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.
Currently, Eddie has a job driving a truck for a metals company. He and his lovely wife and their young daughter live in a humble abode, in San Francisco where most of Trinian’s seven novels are set. He’s not making much jack at the job and some of his old cronies make fun of his home for being so pitiably modest, but Eddie is content. He’d like to go on living this way, earning money honestly and being with his family. But there are two elements from his past that make clean living difficult for him.
The first is a cop, Lieutenant Drago. At a heist nine years earlier, Drago busted in on Eddie and his small gang. And Eddie, the gunman from his old group, had to shoot at the cop, that being the only time Eddie ever pulled the trigger on a job. His shot didn’t kill Drago, though. Eddie and the others got away and somehow Drago has never been able to prove that Eddie was either in on that heist or shot at him; and this lack of closure gives Drago an unending grudge against Eddie. It’s nine years later and he won’t let Eddie be in peace. Every time Eddie gets a job Drago finds some way to foul things up for him; either pulling him in for questioning on some crime and keeping him so long that Eddie’s employer fires him for missing so much work, or just flat going to Eddie’s bosses and telling them they shouldn’t keep a cop-shooting crook on their payroll.
Eddie’s other big problem is his older brother Walter. Walter is the ideas man in Eddie’s ring of crooks. Their relationship as siblings is a complex affair, and a situation that often works to Eddie’s detriment. The brothers lost their parents early in their lives and after that time Walter became more like a father than a brother to Eddie. Eddie feels like he owes Walter for this, Walter knows Eddie feels that way, and Walter uses this as leverage in their interpersonal dealings. The following passage from the book nicely captures the essence of the brothers’ relationship:
Many times in the past Eddie had been left with the feeling of guilt because of Walter. Many times he had wanted to refuse him, but somehow, listening to him, near him, under the familiar influence, he had in the end always agreed. Until this time in prison Eddie had never been able to assert himself with his older brother. Walter was the only one who made him feel this way. With others he had been tough – had had a reputation for being ruthless – but with Walter he had been weak. Walter had been able to sway him, to make him do things he had argued against.
So where all this comes into play in the story is that Walter and the old gang have a new heist in mind, and they want Eddie’s participation. Walter and an unsavory cohort keep dogging Eddie, showing up at his house and other places where Eddie is, applying the pressure for Eddie to join them in the new scheme. Eddie is able to hold them off for a time, but when Drago causes him to lose the truck-driving job, it starts to become more difficult for Eddie to refuse the promise of the big bucks the caper can bring to him. But before agreeing to Walter he makes a last-ditch effort to stay clean, by applying for a bank loan. He figures if he can just bring in some ready money to pay the present bills that will give him some time to find other work and maybe even to convince Drago to get off his back and let him live peacefully. But here’s the problem about that loan: the bank Eddie asks to lend him money is one he and some others once robbed. Banks aren’t too quick to hand out money to people who once stole from them. Makes sense, right?
This powerful segment follows Eddie’s outlook after he dejectedly exits the bank:
Eddie turned, without a word, and left the office. It wouldn’t be worth it to strangle Wadsworth. Why go back to the joint simply to satisfy a one-second urge? Eddie was straight, intended to stay straight. So what if he thought about crime now and then? It was natural wasn’t it? Sure, why not. He had been a thief every day of his teenage and adult life until five years ago. No one said that he had to blot out his past. All he had to do was stay straight now. It’s now that counts. Still, why didn’t they forget about it, why didn’t they leave him alone and let him live in peace!
Anguish, rage, despair, boiled through him. When he stepped out onto the windy, paper-littered street he saw the sadness of the hour – the time of dark and light, of crowded buses and lonely-voiced newsvendors. The neon signs over the cheap saloons were lit, but the hour was at that terminal stage when the lights seemed muted in the last gasp of daylight. Christmas tinsel, green and silver and giant wreaths, whispered on the street poles in the wind. People moved by, dark and shapeless in heavy winter coats. Coins jingled in passing pockets. Stores took in money with cash registers ringing. Self pity flooded through Eddie.
Scatch a Thief’s bleak tone reminds one of David Goodis’s writing. At times it feels like the West Coast version of George V. Higgins’s desolate classic The Friends of Eddie Coyle, nearly a decade earlier. Trinian (whose name in daily life was Zekial Marko, which in turn was an alias), wrote the screenplay for the 1965 film adaptation of this story, which is called Once a Thief and which also features Trinian/Marko as an actor in a small role. I haven’t managed to track down a copy of this movie for viewing, so if anyone has any hot leads on a way to achieve that acquisition, please speak up.
John Trinian only authored a few crime novels yet he was a master of the form. His other books – mostly studies of Beatnik-era San Francisco art world characters – read like Jack Kerouac if JK had been more downbeat in his tone. All seven of Trinian’s novels are worth looking into, and Scratch a Thief is a lost classic of noir fiction.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.