Monthly Archives: April 2014

Review: The Hunter (AKA Point Blank, AKA Payback, etc, etc)

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The office men drove by, clutching their steering wheels, and hardly noticed him.  Just a bum walking on the bridge.   Didn’t even own a car.  A few of them saw him and remembered themselves before they’d made it, when they didn’t have a car.   They thought they were empathizing with him.   They thought it was the same thing.

 Parker put the gun down and picked up the phone.  “All right,” he said.  “He’s dead.  I’ve got your name and phone number.  In five minutes, I’ll have your address.  In twenty-four hours, I’ll have you in my hands.  Yes or no.”

“In twenty-four hours you’ll be dead!  No lone man can buck the organization.”

“I’ll be seeing you,” Parker said.

Bucklin Moon, editor at Pocket Books, was having a bad day.   Maybe more like a bad year.   Hell, make it a bad decade.  Once a promising young novelist and anthologist; a white man who wrote from the perspective of working class blacks, championed equality and world peace, as well as an editor of the first rank who had helped introduce some of the most legendary names in African American literature to the world, he’d been fired from Colliers Magazine in 1953 over accusations from a superior that he was a ‘fellow traveler’ (well hey, aren’t we all?), and had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee on charges that–among other things–he’d been centrally involved in a peace conference run by the Communist Party.  He denied all the charges vehemently,  and there was no real evidence against him except that of association.  Moon was basically an FDR Liberal, perhaps guilty of naivete on certain subjects, roughly as subversive as Pope Francis,  but when he refused to ‘name names’, that, as they say, was that.  For years afterwards, publishers treated him like he was poison.

By the time McCarthy was done and the heat was off (and Mr. Moon had attempted suicide during a bout of depression), he was yesterday’s news, and he couldn’t get his writing career going again.   He’d put together a fairly prestigious (now forgotten) anthology for Doubleday that came out in 1962, but it was just excerpts of other people’s work, most of it easily available elsewhere (and, I note in passing, absolutely nothing in it that could remotely be called crime fiction).   It didn’t make up for what he’d lost, and now here he was, slaving away in the slush piles of a publisher of tiny cheap paperbacks that catered at times to rather lowbrow tastes–I don’t know for a fact that this bothered him, but think about it–wouldn’t it bother you?

But a thoroughgoing professional he always had been, and this he remained, so he resolutely worked his way through one lamentable manuscript after another, making helpful suggestions as to how each might  be improved–and then one day he got something–different.   From a young writer name of Westlake, only he was submitting this under the name Richard Stark.  Crime fiction, in the raucous no-holds-barred contemporary style, and nothing like anything Moon’s name had previously been linked to.  Bucklin Moon had never been a genre guy, even though he was a key figure in the rise of Chester Himes–see, when Moon was editing Himes,  the future master of Harlem Noir was still doing respectable novels of social realism and the plight of the black man–he didn’t start writing his irreverent tales of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones until about ten years later, after he moved to Paris.   I’m not even sure Moon approved of Himes making the switch to crime fiction.  It’s not like I can ask him what he thought about that.   I guarantee you Himes never did.

Moon once wrote an essay about his experiences with book editing, saying that he usually only needed to get through the first few pages to know if a book was any good or not, though even if he knew it was rotten he still had to force himself to read every last painful page, fighting ennui all the way.

In the first few pages of this crime novel he was tasked with reading, written rather sparely in the third person and entitled The Hunter, a guy walks across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, commits a series of petty crimes and frauds to get a bankroll and a false ID, looks up the wife who shot him (but still loves him), knocks her down, goads her to suicide, mutilates her corpse so she won’t be identified right away, waits until a messenger who happens to be gay (that isn’t the word the novel uses) shows up with money for her, then beats the location of the money’s source out of him.  So I think we can safely conclude Mr. Moon was not bored.

As the story continues, this guy relentlessly and methodically goes from one link in the chain to the next, and his goals are very simple–he wants some money he thinks of as his, even though he stole it.   And he wants the former associate who stole it from him to die gasping between his two huge vein-covered hands.   In that order of priority.   And anybody, no matter how powerful or ruthless or well-connected, who tries to impede him in achieving these goals is going to end up regretting it.  Though probably not for very long.

At no time does this bruiser show the slightest remorse over his violent behavior–nor does he take any sadistic pleasure from it.   It’s just what he does.   It’s just who he is.   He’s a thief, a professional ‘heavy’ (meaning armed) heister.   If someone threatens him, or gets in his way,  or excessively complicates his plans, then and only then does he become a killer as well.   He thinks in terms of patterns–his old pattern, we’re told, has been disrupted by a double-cross, and now he has to find a new pattern, to try and get back to the old pattern–to do a big robbery, then live for a year or more off the proceeds, whiling away his time at some warm-weather resort, usually in Florida.

His pattern has one other odd twist to it–he is keenly interested in the opposite sex (who invariably find him dangerously attractive), but only right after he’s finished a job.   For a month or two afterwards, he’s insatiable, then his sex drive gradually drops off, and completely disappears once he’s back to planning a new job.  He doesn’t think there’s anything strange about this, and he never worries about it.   He is perfectly aware that he’s not like anyone else, but he never wonders why.   He never questions his nature.  He’s content to be as he is.   He can’t imagine being any other way.   He wouldn’t understand anyone who did.   He has rarely experienced the emotion of hatred (perhaps only towards the wife who betrayed him, who he basically stops thinking of after her death), and never once has he felt a pang of envy.   Towards anybody.   He is, in short, a minority of one.

The last half of the book is about his struggle with a crime syndicate that calls itself The Outfit, to which his former associate Mal Resnick paid the money our ‘hero’ thinks of as his to settle a debt, and buy a comfortable living as a lower-level boss, though he intends to keep working his way up.   Mal is a weakling and a coward, whose only real asset is a sort of low cunning, and who has no higher aspiration than to be a cog in that criminal machine.  Our man dispatches him easily, but now he has to get his money from The Outfit itself.

The Outfit doesn’t want to pay, and none of its high-ranking members can bring themselves to comprehend that this unaffiliated nobody is telling them “My money or your lives.”   But that is exactly what he’s telling them, and he is deadly serious.   Against all odds, he keeps beating them, outmaneuvering them with startling ease, because he’s a free man, and they’re just cogs in a machine.   They’ve forgotten how to think, how to stand on their own feet, how to fight their own battles.  They’ve gotten so used to nobody standing up to them, they don’t know how to react when somebody does, and he exploits that confusion to the hilt.    He gets what he wants out of them, killing a few in the process, and prepares to leave New York with his money, to resume his old pattern, begin a new life, with a new face, courtesy of a plastic surgeon.

Then the cops pick him up on (mistaken) suspicions of narcotics smuggling, and he makes a break for it and they gun him down.   The End.

At this point, as I fondly imagine, Bucklin Moon must have blinked.   He reads the last chapter over again, and he says to himself no–it will not do.   He contacts the author, whose book has already been rejected by Gold Medal (the #1 outfit in paperback crime publishing at the time), and says Pocket would like to buy The Hunter–but only on condition that the protagonist gets away at the end, and that Westlake can give them three novels a year about him.   Westlake, still making much of his living by writing quickie erotic novels for desultory houses like “Nightstand Books” accepts with overjoyed alacrity–turns out he never liked the ending either, but it was just what you’re supposed to do with a protagonist that bad, right?   I mean, he accidentally causes the death of a completely innocent woman in the course of the book, somebody who never harmed him in any way, and his only reaction is one of bemused irritation that she had asthma and didn’t tell him before he knocked her out, tied, and gagged her, so he could use her place of business as a vantage point for surveillance.   Best as we can tell, he never thinks about it afterwards.  Spilled milk, right?

Not a nice guy.   Not in any way shape or form.  He doesn’t pet dogs in the street.   He doesn’t toss coins to barefoot orphans.   The closest thing he can muster to a compliment when talking to an old friend who happens to be a delectable little redhead with a major crush on him is “You look good”, and he’s only saying that because he needs a favor.  He totally ruins her life in the space of three short chapters, and he doesn’t even say he’s sorry.  He doesn’t have a kind word to say about anyone, even the few people who actually like him, though say this–if you’re 100% straight with him, he’ll be 100% straight with you, right down the line.   In all other regards, he’s a bastard (perhaps literally as well as figuratively), and the book calls him exactly that in its sixth paragraph, though only in the context of telling us that passing women can’t look at him without thinking about sex, which kind of takes out the sting, if you know what I mean.

And this fictive monster’s life, for all intents and purposes, was saved  and perpetuated over the course of what turned out to be well over four decades, by a lifelong pacifist and idealist, and quite certainly a gentleman towards the fair sex (he married several of them), who devoted himself wholeheartedly to helping the less privileged, and wouldn’t name names of people he barely knew to save himself from professional ruin.   Weird.

Westlake returned the manuscript to Moon basically unchanged, except for a revised ending–best as I can tell, Moon did not make any further suggestions or emendations, though he said in that essay about editing that it was virtually unknown for a new author to get that treatment.   The only real difference in the rewrite is that the main character escapes the cops–without his money, because that would make it too easy–and then has to plan a whole new robbery, where he sticks it to The Outfit yet again, and then heads off for his plastic surgery, figuring afterwards he’ll go back to Florida–maybe somewhere in the Keys.

And reading this in its final published form, probably the last book of any real note he could claim any significant credit for, though I doubt he or even Donald Westlake recognized it as such at the time, I just know that lifelong pacifist, gentleman, defender of the downtrodden, and all-around nice guy Bucklin Moon was smiling, like a kid on Christmas Day.

Paradoxical?   Nope.  That’s Parker.

If you’re getting the impression I am advancing the theory that Bucklin Moon gave Donald Westlake a contract to write three books a year about this dastardly dastard because he himself, Bucklin Moon, wanted to go on reading about him, well give yourself a gold star, Sherlock.   As I see it, any book editor worth his or her onions, regardless of the tawdry commercial realities of the publishing industry, hungers and thirsts not to produce the latest bestselling piece of crap,  but to try to the utmost of his or her ability to get books in print that he or she would want to read.   That’s the difference between a professional and a hack, as I know Donald Westlake would agree.   Parker certainly did turn out to be a paying proposition for Pocket, but the Gold Medal editor who rejected the very same manuscript would have presumably been better-versed in the demands of the crime genre market, and I’m not sure Moon even gave a damn about that genre.   I honestly don’t know.

What I do know, or so I flatter myself, is human nature.  And it is human nature to identify with those who do what you can’t do, go where you fear to go, fight those you were unable to fight, win the game of life on their own terms, and make you believe they can do all this.    As Bucklin Moon had aspired to do, in a very different way, before some two-bit assholes (to put it politely) from a somewhat different kind of Outfit put him on ice.    To live in this world is to get mad at the way it works.   To get mad is to dream, however fleetingly and futilely, of somehow someway someday getting even.   Of bucking the organization and getting away clean.    Of being absolutely unequivocally free.

By the way, did I happen to mention Bucklin Moon eventually retired to Florida?   He died in 1984, somewhere in the Keys.   I am not making that up.

Okay, this is getting long, and have I even reviewed the book yet?   Not really.    Parenthetically, I don’t even think this is the best book Westlake published the year it came out.   But it’s arguably the most important and influential novel he ever wrote, the keystone of his long productive career, and I think I’m going to put this to bed, feed my dog, get some dinner, do some laundry, and come back with Part 2 sometime in the coming week.

I’ll be seeing you.

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Review: 361

 

“You will never be punished by the law?”

“Never.  I’m sure of it.”

“And you obviously haven’t lost your money or your social standing.   Do you have ulcers, or anything like that?”

“No.  I’m perfectly healthy.  My doctor says I’ll live past ninety.   Do you have a point to make?”

“Yes.   To my brother, not to you.  He needs an education.   He believes in good guys and bad guys.  That they’re born that way and stay that way.   And that good guys always win, and bad guys always lose. ”

Closed-lips smile.   “A great number of people believe that.   It’s comforting to them.”

I said “Until the guns come out.”

361 is a book that poses many questions for the reader–first of which is the question “how do you pronounce the title?”   Three hundred and sixty one?  Three Six One?   Or as I pronounce it, Three Sixty One?   We’re told upfront that the title is derived from the fact that Roget’s Thesaurus lists words and phrases relating to violent destruction of life under that number, which it does.  But there is no mention of this within the narrative itself, in which the number 361 does not appear, and thesauri are not referred to.   The brief explanatory note that precedes Chapter One seems to satisfactorily explain the cryptic title of this novel, which certainly does contain a lot of violent death–though really, not so much by the standards of the crime fiction genre.  The narrator/protagonist of 361 kills four people–three on purpose, one by accident–and is deeply affected by the experience.   And there are a number of other violent deaths, but decidedly fewer than in Westlake’s previous novel Killing Time, the title for which is an obvious pun–is 361 a less obvious pun?    Is the book really about killing?  Let’s see.

The hero (and I think that’s the appropriate term here, though he might not agree) is Ray Kelly, 23 years old, raised in upstate New York, just out of the Air Force.   This is even closer to the details of Donald Westlake’s early life than his two previous protagonists, likewise raised upstate–Clay in The Mercenaries served in the Army in peacetime,  while Killing Time‘s Tim Smith was a marine in WWII.   And unlike those characters, it’s made clear Ray Kelly comes from an Irish Catholic family (as did Westlake), though we later learn he may not actually be of Gaelic stock.  He has, nonetheless, been raised in that culture, and is imbued with its values–such as bone-deep unquestioning family loyalty.   He doesn’t look at all like his redheaded father Willard, or his big brother Bill, but they are quite literally his entire world.   You get the feeling though, that he’s always felt a bit alienated.  Like he knew he didn’t belong, but he couldn’t figure out why.

He’s a rather existentialist figure, somehow reminiscent of Meursault in The Stranger, though not so–French.   He gets back to America after being stationed in Germany, looks at the world around him as he takes public transportation through New York City (where he’s never been before, since his dad never took him), and he feels distanced from it, experiencing the urban tableau like a movie he’s suddenly found himself playing a minor role in.   Then it turns out he’s the star, and it’s a revenge flick.

He and his father have an emotional reunion in Manhattan (with a few quick strokes, Westlake shows you there’s real love there on both sides), and in spite of Willard’s increasing nervousness, spend a few days seeing the sights Ray never got to see as a kid.   Then they drive out of the city via the recently constructed lower level of the George Washington Bridge, and make their way home to Binghamton, which Ray sees as a smaller more focused version of New York.  Having been to Binghamton, let me just say he could not be more wrong, but it tells you something about the character.   His perspective is all screwed up–and it’s going to get worse.   Two guys pull alongside them on the highway, and shoot Willard Kelly dead at the steering wheel–he says the word “Cap” before he dies–in the ensuing crash, Ray suffers extensive injuries, and loses his right eye.   He wakes up in the hospital, and his life as he knew it is over.

Once he’s out of the hospital, a mobbed-up guy who feels like he owes Willard Kelly a favor tells Ray to disappear before the same thing happens to him–which serves to inform Ray that the mob was behind the murder.  Without a moment’s hesitation or thought, he recruits his brother Bill, who just lost his wife to a hit-and-run driver (presumably somehow connected, because it would be, right?), and they set out to find the evil-doers and administer justice.   Bill thinks about it that way, anyhow.   Ray’s thinking is less emotional, but at the same time much more intense.   He knows he has to kill these people.   He’s not so sure he knows why.   But when Bill, realizing at last that their father was a mob lawyer in his past life, starts wondering if there’s any point to avenging him, Ray beats the crap out of his much larger sibling, and then asks him why they’re going to find these men and kill them.  “Because he was our father,” Bill says.   “That’s right.”   Just those two words.   Ray is getting more terse with every chapter.   If it isn’t necessary, cut it out.   That’s rapidly becoming his credo.   He’ll be down to one word responses soon.   He is looking for the shortest distance between two points here–he can show patience when it’s needed, but he has to force himself.

Oh, and he seems to have no interest whatsoever in sex, though he’s certainly aware of the various attractive women who come into view during his journey, none of whom has anything much to do with the story.   Sex just isn’t relevant, so he gives it no mind.   He’s no virgin–he tells us he broke his cherry in a German brothel, and the whore was so indifferent he got a bit rough with her just to get her attention.   This is all sounding very familiar, isn’t it?

So they set up in Manhattan, start making inquiries, and basically sit around waiting for the guys that killed Willard Kelly to come after them.   Which they do, but Ray is proving to be a remarkably canny tactician, and has developed an attitude so hard-boiled you could crack nuts with it–it seems like he was born for this life of violent retribution, but that doesn’t mean he likes it.

He starts researching his father’s past life and associates at the public library, via the NY Times index (ah yes, I remember it well), and the more he learns, the worse it looks.   He meets one of the partners at his dad’s old law firm, that kept many a mobster out of jail back in the day, and this is his reaction–

“When I was a kid, I believed in a Business Pope.  I thought there was a strict mercantile hierarchy, grocery stores and movie houses down at the bottom, factories and warehouses up in the middle, Wall Street up near the top.  And a Business Pope running the whole thing.   I visualized the Business Pope as a shriveled ancient white-haired Pluto in a black leather chair.  Black-capped chauffeur to the left, white-hipped nurse to the right.  Every line on his face would record a decade of evil and cruelty and decay.  I knew just what he would look like.

That was Samuel Krishman.  No chauffeur and no nurse.  Black leather swivel chair.  A mahogany desk of wood so warm it glowed.  Maroon desk blotter.  Two black telephones.  Discreet papers, ashamed to be white.”

The aging law partners are too scared to tell them anything much (one of them is literally scared to death in a memorable scene involving Ray’s glass eye).  Finally, they find out a mob boss Willard Kelly had a particularly close relationship with is going to be released from Dannemora, and they show up to meet him.  And end up saving him from the same guys who killed their dad.    And like the story wasn’t twisted enough already, we learn that this guy, name of Kapp (that’s right), is Ray’s biological father, Bill is only Ray’s half-brother, their mom was a gangster’s moll who killed herself, and then Bill turns up dead–an apparent suicide, but Ray knows better.   And if you thought he was pissed off before…..

Kapp clues Ray in on what’s happening here, though Ray has some understandable doubts as to his honesty.   There’s a syndicate war brewing, between the older rougher Prohibition-era guys who are getting out of jail or returning from exile, and the newer, slicker, more business-oriented guys, who wanted to kill Ray because he was Kapp’s son and presumed heir.   Chief among these new-style mobsters is Ed Ganolese, who you’ll remember as the unfortunate Clay’s boss in The Mercenaries–making 361 an indirect sequel to that book (there’s also a link to Killing Time, via the ever-present “A Sound of Distant Drums”, which is now a movie).  We don’t hear anything more about Clay (in this case, no news is probably not good news), and Ed gets no dialogue here, but he makes a brief cameo appearance in a riflescope, and let’s just say the mills of the Great God Westlake grind exceedingly fine.

Ray is different from Westlake’s two previous first-person narrators, in that he’s a lot less inclined to give impromptu lectures on how things work.   That thing about the Business Pope is as expansive as he ever gets.   Westlake has decided he wants this protagonist to play his cards a lot closer to the vest–behind the vest, even–so he appoints Kapp to deliver the obligatory sociology dissertations, crime fiction style (you’ll find at least one in every 87th Precinct novel ever written)–for example, why is organized crime all Italians and Irish and Jews and etc?

“Three generations,” he said.  “The first generation, they don’t know what’s going on.  They got funny accents, and there’s a lot of words they don’t know, and they’ve got different ways of doing things, different things they like to eat and wear, and all the rest of it.   You see?   They aren’t respectable.  I’m not talking about honest and dishonest.   I’m talking about respect.  They’re not a part of the respectable world, see?  Same with their kids, they’re half and half.  They’ve got the whole upbringing in the house, with the old country stuff, and then grade school and high school and the sidewalk outside.  See?  Half and half.  And then the third generation.   Americanized.  The third generation can be respectable.   Do you see what I’m getting at?”

He’s getting at the way assimilation can twist identity–make honest citizens into crooks, then back into honest citizens again.   He’s telling the truth, after a fashion, but a very narrow self-serving version of it, which Ray isn’t really that interested in–he’s just waiting for Kapp to tell him who ordered his whole family snuffed out.   They are still his family, he still wants revenge for them, and he can’t really summon any familial feelings towards Kapp, but he’s wondering now–what is he revenging here?   He realizes that all he’s doing is taking revenge for the destruction of the life he could have had–the person he could have been.   But without that mission, he’s got no purpose–and without Kapp, he’s got no family.   What is he doing here?   What’s the point?   Once he finishes his revenge, what’s left?   Who is Ray Kelly then?  Does he even exist?

Kapp makes a deal with Ray–he’ll finger the killers, but in return Ray has to help Kapp convince the other out-of-power mobsters to join him in taking back the New York territory from Ganolese & Co.   He says they need to see he’s got an heir who’s tough and smart enough to succeed him–which Ray certainly is, but he’s got zero interest in joining the syndicate.  He’ll fake it–until Kapp lets him know who to kill.   When Kapp does, at an Adirondack retreat he’s rented for the big gangster meet-up (turns out they have their own forms of social media), Ray sneaks out and grabs a Greyhound Bus to Manhattan.   And then the fireworks really get started.

(Editing, long long after I first posted this–you can tell I never knew much about mob history, to have not made the connection with this very real event that took place shortly before this book was written.)

But for all of his single minded focus on bloody retribution, Ray hasn’t really become a stone killer–he gets one of Ganolese’s associates, a black lawyer named Cheever (some interesting racial politics in the book, though it’s not the main focus) to take him to Ganolese’s hideout in the Ramapo Mountains, just north of the New Jersey border–Ray intends to kill Cheever once he doesn’t need him for a guide, since he believes Cheever might have orchestrated the hits on his family–but when the time comes, he can’t pull the trigger.   He lets the terrified shyster run away through the woods, and he feels sad and disgusted with himself.   He tells himself it’s because he’s not sure Cheever had anything to do with his father’s death–but that’s not the real reason, he knows.   “I hadn’t killed him because I couldn’t kill him.”   Ray can kill in self-defense, and he can kill in cold blood for revenge, but it’s like a switch that has to be flipped inside of him.  Cheever doesn’t flip that switch.   Others do.  It’s that simple.

Clay knew how to turn off his feelings in order to become a weapon for Ed Ganolese to point at anyone who became a problem.  Ray can’t do this, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a weapon too–he’s just a less reliable weapon–and more dangerous to whoever wields him.   He might backfire at any moment.   He’s a completely free agent, even when he’s pretending to be Kapp’s dutiful son.   He’s not consciously doing anyone’s bidding–that’s part of the thrill of the character.   All through the book, we see him talking to powerful people, dangerous people, like they’re nothing–which to him they are.   It’s a bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, sure–that’s the genre–but usually the genre gives us a reason to believe this or that character is leaner and meaner than the rest.  So where is this all this talent for murder and mayhem in Ray Kelly coming from?   Why is it credible?   Why do we buy into it so readily?  Well, I did.  Can’t speak for you.

Clay and Tim Smith, we could see how they became the dangerous people they’re presented to us as being–they have the background for it.   But somehow, they seem less dangerous than Ray, a wet behind the ears kid who served a few uneventful years in the Air Force (and can’t even fly a plane).   Ray is a more effective protagonist than his two predecessors, but going by resumes, he should be the least successful of the three.   You can say it’s because the trauma of the accident brought out something that had been sleeping in him–maybe some gangster gene he inherited from his biological father, which is certainly how Kapp sees it.   But he’s a lot tougher than Kapp as well, which we’re left in no doubt of by the end.   And we’re told he actually resembles his mother, whose ghost somehow haunts the narrative.

The reason why Ray Kelly is so believably tough–in spite of his inner doubts and hesitations–is because of the way Westlake writes him.   He isn’t so eager to explain himself, justify himself, as Clay or Tim.   And he never once lies to himself, or by extension, the reader.  The scariest thing any of us can ever face is the truth, and Ray never flinches from that grim prospect.  He wants to know.   Everything.   No matter how much it hurts.  He wants to know who he is, what he is, even if the answer is “nothing”.    He looks at us straight-on, with his one remaining eye, and he doesn’t look away.

By the end of the novel he’s paid a high price for his enlightenment–he’s lost his family, several times over, along with any purpose for his existence, and yet he clearly intends to go on existing, and to seek some kind of life worth leading.   After going on an epic bender in the city, he tells Arnold Beeworthy (yeesh), a crusty old NY Times reporter we met earlier in the book the whole sad bloody story, recording it (strictly off the record) on a tape recorder at the man’s house.   They go out for a bit, and when they come back, the reporter’s wife is listening to the tape, and weeping.   See, there is some pity in this world.   But not too much–the reporter tells her to make them some coffee.

When we first meet Ray Kelly, he’s a blank slate–he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, who he’s going to be, but he knows he’s got a family he loves who love him back.   Then as the story goes by, all of that is stripped away from him, a piece at a time.   At the end, he’s come a full 360 degrees, back to having nothing, no one.   But now he knows the whole truth about himself.    And that’s the 1.  Do you see what I’m getting at?

And maybe you see something else, if you’ve read the next book in the queue.   Maybe you see a figure looming in the distance,  long swinging arms ending in outsized hands, striding defiantly into Manhattan over the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge, conceivably around the same time Willard and Ray Kelly are driving out beneath.   Maybe they pass each other like ships in the night.   Maybe.

 

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Review: Killing Time

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“Jack told us you were shifty but honest,” he said conversationally.   “How do you work  a stunt like that? 

“I’m on the side of the angels,” I told him.

“There aren’t any angels in Winston,” he said.

Say you go by the rather commonplace name of Tim Smith–an everyman, so to speak, but far from average.   Say you’re a detective–the private kind–in a small town, where everybody knows everybody, and everybody definitely knows you.   And you figure you know them, as well as the score, but guess what?   You figured wrong.

The second novel Westlake published under his own name, Killing Time, as I see it, is his first really substantial piece of work; product of a long-gestating talent that has finally matured, though it’s still years away from peaking.    It’s also a headscratcher of a book–it starts like the first in a series of hardboiled detective novels,  firmly in the Dashiell Hammett school, set in a small upstate New York burg–the kind of town Westlake had a fair bit of experience with, growing up in and around Albany and then going to Harpur College in Binghamton–Rod Serling’s birthplace.  But it most emphatically doesn’t end that way.   It ends, you might say, with a bang–or a scream.

So I have to wonder, as I briefly did in my last review of The Mercenaries–was Westlake angling around for a series, trying a variety of first person protagonists in familiar crime fiction subgenres (gangster, private dick), hoping to find a character worth writing a lot of books about?   No question, for a hungry young writer starting out in this genre, that’s where the money is–you can just keep running variations on a theme, turning out book after book, and the publishers eat it up–as long as it sells.   Ay, there’s the rub.   The main character has to be worth coming back to, again and again.   The premise has to have enough of a hook to hang more than one book on.

It’s just an inkling I have, but assuming Westlake did start each of his first two published crime novels with the idea that maybe this book would lead to others, in both cases, it proved to be a dead end (literally).   Even if I’m right, I’m guessing he didn’t get too far into either book before he realized it wouldn’t work.   George ‘Clay’ Clayton, errand boy to a mob boss, could have broken away and had a series of adventures as a soldier of fortune, the way Peter Rabe’s Daniel Port did–but Westlake later remarked that he didn’t think that series was any great shakes, even though it ran for six installments.  Having read all six, I tend to agree with him.    Rabe might have felt the same way, but hey, the checks cleared.

Now criminal investigators, like Philip Marlowe,  Lew Archer, Matthew Scudder, or even that Sherlock Whatshisface–they are without doubt the bread and butter of detective fiction, hence the name, so a hero like that makes sense for a series–but did Westlake really want to write detective fiction?   He wrote a lot of novels that are more or less whodunit mysteries–more than 20, by my count–but this is the only one of them featuring a guy who is officially employed as a detective, and actually wants to work as one–though not the kind who investigates killings.   If that was his line, he’d go broke.   You go a long time between killings in Winston, NY.

Winston, I would argue, is the real protagonist of Killing Time, and Westlake spends a whole lot of time getting us acquainted with this amiably corrupt and surprisingly complex little hamlet, with its deceptively placid and wholesome  surface.    Enough to make me think he did, in fact, toy with the notion that a small town detective could have enough interesting cases drop in his lap to provide material for multiple novels–and probably some writers would have gone that way with it (and many have).

But Westlake was going for realism of  a sort here–which means he had to figure out how a P.I. is making ends meet in a town like this.   And the answer that came to him was that Tim plays footsie with the political establishment.   He’s thrown in with them–is actually on the municipal payroll, when no other member of his profession would even be allowed to operate there, giving him a monopoly–and a leash.   Anybody can hire Tim, and he will find out what they want to know, and report back to them–with full confidentiality.   And as a result, his files are full of dirt on every major player in town.   And they all know it, but nobody much minds, because Tim can be trusted–he’s one of them.   He thinks so too, but holds himself a bit aloof, all the same.   If somebody tries something that might actually hurt people–like putting cheap cement in the new school building–he’ll raise a stink behind the scenes, and make sure that doesn’t happen.   Everybody’s getting money on the side, but the streets are pothole-free, the schools are good, taxpayers get the services they’re paying for (maybe a bit more than they should have to pay)–machine politics, George Washington Plunkitt style.   Honest graft.  That’s the theory, anyway.   And still widely practiced today, of course.   Along with the other kind of graft.  The line between the two is notoriously easy to blur, of course.   Just ask Chris Christie.  But don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.

Here’s one example of line-blurring–Tim has a up and coming lawyer friend named Ron Lascow who plans to prove himself to the local bigwigs by coming up with a scheme to hit the residents of Hillview ( a sort of cut-rate Levittown, not technically part of Winston) with a new tax for services decidedly not rendered to its inhabitants.  At one point in the book, Tim decides he better explain to Ron the very real impact this will have on the lives of people there, who live in a sort of nether-realm between the town and the county, and have essentially been abandoned by both–he gives us the skinny in the meantime, since he’s visiting Hillview to talk to a cop who lives there–

“The builder of Hillview was a Winston man, now living in Florida off his profits, and he scrupulously followed the ideas of every other development builder in the country.  The streets were blacktop and curving and named after flowers.  The houses were two-and-three bedroom brick ranch-styles, most of them without cellars or attics.  There’s a shopping center in the middle of it all, a school off in one corner, and a firehouse down the road towards town.

In ’47, it all looked pretty fine.  Nice new homes, kind of shoe-boxy but sparkling and clean, with attached garages and curving flagstone walks leading to the front doors.  The people there were mostly young, either childless or with maybe one kid of pre-school age.   It was a pretty good place to live.”

But then —

“Only a little more than a decade after it was built, Hillview was a bedraggled mess.  Most of the lawns had been tromped into bare brown earth by kids playing Indian.  The empty houses had had their windows broken.   The blacktop streets had suffered from frost heaves after a few particularly severe winters, and were now crumbled and potholed.   The whole area was littered with tricycles and wagons and hanging laundry and screaming kids and straggle-haired housewives and door-to-door salesmen.”

I did some of my own growing up in an actual Levitt development (not the original), in New Jersey in the 60’s and early 70’s, and while we happily did not exist in the political and economic limbo Hillview does, and kept our houses and lawns up pretty well, this description still has an eerily familiar ring to it.  And come to think of it, by the time my family moved out, that development wasn’t much more than ten years old–I wonder how it’s  holding up today?   Didn’t look so hot the last time I passed it.

Aside from the chance to showcase a neat bit of writing, and a budding penchant for social commentary on the part of its author, I included the above quotes to demonstrate that Tim is well aware of the dark side of Winston politics–and not averse to socializing with those responsible for that, though he thinks Ron might lose his enthusiasm for the tax shuffle once he can put human faces on its victims.   Tim sees himself as standing in the middle, between the honest and dishonest folks of his hometown, helping both camps, while not strictly affiliating with either.   He sees that as his niche, and like the protagonist of The Mercenaries can get a bit defensive when challenged about the morality of his little arrangement with the powers that be.

Like Clay in The Mercenaries, Tim has a girlfriend who worries about him, but she’s a more credible and three dimensional character by far–Cathy Evans,  32 year old secretary for the town mayor, described as “good-looking in a level-eyed and practical sort of way.”  She and Tim also have an arrangement–as he sees it.   As we the audience see it, she’s head over heels in love with him, and he is much too inclined to take her for granted–and to blow off her very sound advice for the two of them to get the hell out of Winston when somebody starts trying to bump Tim off for reasons he can’t quite figure out.   Tim obviously has stronger feelings for her than he ever admits to–her house is the first place he goes after the first attempt on his life–but like Clay, he isn’t good at processing these kinds of things, and resists any suggestion he give up his carefully ordered existence to run away with her.   He’s going to stay and fight it out.   And Cathy is going to watch him do it, with an ever-increasing level of (as Tim puts it) “that combination of fury and terror that only women have down pat.”

The only thing that’s clear to Tim is that all these attempts to kill him are in some way connected to a statewide reform group that is just now getting to Winston, and would like to get his files in order to put most of the city fathers in jail.  So in his quest to figure out who amongst his various well-connected friends ordered a hit on him, and why, Tim takes us around Winston and its environs, and talks to its various power-brokers.   Chief among them is Jordan Reed, the main employer in town, who is The Boss of Everybody in all but name, and lives in a creepy old Victorian manse just outside of town, dealing rather harshly with his weak-willed son, and nursing statewide political ambitions (there being nothing harder to find in a Westlake novel than a sympathetic rich guy).

There’s also Jack Wycza, city councilman for Winston’s ‘Hunkytown’ on the North Side–a classic ward heeler, who knows about everything that goes on in his district, and about very little going on elsewhere.   Many have speculated that he and his very large nepotistic family bear some relation to Dan Wycza, who popped up a number of times in some better-known books Westlake wrote (that I’ll be getting to shortly), but seeing as the first two Winston policemen we meet are named Dan Archer and Pete Wycza, the shortest distance between two points would be to say Westlake just took one from column A and one from column B and leave it at that.

And at the other end of the power spectrum are the Casales–a large and growing Italian-American clan, honest working class folk, some of them close friends with Tim–not politically well-connected, but they turn out to be extremely well-armed, which figures into the narrative quite significantly towards the end.   Their patriarch gets killed by a bomb meant for Tim, which they don’t hold against him personally, but they expect him to tell them who set that bomb, so they can administer justice up close and personal.

I should mention now, because there won’t be time later, that this is the first novel Westlake published under his own name that mentions the fictional city of Monequois, somewhere around the Canadian border, that had already appeared in several of his pseudonymous smutfests, and would show up here and there in many of his later books, though it never got put under a magnifying glass like Winston does here.   It also features an early reference to “A Sound of Distant Drums”–a presumably nonexistent and apparently quite horrible play that is likewise referred to here and there throughout Westlake’s oeuvre, apparently as a private running joke between him, his writer buddies, and any of his readers who are paying close enough attention to notice.

The way a detective novel typically works is this–the detective gets on the case–he (or she) talks to a bunch of witnesses and potential suspects–then he summons them all to some meeting place, and fingers the killer–who is then carted off to prison–exeunt detective triumphant.

This is not a typical detective novel (well for one thing, the murder Tim is investigating is his own), and things work out rather differently here.   Tim finally figures out who the killer is (with a significant assist from Cathy and Ron), and then names him to the Casales, since the cops (at least half of whom are Wyczas), can’t really be trusted.   But at this point, Winston has turned into an armed camp, since nobody intends to march meekly off to prison, least of all Tim himself, who now has to find some way to get his hands on the killer, before the law drags him away in handcuffs instead–turns out the reform group could use some reforming itself–Tim’s been appointed as one of the fall guys, and it’s too late now for him to cut a deal.

With his back against the wall, Tim Smith, the affable, levelheaded, practical, deeply perceptive and sardonic Man With All the Answers we’ve come to know and like is replaced by a desperate violent Machiavellian schemer who will do anything to save himself.   It’s not as sudden as it sounds–you realize this has been coming for a long time now, but it’s still a shock to see how quickly he goes from detective fiction hero to crime fiction anti-hero.  Nobody is more horrified by this transformation than Tim himself.   He’s watching himself become a monster, and he can’t seem to stop it–because that would mean losing–his freedom–his home–his carefully wrought sense of self, that stems from being Winston’s one and only private detective.  That’s what he’s been fighting for all through the book, and he can’t accept that the game is up–you can almost hear him thinking “But I’m the HERO, dammit!”   Well, aren’t we all?  In our own minds?   He steps over a few lines too many, and there’s no going back.

What follows is chaos, of a kind we tend to associate with third world countries and (recently) eastern Europe.   A substantial swath of the cast of characters fall under a hail of gunfire, punctuated by loud explosions–the death count is well over 20 by the end.  Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, the ceremony of innocence–okay, none of these people were ever innocent, so can the Yeats.  But they were peaceful people, reasonable people–they had an arrangement–like Tim, we can’t believe that all it took was the threat of a few years in prison and the loss of some petty local positions to turn them all into ravening killers–but it feels frighteningly real.   And it has happened here, folks.   And probably will again.   Well of course today you could get a higher death count from one confused teenager with an AR-15, but that isn’t quite the same thing as civil war.

And nobody is more responsible for this bloody state of affairs than Tim Smith himself, with all his worldly wisdom and good intentions.  Why?   Because he wouldn’t pick a side.   Because he played both ends against the middle, and got crushed between them.  Because he didn’t know who he was, but he believed with all his heart that he did.  That’s the moral of the piece.

Tim describes himself as far from a dreamboat–average height, chunky, but deceptively quick on his feet–his general mode of exposition, and his sharp eye for social detail is strikingly familiar to anyone who has read the early work of Dashiell Hammett.  He’s clearly based on The Continental Op–the first of the great hard-boiled private detectives.   In his most famous adventure, Red Harvest,  The Op comes to a corrupt town called Personville, rife with divisions between management and labor and organized crime and corrupt cops, and he somehow manages to turn the various factions against each other,  and walk away smelling like a rose, and only bad people get hurt.  It’s a story that has been much imitated since (mainly in the movies, of which I will bet good money you have seen at least one or two),  and Westlake himself, who revered Hammett above all other crime fiction authors, must have read it with sentiments verging on the worshipful–but idols were made to be smashed.

Tim Smith would, on the surface, seem to be a more independent player than The Op–he’s self-employed, doesn’t have an ‘Old Man’ back in San Francisco to answer to–but that’s an illusion.   In order to make a decent living as a private detective in his own small town, the only place he really wants to live (because who would he be if he lived somewhere else?), he had to cut a deal with the big boys.   He’s not an independent operator at all.   He’s got a police radio in his car, strolls into the chief of police’s office without making an appointment–he’s a total insider, and he likes it that way.   Which would be fine, if he accepted that, but he continues to think of himself as an independent operator.   He can turn off his conscience when it gets in the way of doing business, like Clay in The Mercenaries turns off his compassion when it gets in the way of making a hit.   Then turn it back on again to do some good deed, and tell himself that makes everything square.  And Cathy, like Clay’s girlfriend Ella before her, tries to tell him he can’t have it both ways–

“You can’t just say that your job is to have no conscience and so people can’t blame you for not having a conscience because that’s your job.  Either you’re honest or you’re dishonest.  If you’re faithful to the rules of your job, and your job is a dishonest one, then you’re being dishonest.”

But how many people would choose honest poverty over dishonest affluence?   How many ever have?   Point is, most of us never really choose–we just tell ourselves that whatever happens to be in our best interests is also right and just and the natural order of things.   The Ends Justify the Means.  Westlake is not done with this idea by a long shot, but he’s done with Tim Smith.  He is not franchise protagonist material, at least not for this writer.   Because as a goody-goody-gumshoe–a Knight Errant of the mean streets like Philip Marlowe (who Westlake signaled his disdain for on more than one occasion), he’d be trite and done to death–a pretty lie.   But as a self-deluding functionary of a corrupt small town government, Tim only has one real story in him–the story of how it all fell apart.   And that’s the story of Killing Time.   And now Westlake needs to find other stories, other protagonists.   He’s had two dark endings in a row, and he wants to try something else–suppose a protagonist made the right choices.   Suppose he figured out who he really was, before it was too late–or suppose he just KNEW.

And I wonder………..there’s this one moment at the end, where Tim is battling it out with his former colleagues, killing people he’s known all his life, and he looks at Art Wycza, his wholly amoral ally of convenience, who has admired Tim’s cunning and toughness up to this point, but is now somewhat contemptuous–because having finally acted with sheer cold-blooded ruthlessness in order to win the day, Tim then had the nerve to try and renege at the last minute.   Because people he likes will get hurt.   He’s stuck between two modes of being, two sides of the same divided personality, and he hates it–and he looks at Art and sees no such conflict–“It must be nice, I thought, to not give a damn.”

What would it be like, Westlake must have wondered while typing this, to really not give a damn?   To be truly free.   Of everything.   Except yourself.    How would you write it?   Starkly, one supposes.

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