A couple of weeks ago, while sorting through a box of paperbacks in my garage, I stumbled across a novel by crime writer Roderick Thorp. The last time I read this particular book was twenty-three years ago when the movie version hit theaters. I loved the film—and after noticing in the credits it was based on a novel, I went out and tracked the title down. Having rediscovered this gem from the past, I sat down to read it again and found it just as enjoyable—if not more so—the second time around.
Originally published as Nothing Lasts Forever in 1979, the book was renamed Die Hard in its second edition and became the basis for one of the greatest action flicks of all time. The story, of course, involves an off-duty cop stuck in a Los Angeles skycraper that’s taken over by a dozen terrorists.
There are some major differences between the book and the film. In the book, the protagonist is an aged and retired New York City cop named Joe Leland who has flown to Los Angeles to see his estranged daughter–not a brash, young John McClane visiting his estranged wife. While the film featured some great humor to alleviate the tension, there is nothing funny about the book—the ending being a far cry from the film’s happy conclusion. The story is dark and brutal, and the violence is handled with a gritty realism. I was fifteen when I first read it and thought back then the violence was particularly savage. That’s actually one of the things I liked about it. I think it was the first book I read where violence had a visceral impact on one of the characters perpetrating it. Here, Leland is forced to kill a young terrorist:
[Leland’s] Browning struck a glancing blow off the side of the boy’s head, knocking him backward. He was still conscious, trying to get the Thompson up between them, when Leland hit him again, throwing his weight on him. The kid’s head struck the vinyl floor; the submachine gun went flying. The kid got to his hands and knees. He was stunned, trying to crawl away. Leland locked his forearm around the boy’s neck. He caught the windpipe. The kid’s hands came up. There was no time to waste. Leland got his shoulder against the base of the skull . . . The boy’s neck broke with a sound like a sapling being twisted in a strong man’s hands. His head flopped like a chicken’s. Leland’s bladder opened. He thought he was going to be sick.
You didn’t necessarily see that kind of brutality in the movie. Two of the terrorists Leland kills in the book are women, which takes a strong psychological toll on him. What I loved about the book—and the film—is the protagonist is an ordinary guy scared of the extraordinary circumstance thrust upon him. He’s no super-hero type:
He was feeling pain again, more than ever . . . He went up, one step at a time. He had been able to make a cup of coffee that had tasted awful, and then after that he had ducked into a ladies’ room to relieve himself and wash his face. All in the dark. He had not wanted to see himself. Afraid . . . He was so dirty, he could feel the crust on his eyelids when he blinked, in his crotch when he moved his legs. If he lived through this, he was going to feel pain for the rest of his life.
Thorp was a great writer (he passed away in 1999). At the time of his death, he was known for several gritty crime novels, including The Detective, which became a Frank Sinatra movie in 1968, and the excellent Rainbow Drive. Sadly, most of his books are now out of print (Nothing Lasts Forever, fortunately, has just been made available on Kindle). In reading the book, I was struck by the fact that if it wasn’t for the film “Die Hard”—and, to a certain extent, the Sinatra flick—hardly anyone today would know of Thorp’s work. Back in the day, when Thorp was writing, his novels were something of a big deal. This is from a 1986 profile in the Los Angeles Times following the release of Rainbow Drive:
Early indications are that Thorp will do well financially with the novel, which the publisher made its lead book for the fall season. Out of a first printing of 90,000 copies, 70,000 had been ordered by booksellers before “Rainbow Drive’s” publication date this fall. Bidding on paperback rights for the novel will start at $500,000.
The novelist added that the money probably won’t change his no-frills habits. A native of New York who moved to Southern California 10 years ago, Thorp lives in a two-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood, smokes plain-wrap cigarettes and drives a car that looks like an overweight roller skate.
“The quality of my life isn’t in shopping for gold-plated cars,” he said. “I value friendship, loyalty, truthfulness, honor–you know, the intrinsics that seem to have gone by the board. . . . I don’t care whether the neighbors know I’ve made it or not. I know who my neighbors are. Neighbors in my life have been some pretty goofy people I never cared about.”
Thorp had a real talent for writing hard, gritty crime stories. It’s sad that today most of his books are all but relegated to oblivion.