Distraction: Had I But Known………

For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The Saddest are these: “It might have been!”

From Maud Muller, by John Greenleaf Whittier, but then Kurt Vonnegut reworded it slightly in Cat’s Cradle, referring to Whittier only as ‘the poet’, and now everyone attributes it to Vonnegut.

To paraphrase Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, and all those guys, “I wish I had known this some time ago.” 

From Sign of the Unicorn, by Roger Zelazny, and notice how he credits his sources, even though he’s just paraphrasing?

Ah, hindsight.  Had I but known.  That’s considered a mystery subgenre of sorts, you know.  But I didn’t, you see.  There’s the rub.

When I started this blog, I was but an aging neophyte with regards to the mystery genre.  I knew Westlake pretty well–or so I thought–but not the ocean he spent most of his life navigating.  So when it came time to talk about the influences on a given novel or story, I might, by chance, be familiar with this or that possible source (I was reading a long time before I knew Westlake existed), but there would be so many others I had no inkling of.

And then, later, I stumble across one, smite my forehead.  Then another.  And yet another.  The forehead shows signs of bruising.  Mr. Westlake was a most erudite mariner.  Or if you prefer, he’s Arne Saknussemm, and as I tunnel my way through this genre, I keep finding his mark, to indicate he’s been here before me.  Perhaps you’ve seen his mark too, here and there. (Or are we the marks? God save us.)

To be a professional genre writer, you have to know the territory–those who came before you may have tricks of the trade to share–or have made mistakes you want to avoid–and you certainly want to avoid plagiarism charges.

The trick, and it’s no mean one, is to borrow, constantly, without stealing.  To see something worth recycling, run your own variations on the theme–perhaps improve on them, as Bach ofttimes improved upon Vivaldi (Vivaldi might disagree).  And if you do it just right, you can make your influences clear without ever copping to them (thus opening yourself up to the legal representatives of an irate estate).  Clear, that is, to those who pay attention, and the rest can just enjoy a good story.

Like Mitch Tobin, sagest and saddest of his reluctant detectives, Westlake was a completist.  You need as much context as you can muster, to see as many of the worlds within this world as you can, in order to pierce the mystery (which is about so much more than whodunnit).  Mystery is not one form but rather hundreds, perhaps thousands.  I don’t think he read everything (nobody could), but he covered the bases, mastered the essentials.

And perhaps for no reason other than to challenge himself (and to make a living), he would identify a discrete form within the form, study its best practitioners–and set out to create his own take on it, possibly without telling anyone he was doing that.  The result wouldn’t always turn out equally well (trial and error leads to a great deal of the latter), but it kept him amused, and I think he had no greater enemy than boredom.  The sense of repeating oneself, going through the motions.  He had to keep writing.

And what he wrote had to come partly from himself, his ideas and experiences, but you run out of those so quickly (as Hammett learned).  And then what? Then, Westlake reasoned, you combine stale ideas with fresh perceptions.

Anyway, I’ve come across what I consider three separate instances of this penchant of his–I’ve already mentioned one in the comments section for the relevant novel–hadn’t thought it enough of a find for its own piece, but it will do as one wheel of a tricycle.  Let’s start with that.

I’m working from home of late (call me eccentric), and as fate would have it, I’m helping to catalogue a large assortment of old mystery novels, anthologies, assorted miscellenia (hmm–aren’t all miscellenia assorted, by definition?)

One title caught my eye–The Chinese Parrot.  The second Charlie Chan novel (of six), by Earl Derr Biggers.

Westlake directly referenced the Chan novels and movies in his third Samuel Holt mystery, What I Tell You Three Times Is False.  In that novel, Sam is trapped in a huge mansion on a remote island with several other actors known entirely for playing a fictional detective, one of whom is Fred Li, described as the first Asian to play Chan, which isn’t quite accurate–there were several early adaptations (including a silent adaptation of The Chinese Parrot, of which no extant prints are currently known to exist) featuring Korean and Japanese actors as Chan (because they all look alike and Chinese immigration had been banned for a while), but for reasons too tiresomely predictable to mention, the detective’s role in the story was greatly reduced.  Chan only became the protagonist of his own films once he was played by Occidentals in makeup.

All this merely serves to establish Westlake’s famliarity with the character, which shouldn’t really require proof, since his generation routinely went to see Chan movies in the theater, then watched them on latenight TV later on.  Very popular.

Those of us familiar with Mr. Westlake will further divine that he wouldn’t have stopped with the Hollywood yellowface.  He would have gone back to the originals, at least some of them.  The second book in a series, in some ways, matters more than the first (you don’t have a series until you have a second book) so safe bet he read it.   Equally safe bet he wouldn’t use plot elements from it in a novel where an actor playing Chan is a character.

But years later, when he was writing the penultimate Parker novel, I believe elements of this book came back to him.  Let’s come back to that after I do a very quick synopsis.  (I can do that when forced.)

This is the only Chan novel I’ve ever read, and I skimmed it, mainly because most of the characters are white people, and these white people are dull.  By which I mean not only uninteresting, but exceptionally thick-witted.  It’s normal in a detective story for nearly everyone other than the detective and killer to be clueless (or what’s the detective for?), but Chan novels take this to the extreme, so I mainly just skipped to the parts about Chan himself, and soon discovered why these books have endured, in spite of their dating, and their defects.

Charlie Chan is a sphinx with many secrets–not only in the caucasian world, but even amongst his relations, some of whom he visits on his trip to the west coast. The previous novel having established him as a police detective in Honolulu, he goes to visit a cousin in San Francisco, who thinks he’s doing the bidding of ‘white devils.’  (The cousin also objects to his pretty assimilated American-born daughter working as a switchboard operator, but that second generation tends to laugh off such objections from old fuddy duddies, as those of us with recent immigrant roots know full well.)

He is there, ostensibly, to deliver a valuable necklace to a wealthy buyer, as a favor to a former employer fallen on hard times, but there is murder most fowl (humble apologies, dishonorable pun was lying there waiting to be sprung)–a pet parrot in the buyer’s desert home is poisoned.  Apparently because he talked too much.

“Poor Tony very sick before he go on long journey,” Chan continued. “Very silent and very sick. In my time I am on track of many murders, but I must come to this peculiar mainland to ferret out parrot-murder. Ah, well—all my life I hear about wonders on this mainland.”

“They poisoned him,” Bob Eden cried. “Why?”

“Why not?” shrugged Chan. “Very true rumour says ‘dead men tell no tales’! Dead parrots are in same fix, I think. Tony speaks Chinese like me. Tony and me never speak together again.”

Many justly defend Biggers from intended bigotry, but it must be said, a man as smart as Chan, born and raised in the future 50th state, could speak better English than that if he wanted to.  Then again, a man as smart as Lieutenant Columbo probably could too, when questioning snooty rich guys–only he appreciates the advantages of being underestimated by his social superiors, who prove not so superior after all–and guess where that idea came from?  The shadow of Chan is large indeed.

For the usual contrived reasons, Chan spends much of the book masquerading as a domestic, with even more stereotypical dialect, in the rich man’s desert home, with a few confederates knowing of the imposture (not as few as he’d prefer, since his trust in caucasians is only slightly greater than his cousin’s).

“Charlie,” said Bob Eden, “this is a friend of mine, Mr Will Holley. Holley, meet Detective-Sergeant Chan, of the Honolulu police.”

At mention of his name Chan’s eyes narrowed. “How do you do?” he said coldly.

“It’s all right,” Eden assured him. “Mr Holley can be trusted—absolutely. I’ve told him everything.”

“I am far away in strange land,” returned Chan. “Maybe I would choose to trust no one—but that, no doubt, are my heathen churlishness. Mr Holley will pardon, I am sure.”

“Don’t worry,” said Holley. “I give you my word. I’ll tell no one.”

Chan made no reply, in his mind, perhaps, the memory of other white men who had given their word.

He’s always wearing a mask, hiding his true self from those around him–now he’s wearing a mask over his mask, because much as white devils underestimate a Chinese policeman, they barely notice a Chinese servant.  This allows him great freedom of movement, ample opportunity for investigation.

The case is cracked, and let’s just say it’s not the greatest mystery ever written by a long shot (I gather it’s not the best Biggers was capable of), but that’s not really the point of anything, since it’s a story about human motivations, and a man who studies them closely, carefully,  quietly, because his professional success depends on such observations.  As to his true feelings, his own motivations, those always remain, to some extent, opaque–one might say inscrutable.  You want to know what Chan really thinks of us?  Might as well ask the parrot.

Yeah.

So that’s where the hook for the best of the final three Parker novels and one of the most haunting and intriguing books of the entire series, comes from.  (Though to be fair, fish out of water stories are older than the Paleoarchean hills, as are stories about disguised wanderers.)

To make it even more clear, there’s an abandoned mining town key to the story, and a crazy old hermit who comes out of nowhere, then disappears from the story, after providing a useful if misleading clue (but he isn’t shot down by mistake then left for scavengers, like the equivalent character from the Stark novel).

As usual, where Westlake seeks to improve upon his model is motivation.  Chan, as a policeman, self-effacing hero of the piece, and a self-conscious attempt by Biggers to counter racial stereotypes (only to end by perpetrating them, because it’s never that easy), has to behave honorably at all times.  Even though you get the distinct feeling he does so under extreme sufferance.

As a felon on the lam in upstate NY, Parker only has to survive.  His imposture, in a dying little town, done at the behest of a poor man seeking restitution, who knows Parker’s secret, and has one of his own Parker smells profit in, is much easier to justify.  Not only is he not called upon to solve the parrot’s murder (which is no mystery, except in the sense so much of we do is mysterious), he never even learns about it, nor would he give a damn if he did.  The story wouldn’t be much different if Stark’s nameless parrot (less garrulous than poor Tony, though it’s his decision to speak that gets him shot) wasn’t there–yet he’s the title character.  How come?

The parrot is there to tell us where parts of this story came from.  A respectful and nigh-inscrutable nod of the head to a predecessor who taught him a few tricks of the trade.  A subtle hint to the reader, that went unnoticed by most, since these two novels really couldn’t be much more different.  (Marilyn Stasio, who reviewed several late Parker novels, provided an introduction to a recent reprint of The Chinese Parrot–did she pierce the mystery?  I greatly misdoubt it, but that edition is not evailable.)

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(In both books, the titular parrot is not nearly so colorful as the ones on most of the covers.)

All that being said (and Stark’s parrot is the wiser bird by far), Westlake knew very well Parker could never equal Chan’s ability to blend into the background, by putting on a cook’s clothing and chattering like Hop Sing from Bonanza. Parker is suspected, almost immediately, by several suspicious locals, of not being who he claims to be–Chan is only exposed at the climax, through a chance encounter, the fool’s mask slipping away to reveal the hunter beneath.

The race/class element is not present, and the story told to justify Parker’s sudden presence in Tom Lindahl’s world is even more hastily improvised, under the far sterner exigencies Parker faces.  For all that, it’s still a story about how most people see only what they’re prepared to see, and Parker, like Chan, sees what’s really there.

Thankfully, Parker doesn’t have to speak in hokey dialect.  He has the luxury of a white skin.  Not that he gives a damn.  Just another mask.  The Chinese policeman and the Wolf in sheep’s clothing would understand each other very well, in spite of their professional divide.  I would not go so far as to say Parker is Chan’s Number One Son, but again, dishonorable pun was impossible to resist.

So from one of Westlake’s finest novels to perhaps his very worst–I’ll give this one short shrift.  This is an easy catch, but to make it, you have to know the source, and it’s not a much-watched film these days.  TCM and DVR–what did we ever do without you?

Jane Russell was Star of the Month for April, and I could hardly refrain from recording a few of her films I was not familiar with.  (This gentleman does not invariably prefer blondes.)   The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown?  Didn’t sound promising, but what the hell.  It ended up being the only one I watched without fast-forwarding (much).

One of her personal favorites, though according to her own perceptive commentary (Russell, as you all should know, was a damn smart broad) it ended up foundering on a difference in vision between herself and the director, Norman Taurog.  She wanted a more serious satiric film, in black and white–he wanted a color romp.  It ended up going both ways.  You can see the joins.

She’s great in it–one of her best performances–like her chum Bob Mitchum, she never really exerted herself much, unless she found the role challenging.  With looks like theirs, it wasn’t necessary.  Neither is a synopsis.

There’s no point in my trying to prove Westlake saw this film prior to writing his take, since Westlake only wrote that half-baked kidnap caper after working up  a script with that general premise at the behest of disreputable film producers (very nearly the only kind he ever to to work with.  The flick was never lensed, but he retained the novel adaptation rights (hated to waste work).

I have no idea who first had the idea of kidnapping a sexy starlet and holding her for ransom, but Taurog’s comedy is the earliest instance I know of where somebody actually made a film with this precise subject,  and given that it had been just about ten years since the last attempt, some producer probably figured it was worth another go.

It’s not easy to write a romantic comedy about an ex-con (wrongly convicted, of course) who decides to kidnap a famous sex bomb who is bored with her life (though very good at her job), roughs her up a bit when she gets out of line, and they end up falling madly in love with each other.  Westlake probably did know the earlier film (maybe had it screened for him), and would have noted all the gyrations you have to go through to make that work.  He decided to switch the romantic angle from the star who is bored with her life to a younger woman who wants that life for herself, or so she thinks.

The kidnapping in the Taurog film is very perfunctory, and far too easy.  Westlake, who had only written capers as Stark up to that point, made it into a carefully planned girl heist (computer-planned, in fact) that gangs a mite aglae, but still works out well for all concerned (except for the English grifters who for all I know were a legacy from the original film concept).  The kidnappers, sterling lads all, actually get their cash, get away clean, and the gangleader gets his girl, while the movie star goes home well-rested.  Were they going to do all that if the film was made?  They didn’t in Russell’s flick.

There’s little point in trying to decipher how much of Sassi is Westlake, how much is the fuzzy nightgown, and how much is the threadbare borrowed concept he was handed by his former employers.  That’s not my point of interest here.  It is rather the origin of the earlier film, which was, if you’d believe it, based on a novel that may have been the basis for the self-faked kidnapping of a very minor Hollywood starlet.  (No, her name wasn’t Jimmy, but she was some kid.)

So did Westlake know about Marie McDonald’s fictionally inspired self-snatch? Did he check out the Sylvia Tate novel?  I would, but damn, expensive–though the first edition hardcover is often cheaper, because it doesn’t have Jane Russell on the cover, like the paperbacks that came out with the movie.  The book is not e-vailable, and life is short, you know?  Shorter all the time.

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Life imitating art imitating life imitating whatever.  Shades of the Peugeot snatch, that inspired the third Dortmunder book.  Did all that stick in his mind, and a few years later, he found an opportunity to tell a version of the same story, only this time  exploiting all the latent satiric potential that Russell and Taurog couldn’t get close to? With a gang that wasn’t the least bit glamorous, but were always good for a laugh.  (Incidentally, the great Keenan Wynn plays the kidnapper’s best friend and confederate, and wouldn’t he have been a great pick to play Kelp, if Kelp had actually been a thing in the 1950’s?)   I think that’s all I want to say about this one.

So elsewhere amidst all the quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore I’m helping to catalogue (some of which were penned by Poe), I became aware of Mary Roberts Rinehart.  One of the most influential and successful of early mystery novelists, by no means forgotten today, though not quite the icon she used to be.  (Through her industrious sons, her last name decorated several major publishing houses over the years.)

She it was who inspired The Butler Did It meme that everybody knows, and almost nobody knows the origin of (it was actually a stage adaptation of a novel of hers that got that into popular parlance–the line does not appear in her novel, but people would describe what happened, and the rest is history).

Her most famous and influential novel of all is the one you see up top.  (That link leads to Project Gutenberg.)

And that novel (along with many others that followed in its train) inspired a less well-known term, that subsequently inspired the ribaldry of Ogden Nash–

Personally, I don’t care whether a detective-story writer was educated in night school or day school
So long as he doesn’t belong to the H.I.B.K. school,
The H.I.B.K. being a device to which too many detective-story writers are prone;
Namely the Had-I-But-Known.

In this case, the critics done it.  Readers loved her books, bought them by the carload, but were not required to read them for a living, and become overly innured to the inevitable tropes.  So peevish reviewers began pointing out that book after book would begin with the narrator of the ensuing mystery lamenting that if she (it was often a she) had only known what would happen, things would have gone much differently.  Foreshadowing, a technique for getting the mystery reader interested in finding out what terrible things would happen, as if the genre itself wasn’t a damned good clue.

But isn’t that life, friends?  Don’t we all go around lamenting thusly, of our unfortunate uninformedness, that led us into one pickle after another, and sometimes the waiting embrace of a body bag?  Is the mystery writer to ignore this inevitable outcome of being an autonomous, self-aware, yet not omniscient being?

(“Had I but known that when I went to the corner store to buy Kleenex, a woman would just walk up to the counter, right next to me, her unworn mask dangling down her neck, wanting to buy a pack of gum….”  Three days ago.  I’ll stop obsessing over it in another eleven.  I trust.  “Had we but known Donald Trump was a self-obsessed idiot…”–oh wait, we did know that.  But what’s the worst that could happen, huh?  Better not waste any more time on second-guessing.)

Let it be said, Rinehart was not a bad writer at all (most styles date at least a bit) and Westlake was hardly the first, by a very long shot, to inject wry humor into the mystery trade.

This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous. For twenty years I had been perfectly comfortable; for twenty years I had had the window-boxes filled in the spring, the carpets lifted, the awnings put up and the furniture covered with brown linen; for as many summers I had said good-by to my friends, and, after watching their perspiring hegira, had settled down to a delicious quiet in town, where the mail comes three times a day, and the water supply does not depend on a tank on the roof.

And then—the madness seized me. When I look back over the months I spent at Sunnyside, I wonder that I survived at all. As it is, I show the wear and tear of my harrowing experiences. I have turned very gray—Liddy reminded me of it, only yesterday, by saying that a little bluing in the rinse-water would make my hair silvery, instead of a yellowish white. I hate to be reminded of unpleasant things and I snapped her off.

“No,” I said sharply, “I’m not going to use bluing at my time of life, or starch, either.”

The opening passage of The Circular Staircase.  And here is a less whimsical, more existential approach to the same answerless rhetorical question.

The ticket window was to my left, and on impulse I went over and asked the man when was the next train back to New York.  Without checking anything, he said “Four-ten.” It was not yet eleven-thirty.

Would I have gone back if there’d been a train right away?  Possibly, I don’t know.  The house would have been empty, Kate and Bill already gone to Long Island.  I would have had a month to myself, Kate wouldn’t have had to know I’d stayed home until she herself returned.  And of course by then it would have been too late to make me go back to The Midway.

Would that have been better, as things turned out?  But that’s a meaningless question, really.  In a life in which nothing really matters, nothing can be either better or worse.

If you’re looking for it, it’s not at all hard to see (which I suppose is one possible answer to the Had-I-But-Known thing–we are not sufficiently mindful of our surroundings, or of past life lessons learned, then forgotten–not our stars, but ourselves.)  However, he knows better–having read Rinehart, and many others–not to harp on it too much.  It’s all so much less busy, and there is far more attention paid to motivation, character development–to making it a story about people, not plot devices.

This much I can know–Westlake wrote Wax Apple quite consciously in the H.I.B.K. vein.  It is entirely about belated recognitions, Mitch Tobin figuring things out just a moment too late to avoid the consequences, to himself and others.  He typically feels no sense of triumph in identifying the guilty party here, already in stir, you might say.  It’s diverting, gripping–but there’s no sense of fun to it.  What’s so fun about people dying?  (Rinehart’s protagonist is already missing the excitement by the end, planning to find another country house to rent, hoping for more distractions from her boring existence, which is of course what people read books like this for.)

While this is not an uncommon feature in detective stories, and Tobin especially, it is especially pronounced here, and to exceptionally fine effect.  I consider this the best of the Tobin novels, and far as I’m concerned, the best H.I.B.K anyone ever wrote, though I’d have to slog through a whole lot of so-so mystery books to know that for sure.

He indubitably read some of Rinehart’s work.  He probably knew about the disdain some critics held this type of story in (most of them being male, and filled with the usual derision towards lady scriveners not named Austen or Sand), and while he was something of a critic himself, he knew professional book reviewers are mainly good at missing the point of things, as they did so often with him.

But would they even notice the well-worn plot device here, in a hard-boiled detective story, whose protagonist is not an aging spinster, but a disgraced and depressed former police detective, visiting not a grand old country manor, but a halfway house for mental patients?  I am not aware of anyone but myself ever twigging to that, and me only by virtue of being stuck at home, pouring over endless lists of books most people will never read again.  That doesn’t mean no one ever did.  Could I but know……

So to sum up, this is my lament for all the things that had I but known them, I would have put in my earlier reviews of these three books, and so many others. But I did not know, had nary the inkling, and all I can do now is bewail my past ignorance, and be grateful the consequences here are relatively inconsequential. Nobody died.  Right?

And the upside is, I can write many more articles about all the things I didn’t know heretofore.  And since I know so very little, I can bore you all here for years to come with my belated recognitions.  If I can but avoid being one of the many casualties of ignorance.  Would that you all avoid that as well.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Two Much

Existential Query: Will There Ever Be Another Donald Westlake?

Another post I recently read, written by a literary agent, gave an exhaustive list of all the things authors should not do in the opening lines of their novel.

No fighting, breathing heavily, or running. No dialogue. No dead bodies. No rhetorical questions. No waking up. No vague philosophical statements. No false beginnings. No flashbacks. No prologues.

Don’t even think about anything that could be construed as filler actions or idleness, such as sighing, grinning, or pursing one’s lips. Action that involves fighting or running is a no-no because we don’t yet know or care about the character. But well, apparently we aren’t allowed to actually say anything that would reveal information about the character through dialogue or philosophical inquiry because that’s a “tension killer”.

Advice for novice writers treats readers as though they are inept children with the attention spans of goldfish.  The same agent posted a tweet by another agent who apparently felt the need publicize how a single opening sentence had motivated her to request an entire manuscript. The statement was followed by #querytip, but I personally find it embarrassing that this is the level of flippancy we’ve come to. When a gutted reader commented on the post, asking for examples of what writers were permitted to do, the agent responded with a circuitous rant that amounted to the assertion that the more experienced a writer became, the better their first line would be by default.

Oh, good.

From The Absurdity of Publishing, by Zandra J.  (published online, naturally)

“WELL, PRINCE, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family. No, I warn you, that if you do not tell me we are at war, if you again allow yourself to palliate all the infamies and atrocities of this Antichrist (upon my word, I believe he is), I don’t know you in future, you are no longer my friend, no longer my faithful slave, as you say. There, how do you do, how do you do? I see I’m scaring you, sit down and talk to me.”

From War and Peace, by Leo Somebodyorother.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Some hack devoting 206,052 words to dudes hunting a whale (animal rights activists will freak).

The Hunter (December 1962): “When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.”

The Man With the Getaway Face (March 1963): “When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.”

The Outfit (September 1963): “When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.”

The Mourner (December 1963): “When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.”

The Score (July 1964): “When the bellboy left, Parker went over to the house phone and made his call.”

The Jugger (July 1965): “When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.”

The Handle (February 1966): “When the engine stopped, Parker came up on deck for a look around.”

The Seventh (March 1966): “When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.”

The Rare Coin Score (1967): “Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans.”

The Green Eagle Score (1967): “Parker looked in at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits.”

The Black Ice Score (1968): “Parker walked into his hotel room, and there was a guy in there going through his suitcase laid out on his bed.”

The Sour Lemon Score (1969): “Parker put the revolver away and looked out the windshield.”

Deadly Edge (1971): “Up here, the music was just a throbbing under the feet, a distant pulse.”

Slayground (1971): “Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other.”

Plunder Squad (1972): “Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left.”

Butcher’s Moon (1974): “Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not.”

Comeback (1997): “When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.”

Backflash (1998): “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.”

Flashfire (2000): “When the dashboard clock read 2:40, Parker drove out of the drugstore parking lot and across the sunlit road to the convenience store/gas station.”

Firebreak (2001): “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

Breakout (2002) : “When the alarm went off, Parker and Armiston were far to the rear of the warehouse, Armiston with the clipboard, checking off the boxes they’d want.”

Nobody Runs Forever (2004): “When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said, ‘Deal me out a hand,’ and got to his feet.”

Ask the Parrot (2006): “When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he’d waited beside and continued his climb.”

Dirty Money (2008): “When the silver Toyota Avalon bumped down the dirt road out of the woods and across the railroad tracks, Parker put the Infiniti into low and stepped out onto the gravel.”

Need you ask?

A while back, I somehow I got a trial subscription to this thing called Medium Daily Digest.  Showed up in my inbox every morning like clockwork, for months.  A potpourri of online articles, on topics ranging from How I Ended Up Running An Outlaw Biker Gang to The Misogyny and Authoritarianism of Paw Patrol.  Sometimes the articles are good.  I mean, they’re not trying to sell me Viagra or anything.  The trial subscription ran out, and now they want money.  To read blog articles.  I think they’re missing the point.

So while the trial subscription was active, this article about publishing was highlighted.  They helpfully inform you it takes eight minutes to read.  More like five for me, but see, I know some of this shit already.  I worked in publishing, briefly.  A Likely Story, you say?  Precisely so.

One of Westlake’s best comic novels, if not the best.  Out of print for God only knows how long, still waiting for the ebook (and waiting, and waiting).  Westlake only got it published, after multiple rejections, because Otto Penzler was wooing him for The Mysterious Press.  Otto started a separate imprint for non-mystery books by mystery authors, just to show his quarry he was serious. It’s not often the 80’s makes me feel nostalgic (and the novel itself is anything but), but that’s a story you don’t hear much in the publishing biz now.  Not likely at all anymore.

The novel is written in the first person, and is a satire of the publishing industry, among other things.  Early on, there’s a snatch of dialogue where Tom says to a colleague, as they compile a list of things never-to-do in their line,  “Never write a novel in the first person.” 

There were always rules, they’ve always changed, and they were always broken.  That’s what they’re there for.  If everybody stays within the lines, the lines won’t be worth perusing.  Doesn’t mean you pay no attention to the laws laid down by The Powers That Be, just that you need to make your own as you go.  By-laws, if you will.  Written by you.  If you’re a writer, and if you’re not, what’s the point?   (Being a blogger, I don’t need one.)

In a later and bloodier novel, The Hook, Westlake repurposed the premise of Strangers on a Train for the publishing biz.  A modestly successful novelist who can’t get published anymore because the bookstore chain computers say  he’s a bad risk, agrees to whack a badly blocked bestselling author’s litigious estranged wife in exchange for getting to publish his own novel under the latter’s name, in exchange for half the advance, that would otherwise go to the ex.

And the joke is, they’re both in the same boat–the moral conundrum isn’t the murder, it’s that each is selling out his professional pride, rather than lose his profession entirely.  Even though both have published many novels (one of them under multiple names, to try and do an end run around those computers), and one is rich and famous, there’s still a certain fragility to any novelist’s position (Stephen King doesn’t count, since he only writes novels as a sideline now).

A writer of any gender is at bottom a salesman, and there’s no rock bottom to the life.  Except everybody dast blame them.  Who ever blames publishers when they don’t like the latest novels?  But it is in fact publishers who decide not only which books get in print, but which manuscripts get submitted in the first place, since the more you strike out, the worse your chances get and the harder it is to get an agent to return your calls.  You learn to write to the market, or the market writes you off.  There are a great variety of markets one can write for, and the greatest of names are painfully aware of their own, whatever they may be.

Even an established author like Westlake knew better than to go off-reservation too often, which is why there are 24 Parker novels, and 14 Dortmunders.  The former series happened because of Bucklin Moon, whose own fiction career had been torpedoed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and had been reduced to wading through the slush pile at Pocket Books.

When he found The Hunter in there, it excited him, and he wanted more.  So he told Westlake to rewrite the ending (where Parker gets killed off),  give them several novels a year about this low-life, and the rest is bloody bullet-riddled history.  This, mind you, after Gold Medal and Dell had passed on the book.  If Moon hadn’t seen it, neither might any of us.  Unsung heroes doesn’t half-say it, when you’re talking editors.  The good ones, anyway.

Westlake’s reinvention of himself as a comic author, which ultimately led him to Dortmunder, likewise came about as an act of rebellion, Westlake’s this time.  He started writing a mystery/adventure, and it kept coming out funny, so he went with that, against his agent’s remonstrances that there was no market for funny mysteries anymore.

The Fugitive Pigeon became his biggest seller to date.  That couldn’t have happened if he didn’t have a book a year contract at Random House, and this was the book for that year, written to what was considered a more female audience of genteel mystery lovers (while the more hard-boiled paperbacks were for the boys).

His editor there was Lee Wright, a woman of remarkable literary gifts, who Westlake considered the best he ever worked with (with Moon orbiting close behind).  How did Westlake land that coveted contract, when all he’d done prior to this was short stories for the pulps and a long list of sleaze paperbacks no respectable publisher would touch?  Wouldn’t you like to know?  And so would I, but the publishing industry has yet to bring forth a Westlake biography to provide us with such details.  Many others were granted equal or greater opportunities, and are now entirely out of print.   And others got rich enough to buy their own islands.  (And may also be out of print–which would you choose?)

Some authors of note spend their whole careers with one publisher.  Others, like Westlake, are far more peripatetic.  Partly because of their inner natures, and partly because book sales, while healthy enough, are not so brisk as to make it a priority to hang into them (“Bye Don, thanks for all the Dortmunders.”)  So it is helpful that there be lots of outlets for talent, instead of just a few multi-media titans, with all their various imprints.  That way, you can shop around.

And of course, in this brave new world we live in, there’s self-publishing.  Something Westlake treated as the joke it usually is, in God Save The Mark, where Fred Fitch (the other one) has to fend off the advances of a neighbor who has a massive manuscript relating to his speculative scenario about Caesar having WWI biplanes during his campaign in Gaul.  (Which he won pretty convincingly without, right?  I mean, why not Hannibal?  Or Spartacus, like in that SNL skit with Kirk Douglas?)  He wants Fred to spend his newfound inheritance to print up innumerable copies of the book, and it’s a sign that Fred is beginning to put pigeon-dom behind him when he demurs.

Westlake’s comic  novels are littered with grifters who promise literary fame and fortune to those who will pay them their hard-earned dollars–just another con, and Westlake worked with Scott Meredith, literary grifter supreme,  who ironically did give a number of major talents a start, Westlake not least among them.  But it wasn’t what they wrote for him that was the making of them.  It was just the practice, cranking out crap for a quick buck–and reading other people’s bad books in the slush pile, sending them notes, learning what to avoid.  (And most of all, they learned to avoid guys like Scott Meredith.)

Self-publishing has a new wrinkle today–you can literally publish yourself.  Online.  Start your own digital publishing company, which can be just for you, or host other writers as well.  I’ve greatly enjoyed the comic crime novels of Caimh (pronounced ‘qweev’) McDonnell, an Irish stand-up comedian who decided to be funny in print, while getting in a good bit of trenchant social commentary along the way, and damned if he doesn’t pull that off some of the time.  But other times I’m thinking this guy needs an editor.  (And all the time I’m thinking he may have read almost as much Westlake as I have, so at least he chooses good models to work from.)

See, the problem with this type of self-publishing–even when it works out financially–is that you don’t get the apprenticeship.  You don’t have to worry about rejection slips, or being summoned to an office and given notes on how to improve your work.  And that all sounds great, but Westlake knew damned well that a good editor is worth his or her weight in gold-pressed latinum.  No matter how good you are, you can always be better.  A practiced eye can tell you where your weak spots are, how to fix them.  So you develop faster, find your own voice more easily.  (Or in Westlake’s case, multiple voices.)

Magazines aren’t a good medium to break in through anymore.  Just not enough people willing to pay to read fiction in that format. Westlake did an enormous amount of writing for science fiction and mystery magazines in the late 50’s, early 60’s, most of which are gone now.  Hundreds of stories, most of which will never see the light of day again, and he’d probably be fine with that. His memories of writing to that market were not, in the main, nostalgic.

The dark side of having an editor/publisher is that he may not be there to nurture you, but rather use you, as editors like John W. Campbell used generations of up and coming wordsmiths to give him (and us) the same basic idea over and over again–his notion of evolved psychic superman (‘psupermen’ was Westlake’s own contemptuous term) overcoming their inferiors, and then quite often ruling them.  In an essay where he announced his decision to stop writing for the SF pulps, Westlake revealed that he’d put an outright spoof of Campbell into one story–and Campbell not only didn’t realize he was being lampooned, he loved the story, insisted it be made longer, and his surrogate’s role greatly enlarged.

But then again, a whole lot of great writers came up through the pulps, going back to one of America’s greatest–Westlake’s hero, Dashiell Hammett.  Part of crafting a unique voice for yourself may involve meeting resistance to it–learning how to fight back against editorial expectations.  Anyone who reads about Hammett’s early days as a yarn spinner for Black Mask will know he had to fight several editors on his way up–each of whom helped and hindered him to varying degrees.

And then he had to fight for his vision at Knopf, where he was asked if he really needed to make it clear Spade and Brigid were doing the horizontal tango?  He insisted he did.  They backed down.  See, the ending wouldn’t have the same impact if the two hadn’t been lovers–the ending of the Huston film,  stylish and beloved as it is, doesn’t have a tenth the power–because you never really believe Bogie’s Spade ever gave a damn.  Just playacting his way through.  Which is something any writer better watch out for.  Huston had Bogart, Astor, Lorre, Greenstreet (and Arthur Edeson).  Hammett just had a typewriter.  And every time I compare the two reigning takes on that story, the typewriter wins.  Hands down.  Always will.  Mere words.

Of which I have now typed over 3,000, and FYI, I started typing this thing many months ago, and fell into a sort of creative torpor.  I came across the draft last week, thought maybe it was time for me to finish it up, or delete it.

Here is my point–I’m not a real writer.  I just write about what other people wrote.  And since I don’t get paid for it, I can’t even call myself a critic, not that I really aspire to be called that.  I aspire to understand why some words move me more than others.  Why some writers get under my skin, and others don’t.  And these days, I see so few of the former, so many of the latter.  And I suspect that’s because the way writers get made nowadays is not so conducive to the kind of writing I like.

And yet I know there are many good writers of fiction out there.  Many make their living in entertainment, where the money is much better, and the creative freedom is–negotiable?  Writing scripts, for TV or Film, comes with so many directives, rules, formats, time constraints, and endless tropes.  It’s really more of a collective effort, which is not in itself a bad thing, but it’s not the same thing as sitting down and writing a story for yourself–even if you also have a market to write to.  Even if you have an editor to satisfy.  It’s still mainly just you, hammering it out, building stories, seeking settings,  fleshing out characters, pondering motivations, and dealing, always, with whatever the reigning style of your era is.

Should you work with the grain, or against it?  I suspect pretty much every writer worth reading has done both.   Westlake combined the two with a deftness I’ve never quite seen anywhere else, to the point where you wonder where the formula leaves off and the man begins.  Probably he did too.  The  most important thing he did was decide what he wanted to say with each story–the questions he always wanted to ask, of each character.  Who are you?  What do you want?  What are you willing to do to get it?  What wouldn’t you do?  How much can you compromise without losing the only thing you ever really have–which is yourself.  Your identity.

Now I know full well Westlake will never have nearly so impressive a literary footprint as Tolstoy, Melville, or the beloved Dickens.  (Nor did he ever sport as impressive a beard as any of them, which is probably why he shaved it before long.)    But his achievement as a writer, in many ways, is even more remarkable, since he kept producing great work over half a century, never had a day job, or a landed estate.  Certainly crowds of people never waited restlessly at a dockside wharf to learn the fate of Alan Grofield in Butcher’s Moon (Just keep reading.) but try finding anyone who can give you a plot synopsis of The Old Curiosity Shop.  (Maybe Peter Dinklage for the evil dwarf?)

His humbler place in the pantheon is nonetheless a place, and it rises over time–nobody thought Shakespeare was all that big a deal in the early 1600’s.  Point is, Westlake did what he loved, and people still love it now that he’s gone.  That’s a winning game.

So will there be another like him?  Who produces nearly a hundred fascinating novels, none of them really bestsellers, or critical favorites, yet most of them popular, endlessly reprinted, each very much its own thing;  alternately funny, dark, thrilling, empathic, philosophical, searing, satiric, sardonic, piquant, prescient–and yet each somehow tied to all the others, forming a corpus, a body of work, that rewards endless rereading and cross-reading–so much so that at the time I type this, all but a handful of his books can be downloaded into a digital device for a few bucks?

Might someone accomplish that once more?

All I can tell you is, it won’t be me.  How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ironically Forgotten Promo: Double Feature

Until the night Laura Penney did herself in, most of the violence I’d known had been secondhand.  Carey Thorpe is the name, and if that rings no bells you aren’t a truly serious student of the cinema.  I’ll admit it’s easy to miss my general film reviewing, in publications such as Third World Cinema and The Kips Bay Voice, but my first book, Author and Auteur: Dynamism And Domination In Film, was an alternate selection of Book Find Club in the summer of 1972, and last year my second book, The Mob at the Movies: Down From Rico To Puzo, got universal raves.

Born in Boston in 1942, I came to consciousness concurrently with television.  Being a spindly youth, I spent most of my childhood in front of the box, watching whatever the program directors thought fit to show me.  Old movies were the mainstay of local programming then, so by 1960 when I went away to college (Penn State; anything to get away from home and family) I knew more about movies than Sam Goldwyn and less than him about anything else.

My name is Ordo Tupikos, and I was born  in North Flat, Wyoming, on November 9th 1936.  My father was part Greek and part Swede and part American Indian, while my mother was half Irish and half Italian.  Both had been born in this country, so I am 100% American.

You know how dates will get away from you sometime?  (No, I’m not talking about Tinder.)  February 4th got away from me.  The release date for yet another Westlake reprint from Hard Case Crime.  The release date for other things as well, one of which gazes ever more forlornly at me from the bathroom mirror each morning.  Oh Hard Case–you shouldn’t have.  (Because I wanted Adios Scheherazade.  Anyway, it’s the thought that counts.)

I knew it was coming, spaced on the matter of when.  I also knew that the original title of this mini-anthology was deemed insufficiently clear, and would be changed to what you see up top left.  Westlake called it a ‘two-reeler’ in the dedication, so I don’t think he’d mind much.  For the record, people who have been confused for decades as to why it was named Enough–myself included–should have looked closer at the Bierce quote he opened it with, from The Devil’s Dictionary–“Enough: Too Much.”  And connected the dots.

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It had only been two years earlier that Westlake published Two Much!, about a man who loves not wisely but too often, and the protagonist of that book, as I mentioned in my review of the first offering here, resembles Carey Thorpe in many ways–which philandering philosophe meets the unhappier fate would be an interesting discussion (anyone wants to raise it in the comments section, I’d be only too pleased), but when it comes to literary discussion,  Art Dodge’s sordid saga is much the better story.  All that aside, the relationship between the two is clear.

Now which of the two he wrote first, I could not tell you.  But there is nothing in A Travesty that would rule out it having been conceived and/or written, at least in part, before Westlake completed Two Much!  Or they could have been turned out more or less simultaneously.  Or maybe it doesn’t really matter.  (This isn’t going to be that long a piece.)

I am still honored to occasionally correspond with Charles Ardai,  to whom we are all indebted for many an overdue Westlake reprint (and, in three cases, first print), in hardcover, paperback, and digital ink, always with great cover art.  So yes, he did tell me about this one, some time back.

The title change fits nicely with the cinematic subtheme in each, both of which have ironically been adapted (American Television, Cinema Francais ).  While neither in its prose form is considered Westlake at his best, they both hold up rather well, like nearly everything he wrote in his maturity.  As he once noted, writers train for distance, and these are both within his approved range–a short novel, and a long story.  They make their points efficiently, then exeunt all.

There’s a bit of a personality test inherent to reading them together–which do you like best?  For me, it’s Ordo.  I like to be the outlier, and it is, you must admit, the Starker of the two in its style, and the more unique.  The humor is kept on the down-low, and Ordo doesn’t really feel like a Westlake protagonist–maybe more out of Tucker Coe.  Only without the guilt.  Another voice in Westlake’s head, that he wasn’t free to give rein to most of the time.

The majority view (recently restated here) is that A Travesty is what we want from Westlake, if a bit more cynical and sanguinary than a Dortmunder fan might expect.  The French maybe feel a bit differently about the question (btw, there seems to be a lot of nudity in that film, so guess which one I’d rather see?)

I’m sure the other adaptation has its pleasures, Felicity Huffman not least among them, (though who would have thought she’d be the one to get in trouble with the law in real life?)

(You know how Mr. Westlake loved to borrow titles from Hollywood?–well, Hollywood loves to borrow titles from itself even more.  And you can bet he knew that, without any need to consult with IMDb.)

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Though it’s great to have these two tawdry tales evailable, as well as in paperback, I wouldn’t call this two-reeler one of Mr. Westlake’s true literary orphans.  Aside from the films, the two narratives within have seen multiple print editions in multiple languages, together and separately.  When I checked The Official Westlake Blog, I found two covers I’d never seen before had been added, both of them rather good, and there they are up top.  (Sometimes I wish all his cover art was of the Tromple L’oeil variety, even though the phrase ‘Trompe L’oeil’, the latter word being pronounced ‘lay’, leaves a harsher aftertaste than it used to).

Out of print Westlake novels are getting thin on the ground, if one counts ebooks as print.  I just realized that The Scared Stiff got published in 2013, by Mysterious Press/Open Road.  Not sure how I missed that.  It’s actually the best cover art yet, unless you count the Japanese edition, which it echoes).

I still wait in pensive pathetic passion for Killy, Killing Time, Adios Scheherazade, Up Your BannersAnarchaos, and A Likely Story.  (Why do I suspect Who Stole Sassi Manoon? and I Gave At The Office will be out first?)  I don’t expect Hard Case to handle all of those.  But may each and every one be traversing the Kindle-verse soon.  And the sleazes as well, a few more of which I shall shortly be downloading–oh get your minds out of the gutter!

And next in our queue–hmmm…….

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Enough, Ordo, Two Much

Nitpick: Mr. Parker and ‘Poetry in Steel’

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Parker is the classic antihero, with lots of free-floating hostility and, of course, fulfilling male fantasies, all the “dames” in the novel are crazy about him on sight.

But to clear up a few facts: There isn’t a spot at the approaches to the tollbooths where any kind of hero, anti or otherwise, can be offered a ride; only a world-class spitter could possibly hit a rapidly moving hubcap; and the Hudson, at the point where Parker throws his cigarette into it, is a tidal estuary, not the ocean. Also, there are those of us who take issue with the suggestion that anyone heading for New Jersey is a “nobody.” However, none of this stopped Hollywood from twice making films inspired by The Hunter: Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin, and Payback (1999), starring Mel Gibson.

From The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel, by Michael Aaron Rockland (Rutgers University Press)

We went up the Henry Hudson Parkway and over the George Washington Bridge. We took the lower level and Dad said “This is new.”

“This part of the bridge?  It looks nutty.”

We went up 9 to 17,and then west on 17 toward Binghamton

From 361, By Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve got about a hundred articles I’m thinking about writing.  Thinking about writing isn’t writing.  (Barely qualifies as thinking.)  I’ve even started a few.  Then I get sidetracked.  Bogged down.  Or there’s too many books crossing my desk at the library. Enterprise of great pith and moment, currents turned awry, you know the drill.

But this past week, a book crossed my desk at the library.  The one quoted up top.  Which was published in 2008 (a few months before Mr. Westlake went out of print), but for whatever reason, we got it in 2020.

It’s supposed to be the first book ever written specifically about The World’s Busiest Bridge, which Prof. Rockland justly feels is unjustly slighted in favor of the one in Brooklyn–but in fact another one came out in 2006, probably after he started writing his.  Not evailable, that one.  I ordered a used copy, just to be thorough.  And because I love that damn bridge.  Not quite as much as I love a certain story that begins there.

Now you know me, pals.  You know exactly what I did.  Same thing you’d do in my place.  Flipped forward to the index, headed over to the ‘w’s, and there it was.  ‘Westlake, Donald.’  That’s right.

But when I flipped back to Chapter 8, ‘The George Washington Bridge in Literature,’ what I found was not an enconium to epic pulp writing, but a curt backhanded diss.  Prof. Rockland was not impressed with Richard Stark’s–starkness.

Parker, the protagonist, has been double-crossed by his partner, shot by his wife, and left for dead in a burning building. The novel begins on the New Jersey side of the bridge with a tone more than a little reminiscent of Mickey Spillane’s unremitting, often misogynistic, malice:

Followed by a truncated quote from the book’s opening.  Followed by the jaundiced offhanded critique you can read up top.  And that’s it.  He gives The Hunter a lot less ink than several other novels referenced in the chapter on literary references to the GWB.  Even though, as he somewhat begrudgingly concedes, it’s the only one that inspired two major motion pictures, that people actually still watch, unlike Up the Sandbox, based on an out-of-print novel by Anne Roiphe, a film even a Streisand fan couldn’t love.  (That movie doesn’t feature the bridge, and neither do the two based on The Hunter, which is what Rockland ought to be mad about–I sure am.)

But you know, he’s got a right to his opinion. He likewise gives short shrift to Howard Fast’s Redemption, and James Baldwin’s Another Country–he thinks they’re good books, but they aren’t bridgey enough.  Other than the out-of-print Up the Sandbox, (included because of a fantasy sequence where the heroine helps blow up his favorite bridge) you can get most of the novels he references for Kindle–some for free, if you have Kindle Unlimited.   The Hunter you’re going to have to shell out for.  People actually still want to read that.

Ah, but here’s the rub.  At the time Rockland must have submitted his manuscript, The Hunter was also out of print, at least in America.  The University of Chicago Press edition came out the same year as Poetry in Steel.  So cut him some slack.  He thought he was writing about some Spillane wannabe who had been lucky enough to sell a few books to Hollywood.  He didn’t know he was writing at the dawn of  The Starkian Renaissance, courtesy of Levi Stahl.

Neither does he seem to have known that Mr. Westlake was, like him, a New Yorker born, who lived a fair bit of his life in New Jersey.  No indication he knows Westlake set many a brilliant novel there; nor does he seem to have twigged to the fact that Parker spends most of the series holed up in Passaic County with Claire. If he had known all that, I think he might have been a mite less jaundiced about the eight best paragraphs of prose ever set on that most complex of edifices spanning the majestic Hudson.

Prof. Rockland is a noted Jersey Chauvinist (he helped popularize the term ‘Jerseyana’), and speaking as one myself, I’ve no problem with this.  Most of the bad attitude that reeks from his brush-off stems from what he mistakenly reads as a typical Jersey Slur from a Manhattanite.  Stark is saying the traffic going into New Jersey on a weekday morning is light, which is correct–not that the people going there are nobodies.  (It’s the people heading into Manhattan who are subjected to Stark’s sardonic scrutiny, and Parker barely even knows they’re alive.)

Parker’s alienation from humankind as a whole likewise gets written off as sexist machismo (Rockland’s not the only one making that mistake).  I’m scratching my head a bit about his air-quoting “dames”, since that word appears not even once in the book (in fairness, Darwyn Cooke has Parker call Lynn a slut in his graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter, and that’s not in the book either–there’s always a lot of projection going on with these books, somehow–your reaction to them probably says more about you than the author).

But pretty clear that many other books he writes about more favorably have that problem as well–he dismisses one of them as ‘chick-lit’ (that’s a bit misogynist, wouldn’t you say?) but still gives it a lot more attention.  So it’s the Jersey thing. And the general ignorance of who Donald E. Westlake is thing.  Hey, he’s not the only one who can get his back up over a slight.  (And not even posthumous–barely possible Westlake could have seen Rockland’s book before he headed off to Mexico one last time.)

But let’s cut to the reveal.  Even if this book came out after the U. of Chicago edition, I’d know which one he read–Pocket Books.  1962.  Has to be.  Because of the throwing the cigarette butt at the ocean thing.

I had never noticed this before–Westlake changed something.  I have both the Pocket Book PBO and Gold Medal reprint published as Point Blank! to go with the film release.  In the latter, Parker throws his cigarette butt at the river.  That’s the only change I can see, at least in the opening chapter.  So Rockland’s only relevant complaint was corrected four decades before he got around to making it.  (Not that the phrase ‘tidal estuary’  would have any place in the passage we’re dissecting here.)

Possible somebody mentioned it to Westlake, maybe there were letters from distressed limnologists, perhaps an editor at Fawcett suggested the tweak.  But my guess is that while reading over the book prior to republication, Westlake the word nerd decided that while to Parker it’s the ocean, to Stark it’s the river.  Stark cares about getting that kind of thing right, Parker doesn’t give a damn.  It’s salty, there’s fish, it’s the ocean.

The first edition is channeling Parker more directly;  in the reprint, Stark translates for us. The narrator voice in that series was a lot more focused and fine-tuned by the Mid-60s.  And so was the man behind it.  Who always knew the Hudson was a river.  He grew up alongside that river, near Albany.  He wrote one hell of a good Parker novel set on and around it, if Rockland had only thought to check.

But try telling that to the distressed Jerseyanist, who can’t stop himself from going back there later in the chapter, when in the midst of analyzing a poetic paeon to The George by a Lithuanian immigrant named Israel Newman, feels obliged to state–

The line “Here where the Hudson feels the sea” is beautifully suggestive of the G.W.B.’ s site, not to mention a welcome corrective to Donald Westlake’s confusing the Hudson with the ocean.

It’s saying the same exact thing, in more flowery language, but the poem doesn’t disrespect New Jersey, or even mention it, so no umbrage is taken.

(How did he come to read the first edition paperback?  Hardly to be found at your local used book shop in the early 21st. Borrowed from a friend?  Interlibrary Loan?  Amazon Marketplace?  [That’s how I got it.]  Rutgers library doesn’t seem to have The Hunter in its collection, though they’ve got Comeback. Did he realize The Hunter had been reprinted scores of times over the course of half a century, all over the planet, in English, French, Russian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese?–no doubt Lithuanian as well.

And what would he say were he to learn not one of those books featured the George Washington Bridge on its cover?  Don’t even ask.  I get the distinct impression he didn’t even know there were 23 more Parker novels after this one, and of course the first edition wouldn’t inform him of that.  No “Other books by” page in there.)

So that leaves the very first nitpick–that nobody could have offered Parker a ride before the tollbooths.  Now in this very book I’m nitpicking, there are a whole lot of stories about things happening on the GWB that are not supposed to happpen. Like did you know a small plane once crash-landed there?

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Much of Rockland’s book, in point of fact, devotes itself to such anomalies, like a herd of goats escaped from an overturned truck, a man stopping his car in mid-bridge to jump off it, an elderly cyclist who found the pedestrian walkway closed, so she rode across the bridge with the cars and trucks, and didn’t ask if that was okay, because if you ask they’ll probably say no.  Probably not a day passes without something happening on that bridge that isn’t supposed to happen.

I’ve actually caught a ride from the Bridge Plaza, not far from the toll booths–turns out drivers who want to be charged the much lower carpool toll will look around for passengers in Fort Lee–they’ve been ticketed for that (even though it isn’t technically illegal), but they keep right on doing it, whenever and wherever they can get away with it.

But agreed, it would probably be pretty hard to openly hitchhike right in front of the toll booths–except, first of all, Parker isn’t hitchhiking.  He’s just walking across the bridge.  And, as I am suddenly realizing, he’s not using the pedestrian walkway.  He’s walking with the cars and trucks.  Heavy morning traffic.  Slow moving vehicles.  And this explains so much else (like how hard is it to spit on the hubcap of a vehicle stalled in traffic that you’re walking right through, like some implacable unstoppable force of criminal retribution?)

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(Darwyn Cooke figured all this shit out a long long time before me.)

But wait–there’s more!  Because the book is set in 1962–and Westlake’s own fateful walk back from New Jersey, that inspired the opening scene, was a few years before that.  And let’s just say the toll plaza looked a bit different then. Wanna see how different? YouTube, do your stuff.

There’s a few cops, yeah–because they’re sending a film truck through.  Putting up a front.  But every morning?  Early in the morning?  Heavy commuter traffic? Cops there all the time?  I don’t think so.  And there’s scads of room for cars to pull over, offer someone a ride.

So why did the fresh-faced guy in a Chevy stop and ask Parker if he wanted a lift? Because Parker isn’t on the pedestrian walkway.  Maybe it isn’t open yet.  Maybe Parker just doesn’t give a damn.  He’s going to walk right through the traffic, right past those women getting vibrations above the nylons, and the guys remembering when they didn’t have a car and thinking they’re empathizing with him–and who’s going to tell him he can’t?  You’ve read the description of how he looks that morning.  Would you?

And if a tollboth worker called the law, by the time they got there, he’d be long across and down into the subway hole.  (It looked really different on the other side as well back then, as you can see up top).  A long time before 9/11, and stuff still happens on that bridge now that nobody wants to know about.

But it was changing, very quickly, right around the time Westlake was writing. They were putting in the lower deck, referenced in both The Hunter and 361, but it didn’t open until August of 1962.  We’re told how Parker is irritated by the way the bridge surface ‘trembles and sways in the wind’–the wind effect used to be a lot more pronounced, before the extra weight of the lower deck (charmingly referred to as ‘The Martha’ by many–hey I learned some things from Rockland’s book) stabilized it.  The amazing Othmar Ammann, Switzerland’s gift to American bridge design, had worked it all out decades before.

When Westlake took his own walk across the bridge, in a troubled state of mind, the lower deck wasn’t in place yet.  The Cross Bronx Expressway, the GWB Bus Station–still in the works.  By the time his mirror twin noirs, published under two very different names, came out, he knew people would have come to terms with the Martha beneath the George, so he must have written that in.  But the George Parker is stalking across early one morning is somehow still a bachelor, so still swaying madly in the wind, signifying Parker’s chaotic unsettled state of mind, that he can only fix by killing Mal Resnick and getting his money.

It all makes perfect sense.  If you take the time to understand it.  If you realize this isn’t some two-bit hack, writing trash for a living.  This is Richard Fucking Stark, bitch.  And you missed every last thing he was trying to tell you.  Yeah, I’m mad.  Apparently that’s what it takes to get me to finish an article these days.  I’ll feel better after I hit the button that says ‘Publish.’

Oh there’s a trashy aura to it–part of its charm, as Rockland should know, since he once penned a scholarly work called Popular Culture: Or Why Study Trash? that my workplace doesn’t have and Amazon doesn’t seem to know exists.

(I forgot to mention that he’s a Professor of ‘American Studies’ at Rutgers.  Is that what Charles Kuralt majored in?  Aren’t we all of us here technically studying America, all the time?  Not carefully enough, it seems.  Now Donald Westlake–there was a veritable polymath of American Studies. For all anyone noticed.)

Now I’m being mean.  I am aware of this.  Writing even a short mass market book about such a storied bridge (even if it is a bit too full of folksy asides and personal anecdotes to be a serious history, and I’m hoping something better comes along for the 100th Anniversary)–that’s a lot of research.  A lot of moving parts.  Just the two chapters on books, stories, poems, artwork, and films featuring the GWB would have been time-consuming.  It’s not reasonable to expect he’d drop everything to become a Westlake expert (and online resources were scarcer then, though they existed).

He somehow found out The Hunter begins on the George, he read it, and he didn’t have the context to appreciate it–but so many people have read that book with zero context, and loved it.   (Westlake probably got at least as much fan mail from black men for the early Parker novels as James Baldwin got for Another Country).  We love what we love, we hate what we hate, and there’s room for all kinds.

The bridge book was worth reading.  But few will ever read it twice.  And far fewer who read The Hunter stop at just once.

Now I said that not one edition of The Hunter (or 361) that I can find features an image of the George Washington Bridge or any aspect of that opening scene on its cover.  And that is true.  But there’s a caveat.

That is, without question, the most engrossing visual of the entire book, Parker walking through that traffic, the wind blowing his hair like a bad toupee, his face like chipped granite, his onyx eyes set on the city before him in a ten thousand yard stare, his big gnarly hands swinging at his sides and the ocean (yeah, I said it, Rockland!) down below him, cold and dark and hungry, waiting for bodies to drop, and they will.

It’s one hell of a visual, and no artist worth his salt would have missed it.  Here’s to you, Darwyn Cooke.  You got it.  (But Parker doesn’t say ‘slut’–not his style.)

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Well damn–I’m done.  PUBLISH.  (or perish)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Ultimatum: The Westlake Review and World Domination–Greenland Edition

Screenshot_2019-08-23 Stats ‹ The Westlake Review — WordPress com

 

It was just a bit over three years ago I informed you all that my blog stats, so helpfully supplied by WordPress (how could I ever have considered Blogger?)  indicated that I’d gotten hits from a hundred different countries, each represented by its own flag. I am here today to inform you the flag count is now 165.  I think.  I don’t feel like recounting.

Okay, in many cases we’re not talking countries so much as regions.  Dependencies, semi-autonomous domains, remote and nebulously affiliated territories (the kind you might light out for, maybe).

Often islands.  Really tiny islands, the kind Gilligan & Co. might find a tad confining, however entertaining the guest stars might be.  Like for example, Anguilla.  Be pretty bad if I couldn’t get Anguilla, since Westlake wrote one of the very few books in all history about it, but thing is, there’s not even 15,000 people living there, and they have lives, you know.  The odds of anyone with a life ever learning of this blog’s (or any blog’s) existence–not great.  But I’ve had 23 visits from Anguilla.  An independent-minded dependency of the UK, which is mindful of Anguilla in much the same way a dog is mindful of a flea, but fleas don’t build good boats like Anguilla does.  (And it better keep building them.)

Guernsey.  After which I would assume the cow is named.  A self-governing crown dependency, one of the Channel Islands, though what they are channeling I could not possibly say.  Two visits from them, two from Jersey, and what is it with the Channel Islands and cows?  Four from the Isle of Man, which makes do with a tail-less cat.

Do you sell Seychelles by the seashore?  I’ve had 35 visits from that now-independent member of the Commonwealth and various other international groupings, the inner workings of which most of us are a bit vague about.  That’s a lot of islands all bunched together, and very well they’re doing at present, but sea levels are rising, as the Dutch will tell you.  (513 visits from the Netherlands, which currently administers another sometimes-visitor here, Curacao.)

Two visits from the Cayman Islands, from whence our rescue mutt came, and to whence what ought to be our tax revenue goes.  A sort of import-export arrangement, you might say.   But the dog worked out great.

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(This is Burren.  She is a very good girl.  Remember the name, it figures into the scheme me and J.C. Taylor cooked up over some bourbon.)

The Aland Islands, believe it or not, are not to be found in any George R.R. Martin novel yet published, but are to be found in the Baltic, all 6,700 or so, where they are yet another self-governing dependency, this time of Finland.  Even though they mainly speak Swedish.  Don’t even ask.  Anyway, they only came here once.  I think I was out of vodka that day.  Sorry guys.

So as you can see, I now control most of the known world, as well the parts nobody knows.  Not bragging or anything, but take a gander at the map up top.  Still a bit of mopping up do in Africa and Asia (Little Rocket Man is proving a minor obstacle on the Korean peninsula), but by and large, my suzerainty is achieved.  If only Alexander the Great had run a blog.  (He didn’t, right?)  All significant land masses are now claimed for Fred-onia.  Save one.

Yeah.  That one.  You see where I’m going with this.

Greenland, what is your problem with me?  Denmark, your mother country (kind of), came along like a lamb.  1,563 visits–#6 on my hit parade.  More than Australia, which is a continent (or so it claims).  And yet you remain this vast empty space on my map.  Not.  One.  Visit.  (And you never write either.)

Yes, I understand you’re mostly frozen wasteland, now rapidly turning into melting wasteland, but that is neither here nor there.  Resistance, as they say, is futile.  You shall be assimilated.  But by whom?   Ah, there’s the question.  Here is one potential answer–

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Don’t look at me, wasn’t my idea.  This reality’s Max Fairbanks has fixed his covetous eye upon you, for reasons future historians and psychiatrists shall long debate, and never mind what that nice lady in Copenhagen says.  How many divisions does she have?  That many?  Well, she needs them all to keep an eye on the Shirtless One, who just snatched up The Crimea (of all things) with no regard whatsoever for historical anachronism.  Forward into the Valley of Dumb ride the 56,000–unless something saves you.  But what?

Democracy, you say?  The sound even-tempered reliable judgment of the American voter?  I somehow feel no editorial comment is needed here. Anyway, that’s over 15 months off.  He could annex you between the election and the inauguration.  Probably put John Bolton in charge, just so he doesn’t have to look at that mustache anymore.  (You have walruses there, right?  Like that, but worse.)

No, my tiny reindeer.  What you need is John Dortmunder.  (And maybe Parker for some of the wetwork.)   You need The Westlake Review.  I hereby offer you sanctuary beneath my vaulted ceiling.  (Notre Dame being presently indisposed.)

And if you accept my gracious offer, as indeed you must, I shall appoint Burren (see above) as your territorial governor.  I mean, she won’t live there, obviously.  But she shall speak eloquently for your interests in the world community.  And never once use the word “huge.”   (Also, no pussy-grabbing.  She’s a bit wary of cats.)  An islander  herself, please recall.  She’ll get you.

The choice is yours, Greenland.  My benevolent sway.  Or–

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And if you think it’s less than credible for some threadbare blogger to make such an offer of protection–you guys get the news where you are, right?  What does ‘credible’ even mean anymore?

And the best thing about my offer is, you don’t even have to formally agree to it.  You just have to visit this blog and read about it.  Even once.  And Greenland will no longer be a white empty space on my map, as of course it already is on most other maps.  And in reality.  Though global warming will fix that.  As Andy Kelp predicted.  I think I’ll put him in charge of your Ministry of Nature and Environment.  Maybe don’t leave any valuables there.  Or park any vehicles with MD plates outside.  Welcome to the family.   God save us, every one.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Under An English Heaven

Fair Play: Mr. Block and The Snatch.

“I wanted to read it again. I wanted to see if maybe Kelp had a good idea after all.”

Kelp with a good idea.” He finished his Jell-O and reached for his coffee.

“Well, he was smart to bring it around to you,” she said. “He wouldn’t be able to do it right without you.”

Kelp brings a plan to me.”

“To make it work,” she said. “Don’t you see? There’s a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you’ve got and the places you’ll be and all the rest of it. You’d be the aw-tour.”

He cocked his head and studied her. “I’d be the what?”

“I read an article in a magazine,” she said. “It was about a theory about movies.”

“A theory about movies.”

“It’s called the aw-tour theory. That’s French, it means writer.”

He spread his hands. “What the hell have I got to do with the movies?”

“Don’t shout at me, John, I’m trying to tell you. The idea is—”

“I’m not shouting,” he said. He was getting grumpy.

“All right, you’re not shouting. Anyway, the idea is, in movies the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director, because he takes what the writer did and he puts it together with the actors and the places where they make the movie and all the things like that.”

“The writer isn’t the writer,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s the theory.”

“Some theory.”

“So they call the director the aw-tour,” she explained, “because that’s French for writer.”

“I don’t know what we’re talking about,” Dortmunder said, “but I think I’m getting caught up in it.

“Hey,” she said, “where am I?”

She could have answered the question herself.  She was, to judge from appearances, in an especially squalid shack.  The shack itself was fairly close to a highway, judging from the traffic noises.  If she had to guess, she would place the location somewhere below the southern edge of the city, probably a few hundred yards off Highway 130 near the river.  There were plenty of empty fishing shacks there, she remembered, and it was a fair bet this was one of them.

“Now just take it easy, Carole,” the thin man said.  “You take it easy and nothing’s going to happen to you.”

“You kidnapped me!”

“You just take it easy and–”

She squealed with joy.  “This is too much!  You’ve actually kidnapped me.  Oh, this is wild!  Did you call my old man yet?”

“No.”

“Will you let me listen when you do?”  She started to giggle.  “I’d give anything to see his face when you tell him.  He’ll split. He’ll just fall apart.”

They were both staring at her, open-mouthed.  The younger man said, “You sound happy about it.”

“Happy?  Of course I’m happy.  This is the most exciting thing that ever happened to me!”

“But your father–”

“I hope you soak him good,” she went on.  “He’s the cheapest old man on earth.  He wouldn’t pay a nickel to see a man go over the Falls.  How much are you going to ask?”

“Never mind,” the thin man said.

“I just hope it’s enough.  He can afford plenty.”

I should probably explain.

Not long ago, a book crossed my desk at the library.  Portraits of Murder, a hardcover collection of short stories from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (still very much an extant publication) which debuted in 1956, and provided many a much-needed check for Donald Westlake and his partners in crime fiction.  Many of the stories in Westlake anthologies first saw print there, and of course I checked to see if his name featured in the table of contents.  No dice.  Possibly because Mr. Westlake’s best stuff for AHMM was already spoken for, or didn’t fit the profile for whatever the editors were looking for.

But two stories by Lawrence Block, the first of which was quite near the front of the book, and was about a kidnapped child.  Well, minor.  Well, she’s seventeen.  And precocious.  And sexy.   And not to be underestimated.  It’s Block.

This brief exercise in sardonic suspense (less than ten full pages in the book) entitled The Most Unusual Snatch, appeared in the April 1967 issue.  That’s the cover up top. Next to a French edition of a 1974 Westlake novel, the identity of which my most irregular regulars shall no doubt deduce without any difficulty.  That is also about a kidnapped minor, but younger, and male, and not at all sexy, but still–precocious.  And a bane to all would-be abductors.  Well, they both read O. Henry, right?

Man, been so long since I did a synopsis here:

Carole Butler, pretty teenaged daughter of a wealthy doctor, is kidnapped by two men.  One tall skinny sourpuss named Howie who fully intends to kill her once they get the money, more or less just because he thinks that’s what you do when you kidnap somebody.  One younger (and to Carole’s eyes, not unattractive) thug named Ray, who is on the fence about killing her, and whose physical description matches up pretty well with Block’s.  (One of the most attractive things to her about him is that he’s not terribly bright, at least where females are concerned, as if any male ever has been, but there are degrees.)

As you can see up top, she’s delighted at first.  She had fantasized about faking her own kidnapping, and now it’s happened.  She hates her father (who seems besotted with her, no mother in sight, perhaps best not to inquire further), would love to see him lose his shirt getting her back.

She’s full of helpful suggestions for her not over-competent captors, even tells them dad’s got a hundred grand stashed in a safe in the basement at all times, and that he wouldn’t want the IRS to ever get wind of that, probably wouldn’t even call the cops if he got her back in one piece.  Maybe even if he didn’t, but she doesn’t intend to let it come to that.

Howie is the main problem.  Her charms won’t work on him.  But Ray’s an easy touch, wants to touch her, so they enjoy a quick canoodle while Howie’s away.  She’s scared, obviously–but enjoying the danger.  And the sex.  And calculating her odds all the while. She’s a bit crestfallen when he ties her up again afterwards (Shades of Mavis in The Rare Coin Score, published in ’67 as well–but Carole is no Mavis, and Ray’s sure as hell no Parker.)

Here’s where it gets interesting–well, it’s Block, so interesting all the way through, but I mean for my purposes, since I’m no less conniving than Carole in my own way.   The thing that worries Howie is the pick-up.  Carole doesn’t think her old man will call the cops, but if he does, they’ll be waiting to grab him when he goes to get the cash (and then what might happen to her?)  She has anticipated this wrinkle–and has the answer.  She pretends not to know where the hideout is, but says she knows the perfect spot for the transfer, if they just happen to be near the south end of town.

She told him about it–the overpass on Route 130 at the approach to the turnpike.  They could have her father drive onto the pike, toss the money over the side of the overpass when he reached it, and they could be waiting down below to pick it up.  Any cops who were with him would be stuck up there on the turnpike and they could get away clean.

“It’s not bad,” Ray said.

“It’s perfect,” Howie added.  “You thought that up all by yourself?”

“Well, I got the idea from a really super-duper movie.”

Howie is so struck with admiration for her devious criminal mind, he makes a little slip, saying it’s a shame and all, then pretends he didn’t say what they all know he just said.  She knows there’s no way she’s getting out of this thrill ride alive–Howie’s dead set on tying off loose ends. Ray’s too weak to stand up to him.

She does a brilliant job terrifying her father over the phone, making up two additional gang members, then explaining to the puzzled crooks that she’s laying a false trail for the cops.  While Howie’s off getting the cash, she talks Ray into letting her go–the idea is, they’ll make it look like she hit him from behind with the revolver butt, and got away. She’ll give phony descriptions, the police will be looking for three men and a woman, everybody wins.  Ray, possibly thinking they can meet up for more nookie later on, hands her the automatic and tells her where to hit him, make it look good.

She promptly shoots him dead with the business end.  Then the astonished Howie, returning with the loot, so elated about what he thinks is the biggest score of his career, but he was sadly mistaken there.  Then she cleans up the crime scene a bit, so nobody can connect her to it.

She hikes to a payphone (remember them?), calls dad, tells him a story about inter-gang violence, and somehow the two survivors left her alive, taking the money with them.  He comes to pick her up, sees the bodies.  He says it’s best they not call the police, too many questions.  He only gave them ten thousand (he says)–it’s just money.  All that matters is her.  She smiles, hugs him, and laughs to herself, thinking what she’s going to do with the hundred thousand she buried near the shack.

I don’t think Patricia Highsmith would have been ashamed to call this one her own.  Only  she never wrote for the pulps (got her start in comic books),  her Carole would have pretended to enjoy sex with Ray, and the father would have probably died too.  We all have our quirks.  In short, it’s a cracking good yarn in this vein, and no doubt Mr. Westlake thought so too.

So when I wrote my review of Jimmy the Kid, I didn’t know about this story, so I talked about the influence that was obvious to everyone (The Ransom of Red Chief), and the one Westlake himself wryly referenced in a piece he wrote for a 1978 anthology Brian Garfield put together; namely the kidnapping of French automotive heir Eric Peugeot, where the kidnappers used a Lionel White crime novel called The Snatchers as their blueprint, and it all worked out fine until they got their money, and started spending it.  The book hadn’t told them what to do after you get the money, since the kidnappers in the novel never reached that point.

As I observed then, Westlake’s novel ended up being about the dysfunctionally symbiotic relationship between fiction and reality; how each inspires the other, but they never do quite connect.  The kidnap victim was somewhere between the quietly fascinated (and very young) Master Peugeot, who had never really spent time with grown men before, and the western-crazed red-headed hooligan from O. Henry’s story, who made two grown men cry uncle.

It was also one of the funniest things he ever wrote, and having now reread it yet again, I’m even more inclined to think it’s a high-water mark for the Dortmunder series.

But see, I assumed the notion that the ‘victim’ would be not merely enjoying the experience but using it to his own coldly calculated advantage was Westlake’s contribution–as you can see, not necessarily so.

That Westlake read his close friend and sometimes collaborator’s story, in a magazine he himself contributed to multiple times, cannot be reasonably questioned.  Nor can the multiple confluences between the two, up to and including the means whereby the kidnappers arrange the ransom drop-off via a highway overpass, that Carole says she got from a movie, but damned if I can figure out which flick that might have been, and that reference strikes me as a bit of a wink from Mr. Block–only I don’t have the context to know who he’s winking at, or why.  (Definitely not The Master of Suspense.)

But in the story, it doesn’t quite work, does it?  If Carole’s old man knows in advance that’s the plan, and he has gone to the law, there’ll be cops lying in wait beneath the highway, as well as above.  Now as it happens, for purely self-centered reasons Carole herself foresaw, her father never did call the cops, so it all worked out fine (for her), and maybe it’s just her way of lulling her captors off guard, or she’s actually having fun planning her own kidnap, as she used to fantasize doing–but either way, it’s a plot hole, since Howie at least should spot the logical flaw that they’d have to tell Dr. Butler where to drop the money before he left the house with it.  No mention of any phone in his car.

Phones in private limos began to become a thing in the 50’s, but only the very rich had them.  Carole’s dad isn’t that flush (no chauffeur), and is clearly a bit of a skinflint anyway.  By the 70’s, they were less of a big deal, service was pretty good, and a partner in a big law firm might have one just to do business while being driven around.  Still rare enough that even the FBI didn’t have much expertise in putting a trace on one (though they would have other ways of tracing where the money went).

And so the Richard Stark of Dortmunder’s universe writes a novel called Child Heist, that Andy Kelp discovers doing a short stretch in a county lock-up.   In this ersatz escapade, Parker and his cohorts figure out how to make the highway drop work for them–find a vantage point where they can watch for limos entering Manhattan, scope out one that is regularly transporting a rich kid in and out of the city, that also has a mobile phone line. Then tell whoever’s coughing up the ransom to use that car when setting out with the money.  They’ll get in touch along the way.

(It’s never explained how they got the number, since that chapter of the nonexistent novel isn’t included in Jimmy the Kid) but given the relatively small number of mobile lines in a given area, probably not that hard, and why quibble if you’re having fun?)

The cops won’t have enough time to get their Duckbundys lined up (if you read the book, you’ll see what I did there), and by the time they figure out what’s happening, the gang will have the money, and return the kid unharmed, because that way the law doesn’t come after them as hard and parents don’t write angry letters to ‘Richard Stark.’  Another perfect score by Parker!

(Except I have to wonder why the fictional Parker of Dortmunder’s dimension doesn’t have problems with double-dealing accomplices, lousy drivers, unstable significant others, unforeseeable snafus, etc.  Nothing goes wrong, everybody does his job right.  It sounds kind of humdrum and routine, just another day at the office, a clockwork kidnap, but that’s what Kelp loves about it.  And Westlake loves sending up his own alter-ego.)

So this fixes the problem in Block’s story, while creating many more to throw in the path of Dortmunder & Co. Whatever seems straighforward in Parker’s world is fraught with frustration in Dortmunder’s.  Like what if the frightened father is also a confirmed workaholic, and you didn’t tell him to keep the line free?

At the Burger King, Murch’s Mom dialled the operator, and yelled, “I want to call a mobile unit in a private car!”

“Well, you don’t have to yell about it,” the operator said.

“What?”

“You have trouble on your line,” the operator said. “Hang up and dial again.”

“What? I can’t hear you with all these motorcycles!”

“Oh,” said the operator. “You want to call a mobile unit?”

“What?”

“Do you want to call a mobile unit?”

“Why do you think I’m putting up with all this?”

“Do you have the number?”

“Yes!”

Harrington was saying. “Now in the matter of that prospectus. I think our posture before the SEC is that while the prospectus did speak of home sites, it does not at any point say anything about a community. A community would necessarily imply the existence of available water. A home site would not. Country retreat, weekend cottage, that sort of thing. Have Bill Timmins see what he can root up by way of precedents.”

“Yes, sir,” said the secretary.

“Then call Danforth in Oklahoma and tell him that Marseilles crowd just will not budge on the three-for-two stock swap. Tell him my suggestion is that we threaten to simply bow out on the railroad end. of it and carry our venture capital elsewhere. If he approves, try and arrange a phone conference with Grandin for nine-thirty tomorrow morning, New York time. If Danforth has a problem, give him my home number, and tell him I should be there in, oh, two hours at the very most.”

“Yes, sir,” said the secretary.

“But the line’s busy!” the operator said.

“Well, try again!” Murch’s Mom said.

(I half-suspect Mr. Westlake scanned some of the Get Smart novels produced in the 60’s by William Johnston, which at times were even funnier than the TV show, featured as a recurring character the snarky operator Max had to deal with whenever he made a call via footwear, and demonstrated how a phone that traveled around with you might not always be an unqualified asset to your endeavors.  But you know, great minds.)

And as is the case with any tightly plotted scheme, even the slightest deviation leads to chaos.   (Also the case with tightly plotted train schedules, as I learned during a trip to Germany.)  A comedy of errors ensues, but I’ve written about that already.

I think the money transfer is Westlake’s way of crediting Block, since nobody who had read both stories could easily miss the parallel there–a sort of backhanded credit, inadmissible in a court of law (since Block probably got the idea from somewhere else also).

But the primary point of influence is between Carole Butler and Jimmy Harrington, who are not at all similar in age, gender, or characterization, but who share nonetheless several key attributes, not least of which a desire to not merely escape their abductors, but to profit from their credulity.  (And of course, each ends up with the ransom money from daddy, though Jimmy by somewhat more honorable means, and at least he left a tip.)

It all plays out very differently, since Westlake’s novel isn’t written for a magazine that specializes in grisly twists, and he will have need of Dortmunder & Co. in future; and it should go without saying nobody in the Dortmunder Gang is having sex with a twelve year old (or anyone, at this stage of the series.)

But for all the cunning variations on a theme, the influence simply can’t be denied.  It is, as they say in over-formulaic British crime fiction, a fair cop.  Westlake borrowed directly from Block.

So.  Did Block know about it?  Did Westlake ask him if it was okay?  Did these men who used to write pseudo-porn together, taking turns writing chapters, routinely steal from each other, and wait gleefully to see if the pilfery was detected?  Remember, these guys both wrote so much, it would be easy for either to forget a story tossed off in a hurry to pay for a kid’s braces or whatever.  But that seems a mite unprofessional for these two.  Is there some other explanation?

I have one–see that little exchange between Dortmunder and May up top?  The first big gag of the novel is that Kelp not only brings an idea for a heist to Dortmunder, but that this time he’s brought a plan to go with it–which is supposed to be Dortmunder’s purview.  Dortmunder is most disgruntled over this.  “Kelp brings a plan to me.”

So suppose Mr. Westlake was grousing over a few bourbons at some disreputable bar & grill (maybe there was a back room) that he was having story problems with this new Dortmunder, having already had the idea of a comic kidnapping inspired in equal part by O. Henry and the Peugeot case, but that’s just an idea for a caper, not the caper itself.  He’s got the premise. Not the plan. Where’s the hook?

And Mr. Block, ever a generous colleague, as well as a competitive one, brought up his own humble effort in this sub-sub-genre (since his kidnapping was also comedic, however dark).  I have speculated that the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic is at least partly based on the long informal partnership of Westlake and Block. And while there is some of Kelp in Westlake, far more of him is Dortmunder.  So did his Kelp bring a plan to him?   Hmm.

Reading both Block and Westlake, one must always be aware that each scribe read the other’s output assiduously, as did others in their circle.  Westlake penciled in many a gag aimed not at the funny bones of his readership, but those of his poker-faced poker buddies.  See if he could get a rise out of them.  I’m guessing he did pretty well.  And they got a few chuckles in return.

But in this case, being first doesn’t count for much.  The Most Unusual Snatch is a nifty little short that got anthologized a few times.  Jimmy the Kid turned out to be a bit of a phenom, much like its title character.  DonaldWestlake.com lists no fewer than eighteen editions in seven languages (good bet that’s not all).  And there were three film adaptations–Italian, German, and the one with the kid from Diff’rent Strokes.  (Probably they’re all terrible, but it’s the check that counts.)  Not for nothing did Westlake dedicate this one to his agent Henry Morrison, who probably badgered him into doing more Dortmunder books.

I wanted to write this as a companion piece to my previous article, about how Suzuki & Co. stole from Westlake (and a fair few other pulpish writers, no doubt) to make a surrealistic crime movie.  Much as I don’t think Westlake would have been offended, it was still unacknowledged borrowing (had to be, since there was no money in the budget to buy up the adaptation rights, or even time to negotiate for them across an ocean and a language barrier).  And of course these two masters of noir never met, so there was no winking going on in either direction.

But the reason I’m sure Westlake would have given Suzuki a pass had he known was that he knew all good storytellers steal.  It’s how you do it that matters; whether you add something of yourself to the mix.  Suzuki and his collaborators did that, and so did Westlake here (rather better, I think).  Stolen plot elements can become remarkably personal expressions, so long as you don’t get all your loot from the same bank.  Ideas are just building blocks.  Put them together in your own way, and see what happens.  Make it an unusual snatch.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, Parker Novels

Parker at the Movies, Part 4: Mr Suzuki and The Stark Homage.

His hand on the knob, she called his name.  He turned around, questioning, irritated, and saw the Police Positive in her hand.  He just had time to remember that it had to be either Chester or Mal–the two who’d been given the revolvers–when she pulled the trigger and a heavy punch in his stomach drove the breath and the consciousness out of him.

It was his belt buckle that saved him.  Her first shot had hit the buckle, mashing it into his flesh.  The gun had jumped in her hand, the next five shots all going over his falling body and into the wood of the door.  But she’d fired six shots at him, and she’d seen him fall, and she couldn’t believe that he was anything but dead.

He awoke to heat and suffocation.  They’d set fire to the house.

I shouldn’t need to tell you.

Rojini has offered cease-fire agreement in Paakaa. However the truce was broken by the traitor of the organization. But the son of man aiming secretly position of boss took the gold, Paakaa you charge the brunt of the attack, increase the fire, strikes back to unscrupulous traitor! Villain Paakaa and his friends, Ru Osoikaka mighty criminal organization. Premier epic yelling prime all the charm of the series.

Promotional text from the first Japanese edition of Butcher’s Moon, run through an online software, which only goes to show that some things are gained in translation.

Japanese film is yet another thing I loved a long time before I ever heard of Donald Westlake. And as I now discover, much to my delight, I can conclusively link up the two.  (This will be a short piece.  Hopefully get the motor running again.)

Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kobayashi–I’ll admit I tended to favor the Jidaigeki, or period costume dramas, often dealing with the heavily mythologized samurai class, and creatively rebelling against those myths.  My first love was the Kaiju Eiga , naturally–what other Japanese flicks is an American kid going to know in the 60’s and 70’s?  Crush the grown-ups, Godzilla!)  I know many other names besides those three above. But I was never enough of a maven to know them all.  Too rich a vein to ever fully mine out, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, which I am decidedly not.

You branch out over time–I’ve gotten a fair few kicks from Takashi Miike, ‘J-Horror’ being something many in the west have learned to warily love (and assiduously copy) in the 21st, and the variety of stuff available on cable and Region 1 DVD has kept expanding.  Japanese film isn’t what it once was, of course, but what is?

Miike also did Yakuza films, of which I’ve only seen the intentionally over the top and confusing Ichi the Killer, which being a David Lynch fan, I had no trouble following.  Well, maybe a little, but it didn’t bother me.  You’re either along for the ride or not, right?  Last chance to leap out of the getaway car.  Here we go…..

So TCM has recently been showing a lot of Japanese crime films (you can call them noir if you like, everybody else does) from the late 50’s and 60’s, usually in the wee hours of the night, but that’s what DVR is for.  Many of these were produced not by Toho or Toei, but by what you might call in Hollywood terms, a poverty row studio, Nikkatsu.  Founded in 1912, it opted in the post-war era to make the Yakuza thriller and the police drama its twin wheelhouse, because they couldn’t afford to hire the best samurai stars, and didn’t really know how to make good monster suits and tiny model cities for them to stomp on.  If you can’t afford the top names, make your own, right?  That’s what they did.  Worked for Warner Bros in the early 30’s (didn’t work out quite as well for Nikkatsu).

One of their top stars made himself, you might say–Joe Shishido, sometimes called Joe the Ace, though I struggle not to refer to him as Gerbiljaw.   A conventionally handsome man with both talent and ambition, he decided he needed something to make him stand out from the farflung field of fashion plates (and didn’t want to play cheesy romantic leads), so he had plastic surgery to enlarge his cheekbones, leading to a face looking like– well……a chipped chunk of concrete with eyes of flawed onyx? At some angles, chipmunk would be more like it, but he usually had directors who knew how to point their cameras.

screen-shot-2014-03-06-at-2-10-32-am

Regardless of whether the new look caused vibrations above the nylons among female filmgoers (definitely had that effect on women in his films), Shishido became the definitive star of the Yakuza Eiga.  And he frequently worked with a creative young director named Seijun Suzuki, who just recently passed away at the age of 93.

At times, the studio heads wanted Suzuki to be less creative.  He would actually trim his budgets, just to get them to leave him alone to do what he wanted, and as so often happens with geniuses, this made the films even more creative (and therefore, more problematic for the studio).  He claimed it was never his conscious intent to be surrealistic.  It just came out that way.

He’s been written about a lot.  Many a cult western filmmaker has waxed elegaic.  I’m not a film critic, and I haven’t seen most of his movies (and I have to admit, sometimes I fast-forward the ones I record off TCM, when he’s wanking around too much).  So let’s cut to the chase, since this blog ain’t The Suzuki Scenario. Came a point when Suzuki souped up the motorcycle too much for his own good.

It was when he got brought onto a project about a steely-eyed assassin working for the Yakuza, with Shishido playing the surly strong-willed hitter, like he’d already done a few times before.  Joe had the right face (paid well for it).

According to the Wikipedia article for Branded to Kill, the studio hated the original script, brought Suzuki in to rewrite it, then told him they couldn’t understand the script he handed in (a not-uncommon complaint), but there was no time for a do-over, because release schedules. They told him to go ahead and film it.  Even though the auteur theory was by this time a thing, Suzuki had no such pretensions, and was simply following orders–he just followed them his own way.  A true rebel doesn’t have to say no–he just does it.

Suzuki didn’t believe in storyboarding.  He wrote and directed by what I think could be justly called The Push Method, which is probably harder than it looks, and in his line of business, there wasn’t much time for rewrites.

He would often come up with ideas for a scene the day before shooting it, or while shooting it.  He did as few takes as possible, exposing the bare minimum of celluloid, which he said was a habit he picked up in the days after the war, when film stock was hard to come by, but maybe also because he didn’t want the studio to recut the film in a way he didn’t like (is any of this sounding eerily familiar to long-time readers here?)  25 days allotted for shooting, three for post-production, but he finished editing the sucker in one.  (Now don’t talk about efficiency, that’s racist.)

It was released on June 15th, 1967.  Just shy of nine weeks before John Boorman’s Point Blank premiered in San Francisco.  There is not the slightest chance either film impacted the other.  And yet, they somehow share a subplot and a scene. As well as the distinction of being revered visionary cult films that bombed to hell at the box office because audiences couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on in them, but that’s just something that happened a lot with studio films in the 60’s and 70’s.   The subplot and the scene–that’s a bit different.

See, in Branded to Kill, Goro Hanada, #3 hitman in Japan, has a wife named Mami, who likes to talk about how terrifying her husband is, then have wild sex with him after he smells pots of cooking rice (don’t ask).  A conniving Yakuza boss starts chatting her up, and she is aware that Goro has been lustfully eyeing another woman (played by half-Indian actress, Annu Mari, and I for one don’t blame him), and she’s particularly concerned when he blows a major job because a butterfly landed on his rifle barrel (lousy special effect, but that’s hardly the point of anything).

Goro is planning to leave the country, while Mami lies in bed, holding a gun, looking scared.  To save her own lovely skin (of which we see a lot in the movie, which broke new ground in onscreen nudity), she shoots Goro in the stomach (just once, with an automatic) and flees in a panic, while he lies on the floor, seemingly dead.  For no rationally comprehensible reason, we see flames spring up outside the window immediately after her naked form scampers out the door. Well, the film isn’t trying to be rational.

Goro isn’t dead, though.  The bullet glanced off his belt buckle (Suzuki does a close up of the bullet hitting it, just so we’ll know).  He’s hurt, but alive–and enraged.  Off-kilter.  Bad stuff ensues.

Yeah.

Maybe this is a good time to mention that The Hunter (aka Human Hunting Parker/ Villain) was published by Hayakawa in 1966?  You can see the cover up top, along with a written dedication from the translator, Nobumitsu Kodaka, who seems to have sent Westlake a copy in 1975.  (These images courtesy of the Official Westlake Blog.)

So you know, just because you’re a brilliant artist doesn’t mean you don’t steal from other artists sometimes.  As Akira Kurosawa might have said to Sergio Leone if they ever met.  I don’t see anything else in the film specifically from the work of Richard Stark (who doesn’t make organization men his heroes, however surly they might be). I don’t think Westlake would have blamed Suzuki at all–he was known to lift the odd few things himself, though he was rarely this obvious about it.  (Godard would be another matter, since that involved welshing on a debt.)

What’s interesting is how both Suzuki and Boorman independently decided they had to justify the wife’s treacherous behavior, and have her be attracted to a criminal colleague of his  (who isn’t all that attractive), be dissatisfied with her marriage–she couldn’t just shoot her heinous hubby because she panicked under pressure, saw no other way out.  (Played out about the same way in Payback).

She has to be a willing pawn, I suppose, to justify what’s coming later, so the anti-hero doesn’t seem too anti-heroic for taking revenge (and of course, nobody ever goes with the face mutilation thing from the novel).  But Suzuki, who was never much inclined to pull his punches, doesn’t make his two-timing missus take the coward’s way out–hey, remember the floating hair thingy at the end of the climactic sword fight in Kill Bill Vol I?

(Mami saying they’re beasts, as she does earlier in the film, is also interesting, as if Suzuki is picking up on Parker’s lupine nature, but if so, he’s not seeing it as a positive.)

But understand, it’s not just one scene–there’s a build-up to that moment where the film goes full DaDa on us (because Goro is going mad), and it all clearly stems from the twisted relationship between Parker and Lynn in Westlake’s novel, that moment of betrayal that first introduces us to that strange mental state Parker goes into when someone betrays his trust.

Only Goro, while genuinely dangerous, is in a very different type of story, and doesn’t know himself the way Parker does, which is Suzuki’s point, fair play to him.  And the intent, as with Point Blank, is to send up the whole genre, deconstruct it (I doubt Suzuki used that term).  And, in many ways, to make a fool of the rugged hitman, cut him down to size, even while mythologizing him. As Westlake in a sense tried to do with Parker when he wrote what became The Hot Rock–only to realize it wouldn’t work.

Do I agree this is a work of visual genius, that influenced generations of filmmakers?  It’s every bit of that, whether I think so or not.  Do I think it’s a great film?  Ehhhh…..remind me what I said about Point Blank when I wrote about it?  Only that had Lee Marvin, and he didn’t need any surgical enhancements, did he?

There are some pretty serious second act problems.  I feel that Suzuki missed a great opportunity with the Annu Mari character, a female assassin, ice cold, deadly, and oddly vulnerable at the same time, who is written out far too quickly, and replaced by a less interesting (and far less alluring) male counterpart to Goro whose primary claim to fame is that he never uses the toilet when he has to go, because that would be unprofessional.

The film is not long, but seems endless, as bad dreams invariably do.  There’s a bit too much self-conscious posing for the camera, a bit too little attempt to make the nonsense make sense (as the best work of David Lynch does, for example).   It’s got the makings of a masterpiece, and in a certain limited sense it is (as is Point Blank), but not in the sense I’m looking for when I decide whether to call a film that or not.

Because a movie theater isn’t an art gallery.  In a movie theater, story matters, and stories have messages, however nuanced and ambiguous–and as with Point Blank, which I also admire from a visual standpoint, I am not at all sure this film has any message to convey other than “Isn’t this cool?”  It definitely is, but I need more.

Suzuki was on the cusp of a new style, but he hadn’t quite figured it out, and because of a famous legal battle with Nikkatsu that put his career on hold, he never really got the chance until much later, by which time his meandering muse had largely deserted him (studio suits can be annoying, but for some artists, they can be a necessary irritant).  It’s never easy to be in the vanguard, and I will say, I want to see more of his early work; what he constructed before he started with the deconstruction.  I don’t begrudge him one bit of his belated recognition as a cinematic trailblazer.

But remember, they just handed him this project, he shot it in 25 days, edited it in one, got paid a whole lot less than Boorman, and film buffs are still studying it. Maybe someday they’ll find a plot in there somewhere (and be shot for their pains).

Nobody has to look for the plot in Westlake’s novel–it comes hunting for you, and good luck trying to escape it.  It’s been hunting us down since 1962.

Cutting to the proverbial chase, Branded to Kill is not an uncredited  adaptation of The Hunter, but was sure as bloody hell directly consciously influenced by it.  Coincidence my Aunt Fumiko.  An unquestionable match.  Still and all, if anybody wants to question it, here I am, waiting.  There’s no butterfly on my rifle barrel.  Sayonara for now, suckers.

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized