Sam Millar's memoir, ON THE BRINKS: Extended Edition, is partly a Kafkaesque descent into Dante's Hell and partly a Donald E. Westlake "John Dortmunder" caper with Damon Runyon characters added for seasoning.
At the height of Northern Ireland's "Troubles" in the 1970s, young men were being pulled from their beds and imprisoned without trial at Long Kesh, an ex-RAF base that would infamously become known as "the Maze."
Sam Millar was one of those men and spent eight long year's "on the blanket" (naked with only a blanket for covering for refusing to work or wear prison garb) before being released. The first part of ON THE BRINKS details his harrowing experience.
It was a daily case of "today I'll break you", "today I'll endure" until the days became weeks, months, years of childish "you'll do what I say" and "no, I won't" brought to an extreme where no one could remember how it started or why.
It's the blackest of comedy where one prisoner can't swallow he's so filled with fear and anxiety of the torture to come, when he's suddenly brought to laughter by his neighbor Sammy screaming out to him, "Massey! Massey!...If you find an ear up there, will you bring it back -- it's mine!" Laughter that helps him survive another day.
Millar's raw, uncensored descriptions of the travesties, depravities, humiliations and tortures that he and his fellow prisoners lived mixed with the attitudes of the times are hard to imagine. To get even a brief visual taste, one might Google the Abu Ghraib prison photos for comparison and then wonder if had digital cameras and the Internet existed back then, would the inhumanities of Long Kesh have gone on as long as they did? I would like to think they would not, but it takes books like this to expose inequities even in so-called "civilized" societies.
Turning from black humor to high romp, Millar changes gear in Part Two, as Sam in America plans and executes one of the largest heists in U.S. history: the Jan. 5, 1993, $7.4 million robbery of the Brinks Armored Car depot in Rochester NY. It plays out like a classic Westlake "Dortmunder" caper: the perfect plan, perfect execution, but losing the money in the end.
But perfect rarely happens in fiction or the real world. Mistakes are made: overloading the getaway van with so much loot it can't move and having to leave $3 million behind; hanging onto the van as a personal vehicle; over stressing to the point of not realizing he's under surveillance ("We always used to see a lot of cops on the corner with binoculars...Everybody in the neighborhood saw the police...(Millar) never seemed to notice.").
After his arrest is a LOL "good cop-bad cop" interview where Sam is threatened to confess: "You know you'll not survive our prison system, don't you? It's not like those pussy British prisons that you came from." Yeah, right.
A mismanaged prosecution causes charges to be dropped and Millar and a priest are convicted only of possession of stolen money; two innocent defendants are freed; and Millar begins a 60-month sentence wondering each day if new charges would be filed before the statute of limitations runs out. Twenty months later Millar reads in a newspaper that, "A Belfast man, Samuel Millar, is to be the first person transferred from an American prison to serve the rest of his time in prison in the North of Ireland." He also receives a phone call informing him that President Bill Clinton was sending him home. He'll only believe it once he's on the plane and crossing the Atlantic.
More than $5 million from the robbery is still missing.
Millar has said, "This is my story: the good, the bad, the ugly. It may not be to everyone's taste." Kafka and Westlake could not have done it better. Great reading. Don't miss it!