Godey, John - The Taking of Pelham 123 (London, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1973, 287pp)
One of the finest crime capers of its time The Taking of Pelham 123 is as much about the folk lore and workings of the New York subway system as it is about four criminals taking a train carriage hostage to demand a million dollar ransom. No Dog Day Afternoon style screw up both the story’s heist and the telling of it are executed meticulously. Furthermore thanks to that author’s detailed research the story also comes across as far more plausible than the milder exploits of lesser novels.
Loving descriptions of subway arcana and insights into criminal planning aside the novel works primarily thanks to its use of shifting first person perspectives to tell the tale. As the narrative switches from one participant to another we are treated to multiple views of each event heightening the tension whilst also warning of what it is to come. Whilst this approach could have potentially come unstuck Godey’s ability to create a variety of authentic characters ensures that the plot rarely loses pace.
Despite it’s particular obsessions the novel is very much a product of its time and of especial interest here are two narratives, the first concerning a young black militant angry at the cringing of his fellow African-American hostages. Forced to satisfy his own ego and make yet another stand against "whitey" he nevertheless does so in a way that ensures he is hurt, but not executed.
The developments relating to a second character, an undercover cop disguised as a wasted hippy, are even more compelling as he grapples with his failure to challenge the hijackers. As much concerned with what his fellow cops will think as with his own conscience he also reflects on a recent relationship with an upper class drop out who is determined to turn him from his "piggish" ways. Ultimately his paralysis turns to action with horrific results for all concerned.
Quickly optioned for a film treatment the eventual movie adaptation works equally as well as the book despite some major plot revisions and the changing of a lead character’s ethnic background to enable the casting of Robert Matthau. Overall both the movie and the novel’s ability to convey the fetid heat and confusion of New York summers in the 1970s make them worth seeking out.
"Mobutu’s wound had bled itself out, although it still seeped somewhat into his saturated hankerchief. I blew my cool, he thought. I took a hit upside the head for a couple of niggers who will suck white ass to they last day on earth, gnawed to death by the rats of exploitation. He looked at his red hankerchief and thought, I would not mind shedding my blood, every pure black drop of it, if it would help set my people free. But face it – sometime it do not avail, it simply do not avail.
He felt a tap on his arm. The old dude beside him was offering a large folded hankerchief. ‘Take it’ the old man said.
Mobutu pushed the hankerchief away. ‘I got my own.’ He held the bloody rag up and the old man turned pale, but did not give up.
‘Go. Take my hankerchief. We’re all in the same boat.’
‘Old man, you are in your boat and I am in my boat. Don’t sell me no same boat deals.’
‘Okay so we’re in boats that pass in the night. But take that hankerchief anyway. Please be a good boy.’
‘I do not except castoffs.’
‘Cat off I cast off.’ The old man said ‘This hankerchief I bought maybe a month ago.’
‘I will take nothing from a white peeg, so fuck off old man.’
‘White granted.’ The old man smiled. ‘Pig, you happen to have the wrong religion. Come on young man, let’s be friends.’
‘No way old man. I am your enemy and one day I will cut your throat.’
‘That day’ the old man said ‘I’ll borrow your hankerchief.’" (pp163-164)