Lionel White (1905-1985) was a crime fiction writer with a specialty in heist novels. However, his work never achieved the commercial success or historical longevity of Richard Stark’s heist fiction. My theory is that because White never gravitated towards a series character (a’la ‘Parker’), readers never developed any particular brand loyalty toward his writing despite its sustained excellence. The upside of a stand-alone paperback is that the stakes are way higher for the main character. In any novel, the hero could live or die or be imprisoned because the author has no use for him after the final page.
“Operation - Murder” is a 1956 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original by Lionel White that has been re-released by Stark House as a double packaged with “Coffin for a Hood.” The new collection also features an introduction by talented Utah author Ben Boulden who does some remarkable detective work uncovering details of White’s shadowy life.
The novel opens with Tina Scudder riding in a bus through the Rocky Mountains to the sleepy town of Twin Valley. She’s come a long way to rendezvous with the man she married ten days earlier after meeting the enigmatic charmer on the ski slopes. Her new husband, Frank, told her to meet him in the frozen hamlet, so they can be together at last on a never-ending honeymoon.
Meanwhile, we learn that there’s been a bank robbery - with shots fired and a deputy hit - in a nearby town. If you’ve never read a vintage crime novel before, you might be surprised to learn that newlywed Frank is connected to the robbery crew - the leader, in fact.
We also learn that there is a money train coming through the mountains replenishing banks with cash along its 600-mile route. There’s a couple guards on board keeping the $6 million safe, but an approaching snowstorm runs the risk of stopping the train right around Twin Valley. Could the relatively modest bank robbery have been just a warm up for the big score of knocking over the money train? You betcha. The planning and execution of a train robbery 100 years after such crimes had gone out of fashion was a great pleasure of “Operation - Murder.”
White keeps things moving for the reader with a compelling ensemble cast and regular third-person perspective changes. The setting of a snowed-in mountain town brimming with the potential for extreme violence makes for a suitably claustrophobic backdrop for this compelling heist paperback. The inclusion of the innocent Tina into the snowy shitstorm of violence and mayhem makes for a nice twist.
Overall “Operation - Murder” is a by-the-numbers 1950s heist paperback written by an author who had the formula mastered by this point of his career. The paperback doesn’t especially break new ground in the genre, but it’s extremely well-executed and worth your time. Mostly, I’m just glad that the novels of Lionel White are being kept alive over 60 years later. He was a master of the genre and “Operation - Murder” is a fine entry into his body of work.
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