Saturday, August 27, 2022

Lionel White's Clean Break (The Killing)

Clean Break is a 1955 noir novel by Lionel White. It was made into the superb 1956 Stanley Kubrick movie The Killing. Later editions of the novel were published with the title The Killing.

Lionel White was apparently something of a specialist in caper stories and this novel is a classic of that sub-genre.

Johnny Clay is a fairly small-time crook but after serving four years in prison he thinks he’s figured out what he keeps doing wrong. The answer is that you have to think big. If you get caught you go to prison anyway so if you’re going to risk a prison stretch you might as well make it something worth the risk.

This time Johnny is thinking very big indeed. A racetrack robbery on Long Island. He expects to get away with two million dollars. Now back in 1955 two million dollars was an almost unimaginably vast sum of money. Enough to set up every member of the gang in luxury for the rest of their lives.

The only problem is that everyone knows that robbing a major racetrack is impossible. There are too many people, there’s way too much security. It can’t be done. But Johnny thinks he’s come up with a fool-poof plan.

The mistake most guys make in pulling off a big heist is that they use a team of professional criminals, which just makes things easy for the cops. Johnny is going to use amateurs. Guys with no criminal records.

His plan really is quite ingenious. It will involve a shooting but if things go right there won’t be any chance of a murder rap because no-one will have been murdered.

His choice of partners in the robbery says a lot about Johnny. He’s very clever, up to a point. The cops will be looking for professionals. And each of the guys involved is ideal for Johnny’s purposes. He has a couple of guys on the inside. There’s bartender Big Mike and there’s George Peatty, a cashier at the track. There’s a guy named Unger who will finance the heist. And there’s a cop, Randy Kellan. Randy is dishonest but he’s never been caught doing anything illegal. All these guys are suitable because they all need money desperately. Johnny will have to use a few professionals but they’ll be paid flat fees upfront and will never get to meet any of the members of the gang. They won’t know anything important so even if they get caught they won’t be able to tell the police anything of importance.

So these guys are good choices for the robbery, except for one thing. They’re losers. And guys become losers because they make a mess of everything they touch.

Johnny knows that the weakest link is George Peatty, but Johnny thinks he’ll be OK. What Johnny doesn’t realise is just how much of a weak link George is. George needs the money to stop his gorgeous young wife Sherry from leaving him. George doesn’t intend to tell Sherry anything but Sherry has a surefire way of getting George to do what she wants. If she lets George have sex with her he will do anything and tell her anything. The other problem that Johnny hasn’t anticipated is that Sherry Peatty is a tramp. That’s likely to cause real trouble. She’s the femme fatale in the mix.

White has come up with a very solid plot. And he tells the story in an interesting way. He constantly switches from one character’s point of view to another. And he keeps doubling back on the plot to give us vital parts of the story from the points of view of several different characters. When it comes to the heist itself he gives us the lead-up from the pint of view of every major characters. So we get a series of narratives running in parallel and overlapping (and Kubrick adopted a similar approach in his movie version which has been widely praised for its narrative innovations).

There’s plenty of noirness here. We feel from the start that all of these people are doomed. They’re attempting a very clever heist but they’re losers and we know that they’re going to make mistakes. Johnny is a loser as well. He’s a loser because he thinks he’s cleverer than he is. He’s fallen prey to wishful thinking. He thinks he’s a criminal mastermind but his plan is way too complicated to work.

White brings the story to a very satisfying conclusion.

Clean Break is definitely noir fiction but it’s also a terrific and exciting example of a heist story. Very highly recommended.


  1. Read this over the weekend, before re-watching the film. Awesome work, and definitely hard-boiled

    1. Recently I've been doing this a lot - reading the source novel for a movie and then watching the movie immediately afterwards. Usually I find that either the novel is clearly superior, or the movie is clearly superior. But this was one of those rare and happy cases where both book and movie were immensely impressive.