Sidebar: A Memo from Joseph Breen

A (possibly apocryphal) story I’ve heard about Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was that Huston was going on vacation before beginning work on the script. Before he left, he asked his secretary to transcribe the book’s dialogue into script form so he’d have something to work with when he got back. While he was gone, his secretary’s transcription was accidentally sent to studio head Jack L. Warner, who loved the “script” and directed a very surprised Huston to begin filming immediately.

A confidential informant (see Greg, I protected your identity!)  

Greg and I were batting this around in the comments section earlier today, and it got my juices flowing, to the extent they can flow nowadays.  Is it possible that maybe the most famous and revered crime movie of all time resulted from a director being forced to film his secretary’s transcription of a novel’s dialogue? No it is not, but could some version of this story be true?  How much do we know about what went on over at the Warner’s lot back then?

I’d hate to have to tell you who I had to kill to get what I’m about to share with you all now.  Mainly because I’d hate for you all to know what a humdrum existence I lead.

I pulled down this venerable dusty tome (paperback, I’m not made of money) that I recently obtained for research purposes, entitled Discovering The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade, by one Richard Layman.  (Clearly an alias.  Perhaps a defrocked clergyman.)

I found this.  You tell me whether it supports our source’s secondhand allegation–or dismantles it.  I honestly don’t know.

(Please note, the original memo, which the so-called Layman reproduces in photostatic form, was not in block format, but I just can’t be bothered to hit the tab key that many times.  Old war injury, carpal in nature; I was in the 69th Typist’s Brigade, the Fighting Hunt&Peckers.  Otherwise, I have endeavored to reproduce it faithfully.  Please note, this memo in its original form took up three entire sheets of typing paper, which I shall infer was foolscap.  Single spaced.)

May 27, 1941


Mr. Jack L. Warner
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Burbank, California


Dear Mr. Warner:


We have read the final script, dated May 24, 1941, for your proposed production titled THE MALTESE FALCON, and regret to advise that while the basic story is acceptable, a picture based upon this script could not be approved under the provisions of the Code because of several important objectionable details, namely:


(1)    it is indicated that Spade and Brigid have had an illicit sex affair and that the relationship between Spade and Iva has been illicit.


(2)    Cairo seems to be characterized as a pansy.


(3)    There is a great deal of unnecessary drinking.


It will be necessary to overcome these objections before the finished picture could be approved.


Going through the script in detail, we call your attention to the following points:


Page 13:    Spade’s line, “Damn her !” is unacceptable.


Page 14:    In accordance with the Association’s policy re drinking, some other business besides drinking in Spade’s apartment must be substituted on Pages 14 sqq. 19, 50 sqq. and 65 sqq.


Page 21:    Any flavor that Spade and Iva have been illicitly intimate must be eliminated from this scene if it is to be approved in the finished picture. Accordingly, it is essential that there be no physical contact between Iva and Spade, other than that of decent sympathy.  In this connection, see Page 80, where the physical contact is unacceptable.  The entire conversation between Iva and Spade will have to be rewritten to get away from this flavor.


Page 35:    We cannot approve the characterization of Cairo as a pansy, as indicated by the lavender perfume, high-pitched voice, and other accouterments. In this connection, we refer you to scenes 21, and 115, where Cairo should not appear effeminate while rubbing the boy’s temple.


Page 54:    Gruesomeness must be avoided in this shot where Cairo is shown bleeding.


Page 67:    This fade-out of Spade and Brigid is unacceptable because of the definite indication of an illicit sex affair.  There must be no indication that Brigid and Spade are spending the night together in Spade’s apartment. Otherwise it cannot be approved in the finished picture.  In this connection, please see Page 75.


Page 70:    The Boy’s line, “–you !” and his soundless repetition of the same words will be unacceptable if curse words.


Page 81:    While the drinking in these scenes is necessary as a story point, in order to prepare for later scenes where Spade is drugged, we must insist that the actual drinking be kept to the absolute minimum necessary to the development of the plot.  It seems that audiences are offended not so much by the presence of liquor as by the actual drinking.


Page 84:    Gutman’s use of the interjection “by Gad”, here and on pages 92, 117, 121, 125, 126, and 128, seems to be offensive if only by the number of times he uses it.  We suggest you use some other interjection at times.


There should be no gruesomeness in Scenes 71, 81, 88 and 89.


Pages 118 and 119:    Spade’s speech about the District Attorneys should be rewritten to get away from characterizing most District Attorneys as men who will do anything to further their careers.  This is important.


Page 141:    Brigid’s line to Spade, “Not after what we’ve been to each other  ” is unacceptable as pointing up the previous sex affair.


Page 143:    There must be nothing sex suggestive in Spade’s eyeing of Brigid.


Page 144:    The underlined words in Spade’s speech are unacceptable, “I won’t because all of me wants to —  wants to say to hell with consequences and do it.”   Likewise, in this conversation between Spade and Brigid, there should be no flavor of a previous sex affair underlying the conversation.


Page 147:    The action of Spade putting his hand on Effie’s hip must not be offensive.


You understand, of course, that our final judgment must be based upon the finished picture.


Cordially yours,


Joseph I. Breen.




Many clues.  I shall look forward to seeing your deductions in the comments section.  But please, no offensive language, unnecessary drinking, or intimations of previous sex affairs.  If any.  I’d say no pansies, but that is now unacceptable, and anyway, some of my favorite people…..

Cordially yours,

Frederick Effing Fitch.





Filed under Uncategorized

Reappraisal: Dash and Don


It seems to me that there is entirely too little screaming about the work of Dashiell Hammett. My own shrill yaps have been ascending ever since I first found Red Harvest, and from that day the man has been, God help him, my hero; but I talked only yesterday, I forget why, with two of our leading booksy folk, and they had not heard of that volume, nor had they got around to reading its better, The Maltese Falcon.

From Dorothy Parker’s 1931 New Yorker review of The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, entitled, Oh Look–Two Good Books!  She was a poet, you know.  

Hammett was a major writer, for a lot of reasons, one of them being that the texture in his writing comes so very much from himself.  Writing inside an action genre, where subtleties of character and milieu are not primary considerations, he nevertheless was, word by word and sentence by sentence, subtle and many-layered, both allusive and elusive, delicate and aloof among all the smashing fists and crashing guns.

From The Hardboiled Dicks, a lecture given by Donald Westlake at the Smithsonian in 1982, which I’ve quoted from in the past, and probably will again, but you can read the whole thing in The Getaway Car.  Cut out the middleman. 

Well, that was a long break.  I’m still pondering on a problem piece (political), but while that was percolating, and I was crouched forlornly by my mailbox, waiting for somebody to drop a copy of Westlake’s Red Harvest screenplay in it,  I said to myself, “Hey, maybe I should read The Maltese Falcon.  I hear that’s pretty good.”

Yeah.  Never read it.  I started, years ago, but could not get past Spade being a ‘blonde Satan.’  Which he’s not, really.  Well, he gets up to some deviltry, but he has light brown hair.  Light brown isn’t blonde.  What was Hammett thinking?  Probably not that his snarky shamus would be forever linked with some black Dutchman with a lisp, who had just ditched Broadway for Hollywood. (Grofield would not approve.)

I have this thing, where when I read the book a movie I love was based on, the two duel for supremacy in my mind while I read.  Sometimes they fight to a standstill.  Sometimes the movie wins.  Usually, the book triumphs.  This was one of those times.  Huston great, Hammett greater.  I still heard Bogie’s voice when I read Spade’s dialogue, but even that began to fade after a while.

Movies.  They screw with your perceptions of the books.  Damn them anyway.  The good ones in particular.  And none better than Huston’s.  But never mistake the packing material for the contents.  Excelsior.

So I read it, then read some things about it, came to some conclusions, and after banging my head on my desk a number of times at all the things I knew now that I coulda shoulda woulda known back when I started work on this blog, I did still more reading.  I’m all Kindled up now, ready to dig deep.  New worlds to conquer.

See, I mainly just read the Op stories for background.  Having been assigned Red Harvest for a college course eons before, I knew Westlake had taken that as his model for his anti-Op Tim Smith, in Killing Time. It served as the backbone for several of his most interesting books.

Likewise, I read The Thin Man, because Westlake cited it as an influence on the Mitch Tobin mysteries.  But somehow, the other stuff didn’t pull me in.  I didn’t have the right key to open it.  (Glass, of course.)  Why it somehow never occurred to me that Westlake would have learned from everything written by a man I’ve many times described here as his most important literary influence….

Well, you see, we don’t scream enough about Hammett.  Mrs. Parker was right.  We know of him, of course.  We honor and homage him, we review and reference him, we parody and plagiarize him, we anthologize adapt and and assay him, we do guided tours of San Francisco based on him, and we even write lengthy scholarly biographies and other erudite tomes about him, a privilege accorded to precious few pulp writers.  We know of him.  But do we know him?  Not really.  Not most of us.

Westlake did.

And just as Sergio Leone began his career in earnest by copying Kurosawa, almost shot for shot–well Westlake was never that incautious (movie directors can afford lawsuits a lot easier than novelists), and he went out of his way to contradict and revise his mentor, but fact is, a bit of creative copying can teach you things you can’t learn any other way.  It shouldn’t be how you finish, but it’s the only way to begin.

Hammett was a part of Westlake to the very end, but it’s at the start that the influence is most powerful–and, if you’re looking close, obvious. I can see it all so clearly now.  I couldn’t then.

And because by the early 60’s, Westlake was more and more aware that his future was in novels, not short stories, it’s the five Hammett novels–each one different from the last–that we need to put under the magnifying glass now.

Hammett died on January 10th, 1961, which I would think only intensified Mr. Westlake’s   devotion, but he was already on the case.  Just five months earlier, in August, Westlake’s first novel under his own name (also the first he’d want anybody to know he’d written) had gotten a quick complimentary write-up in Criminals At Large, Anthony Boucher’s round-up mystery column in the New York Times.

Brief and glancing as that Boucher review is, Hammett is referenced in it.  As is a novel by Hammett.  That’s what we’re looking at next.  It’s late Hammett, but we’re doing this in Westlake’s order.

Touché, Boucher.  You got it.  Why didn’t I?  Oh right.  Never read the book.  (Or in this case, even watched the movie).  Man in the middle.  That’s me.

Care for a cartoon, while I ratiocinate?



Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Wanted for Questioning: Westlake’s Continental Op

It’s always interesting seeing how one novelist approaches transforming another novelist’s work to the screen. So, besides produced films like “The Grifters”, Don’s unproduced screenplay for “Red Harvest” and the script I adapted from Steven Saylor’s book, “Roman Blood” all provide insights.

Jeff Kleeman, in the comments section here, who tarried not for questioning.

It’s always nice when Jeff Kleeman pays one of his periodic visits here, and tells us stuff we didn’t know before, though I have to say, this is something I feel like I should have known already.  And didn’t.  Not a clue.  But once I went looking around online, I found mentions of it in multiple places–it was no deep dark secret.  Lying around in plain sight, like the purloined letter.  Or a gold falcon, covered in black lacquer.

Donald Westlake has a lot of admirers, stretching across multiple generations, and stands to reason that (with no biography in sight) nobody knows everything there is to know about his many-faceted career, him being the elephant, and we the blind men (and women), feeling our way in the dark.

It’s becoming clear that he did a lot more work for the movies and TV than one would have believed possible for a man with nigh on a hundred published novels (not mentioning short stories and sleaze paperbacks).

There’s an archive in Boston with a large collection of screenplays he wrote that never got produced.  Greg Tulonen was there, when he went looking for the manuscript of Fall of the City, now known as Forever and A Death.  He didn’t know about this one either.  He said it isn’t listed as part of the collection.

So cutting to the chase, there’s this legendary Italian film producer, named Alberto Grimaldi–he’s still around, at the age of 92.  Back in the 70’s, he got obsessed with making a movie of Red Harvest.   Not set in feudal Japan, or the old west.  Not the usual Hollywood butchery of the source material, either.  A legit straight-up adaptation, class all the way, that would capture the essence of Hammett, without making it into some over-reverent museum piece.

(And would star Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, or Warren Beatty as the short pudgy balding Continental Op, okay, we get it, you need a star to get the money to make the movie.  But he never did, and the movie was never made.)

Bernardo Bertolucci was attached to direct for some time, and co-wrote two drafts of a screenplay, one of which you can buy online pretty easy, and I couldn’t care less, no disrespect meant.  Many other scripts were commissioned, nobody seems to know how many, but it is known for a fact one of them was from Westlake.  I’ve found multiple mentions of it.  I just can’t find the screenplay itself.

Some guy on an old listserv discussion forum (apparently linked to Miskatonic University), says he bought a copy on ABE.  He posted that in 2000.  I emailed him.  Even though it was one of those addies that ends in ‘.net.’  Gmail says it’ll keep trying for another two days, but that lead’s not going to pan out.  Neither did any of the online sources for screenplays, produced or otherwise.  Neither did ebay, Amazon, Bookfinder, or ABE.  If it’s out there, it’s keeping a low profile.

Seems like Westlake got approached sometime after he wrote the script for The Grifters.  His best work as a scripter (that got produced, anyway), nominated for an Oscar, successfully reworking a noir classic in a way that respected the original without getting bogged down in it.

Martin Scorsese was involved in the Red Harvest project at one point as well, as were several other big names, but things got complicated.  And of course he was a producer on The Grifters.

So that all tracks, but how do I put this?  Red Harvest would mean more to Westlake than everything Jim Thompson ever wrote.  Not because it’s a better book than The Grifters (debatable).  Because it’s Hammett.  And Hammett was the foundation stone of everything Westlake ever wrote in the crime genre.  And Red Harvest is a book Westlake had used as the starting point for multiple novels of his own.  Notably Killing Time, Anarchaos, and Butcher’s Moon.  But you can find hints of it scattered throughout his oeuvre.

It’s no secret he wrote it, as I said.  Lots of people know about it.  Lots of people have read it (I’m guessing one of them is Kleeman).  But I don’t remember ever reading an interview where Westlake mentioned it.  Sore spot, possibly.  Because it didn’t get made, or because he didn’t like how it turned out?

Nothing would bring out the unforgiving critic in him more than a project like that.  He was hardest on himself about The Jugger–(one of my favorites) and what’s that about?  A man coming to a small corrupt western town to solve a murder, and he gets caught up in various agendas, playing both ends against the middle.   Only that man is Parker, and Parker isn’t The Op.  (Though we’ll never know either one’s real name, they’ve got that in common.)

And what’s Joe Sheer, the titular Jugger, to Parker?  Just a bit like what The Old Man is to The Op, wouldn’t you say?  But so different, you really have to squint to see it.  Hammett was the literary father figure Westlake kept trying to measure up to, and never quite sure he’d managed it.

So I would like to read this attempt to do just that, and decide for myself.

Can anybody out there make that happen?

It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Yeah, I know, wrong book.

And yeah, I’m still working on that other thing, but got bogged down, so feel free to chime in while I’m digging my way out.  Passes the time.

(And Jeff, if you’re out there, I’d love to read that Roman Blood thing too.  Hail Cicero.)


Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake screenplays

Elegy: The Left Hand of Starkness


“They have nothing to give. They have no power of making. All their power is to darken and destroy. They cannot leave this place; they are this place; and it should be left to them. They should not be denied nor forgotten, but neither should they be worshiped. The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds; there places are made in the world where darkness gathers, places given over wholly to the Ones whom we call Nameless, the ancient and holy Powers of the Earth before the Light, the powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness… I think they drove your priestess Kossil mad a long time ago; I think she has prowled these caverns as she prowls the labyrinth of her own self, and now she cannot see the daylight any more. She tells you that the Nameless Ones are dead; only a lost soul, lost to truth, could believe that. They exist. But they are not your Masters. They never were. You are free, Tenar. You were taught to be a slave, but you have broken free.”

Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.

I knew her a very long time before I ever heard of Donald Westlake.  Her name became sacred to me, is sacred now, and will be until the day I die.

So this morning, the ansible on my work desk rang.  A call from home, which is only an hour’s commute away, but it can feel like parsecs some days.  I hadn’t had time to glance at the Times online.  She was in the obituary section.  At the top of it, in fact–a rare distinction for a writer of science fiction and fantasy yarns.   My significant other, who has dabbled in those realms herself, thought I’d want to know.  Nobody in my life had ever called me with the news a writer I loved was dead.  (I called my mom once to tell her Fred Astaire was dead, but that was a special thing between us.)

I first encountered her in my high school library–The Left Hand of Darkness beckoned to me from a revolving rack, and when I opened it, a world opened up before me, unlike any I’d seen before, though I’d been reading science fiction for several years by then.   A world of winter, stark, uncompromising, alive–and transgendered.  Where anyone could be male or female, at a given time, and most of the time they were neither.

And instead of shock, or revulsion, I felt curiosity, compassion–wonder.  Why not?  Why would that be any worse than the tumult of my own sexuality?  When the Terran protagonist explains to one of them the way his people reproduce,  he’s met with sympathy, almost horror–how awful, to be in the grip of desire, all the time, never free of it for a moment, never fully satisfied, never at peace with your own physical needs.  How could any human adolescent not relate to that?

I still had almost no consciousness of the growing movement for gay rights, or even of what it meant to be gay, bisexual, or trans, and they are still coming up with new terms–it occurs to me ‘non-binary’ isn’t all that far from what she described in that novel.  I could not tell you which of my classmates were gay, though I could make some retrospective guesses.

But because she taught me that different is just different, I was prepared when that world presented itself to me, and I could just see it as other ways of being, and I felt no hate, expressed no derision–just curiosity, compassion–wonder.  Okay, I wasn’t that cool, but I was willing to learn, put it that way.  The ground had been prepared.  A mind had been opened.

I knew very well what it meant to be different, to be mocked and ostracized for it, and I decided then, only half-realizing it, that I was on the side of everyone different, even if they weren’t different in the same way as me.  As long as they were on the side of difference, of variety, of life in all its diversity, they were my brethren.  And perhaps they could even be my friends.  (Perhaps I could even have friends; you’ve all been through the nightmare of maturation, let’s not dwell on the obvious, this isn’t about me.)

So I had a new teacher, but being a slow learner, with many tutors, I took my time.  She had other lessons to teach, and I got to them slowly across the years, and there are still many I haven’t gotten to  yet, but I would keep running across her, unpredictably, in a bookstore, in a library, in a pile of orphan books on a sidewalk table, and I’d pick her up and read, that being one of the more useful of the dark arts, as one of her heroes wryly quipped.

There was the lesson about self-discovery, in a world of dragons and wizards and dark caverns of evil.  A hero angry at the world and himself, making peace with both, and then sharing what he’d learned with a sister who needed a steadying hand in her own journey towards the light.

The lesson about equality, taught by one man’s exploration of radically different sister worlds, one orbiting the other.  How beautiful equality is in the abstract, how savage and uncompromising in reality, and how the more resources we have, the harder it becomes to share them equally.  That was also a lesson about how worlds of plenty can exist right besides worlds of barren privation, and each can bring about its own form of blindness.  And about how the striving of the individual is just as important as that of the collective, reminding us the two must find a way to co-exist, since neither is complete without the other.

There was the lesson I first encountered as a TV adaptation, then much later as a book, about a man who learns the secret of bending reality to his will, which we all think is something we want, but maybe not so much.  A story worthy of Philip K. Dick, who had, in fact, already told a similar story years earlier, and to compare the two is to see how two master shapers can approach the same subject in entirely different ways, and  yet reach the same basic conclusions.  There was more emotional depth to her vision, more complexity–less satire (though psychoanalysis came in for a ribbing)–more starkness.  Not better.  Just different.

And there were other lessons, and many I’ve yet to tackle.  I don’t know if I’ll get to them all, at the pace I’m going.  There’s a forest world waiting for me.  There’s another story about the wizard (I’m tempted to avoid that, since I’ve found that when SF writers craft beloved trilogies, then return to them years later, it doesn’t always work out well, but she was the exception to so many things).

There’s some stuff that I’ve read reviews of (she somehow managed to get written about by mainstream critics as if her genre scribblings were important, perhaps her most astounding feat of all) that sounds maybe a bit too schematic, too idea-based.  Her best stories were always about people, and the many worlds she made for them were just there to show them who they were.  But to this date, I’ve never read anything of  hers that didn’t teach me something.

We relate to different writers differently.  I started reading Westlake a few years ago, and I found I had to read all of him, as quickly as possible.  I started reading her as a child, and may not finish until I’m a child again.  A wildflower meadow can spring up in a week; a redwood takes centuries to mature.  Not better.  Just different.  But strangely, both are about a state of endless becoming.  And both can get very stark at times.  But she’s the left hand of Starkness.  (Even though she wasn’t a southpaw, I’m disappointed to note.)

She lived as many years as there are keys on a piano.  She’d have liked that.  She didn’t live to see the end of the latest reign of the Nameless Ones, whose names we hear ad nauseam of late.  But she lived to see her sisters rise up in their millions, just a few days ago, to say to the world that they had broken free.  And they needed no brother to tell them that, but brothers helped them, all the same, because that’s what brothers do.

Why were most of her heroes male?  I suppose partly because of the genre she wrote in, the generation she came from.  Partly because she didn’t want to distract from the real points she was making that applied for any sentient (“Oh look!  Female empowerment!”)  Partly because her dream was not women who would be more like men, but men who would be more like women (Can we ever be that strong?  I wonder.)

But really, just out of hope everybody would be themselves, at last, all the labels gone, discarded, meaningless.  No one better.  Everyone different.

She was a dreamer, and that particular dream is over.  But because her dreams mattered to me, I’ll repurpose a poem Brendan Behan once wrote (in Irish) for a certain rabble-rousing labor leader in Dublin. (I fondly suppose that Portland is as close as America is ever getting to Dublin.)

She was me–she was every mother’s child of us.
Ourselves–strong, as we would wish to be
As we knew we could be
And her, naming dragons, opening dimensions

Following her coffin through the mouth of the empty city last night
In great roars of fury
Following her coffin through the mouth of the city last night

Is it we who are in the coffin?
Certainly not!
We are in the streets, marching
Alive–and thankful to the dead.

The very first lesson she crafted was about a scientist, a man of learning, culture, strange talents, and exceptional courage, who comes alone to an alien world beset by occupiers of his own species.  He joins with the sentient species of that world to repel the invasion, blending their ways with his, and in so doing, gives up any chance to return to the world he came from.  He dies before he can learn that the world he helped save has been named after him, will be listed in every star chart as Rokanan.

I now declare that throughout the galaxy, this planet we live on, variously called Earth, Terra, or Gaia, shall be known as Ursula.


It could happen.

Let’s just make sure there is a someday.  She’d ask no more than that.


Filed under science fiction

Mr. Westlake, The Baroness, and The Mysterious Affair at Nottingham

Detective novelists have always been fond of setting their stories in a closed society, and this has a number of obvious advantages.  The stain of suspicion cannot be allowed to spread too far if each suspect is to be a rounded, credible human being, not a cardboard cut-out to be ritually knocked down in the last chapter.  And in a self-contained community–hospital, school, office, publishing house, nuclear power station–where, particularly if the setting is residential, the characters often spend more time with working colleagues than they do with their families, the irritation that can emerge from such cloistered and unsought intimacy can kindle animosity, jealousy, and resentment, emotions which, if they are sufficiently strong, can smoulder away and eventually explode into the destructive finality of violence.  The isolated community can also be an epitome of the wider world outside and this, for a writer, can be one of the greatest attractions of the closed communal setting, particularly as the characters are being explored under the trauma of an official investigation for murder, a process which can destroy the privacies both of the living and the dead.

From Talking About Detective Fiction, by P.D James. 

Since the First World War and Prohibition combined to create the atmosphere in which the puzzle would be transmogrified into something new that would reflect the new reality, I think it’s nice that the phrase for that new thing should itself combine words from the war and the bootleggers.  Hardboiled dicks.  Tough guys who were interested in a very rough kind of immediate justice having to do with this particular case at this particular moment, because there are no reliable long-term social truths or social contracts.  The determination to turn the puzzle story on its head shows very clearly in its changed treatment of class, of persons in different social strata.  In the previous form–previous in origin but by no means dead, then or now, very much still with us–the detectives and the victims alike tend to be from the upper classes, or at least not below the professional middle class–I mean, no tradesmen–while the murderer could be of any class at all.  Frequently, however, he would turn out to be jumped-up, to belong actually to a less exalted class than the one to which he’d been pretending.  I mention only Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance.  The puzzles tended to be rather more like crossword puzzles, in that the solution might hinge on esoteric knowledge, of bell-ringing, or Chinese vases, or Turkish cigarette ash.

But on come the hardboiled dicks, and everything goes out the window.  Puzzle solutions require knowledge no more esoteric than that people are sometimes greedy, people are sometimes jealous, people are sometimes afraid.  The hardboiled dick himself was middle-class at best, more probably working-class in his background, never claiming much more than a high school education, and the only thing he will ever offer as special knowledge is that he knows where the bodies are buried.  He’s an insider, in other words, in this topsy-turvy unsentimental world.  As for the upper classes, who are popularly thought of as having caused the war and profited from it–much of which turned out to be true, by the way–they don’t even come off well in these stories.  When they appear at all, they are made fun of and despised, they are gullible patsies for con men and professional gamblers, their daughters are dumb enough to run away to Mexico with ex-cons.  They are even, at times, the murderer, and their motivations are as human and messy as anybody’s.

From The Hardboiled Dicks, by Donald E. Westlake (originally a talk given at the Smithsonian in 1982, now collected in The Getaway Car.)

Looking over articles relating to Westlake’s demise recently, I was reminded of a story I first encountered in the article archive for The Violent World of Parker (that site’s long lamented absence is one reason I had a tough time remembering the specifics).  A minor episode in Westlake’s life, that just slightly outlived him.

Right after Jimmy Breslin died, I did a piece about what seemed to me a sort of between-the-lines feud going on with him and Westlake.  Maybe more of an unstated rivalry, since both wrote about comic criminals.  Westlake put a few shots over Breslin’s bow across the years, Breslin finally took umbrage when one of them was a scathing NY Times review of a less than scholarly biography he’d written of Damon Runyan.

Based on a reference to Breslin in Dancing Aztecs, it seemed to me that they had rubbed shoulders here and there–and they definitely met at least once, since they participated in a writer’s panel in 1997.  And I never could find a transcript for that.  I’m probably not finding any transcripts relating to this story either.

But the link here is my enduring curiosity about whether Westlake ever had any literary vendettas going on, of the type well-known authors so often engage in.  It wasn’t his habit to self-publicize much, so we wouldn’t necessarily know if he did.

Closest he seems to have come was when he announced his resignation from the ranks of science fiction writers in a polemic submitted to a little-known fanzine, in which he disparaged (among other things) the editorial style of Frederick Pohl (who according to Lawrence Block, never forgot nor forgave the slight).  But they both seem to have spent the rest of their lives ignoring each other.  It’s hardly in the same league with Saul Bellow telling a prominent bookseller he’d never speak to him again because the poor schlub had praised John Updike in an interview.

I don’t believe there was any feud between Donald Edwin Westlake and Phyllis Dorothy James, aka Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, ETC., creator of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, who pops up on the telly quite often. I don’t believe they held each other in low regard.  Nor was there any kind of mutual admiration society in session there. Guarded distant respect?  Something like that.

I know they met once at a dinner party, because that was mentioned when this story I’m trying to understand came out, to the mutual embarrassment of all concerned, other than Westlake himself, since it came out in response to an obit for him in a British newspaper, that seems to have been hastily researched, as obits often are.

There is no reason to think they ever corresponded.  There is some reason to think they glanced at each others’ work here and there (Westlake probably more at James’ than vice versa, because he had more catholic tastes.)

They were not enemies.  They were not friends. I have to think neither would have approved of the word ‘frenemy.’ They were only colleagues in a peripheral sense, inhabiting as they did different ecological niches within the same genre biosphere.  They didn’t even occupy the same land mass.  So how did this happen?

I probably rely too much on links (that may someday cease to function), so let’s sum up for the record.  P.D. James said something she really should not have said, on a late night shortwave radio program being broadcast to the planet in the wee wee hours (I can’t find out if it was live or on tape–if she was there in the studio at that hour, everybody should have cut her a break, since nobody not holding high office should be held responsible for what they say or do at two-thirty in the fucking morning.)

The comment that got her in trouble was–

“in the pits of the worst possible inner-city area, where crime is the norm and murder is commonplace, you don’t get moral choice, you don’t get contrasts between good and evil…”

Let’s be fair, and give her a chance to state her point more elegantly, which is to say, in print, in Chapter 6 of that instructional of hers I quoted up top, which is entitled Telling The Story–after quoting W.H. Auden’s semi-serious essay on murder mysteries, which compares the stereotypical corpse in some idyllic place to a mess left by the family dog on the drawing room carpet–

He believed, as I think do most British writers of the detective story, that the single body on the drawing room floor can be more horrific than a dozen bullet-riddled bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets, precisely because it is indeed shockingly out of place.

Please note the “So Say We All!” tone of that sentence–not at all sure Auden would have concurred, but never mind–combined with what seems to be a complete ignorance of how Raymond Chandler wrote mystery stories.

I haven’t read all that much Chandler, and have my own critiques to make, as did Westlake–but as I recall, it was usually just a body here, a body there, and they weren’t all found on streets.  There were plenty of rich classy dames in mansions, and one sadly neglected redhead in a nice little suburban cottage.  His main problem as a writer was bad plotting and spotty characterization, which happens quite often in the cozies as well.

But imagine, if you will, how the author of Killing TimeButcher’s Moon, and The Ax might react to the notion that a high death toll in a story somehow invalidates it emotionally,  renders the audience incapable of pity.  (Not that Westlake would have read this, it came out in 2009.)  Hell, imagine what Shakespeare would say!

She caught hell from a class-conscious group of fellow mystery writers in the UK, and took umbrage to their criticisms like she was Lady Bracknell instead of Baroness James (she’d been made a non-hereditary peer in 1991).  Her words were debated heatedly in Red Herrings, the newletter of the Crime Writers Association, Britain’s answer to the Mystery Writers of America, and the controversy leaked out to the mainstream press.  As a direct result of this brouhaha, she canceled an appearance at Bouchercon 1995, which was held in Nottingham.  Yes. That Nottingham.  Writes itself, really.

Of course Westlake was there.  You can’t seriously think the creator of John Dortmunder and his Not-So-Merry Men (complete with Little John), was going to miss a convention held there.  Named after his most important critical champion, to boot.  You can read a bit about the goings on here. Sounds like fun.

The furor over her ladyship’s remarks died down.  She made other controversial remarks years later, but she got the better of that exchange (and a bit of her own back from the Beeb, like it was their fault she’d put her foot in her mouth).

After the great unpleasantness she’d been through, she got so concerned over ‘political correctness’ (I’m not convinced anybody knows what that means) that she ended up as the Conservative whip in the House of Lords.

(Oh I say–did she get a real whip?  Please, someone tell me she had a real whip.  I mean, the Lord Mayor of London gets a whacking big mace.  I’m imagining her with a whip, right now, and you can’t stop me.  Ker-rack!)

Then came the Westlake obit in the Telegraph, where (without any source whatsoever, or a byline even) the writer(s?) said Westlake had, in the context of the aforementioned furor at the Nottingham convention, called P.D. James a dimwit.

This was followed by emphatic denials, from everyone involved, that he’d said any such thing (and, confusingly, the article denying the insults also added to them).  Mrs. Westlake went so far as to say she didn’t think her husband had ever used the word dimwit.

FYI–he did–at least twice.   Both times in Dortmunder novels.  That appeared Post-Nottingham.  Search engines weren’t as good back then, and ebooks couldn’t be searched via Google.  They can now.  (The Kelp in me rejoices.)

From What’s The Worst That Could Happen? (1996).

“How was I to know some dimwit crook would choose that night to attack the place?”

(That’s Max Fairbanks speaking; I need hardly mention of whom he is speaking.)

From Bad News (2001)

Kelp said, “Aren’t you gonna get in trouble for this?”

“Oh no,” she said. “Everybody thinks I’m a dimwit anyway, I’ll just be flustered and embarrassed, and apologize to everybody, and they’ll all shrug their shoulders and get on with it.”

That’s Marjorie Dawson, a minor but sympathetic character in the narrative, who is not a dimwit.  In fact, neither of the characters referred to as a dimwit is a dimwit.  It’s the people who think of them as dimwits who turn out to be the dimwits.  So that’s confusing.

There are probably other instances of his using the word, but I confess, my first reaction was also that I didn’t remember him using it.  I’ve just learned not to trust my powers of recall.   (And neither should anyone else.)

The first use is the more incriminating, since he presumably would have been working on What’s The Worst That Could Happen? in 1995.  He might have submitted it before he left for Nottingham, or  he might have finished it after the convention was over.  It might be a reference to something he said (then wished he hadn’t), something somebody said that he said, or it could be a coincidence.

But it doesn’t prove anything.  What are we trying to prove, precisely?  That a deceased author of comic capers (and much else of consequence) did or did not belittle a subsequently deceased crafter of ‘cozies’ (not so cozy as all that), because she insinuated that you couldn’t write a satisfactory detective story about moral choices anywhere but the white middle class suburbs?

And anyway, isn’t there freedom of speech in the UK?  Unwritten Constitution, you say?  English Common Law, you say?  Let’s just say we’re curious.  That’s probably covered under English Common Law as well.  I mean, going by the tabloids alone.

I looked around, and while a transcript for the offending BBC interview with James did exist, and probably does still, it doesn’t seem to be available to the general public now, and of course context is everything.

But there’s a lot of context one can pick up where such a prominent and vocal author is concerned, and I think we can, with cool heads, and a temporary disabling of our outrage circuits, figure out what she meant.  “This is the kind of story I want to write, this is the way I want to write it, and I have to believe it’s the only proper way to write it, or I couldn’t write it with complete conviction.”

Some writers (including some of the very finest) are like that.  Westlake wasn’t. To utilize the parlance of Isaiah Berlin, he was a fox. She was a hedgehog. I shall elucidate, of course. (Though really, the way she curled into a spiky ball after her fellow scribes berated her tells the tale in itself.)

He’d met her.  He knew she was anything but a dimwit.  But he also knew she was one of those people who tend to selectively narrow their horizons.  Which is not necessarily the same thing as dimming your wits.  Focus can be a good thing. And the middle class is well worth writing about, in any setting or genre (Westlake certainly concurred).  Along with all the other classes, which is where we reach our sticking point with the Baroness.

When you need to know, every day, that you are doing the right thing, living the right life, writing the best stories, you will be be forced to conclude that certain other people are doing the wrong thing, living the wrong life, writing the wrong stories.

She hadn’t had much of  a formal education, but neither had Westlake.  They were both autodidacts, who learned by reading, living, and cross-referencing the two (it’s a good system).  They were both children of the lower middle class who had risen above their station by dearth of hard work, but there the similarity ends, because Westlake went on identifying with his lowly origins, and developed a powerful dislike for the high and mighty.

James never forgot where she came from, but the memory had quite a different flavor for her.  Her philosophy seems to be (and I’m not just extrapolating here, I’ve been reading a collection of nonfiction articles she published)  “Yes, the social structure is inherently unfair, but some of us can move up, and we can all hope to move up, so let’s all be content with that.”    (I don’t believe she’d have ever used a term so vulgar as ‘trickle-down.’)

She was no Mrs. Bucket (Bouquet, pardon mum), but she was quite chummy with Mrs. Thatcher.  She was active in Tory politics.  She had a whip.  (Okay fine, but she’s got a straight razor in that photo up top.)

The American descendant of Irish Catholic peasants, who spent his life lampooning the rich and powerful, wasn’t going to think much of Thatcher or Tories, not that he was so PC either.  But politics was never the most important thing to him.  And I can only assume he’d have wondered, later on, why any successful writer would accept a voluntary demotion by going into politics, even if she never had to attend any hustings, or whatever they’re called.

Back to Nottingham: He was going to have been imbibing at least a bit at a trade convention (that’s why they hold the damn things).  Her absence and its proximate cause would have been the #1 topic of conversation.  He always liked a lively bit of backchat.  Gossip is fun, and for any writer, fondly slagging one’s competitors in their (willful) absence is sheer heaven.

She’d promised to be there, and had then absented herself in a snit, her knickers in a proverbial twist, because she’d been raked over the coals in a newsletter nobody but other mystery writers ever read.  The temptation to snark among those who were present (and had in some cases crossed an ocean to get there) would have been nigh-irresistible.

He said something.  Which somebody remembered.  It passed down the grapevine, which made its way to Fleet Street by obscure byways.  Transmission error (combined with wishful thinking, the Brits like a spicy obit) could have done the rest.  It might have happened like that.  How the hell would I know?

But there’s the word ‘dimwit’ in two books he wrote afterwards, only pointed more at the people using the word than the ones subjected to it.  And there’s the other thing, that perversely came out in the process of rebuttal.  “She was lost in words years ago.”

See, I find it impossible to believe he’d just out and call her stupid in dead earnest, knowing she was no such thing–but that other phrase has a familiar ring of satire to it–this is, please remember, the man who once said of Ross MacDonald “He must have terrific carbon paper.”  The implication being that MacDonald kept writing the same Lew Archer book, over and over again.  That mot juste was published.  In an anthology of articles by and about mystery writers.  That saw print in 1977.  MacDonald died in ’83.

Westlake could be scathing about other mystery writers, and writers in general. He could also be supportive and sympathetic, but something of the gamecock might come out in him, when a fellow scribbler got on a high horse.

For example, if a fellow mystery writer said something along the lines of “I know how you write a mystery, and everyone else is wrong.”  Which, you know, would mean Dashiell Hammett was wrong.  (The Telegraph obit writer’s most egregious error was to say Westlake wrote in the style of Chandler, a writer he had many times publicly disparaged.  Obits are sometimes written by dimwits.)

It wouldn’t be about political correctness for him, though the elitism would have rankled.  It would be more about professional pride.  Not only his, but that of many others he admired.  P.D. James wrote a very popular and enduring type of mystery, is widely acknowledged as a sophisticated proponent of that form, but she was, at most, one tiny alcove in a rambling old manse, built over the course of centuries, in every architectural style imaginable.

She’s a leading example of her style.  It’s still just one style.  Many will never agree it’s the most rewarding style.  Though it’s really what you do with the style that matters.

Westlake was one of those very rare mystery writers who could convincingly straddle the hard-boiled and cozy styles, hybridize them.  Starting out in the school of Hammett, he explored more of the manse than any crime writer I can think of.  (Much more than James, whose oeuvre stands at fourteen Dalgliesh novels, two Cordelia Greys, and three miscellaneous entries, one of which is a Jane Austen pastiche with a murder in it–and short stories, but not that many.  She had a late start.  Better late than never.)

I don’t know if he spoke ill of Agatha Christie, as the infamous obit declared, but he sure as hell read and learned from her, as we’ve seen in the course of reviewing his mysteries. He may, at times, have been satirizing the conventions of classic whodunnits, but he knew them, backwards, forwards, sideways.  He read everything.

He did locked room mysteries.  He did manor mysteries.  He did closed society mysteries, though they might be closed societies of outsiders.  His manor might be a house in a small New Jersey town that’s being used to bring mental patients back into the world, but it’s the same basic set-up James talked about–and nobody ever wrote a better mystery in that vein than Wax Apple.  In which no one is truly good or evil, the detective refuses to think of himself as a detective, and yet right and wrong are very much the subject at hand.  Morals, and misunderstandings, which is certainly the subject at hand for us now.

Perhaps no writer was ever better qualified to see both sides of the conflict that James’ remarks created, between the ‘cozy’ and ‘hard-boiled’ schools in Britain.  But was he really in a position to play referee?  He was just visiting.

She’d been a bit dismissive, perhaps unintentionally so, about those who wrote mystery novels set in high crime areas.  Some of the hard-boiled kitchen sink school, resenting their elders and their higher book sales (because they’re aiming for a younger crowd, and older people make up a disproportionate section of the overall mystery audience, for reasons we needn’t dwell on now, but look who started a mystery blog in his 50’s) had been dismissive of her kind of story too.  Both sides oversimplified.

There should have been a reasoned discussion of why what she said was wrong, but self-centered calumnies were more fun to write, and to read.  The younger neo-noir crowd were chafing at the old guard, the old guard was bristling defensively, and Westlake would have remembered how he chafed under a different old guard, when he was writing science fiction.

(Which James also wrote, later in life, and refused to call it that. The Children of Men is an adaptation of her novel of the same name in much the same way Point Blank is an adaptation of The Hunter–if you look really close, you might catch a glimpse of the original plot and characters. She said she liked it, which in author-ese usually translates to “The check cleared.”)

Westlake had written about moral (and immoral, and amoral) choices, in all classes, in all kinds of settings.  So had others. Even allowing for context, what she said was stupid.  Nobody has ever lived who hasn’t said something stupid. But to say you can’t write a mystery story about moral choices in a crime-infested ghetto would, to me, indicate a complete ignorance of the work of Chester Himes, or anyone like him.  And that kind of ignorance, for a writer, is a form of betrayal.  A breaking of the ranks.

Because, you see, a writer is supposed to take interest in the whole world and everyone in it, and in particular everybody who writes about it, even if he/she can’t personally cover every corner of it, or read every book.  You can still appreciate those who go where you can’t, tell you things you didn’t know, explain perspectives that differ from yours.  That’s one of the reasons we have books.  (To many of us reading or viewing ‘cozies’, an English middle class suburb is as exotic a locale as any–strange accents, odd food, arcane etiquette.  I feel much more at home watching The Wire than I ever will Downton Abbey.)

At least in this instance, she didn’t appreciate those who ventured where she didn’t.  Perhaps because she couldn’t.  To her, the world she lived in and wrote about was The World.  Everything else was just a shadow.  Even her sophisticated suburban killers were more akin to her than the many good and decent people who lived in some violence-ridden slum.

(And you know, there are many gradations between a toney English suburb and ‘the pits of the worst possible inner city area.’  Yeesh.  Not hard to break that code, and nothing she said afterwards could take away the taste it left in the mouth.)

She reminds me a bit of Patricia Highsmith, in her fascination with a more intellectual abstracted form of villainy–but James’ morality was a lot more simplistic (makes for better book sales, don’t you know).  Highsmith, for all her many prejudices, knew there were all kinds of worlds out there, all kinds of people, and even if you didn’t like them, it never paid to ignore them.  The boundaries between class, between race, are always porous.  A hermetically sealed social environment is not only boring–it’s a fantasy.  Doesn’t exist.  Never did.  Westlake wrote a book about cloistered monks, just to uncloister them.  That’s where the fun is.

Some people read this type of murder mystery to feel safe.  Cut off from the more complicated world that really scares them.  A lot of people are like that, you know.  All over the world, in all classes (it’s the peasant mentality in a nutshell, and we’re all peasants, you go back far enough).  My world is the real world, my people are the real people.  And they’re all wrong.  There are as many ways to live a life as there are lives to be lived.  And the sheer variety of life–and literature–was the principal delight of Donald Edwin Westlake.  As they are to all foxes.  (Though he had his comfort zone as well, and it got larger as he aged).

Now one other thing–her primary series character–a police detective.  And a poet.  A man of no moral failings at all, almost priestly in his devotion to duty, his lack of personal attachments.  Her ideal.  Westlake understood ideals.  He also knew about Mary Sues.  There’s a danger in getting so wrapped up in a character that you can’t see past him or her.  He distrusted heroes, and perfect ones most of all.

James didn’t write police procedurals, where the department as a whole was the hero.  She created a man who was born to be an independent sleuth–then made him an errand boy for the state–and never dealt, best as I can see (it’s not like I reviewed all her books, or any), with the contradictions that entailed.  Well, that’s the sub-genre–in many ways, Lestrade has more descendants than Holmes.  The brilliant heroic police inspector, seeking truth at all costs, has a large and legitimate place in the genre.  (When they show up in reality, people tend to be less enthused, or have you never heard of John Stalker?)

A sub-genre she wanted to enlarge, make more complex, more challenging, and she did.  But then, so did Westlake, when he wrote as Tucker Coe–whose cop-without-portfolio found moral choices in the oddest places.  Even while he denied he was a detective.  “The world is not one world, but a hundred thousand worlds, overlapping and yet almost entirely sealed off from one another.” Preach it, Brother Tobin.

There’s something else–if you’ve been reading Westlake for any length of time, you know how he felt about cops.  You know how he felt, in particular, about detectives (and one of the reasons why, relating to his arrest as a young man–he sure didn’t meet any poets in that interrogation room).

And police detectives–well, they could be professionals, do their jobs honorably and well, and that was worth respecting.  But to set one up as the ideal to which the rest of humanity should aspire?  This was a man who spent much of his career writing about modern Robin Hoods (who robbed from the rich and kept it) and who’s her hero?  The Sheriff of Fucking Nottingham.  Who writes poetry on the side.  There is an innate gulf of understanding there.  To be sure, he wrote with great sympathy about Abraham Levine–but that’s the only series character he ever killed off.

James was herself often quite critical of other mystery writers–she and Westlake had that in common.  She had an acerbic side, wasn’t afraid to deploy it in print. I think she suspected Westlake had said something critical of her, if only as a bit of backroom slagging, and the press had garbled it, as they so often do.

So like a good sport, she let the matter pass.  It had been years ago, he’d just died, his family had shown the proper respect.  To have even acknowledged an offense wouldn’t have been cricket (and might have revived the whole subject of her own dubious remarks).  So she denied any offense had been given (which it might well not have been, she wasn’t there, a good detective never assumes).

Classy.  It seems fair to say, P.D. James was all about class.  Well, maybe that’s an oversimplification too. ( I wonder how many I’ve perpetrated here, but there’s only so much time I can devote to this quaint little cul de sac I’ve pulled us down.)

It seems entirely fair to say I pulled most of that out of my ass.  But this story bugs me.  It’s a mystery, begging to be solved.  For crime writers, words alone are certain good, the ultimate murder weapons, and they can deploy them with cold-blooded efficiency.  In this case, there’s no way to dust the weapon for fingerprints.

But there was means, motive, opportunity.  Circumstantial evidence.  As to James herself, I’d like to read a transcript of that Beeb interview–just based on what we know, we’ve got her dead to rights.  But she had a right to her opinion. And to her legacy,  which I wouldn’t take from her if I could, and couldn’t if I would.

I do wonder what he really said at Nottingham.  We’ve established he knew the word dimwit.  He knew worse than that, I’ll bet.  So did she.  But their respective schools both live on, in altered form, each serving its purpose.  There’s plenty of room for both of them in the Mystery Manse, and thousands more besides.  The game’s afoot!  (Just try not to stick the foot in your mouth.)

But you know, I realize now, I’d much rather know what they said to each other at that dinner they both attended, and whether they had a chance to talk shop, talk books–maybe discuss their mutual admiration for Trollope?  A writer whose predilection for political satire, disguised as melodrama, certainly influenced Westlake.  And I might give that a look next.  Ex officio, you might say.


Filed under Donald Westlake

Plug: Scott Bradfield’s Westlake Review

Came across a link to this on VWOP.  One of the best overviews I’ve ever read.  

And still quibble-worthy.  Not everything in Westlake is about money (not that Bradfield said it was, and I can understand him needing a focal point).  Money isn’t something his heroes seek for its own sake, but rather so they can remain independents, remain free, remain themselves.  Identity was his topic, money was the modus operandi. But a damned important one, and he’s got the right idea here.  The Organization Men vs. The Independents, and it’s never hard to tell which side Westlake is on.

Loved the reference to Harlan Ellison–see, Westlake was never that colorful.  He didn’t tend to draw attention to himself (even in school, he said, he wasn’t the funny kid, he was the kid who hung around with the funny kid).

So he developed his readership, attracted many a prominent admirer, while he operated below the radar–like most of his protagonists.  Because he was afraid, I think, that if too many people had an image of him, it might screw up his self-image.  And that’s a legitimate fear.  Writers who become too famous often lose track of what made them writers in the first place.

And it too often happens that The Next Book becomes a monster they have to slay, instead of a new friend they can’t wait to make the acquaintaince of.  They end up spending most of their time burnishing their sacred reputations–always with that Memento Mori echoing in their heads, reminding them that posterity will stick most of them on a dusty neglected shelf, to make room for new names.

Westlake was never one of the writers everybody talks about.  Never a Literary Lion, an icon of the book world, a celebrity.  He was something better than that. He was a storyteller, who people showed up to read just because he was fun, and he told people things they needed to know to survive in this world.

I recently advocated for him to get a Library of America collection, and no doubt at all his work merits it–but I had other doubts.  Maybe that would be a kind of prison for a writer like him. I definitely don’t think his work that’s perpetually in print should get that treatment.

Some of his best novels have been out of print a long time now, because they fall through the cracks, don’t fit the mental images of any of his disparate readerships, and those are the ones I’d like to see revived, somehow, because you can’t understand Westlake without them.  Vital pieces to the puzzle, like Adios Scheherazade and Up Your Banners.  Which do still have a lot to say to the world as it is now.  I know what Bradfield means about the WASPy gangsters (though there were a lot of Micks and Dagos and Jews thrown in the mix), but Westlake did not always write about white folks.

Because he broadcast on so many different wavelengths, often represented by different author names,   it was more like he had many reputations, instead of one–everybody knew him, but nobody knew the same guy.  You could never nail him down, pigeonhole him, bring him to justice.  He’d always find a crack to slip through, and get away.  Like Dortmunder.  Like Parker.

Let me quibble once more with this superb piece.  Bradfield makes it sound like Grofield is tender-hearted, refusing to go on a job where innocent people might get hurt.  In The Stark Lands there is no such thing as innocent people.  He just figures the less mess you make, the less attention you draw to yourself.  Unlike Parker, he can feel guilt, but he doesn’t tend to let it stop him.  It would be self-deceiving for him to go around thinking you can rob supermarkets and payrolls with loaded guns and nobody but other criminals will get hurt.  Grofield has his flaws, but he doesn’t lie to himself.

I agree he’s a great character, but he’s not in the same league as Parker, and there’s a reason Westlake stopped writing about him.  Too many internal contradictions, and no way to resolve them in that kind of book.  Grofield is a fascinating experiment, that didn’t work out as well as Westlake hoped (so Stark pulled the trigger on him).

But see, this is my point–Bradfield has his Westlake.  I have mine.  You have yours.  They’re all real.  And they’re all projections.  And there the real Westlake goes, out the back door, laughing at all of us.  Well, we’re funny.  Bradfield refers to the Trumpian adversaries of Westlake’s fiction (at least one of whom was partly modeled after Trump). We made Trump President (some of us).  We’re funny as a heart attack, man.

But he was in deadly earnest, and never more when he was joking.  It wouldn’t kill us to recognize that more.  This is one of the greatest and most enduring American writers, who pulled off an amazing magic trick–to publish one popular well-received novel after another, for five decades, without ever really becoming famous, or revered–or forgotten.  The cover art changes, the books go on.  Not because they’re ‘important’ but because people can’t stop reading them.  Now they’re impulses on the internet.  Next….?

Missing my comments section cohorts, so if anybody else has quibbles–with Bradfield or me–speak up.  Hey, I’ve got another one–why has there never been anything like this in the New York Review of Books?  “A prophet is not without honor, except in his home town.”  Mark that well.  (Had to get a pun in there somewhere.)


Filed under Donald Westlake, Richard Stark

Pastiche: Mysterious Ways, Part 2

(Disclaimer: Whatever the hell I said last time, sincerest form of flattery and all that, plus you can’t really know how a magician does a trick until you try doing it yourself.

You know, I’ve been thinking, most people who post this kind of thing online come up with odd romantic pairings that could never happen in the real stories, though with these pay-per-view services, maybe that will change.  It’s almost a requirement of the form.  I’ve been a mite curious about what Tiny and J.C. get up to in the sack.  They can’t possibly do the missionary, right?  Leaving aside that she’s the dominant partner, she’d need some kind of body armor designed by NASA, just to survive the T-forces.  A body like that you don’t want to damage.  I guess it could be kinky if she had a thing on the side with Judson, but maybe she did, Tiny found out, and that’s why Judson’s not heard from in this story.  An eloquent silence, let’s call it.

Kelp and Anne Marie might have some wicked make-up sex after their argument in Part 1–that could almost be considered story-related, not that anyone cares. Their sex life’s been pretty well been covered in the books; we can imagine the fine details ourselves.  Dortmunder and May want their intimate moments to stay intimate.

As for the slashfic contingent, there’s always Herman X–the possibilities there are endless. But none shall be explored by me.  I find that I am constitutionally incapable of going where no fan has gone before, nor will I ever write another Dortmunder story of any type. Once was enough. I am, however, thinking about doing an F-Troop fic where Sarge gets it on with the Wrangler. You all know the legend of Forrest Tucker, right?  Just FYI, there are actual F-Troop fics online. You can’t make this shit up.  But we still try.)


Dortmunder stared at the author of his very being with a mixture of stunned amazement and keen resentment.  God was not, it turned out, an imperious-looking old man with a beard, up in the clouds, waited on by harp-strumming cherubs, engraving stern commandments on tablets in-between plagues of locusts.  He was an unprepossessing balding bespectacled schmo in the backroom of a bar, cleanshaven (maybe the beard was itchy), surrounded by cartons of liquor, pouring himself a glass of corn whiskey.  But yeah, old.  Him and the whiskey both.

The Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery had failed (miserably) in their attempt to instill any form of religiosity in the foundling left at their doorstep long ago, but they left their mark on him, all the same. Growing up as a most unwilling Catholic, Dortmunder had somehow always sensed God was out there, had some latent pre-conscious sense of what He looked like (and that He laughed a lot), and here He was, big as life, twice as crafty.

Having just called The Supreme Being an s.o.b., Dortmunder braced himself for thunderbolts, but none issued forth.  The good Lord merely pulled out a chair, and gestured for Dortmunder to sit.  He reached for a second glass on the table.


“No.  Thank you.”

“I’ll pour you one anyway.  You’re going to want it.” He filled the other glass with a generous portion of amber liquid, and nudged it over by the waiting chair.

“Since when have you ever cared what I wanted?”  Dortmunder sat down, rage swelling within him.  If this bastard was expecting any show of reverence from him, He’d be waiting a long time.  Of course, He had eternity.

God’s face got serious.  “That’s all I’ve ever cared about, John.  Understanding you, and the others.  What you wanted, what you needed, the line between the two.  It was never easy.  I got it wrong sometimes.  But I did the best I could, to listen to all of you.  To hear your prayers.  I didn’t always say no, but that was the right answer, more often than not.”  His contrition seemed sincere enough, if not what you’d call abject.

Dortmunder noted the past tense.  “You retiring or something?”

“After a fashion.  I won’t be telling any more stories.  You’ll continue, in one form or another, but I won’t.  Moving on.”

“To what?”

God spread His hands.  “I’m not that omniscient.  It is what it is.  I’ve got an author too.  Maybe He’s got one as well.  Or She.  I’d prefer a She.  Though She would probably insist I do a stretch in purgatory for all that smut I used to crank out.”

This was going nowhere.  “Okay, fine, you did your best, your time is up, I’m on my own.  Best as I can tell, I always was.  I’ve been a Jonah all my life, and now I’m remembering why people call guys with luck like mine by that name.”

“Different storyteller, but there are parallels, I’ll admit.  Call it an homage.”

“I can think of a lot of things to call it.”

“I’m sure you can.  Though I never did give you much of a vocabulary.  You or the Other Guy.  Words were never going to be your thing.”

“Other guy?” Dortmunder inquired, an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“The one I made damn sure you never met.  Don’t say I never did anything for you.  I protected you more than I ever did him.  I gave you better scores.  A lot fewer bloody-minded enemies.  A more reliable string.  You did fine. Better than I’d hoped. I was always proud of you, John.  You surprised me.  That’s the best thing a creator can hope for.  C’mon, take a sip, it’s really good stuff.”

Dortmunder lifted the glass and drank.  It was good.  Even better than the bourbon he got from Chauncey.  That lousy job, that ended with him chasing Kelp over the Scottish hillside in a suit of armor.

“Remember that, do you?  Not one of my better efforts.”  Lips pursed, in self-disapproval.  “I was going for Tom and Jerry, and it turned out more Heckle and Jeckle.  Probably some Bob Hope in the mix…..”

“Get out of my head!”

“You’re always in mine.  You and a host of others.  Tormenting me with all your potential.  That most of you never came close to using.  But that’s free will for you.  I gave you a set of options, and it was up to you to choose–to be true to your natures, or not.  You chose better than most of them, but that’s not saying much.”

Dortmunder glared at this, but God was on a roll, and paid him no mind.

“The best stories usually came from those who chose wrong, at least at first. The important thing is they had a choice. The one thing I can’t forgive myself for is Paul Cole.  How could he ever have known what his choices were, with that handicap I laid on him?  But I had to look into that abyss…..”

God was starting to ramble.  An occupational hazard, perhaps.

“So you don’t feel bad about anything you did to me.”  Dortmunder didn’t want to let go of his anger, which was paradoxically increased by the growing sympathy he was feeling for his maker.

“Be a little more specific.  I mean, there was so much…..”

“After the Balabomo Emerald thing ended, I was dead broke…”

“Because you blew all your money from the Akinzi at the racetrack.”

You invented parimutuel betting!”

“That was Joe Oller.  A higher deity than myself.  Anyway, it was always going to be something.  You had fun spending it, right?”

“I was running this lousy door to door encyclopedia scam, and there would always be dogs.  I had to steal from supermarkets just to eat.  This one time I got caught at the Bohack, with cans falling out of my sleeves…”

“Yeah?  Meet anybody that day?”  Looking much too pleased with Himself.

A confused look appeared in Dortmunder’s eyes.  The aroma of Tuna Casserole fresh out of the oven was suddenly redolent in the air around them.

“You’re welcome.  See?  Give and take.  Can’t have one without the other.  If for no other reason than that it would be boring, like everywhere in the universe life, with all its conundrums and contradictions, doesn’t exist.  It’s not a mathematical formula, it’s a jam session.  Though most of you are not exactly Bird or Pres.” The Almighty rolled his eyes a bit.

“There’s so much bad stuff happening.”

“Something a crook like you would know all about, and a crook like me can appreciate.  What’s a story without plot complications? It’s not like I gave any of my people wasting diseases, crushed them in earthquakes, or drowned them with tsunamis.  You’d have to take that kind of thing up with a different department.  But I’m sure there’s reasons for all that as well. I’m just as sure nobody could ever explain it all. A world that is simple enough to be fully understood, all the rules cut and dried, isn’t much of a world, from where I stand.  Might as well be playing a video game.”

“So you’re saying I was lucky.”

“I’m saying it could have been worse.  You had friends.  You had work you liked doing, that you were good at, but never so good that you didn’t need to do it anymore–a dead end for someone like you.  You had a roof over your head and someone to come home to. And you had some moments of true greatness.  They usually involved getting even with someone, but I’ve never thought a bit of creative vengeance was a sin.  So long as you don’t make it your whole life.”

“Max Fairbanks.”

“Yeah.  Him.”  A sour note crept into the voice of the divine presence.


“That’s not on me.  I told you, most people make bad choices.  They had all the information they needed to make good ones.  I can’t do everything for you people.  You need to take responsibility for your mistakes.  But I have to say–that was a doozy.”

“I didn’t vote for him.”

“You never vote.”

“Nobody I know voted for him.”

“Most of them don’t vote either.  Though you might be surprised by which of them did, and how.”

“You made Max Fairbanks!”

“I made a lot of people.  If I just decided which of them end up in charge, make sure that the worst never happens, what would that make me?”


God was pissed now.  He proceeded to wax wroth.

You want life to be fair?  You’ve committed even I don’t know how many felonies since you last got out of stir.  I aided and abetted you, repeatedly obstructed justice on your behalf.  If life were fair, we’d be having this debate in Dannemora!”

“Yeah, like you ever served a day in stir.”

“I served five.  You’ll remember, I’m supposed to have created the whole world in six.  It felt like a lifetime.  I was lucky, but I imagined you as what I might have become if I hadn’t been–if I’d been in that place a long time.  But because I wanted to see what you could do out here in the world, I sprung you, and kept you free–with a leash on you, but a damn long one.”

“I felt it anyway.  You kept letting me think I’d won the game, and then you’d yank the leash–I’d have to start all over again.  You kept changing the rules.  It wasn’t fair.”

“Nothing ever is, and you should be grateful.  Nobody who takes a good long honest look at himself ever wants life to be fair. You all just want it to be fair for others, for the ones you don’t like, but it ends up only being fair for rich bastards, because they fix the game.  While the rest of you whine about it, then knuckle under to them. If you want it fair, make it fair, damn you!”

He pounded the table for emphasis, and the bourbon leaped up in the glasses.

“You’re not supposed to swear.”  Dortmunder looked more subdued now.

“I didn’t take my own name in vain.”  God looked embarrassed at having lost his temper.  “I hear what you’re saying, but I abide by the choices you all make. And I give you the opportunities to make up for them.”

“What’s that mean?”

“If you’re so bothered by Max Fairbanks, do something about it. You’ve taken him down before.  You could do it again.  I gave you the skill set. I gave him no end of weak spots.”

All of a sudden, Dortmunder felt suspicious. “Is this another mission, like with that nun?”

“I seem to recall that assignment worked out for you.  But no.  If you just want to do your own thing, cultivate your garden, that’s fine.  That’s really all anyone should have to do.  That’s all I did, most of the time.  I never let myself lose touch with what was going on around me, though.  Which I’m sorry to say is a failing many share with you. But you know,  à chacun son goût.  

(Dortmunder wanted to ask what the hell that meant–checking one’s goo?  But if he asked, who knew how long this would go?)

God seemed to be wrapping up now.  “I enjoyed watching you all go through your paces, even when you stumbled.  But it’s time I was out of here.  Really should have been gone before now. I was waiting for the right opportunity to spring it on you.  You know, nobody else is getting an exit interview.  You should be proud.”

“I’m overcome by the honor.”  Dortmunder’s voice was very dry.

God was delighted.  “Sarcasm!  See, I never could manage that with the Other Guy!  Irony he could sort of manage, but it was like pulling teeth.

“What did he have to say when you braced him?”

“What did I just tell you? I didn’t.  I mean, I thought about it, but he’s hard to find. And sometimes, he even scares me a bit.  Suppose he decided to take ‘Gott ist tot‘ literally?  He knows me by a different name.  I’ve got a lot of them.  You might say my name is Legion.”

God (or was He?) chuckled at His little joke.

“Hey–wait a minute,” Dortmunder interjected.  “If you’re the one telling the stories, and you’ve retired, who’s telling this one?”

The Creator’s eyes took on a baffled look.  “Say–that’s right!  I’m not supposed to be a protagonist in these things.  I’m the narrator.  Nothing gets narrated without me!  What gives?  Stop, thief!  I still have copyright!”

He looked around wildly for a moment, seeking a target to blast with his wrathful gaze–then shrugged, laughed to himself.  “Oh well, some joker fiddling around in his spare time.  All the hallmarks of an amateur.  I just hope it’s not a script treatment.  Too wordy.”

“A what?”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know.  They never work out well for you and yours, my son.”

What did you call me?”

“Who do you think wove that basket you came in?  Just know that even though I’m going, I am with you always–to the end of the world.”

Dortmunder did not like the sound of that.  “Listen, you could maybe, I dunno, stick around a while.  Meet the gang.”

“I made the gang.  But you were always my fair-haired boy.  Metaphorically speaking. I figured dark hair would match your mood.  But lighten up a bit sometimes, why don’t you? Enjoy the bourbon.  My Own Brand, you know.”


He was gone.


Dortmunder blinked.  He looked at the bottle.  Still there.  Still more than half full.  He sipped.  Still much too good to be from the OJ.  Something had happened.  But the memory was already starting to recede, back into some Marianas Trench of the mind, where his innate knowledge of his maker resided.

He hadn’t been hearing anything outside the backroom during the conversation, but now there was sound again, emanating from the bar.  He could hear a voice that sounded like a gravel pit with anger issues, saying “My mother always told me you take off your hat in a polite drinking establishment!” followed by explanatory expostulations, followed by a fist the size of a canned ham colliding with a bearded face, which then collided with the floor, along with a toppling barstool and a glass of over-hopped ale.  That’s what it sounded like, anyway.

Cries of “DUDE!  Harsh!” were then heard, followed by thunderous approaching footfalls, and in through the door of the backroom, filling it to capacity, stepped the harshest of all dudes, Tiny Bulcher, followed by Andy Kelp and Stan Murch.  (Nobody thought to mention that Tiny was still wearing his own hat, but nobody should ever bring that up with a guy who sports a Homburg.)

And, interestingly, there also appeared the fetching figure of Josephine Carol Taylor, Tiny’s beloved, who did not usually venture to the OJ, her interests lying elsewhere. Maybe a little more cynical and world-weary than usual, but as always, it looked good on her.

“John, you started without us?” Kelp inquired, his eyes noting two glasses that had already been imbibed from.  He was holding a tray with more glasses.

“There was somebody else here.  Old friend, you could maybe say–had to step out.  He left us some good stuff.  Tiny, Stan, maybe you could put aside your usual drinks, join me and Andy?   You too, J.C.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” J.C. said, reaching for the bottle, as she took the seat facing the door.  “The day I’ve had, I could use it.  So many second-rate hucksters out there now, it’s screwing up my rackets.  Would you believe some Russian clown called the UN Ambassador and convinced her he was representing a made-up country?  That guy owes me money!  Who else wants some of this?”

Tiny was not going to drink red wine and vodka, his usual beverage of choice, when his woman was having straight bourbon, so he held out his glass for a pour.

“I’m not driving, so fill ‘er up,” Stan moodily responded.  “You can’t navigate this city in daylight anymore.  I might as well indulge.  Doc says I need to cut down on salt, anyway.”  (It being his normal habit to nurse along a glass of beer by sprinkling salt in it to restore the head, which I only mention because it’s traditional to do so for those who came in late, and one likes to observe the formalities.)

“To crime,” said Kelp, and they all clinked glasses.

They drank–and after a momentary look of astounded euphoria had passed over everyone’s face but Dortmunder’s, Kelp got down to business.  “There’s two things to discuss.  First, the Going Out of Business store on Seventh.  John and me had a look, seems like a possible.  Shouldn’t need more than the four of us–I can handle the alarm system myself.”

“Don’t mind me, boys,” J.C. smiled, knowing full well the boys never could help minding her.

“It’s always good when you kibitz, J.C.,” Andy riposted gallantly.  “Anyway, the other potential thing is from my nephew Victor.”

“This is the G-Man?” Tiny rumbled, not saying it in a pleasant way, though it would have been noteworthy if he had.

“Yeah, but he says no cause for worry on that score.  He’s got this job; we go into this office, we take this dossier he needs for this investigation, we get a flat fee in cash.  Discretionary funds, for informants, which is what we’d technically be.

“Quid lucrum istic mihi est?”

Not a lot, John–two g’s a head–sounds like an easy grab.  The kind of thing they wouldn’t be able to do themselves, so they subcontract, off the books.  This is maybe a bit further off the books than usual, but that’s Victor”  Kelp didn’t sound enthused about it, but family is family.

“They always sound easy,” Dortmunder mused.  “What did he say about this information he wants us to get?  It’s about the election?”

“Connected with that, yeah.  Thing is, the people who have this aren’t supposed to have it.  They came by it in an illicit manner themselves, so they can’t make a stink if it goes missing.  It’s just for Victor and his buddies to eyeball, so they can know what questions to ask when they’re having a friendly chat with some of these people, maybe under a  strong lightbulb, I wouldn’t know.”

“Pass,” Tiny decided.

“Doesn’t sound like there’s any driving in it,” Murch opined.

“John?” Kelp inquired.

“Let’s see how the other thing works out,” Dortmunder concluded.

As they filed out past the bar, a bearded youngster with a swollen jaw whipped off his knit hat with alacrity.  “Better late than never,” Tiny said, his ill humor having subsided under the influence of fine liquor.  “Rollo, set this fella up with whatever it was he was drinking before I chastised him.”

Gazing at the outgoing assembly, Rollo looked perplexed.  “Where’d The Good Bourbon go?”

“Out the back door,” Dortmunder responded.

“We don’t have a back door.”

“He made one.”

As Rollo pondered this imponderable, Dortmunder and the others headed out to the sidewalk.

“John, you want to share a ride?” Kelp asked.

“I’ll walk.  Need to clear my head.”


“Josie and me got that hired stretch limo.”

“Stan?  You got a car nearby?”

“Took the subway,” Murch said with distaste.  “Sure, why not?  Just drop me at the A train.”

“Great, I’ll get an Uber.  Bad time of night to find anything with MD plates.”

Uber?  Dortmunder started to ask what was wrong with a cab, but he caught himself just in time to avoid inviting an explanation.  Andy started cheerfully fiddling with his phone, and in no time at all, a black sedan came rolling up to the curb.  A familiar face stuck itself out the driver’s side window.”

“You all know about congestion pricing, right?”  It was Gladys Murch.

“Mom!  Not you too?!  This is why I can’t drive in the city anymore!”

“Got to get with the times, Stanley.  Cash or credit?  It’s going to be forty dollars upfront.”

Dortmunder just did not want to know what any of that was about.


He walked slowly back to May’s apartment, looking up at what little could be seen of the stars in the night sky, trying to make sense of it all.  What was he supposed to do?  Was it coincidence he’d just been told he could do something about Max Fairbanks, and now all of a sudden there was something he could do about Max Fairbanks?  Not likely.

But Dortmunder had no real beef with Fairbanks.  That had all been settled in Vegas.  If the poor stiff wanted to play at being Leader of the Free World a while, and the Americans were dumb enough to let him, that was their mutual misfortune.  Nothing to do with him.

He figured he’d walk by the Going Out Of Business store on Seventh, give it another looksee.  That was a real job, stealing real things, getting real cash in exchange, that would not remotely savor of work for hire.

He got to the shop.   He stopped.  His jaw dropped.

It was boarded up.  Covered by a wood scaffolding.  Along with everything else on the block.  They were out of business.  For real.  Looking through the gaps, he could see all the merchandise was gone.  No more store.  No more score.

He looked about for some explanation of this impossibility.  Tacked to the wooden shell was a notice of foreclosure.  Something about how the landlord had taken possession of the premises.  Some mention of Trans-Global Universal Industries.  Oh shit.

Over to one side, he saw a poster bearing the image of an impossibly gaudy tasteless egocentric structure–and the words SOON TO BE THE SITE OF FAIRBANKS TIMES SQUARE.  

Dortmunder could feel the chain reaction starting up inside his head, unstoppable as a landslide, inexorable as a typhoon, implacable as an erupting volcano.

He knew it was a set-up. He knew who was really behind it. Didn’t matter. Dortmunder was very very very very angry now.  And there was only one outlet for his rage to expend itself upon.  Because its author had left the building.  By the back door.  That sly bastard.

“Okay, fine, you want to see my paces?” he snarled, hackles raised, eyes turned heavenward.  “Just lay your bets and watch me run!”

And over in DC, as he slept the fitful sleep of aspiring despots, President Fairbanks shivered, clutched his smartphone reflexively.  Later, there would be confused tweets in the wee hours before dawn.  Something else Dortmunder wouldn’t care to know about.

A few days later, a secretary working at Fairbanks Tower found an envelope in the box for items to be sent to the boss by special courier.  She dutifully relayed it onwards.  It contained a cheaply made ring with strange symbols on it.  And a note saying only “You win.”

Max was enraptured when he got it.  Slipped the ring on, laughing softly to himself.  It fit like it was made to order.  This really was going to be his year.

And as Samuel Fuller concluded one of his westerns–“THE END OF THIS STORY CAN ONLY BE WRITTEN BY  YOU.”  Happy New Year.  I mean, why not, right?


Filed under John Dortmunder, Uncategorized