Crime fiction fans are probably more familiar with the many movie adaptations of Lionel White’s novels than with the novels themselves. Now, thanks to Stark House Press’s Crime Classics series, we can read THE SNATCHERS, White’s first novel, as well as CLEAN BREAK, the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING.
Cal Dent, in THE SNATCHERS (1953), leads a team of outlaws that have set up what they are certain is the prefect crime – a kidnapping that is sure to bring them half a million dollars ransom. But things start to go wrong as Dent’s team and the kidnapped victims hide out in a vacation rental in Land’s End and wait for the payoff.
Johnny, in CLEAN BREAK (1955), is released after a four-year sentence in prison and almost immediately plans the perfect heist. Only this time, instead of using other professional crooks to assist him, Johnny enlists guys with clean records and ordinary jobs – but who also have money problems that make them desperate. It all seems foolproof, until things begin to go south.
In his lengthy and informative introduction, crime fiction historian and novelist Rick Ollerman highlights the precise plotting that made White’s crime novels so appealing to moviemakers. White was especially fond of developing complex capers, making his novels a direct influence on the works of the late Donald E. Westlake (without Westlake’s often satiric humor).
Yet White did not sacrifice character development in the midst of his intricate plots. An example of this if how Dent in THE SNATCHERS discovers he has feelings for the caretaker who is kidnapped along with the young girl whose parents are hit for the ransom money. This is in stark contract to how Dent usually thinks about women, as White illustrates during the novel’s progression.
White also utilized the third-person narration, which allowed him to shift perspective and focus no the various characters in addition to the leaders of his outlaw teams. As a result we know the emotions and motivations of practically all the characters involved in White’s often-doomed capers and heists.
Still, the intricacies of the plot, especially in CLEAN BREAK, are the major attraction to most readers. But what keeps us involved are the characters that, for the most part, are why these well-made plans eventually fall apart.
Ollerman also recounts several of the White novels that made their way to the movie screen. THE SNATCHERS was made into the movie THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY in 1968. And Kubrick’s adaptation of CLEAN BREAK in 1956 was so popular that subsequent publications of White’s novel were renamed after the movie.
Like many authors of his time, White’s over 35 novels quickly disappeared from print following their initial publication. Now, however, Lionel White joins the several other influential crime authors made available again to a new generation of readers thanks to Stark House’s Crime Classics.
The source novels to movies are not always as enjoyable as the movies themselves. But these two recently restored White novels will add new dimensions to the two stories and might even make you yearn to view the movies again. —Alan Cranis