Review: Smoke

Except for Stella and the myth of Perseus (and the spoofery of W.S. Gilbert in his treatment of Old Peter), the usual moral is that an invisible man is bound to act without ethical constraint.  Plato in The Republic raises the question of why any man should behave ethically if he has the means to escape punishment for evil deeds, and he cites the myth of Gyges, who used a ring of invisibility to get away with regicide and so take over the kingship himself.

All such powers are the object of the same moralizing in Hollywood science fiction and horror films, in which a mad scientist always gets his just deserts by dying a horrible death.

Leon Stover, in his introduction to The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance, A Critical Text of the 1897 New York First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices.

“But still,” said Kemp, “in England–today.  And the man was in his own house, and you were–well, robbing.”

“Robbing!  Confound it!  You’ll call me a thief next!  Surely, Kemp, you’re not fool enough to dance on the old strings.  Can’t you see my position?”

“And his too,” said Kemp.

The Invisible Man stood up sharply.  “What do you mean to say?”

H.G. Wells

Freddie was a liar.  Freddie was a thief.

D.E. Westlake

Donald Westlake didn’t write a lot of very long novels.  They weren’t really what he did best–his sweet spot generally lay somewhere between 150 and 300 pages, maybe under or over that sometimes, but not by much.  Enough room to get his points across, not so much that he’d have to belabor them to the point of tiresomeness.

It was a matter of the market he was writing for as well–mysteries tended to be on the short side when he started out.  You want to keep books in that genre fast-paced, don’t want to give the reader too much time to think about who’s dying or whodunnit, you want them to finish it quickly, then run off and buy another one.

As time went by, the market changed–the paperback original died off, hardcovers got a lot more expensive, and people wanted more kiss-kiss bang-bang for the buck, I suppose.  Ponderous tomes once more became de rigeur, and not just in the historical romance field–you might say the short pithy genre novel was gone with the wind.

It wasn’t all about the market by any means–sometimes Westlake just had so much to say with a given book, so much ground to cover, that he needed more room to run.  While these may never have been his most impeccably polished perfectly structured books, they all had their own virtues.  Dickens never wrote a perfectly balanced long novel either.  Of course, that was partly because he was mainly writing them as magazine serials.  Marathons are, of necessity, not so pretty as sprints.

Westlake’s first and fattest attempt at a really long novel (even the posthumously published Memory doesn’t quite qualify, at ‘only’ 365 pages) was Ex Officio, a bonafide airport novel, almost 500 pages of political thriller mixed in with social commentary and family conflicts, written under a single-use pseudonym (weirdly, this one is evailable, as many of Westlake’s shorter better more typical books published under his own name are not).

Second-longest is probably Kahawa, a tale of foreign intrigue, adventure, and romance–with a bit of a heist angle thrown in, since that was not written under a pseudonym, and comic crime was expected of Westlake by that point, but the comedy was pretty thin on the ground in a story about African genocide, so that one was a hard sell.  Some people actually like it the best of all his novels, go figure.

He wrote one very long Dortmunder, Drowned Hopes, that is structured rather more like several short linked novels, but his longest novel ever in the crime/mystery genre has got to be this one, and it plays no structural games–you start with Chapter 1 and go on until you reach Chapter 57.  454 pages in my first edition–which is autographed.  Westlake was clearly doing a lot more signing events at bookstores than he used to.

So the signature doesn’t boost the book’s value much, but still a nice thing to see when you open it up, and it’s comforting for me to feel his presence here, as I try to figure out the twists and turns of this, the last of his epic-length novels, and in my opinion, the first of his signature works of the 90’s, though better were on the way by the time it was published.

A crime novel this certainly is, as the very first thing it tells us is that the hero of the piece is a liar and thief.  Seems like an oddly superfluous thing for this particular author, writing for this particular publisher, to feel the need to spell out right from the start.  Much quicker to list all the Westlake protagonists who were not liars and/or thieves.  What makes this book, this protagonist, any different from what we’ve already seen?

Mainly that he’s based on an H.G. Wells character–or is, to state it more aptly, a response to that character, to that novel (novella, really–it’s a much shorter book than Smoke).  I don’t need to tell you which novel I’m talking about, do I?  It had been a very long time since I’d read it, and I felt like I better renew the acquaintance.  And as it happens, the only copy we have here at the library is the edition quoted up top, heavily (I’m tempted to say excessively) annotated by Leon Stover (Ph.D),  perhaps the most painstakingly dedicated scholar of Wells’ literary output the world has ever seen.


And perhaps the most fanatically single-minded.  His one goal in dissecting this novel (as he’d already done for several other Wellsian tomes) is to convince us that Wells, without any irony at all, intends the reader to see Hawley Griffin, The Invisible Man, a clownish thief and liar (ultimately freelance terrorist and murderer), as the hero of the piece, a proto-revolutionary, a worthy experiment in overturning the old world order that Wells spent his very busy life fulminating against.

Re-reading the book, along with Stover’s many footnoted interpretive interpolations to it, I found many of his points very convincing–illuminating, even.  I began to see what he was getting at.  I read a lot of Wells growing up, but I didn’t know much of anything about him then.  I knew he was a socialist, but so many people were at the time, and most of them didn’t go around cheering a wraithlike thief and killer who didn’t have anything close to a realistic plan of achieving his ethereal objectives, and who mainly seemed to have gone off his nut.

Stover admits there is much ambiguity about the narrator’s true feelings towards the title character, but keeps hammering home a series of fine details embedded in the narrative, little bits of symbolism that do in fact seem to hint Wells saw Griffin as a sort of comi-tragic hero, a failed experiment, but one that might lead in time to a successful one–that is to say, in the total overthrow of bourgeois society, by any means necessary (but probably involving quite a lot of crime, bloodshed, and general mayhem (Wells was partly inspired by the increasingly chaotic career of Sergei Nechayev, who also inspired Dostoevsky–imagine what he could have done if he were invisible), and the setting up of a one world state where all power would be in the hands of a scientific elite, and you know how Plato felt about Democracy, right?

That’s pretty much exactly how Wells felt about it.   Philosopher Kings don’t tend to like the common folk much.  They need a strong hand.  Don’t know what’s good for ’em.  (And who ever does, pray tell?   A counter-revolutionary question, I know.)

Does the late Dr. Stover (he died a bit less than two years before Westlake) overstress his points at times?   I thought so.  I think Wells wrote the book, to a certain extent, in a state of confusion, trapped between two modes of being, between who he was and who he thought he should be, identifying with and loathing both Griffin and his confidante/nemesis Kemp, who speaks for the existing order of things, for law and order and morals and good old English fair play and not hitting random passersby over the head with something heavy just because they annoy you (cathartic as that would unquestionably be, which is why the story in all its myriad forms has always been very popular).

(I must say, Stover does go overboard at times, working his way through an entertaining little genre novel, finding all these buried meanings in it, sifting through every paragraph for clues, acting as if he and he alone can plumb the inner mysteries of the author’s mind, and–hum.  Why does that remind me of someone?  Can’t quite seem to place who.  Well, it’ll come to me.)

Westlake couldn’t have read Stover’s edition, since it came out in 1998, but something must have impelled him to reread Wells’ book in some form.  Maybe he stayed up late one night and watched the brilliant funny little movie James Whale made of it, where as he did with Mary Shelley’s monster, he is once again making it all about his own closeted homosexuality and not telling anyone that’s what he’s doing (Wells probably didn’t even notice that, but he was reportedly deeply upset that Hawley was portrayed as a madman, to which Whale roguishly replied that only a madman would want to make himself invisible in the first place–now that’s a meeting of minds I’d have liked to see).

It’s not at all hard to imagine Westlake thinking to himself, “An invisible thief would be interesting to write about.”  And easy to pitch to a publisher, what’s more.  Ad copy writes itself.

So he went back to the source, viewing it with more insight perhaps than when he first read it, and he wouldn’t have had the same level of context as Stover–but he would have seen beneath the surface of the narrative, as he always did, would have known something of Wells’ beliefs, and what lay behind them (I find, as a general rule, the educated reader is well-advised to assume Westlake is at least as knowledgeable as him/her, and probably much more).  He would probably have known, for example, that Wells was heavily influenced in his thinking by Thomas Carlyle (Stover talks a lot about that).

Westlake’s attitude towards that scribbling Scot was made pretty clear in the opening quote for Up Your Banners.  Carlyle was an elitist, someone who felt the common people, and particularly those of certain types–blacks, Irish–needed to be kept down, put in their place and kept there, maintained in perpetual slavery or serfdom–for their own good, as well as society’s.  Well really, for the good of people like Carlyle, but it sounds so petty when you put it that way.

Wells had a very different set of prejudices and politics than Carlyle, and many other influences, people like Comte and Saint Simon–people who wanted to remake the world in their own image, impose their reality, their identity really, on everyone else, for the sake of universal order and well-being.  Westlake most definitely had a revolutionary thinker lurking around in him–nobody who disliked the rich as much as he could be otherwise–but you only have to read Anarchaos to know that he didn’t think you could ever succeed in making a good world by imposing ideas on people, by leaving everything behind and starting fresh.

He was more of in the Edmund Burke school in that regard.  He disliked change for the sake of change.  You need to shake things up, but you also need some things to stay the same.  More evolutionary than revolutionary.  And close enough to his working class roots to feel a strong irritation towards those who see the proles as mere pawns (as Marx certainly did).

Reading Wells’ book, seeing the confused thought processes of his title character, I was reminded of Dan Tynebourne, the tragically misguided young academic in Don’t Lie to Me, who gets sucked into a subversive scheme by a self-centered mentor who is only using his naive proteges to line his own pockets.  Mitch Tobin, casing Dan’s apartment for clues, sees many signs that Dan is someone with a split in his identity, torn between then and now, wanting to be something he’s not.  He’s wavering between two worlds, like a Walter Scott hero.  He’s not really the revolutionary type, but he thinks he ought to be.  And so many young people go through this phase.  I did.  Westlake probably did too.  Some never really come out of it.  (And some, to be sure, really are revolutionaries by nature, and they can be useful in some situations, enormously destructive in others.)

And might this be what Wells himself was expressing in The Invisible Man?  Stover certainly knew him better than me, and his biography of Wells is still unpublished, but it’s possible he missed something that Westlake picked up on–Wells believed in being a revolutionary–yet he visited the Soviet Union, which certainly filled many of the conditions he’d laid out years before for a revolution–and he washed his hands of it, said it would never work out (and of course it didn’t).

He didn’t mind so much Lenin and Stalin killing all those people; that thing Lenin said about how you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs surely resonated with him.  But it just wasn’t quite right.  Would it ever have been?  Do people who imagine revolutions in their heads ever find precisely what they’re looking for in real life?  They either have to settle for a flawed revolution, or wait for perfection to come, and it never does.  Both approaches have shortcomings.  By the end of his life, Lenin saw his revolution had become Stalin’s, it was all going wrong, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.  And of all things, as he faded from existence, his life’s work in ruins, he upbraided Stalin for insulting his wife, Krupskaya. How very bourgeois of him.  Trotsky no doubt had a good laugh about that, before the icepick.

Wells has his unseen protagonist declare against romantic love of any kind, say that he met a girl who had once meant a great deal to him just before turning himself invisible, and she was really nothing special at all–the idea expressed by Nechayev that the true revolutionary has no love, no friends, no attachments of any kind, no compassion for individuals, because this gets in the way of what needs be done.  But Wells himself had a great superfluity of women in his life, two marriages, many affairs, many friends.  And no doubt he sometimes felt this is why all he ever really accomplished in life was writing some very entertaining books.  Tolstoy was much the same way.  Geniuses can be awfully perverse sometimes.

He wanted to destroy the middle class, yet he remained very firmly a part of it all his life, sharing many of its attitudes, and pretty nearly all its prejudices.  His novella savagely satirizes English small town petit-bourgeois life–but that’s the precise life he was born into, the very people he’d come from.  I’d put him in that very large category of British social thinkers who dreamed of changing everything, and yet drew away in horror when actual change seemed to be on the horizon.  “Oh God, make me virtuous–but not yet!”  And one way to deal with that, of course, is to write about revolutionary change happening in the far distant future, which Wells increasingly did over time. (I’d personally say Olaf Stapledon did it better, more insightfully and compassionately and believably, but nobody ever makes movies out of his books, somehow).

(Oh, and not to be picky or anything, but Wells was a pretty nasty anti-semite, which comes out rather obviously in The Invisible Man.  That’s not hard to spot at all.   Oh certainly there are some decent ones, but really the Jews should just assimilate, don’t you think, give up their collective identity–if they don’t–well–you know that thing about the omelette.  In his defense, Wells felt rather badly about some things he’d said and written after certain events in Europe became clear shortly before his death in 1946.  He meant well.  We all do, right?)

So it’s Wells’ own identity crisis being laid out in the pages of that short novel, and Westlake would have seen that like a shot.  Why does Hawley Griffin fail? Because he doesn’t know who he is.   He can’t see himself, any more than anyone else can.  He becomes visible after his death (which even on the basis of the dubious fictive science that created him, makes no sense) because death has resolved his identity crisis, as it ultimately resolves everyone’s.

Seeing all of this and more, Donald Westlake resolved to write a book that would pattern itself after The Invisible Man, borrowing many of Wells’ ideas (as Wells had borrowed from still-earlier stories), elaborating on them, revisiting them in very different (and oddly similar) settings, fleshing them out quite a bit (there’s no market for a novella in the Mid-90’s), and utterly subverting this highly subversive book.  Because his invisible man won’t be a failure.  He won’t be alone.  And if you called him a thief, he’d just shrug his shoulders and grin, not that you’d see him do it.   He knows who he is.  His main identity crisis was over before the story began.

Frederick Urban Noon was the fourth of nine children born to a working class family in Ozone Park, Queens.  Most of his siblings were honest folks like his parents, but in that large a family, there’s always going to be a black sheep or two.  His sanitation worker father’s salary couldn’t buy him everything he wanted, so he took to stealing, took a few falls, took to drugs, stole even more to support his habit, and finally got sent away for two whole years.  And since an improbable coalition of Muslim and Born Again inmates made damn sure no drugs got into that prison, he had to get himself straight, and when he did, he made an odd discovery–

And here Freddie met a new self.  He hadn’t made his own acquaintance since he was fourteen years old, and he was surprised to find he liked the guy he’d become.  He was quick-witted, once he had his wits about him.  He was short and skinny, but also wiry and strong.  He looked pretty good, in a feral-foxy sort of way.  He liked what he saw himself doing, liked what he heard himself thinking, liked how he handled himself in the ebb and flow of life.

He never reformed, exactly, never became born again or changed his name to Freddie X, but once he was clear of drugs he saw no reason to go back.  It would be like infecting yourself with the flu all over again; back to the stuffy nose, the dull headache, the dulled thought processes, the dry and itchy skin. Who needed it?

So that was why, when Freddie Noon hit the street once more, two years later, at twenty-seven years of age, he did not go back on drugs.  He stayed clean, alert, quick-witted, wiry, good-looking in a feral-foxy way.  He met a girl named Peg Briscoe, who worked sporadically as a dental technician, quitting every time she decided she couldn’t stand to look into one more dirty mouth, and she also liked this new Freddie Noon, and so they set up housekeeping together.  And Freddie went back to being a thief.  Only now, he did it for a different reason, a third reason. Now he was a thief because he liked it.

(So that’s twice in three paragraphs we’re told Freddie is foxy, and between Parker the wolf and Dortmunder the coyote, we’ve got a matched set of cunning canids in human form now.  In the last Dortmunder, Westlake had referred to Kelp as fox-like, so no doubt something of Kelp went into Freddie, and something of their creator into both of them.  As the saying goes, “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows One Big Thing.”  Westlake was a fox.  Wells perhaps falls into the same category Isaiah Berlin put Tolstoy into–a fox who believes in being a hedgehog.  But I digress.  Foxes always do.  No need to get all prickly about it.)

Some time has clearly passed since Freddie got out of prison, so he’s nearing thirty years of age–which I really shouldn’t need to mention by now is the age Donald Westlake thought people become true adults, and their mature identities emerge–for better or worse.  Hawley Griffin’s disastrous rebellion begins and ends at that very age, same age as his fellow student and mortal enemy, Dr. Kemp, so maybe Wells agreed with that.

A character every bit as significant to the story as Freddie himself is introduced in that quote, also somewhere in her mid/late 20’s, but we don’t actually meet her right away.  First, Freddie has to do his fade, and not being a scientist himself, let alone an albino (as people tend to forget Hawley Griffin was, prior to his disappearing act), he’s got to meet up with some scientists before that happens.  Not mad scientists, by any means.  Though they are a tad–unconventional.

Dr. David Loomis and Dr. Peter Heimhocker were lovers.  They were also medical researchers, both forty-three years of age, currently funded by the American Tobacco Research Institute to do blue-sky cancer research.  Their work, reports of which looked good in tobacco-company annual reports, and references to which invariably formed a part of tobacco-industry spokespeople’s testimony before congressional committees, was sincere, intelligent, and well funded.  (Even the alarm system had been paid for with tobacco money.)  David and Peter were encouraged by their funders to come up with anything and everything that might help in the human race’s battle against the scourge of cancer, except, of course, further evidence that might recommend the giving up of the smoking of cigarettes.

David and Peter had met twenty years earlier, in medical school, and had soon realized how much they had in common, including a love of non-result-oriented research and an infinite capacity for guile and subterfuge in the suspicious sight of the outside world.  Their coming together strengthened both.  They’d been inseparable ever since.

I believe these two are the last of Westlake’s really significant gay characters, and he may spend more time on them in this very long book than he did any previous pairings of that persuasion (his most interesting same sex coupling will be making a rather grim return in the near future).

They’re not the villains of the piece, nor are they heroes-they have both sympathetic and unsympathetic aspects to their characters, and you like them without necessarily admiring them. I find they have much in common with the gay couple dabbling in art smuggling, from High Adventure, that Westlake never had time to develop much.  Like that duo, they have a lawyer friend, also gay, who proves to be smarter and and more professional than either of them, and tries to keep them out of trouble (a motif that goes all the way back to A Jade In Aries).

Their main problem is that they are corporate servitors, much as they delude themselves about it, though it becomes increasingly clear to them as the story winds on, just what kind of a devil they’ve made a Faustian deal with.  It’s not the central identity conflict of the story, but it’s important, all the same.  And that kind of conflict, as we all know, is very far from being a gay thing.

They are, in essence, a plot device to explain how Freddie turns invisible, it being important for Westlake’s purposes that this not happen by Freddie’s own choice, as it did with Griffin.  I rather think he agreed with James Whale that only a crazy person would want to make himself invisible, and he figured the romantic days of heroic proto-scientists experimenting on themselves were long gone, necessitating a guinea pig.

And I suspect Westlake made Messrs. Loomis and Heimhocker gay as a backhanded reference to Mr. Whale’s (and Claude Rains’) own sub-textual cinematic take on Wells’ story.  Wells’ dour and sexless Mr. Griffin, we can be sure, was never going to skip happily down the lane in borrowed trousers, singing to himself–he had more important things to do.  More’s the pity.  At least Whale’s Griffin has some fun along the way.

So Freddie breaks into their townhouse/laboratory, hoping to find some valuable stuff he can sell, and as mentioned above, there’s an expensive silent alarm system that alerts them to the break-in at dinner.  Peter, the stronger of the two, insists on going down there with a gun and apprehending the burglar.  He’s got an idea.

Westlake is going with Wells’ idea (adapted in turn from Charles H. Hinton’s Stella, a largely forgotten novel about a girl made invisible by her father to make a rather obscure left-wing political point), that if you could remove all pigmentation from a living creature, and reduce its refractive properties to zero, it would then be imperceptible (Wells knew this would also render the invisible creature’s own sense of sight unusable, and for the purposes of his story, he didn’t care).  But in this case, invisibility is an unforeseen complication resulting from a badly done experiment.

David and Peter are trying to find a way to prevent skin cancer.  They figure reducing the skin’s capacity to absorb sunlight might do the trick.  They’ve already got several translucent felines roaming about the house (a reference to Hawley Griffin first experimenting on a neighbor’s most unwilling cat in Wells’ story).   They have two experimental drugs, one in the form of an injection, and the other is taken orally, in the form of what looks like an after-dinner mint.

Held at gunpoint, Freddie reluctantly agrees to sign a release and allow himself to be injected with the first drug, in exchange for them not calling the cops on him.  They lock him up in a room, after getting his promise to stick around a while for them to monitor the results–but maybe they should have considered the fact that he’s a professional thief.  Not to mention a liar.

(There is a brief passage where we’re told Freddie knows all about ‘faggots’, as he thinks of them, from prison, and knows that in the outside world they’re called ‘gay’, even though a lot of them aren’t really all that convivial, and I don’t think Westlake ever really forgave the re-purposing of that word.  I mean, I think we’re all over it now, but it does complicate matters sometimes; like you’re a straight guy with a nice voice and you want to sing This Heart of Mine, a great little number, and you get to the part where you dream of gay amours, and good thing Fred Astaire got to that one before the transition was complete, or Lucille Bremer would have gotten the wrong idea.)

So they come back from a reheated dinner (David is most upset, dammit he worked hard on that meal), only to find Freddie Noon is gone, having taken the door off its hinges.  And believing, due to a misunderstanding of his they did nothing to discourage, that the after-dinner mint is the antidote to the drug he was given (being an ex-con, he’s well familiar with the potential drawbacks to being a test subject), he’s eaten it.   And left the premises.  With a whole lot of valuable office equipment.  Like that’s their main worry now.  Because those two drugs were never meant to be taken in tandem, and as they compare notes, they realize, to their horror–well, let’s cut to the fade.

Freddie returns to the apartment he shares with Peg, she wakes up after a bad dream about oral hygiene, to find his hand on her breast, and I mean they’re in love and in their 20’s, obviously–

“Mmm, nice,” she whispered, feeling that gentle pressure, feeling him find his way home.  Her left hand reached out in the darkness, toward the bedside table.  “Oh, let me see you,” she whispered, and her fingers found the pull chain.  She pulled, and the light came on, and she SCREAMED.


Her eyes snapped shut.  She thought, Take me back to the dream!  Back into the mouths, anywhere, anywhere but here!

Thrashing on top of her. “Whasa matter?”

She opened her eyes, wide, and stared at the ceiling.  “There’s nobody there!” she screamed, “Oh, my God, I’m going crazy!”

“What?  Whadayou–Holy shit!”

Indeed.  After a few more supplemental expostulations, a story follows, Peg is brought up to speed, and since there’s nothing else they can do right now, they become the first couple in history to have half-visible coitus.  Peg, we are made to understand right away, is no ordinary woman herself.

This isn’t really one of Westlake’s ‘Nephew’ stories, since Freddie has already found both himself and The Girl, and merely has to avoid losing them in the wake of this disturbing new development in his life, but Margaret ‘Peg’ Briscoe (the family name of a famed Dublin-Jewish political family, as Westlake surely knew), blonde, very attractive in a practical non-ostentatious sort of way, good-humored, level-headed, flexibly ethical when it comes to such matters as larceny,  and gutsy as all outdoors, may in fact be the only other among Westlake’s numberless young female love interests to be ranked with Chloe Shapiro, that heroic hard-driving hippie chick from his very first comic crime novel, The Fugitive Pigeon. She’s that great.

And this time through the book, I finally managed to head-cast her.  Shouldn’t have been that hard, really.  Peg is a Brooklyn girl, through and through.  For most of the story, she’s struggling with her feelings for this shameless reprobate, knowing he’s a thief and a liar, knowing she’s enabling his life of crime, and now he’s fuckin’ invisible?   The actress I have in mind was out of her 20’s by the time this book came out, but she’d already played a rather similar character in a little indie crime film. And a while later, she played an older, more prosperous, and rather more tragic version of the same character on The Sopranos.

But Peg is no tragedian, and Freddie proves himself worthy of her in the end.  Ms. Falco could have had a lot of fun with Ms. Briscoe, exercised comedy chops she’s rarely been given a chance to flex in her career.  It’s kind of a tragedy that never happened.

Peg is increasingly disturbed by Freddie’s appearance, or lack thereof.  He manages to hide from her a while the fact that for about two hours after he eats, the masticated food is visible in his gut, before absorbed and somehow rendered invisible as well (another idea that comes from Wells, and neither writer seems much inclined to dwell on the subject of whether it becomes visible again upon excretion, best not to ask).  But if he’s naked in the house, she feels like she can’t know if he’s looking at her, which is creepy.  If he’s dressed, there’s all these gaps where hands and head and such ought to be, which is creepier.

She goes out and gets a collection of Halloween masks for him to wear–Dick Tracy, Bart Simpson, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Ayatollah Khomeini (it was marked down).  And he’s got to wear rubber gloves.  And he’s got to go out for a walk sometimes, totally naked, and call her so she knows he’s gone out, just so she can feel she’s got some privacy.  (Hawley Griffin inexplicably chose to make himself invisible during an English winter–Westlake, more compassionate and practical-minded, has given Freddie this cross to bear at the start of a New York summer).

During one of these walks, Freddie steals some businessman’s cellphone to call Peg, and with no way to conceal it, ends up being chased by a mob until he throws it away.   Another scene out of Wells’ story, the difference being that Griffin uses it to fuel his growing ressentiment towards all humankind, and justify his bloody crusade.  Freddie just thinks to himself that people are weird, and goes back about his business.

Which is stealing.   It’s actually Peg who brings his attention to the fact that whatever the personal drawbacks to of invisibility, it’s the precise opposite of a professional disadvantage to him.  He starts devoting some thought to how he can make use of it.  True, he can’t be seen, but anything he picks up still can be.  He can still be felt if someone brushes up against him.  And bare feet on a New York City sidewalk (in summer!) are never a good idea.  But fox that he is, he can usually figure out an angle, given a bit of time.

Before Hawley Griffin takes to murdering people, his primary activity as an invisible man is theft–in fact, before he was invisible, he stole from his own father to buy the materials he needed to fund his experiment, which led to Griffin Sr.’s disgrace and suicide, since the money his son took from him was not his.  He’s stealing all through the book, feeling no guilt over it, but not really owning his actions, accepting the rather obvious fact that those who steal are, by definition, thieves.  He’s a respectable English gentleman, educated, industrious, with a great destiny to achieve.  To each according to his needs and all that, don’t you know.

So as with a funhouse mirror, we’re going to go on viewing Wells’ strangely amoral morality play, Westlake style, played out in a whole new light, with a protagonist who probably couldn’t murder anybody (this being a comic caper), but who could never deceive himself about who he is, or cling to any class delusions, or cherish any revolutionary fever dreams.

And that adamantine sense of self, combined with the love of a good woman, is all he has to anchor himself against a sea of troubles.  And a slew of enemies.  And we’ll see how he does that in Part 2.  And possibly 3.  We’ll see about that too.  But nobody will ever see Freddie Noon again.  See you next week?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, comic crime novels

Mr. Westlake and The Psupermen

Now let me tell you a very sad and very funny story.  A while back, Randy Garrett was staying at my place.  We worked in the same room, and we were both writing stories aimed at Analog.  Enjoying ourselves in the process, we both included private jokes for the other guy’s benefit, and one thing I did was make a minor character, an Air Force Colonel who showed up in the last three pages of the story, the spitting image of John W. Campbell, betting Randy that Campbell would never notice it.  I described the guy as looking like Campbell, talking like Campbell, and thinking like Campbell.

We brought our respective stories in at the same time, handed them to the great man, and both went back the next week because he wanted revisions on both stories.  I forget what he wanted Randy to change in his story, but I’ll never in the world forget what he wanted done with mine: He wanted me to make the Colonel the lead character.  I did it.  Eighteen thousand words.  Four hundred and fifty dollars.

(P.S. That’s the story he wanted a sequel to.  He really liked that Colonel.)

(P.P.S. It was a better story the first time, when it was only fourteen thousand words.  If I was going to rewrite, I wanted more money, so I padded four thousand unnecessary words into it.  It makes for duller reading, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.)

From Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You, by Donald E. Westlake.

The major nodded, unruffled.  He’d known Jim Brice for twelve years.  He understood that the colonel’s abruptness wasn’t so much the result of a nasty personality as it was the result of his single-minded desire to get the job done.  The major realized that no offense was intended, and so no offense was taken.

“I’ll do the job,” he told the colonel.  “Or at least I’ll take a healthy stab at it.”

“A healthy stab isn’t enough.  I want that boy’s ability out on the surface, where I can get some use out of it.”

“You talk as though you owned him,” the major chided gently.

“I do,” said the colonel.  “I own his ability, at any rate.  Or I will, once you dig it out for me.”

“Own it?

“I’ll get the use of it,” said the colonel.  “I can’t teleport myself, but I don’t have to, not if I have someone else who can do it for me.  I’ll get the use of his ability, and what’s that if it isn’t ownership?”

“If I didn’t know you better,” the major said, “I’d think you were power-mad.”

“Not power-mad.  Power-hungry.  That I am.  I have a job to do, and a tricky job, and I need all the power I can get in order to do that job.  And I need the power locked up in that boy’s mind.”

“Us slaves do okay,” said Ed Clark, grinning.

“I own his ability,” said the colonel, pointing at Ed.  “I get to use it through him, and he doesn’t feel as though I’m some sort of evil mastermind.  Do you, Ed?”

“Sure I do,” said Clark, the grin even broader than before.  “But it’s worth it, to get to wear civvies and eat in the BOQ.”

“It’s a pity,” said the colonel, “that brains and psi-talent don’t always go together.”

“Simple Simon met a psi-man,” said Clark.

Look Before You Leap is an 18,000 word novella by Donald Westlake, that was first published in Analog in May of 1962.  It’s only recently become available in ebook form (if you’ve got Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free, otherwise it’s $2.99).  Westlake goes into some detail about its origins in that passage up top, taken from his bile-laden polemic against the entire genre of science fiction that was published in the fanzine Xero (which I will again remind you can be read in The Getaway Car), and which I talked about in more depth in my review of Anarchaos.

This is not a review of that story.  You want a review?  Okay.  Not terrible.  Kind of dull.  Westlake said as much.  He was right.   It was probably a much better story when he first submitted it to John W. Campbell, but still far from a classic (honestly, I think Anarchaos is the only really first-rate straight-up SF Westlake ever wrote, mainly because he wrote it as a hard-boiled detective story, as well as a savage critique of anarchism/libertarianism).   Purely on its own merits, this story is not worth going over in any great detail.

But having finally read it recently, I feel like it sheds quite a bit of light on the next novel I’m reviewing, one of Westlake’s longest works, certainly one of his most complex, and, you know, look before you leap.

Analog: Science Fiction and Fact began as Astounding Stories in 1930, piggybacking off Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering Amazing Stories, which launched in 1926.  It was under the editorship of John W. Campbell that the title was changed to Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938, and to say that Campbell was the single most influential figure in the SF genre overall might be something of an understatement.  He might be the most influential figure in genre fiction, period.  Not so much for what he wrote himself (though every time you watch the latest remake of The Thing, he goes there), but for what he got others to write on his behalf, and perhaps most of all for what still others wrote in reaction to him.  He was the kind of man who inspired extremely strong reactions in people, and they weren’t always positive.  To say the absolute least.

(Mr. Campbell was the first truly powerful figure in the SF genre to insist that his writers know something about science and technology and incorporate that knowledge into their stories–his own knowledge in this area can perhaps be gauged by the fact that he renamed his magazine Analog in 1960, getting rid of the juvenile ‘Astounding’ he’d always hated–doing this at the very dawn of the digital revolution in computing that he was probably largely unaware of to the day he died.  But it sounded cool.  And I guess you could argue all fiction is analog.  I don’t think Campbell ever made that argument, though.  He strikes me as a very digital personality.  Not someone who went in for middle grounds, gradations of truth.)

The patriach.  The father figure.  Rigid.  Demanding.  Overbearing.  Domineering.  Egocentric.  Yes, more than a bit power-mad (even though his only real power was over struggling wordsmiths trying to pay their bills).  Perpetually endeavoring to impose his own personal Weltanschauung on every single writer who ever submitted a story to him.  Also a fierce advocate for pseudoscience of all kinds;  spiritual father to both Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard, a committed apologist for racial supremacism and slavery (a much misunderstood institution,  in his view).

(Gee, you think this might possibly be a guy who’d rub a young Donald E. Westlake the wrong way?)

Basically, when you see a story, in any medium, that deals with some elite group of specially talented people fighting the forces of evil or whatever, you’re probably seeing the very long shadow of John W. Campbell to a greater or lesser extent.  He didn’t invent the idea of The Superman (superheroes were already a thing before he took the reins at Astounding, and of course Nietzsche was a thing long before that), but he popularized it, systematized it, normalized it.

And a whole lot of very good stories came out of that, along with many more bad ones, but to him in particular probably goes the credit/blame for our cultural obsession with outsider groups, splinter cells of ultra-nerds, at odds with the mediocrity of everyday society in some way, plugging into The Matrix in order to upend it.  “Fans are Slans!” was the slogan boldly chanted at the conventions (very different from what we have today–lots of ideas, no Hollywood whoring or cosplay), and A.E. Van Vogt’s novel Slan, about a telepathic mutant super-scientist, who begins as a lone rebel, and ends as leader of a triumphant revolution that overthrows homo stupidicus, was instigated and overseen by John W. Campbell, first saw print in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940.  Frank Herbert’s Dune began as a serial in Analog in the early 60’s.

A very long shadow indeed.  And all relating to Campbell’s personal obsession with finding ways to convincingly portray supermen (highly evolved humans, not beneficent aliens in tights) in fiction.  He was particularly interested in supermen with psychic abilities–telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, precognition, etc.  ‘Psi-talent’ was the kind of term he’d use when drumming the need for more stories of this nature into his writers.  And for this reason, Westlake took to using the derisive term ‘psupermen’ to describe the classic Campbell-type character.  The ‘p’ is silent, of course.

(You can read much more about Mr. Campbell and his Psupermen in a chapter from Brian Attebery’s deceptively titled Decoding Gender in Science Fiction–I say deceptively because the book is actually well worth perusing, in spite of the pernicious whiff of post-modernism that title emits.  Maybe the publisher pushed it on  him.  The market for something like that is pretty much entirely limited to college campuses these days.  Google Books leaves out a few pages, as it so annoyingly tends to do, but most of it’s there.  I couldn’t get the link quite right, but just click on Page 62 and you’re there.)

Now there were different ways to respond to Campbell’s obsession–one was to agree with it, become a disciple sitting starry-eyed at his feet.  Another was to pretend to agree with it, pander to it in order to sell a story to pay your rent (which Westlake self-admittedly did, and he did this with other pulp editors as well, such as Frederick Pohl).

A third path, which Westlake didn’t take back then, (because he was frustrated with the SF genre, tired of the lousy pay-rates and overbearing editors, and increasingly convinced he didn’t really know how to write a good story in that genre) was to satirize it. Turn it on its head.  Take it to its illogical extremes, show how absurd the whole psuperman thing really was.  Philip K. Dick often did that–suppose the psuperman was actually a corrupt morally inferior being, who just happened to have superpowers, but otherwise had no real value to society, and was actually a destructive and/or oppressive force within it?

Even Isaac Asimov, a lifelong friend and admirer of Campbell’s, created perhaps the ultimate evil psuperman in The Mule–the main villain of the Foundation Trilogy, who temporarily derails the Foundation’s work of rebuilding galactic civilization with his ability to exert mass mind control over vast distances.  His psi-tyranny is only ended by the fact that he’s unable to procreate, making him an ultimately doomed pathetic creature.  Superior abilities won’t necessarily make you a superior being.

In fact, they never do, because there’s no such thing.  Darwinian evolution, which Campbell, like so many before and since, blindly worshiped without really understanding how it works, isn’t about creating superior beings, superior races.  It’s about adapting to change in the environment, and change never stops.  There is no final perfect form, for humanity or anything else.  Social Darwinism is a corruption of evolutionary science, no matter what futuristic finery you dress it up in.

Octavia Butler and other non-male non-white authors went another way that Campbell would have hated most of all–what if the first real ‘psuperman’ was (for example) a black woman?  (I’m thinking here of the Patternist novels, particularly Mind of my Mind.)  What if the overseeing mentor who created her was a diabolical disembodied psychic vampire who preyed on his own children?

Butler, a profound and complex intellect, never thought that kind of development in human evolution would mean the dawning of some golden age.  It would just mean change, for change’s own sake, and much of that change would be for the worse, if not necessarily all of it.  The psuperhuman might well be impossible to categorize as good or evil.  But good and evil would still  mean something.  Might doesn’t make right.  All life matters.  Not just life that has satisfied some biased evolutionary meddler’s artificially arrived at standards of perfection.  Eugenics is the worst pseudoscience of all.  Because nobody is qualified to say what adaptations are beneficial over time.  Only evolution itself can make that determination.

The best stories John W. Campbell inspired, I would say, were the stories that were rebelling against him, deepening and subverting his borrowed ideas, while still working within the general set of fictional tropes he’d helped establish.  Using the tools he’d given them to tear down the prison he’d built for them.  The old story.  Fathers and Sons (and frequently Daughters).

Man, I really do not want to talk about Westlake’s story, do I?   Well I do, but again, not at length, because it’s not the point.  The point is that he threw in a John W. Campbell caricature at the end of a story he submitted to Analog as a joke–and Campbell took it seriously, insisted that this character become the real hero of the piece, that his POV be shown to be the correct one.  He did to Westlake what he’d done to countless young authors before.  Force him to get with the program.  Change his vision in exchange for a few hundred bucks–after all, Westlake could already wear civvies, and I don’t think he particularly wanted to eat at the Bachelor Officers Quarters (what BOQ stands for, in case you didn’t know).

All I can read is the version that Campbell published.  A young man named Jeremy, doing a stint in the Air Force, lonely and homesick, placed in a situation of extreme stress during a training exercise, suddenly finds himself at home–then back at the base.  He reports the experience, not entirely believing it himself.  But Colonel Brice, the Professor Xavier of military intelligence (only without any extra power of his own, unless you count hubris), was monitoring him and all the other guinea pigs, and knows he really did disappear for a moment.

So for most of the story, the young hero, so clearly modeled after Westlake himself, his own conflicted feelings about his time in the Air Force, is manipulated, not told that he really did teleport, prodded and tested by ethically conflicted military psychiatrists (under orders from Brice), forced to question his own sanity, until he finally discovers how to use his untapped mental powers (which he reasons were a product of evolution, and that his uncle had them as well,but most people never discover them, because teleportation is so frightening and disorienting).

At which point he joins Brice’s little cabal of psuperman (a telekinetic and a remote viewer), all of them destined for a mission of vital importance that is never really spelled out.   If there’d been sequels, probably it would have been.  Campbell would have doubtless shelled out for more, as long as his crusty alter-ego was in the mix. But no sequel to Look Before You Leap was ever written.

Westlake wasn’t interested in enabling the old man’s fantasies any further. He wrote his polemical farewell to the genre for Xero, which certainly made it impossible for him to ever submit anything to Analog until Campbell’s death in 1971, and possibly afterwards.  The money just wasn’t that good.  Insufficient compensation for him to go on writing what he didn’t remotely believe, that being Westlake’s precise definition of a hack.

It was both a decision made for both creative and economic purposes, as he said in that piece.  Writing mysteries, he was able to appease both his own need for self-expression while still meeting the demands of magazine editors and publishing houses.  He wasn’t very good in either genre to start with, he knew that.  In the Mystery genre he was able to gradually progress towards a more three-dimensional mode of storytelling.  But when it came to science fiction, as he discussed in his response to reader letters reacting to his original piece–

On those few occasions when I thought I’d taken a small step forward, I was immediately returned to Star, either by a No Sale, or a slant-oriented revision.  The Campbell story about the Colonel is a fine instance.  (It was in the May issue of Analog, to answer the questions).  In the original the Colonel showed up at the end of the story.  There was no secret organization of psupermen in the Air Force.  The point of view never deviated from Jeremy.  It was a story about a person.  God knows it was no masterpiece, but it was a story.  (In this connection, Harry Warner Jr’s idea that the Colonel was a “real living characterization” just ain’t so.  Analog is full of Secret Societies with Strange Powers, and the Colonel  under one name or another, runs them all. You will find this same character in spy stories.  He’s the chief of Counter-Intelligence, the hero phones him in Washington every once in a while, and his name is Mac.)  At any rate, I for one am more interested in a person, who suddenly and shatteringly learns he is a teleport, who doesn’t want to be a teleport, and who more than half suspects he’s lost his mind, who struggles through the problems thus created–aggravated by the fact that he can neither control nor repeat the initial teleportation–and works things out to some sort of solution or compromise with the world, than I am in all the Secret Societies and Mystical Powers in the Orient.  But the writing and rewriting of the story kept me vigorously marching in place, back there at stage one.

I have a small quibble here–that character he refers to, that the Colonel quite certainly is one form of (and 007’s ‘M’ would be another)–isn’t yet another to be seen in the Continental Op stories of Dashiell Hammett?

Hammett was possibly Westlake’s supreme literary model, certainly his biggest influence in this stage of his career.  The Op was Hammett’s most important contribution to mystery fiction, and the Op has to report back to The Old Man, head of the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency (frequently referred to throughout Westlake’s fiction).  To a certain extent, the Op is merely The Old Man’s sometimes-rebellious pawn–who nonetheless never quits the agency, as Hammett eventually quit the Pinkertons.

The Op hates and to some extent fears The Old Man.  He fears he might become his boss someday, thinks of him as a mere simulacra of a human being, all identity subsumed by the company they both work for.  The Old Man certainly isn’t a hero of the Op stories, we don’t see a lot of him, but he’s always there, and to some extent, that makes the Op a more believably flawed figure than Sam Spade or Ned Beaumont (and Nick Charles, as Westlake knew well, is a former company man who has lost his identity by quitting his job, driving him to depression and drinking–maybe there’s no escape for a company man, not even a beautiful heiress who adores him).

He’s not a true independent, the Op.  He’s not merely wedded but welded to his job.   Westlake, of course, wanted to write about independents.  Mere hirelings tend not to fare well in his stories (neither do private detectives, as a general rule–hmmm).

And it may well be that it was, in part, his experiences with Campbell and similarly controlling editors in the 50’s and early 60’s that confirmed him in this predilection.  However, it’s not only Campbell he’s reacting to here.  He’s also rebelling against Hammett.  He doesn’t want any Old Man pulling the strings in the background, even though that conflict adds depth to the Op that Hammett’s other detectives mainly lack.

To be a true Westlake hero means to pull your own strings (and in some cases, thwart or destroy anyone who tries to pull them for you).  But in a way that is more believable than in Hammett’s later stories about independent operators.  He’ll have to find other types of conflict for his heroes, to make them more credible.  Because he can’t write about company men, cogs in a machine.  Not unless it’s to mock them (as in I Gave At The Office).  Because he could see too well how close he’d come to being a cog himself.  Because he was always afraid it might still happen to him, if he didn’t find a way to succeed as an independent.

As few science fiction authors have, I might add–the other half of Westlake’s beef with the genre.  Many authors succeeded as he had not, in working past the constraints that frustrated him, creating brilliantly individual work that satisfied both the genre’s demands and their personal muses–but rarely were they able to make a good living doing so.  Philip K. Dick, whose literary estate is now highly lucrative to his heirs, lived at the edge of indigence for most of his adult life.  To be sure, Jim Thompson had the same problem.  Being an independent always comes at a high price, regardless of occupation.  It’s for each independent to decide for him or herself how that price shall be paid, and in what coin.

And years later, having escaped the coils of Campbell and his cohorts, having created many amazing books, made many a compromise along the way to pay the bills, finding himself in a bit of a slump in the 80’s and early 90’s–Westlake made a very odd decision.  He wrote a very long comic crime novel (his established niche) about a man who suddenly and shatteringly finds himself to be invisible.  Who doesn’t want to be invisible (though it has certain short-term career-based advantages for him).  He can’t control his newfound ability, and struggles through the problems it creates for him.   He knew who he was–now he’s not so sure anymore.

And even though no Colonel-type figure knowingly created him, there are several aspiring Colonels in his life.  And he’s got to escape them all (in which he shall have the aid of one hell of a woman).  As Jeremy, in Look Before You Leap, could have quite easily escaped his Colonel, by simply vanishing into thin air, free as a bird, and I wonder if that’s how the original version of the story ended.  If so, small wonder Campbell wanted it changed.  Slaves should know their place.

Westlake’s primary model/antagonist in that novel was not John W. Campbell, though–it was a much earlier father of Science Fiction (much as he preferred the term ‘Scientific Romance’).  H.G. Wells, like many a progenitor before and since, had nothing but contempt for his bastard stepchildren, loathed the science fiction of the pulps, wanted no credit for it at all.  Frankenstein recoiling from his monster.  Wells did that a lot.  Idealists are born to be disappointed.

But in fact there was much that Wells and Campbell had in common, philosophically speaking.  And much that Westlake wanted to say in reaction to that.  And he did, under the guise of comedy, which is in fact the very medium Wells himself had employed in his book.  A seemingly superficial adventure story may contain hidden depths.   Appearances can be deceiving.  What you see is not always what you get.  Oh there’s going to be so many puns along that line.

“A Grotesque Romance” is the subtitle for the book Westlake used as a template for the next adventure in our queue.  And Westlake’s book is all of that, and more.  I have no idea how long this review is going folks.  I’ll try to get Part 1 up sometime next week.  In the meantime–Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

(Thanks once again to the Official Westlake Blog, for providing the artwork from Analog that accompanied Westlake’s story.  A resource any independent operator like me can only thank the beneficent gods for).


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction, Donald Westlake short stories

Review: Baby, Would I Lie?


It’s too blatant to be a put on, Sara thought.  With that voice, that honky tonk music thudding along in the background, it’s supposed to be taken seriously. Do the fans take it seriously?  What do they think it’s about?  Is this irony, or is it real?  Does Ray Jones know?

I know you’ve heard I did some time in Yuma jail,
And when I left, some girl got stuck to pay my bail;
But with you, babe, I know I’m never gonna fail.
Baby, would I lie?

“My God,” Sara said, and the sign by the road said Branson in seven miles.

This is the second and final Sara Joslyn novel, marking the end of Westlake’s shortest and last known attempt to create a series character, although I have some doubts as to whether he was actually trying to do that here.  Trust Me On This had been one of his most successful novels of the 1980’s, critically acclaimed, strong sales, lots of foreign editions, audiobook.    That had come out around six years before this one,  and the two standalone novels he’d done since had certainly been much less successful and acclaimed, and good luck trying to make a series out of either of them.

If he’d originally intended for that 1987 novel about a sleazy supermarket tabloid to form the foundation of a franchise, he’d have probably have gotten around to the next one a lot sooner.  And he wouldn’t have rescued the two main protagonists of that book, Sara and her sardonic swain, Jack Ingersoll, from the clutches of The Weekly Galaxy, basically resolving all their major character conflicts, and giving them a happy (if morally equivocal) ending.

So my own feeling is that Westlake needed a solid win that didn’t involve Dortmunder, and had, furthermore, an idea in his head for a story from a branch of the mystery genre that he’d never really done before.   But certainly one he was well familiar with.  Aren’t we all?  I’m speaking of what is sometimes called the Courtroom Drama, though Wikipedia prefers a different term.  Perry Mason country.  Much of the ethos of that mystery-solving, evidence-tampering, dubiously ethical defense attorney pervades this book.

Your typical Westlake protagonist is rarely if ever seen in court–it’s not a milieu he’s likely to feel at ease in.  Westlake never had a lawyer as the hero in one of his books, let alone a judge, though highly capable and professional attorneys often appeared as supporting characters.  There’s two of them in this book, in fact.  But it’s not a book about lawyers.   It’s a book about reporters (same ones we met in the last book), and it’s also a book about a famous country-western singer, and there sure as hell had never been a Westlake protagonist of that profession before, nor would there ever be again.

Back at the start of the decade, Westlake had written the book for a stage musical, Murder at the Vanities, which was never produced.  He had not written the song lyrics, but one might theorize the experience got him curious about what it would be like to try.  In a novel, he wouldn’t be expected to come up with the accompanying tunes, and he could use the lyrics to convey things about the character who had written them, as well as the regional subculture the songs had been written to appeal to.  One of his primary influences, P.G. Wodehouse, had in fact written the lyrics for a whole lot of popular songs.

Wodehouse had also sometimes written stories with spirited and intrepid female protagonists–a habit he probably picked up from his work for the stage.  The Adventures of Sally is one of his efforts in that vein, it was quite popular at the time, and is not today remembered as one of his classics (which to be fair, would be true of most of his prose efforts from that period).

I made a good faith attempt to read it before giving up, and my impression was that Wodehouse likes his spunky heroine too much to make fun of her, which is deadly to comedy.  That he could write devastatingly funny female supporting characters of all ages and backgrounds is attested to by many subsequent novels and stories.  He’s pulling his farcical punches with Sally.   He’s made her too perfect.  Yes, this is foreshadowing.

At some point, for unknown reasons, Westlake got interested in the country music scene just then starting to blossom in Branson, Missouri.  (That he spent some time there scoping out the scene is attested to by the dedication to some friends resident in Branson, whose social lives he does not wish to ruin by naming them in print).

Branson’s not so much a poor man’s Nashville as a southern-fried Vegas, only without the casinos (they have them now in abundance, I believe).  By the early 90’s, many established talents (primarily but by no means entirely country-western singers) who were getting a bit long in the tooth, and tired of the road, were setting up shop there, opening theaters and doing daily shows.  Instead of them going to the fans, the fans could come to them, which they did, in vast teeming multitudes.  And still do.

Westlake had spent a lot of time over the past two decades analyzing the strange foreign cultures of other lands–but as a New Yorker, of course, there could be no culture more foreign to him than that of rural southern America.  These people, as he saw it, were being roundly ignored by the urban opinion makers, and yet here they were anyway, paying taxes and voting in national elections and everything.  And what movie stars are to most of us, country stars were (and are) to them. Sacred Monsters.

Yeah, he’s revisiting a lot of the ideas from that savagely cynical satire here.  But you ask me, this is the most cynical book he ever wrote by a considerable margin.  It’s a glass of sweet tea with an acid chaser.   You may never quite get the taste of Bac-O Bits out of your mouth after reading it.

A famous country singer suspected of murder is nothing new–Columbo had done that years before, with none other than The Man in Black himself (who happily never had to stoop to playing daily matinees in Branson, though he’s probably been impersonated there as often as Elvis) as a rather less sophisticated foil for Peter Falk than was the norm on that show.


But of course, as with any Columbo, that story begins by showing us not only who did it, but how and why and everything.  Westlake is playing a variation on the usual mystery game here.  It’s not a whodunnit, or even a howdunnit.  It’s a whodint.   And having said that, maybe it’s time the opening act winds down, and the headliner gets on stage, before the audience starts tearing up the seats.

Having kicked off the proceedings with a selection from Sonnet 110, and William Watson’s tersely titled To, we rejoin the beauteous Sara, working a solo gig now, driving into Branson from the airport in a rented car, there to cover the Ray Jones murder trial for Trend (The Magazine For The Way We Live Right Now, in case you’d forgotten).  She’s listening to one of his songs on the radio, and elsewhere so is Ray Jones himself, but he tells somebody to turn it off, because he’s heard it already.

The murder victim was Belle Hardwick, an employee at Ray Jones’ Country Theater, who was found beaten and raped and strangled and drowned in a nearby lake, with various circumstantial evidence tying the murder to her employer.  Ray Jones being a celebrity, what would normally be a minor local trial has blossomed into a major national story.

(Do I need to mention that this entire book was written and handed in to the publisher before Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were found murdered in June of the year it saw print?  I suppose I just did, and this is a very different story in a very different setting, but there’s one moment where Ray actually says “If I did it,” and of course the ghostwritten book of that title was well over a decade away, so–spooky).

Chapter 2 is all Ray (as are many others, he’s at least as much the protagonist here as Sara), and he’s remarkably calm under the circumstances, still doing shows at his theater, talking to his first-rate criminal attorney (increasingly vexed and perplexed by his client’s behavior), musing over the irony that basically everybody in his life is saying that he should keep his songs playing on the radio during the trial, but all for entirely different reasons.

The reason that particularly irks him is that presented by Leon “The Prick” Caccatorro (Ray’s nickname for him, and highly evocative it is), an IRS agent tasked with squeezing every last possible dime of revenue out of Ray, who made some ill-advised financial decisions some time back, and has been paying through the nose for it ever since.  Leon wants Ray’s songs to stay on the radio during the trial so Uncle Sam can keep siphoning away at Ray’s royalty checks.

(Sidebar: Just how bad were Westlake’s own problems with the dreaded Taxman?  Years before, he’d dedicated an entire novel to ‘the guys and gals at the IRS,’ hinting that he’d written it just to pay a tax penalty, but was the matter that simply resolved?  Let’s just say that there’s a level of empathy here with the sadly necessary duties of your average ‘revenooer’ that in Mr. Westlake’s body of work as a whole is normally reserved for brutal corrupt policemen, unethical psychiatrists, and the very very wealthy).

One charge aimed at this novel by some critics (overall, the book got great reviews, but the NY Times sneered once more at the efforts of Gotham’s native son to do anything other than funny heist books set in New York) is that it becomes clear, very early on, that Ray probably did not kill Belle Hardwick (or this other associate of his who turns up dead just before the trial begins, whose demise the authorities want to pin on Ray as well, just for lagniappe).

As was usually the case with a Westlake mystery, the identity of The Real Killer is not remotely the point.  The real mystery is why Ray seems to want people to think maybe he did murder Belle, why he’s repeatedly sabotaging his own cripplingly expensive and beautifully orchestrated defense, to the disgust and dismay of two two savvy superior shysters busting their legal asses to save his, and if you’re paying close attention, the answer isn’t that hard to figure out.  But that’s not really the point of of the exercise.

The point is figuring out who Ray Jones really is, what’s going on under that folksy facade he’s created to fool the world, and Sara Joslyn (who already figured out who she was in the last book, and we learn nothing new about her in this one) is there merely as our entry point to that identity puzzle, along with the hillbilly Wonderland that is Branson; Alice through the looking glass, and Ray’s the Cheshire Cat, grinning to himself, and fading out of sight every time you take a close look.

So I liked this book better the second time through, probably because I wasn’t saddled with a lot of false expectations of what it would be about, but that doesn’t make me any more inclined to do a real synopsis.  There’s not a whole lot of story here.  It’s all about sly trenchant observations of the passing scene, and a handful of quirky complex characters, and I don’t need to synopsize much to talk about that.  I don’t need a Part 2, either.

Anyway, I could only find two covers worth highlighting–first time I ever didn’t have the first edition cover up top in a review, because it’s pretty lame–the audiobook used the first edition artist’s complete drawing, while the Mysterious Press cover weirdly focuses in on the guitar in that drawing, which isn’t germane to anything, since the only time Ray ever tells the truth is when he’s playing that guitar.  The Rivages/Noir edition predictably went with Cherchez La Femme, not that I’m complaining. The mere fact there was an audiobook makes me think this probably sold pretty well (though probably less than Trust Me On This).  But what’s actually on sale here?

The main story, at least on the surface of things, is Sara Joslyn managing to imbed herself into the Ray Jones defense, sitting in on his trial, going to see his show, intrigued by his talent and the redneck subculture that spawned it–and it’s clear from the outset that she’s been given a ringside seat (it’s actually The Elvis Seat, explanation further down) to observe the goings-on, because Ray wants her there.  He believes he can make use of her, and it’s not entirely clear how, but he’s got a plan, and he’s sticking to it, come hell or high water.

She’s so enraptured by this cultural experience that she sends a somewhat starry-eyed preliminary story back to New York, which arouses the concern of her editor/lover, who heads down to Branson to make sure she hasn’t gone totally native (and to give her a fond hello in the process).  She’s fine with him being after her body, but he better not be telling her how to do her job.  She hasn’t forgotten who she is, and she believes she’s found a great angle for the story, as indeed she has.

Jack’s got his own agenda, which is to do that dreaded Galaxy-type expose on the Galaxy itself–his own personal Moby Dick.  He’s never forgiven that pernicious publication for making a whore out of him all those years, and the fact that Bruno (‘Massa’) DeMassi is no longer among the living (we’re told his loyal staff laughed itself to tears for hours after the news broke) makes no never mind to him.

And of course, Generoso Pope Jr., Massa’s prototype, founder of the National Enquirer and Weekly World News, had expired in 1988, so this is art imitating death.  “Massa in de cold cold ground,” their old friend and colleague Binx Radwell observes solemnly.  But the Weekly Galaxy is very much alive, now controlled by what seems to be an even more diabolical consortium of financial interests (strike off one head, and many grow in its place), so Jack can only say “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale.” Words to that effect.

So there’s Sara doing her story, Jack doing his, and in the odd moments in-between, they talk a little about their relationship, but there’s really not much of a story there at all.   Sara wants Jack to tell her what’s wrong with her, that she’s with a guy who is clearly never going to recover from the emotional traumas he underwent before she ever met him, to which Jack responds “After a close look at the X rays and the test results, I’m afraid I have to tell you the reason you’re staying with me is because you love me. Sorry.”  Sara says she was afraid it was something like that, and that’s really all there is to the Jack/Sara thing in this book, because that story got told in its entirety in the last book.  And this is why a sequel to His Gal Friday would have been a really bad idea, folks.

A much more interesting story is told about Jack’s perennially jealous friend, and Sara’s hopelessly lustful admirer, Binx Radwell, who was rather a pitiable figure in the last book, and begins as one here, but he doesn’t end that way.  One of the most interesting identity puzzles in the book is Mr. Binx, who decides he’s had enough of being a henpecked husband to his spiteful spouse Marcy, and consequently a fearful wage slave of the Galaxy, burning through each huge paycheck as soon as he cashes it, and knowing each paycheck could be the last.

His identity crisis comes to a head when he makes a desperate and doomed attempt to seduce Sara while they’re having dinner, and the seduction turns into a confessional (as they so often do), and this is the single best passage in the book, by far.  Painfully funny, and too truthful by far.  And really, who but a man who had to get married three times to get it right could have written this?  Well, maybe a woman who went through the same damn thing from the other side, but only a man would write it quite this way.

“The thing is, we were too young when we got married, we didn’t know our own minds, we didn’t know who we were.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I think it’s just as tough on her as it is on me, and she’s stuck just the same way I am.  And now with the kids, you know, and that drives us even further apart.  We were just kids ourselves, somebody should have told us, ‘Don’t do it!  Find out who you are first, don’t tie yourself down before you even tested those wings.”  I’m not blaming Marcie, I know it’s hell on her, too, and she’s got the kids more than I do.  We came together and we thought it was love, you know, love for the ages, but what did we know?  It was just sex, that’s all.  We were just kids, and sex was like a new lollipop, you know, in those days we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, and then the kids started coming.  I’m not blaming Marcie, we made all the decisions together, but we were wrong. What did we know? Nothing.  We were in college, and her folks were all over her to marry me, and my folks were just as bad.  I’m not blaming them, it was our own decision, but we weren’t ready to make a decision, neither of us.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I’m as responsible as she is.  More.  It was up to me to be the mature one, and I just wasn’t.   And then the Galaxy job came along, and the money looked so good, and we just spent it, we just bought stuff, and everything you buy it winds up you still owe on it, we’ve got all these mortgages, and paying off the cars, paying off the furniture, paying off the swimming pool, paying off all this stuff.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I wanted that stuff as much as she did, or almost as much.  But it means we’re stuck again, all over again.  The kids, and all the debts, and when I was fired for a while we really fell behind, taking out loans and I don’t know when we’re gonna get caught up.  I’m not blaming Marcie, it’s the whole lifestyle, you get it, you spend it, you know how it is at the Galaxy, the money isn’t real, so you spend it as soon as it comes in, and then you’re behind the eight ball, and you don’t know what the hell you’re gonna do.  You’re stuck, that’s all.  You and Jack were right to get out, you really were, but I’m stuck in it.  I got Marcie, and the kids, and the house, and the cars, and the pool, and all this stuff, but I can’t make a move.  I wanted life, you know?  And I got the Sargasso Sea.  I’m not blaming Marcie, but if only I could get away from her at some point, find somebody that understands me, has confidence in me, faith in me, I know I could turn my life around, get out from under all this shit.  And I have to tell you, I’m not blaming Marcie, but she’s no help at all, she doesn’t try to save any money, give me any encouragement, act like she’s gonna stand by me, you should have heard her when I was fired for a while, no support, nothing. And sex. On a good day our sex is down to something that looks like an illustration in a plumbing manual, but when I was fired for a while it was hopeless, she had Krazy Glue in there, I swear I couldn’t–”

“Maybe,” Sara interjected, “you shouldn’t tell me about your sex life.”

But he does anyway.  And of course he does not get Sara into bed, but on the plus side, he doesn’t have to spring for a therapist, and I assume they can both charge dinner to their expense accounts.

A bit earlier in the book, he and Jack have a talk, and Binx both admires and resents Jack, and Jack both pities and despises Binx, and one is reminded of what Parker said in The Rare Coin Score–“You know how you make pity?   One jigger guilt, one jigger contempt.”   But Binx is no Billy Lebatard–he’s got a score of his own in the works, and when Jack tells him he has to accept that Marcie is his wife, and the Galaxy is his job, and then he’ll be happy, Binx responds, with quiet desperation, “no, I won’t, Jack.  No.  I won’t.”

He can’t be happy with this identity, so he’s going to find a new one.  No matter what it takes.  No matter who it hurts.  Much as he’s not a great artist, or any kind of artist, he can understand as well as anyone that Somerset Maugham’s Charles Strickland meant precisely what he said–“When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.”

So using a vast dossier he’s compiled of the ‘journalistic’ misdeeds of many a Galaxy employee (Jack included) Binx sort of half bribes/half blackmails Jack into getting him a job doing a story on the new Post-Soviet Eastern Europe for Trend.  He doesn’t want a lot of money (he knows now what a trap that can be), and he’s got the journalistic creds (which in themselves were never enough for him to get a job anywhere but the Galaxy, after he’d worked at the Galaxy).   He’ll leverage his credentials to get a job there with some other media outfit, and he’ll find his own Sara to ‘mentor’ (maybe Czech, maybe Polish, Hungarian girls are lovely), and when Jack asks him what about Marcie and the kids, he says “Who?”

And angry as he is about the blackmail, Jack is still perversely proud of him, and probably Sara is as well.  You see what I mean about this being a really cynical book.   And you could argue that Binx is more the hero of this book than either Jack or Sara.  But still not as much as Ray Jones.

Ray was born dirt poor in a little town in Georgia, by the name of Troutman (I checked–it really exists, not too far from a town called Benevolence–sometimes I think people give Faulkner too much credit; he didn’t have to stretch things all that much, writing about the south).  He gives a sort of humble/proud version of his upbringing to the press, but he’s under no delusions in the privacy of his calculating mind–he was the runt of a very large litter, and nobody gave two shits about him.  But he made a loyal (if rather dull-witted) friend there, Cal Denny, who he’s kept around ever since, and who will do pretty much anything Ray asks of him.  A more pliable less calculating version of Buddy Pal from Sacred Monster.   But Ray Jones’s best friend has always been Ray Jones.

Born hungry, Ray was hungry his entire life,  but he’d never let the hunger show.  He was hungry for food, for love, for success, for ease, for safety, for money, for women.  He was born hungry for everything.  Fortunately, he’d also been born smart.

Indirection.  Guile. Use your brains.  Use the other guy’s strength.  Get what you want without anybody noticing you wanted it, or they’ll take it away from you.

And he was also born with a lot of genuine musical talent, which he developed with damned little help from anyone in his formative years, because he knew he needed something to make people pay attention to him.  If he’d been born somewhere else, into a different subculture, maybe he’d have become a writer of crime fiction.

Westlake the jazz buff is anything but unappreciative of country-western music, and the people who make their living playing it.  He makes it very clear how much he admires them, and that fascination with their world, and their professionalism, enlivens this book.  But he rather thinks many of its fans are not fully aware of just how good these troubled troubadours of theirs really are–because for them it’s less about the music these people make than it is about living through them.

Country-music fans don’t envy or begrudge the material success of the performers, and that’s because they don’t see country stars as being brilliant or innovative or otherwise exceptional people (which they are), but firmly believe the Willie Nelsons and Roy Clarks are shitkickers just like themselves, who happened to hit it lucky, and more power to them.  It means anybody could hit it lucky, including their own poor sorry selves, so these people, most of whom could lean down and rest their Coke cans on the poverty line, took vicarious pleasure in the overt manifestations of their heroes’ lush rewards.

If you get nothing else out of this book, you get a sense of how good a lyricist Donald Westlake might have been if he’d gone down a different road.  Though for the life of me, I can’t imagine him in a cowboy hat.  He wants us to respect what Ray Jones has accomplished, and at the same time, to understand that there’s always this dishonesty in what he writes, since he’s writing for people who want to be told, against all evidence to the contrary, that they are the only people in the world who matter.

New York sure is a great big city
Blow it up, blow it up;
Los Angeles is kinda pretty,
Blow it up, blow it up.

Oh, I don’t go to Washington D.C.,
Those marble halls are not the place for me;
They tell me San Francisco’s kinda gay,
I’m telling you that I will stay away.

Chicago is a toddlin’ town,
Knock it down, knock it down;
And Boston has got great renown,
Knock it down, knock it down.

Oh the country is the only place to be,
A silo’s the tallest thing I want to see;
I’m a country boy, my heart is in the land,
I’m a country boy, I think this country’s grand.

Jack is in ‘The Elvis Seat’ (a seat they save at Ray’s theater for an Elvis impersonator who is part of the show) when Ray sings this, and he tells Sara he took it kind of personal.  Sara tells him it’s about the tribal unit, defining who’s in and who’s out.  But we the readers have been made to know Ray Jones himself doesn’t really identify with his audience at all–sees them for the hicks and suckers they are, playing their prides and prejudices like a steel guitar, while wanting them to go on loving him, because that’s how he survives.  Except now he has to make them think maybe he’s a murderer.  Knowing full well that in showbiz, those who love you today can rip you to shreds tomorrow.  It’s a calculated risk.  With Sara as his failsafe device.

He’s got two very smart lawyers–his personal attorney (and friend), Jolie Grubbe, who strikes up a tense friendship with Sara (who she’d like to ban from Ray’s bus and the courtroom, for all that she admires Sara’s gumption)–and his brilliant criminal attorney, Warren Thurbridge.   Both are horrified when Ray insists on testifying on his own behalf in court, opening himself up to cross-examination–and Ray insists.  There’s really very little in the way of evidence against him.  All he has to do to get off scot-free is nothing–and that’s the last thing in the world he’s going to do.

And just as he expects (not that he’d admit it), the prosecutor hits him with a song he hasn’t sung in a long time, written after his marriage fell apart–that shows a darker side of Ray than he’s wanted to admit to in a while, along with a streak of misogyny a mile wide.

I’d like to tell you how I feel,
And what I think is my ideal.

Her face is like an angel’s is, but the devil’s in her eyes,
She dances like a panther, with lightning in her thighs.

She’s Ali Baba’s treasure room, all without a lock,
And she turns into a pizza at three o’clock.

There’s more, but you get the gist.  And the kicker is, the murder victim is estimated to have died just around 3:00am in the morning.

Now is this evidence of anything at all (other than a predictable streak of misogyny)?  Of course not.  But when you’re on trial for murder, you are on trial for murder–your public identity, the way people perceive you, is on trial, much more than the facts of the case.   All the more if you’re famous.  The prosecution hasn’t proven beyond any kind of doubt that Ray Jones murdered Belle Hardwick, but Ray has given them the ammunition to make it seem like he’s exactly the kind of man who’d have turned her into a pizza at three o’clock.  And he goes out of his way to make comments about her rather notoriously loose sexual behavior that everybody who knew her would have agreed with while she was alive, but that’s hardly the point now.

I mean, Fatty Arbuckle didn’t rape anybody, he was the same person the day after that wild party where a young girl died as he was the day before, but the same crude anarchic destructive boyish behavior that people had laughed at before in his films looked sinister now, in light of the accusations against him. He was acquitted by his peers, and banished from the movies. And that trial was in L.A.  This one’s in the Show Me state, and people have been shown something they’d forgotten about this guy–that he can be one nasty son of a bitch.

If you’ve come down this far in the review, you obviously don’t care about spoilers, so here’s the answer to this mystery–Ray has proof he didn’t murder Belle–he has proof of who really did it.  But he wants the IRS to think he’s going to be executed for Murder One, so they’ll accept a deal he offered–either they take half of his royalties from what he’s already created, or half of what he’s going to create in future.  And they were going to take the latter, since that’s the more lucrative end over time, but he’s made it seems like his time’s up, so they take the former.  He’s conned his own lawyers, the state of Missouri, and the Federal Government.  And now he just has to con Sara Joslyn.  And that’s where it all falls apart.

Sara’s led right to the videotape that proves somebody else murdered Belle, stashed in Ray’s house.  And she figures out right away–she’s being used–because the tape will have more credibility coming from her.  Ray Jones wasn’t covering up for a friend–he was using a sordid tragedy that destroyed two human lives in order to free himself from the toils of taxation (not to mention costing the taxpayers a fortune in the process).  She grabs the tape out of Cal Denny’s hand, and drives away with it.  And tells no one about it.  Perry Mason would be proud.

But to me, it’s not an entirely satisfying ending.   Sara relents, of course.  She blackmails Ray into giving a lot of money to the local hospital, and he agrees, with grudging admiration.  She wasn’t going to let him go to the gas chamber for something he didn’t do.  But what she’s doing, of course, is anything but ethical. And she gets a nice exclusive for herself into the bargain.   “No losers, Ray,” Sara said, pleased with herself.  And why not?  “Everybody wins.”

Again, we see she’s the hungriest shark in the tank.  In many ways, she never really left the Weekly Galaxy.  She’s just doing the same thing at a more respectable level than before.  And how are we supposed to feel about this? About the same way we felt about the end of the last book–like maybe in this world it really is just about who wins and who loses, and nothing else.  We’ve certainly seen no indication to the contrary in this story.  But the difference is that now we know for sure–even with true love, even with Massa dead, even with the Galaxy perhaps exposed to all the world for exactly what it is–nothing’s changed, and nothing’s going to change.  The acid in that sweet tea has a real kick, don’t it?

The line isn’t between good and evil here, but rather professional and  unprofessional.  Ray Jones is a professional at what he does, his lawyers are superbly professional, Sara and Jack and even Binx are all solid pros at what they do, and nobody gives a shit about right and wrong–the only thing that makes the Galaxy reporters different is that they don’t pretend to care–and the lawyers prosecuting Ray are such a bunch of dullards, one of the Aussie Trio poses as a reporter from The Economist, and gets away with it for most of the trial.

There’s a whole subplot in the book about a ‘Shadow Jury’ Ray’s defense hires to try and figure out how best to influence the real one, and this was and still is a real thing, and they’re even premiering a network series about it this fall, and the guy manipulating juries for possibly guilty people is the hero.  And I hope to hell it meets the fate of most network primetime shows in recent years, but who knows?  Who really cares about right and wrong these days?

Donald E. Westlake did.  This I believe.  Much as he’d long written about protagonists whose only morality was professional in nature, there’s quite a difference between an amoral armed robber who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him, and an amoral journalist who thinks of herself as a nice person.  Donald E. Westlake believed there was much more to life than winning. But he was in a dark mood when he wrote this, and he clearly identified a lot with Ray’s cynicism in particular–with a talented songwriter who has to hide his real feelings, because nobody wants anything deep from him, they just want to be flattered and entertained.

Nothing wrong with a dark story, but this is a dark story that is light on the surface, and he doesn’t pull that tricky balancing act off nearly as well with this story as he had with the previous Joslyn book.  Maybe that’s why he never wrote another one.  But I think it’s mainly that like Wodehouse, he couldn’t bring himself to go all out in showing Sara’s own inner darkness.  He liked her too much, she was one of his perky blonde ingenues, and he’s proud of her achievements, but what are they, precisely?   To be played for a patsy, and then to figure out out in one rather unconvincing flash of insight (and to be sure, Perry Mason did that all the time, so double standard much?).

Now I’m not blaming Sara, she’s an enjoyable character, and she deserved a chance to solve the mystery on her own this time without Jack’s help, and the book is fun to read and all, but it seems like a lot of work for too small a reward, and it might have worked better to just concentrate more on the identity puzzle of Ray Jones.  I’m not blaming her, really, she’s got some great moments in this book, Westlake kind of enjoyed being a girl I think, and endowing his surrogate female self, his blonde bubbly Brenda Starr, with every quality, but maybe just a wee bit of a Mary Sue, not that it’s her fault, I am not blaming Sara, I hope you understand that, because I wouldn’t want to have to repeat it seven or eight times in one run-on paragraph, but while this book is worth reading once, or even twice, it’s not going down as one of his best novels, or even as his best novel about Sara Joslyn, but can we blame her for that?  Of course not.  How dare you even imply that. Shame on you.

There’s a scene in the middle of the book where Sara is telling Jack off for surprising her at her motel in the middle of the night, and all of a sudden she makes a face, because she’s noticed this unpleasant taste in her mouth–she realizes that she’s had to eat at the local restaurants for days now, and they all put Bac-O Bits, artificial bacon, in everything.  The Redneck’s garlic, she calls it. Now that she mentions it, Jack can taste it too.  An aftertaste that is not easily shaken, and while the ins and outs of this book could have easily taken up a much longer review, I hope you understand, I’m ending this one here, because I’m hoping the next book in our queue will help dispel it.

Mind you, there’s plenty of cynicism in that book as well, but there’s much else besides; an entire universe of wry empathetic observational humor, though the center of that universe is rather uniquely challenging to observe.  Westlake went back to his roots in more ways than one with it, and much as the romance in Baby, Would I Lie? is perfunctory and half-hearted at best, it’s at the very center of what can only be called Westlake’s last serious foray into science fiction–and his only true epic in that genre.  An homage to H.G. Wells, but maybe to Ralph Ellison as well.  Because if nobody can see you–who the heck are you?

And I just have to do one little piece before I get to that, to set it up.  And to give me time to finish rereading it.   And to find the antidote to Bac-O Bits.  Blech.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Bonus Feature: Who Loots The Looters?; The Genesis of Charley Varrick


” ‘Charley Varrick, Last of the Independents.’ I like that. Has a ring of–finality.”

I should probably explain.

Donald E. Westlake had no role whatsoever in the writing or production of Charley Varrick.  It was not based on anything he’d written.  I don’t know if the people responsible for this movie ever read any of Westlake’s heist books, though given that it came out the same year as John Flynn’s adaptation of The Outfit, it’s a safe bet they knew his name.  I don’t know if John H. Reese, the author of the novel this movie was very loosely based on was familiar with Westlake’s work in the crime/heist genre, but there’s reason to think he was.  Reese was mainly known for westerns, and wrote very little in the overall mystery field (The Looters was his first crime novel, and he only wrote one more), so Westlake probably didn’t read much or any of him, but you never know.

Here’s the thing–I’ve loved this movie for a good while now.  It’s probably my favorite film ever made in this genre.  Not just my personal favorite–I think it’s the best.  I think Don Siegel, the guy who made it, was the greatest director of crime flicks who ever exposed a negative (it’s him or John Huston).  And I’ve been curious for a while now about what the novel this film adapts is like.  And now I know.

The first edition hardcover is from Random House–1968–Westlake was still publishing there under his own name, but not for much longer.  Coe was still around, and Stark would show up there soon enough, so yeah, Westlake and Reese would presumably each have had at least some inkling of the other’s existence.

A good first edition of The Looters (or even a crap one) will run you well over a hundred bucks online. The paperback, making its futile misguided attempt to entice Mario Puzo readers, is ugly, and not cheap.  I decided to go with interlibrary loan–the copy on my desk hails from a public library upstate.  It has to go back soon.  So I figured I better write this now.  (Also, I’m still rereading the next Westlake novel in the queue–try to get that review done by sometime next week.)

It’s really hard to say why some books get bought up by Hollywood and some don’t.  If this had been any kind of bestseller,  if it had done even reasonably brisk sales, copies wouldn’t be so expensive now.    The high price for used copies nowadays probably stems from relatively high demand (because of the movie) combined with relatively low supply (due to average sales for the genre and publisher, and the fact that a lot of copies have not survived the decades).

Doesn’t seem anything John Reese ever wrote (and he wrote a lot) has made it to Kindle. Completely out of print, in all formats. But somebody bought the rights to The Looters, probably not long after it came out (conceivably before it came out), and it wasn’t the first time Reese had tapped into that well.  Three of his short stories in the western genre had been adapted, one into a movie with Fred MacMurray.

But for many who went to school in a certain era, the book below would be what they remembered him for–won him an award.  I remember reading it myself as a kid.  Good story.  Mind you, back then I’d read pretty much anything with a dog  on the cover.


Also out of print.  Because stories about ranchers ruthlessly exterminating wolves with the help of really big dogs (not in the frontier days, there’s cars and electricity and tourists passing through) just ain’t gonna play in most parts of the country anymore, nor should they.  Old Yeller can still get away with it, because he’s protecting his family (and the wolf was rabid).  And because that book is much better written and illustrated.   But see who the hero is here?  Not the wolf–one of Life’s true independents, and among the last ones too, on that range (you might say they’ve made a comeback since then).  Nope, the dog is the hero.  A canine cop, out to eradicate the independents.  Hmm.

The screenplay for Charley Varrick is credited to Howard Rodman and Dean Riesner, but in reading Don Siegel’s account of the making of this movie in his credit-by-credit professional memoir, A Siegel Film,  I learned that the two never worked together on it.  Rodman had been tasked with writing a script based on the book for Universal, years before, and nobody liked it much (probably stuck closer to the book), so the project languished in development.

Siegel took an interest in it, and hired Riesner, who had worked with him on his previous film at Warner Brothers, Dirty Harry, which had of course been a box office sensation, and presumably that gave Siegel a bit more leeway to do what he wanted here than he usually had.  I’m tempted to say he felt lucky, but that would be so obvious.

He tried to get his buddy Clint Eastwood, who he’d just finished turning into a  legit A-List star, interested in playing the lead–the lead being a bank robber who gets away with it.  Eastwood, who thought the world of Siegel, turned him down flat.  He didn’t like the character–said he had no ‘redeeming qualities.’  Yeah, looking at his list of roles, before and since, I don’t know what he meant by that either, but I’m guessing he just figured the movie wouldn’t do that well (he was right too), and he was just getting some real traction in the biz.  I like Clint’s movies and all (even some of the ones he made himself).  He has long struck me as being a character with few redeeming qualities away from the film set, but anyway he photographs nice.

So instead of the combative macho camaraderie that generally prevailed between Eastwood and Siegel, who I get the impression never tired of putting each other through various forms of hell, Siegel had to work with Walter Matthau–who had, in fact, made his own movie about a bank robber, years before–one who didn’t get away with it, who met with the traditional fate of movie heisters.  Interesting film, shot in a near-documentary style, not very good, pops up on TCM now and again.  He must have enjoyed the experience.  Met his wife on that movie, too, and she looks quite enjoyable indeed.   Marriage lasted.  No Eastwood, he.

But he put Siegel through a few kinds of hell also.  Siegel loved everything Matthau did in front of the camera, and said he was a pain in the ass to deal with once the camera stopped rolling.  Did not understand the script.  Did not understand the character.  And apparently, he didn’t need to.  Because he just was the character.

Lalo Schifrin, the Argentinian composer best known for the Mission Impossible theme, who had also worked on Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry with Siegel, did the score. He and Siegel had a rare rapport, and Siegel talks with pure admiration of the way Schifrin figured out how to put music over the climactic biplane vs. muscle car scene in the movie, the kind of scene you normally never put music over, because it gets in the way, but somehow Siegel felt like this one needed it.

Michael C. Butler was the cinematographer–his first big gig.  His dad was close friends with Siegel.  His mother died just before shooting started. Siegel told him to go home, they’d delay shooting, he said no way, his mom would want him to work.  You getting the impression this was less like a film set than a family reunion?  (With Matthau as the cranky eccentric uncle everybody’s a bit in awe of, but not Siegel, because he was used to stars, and knew how to wrangle them.)

As was increasingly typical for many of his better, more polished, individual films–the ones he cared most about–Siegel was his own producer.  He always liked that.  Cleaner.  Simpler.

So you mainly had a group of people who knew each other very well, understood each other, could communicate without much difficulty, and since Siegel was the producer, no suits getting in the way most of the time.   And no real star egos, except Matthau, who might kibbitz a bit, make a bunch of suggestions that wouldn’t work (because, I’d posit, he’d made his own bank robber movie, and it hadn’t turned out great, and he was trying to impose all the ideas he’d never been able to execute properly in his film on this film)–but he was all pro once the director yelled action.

(Lee Marvin could have maybe been an even better Charley, except he’d have been more dangerous, less cerebral.  It would have to be a different story, that would end with a fight, not a ruse.  Siegel had, of course, directed Marvin in a made-for-TV adaptation of The Killers [that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Hemingway story], and I’d talk about that here, but Lady, I Haven’t Got The Time.)


Great supporting cast, of course.  Joe Don Baker (his best performance ever, I think) as a Dixie-accented hitman.  Richard Vernon as a smooth unctious frontman for the mob.  Sheree North as a sly slatternly photographer who doesn’t impress easy.  And Felicia Farr as Sybil Fort, the Vernon character’s shrewd secretary/mistress, who implausibly but delightfully ends up ‘boxing the compass’ in a round bed with Varrick.  And the weird thing about that was that in real life she was married to Matthau’s buddy Jack Lemmon, and somehow it doesn’t seem fair that Lemmon never got to do a relaxed intimate grown-up sex scene with Matthau’s wife, but they do seem to be enjoying themselves.


Siegel claimed he believed every picture he ever made would be a hit, even though he knew in practice that you just never knowCharley Varrick was a flop.  Siegel’s alibi was that Matthau had been badmouthing the movie to every reviewer he talked to (what else would you expect from an independent?), but it hardly seems likely that would have made the difference between a hit and a flop.  A flop and a marginal success, maybe.

The fact is, this movie wasn’t what anybody would have expected, and the objections of both Eastwood and Matthau were not entirely offbase–it’s not for everybody.

Some mainly pretty bad people rob a bank in a tiny hick western town.  Two citizens of the town  are killed, one of them a cop.  The heist planner–the hero of the movie, its title character in fact–didn’t kill anyone personally (never so much as punches anyone in the entire movie), but neither is he feeling any apparent guilt over it, then or ever afterward.

He’d tried making an honest living, working as a crop duster after his career as a barnstormer fizzled, and then the combines pushed him out.  He can’t work for other people, because he’s an independent by nature.  He can’t live on the dole, because he’s not a bum.  So he meticulously plans and executes minor bank robberies.  And he finally robs one full of mob money.  He realizes right away that’s what it must be.  Enough money to retire on, if you’re careful.  If you’re not careful, you won’t have to worry about retirement.

His wife  (played by a shopworn but still lovely Jacqueline Scott, best remembered for The Fugitive) was the driver on the job, and she died too, after getting them to safety.  He kisses her dead lips passionately, and then has his partner set the car to blow up with her inside it (and has guilt-free carnal knowledge of a total stranger very shortly afterwards, while wearing the ring he’d just taken from his wife’s cold finger maybe two days earlier).


The partner, played by another Siegel alum, Andy Robinson, is an edgy out of control fellow, unprofessional, untrustworthy.  He says to hell with whose money it is, who might be coming after them, he’s going to spend it, and he’s not going to wait long to do it.  He threatens Charley.  Charley, seemingly conceding, says “You called it, kid.”  He says that once more in the movie.

Most of the film is Charley, a deeper player than anyone could have guessed, working a long intricate con on both sides of the law, so that he can get away clean, with most of the cash, and nobody will ever know that he did that.  To just disappear into thin air, free as a bird–the Last of the Independents.  That was Siegel’s preferred title, the words that begin and end the film, but honestly, I think the title the studio stuck him with works better.  Though there were several.

There is no explaining Charley Varrick.  The film or the man.  You only know that a man like that can be either free or dead, and there is nothing in-between.  He’s precisely the kind of existentialist criminal character a filmmaker once told Westlake American movies don’t know how to do.  In American movies, either the bank robber is just a bad man who has to go down bloody, or he’s a good man who only did the robbery because he needed money for somebody’s operation (and may still go down bloody–High Sierra comes to mind, except that wasn’t exactly Roy Earle’s first dance, was it?).

Westlake said it wasn’t really that simple, but in commercial terms, it usually is.  People want the vicarious excitement of being in on some criminal enterprise, but then they want the robbers punished in some way–they die, they go to jail, they don’t get to keep the loot–to expiate their vicarious sense of guilt.  There’s none of that here.  You saw what Charley did, you wanted him to do it, you wanted him to get away with it, because if he doesn’t, that means the System always wins, and the System has to lose sometimes, or there’s no hope.

Yes, it was mainly mob money, but not entirely, and innocent people died because of what he did.  And his reaction to that is–well–there is none.  He didn’t want anyone to die, but he always knew it could happen.  He took his chances, and everybody else would have to take theirs.  No remorse, no regrets, no excuses.  They’re a waste of time.  Whatever Charley Varrick feels or doesn’t feel about what he’s done, he’ll never share those feelings with us.  His feelings are none of our business.

Not for nothing is this movie on a list entitled “Not Quite Parker” over at the first and best Richard Stark fansite.  And not for nothing was blues guitar god Rory Gallagher inspired to write one of his best songs after seeing it.   Though when Joe Don Baker’s Molly is onscreen, Brute Force and Ignorance might be a better fit.  They debuted on the same album.


So anyway, there’s lots of reviews of this movie already, and it’s not directly on-topic for this blog, but here’s the thing.  I finally read the book they based it on.  And guess what?  It’s not very good.  Which is not to say it isn’t interesting–any storyteller with a vision, which I surely think John Reese had, can be interesting to read, if you are interested in people, since as I’ve mentioned several times since starting this blog, there’s no better pathway into a human mind than fiction, good or bad–and this isn’t bad at all.  It’s just not that good. It’s a bit of a mess, really.  Reese was out of his element here.

And it’s not about The Last of the Independents, either.  It’s really about a young, good-looking, sensitive, and deeply insecure policeman, serving his first day on the job in that tiny hick western town of Tres Cruces.  His name is Kenneth Steele, but his nickname–and it’s not meant as a compliment–is ‘Stainless.’  Yeah.  Stainless Steele.  That’s the name of the first chapter. And several others.  It’s one of those multiple POV books, where each chapter begins with the name of the character whose POV it’s written from.  The second chapter is from Charley’s POV, and a few after that.  Ten POV characters in all.  One of whom is named ‘Possum Trot.’  I am not making that up.

Okay.  Spoiler alert.  You want to know just how far the movie got from the book here?  If not, stop reading.

This novel is 177 pages long in the first edition.  Charley Varrick gets his head beaten in with a bowling ball by Molly Edwards on page 130.   Molly gets shot down by Stainless Steele on page 169.

Yeah.  Chew on that a moment.  I’ll wait.

In the novel, Charley Varrick is a career criminal, been to prison more than once, never remotely aspired to making an honest living, never gave a damn about anyone but himself. He was never married to Nadine, the character played by Jacqueline Scott in the movie, never felt anything but contempt for her, did not kiss her dead lips before setting her body on fire, felt nothing but relief that she was gone, except maybe irritation that she screwed up her job as driver for the heist (it’s not clear she actually did).  He has every intention of betraying his surviving partner.

He knows there’s something funny about that much money being in that little podunk bank, but never figures out he just stole laundered mob money until it’s much too late. He and Molly know each other from prison.  Molly, also nowhere near the fierce focused professional he was in the movie, but still a tough mean hombre (and also intending to keep all the money himself), spots Charley on the street, guesses right away he pulled the bank job, and that’s all she wrote for Charley Varrick.  Let me give you a sampling of Reese’s prose here, which is a bit hit or miss, but this is a solid hit.

Molly whipped the Imperial to the curb and rolled out of it.  “Charley!” he called softly.  “Come here.  Get in this car.”

Charley turned slowly.  In prison he had always been one of the wise old heads who by advice and example taught the wild youngsters to live out their terms without going mad. Molly was a different kind of aristocrat, solitary and dangerous, and he knew that he was one of the few people Charley Varrick feared.

But Charley tried. “Let me alone,” he said in a soft, expressionless yet carrying voice. “I been keeping clean, Molly.  See you around.”

“You ain’t been keeping clean,” Molly drawled.

“The least you can do is not make trouble for a fella.”

Molly walked toward him.  They were about the same height, but Molly was fifteen years younger and thirty pounds heavier than Charley.  He had moreover the quick, killing decisiveness of a panther, an animal quality somewhat lacking in Charley.

Yeah, I think Reese probably read some Richard Stark in his day.  Not that Stark invented the idea of a predator in human form.  And not that Reese could match Stark’s wily willful way with words, even at his very best.  Not going by this, anyway.  And none of his westerns are e-vailable either.  I mean, you can only read so many books in one lifetime.  This is a late book in Reese’s canon.  I have to assume he’s giving it his absolute best shot here.

Reese’s Varrick has no ingenious intricate plan for survival, or anything resembling a sense of honor or professional integrity.  He’s the one threatening his frightened guilt-ridden out-of-his-depth partner, not the other way around.  He always intended to keep the whole score for himself.

He sure as hell never gets to screw a smart sexy blonde in a round bed–in fact, the characters never even meet, or learn of each others’ existence.  Sybil Fort is just a plot device here, to make sure the mobsters get theirs in the end too (she’s going to turn state’s evidence on her boss because one of his associates frightened the hell out of her).  And she’s not a blonde, or a knock-out, but that’s neither here nor there.  (It’s worth mentioning that Reese had a gift for describing ordinarily attractive women, and that is one of the legit pleasures of this book.)

The Charley Varrick in The Looters is, to put it plainly, a sleazy third-rate low-rent criminal sociopath, who knows his chosen profession pretty well, but thinks he’s a whole lot smarter than he really is.   Oh, and he can’t fly a plane–the crop duster thing, that ‘We are the Last of the Independents!’ motto on the side of the van he’s driving–that was just a front he was putting up to blend into the community, prior to looting it.

As a fellow once said, ain’t that a kick in the head?  Or a bowling ball, same thing.

Westlake said many times that Richard Stark was a romantic in the way he wrote about crime. Which doesn’t mean everybody in his books is perfect, far from it.  He wants us to see the ugly side of the underworld, but he still expects his professionals to be professionals, to know their business, to live up to some ideal that probably doesn’t exist anywhere in real life, and real life isn’t the point of the Parker books, never was.  You put enough reality in there to make the romance believable–and to convey the underlying truths about selfhood and identity the author is trying to get across.  You don’t have to believe Don Quixote is real to know Don Quixote tells the truth.

I think there’s a strong romantic streak in John Reese as well, but it expresses itself differently.  Like there’s an actual romance in the book–between Stainless and a slightly older girl who just moved into town to be the new art teacher.  He got a good look at the robbers, and they don’t have a police sketch artist in such a small department, so she gets dragooned to come see him in the hospital (he got winged during the robbery), and do some drawings based on his descriptions (which are of course superb), and of course they fall for each other at first sight, and they hop into a motel bed the moment he’s released, and are headed for the altar by the time the book ends, like maybe two days later, if that.  His frigid domineering mother doesn’t like it, but he’s determined to break free of her, and finally be a man, and you’ve seen this movie before, and it’s not nearly as good as Charley Varrick.  Oh, and he’s a virgin when the book starts–now you get why his nickname isn’t a compliment.

This would, by the way, have made a perfectly good 1950’s low-budget crime picture.  Which Don Siegel  might well have directed, and he’d have had somebody rewrite the hell out of it then too.  And the studio censors would have insisted the premarital sex at the motel be cut out.  Party poopers.   But it feels very dated for the time period it’s set in.

I’m giving the impression Reese wasn’t a good writer, and again, I haven’t read enough of his stuff to know how good he was.  There were points, here and there, where he really had me going, and I thought (as some online reviewers have) that this would turn out to be a forgotten classic.  But on reflection, I don’t believe it is.  I think it was forgotten because it’s largely forgettable.  Not because Reese wasn’t a pro–it’s very obvious he knows his business well, and he’s no hack–he believes every word he writes.  He’s damned sincere.  Maybe too sincere.

I found some points of comparison between him and another western-raised author, named Willeford, but Willeford was a whole lot more self-aware, and couldn’t write a clichéd turn of phrase or character development if his life depended on it.  So much comes down to knowing who you are, knowing what rings true, and what doesn’t. Literary technique is merely the medium by which your tell your truths to the world, and some truths are more compelling than others.

And yet, reason dourly asks me, isn’t this more true to life than the movie based on it?  Isn’t this the genuine nature and likely fate of a real-life Charley Varrick, and shouldn’t we be more sympathetic to an earnest young patrolman finding his way in the world (not to mention the older and highly professional lawmen, local and federal, who appear in this book), than we do to some sleazebag thief and killer?

Yeah, and we should probably care more about Banquo than Macbeth.  What’s your point? You want to see  a three hour play about Banquo?  Be my guest.   You can just bet that if Shakespeare hadn’t written that play based on scurrilous English propaganda about a great Scottish king who never did any of those vile deeds, the hero of any historical film they made of that story would be MacDuff.  I mean, he wins the final sword fight.

Reese creates potentially interesting characters, and then he over-explains them, while at the very same time under-developing them (it’s too many POV characters for such a short book).  He’s too much on the side of the law to be objective here.  Did he ever write differently about outlaws in the old west?   Maybe, but look who his hero is in that dog vs. wolf book.

He writes in some depth about organized crime, and not one word of it makes any sense–he dabbles in both anti-Italian and anti-Jewish stereotypes, and I don’t believe he was any kind of bigot–he just can’t quite see how offensive he’s being. Never mind offensive, great writing is often deeply offensive–he’s out of key.

He makes it sound like American Jews only got into the Mafia recently, after the Italians started losing interest–the book came out in 1968!  Meyer Lansky was in his 60’s by then.  Bugsy Siegel  (no relation, I trust) got whacked in 1947.

You compare it to Westlake’s brilliant little analysis in 361 (presented by an untrustworthy character, not the infallible narrator), of how it’s always outsider groups, of all ethnicities, who get sucked into organized crime, and you see the difference between a young master and an old journeyman (Reese was in his late 50’s when he wrote this book).

Siegel and Riesner got around the whole mess there by making Vernon’s character, who is Jewish in the book, a snooty WASP who makes snide comments about ‘bagelbiters’ (referring to Norman Fell’s honest put-upon FBI agent in the film, who is actually pretty close to Reese’s take on the same character–seriously, I don’t think Reese hated anybody, he does not strike me as the type).

Realistic?  Maybe not, but it’s better storytelling, because there’s no room in the story for that kind of in-depth social commentary, accurate or not (and it’s mainly not).  You have to know how far you can stretch it before it becomes a distraction.  Sneak those messages in, don’t blast them over the PA system.  Show, don’t tell.  But if you need to tell, tell it right.  Tell it straight.  And keep it simple.

Reese’s book provided nothing but the bare outlines of a story, and some raw character sketches, to the movie that is now better-remembered than any of his books (and still something of a cult film–you can’t even get a decent DVD of it in the U.S.–pan & scan!   Wait for TCM’s letterboxed version).  Siegel, who I think most definitely saw himself as one of the last independents, saw the potential for something much more interesting. And definitely for better dialogue (reading the novel, I don’t think I came across a single line I remembered from the movie).

And I’ve often complained on this very blog, and at some length, about this way movie directors have of taking some hard-working print author’s brainchild and remaking it so completely that it says the exact opposite of what it said before.  And I’m praising this director (and the screenwriter) for doing that here.  Because at the end of the day, it’s not about who did the story first.  It’s about who did it best.  It’s about who had the most interesting points to get across.   It’s about who knew precisely what he was trying to express, and precisely how to do that.   All stories are true, from a certain perspective.  Not all stories are equally well told.  Not all stories are equally memorable.  Some stories live on forever.  Others fall by the wayside.

Charley Varrick never had his brains bashed out with a bowling ball.  Charley Varrick never doublecrossed a partner who didn’t cross him first.  Charley Varrick had a plan.  Charley Varrick outsmarted the Law and the Mob.  Charley Varrick got away clean, and lived free, and died without regrets, except maybe he missed Nadine, who wasn’t some cheap slut–she was a hell of a driver.  Maybe that isn’t real.  But it’s true.  Charley Varrick was The Last of the Independents.  May his flame burn forever in the soul of man.  Because dammit, we can’t let the System win every time.   And Stainless Steele is a silly name.  You know what isn’t?



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Review: Don’t Ask

 “It’s just that I have to keep in mind,” Dortmunder explained, “what it says across the bottom of my family crest.”

Tiny lowered an eyebrow; in fact, half an entire forehead.  “And what’s that, Dortmunder?

‘Quid lucrum istic mihi est?’


“What’s in it for me?”

Everybody seemed to like this book when it first came out.  There was, one senses, an almost audible collective sigh of relief upon its release.  At last, back to doing what he’s supposed to do!   Even the previous Dortmunder was a bit too dark (and bizarrely long, much like my review of it).   Lighten up, Westlake!

The New York Times delivered, as always, the official verdict– “In this era of thrillers about serial killers and child molesters, Mr. Westlake’s psychology-free capers are balm for the nerves. “Don’t Ask” is one of his best.”  And let’s just forget all about the last book hardly anyone read about Armageddon and God and Demons and really bad things happening to really good people.

I mean, after you’d spent much of your life writing scores of brilliantly insightful books about the human quest for self-understanding, some comic, some decidedly not, how would you feel about being referred to as ‘psychology-free’?  No doubt there’s a compliment in there somewhere, and Westlake never did cotton much to psychiatrists as such, but motivating his characters, explaining the choices they made, was his primary goal as a storyteller.  Most people never got that.  Even those who were ostensibly paid to get it.

David Bratman, in his great groundbreaking collection of thumbnail Westlake reviews, had this to say about it, years later–

The eighth Dortmunder novel, a successful mixture of light comedy and something entirely new to the Dortmunder series. Once again, there’s a sacred object disputed between two countries, and as in The Hot Rock Dortmunder is hired by one country to steal it from the other. This time the two countries are Slavic, and the object (which again is in New York) is a saint’s relic, a holy bone. Once again, the object must be stolen several times, lost each time for reasons reminiscent of those in The Hot Rock. What saves this book from being a retread is the freshness of the writing, and the new tone of the second half of the book. Having been tricked and bamboozled by his antagonists, Dortmunder decides, in his last attempt on the bone, to wreak a thorough revenge and embarrassment on them — and he succeeds. At last, he is no longer purely a sad sack. It’s richly satisfying.

Except that’s a retread as well–a vengeful Dortmunder was featured in both The Hot Rock  and Why Me?–what’s different here is that he’s planning an elaborate caper with multiple confederates to exact retribution.  Far more ambitious, to be sure, but it’s the same pattern we’ve seen before, adapted from Parker–Dortmunder gets mad, Dortmunder gets even.  He won’t kill you.  He’ll just make you wish he had.

He was never purely a sad sack.  Westlake told a variety of stories in the early years of the series, and sometimes it suited the story to have Dortmunder lose from beginning to end (Jimmy the Kid comes to mind, and that of course was adapted from The Ransom of Red Chief), but more often his good and bad luck, his good and bad ideas, all balanced each other out–he’d win some and he’d lose some, and he’d live to steal another day.  Good Behavior was probably his most triumphant exploit to date, not this book.

In fact, he loses quite a bit here (including the loot).  But what he’s mainly losing, sad to say, is my attention.  I enjoyed this novel the first time I read it (it is, in many ways, the most generically representative of the Dortmunders, containing basically every key element from the series as a whole).  I was looking forward to reviewing it here, but on second reading, I found my opinion of it would shift radically from chapter to chapter–I’d get into it, then find my attention lagging. So many good moments, so many ingenious contrivances, but even admitting that there had always been some necessary and enjoyable repetition in the series, there’s far too much of it here, and what’s more, Westlake knows it.  The conviction isn’t there.

He’s going through the motions.  In a manner more clever and creative than most writers could ever aspire to, but as fertile as his imagination remains, his heart isn’t quite in it this time.  And I still think this one merits an electronic edition–other than the one after it, this seems to be the only Dortmunder not currently available on Kindle–except it is in Germany.  What’s that about?  Don’t ask.

Maybe Westlake wasn’t quite ready to get back to Dortmunder yet (it had been just about exactly three years since the last one), but he probably had no choice–he had to make bank, for himself and his loyal publisher, after several recently failed attempts to expand his options as a writer.  Hence Dortmunder, his only available fallback position with Parker out of the picture (so maybe time to start thinking about getting Parker back?).

Hence the next book in our queue as well, another sequel that fails to live up to what came before it–both books having quite a lot in the way of keen social observation in them, something Westlake was still vitally interested in, and that keeps either book from being a total loss.  But when it comes to the characters, I’m just not feeling it, which I of course interpret as him not feeling it either. Yes, you may roll your eyes now at Fred the Psychic Book Reviewer, Spirit Medium to dead mystery authors.

But ask yourself this, oh skeptics–if he felt he’d done this story full justice, why would he basically rehash the latter half of it in the very next Dortmunder, three years after this one came out?   Like a dog with a bone was Donald Westlake with an imperfectly executed idea.

Much as the 90’s marked a return to greatness for him, the first half of that decade was a discouraging process of trial & error.  And yeah, I think his attitude towards writing this book–and several subsequent Dortmunders (though not the next one)–fell very much along the lines of Quid lucrum istic mihi est?  What was in it for him was money, of course–and breathing space.

It’s a fairly long book, and I could stretch it out, but I’m not making any bank here, and I’m mainly going to focus on the things that do feel inspired, and therefore inspire me.  That’s my quid pro quo.   No synopsis, or a very incomplete one, anyway.  We’ve heard it all before.  What was good enough for Dancing Aztecs (a much better book about New York and its environs) will do fine for this one.   I think I’ll start out with–

A Dubious Dedication:

Westlake dedicates this novel, ‘in awe and admiration,’ to Robert Redford, George C. Scott, Paul LeMat, and Christopher Lambert,  ‘Dortmunders all, and who would have guessed.’   You really wouldn’t think it would be that hard a role to cast appropriately, would you?  Unless you read a lot of Dortmunder novels, in which case you’d realize that it’s entirely appropriate that the movie adaptations never, and I mean ever, work out.   Moving on to–

Kelp the Climatologist:

Stuck in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge out of lower Manhattan in a stolen frozen fish truck full of stolen frozen fish at 1:30 on a bright June afternoon, with construction out ahead of them forever on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with Stan Much on Dortmunder’s left complaining about how there are no decent routes anymore from anywhere to anywhere in New York City–“If there ain’t snow on the road, there’s construction crews”–and with Andy Kelp on Dortmunder’s right prattling on happily about global warming and how much nicer it will be when there isn’t any winter, Dortmunder also had to contend with an air conditioner dripping on his ankles.  Cold drips.  “My ankles are freezing,” he announced.  As if anybody cared

“Nobody’s gonna freeze anymore,” Kelp assured him.  “Not with global warming.”

Dortmunder is all for it, and decides to hasten the process by turning off the air conditioning, only he actually turned off the refrigeration unit, and by the time they get the fish to the Long Island restaurateur illicitly buying them (ever notice how often Dortmunder does theft for hire?), the entire load is spoiled, and Dortmunder has screwed up his own heist.  Can’t even blame Kelp this time.  Though he really wants to.

And if it hadn’t been for the ferocious summer heat, combined with the now-unavoidable traffic jams, probably this wouldn’t have happened.  Dortmunder is once more confirmed in his deep philosophical divide with Kelp.  Change is not good.  But Kelp the climatologist still looks forward hopefully to the death of winter, and somehow never quite grasps what summer would be like by then.  Or else maybe he loves hellishly muggy days, who knows?  He can have all of mine.

So now Dortmunder could really use a good score, to make up for this humiliating failure, and then he and the rest of the gang get a call from Tiny Bulcher, who has a problem for them to solve, namely–

The Osteology of Votskojek (grrrrr–and apologies to E.B. White):

“Tsergovia,” Dortmunder said.  “I never heard of it.”  He glanced at Kelp, who shook his head, and at Stan, who said, “If it isn’t in the five boroughs, I never heard of it.”

Tiny said, “This poor little country, it really got screwed around with over the years.  It was independent for a long time in the Middle Ages, and then it got to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one time it was almost a part of Albania, except over the mountains, and later on the Commies put it together with this other crap country, Votskojek–”

Grijk growled.

“–and called it something else, but now the Commies are out, that whole Eastern European thing is coming apart, and Tsergovia’s becoming its own country again.”

“Free at last,” Grijk said.

“So it’s gonna be a real different country,” Tiny said, “from when my grandparents decided to get the hell out of…”  He frowned and turned to his cousin.  “What was the name of that place again?”

“Styptia,” Grijk said.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Tiny agreed.  “My ancestral village home.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina were (was?) recognized as an independent nation by the U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations, about a year before this book made it to stores. The result was not peace and prosperity for that tiny nation, but one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern European history (and that’s saying something).

I don’t know when Westlake began work on Don’t Ask, but almost certainly before the shooting started, and I rather think he would have chosen another region if he’d known that was going to happen so soon (we’re told the two statelets are in the Carpathians, not the Balkans–given that all that separates the two ranges is a river, and both border Serbia, it’s kind of a moot point).  But he definitely saw the problems presented to parts of Central Europe by the break-up of the Soviet Union.   He knew there were a lot of ‘countries’ on the old maps that only existed on paper, and were only being held together by force.

So he imagines this scenario where two tiny nations in what was apparently a hybrid nation very much like Yugoslavia are each vying to be recognized by UN, and what will give one of them the edge is having the thigh bone of a saint revered by both.  Both claim to have it, but Votskojek (grrrrrr) actually does, and is in the process of proving it scientifically, in their embassy, an old freighter moored on the East River, alongside Manhattan.   Dortmunder & Co. are to steal the bone, so Tsergovia can say they had it all along.

This is a funny part of the book, particularly the part where the narrator gives us the unfortunate history of St. Ferghana, the far-from-virtuous daughter of a family of thieves and murderers, who saw the light and tried to reform them, and ended up dead for her pains–she whose preserved femur serves as the bone of contention here.

But it’s maybe a bit too Ruritanian in its approach (maybe?  there were goddam rape camps!).  Real life events overtook the fictional ones in this story (not the first time this had happened in Westlake’s career), and it’s not so funny to hear Tiny’s cousin Grijk (whose name only Dortmunder can pronounce correctly) say that the people in these two little countries would need only the slightest provocation to start slaughtering each other like sheep.

Votskojek (grrrrr…) is pretty clearly a slimmed-down Serbia, and yet what’s Tsergovia?  A cut-back Croatia?  Where do the Bosnian Muslims fit in?  I’m sure the satire was never intended to be that direct–and back when most Americans barely knew these countries existed, that was fine.  If it had been written a decade earlier, we’d call it prescient–now it just seems a bit–irrelevant.  And nobody cared when it came out, because the Dortmunder books were supposed to be irrelevant.  Westlake loved to sneak political messages into nonpolitical books, but his timing was off here.

The great tragedy of the Balkans conflict was that all the major players were guilty of horrendous war crimes (or of only selectively condemning them), and the people got crushed between them all.  And for once, the United States getting involved in a foreign civil war turned out to be a good thing.  So the fight between these two little nonexistent countries over which one gets recognized by the UN seems to me a bit too trite and beside the point.  Again, I think he was too far into the book to fix it by the time the outlines of the war became clear.

And yet so much funny dialogue–

Tiny continued: Also by that time you got two religions involved.  You got the regular Roman Catholic Church out of Rome that said the leg was a saint to begin with.  I mean, the girl was the saint, the whole girl.  And then there was a schism, the Eastern Unorthodox,”

Stan said, “Jewish, you mean.”

“No, no,” Tiny said, waving a big meaty hand.  “There’s no Jews around there.”

“Dere was vun,” Grijk siad, “bud he went to Belgrade.  Or Lvov, maybe.  Somevere.  Anyway, now we godda get our suits from Hong Kong.  It ain’d da same.”

Yeah, something tells me there’s more to that story, Grijk.   But to me, by far the most interesting (and neglected) story in this book by far is–

The Founding of The Great Nation of Maylohda:

Banks don’t give loans to people,” Stan said in the tones of outrage he usually reserved for traffic jams.  “My Mom knows some cabdrivers, can’t get any kind of loan.  Working stiffs, good credit.  Taxi loan, house mortgage, home improvement, refinancing, you name it, you can forget it.”

“Oh no, no, no,” Grijk said, “not if you’re a pipple.  Pipples don’t ged no money from a bank.  Bud if you’re a country, no problem.”

Tiny said, “I looked into this with Grijk, and it’s true.  There’s countries haven’t even paid the vigorish on their loans in nobody remembers how long, never mind the main money, and the banks go ahead and loan them some more, anyway.”

J.C., more interested in this conversation than she’d expected to be, said, “How do I get to be a country?”

Grijk took that as a serious question, having recently gone through the experience himself. “First,” he answered, “You have a var.”

Okay, confession time–one of my personal grudges against this novel is that it’s the first time we’ve seen the magnificent Josephine Carol Taylor since her debut in Good Behavior, and she has her own rather brilliant subplot–and it’s shamefully neglected.  Inspired by Grijk using Tsergovia’s credit to pay the gang members something in advance for their services, she tells Tiny she’s got something to do, vacates the apartment they share, and sets off to set herself up as a nation.  The nation of Maylohda (she explains later that her Noo Yawk accent makes her pronounce her usual post office based venue for chicanery that way).

This might have made a good book in its own right, or at least a much more substantial subplot, and do we get to see J.C. strut her stuff with the United Nations and the World Bank, and etc?  Do we even get to see her fabricate a ‘var’? Nope.  She just tells the gang all about it (over the course of three pages) when she gets back.  It makes a good final flourish to the book, but it could have been a lot more.

It does tie up one plot thread–Maylohda will happily buy Tsergovia’s rock, its only export, using borrowed money (with J.C. skimming off the top), and dump it somewhere in the Atlantic, thus providing much-needed hard currency for the struggling statelet, and many a good time for her and Tiny.  She figures maybe someday there’ll actually be some land there if they do that long enough.  It’s not enough of a pay-off for me.  She deserved better, and that mainly continued to be true for the rest of the series.  I read this passage, from inside Ms. Taylor’s febrile female brain, and I mourn what might have been.

A cacophony of countries, a mob, a milling throng, a legion of nations.  Who would have guessed there were so many mother and father lands?  You could hide in a crowd like that.

And do what?

Westlake’s longstanding interest in small nations, all those obscure flags that even your average Jeopardy! champion couldn’t pick out of a lineup, does get a vigorous workout here, and it’s fun to see.  Just not developed enough.  Too many irons in the fire to make it work.  And speaking of torture–

Dortmunder’s Not-So-Extraordinary Rendition:

Oh, is there no story to cover this?  Let’s see:

“I’m an undercover CIA agent, infiltrating the Tsergovian secret police, and…”

“I had amnesia!  Wait a minute, my past life is coming back to me!  The year is 1977, and I live in Roslyn, Long Island, with my dear wife, Andreotta, and our two charming children, uh…”

“FBI!  You’re all under arrest!”

“Thank God you understood those signals I was sending.  Those bloodthirsty fiends kidnapped my mother and forced me to help them in their evil…”

“My left leg is artificial and filled with dynamite.  If you don’t release me at the count…”

“Whu–Where am I?  Who are all you people?”

The first heist fails, as you’d expect, since it involves water, boats, and Dortmunder.  So much intricate use of Manhattan/Brooklyn geography here, and it’s enjoyable, as always. The embassy is in an old freighter, as mentioned, docked by an old abandoned ferry station. Dortmunder has to get off the tugboat they’re using to scope the place, because he’s seasick.

The ambassador, an oily customer named Hradec Kralowc, empathizes with Dortmunder’s mal de rio (he came to America on that very freighter).  He has no reason to suspect this queasy-looking person of any nefarious designs, and is proud of his cushy riverfront ambassadorial digs, so he shows him the whole place, shows him where they’ve got the bone, shows him exactly how to steal it, and man isn’t Dortmunder lucky?   And what always follows Dortmunder having some good luck?

Dortmunder pretends to be interested in visiting Votskojek (grrrrr) as a tourist, which has Hradec all agog–they’ve never had any foreign visitors on purpose before, unless they were invading (for the record, I would love to visit the Balkans, as long as they weren’t killing each other too much while I was there).   Dortmunder works out a scheme to distract the security guards (hired from the Continental Detective Agency, we’ll get to that), while he distracts the embassy staff, and Kelp sneaks in from the river and nabs the relic.

So what happens is, they get the bone, but they lose Dortmunder, and then they lose the bone to the DEA, which impounds the boat they ‘borrowed’ from a guy who used it to smuggle drugs–with the bone still in it.   Meanwhile, Dortmunder is now in the hands of some very unhappy Vostkojekians.  Vostkojites?   Never mind.  And grrrr.

(This whole episode marks the beginning of a running gag in the series that I for one could have lived quite well without–Dortmunder has to come up with a false name for himself when he first meets Hradec, and on the spur of the moment, he calls himself Diddums.  John Diddums.  It’s Welsh. No it bloody well is not. There is an old English name, Diddams, and there is also an expression of sympathy used with small children “Aw, diddums skin your widdle knee?”  That sort of thing.  Point is, Dortmunder went on using this alias throughout this book, and several subsequent books, and he always feels obliged to tell people the name is Welsh.  And I guess somebody must have enjoyed this, but it never got so much as a chuckle out of me.  Aw, diddums not like the widdle Diddums joke?)

And here begins Dortmunder’s less than extraordinary rendition, because Hradec needs that bone, and is prepared to go to any lengths to get it, other than actually killing or torturing anyone, which is one of the reasons I have a hard time believing Westlake wrote this thing after the Bosnian conflict was all over the papers.  Yes, I know, it’s a Dortmunder novel, but c’mon.

Dortmunder is introduced to a mad scientist who goes by the name of Dr. Zorn, who dabbles in trying to make inedible substances into food, but his main specialty seems to be the less polite forms of interrogation.  And there is a brief gem of character writing for Dortmunder here–

Thoughts of truth serum flashed through his mind.  How would his system react to truth serum?  Wouldn’t it be like an antibody inside him?  Would his vital parts survive such an invasion?

He never finds out, because Dr. Zorn doesn’t believe in the stuff, and just slips him the old Mickey Finn.  Dortmunder wakes up in a cell, which he is told is located inside Votskojek (grrrrr?). He is somewhat abused by the guards, but not really.  He is fed some unpalatable-looking green substance, but he is fed.  So that he should understand that his employer, whoever that is, has been filling his head with foul propaganda, he is given a tour of the rustic lovely countryside and charming (Potemkin) village life of Votskojek, but no ‘grrrrr’ this time, because guess what?  The crappy Soviet-era car they’re driving runs out of gas, he escapes his captors, and then he finds out he’s in Vermont.  Those fiends!  The Hague shall hear of this!  And maybe Ben & Jerry!

And here is where the trigger in Dortmunder’s head, no less implacable than Parker’s, is irretrievably set off.  No, they didn’t actually hurt him.  Yes, they had a right to try and get their bone back, that’s all within the rules of the game.  But they made a fool out of him.   Dortmunder already has to live with the fact that he is Fortune’s Favorite Fool. He has to put up with that, God being safely out of range.  He doesn’t have to take it from mere mortals.  He will be revenged on the whole pack of them.

An interesting side-note to this whole episode is that at no time does Dortmunder come close to telling what he knows–partly because he doesn’t think it’ll do him any good, partly because that would mean telling tales on Tiny Bulcher, but mainly because the entire scheme, borrowed variously from 36 Hours, Mission Impossible, and Westlake’s own Ex Officio, has a crucial defect.  They think he did this bonehead burglary out of misplaced belief in the just cause of Tsergovia, when in fact he was only in it for the money.   They’ve been wallowing in nationalist zealotry so long, they can’t understand a man who can scarcely be said to have any national loyalties at all.  Unless you count New York City as a nation.

The problem was, Hradec never did understand Diddums.  He neither knew nor understood that Diddums was a prisoner and knew exactly how to be a prisoner.  Hradec acted throughout as though he were dealing with an amateur, but Diddums was a pro, from his expressionless face to his barely moving feet, and would not be impressed.

All that talk, all those displays of cooling towers and happy peasants.  The man Hradec called Diddums cared nothing about any of that.  A prisoner does one of two things: (1) he goes along or (2) he escapes.  That’s all there is.  His keepers give orders, he obeys them.  He doesn’t think; he doesn’t argue; he doesn’t engage in philosophical discussion.  He does exactly what he’s told, and all of his concentration remains exclusively on watching for a chance to move onto (2).  Then he sees an opening, and he coldcocks the economist from Yale, and he’s gone.

Anyway, while all this is going on, Dortmunder’s comrades have not forgotten him (well, Tiny kind of has, but he does that, and J.C. isn’t around to shame him into a rescue mission).   Kelp has not forgotten, not least because his lousy timing in snatching the bone (it wasn’t his fault!) led to Dortmunder’s capture.  But of course he doesn’t know where Dortmunder is.  He does find out where the bone is, and the chapters dealing with that may be the best part of this book, as I shall now detail in–

Fox and Pig Are Friends:

Andy Kelp’s head appeared over the top edge of the ventilation tower.  Fox eyes in a fox face scanned the darkness.  It was two in the morning, and while the dishonest burglar in the ventilation tower conned the scene, the honest burghers of Governor’s Island lay peacefully asleep in their beds, dreaming of strikes and spares. (Some were having nightmares about splits).

This book sees the reintroduction of Kelp’s cynical cop confidante, Bernard Klematsky of the NYPD, last seen in Why Me?   He knows very well what Andy does for a living, and he’d happily jail him for it given half a chance, but he figures that it’s good to know people in that line of work for both professional and recreational reasons–Andy can provide information, and he can also pay for the sumptious meals the penurious policeman loves to eat but never wants to pay for.   Klematsky never picked up a check in his life, and no point starting now.

It was Italian food last time, long a favorite of Mr. Westlake’s, but there’s a new kid in town, namely Thai food, which Bernard says he loves because they put peanut butter on everything.  Andy is skeptical, but ends up finding it rather good (without the peanut butter), and cheaper than Italian, even with that pricey bottle of wine Bernard ordered thrown in.

No matter how good the chow is, however weighty the check, Bernard won’t knowingly aid and abet Andy in the commission of a felony, but with a great deal of dancing on ethical pinheads, Andy convinces him that all he wants is the location of an item that belongs to him anyway, that he won’t be able to claim through regular channels.  Well, let’s say Bernard, happily sated, agrees to be convinced, and with just one phone call he finds out where the DEA stashes impounded boats–which is Governor’s Island, site of a Coast Guard station, a self-enclosed community that lives its own bucolic surburban existence off the coast of Manhattan, bowling alley, golf course, and all.  A brief history lesson (one of what seems like a dozen or so in this book) follows apace–

Just five hundred yards south of the island of MANHATTAN (qv) and even closer to the onetime proud city of BROOKLYN (qv) across Buttermilk Channel, but nevertheless governmentally considered a part of the borough of MANHATTAN (qv), lies a darling button of an island that the Indians called Pagganck, which seems unkind, but there you are.

In 1637, some enterprising Dutchmen bought the island from the Manhatas Indians (so that’s why!) for two ax heads and a handful of nails and beads, and changed its name to Nutten, which wasn’t much of an improvement.  But they were still a lot sharper than those other Dutchmen who bought Manhattan itself from the Canarsie Indians, who didn’t own it, but were just passing through and knew a live one when they saw a live one.

The Dutch held on to Nutten only twenty-seven years before the British adopted it, not paying nobody for Nutten, and changed its name to Governor’s Island, because the governor of the colony of New York was going to live there.  And so he did.  The first one, Lord Cornbury, was asked to leave when he insisted on wandering around in lady’s clothing and instituted a bachelor’s tax, but some of the others kept a lower profile and would surely be proud to learn they are utterly forgotten.

(The parenthetical qv’s refer the reader to a brief footnote saying these are mere historical asides, and not for credit, so I shall not bother to find out if Westlake is making any of this up, and odds are he’s not, because when it comes to New York City history, the stranger it sounds, the more accurate it is likely to be).

So clearly not a good idea to invade the Coast Guard by sea–happily, the Brooklyn/Battery Tunnel goes directly beneath the island, and there is a ventilation tower from the tunnel below that pokes right up through to the surface.   And then Kelp’s foxy face pokes right up through that, while Stan Murch waits down below, and he finagles his foxy way around the totally unguarded island until he finds the sacred relic, sacrilegiously deposited in a garbage can near the impounded boat.  He wipes it off and kisses it hello, the late Saint being no doubt grateful for the smooch.  What’s left of her.  I think that’s worth a Papal dispensation, at least.

And since Dortmunder is now free, this would normally mean the story is over, the gang can claim the rest of their fee, and nobody is going to care that Dortmunder wants his revenge, but there’s something funny about the unenthused way Grijk accepts delivery of the bone, and Murch figures something’s rotten in the sovereign storefront of Tsergovia (their embassy is in a ‘taxpayer’, an unimpressive structure erected to host small stores until the owners of the land can think of something better).

He’s right.  Hradec had their phones bugged, learned of the impending delivery, and the entire embassy staff was being held at gunpoint until perfidious Votskojek (grrrrr!) once more had that blasted bone in their possession.  All that effort achieved precisely nothing–except to make John Dortmunder extremely angry.   And an angry Dortmunder is a curious Dortmunder.  How did they manage to find all those spots in Vermont to double as prisons and castles and villages in Central Europe, complete with guards and colorfully garbed locals?  How could such an elaborate ruse be possible for such a cash-strapped little country?  Answer–

Hilton, Helmsley–meet Hochman:

For a man like Harry Hochman, Eastern Europe in its current post-Soviet disarray was a kind of wonderful Christmas present, a model-train set all for him,; some assembly required.  And Votskojek was the centerpiece.  Once it was securely enconced in its proper traditional United  Nations seat, once its economic treaties with its neighbors were in place, that little landlocked barren boulder in the Carpathians would become Harry Hochman’s stepping stone to Europe.  All of Europe.

Harry Hochman was Hradec’s benefactor–his literally palatial home in Vermont was the castle Dortmunder saw, he owns all the various places Dortmunder had been kept in, and since he maintains a small summer theater there, getting actors to play menacing guards and such was simplicity itself.

I think he’s more Helmsley than Hilton–his wife Adele sounds a whole lot like the fabled Leona, only not so mean (maybe that came later?).   But basically, he’s a composite figure, and the first real tycoon-type Dortmunder has come up against–first of several.  But he’s not really developed well enough to be a suitable nemesis, coming along so late in the book–this is one of the problems Westlake would fix in later stories.

Dortmunder finds out about Hochman from the despondent Tservogians, who have files on him–and when Tiny asks what’s the point of revenge–what about his family motto, as seen up top?–Dortmunder points out that the Hochman estate in Vermont is the site of an art collection worth about six million dollars.   Dortmunder has his army.  Now he just needs a plan.

Fugue in D Major:

For the first but not last time, we see Dortmunder go into a sort of waking trance, a fugue state if you will, where he is piecing together a very elaborate plan–and he doesn’t like this, we’re told–great plans should be simple–but this one needs to be baroque.  Because it’s not just a heist, but a sting he’s working out here, and he’s stretching past his normal thought processes, inspired by his fury.

He says he thinks he’s got a corner of something.  But he spends a lot of time staring off into space.  Because, you see, he needs to solve a whole lot of problems here–how to get the bone, how to make sure Tsergovia can properly claim it, how to make sure both Hochman and Hradek suffer horribly for their insult to him, how to get all that art and then get paid off for it (two entirely different things, since fencing famous objets d’art isn’t something Dortmunder’s regular contacts can do).

Shall I explain how he does all that?  Nah.  Read the book.  If you already have, read it again (even a sub-par Dortmunder is still a Dortmunder).  Point is, he does it.  A brilliant heist, a brilliant scam, and everything works out perfectly.  Except, of course, they lose the art to the law.  Which all ties back to the beginning of the book.

They get some cash up front from a somewhat shady art dealer who was negotiating with the insurance company on their behest, so they did okay, but no big score like last time.  And Dortmunder doesn’t care, because this was about satisfying honor.  He got his own back, with interest.  He does his tormentors the dirty about a thousand times worse than they did him.

Dr. Zorn the torturer suffers the Chinese water torture (which it turns out is a thing) in his secret laboratory in the burned out Bronx, and by the time it’s done, he will never be the same again.  He can dish it out, but he can’t take it, nyah.

Hradec Kralowc, the proud womanizer, is publicly labeled a homosexual deviant (in the 1990’s?   We were a little more advanced by then, weren’t we?) Dortmunder makes everybody other than his long-suffering wife believe he’s having an affair with Dr. Zorn.  This joke fell a little flat with me, it’s not like the guy was any kind of homophobe, and we never see him do anything that dastardly.   But it’s a necessary part of getting the crusty old Archbishop in charge of awarding the UN seat to change sides.  Okay, he would definitely not be advanced on that subject.  Oh, and Hradec also gets framed for the art theft, and the bone-napping, and has to return to Votskojek (grrrrr) in disgrace.

And Harry Hochman will be answering questions for years to come about where he got all that stolen art from, and since many of his answers will never be fully satisfactory, he will have other things to ponder than the conquest of Europe.   Which technically I think Conrad Hilton had already conquered, but never mind that now.

It’s fun.  It’s clever.   It’s a great idea for a Dortmunder story.  And it’s too busy.  There are too many threads.   There are a few too many mean-spirited jokes (and this is not, in the main, a series that specializes in mean-spirited humor).  Like Zara Kotor the hulking homely Tsergovian diplomat–a female Tiny Bulcher, who falls for the male one, and keeps throwing herself at him, while he retreats in terror, until she finds out he’s living with the beautiful J.C. Taylor, and her hopes are dashed.  Was that really quite necessary?  I feel certain H.L. Mencken would not have approved.  And “Eastern Bloc Women Not in Spy Thrillers Are Ugly” was surely a meme well past its sell-by date, and was never remotely true.

An awful lot of this book isn’t really necessary, and the beautiful thing about a great Dortmunder novel is that every last bit of it is necessary.   Why are there so many false notes here?   Why did the piece as a whole not play sonorously for me on the second hearing?  Because, I believe, the frustrated composer was not in the mood to write this composition.  Sure, he enjoyed writing this or that part of it, as I’ve enjoyed writing this or that part of this review, but the process as a whole was more of a chore than anything else.  He wanted to be more than The Dortmunder Guy, and people were talking like that’s all he was.

Even the title–Don’t Ask?  Why not?   Because if you did, you might find there isn’t really much of a meaning behind that title, or much of one behind this book, either.  Where’s the identity puzzles?  Okay, Hradec not comprehending Dortmunder’s true nature, but that’s hardly enough.  J.C. playing with becoming a nation of one, but that’s barely touched upon in the book.

The previous book in the series had several characters created especially for it, each going through major crises/transitions in their lives, creating rich material for the novelist.  But here Westlake is concentrating pretty much entirely on already-established characters–because that’s what people want from him. That’s why he basically trots out nearly every regular character from the series to date here, which I don’t think he ever did again.

And the problem with established characters is that they’re–you know–established.  Identity puzzles are harder to craft from a fixed identity, characters that never change, because we don’t want them to.  So from that perspective, this is the least satisfying Dortmunder novel to date–for me, and perhaps Westlake as well.  I can only speak for me.  It’s not necessarily the worst–that’s probably still Nobody’s Perfect.  But I enjoyed writing that review more.   If only because my expectations were lower.

So apologies to those who like this one–I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying I was, when I earlier referred to this as a great Dortmunder novel.  It’s merely the outer shell of one.  The ineffable essence of the series is not quite here, somehow.  Because Mr. Westlake’s heart was elsewhere when he was writing it.   Where might that be, you ask?  No, that’s okay, you can ask.

Not with our next book either, I think, but I’m rereading it now, and I may well write a slightly more positive appraisal than I thought I would–if only slightly. I’ve figured out which past book he reworked to make this one, and it’s not the one you think.  And I rather hope to finish that review in one go as well.  Because the Mid-to-Late 90’s beckon, with treasures beyond compare.  And we shall be there in only a few weeks time.  Mes enfants, would I dissemble?


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Humans, Part 2 (It is finished)

What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: 
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

John Milton

Here is a thing I’ve learned about the humans.  Everything they do is motivated by a crazy quilt of reasons.  Almost never do they perform an act merely because it’s the most sensible thing to do at that moment.  There are always political reasons as well, or social reasons, or emotional reasons, or religious reasons, or financial reasons, or reasons of prejudice.

Oh, who knows?  They wind up doing the wrong thing, usually, is the point, even though that small rational part inside them will briefly have shown the right road to take.  A human who can’t ignore common sense to leap firmly into the saddle of the wrong horse is a pretty poor example of the species, all in all.

“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

Did Westlake really believe he had a bestselling novel here?   That’s how he originally conceived of it, if Lawrence Block is to be believed, and I see no reason to doubt him.  But that was before he’d written one word of it.  When the time came to actually tell the story, when his muse took over, when each character began to speak imploringly to him, when he’d done all that research into the horrors afflicting so many parts of the world–including his own–did he really type it out thinking “I’m gonna make a fortune off this one!”  I’ll answer that one–no.   He couldn’t dance on all those graves.  He hadn’t with Kahawa, and he wouldn’t this time either.  He’d write the book he had to write, and it would sell or it wouldn’t.

Originally, he possibly intended something a bit more cynical and lighthearted (sure you can make an end-of-the-world story lighthearted; Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern did), and then his social conscience, always tugging at him, took control of the enterprise.  But now that he’s got a real message to get across, he’d still want it to reach a lot of people–would he expect it to?  I can’t answer that one, but I can surmise that what the book was originally supposed to be and what it ended up becoming were not totally in synch, which may explain some of the problems with it.

Donald Westlake was many things.  A romantic and a cynic.  A realist and a fantasist.  He loved people and despaired of them.  He valued individuality above all else, but was bitterly aware that even the most rugged individualists can never prevail long against machines–repressive state structures, multi-national corporations, organized crime.  Massed mediocrity wins out; a boot stamping on a human face forever.   But the individual does even worse in chaos, with no authority structure to rebel against or rely upon.  Who to root for here?  God, the Ultimate Authority Figure?   Or Satan, the Ultimate Anarchist?   Feathers or lead much?

There’s a conflict here, and he can’t resolve it–perhaps no one could.  Like Larry Slade, in The Iceman Cometh, he can always see the two sides of everything (and often more than two).

Why shouldn’t God destroy humanity, and the world along with it (just to prevent any possible repeats of the original failure)?  What have we done but waste every gift showered upon us?   We never learn from our mistakes.  We just make bigger and deadlier variations on them.  He had Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment say that man’s nature is violent because man is part-animal–but we have to learn to move beyond that, to evolve, to finish our journey towards civilization. The 60’s ended, and that project did not seem to be advancing much, if at all.

We always seem to be going back towards the animal, but animals with a capacity for evil and self-destruction no other ever had–it’s a bit harsh, I’ve long thought, God destroying all other life as well, but you could argue that the other species wouldn’t care–they achieved their potential–we didn’t.  And we’re destroying them all now, anyway.  So what difference does it make if they go a bit earlier?

Trapped between two modes of being–between Darwin and Jesus.  A built-in identity crisis.  What we want to have is always in conflict with who we yearn to be.

But one might say it’s the very complexity of humankind, our persistent flaws, our contrarily consistent contradictions, that attract the storyteller in Westlake.  Would you want to be a storyteller in a world of perfect people?   A storyteller best known for stories about criminals?  God the perfectionist wants us to achieve our potential–Satan the materialist just wants us to go on being what we’ve always been, because to a devil what could be more delightful than a being at perpetual war with itself?  That’s where all the interesting stories are.  God, seeking apotheosis, is bored by our repeated failures–Satan and his minions, seeking only gnosis (hence the apple),  can’t get enough of them.

And Westlake identifies with that perspective, perhaps more than he wants to, which is why the sections dealing with ‘X’, the demon assigned to prevent Armageddon, are in many ways the most entertaining parts of the book (and perhaps more what Westlake originally had in mind when he conceived of it).  “God, make me virtuous–but not yet.”  There’s a little Satan even in the saints.   There was no end of it in the man who created Parker and Dortmunder.

So he wavers between two sides of his own nature in writing this, and that’s a tough balancing act for a writer to pull off.   For a variety of reasons (perhaps including a 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman that covered some of the same ground), he can’t balance the two sides out perfectly.  It’s much more about the angel than the devil.  Here and there, almost miraculously, he gets the tension just right–but more often it feels like he’s teetering precariously on the tightrope, striving for something that’s a bit too far out of his reach.  And producing some of the best writing of his career in the process–mingled in with much that’s just workmanlike.

A book has to know what it is, as much as a person does.  This book never seems quite sure of its identity.  But the questions it asks were worth asking then–and are worth revisiting now.   Even synopsizing, though I’m going to be less thorough than usual.  This book is much more about character than plot, and I have two characters left to describe.   One of whom can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s more Parker or Dortmunder, and ends up being neither.

Ananayel has already recruited three out of the five people whose decisions, made of their own free will, will bring about the destruction of all life on earth.

Grigor, a Russian fireman turned comedy writer–technically perhaps a Ukrainian, since we’re told he’s from Kiev (most of the world still thought of the two as being the same thing then, and of course there are many ethnic Russians still living there, hence the current troubles, but maybe Westlake just screwed up).  Now being treated for incurable cancer he got courtesy of Chernobyl, at an upstate New York hospital, courtesy of his new friend Susan Carrigan, the unwitting tool of Ananayel, who is keeping an increasingly covetous eye on her as well.

Kwan, a Chinese pro-democracy activist, sought by the authorities for his role in the Tianamen Square demonstrations, who escaped from China to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to a cruise ship, from the cruise ship to a detention center in Manhattan where he awaits extradition, but he escapes from there as well (with the help of Ananayel).  His throat seriously injured by a failed suicide attempt, his voice silenced, he now has basically no remaining hope of ever achieving his goals, or of being the hopeful, idealistic, amorous man he once was.

Maria Elena, a Brazilian woman of great courage and composure, once a promising singer, then a wife who lost both her husband and her chance at motherhood to the pollution from a foreign factory in her hometown, then a frustrated ineffectual environmental activist who Ananayel fills with the notion that she can only combat this evil by going to the source of it, namely America.  But her attempts there have failed as well, along with her second marriage to an American doctor, and she’s trapped in a foreign sterile world, without passion or love or friendship, or even the will to sing again.

Three exceptionally good humans with exceptionally tragic life stories–who all lack the needed skill set to break into a nuclear plant Ananayel has arranged to contain the seed of earth’s destruction.  For that he needs a professional thief.  Well, he’s working for the right God then, isn’t he?

Frank Hillfen:

“Property of Alcatraz.” Frank saw a teenager in Tokyo, walking down a crowded street, wearing a sweatshirt that says Property of Alcatraz.  Doesn’t speak ten words of English.  Was the kid somebody’s property in Alcatraz, wouldn’t last a day.  People wearing the words, don’t know what they say.  Don’t know what they mean.

“The global village,” Mary Ann Kelleny said.

“Yeah,” Frank said.  “But do they get it?  I don’t think so.”

“Does it matter?  As long as they’re happy?”

“Okay,” Frank said.  “I’ll bite.  Are they happy?”

She glanced at him as she drove, curious and amused.  “Why shouldn’t they be?”

“Because they don’t know who they are,” he said.  “They don’t know who anybody is.  They mostly sound bewildered.”

A rocky hill arising from a hopeless mire–yeah, I think that’s the point of the name.  Frank is a proficient but strictly smalltime burglar, not remotely ‘in the heavy,’ (he never carried guns on the job)  who was caught carrying a wall safe out of a rich man’s house.  He went to prison.  It wasn’t fun.  Now he’s out again, walking down a highway, and Ananayel picks him up in the form of a woman named Mary Ann Kelleny, who fills his  head with the notion that he needs to stop doing a lot of small burglaries, and concentrate on One Big Score so he can retire, at least for a while.

On reflection, I’d say he’s a Westlake heister living uneasily in the world of Richard Stark.  There’s nothing cute or quirky about his life or his associates, that’s for sure.  He gets dragooned by an acquaintance in East St. Louis into robbing a mob courier, and the guy ends up dead, and Frank’s partner too after he tries to murder Frank, who fortuitously finds a .38 revolver in the dead courier’s pocket just in time to blow the doublecrosser’s head off (Ananayel informs us he didn’t intervene there, Frank did it all himself).

So Frank gets the whole score, $57,830–which is good.  But he’s a killer now.  Not so good.  And it’s the 1990’s, so that’s not a score a guy can retire permanently on.  So he keeps the gun.  Just in case.  He’s not the man he used to be either.

Fearing the retribution of both the law and the mob, he heads for New York, where a man like him can disappear.  And before long he meets up with–

Pami Njorage:

I wonder why I killed the Danish man, she thought.  I wonder what I wanted.  All I really want is to go to sleep, not go through this shit any more.  Not any of this shit.  Not all these johns that look like the Danish man, not this shitty building where you got to nail yourself in, not this sickness I got in my blood. What happens when the sores start to show?  Nobody gonna give me twenty shillings then.  Nobody fuck me for free then.  What did I want that time?  What do I want?

The last piece in the puzzle Ananayel is arranging is a Kenyan prostitute, a member of the Luo tribe, which has become better known around the world since this book was published. Westlake died a few weeks after the son of a more fortunate (if still tragic) Luo was elected President–I’d give a great deal to know his reactions to that.  (I’d also like to know if he consciously patterned Pami after the prostitute in Adios Scheherazade, and where he got the idea for that character).

If Grigor is the heroic comedian and philosopher, Kwan the quixotic fighter for love and liberty, Maria Elena the long-suffering Earth Mother, and Frank the ill-starred rebel without a cause, Pami represents not those who tried their chances and lost, but were never given a chance to begin with.  That very large segment of the world’s population we try very hard not to think about most of the time.  The hopeless of the earth–but somehow, she has not given up hope.

Ananayel poses as a customer, a Danish tourist, provokes her into murdering his confabulated human body, and taking the large amount of money in his suitcase.  After she has sex with him, and he finds that experience–intriguing–sex, then death.  These humans have intense existences, brief though they are.

She’s got AIDS, or ‘slim’ as they call it on the streets of Nairobi.   It isn’t full-blown yet, but the day’s not far off, and she knows it, and yet she still somehow wants to find a better life than the one she has, and in the guise of a fellow prostitute he gives her the plan–to go to New York, with the money she believes fate has provided her (and in a way it has).

She’s on the plane, feeling happy and excited and scared and against all odds hopeful, and Ananayel is sitting there next to her in yet another guise, which is fortuitous (or maybe not), because this is where X introduces himself into the plot.

He doesn’t understand how this woman, whose soul has belonged to his master for a long time now, could be of any use to God and his plan of world annihilation, but he figures he’ll just kill her and everybody else on the plane–he’s possessed the bodies of some hapless terrorists, who will do nicely for the purpose at hand.   But Ananayel, who can call upon his own master for all the power he needs, proves too strong for him, and he’s forced to flee his hosts, and live to fight another day.

(Sidebar: The various supernatural contests between Ananayel and X, that no mortal eyes can fully perceive, are ingenious and gripping, and although Ananayel clearly has the edge, the outcome is sometimes in doubt.   And the main point of them is to establish the fact that if X is to win their game, it can’t be by strength alone, but by cunning.  And to make the reader feel this is more than a really weird sociological tract, of course.)

So Pami, her money quickly used up in New York, ends up hooking there as well, and her pimp, a terrifying man named Rush (not that one, no), either was possessed by X from the start, or after he took up with Pami.   The scenes with them in a derelict building in lower Manhattan are just as sordid and disheartening as the equivalent scenes in Nairobi–maybe more so.

Pami now knows there is no escaping the life she was born to, no matter where she goes, and she’s starting to develop the sores that mean her time has nearly run out, and is confronted again by Ananayel, this time in the form of a hard-bitten police detective right out of an 87th Precinct novel (not that she’s ever read any), who is then set on fire by X. She flees the burning building, and runs into Frank Hillfen.  Who for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, lets her come with him.  And then they pick up Kwan, still unable to speak, or even eat solid food, and failing fast.  And then they run into Maria Elena with a conveniently flat tire Frank changes for her.

And in her car is Grigor, who Ananayel arranged for her to meet, and because she identifies so much with his pain, she’s taken him out of the hospital he’s dying in, because that’s no place for a man to die.  Earth Mother to the last, she invites them all to her house.   Just a short distance from the nuclear plant where they are all going to destroy the world.

It’s not always clear how much of this dramatic coincidence is really Ananayel’s work, though a lot of it is.  He tells us he’s amazed at how little he has to do, once he sets the wheels in motion–they’re doing most of the heavy lifting for him.   He picked his pawns well, and they are not his only playing pieces, of course.

He’s also been manipulating a variety of powerful people to arrange for a brilliant but somewhat tunnel-visioned scientist trying to harness strange matter as an unlimited energy source to have a new lab for him set up at the nuclear plant–because, you see, he kept blowing up his lab at the university he was at.   Ananayel’s wonderment at how easily he can trick these educated people, politicians and administrators and PR flacks, into doing something utterly insane on the face of it is reflected in the middle quote up top.  But as we’ve seen in recent months, you don’t have to be an angel to pull that off.

And of course one nuclear plant can’t destroy the world.  Could strange matter?   Well, nobody knows, really.  And God is master of everything we don’t know, which when you get right down to it, is almost everything.  And what follows is Westlake at his quirkiest, or should I say quarkiest?

Because, as he argues with fiendish Jesuitical glee, since we don’t know what strange matter might do, since we don’t even know if it really exists, if it turned out that it would destroy everything, that wouldn’t be a miracle.  God isn’t breaking the rules of the game if the rules have not yet been written.  And neither is Westlake breaking the rules of the genre he’s informally working with here, though he does so earlier in the book when he has a scientist tell us there are black holes just a few light years away from earth–there better not be.

There is one thing not even God can account for though–the way of a man with a maid.  Ananayel needed Grigor to sink into utter despondency, and the presence of a beautiful young woman who was possibly just a touch in love with him was detrimental to this goal. So he created another human guise–Andy Harbinger (X sourly remarks this is just what an angel would consider funny).

And he made Susan fall in love with him, which, knowing there’s nothing she could really do for Grigor, and Maria Elena being there, and still having her whole life ahead of her (or so she thinks), she was more than ready to do, because Andy is a hunk–Ananayel having the luxury of taking as pleasing a form as he so pleases, and he doesn’t even have to go to the gym.  Disgusting, isn’t it?

But here’s the sticking point.  He didn’t realize it was a two-way conduit, this love thing.  He wasn’t prepared for the feelings he’d inspired in her to reflect themselves back at him.  He has parried every demonic attack from X, but he has no defense against this.  His other human forms were held only briefly, but because of Susan he has to be Andy over an extended period of time, and it’s infecting him.  As they lie in each other’s arms after the first bout of intercourse, he tells her (and, in more detail, us)–“I didn’t know about this.”

I like being Andy Harbinger. I have made him healthy and attractive and reasonably strong.  (I’ve tried a number of human types by now, and prefer comfort.)  And he is human.  I constructed him from molecules of myself, so he is both me and human, and I am learning from him all the time, but I didn’t know about this.

The experience of being with Susan was unlike anything I could have imagined.  Not like that business with Pami at all, that brutal calisthenics. This was…this was like the best of the empyrean, distilled.  How can humans spend their time doing anything else?

Of course, it was even more powerful for me, since I was in some general contact with Susan’s feelings and reactions as well.  Andy’s and Susan’s emotions, sensations, all mixing together in my semi-human brain; what an explosive cocktail!

I’m so happy I’ve had this chance to get to know and learn about humans, before the end.

Sex, even great sex, is not enough to sway his resolve.  But he is starting to have doubts.  Humans are more than the sum of their flaws.  But God wants them gone.  But wouldn’t God, who made them, and has watched them since their earliest inception, have known something like this might happen if one of his unearthly servants took earthly form long enough?

Still, the momentum now established is getting hard to derail.  Ananayel is somewhat perturbed that now his five pawns are together, their shared understanding of life’s cruelty, the camaraderie of a war each has fought in his/her own way, has actually cheered them up.  They’ve lost everything, at least two are fatally ill (Kwan could probably be saved, but not without medical care that would expose him to extradition back to China), and they’re almost happy. Somehow, humans do better together.  The ones that are not evil, at least–and even Pami, who has knowingly infected men with AIDS, doesn’t really fall into that category.

Frank and Maria Elena are now lovers as well, and Frank is anything but hopeless–he’s still looking for the One Big Score, and when they’re all watching TV, he sees it–the nuclear plant, surrounded by protesters who are angry about the lab-destroying scientist having a lab there (he was on Nightline, talking to Ted Koppel about it).  They have to bus the workers in past the picket lines, and because of the confusion, the security is a joke.  He can get in there and hold the place up for ransom–he just needs a string.  Guess who volunteers?   That’s right.

Grigor, from hard experience, knows a lot about nuclear plants, and doesn’t have much in the way of tender feelings about them.  Kwan has the math skills, and finally sees a way of giving the Ancient Murderers one in the eye.  Maria Elena has grown to love these people, the only friends she has in the world now, so she’s in–anyway, the people who own the plant are one with the people who poisoned her town with chemicals.   And they have to take Pami, because where else can she go?

X is increasingly desperate–the only thing that held him back from killing all five, once he’d found them together (Pami had been the only one he knew about up to then) was that he couldn’t figure out Susan’s place in the scheme–because she doesn’t have one, Ananayel is just finding excuses to be with her, something X can’t understand (sex yes, love no).

In the ensuing battle Ananayel fought with X and his lesser spirits of the air, he came very close to being turned into a tree (while his physical form sat in a Manhattan theater with Susan, watching Night Fall [sic]), but he fought his way out and hurt X so badly that the latter now knows direct confrontation is pointless.

Still, once he sees that the five have taken over the plant, he knows this must be it–but he still doesn’t know how this desperate gambit achieves the destruction of earth.   (“I have come to save the world, only to find that truckling toady is content to destroy New York State?”) So he calls again upon his spies, and learns the terrible truth we’ve already learned from Ananayel.

As God has now written the formerly unwritten law governing such things, if just one drop of strange matter falls to the ground, it will sink down to the earth’s core, and transmute all matter it touches into strange matter–and since strange matter is impossibly dense and stable, far more so than the vibrant shifting stuff we’re made of, the planet will end up as nothing more than a smooth featureless lifeless marble, a shiny ball bearing several miles in diameter, spinning pointlessly about the sun forevermore, looking in vain for an arcade game to inhabit.

And nothing makes you like this infernal creature more than his reaction to this sanctimonious final solution to the Problem of Life–

Stable matter?  Stable matter!  Stabat Mater, what a vicious idea!  So is that what the experiment in that plant is all about, the search for what the instable humans call strange matter (as though they weren’t sufficiently strange themselves).

By Unholy Lucifer, he means to stabilize the earth!

No, no, no.  I have to get in there.  I have to stop this, and at once.

And that’s a pearl, that was my planet?  No.

In his own diabolic way, he too has been infected by earthly life–or perhaps it was those such as he who infected it to start with?–but hard as he tries, he can’t get in there.  The plant, now under the control of the fatal five, is in total lockdown.  There’s no danger of a meltdown, nobody wants that.   But as Ananayel knew would be the case, the authorities would rather risk a meltdown than take responsiblity for paying the requested ransom.  So they’ll just wait them out.

And now the five are trapped–three of them dying, Frank going back to prison for the rest of his life when captured, Maria Elena losing the last emotional connection to anyone she has left.  They need more leverage–and then Ananayel arranges for them to know where to find it.  In the laboratory.   With Dr. Philpott (heh).   Who has just this very moment succeeded in creating strange matter.

Philpott isn’t evil, either–he’s been warned by other scientists that this stuff could be dangerous, but it’s just his nature to need to know things.  He has himself been one of God’s tools, much as it might offend him to know it.  At first, he’s rather contemptuous of these people who have forced themselves in–not without sympathy for their plight, but still unmoved by their anger at the Way Things Are.  He’s above such things.  His goal is to improve civilization by supplying it with free unlimited energy.

“Civilization,” the exotic woman spat, and her scorn was no affectation.

Philpott looked at her.  “I can see that civilization has harmed you,” he said.  “It does that.  I can’t feel your pain, of course, but I still believe human civilization is worth the price we pay.”

“The price you pay, or the price I pay?”

He’s just the right man to remind these people of the sheer intractibility of human civilization–which by its very nature, seems to always need to have somebody down at the bottom, getting shat on by everybody further up the ladder.  Now they really believe there is no hope left.  Not even when they’re threatening the entire world will the world find the will to change.  So maybe it needs to stop being just a threat.

Grigor calls it–why not just break the containment bottle the strange matter is in, and see what happens next?

The Russian man said, “We could test the theory for you, Doctor.”  To the armed man he said, “We just go knock that table over.”

Philpott could hardly breathe.  He hadn’t known it was possible to be this afraid.  In a choked hoarse voice he said, “Man, why would you do that?”

The Russian’s eyes were sunk into his head, as though  his brain looked directly out from the center of his skull.  “I’m leaving very soon, Doctor. I don’t mind the idea of taking everybody with me.  I like that idea.  The best joke I ever thought of.”  He turned that fleshless head.  “Pami?  Should we bring them all with us when we go?”

“Yes!” You wouldn’t have guessed the woman could speak so forcefully, or that she could rise up so powerfully, onto one knee, one foot on the floor, before she had to reach out and clutch at the other woman’s leg for support.

The Russian shrugged.  “And we know how Kwan votes.”

They couldn’t all feel that way.  But the exotic woman, holding the black woman’s wrist with one hand, took the armed man’s free hand with her other and said, “There’s nothing for us here, nothing anywhere.  We can’t win.  Why should it be their world?”

“I’m not going back, that’s all I know.”  The armed man showed that chilling smile to Philpott again.  “It’s a crapshoot, right?  Fifty-fifty.  Either nothing happens, and we’ll figure out what to do next, or our troubles are over.  Even money, right?”

“Please,” Philpott whispered.  “Please don’t.”

“Fuck you,” the armed man said, “and the horse you rode in on.”

And then the phone rings.   It’s Mary Ann Kelleny.  Well, of course it isn’t.   It’s Ananayel, reaching out to Frank.   Because, as he tells us, he’s realized he just can’t do it–can’t let humanity extinguish itself–

It is not only Susan.  It is the whole existence of which she is a part, the existence that makes it possible for two humans to be so selflessly bound together, to elevate their mutual caring so far beyond their petty selves, for each of them to attain such an intensity of altruism toward one other person that all of eternity does exist in the space of one shared thought.

He should have sent someone with more experience of the humans, someone who had already grown as bored with them as He.  I tried to remain aloof, but I could not.  What at first seemed to me human squalor has become human vibrancy.  The cumbersomeness I first thought of as pathetically comic, I now see as endearing; and with what ingenuity they struggle to overcome their physical helplessness.  And the violence of their emotions, once repugnant to me, is now elixir to my pallid soul.

S(he) talks Frank down from the ledge, and the others, already remembering that there are people out there who showed them kindness, who have not earned such a grim fate, are persuaded to come down with him.  All except one.

Pami has known no kindness from anyone except these people, all of whom she believes to be as doomed as her.  She has also never known a single taste of real power in her life–and Power Incarnate waits for her on that table.  She makes her move, too quickly and savagely for anyone to stop her, but before she can reach her objective, she has this spasm like something out of The Exorcist, her body just gives out entirely, and she falls to the floor lifeless.

She was very ill, but this seems a bit too much of a coincidence.  And of course, like nearly everything else in this book, it wasn’t.  She was the only one of the five X had established a connection with, dominion over.   She was his way in.   Look who the hero of the story turned out to be.



Come into my arms!  Come into my arms!  Come into my arms!  I have saved you my darlings, come into my arms, let us dance!

How we’ll dance.

It’s a bit like one of Sauron’s Nazgûl, acting under his orders, forced Gollum to grab the Ring and fall into the fires of Mount Doom (spoiler alert).  And just like with Gollum, you kind of feel like Pami was badly used by everyone, including the author.  Westlake knew enough about people who have experienced that degree of privation and degradation to know that for many of them, there is no way back.   She wants to destroy the world, and looking at the life the world gave her–why shouldn’t she?  Why shouldn’t she?  

But here is my biggest problem with the book–that it recreates in its conclusion that very inequity it denounces.  Ananayel arranges for Frank and Maria Elena to get away, and live a nice life together (life insurance, resulting from her estranged husband being shot by his deranged mistress)–she’s singing again as they escape.

But there is no escape for the others, who will all die, not even knowing that their choosing life, even when their own lives were nearly over, gave earth another chance (nor will anyone else ever know).  They were protagonists–now they’re just redshirts.   If Ananayel can still perform such miracles, couldn’t he have healed Grigor and Kwan, and helped them escape too?  That’s what Jesus would have done (still not 100% sure if we’re supposed to believe he was an angel or a mortal in the context of this universe).

Why does only Frank get this favor–and a passionate Brazilian songstress to go with it?  Old habits die hard, for Gods and Authors (same thing).  And of course, Westlake was writing this for people who would expect the hardbitten heister in in the book to get away clean.  And it would feel like a cheat for them all to live. And maybe there wasn’t a fully satisfactory ending he could come up with for these characters.  But it could have been a lot better.

Ananayel, trapped in the mortal body of Andy Harbinger until his now-inevitable death as his punishment for disobeying, his angelic powers and vision stripped from him, will of course marry The Girl–he was the Nephew in this story all along.  Originally ‘Andy’  hadn’t even been a complete human body, but he’d earlier decided to fix that, and give his surrogate a complete dossier, with a social security number, and a job as an assistant sociology professor (hah!) at Columbia University.  Figuring that even Columbia couldn’t survive the end of the world (if you lived in New York, you might have some doubts about that), he didn’t bother to give himself tenure.  Too late now.

And since he’s no longer hooked into the heavenly hen party, he’ll get no scuttlebutt about God’s next attempt to make humanity off itself.  He hopes that what happened will have revived God’s interest in this world, make him reconsider his decision.  But if not, he knows that some other angel is recruiting yet another string of malcontents, and God only knows what doomsday scenario they’ll be dragooned into, or how they’ll choose when the moment comes. I guess even God doesn’t know that last part.  Well, nobody’s perfect.

But mortal lives go quickly, while Divine Plans take time to formulate, and he’s happy.   He’s no longer some seraphim servitor, floating aimlessly about the aether until given some scut job or other.   He’s got his own identity now, mundane though it be, and true love, and New York, and he’s better off than most humans.

And it’s not fair, the way the people you’d expect to live happily ever after end up doing more or less exactly that, but what ever is?   The only thing that would have been completely fair would have been Pami knocking over that table.  And we don’t want that.  Not really.  Not most of the time.  Not if the polls are right. The polls damn well better be right.  Hmm.  It’s been about a quarter century since God’s last attempt, far as we know.  They seem to be marked by extraordinary events and extreme poor judgment.  You don’t suppose……?

Here’s to all the poor examples of our species–the ones who don’t leap eagerly onto the wrong horse.  As long as there’s enough of them, there’s still hope.  And where there’s hope, there’s life.  But while there are so many without hope, we must be prepared to abide the end.  We don’t really need God to make that happen, you know.

And I’m done!   I finished this review in just two parts, after some persons here doubted me!  HA!  HA HA HA HAAAAAAA!!!   I told you I’d save you from a four parter!  Come into my arms!   Come into my arms!   How we’ll dance.  And a New York Dance it shall be, as we come to the eighth Dortmunder novel.   Anyone got a bone to pick with that?  I thought not.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Humans

Once when he was dining with Rabbi Goldman in Chicago he stopped in the midst of Mrs. Goldman’s pot roast to discourse on the improbability of a God or a life after death.  Rabbi Goldman’s eleven-year-old daughter listened gravely,  then replied, “Mr. Darrow, Mother gave me a beautiful box of beads for my birthday, and when I dropped the box the beads rolled all over the floor because they had not been strung.  We need God to string together all the different parts of life.”

Darrow smiled as he replied, “I won’t argue with this younger generation.  I’ll stick to the older generation, they’re easier.”

From Clarence Darrow For The Defense, by Irving Stone.

We are all of us parts of God, parts of His dream, His desire, but none of us know any more than our own role in His plan, if indeed He has a plan, and is not merely moved this way and that by cosmic Whim, as sometimes seems to be the case.  And so I, a tendril in God’s imaginings, had to be informed by another entity, as insubstantial as myself, just what my task was to be.

“A messenger.”…..

“And an affector.”….

And my Task?

“To announce, and to affect, the end of their World.”

I don’t have to explain myself.

The instant I saw it there, sitting with the woman, I knew what it was.  The stench of God was all over it, like dried roots, like stored apples.  Laughing!  And a servant.

I am not a servant.   We are not servants.  He Who We Serve is not our master but our lover.  We act from our will, no others.  Could this…thing say as much?   Or any of its swooping, tending, message-bearing ilk?

And did its master really think he could sweep away this compost heap without the knowledge of He Who We Serve?  We love this world!   How it seethes, how it struggles, how it howls in pain,  what colors there are in its agony!  It is our greatest joy, the human race.  We cannot see it removed, like game pieces from a table at the end of the day, simply because he’s bored.

Don’t be afraid, you wretched vermin.  We will save you.

I’m going to try and make this a one-part review.  I have several reasons for this, but chief among them is that hard as I look, the only edition of this book I can find is the first one, from The Mysterious Press.  So I don’t even know what images I’d use for a Part 2.  I don’t believe that’s ever happened before.   Westlake novels nearly always got a bunch of editions, foreign and domestic.  If there are any foreign editions at all, I can’t find them.  And that’s more ironic than I can possibly express.

This is not on its surface the kind of book The Mysterious Press was established to publish.  If this is a crime novel, a mystery, and I think you could make a fair case that it is, then the criminal mastermind is God Himself, his primary henchman an angel, and their intended victim is Life on Earth.   The novelist Michael Upchurch (no, I never heard of him either), reviewing this novel for the New York Times, referred to it as ‘universal fiction,’ which I kind of like, and Westlake might have too, but the review, while decent enough, says that Westlake’s prose is ‘hokey’, that he has an excessive reliance on italics (oh really?), and this keeps the book from being as good as it might have been.

Much as I agree with Mr. Upchurch that this book could and should have been more than it is, hokey writing and over-accentuated typography are not the problems with it (oh no, I used italics!).  But in saying it failed to live up to its potential, I am, of course, assuming I know what it was supposed to achieve.    The Great God Westlake moves in mysterious ways.  That’s why he’s a mystery writer.

This much we do know–it was supposed to be a best-seller.  It was written for that express purpose.  Westlake mentions in the dedication that Evan Hunter told him he should write something large in scope, unexpected in subject matter, and in that it most certainly succeeds.  Lawrence Block, in a piece you can find in The Crime of Our Lives, went into a bit more detail about that conversation, and I think a rather vital clue to why this book failed (in more ways than one) is to be found there.

While Evan hit the bestseller list a couple of times,  it frustrated him that he didn’t sell better.  Men and women who couldn’t write their names in the dirt with a stick were hitting the list all the time, and he wasn’t, and he couldn’t understand why.  Once he and Don Westlake were on a plane together, lamenting the fact that neither of them was writing the sort of book that had a real shot at bestsellerdom.  They agreed that each would make a special effort to come up with a genuinely commercial idea, and before the plane landed Don told Evan triumphantly that he’d done the trick.  The perfect can’t miss idea had come to him.

The idea?  The narrator’s an angel, sent to earth on a mission.  Don wrote the book, called it Humans, and three or four people went out and actually bought it.

Probably a few more than that (I’ve found a surprisingly large number of positive online reviews), but then again, I can’t find even one other edition, and I looked hard.

I cannot help but detect a certain unseemly note of satisfaction in Mr. Block’s recounting of that telling little anecdote (it’s a writer thing), but had he been so inclined, Mr. Westlake could have reminded him of Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, a 1970 novel about a man in his thirties engaged in various orgiastic activities with a group of bisexual teen-aged Catholic school girls, that Block wrote in four days, and which he had at the time firmly believed would be a huge critically acclaimed racy best-selling novel along the lines of Lolita, The Ginger Man, and Portnoy’s Complaint.  They had good drugs back then, didn’t they?

Bad writers can write bestselling novels on purpose, by design.  With a few rare exceptions (maybe Stephen King), good writers can’t. Because good writers are good precisely because they are not prisoners of formula (even those known for a specific genre), because they listen more to their inner voices than to book sales.  The rest is up to us, our secret desires, which are hard to predict, once you’ve strayed away from the mediocrity of market surveys.

Westlake got close to the bestseller lists a few times in his life, but never, not even once, with a book he wrote to that end–the harder he strove to reach that goal post, the further away it got.  It always came as a surprise to him when a book of his sold especially well, and not always a pleasant one either (we’ll be talking about an instance of that a few books from now).

So right away, we see the identity crisis in this novel–not in its characters, but in itself–that it is at the same time striving to break away from the kind of story Mr. Westlake was known and admired for, to convey a powerful (and not entirely palatable) message to all of humanity–and at the same time is basically trying to out-Hailey Arthur Hailey, who Westlake had lampooned mercilessly with Comfort Station, years before.   “Earth–crossroads of five billion private lives.”  Or in this case,  just five, standing in for the five billion.

When you know you’re so much better than most of the people selling untold millions of books, it must be frustrating to keep failing to reach those Olympian heights.  You have to settle for having actual depths, and plumb them as best you can.

Westlake more than once referred to Humans as a special favorite of his among his many novels, but I’ll point out once more that calling something your favorite is not the same thing as calling it the best.  Our preferences and our judgment are often at odds with each other, a human oddity the angelic narrator of this novel (parts of it) would be at some pains to point out.   And if I want to make this a one-parter, I had better be at some pains to get the synopsis in gear.  This one’s going long, so bear with me.  And my italics, pace Upchurch.  (Upchurch–I can hear Westlake chortling all the way from 1992).

Humans is divided into three Hegelian sections–Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis.  The chapter count does not reset at the start of each new section.  As we’ve seen him do in several previous books, he alternates between numbered third person chapters, and first-person narrated interludes, in this case from two different characters–an angel and a demon–each commenting on the story thus far, and speaking directly to the reader about the apocalyptic situation that is unfolding–and with the usual Westlake perversity, it’s the demon who is trying to reassure us, and the angel telling us we’re all doomed.   For such beings, there is no fourth wall, it seems.

The premise is actually very simple–God has gotten tired of us.  We’re not entertaining Him any more.  We just keep doing the same stupid things, over and over again.  It’s boring.  He’s got a lot of other shows to watch (we’re informed there are many other inhabited worlds in His Universe), so He’s deleting us from the cosmic TiVo.  Permanently.  But there are rules to how this is done.   He won’t just smite us.  God gave us free will, and it is by our own volition that we must shuffle off this mortal coil.

God dispatches Ananayel, a relatively callow and inexperienced angel, who hasn’t been to earth in centuries (his last memories of Manhattan involve birch bark canoes).  He thinks this is because some of the more experienced angels like Michael and Gabriel could have hidden sympathies for humanity.   Knowing so little about us, he won’t have any interest in our survival.  Angels have free will as well, he explains.  They can choose to disobey, and one of them did, quite famously (there’s a very long poem about that, and you see an early edition of it up top).

All knowledge of our civilizations is available to him, along with the services of legions of cherubim (he insists they are not chubby infants in diapers like in the oil paintings), but his means of enacting the doom of Terra are limited.   And it’s the entire planet that is to be destroyed, you should understand–not just humans, but all biological life.   Clean sweep.  The Big Guy’s not kidding around like he was with that flood.  No rainbows this time.  No doves.  No bacteria, even. Nada.

Ananayel must find five representative humans, from each major racial group (black, white, Latino, Asian), and each major inhabited land mass (North and South America, Eurasia, Africa–sorry to tell ya, Australia, but you didn’t make the cut–and you’re doing so well at the Olympics too).  They must all speak a shared language (English, in this case, but we’re told if this attempt at Gaiacide doesn’t work, French might be next).   And they must all have some reason to give up all hope in the future–without having actually done so yet.  It is that choice–the choice to give in to utter and absolute despair–that Ananayel is to invoke within the five of them, at a crucial moment in time.  At that moment, they will be given the physical means to commit suicide on behalf of us all.

Ananayel is capable of possessing a human body, but this is a power that angels only rarely use, and on this mission he will use another ability to create physical forms for himself, which he can do with ease, becoming anyone he needs to be, creating a variety of human identities for himself, to influence his five catspaws, move his playing pieces across the board.  This latter power is something that the fallen angels have been deprived of–they can take on many different shapes, but not a human form–so they have to rely heavily on possessing existing bodies in order to interface with humans.

And as God as dispatched just one angel to bring about our destruction, Lucifer, having learned of God’s plan, and thoroughly disapproving of it (we’re like the best most dysfunctional reality show ever–so much fun!  God doesn’t know good TV when he sees it!), may only send one demon of consequence to oppose–we never learn his name–he is referred to only as ‘X.’  That’s him talking up top, and we never do get quite enough of him for my liking–far and away the most engaging character in the book, but that’s always going to be the case, isn’t it, when you bring demons into a story.

Everybody who reads Paradise Lost (I first read it in high school) sooner or later starts skipping over the tedious moral sections to the parts with Satan and his brimstone brigade.  C.S. Lewis, that most conscientiously committed of Christians, was invariably more entertaining when he wrote about such devilishly compelling creatures.   There is much of his senior devil Screwtape in ‘X’, but Westlake’s incubus is not addressing his dear nephew Wormwood–he’s talking to us.  The way you or I might talk to a hissing cockroach somebody gave us as a pet.   Kind of cool to watch, but still disgusting.

As for the widespread belief that they inevitably win, well, that’s just crap, isn’t it?  Of course it is.  If they inevitably won, we’d no longer be here, would we?  But here we are.

And here you are, you scrofulous fleas.  And now he’s after you as well, isn’t he?  Now you’ll know what it’s like to suffer his snotty displeasure.  But be encouraged.  He can be resisted, as we are here to prove.  He was just an early master of propaganda, is all.

But how shall we save you bilious earth-lice from your creator’s boredom? First we have to know what he’s up to.  He’s always, of course, up to something: testing Job and Isaac, tempting Thomas and Judas, on and on. Idle hands are whose workshop?

The notion that the biblical stories all happened in some form, but that the versions of them we have, the interpretations they place upon events, are mere heavenly hype, is not a new one.  The science fiction writer James Blish had covered this angle very well in 1968, with his short novel Black Easter (or Faust Aleph-Null).  I can’t be sure Westlake read it, but note with interest that a minor character in that supremely dark story (that I’m oddly disappointed to learn Blish wrote a more optimistic sequel to) was named after Anthony Boucher, that great linking element between mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and someone Westlake knew very well also.

Westlake had mainly cut his ties to science fiction by the late 60’s, but that by no means proves he stopped reading it.  And if we consider that book science fiction, wouldn’t this also qualify?  Westlake’s book actually has real science in it–well–kind of.  We’ll get to that.

Jesus was part of God’s plan, we seem to be told here, but he was a mere mortal–God was using him to try and get His experiment back on track.  God tempted Judas to betray Jesus, because he needed a martyr.  Somehow I don’t think Westlake’s Catholic School teachers would approve, but no question at all–they left a mark.  Once a Catholic, always a Catholic–you can never really shake it off, and the more you fight it, the stronger the influence becomes.  I know what I’m talking about.  But enough of the ethereal.  Let’s talk about the humans.   They are, after all, what the book is really about.

Although Ananayel is only supposed to recruit five people, factors in a planet-killing equation, he needs sufficiently appealing bait to dangle in front of one of them, and she ends up becoming a factor in her own right, so we’ll start with her.

Susan Carrigan:

Well, yes.  I have made a study of this one problem, while my players have been ricocheting toward one another, and I have proved to my own satisfaction that Susan Carrigan is nothing special.  There are millions of such young women scattered over the globe, unmarried as yet, doing small things with clean neat fingers, whether in banks like Susan, or in clothing mills, or in lawyer’s offices, or in computer assembly plants, and they are all the same.

Susan Carrigan lives in Manhattan, works in a job she doesn’t particularly love or hate, just got out of a bad relationship, and is tricked by Ananayel (in the form of a bag lady in a coffee shop) into entering a contest where the prize is a free trip to Russia (where another factor awaits, we’ll get to him).   She’s another of Westlake’s perky blonde ingenues, which we’ve been seeing so many of lately, and I wouldn’t say they’re all exactly the same, but none of them are going down as his most unique creations, and I kind of wish he hadn’t gotten stuck in that groove, and maybe he did too, at times.

Her significance in the story is both pivotal and peripheral (and in fact she never comes close to finding out what’s going on), but basically it’s the old story–angel falls in love with mortal.  Many variations.  There was one with Jack Benny once. Well actually he was in love with another angel in that one, but again we see Mr. Westlake taking with both hands from old movies.  The point is, he can be detached from the impending armageddon only so long as he remains detached from humanity, and Susan is the great sticking point.

She’s not a very interesting character (a fact much commented upon in the book itself), but you do like her.   She’s a certain kind of American that people all over the world look at with a mixture of bewilderment, affection, and perhaps a soupcon of contempt.  The ones who always think that something can be done. They don’t know what the world really is, and you’re not sure if you ever want them to know.  Somebody has to have hope, right?

Susan reminds me of something I read in a book of photos of feral dogs in the Greek Islands (who are, to my way of thinking, leading an utterly enviable lifestyle)–the way different sets of tourists react to them.  The photographer, in his introduction, said that the French find the dogs funny, the Japanese snap endless photos, the Germans think it’s a bit of a scandal they’re running around unsupervised, and the Americans scream “They’re starving!” and run off to buy them food.  My people.  I’ve lost count of all the foreign ferals from far-flung corners of the globe I’ve met at our local dog run.  Sometimes we take strays home with us at the end of a vacation (or a tour of duty).  Well, I digress.  Well no, I really don’t.  That’s what happens to–

Grigor Alexandreyovich Basmyonov:

Was he not, after all, the power behind a television throne?  Was he not the author of half the words to come out of Boris Boris’s mouth?  Wasn’t he the next best thing to a celebrity; which is to say, a celebrity’s ventriloquist?  Be off with you, my man, Grigor thought, I have Romanov blood in my veins. (Hardly).

From the least interesting human to perhaps the most interesting.  Grigor was a fireman at Chernobyl during the meltdown.  He did his duty bravely, as so many others did, and is dying of cancer, as so many already have.  By some quirk of fate (that Ananayel does not take credit for) he met a rising comedian, Boris Boris (not his real name, it’s a joke, and if you’re Russian it’s apparently hilarious), taking advantage of glasnost to do a satirical television series (a Russian Jon Stewart, though maybe closer to Benny Hill in some respects–or Bob Hope?), and he liked Grigor’s understandably morbid sense of humor, hired him on as a writer, and he’s been a great success.  Which is fine, except cancer is one thing success doesn’t cure.

He’s a complex brooding sardonic personality, loving his country yet alienated from it, which is why he’s ideal for Ananayel’s purposes, and vulnerable to his method of attack–he arranges for Grigor to meet Susan at a party held at the Savoy Hotel in Moscow, and when she hears her story–do I need to say it?  She says he must come back with her to America, she knows doctors, who know other doctors–something can be done.  And she’s very pretty and appealing and alive, and interested in him, and he agrees.   He has nothing to lose–or does he? Does it ever go well for Russian characters in novels when they leave their motherland?   Not in Russian novels, and Westlake is writing in the spirit of that great branch of world literature here.

Sound billowed from the International Room like pungent steam from a country inn’s kitchen.  Cocktail party chitchat is the same the world over, bright and encompassing, creating its own environment, separating the world into participants and non-invitees.  Cheered suddenly at the idea of being among the blessed this time around, Grigor moved forward into that cloud of noise, which for him was not rejecting but welcoming, and was barely aware of the person at the door who took his invitation and ushered him through the wide archway into a large,  high-ceilinged room that had been deliberately restored to remind people as much as possible of the pomp and privilege of the tsars.  Gold and white were everywhere, with pouter pigeons of color in the Empire chairs discreetly placed against the walls.  Two chandeliers signaled to one another across the room, across the heads of the participants in their drab mufti; not a red uniform in the place.  It was as though, Grigor thought, the nobles had permitted the villagers one annual event of their own in the chateau’s grand ballroom.

Was there a joke in that?  Well, there was, of course, but was it usable?  Now that the proletariat had been shown to have made a mess of things, there was a great embarrassed ambivalence about the aristocratic baby that had been thrown out with 1917’s bathwater.  Both Grigor and Boris Boris had been trying for months to fit references to the tsars and their families and their world into the stand-up routines, but everything they’d come up with was too flat, too wishy-washy.

The trouble was, they had no clear attitude to express.  Surely no one wanted to go back to rule by a class of people who sincerely believed that peasants and cattle were at parity, and yet…And yet, there was something about the style.  Not the substance, the style.

 The tsars are still in our throats.  We can’t swallow them and we can’t spit them out.

That isn’t funny.  That’s merely true.

I think Tolstoy would have been proud to have written that passage.  The book as a whole maybe not, but who can say?  Leo was writing weirder things than this by the end of his life.  And even before that, there was an entire story written from the POV of a horse (quite good, too–livestock have things to say for themselves as well).

And over next to Russia, there’s China–even less free, but in spite of that, the birthplace of a truly free spirit, who goes by the name of–

Li Kwan:

“The trial would last one day,” Kwan told him.  “I would get to say very little.  The second day, I would be taken outside and told to kneel.  A pistol would be put to the back of my head, and I would be killed.  The third day, the government would send my family a bill for the bullet.”

Mortimer’s eyes widened at that.  “A bill?  You’re kidding me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“But why?  For God’s sakes…”

“That’s the family’s punishment,” Kwan explained, “for having brought up a child without the proper discipline.”

Kwan (Li of course is his family name) was one of the people holding bullhorns in Tianamen Square when the tanks rolled in.  Remember that?   All we here in the west really got out of it was that thing about the two characters signifying ‘crisis’ meaning ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ when looked at separately.  That was very popular at the time.  He got a lot less than that.  But he’s still in there pitching.  I think in many ways he’s the one Westlake admires and identifies with the most–and treats the worst.

Kwan is a libertine for liberty, a trickster with integrity–much like Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment (who ironically had to contend with a Chinese American secondary villain), and perhaps a few others among his protagonists.  Instead of pacifism, his goal is simple Democracy–something we take for granted here.   Kwan dreams of somehow overthrowing the ‘Ancient Murderers,’ as he thinks of the ruling class in China, all ruling classes in China, going back for thousands of years.  If not overthrowing them, at least giving them one in the eye.  Something.

He’s a shameless seducer of women (who find him enormously appealing), a sly and humorous person with a great zest for life, but he believes absolutely in what he’s doing–while knowing too well he’s actually done nothing but put his own life in immediate danger.   Tricksters don’t tend to do well in totalitarian societies.  Even fictional ones.  Ask Harlan Ellison’s Harlequin.   A trickster needs more room to maneuver than a closed society will ever offer.

He’s managed to make his way to Hong Kong, but with 1997 approaching, even there he has nowhere to run, no safe harbor–the authorities there will hand him back to Beijing if he’s caught.  He’s about to be apprehended, betrayed by a naively cynical American journalist in exchange for a story, when Ananayel directly intervenes, gets him onto a luxury liner, working in the kitchen, heading for America, but it all goes wrong when he reaches New York.  Ananayel intends for it to go wrong, makes sure of it.

He’s betrayed again and again, and languishing in a detention cell in New York, where the authorities fully intend to send him back to avoid an international incident, he tries to commit suicide (with toothpaste, yet–didn’t even know that was a thing), and by the time he meets the others, he’s a shadow of his former cocksure self, with a damaged esophagus, incapable of even speaking, or eating properly.  The point, again, is to crush all sense of hope.   To guide him to despair.  So he’ll make the intended choice.  At least he could take the Ancient Murderers down with him.  All of them, not just the ones in Beijing.

Oh, and that thing about the bullet fee?   Westlake didn’t invent that.  I forced myself to look it up.  It happened to this girl’s family.  If you feel like it, you can force yourself to read online discussions where people in our great Democratic West cast doubt on it, say it’s not really proven to have happened, just an urban myth, and if it did happen once, it doesn’t anymore (now they have roaming vans that give lethal injections, yay progress!).

Except it’s apparently happening in Iran too.  It’s a bit funny, people who accept the reality of the authorities shooting someone in the head for disagreeing with them doubting that they’d humiliate the family just to hammer their point home. Maybe they just charge the bullet fee if the family wants to claim the body.  Well, that makes it all better, now doesn’t it?  Kind of rooting for Ananayel now. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I get to writing about–

Maria Elena:

Frowning, Maria Elena said, “The company is Brazilian.  Isn’t it?”

“The subsidiary is Brazilian.   That’s the company you know about.  But the main company is far from here.  The stockholders don’t live in Brazil.”

“Where do they live?”  I’ll go there, Maria Elena thought.  With photos, with statistics.  How dare they not be part of what they’ve done?  How dare they not even have to lie?

“Where do they live?”  The pilot looked down at the copper colored river they would follow for the next quarter hour.  “Some in Britain,” he said.  “Some in Germany, Italy, Guatemala, Switzerland, Kuwait, Japan.  But most in the United States.”

“The United States.”

“The multinational corporation is responsible to no country,” the pilot told her, “but it was an American idea.”

“They couldn’t do this in America.  That’s why they come here.”

“Well, of course,” the pilot said, and laughed.

Maria Elena is, I believe, Westlake’s first and perhaps only Brazilian protagonist. She is described as exotically attractive, not thin, and we don’t find out her precise ethnic ancestry, but we can assume she’s a mixture of Portuguese, Indian, and perhaps African ancestry, like most people in that remarkable nation, regardless of color.   What we know about her for sure is that she is a person of conscience and determination–and almost unfathomable sadness.

She had been a singer in her youth, a minor star, growing in fame, but she put that aside to marry and have a family–only her rural town was next to a factory that poisoned the earth and the water, and even the children in her womb.  Her husband left her, saying she was cursed, and part of her believed that was true. The church offered no comfort.  Her environmental activism achieved no results.

And now a pilot, flying her with the American doctor she works for, tells her that she hasn’t even been directing her efforts in the right direction.  The true malefactors are elsewhere, mainly in America.   That isn’t a lie.  But the pilot himself is–it’s Ananayel.  Bringing his players together.  Suggesting she only has to marry the doctor, named Jack, who is in lust with her, and he’ll take her back to America with him.

The marriage goes sour when the doctor’s passion fades, and her activism is no more effective there than it was at home.  She leads a drab passionless middle class suburban life, with nothing to anchor her.  One day a woman who has been having an affair with the doctor comes to the house, and accuses Maria Elena of refusing to give Jack a divorce (it’s the first Maria Elena has heard of it).  The woman says she and Jack deserve a chance at happiness.

Maria Elena looks at this deluded creature wearily, as at a spoiled child, and asks what she has ever done to deserve happiness.  A question I’m not sure anyone has ever had a good answer to, but if anyone ever did, it’s Maria Elena herself, and look at her. She can’t even sing now–the music isn’t there in her anymore. Everything has been taken away from her, partly by Ananayel and God, but mostly by her fellow humans, by what we have made of this earthly paradise God gave us so long ago.  But she somehow soldiers on, waiting for a change to come. All good things, right?   Sure.

Westlake was drawing here upon research he’d done for the 1984 short story, Hydra, which I covered in my review of Westlake’s science fiction anthology, Tomorrow’s Crimes.  I don’t know when he started research on Russian politics, but of course it was all over the news at this time.

I’m now wondering if his interest in China and Hong Kong predated his agreeing to work on the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, which he is supposed to have written in 1995.  Seems unlikely he’d be doing research for that this far in advance.  But really, all over this book, we see his enduring and all-encompassing interest in the world around him, his conviction that Americans ignored what went on beyond their shores at the peril of both their own material welfare and their immortal souls.  Hmm, I suppose that is a bit hokey.  Mr. Upchurch would be cross with me, no doubt.

You have perhaps noticed that these three humans Ananayel has recruited for God’s plan thus far are not the people you’d think would be chosen to bring about world destruction–each has shown exceptional courage and devotion to the common good.  Each is a true member of E. M. Forster’s fabled Aristocracy of the Considerate, the Sensitive, and the Plucky (and indeed there will be a secret understanding between them when they meet).

But that is, in fact, the point of choosing them–that they know, so much better than the average human, what a cruel place this world is, how resistant to change, how entrenched the Ancient Murderers (in all their innumerable forms) truly are.  To be truly hopeless, you need to have had some hope to start with.

And all have been afflicted physically in some way–not for nothing did Job, having lost his family and his fortune, only curse God when Satan (visiting God in heaven, as we are informed the Satan in this story sometimes still does) was given permission to inflict great physical suffering upon him.  As long as the body is strong, the spirit can withstand almost any reversal.  But the body is fragile, an untrustworthy bastion to fall back upon.  It always fails us in the end. Gosh, how did this book ever not make the best-seller lists?

And how did I think I was going to make a one-part review out of this?   I’m closing on on six thousand words, and I still have two more characters to talk about before I even move into the wrap-up.  Two very different characters than Grigor, Kwan, and Maria Elena, but not entirely different.  All human, too human.

So I’ll come up with some images for Part 2 somewhere–it’s hard to search for foreign editions when you don’t know what the title would have been.  But I would say the intended audience for this book was not the rest of the world.  It was America.  And it missed the target, badly.  And perhaps that was Mr. Westlake’s failure.  And perhaps it was someone else’s.  Perhaps there’s blame enough to go around.

And perhaps we could do with a song now.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction