Norco '80 - Book Review

Posted On: Wednesday - November 10th 2021 8:48PM MST
In Topics: 
  California  Books  Legal Stupidity  Guns

Yet again, I got a (perhaps inadvertent) recommendation for a book from the Unz Review. This one may have even been from the words of Steve Sailer himself, rather than a commenter, since he is a long-term resident of the City of Angels, the area in which the true story in Peter Houlahan's book Norco '80 takes place.

Norco is the name of the town - in the LA basin many hundreds of these towns are separated only via lines on the map - in which the robbery of the Security Pacific Bank branch took place on May 9th of 1980. It's not the robbery itself, but the big stationary and then rolling shootout for a big part of the day on a big stretch of the eastern basin, right up into the mountains, that is the story. Regarding "Norco", that is a strange name for a town. Additionally, though I have been around that area and known the names of hundreds of them, I'd never heard of Norco till reading this book. It's on the north side of Riverside County, which abuts the east side of Orange Country, and includes the other 90% of the way across California to the Colorado River.* "North County" is I suppose where the name came from. Nope, the name came from the "North Corona Land Company". (Thanks, Al Corrupt.)

Speaking of this LA basic geography, one first gripe about this book is that there are no decent maps in it. Besides just showing the general location of the event there was the long the car chase, and one had to either look elsewhere or imagine where all these places are. There is just one line drawing of the bank area made by a sheriff's deputy at the beginning of the 8 page section of B&W pictures. The pictures section is nice though.

Just to go back to the beginning, well, the very beginning is the inside of the book jacket, with a bit of exaggerated hype, written by I don't know who. After Peak Stupidity's having extolled mid-20th-century California as being the best time/place to have ever lived (for the average guy), the book jacket, the Author's Note, and the Prologue, 1973 Orange Country, California, make the place and time seem like an apocalyptic nightmare. Sure, by the late 1970s, inflation was high and Disco was King, but, man, this is what the jacket says:
... Norco '80 transports the reader back to the Southern California of the 1970's, an era of predatory evangelical gurus, doomsday predictions, megachurches, and soaring crime rates, with the threat of nuclear obliteration looming over it all.
Man, whatever this guy is smoking, it's a whole lot stronger than anything they had in the 1970s! The nuclear threat was much bigger in the 1950s and '60s, megachurches are really a 1990s+ thing, and I'd guess 90% of Southern Californians lived a nice middle-class life in which no family member was any real part of any of that.

I guess this was the stage the Mr. Houlahan wanted to set, as the bank robbers themselves WERE into the evangelical, End Times/Revelation-based thoughts, were preppers of their day, and planned the bank robbery to get to a bug-out location away from Southern California. They had Utah in mind. (Even so, they had dug a pretty good bunker for themselves in the back yard of their Mira Linda house.)

Southern Californians George Smith (the leader), the Harven brothers, Chris and Russell, and the Mexican Delgado brothers, Billy and Manny, were the bank robbers. It does sound a lot like the old-timey desperados, as if off an old Eagles album, not so old at the time. The latter set of brothers, Billy and Manny Delgado were both killed by the next morning, Billy at the scene in the getaway van and Manny much later on in that long, day actually the next morning, up in the mountains.**

OK, no more details, or I'll be at this all night. Once the stage was set (and the sun was sinking low down...) by the chapters about the background of these desperados, we read about the huge amounts of armaments, including homemade grenades and such, that the group purchased (made, for the grenades) with their remaining money. The plans they made were not bad for young men of that age. One thing the reader should keep in mind about both the robbery and the later events is that that video cameras were not just something one had to worry about back in 1980. (There were still cameras at the bank, of course.) That really makes the thinking different, and it's all be much harder today, if one wanted to actually get away clean.

40% of the book then covers the robbery and subsequent chase. However, 80% of that is the long chase scene. There were so many cop jurisdictions and different vehicles involved, it gets hard to follow them all. They all were chasing a yellow utility-style pickup truck that the robbers had commandeered, and this went on for many hours.

The big thing that distinguished this Norco robbery from others is the amount of firepower that these guys had. No matter what the cops did, and even a few innocent bi-drivers did, these guys would shoot back with semi-auto fire from a selection of weapons. They weren't going to run out of ammo anytime soon either. If you like chase scenes and shooting, you're gonna like this part. This section is one big long chase scene and much better than that boring one in The French Connection.

The remainder of the book, 50% or so, is about the aftermath, which was a drawn out trial of the 3 remaining bank robbers, George Smith and the Harven brothers, each tried separately. I am not a follower of this sort of thing, but it is interesting enough to round out the book nicely, if possibly making it 50 or 100 pages too long.

One of the big points in the book, and I believe this is what brought the book up in the thread in which I learned of it, is the change in law enforcement weapons practices after the Norco robbery and chase. The cops were very much out-gunned that day. I don't like the US Police State, as the modern cops are very much a part of. I do see that this robbery may have accelerated the trend toward the heavily armed, vested, and un-human-like police of our time, in addition to the other causes, such as the donation of military equipment to lots of police forces in America.

One cop, Riverside Sheriff's Deputy Jim Evans, was killed up in the last shootout up in the San Bernardino Mountains. By all accounts in this book he was a decent man a husband and father of an infant at the time. However, this book makes that killing out to be a far bigger thing than anything else that happened during the whole wild event. I understand a murder is the top charge that could have been used against the 3 remaining violent robbers/kidnappers, but I don't like how a cop killing is seen as some kind of above-and-beyond crime.

I'll add a few things about the readability of the book to wrap this up: Again, as in Our Lady of the Forest, the author's lack of quote marks around most the words of the participants was annoying. However, Mr. Houlahan at least explained his purpose in his Epilogue. He only quoted the exact words/phrases uttered by the people involved from his research into the case after the fact. For those he was paraphrasing, or sometimes (he had to be) just making them up for the story, he didn't use quotes. Fair enough, though a word about this in the beginning would have been nice.

Next, though the author wrote that he had to learn about weaponry to write Norco '80, it doesn't read as if he really knows very much about guns. It may be just a typo, but on page 103, he gives energy from an HK91 .308 round at the target as "2,200 pounds". No, that'd be foot-pounds. Another numerical mistake (p. 123) is when he wrote about Bill Crowe of the CA Highway Patrol hauling ass down Bellegrave Avenue, he notes that he covered a half mile in "less than a minute". OK, well, Mr. Houlahan, that's 30 mph, not exactly breakneck speed by anybody's measure!

Besides one "BCE" that I had to correct (it's not a history book, so it's only this one instance, on p. 228 in a discussion of PTSD), I didn't find any other readability annoyances.

If you like true story action books, guns, trial stories, and Southern California, or maybe 2 out of the 4, I recommend Norco '80..

PS: I know, I know, what in Sam Hill does a 1980 bank robbery have to do with the Kung Flu PanicFest, the worries about a mandatory experimental vaccine, the Orwellian, Totalitarian stuff that is coming with it, and the increasing price of tea in China? Nothing, readers, but that's not how Peak Stupidity works. I read a book, and, if there's anything good to say (or I wouldn't have finished it), I figure that's a post.

* It's south of the much bigger San Bernardino County, which covers the east-west mountain range of that name, and north of San Diego and Imperial Counties, going west to east.

** The book says that Manny, wounded up in the mountains, shot himself. I wonder about that one.

Friday - November 12th 2021 7:33AM MST
PS: Thanks, Mr. Corrupt.
Al Corrupt
Thursday - November 11th 2021 8:01PM MST

NORCO = North Corona
No Fighting In the War Room
Thursday - November 11th 2021 11:30AM MST
PS Norco is a name for pain pills.
The Hollywood Bank Robbery and the Silent Brotherhood armored car heist are some other interesting real crime stories or the Miami 86 shootout.
War? Our external enemies have the CPUSA or democrats for destroying the republic and they want the crops and real estate intact.
A 3000 mile glow in the dark charcoal birdbath does them no good but do hoist a middle finger when the cleansing flames of nuclear wrath come.
Thursday - November 11th 2021 10:13AM MST
PS: Mr. Hail, I don't have the book on me right now (read it over a month back), but yeah, I'm pretty sure they had masks on, at the bank anyway. I may have to add a line about that to my post, as I didn't even think of that connection.

It would be ideal for a movie. I think I'd go see it for the action, though who knows how much woke PC BS they'd somehow insert in there. I'd read a review first, by a guy I could trust on that part, and I know just the Unz Review blogger to do that.
Thursday - November 11th 2021 10:09AM MST
PS: Mr. Hail, thanks for the comments. The book is pro police, but only for this particular data point, which was one hell of a data point, of course. The author really doesn't come off too political, but he does, as I wrote, seem to make the killing of Deputy Jim Evans into a crime high above all the rest of the mayhem. Granted, he was amazingly the only one on the law enforcement side killed - there were lots of other injuries - I already can't recall if any were permanent. (The PTSD thing makes up much of a chapter, involving cops who quit for mental/psycho reasons)

There was a hell of a lot of shooting by these guys, and that included anybody in the way, or even occasionally not really any factor.

I will check out your links. Yeah, Houlihan measures the cops being underarmed many times and then goes over the changes made after this event near the end of the book. However, there's no racial element, probably just because they were all white, hispanic, and the leader, George Smith, half Oriental.
Thursday - November 11th 2021 10:02AM MST
PS: Alarmist, yes, the megatonnage* of the nukes on both sides went up very much from when this Cold War began right after WWII (some would say 1947) through the period in the 1970s when some of these detente inspired treaties (SALT, SALT-II, whatever) at least slowed things down. The big step may have been way back in 1949(?) only a few years into it, when the fusion bombs were invented.

I have no argument about the megatonnage (almost wrote "magatonnage twice, haha! Maybe someone can use that one). I say that the threat of nuclear war was greater before the 1970s because:

- The use of nuclear weapons was seriously considered during the Korean War and a decade later there was the Cuban standoff. After 25 years of this, both the superpowers had gotten it in their heads that it would be really bad for this to happen.

- You mention the quick decision time in the latter days, but then, the communications were so much better. I mean both human-wise and electronics-wise. Electronics had gotten good enough to ensure stable communications and no fail-safe (the movie) type situations, but not too good, as in, AI might just go ahead and decide that "yeah, time to start a nuclear conflagration and be rid of these damn humans for good!" The situation with radar/ air traffic control must have improved somewhat too and I'd guess fighters/intercepters could more easily take care of incoming strategic bombers.

- Related to my first point, M.A.D. - Mutually Assured Destruction - may have sounded mad, but then, it was fully implemented and understood later on in the Cold War. One thing young people may not even know, if they know anything at all about this, is that lots of the warheads, maybe MOST of them, were not pointed at cities to destroy but instead at the other superpower's hardened nuclear silos. It was a race to see how much destructive power could be brought to bear on the other side's silos. "The unstoppable warhead vs. the immovable concrete doors" or something.

In my opinion, Alarmist, the fear, civil defense training, and talk about it must have peaked in the 1960's, because in the '70s, as I recall, it was just old hat. Many people, including the huge generation of Boomers, had lived with this thing their whole lives. Proxy wars started up in Africa, Central/South America, Asia, all over, for the purposes of one side or another gaining an advantage in position or resources, but neither side seriously considered going nuclear unless something big changed in the world.

Who knows, though? I suppose it could have happened any year. I am very glad Ronald Reagan got elected. (And, I helped!)

* For those here not familiar (too young?) the "tonnage" of the weapons does not refer to the weight of these bombs, warheads, or the fissionable, fusionable material within. It refers to energy, in units that represent the energy equivalent to that many tons of TNT.
Thursday - November 11th 2021 9:33AM MST

"what in Sam Hill does a 1980 bank robbery have to do with the Kung Flu PanicFest, the worries about a mandatory experimental vaccine, the Orwellian, Totalitarian stuff that is coming with it, and the increasing price of tea in China? Nothing, readers"

Did they wear masks?
Thursday - November 11th 2021 9:33AM MST

Thank you for the review.

Given the success of the book, I wonder when there'll be a movie. This seems to just scream out for a movie, too tempting for some producer not to take. Bank robbery, car chases, fights with police, eccentric characters?
Thursday - November 11th 2021 9:17AM MST

One question worth asking with books, especially ones like this, is: "Why id he write this when he wrote it?" Why did the author write exactly this book (this topic), at exactly this time? Not five or fifteen years earlier or later, not a slightly different topic.

It looks like the book was complete and had an early edition out by December 2018, even though under an official publication date of mid-2019. It was eligible for awards with the 2019 cohort. It reached an impressive height of success for a book like this and scooped up some award nominations (nominated in mid-2020 for the Dashiell Hammett Award for Literary Excellence in Crime Writing for 2019 books).

A plausible timeline from what we know:

The author (Peter Houlahan, "a native Southern Californian," born ca.1962) got the idea in the mid-2010s, did a bulk of the writing in 2017 (=the project took firm shapre in 2017), and it was all finished and rolling through the editorial gauntlet inexorably towards publication by mid-2018, except for the marketing. They announced a "release date" of June 1, 2019, but there were people who had copies before that date because lots of the reviews from GoodReads are before June 2019. The first is December 2018, apparently the extreme advance-copies.

Here is the author announcing the book (via a then-brand-new twitter someone at the publisher must have talked him into making) in June 2018, indicating to me it was already at least half-way done by that date, which if he worked full- or near-full-time on it points to the idea stage perhaps in 2015/16, and research and writing in 2017/18:

The author says his motivation was this:

"There was a true story of a bank robbery that happened in Southern California when I was a teenager there that has always stuck with me. When I began to look into it a little more, I immediately realized I had a very big, very important story on my hands that had not been told before. That’s How “Norco ’80” came about." (

This suggests simple nostalgia as a motivation. He gives no hint of any political motivation in that interview. But a motivation does present itself. Quoting the original entry:

"One of the big points in the book, and I believe this is what brought the book up in the thread in which I learned of it, is the change in law enforcement weapons practices after the Norco robbery and chase."

For a while in the mid-2010s, it became a status-marker to say or imply that White Police are Bad, with a politer version of the argument being that were over-armed militarized, which contributed much to their tendency to beat up Black people for no reason.

This was the original BLM. There were a few years there where the media kept regularly pushing the latest "police shoot thug" case they dragged up from some local news. (Strange I don't know that even one such case has been in the national news cycle in 2021, but I guarantee many "unarmed Black men" have been shot by police.) It faded considerably 2017 to early 2020. But then the old energies were tapped back into in late spring 2020, after the Corona-Panic's initial brutal lockdowns, with the result of the worst riots and looting-sprees in fifty years. And do-nothing Blue-city police forces were all ordered to stand down (can't look over-armed, or militarized, or assertive!).

In any case, it's not clear from the review whether the book is pro- or anti-police, but probably the author was thinking about changes in policing, 1970s/1980s vs. 2000s/2010s, specifically in reaction to mid-2010s-era BLM (=media) rhetoric.
The Alarmist
Thursday - November 11th 2021 7:15AM MST

Wow, has it really been so long? The Norco shootout was perhaps the watershed moment of American policing, which has been increasingly militarized ever since.

A nuclear war in the ‘80s would have dwarfed one in the ‘50s and ‘60s in terms of destruction from the massive megatonnage both sides had, and in terms of just how short fuses were in those days with nuke-carrying subs just minutes off the coasts of CONUS. Nuclear war in the ‘60s still allowed a bit under half an hour or so to play out before serious decisions were to be made, versus a few minutes in the ‘80s. The big difference is that by the ‘80s, most Americans had tuned out the Doom Porn.
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