reviewed by Andrew Diamond
Stephen G. Eoannou’s Rook is a fictionalized account of the criminal career of Al Nussbaum, who made the FBI’s most wanted list in 1962 after a series of daring bank robberies in the Eastern US. The novel sticks close to the facts and is so rich in historical detail the reader feels transported to early 1960s Buffalo, New York.
The story opens with Al and his partners, Bobby Wilcoxson and Peter Curry, robbing the Lafayette National Bank in Brooklyn. Al, an avid chess player whose mind is always a dozen moves ahead of his opponent, has planned every detail of the job. Bobby is to cover the customers with a Tommy gun while Curry goes behind the counter, collecting cash from the teller drawers. They can be in and out in under two minutes.
Al waits in the getaway car with a police scanner and a military radio, relaying info to Bobby, who wears an earpiece. Pretty sophisticated for 1961. The post-robbery meetup spot and the escape route have already been planned by the cool-headed, analytical chess player. Al’s gang never has to run from the scene of the crime. They simply walk out, blend in, and disappear.
But this job goes wrong. A foolish bank guard, unimpressed by Bobby’s machine gun, tries to draw his pistol. Bobby kills him. In the confusion, a customer escapes and by sheer luck, alerts a nearby patrol officer. The cop charges into the bank with only a service revolver. Bobby shoots him too.
Thanks to Al’s planning, Bobby and Curry are able to walk to the post-robbery meetup spot. With sirens coming from every direction, they drive Al’s family station wagon slowly out of Brooklyn, unnoticed, to divide up the cash. But they all know their lives are about to get a whole lot harder. They killed a guard and shot a cop. From here on out, they’ll be living on the run.
The rest of the book describes the noose slowly tightening around the necks of Al and Bobby, and Al’s innocent wife, Lolly, who had no idea her husband robbed banks. As far as she knew, he ran an electronics shop in Buffalo, and he had gone to Brooklyn to pick up merchandise for the store.
Al goes on the run, reluctantly leaving his wife and infant daughter behind. Bobby takes off separately with his young girlfriend, Jackie Rose. The FBI stages a brutal raid on Al’s home, terrifying his wife and infant daughter, as well as his in-laws, who live downstairs.
In alternating chapters, the story follows Al and Bobby on the run, and Lolly and her family back in Buffalo. Al moves to another city, changes his appearance, goes out little during the day, and plans more heists to fund his family’s escape to Brazil. He becomes increasingly paranoid as every post office, bus station and train station in the country displays his Wanted poster.
Reader’s Digest publishes Al’s photo and an account of his crimes, mentioning a $10,000 reward for information leading to his capture. Now everyone in the US has an incentive to turn him in. Even Walter Cronkite has picked up the story on the national evening news. What’s a man to do?
Compounding these troubles is Bobby, the one person Al can still talk to. Bobby, the enforcer during robberies, was never particularly bright. On the run and running out of cash, he becomes increasingly resentful, violent, and borderline psychopathic. His menacing presence is always unsettling as he pressures Al to plan more jobs.
Back home, Lolly is trying to process her husband’s duplicity. How could such a loving family man be the criminal she keeps hearing about in the news? The FBI threatens to lock her up and put her infant daughter in foster care if she doesn’t lead them to him. But she couldn’t if she wanted to. She doesn’t know where he is.
She’s broke and she can’t get a decent job because her husband’s infamy has made her the town pariah. An aggressive local reporter hounds her and publicly humiliates her. In her most vulnerable moments, her mother rubs salt in her wounds, reminding her in smug “I told you so” tones that she always knew Al was a liar. The local priest keeps urging her to annul the marriage, and the FBI harasses and threatens her constantly. But she still loves the caring and thoughtful man she knew at home.
The elements of the story make it impossible to put down. Eoannou writes superb action scenes. What makes the book shine, however, is the author’s rich characterization of Al, Lolly, Bobby, and Lolly’s mother, Sylvie. The tension ratchets up throughout, as the world closes in on everyone involved. This is one of those rare novels that keeps drawing you deeper in right up to the final page. You’re not just reading to figure out how it ends. You’re reading because you can’t let go of the characters and their fates. You’ll find yourself missing them before you even close the book.
If you’re looking to get immersed in a deeply engaging crime thriller, this one’s for you.