May 2006

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Oil & Gas

Here’s a crime for you: 16 BILLION DOLLARS.

That number, reported just this morning, represents the profits reported by the world’s top three oil companies this quarter. This quarter!

Now, look, I think about stealing a lot. I mean, a whole lot. I spend whole days daydreaming about ways I can rob rich white guys who are the perpetual pains in my ass. Temporarily ensconced in one of those absurdly wealthy middle American suburbs, it’s downright painful to see people pissing money away faster than they could comfortably burn it. It’s all I can do not to grab the unattended purse at the grocery store, thump the brain-damaged kid in the cart, and take myself on an Amex platinum shopping spree. Muggings, credit card fraud, short cons, bank robbery, and jewel heists all dance through my head like sugar plum fairies in the Nutcracker.

But even my scandalous brain can’t wrap itself around $16 billion. And that’s not earnings, boys and girls. That’s profit. Exxon alone made $36.13 billion last year, the highest profits ever reported by a U.S. company. Combined with the utter bullshit coming from the White House -- I’ve been addicted to a lot of things, I’ll admit, but oil isn’t one of them -- and it adds up to the crime of the new century.

In better days, I might have been more nostalgic about the American automobile but my history with cars is dicey at best. I’ve been battered around the Mustang fastback my mother rolled. I’ve been rear-ended by John Elway’s personal assistant, who was busy negotiating with a blackmailer. A year ago, I was broadsided and learned the fascinating fact that these new-fangled air bags blow with enough velocity to strip the skin off your hands.

But I understand the attraction. In fact, I’m wondering why there isn’t more of a tradition of automobiles as the centerpiece of crime novels. There’s certainly a plethora of car chases in film but for every masterpiece -- the elegant, bleak classic that is Bullitt or the masterful chase between Popeye Doyle and a train in The French Connection -- there’s a piece of crap like Gone in Sixty Seconds, which ruins it for everybody. Maybe it’s best to leave the car chases on film to a previous age; while the nifty Minis in The Italian Job have their merits, I’m not sure anyone wants to see a couple of hybrids dragging a la Fast And The Furious down Pico Boulevard.

Admittedly, car chases don’t lend themselves well to prose either, the novelization of Smokey and the Bandit (yes, there was one) notwithstanding. Yet, just like gunfights or serial killing, I believe the tense world of car thieves, wheelmen and bootleggers can be compelling in the right hands.

Take last year’s Drive, the taut, brittle and deservedly lauded book by James Sallis. His hero, the eponymous Driver, is a stunt racer for Hollywood by day who takes the unenviable sideline of gunning getaway cars for local gangsters. Sallis is a razor-sharp wordsmith with a keen eye for noir conventions and his protagonist is as single-minded as Richard Stark’s tenacious Parker.

“I drive,” he says. “That’s all I do. I don’t sit in while you’re planning the score or while you’re running it down. You tell me where we start, where we’re headed, where we’ll be going afterwards, what time of day. I don’t take part, I don’t know anyone, I don’t carry weapons. I drive.”

Invariably, Driver’s house of cards collapses when a botched robbery puts him in possession of both the loot and a gun moll named Blanche, who’s soon messily topped off with a Remington 870. Drive is bitter fruit worthy of dead Jim Thompson, and Poisoned Pen deserves kudos for foisting it on an unsuspecting public.

Andrew Vachss is better known for his novels about Burke, a criminal who’s no stranger to fast getaways and the nominal hero of Mask Market, due in August. But Vachss also has a dark standalone tale about a similar driver in The Getaway Man. Stitching together the author’s mission to protect abused children with his relentlessly dark mood, it’s told by Eddie, a joyrider who’s been smacked down by the juvenile justice system. Lacking any real family of his own, he latches on to the criminals and hard cases around him to become their getaway man. It’s great not because Eddie’s racing is vividly described but because his take on driving is so effortlessly, simplistically joyful.

“But it only seemed like a couple of minutes had gone by when I heard the siren and saw the flashing lights in the mirror,” Eddie recalls. “That’s when I made them chase me. I don’t remember much about it expect that I couldn’t hear anything -- it was like I had gone deaf or something. But it didn’t scare me. Nothing scared me that night. I was driving. They were chasing me, and it felt like that was how it was supposed to be.”

On the other hand, Duane Swierczynski’s The Wheelman is way more Pulp Fiction than “pulp fiction.” He’s no slouch at the mechanics of bank robbery, having written the terrific This Here's a Stick-Up: The Big Bad Book of American Bank Robberybut he ratchets it up a notch with this fictional swipe at a pro who’s having a very bad day.

Lennon is a mute mick whose virtues lay in his professional steadfastness. On a good day, everybody gets away clean and today should have been a good day. He and his crew are hitting a massive stash, $650,000 earmarked for some benevolent city program. Things go to hell (and isn’t that how it always goes?) when he runs down a woman with a baby carriage during the getaway. The next thing he knows, the Russian mob has hit the crew on their way out of town and the wheelman is soon fighting his way, literally, out of a body bag.

It’s brief and nearly absurd in its violence -- Peckinpah animated by Warner Brothers, let’s say -- but it’s fine fodder for an afternoon spent at the beach, or say, doing surveillance or something equally numbing.
 
There must be something about Philly. If you can find a battered paperback, Timothy Watts’s Grand Theft is a slightly gentler take on the old art of auto thievery. It’s certainly not going to draw any fire for violence in the age of the hysterically offensive Grand Theft Auto games, but it’s a perfectly serviceable comic crime novel about Teddy Clyde, a particularly cautious car thief who only deals in luxury cars. This tale of grand theft is padded with stock characters -- a string of Italian mobsters, a Jewish mastermind, and a sexed-up investigative reporter among them -- but it’s an acceptable substitute if you’re jonesing for Elmore Leonard.

Feeling reminiscent about the good old days before airbags, plastic cars and the ozone layer? Try James Cobb’s West on 66, a novel set in 1958 that pits an errant cop and his ’57 Chevy against ruthless killers on America’s most famous road. Spanning the west from Chicago to the Mojave Desert, vacationing cop and errant savior Kevin Pulaski must save a damsel in distress from her hunters and her chastity. It’s not Shakespeare but it nicely matches gunfights and muscle cars with the atmospheric landscapes, cheap motels and desert ambience that made 66 the Mother Road.

For a more humorous blow, try 32 Cadillacs by Joe Gores, a multiple Edgar award winner. He’s fashioned a series of clever novels about Daniel Kearney Associates, a private investigation firm in San Francisco that specializes in auto repossession. When a band of gypsies swindle Bay Area Caddy dealers out of 31 cars in a day, the weird and wonderful pros at DKA must ply their trade to get them back, along with a very special pink 1958 model fit for The King.

There’s plenty of other violence, chaos, crashes and revelry to be had. Although it lacks the integral Steve McQueen chase, the original novel that Bullitt is based on -- Mute Witness by the late Robert L. Pike -- is an entertaining read by one of the genre’s most enthusiastic writers. Another McQueen role can be found in the film version of The Getaway but the classic book by Jim Thompson is the real gem. Donald Westlake, who created the memorable Parker under his pseudonym Richard Stark, even takes a comical pass at car theft in The Road To Ruin, which finds his tragically inept criminal John Dortmunder casing a collection of antique cars.

Greed, larceny, acidic wit and burning rubber: what more could you want from an American Dream?

“We are whores for power and oil with hate and fear in our hearts." Hunter S. Thompson