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W. HOWARD BAKER
The Big Steal


click to enlarge

Mayflower, London, 1964
(price: 2/6; 128 pages)


The blurb on the back:

A half-crazed killer on the loose from Broadmoor ... together with a bunch of twilight people from Bruno's Striporama in Soho: a forgotten idol of the teenage mass, a has-been film-producer, a dead-beat sob-sister - each desperately trying to find a way out. SHAKE WELL AND YOU HAVE A COCKTAIL FOR CRIME ON ANY SCALE.


Now this, this is trash fiction. This is great stuff. Written shortly after the Great Train Robbery, it's essentially a heist story, with a gang trying to lift two million pounds in gold bullion from Heathrow Airport. In itself, not particularly startling, but there are some nice elements.

Firstly the leader of the gang is a war veteran, an Englishman who knew Mussolini and fought for the Fascists until his capture in 1945, and his committal to Broadmoor as a 'dangerous paranoiac'. Then there's the gang he recruits, which includes the likes of Larry Clifford, who had been the rock & roll sensation of the nation when he was 17 but was now - on his 25th birthday - a washed-up nobody (shades of Myself For Fame), and of Rosina Worth, the original Bitch of Fleet Street, who trod on so many people to reach the top, that there were plenty to lend a helping hand when she began to fall. And then there's the narrative tone of the book, which is straight out of pre-Sun journalese:

Bill Simmons of the Daily Post left the control room quickly and quietly.
He left it unseen.
Marcia Norton went out, and Simmons was close behind her. He was her shadow. Half a minute later, Detective-Inspector Whitefield would turn round and look for him and find him missing. But no one would know where, when, or why he had gone.
He couldn't have told them. To have told them what was in his mind would have made them more worried than ever. Perhaps needlessly. He couldn't tell anyone until he was sure.

And so on and so forth. You don't get that anymore, that combination of the clipped, staccato prose and the sense that everything is preordained and that individuals are simply cogs in a mechanical masterplan.

The only real problem is that there's simply not enough of it. There are ten principal characters, but - by the time you've taken the workings of the story out - there's barely enough room for a quick sketch. Which is a shame, since so many of them are really quite entertaining.

Oh, and I have no idea what all that cocktail imagery on the cover is all about - there's not a single cocktail in the book. Maybe something to do with cashing in on the James Bond image?

heady
the back of the book

Incidentally, for those keeping track of these things, W Howard Baker (1925-91) was a prolific writer who later turned up as Peter Saxon - though he didn't write most of the stuff that emerged under that name.


acknowledgements:
my thanks to Mr Brian Freeborn
for donating this book


ARTISTIC MERIT: 2/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
3/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
4/5


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Allan Prior,
The Operators
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