Paris is the city of love, light, and literature. I went there prepared to hate it.
Historical Paris has an eternal place in my heart. I’ll talk your ear off about the absinthe glories of La Belle Epoc, Hemingway scribbling in the Closerie des Lilas, and Mesrine escaping La Sante prison in broad daylight.
But my image of modern Paris was an urban hell full of rude waiters and yapping poodles. I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.
Wednesday, 22 August 1962. Ten past eight in the evening.
It was just a yellow Estafette van parked in front of a hedge on the road to Villacoublay. The few pedestrians around didn’t pay it any attention.
If they had, they would have seen Serge Bernier sitting in the back, a slim and blond Korean War veteran with startlingly blue eyes. A man called Lazlo Varga at the wheel. Three men in the back seat: Gérard Buisines, and the Hungarians known as Sari and Marton.
Observers might have wondered why Bernier was scanning the road with a pair of binoculars. The answer was simple: Charles De Gaulle’s limousine sometimes used this route. And the men in the van were trying to kill him.
On the morning of Monday 19 July 1976 two employees of the Société Générale’s Nice branch trotted down the stairs to the steel door of the bank’s underground vault. The pair of keys required to open the vault door had to be turned simultaneously in locks too far apart to be operated by the same man. Société Générale prided itself on its security measures.
Each man inserted his key in the lock and turned it, expecting the door to swing open. Nothing happened. They tried again. Same result. It would be three and a half hours before anyone discovered the vault door had been sealed shut from the inside with a welding arc.
When the guard came to open the cell door, Parker said to the big man named Krauss, “Come see me next week when you get out. I think I’ll have something on.”
Richard Stark wrote 24 novels about a tough and remorseless American criminal called Parker. Child Heist isn’t one of them.
The first Parker novel hit the shelves in 1962 with our anti-hero striding angrily across the George Washington bridge into Manhattan. The mob has taken his money and the veteran stick-up man wants it back. His last appearance was 2008’s Dirty Money, set in Massachusetts, lady friend at his side, hunting down the cash from a botched robbery that nearly put him in jail.
In between are armoured car heists, double-crosses, bank jobs, casino robberies, payroll snatches, and an attempt to rob an entire town. They’re good reads if you don’t mind rooting for the bad guy.
In early November 1944 French soldiers got into a firefight somewhere near Toulouse. They rounded up a gang of armed men. One of them, apparently the leader, had been hit in the shoulder. The French soldiers suspected the men had come over the border from Spain.
There was a lot of traffic through the mountains: Nazis on the run, escaping collaborators, smugglers, members of far-right Maquis Blanc bands trying to reconquer France for the Germans. The soldiers dragged their prisoners up to the nearest provisional government outpost and let the politicians sort it out.
The wounded man had slicked-back hair and a thin moustache. He spoke elegant French. The interrogators soon discovered he was Henri, Comte de Paris and heir presumptive to the throne. Royalists regarded him as the King of France.