What happens when four men hatch a daring plot to take a New York City subway train hostage, demanding one million dollars ransom for its passengers? Will the city agree to pay the ransom? Can the police figure out how to stop the criminals without risking the lives of the 17 passengers? Even if they receive the money, how on earth does the gang think it can escape from a subway tunnel that’s crawling with cops both above and below ground? John Godey’s 1973 novel offers up an original caper at the heart of a novel that captures very well the cultural vibe of its time and place. Unfortunately, there seems to be something essential missing from what should be a pulse-quickening suspense story that leaves the end result somewhat short of excellence.
Perhaps it’s Godey’s choice of telling the story from the points of view of a plethora of characters: each of the four criminals, an undercover cop who is on board the hijacked train, the flu-stricken mayor and his chief of staff, a half dozen or so cops and and equal numbers of Transit Authority officials and hostages. Godey switches the viewpoint rapidly among them in short little passages that were never really long enough to build tension. Even worse, the short vignettes don’t allow the reader to get to know each character. Several times I would read the subheading that was simply a name and have to stop and think about which character that actually was. Perhaps to compensate, Godey gave each of them one or more very distinctive characteristics that leave them seeming a bit cartoonish. (Part of this exaggerated sensation might also come from the very dated feel of the novel; it probably didn’t seem so over-the-top to a contemporary reader.)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is not without its strong points, however. Godey effectively portrays the societal tensions of the time period between blacks and white, between squares and hippies, between elites and working class. In particular, the passages featuring the mayor, while almost entirely extraneous to the plot, give Godey a chance to wax cynical about politicians. Several of the characters exhibit the sort of casual racism that barely merited a raised eyebrow back then, which Godey does not overtly condone or condemn. Nor does he settle for stereotypes in his characterizations. There are black and white racists, there are black and white heroes, some of the racists are also heroes. And the gang’s plan for escaping the tunnel was both clever and plausible.
In the end, though, the story never developed the sort of suspense and tension that makes a reader compulsively keep going to find out what happens next. I found it all too easy to put the book down after reading a chapter or two, and while I remained interested in what would happen next I was never in much doubt about the general way things would end. There have been at least three film adaptations of the story, though it’s hard to imagine how the book’s extensive interior monologues were presented in a cinematic way. I suspect the films took significant liberties with Godey’s presentation if not his plot. I’d still like to watch the 1974 original (starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam), if not the 2009 version starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington (though I do love me some Denzel). In short, I’m glad I read this novel. Even if it fell considerably short of a classic suspense tale, it was reasonably entertaining and interesting for its depiction of early 1970s New York City.