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NPR Arts & Life

'The Lufthansa Heist' Is No Score

The Lufthansa heist — a pre-dawn raid on a currency vault at Lufthansa's Kennedy Airport hangar on December 11th, 1978, which netted its perpetrators close to $6 million in untraceable bills and jewelry — has all the elements of a classic true-crime book. It's a robbery caper, complete with code names and chase cars (the vehicle that acts as a buffer between the "real" getaway car and law-enforcement pursuers). It's a Mob story. It's an unsolved mystery, witnesses' memories fading after close to 40 years ... or promptly and permanently faded by Jimmy "the Gent" Burke's paranoid elimination of most of the heist crew. It was a plot point in GoodFellas. It's got a whole skein of ripping yarn in it, the Lufthansa heist.

The Lufthansa Heist: Behind The Six-Million-Dollar Cash Haul That Shook The World is not that yarn. In fact, it's not any yarn a reader couldn't have spun her own self after a couple of close viewings of GoodFellas, or an afternoon with Nick Pileggi's Wiseguy, on which GoodFellas is based.

The book is credited to Henry Hill and Daniel Simone, and it's obvious why Simone's proposal would have gotten snatched up. Henry Hill is, of course, "the Ray Liotta character in GoodFellas" and a slam dunk from a Mafia-story marketing standpoint, since he knew all the players. But Hill died in 2012, which gives the book an odd, posthumous-journal-publication feel — and even if he had lived to see the manuscript published, Hill himself didn't participate in the Lufthansa heist because of his parole. He knew about it; he took a finder's fee from it, but he didn't go to the airport, he didn't go to the planning meetings, and when he turned state's evidence the next year to avoid doing 30 years for drug-dealing, he wasn't able to supply the authorities with evidence they could use in that case (though Burke and his capo, Paulie Vario, did get locked up for other crimes thanks to Hill's testimony).

The hope is that Simone will have gleaned from Hill the "never-before-unveiled details" promised by the dust jacket, that give the events of the heist context or dimension. But The Lufthansa Heist offers only a couple of fresh specifics. And one of the more bracing bits of information, that Burke buried bodies of those who crossed him under a bocce court in the basement of his gin joint, turns out to be the "this thing of ours" equivalent of an urban legend.

Those of us who read extensively in the true-crime genre must accustom ourselves to the clumsy purpling of prose the majority of the genre's authors can't resist. Simone signals his intention to elevate the heist's innately great story in so many words when he uses an epigraph from Truman Capote, who pioneered, named, and reached the apex of the "non-fiction novel" genre in one In Cold Bloodswoop. To say that this is not a comparison Simone or his editor should have invited understates the case rather dramatically.

The Lufthansa Heist is structured, in theory, to alternate between third-person narration and Henry Hill's point of view, but nothing in the text differentiates the first- and third-person accounts. It's rendered in the same font, and the same overwrought prose: "Having been jarred from sleep, but not quite fully awake, their grogginess sees this head-whirling moment as the absurdity of a dream."

Those of us who read extensively in the true-crime genre must accustom ourselves to the clumsy purpling of prose the majority of the genre's authors can't resist.

The superfluous misogyny is also consistent between the points of view; the reader doesn't require descriptions of every single woman's breast size. The less said about Simone's cringeworthy rendition of African-American speech patterns, the better, and Simone's parentheticals "explaining" Italian food culture or '70s slang don't make sense; mopping up sauce with bread is described as "a custom among low-class Italians." Huh?

It's possible to overlook textual straining that describes every character as "strutting" instead of walking, but The Lufthansa Heist gets mired in irrelevant and sexist detail instead of giving readers an organized bird's-eye view of the heist from planning to execution. The account of the heist itself lacks urgency, and after it's over, the book dawdles through Hill's dealings with the feds instead of focusing on Burke, or trying in even a dutifully half-hearted way to chase down the rest of the filthy lucre, last seen by a posse of long-dead Mafiosi in Burke's garage. Approving foreword by Hill's widow notwithstanding, Simone's account of the Lufthansa heist is neither the reporting and writing the event deserves, nor a fitting tribute to the fascinating figure Hill cut.

Sarah D. Bunting is the East Coast Editor at , and chief cook and bottle-washer at true-crime review blog .

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