Sunday, October 25, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #5: THE KILLING

The fifth installment of my ongoing occasional look back at some vintage Black Lizard paperback reprints from the late 1980s and early '90s (for the others, just click on "Black Lizard Books" in the labels at bottom).

THE KILLING by Lionel White



THE STORY: A group of criminals band together to pull off a $2 million racetrack robbery.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A seminal heist novel from one of its greatest practitioners.

"That's why this thing is going to work. We don't want a lot of hoodlums in on it. ... It's what I've been telling you guys since the beginning. We aren't a bunch of dumb stick-up artists. We aren't tough guys. We're supposed to have brains."

So says ex-con Johnny Clay to the crew he's put together for a racetrack robbery in Lionel White's 1955 novel THE KILLING. And he's right, his co-conspirators are pretty much a bunch of Average Joes in need of money, albeit with unique skills and special access. One is a track cashier, trying to support a high-living wife. Another is an aging bartender plagued with gambling debts. A third is an otherwise good cop in deep with a loanshark. Bringing them all together is veteran criminal Johnny Clay, fresh from a four-year stint in prison and now imbued with "a sort of grim purposefulness which he had always lacked."

Johnny's purpose is to rob the racetrack during the "Canarsie Stakes," gaining entrance to the money room while a sharpshooter picks off one of the horses to create a diversion. It's an operation that should work like clockwork - and does until that trouble-making wife entices her petty criminal boyfriend into robbing the robbers.

THE KILLING is probably best remembered for its 1956 film adaptation, written and directed by then-neophyte Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialogue by novelist (and Black Lizard favorite) Jim Thompson. It was originally published under the title CLEAN BREAK, as part of Dutton's "Guilt-Edged Mystery" line, though all of the post-1956 editions - and there were many - retitled it as per Kubrick's film. For the prolific White, a former crime reporter, it was the first of his novels to make it to the screen, though others would follow, notably Jean-Luc Goddard's 1965 PIERROT LE FOU, based on White's 1962 book OBSESSION. Aside from the ending, the film of THE KILLING is amazingly faithful to the book, with much of White's dialogue intact.

As the novel begins, the planning of the robbery is already under way, with an address scrawled on the back of a winning ticket leading to a late-night meeting in a furnished room on New York's East 31st Street (in the film, the racetrack is located in California, in the novel it's on Long Island). It's not until Chapter Two that we meet Johnny, just out of jail and reunited with his faithful - and patient - girlfriend, Fay. In some ways, the characters are archetypes, but they're sharply drawn. White has only to sketch them quickly and, for the purposes of the plot, they're good to go. All the backstory is conveyed through dialogue, or brief interior thoughts.

THE KILLING is a lightning-fast read, only 155 pages in the Black Lizard edition, and as lean and mean as they come. One can see the influence it had on Donald E. Westlake's "Richard Stark" novels, which were to begin seven years later. Reading it in 2009, it doesn't seem dated at all.

The book's manipulation of time - with multiple versions of the same events told from different viewpoints - is retained in the film, though its best-known homage would come almost forty years later, in the fractured chronologies of Quentin Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION. The novel is crafted as carefully and painstakingly as the robbery itself - though much more successfully, of course. It seems effortless, the work of a total pro, and it ends, as does the movie, with a nerve-wracking near getaway at an airport (LaGuardia in the book), though the finale lacks the ironic twist - and classic last line - of Kubrick's film.

Even more than W.R. Burnett's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE KILLING is the granddaddy of modern heist stories, and the blueprint for dozens of novels and films that came after it. Fifty-four years after its publication, it remains a cornerstone of American crime fiction.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Okay if I link to this on Friday?

wstroby said...

Be my guest. Thanks.