Hostage for a Hood and The Merriweather File by Lionel White - book review

Hostage for a Hood and The Merriweather File by Lionel White
Hostage for a Hood and The Merriweather File by Lionel White
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In two top-notch crime capers from the 1950s, a car accident steers an innocent woman into the thick of a violent armoured car robbery, and dark marital revelations surface after a dead body is found in the trunk of a salesman’s car.

Influential American crime writer Lionel White is often described as the master of the big caper. His 1955 novel Clean Break was adapted by Stanley Kubrick as the basis for the film noir classic The Killing and a number of White’s other 35 novels have been made into films.

His twelfth novel, Hostage for a Hood, originally published by Gold Medal Books in 1957, is a high-suspense, heist-gone-wrong tale that is finally back in print in this newly released double-novel from Stark House Press.

Tense and briskly paced, it begins with a car accident involving two hoodlums and Joyce Sherwood, a distracted, twenty-something housewife who is mysteriously returning from the bank with a cashier’s cheque for $2,600.

When the bumper of her seven-year-old sedan punctures the radiator on a fast but unobtrusive stolen car, it puts a severe dent in the crook’s plans to steal a quarter of a million dollars from an armoured car due to arrive in 12 minutes’ time.

Desperately needing a replacement vehicle, the thieves commandeer Joyce’s old Chevy and take her and her poodle hostage, keeping her chained to a bed in an old vacant mansion in the distant town of Cameron Corners.

The hasty decision proves to be their undoing as Joyce’s dog escapes and arouses suspicion, and her husband, refusing to believe she has left him for another man and taken their life savings, begins an unrelenting search for her, determined to track her down and discover the truth.

White assembles a volatile band of vicious and dangerous thugs to heighten the drama. Among the more interesting characters are the ‘extremely meticulous and precise’ gang leader Harry Cribbins, the ‘mean and crazy’ Santino, who is a thin, puny junkie with ‘a sharp, evil mind and an uncontrollable temper,’ and Santino’s untrustworthy girlfriend, Paula, who inadvertently causes friction between the two men.

Exciting, carefully plotted, and with a perpetually ominous tone, Hostage for a Hood keeps the reader on the edge of the seat, right up to the thrilling final pages.

The second novel, The Merriweather File, is a startling tale of bloodshed, murder and violence that was first published by Dutton in 1959 and filmed as an episode of the TV series Thriller two years later.

It is narrated by New York City attorney-at-law Howard Means Yates, a neighbour and friend of Charles Merriweather and his wife Ann who unwittingly becomes ‘a major actor’ in a complicated murder investigation.

Ann, ‘a lovely, fragile, soft-spoken girl in her mid-twenties,’ approaches Yates seeking his advice regarding a series of disturbing incidents that have made her fear for her life. First, her dog, Puddles, is inexplicably killed by an injection of atropine and then she discovers somebody has broken into her home in the night and turned on one of the gas burners on the stove.

A tragic accident in her past that resulted in the death of her child has led her to question her own sanity, and she refuses to report the incidents to the police to avoid worrying her husband.

Weeks later, her husband gets a puncture on his way to work and while receiving roadside assistance, a crumpled-up dead body is discovered in the trunk of his car.

Yates suddenly finds himself caught up in a perplexing murder investigation and in over his head. Appointed to defend his neighbour, he grows increasingly uncertain about his client’s honesty, as well as his innocence.

Utterly compelling, shocking, and with an ingeniously twisted plot, The Merriweather File is a remarkably well written and deeply fascinating crime story that will leave the reader wanting to discover more of Lionel White’s exceptional novels.

(Stark House Press, paperback, £15.95)