On New Year’s Eve 1936, the powder house in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, blew up, killing one person and turning a second victim into a circus freak. Robinson’s second novel embroiders a fictional explanation how it all happened.
Who would set the match to a structure housing over seven thousand pounds of explosives? For answer, Robinson (Thunder Dreamer, 1996) goes back to that old, old story, the criminal who couldn’t quit the life. In the months leading up to the disaster, he shows safecracker Raymond (“Preacher”) Hardokker pulled back into stealing. First, his reluctant friendship with naïve fellow con Paul Haroldson leads him to break into the local A&P’s new Toledo safe as if the best way to mentor Paul were to indulge his get-rich-quick fantasies. Then, after the heist has forced him to go on the lam and soured his romance with Francine, the waitress he’s gotten pregnant, for keeps, he has the bad luck to meet his own mentor, Yankee Tom Bowdin. The meeting is no accident, he soon realizes; it’s been set up—and so has Preacher—by Tom’s current companions, Lou Fine and Bruno Bellini. As the prospective brains and artillery of a foolproof jewel robbery they’ve got lined up back in Sioux City, they know that Tom, once at the head of his profession, has lost his edge to morphine, and they use him to inveigle his former understudy into their gang. Even though he can see every move coming, Preacher can’t outmaneuver Tom’s deadly companions, and eventually he’s sweating bullets in front of Isadore Weinberg’s cannonball safe, with still worse developments around the corner. A frame tale subtly suggests that Preacher may not have the last word on the truth.
An old-fashioned noir novel that could have come out of the period it so carefully evokes.