Friday, December 08, 2023

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Looters,” by John Reese

(Editor’s note: This is the 182nd installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
The Looters (published originally by Random House in 1968) is not so much a crime novel as it is an examination of human behavior, the American banking system, economics, gambling, government, racism, organized crime, state’s rights, and a few of the Seven Deadly Sins. That’s a lot to pour into a scant 205 pages (and too much to cover here), especially when there’s a bank job to pull. Author John Reese accomplishes the task—but to the detriment of the action in this novel. His well-conceived caper didn’t live up to its potential as a pure heist yarn until it was filmed in 1973 as Charlie Varick, starring Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, and John Vernon as opposing heavies. That doesn’t mean, though, that readers should ignore this book. Reese had a plan and stuck to it; and his character studies of criminals, and how the local citizenry is affected by their crime, comprise an interesting—if not crucial—element of the narrative.

Charlie Varick is an ex-con, crop duster, and former stunt pilot who thinks robbing the Tres Cruces National Bank in a sleepy California town will be an easy score. Aided by his common-law wife and two henchmen, he pulls the job. The bad news is that it doesn’t go as planned; the good news is it doesn’t go as planned. A bank guard and a cop are killed and another one shot up, and Varick loses a couple of accomplices (including his missus). Oh, and about that bank? Varick had no idea its vault would be filled with six figures worth of cash, or that the small institution was being used as a repository in a Mafia money-laundering operation.

But things are about to get even knottier.

Reese turns up the suspense by making Varick hide in plain sight after the rip-off. He can’t skip town because he’s on the radar of the local constabulary and must play it cool; he can’t cut loose his surviving partner, Harman Sullivan, because Sullivan is the linchpin in their crop-duster cover story and could easily be turned by police interrogation. (Once readers get to know Varick, they see he’d never split the take with Sullivan and send him on his way; he just can’t be trusted.) Making matters still worse, bank thefts automatically get the FBI involved, and once the feds begin sniffing around it doesn’t take long for them to figure out what’s really going on. From their viewpoint, the money—where it came from and where it’s going—is more important than solving a petty hold-up. While Varick is left to cool his heels, readers learn plenty about everyone involved in this tale.

With the Mafia out almost half a million bucks from this heist, J.J. Schirmer, a heavy-hitting, self-hating Semite who runs the bank for the mob, is ordered to put a lid on the situation. An amoral war-profiteer and homophobe, among other things, Schirmer is tough enough to butt heads with the FBI, which is closing in fast. “Well,” he fumes, “give it your best shot, you smart little City College dill-pickle G-man!” This is one of his more PG-rated rants, and he has plenty to say about plenty, from the banking system (he schools “Possum Trot,” a corrupt U.S. senator from Nevada on the subject, and predicts electronic bank transactions) to the inferiority of his fellow man based merely on gender, skin color, religion, or country of origin.

Meanwhile, we find that Varick is a cold-hearted misogynist who rues the deaths of no one, not even the woman in his life, whom he remembers as a “pig.” To avoid being implicated in the mess around the robbery, he actually sets her corpse on fire, hoping to inhibit its identification. But he can’t stay under the radar forever.

An enforcer named Molly Edwards is soon hired to recover the missing dough and keep any further damage to a minimum. His best route to doing that may be locating Sybil Fort, Schirmer’s secretary and doormat of a lover. Schirmer has sent Sybil into the wind with incriminating evidence that could bring down every mafioso and crooked politician from coast to coast. A “perverted cottonmouth,” Molly is named after a family friend. He must have endured as much ignominy as the boy named Sue, because he’s now a sadist of the first order, sparing no one as he takes out his revenge on others for the wrongs done him in life. The last thing Sybil Fort wants is Molly dogging her tail. But as readers discover, she’s a woman willing to put up with only so much before striking back.

There’s a Peyton Place-like undertone of drama coursing through the small town where this story’s action takes place. In the wake of the stick-up, police chief Bob Horton is aroused by Mildred, the widow of his newly dead officer, who wastes no time in letting him know she’s available—even though her hubby hasn’t yet been buried.

(Above) The poster promoting 1973’s Charley Varick. Click here to watch the official trailer for that picture.

Of greater interest is policeman Kenneth “Stainless” Steele, who was injured less seriously during the robbery, and who spends most of this book in a hospital bed. Since he interacted briefly with the thieves after they pulled their car up to the bank, Steele is assigned a sketch artist named Joyce (who frets that she’s bound headlong for spinsterhood at the ripe old age of 26). With Steele’s help, she arrives at a workable representation of Varick. In a desperate and awkward encounter, she also deflowers the young officer, after which he remarks: “By golly, that’s one thing you can learn in a hurry.” Bolstered by newfound manliness, Steele antes-up for greater glory. He abandons his hospital bed, straps on his pistol, pins on his badge, and re-enters the world as a man, prepared to make his bet amid the high-stake chips that might be stacked against him.

Such High Noon heroism is not reflected in the big-screen adaptation of this yarn, yet the production’s cast couldn’t have been better selected. Directed by Don Siegal (remembered for such other features as Crime in the Streets, Madigan, and Dirty Harry), the movie focuses more on Varick covering his tracks and the race to find him and recover the ill-gotten gains.

Varick is played on-screen by Walter Matthau (whose performance won him the 1974 British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards for Best Actor). While audiences know Matthau best as a shambling and grumpy comic actor, here he possesses an off-hand determination paired with a hard-guy insouciance that can stand up to the best in the business. (His flinty performances in the original The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3 and Billy Wilder’s dark The Fortune Cookie are, likewise, masterpieces.) Joe Don Baker, as the methodical and mean Molly, specialized in tough-guy roles, among them Buford Pusser in Walking Tall. As Schirmer, John Vernon (who later gained renown as Dean Wormer in National Lampoon’s Animal House) enjoyed a lengthy career playing hard-nosed torpedoes, including in such other Siegel films as Dirty Harry and Point Blank. I wonder how Charley Varick would have fared had its director stayed true to author Reese’s subplots.

I think Siegel and screenwriter Howard Rodman (who’d devised scripts for the TV series Naked City and Route 66, and later created the private-eye drama Harry O), saw the skeleton beneath the skin in Reese’s novel and made a wise decision to swap character development for action. In their hands, the tale becomes a race-to-the-finish-line caper; the book is more cat-and-mouse, with coincidences and chance encounters keeping the wandering plot moving, prompting thoughts that the ancient deus ex machina might be the oldest (and most hackneyed) literary device still being used. At several points in the book, it provides a quick paring-down of the plot and brings the conclusion into focus; but why did Reese employ it when it seems so artificial and impossible to overlook? Perhaps as a seasoned pulp-fictionist, he understood the need for literary expediency.

(Right) Author John H. Reese

John Henry Reese’s history in pulp fiction, in fact, offers a key to appreciating him as a writer. Born in Nebraska in 1910 to a former cavalryman and horse breaker, his mother being the daughter of a blacksmith, it’s no surprise he leaned towards penning westerns. His first major success, though, was a children’s novel, Big Mutt, which came out in 1953. Reese had started his prolific writing career in the 1930s, publishing extensively in men’s adventure magazines under various pseudonyms, before moving up to “the slicks.” He wrote fast in hopes of creating fast reads, and in the days before mass-media entertainment, brevity was essential; churning out novels and short stories that a voracious audience disposed of as soon as the next ones appeared also kept the paychecks coming.

In Charley Varick, Matthau’s protagonist is called “the last of the independent” bank robbers; Reese himself belonged to the last generation of pulp writers lucky enough to survive and make the switch to new media. He always had plenty of irons in the fire, his books and stories being adapted into movies and radio dramas. But how many of the works credited to him can still be recalled? At least two: The Looters and Charlie Varick. Take your pick, both are worth enjoying.

1 comment:

J. Kingston Pierce said...

A reader credited only as "Anonymous" tried to attach a comment to this post, but accidentally connected it to a different post. To make things right, I'm resubmitting the comment here, where it belongs:

"Walter Matthau was a fine comic actor, but he began as a villain in The Kentuckian and The Indian Fighter, and in Lonely Are the Brave he's a convincing sheriff. Another actor not allowed to use his range."