What’s that they say about there only being so many plots? Sure, they’ve all been used up by now. Long ago by the Greeks to hear some people tell it. There may have been a lot of death and destruction but I don’t think the Greeks were writing much crime fiction.
Still, plots get recycled. Characters become stock. Quirks become clichés. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Sometimes you read a book about a certain type of character, or a certain kind of plot, and you want more. You don’t discover a new flavor of ice cream that you love and stop eating it after one scoop, do you?
So for the first installment of my three of a kind series, I’m going to examine three books with a similar central character—the getaway driver.
Bank robbers in crime fiction are romanticized, but even more than the planner of the job, the person who gets the most respect seems to be the getaway man. He embodies criminal cool and three tremendous authors have fallen for his siren song: Andrew Vachss gave us The Getaway Man, James Sallis gave us Drive and Duane Swierczynski gave us The Wheelman.
Vachss is probably best known for his Burke novels. I prefer his stand-alones, however, and The Getaway Man ranks as my favorite. The Burke novels for me—and I haven’t read all of them—are too brutal. Too realistic. They often involve sexual predators, children in terrible situations and they are all infused with Vachss’ crisp prose and his personal experience working with at-risk kids. It is to his credit that he pulls no punches with Burke, it just makes the books a little too close to home for me. Can a book be too well written?
The Getaway Man, however, is Vachss stretching his pulp fiction muscles. The book is lean and mean. All three of the selections this week are. Something about driving fast I guess that keeps the pages turning.
The whole thing feels very vintage. It has your standard job gone bad and the fallout from that. The central character, Eddie, is a man defined by his driving. He knows no other life. When he is forced to consider a life outside of crime it rocks his world. There are double crosses and, of course, a dame. The Getaway Man reads like a long lost James M. Cain novel.
Eddie displays some of the common traits of a getaway driver—loyalty, dedication, focus and meticulous preparation. He’s also prone to being a bit of a sucker, not seeing the larger picture. He’s so hung up on his thin slice of the pie that he gets himself get played by the ones at the top who can see the long game.
James Sallis’s Drive was one of the most widely praised novels of the year in 2005, which always struck me odd. It’s a fine book, great even, but Sallis has given us those before. It is short for a novel to be taken very seriously by the establishment and it is unabashedly genre with its pulp bona fides out on display for all to see. Those don’t usually end up on a whole lot of top ten lists or end up being called “perfect” by The New York Times. I’m glad this one did, though.
The big hook is that the main character, who we know only as Driver, is a stunt man by day, driver for hire at night. Of course that gets him into hot water and what I think is behind the kudos for this book above other getaway books is the deep character and humanity that comes out in Driver. He is a man who cares. He is not someone defined by his criminality. He is at his very soul, a driver. Doesn’t matter what kind. But he is also someone who knows right from wrong and will take extraordinary steps to put things back right.
It also has one of the best openings of any book, genre or not.
Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake.
I mean, come on. How can you not press the pedal to the metal and read on for the next 158 pages to see what happens?
Also from 2005 is The Wheelman, by Duane Swierczynski, the wildest ride of the bunch. Swierczynski hits all the signposts of a good getaway novel but does so in a souped up muscle car with the top town and the gas tank on fire doing about 100 on a curvy back road at night.
The book comes in short bursts. It is funny in a very twisted way. The characters go through, as in all Duane Swierczynski books, a tremendous amount of punishment. More than seems humanly possible sometimes, but that’s the Swierczynski world.
It’s another job gone wrong, and really, without that we wouldn’t have getaway books at all. Where The Wheelman goes after that botched job is entirely unpredictable. And yet, we still see the themes of loyalty, honor and a level of hip that keeps the driver on a higher plane of cool than anyone else in the book.
That is one thing that unifies all these books. You want to hang out with the drivers. Sure, they are criminals, but the driving is something they were all born to do. It’s almost not their fault; the adrenaline needs to be fed.
So who will write the first female getaway driver book? Or surely someone has and I don’t know about it yet, in which case, who will tell me what that book is?
Whoever does write it can feel free to use all the trappings of these other getaway books because they work. They are the bones around which a good getaway story is written. Fill in the details as you wish. It certainly works for detective fiction. Ten thousand titles that start with a murder on page one and end with learning who the killer is on the last page can’t be wrong.
So the next time you feel the need—the need for speed—pick up any one of these books and prepare for the smell of gasoline fumes to keep you up at night. You’ll need to be awake for these bad boys. And don’t take your eyes off the road.