Showing posts with label Jack Finney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jack Finney. Show all posts

Friday, August 11, 2023

5 Against the House

Jack Finney's (1911-1995) best known novels are The Body Snatchers (1955), which was adapted into the 1956 popular science-fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Time and Again (1970), and Assault on a Queen (1959), which was adapted into a film of the same name in 1966. My only experience with the author was his prison-break novel House of Numbers, which I really enjoyed. In the mood for heist-fiction, I chose to read his first published novel, 5 Against the House. It was published in 1954 as a hardcover by Doubleday & Company and made into a 1955 film of the same name by Columbia Pictures. It was also a serialized story featured in Good Housekeeping.

Al is a bright young kid attending college and planning for his future. His pack of friends includes fellow students Guy, Jerry, Brick, and Tina. After seeing a Brink's Security truck roll by, the guys fantasize about robbing the truck and making off with a fortune in stolen money. Unfortunately, they put the plan into a loose sketch and decide to follow the truck as it makes various stops. Needless to say, the police watch for that sort of thing and immediately pull the kids over with a warning to stop the nonsense. Which was really all it was.

But, the kids aren't smart enough to leave well enough alone. Instead, they piece together a plan to rob a Reno casino called Harold's Club. The kids have worked in and around the place holding summer jobs serving the tourists. The first half of the book's narrative consists of the plan, holdup, escape route, and so forth. The second half is the heist itself and the aftermath.

Heist-fiction is a lot of fun and Jack Finney certainly understood the ins and outs of working within this sub-genre of crime-fiction. While not as violent as a Parker or Earl Drake novel, Finney makes up for it with an intense human study of emotion – guilt, integrity, responsibility, loyalty – while defining the characters of Al, Tina, and Brick. There is a deep ravine carved in the friendship between Al and Brick, and Finney does an excellent job excavating that for the reader. Additionally, Tina's fascination with money and swanky lifestyle propels Al's participation in the narrative. It's the decisions and the aftermath that made House of Numbers so good, and I was happy to learn Finney used (learned?) those elements here.  

5 Against the House is just a great heist novel featuring likable characters and a fresh take on “take the money and run”. If you haven't tried Jack Finney yet, either this novel or House of Numbers is a great place to start.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, July 30, 2021

The House of Numbers

Walter Braden, Jack Finney (born John Finney, 1911-1995) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and attended Knox College in Illinois. Aside from being an advertising writer in New York, Finney wrote a number of novels using the name Jack Finney. Many of his literary works have been adapted for film and television, including The Body Snatchers, Good Neighbor Sam, Assault on a Queen and the subject at hand, The House of Numbers. This was the author's third career novel and was initially published in 1956.

Arnie and his girlfriend Ruth become engaged and Arnie is looking for the perfect ring. Despite having very little money, Arnie buys an expensive ring with a check that won't clear the bank. After making rounds, Arnie cashes a bunch of checks at various retailers for cash and deposits the money. Needles to say, Arnie ends up in California's San Quentin prison for check fraud. According to this novel, most prisoners had sentences that were listed as the number of years to life. In Arnie's case, he's serving five years and his criminal record is five years to life. That's important to know.

In the first chapters, the prison warden summons Arnie to his office and explains that another prisoner saw him assault a guard. Arnie did it, but thought no one was around to witness the assault. The warden threatens Arnie to explain his actions, otherwise he will accept the other prisoner's testimony as fact. Arnie refuses and he's sent back to his cell to await whatever fate he's destined for. Now, referring to this Californian law, Arnie knows that anyone with a "life sentence" that attacks a prison guard is guaranteed a death by lethal injection. Either Arnie leaves the prison as a corpse or an escaped convict. That's when his brother Ben becomes involved.

Arnie reaches out to Ben and begs that he break him out of San Quentin, one of the most fortified prisons in the country. Along with Arnie's fiance Ruth, Ben begins scouting the prison and designing a plan to liberate his brother. Ben and Ruth move into a neighborhood near the prison and learn that their neighbor is actually one of the prison guards. This becomes a real problem when the guard casually mentions to Ben that he's seen him at the prison visiting an inmate. Arnie's escape would surely be linked to Ben. 

Finney's narrative unfolds as a unique first-person presentation from both Ben and Arnie. Although the author does not necessarily specify who is speaking, the reader can instantly decipher it depending on where and with whom the character speaks. Another unique aspect of this prison break story is the means by which the escape occurs. Ben formulates a plan to break into the prison and assume the role of Arnie. This frees up Arnie's time to work on the getaway through an elaborate combination of underground excavation and warehouse work. While Ben becomes the prisoner, Arnie is essentially a free man. This adds an alluring enhancement to the narrative; will one brother betrays another? The plot thickens when Ben and Ruth develop a romantic chemistry.

The House of Numbers was a good crime novel that used some new tricks to spice up the average prison break formula. I liked the concept and the various questions it presented - will the guard rat out Ben, can the warden be trusted, is Ruth serious about her passion for Ben, will Arnie become greedy? These questions are all asked and answered over the course of the book. Getting there was really fun. If you enjoy prison break novels, The House of Numbers is a dependable selection.

Buy a copy of this book HERE