Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Narrative voice is an important part of any story, and often gives that story much of its tone. The voice might be first or third person, and it might include one or more than one point of view. Not all stories are told this way, though. As an example, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Lawrence Sanders’ debut novel, The Anderson Tapes, which is told entirely through the means of transcripts, letters, notes, and other written anecdotes.
Professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson has recently been released from New York’s Sing Sing Prison. He’s got a legal job working in a printing plant, but everything changes when he meets wealthy Agnes Everleigh, who lives in an exclusive Manhattan apartment building. After seeing the building and getting a sense of the wealth of its residents, Anderson decides to pull off a major heist. His plan is to rob every apartment in the building. The way he sees it, the haul could be worth a major fortune.
Anderson knows he can’t do the job alone. So, little by little, he gets in touch with various contacts he has to get the help he’ll need (e.g. money to finance the operation, a getaway truck for the loot, some ‘muscle,’ someone to deal with locks and alarms, and so on). Beginning in April, 1968 (the book was published in 1970), Anderson and his team put their scheme together. It’s decided that the best time to rob the building will be during a holiday weekend, when most people are out of town. The goal is to get as much loot as possible without, ideally, hurting anyone, much less killing anyone. The US holiday of Labor Day (early September) is selected, and the plans are made.
The building is carefully observed, and the identities and habits of the residents are noted. As time goes on, Anderson and his team make adjustments, but the basic plan seems to hold water. And on the night chosen, everything is in place, and everyone knows exactly what to do. But they also know that anything might happen, and plans can change at the last second.
Most of Anderson’s contacts are involved in some way in the underworld. Some are in the Mafia; others are simply people with criminal pasts. One is under PI surveillance because of a pending divorce. Almost all of them are under investigation for one other another reason. Because of that, the FBI and several other law enforcement agencies have been wiretapping and otherwise eavesdropping on most of the people involved in the plot. And neither Anderson nor anyone else involved in the plot is aware of being recorded. As the day of the planned robbery gets closer, the question is: will the team get to pull off the heist before anyone in law enforcement is able to stop them?
The story is told documentary-style, in the form of transcripts, letters, newspaper articles, interviews, and so on. Each chapter begins with notes about who the characters discussed in the chapter are and why they (or the locations) are under surveillance or being interviewed. Readers who prefer one point of view (either first or third person) will notice this. That said, though, the story is told in a roughly chronological way. For example, first, Anderson visits the building; then, he meets with some of his underworld contacts to discuss his idea; then, he gets the financial backing he’ll need. The documentation reports the plans in different ways and from different points of view.
The novel has been called a thriller, and there are elements of the thriller in it. The story is fast-paced, and there’s mounting tension as the heist is planned. Will every detail fall into place? Can everyone be trusted to do the job? Is Anderson taking too many risks by working with the Mob? Have they planned for contingencies?
Despite the pace, the novel also discusses some larger questions. For example, several different branches of law enforcement are involved in the various wiretapping and other surveillance operations. Why aren’t they exchanging information and coordinating their efforts? There’s also some discussion of what makes a criminal, and of why people break the law. There’s also a discussion of the code some criminals have. They’ll rob and steal, but most of them don’t want to kill.
This isn’t a light story, in the way that a comic-caper novel is. There is violence, and not all of it is ‘off stage.’ There’s also quite a lot of very explicit language. It should also be noted that the language reflects some ugly prejudices; there are several unpleasant ‘isms’ in some of the characters’ attitudes.
The story’s focus is a posh East Side apartment building, so readers get to know something about the people who live there. Besides Agnes Everleigh, there’s a wealthy psychiatrist, an elderly widow and her companion/housekeeper, a management consultant and his family, and a successful interior decorator. They’re all different, and each adds an interesting perspective to the events in the story.
For fans of Sanders’ Deadly Sin series, it’s worth mentioning that Captain Edward X. Delaney, who features in that series, makes his debut here. He doesn’t appear until later in the novel, but we get a first glimpse of him and his view of police operations here.
The Anderson Tapes tells the story of the meticulous planning that goes into a major criminal operation. It depicts all of the different people who are involved and shows how one person’s audacious idea links them. It also depicts the lives of some of the well-to-do who live in just the sort of upmarket building that appeals to a bold professional thief. And it’s told in an unusual way, with a different sort of narrative voice. But what’s your view? Have you read The Anderson Tapes? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
ps. Cinema fans will know that this novel is the basis for Sidney Lumet’s 1971 film of the same name.
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 19 February/Tuesday, 20 February – The Wheel Spins – Ethel Lina White
Monday, 26 February/Tuesday, 27 February – Deal Breaker – Harlan Coben
Monday, 5 March/Tuesday, 6 March – Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street – Heda Margolius Kovály