Review: Humans, Part 2 (It is finished)

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

John Milton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bell struck twelve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Hillfen:

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

“The global village,” Mary Ann Kelleny said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pami Njorage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Unholy Lucifer, he means to stabilize the earth!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

How we’ll dance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Humans

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

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

From Clarence Darrow For The Defense, by Irving Stone.

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

“A messenger.”…..

“And an affector.”….

And my Task?

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

I don’t have to explain myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Carrigan:

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

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

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

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

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

Grigor Alexandreyovich Basmyonov:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Li Kwan:

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

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

“No, I’m not.”

“But why?  For God’s sakes…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Elena:

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

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

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

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

“The United States.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And perhaps we could do with a song now.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Addendum: Plotting The Perfect Murder

As promised, here is the original Harper’s Magazine article that inspired The Perfect Murder.  

And, as I mentioned last time, you’ll see Mr. Westlake is not actually a dominating presence in the conversation.  He’s reacting mainly to what the others are proposing, offering suggestions, observations, relevant citations of both fact and fiction, but he’s really off to one side, watching the rest of them, I think.  His own murder plan that he came up with for the book is not here, even in embryonic form.  He came up with that later.

Only one of the writers–Hillerman–seems to have already arrived at a solid plan (the yuppie mushroom massacre), and merely needs to fine tune it a bit.  Much as I enjoyed Hillerman’s contributions to the finished book, I felt like he kind of mailed it in a bit–well, technically they all did.

What strikes me as interesting about Westlake’s reticence is that he did always say that in school he was never ‘the funny one.’  He wasn’t the life of the party.  He wasn’t the one who dominated conversations.  He was, ultimately, the one who could be funnier than any parlor room (or barroom)  wit–with a bit of time and contemplation.  But he was also someone who needed, it often seems, to be inspired by others–encouraged–presented with an idea, then given room to run with it.  Who does that remind me of?  Dortmunder.  Also Parker.  Not big talkers, those two.

So it’s a rather telling look at the way his mind worked in public, and how he wasn’t necessarily an overwhelming presence in person.  He liked to lay back in the weeds a bit sometimes, and make his presence known when the time was right.  Or maybe he was having a spot of indigestion that day, I don’t know.

Here’s the article.  You may have to download the scans yourself–or even print them out–to read them properly.  For whatever reason, you can’t expand the images by clicking on them, and I’m not sure why–maybe there’s something I’m forgetting to do, but I’ve forgotten what that is.  The section containing the discussion between the writers is in rather annoyingly small print.  Might want to be quick about it too–you never know when I might be forced to delete it.  If that happens, I can always email the scans upon request (which would probably work better anyway).  Try and stop me, coppers!

(Also, you’ll note a number of old newspaper articles interspersed through the piece, relating to the murder trial of Dr. Robert Buchanan.  The link I’ve created leads to the article about him on something called ‘Murderpedia.’  Well, I guess it would, wouldn’t it?  Bon Appetit.)

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Filed under Uncategorized

Review: The Perfect Murder

Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon trial, which lasted seven years. In summing up, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away.

At this my counsel rose and said:

“May it please your honor, crimes are ghastly or agreeable only by comparison. If you were familiar with the details of my client’s previous murder of his uncle, you would discern in his later offence something in the nature of tender forbearance and filial consideration for the feelings of the victim. The appalling ferocity of the former assassination was indeed inconsistent with any hypothesis but that of guilt; and had it not been for the fact that the honorable judge before whom he was tried was the president of a life insurance company which took risks on hanging, and in which my client held a policy, it is impossible to see how he could have been decently acquitted. If your honor would like to hear about it for the instruction and guidance of your honor’s mind, this unfortunate man, my client, will consent to give himself the pain of relating it under oath.”

From My Favorite Murder, by Ambrose Bierce

So.  You’re beginning to enjoy our correspondence, are you?  That may change, my friend.

Granted, I had understood from the outset that you were adding to your risk of exposure by consulting others as well as myself–yet another indication of your ambivalence toward the entire operation–but I had expected you would be forming a jury of at least my, if not your peers.  The latest Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, say.  Dr. Hannibal Lector.  Pol Pot.  Imelda Marcos.  A member of the Senate’s Intelligence Oversight Committee.  An executive from Drexel-Burnham.  People, in other words, who had already gotten away with  murder.  I’d thought, quite naturally, you understood that my own…

Well.  Never mind.  The point is, I had no idea at the outset that you intended to insult me in this fashion; to cobble me together with these, these scriveners.  I had no thought that you expected me to hobnob, rub elbows, shuffle along with the likes of these makeweights, these cutpennies, these artificers.

Well, it’s not their fault.  I mustn’t blame them overly.  They’ve done their best, poor catchpoles, and I shall give them–not you, my friend, them–the decent respect of treating their humble offerings with sympathetic patience and a critical eye well tempered by compassion for human imperfectibility.

Donald E. Westlake, writing to ‘Tim.’

For an article in the September 1988 issue of Harper’s Magazine, journalist Jack Hitt convened a panel of distinguished experts in the fine art of literary murder, which was held at the Union Club in New York City.  The participants were Sarah Caudwell, Tony Hillerman, Peter Lovesey, Nancy Pickard, and Donald E. Westlake.

To these worthies Mr. Hitt posed a problem–suppose his name was Carl, and he wanted to murder his wife Linda, who was having an affair with someone bearing the Joycean name of Blazes Boylan, and intended to divorce Carl shortly, cutting him out of her large inheritance.  How could he do this in such a way as to 1)Avoid being caught, 2)Have Blazes take the blame, and 3)Make the murder memorable and stylish, not at all the usual sort of dull tasteless thing one reads about in the papers nowadays.  Something that would be talked about for generations to come. Lovesey seems to have made the suggestion that Carl could publish the details in his posthumous memoirs.

What followed was seven pages of enthused back and forth between the writers (with little in the way of interruption from their moderator, if that’s what you want to call him–nothing terribly moderate about that discussion, you ask me).  Feeling suitably encouraged by the results of his thought experiment in execution, the aptly-named Mr. Hitt decided to do it all again on a larger canvas, and the result can be seen above.

Lawrence Block was brought in to sub for Ms. Pickard.  I want everyone to know that the images of him and Mr. Westlake up top being larger is a formatting thing, and not me playing favorites, though they are in fact the only writers in that assembly I am well familiar with,  ‘cozies’ not being my usual thing.  I just wanted to make a suitably chilling rogue’s gallery, and of course only black and white photos would do for this macabre array of blood-boltered fiends.  Though Mr. Block looks good in sepia, I must say.

And instead of a convivially bloody discussion over Bloody Marys (I’m sure Westlake and Block opted for bourbon), it became a round robin correspondence between Hitt–now taking the deceptively mild-mannered name of ‘Tim’–and the five avariciously adversarial authors, who have been promised much in the way of filthy lucre should Tim successfully employ one of their plans.  Tim proposes, they disposes.  Perhaps literally, in one case.   Hitt mentions in the preface that the correspondence took about a year to complete–meaning, I’d assume, that the authors were not merely dashing off their responses–they were taking the project seriously.  Though not somberly.

(I wish the original article was available free online, but Harper’s has opted to insist that you either subscribe or shell out $6.95 to read it on their website–that’s nearly a dollar a page!  Did they even pay Hitt that much?  However, working at a library has its perks, and one of them is a thing called Proquest.  I have a print-out of the piece on my desk as we speak, for which I paid precisely bupkus. I had hoped to be able to send it to my readers individually upon request, but that doesn’t seem to work, so I’ll post scans next week.)

‘Tim’ opens with a lament on the sadly diminished state of the fine art of murder (consciously echoing De Quincey, whose famous Blackwoods essay on this subject is referenced specifically in his introductory missive).  He lays out a specific set of circumstances–he married for money.  He studied to be a doctor before that.  His wife is betraying him with his best friend, still named Blazes Boylan, but no Leopold Bloom is Tim.  He wants revenge, and he wants to inherit his wife’s fortune, and he wants Blazes to be punished for the murder, and he wants the murder to be artistic enough so that when he posthumously reveals it in his memoirs, people will never stop talking about him in awed and reverent tones.

He’s just read in his morning paper about a man who murdered a neighbor for money, and then attempted to destroy all evidence of the crime by feeding the body into a woodchipper–the police, unfortunately (unfortunately?), found residues of the deceased on the leaves of a nearby oak tree.   Had he just moved the chipper a bit further away before proceeding, he probably would have gotten away with it.  And Tim then poses a truly diabolical question.

Can it be true?  That we wish him to get away with this crime?  Of course, it’s true!  Because what really attracts us to this story–whether we are sitting in our housecoats after breakfast, or catching a paragraph or two at a red light on the way to work, or absorbing the details as we roar along in the common carrier–is the novelty of that damned woodchipper.  In some strange way, we wish to reward this man, privately, each to ourselves, with our regret over his loss of liberty for taking an act so wretchedly common these days and endowing it with a certain freshness.  I belive there is an entire school of thought that considers such cleverness to be the very soul of genius.

Mr. Westlake is the first of the consultants to respond, and he applauds Tim for his sagacity in seeking informed advice.   So many people just blunder their way into murder, as if just anyone can do it.

What your story demonstrates initially is that it is never too late to being acting sensibly.  You yourself will, I think, admit that your choices till now have been less than satisfactory.   Let us begin by recapping the erroneous steps that that have led you to this impasse; an impasse which, happily, you seem to at least have delved deep within yourself to tap some previous unsuspected lode of wit and make the right move for a change, by turning to experts for their guidance and counsel. Would you install your own plumbing?  Take out your own adenoids?   Prepare your own tax return? Park your own car at a better restaurant?  Of course not.  In the very nick of time, at the ultimate brink of fate, you have suddenly realized what we all must sooner or later acknowledge: You need help.

Westlake makes a rather detailed analysis of what he perceives to be the crucial defects in Tim’s character, his mistakes in life, deduced from the slight biographical data provided.  Each writer is free to a certain extent to improvise upon the basic scenario provided by ‘Tim,’ to add certain crucial details to the tapestry being woven. This does, in fact, lead to some minor contradictions in the unfolding improvised narrative, because everybody is just making it up as s(he) goes along.  Did Tim provide a correct return address with his letters?  You would think not, but some correspondents behave as if they don’t know where and who he really is, and others claim to know literally everything about him. Westlake starts out by just taking Tim’s story as a given, and working from there.

His plan is, all admit, ingenious.  Tim must create and then assume a false identity, using methods any Westlake reader is familiar with–Tim is amazed to find that Westlake is correct in saying that you can claim the identity of a child that died shortly after birth, and through that ruse get a social security number, and a bank account under that name.  Tim must also get Blazes to join a local shooting club with him (this assumes there is one, but we know it’s a well-off community, so that’s not pushing things).  This will lead to Blazes’ fingers testing positive for gunpowder residue.

Basically, Tim is to use his false identity as his alibi.  He will go on a business trip to meet with his double, and then fly back again, going to the hotel room Blazes and Linda habitually use.  He will kill Linda right in front of Blazes, in mid-assignation.  He will hand the terrified (and naked) Blazes the gun and spray him with mace.  He will then fly to another city, where he will supposedly be meeting with his other self, establishing the alibi.   He will have to work at creating an alternate persona, so that the police interrogating both him and his alias won’t suspect anything.  Blazes will know who framed him, but the police will have him red-handed, and will not believe his ridiculous story.

Personally, I see some flaws in the scheme–which I half-think are put in there on purpose–Westlake could create the perfect crime if he wants to, but like the Navajo weavers, puts an intentional flaw in the pattern so as not to anger the gods (for which one of our authors might accuse him of poaching on his domain).   But still–with some variations–I think you could actually do this (be easier if you didn’t have to leave a witness alive).

In truth, Tim has set his experts a nigh-impossible task.  He wants to kill his wife, frame his best friend, get off scot-free, live a long prosperous life, and then brag after his death about the artful and original murder he committed, so that his name will rank with the immortals like Jack the Ripper or Gilles de Rais. Each writer will have to err in one direction or the other–to make the murder more practical, believable–or to make it more colorful.  Our next writer chooses the second alternative.

Peter Lovesey comes up with a scenario he entitles “The Jellyfish in the Jacuzzi.” It contains some of the same elements as Mr. Westlake’s scenario–obtaining a pass key to the lovers’ hotel room, traveling back and forth by air to develop an alibi, but it’s far more complicated and baroque (and the more complex a scheme, the more things that can go wrong with it, but Mr. Lovesey can rightly claim to have come up with the most unorthodox method for dispatching the unfortunate Linda, perhaps cribbed just a wee bit from A. Conan Doyle).

Basically, Tim is to spend some time creating the suspicion that Blazes is playing elaborate practical jokes involving marine life on Tim and Linda.  Then he is to obtain a Sea Wasp (a particularly lethal species of box jellyfish) from a local research laboratory in Tim’s community that just conveniently happens to stock them, and where they are left completely unguarded in an unlocked room most of the time (I must sniff a bit at this threadbare contrivance, but we’re supposed to be having fun here, right?).

Then, at a time when he can establish he was somewhere else, he leaves the jellyfish in the jacuzzi (an ideally warm environment for the tropical creature), where Linda can be expected to encounter it, and Blazes to be blamed for it.   In fact, people do often survive encounters with the Sea Wasp, which has caused only 63 documented fatalities since 1884–it depends on the size of the victim, and the amount of venom administered.  But if she’s by herself when stung, death is certainly the most likely scenario by far.

She could die from a non-lethal dose, simply by drowning after losing consciousness.   That happened to an uncle of mine–it’s happened to lots of people.  The drowning in a hot tub thing, not the stung by a jellyfish improbably resident within the hot tub thing.  I don’t believe.   The question never came up in my uncle’s post-mortem, to my knowledge.  A lovely man, but a drinker.  He slipped and hit his head.  Isn’t it grand, boys?   And wouldn’t you know, I inherited a fair sum of money from him.  Why are you all looking at me that way? I was nowhere nearby when it happened.  Let’s move on.

Tony Hillerman, author of many a best-selling multicultural murder mystery, who died only a few weeks before Donald Westlake, offers a western perspective, and heartily concurs with Tim’s opinions on the degraded state of modern murder.

Crime in our republic has indeed suffered a serious decline.  If you have noticed it in the effete East, consider how much more galling this condition must be to us Rocky Mountain Westerners.  Lacking ballet, literacy, major league baseball, and the other daintier pastimes, we had to build our culture principally on larceny and homicide, stealing all the states west of the eighty-third meridian from their previous owners, shooting the inhabitants thereof, and then, when that supply was exhausted, shooting one another.  Our bandits–from Black Jack Ketchum to Butch Cassidy–were giants in the land. Even our lawmen, I point to Wyatt Earp and the infamous Sheriff Brady of the Lincoln County War as notable examples, were often criminal enough to warrant hanging.

Alas, that was yesterday.  Today, as your complaint notes, we can boast only of quantity.  My own smallish city, Albuquerque, tallied fifty-two bank robberies last year–so many that the gunmen were reduced to robbing the same places two or three times.  Not one of these felonies showed the slightest sign of originality or imagination.  Nor were any of those elements applied by the polce.  The only arrests made recently were of a robber who used a bicycle as his escape vehicle and wasn’t very good at it and another who parked at the drive-up window, handed the teller his note demanding money, and waited patiently until the police came to lead him away.  The once proud Federal Bureau of Investigation, formed in large part to protect our banks back in the halcyon days of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, was finally stirred from its lethargy.  To what end?  It issued a press statement criticizing bank security systems, then went back to investigating librarians whom it suspects of checking out subversive books to Democrats.

His scheme in many ways is the simplest–but also the riskiest.  Tim is to confess to drowning his wife in her bathtub in a fit of rage.   The police, upon investigation, will find that she had no water in her lungs.  She was, in fact, a victim of mushroom poisoning.  As were many others, who happened to shop at something called the Yummie Yuppie Deli, where somebody–various hints will point to Blazes–put a handful of poisonous mushrooms on a mixed display of fancy fungi.  The natural suspicion of the police towards the husband of a dead wife will then naturally be diverted to Blazes.  Tim’s desire to confess to his crime will convince them he committed no crime at all.  When in fact he’s slaughtered half the community.

(More than one other contributor points out a critical failing here–how many police detectives, faced with a confession of murder from a cuckolded husband, are going to look a gift perp in the mouth?   There is quite a bit of skepticism regarding the efficiency of police departments in this book–from people whose livelihoods often depended on depicting policemen as relentless seekers of truth, armed with the latest deveopments in forensic science.)

Hillerman brought up this scenario at the original gathering, but in embryonic form–merely the spore of an idea, you might say.  Westlake responded by mentioning a large coffee table book he had of home, composed entirely of photographs of beautiful mushrooms, which included a  loose errata sheet shoved unceremoniously into the back of the book, which mentioned all the highly poisonous mushrooms the author had erroneously identified as edible.   Bon appetit, gourmets.

The late Sarah Caudwell (born Sarah Cockburn) hailed from a family of some renown–I used to read her uncle Alexander’s columns in the Village Voice (back when that publication was still worth reading) and even occasionally rubbed elbows with her niece Laura Flanders at various seditious gatherings in times long-gone, but I have not read her four highly regarded mystery novels, a situation I fully intend to remedy in the near future, because she was clearly brilliant, and the books sound intriguing as hell.

Still, she was a barrister by trade, not a writer.  That may be why in the original Harper’s article, she was one of the dominant voices–far more than Westlake, who was fairly reticent by comparison, offering only a few scattered (though telling) comments.  Her knowledge of criminal law and crime itself stands her in good stead there.  She is on familiar ground.

By contrast, I would say she’s a bit self-effacing (and quite brief) in her contributions to the book–perhaps just a mite overawed by the distinguished company she’s in, and while a trained legal mouthpiece (and a Brit to boot) may rightly feel she can out-talk anybody, particularly in a club that serves alcohol, she knew she couldn’t out-write the assembled company once they’d set about seriously to business (a few more books to her credit, she might well have done). She still comes up with a very engaging response to Tim’s query, that is not quite as impractical as her countryman Lovesey’s, but rivals it for vividity.

She says right off the bat that Tim must not even think of committing a murder in the United States.  It’s so–common.  Statistically, I’m afraid that is still true. No, she insists, he must somehow spirit Linda away to Europe–and after a quick overview of the grisly heritages of France, Italy, Greece, and foggy London Town, being of Scots heritage, she settles on a locale for the crime.   Again, familiar ground.

No country to compare with Scotland, and no city to compare with Edinburgh.

A city one might almost think designed with deliberate purpose to symbolize the dichotomy between reason and passion, the light and dark aspects of the human psyche.  Through it runs the long, deep cleft of Princes Street Gardens; on one side is the orderly decorum of the eighteenth century, wide streets and elegant squares, the quintessence of rationality; on the other the tenebrous wynds and narrow stairways of the old medieval town; and dominating all, the dark, majestic outline of the Castle and Cathedral.


She’s going into some depth about the long treacherous sanguinary history of Bonnie Scotland, and she’s making me feel more like visiting than anything ever produced by either Hollywood or their tourist board ever did (or Westlake’s one novel set there, for that matter).   She’s damned good, our Ms. Caudwell.   I find myself already lamenting how quickly I’ll get through her oeuvre.

But it’s very hard to see how her murder could be made to work.  It involves the Edinburgh Festival, a splendid affair held each summer, which I could see Linda agreeing to attend with Tim and Blazes tagging along just for fun, but already we’re pushing hard at the limits of plausibility here.  Now everybody has to be in traditional attire, and both Tim and Blazes are in full Highland regalia, kilts and all (the shameless feminine preoccupation with masculine limbs on full display here, pure objectification I calls it), and each ensemble comes with this little ceremonial dagger, the Sgian dhubh  (she uses the anglicized spelling, for which I am subtracting points from her final score).  Tim will arrange to get Blazes’ implement away from him without his knowing it.

So you see where this is going.   Tim will immolate Blazes’ dirk in the blood of his bride, but through a very elaborate chain of events involving a tape recorder and a grand banquet with candelebras and all, Blazes will end up being the one caught red-handed, while Tim tenderly cradles Linda’s encrimsoned corpse, murmering broken endearments, and asking Blazes how he could have possibly done such a thing.  It’s very romantic, isn’t it?  Bring the life right back into a marriage, while taking it out of one of the partners, but nothing’s perfect.   I suppose you’d prefer they took a weaving class together, or learned to do the cha-cha.

Finally Mr. Block has his say, and while none of the writers have been entirely complimentary to poor cuckolded Tim, he’s flat-out derogatory and dismissive.

You think this is funny, don’t you?

That’s what’s galling about this whole unhappy enterprise.  You think it’s amusing, with all your brittle patter, your happy horseshit about murder as an art form.  Murder is never artistic and it is rarely formal.  It is a means to an end.  Almost invariably, it is a bad means to a bad end.  An unamusing means, if you will, to an unamusing end.

Life, we are told, is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel. You, sir, reveal yourself as one who does neither.  You seem to crave applause for the artistry of your efforts at homicide while at once wanting to escape detection.  If your crime should be perfect, if your wife should perish and your friend Blazes be blamed for your death, whatever artistry you would purport to have displayed would in fact remain forever undisplayed.  It is as if you would feed to the woodchipper not a human corpse but the good Bishop Berkeley’s tree, the one that falls unheard, the one that makes no sound.

And having said all that, he provides the most ghoulish plan of all.   Tim shall set about becoming a full-fledged serial killer, who makes appointments with ill-starred sex workers (the preferred prey of Jack the Ripper, you’ll recall), has coitus with them, then kills and dismembers them, and arranges their body parts in various imaginative ways, to get the attention of the police.   He shall obtain physical evidence in the form of male pubic hairs from the adulterous sheets of Blazes and Linda, with which to implicate Blazes (while making sure none of Tim’s pubes are ever found at the crime scenes–okay, already I’m shaking my head a bit).

Mr. Block seems to think the one objection to his plan is that Tim may find out that he enjoys killing strangers so much that he no longer will wish to pursue his original plan.  He also says killing Linda, much as he hates her, might prove harder for Tim to stomach than murdering some anonymous whore.  Well, serial killers rarely go after people close to them, that’s true.  That’s actually a major recommendation for Block’s plan.  Except isn’t Blazes close to her as well?   So really, this is a variation on Christie’s The ABC Murders–somebody pretending to be a serial killer, in order to kill someone who has become inconvenient, and pin the blame on someone else.  You really can’t get away from Dame Agatha in this area of endeavor, can you?   For sheer inventiveness, she topped the bill.

Mr. Block claims to have satisfied here both the need for getting away with it, implicating Blazes, and attracting the attention of the media to the murders, so that Tim may achieve the notoriety he so desires.   Block does not seem to have fully processed that Tim plans to reveal all the bloody details of his crime and/or crimes after he’s shuffled off the coil himself.  Maybe read the opening letter a bit too quickly, and of course he wasn’t at the original meeting at the Union Club.  (I was a bit worried about what Block might have done to Nancy Rickard to get her slot, but apparently she’s still alive and presumably still in one piece.)

But taken simply as pieces of writing, Block’s contributions are superbly enjoyable–he’s in rare form.  You don’t often get to see him play the curmudgeon in his fiction, and he’s deuced good at it.

So Tim, delighted by the malevolent machinations he has inspired, writes back to each author, enclosing copies of all the other scenarios, and explaining that as he received each new missive in the mail, he would be so taken with it that he’d immediately set about executing it–only to receive the next one, and he’d be so taken with that he’d start carrying it out, and so on, and so forth.

He’s just mixing and matching after a while, never carrying any one writer’s scenario out to the letter because he wants to be creative about it (maybe he should try making movies), and it sounds like a bloody shambles, only without any actual blood.  He’s  done much of what they recommended in terms of set-up.  He’s even created, elaborating on Westlake’s plan, a female identity for himself, named Diana Clement, and seems to greatly enjoy being a girl.  But he hasn’t actually killed anybody yet.  And since he hasn’t used any of their ideas to dispatch Linda thus far, obviously he doesn’t owe any of them a check.  It’s not like he signed a contract.   Maybe he should have just taken one out on Linda.

Is there anything in God’s own creation that so infuriates a professional writer as accepting a commission, and then not receiving full payment?  Or any?   If there is, it’s probably seeing another author vying to nab that paycheck away from you. Professional jealousy rears its verdant head.  Each will strive to excoriate Tim and eviscerate each rival’s scheme, while still insisting on the sheer perfection of his/her own.

Mr. Hillerman begins this round of recrimination (heh), purporting to be surprised to learn the original letter was a mere ‘fishing expedition’, without any commitment.  In fact, most of the respondents claim not to have realized this, even though it was made pretty clear (just not precisely who the other conspirators would be).  His analytical mind finds serious flaws in all the other schemes, predicated mainly on what he refers to headscratchingly as the Peter Principle, though he clearly means Murphy’s Law.

Caudwell’s tape recorded scream will malfunction, leading people to believe there are ducks in the house.  Lovesey’s complex advance scenario, which is supposed to draw the media’s attention to the events coming before the murder, will be pushed aside in favor of the Queen’s second cousin developing hangnails–or alternatively, some American equivalent of aristocracy, such as Donald Trump (okay, full marks there, Mr. H–just as well you didn’t live to see how right you were).  Lovesey’s scenario depends far too much on planes in America departing and arriving on their scheduled times (he’s English, he couldn’t know).

He accuses Lawrence Block of the high crime of being an intellectual, who holds Tim in contempt.  He says Block is trying to set Tim up to take the fall, not Blazes Boylan.  Honestly, I’m not sure he’s wrong about that, not that Block would ever admit it.  He also cunningly exposes Block’s inspiration, by mentioning The ABC Murders, and thus insinuating that if Block’s scheme were used, the check would be properly payable to Agatha Christie’s estate (not-so-veiled accusations of plagiarism are rife in this part of the book, and you’d expect nothing less when the ire of authors has been aroused).

He can’t find too much wrong with Westlake’s plan, but he does score one palpable hit–Westlake said Tim could get a copy of the key to the lovers’ room by making an imprint in soft putty.  Imprint of what, pray tell?

Mr. Westlake’s fame among mystery readers is long established.  For him the day has since passed when his publisher’s marketing people bundle him up and send him off on those awful tests of stamina known as book tours.  Thus, while Westlake remembers that a hotel with a room  number as high as 1507 must be a big hotel, he seems not to know what has happened to hotel keys in such monstrous places.  We who must still endure these mind-numbing journeys from one hotel to another know that Room 1507 isnt’ opened by a key these days.   The hotel key is another victim of America’s progress in crime and technology.  The door to Room 1507 these days is opened by a little rectangular strip of stiff plastic.

To which I’d respond that I was just staying in a very small hotel that uses that same type of ‘key’, and the cleaning woman had one that opened all doors in the place, and how hard could it be, really, to get one of those?   Harder than planting poisonous mushrooms in a busy delicatessen?  Mr. Westlake’s tradecraft does need some updating, but I call that quibbling.  I’m far from convinced Westlake didn’t already know all that, since I doubt very much he was outselling Tony Hillerman in the early 90’s, and his love of Travel is well known.

But I do perceive the outlines of a professional compliment there, all the same.   Each writer is trying to say, at the very same time, to each of his/her colleagues, both “You are an adornment to our shared profession who inspires my deepest admiration” and “You are a shameless hack.”  And I have no doubt they are deeply sincere in both sentiments.  It’s a writer thing.

On the whole, Lovesey’s second response is the weakest of the bunch, if only because he knows as well as anyone that his murder scheme is the least practical of the bunch.   He also expresses great admiration for Westlake’s scenario, and then pokes holes in it, along with everyone else’s.  But mainly he’s just saying that his jellyfish is so much more memorable than anyone else’s weapon of choice that it would be criminal not to employ it and send him a check forthwith. Practicality be damned, this is art!

Caudwell, as I already said, is a bit too deferential here (as she was decidedly not in person at the club, when she met all the authors other than Block), and all the more once she’s read the other proposed murders.  She seems somehow more offended on Westlake’s behalf than on her own–she says “he has devised for you, at considerable personal sacrifice–he might have used it for his own next novel–a plan of great beauty and artistic elegance, and that you, by your rash and self-indulgent action, have rendered it entirely useless.”  I think she may spend more time defending Westlake’s plan than her own!   She doesn’t like the bit about changing the alternate identity to a woman, either.  Her generosity is breath-taking–but a bit out of keeping with the general tone of the book.

(Caudwell raises a valid point, though–she was probably wishing Westlake would write a novel about a murderer who painstakingly creates an alternate persona to serve as his own alibi–that actually would have been amazing, and much in keeping with Westlake’s usual obsession with identity.  Probably he had considered just such a book, and had discarded the idea for one reason or another. We’ll never know just how many Westlake books we missed out on.)

Still and all, she concludes by saying, as Lovesey before her, that her plan is the most aesthetically pleasing, and therefore the best.  She says she has enclosed a copy of the program for the Edinburgh Festival.   She wants to see those bekilted male legs.   But Lawrence Block suggests another motive for her.

Block is even more enraged with Tim now.   His vituperative bile fairly leaps from the page.   It’s always a pleasure to watch him work, but never more than when he is angry (or pretending to be).  He says he doesn’t know how he missed the implication that he was not the only writer being consulted, and has many a disparaging thing to say about his competitors, Mr. Westlake not least among them.

My first impulse, I must admit, was to toss out their contributions unread.  I have for years been doing just that with their novels, which their publishers persist in sending me in the hope of eliciting promotional blurbs.  A word from me, evidently, goes a long way in establishing a lesser writer’s reputation, and I’m continuously besieged with galleys from hopeful editors.  I have thus long formed my opinion of the work of Westlake, Lovesey, Hillerman, and Caudwell, and could well imagine what sort of a murder they would lay out for you.

Westlake would enlist the aid of some bumbling criminals, and he’d have all of them try to kill your wife, and they’d all fail, until she died laughing. Lovesey would have her slain in the ring by a bare-knuckled pugilist. Hillerman would dress you up in a feather headdress and have you make a sand painting, calling down the Great Spirit to crush your wife to death in a buffalo stampede.  And Caudwell would shuttle you between Lincoln’s Inn and the Isles of Greece, in the company of people named Ragweed and Catnip.

He then professes surprise that their actual plans are not so bad as all that.  He finds little things to admire about each of them.   Then, as all the others before him (with the partial exception of Caudwell vis a vis Westlake) rips them to shreds.  Like Lovesey (the artfulness of whose proposal he admires, while attacking its efficaciousness), he drips disdain for Westlake’s means of killing Linda–a gun.  So boring.  He rips into his closest friend more than anyone else here, even Tim–no doubt anticipating a similar fusilade from Mr. Westlake, aimed in his direction.  Well, that’s what friends are for, right?

But I particularly like what he did to Caudwell–which is to point out that Caudwell is, after all, a woman.  Of the unhappy coupling of Linda and Tim, who is more likely to hold her sympathy?   Who will really end up dead, or carted off by the bobbies, when her Scottish Play (Lovesey’s term for it) has concluded?   She’s luring Tim into a trap!  I can imagine Caudwell roaring with laughter at this.   Unless she just smiled slowly in a sinister secret sort of way….

Mr. Block then claims to have made private investigations (well, he is the progenitor of Matthew Scudder, and the back dust jacket informs us his most recent book was A Dance at the Slaughterhouse).  He says he’s found proof that Tim is in fact carrying out his plan (ie, murdering a series of unrelated women).

I don’t know, that seems almost like cheating to me–claiming victory over his peers on the basis of things he’s just made up himself (I would assume).

But he probably knows by now who’s going to follow him, and I think I’ve mentioned he and Westlake had a lifelong rivalry that went along with their lifelong camraderie.  A competition he probably misses as much as anything else in that friendship.  But at 78, he definitely won the longevity sweepstakes.

As he was the first to respond to Tim’s original letter, Mr. Westlake gets the last word in the second.  And the best.  I’m biased, that goes without saying.  But here is where we really do see that even in such a literally cutthroat competitive environment as this, there was only one Donald E. Westlake.   And there is an air of cool practiced deadliness about him we have not seen in some time.  Not since 1974, to be precise.

Westlake has, as Block probably feared, done him one better.  He hasn’t just made discreet inquiries over the phone.  He’s tracked Tim to his (we are informed) tastelessly appointed McMansion, and he’s been inside of it.  He’s planted certain things in it.  He’s watching Tim, as Tim is reading his letter.   He’s not getting mad.  He’s getting even.   Certain promises were made to him, as he sees it.  Those promises were not kept.   What does Parker do when somebody makes a professional arrangement with him, then fails to keep his end of the bargain?   Precisely.

So here’s the deal.   Tim will carry out Westlake’s plan to the letter–the innovation of making the alternate identity female Westlake applauds as a worthy embellishment to the plan, that he wishes he’d thought of himself.  But Tim will, in all other respects, carry out Westlake’s plan as detailed.  He must show that he is proceeding with it–Westake will know if he does not.  Westlake will see.  Westlake sees all.  And after all is completed, Tim will be given some time to bask in the glory of his achievement.  And then—.

And just imagine, if you were to be found dead somewhere–oh, say, a stroke, an auto accident, you know the kind of thing–in Diana’s fig.  The police arrive, the medical personnel, the folk from the mortician.  Such surprise! Such confusion!  There’s art, if you want.  The laughter of the gods o’erlying a minor everyday human drama.

But there I go again, getting ahead of myself.

He is, of course, equally merciless and efficient in eliminating all his rivals’ proposals, one by one.  I doubt he’d read Caudwell’s admiring description of his own plan before penning his of hers–which he describes as having ‘a certain je de paume which would no doubt have a certain appeal for frivolous minds; the sort of people who can never guess the ending of a “Columbo” episode.’   Ouch.   Though he admits it probably will work in terms of Tim getting off with the help of good lawyers, if only because Scottish courts uniquely have a third possible verdict–“Not Proven.” Which he says means “You didn’t do it, and don’t do it again.”

He dismisses Hillerman’s proposal as impossible–Tim studied to be a doctor. Which means he will be automatically suspected of a poisoning.  Not to mention that all those grieving yuppie family members will hire private detectives to find ‘the real killer’, and while private detectives may be stupid, they also have no scruples, and they will be all over Tim like the cheap suits they typically wear. He says the same objection–as well as the tawdry repetitive aspects of it–eliminate Mr. Block.  If Tim was lucky enough to make Lovesey’s bizarre and complex plan work, he wouldn’t need to kill Linda–she’d drop dead of natural causes before he ever got around to slaying her.

(Block’s best salvo against Westlake also involved private detectives–hired by the wealthy Blazes Boylan to expose Tim’s alibi as a fraud.   Westlake has no defense to offer in this regard, and given that Tim’s life is reportedly in his hands, does he really need one?  In the comments section, we might be moved, I think, to try and plug the holes in Westlake’s scheme–or any others that take our fancy.   That would be highly diverting, I believe.)

Westlake’s entire response is a small masterpiece of chillingly methodical mastery–turning the tables on Tim, and establishing his dominance over the situation.  Others in the group have tried this gambit, but none half so effectively.

And Hitt, writing as Tim, seems just a tad unnerved to me as he concludes the book with a letter that amounts to a polite complimentary brush-off.  He tries to make it seem that Block must be lurking about his house as well, and Westlake should be watching his own back, and all the writers should be worried about each other instead of him, but that doesn’t hold water.   Block has made no such claim to proximity.  The others are mainly just concerned with getting their pay.

After Westlake’s final word, Hitt, a very fine writer whose three chapters in this book are all a delight to read, can’t quite avoid a sense of anticlimax.  He can’t follow Donald Westlake in top form.  Who ever could?

But in saying he still intends to go ahead with the murder, and that none of his consultants have any purchase over him at all (since they would be implicated in his crime were he found out, and then instead of being remembered as great mystery authors, they’d be remembered as his accomplices), ‘Tim’ does have one very interesting thing to say about all contrived murder scenarios that we scoff at in books–but don’t some of them actually work in reality?  Isn’t there always an element of luck in any plan?

One, I think, simply has to believe that it will work–that the planes will leave on time that day, that the damned cassette recorder will click on when the button is pressed, that Blazes will join the club on cue, that the detective will sense a contradiction in the neat confession, and that the tiny evidence when magnified by forensic technology will appear to be a milewide swath leading to Blazes.  One could make a case that the forensics of murder are the aesthetics of contingency–the beauty of luck.  It is only fitting that an art form that aspires to such high ideals must raise itself above the aesthetics of craft associated with other pursuits.  Who wants an art whose beauty is under the complete control of the artist?  Who could care for a beauty that would undoubtedly be atomized and sifted into categories of technique and become the subject of soporific seminars at the annual PMLA meeting?  Rather, let us have an aesthetics built upon the exacting hand of the artist and the palsied hand of fate, upon talent and faith.  I like it.

And I like this book, very much.  Which is why I’ve typed over 7,000 words about it, and I could probably manage 7,000 more without trouble.  I’ve left many an intended observation by the wayside here, and hopefully I can get to some of them in the comments section, or some of you will beat me to them.  But one last observation I must make.

Westlake, in his brief contributions to this work, seems, I must say, almost Godlike in his perceptions and abilities.  In the quote up top, he seems to be putting himself in the same category as those who have destroyed untold numbers of human lives.   Why is that?  Probably because  of his work on our next book in the queue, mentioned as forthcoming on the back dust jacket for this book.  A novel in which God Himself sets about to destroy all life on earth. And chooses as His means of accomplishing His will, a rather odd assembly of players, human and otherwise.  A very elaborate murder scheme indeed, and His intended victim is Earth.  Hey, that’s our job!

And as I’ve said elsewhere, I think this could have potentially been one of Westlake’s very best books.  He sometimes referred to it as one of his favorites. And sadly, it’s not one of mine.  I consider it a failure.   But I’ll take an inspired failure over a safe success any day.  Because Hitt was right.   An art that is fully under the control of the artist is not art.  And a God that can be fully understood by mortals is not God.  As He remarked to Job once.


Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels

Guest Review: Fall of the City–the last unpublished Westlake novel.

I’ve been awaiting this eagerly, and Greg Tulonen has finally gotten the article done, and I’m going to post the link to his blog.  Right here.  Right now.

Honestly, I may be more excited about this than any article I’ve published here myself.  This is a direct glimpse into a book Westlake hoped to publish in his lifetime, but was discouraged from doing so–perhaps for good reason.  Perhaps not.   It’s certainly different from anything he wrote before or since, going by Greg’s very detailed synopsis (detailed by TWR standards, so even though it’s impossible to say whether this book will ever see print–spoiler alert–Greg has prudently omitted some details about the ending).

Sometimes Westlake’s best books were precisely the ones that radically diverged from what people expected from him.  Sometimes those books were miscalculations (we’ll be getting to one of those soon enough, but that got published, so go figure).

But always, invariably, he revealed something of himself in these outliers of his, and to me, the most sacred thing about any writer’s legacy is the indelible imprint it leaves us of a human soul, a human intellect–a human life.  So except under very exceptional circumstances (like somebody will die if it’s published), I’m for getting it out there, and letting the readers decide.  And if it’s Donald E. Westlake, well obviously I’m pre-sold, and if you’re reading this blog, probably you are too.

Is Go Set a Watchman the masterpiece fans of Harper Lee’s only book published in her lifetime dreamed of?  Hell no.  It’s a deeply flawed and often disturbing piece of work, that shows how conflicted she was about her origins, her hometown, her family, her father, her race, herself.  In its own right, it is not a great book, but in reading it, don’t we know her better?   And respect her achievements in life all the more?

Fall of the City sounds to me like a book that could have sold very well if it had been marketed properly, perhaps reaching a whole new audience for Westlake. That’s neither here nor there–today, it would be of interest primarily to Westlake readers.  Some of whom would love it.   Others would find it an intriguing but ultimately irrelevant artifact of a great career.  And some might actively dislike it.  But don’t we all deserve a chance to decide for ourselves?

Well, it’s not our call.  And it shouldn’t be.  Copyright laws exist for a reason, and are heritable for equally good reasons.  And they eventually expire, also for good reasons.  But since I can be fairly sure I’ll expire before this book goes into the public domain….

A synopsis is not a book.  I can’t offer an informed opinion as to who was right or wrong with regards to the worthiness of this manuscript now languishing in an archive in Boston.  I’ll say this much–I’ve learned to greatly respect the judgment of Mr. Tulonen when it comes to fiction of any kind, and certainly with regards to Westlake.  And without further ado, here is his synopsis and assessment of Fall of the City

PS: Since I could imagine some people avoiding the comments section to avoid discussion of plot elements (which so far hasn’t occurred there), let me mention here–Greg just found out from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime, that the manuscript is being edited for publication there, as I type this.  We’re going to get to decide for ourselves how good a book this is.   Now that’s what I call prompt service.




Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Review: Drowned Hopes, 4th (& 5th?) Downs

Wally asked, “Well, when do we do it?  Do you want to wait for the rain to stop?”

“Yes,” Tiny said.

“Well, I don’t know,” Doug said.  “Depends on how long that is.  You know, the engineers in the dam put a little boat in the water every once in a while, run around the reservoir, take samples and so on, and if they run over our line they’d cut it.  Even if they didn’t foul their propeller, even if they didn’t find it, we’d lose the line.”

Tiny said, “They won’t do one of their jaunts in this weather, count on it.”

“That’s true,” Doug agreed.

May cleared her throat and said, “It seems to me, John would point out right here that the instance the rain stops the people in the dam might go out in their boat so they can get caught up with their schedule.”

“That’s also true,” Doug agreed.

Wally said, “Miss May, what else would John point out?”

“I don’t know,” May said.  “He isn’t here.”

Everybody thought about that.  Stan said, “What it is, when John’s around, you don’t mind coming up with ideas, because he’ll tell you if they’re any good or not.”

“Dortmunder,” Tiny said, ponderously thoughtful, “is what you call your focal point.”

With his patented bloodless lipless cackle, Tom said, “Pity he tossed in the hand just before the payout.”

All spring now we’ve been with her on a barge lent by a friend.
Three dives a day in hard hat suit and twice I’ve had the bends.
Thank God it’s only sixty feet and the currents here are slow
Or I’d never have the strength to go below.

But we’ve patched her rents and stopped her vents, dogged hatch and
porthole down.
Put cables to her ‘fore and aft and girded her around.
Tomorrow noon we hit the air and then take up the strain.
And make the Mary Ellen Carter Rise Again!

That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men!
All those who loved her best and were with her ’til the end,
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter Rise Again!

Stan Rogers

I don’t consider this one of the very best Dortmunder novels, you might be surprised to hear, given the amount of time I’ve spent on it.  I think it was well worth the time, but I look at The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, Jimmy the Kid, Good Behavior, and a few of the remaining books in the series, and I find them to be better-crafted narratives, with more coherent points to make, and while I like Wally Knurr as a character, he’s sure as hell no J.C. Taylor.

And I suppose I am a mite peeved at Westlake for dangling the magnificent Ms. Taylor in front of us in the last book, referring to her in passing in this one, but refusing to give her even a brief walk-on.  He only partly made up for this omission in the next book.

As I was telling someone in the comments section for the Third Down review, this novel is, for want of a better word, ungainly–loose-jointed, as ponderous as Tiny Bulcher making a point.   It operates in fits and starts, breaking down, then starting up again, going off in all directions.   But as I said, you could make the same statement about The Pickwick Papers.  People still like that, and I still like this.  A pity, in fact, it wasn’t published as a serial–it has that kind of feel to it.   It holds together quite well enough as a single volume.   But I’ve rather enjoyed taking it apart section by section, to analyze what I suspect is just a small sampling of its moving parts.

And if it has many disparate points to make, instead of just one, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make them well, or that its variant themes don’t ultimately blend harmoniously together.   Uniformity of execution was never something Westlake strived for in his series.  He aspired to make each book different from the one before it.

The central theme, as always, is identity.   But with such a large cast of characters, and so much room to run, Westlake is free to come at it from many different angles.   The dark mystery of Tom Jimson.  The amateur turning pro saga of Doug Berry.  The coming of age of Myrtle Street (and the belated realizations of her mother, Edna, that she’s made serious mistakes as a parent). The social awakening of Wally Knurr.   The psychic unraveling of poor befuddled Bob.

And our beloved gang faced with a terrible new foe–the small rural town environment, in all its bucolic splendor.  Eating away at their sense of self, trying to reshape them into compatible components of a radically different social order. Trying, in fact, to make them into solid citizens.  If they didn’t have the reservoir job to anchor them, and they couldn’t get back where they belong, it might eventually succeed.

And Dortmunder–the focal point–turning his back on what he was born to do. Sure, he’s not going straight, but he took on this job, and twice he’s walked away from it, only to be sucked back in.  Three times he’s nearly drowned in that accursed lake, and as the Fourth Down begins, he says he’s really out this time. “Game called on account of wet” is his final word.  Or so he thinks.

The gang accepts his decision graciously, and Kelp, agreeing with Dortmunder that the Vilburgtown Reservoir is out to get him, steals him a car–a Buick Pompous 88.  No mention of whether it has MD plates.  Dortmunder drives back to New York, and he should be relieved it’s all over.  He doesn’t have to ever see that reservoir again.  The money has been located, they can get it without him, right?  Tom will try to take it all, but Tiny’s there, Kelp is there, Murch is there, Murch’s Mom is there–not even Tom Jimson is that tough, right?  May will be fine.  But most importantly, he doesn’t ever have to see that reservoir again.  And of course he’s violating his nature by giving up this way.  And people who violate their natures have bad dreams.  That sometimes turn out not to be dreams at all.

It was during a somewhat shallower stretch that Dortmunder was slightly disturbed by the scratchings and plinkings of someone picking the lock on the apartment door, opening it, creeping in (those old floors creak, no matter what you do) and closing the door with that telltale little snick.  Dortmunder almost came all the way to the surface of consciousness at that instant, but instead, his brain decided the noises were just Tom returning from one of his late-night filling-the-pockets forays, and so the tiny sounds from the hallway were converted in his dream factory into the shushings and plunkings of wavelets, and in that dream Tom was a giant fish with teeth, from whom Dortmunder swam and swam and swam, never quite escaping.

The intruder, of course, is Guffey, from the ghost town of Cronley, Oklahoma, who we last saw when Tom broke a very smelly wine bottle full of money over his head in that godforsaken little burg, and just left him there.   And he shouldn’t have done that.   Left him there.  Alive.   Easy man to underestimate, Mr. Guffey.

We get a short chapter detailing rather plausibly how Guffey tracked Dortmunder down and made his way east, and now he’s got a rifle pointed at Dortmunder’s head, and he’s making it very clear–he wants Tim Jepson (as he insists on calling Tom Jimson).  Dortmunder helps him, or Dortmunder dies.

And meanwhile back at the bungalow in Dudson Center, Myrtle Street, no longer content to peep at the gang through binoculars while speculating on what they’re up to and who the boss is (there isn’t one, Myrtle), comes creeping up to the house, and is immediately apprehended by Tiny Bulcher, which would be enough to scare anyone, but then she sees Doug looking out through the window, and he looks scared, and now she’s bloody terrified.

So this is where Doug’s young Lochnivar side comes out, right?  He’s the Nephew in this story, and the Nephew will do anything for The Girl.  Except here’s the thing.  He’s not a Nephew.  And Myrtle isn’t The Girl.  Not for him, anyway.  All he cares about, seeing a woman he was professing tender feelings for just recently being on the edge of getting killed, is not getting mixed up in a murder.  Fortunately, the only one advocating that Myrtle be disposed of is (you guessed!) Tom Jimson–Myrtle’s father–not that Myrtle is dumb enough to bring this up with him.  If anything, that might make matters worse.   Leave him in the dark about her being the fruit of his loins and all.  You just do not want to know how he’d react to that.

And the true Nephew of the piece springs to the fore-Wally Knurr.  He, the Hero, has waited his moment, as his computer instructed, and here it is–he says they can just lock her in the attic until they’re ready to escape–she doesn’t know enough about any of them to help the authorities–she doesn’t even know what they’re doing there.   Tom objects that she can yell out the window.  Wally shrugs and points out that in this rain, nobody will hear her, or care if they do.  At this point, Myrtle concludes Wally must be the ringleader.  Nancy Drew she ain’t.

And back at the apartment, Dortmunder and Guffey are waiting for Tom to come back.  Dortmunder showed Guffey some handcuffs he’s got (trying to remember if they figured in an earlier book) that would guarantee his good behavior, and Guffey’s not really a killer, just because he wants to kill Tom Jimson (I mean, who wouldn’t?).

Guffey had mentioned something about shooting parts of Dortmunder off until he told him where Tim Jepson was, but he’s decided he just has to sit tight and wait.  And as he waits there, and they watch TV (Fantastic Voyage), and they drink beer, and eat pizza, and try to figure out what Guffey’s first name used to be, they kindasorta become friends.  Well, friendly acquaintances.  Dortmunder has this effect on people.

Guffey even takes the handcuffs off him, so he can go to the bathroom.   Then Guffey goes to the bathroom.  Without the rifle. By the time he comes back, the hostage situation has just sort of petered out, and Dortmunder is telling him any enemy of Tom’s is a friend of his, and they finish watching microscopic Raquel Welch save the President’s life or whatever that movie was about, and head back to Dudson Center, because what the hell.

Guffey rested a scrawny fist on the kitchen table.  “That man ruint my life,” he said. “And I mean that, Dortmunder.  I was just a young fella when he got his hooks into me, and he ruint my entire life.  My destiny is to catch up with that son of a bitch, or why would you and him come all the way out to Cronley, Oklahoma?  What happens after I catch up is between him and me, but I got to have him in my sights one time before I die.”

“I guess I can understand that,” Dortmunder said.  “So this is what I offer.  You give me your solemn word you won’t make a move on Tom  until this other business is over with, and you can come along with me upstate.”

“Where to?”

“But you have to swear you won’t do anything till I say it’s okay.”

Guffey thought about that.  “What if I won’t swear?”

“Then I go out to the living room and I get our rifle,” Dortmunder told him, “and bring it back in here, and wrap it around your neck, and go upstate by myself.”

Guffey thought about that.  “What if I swear, only I’m lying?”

“I got a lot of friends up there where I’m going, Guffey,” Dortmunder said. “And all you got up there’s one enemy.”

While all this was going on, Doug has persuaded the gang that they need a real boat this time–something that won’t sink in the rain, and that they can use to winch up the coffin with the money in it.  Tom refuses to even consider going after any more stashes to pay for it (in this one instance, I’m on his side), and so very reluctantly, Doug becomes party to a felony crime–he happens to know this guy with a boat dealership on Long Island who screwed him in a deal once.  They get a real nice boat, a 20 foot Benjamin inboard cabin cruiser.  There does not seem to be any such boat maker as Benjamin.  There’s a Gannon & Benjamin, but they make wooden sailing vessels.  No, I don’t know why Westlake made that name up.  If it’s a joke, I don’t get it.

Doug’s not comfortable with crime, doesn’t consider himself a criminal, though he’s always been on the shady site.  But he’s committing serious crimes.   He’s also been seducing a nice young girl, making her fall in love with him, then he turns around and acts like she doesn’t matter a damn to him, which she doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to know who he is, where he belongs.  He’s changing his identity without really stopping to consider the implications.  You have to figure something bad’s gonna happen to him.  That’s how it always plays out in a Westlake novel, right?

So the reservoir gang goes out one last time to get that money, and everybody, even Wally’s computer, knows Tom is going to pull a cross once they have the money.  Wally talks this over with May and Murch’s Mom, back at the house.  He says if Tom manages to kill the other string members and take the money for himself, his first move will be to come right back to the house and tie up loose ends.   Meaning them.  And most importantly to Wally, meaning Myrtle.

He suggests they all move over to Myrtle’s house, where they can keep watch on the bungalow from a safe distance.  Now that’s a guy who knows who he is–I’m sure his virtue shall be rewarded in the end, and the princess will fall swooning into his arms.  Yeah, that’s what Luke Skywalker thought too, before Lucas sib-zoned him.  Storytellers can be real bastards sometimes.

So of course when Dortmunder and Guffey arrive at the bungalow, they find it empty.  Dortmunder can’t believe he’s doing this, but he decides there’s nothing for it but to go back to that damn reservoir, and give it one last chance to drown him.

So they find the gang just before they push off in the cabin cruiser (fittingly named the Over My Head), and Tiny knocks Guffey out with a sap before recognizing Dortmunder.  Dortmunder says Guffey is a hitchhiker he picked up in the rain.  It says something for the gang’s assessment of Dortmunder’s judgment in matters other than heist planning that they accept this.

They lock Guffey in the cabin, and set off.   Tom, of course, doesn’t recognize Guffey.  See, the problem with seeing humanity as one indistinguishible unimportant mass, Mr. Jimson, is that sometimes it pays to notice things like this one guy who’s spent his whole life waiting to kill you.   But Tom is, in all fairness, distracted by more important matters.  He’s got to kill five guys, none of them pushovers, though Doug won’t be too hard.   One of them is Tiny Bulcher. He needs a little something extra in the arsenal.  And he’s got it.


The Ingram Model 10.   More popularly known today in both white militia and gangsta rap circles (how guns bring us all together!) as the Mac 10.  Thirty 45 caliber rounds.  Easily concealed, quiet, accurate.  So ten rounds for Tiny, and five each for the other four.  That’s what Tom is probably figuring.  I’m figuring more like twenty rounds for Tiny, but that’s still plenty left for the others.  He can just smother that hitchhiker with a pillow or something.   See, this may be a Dortmunder novel to us, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s a Tom Jimson novel, and they all end the same way.

The thing was, Dortmunder and his pals would expect Tom to make a move.  Everybody always did, that was wirtten into the equation.  Tom’s job was to figure out the earliest point at which they’d expect something from him, and the earliest point before that when he could usefully make his move, and then pick the spot between the two.

This time, it seemed to him, they wouldn’t really expect much trouble before they got the loot ashore, but they would probably start being tense and wary once the casket was actually inside the boat.  Butnow that they had a boat with its own winch attached to its own motor, so that Tiny was no longer needed to drag the casket out of the reservoir, Tom’s actual first potential moment was much earlier than that.

Not when Doug found the marker rope.

Not when he tied the boat to it.

Not when he untied the marker rope from the monofilament and handed it to someone in the boat.

When the marker rope was attached to the winch: then.

So Doug finds the marker rope.  He ties the boat to it.  He unties the marker rope from the monofilament and hands it to someone on the boat.  Tom, down in the cabin, reaches under the mattress Guffey is unconscious upon, where he’s concealed his Mac–it isn’t there.  And all of a sudden, he find himself handcuffed to a wild-eyed maniac, holding his gun.  “Now, Tim Jepson!  Now!”   Followed by the sound of gunfire.

So I guess really it was a Guffey novel all along.  Short-lived franchise.   Tom wins, of course–even with that gun, Guffey’s no match for him, never was.  But they’re still handcuffed together, and Tom, figuring Dortmunder had this planned all along, comes up saying he’ll give Dortmunder the gun in exchange for the key (which Guffey actually has, and Dortmunder isn’t dumb enough to tell Tom that).

Tom’s clearly still hoping to pull the cross somehow, but the main thing is, he’s chained to another human being, and for such a singular soul as himself, that’s a terrifying situation to be in.  It’s skewing his judgment, dulling his instincts.  So he’s not ready when Guffey comes to, and grapples with him–and they both go over the side.

You ever wonder why sailors all stick together in a pinch?   It’s because sailors spend their lives out on large bodies of water that are constantly trying to kill them.  They may not always love each other, but they need each other.  A boat full of Tom Jimsons is a boat full of dead men.  Even Jack London’s superlative Sea Wolf didn’t survive longterm.  No atheists in foxholes, no solo players at sea. Or at reservoir, same difference.

So as Guffey, his life’s work achieved, lapses back into unconsciousness, sinking down under the waves, taking his enemy with him, Tom Jimson’s last words turn out to be “Al!  The key! For Christ’s sake, the key!”  A bit late to bring Him up, wouldn’t you say?  And Tom, for literally the last time, Dortmunder’s first name is John.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Tom’s best-laid schemes that have gone agley.   Doug lost the rope.  Guffey filled the hull of the boat with holes when he was grappling with Tom.  They’re going to sink.  It’s getting to be a habit.

Doug has gone back under, looking for the rope.   While the gang, faced with the very real possibility of both drowning and being caught by the law, makes its way back to terra firm by way of Tiny hauling them in with the monofilment line anchored to the shore.  They can’t wait for Doug.  And Doug can’t seem to wait to die.

For the first time in his diving life, Doug was being stupid underwater.  Greed and panic had combined to make him forget everything he knew.  He was down here alone, an incredibly dangerous thing to begin with.  He was improperly equipped for the kind of search he’d suddenly started to undertake.  And, most stupid of all, he was paying no attention to the passage of time.

He’d had an hour of air when he started.

Reading this the first time, I knew this was where Doug Berry met his final end. And (spoiler alert)–he doesn’t.   He just keeps looking for the money, for those train tracks leading to the casket of cash, thinking that it just wouldn’t be fair for him to get so close and not get it.  He refuses to give up.  He’s a salvage diver, and he’s getting his salvage.  He finds the tracks, but by that time he’s about to black out from oxygen deprivation–only instinct gets him back to the surface alive.  And then pure dumb luck takes a hand.

As he tries to hitchhike his way back into town, still wearing his wetsuit, who should pick him up (in a Chevy Chamois) but the pregnant wife of Bob–poor confused Bob, who spent the whole book questioning his lot in life, his place in the universe, his decision to marry a girl he barely knew, growing more and more confused, until his sanity just gave way entirely.  Leaving his wife still pregnant and apparently that condition agrees with her, because Doug, very much in the mood for a nice comforting lay, is instantly very attracted to her (more than he ever was to Myrtle)–and she to him.  Oh God damn.  He’s getting a happy ending, isn’t he?

There is no greater certitude in the world of Dortmunder than this–Life Is Not Fair.  And in this specific sense, these books are an exercise in realism.   There may be moments of justice in this world, but they are far and few between (looking at you, Roger Ailes).  Doug broke nearly all the rules for suvival in the world of a Westlake novel, and he would just be stone cold dead in a Richard Stark novel, but somehow Westlake decided to let him off the hook.

And you could argue he’s earned it–Dortmunder gives up, and this time, so does the rest of the gang–they’re just not meant to get that money, and they don’t have to worry about Tom anymore, and it’s just time they all went back where they belong.  Wally never really belonged there, so he’s going to stay in Dudson Center, at Edna and Myrtle’s house, and he’s hoping it somehow leads to more than friendship with Myrtle, and best as I can recall (we see Wally later in the series) it never actually does.  Because Life Is Not Fair.  But he’s better off than he was before.  Life is not totally unfair, either.

So in the final two-page section of the book, entitled Fifth Down?,Dortmunder and May are watching television at home, and it’s this travel show, and they suddenly see Doug Berry, who is the proud new owner of a Caribbean resort hotel, his beautiful wife on his arm, holding ‘little Tiffany,’ Bob’s baby, and Doug just could not possibly be any happier.

Then there was a shot of Doug wind-surfing, grinning like a baboon, huge ocean, huge blue sky, fantastic yellow-white sun.  The off-screen announcer said, “Berry himself, a qualified professional dive instructor, leads the snorkel and scuba-diving classes. His emphasis is on active vacation life.”

And now a shot of Doug bursting out of the ocean into close-up, in full scuba gear, pulling off the face mask and mouthpiece, giving that shit-eating grin right at the camera.  “Come on down!”

“You’re goddamn right I will!” Dortmunder raged, on his feet, about to jump headfirst into the TV.

And of course he won’t.  They don’t even know what island he’s on, nor could they do anything about it if they did.   He won.  They lost.  It’s over.   Dortmunder might as well go to Hollywood and tell little Jimmy Harrington, boy director, to cough up Dortmunder’s ransom money or die.  It’s just not who he is. Born to lose.  Like most of us.  Which is why we love him.  And why we pray for Doug Berry’s island to be hit by a tsunami.   Soon.  Please, God, soon.  Or if that’s too hard on all the other people there, how about a shark?   Huh?   Just one little fifteen foot Great White Shark mistaking Doug Berry for a seal.  Is that too much to ask?   Okay, then how about a Bull Shark?   Since Doug is full of–oh never mind.

So that’s Drowned Hopes, and I honestly think this was a transitional work for Westlake (he had a lot of those).  If he could write a comic novel this dark, a Dortmunder story where people actually die violently, something’s happening with him.   His early books are very dark indeed, but as the 60’s waned, and the 70’s took hold, he tended more towards the lighter side of things–not light-weight, by any means.  But more optimistic, more upbeat, more inclined to look for the good in people, without ignoring the evil.

But thing is, evil is an interesting subject.  Tom Jimson was an interesting character.  And as I said last time, partly derived from Westlake himself.  From the misanthrope that lurked inside of him, casting a caustic eye on the fatuity of humankind–there’s a moment where he calls Doug ‘Popeye,’ and Doug doesn’t get the joke, is just confused by it.  We’re told by the narrator that “Tom had found, in his long life, that an astonishing number of people had just about no sense of humor at all”   The narrator and Tom are totally in synch at that moment.

But where they go out of synch is that the narrator, Westlake himself, knows that Tom was wrong–no matter how tough you are, you’re going to need somebody sometime.   Like when you’re going down under the water for the last time.  It’s tempting, to live your life like you’re the only person in the world who is really real, but it’s not smart.  And it’s not really living.  Solipsism isn’t a philosophy.  It’s a delusion.

Still, there’s something there–something he might do more with, in a different context.  Our next book isn’t really his–it’s a sort of Mad Libs for Mystery Authors, conceived by a guy who clearly had too much spare time on his hands, and it’s a lot of fun–Westlake’s contributions most of all.  And you ask me, it’s the Tim Jimson in him that wrote those.  And then comes a book where Westlake takes his misanthropy to cosmic levels.  He wants to see how far he can go with it–and you ask me, he went too far that time.  But sometimes you need to find where your limits are, before you can do your best work.

And all of this is leading, inexorably, to what may well be his best book.  But perhaps even more importantly, this rediscovery of his darker self is sending out signals, to a long-buried alter ego.  You’re needed.   Come back.

And what rough beast, his hour approaching fast,
Slouches towards Monequois to be reborn?

PS: I did enjoy finding nautically themed poems and song lyrics to introduce each segment.  For the last one, I considered several alternatives, including the Popeye Song, one of the racier versions of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, or maybe something from H.M.S. Pinafore.  But nothing seemed quite as right as Stan Rogers’ great salvage chanty, and I’ll end with that–but not Stan Rogers’ version (which you can find yourselves easily enough). No, I think I’ll go with Liam.  Still missing him.  Three times I saw him and Mr. Makem perform live.  And I’ll never see them again.  No, Nay, Never.  No Never, No More.


Filed under John Dortmunder novels

Review: Drowned Hopes, Third Down

We need another plan,” May told them.  “We need some other way to get to that money that isn’t dynamite and that Tom Jimson will go along with.  But John won’t even talk about it, and he absolutely won’t think about it.  So what I was hoping from this meeting, I was hoping one of us would come up with something I could tell Tom, something that would at least slow him down, some kind of plan, or even an idea for a plan.  Something.”

There was a little uncomfortable silence in the cab, punctuated by Mom’s maledictions against the world of drivers and pedestrians and New York City traffic conditions generally.  At last Tiny spread his catcher’s-mitt hands and said, “May that ain’t my field.  I pick up heavy things, I move them, I put them down, that’s what I do.  Sometimes I persuade people to change their minds about certain things.  I’m a specialist, May, and that’s my specialty.”

Stan said “I’m a driver.  I’m the best in the business–”

“He is,” his Mom said, as she swerved around a wallowing stretch limo driven by a Middle Eastern refugee who’d cleared Customs & Immigration earlier that morning.  “I’m his mother, but I’ve got to admit it, my boy Stan is a good driver.”

“The best,” Stan corrected.  “But, May, I don’t do plans.  Getaways I can do.  Vehicles I can drive; there isn’t a thing in the world with wheels and a motor I can’t drive.  I could give Tom Jimson very professional advice on how he’ll never get away from that county if he blows the dam, but that’s about it from me.

May said, “Andy?  What about you?  You have millions of ideas.”

“I sure do,” Andy agreed.  “But one at a time.  And not connected with each other.  A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I’m sorry, I’ve never been good at that.”

“God damn the State of New York!” Mom cried, sideslipping past a pipe-smoking psychiatrist in a Mercury Macabre.  “They give anybody a license to drive a car!

“They also released Tom Jimson,” May pointed out.

Ken had his Cadillac, but as he drove away, he just didn’t feel very happy about it.  Much of the fun had gone out of the transaction.  There were right ways and wrong ways to do things.  A repo-man took a car, the people driving it resisted.  That was the way it had always been, that was the way it would always be.

But not with these cheesecakes.

Halfway back to the city, however, the Toyota behind him on the towbar, Ken brightened.  First Gyppo blood for him, right?  He turned on the radio and started to drum his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music.  He’d finally figured out what was wrong with those screwy people who’d just given him the Caddy without any argument.

They were crooks; and you just couldn’t trust crooks.  Crooks never did what was right and proper.  Only the old guy who’d wanted to kill him had it right.

From 32 Cadillacs, by Joe Gores.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’
“Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven pm a main hatchway caved in, he said
“Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Gordon Lightfoot

This is the second and final Westlake novel to cross-over with a Joe Gores novel about the San Francisco based detective agency, Dan Kearny and Associates (DKA for short).   The first had actually been a Stark novel, Plunder Squad, and the crossing of paths took place relatively early in both books.  Dan Kearny is looking for a guy Parker is tangentially connected to–they met briefly just before the events of The Hunter, and it’s just enough of a connection for Kearny to persuade Parker to help him–more or less just to make Kearny go away.  It’s understood (not least by Kearny himself) that if Kearny was enough of a problem, he’d be going away for keeps.  But Parker doesn’t make murder the answer to every problem in life.

32 Cadillacs isn’t as long as Drowned Hopes, but it’s much longer than Dead Skip, the book that crossed over with Plunder Squad.  It’s also very different in subject matter and tone and even style.  Whereas Dead Skip was a grim hardboiled detective drama, full of life and death choices, 32 Cadillacs is a light comedy, where nobody gets killed at all.  DKA goes after a band of gypsies (the Romany kind, nothing to do with Jimi) who have used false identities to swindle (not heist) their way to thirty one brand new fully loaded Cadillacs  on the same day (and there’s one more, but I don’t need to explain that here).  The bank responsible for all those never-to-be-paid loans wants the cars back.

What you see up top is a passage where a new employee of the firm, tough savvy Vietnam vet and repo zen master Ken Warren (introduced in this book, and I enjoyed the sections dealing with him most of all) proves his superior mettle once again by finding one of the Caddies,  which Kelp had unknowingly stolen from one of the Roma who had stolen it via subtler methods (it had MD plates, how was he to know?).

Contrariwise to the previous collaboration, this crosstextual encounter happens quite late in both books.  Ken’s interaction with the gang (and all other aspects of his life) is complicated by his very serious speech defect, which Westlake refers to as a ‘glottal stop.’  I have no idea if this is technically accurate in speech therapist terms, but it gets the point across.   Ken drives up in his rented Toyota Chemistra (Gores just calls it a red Toyota, since his readers won’t get the joke), and takes possession of the pilfered Caddie, only to be caught in the act.

There’s this moment of disorientation, Ken and the gang misunderstanding each other’s motives, and then Kelp figures out the mistake, and there was never a more affable guy than Kelp.  Sure, take the car, what do we care, have a great day.   Tom Jimson, who absolutely does want to make murder the answer to everything, briefly argues for killing Ken.  Well, it’s not an argument so much as a dictate, but he’s not in charge, so it’s ignored.  The Dortmunder Gang doesn’t make murder the answer to anything.  Ken, perversely enough, seems more sympathetic to Tom’s outlook.  The most hard-boiled character in Gores’ book, even though he’s got a heart as big as all outdoors.

32 Cadillacs is a light-hearted romp, as I said–a good part of it involves two members of DKA who are secretly sweet on each other going to bed with two dangerously attractive gypsies they’re pumping for intel (and I use the word ‘pumping’ advisedly), and there’s also something about a gypsy king who is said to be dying, which triggers a lot of the machinations of the book.  Ken Warren aside, it’s about as hard-boiled as a one minute egg.  I assume it was always meant to be such, since Gores says in the introduction that he was already well into writing it when Westlake, having read some early chapters, suggested another cross-over, which turned out to be in this book we’re looking at now.

But Gores, who quite possibly might have retooled aspects of his book to link up better with Westlake’s, certainly is trying for his own version of Westlake’s comic stylings here, and I will state my opinion that while Dead Skip was a fair match for Plunder Squad, this one doesn’t come close to the level of Drowned Hopes–which is a comedy, of course, but a very black one indeed.  The darkest of the Dortmunders.  The starkest, even.  So it’s both funnier and harder than Gores’ book.  Which is still well worth reading, for fans of that series.  But for fans of this series, the most interesting stuff is probably Ken’s (and therefore Gores’) impressions of the gang.

Kelp: A wiry little guy with a sharp nose.

Dortmunder: Tall and bony and middle-aged.   (Ken isn’t impressed).

Tiny: An elephant in clothes.  Not a fat elephant either.  (Ken is rightly confident in his ability to handle the toughest customers, but he gives himself no chance of taking this guy).

May: A not-bad-looking woman making unconscious motions like a person lighting a cigarette.  (Drowned Hopes is the book where chain smoker May finally kicks the habit, and it’s been hell on her, as it is on everyone).

Murch’s Mom: A feisty little woman in a man’s cloth cap.

Now of course, if we wish to, we may say that this proves that Dortmunder and Parker inhabit the same universe, since both have had dealings with DKA (even though Parker is indirectly cited as a fictional character in Drowned Hopes, when Dortmunder brings up the events of Jimmy the Kid).

But to me, 32 Cadillacs is so different from Dead Skip as to make it an alternate universe take on the DKA characters, even if it’s part of the same series overall (and the timelines don’t match up very well either).  I’ve never been a huge fan of literalism, anyway, and least of all when it gets in the way of a good story. Worth mentioning that this was the first DKA novel since the late 1970’s.  A lot has changed in the genre during the interim.  Gores is updating his technique.   To some extent so is Westlake, but he’s on much surer footing in comic terrain.  Anyway, it was a good excuse to read Gores’ book.  Back to the book at hand.

May convenes an impromptu meet of the string members in Murch’s Mom’s taxi cab.  This meeting pointedly excludes Dortmunder (who won’t even discuss going back to the reservoir) and Tom Jimson (who is in the process of recruiting people to help him blow up the dam and drown all the townspeople, something you suspect he’d cheerfully do for beer money, let alone the $700,000 buried there).

Nobody has any useful ideas as to how to persuade Dortmunder to help, nor can any of them come up with a viable plan for getting at the money without the use of dynamite.  Because none of them are heist planners–not their area of expertise.  Dortmunder is the planner, and two consecutive incidents of nearly being swallowed alive by that malevolent body of water  has left him with a serious case of PTSD (Positive Terror of Stupidly Drowning).

So Murch’s Mom (her first name still unknown to anyone other than her son–I would hope), who is, like so many loyal residents of Gotham, experiencing that periodic burnout that comes from living in the most stressful place on earth that isn’t in a state of all out civil war (not formally, anyhow), comes up with her own plan–she and May go to Dudson Center.  They rent a house (a bungalow yet!).  They live there.  Directly in the path of the impending deluge.   May keeps house.  Murch’s Mom gets a job driving for the local cab company–she drives a Plymouth Frenzy.   She gloats over the fact that the drivers there “don’t fight back.” This is what she calls a ‘vacation,’ and that’s what any real New Yorker would call it.

Dortmunder hears about this from Stan, who is peeved at his mom for abandoning New York City (and endangering her life, that too).   Dortmunder is appalled, horrified, but at the same time, he must admit to himself that the woman he’s sharing his life with is no one to be trifled with when her moral dudgeon is up.

And much as May, consort to a thief, serial shoplifter of her own employer, may practice situational ethics with the best of them, nothing arouses her moral dudgeon like the death of innocent people.  To the best of her knowledge, at least some of the people in Dudson Center and the adjacent lesser Dudsons are innocent.   And after all, God said he’d spare even Sodom and Gomorrah if there were just ten righteous men living there.   And now there are two (selectively) righteous women living in Dudson Center (possibly two more, and we’ll get to them).

Dortmunder isn’t God, but since whatever else you may say about him, he loves May with all his scruffy downtrodden Wile E. Coyote heart, it is now his sad Lot in life to try and spare this picayune Gomorrah from destruction.  (That pun was old school.  Not to mention Old Testament).

In the meantime, Doug Berry, diving instructor/playboy of the southeastern coast of Long Island, is fishing–for clues.  He knows these criminal types who had him train and equip them for freshwater diving are after something good at the bottom of a reservoir, and he wants a piece of it.  There are a lot of reservoirs in New York, but he assiduously eliminates them until he comes to do research at the North Dudson library, which is staffed by none other than the delightful Myrtle Street, illegitimate daughter of Tom Jimson, daughter to Edna, newfound friend to Wally Knurr, and now potential love interest for Doug Berry, though his primary interests lie elsewhere (namely the mirror).

The girl at the counter was pretty enough, though not as pretty as he, which he knew without gloating about it; his good looks were simply a fact of nature, a part of who he was.  (Pretty men feel differently about their beauty from pretty women, are less proud of it and protective toward it and prepared to display it.  Their attitude toward their looks is rather like the attitude of the old rich toward their money: they’re pleased to have it but consider mentioning it vulgar, even in their thoughts).

Doug approached the pretty-enough girl, smiling a winning smile, and said “Hi.”

“Hi,” she answered.  As women tended to do, she perked up in his presence.  “What can I do for you?”

“I’m interested in two things,” he told her, then grinned at himself and shook his head and said “Let me rephrase that.  Right now, there’s two things I’m interested in.”

“Two library things,” she amplified, flirting with him just slightly

Very reminiscent of Grofield’s exchange in Butcher’s Moon with Doreen, the perky young blonde librarian he charms into helping him do research, then later genially fucks in a Chevy Impala.  Is Doug a variation on Grofield?  Leaving aside the fact he’s blonde, and Grofield most definitely isn’t, Grofield is very serious and committed about both of his professions by the time we meet him. The blondes are just a sideline.  He’s already found his life’s work, and his life’s companion.   Grofield has everything he ever wanted in life other than enough cash to put on his plays.

Doug seems more like he’s shopping around for a new modus vivendi.  He’s athletic, friendly, flirtatious, generally lacking in malice but determined to get the better things in life for himself without doing the 9 to 5 crap, and while he feels the odd bit of guilt here and there, he’s mainly looking out for #1–doesn’t form strong personal attachments, at least in this stage of his life.  He figures there must be somebody who can point him to a better way of getting what he wants, give him a few pointers, get him on the road to real freedom at last.  Doesn’t think of himself as a crook, but not the least bit averse to breaking the law as long as he figures he can get away with it.  An amateur on the way to becoming a pro.

Oh right.  Stan Devers.  That’s where Doug comes from.  But this time with a very specific skill (diving) and without the military background.  Not nearly as tough and ruthless as the guy from the Parker novels (Doug wouldn’t have been able to cut it there), and with the exception of Tom (who he hasn’t met yet), neither are the guys he’s been working with here, who have tried to shut him out of this sweet score, working for a mere pittance.  He’s a bit intimidated by them, but not really scared (yet). And right now, courtesy of some old newspapers, he’s figured out that he has found both the site of the buried cash and a good looking girl to seduce and abandon.  He can multi-task.

So while Doug begins a relentless campaign for Myrtle’s maidenhead (her mother, who was getting knocked up by a felon when she was Myrtle’s age, is a bit disgusted that her girl’s still a virgin in her 20’s–each generation inverting the mistakes of the one before it), Dortmunder must embark upon the far less pleasurable and considerably more dangerous campaign of persuading Tom Jimson to give him another crack at solving the reservoir puzzle without resort to high explosives.

He’s in luck–well, you know–Dortmunder luck.   Tom is holed up in a rundown apartment building in Alphabet City, the intersection of 13th St. and Avenue C, which is a crime and drug invested hell hole in 1990 (if you want to know what it costs to live there now, you couldn’t afford it).  He recruited a few addled addicts to pull the job, figuring he didn’t need real pros to just blow the dam–two of them get blown up along with the dam, and as Dortmunder quickly deduces, the other, tasked with pulling the money coffin out of the mud would meet with some unfortunate accident afterwards (“You know me so well, Al,” Tom chuckles without actually smiling).

Well, just before Dortmunder got there, these guys decided that since they knew where the reservoir was, they didn’t need Tom.  A mistake only slightly less serious than agreeing to work with him in the first place.  The police will find their bodies eventually.

Tom was not at all pleased that Dortmunder is only interested once more in pulling the job because of a woman.  Had his existing string not unraveled so abruptly, he was probably going to give Dortmunder the same treatment.  But he must admit, finding solid professionals with absolutely no scruples or knowledge of Tom’s reputation for whacking his accomplices is harder than one might think (outside the financial sector, of course, but this isn’t their kind of job).

As they descended, Tom said, “The quality of help these days, Al, it’s a real scandal.”

“I guess it is,” Dortmunder agreed.

“You and your pals, Tom went on, “seem to have a little trouble closing with the problem, but at least you’re steady and reliable.”

“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.

“And nothing at all up your veins.”

“My blood and me,” Dortmunder said as they reached the ground floor and headed toward the smashed defense of the front door, “have an agreement.  It does its job and I don’t pester it.”

So it’s agreed.  Tom will once again put off the drowning of the Dudsons, to see if Dortmunder can find an alternate path to the coffin full of cash.  They will all move out to the bungalow in Dudson Center.   Yes, that means Tom too.  Tom himself says, the only way they can be sure he’s not blowing up the dam is if he’s directly in the path of where the water would go afterwards.  So once again May’s firm moral stance comes not without a personal price for her (and everybody else in the gang).   Well hey, if doing right didn’t have any drawbacks, we’d all be saints, right?

We see Tom take the Amtrak train from Penn, robbing a naive kid along the way, and enjoying  what the narrator describes as ‘interior monologue’, informing us parenthetically that “A man no one can trust is a man who can trust no one, and therefore is a man liable to take to the diversion of internal monologue.”

But internal monologue can only divert one so long.  And in this transit-based chapter, there’s a reference I’m still trying to comprehend.  We’re told Tom is reading a paperback book.  Fiction.  Something we know Parker would never ever do, and probably not Dortmunder either, unless Kelp made him.

The book is Dark Hazard, by W.R. Burnett, and I’m belatedly pleased to confirm my earlier suspicions that Westlake was well familiar with that pioneering crime author, not that there was ever much doubt in my mind.  I’ve read Drowned Hopes before, but didn’t pick up on this last time out.  Having recently read The Asphalt Jungle to prepare for my article about potential influences on the Parker novels, my curiosity was piqued.  I got a copy of Dark Hazard.  First edition.  Not expensive.  Wish I’d gotten the paperback.

Tom has almost finished the book after two hours on the train (it’s over 300 pages in hardcover, so Tom’s a fast reader).  We’re told that he can see by that time that it’s not going to have a happy ending.  We’re not told what that means, though.  We’re not told a blessed thing about the book except its title and that Tom Jimson is reading it intently.

So when I reached that passage a few weeks back, I figured maybe Tom just likes to see a lot of mayhem and murder in his stories (and who doesn’t?)–we’ve been told about his unnerving habit of cackling gleefully when he’s watching television and bad things happen to good people, so for him maybe the only happy ending is a tragic one.  Or maybe it’s a heist story, and for him a happy ending means the crooks get away with it.  But see, neither of those could be the answer to the question of why he thinks it’s not a happy ending, because this isn’t really a crime novel at all, per se, and there’s absolutely no killing and damned little violence in it.  Two brief fistfights is about all.

Dark Hazard is about Jim, a big shambling good-hearted guy who used to keep a string of thoroughbreds.  Gambled on the races and any other action he came across.  He was good with the horses, but he had to give them up, because they eat a lot, and his finances were erratic, as is the case with most gamblers.  Then he met this classy dame whose once-genteel family had come on hard times due to irresponsible men, and somehow the two of them clicked, and got married, and he reformed for her, because she despises all aspects of the Sporting Life, considers it low-class (she’s from Ohio–as was Burnett himself).  It’s all very O. Henry, up to this point.  You could imagine him selling his watch, only to find she’d sold her hair.

Then through an odd series of events, he becomes enamored of greyhound racing, and in particular of this one dog named Dark Hazard (you can just call him Pat), a shy mild-mannered coal black pooch who just happens to be a demon on the track, and who returns the hero’s affections in full measure.

Clearly Burnett knew his onions about these dogs, as he ought to have done, since he owned War Cry, a champion racer, who appears in the movie version of this book with Edward G. Robinson, because nearly every book Burnett ever wrote had a movie version, only they should have waited until Sterling Hayden was available (but how could they know that in 1934?).

Anyway, the wife feels like he’s backsliding, she’s pregnant, she’s terrified of economic ruin, of coming down in the world, after what she’s been through already, so she leaves him, taking most of his winnings with her, leaving Jim destitute and broken.  He eventually rejoins  her in Ohio, but then he finds out Dark Hazard has fallen on hard times, and will be destroyed if he doesn’t buy him, so he does.  Having such a dog, he wants to race him.  That’s the final straw for the marriage (the wife had already cheated on him with her old Ohio boyfriend, who she will now marry, and whose physical description sounds oddly like Burnett’s, based on the photos I’ve seen–Jim knocks him down before he leaves).

So as the book ends, our hero is heading towards the dog track, homeless and broke, and he’s sad over what happened, but he never belonged in that life, you see.  It was never right for him–he was just pretending, working boring dead end jobs in the Depression, never having any real fun, never being who he was, just so he could stay married to a woman who didn’t even want to understand him.

And then he cheers up at the very end, forgets his sadness, faces life bravely once more, because now he can have the life he originally wanted, the one he had before with the ponies, except anybody who isn’t a total bum (which Jim isn’t) can afford to keep a dog (hell, I’ve seen actual bums with dogs who looked happier than many a pampered poodle).  And the dog, unlike the woman, loves him for exactly who and what he is.  When this dog dies, there’ll be others, perhaps sired by Dark Hazard.  Jim’s living the life he was meant for, and it’s not perfect, it’s not without risks, but neither is any other.  So to me, that actually is a happy ending.  Bittersweet, let’s say.

But not to Tom.  Why?   He doesn’t care about women–when Dortmunder braces him about May, he says Dortmunder needs to realize there’s a lot of women in the world and just one you.  From Tom’s POV, Jim wasn’t living the good life when we met him, he was working as a hotel clerk, with basically zero chance of advancement.  All he’s done is change a life he didn’t want with a woman he loved for the life he does want, with a dog he loves basically just as much, only the dog doesn’t nag.  Jim’s attractive to the bolder brassier women who frequent the racing world, so there’ll be female companionship as well as canine.

Tom probably doesn’t give a damn about dogs either (maybe he’s even a bit scared of them, as Dortmunder is, and as I’ve sometimes thought Westlake was), but what would have been a happy ending for him?  Westlake knows, because he always knows more about his characters than he tells us in the books.  But I can’t figure the angle here.  And that bugs me.  The book is referenced three times in this chapter.   Why mention it at all?   There was never a more thoughtful writer than Donald E. Westlake.  He had his own interior monologue going on at all times.

Hmmm.   Maybe that’s it.  Tom Jimson is Donald E. Westlake.   An aspect of him he doesn’t often give voice to in his books, except maybe here and there in his villains.  A darker version of his own self, with that patented sardonic sense of humor, and a jaundiced view of human nature–without the compensating empathy and friendliness, not to mention a means of self-expression that doesn’t require actual violence.  Somebody who has entirely tuned out the needs and wants of others, to concentrate exclusively on what he wants and how to get it.

And here’s the clincher (and it took me too damn long to notice it).  Burnett’s novel first saw the light of day in 1933–same year Westlake was born (prematurely) in New York.  Coincidence my Aunt Fanny. Tom is Westlake.  Westlake isn’t Tom, but he doesn’t have any problem imagining how he could have become some version of Tom, if a few things had gone differently (like for example if his father hadn’t gotten him out of trouble when he was caught stealing that microscope in college).

Same way he created Parker–imagine a different path, focus in on an isolated part of his identity, magnify and extrapolate it–but Parker was given life by the romantic in him–Tom by the cynic.  What all romantics become someday.  And as he told us in an earlier book, cynicism is a spectrum–there’s always somebody more cynical and selfish than you.  But suppose you turned the dial all the way up to eleven?  Then you’d have Tom Jimson.

So for Tom, a happy ending would be Jim realizing that caring about anyone else, even a dog, is the bunk.  He should have gone back to the life he enjoyed, sure, ditch the ball & chain–but just live for himself, nobody else.  Take what he wants, who he wants, when he wants.   But the big dumb ox is a natural born simp–he’s got to have somebody in his life to care about, to look after, to come home to, even if it’s just a dumb animal.  That’s why it’s not a happy ending to Tom Jimson.

And how many people reading this book would get any of that?   This isn’t Little Caesar.  Dark Hazard is barely even remembered as a movie these days.  That’s not the point.  The point is that Westlake knows his man.  Because part of him is that man.  And the best way to exorcise a devil in yourself, or at least hold him in check, is to see him, clearly, for what he is.

Okay, now I feel better.  By the way, ending aside, I personally didn’t think Burnett’s book was that good (you can ask me why in the comments section if you give a damn), but that isn’t the point either.  Synopsis resumes.

Dortmunder knows Tom isn’t going to wait very long for him to solve the problem.  He goes back to see Wally Knurr, who serves John cheese and crackers (he does this anytime somebody comes calling), and Dortmunder levels with him about what Tom is going to do if they can’t find an alternate plan.  Realizing that people he’s come to like–Myrtle Street and ‘Miss May’ (this is what he calls her, nerds can be courtly)–Wally runs through a bunch of simulations on his computer, and the ones that involve Spaceships from Zog go fine, but the ones that involve dynamite invariably mean drowning a lot of people.

Dortmunder expresses his discontent that he came to talk to a person about his problems, and now he’s talking to a machine that thinks there’s a planet named Zog–Wally realizes he’s been using the computer as a crutch to avoid dealing with people.  He turns it off, and they talk–and he asks a simple question–why not just get that diving instructor guy in on the job?  This is his area of expertise, just like heist planning is Dortmunder’s, and computers are Wally’s.

Dortmunder is dumbfounded as to why he didn’t think of this before–he realizes he likes to be the one who makes the plans, and was resisting bringing in another specialist.  He tells Wally to sell the computer, he doesn’t need it.  And of course Wally won’t do that, but that’s Dortmunder’s way of telling him he’s smart.  If the computer is any good for anything, it’s because Wally made it that way.

They can’t find Doug, because Doug is too busy trying to find his way into Myrtle’s vagina, and he’s almost fucking there (I know what I said), when Dortmunder catches the two of them on the porch of Myrtle’s house, about to adjourn to the bedroom.  Doug gets dragged away, and Myrtle is very confused, and somewhat relieved, and very disappointed, and still a virgin.  And I’m somewhat reminded of a similar and yet very different coitus interruptus scene in Memory, involving an amnesiac actor and a plain girl named Edna (which I’ll remind you again is Myrtle’s mother’s name).

After listening to Tom Jimson calmly discuss how they should dispose of his body, then having Stan Murch do an abrupt 180 turn on the highway as they head back to New York (just to show off his own skill set, Doug is feeling very very cooperative, as people in a state of mild shock generally tend to feel.  He’ll take whatever cut they’re offering.

Studying the layout on Wally’s computer, he says the way to do it is to get a boat and dive for the treasure–there are ways to triangulate in on it, and to get it up to the surface, without resort to walking along the surface, or following the train tracks in a converted AMC Hornet.  Dortmunder was thinking like a landlubber, because he is a landlubber (he’s lubbing that land more and more, all the time).

So Dortmunder and Tom retrieve one last old stash of Tom’s to get the needed materials, and if you’ve somehow gotten this far without having read the book, and I told you where it was, you wouldn’t believe it.  Honestly, I don’t believe it either.  Call it an homage to The Master of Suspense.  Or The Great Emancipator. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

So they’re all set–and the weather is wrong.  Clear skies, day and night.  Big bright moon in the sky.  Like all thieves, they need the cover of darkness.  So they wait for the clouds to set in, and as they wait–they change.  They’re just living there in Dudson Center, in this little bungalow, and it’s not their natural habitat, and it’s changing them.  Travel, a change in setting, changes people, alters their identities in ways subtle and otherwise.  Westlake wrote an entire book about that, you may recall.

Stan buys an old wreck of a Lincoln Atlantis (I’m pretty sure that’s another made up car name, but I won’t check, because I kind of wish it wasn’t), and starts fixing it up in the driveway.  His mother starts playing canasta with Myrtle’s mother Edna (neither of them knowing they’re connected to each other through Myrtle and Doug), and I know there is such a game as canasta but I have no idea how it works, and I’d rather no one told me.

Murch’s Mom was enjoying the country at first–the way nobody fights back on the road, the way they let you make a turn, the way everybody is polite–as Stan warned her, it’s starting to wear on her now–she’s afraid she’s getting soft. They’re all getting a bit soft (except for Tom, obviously–he’s happy to watch the rest of them getting soft, makes his part of the job at the very end easier). They’re all starting to lose that city edge.   They’re on vacation.  Until the clouds roll in.   And they always do.

Andy’s going to have to dive with Doug, and Dortmunder feels a bit guilty watching him get ready, but not guilty enough to volunteer to go into that water again.  Andy ends up enjoying the dive, once he adjusts–this is fun!  He’s flying like Superman!   Dortmunder’s plodding along the bottom was never the way. He and Doug find the coffin with the money in it.  They grin at each other down under the water–a meeting of minds.  Two rogues with a shared purpose.

In the meantime, Myrtle has been spying on the bungalow, just a stone’s throw from her house.  Who are all these people?   So much intrigue–the father she’s never known, the seemingly nice little fat guy who showed her how to use a computer, and the big handsome guy who almost showed her how to–you know. Somehow they’re all connected.   There’s some kind of master plan.  But who could be behind it?   Who’s the boss?   She’s a librarian who has led a sheltered life in a small town.  All she really knows is books.   And since it’s a small town library, mainly not very good books.

Conspiracy.   Was Wally the mastermind?  Or was he even now in contact with the mastermind, either in an experimental laboratory concealed within Mount Shasta (Bond) or in an unknown cavern deep beneath the Pentagon (Ludlum)?  Absorbed by Wally’s absorption, feeling that secret pleasure known to peeping Toms everywhere, Myrtle rested the front edge of the binoculars against the window and watched that round, gleaming, wet-eyed, passionate face.  Aliens?  SPECTRE?  A conspiracy at the very highest levels of government?

Or could it, could it somehow be…the Mafia?  Good God!  Was she going to have to read Jackie Collins?

Now that’s what I call a fate worse than death.  Myrtle wonders what nefarious schemes Wally is concocting through his diabolical device.

Wally, of course, is communicating not with a mastermind in an experimental laboratory, but with his computer, which isn’t hooked up to the nascent internet, but still has all the protocols Wally has programmed into it, so he can use it to puzzle out the varied dilemmas of his life.  He sees Myrtle as The Princess, and wishes to rescue her–but he’s not sure she needs rescuing from anything.  The computer, only knowing the games they play, assures him that the hero need only wait for his moment.  But the computer has been given to understand that this particular game is being played in the Real World, which it only knows through Wally.

Remember the specific rule of the game of Real Life.

Of course I remember it.  I entered it into you myself.

Nevertheless.  It is:

  • The tape of Real Life plays only once.
  • There are no corrections or adjustments.
  • Defeat is irreversible.

I know.   I know.  I know.

Why any hero would wish to play such a game is incomprehensible.

(And why I even try to replicate these typographically complex exchanges here in the digital world is also a bit of a puzzle.  As I’ve mentioned, even the Kindle edition doesn’t really manage to get it right.)

So out on the reservoir, that specific rule is asserting itself–it’s raining.  Well, they wanted clouds, didn’t they?   Dortmunder first writes it off as just another jest of the Almighty at his expense, but quickly realizes the inflatable dinghy with the outboard motor Doug said would be adequate for the job is filling with water. It’s going to sink.  He tries to stop it from sinking.  He ends up making it sink faster.

So when Doug and Andy see Dortmunder’s shoe sinking down towards them, they get the idea something’s not right.  They go up, and they can’t find the boat. Or Dortmunder.  A search is made.  No Dortmunder.  They go home sadly.   May, just beginning to despair, goes into the bedroom she and John share. Dortmunder.  She screams.  Women, right?

He saw a light off in the distance and swam for it.  It was the reservoir office in the dam itself, where Bob works.  Remember Bob?   Oh I won’t do that to you again.   But Dortmunder does it to Bob one last time.  He crawls into Bob’s car. In his underwear.  Just to get out of the rain.  He falls asleep.  Then Bob and two co-workers get into the car, to drive home.

Bob has just gotten out of the hospital recently.  Many strange things have happened to him.  His grasp on sanity has become tenuous.  The drugs are not entirely helping.  Apparently he’s now seeing an irritated looking man clad only in wet underpants, crouched below the front seat of his car, frowning at him, and warning him with various threatening gestures not to tell his co-workers (both of whom think Bob is nutso anyway) he’s there.

Dortmunder made his escape without Bob’s coworkers noticing.  Bob quietly asked to go back to the hospital.   No more is seen of Bob.

And no more remains of the Third Down.  Just one more to go (well, there’s a small fraction of a down after that, but we’ll just roll that into the fourth one, because seriously).

I think I myself need a vacation, and in fact I shall soon be departing my fair city, currently in the grips of a heat wave, and make my way to a fine hostelry in Upstate New York for a few days of west and wewaxation at wast.  The Overlook Lodge.  I don’t know why you’re reacting that way, it’s a real place, I can assure you.  We have reservations and everything.   It’s dog friendly (I believe we have the Cujo Room).  I do hope they have red rum there, I’ve always wanted to try it.

So I will try to get this one finished before the end of the month–there’s wifi there, and like Murch’s Mom, I sometimes do a little work while I’m vacationing.  All play and no work makes Fred a dull boy.  All play and no work makes Fred a dull boy.  All play and no work makes Fred…….

PS: If anyone’s wondering, no, I am not getting any payola from the Great Lakes Brewing Company, located in beautiful Cleveland (I’m not even getting free beer!), but I finally managed to get some of their superlative brews, bizarrely unavailable here in New York City–ordered them from a company there that specializes in Trappist Ales and other quality items made in monasteries, and Great Lakes decidedly isn’t a monastery, but Clevelanders stick together, which I trust shall stand them in good stead tonight.  You survived burning rivers, guys.  You’ll survive this.  We all will.  And I love my new t-shirt I bought on ebay.

At times in this world, we all are.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels