Night Boat to Paris

Night Boat to Paris

The 1950s were well before my time, but it must have been a golden age for readers of paperback spy, crime and adventure fiction. That decade had so many elements that make for exciting stories: the Cold War at its most intense, the CIA and KGB waging unfettered shadow wars across the globe, the American empire rising, the British empire falling, the Mafia’s invisible empire at its peak, and thousands of veterans of World War II and Korea still young and looking for action. It’s not surprising that the decade introduced so many genre greats, like Jack Higgins, Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Donald Westlake, Dan J. Marlowe and Lionel White. A more obscure author who got his start in the ’50s was Richard Jessup; I recently picked up his 1956 novel Night Boat to Paris in a lot of vintage spy paperbacks and gave it a quick read.

The novel’s protagonist is Duncan Reece, an ex-World War II British Intelligence operative who fell out of favor with the class-oriented Establishment after the war and turned to criminal work. He is approached by his old intel chief, who considers Reece the perfect man for a very sensitive mission. It seems that an ex-Nazi engineer has developed a nuclear satellite technology for the Reds, but the microfilmed blueprints have wound up in the possession of a wealthy Spaniard and a purchase has been arranged at a charity bazaar at his French villa later that month. Several intelligence agencies, most notably the Reds, are in hot pursuit of the film and are expected to be closely watching the villa. Reece’s mission is to stage a robbery at the bazaar, taking the party-goers’ valuables as well as the microfilm in order to fool the Reds into thinking it wasn’t enemy action. Reece agrees to the job for the very tidy sum in 1956 dollars of one hundred thousand, plus half the loot, an import-export license and his Scotland Yard file and fingerprint records.

Reece’s first task is to travel to France and assemble a crew for the heist. He enlists an old associate and all-around shady operator named Tookie, a desperate German gunman named Otto, a French muscle-man named Saumur, and two American mafiosi operating out of Marseilles named Gino and Marcus. There is considerable intrigue leading up to the main event, as Reece is pursued by mysterious assailants in black suits, and he suspects that one of his own men is an informant for the Reds. Several enemy operatives are killed, and there’s some interesting introspection from Reece about why he is doing this that speaks to the inner plight of the shadow warrior:

You’re a different man, Reece, from when you first started thinking for yourself. A man who has no principles, ascribing to no morality, who has perhaps had the morality knocked out of you. You’re a killer; a procurer and thief; a man who has great wit and wisdom when it comes to saving your own neck and feathering your nest. You see that the world is mad and are playing along with it.

Can such a man slip into the comfortable rut of a middle-class merchant?

Another question.

And no answer for it.

Finally the crew gets to the locale of the op and sets themselves up in a farmhouse, where they begin training for their commando-style raid on the villa. From here on out it’s a riveting thriller, as the crew, clad in identical black coveralls, berets, face paint and bandanas, assault the party with a rope ladder, grappling hook and Tommy guns, get the loot and the microfilm and try to make their escape. They get to the border and desperately try to find away across, while more men in black show up and they are forced to take drastic action in a mountain village. Conveniently, a village girl unhappy about her arranged marriage joins the crew and leads them on a secret route across the mountains. This finale is a bit less believable than the rest of the story, but it races to a suitably noir ending as the traitor is revealed and Reece makes a run for it into the shadows.

This is just the kind of novel I like: an old-school, hard-boiled adventure that combines espionage, a heist, desperate criminals and ruthless shadow operators. There’s plenty of action and intrigue, but with a more sophisticated style than you get in a typical men’s adventure novel. All in all, this was an excellent little thriller, and a glimpse back to a time when spy stories could be told in 158 pages instead of 400+, without all the bloated writing, technological gimmickry and over-the-top action that would plague the genre in later decades. I will certainly be reading more novels from this era, and can recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the early hardboiled spy work of authors like Donald Hamilton, Jack Higgins, Dan Marlowe and Edward Aarons.

Get a copy of Night Boat to Paris here.

The Great Train Hijack

The Great Train Hijack


I had little information to go on when I picked up The Great Train Hijack (originally titled The Gravy Train), published in 1971 by Whit Masterson. All I knew was that it featured a prison break, a train hijacking and a heist, and that sounded good enough for me to give it a read.

The novel’s antagonist is Anthony Heaston, the brilliant ex-leader of a Special Forces unit called “Heaston’s Hellions” that raised a lot of hell in the early days of the Vietnam War. Once a promising young colonel, Heaston was blamed for the murder of a South Vietnamese leader and relegated to a Pentagon basement, his career ruined. Bitter at the president and the military establishment for not backing him up, Heaston resigned and turned to outlaw mercenary work around the globe. But eventually he was captured leading revolutionaries in Columbia and sentenced to prison for life.

As the novel opens, Heaston pulls off a clever escape from the Columbian prison using a bold deception and outside help from some of his men. Soon he’s back in the USA, and ex-president and Heaston nemesis Carson wants to know where he is and what he’s up to. Carson puts Jake Duffy, a brilliant young agent for the FBI’s Special Assignment Division on the job. Duffy is a hip, long-haired, rebellious new type of G-man–very much like an FBI version of CIA man Ronald Malcolm from Six Days of the Condor.

Duffy tracks Heaston to a ranch in southern California, where he and some of his old Hellions are training to hijack a train using an old coal-powered model that was previously part of a Western movie production. Duffy, ever the bold and creative agent, gets himself into the ranch using a cover as a representative of a movie production company interested in making a film on the property. He meets Heaston, with whom he has a surprising rapport, as well as his brutal henchman Branko, with whom he shares a girlfriend. He also uncovers the group’s connections to a shadowy billionaire who is apparently funding them, and learns about a priceless art collection being shipped across the country. He also meets a beautiful but rather icy art museum director and Women’s Libber named Leslie, and they strike up a hip early ’70s relationship. Meanwhile Heaston and his men get wise to Duffy’s deception and make moves of their own to deceive him.

Following some clever investigative work where Duffy oversteps his authority to learn more about the heisters’ plans and some minor romance between Duffy and two of the female characters, the novel rolls to its climax aboard trains in the desert Southwest. There’s a surprise twist toward the end as Duffy realizes what Heaston’s crew are really after, and his entire operation to entrap them falls apart. Duffy, acting independently of the Bureau, decides to make a desperate last-minute gambit to try to resolve the situation that could cost him his career and his life.

I was expecting a story centered on Heaston and his heist crew, like a Parker or Drake novel, but as it turns out it’s more of a detective story about Duffy’s efforts to figure out what Heaston’s crew is up to and stop them. This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not the type of novel I prefer, being inclined toward the point of view of the shadow operators more than the lawmen. I would have liked this novel a lot if “Mad Anthony” Heaston had been the focus of the narrative rather than Duffy, because for me he was a much more compelling character. My other criticism is that there wasn’t a lot of action or intensity. Duffy carries out his investigation a little too flippantly; there’s never a sense of real physical danger, and the violent crew does little actual violence. While this is a well-told tale with an intriguing plot, Masterson doesn’t have the Jack Higgins flair for suspense and action that could have turned this detective story into a real thriller. If you like trains, heists and crime procedurals you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise it’s not that exceptional and I can see why this novel is now obscure.

Get a copy of The Great Train Hijack here.

Operation Fireball

Operation Fireball

Dan J. Marlowe is one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction; his 1962 novel, The Name of the Game is Death, is an all-time classic of the genre, as riveting as Donald Westlake’s debut Parker novel, The Hunter, published the same year. In that novel Marlowe introduced the sharpshooting heistman known by the alias “Earl Drake”, and Drake’s lover and partner in crime, a fiery six-foot redhead named Hazel.  Drake returned in a 1969 sequel called One Endless Hour, written with input from a convicted bank robber named Al Nussbaum who was impressed with Marlowe’s work. That novel tells how Drake got his face reconstructed after the hellish climax of Name of the Game–hence the series subtitle “The man with nobody’s face”.

Marlowe published a third Drake novel in 1969 called Operation Fireball, which began Drake’s transition from an independent hard-boiled criminal like Parker to a government-affiliated adventurer-spy more like the Jack Higgins protagonist Sean Dillon. As the novel opens, Drake is reuniting with Hazel, who he hasn’t seen since he got a new face early in the previous novel. There’s some drama at her ranch with some nasty local kids who are abusing Hazel’s father, but Drake punishes them rather violently and has to make a quick exit.

Back in San Diego, bored and looking for action, Drake is contacted by a criminal associate named Slater and a six foot four ex-navy Viking of a man named Karl Erikson, who tell Drake an exciting story. Apparently two million dollars sent by the U.S. government to the Batista regime in the last days before Castro’s revolution is still at large. The cash was hijacked by Cuban gangsters, and Slater, who was in on the heist, is the only man who knows where it is. Erikson is assembling a crew to go get the money and he invites Drake to be on the team. But the mission is a formidable one: to infiltrate paranoid, revolutionary Cuba, find the cash, and get off the island without getting killed or thrown into Castro’s prisons. Drake accepts, on the condition that Hazel is included on the team.

The novel builds slowly as the crew gathers in a hotel in Key West and prepares for the mission. Gear and weapons are purchased, boats are test-driven, shortwave radios are assembled and plans are made with Erikson’s military precision. Meanwhile, the lecherous Latin boat captain Chico Wilson is making aggressive overtures toward Hazel and Slater is being a reckless drunk, scheming to cross the rest of the team. But Erikson is a commanding presence and he manages to keep the motley crew in line.

In the final third of the novel the narrative finally kicks into overdrive, as Drake’s crew sails to Cuba posing as navy men aboard a U.S. destroyer, Slater finds himself in the brig, and they have to free Slater, get off the heavily guarded Guantanomo Bay base and into Cuban territory. This is where Marlowe really excels: fast, tense action, with flawed, desperate, violent men letting nothing stop them from making a big score. For me he’s right up there with Donald Westlake in this regard, and the international intrigue only adds to the excitement. Because Cuba in the 1960s was a very tense place, controlled by fanatical revolutionaries, its population highly paranoid following the failed CIA-sponsored “Bay of Pigs” invasion in 1961 and on the look-out for foreign saboteurs. Marlowe does a great job of capturing the war-time feel of the mission, as the men have to move deep behind enemy lines to Havana and the location of the hidden cash. Once there, Drake takes the lead, using his talents as a thief to break into the facility and get to the loot. There’s a tense climactic scene as they try get off the island, their radio broken and unable to signal to their boatman to be picked up. Then there’s a final twist at the end, as Drake learns who Erikson really is and he doesn’t get what he bargained for from the mission.

After a slow opening, with a little too much time devoted to the setup of the mission, this book was riveting stuff. I questioned sometimes how four Americans, particularly a six foot four Viking, could move through paranoid Cuba without more problems, but Marlowe makes it fairly believable. While not an instant classic like The Name of the Game is Death, this was a great read. If you like the Parker series and the work of Jack Higgins, you should love this. I look forward to reading further installments of the Drake series.

Get a copy of Operation Fireball here.

The Sour Lemon Score

The Sour Lemon Score

The Sour Lemon Score is the twelfth entry in the legendary Parker crime fiction series, published in 1969. Like the phenomenal series opener, The Hunter, this isn’t really a heist novel, but a story about Parker trying to track down and get revenge on the man who double-crossed him, nearly killed him and took his money.

As the story opens, Parker and three accomplices are about to execute a heist of a cash delivery at a bank. This was a great scene; the clever use of radio-controlled explosives, smoke grenades, deception and professional violence made it the kind of well-planned commando-theft operation that makes Parker novels so fun to read.

Equally fun are the inevitable f*k-ups and double-crosses that turn a smooth heist job into a twisted, violent novel-length adventure. In this case, the cross comes courtesy of the twitchy, sketchy driver George Uhl, who decides to try to take the whole pie by eliminating the other heisters just as they’re about to divvy it up. Unfortunately for him, Parker gets away, and the rest of the novel is basically a detective story from the point of view of a ruthless, sociopathic criminal. Because Parker is a detective from hell, who will beat, threaten, rob, vandalize, deceive or kill anyone he damn well pleases until he gets what he wants: his loot, and George Uhl’s head.

Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), author of over a hundred mystery and crime novels, excels at tight plotting and detailed, realistic procedurals. We are taken step-by-step through Parker’s investigation as he relentlessly pursues Uhl’s associates across the eastern seaboard, always seemingly one step behind Uhl. His task is complicated when a psychopathic associate of Uhl named Matthew Rosenstein gets involved in the chase, and soon the three very dangerous men are converging on the quiet suburban family home of a high school fan-boy of Uhl’s who gets far more excitement than he bargained for. The conclusion was slightly out of character for Parker, but it did leave loose ends that would be tied up in the 20th entry in the series, Firebreak, when some of these characters return to bother Parker 30 years later.

Another thing that makes Westlake such a great writer is his gift for creating incredibly well-drawn, memorable characters. The old-fashioned granny who sells Parker black market guns, the whiny single urban female who can’t say no to her abusive ex-boyfriend, the brutal, sadistic Rosenstein and his foppish gay partner Brock, the square family man Saugherty who fantasizes about running with the bad boys, the slimy, psychopathic George Uhl–this short novel has an amazing array of characters who are damaged and dangerous in totally believable ways.

After the relatively weak previous entry in the series, The Black Ice Score, The Sour Lemon Score is a return to form for author Westlake, and a return to the brutal, unstoppable force that is Parker when someone has screwed him over.  Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled crime fiction or just plain great story-telling.

Get a copy of The Sour Lemon Score here.

The Black Ice Score

The Black Ice Score

Black Ice Score, published in 1968 by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), is the eleventh entry in the incomparable Parker series about an ultra-tough but likeable heist-man.

This time the target of Parker’s heist is $700k worth of diamonds smuggled into New York by the corrupt leader of a small African nation called Dhaba. The diamonds are being kept on the top floor of a museum where the leader’s brutal brothers-in-law have taken residence and guard them 24/7. A diplomat from Dhaba wishes to steal the diamonds back on behalf of his countrymen, so he finds the best man in the business and hires him as a consultant. Parker’s task is to devise a plan to get into the building, past the guards and grab the diamonds. His job is complicated by a group of white colonials allied with a black general from Dhaba, who have learned about the diamonds and want them to fund their own takeover of the country. They are trying to strong-arm Parker into telling them where the diamonds are, going so far as to kidnap his steady girlfriend Claire and forcing him to cooperate. There’s also a joker in the pack in the form of a shifty, unpredictable character named Hoskins who has a bad habit of annoying Parker and appearing at inopportune times (Westlake loves these characters).

This is an atypical entry in the series in several respects. For one, Parker is not doing the job himself, but is only acting as a paid consultant for amateurs. He plans the heist and trains the Africans, but doesn’t participate directly in the theft. This is obviously a let down for Parker fans, sort of like going to an Elvis concert and being told that an impersonator is going to perform instead—though the author does a pretty good job of making the amateurs’ point of view interesting. The international political angle is also unusual for this series, which is normally apolitical and focused entirely on the all-American business of taking down big scores. In the spy-crazy 1960s it seemed that every thief and thug was getting a piece of the geopolitical action. Third, Parker seems strangely charitable and caring at times compared to his brutal sociopathic persona earlier in the series. Apparently his long-term relationship with Claire is softening him and making him a bit less Terminator-like than before.

There were some interesting moments in this story for students of shadow operations. The planning of the heist, the social engineering used to case the building, and the tools and tactics employed were reminiscent of the antics of real-world master jewel thief William Mason that I discussed in this review. This is the most ninja-like op in the series so far: the use of deception to gain entry to a stronghold, crossing from rooftop to rooftop, roping down an elevator shaft, using gas bombs to incapacitate guards, dressing all in black, surprise attacks, are all classic ninja tactics, handled with Westlake’s trademark realism.

The short novel moves quickly to a climax as the theft gets very bloody, bodies pile up, and Parker makes his re-appearance just in time. Hoskins is still a joker, the colonialists still hold the trump card Claire, and Parker has to bluff and go all-in to win with the hand he’s dealt. While risking his neck to save a woman wasn’t the old Parker’s style, this slightly kinder, gentler Parker does just that to try to save Claire from the clutches of the enemy.

This was definitely a lesser entry in the series, but still entertaining and worth the few hours spent reading it if you like heist novels and appreciate quality writing. Westlake is the genre’s master and Parker its greatest character, so even a sub-par installment is a cut above most other novels of its kind.

Get a copy of The Black Ice Score here.

Maxwell’s Train

Maxwell’s Train

One of the fascinating things about reading espionage and crime thrillers from several decades ago is how prescient they can be about real-world shadow war. The recently reviewed Black Heart and Quiller Solitaire are cases in point, in the way they uncannily foreshadowed aspects of the 9/11 attacks. This was the idea behind the Deparment 17 project—to study shadow-fiction for its intelligence insights—and it remains a work in progress. It’s easy to forget that before the 1990s there had never been a major terrorist attack on North American soil, and Americans were still rather innocent to the threat. The 1984 thriller Maxwell’s Train, by Christopher Hyde, is another older novel that anticipates this possibility and serves up a scary scenario that could yet prove prophetic.

The narrative begins as a heist story. Harry Maxwell, once a bright, idealistic young man with big dreams from a good family, fell in with the wrong crowd and spent 7 years trafficking drugs, only getting out when he and his partner in crime Daniel were nearly killed in a rip-off. At age 35, he finds himself working as a lowly Amtrak car cleaner, with no prospects and not much to live for. Then one day he notices a strange car attached to a train and learns that it transports freshly printed bills from the Federal Reserve—some thirty-five million dollars worth, to be exact. This is enough to get Harry excited about life again, so he assembles a crew with his buddy Daniel and two other under-achievers with nothing to lose, and they begin planning the heist of the century.

The planning stage of the heist seemed rather rushed for a job of this magnitude, but there is enough descriptive detail to keep things plausible. The plan is rather ingenious, as it entails using a coffin to bring one of the men and supplies onto the train and to offload the loot, and the gassing of the security guards in the money car through a ventilation shaft. I don’t want to spoil things for you, but let’s just say the thieves get quite a shock when they force open the car door and see what’s inside.

At this point the novel transitions to the main plot: a hijacking by seven of the nastiest international terrorists in the business—veterans of the European Baader-Meinhof group, Libyan special forces and the Japanese Red Army Faction, among others. The leader of the crew, and the most lethal of them all, is the beautiful blonde German, Annalise Shenker. In addition to the huge cash haul, the train is carrying five international VIPs and is rigged with enough weapons of mass destruction to ensure that no one does anything rash.

About halfway through the story shifts gears again, as we are introduced to several new characters, including an elderly German World War II veteran visiting the country where he was kept as a POW, an old heiress who spends her time travelling North America by rail, and a spunky 15 year old runaway, all of whom are boarding an ill-fated train for Montreal. This is where I started to roll my eyes a bit, as it started to feel like one of those corny old “Poseidon Adventure”  disaster movies where we are introduced to a variety of quirky characters before catastrophe brings them together. But it actually turned out to be very entertaining, as the heist team and a motley crew of clever amateurs devise tactics, improvise weapons and muster up the courage to fight the terrorists. The last 50 or 60 pages were particularly riveting, as the protagonists make their move against the terrorists, the terrorists make their move against the passengers and threaten to unleash mass terror, government forces make their move against both, and the train rolls toward a hellish climax in the remote northern Canadian wilderness.

I was very impressed by Christopher Hyde’s smooth story-telling and technical knowledge; he knows the layouts of trains, the workings of the rail system and Canadian geography in intricate detail, and makes them integral to the story. By novel’s end I felt like I’d ridden along with the passengers on their terrifying adventure and was totally absorbed. I also liked how the heroes of this story weren’t some all-powerful government agents, but ordinary people who realized that no one was going to save them and decided to take matters into their own hands—a good reminder in this age of learned helplessness and creeping totalitarianism. All in all, an outstanding thriller, up there with the best in the genre. This was my first book by Mr. Hyde, but it definitely won’t be the last.

Get a copy of Maxwell’s Train here.

The Violent Enemy

The Violent Enemy

Whenever I’m in the mood for a quick, entertaining men’s adventure story involving shadow warfare, my go-to author is Jack Higgins; he never disappoints. The Violent Enemy, published in 1966 (originally titled A Candle for the Dead), is no exception. Featuring two of my favorite plot elements–a prison break and a heist–and a backstory about the Irish Republican Army, the novel sounded right up my alley.

Protagonist Sean Rogan is similar to several other Higgins protagonists (most notably Liam Devlin of The Eagle Has Landed): an ultra-tough, dangerous Irish shadow warrior who led special operations in World War II and the guerrilla war against British rule in Ireland. He has spent twelve of the last twenty years in prison, and is now doing hard labor in a maximum security prison in England.

Rogan is denied early release as the novel begins, which sets up a plot element that Higgins used in several other early novels (Hell is Too Crowded, Dark Side of the Street, Hell is Always Today): a prison break. During his latest stay, escape artist Rogan has figured out a complicated route of the prison that involves cutting through wire cages, climbing up beams, crawling through ventilation ducts and roping down walls. But the real challenge is figuring out how to get through the desolate moors that surround the prison and find a safe haven, a clean identity and transportation away from the scene. When all of that is offered by a former top IRA man on the outside, who apparently wants Rogan out real bad but doesn’t say why, Rogan can’t refuse.

Rogan executes the jailbreak and soon finds himself back with his old IRA boss, named O’More, who has a job that calls for Rogan’s special talents. O’More wants Rogan to rob an armored car as it is delivering a large sum of cash to a train at a stop in a small village. He has assembled a crew which, as per usual in a Higgins novel, includes some rather nasty and treacherous characters and an attractive young woman who quickly becomes Rogan’s romantic interest. This leads to personal dramas and betrayals that threaten to derail the plot, but Rogan is a true alpha warrior and he asserts his authority on the unruly gang.

As Rogan and his crew are planning and executing the heist, a parallel police investigation is going on, led by a Scotland Yard detective who Rogan rescued from the Germans back in ’43. The detective doesn’t consider Rogan a real criminal, but a political prisoner, and since the troubles that landed Rogan in prison are no longer hot, let’s just say that he’s not a very motivated pursuer. The story moves quickly to a satisfying climax in the usual Higgins style, with the heisters on the run from the coppers, double-crossers on the run from both, and one or two twists along the way.

This was a fast-paced, entertaining read, with no wasted verbiage, simple but compelling characters and action that never goes over the top — all very typical of Higgins’s early work. This is basically a prison break, heist and getaway novel, much like the novel Breakout that I reviewed here. I was a little disappointed by the lack of IRA-style shadow warfare, but overall I have no complaints.

Get a copy of The Violent Enemy here.

Hijack

Hijack

I’m fascinated by shadow ops that involve hijackingskyjacking, train robberies, piracy, etc.—so when I ran across the 1969 novel Hijack by Lionel White I was immediately intrigued. The first thing I noticed was the striking cover: the image of a giant upraised pistol next  to the single word “HIJACK” emblazoned in red, with a jet airliner and a couple in erotic embrace in the foreground, is a minor masterpiece of paperback cover design. On the strength of the cover alone I might have bought the book; knowing that the author was Lionel White, one of the old masters of crime noir fiction known particularly for his heist stories—which have been called precursors to the brilliant Parker novels by Donald Westlake—I simply had to have it.

Does the story live up to the cover? Almost. As you can probably guess, it involves the hijacking of an airliner, sparked by the steamy encounter between a beautiful, money-hungry ex-stewardess called “Sis” and an ex-Air Force pilot recently returned from Vietnam nicknamed “Dude”. Sis has inside information that a particular route transports millions of dollars in small bills in its cargo hold every month, and she uses her considerable charms to convince Dude to help her get it. So Dude assembles a team and plans an audacious air-heist.

Along the way we learn the backstory of the hijackers, most of whom were ‘Nam buddies of the rogue pilot Dude. We also learn more about several of the  VIP passengers; it turns out (rather unrealistically) that on board the ill-fated flight are a French movie star, a top American scientist, a Russian defector, his CIA escort, the airline’s majority stockholder and a famous preacher. In standard crime noir fashion, at some point everything goes sideways, as the all-too-flawed characters turn a carefully laid plan into a clusterf*k of foul-ups, betrayals and desperation moves. There’s some brutal violence, loose sex, nasty rape and heavy drinking as the various players crack under pressure and revert to their primal instincts. The offbeat ending is slightly anti-climactic and felt a bit rushed, but it’s probably as good as any for this offbeat tale.

I’m a little surprised Hollywood never made a film out of this novel. Several of Lionel White’s earlier works were made into movies, but maybe by 1969 the 64 year-old author was no longer a hot property. Or maybe a story about skyjackers—in an era when revolutionaries, terrorists, criminals and crazies were hijacking airplanes with alarming frequency—hit too close to home. Apparently Quentin Tarantino is a big White fan; this would make a great Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction-style noir thriller. No matter, though; classic crime paperbacks like this one are an art form of their own and deserve to be read and enjoyed on their own terms. The biggest crime is that this book is so obscure and difficult to find; if you can track it down for a reasonable price (I paid $10), I would advise picking it up. Hijack is recommended for fans of classic crime noir and heist thrillers.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief

I always enjoy novels and movies that feature cat burglars who stealthily climb walls, use ropes and grappling hooks, creep along catwalks, bypass alarm systems, pick locks, crack safes, etc. to steal jewels or cash and get away cleanly. But I’ve often wondered: do such people exist, or are they just an entertaining fiction? The answer is the former, if you believe William Mason’s autobiographical account of his exploits as just such a burglar.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief recounts some of Mason’s most memorable heists and narrow escapes, his infiltration of glamorous society, and his double life as a responsible family man by day and a high stakes, high-rise sneak thief by night. I particularly enjoyed the technical details of his exploits, such as how he fashioned home-made grappling hooks by welding together large fish hooks, posed as prospective tenant to get a tour and floor plans of target buildings, carefully studied security cameras to find their blind spots, scaled walls, and the like. Mason’s standard M.O. was to get onto roofs from the inside then climb down onto balconies, taking advantage of the fact that people often didn’t bother to set their alarms or lock their doors because they never imagined that someone could get to them. He also used clever social engineering to plan his heists, reading high society newspapers and going to events they attended so he could scope out the jewels and learn more about his targets. Mason hit a number of well-known celebrities and tycoons, making off with millions of dollars worth of jewelry without the authorities having any clues.

What I find fascinating about Mason is the fact that even while he was making a comfortable upper middle class living as a real estate broker, with a wife and children in a good neighborhood, he led this dangerous second life and risked everything for the thrill of committing these crimes. Apparently the buzz and challenge of sneaking into luxury homes, outsmarting security measures and being instantly rewarded with small fortunes in jewelry was too potent a drug for Mason to give up. Once he got the taste for burglary as a young man struggling to make ends meet, it seems that he couldn’t stop until the law finally did it for him. This is a common trait we find in shadow operators, whether they are burglars, spies, hitmen or what have you: the real juice is not the money, but the excitement of living a life in the shadows, breaking the laws of daytime society and getting away with it, becoming a kind of shadowy superman who doesn’t play by the ordinary rules.

There have probably always been sneak-thiefs like Mason, targeting the fortunes of kings, nobles and merchants. It’s inspiring to know that such men can still operate in modern times, and can still profit wildly by their ingenuity, skill, daring, and exploitation of human error.  Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief is highly recommended for anyone interested in real heists and criminal shadow operators.

Get a copy of this book here.

Breakout

Breakout

Breakout is the 21st book of the “Parker” series, by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). If you’ve never read any Parker novels, I recommend that you start with the first one, The Hunter, and proceed from there. Few books capture the intensity and drama of criminal shadow ops as realistically as these. Parker is a professional thief, but he’s no non-violent cat burglar, stealthily infiltrating buildings, cracking safes and getting away cleanly with the loot. He threatens, pistol-whips, beats, binds, gags, and occasionally kills to complete his missions, but always with an almost robotic level of efficiency and cool.

Parker novels are what you might call “criminal procedurals”—they give detailed, realistic accounts of the planning and execution of Parker’s heists and associated criminal activity. We learn about the minutia of getaway routes, entrances and exits, guards, escape vehicles, etc. Parker prefers low-tech, direct means to assault his targets, never relying on gadgetry when good old guns, threats and surprise are so much more reliable. But as in real life, nothing ever goes according to plan; much of the fun of these stories is finding out how Parker improvises when an op goes badly wrong or someone crosses him.

Breakout offers a new twist on the Parker formula: this time he has to break out of a facility instead of in—the facility in question being a prison, where he finds himself for the first time since the series began. Parker, being a guy who doesn’t take well to involuntary confinement, and being linked to the murder of a prison guard decades ago, immediately starts angling to escape. Recruiting two other inmates and with help from outside, he makes a harrowing but highly believable escape. And that’s just part one of this tale. The crew, now free and short of cash, decides to take on a heist that one of them had previously scoped out: breaking into a former armory loaded with jewelry that is as impregnable as the prison they just got out of. The ensuing break-in is as gripping as the break-out; author Stark describes both in such photographic detail that you could swear he has done them himself! There are further escapes, evasions, murders, police procedural work, hostage-taking, and a climactic manhunt for Parker the fugitive. The ending is particularly well done.

After reading five early Parker novels from the 1960s, it’s a bit jarring to read about him operating in a 21st century world of cell phones, internet and security cameras. But as always, Parker adapts to his circumstances and relies on the tried-and-true methods of his trade, so it doesn’t really affect the narrative. Forty years after the first novel, Westlake is still the master of hard-boiled crime fiction, and Parker is still the master of hard-boiled crime. “Breakout” is a top-notch addition to the best crime series ever written. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Breakout here.