by George Kelley

   Richard L. Graves is a consultant on weapons and pyrotechnic devices as a result of the US Army training him as a demolitions expert. And his five caper novels feature explosives as a touchstone for the major action.


   Graves’ first novel, and his best, is The Black Gold of Malaverde (Stein & Day, hc, 1973; Bantam, pb, 1974). My thanks go to Bill Crider for calling this book and Graves’ work to my attention.

   The Black Gold of Malaverde begins with a guerrilla takeover of the South American country of Malaverde led by a buffoon named Mercado. But behind Mercado and his peoples’ revolution is the shadowy figure of international financier DePrundis. The wealth of Malaverde is its black gold: oil.

   The Malaverde oil industry has been controlled by Bradford Petroleum, but during the takeover D. J. Bradford, son of the American millionaire, is captured and later killed.

   Bradford Senior, burning with grief and revenge, turns to an obscure organization known as The Bank to avenge his son. The Bank is an economic intelligence agency who sees DePrundis’s influence as a threat to the international monetary stability they protect.

   The Bank allows Bradford to contact Hugo Wolfram, a demolitions expert now running a company specializing in stopping oil fires. Wolfram is the architect of the caper to ruin the entire country of Malaverde. He recruits a Japanese actor, two divers, a master seaman, and a pilot.

   The plan is ingenious, realistic, and suspenseful. The result is a holocaust of devastating scope. The unique feature of the caper is the stipulation it look like a monstrous accident and Wolfram manages to fulfill that condition too, with a minimum loss of life. I strongly recommend The Black Gold of Malaverde.

   Less successful is The Platinum Bullet (Stein & Day, hc, 1974; ppbk, 1985). DePrundis, who managed a narrow escape in The Black Gold of Malaverde, links up with the Russians in an attempt to corner the platinum market. Again, The Bank calls in Wolfram and his crew to neutralize this threat.

   Wolfram and his people work a classic “platinum mine” con on DePrundis and the Russians. The caper is fun but lacks suspense. One problem is Wolfram has a crew of four specialists who aren’t challenged enough to develop suspense and characterization as a result of their actions. The result is an entertaining but superficial novel.


   The scene shifts to the Mid-East in Cobalt 60 (Stein & Day, hc, 1975; ppbk, 1986). The Emir of an oil-rich country plots the assassination of many world leaders including most of the top levels of American political leadership: the President, Senators, and Representatives.

   The Bank initially asks Wolfram and his people to look into the situation. Wolfram discovers the Emir is producing highly radioactive cobalt pens and paperclips. The idea is to plant these common, innocent-looking items near world leaders and let the deadly radiation silently kill them.

   Cobalt 60 ends with a wild chase scene, but again there doesn’t seem to be enough for Wolram’s crew to do.

The last Wolfram book, Quicksilver (Stein & Day, hc, 1976; ppbk, 1981), is the silliest. Harry Descau, a devious international moneymaker, forms a partnership with the Cubans and a defected Russian physicist. Then, in their jungle base in Guatemala, they transmute mercury into gold using a nuclear reactor.

   The Bank discovers Descau’s plan to disrupt the entire international gold market and calls in Wolfram and his team. Wolfram’s solution, naturally, is to destroy the base and its reactor. The method is extreme: amplify that region’s natural earthquakes into a big one that will cause a nearby lake to overflow, wiping out the entire operation. It works. But it all seems too easy, too glib, and too tacky.

   I suppose this is a good place to talk about the formula of caper adventures. Graves’ earlier novels succeeded because they more nearly satisfied the conditions of the caper formula.


   Basically, the caper is planned, executed, and then something goes wrong and the characters have to improvise. Lionel White, one of the masters of the caper novel, told me he develops his characters so their flaws cause the caper to fail.

   Donald Westlake does the same thing in his caper spoofs like The Hot Rock and Bank Shot. In programs like Mission: Impossible, essentially a caper format, the unexpected equipment failure or some random factor forced the IM team to improvise; that failure of the plan provided suspense and a chance for the characters to come up with ingenious solutions to the problem, delighting the audience.

   Whether the caper fails because of the flaws of the characters executing it, or if the caper succeeds after the characters come up with clever actions to overcome the problems, it is essential something go wrong with the caper.

   A perfectly executed caper is boring.

   Donald Westlake asserted that tenet while writing about Parker, his professional thief. The Parker series of capers, written by Westlake under his Richard Stark pseudonym, are variations of the theme: “We had the perfect caper — then something went wrong.”

   Essentially, Graves’ later novels are perfect capers and they lack the excitement and suspense of The Black Gold of Malaverde.

   Perhaps Graves realized this when he wrote his latest book, C.L.A.W. (Stein & Day, hc, 1976; ppbk, 1984). A secret group of terrorists plan to disrupt the Presidential Campaign and assassinate the country’s leadership. They rob an Army munitions base, stealing three missiles and eleven artillery shells.

   Benton Dace, an American intelligence officer, and the obligatory beautiful KGB agent follow the clues that lead to a potential massacre at the Presidential inauguration. The action is fast-paced, the caper is realistic, and the quality is reminiscent of The Black Gold of Malaverde.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 3, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1979.


Editorial Comment:   One additional novel by Richard L. Graves, published after this review was written, was The Argon Furnace (Scarborough House, hc, 1990). Publishers Weekly described the plot thusly:

    “The Japanese have developed a new steel alloy, fired in an argon furnace, that will allow them to build jet engines. A team of American saboteurs comes ashore from a submarine–and destroys the wrong steel mill. To go back and complete the mission in the face of a now-alerted enemy almost certainly means death, but brave men may not have a choice.”

   PW also says the book is “relentlessly predictable” and yet the “action scenes are dynamic.”