Monday, November 20, 2023

A New Stark House double feature: Too Young to Die/The Time of Terror, by Lionel White


Stark House Press, 2023
270 pp


(read earlier)

Lionel White (1905-1985) was a rather prolific author whose writing career lasted well over two decades.  He got his start as a police reporter and editor of a true crime magazine before moving into the realm of fiction, where his work eventually earned him the title of  "the king of the caper novel."   White wrote nearly forty books  before his death, making his print debut in 1953.  Over the span of his career,  a few of his novels were made into films, one of which, Clean Break became Kubrick's The Killing, 1956, and Quentin Tarantino  listed White in the credits of his Reservoir Dogs (1992) as his inspiration.   Stark House has just released this double feature of two of White's novels, making it the tenth two-book volume in their Lionel White repertoire.  

1958 Gold Medal edition, from ebay

 Let me just say before launching into my thoughts here that it's probably a good thing that White used his powers to produce fiction, considering the way he planned this crime, down to the most minute of details.   Too Young to Die (1958) finds Quentin Price fresh out of prison on parole.  He has come to "One great big tremendous truth" during his time behind bars: 
"...there isn't a damn thing in the world more important than money. With it you have everything, without it you are nothing." 
His friend Tammie O'Neill (who, despite the first name is actually a guy)  tries to remind him that he's just out and that "it was that business of wanting money, thinking you needed money, that put you in the clink."   It just so happens that Tammie is an accountant who works for a firm keeping the books of Levinson and Sons, a wholesale diamond and jewelry dealer with offices in New York's diamond district, which is "supposed to be immune to burglary."  As Tammie explains, "there is isn't one chance in ten million of knocking over a score up there. Not one in ten million."   But Quent disagrees, and eventually a plan is concocted that actually might have every chance of succeeding, due to clockwork precision and the smallest attention to detail. However, White throws a  big monkeywrench into his story with Cindy, seventeen and the fianceé of Patsy Frocetti (also a guy despite the name), a mechanic and stock car racer whom Tammie brings into the plan for his knowledge of cars. As with the other characters in on the job, Patsy is sworn to secrecy, prevented from telling even Cindy because "Quent Price don't trust no girls to know."  But Patsy isn't very good at secrets, and between his loose lips and Cindy's growing attraction to Quent and vice versa, the plan could very well be in jeopardy.  

As far as the caper in this story is concerned, as I said earlier, White's plotting was downright meticulous, with the job planned down to the minute and even the smallest details taken into consideration.  I have to say that while I haven't read many books of this sort (capers and heists), I got seriously caught up in the setup for the robbery because it was done so well. But from the opening chapter, which begins just a hair's breadth from the ending of the story before going back in time to answer the questions of a) what's going on and b) how did we get here, I knew that things evidently had not gone to plan, and that Quent was not going to be walking away in the sunset, pockets jingling with his ill-gotten gains.  But, and a SERIOUS caveat lector here,  the Cindy-Quent subplot, on the other hand, made me completely uncomfortable with the fact that an older guy was attracted to a teenager, but then the author took things waaaaayyyyyy too far with a scene where she's fighting him off, this "man suddenly insane," not hearing hear pleas to stop, where she's crying out "in agony as the pain shot through her."  That's bad enough at any age, but with a seventeen year-old girl, it's especially disgusting and uncalled for.  Without that, Too Young to Die would have made for near-perfect crime reading -- I have no idea exactly why the author felt it would add to the story.  

from Goodreads

Imagine my reluctance then to proceed on to the next book, The Time of Terror (1960).  As it turns out though, I needn't have worried.  From the outset we learn that Elizabeth Farrington Dobie (Bet) finds herself "again and again" reliving some sort of horrific event from a "tragic period."  The day that things happened was June tenth, with its beginning  a "bright, clear, fresh morning."  Bet is married to Chris, and the two have two children, Marion (Midge) and little Christian, aka Christian Dobie III, and they live next door to Christian Dobie Sr., Chris' dad in an upscale neighborhood.  Christian works for the Dyna-Electro Corporation, a company he had founded with two people from his days in the Navy, while Bet is a stay-at-home mom. She has a helper in Grace Williams, whom Bet found at a Catholic Protectory and who had been in some sort of trouble earlier in her life.  Now Grace works as a sort of housekeeper and nanny, taking "marvelous care of the children."    The Dobies live a good life, and on June tenth, Christian is on his way to Washington DC for work.  As we learn,  "It was like every Monday morning."   Bet, with children and Grace in tow, leaves to do some shopping, although an earlier phone call  had left Grace upset and wanting to watch the children at home.  Bet, however, knew the kids looked forward to the ride, and she needed Grace to take care of them in the car.  Off to the shopping center, and after a twenty-minute period of shopping, Bet returns with purchases in hand, watching Grace and Midge at the nearby merry-go-round in the parking lot, but little Christian is nowhere to be found.  

Meanwhile, in the neighborhood known as Shadydell Estates,  Frank Mace has found himself in a jam, in "serious, desperate trouble." His wife and kids have left and he'd lost his job three months earlier, which made a huge difference for his family, who always just "got by" on his salary.  The buyers like Frank who'd moved into Shadydell hadn't counted on all of the extra expenses of home ownership, and with children and a wife to support, the living hadn't been easy to begin with.  Frank, as the breadwinner, soon finds himself in despair, wondering how he's going to make it.  One night when the "troubles and worries and all" had pretty much "driven him out of his mind," he got really drunk and let his friend Barney talk him into letting another woman console him.  Bad idea -- his wife Ruthie, who had stuck by him through the money woes, wasn't about to hang around after he'd confessed to her.  Now he's got creditors chasing him, and he wants Ruthie and his kids back.  All he knows is that "Money was the key," and that "he'd get it no matter what he had to do," even if he "had to rob and kill for it."   On that very same beautiful Monday,  Frank decides on a plan, although opportunity changes things up a bit when he comes upon a little boy alone in a car parked next to his in a shopping center parking lot.  

While the Dobies live through every minute that follows in absolute terror,  Frank's friend Barney discovers what Frank has done and takes charge of things. As the blurb for this book notes, " And that's when the real trouble begins..."

I really enjoyed The Time of Terror.  Frank's utter desperation translates very well from pen to page here as does the horror of the Dobies having to live through the kidnapping of their child.  As Matthew Sorrento notes in his introduction to this volume, the author becomes a "sharp social critic," as he "dissects the flight to the suburbs as a financial trap."   His commentary, says Sorrento, explores "suburban decay hidden beneath the veneer of old money and exploitative practices," a topic beyond relevant more than seventy years later in our own time, another factor in making it a worthy read.   So for me, this two-books-in-one volume as a whole is a mixed bag, with the terrific caper plot in  Too Young To Die completely marred by the unnecessary rape of a teenaged girl while  The Time of Terror kept me turning pages.  

One more thing: Sorrento's introduction will definitely be appreciated by film buffs -- I spent time looking online through each and every description of each movie he mentioned and I was just in awe at his wealth of knowledge.   My (as usual!! ) many thanks to Stark House for my copy.  

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