Hard Case Crime Files: Heart of Gold
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Two more treats from Hard Case Crime - Peter Rabe's Stop This Man! and David Dodge's Plunder of the Sun. Both books are united by a lust for gold, and what happens when you're blinded by the glitter of shiny, shiny loot.
Stop This Man! (2009, originally 1955) follows veteran criminal Tony Catell as he finally gets his big break. Tony's been in and out of prisons his whole life. He's hard as nails, but, as much as he denies it, he's starting to feel his age. When Otto Schumacher, a "fixer", proposes that Tony grab a thirty-six pound ingot of gold from a lightly-guarded local university, Tony knows this is it - the score that lets him retire.
Unfortunately, the gold is radioactive, synthesised out of mercury (apparently these were real experiments from the era). It was at the university in the first place for testing, and security was lax because, well, who would steal a vast lump of poison? (Answer: Tony Catell)
From the job's "successful" completion, things fall apart. Schumacher wants out - no one will buy the gold and its very presence unnerves him. Tony, with the constitution of an ox, refuses to believe the story at all. Schumacher's aging moll, Selma, is no help, wibbling back and forth between whichever man has the upper hand at the time. Tony hits the road - gold and gold-digger in tow - determined to turn the gold into his fortune.
Tony's fine with betrayal and general criminal skulduggery. As he drives around the country, he descends into all sorts of villainy in order to defend his prize. But what he never spots is his own lethal wake, the innocents that die horribly in his wake: maids, hotel employees, random innocents with the misfortune of being near him and his lethal hoard.
His unstoppable ambition is finally derailed not by the gold but by a girl: Lily. Lily's young and beautiful, the girlfriend of another underworld figure. Tony sees her as everything fresh and pure in the world. He fixates on her as his chance, not for redemption, but for cleanliness. By winning her heart, Tony thinks he'll be rejuvenated, just as, by selling the gold, he'll be able to cease being a criminal. There are further parallels: neither the gold nor Lily are what they seem and both bring with them a host of pursuers. Tony's ever attempt to rise about his station - or his past - only entangles him further.
Tony Catell is gruff and unlikable, but he's got a brutish appeal that holds the book together, even as he degenerates. Although Mr. Rabe uses external viewpoints to show Tony's murderous trail, the reader can see the poison working on Tony as well - both his body and his mind. Like the radioactive gold, Tony's own dreams have a half-life. They begin with an attractive gleam, then break down into elusive particles, slipping through his fingers forever.
David Dodge's Plunder of the Sun (2005, originally 1949) features another weathered veteran caught up in the chase for gold - this time in South America. Al Colby is a professional drifter, an odd jobs man with quasi-legal connections all over the continent. When he's approached by a mysterious antiques dealer to smuggle a mysterious package from Chile to Peru, his first instinct is to say no. But a few lingering glances from the dealer's attractive nurse change his mind. Colby wants to stay on the right side of the law, but his curiosity (about both package and lady) gets the better of him.
Of course nothing is as simple as it seems - and this isn't particularly straightforward to start with. The dealer dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving Colby in Peru with the package and a load of interested (and vicious) pursuers. Colby's somehow got hold of a road map to lost Incan treasure - millions and millions of dollars of it. Al's a measured man, but as the book goes on, he confesses that he's starting to dream of the piles of gold. He swiftly learns how far everyone else will go to gain the treasure - but where will he draw the line?
Plunder of the Sun is a slow read, more concerned about the minutiae of the adventure than the excitement. For every shot fired, there's three pages of Colby secreting documents around small Peruvian towns. For every passionate kiss with a mysterious and foxy woman, there are paragraphs of explanation about Incan treasure, infrared film or using a shovel. It is never outright info-dumping, the result feels professional, not ponderous.
Mr. Dodge doesn't create quite the extended metaphor that Mr. Rabe does with his radioactive gold, but Plunder of the Sun is much more than an archaeological steeplechase. The running theme is one of slavery. There's discussion of the Incas and their dictatorship - a lost empire where gold was valueless, money didn't exist, no one went hungry and 99% of the population were slaves. This is paralleled by Colby's discovery of criaturismo, described as a quasi-legal form of indentured servitude in contemporary Peru. Ana Luz (the beautiful nurse) is both thankful and resentful of her patron, and her mixed emotions are at the core of her motivations. Mr. Dodge cleverly inserts other imbalanced relationships into the story. There's an insecure American traveller who falls in love with a domineering Peruvian heir, the over-arching presence of the American financial interests in South America and, finally, the many treasure hunters and their unquestioning servitude to gold. Colby himself feels enslaved, driven by his dreams of treasure and impossible wealth. His slow-burning rebellion is what separates him from many of the other characters, and allows him to rise above his greedy peers.
Stop This Man! and Plunder of the Sun covers are by Robert McGinnis