Originally Published 1960
HALF THE LOOT was Police Detective Bonner’s price for masterminding the bank robbery. Bonner couldn’t keep a gorgeous young chick like Peg on his lousy cop’s salary. And he had to have Peg. That’s why the deal to knock over the Second City National Bank. Seven minutes was all it would. take. Seven little minutes against a lifetime of easy living and Peg. There was only one thing wrong. But Bonner didn’t know it until it was too late. He had sold his soul to a DEVIL IN DUNGAREES.
Sometimes I pick up a book based on meticulous research or the recommendation of a friend. Today’s title, Devil in Dungarees, grabbed my attention simply because its title made me smile as the idea of hyper-sexualized dungarees seemed ridiculous. As it turns out this is because in the period in which this was written dungarees would have meant jeans as shown on the Crest Book cover which makes a whole lot more sense than what I initially pictured (Sarah-Jane Smith in the Doctor Who story The Hand of Fear).
The novel is an example of a type of crime novel I have not written about before on this blog – the heist. While I have enjoyed many films that feature these sorts of crimes, I suspect this may be the first novel I have read detailing that sort of crime. Certainly no others readily come to mind.
The appeal of these sorts of heist stories is in following a crime from its conception to execution and exploring its aftermath. Typically things do not go well for the criminals (or there is some element of double-cross). Given my love of inverted crime stories in general, it should come as little surprise that this sort of story might appeal to me. The only real surprise is that it has taken me so long to try one.
Devil in Dungarees begins on the morning on which the crime is planned to take place. The target is a bank on the day before payday and the plan is not particularly complex. The armed gang aims to get in and out within a very tight window of seven minutes, being off the scene before the police are able to arrive.
They have enlisted the help of a policeman, Walt Bonner, who has passed them information about patrol movements and agreed to arrange a diversion to give the gang the widest window possible to get in and away before the police can arrive. For this he is expecting to get paid half of the total takings for the job.
Walt is being encouraged and persuaded to take part by Peggy, a young woman he has been seeing for a little over a month. She claims to be twenty though Walt suspects she is younger in spite of her experience with men, and keeps pushing the idea that they will be together permanently after the job is done and they have the money. Of course the moment he leaves we learn that Peggy and the others have no intention on keeping their promises to Walt and plan on running out on him.
This then is the setup for a day that will turn into a disaster and I think it makes for an effective starting point for the novel. By choosing to begin after the crime has been planned, Conroy is able to focus on injecting action into his story while choosing to reveal important and pertinent pieces of information as needed. This works nicely to drive the narrative towards that moment where everything begins to go wrong with their plan and these characters begin to react to their situation and each other.
The way their plan ends up breaking apart is relatively simple but I think it is very effectively done. Each development feels properly set up and clued, particularly as we already know something about the personalities of each of the gang and their eventual intentions towards each other. The result is a story in which developments feel logical and satisfying and the tension seems to steadily build throughout the bank job.
While Conroy’s focus is on developing his plot and structure, his characters feel striking, colorful and distinctive. This is particularly true of some of the supporting characters such as the members of the gang and Bonner’s partner on the force, Ben Travis who is probably the most likable character in the novel. No one really changes – they begin the novel as they end it – but there are some surprising and challenging moments along the way for several of them.
Unfortunately I was a little less enamored of the handling of the two most central characters, Walt and Peggy. Conroy’s focus in his story is on pushing the plot forwards at all times and so neither character has any moments of introspection or reflection. They simply spend the novel responding instinctively to circumstances. This is interesting enough and I enjoyed the ride but given some of the things that happen to them I felt that there were questions about their backstories and their emotional states that were left unanswered.
This frustrated me most with regards the character of Peggy. From the moment she is introduced it is clear that she is serving in the role of a femme fatale and it is easy to understand the effect she has on Walt. I was curious about how Peggy came to be the way she is and why she is willing to be used and to endure some of the things she puts up with here.
I think we also come to recognize that this is a character who is conditioned to survive, clinging to the man she believes offers her the best chance of doing that. That is inferred however through the choices made rather than from any direct discussion of her choices in the narration or dialogue. We learn little about her beyond that impulse even when she is being put through the wringer as she is at points here.
I cannot hold this against Conroy too strongly however because I do not think he singles Peggy out. He is simply uninterested in exploring those questions. Peggy and Walt are the way they are presented and his interest lies in how these character types will interact and cope with the situations they are presented with. In that respect I think this story is very effective.
The power of the novel lies in its simplicity both in terms of its construction and the themes Conroy is interested in exploring. Because all of the other details are stripped away to focus on the plot, we are encouraged to anticipate conflict we know is coming up. The surprise lies in seeing what elements factor into that moment as other characters shift in and out of focus. It is simple but effective storytelling and Conroy is able to pack a lot of action into the story as a result.
While I was left wanting a little more depth in the characterization, I think that focus Conroy has on story pays off well. The result is a tight, engaging and sometimes quite dark read that drives towards its conclusion without ever really letting up.