Tres Cruces is a quiet little town in California. One day, a gang led by hardened ex-con Charley Varrick pull off an audacious daylight robbery that leaves two people, a bank security guard and a gang member, dead and Charley's common-law wife (also a drug addict and part-time prostitute) badly injured. However, the loot runs to hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of the smaller sum expected. And when it turns out that this little bank was a repository for mob money, Charley and his cowardly, less experienced sidekick Harman Sullivan are soon being pursued by the local police and FBI as well as various organised crime figures who want to simultaneously recover the loot and cover their tracks.
This crime novel is the basis for Don Siegel's memorable 1973 movie adaptation Charley Varrick that featured doleful Walter Matthau cast against type as the smarter than the average crook and which differs considerably from the source novel - a book that drew praise from 'locked-room' mystery author specialist John Dickson Carr who described it as 'a good thriller which is also a first-rate novel of character'.
For one thing, the book's chapters each follow a different character whose involvement in the robbery, psychology and individual motivations will all play a part in resolving the narrative, rather than reading most of the action through the eyes of its anti-hero Varrick and consequently often feels more like Peyton Place than a conventional crime novel. The novel's Charley Varrick is also less the brainy operator of the film and more a conniving and hardboiled con who is a good deal less smarter than some of those who are soon on his tail, particularly a sadistic Southern hit-man with the unlikely name of Molly; and who was memorably portrayed on screen by Joe Don Baker.
The writing style is generally sharp, lean and to the point, with the author swiftly sketching a number of distinct and different characters in economical yet vivid brushstrokes. However, the occasional digressions into the inners working of the Mafia and the country's financial system (including a prophetic prediction almost a half-century before it came to pass that physical money is destined to be abolished in favour of electronic transactions that would make Varrick and his ilk obsolete) can impede the action at times.
Therefore, the book is more cluttered with character and incident and, most notably, features plot developments that differ significantly from the cinematic adaptation. However, in spite of this and the occasional longueurs, this is a solid and generally brisk read for fans of hardboiled crime, as well as providing an interesting comparison to the film it inspired.
AFTERWORD: Pyramid Books' 1970 US paperback edition sells the book as more of a 'mob' novel than a crime caper with both the front and back cover blurbs emphasising the organised crime aspect over the bank robbery aspects. This is not altogether surprising given the success of Mario Puzo's The Godfather a year earlier (the title is also prominently name-checked on the front cover). In fact, reading the front and back cover give the misleading impression that this is a 'novel of the mafia', and unless you flick the pages to the chapter two heading, you would be unaware that this is the basis of the film Charley Varrick. Author John Reese began writing for the pulps in the 1930s and subsequently mainly wrote Western novels and short stories (another novel Pity Us All appears to be his only other foray into crime fiction). Both this first paperback edition and any other editions (particularly the UK movie tie-in) seem to be rather uncommon these days for 1970s paperbacks, but it's a recommended read and one that deserves wider attention.