When I wrote an appreciation of Lionel White’s 1955 noir novel The Big Caper for my Lost Classics of Noir series on this site, I called White “the master of the heist (gone wrong) novel.” This new Stark House Press edition of two of White’s edgy crime stories helps back that claim.
In The Snatchers (1953), White jumps right into the caper. This is a kidnapping story. A 33-year-old con named Cal Dent has orchestrated the abduction of the young daughter of a wealthy Connecticut family. Dent and the team of criminals he has assembled for the big job have taken the child, along with her pretty governess, to a beach cottage in a small tourist town on Long Island. It’s October, and the area where they’re holed up is largely deserted. From this hideout, Dent and his cronies attempt to execute Dent’s complex plan for demanding and collecting a vast amount of ransom money from the child’s parents, after which they plan to flee the country.
Among Dent’s crew are a sexy moll who knows how to use her good looks, her violent boyfriend, a super creep who appears to be a pedophile, and a few others. As we hear all that goes down as the ransom collection attempt is put into action, much of what drives the novel’s dramatic force is the set of interactions among the crooks and how they all respond to the child and her caretaker.
The moll, Pearl, feels romantically pulled in the direction of the crafty ringleader Dent, and she is ready to leave her beau under the bus and hook up with their gang boss. Dent, while attracted to Pearl, doesn’t want to get involved with her—at least not while he needs to keep his concentration focused on the job at hand. But Dent has his attention pulled away from the kidnapping anyway when he finds himself falling for the child’s governess. She is as pretty as Pearl and, as it turns out, came up the hard way just like Dent and all his crew. But she has a strength of character and dignity that sets her apart from a woman like Pearl.
The story is compelling, and White shows himself to be a master of building tension. As the child’s family, news outlets, and law enforcement respond to the kidnapping after the family is contacted by Dent’s crew, the drama within those inside the seaside shack gets progressively more involved. An added factor that contributes to the mounting strain is the omnipresence of a local man—eventually revealed to be a police officer—who keeps turning up around the cottage and whatever parts of the town and neighboring areas the kidnappers venture out to when on runs for groceries or to execute pieces of their scheme.
In the book, White also shows himself to have a good hand at creating evocative atmosphere. I wish he had done even more of this kind of thing in the novel. I’m talking about passages such as:
The sun was a dull red disk riding the mist that rose from the almost flat waters of the ocean. Its opaque rays fell on the sands of the beach before the lonely cottage and died there. The air was chill and damp and nothing stirred. Only the sound of the breakers as they crashed against the shore and incessantly retreated back to sea disturbed the deadly quiet of the morning.
The cottage itself squatted some hundred and fifty yards back from the shoreline, lonely and bleak. Its clapboard sides had been whitened by the sun and the blasting of uncountable grains of wind-born sand. Behind the cottage were the dunes.
The low, rambling structure looked blindly at the ocean from shuttered windows. Behind the windows, closed and barred, were Terry and the child.
The Snatchers was made into the offbeat 1968 film The Night of the Following Day. The movie is not one I’d hold up as an exemplary crime film, yet it’s quirky enough to be interesting, and both Marlon Brando and Rita Moreno put on good, odd performances.
The second story in this Lionel White twofer was also adapted for the big screen, and this movie is something more significant than The Night of the Following Day. Stanley Kubrick took White’s novel Clean Break (1955) and used it as the basis of his 1956 film noir classic The Killing. Kubrick’s feature is one of the great heist films ever to get cut, and it was an acknowledged influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino openly dedicated his debut feature film, in part, to White.
Clean Break is, like The Snatchers, a story involving a crime scam orchestrated by one man with the help of a team of cronies. But one thing that sets it apart from the kidnapping saga is, instead of jumping right into the thick of the crime in action, the story is mostly about the buildup to the job, which comes as the climax. Kubrick used this same path in his movie, showing the planning and lead-up to the big tickle and letting the heist attempt and its immediate aftermath come at the end of the story.
This time, the crime scheme is to rob the till at a New York horse racetrack while there’s plenty of dough to be had—which means during business hours when there will also be lots of people around. Risky, but then big robbery payoffs like the one this promises often come with exceptionally high perilousness.
A criminal named Johnny Clay, fresh out of prison and on parole, thought of this plan while doing a four-year stretch behind bars. Clay is out of the pokey for about enough time to have a couple mugs of coffee before he puts together a crew of helpers who will work with him on the job. But here’s the funny thing about Johnny’s posse: none of them are cons. And this is by design.
The men he has selected to work with him on the racetrack robbery are all average Joes, and they include a policeman, two fellas who work at the track, and a court stenographer. As the scheme is being put into place, Johnny explains to one of his crew why he chose to use guys with no criminal past:
One thing I learned in prison is this. There isn’t a professional criminal who isn’t a rat. They all are. They’d turn in their best friend for a pack of butts—if they needed a cigarette. Get mixed up with real criminals and you’re bound to mess up a deal. That’s the main reason I think this caper has a good chance of working. Everybody involved, with the exception of myself, is a working stiff without a record and [with] a fairly good rep. On this kind of a heist, the first thing the cops look for is a gang of professionals. The only one with a record is myself. And I’m in it because it was my idea.
As with The Snatchers, much of the drama that propels this tale is the set of interactions between the group of people behind the planned crime. This time, though, we see the tensions among all of them as the job is in its planning stages. All of Clay’s associates are in on this because of the hoped-for payoff, natch. In one case, the motivation is for a guy to pay off pressing debts, another is for a meek fellow to impress his wife, and, of course, all of them just like the idea of being in the chips.
Naturally, with all the risk involved, there’s a lot of friction within the group. And things between them become even more strained when a woman (the aforementioned wife of the guy who hopes to wow her with his fat bankroll), who is as alluring as she is unreliable, gets involved in things ahead of the day of the heist—something that wasn’t supposed to happen. The story is edgy from the opening chapter to the last page.
If you like a good heist story, you can’t go wrong with these two titles from Lionel White. And if these work for you, seek out The Big Caper and some of his other similar works.
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Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.