In this debut crime novel, a Korean War veteran moonlighting as a bank robber in 1950s New York mingles with vicious hoodlums, the consequence of romancing a mob boss’ ex-wife.
Former Marine Tom Decker doesn’t care for wealthy types. More specifically, the Smiths, who years ago swindled his father, crushed by the Depression, out of Decker’s Hardware. Back from the war, Decker now works for Frank Smith in the store’s paint department. He plans on buying back the family business, having accumulated a pile of cash from stickups he’s been pulling off with partner-in-crime Mitch O’Neill. Things take an unwelcome turn, however, when Irene McKenna walks into Decker’s department. They’ve already hit it off when he learns that Irene is the ex-wife of Enzo Fiori, don of a local mob family. Decker figures the easiest route is to plead his case for dating Irene to currently incarcerated Fiori. But the gangster has details of one of Decker’s recent heists and, in exchange for keeping the particulars of the thief’s criminal activities from Irene, wants part of the loot. Moreover, Fiori enlists Decker’s and O’Neill’s help for another robbery and an even bigger score. Trusting Fiori’s goons doesn’t seem feasible, and getting away intact will require a good deal of luck. Roberts’ pleasantly old-fashioned caper boasts tough-guy vernacular in dialogue and first-person narration. Decker, for example, after taking down a thug menacingly poking his chest with cigar-holding fingers, says: “You ought to be careful where you point that stogie, pal.” He’s nevertheless appealing; his reason for stealing is, at the very least, selfless (reclaim his father’s store), and he’s sweet on winsome co-worker Dottie Gibbs. Roberts further contrasts Decker with his mentor, O’Neill, a true hardened criminal; during one heist, O’Neill dons a Wolf Man mask while Decker portrays Howdy Doody. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fiori’s theft doesn’t go as planned, and Decker’s ensuing scramble is nothing short of exhilarating, including deaths and a double cross or two.
Crisp prose and a savvy protagonist accentuate a smart and unpretentious genre tale.