Ahoy there me mateys! For those of ye who are new to me log, a word: though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes. Occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were. So today I bring ye a non-fiction title:
norco ’80 (Peter Houlahan)
Except this review has a twist. Ye see, blustery winds and crazy seas are still severely limiting the time I have to read. The First Mate is on an adventure elsewhere and has been reading like a fiend. So I
ordered asked him to write a review of something he recently read because I be going through withdraw and NEED to hear about books. At the end of his review I will decide whether the book is kept in the hold for me future reading pleasure or be keelhauled into the watery depths. Hope ye enjoy!
From the First Mate:
Perhaps my guiltiest of guilty reading pleasures is heavily researched accounts of either doomsday cults or violent incidents that are typically described as “bloodiest,” “most violent,” or “society changing.” Works like “Columbine” by Dave Cullen or “Road to Jonestown” by Jeff Guinn. Books where it’s clear that the author has seemingly talked to everyone and somehow gotten access to every official document that’s been compiled on the event. Where the author certainly covers the what of the events, but also spends significant time dealing with the whys and ultimately what the fallout was.
“Norco ‘80” certainly seemed like it was going to fit right into my particular guilty pleasure wheelhouse. One of the most violent bank robberies in US history and it was led by a doomsday born-again Christian? Oh, yes, please take my money.
The book seemingly starts out quite well. We get a nice sketch of how the hippie culture of the 60s had transformed throughout the 70s into something that was quite a bit darker and how charismatic religious leaders were forming cultish factions to take advantage of people who found themselves lost. One of those lost people ultimately went on to lead the bank robbery in an attempt to secure funds to prepare for the end of the world. This beginning is well written and the various characters (police and criminals alike) are well drawn with little details that give sharp insight into what makes each of them tick.
During the robbery one of the perpetrators gets shot in the back of the neck by a random shotgun pellet, severing part of his spine. Houlahan gives us the man’s thoughts (“this was all a mistake,” etc) as he crashes the van he’s driving and blood starts to drip into his lungs. While reading this, I kept thinking, “man, how are they gonna get him to the hospital in the middle of the shootout?” Those were my thoughts because the only way that Houlahan could’ve given us the man’s thoughts were if he survived. Well, of course, the man dies and thus we learn that some undefined percentage of this book is pure fiction invented entirely by the author.
But. As I said, this book fit into my guilty pleasure wheelhouse, so I continued, hoping that inventing the thoughts of a dying man was a singular ill conceived decision by Houlahan. Alas, it was not. A while later the same thing occurs with another perpetrator. This one in the woods, thinking of his escape plans that he could’ve told to no one, getting shot in the chest and dying.
So, two definitive moments in the book where Houlahan without a doubt invented the thoughts on the minds of dying men. At that point I gave up on the book. I now have to doubt most of what I read in the book, as it’s clear that the author made up facts when his research did not give him access to them. Perhaps he got accounts of the various conversations from the surviving participants, perhaps he did not. Perhaps he used police data to reconstruct how the shootout occurred, perhaps he did not.
Not sure who I’d recommend the book to. I suppose if you don’t care whether you’re reading fact or fiction in a book about a historical event then you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, probably best to give this one a pass.
Yer Captain’s Verdict:
Goodreads has this to say about the novel:
A true crime account of one of the most violent bank heists in US history.
Norco ’80 tells the story of how five heavily-armed young men—led by an apocalyptic born-again Christian—attempted a bank robbery that turned into one of the most violent criminal events in U.S. history, forever changing the face of American law enforcement. Part action thriller and part courtroom drama, Norco ’80 transports the reader back to the Southern California of the 1970s, an era of predatory evangelical gurus, doomsday predictions, megachurches, and soaring crime rates, with the threat of nuclear obliteration looming over it all.
A group of landscapers transforms into a murderous gang of bank robbers armed to the teeth with military-grade weapons. Their desperate getaway turned the surrounding towns into war zones. When it was over, three were dead and close to twenty wounded; a police helicopter was forced down from the sky, and thirty-two police vehicles were destroyed by thousands of rounds of ammo. The resulting trials shook the community to the core, raising many issues that continue to plague society today: from racism and the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder within law enforcement to religious extremism and the militarization of local police forces.
To visit the author’s website go to:
To buy the novel visit:
To add to Goodreads go to: