Norco '80 is enthrallingly detailed, down to the pencils thrown by opposing counsel in the criminal trial that followed "the most spectacular bank robbery in American history." Despite the depth and breadth recounted by journalist and EMT Peter Houlahan, the urge this book generates in readers to explore further this devastating true crime is impossible to suppress.
Houlahan begins with the not-well-laid plans of the felons (46 counts worth), who saw themselves not as criminals but simply needing funds to support their survivalist ideals in the face of the impending apocalypse. They were armed to the teeth, sparking a ferociously one-sided firefight that spanned more than 40 miles of crime scene in Riverside County, Calif. Responding law enforcement agencies were vastly overmatched, and the tragic outcome helped prompt a sea change in police weaponry, interagency communications (lack of which resulted in a life-and-death game of "telephone") and mental health support.
The drawn-out capital murder trial was perhaps even more outlandish than the pursuit preceding it, "highlighted" by a judge who took pictures during proceedings as mementos, a sex scandal and the defense continually attempting to "shove... sticks in the spokes of justice," including pinning the crime on a nonexistent man. Houlahan has admirably mined and winnowed the boundless material, and while nonfiction purists might be put off by some liberties taken (e.g., the inner monologue of a dying man), he has compellingly translated a high-octane story to the page without losing traction, leaving the reader satisfied yet craving more. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review