Vague sourcing and fictionalization mar EMT Houlahan’s otherwise promising first book, an account of a bank robbery whose aftermath left dead on both sides of the law. In 1980, five heavily armed men, led by George Wayne Smith and Christopher Harven, held up the Security Pacific Bank in Norco, Calif. Smith and Harven weren’t typical thieves. They wanted the money because they believed that “America was on the verge of a catastrophe of biblical proportions, one in which only the well-armed and well-prepared would survive.” The execution of their plot was poor. Explosives planted some distance from the bank, intended as a diversion that would draw law enforcement away from the scene of the crime, didn’t explode as planned. At one point, Houlihan enters the mind of Billy Delgado, the driver of the robbers’ van, and conveys his thoughts. Soon afterward, a bullet to the neck mortally wounds Billy. “His body seemed to disappear on him. He could not feel it at all.... The only thing he could feel was a sharp stinging at the back of his neck.” This may be plausible, but it remains speculation, and an author note on sources, in which he says, “Everything presented, whether in dialogue or narrative, is as factual as I could determine based on a wide range of sources,” does nothing to reassure readers that he has not used dramatic license elsewhere. That Houlahan writes well suggests he’s capable of doing better next time. Agent: Jeff Ourvan, Jennifer Lyons Literary. (June)
Thrilling account of a violent California bank robbery whose damage "keeps rippling out through the generations."
Houlahan's debut is remarkable for the exhaustive, sometimes exhausting level of detail he brings to every stage of the story, transforming a pulpy true-crime narrative into a reflection of social transformations and class conflict as the countercultural 1970s faded into the Reagan era. The author argues that the robbers, aimless blue-collar friends who'd dabbled in evangelicalism and doomsday scenarios, "were looking at American society and seeing a house of cards teetering on collapse." The crime was meant to bankroll plans for a survivalist compound; yet their sense of rage was indicated by the arsenal of assault rifles and improvised explosives. The amateurish robbery devolved into a running firefight with outgunned law enforcement officers which Houlahan documents as an exacting, extended set piece. Following a massive, improvised police response, the criminals fled into nearby wilderness after killing one officer, wounding many others, and being wounded themselves, only to be captured the next day. As one stunned cop observed in the aftermath, "we just got our asses kicked, didn't we?" The author then goes into the long, chaotic trial. With the three surviving suspects universally loathed and the death penalty in the balance, it became an early media circus marked by "insolence, impertinence, and contemptuous and childish behavior." Houlahan follows up on the robbery's long shadow over many officers and civilians who were caught in the melee, delving into subtopics including the evolution of tactics in response to such crimes and departments' reluctance to offer counseling for PTSD, which compelled some embittered survivors to leave policing. Houlahan's writing is dense, sometimes colloquial, well-researched, and mostly clear. While his enthusiastic focus on details of the hardscrabble region's history, characters' social backgrounds, the botched robbery and its bloody aftermath, the weapons and tactics used by both sides, and finally the long-term changes in policing can occasionally overwhelm, most readers will stay engrossed.
An impressively well-rendered true-crime saga.
One of NPR's Best Books of the Year
Short–listed for the 2020 Dashiell Hammett Award for Literary Excellence in Crime Writing
Nominated for the 2020 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime
“Gripping . . . Houlahan, who based his account of the robbery and its aftermath on interviews with the civilians, officers and robbers involved, proves to be a master at pacing—he writes with a narrative urgency that perfectly captures the quick and chaotic nature of the robbery. His prose incorporates the vernacular of the officers and criminals; it's hard–boiled, shot through with profanity, but never forced. It reads like a crime novel in the best way possible. But what's truly remarkable about the book is the depth Houlahan brings to the story . . . With his first book, Houlahan proves himself to be an astonishingly gifted writer, breathing urgent life into a true story that still resonates today. Norco '80 is a fascinating true–crime account that seems likely to be one of the best nonfiction books of the year.” —Michael Schaub, NPR
“[An] alarming account of a bank heist that rocked the country in 1980 and reflected 'the peculiar zeitgeist of that decade' in all its cockeyed drama . . . For a first–time writer, Houlahan sure knows how to dramatize a scene. His cinematic treatment of the robbery itself reads like wildfire, the fatal shootout with the police ends in colorful chaos, and the huge manhunt through San Bernardino National Forest conducted by 'Hunt & Kill Teams' is a nail–biter.” —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
“Compelling action scenes, a riveting trial, and lots of detail and observation make this one a standout in true crime.” —Amazon Books
“This story is a wild ride and a real page turner . . . One of those incredible true crime stories that grab one’s attention and does not let go until the last page.” —Thomas McClung, New York Journal of Books“Like American Heiress in the summer of 2016, this looks like the true crime book that will launch a hundred conversations.” ―CrimeReads, One of the Most Anticipated Crime Books of Summer
“In Houlahan’s capable hands, this unbelievable–but–true chase and gun battle unfolds at a relentless pace and in riveting, cinematic detail . . . Houlahan’s thorough reporting and in–the–moment narrative make Norco ’80 a wild, full–throttle ride.” —Dean Jobb, Ellery Magazine
“[An] action–packed and thought–provoking read.” —She Reads, One of the Best Nonfiction Books of the Year
“Norco ’80 is an expertly rendered accounting of these events that reads like a crime thriller and courtroom drama, with all the brutal gravity of a true story. This is true crime at its best.” —David M. Olsen, The Coachella Review
“[A] deeply researched, thrillingly paced tale.” —Peter Larsen, Southern California News Group
“Norco '80 blends meticulous details with a strong sense of story arc, character and place . . . Addressing the origins of the push to arm police with higher–caliber weapons, the increasingly strained relationships between police officers and their communities, and the effects of trauma on multiple generations, the book has a universal message that is needed now, according to Houlahan.” —Jo Kroeker, Greenwich Time
“[A] thrilling nonfiction book . . . In Houlahan's talented hands, the whole story is as urgent and real as if you were watching it live on TV. He also takes readers through the trial phase, which is as fascinating as fiction but all too true . . . Read Houlahan's book now. You'll love it.” —Ken Raymond, The Oklahoman
“Thrilling account of a violent California bank robbery . . . Houlahan's debut is remarkable for the exhaustive . . . level of detail he brings to every stage of the story, transforming a pulpy true–crime narrative into a reflection of social transformations and class conflict as the countercultural 1970s faded into the Reagan era . . . An impressively well–rendered true–crime saga.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Norco '80 is enthrallingly detailed, down to the pencils thrown by opposing counsel in the criminal trial that followed 'the most spectacular bank robbery in American history.' Despite the depth and breadth recounted by journalist and EMT Peter Houlahan, the urge this book generates in readers to explore further this devastating true crime is impossible to suppress . . . Houlahan has admirably mined and winnowed the boundless material . . . He has compellingly translated a high–octane story to the page without losing traction, leaving the reader satisfied yet craving more.” —Lauren O'Brien, Shelf Awareness (starred review)
This is the wild story of a group of heavily armed religious zealots who rob a small town California bank and wind up in a massive shootout and chase with local law enforcement. Unlike typical bank robbers, this band of criminals had an unusual fixation with preparing for the end of days, spurred on by their charismatic born-again Christian leader. Their fanatical beliefs, combined with an array of weapons and artillery they'd acquired, made their run-in with police and subsequent chase one of the most violent incidents of the 1970s, with repercussions felt throughout law enforcement agencies around the country. The book's style is a little raw—the liberal use of expletives in the narrative may be jarring for some—but the author skillfully lays out the facts, and his vivid descriptions bring the shootout and courtroom drama to life. VERDICT This will be right at home in the true crime section of any public library.—Amelia Osterud, Milwaukee P.L.