Posted: Friday March 27, 2020
Deni Ellis Béchard is the author of Vandal Love (Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book); Of Bonobos and Men (Grand Prize winner of the Nautilus Book Award for investigative journalism); and Into the Sun (Midwest Book Award for literary fiction, selected by CBC Radio Canada as one of 2017’s Incontournables and one of the most important books of the year to be read by Canada’s political leaders).
His new non-fiction collection, My Favourite Crime, ranges across the world and over a wide array of contemporary issues. Divided into five sections, all united by a recurring consideration of how writing helps transform our understanding of our family, of ourselves, and of the world, the book addresses a range of disparate topics, including the author’s tumultuous relationship with his father, and the temptation to lapse back into crime when one has been raised with it.
Today, we are sharing the collection’s titular essay, “My Favourite Crime.”
Pick up your copy of My Favourite Crime today!
My Favourite Crime
There’s a story my father often told me. I imagine most boys hear stories from their fathers, but not this sort. It was about a bank heist in 1967, the burglary of half a million dollars in West Hollywood. He called it the Big Job, an elaborate crime he’d started plotting when he was first incarcerated. Prison, he liked to say, turned him into a professional. He went in a petty crook and left wanting to do the Big Job, not unlike the way I went to college to study writing and left dreaming of the great American novel.
Born in 1938, my French Canadian father quit school in the fifth grade, his teenage years a gantlet of hard labour: fishing for cod, planting and harvesting potatoes, logging on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, pouring concrete on hydroelectric dams farther north, or mining uranium. During a construction gig in Montréal, as he walked the beam of a skyscraper, he watched his best friend trip and dive to the stone far below.
The next day he smashed his finger with a sledge, to get off the job with compensation. He drank in bars, trying to pick a new future, and finally befriended a criminal. He learned safe-cracking, claimed he was good, that he got set up for being too ambitious, betrayed while emptying the safe in a sporting goods store. As if the next two years of prison weren’t sufficient to complete a degree in crime, he added more, for armed robbery in Calgary and then Montana, before he headed to Los Angeles.
My father planned the Big Job for a night President Lyndon Johnson was in town, knowing the police would be busy. He rented an apartment overlooking the bank, parked a box truck in the alley next to it, and left it for a week, letting people get used to seeing it. On the night that LBJ addressed a crowd, my father’s partner backed the truck up to the bank’s barred bathroom window. Standing inside the box, my father cut the bars. Then he climbed inside, carrying a jackhammer.
His partner and his partner’s girlfriend both had walkie-talkies. The girlfriend followed my father inside while his partner watched the street from the apartment, warning her when cars passed so that she could signal my father to stop blasting at the concrete vault. My father opened a hole, slid himself in, and then threw the money out and broke open the security deposit boxes. But when he tried to leave, he couldn’t. The jackhammer had made a grain in the concrete that pointed inward, hooking on his clothes. He had to slide through naked, gouging his skin.
With his partner’s girlfriend, he drove to Nevada in the box truck. His partner stayed behind to make sure the surveillance apartment was clean. He was so afraid of leaving traces that he decided to burn the place down, even though this wasn’t part of the plan. As he splashed gasoline around the apartment, it dripped down to the stove’s pilot light. The place went up. His eyes were badly burned. The police caught him, and then my father, a year later, when he beat up a pimp in a Miami bar.
The first time my father told this story I was fifteen. “I thought I’d fooled life,” he said, confused, as if trying to see where it had all gone wrong. By then, he ran a seafood business – still a fisherman at heart, like his grandfather. I was disillusioned with him, wanting to be a writer, and he saw no point in this, or in school. I moved out to show him that I could survive as he had, leave my family and need no one.
I made my own way to college. I stopped bragging about being the son of a bank robber and started envying those who’d gone to boarding and private schools, whose parents paid for their education. And I wrote. When a Québécois professor read one of my stories, he told me he resented my fictional depiction of the French Canadian father as a ruthless criminal. I didn’t claim the truth as defence. And I didn’t write about my father again, at least not directly, until after my first novel was published. Then, when I no longer needed to separate the writer from the son, I wrote a memoir. I didn’t research his crimes; I just told the stories that shaped me.
Not long afterward, a fact checker with a magazine I wrote for sent me a Los Angeles Times article from 1967 about my father’s Big Job. It included a photograph: the bank manager peering through a jackhammered hole. But the vault that day held $70,000, not half a million, though seventy grand then would have been much closer in value to half a million when he was telling the story. Later reporting said two women as well as two men were arrested.
It doesn’t all fit, but I don’t particularly care. The Big Job was my favourite story, the gritty specifics a kind of proof of its truth, a lesson in storytelling.
My father died penniless, owing tens of thousands in back taxes. Friends have often jokingly asked if he stashed the money from the bank job and whether anything was left over for me. Now, fifty years after that crime, it seems that he did: not just a love for story and his stories themselves, but the gift of a relentless will to find my way, to test boundaries and take risks, not in violence or crime, but in books.