Review: Watch Your Back!

What was going on?  Was it a wake around here?  Nobody wore a black armband, but the faces on the regulars were long enough.  They, all of them, men and the women’s auxiliary, too, were hunched over their drinks with that thousand-yard stare that suggests therapy is no longer an option.  In short, the place looked exactly like that section of the socialist realist mural where the workers have been utterly shafted by the plutocrats.  Dortmunder looked up, half-expecting to see top hats and cigars in the gloom up there, but nothing.

“But first I wanna know,” Tiny said, “about the O.J.”

“Well,” Dortmunder said, “it’s a bust-out joint.”

“Shit,” Tiny commented.

Kelp said, “A nephew.”

“Not one of the better ones,” Dortmunder suggested.

Tiny rumbled, “There are good nephews?”

He would not fail her.  She has faith in me as a con artist and a crook, he told himself, and I will not let her down.

Dortmunder said, “You think everything’s okay in life, and then something different happens.”

Kelp gave him a look.  “John?  On one beer you’re turning philosophical?”

“It’s the environment,” Dortmunder told him.

Okay, it’s like this.

I really wanted to do this review as a one-parter.  I remembered the book–nearly every book I’ve reviewed on this blog, I read in its entirety before I created said blog–so there’s a pretty significant gap between readings by now.  I remembered enjoying it, like I enjoy all these books, or what am I doing here.  I also remembered being a mite underwhelmed.  But I forgot most of it, because c’mon, that’s a lot of books. How do you retain all that?  You’d need some kind of idiotic memory.  That’s what a regular at the O.J. Bar and Grill told me it was called, right before another regular hit him with a beer bottle.  Misunderstanding.

Even if I’d remembered it all, line for line, I had a lot less context back then–you learn as you go–so I picked up on things I missed last time, that I will be compelled to share now. Who knows what else I’d find if I reread and reviewed these books all over again from scratch?  Maybe somebody better hit me with a beer bottle before that happens. Hey–that was a joke.

So the story is, there’s a lot more story than I remembered, a lot more I want to talk about, and I’ve managed to scrounge up four cover images–all of them lousy– look at the first edition; red letters on a field of yellow, and it’s the pick of the litter.  Rivages/Noir somehow got confused (no, you’re supposed to be watching your back, not some android strip-club waitress’s derriere, geez, how French can you get?) The two I’m using next time are even worse.

I did find some images I like, though.  Well, I don’t relish those two photos up top, of the shuttered and derelict St. Nick’s Pub, and the now-demolished Lenox Lounge, historic Harlem jazz bars that fell prey to ‘progress.’  But they illustrate the point of this book much better than its own cover art.  And what point is that?

On its face, this is yet another story about Dortmunder pulling yet another heist on yet another mendacious moneybags who has it coming, with interest.  How many times has that happened now?  I make this the sixth notch on Dortmunder’s lock pick (including one short story), and edifying as that may be, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to watching rich bastards squirm like fat gasping orange carps on a hook.  Like you needed me to tell you that.  (Reel it in careful-like, Bob.  Don’t want to lose this one.  Or capsize the boat.)

But that is not what this book is about.  The moneybags here isn’t the enemy.  Mildly diverting at best, pointless padding at worst.  A subplot that got out of control.

There’s also an organized crime angle (a first for Dortmunder; one was starting to wonder if maybe his universe was Cosa Nostra free). The Mob is not the real threat, either, and their subplot is something of a backhanded homage to David Chase.  I think we can take it as a given that Mr. Westlake watched The Sopranos (being a great admirer of Chase’s work on The Rockford Files), and the storyline involving Tony’s old school chum Davey Scatino clearly caught his attention.  As did the colorful but limited vocabulary of the Jersey mobsters on that show.

There’s two final ‘Nephews’ (and a strong textual hint that this is exactly how Westlake thought of them).  One is only his own worst enemy. The other is the final addition to the gang and will be seen again in future.  I’m on the fence about whether that’s a good thing, and so’s the gang.  But he’s definitely not somebody you have to watch your back over.

No, the antagonist in this book is change. Unneeded, unwanted, and let’s face it, unstoppable.  A river bursting its banks, oddly selective in what it sweeps away–mainly what you value most.  Good change happens because we make it happen, because we’re paying close attention to our surroundings, performing needed adjustments.  Bad change happens, too often, because we get careless; don’t see it coming until it’s upon us. By which time it’s usually too late to do anything but bitch and moan and move on.  Assuming that’s an option, and we probably shouldn’t assume that.

Is there no champion we may call upon to save us from this entropic dreadnought, this devourer of dreams?  Maybe one–if he can be sufficiently motivated to watch our backs for us, since we hoi polloi seem disinclined to do much of anything besides jaw to each other on our virtual barstools.

Change is going to try and take the O.J. Bar and Grill away from John Dortmunder. Change does not know who it’s fucking with.

Westlake begins by reminding us of what could be lost to world culture forever.

When John Dortmunder, a free man, not even on parole, walked into the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Friday night in July, just before ten o’clock, the regulars were discussing the afterlife.  “What I don’t get,” said one of them, as Dortmunder angled toward where Rollo the bartender was busy with something far over to the right end of the bar, “is all these clouds.”

A second regular put down his foaming beerglass to say, “Clouds?  Which clouds are these?”

“That’s what they’re sitting on!” The first regular waved an arm dangerously, but did no damage.  “you look at all these pictures, Jesus sitting on a cloud, that other God sitting on a cloud, Mary sitting on a cloud–”

“A little lower down,” suggested a third.

“Well, yeah, but the point is, can’t Heaven come up with furniture?”

Dortmunder takes a break from this divine cabinetry conclave to note that Rollo the bartender is absorbed in making fancy drinks with fruit, arcane liqeurs, and tiny paper parasols–some ladies of a certain age have decamped for refreshment, and are looking around at their surroundings with an anthropologist’s guarded delight.  The colloquy at the bar continues apace.

Another regular, meantime, was objecting to the concept of furniture in the beyond, saying, “Whadaya want with furniture?  Heaven isn’t Westchester, you know..”

A fifth regular weighed in, saying, “Yeah?  What about all those fields of plenty?”

“Land of milk and honey,” added the third regular, as though it were an indictment.

The first regular lifted a skeptical glass and a skeptical brow to say, “Do they give out overshoes?”

The learned debate then verges over into what had just recently become, under unfortunate circumstances, a much-discussed take on the afterlife,   The one with the 72 virgins.  To which one obvious cavil would be–

“There aren’t seventy-two virgins,” the first regular objected.

“Well no,” the second regular conceded, “not all at one time, but still, what kinda Heaven is this?  It would be like being assigned to an all-girls high-school.”

“Ouch,” said the third regular.

“Can you imagine,” the second regular said, “what it sounds like in the cafeteria at lunchtime?”

The fourth regular, the one with something against Westchester, said, “Would you have to learn volleyball?”

Okay, fine, the Algonquin Round Table it’s not, but that lasted a bit over ten years, starting in 1919 then informally concluding in 1932, when Edna Ferber showed up and found a family from Kansas had foreclosed (the Gulch family, one supposes).  The O.J. Regulars held court from 1970 to 2009, and that’s just what we know about.  We’re going to know a lot more by the time this book is done.

Dortmunder is there for a meet in the back room, and as always, Rollo provides him with a bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (“Our Own Brand”) and two glasses.  Some question is raised in this narrative as to whether there is any such establishment, or if the bottling is done in the very bowels of the O.J.–but just FYI, at Amsterdam Ave. and 127th, at this precise moment in history–

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(Ya gotta believe.)

Dortmunder is going to meet up with Ralph Winslow, or as Rollo knows him, ‘the rye and water, the one that tinkles his ice cubes all the time.’  He claims not to know any of their names, only their beverage preferences.  Well, that would make things challenging for the D.A’s office, should Rollo ever be called upon to testify.

In the back room, Dortmunder finds the surprisingly (and delightedly) early Stan Murch (aka the beer and salt), expounding on how the Williamsburg Bridge is okay to drive on now that construction is finished, and Robert Moses didn’t need to build that mammoth expressway after all, the one he wanted to cut Manhattan in half with ‘like the Great Wall of China.’  He also mentions he’s on his second salt shaker, that’s how early he was this time, because traffic was so good on Canal and the West Side Highway.  And yet he’s still on his first beer.

(Sidebar: How many of you reading this have actually tried sprinkling salt in your beer to bring back the head?  Reading this at my local last Saturday, I was moved again to reach for the salt shaker behind the bar, and again found the results equivocal.  Yes, you get a bit of a head back, with a few sprinkles and a bit of discreet agitation, but not a full head, and it doesn’t last long–well, neither does the beer.  Unlike Stan, I’m not driving.

Stan needing more than one shaker’s worth to nurse along a single beer would suggest this method is more conducive to hypertension than anything else.  Is kosher salt more efficacious?  Sea salt?  Do those folk of metaphoric legend, who are ever crying in their beers, know something we don’t? Please report your own findings in the comments section.  Where I regret to say there is no beer or salt on offer, but I’m working on it.)

So the meet doesn’t pan out.  Ralph maybe had something, but the cops pulled him in for something else, and until that gets resolved, he is incommunicado.  He called Stan–has him on speed-dial on his cell.  Stan asks if Dortmunder has a cell, so he can add him to his speed-dial.  Dortmunder’s response is terse and in the negative. He’s not going to be on anyone’s speed dial.  Something tells me he’s yet to fully recover from the untimely demise of the rotary dial.

So that’s Chapter One.  The review is just over 2,000 words now.  What was I worried about, this’ll be over in no time.  Call it setting the scene, and let’s try being a bit more expeditious.

Dortmunder gets a call from Arnie Albright, the world’s least-loved fence of stolen goods.  Not unpopular from any moral failing on his part (Dortmunder is not one to cast stones, his own house being glass), but rather from his general manner and physical appearance.

We are perpetually reminded of his non-pulchritudinous aspect (“He told me once, he finds himself so disgusting, he shaves with his back to the mirror.”), while he is being inflicted upon us in book after book, not to  mention several short stories.  One sometimes notes a barely-suppressed strain of sado-masochism in Mr. Westlake.  And just for the record, compared to Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the fence featured in Westlake’s Smoke, who shares many of the same quirks (probably because they were created around the same time), Arnie is Will Freakin’ Rogers.

Arnie’s family members recently did an intervention (referenced in the previous book), sending him to a Club Med, where he was supposed to learn to be a bit more of a person.  It kind of worked.  Well, he got a tan.  He still insists on referring to Dortmunder by his full name all the time.  And he still deals in stolen goods.  The family didn’t object to that, man’s gotta make a living and all.

So he’s got a proposition he wants Dortmunder to hear, and Dortmunder would rather not, but then again, maybe he could get Kelp to come along, share the burden.  Kelp is just then robbing a furrier, and then bringing the fruits of his labor back to Anne Marie, who proceeds to prance around in a sable jacket and nothing else, so distracting Andy that he agrees over the phone to meet Dortmunder at Arnie’s.

The proposition mingles those two great motivations in human affairs–profit and revenge.  Whilst at Club Med, Arnie made the acquaintance of a certain involuntarily expatriate venture capitalist, one Preston Fareweather.  Preston is not in exile due to any troubles with the law–well, not criminal law.  Civil.  If you want to call it that.

He has a lot of very attractive ex-wives, who he married for the sole purpose of bedding then discarding them.  They all hate him.  More even than they hate each other, and thus they have joined forces, they and their lawyers, in an attempt to attach his worldly goods.  Process servers can go many places, but not, it would seem, a Club Med.  (Pretty sure they can get into Mar-a-Lago just fine.)

Preston has personality issues that even Arnie finds hard to tolerate, and he’s been tolerating himself since birth.  Not so much from his personal appearance as from his believing he and he alone is worthy of any consideration, and other people exist only to be insulted and abused and talked down to.  (Is there any Trump in the mix here?  No, probably too smart to be Trump-influenced.)

Point is, his contempt for Arnie, the smalltime crook, was not even thinly veiled, even while he entertained himself by hob-nobbing with his social (and no doubt criminal) inferior.  Arnie, long inured to people not liking him, was unfamiliar with this specific form of pariah-dom the rich routinely heap upon everybody who isn’t, and thus developed a keen dislike for Preston.

And yet, he kept returning for more daily doses of derision–during which he learned everything he could about Preston’s luxurious duplex penthouse, located on Fifth Avenue and 68th.  Full of so many valuable accoutrements.  And this is where Dortmunder and Kelp come in.  Literally.

Perhaps this schadenfreude shows a lack of gratitude on Arnie’s part, since as he explains, it was meeting Preston Fareweather that finally brought about the most sovereign remedy his own exile was meant to enact. (Translation: He’s a bit less obnoxious now.)

Kelp said “Preston cured you?”

“I watched him,” Arnie said.  “I watched the people around him, how they acted, and I suddenly go tit, those are the expressions I used to see on the faces of people looking at me.  I was never obnoxious in the same way as Preston, on purpose to hurt and embarrass other people, but it all comes down to the same place.  ‘I don’t wanna be Preston Fareweather,’ I told myself, ‘not even by accident,’ so that was it.  I called you, John Dortmunder, because here’s my proposition.

“I’m ready,” Dortmunder allowed.

“I’m sure you are.  I despise that Preston so much, I put up with so much crap from that guy while I’m casing his apartment long-distance, that my reward is the thought of the expression on his face the next time he walks into his house.”

He’s offering seventy per cent of whatever he gets for whatever Dortmunder gets.   Even allowing for some creative accounting on Arnie’s part, it’s a solid proposition.  And Arnie, no heistman himself, still has a useful suggestion as to how they might proceed–Arnie Albright has his own private parking garage, to billet his own private BMW, and this comes with its own private elevator up to the penthouse.  Take the Beemer out, put a truck in, Bob’s your uncle.

So what’s to lose?  They walk across Central Park, and there it is, big as life, and surprisingly unglamorous.  Well, you’re paying for the view out, I guess.  Who cares what the wretches down in the park have to look at?

The building, up ahead, taller than its neighbors, built in the real-estate flush of the 1950s, when details and ornamentation and style and grace were considered old-fashioned and unprofitable, hulked like a stalker over the park, a pale gray stone structure pocked with balconies.

A pretty fair description of the general run of uber-pricey housing there (location, location, location).  I’m guessing Preston’s building would be a composite (since non-fictional tycoons do get robbed sometimes, and their lawyers aren’t fictional either), but here’s a pretty fair example of the style.  If you want to call it that.  (Mr. Westlake’s architectural conservatism can be contagious at times.)

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They agree to do another meet at the O.J., this time with Tiny, since there’s going to be a lot of heavy lifting if they pull this one.  There follows a brief interlude with Stan Murch, just then in the process of stealing a Lincoln Navigator (one of the few legit car names in this book, but we’ll get to that next time), which he suddenly realizes comes equipped with the current bane of Stan’s existence, namely GPS.  Not a bane so much because he wants to handle navigation himself, but because of what the letters GPS stand for.  And they won’t stand for much.

That was the snag lately.  If you grabbed some old clunker, it didn’t have enough resale value to be worth the risk involved in taking it away from its former owner, but a sh iny new, valuable piece of tin was more than likely to be leashed to a satellite. And there was no known way to jam a satellite.

That’s the problem, Stan thought.  The law’s got all the labs.

He barely ditches the goods before the cops show up, drawn by the GPS signal like bees to nectar.  They see him walking towards the subway, but he talks himself out of their tentative clutches, and boards the A train.  Which we’re told has its northernmost terminus in the Bronx.  Which has never been true, unless you consider North Manhattan part of the Bronx.

I can’t explain Westlake making such an egregious Gothamite gaffe.  Unless he’s trying once again to avoid incurring the jealousy of the Navajo gods.  This is a pretty good rug he’s weaving here, but a long way from perfect, so I don’t know why he’d bother. Explanation, Mr. Westlake?  Oh right. Mystify us, why don’t you?  Maybe he just forgot.

Next chapter takes us into the inquiring mind of Judson Blint, 19 years of age, just out of high school in Long Island, looking to make his mark (God save him).  He has come to scale the Avalon State Bank Tower in search of J.C. Taylor.  He’s hoping Mr. Taylor will give him a job with Allied Commissioner’s Courses, Inc.–the location of which is supposed to be a secret, but young Blint has tracked it to this location, using some of the very methods learned from their mail-order detective course.

Scanning the directory at the ground floor, he’s surprised to see just how many different businesses are headquartered in room 712–Intertherapeutic Research Service–Super Star Music Co.–and once he’s up on the seventh floor, he sees it’s also the home of the Maylohda Commercial Attaché.  Maylohda.  What was that, a country?  Who was J.C. Taylor, anyway?  He sees the answer before he recognizes it, when he goes in to speak to the receptionist.

Oh.  My.  God.  She was something out of Judson’s dreams, but not the more soothing ones.  No, more like the ones inspired by video games.  In her thirties, she was a hard-looking brunette with gleaming eyes that caught the light, and a mouth that looked born to say no.  Only louder than that.

She yanks him around a bit.  You know our Josie (sadly rare as the occasions have been for us to gaze upon her in the last few books).   She’s impressed with him, in spite of herself.  He’s not a complete rube.  He figured some stuff out (if not her correct gender) and he put together a résumé for himself that is pure uncut malarkey–and yet impossible to directly disprove.  Kid’s got potential–and turns out she’s ready to ditch her old cons, since the being her own country thing is working out so well for her.  Only so many hours in the day to fleece suckers.

Tiny comes in to see his beloved, gives Judson a narrow look.  Judson blanches, and you’d be very lucky if that’s all you did.  A conversation ensues, and the upshot is that she’ll give Judson a try–he can run the other mail order scams for her–she hates to let them go.  It’s the sentimentalist in her.  More on Master Blint later.

It’s at this point that Dortmunder returns to the O.J. Bar and Grill, only to discover (see up top) that something terrible has happened since his last visit.  Rollo tells him the back room isn’t available.  Dortmunder is given to  understand it will never be available again.  There are two questionably attired gentlemen there, tough-looking, both clearly heeled, in the meaning of that word that has nothing to do with footwear.  Kelp saunters in, looks the first goombah over.  “What flying saucer did this come out of?”

Rollo, knowing Tiny (or as he knows him, the red wine and vodka) will arrive at any moment, and how he tends to react to anyone with the temerity to try and intimidate him, begs Dortmunder and Kelp to leave, and gives them a complimentary bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (they later comment that it does not travel well).

Murch, and Murch’s Mom, and Tiny, all arrive to find John and Andy on the sidewalk,  bereft.  They decide to meet at Dortmunder’s place, something nobody is happy about, least of all Dortmunder.  The situation is explained.  Tiny is mildly disappointed to have missed out on the chance to take the two wise guys at the O.J. apart at the garish seams, but it’s not like he owns the joint.  They decide Arnie’s proposition has merit, and that John and Andy will look into the matter of the O.J.

When they get there, the situation has only gotten worse.  The place is basically a walking corpse.  The mob guys are there there.  But Rollo is still at the bar, and Andy offers to buy Dortmunder a beer.  Dortmunder may be more easy-going than Parker, but he has that same innate suspicion of even the most innocuous forms of altruism.  But unlike Parker, his Handy McKay didn’t retire to Maine.

Dortmunder looked at him.  “What are you up to?”

“What up to?  I feel like I wanna buy you a beer.  It happens, we have another one, then you buy for me.  That’s how it works, John.”

Dortmunder said, “What if we only have the one?”

“My feeling is,” Kelp said, whipping out his wallet and putting cash money on the bar next to the glasses Rollo was putting down in front of them, “some day we’ll be in a bar again.”

Dortmunder could only agree with that.  “You’ll keep track, I guess,” he said, as Rollo took Kelp’s money away to his open cash register and rummaged around in there a while.

“No problem,” Kelp assured him, and lifted his glass.  “To crime.”

“Without punishment,” Dortmunder amended, and they both drank.

Rollo quietly tells them to watch out–these guys in the bar now are criminals.  Dortmunder gently breaks it to him that he and Kelp are criminals.  Rollo says yeah, but these other guys are organized.  In a Westlake novel, this does not necessarily constitute an advantage, but Rollo’s main concern at this point is that nobody gets hurt.

They don’t like what they find, but they recognize it.  More and more of the O.J., including their beloved back room,  is taken up with merchandise from various businesses that supply bars.  Ordered on the O.J.’s line of credit, invoices signed by a resigned and dismal Rollo.  It’s a bust-out.  The mob guys are going to keep ordering until the bar’s credit runs dry, then cart the goods away to sell at a (100%) profit.  It’s a bit like that thing where the wasp lays its egg in the paralyzed cicada.  I believe analogies have also been drawn regarding the financial sector.  One might consider expanding that to encompass certain aspects of politics.  It’s a rich tapestry.

They meet up with Tiny in a suitably capacious vehicle rented and driven by Judson, and he’s not happy about the O.J., but he figures none of his business, too late to do anything, focus on the heist.  Not that they get very specific, with Judson there, but he reads between the lines, wants to help out, necessitating a somewhat nerve-wracking (for Judson) conversation about whether maybe this kid knows too much.  The general consensus is he knows nothing (like all kids), but maybe he could learn.   As for the O.J., Dortmunder finds that he simply can’t let it go.

Chapter 15 somehow fails to open with “When Dortmunder broke into the O.J. Bar and Grill”, sticking with the more traditional opening, but that’s exactly what he’s done, for the purposes of gathering intelligence.  He gets down into the basement, via a trap-door behind the bar.  He finds records, dating back to founding of the O.J., forty-seven years before, by Otto Medrick and Jerome Hulve, and now we know why it’s called that.  It seems to have had multiple prior incarnations.  And who could possibly say how many prior Dortmunders?

Now he sees the problem–Otto Medrick bought his partner out thirty-one years ago.  He retired to Florida a while back.  And he transferred ownership to one Raphael Medrick, Otto’s nephew (always with the nephews).  Who seems to have had, as they say, a troubled past, often involving ‘bad companions.’  Bingo.  There were mob guys up there talking while he was down there reading, taking expensive liquor for their capo’s daughter’s wedding in New Jersey.  Dortmunder helps himself to a stray bottle of Stoli on his way out.  But he’s going to give something back for it.

Next thing, Dortmunder is meeting the gang at the appropriately named Twilight Lounge, on Forty-third Street.  J.C. suggested it as an alternative to the O.J.  It’s pretty clearly not going to work out.  I mean, when Stan asks for salt, they give him a bowl of it.  But Tiny insists there’s nothing to be done, they should focus on getting theirs.  Nobody brings up that this is what Tiny said when those mercs had taken Dortmunder prisoner during the Avalon State Bank Tower heist, before J.C. shamed Tiny and the others into going up to rescue him, and you wouldn’t have brought that up to Tiny’s face either, so shaddap.

However, Tiny still wants to go see this nephew who has forced him to do meets at the Twilight Lounge, and so they head off to a not very nice section of Queens, where it turns out Raphael is completely unaware of anything that’s happening with his uncle’s bar, nor could he care less.  He’s making music.  Well, he’s taking other people’s music and making it into his own thing, with a lot of electronic equipment.  That’s basically how he got in trouble last time, but he figures now everybody’s stealing music and selling it online (right at that moment, he’s creating an unholy amalgram of The Star Spangled Banner and Hey Jude), and at least he’s customizing it first.  Westlake’s contempt for ‘sampling’ is palpable  here.

So he looks up and there’s all these tough-looking guys standing there, like he’s done something to them.  Tiny pings him with his thumb, just to get his attention.  His attention gained, Raphael explains that Uncle Otto will get all the money, and it’s fine.  He didn’t want to run the bar himself (and clearly he couldn’t run a popsicle stand in a heat wave).

Some lawyer told him nobody would buy the bar because the nabe had changed and it was too ‘down-market’.  Which is bullshit, of course–a new owner could easily up-market it, all you need is a place with a liquor license, and frankly, it’s amazing nobody made the offer before then–The O.J. is at 96th and Amsterdam.  By the early 21st, that’s the bleating heart of Yuppieville.  The O.J. must be the last old school bluecollar joint left in that part of town.

Now we know why it’s still there–the real owner is in Florida, leaving Rollo in charge.  The owner on paper is interested in nothing that doesn’t come out of his headphones, and this guy Mikey, that Raphael knows, fed Raphael a line of b.s. to make a nice score.  As the now thoroughly depressed Dortmunder gang leaves this archangel of emptiness to his solipsistic universe, he thinks to himself, The O.J. Bar and Grill.  Who cared?  That was so yesterday, back when people used to leave their houses.   Brave New World.

And Dortmunder still can’t give up on the O.J.  How come?  Yes, it was a nice place to hold meets, and Rollo is a lovely man (not physically, you know what I mean), the regulars are a kick, it’s a shame and all, but why?  Why put himself out over a cheesy over-the-hill dive bar, that isn’t even walking distance from his apartment?  When he’s got a penthouse full of goodies to steal, and there are Jersey boys with guns who would take offense at any eleventh hour intervention?

Should I do what I do when I review the Parkers, talk about some button in Dortmunder’s head, and once it’s pushed, he has to keep going until he’s achieved his end?  No, because Parker wouldn’t care about some bar closing.  Parker is big into non-attachment.  The mere notion of there being a place you could hang out in and have a good chance of seeing him walk through the door would make him uneasy.  Only reason he’s got that house in New Jersey is because of Claire.  She’s more like Dortmunder, in this specific instance, than Parker ever could be.

Dortmunder lives in a world of change that he can’t control, and he hates it.  So does Parker, but ever the instinctive existentialist, he shrugs and deals. Dortmunder can’t let it go.  There’s so few constants in this whirling maelstrom we call a planet, so few things you can rely upon.

For him, there’s May, May’s tuna casserole, Kelp’s weird ideas (whether Dortmunder likes it or not), and New York itself, the only place he ever wants to live, even though he wasn’t born anywhere near it.  Within New York (which as the saying goes, will be a nice town when it’s finished), there’s the O.J. Bar and Grill.  His proprietary domain. He can’t afford to lose his point of orientation, his haven of respite.  Who can?  And who doesn’t?

The day my father died, last October, I had made plans to meet up with an old friend for lunch in midtown.  I got the word while waiting for the train, and spent the ride soaking it in.  I was not going to call off the lunch.  I needed it more than ever.  All the more because it was my favorite Chinese restaurant in the entire universe.  Repeat.  Was.

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Nothing like it north of Chinatown, and I’d rate it over any Chinatown place I’ve ever tried.  A vast baroque menu Westlake could have written odes to.  Cash only, no plastic.  No reservations, but you could always get a table after the peak lunch rush.  Unpretentious decor, relaxed atmosphere.  Always good jazz–real jazz–playing in the background–the owner must have been a fan.  No liquor license–meaning you could bring your own beer, wine, whatever the hell else you wanted to drink.  They’d put it on ice for you.

I could never describe the nuances of their hot and sour soup, their pork dumplings, their Phoenix Shredded Beef Min-Young–anyone who tells you Cantonese is bland has never really had it.  I had it just a few years, after discovering it.  If I was in that part of town, I’d find an excuse to eat there.  Got so the staff knew me and my peculiarities (who else has German double bock with Chinese food?)  That was nice.

But when I got there that day, I found a locked door with a notice on it.  The landlord.  The rent.  Do I have to draw a picture?  A thriving business with a devoted clientele has no guarantee of survival in any part of Manhattan.  Not anymore.  They’d have been better off dealing with the mafia.  At least those people appreciate good food.

My friend showed up, and we wound up commiserating about current events over mediocre diner grub.  She was sorry to hear about my dad.  I was just grateful to have somebody to talk to.  You think everything’s okay in life.  And then something different happens.  Change happens.  The wrong kind of change. The change that comes when you don’t watch your back.

Change isn’t evil.  That’s not the point here.  Change is the source of everything anyone ever loved.  Change created the O.J., as Dortmunder learned in that basement.  Change created Chinese American cuisine.  Change created these books we’re talking about.  Change is the reason you look around and see something, instead of nothing.  Change is why you’re here to look around.  God is change. Octavia Butler wrote two whole novels about that.

And everything has a mortal span, all things must pass, certainly all earthly establishments.  You can know all this and still know when something’s being taken away from you before its time.  Before something equivalently good is ready to replace it.  And if we lose too many things we value, too quickly, lose all our fixed points of reference, our sense of self can start to unravel pretty darn quick.

Okay, call it conservatism.  I don’t care.  I believe in conserving things that need conserving, and so did Donald E. Westlake, and so did John Dortmunder. Admittedly, I’m not much good at conserving words, when I write these reviews.

So to wrap things up until next week, Dortmunder knows what he’s got to do. And where he’s got to go.  And who he’s got to see when he gets there.  He’s not happy about it, but being who he is, knowing who he is, he’s got no choice.  He asks the gang if any of them want to come with.  He gets the answer he expected. If he were Parker, he’d probably make some sort of terse bloody-minded inspirational speech, but even that might not work in this case.  You might follow someone to the very gates of hell, but Florida in the summertime?  Pass.

Well, if it would have kept Phoenix Garden open, maybe.  As for my dad, just as well he didn’t live to see some of the change happening now.  Okay, fine, comedy, I know.  We’ll get to the lighter side next week, okay?  That’s when the all the people who have conspired to upset Dortmunder’s orientation suddenly find occasion to wax philosophic themselves.  Well, they should have watched their backs.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels

Advance Publicity: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner–back in print! (next year)

 

Got the word from Charles Ardai, just a few weeks ago–he read my piece on what a Westlake Library of America edition might look like, and this book was high on my list of criminally out of print Westlake crime.   It’s not being released until February 13th, 2018 (not a Friday, I’m disappointed to say), but Amazon already has a page up for it, so I’m not giving away any trade secrets here.  Behold! Cover art!

Yes, of course I bitched and moaned to Ardai about how The Girl in this book is a blonde, but seems like the artist wanted a brunette, and I shall privately entertain my own dirty-minded suspicions as to why that was.  The spirit of Robert E. McGinnis lives on, as indeed does McGinnis himself, but this isn’t his handiwork.  This version of the not-too-maidenly Marian is suitably zaftig, and that’s what really matters, right?  That and getting one of Westlake’s best Nephew Books back in print–and not just as an ebook.  (Though the nice thing about ebooks is that once you’ve got something digitized, it tends to stick around.)

In early 2019, Hard Case is planning to come out with a new edition of Brothers Keepers, and there are subsequent reprints in the works.

I must say, it’s getting a bit spooky how as soon as we here express our desire for a particular Westlake book to be reprinted, Hard Case turns out to already be on the case.

(C’mon, Adios Scheherazade! Or is that too hard a case even for them?)

 

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Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Review: Thieves’ Dozen

 

The fifth and final collection of Donald Westlake’s short fiction published in his lifetime turned out to be the best.  Which is not to say the previous four were lacking in merit.  There were very fine stories in each of them–surrounded by stories that were not so fine.  It was never easy for him to come up with a whole book’s worth that could live up to the standard he’d set in his novels.  This collection marks the only instance where he achieved this.  With a character plucked from a series of often rather broad-ranging novels, and set upon the short and narrow-focused for a change.

Mr. Westlake had his troubles with this form.  Mainly relating to character, which for him was the foundation of everything he aspired to as a writer.  Yes, plot matters, technique matters, style matters, subtext matters–and none of it matters a damn if you can’t create people with their own unique voices and identities.  And when he only had a few pages to work with, he was hard-pressed to make that happen.  I suppose all writers have their troubles with this form, and find different ways to deal with them.

In my biased estimation, the greatest short story writer in English was, is, and shall remain that crafty Corkonian, Frank O’Connor (a pseudonym, wouldn’t you know, his birth name was Michael O’Donovan).  He wrote little else in the way of fiction besides short stories.  Quit the novel after two early attempts, and for good reason: he worked best in miniature.  His characters don’t leap out at you, so much as they pull you in; make you laugh with them, scowl at them, grieve for them (read The Impossible Marriage sometime, or any of his stories–you’ll see what I mean).  Having said all he needed to say, even one additional page would be art crime.  No more about it.

O’Connor drew heavily on people he’d met for his models, his countrymen and countrywomen; vivid, flawed, noble, innocent, brave, brilliant, begrudging, stubborn, perverse.  He wrote of his mother (who was all of the above), with love and wonder, that he’d bribed a London hotel chambermaid to bring her meals, and when he came back a short time later, the mammy had gotten that poor Devon girl to cough up her entire life story over tea and scones; enough material for a novel.  She could seemingly get a novel out of anyone she met, and he could only lament that she never wrote any–not her purview–but she passed that gift for gleaning to her shy subtle son, who boiled a novel’s worth of insight into a nutshell of narrative.

Westlake, himself a shy subtle New York Irish boy, likewise endowed with a formidable mother (and a far better father than O’Connor’s scapegrace sire) had a comparable eye for human complexity, but he was less inclined to draw too directly from life, preferring a bit more distance between himself and his subjects; relying more on genre templates as part of that distancing technique (and to make rent, of course).

O’Connor’s autobiographical writings are without superior (I can think of other short story writers I admire who did well in this regard, which may well mean something).  Westlake’s memoirs remain forever unfinished and mostly unpublished.  For all his outward garrulousness, he was a deeply private man, unwilling to make himself too vulnerable to scrutiny–the Stark in him–the less people know about you, the safer you are.

Closest he got to the confessional was when he wrote as Tucker Coe, a persona he rejected, then ritually slaughtered in a mock-interview.  (Didn’t help that his most personal early novel under his own name was rejected, and went unpublished in his lifetime.) Whatever the reasons, he needed more space to create characters who lived and breathed and spoke to him.  To find ways to reveal himself more obliquely to us.

His models would have included Hammett, O. Henry, and others in his chosen field–better teachers would be hard to find.  But when it came to short fiction, he usually fell far short of the standard they’d set (while writing novels that read like short stories, so his apprenticeship was not wasted).

Having tossed off scores of stories for the pulps in the late 50’s and early 60’s (good practice, needed income, unsympathetic editors), his production slacked off a lot when he found his footing as a novelist–by which time he’d created his two signature series characters. Only one of whom was destined to spawn a series of short stories (and one novella) to augment his long form adventures.

Though Richard Stark began his existence as a short story writer, never once that we know of did he assay to write a short story about Parker, Grofield, or any member of his large supporting cast of players.  Hard to believe he didn’t at least consider it.  Did he try, and find the results wanting?  Stark’s great virtue is succinctness–you’d think that would have translated well to the shorter form.  A mystery that seems unlikely to be cleared up.

It was Dortmunder’s lot in life to do the jobs Parker turned down.  In his introduction to this anthology, Westlake recounts once more how in 1967, he was trying to write a more humorous Richard Stark novel, in which Parker would have to steal the same thing over and over again.  As Westlake puts it, Parker thought this was beneath his dignity, though in the novel that did result from that attempt, he was perfectly willing to do subcontracting work for a group of African revolutionaries.

Still seeing merit in the notion of repetitive theft, Westlake conjured John Dortmunder out of a neon beer sign, and although the initial attempt at a novel stalled out, he returned to it a few years later, with great success.  As with Parker, he didn’t write the first novel with the idea of there being more of them, but more happened anyway.  He’d finished Nobody’s Perfect, when a scrap of conversation between Dortmunder and a well-dressed man came to him, the bare bones of an idea he knew wasn’t enough for a novel.  This could be the start of something small.

It worked out to ten Dortmunder shorts written and published over the course of twenty years, mainly in Playboy.  Not a venue you’d think Dortmunder would feel at home in, but it must have paid well.  Some of the latter run of stories Westlake wrote with the notion that he just needed a few more to make a book out of them, reminiscent of the genesis of Levine.  But he wasn’t trying to finish off a character arc (or the character) here, as he was with that collection of police procedurals that don’t amount to much individually, but somehow pack an emotional wallop when read together.

There’s no discernible arc whatsoever to the Dortmunder shorts, or any emotional wallop at all, because it’s not called for.  More like doodling in the margins.  Inspired doodling, because he’d finally found what he’d always been lacking when it came to short stories–readymade voices, people whose quirks he already knew inside out.  With the problem of character out of the way, he could concentrate on plot and motivation.

These stories are all perfectly balanced in a way the novels rarely were.  No need to come up with elaborate heists for Dortmunder to pull (no time to pull them).  No need to come up with separate subplots for an ever-expanding cast of regulars, all clamoring for their moments in the sun. Just the right number of moving parts here.

You never get the whole ensemble (except in the last offering here, which isn’t a Dortmunder).  The stories were either about Dortmunder and Kelp, or Dortmunder as a single-o.  The solo stories were some of the best.  Focused.  Precise.  Yet still with the loose-jointed nonchalance that distinguishes the series as a whole.

There are, when you think about it, a host of chapters in the later Dortmunders that stand apart from the main plotline, that could have easily been repurposed as short stories with a cursory rewrite. No doubt some of them began as ideas for short stories that were never written, or some that were.  Dortmunder working a short con as a faux encyclopedia salesman going door to door, in The Hot Rock and Bank Shot, was an idea filched directly from a story Westlake wrote about just such a fly-by-nighter–and the versions with Dortmunder are far superior, because Dortmunder is real in a way few of Westlake’s short-form protagonists ever were.

There’s something about Dortmunder, a laconic understated quality that oddly lends itself to vignettes, anecdotes, tall tales.  He feels like somebody O. Henry could have easily dreamed up, but didn’t (and this is one reason my vote for the best Dortmunder novel might well go to the one that reimagined The Ransom of Red Chief).

One more oddity–Dortmunder usually wins out in these stories.  Not such a sad sack in the shorts.  Not without his share of setbacks, sidetracks, and petty humiliations, to be sure, but I think he’d have gladly given up the arduous and too-often futile two to four hundred page slogs in favor of maybe ten modestly profitable short-term ventures a year–as opposed to ten in a lifetime.  The bottom falling out of the market for short stories was one reason that was never gonna happen.  But as always, he made the most of what came to hand.  Let’s see if we can do the same.

Ask A Silly Question: By all means, let’s.  As we join him, Dortmunder is having a conversation with an elegantly dressed older man, in a splendidly appointed Manhattan townhouse at Park & 65th, and he’s being asked what people of his sort usually drink.

“Bourbon,” Dortmunder said.  “Water.  Coca-Cola.  Orange juice.  Beer.”

“Bourbon,” the elegant man told one of the two plug-uglies who’d brought Dortmunder here.  “And sherry for me.”

“Coffee,” Dortmunder went on.  “Sometimes Gallo Burgundy.  Vodka.  Seven-Up.  Milk.”

“How do you prefer your bourbon?” the elegant man asked.

“With ice and water.  People of my sort also drink Hi-C, Scotch, lemonade, Nyquil–

“Do you drink Perrier?”

“No,” said Dortmunder.

Playboy published this in February of 1981, a bit over a decade after The Hot Rock, and Dortmunder was hardly so famous by then that Westlake could presume universal familiarity with his brainchild’s quirks.  He’s not taking a shortcut here, writing Dortmunder fanfic for a quick buck. He’ll do it right, or not at all.

It’s important for his own working methods that he knows his guy, and he does, but he still has to make sure he’s established that guy in the mind of some some gentleman of leisure who has never even heard of Dortmunder ere now, and is merely taking a quick break from ogling Miss February (Vicky lynn Lasseter, I googled, nice eyes), so he can go on pretending he buys this publication for the articles.  I don’t believe even The O’Connor Don ever established character more efficiently than The Don Westlake does here.

The elegant man married some sweet young thing who turned out more young than sweet.  A nasty divorce followed afoot, with no accompanying prenuptial agreement (elegance not necessarily implying prudent foresight).  As part of her punitive inroads on his worldly goods, she demanded his most prized possession, a Rodin nymph in bronze.  Unwilling to part with one nymph to appease another, he had a copy made, and bribed a court-appointed expert to certify it the original.

All well and good, but now for tax purposes she’s donating it to the Museum of Modern Art, and there’s no bribing them.  The elegant man (let’s just call him Tem, inelegant as that sounds) wants Dortmunder to tell him how to steal the copy back that very night, so  his subterfuge may never be revealed. But the ersatz nymph weighs over five hundred pounds, enough to give Jove himself a hernia.  How can she be carried away undetected?

Various potential schemes are floated by Tem, and shot down contemptuously by his contrarian consultant–Dortmunder is irritated at having been picked up by Tem’s plug-uglies as he was on his way to the O.J. to discuss a potential job with the usual suspects.  Tem wants to pay him a measly grand for his advice. Dortmunder bargains him up to five, but Tem decrees that for so large an honorarium, they’d like the honor of his company during the heist.  Dortmunder phones Kelp at the O.J., explains he’ll be late.  Kelp says no problem, they’re having a nice discussion on religion and politics.

One very satisfying plot twist later (I’m going to try to avoid revealing those when possible, but no promises), Tem is in a most inelegant fix, and the vengeful Dortmunder is planning a raid on his now-unguarded townhouse with the gang from the O.J., which one would hope includes the recently introduced Tiny Bulcher (for heavy lifting), but would you want to discuss religion and politics with him? Be my guest.

A hard one to improve upon.  But Westlake did, several times.  Including the very next time, in a little equestrian yarn by the name of–

Horse Laugh: (Playboy again, June ’86, Rebecca Ferratti, I think we got a motif going here.)  Dortmunder and Kelp are in the process of stealing a thoroughbred champion named Dire Straits who is now gone out to stud in the wide open spaces of western New Jersey (Money for nothing and your chicks for free, hmm, wouldn’t have thought he’d be into that band–probably just for the implicit wordplay).

Dortmunder, we later learn, bet on this very nag at the track on one of the rare days Dire Straits finished out of the money (Want to bet that’s a coincidence?  What odds you give me?).  His weakness for blowing his ill-gotten gains on the ponies should not be confused with any personal feeling for them.  He has no more reason to love these four-legged wallet-emptiers than they him.

Dortmunder looked at the horse.  The horse looked at Dortmunder.  “Ugly goddam thing,” Dortmunder commented, while the horse just rolled his eyes in disbelief.

“Not that one,” the old coot said.  “We’re looking for a black stallion.”

“In the dark,” Dortmunder commented.  “Anyway, all horses look the same to me.”

(Again, character established from the starting gate.  You’ll enjoy these stories more if you’ve read some of the novels, but it’s by no means obligatory.)

The old coot, Hiram Rangle, works for some screwy squire with more horses than sense.  He wants better bloodlines for his broodmares (sans stud fees), so they’ll throw a few winning foals nobody will expect great things from, because they won’t know who really sired them. The real money will be in the large bets he lays on them–you see, it’s only illegal to bet against your own horse, at least in America.  Stealing them is a problem pretty much everywhere.

So Dortmunder and Kelp are doing work for hire again, and Hiram, their employer’s employee, is there because he can identify the goods, then cajole said goods into coming along for the ride.  A recalcitrant hotblood equine being a far trickier proposition than a 500lb Rodin nymph, even if he can move around by himself.  (Well, that’s going to be the problem, you see.)

This one’s special to me because it’s the single most sustained look into animal behavior that Westlake ever attempted.  Westlake featured animals in his work fairly often, but they were rarely central to the narrative–a dangerous dog, a hovering hawk, a prattling parrot (we’ll get to him)–sometimes POV characters, but briefly.  More often mere plot devices.  But there’s always this underlying consciousness that they are, in fact, conscious, volitive beings with their own agendas–and that they, unlike we, know what they want.

I’ve read that Westlake once had a cat named James Blue, who provided him with one of his pseudonyms (the kind he wrote pseudo-porn under), and nary a reference to cats can I recall from his oeuvre (too close to home?).  All I can divine from his fiction, vis a vis our fellow vertebrates, is that he was interested in them, and perhaps sometimes afraid of them.  And it’s this tension between fear and fascination that tends to inform his writing about them. Leading to many an absurd situation

Walking through his first barn, Dortmunder learned several facts about horses: (1) They smell. (2) They breathe, more than anything he’d ever met in his life before. (3) They don’t sleep, not even at night. (4) They don’t even sit down. (5) They are very curious about people who happen to go by. And (6) they have extremely long necks.  When horses in stalls on both sides of Dortmunder stretched out their heads toward him at the same time, wrinkling their black lips to show their big square tombstone teeth, snuffling and whuffling with those shotgun-barrel noses, sighting at him down those long faces, he realized that the aisle wasn’t that wide after all.

“Jeepers,” Kelp said, a thing he didn’t say often.

(Okay, how is a devoutly urban thief who probably never even finished high school supposed to know horses usually sleep standing up?  I assume Westlake knew this, but the thing about autodidacts is that they always know more and less than you assume.  We’ll be talking about that when we get to the parrot.)

So they find Dire Straits, and Hiram sweet talks him (which includes doling out sweets in the form of sugar cubes), and they get him outside, and it all goes to hell, really fast.  A complication they hadn’t counted upon.  See, the staff at this place don’t know the thieves are there, but the horses do, and they’ve heard via the equine grapevine that there’s sugar cubes in the offing. Giddyap.

Further complication–coming into the place, Dortmunder and Kelp dislodged the rails of a fence bordering the road, then put them back up without the nails to hold them in place, to facilitate their exit with the loot.  The excited horses have now pushed their way through the fence like a herd of TV zombies, making their way to the fatal complication–an orchard full of green apples, right across the road.

“Like shit through a goose” doesn’t half say it. Geese have nothing on horses.  The stable environs are now fully Augean. The staff are now wide awake, and running around, slipping and sliding in the love offerings of man’s noblest companion, futilely trying to persuade the horses that they’re domesticated animals who only do what they’re told.  Oh yeah?  We’re gonna have a midnight snack, two-legs.  How ya like them apples?

The police are arriving to restore order and will inevitably realize who was responsible for the chaos.  Hiram, who like any horsey person, dreamed in his lost youth of riding some Farleyesque black stallion on a desert isle, leaps aboard Dire Straits, and makes a mad gallop to freedom.  It does not go well.  Dortmunder and Kelp decline the role of Tonto, and through a typical ruse, manage to commandeer a truck to get them the hell out of there.

I will spoil this ending, but only because it’s spoiler-proof.  It turns out Dire Straits took a shine to one or both of them, followed them away from the madding crowd, and they could steal him easy, take him home, and–what then? What could they possibly do with him? Hiram’s boss will be joining him in the hoosegow, shortly.

Kelp isn’t Dortmunder.  He’s never been a horse person, he’s mainly thinking about the million dollars this horse is worth (that they could never in a million years get), but there’s something plaintive in the “Can I keep him?” discussion that finishes out the tale. (As a girl, my significant other begged her father for a horse like she was Richard III.  They lived in a Manhattan apartment.  “Where would we keep it?”  “On the roof!”  She settled for a puppy, who grew to the size of a small horse.)

We don’t just keep animals we don’t eat because they’re useful to us (and so often, you know, they are impediments to our daily enterprise).  They charm us, and this one’s starting to charm Kelp.  Dortmunder, being something of an animal himself, is deaf to this Siren’s song, and drags Kelp away.

But not even the wildest of horses ever dragged anyone away from–

Too Many Crooks: (The usual, August ’89, Gianna Amore, lives up to the name.)  Probably the most famous short story Westlake ever wrote (it’s this or Nackles, and this is a much better story than Nackles).  Won him his second Edgar, on his way to the coveted trifecta (superfecta, if you count the Grandmaster thing).  The story that gave us the perhaps over-used John Diddums gag.  (It’s Welsh.  You knew that).

This is the one that people who don’t know spit about Dortmunder sometimes still know.  “Oh right, he’s robbing a bank, and then he finds out somebody is already robbing it.  Funny!”  You wouldn’t think so if it happened to you.  What’s funny to me is this friend of mine who admits to having read no other Westlake than this, and I just now realize I never inquired where she read it.  Not in this book. She’d have remembered Horse Laugh.  Probably anthologized elsewhere.  I’m sure that’s it.

Westlake used to say Parker was about romantic crime, and Dortmunder was about the mundane reality, and that’s a crock.  Real bank robbers shoot people.  Dortmunder hardly ever points a gun at anybody.  Suppose it went off or something?  The rules are, Parker never shoots anybody who doesn’t deserve it, and Dortmunder never shoots.  So towards the end of avoiding messy gunplay, he and Kelp are tunneling into a bank vault–in the daytime.  During banking hours.  Sure, why not?  I know this sounds critical, but here’s the thing–when you read the story, you 110% believe it.  Fiction isn’t about realism.  Westlake knows this.  Many others seem confused on that point.

In the meantime, a gang of more Starkian heisters have taken the traditional approach, with guns and masks and everything, but being in Dortmunder’s universe they screwed it up royally, and the place is surrounded, come out with your hands up, you know the drill, but they figure they can just take everyone hostage and get out that way.

There’s so many people in that vault when Dortmunder and Kelp break through the wall, that the other gang doesn’t even realize Dortmunder isn’t one of the hostages, and the real hostages think he and Kelp are cops coming in the back way to rescue them.  Kelp beats a hasty retreat through the tunnel, the hostages follow his lead, thereby rescuing themselves, and Dortmunder ends up being the only hostage, having been randomly picked to go outside and relay the demands of the nervous felons with machine guns to the equally nervous cops with sniper rifles.  (Randomly?  Ya think?  Maybe if this is the only Dortmunder story you ever read).

His situation is further complicated by the fact that his story began about two hours after this other, less whimsical, story, and he’s a bit slow catching up.  And one of the guys with the machine guns is a mite oversensitive.  Well, if you’ve got a machine gun, and you’re the emotional type, you tend to use it.  That’s kind of the chief argument against machine guns.

“We’re gonna give the our demands,” the robber said.  “Through you.”

“That’s fine,” Dortmunder said.  “That’s great.  Only, you know, how come you don’t do it on the phone?  I mean, the way it’s normally–”

The red-eyed robber, heedless of exposure to the sharpshooters across the street, shouldered furiously past the comparatively calm robber, who tried to restrain him as he yelled at Dortmunder, “You’re rubbing it in, are ya?  OK, I made a mistake!  I got excited and I shot up the switchboard!  You want me to get excited again?”

“No, no!” Dortmunder cried, trying to hold his hands straight up in the air and defensively in front of his body at the same time.  “I forgot!  I just forgot!”

He forgot.  As if anyone could ever forget. A vital clue, that the detective in this story, namely the red-eyed robber, seizes upon later to unravel the locked-room mystery of where this Diddums jerk came from.  Much good that does anyone, but the formal demands of the genre have been met.  A few pages later, the more informal demands of a Dortmunder story are met, to even Dortmunder’s satisfaction.

I’m not sure I consider this the very best story in the book (tough call), but rest assured it’s the best story about concurrent bank robberies anyone’s ever going to write.  They did later make a movie with that very premise, incidentally.  Flypaper.  No awards.  No nominations.  No audience.  9% ‘Fresh’ with top critics (the one good review is from the Times, and it’s not that good).  I think Dortmunder’s niche is secure for the forseeable future.

What’s not so secure is the future of live theater in the hinterlands, which brings us to–

A Midsummer Daydream:  (Ditto, May of ’90, Tina Bockrath.)  Due to a little professional misunderstanding, Dortmunder and Kelp head about 80 miles upstate to stay with Kelp’s cousin, Jesse Bohker (no relation to Tina, I’d assume) until things cool off back home.

Cousin Bohker has a farm.  Ee ey ee ey oh.  And on that farm he’s got a summer theater where they do Shakespeare for the multitudes, during the afternoon, so as not to conflict with cable TV.  Ee ey ee ey oy fucking vey.  I mean, there’s a guy walking around in a donkey’s head.  There’s fairies prancing all over the place, and not the fun urban variety. Dortmunder says enough with the iambic pentameter already, and goes outside.

And when it turns out the box office proceeds–two thousand, seven hundred twenty-four dollars, not a bad score–got lifted while Dortmunder was standing outside the converted barn with no alibi.   Cousin Bokher has an ultimatum–ee ey ee ey dough.  Or he calls in the state troopers.

The point of this exercise is to put Dortmunder in the position of having to play detective.  He needs to finger the real culprit, to avoid having some upstate Dogberry take a good look at him and Kelp, and finding out there’s much ado about everything where these guys are concerned.  But also–he’s innocent.  Innocent, I tells ya!

The experience of being unjustly accused was so  novel and bewildering to Dortmunder that he was almost drunk from it.  He had so little experience of innocence.  How does an innocent person act, react, respond to the base accusation?  He could barely stand up, he was concentrating so hard on this sudden in-rush of guiltlessness.  His knees were wobbling.  He stared at Andy Kelp and couldn’t think of one solitary thing to say.

(Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into comes to mind, but that’s probably copyrighted.  Great thing about The Bard is you never have to inquire about copyright.  There are inquiries being made about the latest Shakespeare in the Park production, but those are of a different order.  Once more into the breach of etiquette!)

What makes this such a neat little mystery is that the way Dortmunder solves it makes perfect sense for the person he is, and the experiences he’s had.  Westlake liked turning his thieves into detectives (though he never made an entire franchise out of it, the way Lawrence Block did).  Should go without saying, Dortmunder never cared about whodunnit.  He only wanted to prove he didn’t, and then get payback for the cousin assuming he did.  His sense of aggrieved innocence certainly gets an overdue workout here.   Speaking of which–

The Dortmunder Workout:  (New York Times Magazine, 1990, no centerfold, killjoys.)  The shortest story on offer here.  A mere vignette.  Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill.  Apparently just to have a bourbon and catch up with Rollo the bartender, but the regulars have things to discuss, relating to physical fitness and related issues.

The first regular said, “I don’t get what you mean by this food groups.”

“Well,” the second regular told him, “your principal food groups are meat, vegetables, dessert and beer.”

“Oh,” the first regular said.  “In that case, I’m OK.”

Yeah, you’ve heard it before.  Worth hearing again, but not much point parsing it.  Onwards to–

Party Animal: (Back to the motif. January ’93, Echo Leto Johnson.  No that’s her name, honest. I think all these girls somehow escaped from paperback sleaze novels of the 60’s. Hard to be sure, those books are so badly lit.)

As has happened in past, we join Dortmunder on a fire escape at night, cops swooping in from above like flatfooted owls, cops waiting expectantly below, like crocodiles with badges.  The window he’s currently crouching by is cracked open.  There’s a party going on inside. A Christmas party, since that’s the time of year.  He’s going to try and crash it.  Not his usual scene, but hum a few bars and maybe he can avoid going behind them.

It’s cold outside, so the bedroom he’s entering is the traditional repository for coats (nobody in Manhattan has that much spare closet space).  Underneath the pile of coats on the bed, a couple is trying, and failing, to join the party equivalent of the mile high club.  Dortmunder stows his gear, hides his loot, joins the fray.  As he thought, most people there don’t know most other people there.  He can blend into this crowd.  Yet he would fain be gone through yon waiting portal.  But hark, the doorbell rings–tis the coppers, seeking their rightful prey.  He’ll stay a week or two–he’ll stay the winter through–yet I am telling you…..

Who’s the person  you notice least at a catered party?  The lowly server, handing out food.  Which makes no sense at all, that’s the one who can actually do something for you, but there you are.  There’s a little Trump in all of us.  I must get mine surgically removed at some point.

But returning to the point at hand, Dortmunder sees the harried caterer, a not-bad blonde, wearing a perpetual angry frown, precipitated in this case by the fact that the guy supposed to be helping her out here with these party animals never showed.  Dortmunder, good Samaritan that he is, volunteers to fill the gap, pass out the canapes, while she assembles them in the kitchen.  She’s suspicious, but in no position to look a gift server in the mouth.  (As the narrator reminds us, we don’t say ‘servant’ in America, because we’re all equal here, sheahright).

So as he makes the rounds, tray in  hand, little snatches of conversation come to us….

There’s only twenty guys gonna be let in on this thing.  We have seven already, and once we have all the seed money….”

“She came to the co-op board in a false beard and claimed she was a proctologist.  Well, naturally….”

“So then I said you can have this job, and he said OK, and I said you can’t treat people like that, and he said OK, and I said that’s it, I quit, and he said OK, and I said you’re gonna have to get along without me from here on in, buster, and he said OK…so I guess I’m not over there anymore.”

“And then these guys in a rowboat–no, wait, I forgot.  First they blew up the bridge, see, and then they stole the rowboat.”

“Merry Christmas, you Jew bastard, I haven’t seen you since Ramadan.”

“And he said, ‘Madam, you’re naked,’ and I said, ‘These happen to be gloves, if you don’t mind,’ and that shut him up.”

A bit on the mundane side for such a gathering.  You who don’t hail from New York perhaps think I’m kidding.  You who do know I’m understating.  So is Westlake.  Dortmunder also hears the couple from the bedroom earlier, Larry and Sheila, and notes that Larry is basically blowing Sheila off because the coat coitus got canceled.

The caterer has noted the presence of fuzz, and is now giving Dortmunder funny looks–but saying nothing.  Just handing him more snacks for the revelers.  Dortmunder’s protective coloration is still holding up–he tests it by going up to the loitering lawmen and lawwomen, and asking if they want something.  They tell him to mind his own business.  Well, technically, that’s what got him in trouble.

The party is winding down.  The police have left the apartment, but not the chase.  They’re waiting outside.  They will search each departing guest.  Even if Dortmunder abandons his takings of the evening, his fake ID won’t hold up to close scrutiny (another thing that can happen at parties, though usually of a different age set).  Dortmunder has a fix–plant some of the jewelry he stole on one of those departing guests.  He’s kind of pleased it turns out to be Larry.  So are we all, really.

And the irate caterer, it turns out, has developed a little thing for Dortmunder.  She tells him he should know she’s married.  He tells her he is too, kind of.  Ships passing out hor d’oeuvres in the night.  As a token of what they have shared in this brief encounter, and also to say thanks for not blowing the whistle on him, he slips a gold brooch in the shape of a feather into her hair bun.  And then he’s off, free as a bird.  Larry can’t say the same, but they’ll figure out he didn’t do it, once he stops incriminating himself with his personality.  To all a good night.

A different kind of social gathering awaits Dortmunder in a less substantial tale with an interesting genesis to it, namely–

Give Till It Hurts:  This was first published in pamphlet form, by The Mysterious Bookshop, in November 1993, as gift for faithful mail order customers.  (No pin-up girls, perhaps deemed inappropriate for the holiday season, who can say?)  Westlake owed much to that shop’s estimable proprietor, Otto Penzler, but it’s Dortmunder who makes good the debt here–in more ways than one.

Dortmunder is disguised in Middle Eastern garb, having just stolen some rare coins at a hotel convention for collectors (good thing Parker isn’t into plagiarism suits).  Again, he needs to blow the joint before the law finds him, and the regular means of egress will not do.  Finding his way into a supply closet, he ties a bunch of sheets together, and lowers himself out the window in back of the hotel, abutting some smaller structures.  One of which happens to be (ta-dah!) The Mysterious Bookshop, not that he knows what that is, or cares.

So this guy named Otto comes in and sees him, and assumes he’s the ringer ‘Don’ sent in his place.  He jokes that he hopes Diddums (Welsh, remember?) is a better poker player.  That’s what this is.  A friendly poker game in the back room.  Soon other players arrive.  Larry, Justin, Al, Henry.  I know who Larry is, and perhaps someone can fill me in about the others?  I don’t know everything.  But I can easily deduce that all these gentlemen are involved with the mystery genre–also known as crime fiction.  Dortmunder has walked right into the lion’s den, you might say.

So Dortmunder figures he can bide his time until the heat fades, and might as well make a little something extra for the Christmas stocking, right?  He sits down to play, and he cheats a bit. The cops (who I have to say, seem a lot more thorough in Dortmunder’s world than they are here) come knocking, and the other players, being into detectives and all, quickly realize two things–1)Diddums is the thief! and 2)That’s why he’s been winning all our money!

They don’t talk to the law.  Honor among thieves?  Fuck that, they want their money back.  With interest. Dortmunder has to stay for the whole game, lose every hand, and then he will be allowed to leave.  The mills of the mystery gods grind slow…..

The next story is a direct sequel to this, and I believe I will give it short shrift.  It’s got Arnie Albright in it.  No, Arnie, it’s not you, I’m just going long here, and how much am I supposed to write about a story called–

Jumble Sale:  Published in The Armchair Detective [v27 #3, Summer 1994] .  Here’s the cover.  For all I know there’s a centerfold model within, perhaps dressed in nothing but a chalk outline.

armchair_detective_1994sum

(Peter Straub is a mystery writer?  Since when?  I guess since he picked up his phone and said “Sure, I’ll give you an interview.”)

So Dortmunder brings his coins to Arnie Albright, everybody’s favorite least-favorite dealer in stolen goods.  The usual Arnie-shtik is trotted out; old calendars all over the wall, obnoxious personality tics, nose like a tree root, et all.  My own feeling about Arnie is that he takes up a lot of space in the Dortmunders that should have gone to J.C. Taylor, and that you’ve read one chapter with him in it, you know all you ever needed to know about him.  But this story isn’t bad, for all that.

Summing up briefly.  A man and a woman show up to interrupt the transaction.  Arnie forces Dortmunder to pretend he’s a relative.  They say they have a semi parked downstairs on W. 86th, full of stolen flatscreen TV’s.  They keep insisting they’re not a couple.  So obviously they are a couple.  Why would a couple of crooks claim they’re not a couple in the other way?  That’s the mystery.  Solve it yourself, or read the story.  I’m moving on (seriously, Arnie, I like you fine, but I’m over 6,000 words here) to–um–what now?  Oh right!

Now What?:  (December 1999, Brooke Richards, 34”/24”/35”, measurements courtesy of Wikipedia, oh brave new world…) Quite possibly the best story in the book, but again, tough call.  Definitely the longest, all of twenty-three pages.

Dortmunder more or less accidentally stole a bounteously bejeweled brooch, reportedly worth 300k, from a movie star and his intended.  Her name is Felicia, a rather jaundiced reference to a much nicer girl of the same name marrying a much nicer movie star in Trust Me On This.

The actor made a big scene out of it with the press, like they always do, claimed the daring thief broke in and snatched it before their very eyes.  In fact, Felicia, thinking it was some cheesy pin being fobbed off on her, threw it out the window, where Dortmunder just happened to be passing by on one of his beloved fire escapes.

But this is all prologue.  The story is how he tries, and tries, and tries, to fence the brooch, traversing the urban jungle with the goods all the while concealed within a ham sandwich in a brown paper bag.  Knowing as he does, that for reasons perhaps only a tabloid editor could explain, the theft of the brooch is the #1 story in the world today.  The heat, as they say, is on.

And everywhere, there’s cops.  Keaton never saw more cops.  Not looking for him, specifically.  The entire NYPD is not on 24/7 Dortmunder detail, much as it seems that way at times.  But situation after situation emerges in his quest, in which cops emerge from the woodwork, and he has to restrain the innate impulse to run like a rabbit, stay cool, say thank you very much officer, oh yes that’s my lunch, almost forgot it, must be off now.  He has bad luck, then it’s balanced out by good, then back to the bad again. As the gags build, it’s getting hard to know the difference.  Maybe there isn’t any.

Now there were cops all over the place, just as in the recurrent nightmare Dortmunder had had for years, except none of these came floating down from the sky.

Just wait until they get jetpacks.  So after trying two different fences, in two different boroughs, taking breaks along the way to deal with track fires and terrorists, Dortmunder sadly shrugs his already-shrugged shoulders, and heads for Arnie Albright’s place on 86th.  (See, Arnie, I mentioned you in two different sections!  And you thought I didn’t like you.)

This one ends on a bit of a down-note (and not just because Arnie now has this appalling skin disease), but looks like Dortmunder is still (eventually) getting seven grand for a very long day’s work, which is better than I’ve ever done.  Also, a guy tried to scam him with the old “Is this your wallet” routine?  Dortmunder said yes it is, and walked away with it.  God save the conman, when the mark is Dortmunder.  300 bucks, not bad at all, what are you crying about, John?  You chose to live in New York.  For most of us working stiffs here, this qualifies as a good day.

And what follows qualifies as the very last Dortmunder short ever composed, unless there’s a hidden stash somewhere….

Art And Craft: (August 2000, Summer Altice.  I’d snark the name, but thing is, I’m a sucker for long dark hair.  I suppose I could pretend she’s J.C. Taylor….?)

One of Dortmunder’s old prison buddies pops up, and when is this ever not good news?  That’s right.  Three Finger Gillie, so called because of this thing he did with a trio of digits on his right hand, that you probably would not like if he did it to you.  Neither would Dortmunder, so he hears the guy’s proposition out, at a restaurant.

It’s a doozy.  Three Fingers is a professional artist now.  Learned how to paint in the pen.  Seems to me he’s not the first or last felon to get into the art biz that way.  Hmm, let’s glance at the vital statistics:

Among the nymphs and ferns of Portobello, Three Finger Gillie looked like the creature that gives fairy tales their tension.  A burly man with thick black hair that curled low on his forehead and lapped over his ears and collar, he also featured a single, wide block of black eyebrow like a weight holding his eyes down.  hese eyes were pale blue and squinty and not warm, and they peered suspiciously out from both sides of a bumpy nose shaped like a baseball left in the rain.  The mouth, what there was of it, was thin and straight and without color.

I knew this reminded me of someone.  Not that he’s the inspiration for Three Fingers, unless Westlake had a crystal ball, which I’ve long suspected.  He was an artist too.  Well, so was Albert Nussbaum, after a fashion.  Different stories end differently.

Three Fingers is good with the brushwork, and he likes the art game, wants to stay in it (the old reference to how criminals and artists share the same personality profile).  But he also wants to make a nice living at it, which means good isn’t good enough.  You gotta have a gimmick, like the song lyric says.  His selling point is that he’s a former felon.  That got him in the door, provided useful publicity, and now he’s got a show downtown.  But not enough people are showing at the show, or (more important) buying his stuff.

The problem is that the postmodern art-buying public wants irony with their art.  Okay, fine, there’s some irony in a criminal becoming an artist.  But so old-hat.  Irony deficient.  Now what if other criminals were to break into the gallery and steal his paintings?  Irony within irony!  You see what he’s getting at, Dortmunder?

Dortmunder does, and the offer is generous.  The gallery is insured.  He can make a deal with the insurance company, and keep it all for himself.  Three Fingers just wants the publicity.  Three Fingers is not known for his generosity.  Something smells bad.  Well, he’ll check it out. Westlake lived long enough to see the beginnings of what is now the world’s most insanely crowded and overpriced outdoor mall.  Complete with pop-up stores, and a storied history.  Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.

The neighborhood had been full of lofts and warehouses and light manufacturing.  Then commerce left, went over to New Jersey or out to the Island, and the artists moved in, for the large spaces at low rents.  But the artists made it trendy, so the real estate people moved in, changed the name to Soho, which in London does not mean South of Houston Street, and the rents went through the roof.  The artists had to move out, but they left their paintings behind, in the new galleries.  Parts of Soho look pretty much like before, but some of it has been touristed up so much it doesn’t look like New York City at all.  It looks like Charlotte Amalie, on a dimmer.

(It should be mentioned, the starving artists who bought those lofts, and the buildings that came with them, can now afford to paint or sculpt on their own private tropical islands, if they so desire.)

So is there a catch?  Is this a Dortmunder yarn?  A damn good one, and I’ll leave the rest for you to savor.  Just one more in this Thieves’ Dozen, of eleven stories, and never does Westlake explain the joke in the title, though he does say he included this last one to justify it.

Fugue For Felons:   The Dortmunder who never was.  And who never was Dortmunder, but he might well have ended up replacing him on the roster, if certain persons in Hollywood had their way.  Westlake doesn’t provide names or dates, but seems that some suits involved in making one or several Dortmunder films decided they now owned the name Dortmunder. (You know, it’s a mystery why people so good at taking stuff are so bad at making movies about people who take stuff.)

Before the matter was finally cleared up, Westlake was seriously worried he would not be able to write any  more stories about Dortmunder, or the established characters pertaining to that franchise.  I’m going to guess that this was the production team behind The Hot Rock and Bank Shot–remember how the Dortmunder in the latter film, played by George C. Scott, was named Walter Upjohn Ballantine?  Hopefully not, since that film is terrible.  Westlake happened to reference it, and not fondly, in the Dortmunder novel he wrote around the same time he was assembling this anthology.  Perhaps not a coincidence.

Perhaps also not a coincidence that it was around this time Westlake started saying he wouldn’t let anyone who adapted a Parker novel for the movies name the protagonist Parker, unless they bought the rights to all those novels.  Once bitten….)

My guess about who tried to heist Dortmunder from his creator could be wrong, and I say that because there’s a character who is clearly the alternate universe Tiny Bulcher in this story, by the name of Big Hooper.  Tiny didn’t make his debut until 1977.  Years after The Hot Rock came out, in 1972.  Bank Shot was ’74.  But then again, maybe Big Hooper is the prototype for Tiny–a rough preliminary sketch for the much more interesting man monster we came to know. Rough in more ways than one, and that goes for the rest of this gang of second stringers.  And yet, Westlake has more enthusiasm for Big Hooper than for all the rest combined–why?  Maybe because he’s not a retread, but an original in the making.

Dortmunder in this universe is short, and named John Rumsey, after an exit sign on the Sawmill Parkway.  Kelp looks about the same, and is named Algy (oh very good, Mr. Westlake, keeping the aquatic plant life theme alive).  Stan Murch is Stan Little.  No mention of his mom.  (Little’s Old Lady?  Stan’s Ma’am?  Doesn’t work.)

It’s about the new gang, acting as a bunch of single-o’s, trying to rob a bank somebody else just tried to rob.  Things go wrong.  I suppose that could have been a starting point for Too Many Crooks.  There’s a mean dog in it. And not a single laugh.

This story is by far the weakest thing in this collection.  Entertaining at points, sure.  If you or I had written it, we’d be fairly proud.  I also guess we’d get a lot of rejection notices when it made the rounds.  It’s interesting mainly for what it tells us–which is what I told you at the start of this review.

See, Westlake doesn’t know these people.  He can’t make them too much like the old gang, yet he needs them to be able to replace the old gang in future ventures in the same vein as the Dortmunder novels–which has a certain hobbling effect.

Maybe a truly great writer, like I dunno, E.L. James, can take some characters he or she really likes but doesn’t own the rights to, give them different names, make them not vampires or werewolves (you can’t copyright insipid ingenues on the make, nor would you want to), and a lot of people will read that.  For some reason.  Westlake didn’t bend that way.  Having created Dortmunder & Co. once, he could never do it again.  They are, as the French say, sui generis.

But the bigger problem, the problem he always had with the short form, is that these characters are strangers to him.  Without that deep familiarity to build upon, he’s got to spend too much time filling out these profiles in pillage.  He’s trying to make us believe in them, when he doesn’t believe in them himself.  There isn’t a real story here.  Just a collection of loosely linked incidents, aspiring to storyhood.

I could go over some of the ways in which this felonious fugue works, and the many others in which it does not, but I’m now over 8,000 words.  There’s another Dortmunder looming on the horizon.  Again with the Arnie Albright.  Maybe none of your fellow felons love you, Arnie, but your creator sure does.  You bring J.C. back with you, so I won’t complain.  Too much.

What?  No Playboy centerfold for this one?  Well, it was never published anywhere but here, but I think I can oblige, all the same.  Towards the end of his introduction, Westlake mentions that he worked with Alice K. Turner, Playboy‘s longtime fiction editor, on all seven of the Dortmunder shorts that debuted there.  He says something about how she looked upon both him and Dortmunder “with bemused disbelief followed by stoical acceptance,” but I bet he got that a lot.  He says he also got a lot good input from her, something he always valued in an editor.

Images of her are rare online, but here’s one probably taken around the time she worked with Westlake.

Alice-K-Turner

Not bad.  Not bad at all.  She passed away not long ago, at 75–got a big Times obit.  Let me just read through that–oh WOW!!!!  Look at that résumé!  Hubba Hubba!  Twenty-three skiddoo!  I love my wife, but oh you kid!

(And that, dear readers, is how you finish out a motif.)

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, John Dortmunder

Review: The Road To Ruin, Part 2

“The question is,” Lieutenant Orville said, “is the butler in on it?”

Lieutenant Wooster cocked his head, like a very bright spaniel.  “You think the butler did it?”

“It’s been known to happen.”  Liking the phrase, Lieutenant Orville said it again: “Known to happen.”

“When are people going to get over it?”

“People don’t get over it when you’re a pariah, Monroe.”

“Why do people keep using that word?”

“Well, Monroe, think about it.”

“I don’t want to.”

“–Another three conspirators are thought to have been  involved, but little is known of them except that they are alleged to have belonged to the same labor union.”

“There you go,” Dortmunder said.  “Now the kidnappers got a union.”

Because I keep doing these multi-part reviews, and would like my readers to have something other than great tedious blocks of text to scan, I have found it necessary to scour the web for exotic cover art, traveling far afield of our author’s native land, and too often finding to my chagrin that the golderned foreigners did a better job illustrating him than us Yanks did.  Westlake had avid readers across the globe, and I could spend the rest of my life tracking down foreign editions (so rarely utilizing the original title, because why would they?), and never scratch the surface.

By far the two best covers I found for this book are the two you see up top.  The domestic ebook beneath looks like a manual on road safety the Murches would be forced to study for some court-ordered traffic school course. This is, wouldn’t you know it, the only edition of this book I possess.

French publisher Rivages (which must have the widest selection of Westlake, Coe, and Stark of any extant publishing firm, if extant publishers there be) simply looked for a pre-existing bit of art they could get for cheap, and this time they happened to hit on something that works beautifully (it would work just as well for a Jeeves novel, which is kind of the point here).

But feast your dumbfounded eyes, won’t you, on the nifty purpose-built artwork for the Finnish edition. Yes, Finnish.  According to Google, the title (so much smaller than the author’s name, indicating said author’s name alone sells books there) more precisely translates as The Road to Corruption, and I’m not sure that isn’t an improvement on the original.  Nothing could ever improve on that cover, though. Enough prologue; back to the synopsis or we’ll never be Finnish.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and it’s a challenge to explain what some of them are doing here. My inclination is to skip over these as quickly as possible, and concentrate on the storylines that matter.

For example, there’s an entire subplot involving Chester Fallon, the former stunt/getaway driver (whose incipient professional rivalry with Stan Murch doesn’t get nearly enough play here).  His wife is bugging him to get out of the house and do something useful, so even though he’s in the middle of planning a heist, he takes a job driving an office supply salesman whose license was taken away because he’s always drunk.  He’s always drunk because there’s no other way he can stand all the schmoozing and gladhanding that goes with his job.  Trouble is, he can’t turn the snappy patter and bad jokes off when he’s in the car with Chester.

This subplot does lead to Chester finding an abandoned store at a failing strip mall, that can be used to store the vintage cars they mean to steal.  Plus it gives him a fallback position if the heist doesn’t work out.  It’s not a bad story in itself.  It could have been a good short story–or a subplot in another novel, which it very well might have been originally intended as–a novel in which Chester would have played the Dortmunder role in a topical satire; another take on Put A Lid On It.  But since Dortmunder is here, Chester is little more than the finger on a job that doesn’t pan out, and the bit with the salesman seems pointless, if amusing..  So let’s skip it.

There’s a subplot involving a short heavily muscled fitness instructor named Flip Morriscone, who is acting as Monroe Hall’s personal trainer, even though he can’t stand the guy.  This gives him and his Subaru access to the estate.  Hall has a creepy mancrush on him, but still takes perverse pleasure in ratting him out to the IRS for not reporting the cash Hall hands him for their sessions together.

This gives Flip a motive for revenge, which is instrumental to the B plot, involving the alliance of three disgruntled union guys and two equally disgruntled small time venture capitalists, who are also toting large grudges against Mr. Hall.  But again, it kind of clogs the story up a bit–Westlake needed to be at absolutely top form to write a novel with this many moving parts and have it come out as a well-balanced unitary offering–this one is more of a jumble sale.  Well, those have their own pleasures to offer, right?  I’ve never gotten anywhere near Mr. Westlake’s top form, so I think that’s all we need to hear about Flip Morriscone, even though the chapters dealing with him and his passionate love affair with his buff image in the mirror are pretty funny.

There’s also a subplot about Arnie Albright, the world’s most unlovable fence of stolen goods (there’s actually a fence in Smoke who makes Arnie look like Albert Schweitzer, but never mind that now), involving his family doing an intervention and sending him to a Club Med so that he can learn to be less obnoxious, and you know what?  That’s a much more important plot point in the next Dortmunder, so I don’t need to talk about that here.

And there are many other subplots, for characters we normally don’t hear much about, so surely there must be a subplot for the delectably devious Josephine Carol Taylor?  In fact, she isn’t even mentioned in the book, though her behemoth boyfriend sure is.  Not enough eyerolls in the world, Mr. Westlake……

So with all that out of the way, what’s left?  Dortmunder & Co. hiring on as domestics at the understaffed Hall Estate–understaffed because he is now so universally despised, nobody will work for him (they have an excellent personal chef, but she came with Alicia, Monroe’s wife, and never liked Monroe to begin with).

That’s the main gag of the book, and it’s a good one.  Is it a plausible one?  I have my quibbles.  Good help is always hard to find, but so is a good-paying job, and it’s a bit hard to swallow that Hall can’t find any takers (to be sure, he’s under too much scrutiny by the law to hire illegal immigrants like a normal rich conservative).

The Enron guys were widely hated and reviled after their downfall, without question.  Money is still money.  Kenneth Lay (‘Kenny Boy’ to the more recent President Bush) presumably had all the servants he needed, right up to when he cheated the system one last time by dropping dead at a luxury ski chalet before his sentencing (and so hated was he that people were demanding to know why the chalet’s management allowed him to die there, instead of some convenient ditch).  Some of those servants probably lied to their neighbors about where they worked, but they took the money.  Contrivance is an integral part of comedy, so this is not such a huge problem.

Hall’s self-image relies upon having underlings around, so he can be condescending, irritatingly over-familiar, do the odd bit of bullying, all in order to make himself feel like the big wheel he wants everyone to see him as.  He’s basically an overgrown child with a superiority/inferiority complex that requires the constant presence of social inferiors, even while he’s painfully aware that most people on his economic level regard him as an inferior.  (Yes, I’m seeing the parallels, you can hardly miss them, but this book was inspired by different models, and let’s not kid ourselves that there’s ever just one rich prick with these types of issues at any given time.   Their name is Legion.  Or should I say, Lesion?)

After alternately pleading with, hectoring, berating, and outright threatening the increasingly disgusted head of the employment agency that’s been trying in vain to fill all his vacancies, Monroe Hall is overjoyed to learn that all of a sudden there are four new applicants!  One an intimidating mass of muscle to man his gates, frighten away any potential ill-wishers.  Another a carrot-haired chauffeur who seems to know everything there is to know about cars and potential routes for them to take.  And best of all, a personal secretary (the male kind) with a narrow nose and a congenial bustling air about him, a real take-charge kind of guy who attacks his newfound duties with unparalleled enthusiasm.

And there’s the new butler.  Well, he’s going to be a work in progress.

And how did this come to pass?  As we covered in Part 1, Dortmunder figured the only way for them to get onto the Hall property in order to steal Hall’s property was to pose as the hired help.  But all new servants will be subject to intimidatingly strict security checks.  Your average jury rigged fake ID’s are not going to cut it here.  In this new digital era Dortmunder & Co. have been forced to live in, how can the motley likes of them ever hope to fool the system?  And here’s where I switch over to those titled subheadings I so often resort to in my reviews of these books.  Not always when the book as a whole underwhelms me, while certain components within it enchant me, but……

In Memory Yet Green:

It is none other than Kelp’s charming lady friend, Anne Marie Karpinow, who, noticing her beau’s atypically downcast air, and learning the reasons for it, tells him he should have confided in her from the start.  She’s got a guy.  Well, she knows a guy.  Her father, you will recall, was a U.S. Senator.  It was through daddy that she became friendly with Jim Green, who is a ‘substitute identity specialist.’  In other words, somebody who creates the kind of fake ID that holds up to anything.  Even his own name is fake–he picked it because it’s forgettable.

He’s not with the government anymore–freelancing now, selling his services to various people who have to become somebody new or else go shopping for cemetery plots.  He’s prohibitively expensive, but she’s got an in.  The friendship came with certain benefits.  He always liked her.  Used to dandle her on his knee.  “When you were a little girl” Andy suggests.  “Oh, seventeen, eighteen” she responds offhandedly.

So there’s a chapter showing us the Verdi of Verisimilitude (damn, that would have been a good subheading), at work with some eastern bloc outcast, and we learn something about how you create new identities in the digital world, and we also learn that Mr. Westlake was actively updating his own tradecraft in this area–because he needs to believe there will always be a way for someone to disappear, if he or she really wants to.  And in fact, there is an escape hatch concealed in the prison cell of meta data.

Every day, the web of information grows thicker, more convoluted.  When so much is known, what can still be secret?  But the very complexity of the knowledge stream at times betrays it.  Here and there, in the interstices of the vast web of details covering the globe, there are glitches, hiccups, anomalies, crossed wires.  Jim Green could find those like a hunting dog after a downed quail.  He could find them and store the knowledge of them for later use.

Then the phone rings, and of course he remembers Anne Marie and he’d be delighted to come see her (no mention is made of knee-dandling, though it is surely in his mind).  He meets Kelp, Dortmunder, and the rest, and finds the experience most revelatory.  On the whole, he’s favorably impressed with Kelp.  He’s pleased to learn that the former Mrs. Karpinow, who he once knew (biblically, perhaps?) as Anne Marie Hurst, isn’t dating and/or marrying jerks like her father anymore, it being a nigh-universal guy-thing that if we can’t have some girl we fancy, we at least don’t want to see her with someone makes us sick to our stomachs, and it’s uncanny how they unerringly home in on some emetic in pants, ain’t it?    As Andy puts it, she’s changed her M.O.  (Or has she?)

Cherished memories of perfectly innocent knee-dandling aside, Jim doesn’t work for free, and they can’t afford the elite services he provides, even if he was willing to delay payment until after the job was done. Seeing the crestfallen look in Anne Marie’s lovely eyes, Jim amends his statement this much–there are certain of his former clients who have either died or gone back to their original identities.  Their manufactured identities are still out there in cyberspace.

With a bit of jiggering, he can re-engineer them for John, Andy, Stan, and Tiny.  And that somewhat attenuated level of professional service he won’t charge for.  (Or you could say Anne Marie made payment in advance.  Perhaps that knee-dandling sometimes verged on lap-dancing.  Still perfectly innocent, as long as nobody got pregnant.)

One negligible caveat–Jim cautions them it is barely possible that either the original owner of one of these identities or whatever unpleasant persons he was trying to evade, will come knocking should any of them learn that name is back in circulation.  But since the gang is only going to be using their borrowed bonafides for maybe two or three weeks, tops, it’s not very likely this will transpire.  (And of course it does transpire, but that’s yet another subplot I feel this review can do without).

Having gathered the necessary data from the four felons to meld into the new identities, Jim is pleased as punch with the way his clients react to their new aliases (complete with passports that would calm the most querulous of TSA screeners).  Like kids unwrapping their Christmas presents by the tree.

Anne Marie tries to turn the unwrapping into the kind of midwestern society shindig she’s used to from her days as a politician’s daughter, and is a bit deflated to learn her hostess skills are not needed (Jim tells her if she ever needs to disappear, he’ll give her the deluxe package, no charge, but she’s not that deflated).

Dortmunder is now John Howard Rumsey.  Murch is Warren Peter Gillette.  Tiny is Judson Otto Swope (he likes that name, for which Jim should be grateful).

Kelp is Fredric Eustace Blanchard, and being a Westlake character, he will shorten that to Fred.  Which brings us to–(with profuse apologies to Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow)–

Thief vs. Secretary:

All four of the guys interview first at the employment agency (which gets its own subplot, there’s a positive superabundance of them), and the way they’ve worked out their cover stories is they’ve all been distracted by other matters, and simply don’t know how universally loathed Monroe Hall is now. Or in Tiny’s case, simply don’t care, because all his character wants to do is bust heads for a living, which isn’t really all that different from what he actually does for a living.  Typecasting can work.  The minute Monroe sees him, all he can think is “I want him on my side!” (And the moral is, even very rich people don’t always get what they want.)

Kelp and Dortmunder are supposed to have worked at the same foreign embassy in DC–the embassy for none other than Votskojek (grrrrr!), a fictional Westlake nation in Central Europe, last seen in Don’t Ask.  What makes this cover story useful is that the guy they supposedly worked for there, Ambassador Chk, was assassinated, and therefore is not currently available to provide references.  Oh those Votskojekians and their periodic purges.  So quaint and Ruritanian.

When Monroe gets to interview the four of them, he’s mainly quite pleased, except he’s not so sure Dortmunder looks like a proper butler, which he doesn’t (he watched a lot of old movies with butlers in them, but simply is not to the manor born).  But then again, who’s coming to the house to see how he looks?  Nobody.

Anyway, Hall is fine with all of them, disgraced billionaire beggars can’t be disgraced billionaire choosers.  Except, as he tells this eager and attentive young fellow Blanchard, he doesn’t really need a personal secretary anymore.  He used to have two of them, and play them off against each other for laughs (I know, I know, maybe Westlake was falling back on some of the research he did on Trump, it’s possible), but now that he’s persona non grata to the world at large, what’s the point in employing even one?

This is an unexpected wrinkle in the plan, which calls for improvisation on Kelp’s part, and as ever, he rises to the task.  Well, he’s up to the task, put it that way.  He tells an astounded Monroe that he must not give in to those nattering nabobs of negativity.   Words to that effect.

“Rehabilitation!” Blanchard cried, and pointed a stern finger at the ceiling.  “It’s time,” he declared in ringing tones, “to get your story out there!”

“My story is out there,” Hall said, “that’s the problem.”

“Your old story is out there,” Blanchard insisted.  “It’s time for a new story, and that’s why you need me.  A personal.  Private.  Secretary.”

After a brief homage to Prof. Harold Hill, Kelp cuts to the heart of the matter.  Okay, so Monroe bankrupted millions, destroyed lives, simply in order to enrich himself when he was already rich.  Who hasn’t done that?  It’s time everybody just got over it!   He’s only human!  Aren’t we all sinners?  Hall has one timid little query–

“Would I have to give back the money?”

“Never!” Blanchard’s eyes flashed.  “You’re explaining your common humanity, you’re not feeding the multitudes!”

“No, no, I see.”

“We’ll start small,” Blanchard said.  Somehow, he was halfway across Hall’s desk, staring into his eyes.  “Church social egg rolls on the lawn.  Boy Scout groups meeting here.  Have your photo taken at the wheel of one of your famous cars.”

“Not driving it!”

Sitting in it.”  Blanchard beamed, his arms spread wide.  “The squire of Pennsylvania,” he announced.  “How bad a fella could he be?”

“You’re hired!” Hall cried.

Now of course this is Andy adroitly feeding into the mark’s narcissism and utter lack of conscience, but how much of a conscience does Andy himself have?  How much of a core?  The reason, I think, he’s clung to Dortmunder like a barnacle to a hull for so long is that his own identity is far more pliable and adaptive than Dortmunder’s, and he needs some kind of fixed navigational point to keep from going adrift.  But now he’s hitched his wagon to a very different star.

He’s got to believe in the role to perform it properly, like any good flim-flammer, something he’s always been better at than Dortmunder (who has a hard time being anybody but himself).  And there’s nothing else for him to do, really, until it’s time to jack the cars.  So he commits totally to the role of loyal lackey to a maligned mogul, and for a while he really is Fred Blanchard–and this means being a shameless toady.  Something he’s never been before.  (He was shameless, but on his own time.)

To be sure, he’s spent years steadfastly plugging Dortmunder as a criminal genius, but Dortmunder really is a criminal genius, hard as that may be to fathom when looking at him.  Plugging Monroe Freaking Hall as a misunderstood victim of circumstance is rather more of a challenge, even for Mr. Kelp’s considerable talents at dissimulation.

And he reaches the point where he’s so engrossed in this project that he starts wishing they could put off the heist for a little while, just so he can make some progress–he sincerely wants to get Hall accepted by society once more.  At no point does Andy ever stop in the midst of his nigh-Kushnerian  labors (I’m going to catch hell for that in the comments section, but he’s too slick and self-effacing for Spicer, nor is he blonde enough for Conway, or deranged enough for Bannon) and think “What the fuck is wrong with me?”

And of course his new employer is grateful to him for his devotion.  To the extent that he is capable of such an emotion, which isn’t much.  After a very short while, Monroe just accepts it as his due, as he accepts all things to be his due. At one point, Andy, with his usual curiosity about how gadgets work, pops a quarter into one of Monroe’s collectible antique toy banks.  Once his coin predictably disappears into the gizmo’s inner recesses, he asks how he can get it back.  He can’t ever get it back.  It’s Monroe’s quarter now.  He is smirking at his underling’s credulity.

Andy blinks, and the most delicious identity crisis of the entire book presents itself.  The unctuous Heep he’s pretending to be and has to some extent become should just write the quarter off as a loss.  The thief in him needs desperately to steal that errant two bits back.  In the end, the thief wins, of course (though the quarter is still history).

But you’re made painfully aware of the fact that to a very great extent we are our jobs, and that Andy is the free-wheeling independent we love precisely because he never previously had the motive, means, or opportunity to be anything else.  In a different life, he very well could have become some smug sycophant like Anne Marie’s former hubby.  There but for the grace of God (whose name is Westlake) goes he.  There’s an ass kisser lurking inside the best of us, waiting to get out.  And much as I admire Mr. Kelp, he ain’t the best of us.

But he’s still one of the best liars around (he can even lie with the truth, as we saw in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?), and here’s the kicker–by the end of his tenure there, he’s actually starting to make progress.  He figures out he just has to spread some of Monroe’s ample excess funds around in the right places–cash strapped charities, say–and he starts seeing results.  His crowning ambition is to create a golf tourney going by the majestic moniker of the Monroe Hall Cup.  You have to admit, there’s kind of a ring to it.

Given a bit more time, Mr. Blanchard might well have succeeded in at least partly rehabilitating the most loathed robber baron  in America, re-imagining him as a penitent philanthropist who has suffered, without expending more than a small fraction of the boss’ ill-gotten gains.  The secretary might have eaten the thief.  The phrase “Money talks and bullshit walks” takes on a whole new meaning here.  There’s no end of suckers out there who want to believe in Daddy Warbucks.  That’s not Little Orphan Andy’s fault, folks.  That’s on us.

But dinner’s on Tiny, as we learn in–

The Iron Chef:

The guys end up bunking together in a little green house on the estate, where Chester and his missus once dwelt in happier times, and there’s quite a nice kitchen there.  Much to everyone’s confusion, mingled with apprehension, Tiny insists on cooking.  You want to tell him he can’t?  Maybe read this first.

They all trooped in, to view the unprecedented sight of Tiny in two aprons, overlapping, with a meat cleaver in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other, with a lot of big pots and pans hissing and snarling on the stove.  What he looked mostly like was some darker version of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen.  “Soup’s on at six,” he told them.

Not literally soup, he explains, just an expression.  Dortmunder takes some Pepto-Bismol to prepare, but in fact the food is delicious, and wholesome, and quite different from anything any of them have had before, except Tiny.  Like mother used to make, if your mother came from a fictitious country somewhere in the Carpathians.

And then it was good.  It wasn’t your ordinary stuff, but it was good.  Real tastes, but not too sweet, not too sour.  There was lamb, in chunks; there was bacon, not too crisp; there were home-fried potatoes, with some kind of tasty oil on them; there was swiss chard, boiled up and spread with some kind of sauce that tasted sort of like chutney; there were biscuits, so light and fluffy you had to put butter on them to keep them from floating away.  And there was not just beer, but stout, to tie it all together.

There was no talk at the table for quite some time.  It was Kelp who first came up for air, saying “Tiny this is great.  What is this?  This is great.”

“It’s Tsergovian,” Tiny told him.  “It’s from the old country.  It’s how my people used to eat in the old days, when they had food.”

John said, through a full mouth, “Then I’m surprised they ever left.”

“Well, there were a lotta days,” Tiny said, “when they didn’t have food.  So that’s why they come here, before my time.  The food wasn’t as good over here, but it was around every day.”

And there’s pumpkin pecan pie for dessert, which I don’t associate with the Carpathians, but I could be wrong.  They end up eating it for breakfast, because nobody has room for another mouthful.   And this review has no more room to explain something the pleasures of which are self-explanatory.  As I said in my review of Bad News, the late Dortmunders are about lagniappe.  This is a fine example of that.  Tiny, we hardly knew ye.

Something else you’d hardly know about, going by this review, is what’s going on elsewhere, as the gang gears up for the heist.  Namely–

The B Plot:

Plot as in scheme, naturally.  The very inorganic teaming of Mark and Os, the venture capitalists without capital (thanks to Monroe Hall), and Buddy, Mac, & Ace, the union guys without jobs or pension plans (ditto).   Having agreed that they must find a way into the estate, grab Hall, and force him to cough up large quantities of offshore cash by way of electronic transfers, they are, all through the book, figuring out how to go about doing this.  Then figuring out they shouldn’t have done it at all.

The scheme they eventually hit upon involves Flip Morriscone (I knew I’d have to type that name again), just as enraged by Monroe’s perfidy as they, because Monroe (who actually likes Flip) went and reported his off-the-books cash payments to Flip to the IRS, leading to substantial tax penalties for the latter (Monroe finds this very funny, tells a mildly reproving Alicia that it’s good for the lower orders to make up the revenue shortfall stemming from people like him, who know how to avoid taxation).  So Flip is amenable to participating indirectly in their venture.

Monroe has mentioned to Flip that he wants to learn how to ride a horse, since he owns a bunch of them. It seems like a thing to do.  Flip tells Monroe he knows an instructor, but the guy has to bring his own horse, specially trained as a practice mount.  Mark and Os don’t have any money (Mark is actually sleeping in his mother and stepfather’s basement, all too aware of what a cliché that is), but they have credit, so they can rent all kinds of things, including a horse trailer.  A Trojan horse trailer, if you will. (Mr. Westlake did so enjoy his implicit puns.)

The plan goes swimmingly, until they actually get through the gates, and Hall comes prancing out to greet them–with his butler in tow.  Uh-oh.  Dortmunder tries to explain he’s on their side–well, he’s not on Hall’s side, at least–but they can’t stop to listen, or leave any witnesses, so he gets scooped up and carted away in the Trojan horse trailer, fuming impotently at the ruination of his perfect plan by some unforeseen event, like that’s never happened before

So this is all perfectly sound comic capering, with a class-based satiric bite to it,  and what’s the problem?  The problem is that everybody likes Dortmunder & Co. better, including Westlake, who is giving them all the best material, see above.

There’s lots of good story material in the B Plot too; it’s just not quite as good.  The voices of these one-shot characters are less well-defined, and with Westlake’s attentions divided about equally between the A and B Plots, not to mention the endless subplots, there isn’t enough space to refine them.  Devout Dortmunderians understandably feel they are being deprived of more quality time with their beloved rogues, and their resentment predictably if unfairly falls upon the B Plotters.

But I think some of the more interesting moments in the book do, in fact, involve these auxiliary protagonists.  Which I’ll get to in due course, but before I do–why on earth would Monroe drag poor old Rumsey out with him to greet some silly-ass riding instructor?  What’s been going on between the Squire of Pennsylvania and his gentleman’s gentleman?  A tale I shall plagiarously entitle–

‘Jeeves’ and the Lie That Binds:

Kelp loves being the personal secretary.  Dortmunder hates being the butler.  Hates.  There could not, in all the world, be a job he is less well-suited for, all the more since it requires him to wear a suit.  He goes through the motions as best he can, trying not to stick out too much, which only makes him stick out more.  He opens endless doors for the master and mistress of the house, as he saw the movie butlers do; he says “Sur!” at every opportunity, and honestly, shouldn’t this Hall fella just be grateful anyone even wants to be his butler?  I think we’ve already discussed Mr. Hall’s limited grasp of gratitude.  All he’s mastered thus far is the ‘tude part.

In P.G. Wodehouse stories, ineffectual rich men are slaves to their unflappable butlers and their anal dress codes (Yes, Jeeves is a valet, I know, and so did Westlake, but to the world at large he’s a butler).  Even if that was universally true for silly-ass English gentlemen with inherited incomes in the 1920’s (and I greatly misdoubt it), it’s not at all true of someone like Monroe Hall.  To him, the whole point of having a gentleman’s gentleman is that he doesn’t have to behave like a gentleman himself, the moment even the least little thing is out of place.  There’s a reason the wealthy here so often have to outsource this type of job to people they can have deported if need be.   (Though be warned–that’s changing.)

(I should perhaps mention, my maternal grandfather, formerly of the county Limerick, was ‘in service’ for a time–chauffeur, mechanic, and general handyman to Ethel Barrymore.  Yes, that one.  Actors, even famous ones, are perhaps a tad less class conscious than your average rich person, less inclined to stand on ceremony, and I never heard any horror stories about his tenure there–I never heard any stories at all from him about that time in his life, since all we ever did together was dig potatoes in his garden–he was the first of my grandparents to pass, and I wasn’t yet old enough to be curious about who he’d been before he was grandpa. All I knew was my mom couldn’t stop crying for a while after he died.

He didn’t stay with the Barrymores all that long–married my grandma and got his own gas station in New York, during the Depression.  The additives in the gas ultimately caused him to die a painful death by cancer, though at a fairly advanced age.  And if he’d known that would happen, you think he’d have opted to remain in service?  I’m sure he touched his cap with the best of them.  A step up from tugging your forelock to a landlord back in Ireland.  It’s a long hard climb.  Don’t look down.)

For some reason, none of the films he’d studied explained to Dortmunder that one of a butler’s jobs is to polish the master’s shoes down in the pantry.  Which is probably more of a valet’s job, or maybe a footman’s?  (What is a footman, anyway?  I know they started out as dogs, or lizards, or something, but that’s all I can remember from the Disney films.  I’ll look it up later, maybe add a footnote.)

Monroe, formerly surrounded by underlings, has nobody to boss around now but the butler.  So when he sees his unshined shoes gathering dust in the hallway, where he left them, he gets to enjoy the most important perk of being a rich bastard.  Not having to pretend not to be a rich bastard.

Hall won’t even tell Dortmunder what he did wrong.  He’s told to go and ask Alicia.  Who is normally a pleasant enough person, but this Lord and Lady of the Manor thing can be contagious, and she’s almost as snippy.  She explains to him that Monroe wants his shoes polished, how could a professional butler not know this to be one of his duties?  Dortmunder makes up a story about how at the embassy there was a military orderly in charge of that kind of thing.  (No one even suggests that Monroe might want to shine his own fucking shoes, or that it doesn’t matter if they’re shined or not, since he never leaves the grounds, or has any guests.)

In the event, he only had to go back twice to buff the shoes some more, even though he could see his reflection in them the first time he’d whacked them around.  But three trips was all it took.  While Kelp sat smug and amused in his office, Hall gave each shoe a long and critical once-over, and at last grudgingly said, “I suppose they’ll do.  And do you know what to do with them next, Rumsey?

“Put em outside your door, sur.  Where I got um.”

“Very good,” Hall told him.  “We may make a third-rate butler of you yet.”

“Thank you, sur.”

It’s right after this that he tells Dortmunder to be so good as to come get him when the riding instructor arrives, and Dortmunder fondly imagines him riding head-first into a very thick heavy tree branch.

And you know, that wish does come true, after a fashion.  Dortmunder is bad luck for rich bastards.  God bless him.  If the gap between the very wealthy and everybody else continues to grow (as it is doing in China, of all places, where butlering to newly minted millionaires is a vocation on the rise now), God bless us everyone.  The Jeeves stories make for delightful fiction, precisely because they are a comic reversal of the normal order of things in a class-based society.  The Lie that Binds is much closer to the mark, I think.

And speaking of getting closer to the Mark (God save him)–

If Only There Were Territories:

I have this sneaking feeling that, in the book this might have been if it hadn’t turned out to be a Dortmunder, Mark would have been co-protagonist with Mac–each serves as the POV character for his respective side.  Each makes a claim on our sympathies, which is not to say those claims are equally valid.

Mark isn’t a real tycoon yet, just an aspiring one, though he already thinks of himself as a Master of the Universe, albeit one who moved back in with his mom and step-dad for lack of funds.  He and Os (the more severe and formidable of the two, whose inner depths, if any, are never plumbed) basically looked around for investment opportunities, and sometimes they scored, and sometimes they didn’t.  It wasn’t until they invested all they had in Somnitech that they found out what it means to lose everything.  But they still had themselves.  And their vendetta against the much richer man who conned them.

He’s not a bad guy, and he’s not a good guy.  He’s just a guy on the make–a sort of Nephew figure, as is Mac.  Each man is much more frightened by what he’s doing than he’s willing to admit .  Mark’s goals are totally self-interested, Mac’s entirely altruistic.  But in both cases, they can only get what they want via Monroe Hall.  So they keep shoving that very justified fear back down into their guts, where it proceeds to ruin their digestion.

So now they have him.  The wellspring of all their ills.  Locked up in a remote hunting lodge, where they believe they can frighten him into coughing up the necessary funds.  But you know that line from Prizzi’s Honor?  About how Sicilian mobsters would rather eat their children than part with money, fond as they are of their children?  All very rich people are Sicilian mobsters at heart.  And Monroe recognized Mark’s voice, in spite of the silly Halloween mask Mark was wearing.  He figures he just has to wait them out.  Or escape.

Both Mark and Monroe, I’d say, are grown-up and corrupted versions of the title character from Jimmy the Kid.  Resourceful, determined, deplorably admirable in their single-minded absorption in getting what they want.  Mark was the main planner of the abduction,  and Monroe uses a metal rod borrowed from the toilet in his room to break through the boarded up window of his makeshift cell, and scarper.  But now that he has escaped, Mark and Mac both have to face up to the fact that they committed felony kidnapping.

Mark is particularly frightened, since it was his voice Monroe half-remembered, and will attach a name to eventually.  Even before they find Monroe’s room empty, he’s remembering that line from Huckleberry Finn, Huck thinking about how he’s going to light out for the territories.

Isn’t that, after all, what it really means to be an American?  All of the current resistance to a national identification card (and many years ago, for the same reason, to the Social Security number), all of the alarm about the threats to “privacy,” are based on the simple American conviction, from the very beginning of the immigrant experience, that it was the ultimate right of every American, if circumstances happened to call for such drastic measures, to turn himself into somebody new.  The classless society was the ideal partly because, in a classless society, all identity is flexible.  Mark, in  his sleepless hours of not so much battling funk as welcoming funk aboard, had used every shred of schooling he could dredge out of memory to convince himself that at this point of crisis in his life, it would be not only acceptable, it would not be only guilt-free, but it would be damn near his patriotic duty, to run away and become somebody else.

But he tells himself it’s impossible–in this new modern age, there are no Territories to light out for anymore.  Then Monroe disappears, the game is up, and he desperately thinks to himself, If only there were Territories! 

Mac and his friends just want to get out of there.  Os, the level-headed pragmatist, heartily agrees with this sentiment.  None of them are really bad people, so they go to let Dortmunder (who they still think is the butler) out.  Only not knowing he’s going to be let out, he hides behind the door and clubs Mark hard in the face.  Later, he comes back to the abandoned lodge to get some food, and figures out how Monroe escaped.  Hmm.  Pretty good.  He should have thought of that.

So in the hospital, his jaw swollen up, speaking with a ridiculous lisp, refusing to listen to his lawyer, and mentally speaking not at his very best, Mark plays what he thinks is the proper card in this game of Prisoner’s Dilemma he’s found himself in–be the first to confess.  Only the detective, named Cohan, who showed up to question him had nothing on him.  Until now.

Yes, they found Monroe Hall, but he seems to have developed permanent amnesia, due to severe head trauma (the price he paid for going out that window).  Without Mark’s helpful confession, they would never have cracked the case.  They’re grateful to him for ratting out Os, but seems like Mr. Faulk cagily planned in advance for such a dread contingency, and is now hiding on some tropic isle, under a new identity he’d worked out in advance.  There really are Territories!

Mac and his buddies?  They just went home.  They thought about Territories and stuff, but here’s the thing–they are who they are.  Just working stiffs, with families and friends, who hang out in each other’s basements, drink beer, sing union songs, and try to think up noble ways to help their fellow man.  They never did it for themselves.  They wouldn’t even ask for help from their union brothers and sisters, for fear of implicating them in the crime.

And thankfully, there’s nothing Mark can tell the law that will link them to the crime.  Os could, but Os is gone, baby, gone.  They failed to win their symbolic victory of a few thousand bucks for each member of the Amalgamated Conglomerated Workers Factory Floor Alliance (at least we finally find out what ACWFFA stands for).  They don’t feel like they won.  But they kinda did, anyway.

It was never their intent to harm Monroe Hall, much as they hated him (nor did they).  It was never their intent to personally profit from his abduction (nor have they).  And he’s still alive, reasonably healthy, back in the care of his loving if increasingly weary wife, who one suspects won’t ever be getting high-handed with the hired help again–and he’s wiped clean as a newborn babe.  Tabula Rasa.  Has no idea who he is, what he’s done, why anybody would dislike him, who the pretty blonde lady fussing over him might be.

Most of his money is gone, because only he knew the codes for the numbered overseas bank accounts–he didn’t even trust Alicia with them.  There is no Monroe Hall anymore.  The estate and all its furnishings is going to be sold off.  And the valuable antique cars Dortmunder & Co. hoped to steal?  Shipped to that museum in Florida Monroe donated them to earlier as a tax dodge.  Gone, baby, gone.

(One is reminded of that scene in Memory, where the amnesiac protagonist goes to a priest for guidance, and instead of getting him to a doctor, the old man starts musing to himself about whether if you can’t remember any sins you committed, are you still guilty of them?  Have you inadvertently entered a state of grace?

This could become a highly relevant theological/philosophical debate in the near future, if a certain President whose name I’m weary to my death of typing inherited the Alzheimer’s gene from his equally scurvy dad, and it’s looking quite likely this is the case.  One way or another, he’s getting locked up.  Whether we’ll still have a comfy basement den to go drink beer and sing union songs in after that happens remains an open question.)

I’m over 7000 words.  I could go on like this for another 7000.  There’s a lot in this book to talk about.  So many good gags to mull over, and realize as we do, that there was much more to them than mere drollery.  A fellow of infinite jest, was Mr. Westlake.  But the jokes were never at our expense.  They were for our edification.  They were to try and wake us up.  Not his fault we mainly prefer to go on sawing wood.

So yeah, it’s not a great Dortmunder novel, as such.  Maybe it wasn’t originally going to be a Dortmunder at all.  You can say that it’s too many mismatching (if delightful) bits and pieces, a patchwork quilt of criminal farce and social satire.  I think Westlake himself had the last rueful word on its mixed merits, when he typed the final paragraph.

Yet one more running subplot–when Monroe is abducted, two detectives are assigned to the case.  Lieutenant Orville, and his sidekick, who is named Wooster (but of course he is).  They are not, shall we say, the brightest badges on the force, or at least one hopes not.  Orville, in particular, comes in for more than his share of ribbing from the detective-mocking Westlake–seems he learned most of what he knows about police work from crime fiction–like those 87th Precinct novels (damn, those boys were good, he thinks to himself).   Orville thinks in clichés, because he is one.

But he is not without certain constabulary instincts.  He can sense that this Fred Blanchard fellow, the personal secretary with the guileless air about him, isn’t who he’s pretending to be.  He thinks the kidnapping is an inside job, and Rumsey the butler was taken precisely because he’s in on it.  Of course, there is an inside job, and Rumsey the butler is in on it, but they haven’t done it yet, and it’s not a kidnapping.  Dortmunder had enough of that kind of gig to last him a lifetime, eight books ago.

And then, when somebody shows up trying to kill Fred Blanchard (thankfully for Kelp, his borrowed identity didn’t set off any alarm bells with the previous Blanchard’s enemies until they’d all gone back to their true selves)–Orville is even more convinced he’s on the right track.  They arrest the baffled hitman from Votskojek (grrrrr?) who showed up a mite too late to do his job.  Surely he shall provide them with clues as to the whereabouts of this so-called secretary!  Fred Blanchard has disappeared without a trace, but he shall not forever escape the long arm of the law!

“I knew I was gonna get you, Fred Blanchard!  You won’t hide from me!  Nowhere on Earth, Fred Blanchard, will you be safe from Lieutenant Wilbur Orville!  Let’s go, Bob.  This is a wrap.”

This is almost a direct lift from the final lines of Bank Shot, the most dismally awful film ever made from a Dortmunder novel (if there’s something worse, please don’t tell me).  A good satirist doesn’t exempt himself from the slings and arrows of his art.  And in my estimation, Donald E. Westlake was one of the finest satirists his nation ever produced.  If the nation but knew it. Well, the nation has other concerns at present time.

And just FYI, nation, the Road to Ruin is a cul-de-sac.  Further down it you go, the longer the return trip will be.  If you won’t believe Donald Westlake, will you believe a nice girl in a feather boa doing a wicked Mae West impression for Jesus?

The nation can attend to its own affairs (maybe).  In the meantime, I have eleven very short reviews to write for next week. See you then.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: The Road to Ruin

At loose ends–well, he was always at loose ends these days–Hall went over to the treadmill, set it at a very leisurely pace indeed, far more languid than Flip would ever allow, and went for a little walk.

A little walk to nowhere, that’s what his life had come down to.  He could walk, he could walk all he wanted, but he couldn’t actually go anywhere.

Treadmill to Oblivion, 1954, Fred Allen’s grim-titled memoir of his life writing and starring in a weekly radio show.  Hall had a copy of it, of course, signed first edition with a dustjacket in almost perfect condition.  He’d been told it was a very good book.

He didn’t need to read those books.  He didn’t need to exercise on all these intimidating machines.  He didn’t need to drive all these cars.  He needed to have them, that’s all, have everything, have the complete set of everything ever made.  Then he’d be happy.

Dortmunder was never happy outside the five boroughs.  There was always something wrong with the rest of the world, some way it had figured out to make him more uncomfortable.  For instance, in the uncharted middle of Pennsylvania, he had to sleep on the kitchen floor.

Anne Marie said, “I remember that!  Wasn’t he the white-haired man that testified in front of congress?”

“Anne Marie,” Andy said, “every white-haired man in America that owns a suit has testified in front of congress.”

Before we start on this one, let me lay out the rest of the program for this revue of reviews that is now approaching its end.  There is nothing left to cover now but three Parker novels, four Dortmunder novels, ten Dortmunder stories (plus one alternate universe Dortmunder story), one Dortmunder novella, and Forever And A Death, which I’m not reviewing until it’s been available to the general public for a month or two.

When all of that is done, I may well find other things to talk about, but the primary mission statement of this blog will have been completed, much to my own amazement, since I never finish anything I start, unless it’s a glass of beer, or a crossword puzzle (I cheat).  First time for everything, I suppose, but we’re not there yet.

The three linked novels that inconclusively conclude the Parker saga stand out starkly from the rest of the work he did over the last five years of his life.  I want to review them as a set, so even though Nobody Runs Forever came out the same year as this book, I’m going to put it off until I’ve reviewed all the Dortmunders other than the last one, which I believe was written with the idea it would be the last.

By the time I’m through all that, it’ll be time to give Forever And A Death  the detailed scrutiny I have no reason to think any professional critic will have given it.  Then the final three Parker novels, one after the other.  My one-part reviews of Dirty Money and Get Real will be published within less than a minute of each other, because I don’t want to show favoritism.  We clear?  Let’s get this show on the road.  To ruin, naturally.

This is yet another book in which Dortmunder comes into conflict with a very rich and narcissistic man, though one who has already suffered his comeuppance.  One might start to come to the conclusion that Westlake didn’t care for the very wealthy. Though he spent so much time writing about them, one cannot deny there was a certain fascination there–what’s it like to have so much more in the way of material resources than anyone could possibly need?  What does that do to your sense of self?

Westlake seems to believe that too often it distorts, disengages, and ultimately destroys your sense of self.  But first it magnifies your sense of self-importance to absurd, almost Swiftian extremes.  Which can lead in its turn to rather edifying downfalls.  And the rest of us, torn between admiring, envying and disparaging the very wealthy, while being all too aware of the low regard they hold us in, can perhaps be forgiven for rejoicing in the fall of titans, who turned out to be not so big after all.

What’s The Worst That Could Happen? was the first of the Dortmunder novels where the tantrum-prone tycoon had some identifiable models in real life.  Most notably the one who somehow got into the White House, and refuses to leave now (best check his pockets for silverware when he does, and maybe the launch codes).  But that character was a composite, and Westlake pretty carefully avoided getting too obvious about it, because his primary model was well known for his thin skin, and love of litigation.

As matters worked out, however, no lawsuits were filed (to notice you’ve been lampooned in a book requires that you occasionally read books), and Westlake may have felt emboldened when it came to choosing  his next victim.  Or rather, victims–another composite composed of figures ripped from the headlines, but all from the same company this time.  Most notably, people like Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the lesser known Andrew Fastow, and his wife, Lea.  You know.  Enron.  We still remember Enron, right?  A decade feels like an eon, nowadays.  You can bet there are still millions of people struggling through unexpectedly sparse retirements who remember them vividly.  And all the horrible yet richly deserved puns on the first guy’s name.

 

 

 

(With all due respect to Murdoch’s rag, this looks like a job for the Weekly Galaxy.)

Again, it’s not meant to be a direct portrait, but rather an extrapolation based on reading the news stories, the interviews, and imagining what such a creature might be like, what his life would be after his public disgrace, what stories might potentially be told about him; positing that he avoids prison while staying alive, something none of the Enron guys ultimately managed to do.  Which kind of undermines the premise, but what the hell.  A writer of satiric fiction, moved by current events, must nonetheless create his own characters, with their own unique fates.  And Westlake, writing this not long after the scandal broke, couldn’t wait for the courts to get around to sentencing these guys.  He couldn’t be sure he’d live that long.  Satirists are not required to be fair and balanced (neither are cable news channels).

And fairness is wasted on some people, if we’re going to be balanced about it.  It’s wasted because they have rejected the very concept of fairness, or compassion, except for themselves.  By degree they become isolated, not merely from the lower orders of society, but from society itself.  Narcissism devolves into solipsism, the black hole of identity.  That’s going to be one of the points of this book.  That a pitiable character is not the same thing as a sympathetic one.  But as always with a Dortmunder, the main point is to make us laugh–the better to keep us from crying over our lost pensions and portfolios, and the general unfairness of Life.

And who knows more about Life’s injustice than Our Hero, who we rejoin now, as he ponders the mysteries of local media.

Dortmunder sat in his living room to watch the local evening news, and had just about come to the conclusion that every multiple-dwelling residence in the state of New Jersey would eventually burn to the ground, three per news cycle, when the doorbell rang.  He looked up, surprised, not expecting anybody, and then became doubly surprised when he realized it had not been the familiar blatt of the hall doorbell right upstairs here, but the never-heard ing of the street-level bell, sounding in the kitchen.

Rising, he left the living room and stepped out to the hall, to see May looking down at him from the kitchen, her hands full of today’s gleanings from her job at Safeway as she said, “Who is it?”

“Not this bell,” he told her, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at the hall door. “The street bell.”

“The street bell?”

Dortmunder clomped back to the kitchen, to the intercom on the wall there that had never worked, that the landlord had just repaired in a blatant ploy to raise the rent.  Not sure of the etiquette or operation of this piece of machinery, for so long on the inactive list, he leaned his lips closer to the mouthpiece and said, “Yar?”

“It’s Andy,” said a voice that sounded like Andy being imitated by a talking car.

“Andy?”

May said “Let him in, John.”

“Oh, yeah.” Dortmunder pressed the white bone button, and yet another unpleasant sound bounced around the kitchen.

(You will never know the restraint I had to employ to stop myself from typing out the entire first chapter of this book, which is probably illegal, but then so is most of what happens in the book, so there.  Our landlord, parenthetically, years ago replaced our old apartment number based intercom with one that requires visitors to punch in a secret code that rings the bell, and then you have only about twenty seconds to get to the button and buzz them in, before everybody has to start all over again.  Richer buildings in my nabe, by contrast, have security cameras at street level, little TV monitors up above, and you can look your would-be visitors in the face and tell them you don’t want to see them, even though you are, in fact, seeing them.  Think of all the fun Westlake could have had with that.)

There’s no pleasing that old grouch Dortmunder.  Normally Kelp never announces his impending presence, merely picks the locks and lets himself in, but this time he thought he’d respect their privacy by making them listen to New Music.  Anyway, Andy just wants to know if Dortmunder has a pending job he can horn in on, and if not, he’s got an idea about robbing the Speedshop big box store in New Jersey, where Dortmunder nearly got nabbed by the cops in the last book.  Dortmunder takes a pass on that.

Then the phone rings, Kelp starts in on his usual spiel about how he could put in all kinds of extensions, Dortmunder just has to say the word, and Dortmunder responds with his favorite word, which is no.  Then May comes back from the phone, and says it’s Anne Marie for Andy.  She wants him to know there’s this man sitting in their living room who says he’s an old friend, and he won’t leave, and he won’t give his name, and would Andy please come home now?  And then Dortmunder realizes he’s expected to go too.  And this is what comes of modern communications technology; intercoms, landlines, etc.  Well, that’s what Dortmunder thinks of as modern communications technology.  Please, nobody tell him about Twitter.  Though probably Kelp already has.

I can be grouchy too, and I have many problems with the final run of Dortmunders, but Westlake’s talent for observational humor never once flagged, to the very end.  He drags you in with the first paragraph, and you’re hooked.  But hooked to what, pray tell?  The ideas being used here would work fine for a short story, or even a short novel.  Thing is, most of the final Dortmunders run long.  The market wanted them long, to justify that  intimidating price on the inner dust jacket.

If there’s anything harder than writing comedies, it’s writing long comedies, with elaborate premises. This premise is decidedly elaborate.  The book is a lot better than I remembered–still a rambling, somewhat disjointed, and not entirely satisfying escapade, due partly to its excessive length and complexity.  And the same could be said of many a Dickens novel, to be sure.  But Dickens has tenure.  Westlake’s is still hung up in committee.  Anyway, what’s the premise here?

The guy waiting in Andy and Anne Marie’s apartment out to be an old friend of Andy’s, named Chester Fallon  He wouldn’t ID himself to Anne Marie, because for all he knows she’s the law, he’s seen cops as pretty as her, to which Dortmunder replies “Not enough of them,” so he does notice things like that.  Anne Marie is mainly irritated that he wouldn’t even give his first name–would have saved her a lot of worry, since nobody was ever scared of a guy named Chester.

Chester was a stunt driver in Hollywood, back before Hollywood replaced most stunt drivers and their deathproof cars with computer generated imagery.  Having become redundant in one career, he made use of his skills to drive getaway cars for heisters, which landed him in stir for a while.  Getting out early on good behavior, he landed a dream job as chauffeur for Monroe Hall, a mega-rich corporate executive, who owned a large assortment of rare and nifty old autos, worth about two million dollars on the collector’s market.  Aside from driving Hall and his wife, Chester was expected to tool around in all these cars regularly, to keep them in good working condition.  Great salary, great benefits, great rides–what’s not to like?

This.  Hall’s company was called Somnitech.  Note the past tense.  Somnitech dealt in energy, communications, manufacturing, etc–“It’s what they call horizontal diversification, which to me sounds like a whorehouse that caters to all tastes, but if that’s what they want to call it, fine.”  Somnitech paid Chester’s salary, benefits, retirement plan–it paid for basically everything and everybody Hall needed or wanted in his personal life, which was not 100% kosher, but he and others at the top of the Somnitech food chain did it anyway.  

And they got caught.  The company’s stock collapsed, and due to its very large size, this had a very bad effect on the personal fortunes of people from all different walks of life.  Calls of “Lock the rascals up!” were heard throughout the land, but they were not locked up.  Their lawyers saw to that.

They did have to make restitution, however, and although Monroe Hall remains fabulously wealthy, most of his funds are tucked away safely in offshore accounts where no greedy government or choleric creditor can lay covetous hands upon them.  How he spends his stateside cash is tightly controlled. His cars are now the property of a museum in Florida, but the terms of the  donation say he can have the use of them while he’s still alive, so they’re still on his estate in Pennsylvania.

And he can’t consort with known criminals, being one himself now (which seems a bit perverse), so guess who’s fired?  Chester hadn’t gotten so much as a parking ticket since his release, but he still lost his salary, benefits, retirement plan, and the little house on Hall’s estate he and his wife Grace were living in.  Hall did something literally millions of times worse than Chester ever did, and his punishment is to live like a rich man with his beautiful blonde wife in a well-appointed mansion on a lovely little piece of land that takes up most of the county it’s in.  I feel like Anatole France should have lived to comment on this, but I suppose he did in his way.  “La majestueuse égalité des lois…”

So everybody present is saddened to hear about Chester’s misfortune, but what does he want them to do about it?  Clearly something unlawful, because that’s the only thing people ever ask them to do.  John cuts to the heart of it–“What is it you want to steal?”  “His fucking cars,” Chester said, and nodded at Anne Marie.  “Excuse the French.”

(Sidebar: Not for the first or last time, Westlake’s often uncanny penchant for prognostication plays him false here.  Let it not be said life never improves on fiction.  Within a short time of this book being published, the central figures in the Enron debacle had been imprisoned, with the exception of Lay, who died shortly before that could happen.

Not even moats filled with man-eating lawyers, as Chester puts it, were able to protect them from the raucous public outcry for their incarceration that came–and this is key–from all segments of society.  If they’d only screwed over the hoi polloi, they’d have probably gotten a deal somewhat like Hall’s.  But a large segment of the gentry lost their shirts on Enron too.  And that’s the moral of the story, kids.  As Bernie Madoff could tell you.

Westlake does make it clear, later in the book, that it wasn’t only working stiffs who nursed a grudge, but he underestimated how the rules can change when you screw over the patricians along with the plebes.  Or, having seen boobs like Trump avoid justice so long, he figured any rich prick could do it.  Or maybe he just needed to keep Monroe Hall out of prison for the purposes of the story–and had his own unique form of punishment in mind.  There was much of W.S. Gilbert’s Mikado in Mr. Westlake, I often think.

Anyway, we can nitpick all we want, but Fastow only did a year.  Skilling gets out in 2018 (they lopped ten years off his sentence), and can look forward to a very comfortable retirement.  Want to see the dank stygian hellhole they stuck him in?

MON_lrg

Montgomery Federal Prison Camp.  Considered by many to be one of the four best lock-ups in the country to stay at, if you’re shopping around.  “La majestueuse égalité des lois…”  Excuse the French.)

Chapter 3 takes us over to Pennsylvania, to Monroe Hall, and his lovely wife Alicia, who we’re told loves the bum, but not without certain reservations.  She also worked at Somnitech, had a fair bit of culpability in its misdeeds, and being maybe the only person Hall gives half a shit about, he’d protected her.  So now she feels she has to share in what amounts to his house arrest, since he doesn’t dare go outside the grounds, for fear of encountering some among the very large number of people who want to do him bodily harm (there is reputedly one fellow toting a horsewhip in happy anticipation of the day he lays eyes on Mr. Hall).

He wants to throw a big party for all their friends.  She informs him sadly he doesn’t have any friends now.  Most of their former social circle will never forgive him for fleecing them.  He and his fellow conspirators at Somnitech are expressly forbidden to see each other.  She says they should all feel very lucky they’re not in prison.  He sulks that he might as well be.  She suggests he is perhaps feeling a little sorry for himself, and says they can go for a drive.  He doesn’t want to.  She says she’s going for a drive anyway.  In the Healey-Silverstone.  One of her favorites in Monroe’s collection.  If you want to see why–

Healey-Silverstone-1949-1950-by-B

(She looks good in it, we’re told.  “With the beautiful long-haired blonde at the wheel, flashing through the lush green Pennsylvania countryside on the first day of June, it was a sight to make you glad there’s evolution.”)

Chapter 4 is Dortmunder walking into the O.J. Bar & Grill, where the regulars are discussing global warming, air conditioners, and why all the holidays are on Monday except Christmas and Thanksgiving.  Rollo the bartender has a new electronic cash register, the functioning of which he explains to a skeptical Dortmunder, while the regulars begin pondering the weighty question of whatever happened to Armistice Day.  If you are a reader of these books, you are experiencing a warm inner glow right now, just thinking about it.

Dortmunder takes the usual array of beverages back to the back room, which he’s happy to see he’s the first to arrive at, so he can sit facing the door (no doubt thinking of poor Mr. Hickok).  Murch arrives, later than he’d hoped, complaining about bicycle lanes on the BQE, and monorails on the Van Wyck (there are not, to this day, any monorails in the five boroughs, unless you count the one in the Bronx Zoo, but the word ‘monorail’ is just inherently funny, ask The Simpsons).

Kelp and Chester arrive, while Tiny lingers behind at the bar a short time, to explain to the regulars that he really does not care whether we ever celebrated Decoration Day in America.  The regulars should have learned by now not to confuse Tiny Bulcher, but maybe this is a new set of regulars, to replace past sets he was forced to chastise.  Chester looks at the Kong-like hand Tiny proffers to him, the knuckles damp, and asks if Tiny hurt himself.  “I don’t hurt myself,” is the rejoinder.

So Chester tells his story again, and Tiny expresses the opinion that this Monroe Hall person could do with a little chastisement, and at this point the reader is of the opinion that the world could use a lot more Tiny Bulchers in it.   Like one stationed right outside Mar-a-Lago would be good.

Basically, the idea is that they steal the six most valuable cars, and maybe pack them with a lot of smaller collectibles, like music boxes and cuckoo clocks, that Hall accumulates to himself like the world’s richest and least lovable pack rat.  But this rat has a large security staff (larger than ever, now that the whole country wants to dismember him), and is surrounded by an electrified fence that is also alarmed, so that if the current is broken, the rent-a-cops come running.  So everybody looks at Dortmunder, like they always do when they need a plan to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be and come back out again.  And he says they need to go see the place.

So then we meet Mac, Buddy, and Ace, three stout-hearted union members (not stout in heart only), parked outside the Hall estate, singing their union anthem:

“Who will always guide the way?
Give us comfort in the fray?
Gain us benefits and pay?
The A C W F F A!”

If you were wondering whatever happened to the American labor movement……well, let’s say it’s come a long way since Killy, and probably the wrong way.

They follow Alicia around the countryside, as they have done many times before, which is at least aesthetically pleasing, but brings them no closer to their goal of getting their hands on her husband, who screwed over them and their union siblings something fierce.  But in this instance, it brings them allies–of a sort. Remember what I said about how it wasn’t only the working class who have bones to pick with Monroe Hall?

These two gentlemen sidle up in their leased Lincoln Navigator, “the most carnivorous vehicle on the road, the Minotaur of motoring.”  As thin and natty as their bluecollar counterparts are pudgy and disheveled, they go by the names Mark Sterling and Osbourne Faulk.  Venture capitalists.  Relative small fry in the seas of commerce, but with the ambition of someday becoming full-fledged sharks.  Or rather, that was their ambition, before the blandishments of Monroe Hall & Co. induced them to invest heavily in Somnitech stock.  Uh-oh.  Every time Mark brings up what followed this investment, Osbourne (‘Os’ to his friends, Mister Os to his enemies), growls softly.

Buddy says they can relate–they lost everything too.

Surprised, Mark said, “You invested?”

“Everything,” Buddy told him.  “Life insurance.  Health insurance.  Pension plan.”

Oh, those things.  They hardly mattered in the grand scheme of existence, after all, but Mark could just see that Buddy and his friends might treasure them more than they were really worth.  Symbolic value, and so on.  Sympathy at full bore, he said, “So you see, we are in a similar situation.”

As the scorpion once said to the frog.  But Mark does have some valid points to make here–the three amigos don’t really have a workable plan.  They think if they can capture Monroe Hall, they can hold him for ransom, ten million dollars, to be distributed equally to all of their members–a bit over 3k apiece.  As Mark thought–symbolic value.  Though in his own cold way, he does find their altruism moving, if naive.

He lets them down gently–even if they could get Hall, even if Alicia agreed to pay, as she probably would (none of them believes Hall would pay ransom for her, or his own mother, were she unfortunate enough to be among the living now)–as soon as the money got stateside, the Feds would siphon it up.

No, the thing to do is to get Hall in their clutches, and then, fixed beneath the baleful gaze of Mister Os, who keeps saying things along the lines of “With our hands upon his throat,” they can gently persuade him to transfer the needed funds–ten million for the union,  millions more for Mark and Os to invest in a new business opportunity they believe will proceed more felicitously–from his numbered overseas bank accounts, via their laptop.  Do it all electronically.  Don’t bother with such a greasy fungible as mere cash.  He doesn’t mention bitcoin, but how much you want to bet he would have had this book had come out a few years later?

So the bargain is struck.  They will work together as a team, and since they have mutually concluded Hall is never coming out, they will have to figure out a way to go in and get him.

And now we’re with Andy Kelp, called upon to provide a car for the gang to head over to Pennsylvania in, and still imbued with a deep faith in doctors–not their medical expertise so much as their good taste in cars, and he is pleased to have his faith borne out once more, as he finds a Buick Roadmaster Estate station wagon, circa the Mid-90’s, complete with MD plates.  Seats nine, or in this instance, four plus Tiny.

This grand vehicle was a color not seen in nature, nor much of anywhere else except certain products of Detroit. It was a metallic shimmering kind of not-chartreuse, not-gold, not-silver, not-mauve, with just a hint of not-maroon.  It was in effect a rendering in enamel of a restaurant’s wine list descriptions.  But even better, from Kelp’s point of view, the Roadmaster was dust-free.

IMG_2311

As one auto-centric website describes it, “The last of its kind. An end of an era. The final chapter.”  In short, the ideal transport for the Dortmunder gang.  But far from ideal for Dortmunder, who ends up sitting in the auxiliary seat in the far back, that you have to enter via the tailgate, and which faces the rear of the vehicle, meaning that he has to put up with all kinds of disrespectful gestures from passing motorists and their bratty kids.  He bears it with his usual stalwart dignity and forebearance.  Tiny suggests they get some carpet tacks to fling under the tires of the offending motorists.  Dortmunder is grateful for the suggestion.

So they size up the security at the estate.  If only Somnitech had been this secure. Dortmunder quickly figures out there’s no way they can break in there undetected and get the goods out.  So it’s no go?  Not quite.

They had a lot of time to gab on the way there and while sizing up the terrain, and Chester has understandably had a lot to say about his former employer–and he lets it slip that nobody really wants to work for the guy anymore.  He’s pitifully understaffed.  And here is the point of vulnerability Dortmunder’s practiced eye always looks for.  “Monroe Hall needs staff,” Dortmunder said. “We hire on.”

So he declares at the end of Chapter 9, and now the premise of the book is is fully established.  Dortmunder & Co. will pretend to be the faithful employees of a faithless billionaire.  The union guys and the baby capitalists will pretend to be on the same side.  Monroe Hall will pretend to be a human being and Alicia will go on pretending to believe that he is one.  The ducks are lined up.  The stage is set.  The cast is assembled.  Part 1 is concluded.

Which leaves a whole lot of book left for Part 2.  Not quite four fifths of the book, to be precise.  But that four fifths includes a whole lot of extraneous material we can skirt past, which is the primary weakness of this novel–and at the same time, one of its undeniable pleasures.  As I like to say, reading the late Dortmunders is a bit like hanging out and chewing the fat with old friends.  It may not always be as productive or enlightening as one might hope.  But if there’s a more pleasant method for frittering away one’s spare time betwixt the cradle and the grave, I’ve yet to find it.

PS: The title of this book had been used several times before–in several different genres and artistic medias.

 

 

 

So which of these might have inspired the erudite Mr. Westlake to choose that title?  I’m guessing the first.  But hell, let’s say all of them.  Why not?  It’s the road we’re all on, after all. These gents will vouch for that.

 

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Mr. Westlake and the LOA.

‘Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print.
A book’s a book, although there’s nothing in ‘t.

Lord Byron

In reviewing our last book, I was moved to rant a bit about how, much as I disparaged its quality as a literary work, it was, nonetheless, still easily and instantaneously available to anyone with with an e-reader.  That was largely because it came out in 2003, by which time pretty much any book that got a print edition got an electronic one to go with it.  Unfortunately, by the time e-books became de rigeur, most of Westlake’s best work had already been produced and published.

And yet, it must be said, most of his best work is still ‘in print’, even if only in digital form, or as audio books (if you call that print).  All twenty-eight Richard Stark novels.  Of the fourteen Dortmunder novels, the only one you can’t get at the Amazon Kindle Store is Don’t Ask (has anyone asked?), and there’s still fourteen books, because Thieves Dozen is there.  The five Mitch Tobin mysteries–all there.  Series fiction tends to perpetuate itself, because publishing, tangible or virtual, loves repeat customers.  (Sara Joslyn and Samuel Holt are shit out of luck, but I don’t think we need to worry ourselves too much about that for the present time.)

The Ax, his best-selling and most critically lauded work, self-evidently has a Kindle edition.  His few very long novels, none of which quite exactly fit his usual niche, are all there too, amazingly.  Ex Officio.  Dancing Aztecs.  Kahawa.  Smoke.  You could spend a whole summer at the beach getting through all that digital ink.

Between University of Chicago Press, Hard Case Crime, Mysteriouspress.com and a few other outlets, you can read the great bulk of Westlake’s vast treasure trove of stories, in physical and/or electronic form (including some things that went unpublished in his lifetime)–some e-publishers have even made some of his early science fiction and sleaze paperbacks available–nice thing about that is they don’t have the money to commission cover art, so often you get the original cover, in all its lurid tawdry splendor.  You can even get Comfort Station, a throwaway parody of Arthur Hailey (that nobody who has the original paperback will ever throw away, because precioussssssss…..)

And naturally there’s plenty of used hardcovers and paperbacks of many editions still to be had via used bookstores and the online marketplace.  Also, lest we forget, The Getaway Car, a nonfiction anthology, that opened our eyes to new possible interpretations of Westlake’s fiction and Westlake himself.

So I can’t really complain that  his books aren’t out there, pretty easily available to anyone with a bit of spare cash and spare time, and the willingness to search around a bit.  You can get download most of his best work (and much of his worst) with nothing more than a credit card and a wifi connection.

But I’m going to complain anyway, because it’s not enough.  Some of the best novels he ever wrote have been out of print for decades.  And it’s increasingly difficult to find even his most famous and influential books in anything other than ebook form.  I understand the way the publishing industry is going–I work for a library, and I thank the gods for my own Kindle (reading Dostoevsky’s Demons on it right now–timely–too timely)–but I also know we’re a very long way from abandoning paper books yet.  I ought to know, since I’m the one toting boxes full of them, day after day.

I have read that Abby Westlake and others with a connection to her husband’s literary estate, have expressed interest in some of his work being reprinted by The Library of America.  Inquiries were made not long after Mr. Westlake’s death.  But nothing came of them.  And yet, shortly after Elmore Leonard’s death–

three_library_of_america_covers

Well deserved, but why him and not Westlake, who died almost ten years ago?   I could make some guesses, but guess what?  I don’t care why.  There may be reasons, but there aren’t any good reasons.

Leonard got his start in westerns; Westlake in science fiction and fantasy, with the occasional dash of horror–the old literary establishment prejudice against the latter genres?

Maybe not.  Philip K. Dick got a collection too (with none of my favorites in it–mainly the ones that feel least like science fiction, which I would guess was the point).  And Vonnegut, but of course he shook the dust of genre from his feet a long time ago. I was never all that impressed with him, to be honest.  But he’s an Important Writer (who is mainly kept in print by college professors and their students).

(Incidentally, that Jackson collection is wholly inadequate–where’s The Birds Nest, The Sundial, Hangsaman?  Most people still don’t understand how great she was.  I’m glad she got in, but that is not sufficiently representative of her range.)

My interest in the LOA began in earnest when I read their collection of crime novels of the 1950’s–a truly original and downright seminal anthology of oddball authors, that will centrally figure in articles I aspire to publish here someday soon, and maybe I will.  They also published five David Goodis novels, almost single-handedly reviving interest in him (though not in France, where they’ve never stopped being interested in him).

I truly admire David Goodis.  I have spent many a cold windy day pouring over his dark meanderings in a bar, a foaming glass of suds beside me (it’s really the only way to read him).  He was not nearly as good a writer as Donald Westlake.  Hell, I’m not sure he was a good writer at all; that’s not the point of Goodis.  I guess you can say he epitomizes a style, a mood, but I suspect the main reason he got that anthology is that the French like him.  (Psst! They like Westlake too!)

Looking over their list of volumes to date, I note a decided dearth of humorous writers.  Goes without saying they have Twain, Thurber, Lardner–but no Perelman, no Benchley, and no Wodehouse (he’s more American than Nabokov!).  George S. Kaufman gets a collection, and much as I love the Marx Brothers, I’m not entirely sure why that is.  You can just watch the movies made of his plays (the best of which were co-written with Moss Hart).  I’m not begrudging him, I’m just saying.  Nobody reads Kaufman to laugh these days.  I mean, it’s bad enough they haven’t published any Parkers, but they haven’t even published any Dorothy Parkers!

One can understand that there’s a whole lot of sacred scribblers out there in the weeds, waiting their moment in the sun.  One can further understand that every time they publish a collection of some author who isn’t deemed to be quite the right sort (apparently some people didn’t think Shirley Jackson was LOA-worthy), you start seeing things like this–

(Okay, I agree something can be funny without being at all fair, but none of that changes the fact that Shirley Jackson was one of the greatest writers of her generation, and she’s been anthologized a lot.)

So you can imagine that some people would look down their noses at a Westlake collection.  But that being said, what would such a collection look like?  I don’t have the mad web skills that would allow me to create mock LOA covers, but I do have a pretty clear notion of what books of his ought to be in print that are currently not in print.

If Leonard got three books, Westlake deserves no less, but I don’t think we need to go with the decade-based system.  I’d suggest that one volume be devoted to works leaning towards the whimsical side of Westlake’s nature (but often with a dark edge to them) and another leaning towards the dark side (but still with the odd dash of whimsy).  Some of his books are so perfectly balanced between the two poles, they could go either way.  But here’s how I’d do it.

Volume I–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Heroic Absurdity, 1966-1984

The Spy in the Ointment
Adios, Scheherazade
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
Brothers Keepers
A Likely Story

Volume II–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Dangerous Bewilderment, 1961-1975

Killing Time
Killy
Anarchaos
Up Your Banners
Two Much!

Volume III–Donald E. Westlake, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe–Five Crime Novels, 1962-1997

361
The Hunter
The Seventh
Wax Apple
The Ax

My problem with Vol. III is that it steps on the toes of the publishers who are keeping all these great books around for us  (so does Two Much!, I guess, but it’s just two good to leave out).  It also potentially gets them a lot of new readers for Westlake, Stark, and Coe.  A net positive, I think.

I’d really love to get A Jade In Aries in there too, but as I said, all the Tobins are evailable now.  Wax Apple, to me, is the best of the five, even if A Jade In Aries is more ambitious and radical.  Wax Apple is also the midway book in the series, the relative calm between the storms.  And, you know, gender identity politics–what was brave and forward-thinking then can be easily misunderstood now.  People can always go find more, and make up their own minds.

Just dreaming out loud.  Maybe there’s something about Westlake that makes people in the book biz underrate him, even while they’re loving him.  Maybe he was too successful at flying beneath the radar.  Maybe he published too much, under too many names, and maybe he wrote to the market a little too much. (Elmore Leonard arguably did that even more.)  Maybe he’s just too confusing, too hard to pigeonhole, flitting back and forth between comedy and crime, mendacity and murder, and blending them together so artfully that you don’t know where one leaves off and the other begins.

I have to admit, I wouldn’t envy the task of some editor tasked with finding a way to sum him up in three books–and if it ever happened, he might well get only one.

I’m not the only one who thinks he’s among the greatest writers America ever produced, and my blog stats reveal that there are people all over this planet who think the same thing.

I’m just putting it out there.

And hopefully next week I’ll be putting out my review of the next Dortmunder, but after a two week hiatus, I figured a quick toss-off wouldn’t go amiss).

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe

Review: Money For Nothing, Part 2

Robbie was a good listener, watching Josh’s face intently, almost never blinking.  When Josh finished, Robbie let a little silence go by and then said, “That’s crazy, you know.  That’s completely crazy, all that story.”

“Getting a thousand dollars a month for seven years with no explanation isn’t crazy?”

“I wouldn’t plot it this way,” Robbie told him.  “You have to at least make a stab at believability.”

Mr. Nimrin’s attempt to scoff lacked a certain conviction.  “Disappear?  How do you expect to do that?”

“Oh, come on,” Robbie said.  “Josh probably wouldn’t be able to pull it off, so he’s dead meat–”

“Hey.”

“–but I’m an actor.  I could be somebody else in twenty minutes, stand right in front of you, you wouldn’t know it was me.”

“Oh, fine,” Josh said.  “Now I’ve got two masters of disguise.”

“Not disguise,” Robbie corrected him.  “Disguise is for amateurs.  What I do is character.”

Mr. Nimrin clearly hadn’t liked the amateur crack.  “If you could disappear so readily,” he said, sounding miffed, “why haven’t you done so?”

Robbie spread his hands.  “What–and give up show business?”

Although this is one of my least favorite Westlake novels to read, it’s turning out to be even more of a pain to review.  On the surface, it’s a fairly diverting story, Westlake’s prose is ever a pleasure to peruse, and it’s one of our last chances to enjoy his reverently irreverent take on New York City and its environs.  But the deeper I get into it, the more my head hurts and my spirit flags.  I don’t want to review this book.  Why are you making me?  Oh right.  Another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into.

“A Novel By the Author of The Ax” says the paperback reprint from Grand Central Publishing (Mr. Westlake’s final redoubt) with its predictably trite artwork.  From one of the finest crime novels of the 20th century (one of the finest novels, period) to this, in just a few short years.  O tempore.  O mores.

That is the precise edition I’ve been using here, incidentally.  I have never purchased a copy of this book.  Last time, I read the hardcover first edition from Mysterious Press, borrowed from the stacks up above my desk.  But visiting with my mom in her gated retirement community in the sunny south, a short spell back, I had occasion to accompany her to the community center, where there is a sort of book exchange.  Basically, people donate unwanted books, and residents can just come in and take them, without even checking them out, returning them at their leisure, or never at all. Mainly mainstream middlebrow pop lit.  You know.  ‘Good reads.’

There were maybe half a dozen or so Westlakes there, including this (no Starks at all, I’m oddly happy to report).  I needed to start on it.  So I took it.  For nothing.  Seemed appropriate.  My mom said it was fine.  Are you saying my mother is dishonest?  By the way, they had fifty-three James Patterson novels–just in the trade paperback section.  It would have taken too long to run a complete tally in all formats.  I already said the o tempore o mores thing, right?

So where we left things last time was that Mr. Nimrin had informed Josh that one of his fellow sleeper agents, when woken up, had professed a desire to go back to sleep, and Mr. Levrin & Co. complied with his request in a most permanent fashion.  Josh, being depressed by this news, retaliates by informing Nimrin that he’s figured out what the target of this operation is–the dictatorial leader of a former Soviet satellite, who is attending a ceremony honoring his country’s sole Olympic medalist at Yankee Stadium.

The dictator is a thoroughly unpleasant and sporadically murderous fellow, as persons in his walk of life tend to be, but the agents will also be shooting quite a few relatively innocent bystanders standing around him (the better to confuse the issue of why this happened and who did it).  They’ll pretend to be among the wounded themselves (fake blood packets, like in the movies), then kill the EMT workers trying to revive them, and disappear without a trace.  Josh responds with a conditional third-person variant on the sort of indignant expostulation you’d normally expect from somebody a different kind of Westlake protagonist was robbing at gunpoint.

They’d never get away with it.,” Josh said.

“Oh, come now.” Mr. Nimrin was insulted.  Glowering at Lincoln Center, he said, “Of course they’ll get away with it.  These are not some religious fanatics, determined to kill themselves and sail off to some matinee heaven.  These are professionals.  Do you think this is the first assassination I’ve been connected with, in thirty years of service?

“It’s my first,” Josh said, “and I don’t want it.”

“Though it isn’t mine, is it?” Mr. Nimrin said.  “They’re keeping me out of the loop on this, aren’t they?”  Then he offered a bitter laugh an said, “Oh, yes, we say ‘out of the loop,’ too.  Everyone does now, though many have no idea what it means.  Part of the Americanization we all so bravely struggle against is the Americanization of slang.  It started many years ago with OK, which seemed to be all right, since OK didn’t mean anything in English, either.  But it was the thin end of the wedge.  See?  There’s another.”

“Mr. Nimrin,” Josh said, “I don’t want to talk about slang with you.  I want to talk about how I get out of this mess.”

(I’d much rather talk about slang, but since Mr. Westlake has chosen to assign his deep fascination with linguistic peculiarities to a curmudgeonly Non-POV character he is going to deal with rather summarily later on, I’ll just refer you to this article from the OED, OK?  Wouldn’t want you to be out of the loop.)

The mention of terrorist matinee heavens seems to indicate that Westlake wrote this book after 9/11, though perhaps he conceived of it beforehand.  But this is the only reference to terrorism in the book, meaning that as far as the characters are concerned, that date has no special significance. So it’s a Post-9/11 novel written from a Pre-9/11 perspective.  Westlake hasn’t figured out yet as a writer what to make of that day, that had a particularly shattering effect on the psyches of all New Yorkers.  He hasn’t fully processed it yet, and once he does, it’s going to be as Stark, and his main takeaway is going to be that it’s made his job a lot harder.  And that he still prefers freedom to security, given a choice.

Westlake is here once again displaying his conviction that at the end of the day, professionals are more dangerous than amateurs (though amateurs may triumph if they find their inner pro), and has created a situation where conventional terror would be unlikely to achieve the desired end.  In this case, I’m not so sure he’s right–if your only goal is chaos and fear, professionalism might prove more of an impediment than an asset.  I guess if we were talking about hackers in the employ of certain governments, trying to overthrow Democracy, he’d have a point, but that would make a very boring book.  In any event, this is not a book about terrorism.

Josh returns home to find Eve waiting for him.  She’s seen Tina Pausto’s slinky Mata Hari gear in his closet, and there follows a domestic scene, at the end of which he shows her the AK-47’s and uniforms she totally missed, because one-track-mind.  Eve is, quite honestly, not much of a character, because she doesn’t need to be, because she’s not The Girl, she’s The Wife.  Westlake could write interesting wives when he wanted to, but not here, for whatever reason.

She’s very attractive (we’re given to understand this, though there is basically no physical description of her in the book), and a good mother, and a loving passionate partner who Josh rightly adores, and very occasionally the source of some pragmatic suggestions.  But mainly she and their offspring are there as an incentive to heroism.

So once she’s been convinced Tina isn’t a threat to her marriage and Josh wasn’t lying (just not telling the whole truth), and he tells her about the need to find the third sleeper before Levrin and his cohorts get to him, she mentions that one of their summer neighbors in Fire Island works for an insurance agency, and has access to amazing databases.  He gives her the name–Mitchell Robbie–and in two shakes of a hound’s tail, she’s got the address.  856A East 2nd St.  The Lower East Side.  He lives in his own theater.  He’s an actor.  No, he’s not Alan Grofield living and working under a false name, but wouldn’t that have been fun? We’ll have to settle for a sort of roadshow Grofield, and another urban sociology treatise.

Alphabet City, it’s called, and as a neighborhood, it could not be more mixed.  The remnants of the waves of immigration can still be seen, fused with newer arrivals.  Parts of the area have become more valuable, but it still contains plenty of pockets of poverty.

Poverty and art have always been more than nodding acquaintances, so another part of life in Alphabet City has a certain La Boheme atmosphere, with coffee shops and performance artists and poetry bars and the most minor of publications and the most marginal of theaters.  Good Rep fit right in.  It was in a corner building, six stories high, the tallest you can erect a building without an elevator in New York City, with a crumbling stone outdoor staircase leading up to a wide entranceway that looked as though it had been gnawed for many years by giant rats, which was probably true.  To the left of the stairs, toward the corner, was a bodega crowded with inexpensive food in very bright packaging, and to the right of the stairs, with a marquee the size of a Honda hood, was Good Rep.

Good Rep is currently hosting a revival of Arms and the Man, which is certainly convenient.  Venturing inside the establishment, Josh quickly encounters a short dark-haired narrow-faced gentleman he quickly divines is Mitchell Robbie, who is understandably 1)Suspicious of Josh’s motives and 2)Unwilling to admit he made a mistake cashing those checks from United States Agent, which he probably thought of as a sort of informal artist’s subsidy.  A poor man’s MacArthur Grant.

Robbie’s skepticism collapses under the weight of Josh’s conviction, and is replaced with deep concern–he hates guns.  Even as props.  He won’t do any Mamet plays (a shot across the bow of the playwright’s cranky public assertions that all gun control is evil, and that the more guns there are, the safer we all are, and it would have been so nice if he’d been right).

And now, as Mr. Shaw might say, a dramatic coincidence–Levrin shows up to activate Robbie.   Josh hides in Robbie’s apartment behind the stage, while Robbie rather admirably improvises a character for himself who might credibly have accepted the job of foreign sleeper agent.  Perhaps a few too many British-isms, and he overplays it a bit, but Levrin is used to odd personalities in his line of work, and leaves, shaking his head, after instructing Robbie to rent a car.  Oh, and he gives Robbie the bank book for the 40k account in the Caymans that comes with activation.  Another grant.  Robbie’s so pleased, until Josh tells him about the impending massacre at Yankee Stadium.

(Sidebar: Would this be a better book if Robbie was the protagonist?  I think it would, yeah. Westlake probably thought it would too, or at least that it would be easier to write. He knew exactly how to do characters like this, freewheeling independents, practical cowards who turn out to be brilliant in the clutch, and of course he loved writing actor-protagonists, while perversely refusing to ever actually show any of them doing their jobs, except in that one book where the main subject of the book is acting.

Robbie first appears on page 106 in my edition, and he takes over the story without half trying.  It wouldn’t have been too hard to reverse the roles, and do the book from Robbie’s perspective, with the opening scene being Josh coming to warn him, and take it from there.  I would assume Westlake at least considered that.

All the previous Nephews–even Jay Fisher, the hapless second string network correspondent from I Gave At the Office, had some exceptional aspect to them, some splash of color in their lives.  And here he’s made his hero an ad agency hack with a wife and a kid and an expense account.  Because he’s trying to break the mold here.  Because he wants to take an organization man, well settled into his mediocre life, and turn him into something better.

That, for him, is the raison d’etre of the story, which is not about espionage, any more than it’s about terrorism.  How a chocolate soldier becomes a real one, under the pressure of severe exigencies. The same story he told in The Spy in the Ointment, only with a hero who has no higher ambition than to work a steady job, go home to his pretty wife, and watch his son grow up.

But to make that work, you have to believe in the person Josh was before all this happened, and speaking for myself, I don’t.  Robbie, with all his eccentricities and impressions [he’s doing spot-on send-ups of Levrin and Nimrin a short time after meeting them], is more believable within five minutes of our meeting him than Josh ever becomes, and he is by no means one of Westlake’s best characters in this vein.  He still gets to steal every scene he and Josh share in this book.  Well, of course he does, he’s trained for that.

Robbie says Josh can’t think outside the box because he lives in the box, and likes it there.  Well, a lot of people do, maybe most people.  But unless you can understand that type of personality, like him on his own terms, you’re not going to do a very good job writing a book about him.  Sidebar concluded.  I am not making this a three parter, even if that means skipping over two thirds of the plot.  Just so you know.)

Let me telescope things a bit.  Okay, a lot.  Nimrin meets Robbie, and is not encouraged, and they have a rather interesting discussion about whether actors or spies are better at disguising themselves as other people.  Robbie arguably wins the point by having Nimrin walk right past him (in character) without recognizing him, but Nimrin scores a point in return, later on, when Robbie follows him to Port Washington, Long Island, then loses him when Nimrin does one of his quick changes.

Josh has now decided that even though Nimrin insists his only chance of survival is to go along with the plot, he can’t do that.  He can’t be a party to all those murdered innocents.  So they have to find some way to steal a march on Levrin & Co., and Nimrin clearly won’t help them with that.   They need to find the safe house, and that’s in Port Washington, where Nimrin is posing as a confused old rich lady’s butler.  (Shades of the next book in the queue, which means they were both written around the same time.)

Robbie is doing all the heavy lifting at this point, using his acting skills right and left to get them the information they need, some of it from one of those helpful cab drivers you somehow never find outside of crime fiction.  She informs them that Mrs. Rheingold is the last in a long line of old moneyed people, the family having ‘daughtered out.’  She married some ne’er do well who turned out to be a real estate developer, and of course she broke it off when she found out how he made his living, because really.

His feelings hurt, he got the rights to half the family estate in court, and built a lot of little tract houses on it.  She retaliated by erecting a huge wall around the family manse, and going into seclusion.  And somehow, her house ended up being a headquarters for Ukrainian spies, but she has no idea about any of that.  I can’t wait to stop typing this synopsis, you know.

(There really are Russian and maybe even Ukrainian spies in New York City and its environs, needless to say.  Up to all kinds of mischief.  But they don’t work like this.  I’m pretty sure.  Well, as sure as anyone can be in this day and age.  Seriously, the main problem with this book now is that Westlake makes them work too hard.  Their safe house now would probably be the big white one on Pennsylvania Ave.)

There’s also some kind of corporate retreat thing on one side, ‘Christian Capitalists’ (oxymoron don’t half say it) and they go around in orange hats on golf carts.  It doesn’t get developed much (hardly anything in this book does), but it’s a plot point later on, so I should mention it.

So they know a lot now, but what good does it do them?  Much as I don’t agree with the narrative’s assumption that going to the authorities is impossible, with that assumption firmly in place, because there’s no story without it, all they’ve learned is the likely setting of their torture and execution, once Levrin finds out they’re ringers.  The thing to do is to stop the assassination, so the spies will go home and leave them alone–but how?  Robbie has an idea only an actor would have–steal the uniforms.  The Kamastan army uniforms hanging in Josh’s closet.  Without the proper costumes, to establish character, allow them to blend into the ranks of the dictator’s honor guard, they won’t be able to put on the play.  They won’t have time to replace them before their target is back home, out of their reach.

Nimrin catches them spying in Port Washington, and is rather hypocritically shocked by their behavior (this is a constant leitmotif with the character–he doesn’t like it when people don’t live down to his expectations,  don’t continue to behave in in the stupid predictable unimaginative manner that gives people like him an edge over the rest of the world).

They need to get him on their side, so they try to bribe him with the 80k in their Cayman bank accounts.  He’s not happy about it, but he comes from a culture where it’s almost rude not to accept a bribe, so he conditionally agrees.  Very conditionally, as it turns out.

Here and there in this disappointing book, there lies the occasional gem–Nimrin has not been happy living as a butler to a crazy old heiress (like Grey Gardens, only no daughter, more money, better clothes, fewer cats), but he had thought he could at least embezzle a little something from the housekeeping money.  He thought wrong.

“An enterprising independent local grocer, for instance,” Mr. Nimrin explained, “I could deal with, pad the account a bit here, a bit there, split the difference.  But the Grand Union!” he snorted, with an angry dismissive wave at the grocery sacks beside them.  “They’re all employees.  Cowards to a man–and woman–and they wouldn’t get the profit anyway, it would go to their corporate masters.  Oh why couldn’t Marx have been right?

Robbie, sounding honestly bewildered, said, “I don’t know.  Why?”

“Socialism, for a clever man,” Mr. Nimrin told him, “is a license to steal.  Capitalism is a license for capitalists to steal.  As the name suggests, you first need capital.”

(Or you could just have a name that suggests capital.  I’m going to keep beating this horse until it drops dead, you know.  Or until I do.)

As I have mentioned already, there is a huge problem with the notion that Josh and Robbie can’t go to the cops, the Feds, somebody.  It’s the 21st century, or nearly.  Obviously Levrin’s surveillance can’t be that great, or they’d both be dead already, and probably Nimrin too.  They have a lot of very solid intel now.  But they also have hostages to fortune–Josh’s wife and child, Robbie’s aged mother in Hartford.

And that goes from a theoretical possibility to a stark reality, when Josh gets home and finds Levrin there, and Tina, and a few hulking well-armed operatives, and is informed that Eve and Jeremy have, shall we say, been taken into protective custody.  Just to make sure Josh knows there’s no back door.  Well, now there isn’t.  He talks to her briefly over the phone.  She’s very scared, but holding it together somehow, for Jeremy’s sake.  They hang up.  Levrin suggests ordering pizza.  Tina is mildly sympathetic, but this isn’t her first rodeo, you know?

He gets to talk to Eve again, later, and this time she lets it slip there’s this amazing old antique cradle, and he knows–they’re being held at the Rheingold estate.

The plan with regard to the uniforms is to slip Tina some sleeping pills in her drink before Robbie comes in and steals the uniforms (which he covets in their own right, since good costumes cost money, and lots of good plays involve foreign soldiers).   That’s the plan, but that’s not what happens.  Tina and Robbie meet, are immediately taken with each other–she loves his Levrin impression.

And when she mentions she has trouble sleeping, Robbie slyly says Josh must have some sleeping pills handy, which she takes gladly.  Robbie and some of his cast mates from Arms and the Man (their names are literally Tom, Dick, and Harry, cue Ann Miller), come in later and take the uniforms.  Tina never notices.  (Or does she?  She’s a bit of a cipher. But not, I’m sorry to say, a very interesting one.  Too much of a Bond Girl, and that’s probably being unfair to Fleming, but much I care.  Though she may be the only Bond Girl who snores.)

Robbie insisted, for reasons having nothing to do with any of their plans, that Josh bring Tina to the opening of his play, and she is delighted to attend, goes shopping for very expensive clothes, and creates a minor sensation at the theater, wearing one of those little black dresses that never go out of fashion, nor should they.

I have to find things to interest me in this book that mainly doesn’t, and one of them is the third person narrator’s synopsis of a play I have never actually seen performed, though I went to a lot of top flight Shaw productions, back in the day.  It really shouldn’t surprise me that Mr. Westlake is a fellow Shavian, but how is he just now revealing this to us after so many novels?  I guess because the play is a metaphor for the novel.  Or an inversion of it.  I’m not quite sure.

Arms and the Man is a comedy set in a small town in Bulgaria in 1885.  There’s a war going on, Bulgarians led by Austrian officers versus Serbs led by Russian officers.  In the first act, a Serb soldier, who later turns out to be Swiss for some reason (Bluntschli, played by Harry), hides from Bulgarian troops in the bedrom of Raina, the daughter of a Bulgarian major.  She finds him, but he and his pistol talk her into covering for him.  She gives him a coat of her father’s, who’s away at the war, and he leaves.

The next spring, out in the garden (an even more minimal set), there’s some rustic comedy of the rural-lout sort, including the servant Nicola (Dick, with smudged cheeks).  The father, Major Petkoff (Tom, with a pillow stomach), is back from the war, and so is his daughter’s betrothed, the war hero Sergius (Robbie, looking not like just any doorman, but the doorman at Trump Tower).  Sergius and Raina are both devotees of the higher emotions, full of melodramatic gestures and proud stances (a dig at romantic novels peers wanly out of the past).

Bluntschli, the Serb/Swiss, now that the war is over, shows up to return the coat.  It takes another act and a half for everybody to understand that Raina doesn’t really want to be a romantic ninny and that she belongs with the realist Bluntschli rather than the preening hero, Sergius.  A nice around of applause, and out to dinner.

(No, when you eat after the play, it’s supper.  Unless it’s a matinee, of course.  I’m surprised at you, Mr. Westlake.  But not a bad synopsis.  A mite brief, perhaps.  If you don’t mind a little constructive criticism.)

Josh gets home from the opening night cast party, and wakes up at nine the next morning to Levrin calling him, to say they should meet where Josh keeps his Toyota Land Cruiser, because he needs a ride to Kennedy airport.  (Okay, it’s one thing to make a man participate in an assassination, store assault rifles in his apartment, force him to billet a gorgeous foreign spy without his wife’s knowledge, then kidnap said wife and their infant son to use as leverage–but to demand a ride to JFK at the last possible minute without so much as offering to pay for gas and tolls is really a bit much.  And people say us New Yorkers are pushy!)

It’s not just Levrin.  Also along for the ride are two of Levrin’s toughs, the one named Hugo, and one whose name doesn’t come up.  And when they get to the airport, Josh is instructed to drive to a little frequented area for longterm parking, and it’s a set-up.  They’re going to kill him.  Josh is cursing his own stupidity, when suddenly there’s a chance for him to grab the gun, so he does–and it’s loaded with blanks.  Because this isn’t where they kill him. This is where they get gunpowder residue on his hand, for later.

They are going to kill him–they were always going to kill him.  And Eve.  And Jeremy.  And make it look like he killed Eve and Jeremy prior to killing himself, and was personally responsible for the assassination, and there’s going to be a suicide note (which Josh later asks to read, surprising Levrin) and for the moment, at least, this is not an exercise in farce, because farce can’t accommodate the kinds of emotions Josh is feeling now.  (That a lot of us are feeling now.)

Meanwhile, those three stood beside the car, up near the front on his side, talking together, easy, calm in their manner and calm in their minds.  How could they do th is?  How could such people exist?  To murder an innocent inoffensive family, for some…what?

For some temporary geopolitical advantage, to somebody somewhere, which would probably, given the history of such things, not even accomplish anything.  If all the schemes and machinations of these realist political tough guys were any damn good, the world would be sorted out by now, woudln’t it?  For good or for ill, somebody would have won.

But they don’t care, they’re pragmatists, they ride roughshod over real human beings for ephemeral advantages in a contest that never ends.  They’ve traded in their humanity for something they think is better.  They don’t smell their own stink.

Do they always have to win?  Do they make their messes, and just move on, untouchable, full of their rotten expertise?  Was there nothing for him to do but play the part of mouse, among these cats?

(Understand, I’m not saying there is nothing whatsoever in this book that resonates with the times it was written in, and maybe even better now.  Though it perhaps might have made mention of the fact that there are real life Levrins and Nimrins much closer to home as well, and not always so professional.  As to Tina Paustos, I really couldn’t say, but that would be some compensation, at least.)

Josh’s question is answered, if not for all time, when Nimrin (who was supposed to be on Josh and Robbie’s side now, but 80k isn’t enough to retire on) arrives at the parking area in Mrs. Rheingold’s car, and runs at Josh, screaming “Where are the uniforms?”  And in fact, Josh doesn’t know where they are.  But they’ll torture him just the same, to try and find out.

And he’s past caring.  To bring up that final Yeats poem once more, “You that Mitchell’s prayer have heard….,” he’s fighting mad, and he’s not going to take it any more.  It’s a cold rage, and it stiffens his spine admirably.  No more the Chocolate Soldier, but the cool hardheaded pragmatist that Shaw’s hero concealed beneath the bonbons.

Nimrin, who is back on team Levrin now, talks to him in the car, hoping to get him to be reasonable (suicide is reasonable?), and when he loses his temper at Josh’s obduracy, tells him he should not think he is in the driver’s seat.  Josh looks at the steering wheel in front of him, and begs to differ.

And then Levrin has him beaten up, and locks him in a room.  And Josh breaks out of that room with Dortmunderian ingenuity, clubs the guard into a coma, takes the dying man’s gun, maneuvers his way through the house like James Freakin’ Bond, sees Tina being tortured by Levrin (with kitchen matches, shades of The Mourner), because she’s suspected of maybe having taken the uniforms herself, thinks about saving her, then thinks again, runs into Nimrin, ends up using him as a human shield against the terrifying Hugo, who much to his surprise ends up dead (Nimrin is just badly wounded), finds Eve and Jeremy, gets them outside, and there’s Levrin, waiting for them.  He did good.  Not good enough.

But then in comes Victoria’s Messenger Riding.  Only they’re riding in golf carts.  Wearing orange caps.  Christian Capitalists?  Not quite.  It’s Tom, Dick, Harry–and Robbie.  They probably never put on The Threepenny Opera, because money, but its 18th century forebear is public domain.  They have the four AK-47s.  And the element of surprise (because the right costume distracts and confuses, see, it works!)  And would you believe Harry was in the Army Rangers, before the acting bug bit?   Sure you would.

“The cast of Arms and the Man were very well-armed.”  (Oh you waited a long time for that pun, didn’t you, Mr. Westlake?)  They didn’t originally steal the guns, but Robbie called the team waiting at Josh’s apartment, and did his Lebrin impersonation, telling them to stand down and run for the hills, the game is up.  He demonstrates to Levrin, who of course insists that doesn’t sound like him at all.  From an invincible villain to a comic one, in less time than it takes to tell about it.  It can happen.  Thankfully.

Levrin tries the standard bad guy shtik, thrown down your weapons or the woman and child die, but then Josh mentions all the explosives in the basement, and Robbie says he needs to get over his fear of guns, and trains his Kalashnikov in that direction.  Levrin screams in terror, while over above his head, Mrs. Rheingold, greatly enjoying the spectacle from an upstairs window, exhorts them to blow it all up (with her inside; dementia has its virtues, never doubt it).

Eve takes Levrin’s gun away from him, and then a somewhat singed Tina comes running out of the house, stark naked, all six feet three inches of enraged femme fatale, and beats her torturer within an inch of his life.  Then she orders Robbie to put down his gun, and drive her away in the golf cart.  He obeys with pleasure.  (And he still has that 40k in the Caymans, of course).  Chapter 56 ends with Dick saying “That’s something the Christian Capitalists don’t see every day.”

I think that’s where the book should have ended.  The classic Westlake abrupt ending, with lots of tantalizing loose ends, never to be tied up in a neat little bow.  But this book is the exception to almost the entire Westlake rule book, and not usually for the better.  There’s a very standard tying up loose ends chapter after that.

The Feds finally show up, and are forced to agree, grudgingly, that they can’t figure out what to charge Josh with, and they’re going to have to let him go.  Tina and Robbie have disappeared without a trace.  Nimrin is alive, but not very happy (well, he basically never is).

In spite of having spent over a day in the Rheingold house believing she and her son were going to be murdered there, Eve has taken a shine to the old place, and to Mrs. Rheingold, poor thing.  Can’t leave here alone there, without her faithful butler.  So they’ll just move in for a while, and Josh can commute via the Metro North, instead of the Fire Island ferry.  No, Josh is not going to quit his job.  And for whatever reason, nobody at his job has missed him while all this was going on.  Back into the box with him.

And then, at the very end, he gets a call from Robbie, that is a direct and self-conscious echo of the final paragraph of the very first Nephew, almost thirty years earlier.  Robbie and Tina are an item now.  She’s negotiating her surrender to the authorities, in exchange for all kinds of useful intel.  Once that’s done, he’s going to find her an agent, make her a star, with him her close personal friend and impresario.  Lots and lots of money.  Maybe even a little for Josh.  Probably for the movie rights to his story. “Money for nothing,” Josh thinks to himself.

Eve asks him who was calling.  Josh shuddered all over.  “The future, I think,” he said.  End of book.  At last.

This book wasn’t the future, of course.  It was an attempt to bring back something that belonged in the past, and it was the last attempt Westlake made to revive the subgenre (maybe more of a sub-sub-subgenre) he’d helped pioneer, which had given him his first big success, and led to him being thought of as primarily a comic writer by so many, not always to his benefit, but it had its compensations.

I doubt he had any trouble getting it in print, and that bothers me, when I think of the three novels he couldn’t publish in his lifetime, all of which were immeasurably more interesting and revealing than this one–but not what people expected from him.  Not hardboiled, like Stark–not funny, like Westlake.  Because sometimes he wanted both polarities at once.  And see, people who really know what’s funny also know what isn’t.  Mark Twain wasn’t always funny either.

Maybe the Nephews had already run out their string, years before.  Maybe they didn’t belong in the new century, at least not the way Westlake wrote about them.  But I think maybe the biggest problem was that Westlake himself didn’t really believe in them anymore, and was no longer up to the elaborate juggling act that went into writing about them.

They always seemed like the lightest of his books, the easiest, but that’s an illusion–like the way Astaire makes his painstakingly choreographed routines seem like improvised throwaways.  Tripping the light fantastic is always much harder than it looks, and as Westlake headed into his final years, he just didn’t have the chops for it anymore (neither did Wodehouse at the end, but he had no other options).  The comic persona began to fall away from him–with just one crucial exception.  But the only first-rate work left in him would be from the other persona–the core persona.

As he falters in these final furlongs, two tall somber dark-haired figures step forth, to catch him as he falls, and hoist him back to his feet, one at each arm.  They have nothing to say to each other, because they don’t live in the same world.  But they share the same father.  And to him, they say in unison, without unction, but with deep respect, “Don’t sweat it.  We’ve got this.”

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels