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.
Originally published as a Fawcett Gold Medal title, the heist at the center of the tale this time is a bank job. The mastermind behind the motley crew who will work together (and in some instances, apart) to try and pull the job, is a man named Flood. Flood is an immaculately dressed, vindictive, vicious, sharp-minded man who makes me think of Ben Kingsley’s similar character in the contemporary film noir Sexy Beast. Flood is a guy who makes a habit of pulling in wayward ne’er-do-wells down on their luck. He’ll rescue them from present crises, give them food and shelter, sometimes provide them with gainful employment. Then, when he has some need for them, he calls in his favors and puts them to use. And if Flood wants you to do something, it’s best not to argue, no matter how unattractive the task might look. Here’s some helpful information on how Flood rolls, from the voice of the third-person narrator:
He had never been mixed up with the syndicates, with organized crime. He’d never messed around with prostitution or drugs or even professional gambling. In fact, he had been, for the most part, completely legitimate. There had been the night clubs, there’d been the booze, way back in the old prohibition days, when he’d still been a kid. And, of course, on very rare and exceptional occasions, there had been a few more questionable things. But he’d always played it alone; alone as far as the organized underworld was concerned. At times he’d brought in others on jobs, but the others had worked for him, not with him. He always selected them with extreme care. He went out of his way to never move in on anyone else’s territory, and he’d been equally cautious, in selecting those that worked for him, to pick the odd ones, the loners, the eccentrics who, for one reason or another, weren’t tied in with the regular mobs.
The job Flood organizes in the story is a bank heist in a small beach town in Florida. He enlists an arsonist who will set a fire in another part of the area as a diversion, a dynamite artist to free up what they need freed up at the bank, a couple guys who don’t know the others and don’t even know what the overall job is and who are just to shut down the town’s electricity at a certain time, some other guys who are to provide muscle and gun work . . . Then there are two others in on the job who are as much a focus of the tale as the heist itself. They are a man named Frank and a woman called Kay. Frank is an ex-Marine whom Flood pulled in when he was having a run of bad luck, Kay an attractive dame who never quite made it in the entertainment industry and, again, someone Flood rescued at a point when she needed rescuing. She became Flood’s girl, living with him right up until the time he started setting the wheels of the bank job in motion. At that point Flood instructed Frank and Kay to leave New York and go to this town, Indio Beach, in Florida. They were to rent a house, find work, and pretend to be a couple looking to settle down in the burg. More on all that in a few, but first a little background on the town, from White’s pen:
In a community such as Indio Beach, population 4,351 in the summer and 9,332 in the winter, there are three distinct and separate groups of people. There are, first of all, the “natives,” those that lived there for a long time. A long time, in Florida, is anywhere from ten years to a generation or so. There are the newcomers, that group which has almost doubled the static population of the town within the boom years since the war. And there are the winter residents and tourists, who come down to spend anywhere from a week to four or five months, and whose money keeps the economy of the town on a very level and very prosperous keel.
So Frank and Kay, neither of whom are actually criminals, do as told by Flood. They move to Indio Beach and find a house to rent, and Frank leases a gas station and becomes its proprietor. They make like a couple and even insinuate themselves in the town’s social culture, making friends with locals and such. They are there, carrying on as such, for a full three months before the bank job is to occur. Alright, well here’s the problem and the thing that creates much of the tension involved in the razor-sharp story: by the time of the bank job, when Flood and some other from the crew descend on their Indio Beach home, Frank and Kay are no longer pretending to be a couple; they have fallen in love with each other, and with their domestic life together. They would prefer to skip out on the job and go on being together in a happy and crime-free way. But they both know how little Flood would be moved by any of this sentiment, both know how violently angry Flood will become when he learns they’ve been making love together, both know the kind of evil retribution Flood will visit on them if he is faced with any of this aggravation. And meanwhile, Flood’s en route to them, and the time of the bank job is nigh.
There are other circumstances that threaten the bank job. Flood’s hired arsonist, who comes to move in with Frank and Kay a few days before the heist (they tell the locals he is Frank’s uncle), is a lush and a pyromaniac who gets drunk and sets a fire in town just for kicks. One of the duo who is to be the gun holders/fighter is traveling around with a girlfriend, which goes against Flood’s clearly stated rules of conduct for his team. The two clowns who are to shut down Indio Beach’s juice on heist day can’t help but start trouble at a bar where they go to kill time, making a nuisance of themselves when Flood needs them to be low-key. And then there are problems like Frank’s and Kay’s local friends dropping by for a chat or to share a bottle of hooch when Flood and the others are hiding upstairs in the house.
White’s writing is brilliant throughout and just pure noir, stripped to the basics and filled with tight detail. Let’s close with a segment in which the narrator describes the mindset of the old-timer who is to be the dynamite man in the bank job:
He was one of the very last of an old school. In his entire career he had never carried a gun or found the necessity for using one. He didn’t understand or approve of the current crop of burglars and hoodlums. He was a criminal and that he freely admitted, but he belonged to a different generation and a different time, an era that no longer existed.
And now he was an old, old man and this would probably be his last job. With what he already had saved and safely invested in government securities, the fifteen thousand dollars would see him through until he died.
When it was over he’d just get on the train and go back up North to the little town where he owned the tiny bungalow, and he’d sit on the porch in the sun and know that he was all through and that there was nothing else left to do but wait for death. No worries, no fear of ending up at the poorhouse.
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.