The latest word

The People and Places of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel

annotated by Joanne Marshall Mauldin, illus. by Jean Wall Penland (J.M. Mauldin, Publisher 2002).

Weaverville resident Mauldin, and Asheville’s Penland will celebrate Thomas Wolfe’s birthday, Thursday, Oct. 3, with the release of their new look at the favorite son’s era — 5:30 – 7:30 pm. at The Captain’s Bookshelf (31 Page Avenue) For more information, call 253-6631.

Heist! The $17 Million Loomis Fargo Theft

by Jeff Diamant (John F. Blair, Publisher, 2002)

This inside look at what’s been called the second-largest robbery in U.S. history is a highly readable, moment-by-moment account of a merry band of fools led by none-too-bright Loomis Fargo employee David Ghantt.

Very early on, the reader gets the idea that the only thing less sophisticated than the robbers is Loomis itself. After reading how easy it was for a mere employee to take the company down, I almost wanted to apply for a job there myself. For instance, Ghantt used a leisurely hour to load all $17 million dollars — literally a ton of money — into the back of one of Loomis’ own trucks. While he was on duty, no less. One has to wonder what sort of management would make it so easy to rip them off?

The crime happened in Charlotte in October 1997. Ghantt was a guy going nowhere fast. Married with a couple of kids, he developed an unrequited crush on a married co-worker. But David wasn’t even successful in love — the spunky dame, Kelly, who stood five-foot-seven and sported a parrot tattoo on her ankle, didn’t have to do much more than suggest to Dave that he rob the place. (Generally the femme fatale at least uses her physical wiles on a guy to get him to go bad.) You get the feeling Dave was just one big fish out of water, albeit a very lucky fish — at least at first. But his beginner’s luck doesn’t last long.

Kelly, his cohort, tells David about a shady friend of hers who knows his way around the underworld. And if Dave were to pull the heist, this friend, Steve, could get him a phony ID with which to escape to Mexico.

The whole thing smacked of a setup, and Dave was the perfect patsy. But then again, he didn’t have much else going for him, so why not?

The author is the former Charlotte Observer reporter who covered the heist, which, due to the huge amount of cash involved, made several national TV headlines, including “20/20,” “America’s Most Wanted” and the Discovery Channel’s “Unperfect Crime.” And indeed, it was imperfect from the outset.

Dave was smart enough, for instance, to take from the office two of the security tapes showing him loading the truck, but was unable to acquire the third, locked in his supervisor’s office. The front gate wouldn’t open when he tried to drive out, so Steve — a guy, incredibly, whom our thief had yet to meet — ran up and helped break it open.

After changing the money from the armored car to a smaller van — not all of it would fit, so they left a few million behind, along with (whoops) the two security tapes — Kelly drove Dave to an airport to catch a plane. Trouble was, the airport was closed. But finally she got him to another airport and Dave made off to Mexico with fifty-grand and the promise that his accomplices would be sending him the rest of his share of the heist. Hard to believe someone this gullible had the cojones to steal that much loot. But maybe if Dave Ghantt had been a thinker, he would never have committed the crime in the first place — and most certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed so much initial dumb luck.

The real breakdown of what came to be called “the hillbilly heist” happens when Steve Chambers, his wife Michele, and the tattooed Kelly simply can’t stand having all that money and not spending any of it. While Dave was eating lobster (and later, when the money ran low, M&Ms) in Cancun, his cohort decided it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labor. After all, what good is $12 or $13 million bucks if it’s just lying around? Steve and Michele move out of their mobile home into a $635,000 mountain mansion. (At least it wasn’t just a bigger mobile home.)

But that much dough changes a guy, and it changes Steve into a very greedy guy. He decides to put a “hit” on Dave so he and Michele can keep the rest of the loot. But remember, everyone’s an amateur in this comedy, and these wannabe Sopranos were likely tutored by bad TV instead of crime school. It doesn’t take the FBI very long to track them all down. (You see, guys who work for the FBI do have to go to crime school.)

And while Heist! isn’t exactly Edward Albee’s A Fool’s Progress, I’d recommend it for no other reason than as a handbook on how not to try and steal $17 million dollars and get away with it.

[Jeff Diamant will be signing copies of Heist! on Tuesday, Oct. 8 at Books-a-Million (136 S. Tunnel Road) at 7 p.m. For more info, call 299-4165.]

Presumed Dead, A Civil War Mystery

by Howard Eugene Alley (Bright Mountain Books, 2002)

The Civil War remains alive — indeed, a very hot topic — for legions of readers. Lately several novels with a Civil War backdrop have been keeping history buffs happy: Shadows of Blue and Gray, Enemy Women, Gob’s Grief and Burnsville’s Charles Price’s trilogy that includes The Cock’s Spur are just a few of them. Author Howard Alley is the latest to take a turn at turning family history into historical fiction.

Presumed Dead is the result of Alley combining two stories and several events told down through the generations since his great-grandfather, Colonel John Alley, began relating them to his kin.

The story begins with the investigation into the disappearance of Colonel Alley’s niece, Cornelia Norton. The bloody, shredded remains of someone or something are found on an old road, and Sheriff Nate Wilson of Cashiers is sent to sort out the trouble. Everyone, including her parents, believes the girl was the victim of a panther attack, though there’s immediate doubt that the remains are even human. The sheriff is wise enough to know that without confirmation of a body, his work isn’t completed.

The reader gets a good sense of time and place here, and the book is certainly well-populated, featuring a virtual army of characters. But what starts out a solid mystery ends up feeling less like a labor of love from the author than just plain labor for the reader.

The major problem comes 41 pages on, with the beginning of Part II. By this point, enough suspicion has been raised by the sheriff’s investigation to point the finger at Cornelia’s own father, thus nicely building the suspense. But Part II completely departs from the mystery, wandering into a rather lengthy account of a Yankee raid on the Alley homestead by a Colonel Kirk and his motley band. And though there’s a tie between certain characters and situations and the disappearance of Cornelia, this part slumps along like a barefoot boy on a hot day. It simply doesn’t maintain the feel of the “mystery.”

In fact, Part II is really one long flashback that might better have been called The History of Colonel John Alley and the Cashiers Valley. And though clues are dropped in about the fate of Cornelia, they’re so thinly veiled even an unseasoned mystery reader could spot them and predict the outcome.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. Excessive exposition mars the narrative flow, with historical information arriving in the form of too-convenient dialogue. WNC history buffs won’t care — those looking for a good whodunit will.

[John Alley divides his residence between Rosewell, Ga. and his log cabin in Whiteside Cove, N.C. He’ll sign copies of his book on Sunday, Oct. 27 at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.) from 1-3 p.m. For more information, call 254-6734.]

[Bill Brooks teaches creative writing. He is the author of 11 novels. For a complete list of local author events, see Xpress’ weekly arts & entertainment calendar.]

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One thought on “The latest word

  1. Ray McConnell

    My Dad knew
    felix E. Alley. I grew up in Webster, NC. I have a first edition “Musings of a Mountain Man”. I would like to hear more stories about him as a trial Lawyer…

    Ray G. McConnell
    270 Tipton Lake CR.
    Millington, TN 38053

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