is up for debate if anyone cares to have that discussion. Truthfully many of them just read like literary fiction to me, albeit with decidedly dark tones to them. They’re dark, for sure. Twisted. Macabre. Horrifying sometimes, surreal at others. If they made me think of older writers it was Edger Allen Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, Shirley Jackson, et. al., more than, say, Jim Thompson or David Goodis.

One common thread in many of the various tales is family dysfunction. I don’t mean family dysfunction like basic sibling rivalry or a household where the parents don’t get along so well; I mean problems like an overgrown infant who feels his mother up and threatens his father with deadly objects, a man who keeps getting sexually drawn to teenage girls including his own niece, a father and son possibly becoming cannibals while lost out in the woods, etc.

[We told you it was dark...]

Apr 25 2014 1:00pm

A Curious Lost Classic of Cinema: Road to Salina (1970)

There’s enough curious tidbits about the 1970 movie Road to Salina to fill up the space of this article, if we wanted to delve fully into those items. But the film itself needs to be discussed so I’ll suffice with a quick overview of some of those interesting notes. It was the last movie acted in by Ed Begley, who died the same year it was released. It was the third-to-last for Rita Hayworth, and her role as an out-to-lunch marm is eerie when you consider that she was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It was the only English language movie directed by Georges Lautner, who was a household name in his native France if not a universally appreciated auteur. The film is based on the French novel Sur La Route de Salina, penned by the ridiculously obscure writer Maurice Cury. The theme to its soundtrack (which is stunningly good) was used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol 2.

There’s nothing particularly strange about the actors who played the two lead roles, but they’re both intriguing thespians. Mimsy Farmer, a quirky American beauty who had recently moved to Europe (she’s never left) and was just beginning a run of notable Euro art house film appearances, portrays a sexy psycho chick in a role not completely dissimilar to the one she’d done the year before in Barbet Schroeder’s cult classic More.  The main male part, a hippy drifter, is ably handled by Robert Walker, Jr. son of acting people Jennifer Jones and Walker, Sr. (film noir lovers might remember Walker, Sr.’s beautifully perfect portrayal of the creepy Bruno in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train).

[You look just like somebody that I used to know...]

Apr 11 2014 10:00am

Lost Classics of Noir: Kiss Her Goodbye by Wade Miller

Sometimes a good setting is all an ace novelist needs to pen a memorable story. Give an able scribe a backdrop that is the stuff of fertile literary ground and they can go to work in spinning a yarn that will please their faithful. One such setting, particularly around the middle of the 20th century and particularly for writers of what we now call noir fiction, was a motor court, or auto court. You know, those old roadside motels that were generally found right off highways and that were meant to lure tired travelers in need of a quick, cheap, frills-free stay before they started the next leg of their trek. As I wrote about in an earlier installment of this column, Clifton Adams employed a motor court as primary setting to great effect in his top rate noir novel Death’s Sweet Song. Similarly, Wade Miller very effectively used the same kind of physical grounds as the place around which to base the superb 1956 book Kiss Her Goodbye.

While Adams’s novel has the troubled owner of a motor court as its lead character, the Miller book follows the doings of a pair of guests at one of the inns. Ed Darnell and his little sister Emily wind up at the Quality Auto Court in Jimmock, Calfornia by chance. And while they initially had no plans to remain in their room at the place for more than a night or two, they become long-term visitors.

[Emily, not Ed, is the ticking time bomb...]

Mar 27 2014 9:00am

Lost Classics of Noir: Scratch a Thief by John Trinian

In the last of these columns I wrote about an author whose work I said would have to be represented in any of list of the great heist novels of all time. This time I’m covering another scribe who demands a place on that list. But John Trinian’s 1961 story Scratch a Thief (later re-titled Once a Thief) is a heist novel and so much more. It’s also, like Ted Lewis’s groundbreaking 1971 Brit Grit classic Jack’s Return Home (Get Carter), a study of the complicated relationship between a pair of brothers. Too, it’s an existential yarn about a guy fighting the uphill battle of attempting to escape his past.

Like Trinian’s 1960 novel The Big Grab (aka Any Number Can Win), Scratch a Thief studies the doings of criminals who are free from the prison at the moment. But while the two main characters from The Big Grab start planning their next crime caper the moment they are out of the pen, the protagonist from Scratch a Thief wants to go straight now that he’s out on parole. The guy we’re talking about is Eddie Slezak. Here’s a short profile of Eddie, per the book’s omniscient narrator:

He was a big lean man, thirty-six years old, with short salt and pepper graying hair, prominent Slavic cheekbones, hard, unsmiling mouth. His eyes were dark, almost black, sensitive, deep-set under thick black brows. His hands were thick, the knuckles showing like hard, white knobs under the embroidery of hair. His shoulders were slightly stooped. His movements were athletically spare, knowing; but with it all there was a strange air about him, almost of apology.

[There's always something trying to pull you back...]

Mar 23 2014 1:00pm

Lost Classics of Noir: The Big Caper by Lionel White

I enjoyed Wallace Stroby’s recent Criminal Element post about some under-seen heist films. It got me thinking about a sister post that would cover some standout examples of heist novels. I’ve yet to mentally compile the list of books that I think should be included, but I knew one thing the second I had the notion: Lionel White would have to be represented. White is the master of the heist (gone wrong) novel. Stanley Kubrick made the top-shelf film noir The Killing based on White’s 1955 novel Clean Break, about a team of men who put together a complicated plan to pull off a big swindle at a race track. Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged White’s writing as being an influence on his heist film Reservoir Dogs.

I’ve read a handful of White’s novels and, honestly, any one of them is worthy of an appreciation here. Clean Break stands up to Kubrick’s brilliant film, and there’s another one called Death Takes the Bus that is so good I skipped a night’s meal because while reading its climax, I couldn’t tear myself away from my Kindle long enough to eat.  But I’m going to zero in on a White heist novel that came out the same year as Clean Break. Let’s talk about The Big Caper.

[There's always time for another bank heist story...]