“I know about your kind of man. You’d as soon kill as not. You, and those others in there, you’re all of you alike. All of you cowards and killers.”
The kidnapping went off without a hitch, but pulling a job is one thing; getting away with it is another. Cal Dent has been planning this caper for years and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make a clean getaway—even murder. But the more time he spends around one of his beautiful hostages, the more reluctant he is to let her go. As his perfect scheme starts falling apart, how far will Dent go to save his own skin?
The Snatchers isn’t a love story, at least not the kind Dent thinks it is. Lionel White hits the ground running with his first novel, the dark and twisted account of a perfect crime undone by the imperfect criminals who carry it out. To kidnap rich little Janie Wilton and her nurse Terry Ballin, Dent has assembled a questionable crew. Seductive, hard-drinking Pearl, her jealous boyfriend Red, and cruel Gino are easily distracted by their own obsessions. Aside from Dent, Fats is the most competent member of the group; the only problem is that no one else can stand him. Nonetheless, Dent has absolute faith in his plan, never anticipating that he himself would turn out to be its weakest link.
Terry is an adult, which is hard to tell at first because she is described as having the face and “casual charm” of a child with the body of a “very desirable woman.” From the very moment of the snatch, her presence in the isolated beach house hideout evokes uncontrollable emotions from her kidnappers.
Staring straight ahead, Terry walked the child through the door.
Three pairs of eyes followed her.
If I could only get Pearl out of here for a few minutes, Red was thinking, I’d sure as hell take a crack at that.
I’d like to beat her, Gino thought to himself. Beat her and beat her and beat her until she cried to God for mercy. God, I’d like to get my nails into that soft flesh!
Trouble. That’s what Cal Dent was thinking. A dame who could be plenty of trouble. Damnit, they should have killed her.
The fact that Terry is merely a collateral target puts her at risk; even Dent originally plans to murder her once Janie is returned to her parents. There is constant tension as the gangsters try to interpret Terry’s actions. They simply do not understand her. She is disposable to them, so the slightest misstep on either side could lead to her death, yet the idea of a “nice” woman is so foreign to all of the captors that they can’t help indulging their curiosity. Impressively, though she is almost entirely shown through the kidnappers’ uncomprehending eyes, the reader comes to understand Terry in a way that Dent, who loves her, cannot. For a character whose point of view is never directly expressed, Terry displays surprising depth, more so than some of the kidnappers.
Terry is an ordinary person existing among career criminals who find her deeply mysterious. In the same way, their inability to predict how their small-town neighbors will react to their presence puts the whole enterprise at risk. Even the local grocer takes special notice of Pearl, “the kind of woman of whom the grocer thoroughly disapproved. She was also the kind that in his secret dreams he hoped to meet and seduce. Pearl affected most people that way.” Though Pearl responds with “her number-two smile,” their interaction fills her with dread, the first intimation that these crooks from the city are not fitting seamlessly into the community.
From such small moments, White’s spare prose builds a greater and greater sense of unease, even as the plan seems to be unfolding perfectly. The odd interactions with Terry and the neighbors sow seeds of doubt; is everything really going as well as Dent thinks? If things go wrong,
It would no longer be a case of dickering with a grief-stricken and worried family, whose one single thought was the safe return of their child. It was, Cal Dent suddenly realized, himself against the whole country.
Well, Dent reflected, he was a criminal, wasn’t he? It had always been him against society. The only difference was that now the other side realized the identity and the location of its enemy.
Dent’s mouth was a hard straight line as he thought about it. He was more determined than ever to win.
The details of the kidnapping and its aftermath are endlessly fascinating, with the stress of collecting the ransom bringing everyone’s insecurities to the surface. The final stages of the much-vaunted plan are exhilarating while they are unfolding, although the protracted climax gives the reader a little too much time to think about how bizarre that plan turned out to be. The Snatchers is a worthy maiden heist for Lionel White.
Much of the book takes place in a beach cottage where the gang hides out while waiting for ransom money to be delivered. The close living gets on everyone’s nerves. To make matters worse, a small town cop seeing people come and go from the cottage begins to snoop around, heightening the tension. White keeps the whole thing moving at a terrific clip with twits and dangers in every chapter.
The author doesn’t fool around here. As the story begins, the crime has already taken place, and tensions are rising. The plot is simmering on page 1 and keeps getting hotter until—on the final page—well, you’ll have to read it and see. It’s the kind of thriller that keeps your eyes glued to the page.
The Snatchers is available in paperback and ebook from Stark House, in a double volume with Clean Break, which is only one of the greatest heist novels ever written, so what are you waiting for?
2 thoughts on “The Snatchers (1953) by Lionel White”
If I ever come across this one I’ll be sure to tackle it and tear through its pages. White can cook up a great tale. He was a master of heist novels. I’ve only read one book by Lionel White — The House Next Door, both an odd crime novel and a satirical look at the carbon copy lifestyle and lookalike homes of burgeoning 1950s American suburbia. Although I own a copy of Clean Break I’ve never read that book. However, I’ve seen THE KILLING several times. Great movie! One time noir movie queen Marie Windsor is fabulous in that movie.
Coincidentally, I read a book about a kidnapping this week too. Girl Missing by our old friend Edna Sherry.
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There’s going to be a lot of Lionel White around here in the next few weeks because I checked a bunch of his Stark House double volumes out of the library and of course now they’re all due back at once. It seemed like a good idea at the time… The House Next Door is included; it does sound interesting and unusual.
Off to check out Girl Missing. Edna Sherry could give White a run for his money when it comes to plots with split-second timing.