Fools’ Gold, originally published in 1958, is Hitchens’ dark brooding caper gone wrong story about a trio of youths out to grab a suitcase full of money before the professional hoods move in. Hitchens nails it right in her portrayals of Skip, Eddie, and Karen and the greed that propels them down that fateful path. At first, it seems like nothing more than another juvenile delinquency tale which were popular back in the day, but slowly but surely Hitchens carves this one into something deadlier and gone more wrong than any of the principals could ever imagine. And, in the end, nothing could have been planned less wisely or gone more sideways.
First published in 1958; published by Library of America on July 7, 2020
Written in 1958, it is unsurprising that Fool’s Gold reads like a classic crime novel. It well deserves its inclusion in the Library of America’s eight volume Women Crime Writers anthology showcasing novels from the 1940s and 1950s. Hitchens published about half her fiction under the name D.B. Olsen, but Fool’s Gold was published under her own name. The novel was filmed as Band of Outsiders by Jean-Luc Godard. The Library of America released Fool's Gold this year as a standalone paperback.
Fool’s Gold is the story of a crime gone wrong. A criminal in Vegas named Stolz purchased money that a kidnapper needed to launder. Stolz got a good price because the ransom was paid in consecutive bills, making the currency easily traceable. Not knowing quite what to do with it, Stolz hid it in the Pasadena home of Mrs. Havermann, his ex-mother-in-law.
Mrs. Haverman raised Karen, now a teenager, from the age of nine. She’s taking courses in a night school that is also attended by Eddie and Skip, both of whom are just out of their teens. Karen is flattered by the attention she receives from Skip after class. Skip is interested in the story Karen tells about the money that Stolz has stashed in Mrs. Havermann’s house.
Skip hatches a plan to steal the money. He mentions it to his Uncle Willy, a professional thief with mob connections. Willy decides that Skip isn’t sufficiently seasoned to take on Stolz. Sensing an opportunity to make some money for himself, Willy tells Big Tom about the money, who decides to steal the money himself, giving Willy a finder’s fee for the tip. This arrangement doesn’t sit well with Skip, who decides to steal the money with the help of Eddie and Karen before Big Tom can get it. The crime does not go as planned, leaving the key characters with more trouble than they can handle.
Like most 1950s crime fiction, the plot is credible. Hitchens doesn’t try to shock the reader. She makes it easy to feel sympathy for Karen, who reeks of 1950s innocence. It is just as easy to scorn Skip, who takes advantage of Karen’s infatuation and Eddie’s friendship. If Skip were living in the era of message T-shirts, his would say “Born to Lose.”
An interesting subplot involves Uncle Willy’s compulsion to steal. He attends an AA meeting with nefarious intent until, inspired by all the selfless people who want to help him, he has an epiphany that gives him a chance to overcome his weakness.
The story moves quickly as characters enter converge upon and flee the crime scene. They make a series of bad choices for which they pay a price. True to 1950s noir, a reader can expect the bad guys to get what they deserve and the less-bad guys to get a chance at redemption. The story’s ending is thus predictable but only because it gives readers what they want — or at least what they wanted in the 1950s.
An excellent pulp novel from the 1950s. If you’re a fan of Jim Thompson, then you’ll find “Fools’ Gold” by Dolores Hitchens right up your alley.
As usual with these types of stories, there are very few (if any) likable characters. Two teenagers looking for easy cash and a way out of their dead-end lives set their sights on a pile of dirty money hidden in a widow’s house, being led there by an innocent orphan girl. This quick score quickly spins out of control as two old thieves get involved, as well as the Vegas mob. Double-crosses, little mistakes, and unexpected obstacles lead to several killings as the story draws to the foregone conclusion.
Ms. Hitchens does a remarkable job of introducing several unexpected twists to the story and builds the suspense as each character reacts differently to the changing situations. A fun, quick read for those who like their pulp fiction dark.
I requested and received a free advanced electronic copy from Library of America via NetGalley. Thank you!