The world of mid-century noir was, archetypally, a world of black and white, modified only by the silvery moral grays that film-makers were able to trap in a camera’s lens. Here, in a tidily crafted thriller from late in the noir era, the convergence of black and white assumes another form—that of race against race. It’s a heist-gone-bad saga that thrusts together Earl Slater, a white ex-convict from Texas, and Johnny Ingram, a black grifter from Philadelphia. Scorn and suspicion mark their interactions from the get-go; Earl even takes to calling Johnny “Sambo.” There’s also a women in the piece, Lorraine, a hard-as-nails gal who loves Earl to the point of self-destruction. Rounding out the central cast of players are a pair of lawmen who work with brisk competence to nab Earl and Johnny after their raid on a bank in a small Pennsylvania town. The best feature of this tragic tale, in fact, is its close study of these figures. McGivern, author of many other works in this vein (including The Big Heat, a minor classic), endows each of his characters with a carefully drawn trajectory to follow as they struggle within a shared atmosphere of racheting pressure.
With its focus on racial tension, the novel looks forward to the 1960s. Yet it looks backward as well—to the 1940s, when the plight of returning veterans served as a driving theme in more than a few noir masterpieces. (Films that drew on that theme include The Blue Dahlia  and High Wall . There was also a well-done film version of Odds Against Tomorrow, released in 1959 and starring Robert Ryan as Earl and Harry Belafonte as Johnny.) Earl’s fate, and perhaps Johnny’s, too, hinge on an inability to adjust to the loss of what war had given them: a clear sense of purpose, a spirit of true brotherhood. Earl ponders this quandary as the competing claims of Johnny and Lorraine bear down on him, and as those grimly determined cops close in on him: “In the Army it was easy; you soldiered or you didn’t, simple as that.”