Review: Killy


 “Let me tell you something,” he said.   “A good word.   You been going around like Batman, you know what I mean?  Catchin’ the crooks and avenging justice and all that.  But that ain’t the way to be.  You watch out for you, that’s what you do.   You take care of your own job and your own family and your own self,  and you just forget everything else.   That’s the way to be.”

“I suppose so,” I lied.

Killy was Donald Westlake’s fourth novel for Random House’s mystery division, published in 1963, and the last to feature his name emblazoned in a huge impressive font across the spine of the dust jacket–an apparent marketing ploy that must have been abandoned after this (“Let’s see if we can get people to think this is a major established mystery writer they’ve never heard of before.”)  They did this for everybody writing mystery books for them back then, best as I can tell.  It wasn’t just a Westlake thing.   Maybe it wasn’t just mysteries either.  If somebody knows, feel free to shout out.

Coming right on the heels of The Hunter, probably the most well-known book Westlake ever wrote (if only because two major motion pictures were later based on it), Killy has largely been ignored by posterity.   It seems to have only been reprinted once in the U.S., many years later (when Westlake had become a much bigger name).   It must have done notably better in the UK–I count three different British editions on the Official Westlake Site,  and elsewhere I saw one Alison & Busby omnibus edition that pairs it with 361.

And the only explanation for this disparity of reprints that I can think of is that the novel is about a national labor union going into a small upstate New York town to try and organize the shoe factory there, told from the POV of a young man doing a six month internship with the union–and therefore told from the perspective of the union, and more or less sympathetic to its goals, though not uncritically so.   In American mystery fiction, that’s certainly pretty damn unique–are there any other American mystery novels told from a labor union’s point of view?   I have no freakin’ idea.   I suspect British readers, with a stronger general interest in union politics (and a stronger sense of class consciousness), were curious to see how it played out.  Are there a lot of British mystery novels dealing with labor unions?   I have no bloody idea.

I would say it’s Westlake’s best-written book to that point in his career, and it certainly shows the good influence of Random House editor Lee Wright, who Westlake credited many times for the invaluable help she gave him.  Best-written doesn’t automatically mean best overall, of course.   It’s the story and characters that make or break a novel, and while Killy is strong in both these categories, there are good reasons it’s never been made into a major motion picture (though it would be much easier to adapt faithfully than The Hunter, a novel that Hollywood has never been able to take straight-up.)

The hero of Killy is Paul Standish, 23 years old, a student at good old Monequois University, which Westlake had already written about in some of his steamy sex books like Man Hungry (though it’s Monequois College in that one).   Monequois U. is clearly based on Westlake’s educational experiences at Harpur College in Binghamton NY, and the (now defunct) Champlain College of Plattsburgh NY, which Westlake’s Wikipedia article has apparently confused with the still extant university of the same name in Vermont (somebody should fix that).

The version of Monequois in Killy seems more based on Champlain, which attracted a lot of recently discharged military veterans, who mingled with a younger crowd of non-veterans, and Westlake (himself an Air Force vet) found that experience interesting enough to incorporate it into a number of his early works, including The Mercenaries, where Clay talks about how the non-vet students treated the vets differently.   This is in the 1950’s, you understand–long before Vietnam and the counter-culture.

I don’t know if this is true of Westlake’s own education, but in the book Paul comes to work with the American Alliance of Machinists and Skilled Trades (a fictional organization presumably based on this very real one) as part of a work/study program at Monequois where students spend six months at school and six months with some participating group.   He happens to end up with the union this time because of Walter Killy, former student and football star for Monequois, who is now an organizer for the Machinists.

Killy is, self-evidently, the title character–but the book isn’t about him.   Not exactly.   The narrator isn’t necessarily the main subject of a first-person narrative–look at The Great Gatsby–but he is here.  The book is about Paul Standish.   It’s a coming of age story.   And perhaps to a much greater extent than the earlier crime novels, a roman à clef .   This protagonist seems closer to being a self-portrait than any we’ve seen thus far from Westlake.   But he most decidedly takes a different path than his creator.

Walter Killy takes Paul along with him to check out a request to have the Machinists organize the McIntyre Shoe Company, in a one-factory town called Wittburg.  The workers there would have to vote to join the union, rejecting their company union, which was set up for them by the paternalistic deceased founder of the company.   The company is now run by a hired manager, who a lot of them don’t like or trust the way they did ‘The Old Man’.   It turns out Wittburg is a ‘sewn-up’ town, meaning that the company controls everything, including the police and the newspaper, and does not want the powerful Machinists Union anywhere near their workers.

When the worker who requested they come to organize the town is shot to death outside the factory, Walter and Paul are picked up by the police for ‘questioning’.   Meaning they both get the tar whaled out of them by corrupt brutal detectives–Westlake’s seemingly visceral dislike of certain types of authority is in full view here, as it is in many other books–both the police and the factory manager come off very badly.    Actually, nobody in the book ultimately comes off terribly well, but as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the only thing harder to find in a Westlake novel than an honest and effective police officer is a likable rich guy.

When Paul finally gets to talk to Walter in jail, they score a small victory over authority together, by using their superior college vocabularies to speak in a sort of code so the guard can’t follow what they’re saying–

Walter grinned at him, and said to me, “If we converse in polysyllables, he won’t comprehend.”

“Fine,” I said.

“Tell me the causation of the distress.”

“You don’t know?”

He shook his head.  “The inquisition has been unidirectional thus far.”

“Oh.  Well, our correspondent”, I told him, looking around for the right long words, “is a decedent.”

His eyebrows raised.  “Was he assisted on the journey?”

“Via a quatrain of metallic ovoids, rapidly propelled.”

They have a good working relationship–Paul immediately looks up to the 30-ish Killy as a role model, admiring his effortless charm, as well as his competence.   He notes the way Killy can seemingly change his outward personality in a heartbeat, while still somehow remaining the same man underneath.   Paul has a tendency to form snap evaluations of the people he meets during the story–which he has to keep revising, as new information about them comes to his attention.   We get what we think is a good picture of this or that person, then it turns out to be incomplete–a seemingly sympathetic character turns out to have a dark side, a seemingly antagonistic character turns out to have a more human side.   You know, the way it works in real life.

Paul is greener than grass, and utterly naive, but he’s also a remarkably quick study.   As the story goes on, the complications mount, and yet another dead body turns up, Paul has to keep reevaluating the situation, and the various players within it, including himself.   Walter is seemingly exonerated of the first murder by the second one committed while he was locked up, but now a whole group of organizers from the Machinists show up loaded for bear, and Paul has to find his place within the team.  But what he really wants to do is find out who killed these two people.   The second victim was a decent old man who tended to him after he got a brutal beating from the police, and he wants to make that right.

In the process of doing that, he somehow repeatedly falls into bed with the old man’s granddaughter, 27 year old Alice MacCann, a willowy Celtic beauty with long black hair (Westlake’s later predilection for blondes having yet to manifest itself) and a hair-trigger libido.   He knows there’s something wrong about the fact that Alice seduces him a few hours after she found her grandfather’s body, but he does what any healthy young straight man in that situation would do, and rationalizes it afterward as best he can.   It’s noir territory for sure, but it feels surprisingly realistic.   The mating dance is performed in the living room to 50’s jazz records–Glen Miller, Stan Kenton, Ray McKinley, Ralph Flanagan, and the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra.  I’m a lifelong jazzhead, and I had to look some of these people up, so don’t feel badly.  But you will see some of these names again in other Westlake novels–he missed the first Rock&Roll generation by a few years.   This is his music.

While Paul is telling us about Killy and the others, he’s really telling us about himself–that he’s idealistic, but his ideals are just platitudes he learned in school; easily uprooted and destroyed when confronted with the hard realities of life.   He’s got a mean streak in him, and is strongly inclined to take revenge on those who have betrayed or used him.    Turns out he’s very good at that.   At times, it seems as though Westlake is taking revenge on people he met when he was young–the way Michelangelo put his enemies in hell on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.   Some of the characters, and particularly the women, don’t come across as a collection of crime fiction cliches–they feel like repurposed memories.   Perhaps not entirely fair ones.   We can only guess.

The one most likable character is the least complex–George, a former sparring partner, now working as hired muscle for the Machinists–a huge powerful pug-ugly man, calm and good-natured, but only to a point.  Not an intellectual type, he’s still rather perceptive.  He seems to be an early prototype for Westlake’s various man-monsters, the greatest of whom would be ‘Tiny’ Bulcher of the Dortmunder novels.

George, Paul is increasingly aware, is most interested in the development of this new recruit, who he calls his ‘little friend’.   He says Paul is like Killy.   Paul doesn’t particularly like this observation, but can’t help but see the growing truth of it.  His identity is changing in response to the various stresses he’s been exposed to–violence, sex, intrigue, betrayal, disillusionment.  Paul is more and more aware that his choices in the jungle he’s found himself in come down to kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.   Metaphorically speaking, of course.   It’s not a Parker novel.  And yet I note with some interest that the French title for Killy was Un loup chasse l’autre, which translates to “A wolf hunting another.”   And the wolf Paul is increasingly on the hunt for is Walter Killy.   The role model has become the rival–professionally, personally, and sexually.   A wolf in that sense as well, it seems.

So in the end, as you’d expect in a book like this, the young hero (increasingly an anti-hero) wins out.   He solves the mystery, and he finds a way to get the Machinist’s Union securely ensconced in Wittburg, which one imagines is going to materially improve the lives of the factory workers, at least for the near future.   The organization the union in the book is probably based on still has hundreds of thousands of members in the U.S. in the present, but I doubt many (or any?) of them make shoes–nobody back then saw Capitalist China coming, so can’t fault Westlake for not seeing it either.   If Monequois was a real town located around the Adirondacks, its residents today would probably depend heavily on New York’s propensity for incarcerating large numbers of its citizens upstate.   I happen to wear excellent shoes made in the good old U.S.A., by union workers, but that factory is in New England.   And an extreme rarity these days.

It’s pretty easy to explain how Killy is a story about identity; so much so that you might wonder why I even bother.   Paul himself says it at the end–“I am Killy.”   He comes to Wittburg as a rather nice and wholly ineffectual young man, and by the end he’s become a wolf hunting other wolves.   He’s accepted George’s advice about thinking mainly of yourself and your job and your family, and not worrying about being Batman (the campy Adam West TV series is still about three years away so major pop cultural marks there, Mr. Westlake).

So since we don’t have to ask ourselves how the story is about identity–how easy it is to misunderstand other people, and how easy to misunderstand yourself–the only question that remains is how do we feel about all this?   We felt pretty bad about what happened to Clay in The Mercenaries and Tim Smith in Killing Time.   They’re almost certainly dead shortly after their respective novels end, so clearly that’s a negative lesson being imparted.   Ray Kelly in 361 loses his family and his previous understanding of who he was, but he gains real self-understanding, and kicks serious ass, so all things considered, we feel he turned out okay.

Parker–geez, do I even have to say it?   Parker is the ideal Westlake’s other characters merely strive towards–total self-understanding at the molecular level.   An identity that adapts, but can’t be fundamentally changed.   That’s why there’s 24 Parker novels–more than all Westlake’s other series characters combined (see, I told you in my first article here that I’d explain that eventually, and now I have).

But Paul Standish is no series character, and he’s no ideal, and he’s not all that likable by the end.   How should we feel about his transformation?   How did Westlake feel about it?   Well, one of his sons is named Paul, and that name was chosen well after this book came out, so you have to figure Paul’s father has some small regard for this flawed hero of his, who is, as already mentioned, something of a self-portrait–a road not taken.   He’s not somebody we’re supposed to dismiss as a failure in life.   He made a choice, and he made that choice work for him.   We may not entirely like the person he’s become, but maybe that’s the person who was there all along, and he was just pretending to be something else–as he puts it, somebody who just wants to be left alone.   Well who doesn’t, but if that’s not an option….

Here’s one reason why I react a bit more favorably to the change in Paul than some others might–I’m a union man myself.  Local 153 OPEIU (solidarity, comrades!).    So was Westlake, of course–the Writer’s Guild, and probably a few before that–he once explained to Stephen Frears, when he was writing the screenplay for The Grifters, that much as Frears wanted the script to be credited to Richard Stark, Stark was not a member of the Writer’s Guild, and Westlake was not going to let him scab.

Westlake’s opinion of unions was by no means starry-eyed–he was more than willing to point out how they could be corrupt and brutal (and worse, completely ineffective), and the Machinists seem to have their share of that brutish element, as George is there to remind us–they apparently evolved from the Wobblies, became pro-capitalist and staunchly American as they matured into a union of skilled tradesmen (labor aristocrats is the operative term), but in essence they are portrayed as a rival gang moving in on the McIntyre Shoe Factory’s turf.   And moving in effectively, at the desire of the workers there.   They don’t just mouth slogans and raise meaningless picket signs–they know how to mix it up behind the scenes.   They can get down and dirty when they have to.   And boy, do they have to.

So Paul has joined the Machinists by the end–meaning he’s joined a machine; that not at all being a coincidental choice of names.   That means he’ll never be in the first rank of Westlake protagonists, the rugged individualists, the independent operators, like Parker and Ray Kelly.  But he knows that’s what he’s doing, and he’s not kidding himself about it, so he’s not a self-deluded cog in a machine like Clay or Tim or Mal Resnick.   He’s going to be out for himself, but he’s also going to be a wily tenacious fighter for the working class, as well as himself–his own advancement depends on that.   He knows he’s not a superhero, but he still has villains to fight.  He’s found a niche.   He knows who he is.   He’s Killy.   As Killy should be, but isn’t.

See, that last line of the novel, “I am Killy,” can be interpreted two ways–he’s Killy in the sense that he’s become corrupted by the rat race, lost his soul–or he’s Killy in the sense that he’ll try to be the man he originally thought Walter Killy was–tough, effective, but still out to do his job, prevent the bosses from having it all their own way–because without strong unions, as America needs to relearn in a hurry, the bosses have it entirely their own way.    We’ve seen in the book that the Machinists are the way they are for a reason.   They’re a gang, but they’re OUR gang.  Cue Spanky & Stymie.

And cue our next book, featuring another protagonist named Paul–which was never published in Westlake’s lifetime, but I figure this is about the point where it would have been published if it had been.   Strange thing–I enjoyed Killy very much the first time I read it, and just as much the second time around, preparing to write this review.   But I had forgotten about half the plot twists.   Whereas the book I’m going to review next time, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed when I read it nearly two years back–but I can still remember it like I read it last week.   And that, to say the very least, is ironic.



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47 responses to “Review: Killy

  1. The title alone, Killy, deserves a special award.
    You mentioned “noir territory”, and this novel shows how Westlake could blend noir with sort of traditional mystery. After beginning with a frame up of Paul and Killy, many writers would choose a straight noir path. Not Westlake. I admire him for that: the man could write a murder mystery.
    Even plot-wise Killy is superior than 361 or Killing Time. So many twists here. And Westlake has matured as a stylist. The same 361 and Killing Time were more raw, unbalanced.
    I definetely see why some can regard Paul as an anti-hero, considering second part of the book. But I think a Westlake fan have to like him (a casual mystery reader haven’t). Paul has guts. How can you expect him not to get revenge, if he was framed and fucked over by his boss (teacher?)?

  2. Good title indeed, so why did the French publisher change it? Killy is a French name! Maybe they were afraid people would think it was about up-and-coming Olympic skier, Jean-Claude Killy. But he didn’t become a huge name until the late 60’s. I googled all that, by the way. Never been on skis in my life.

    Paul is an unusually believable protagonist for this type of story. His emotional reactions are basically those of a normal person in the situation he’s in, even if his ability to figure out ways to turn the tables on people are well above average. Paul has brains, as well as guts, and it’s his brains that give him the edge. He doesn’t win a single fist fight, he never picks up a gun, but he thinks long and hard about all the violent things he’d like to do to people who have screwed him over (like his classmate at Monequois, the smug girl reporter, who I didn’t have time to mention in the above review, and who I figure just has to be based on somebody he knew at college). Not being much of a physical specimen, or willing to step that far outside the law, Paul has to channel his vengeful impulses into rational thought, for the purpose of coming up with useful schemes. He’s more of a fox than a wolf.

    Dortmunder would later show this same vengeful streak–Parker doesn’t worry about vengeance, he just has to balance out the scales. But Dortmunder, hapless as he generally is, gets mad sometimes–and then he gets even. And as Westlake sometimes remarked, he was more like Dortmunder than Parker–and probably more like Paul Standish than either of them.

    It is a good mystery, isn’t it? Feels like something that could actually happen. Not flashy, and not really the point of the story we’re being told, but Random House kind of insisted there had to be some kind of murder, because people who bought their mystery novels expected it. As his contract with Random House goes on, Westlake is going to tire of whodunits, and look for alternate ways to stretch out what he obviously considered an overly constraining formula. Like, for example, what if you made it funny? But that’s still a few books off.

  3. I’d argue about Westlake tiring out of whodunits (aren’t The Busy Body and God Save The Mark murder mysteries after all?), but let’s save it for later.
    I remembered a list of LABOR UNION MYSTERIES, in case you didn’t know of it:
    I’ll rely on your comment on unions in the review, because I was never a member and I doubt I’ll ever be. Unions are practically non-existent where I live. Great writing.

  4. I’m no expert on my own union, trust me–though I’ve studied quite a bit of American and European union history, which I find fascinating. The day to day reality is far more mundane. I pay my dues, and show up at the odd few meetings. An office workers union is not exactly a hotbed of revolution. But I’d sure hate to be without it–and looking at some of our organizers, I do find myself wishing a few of them were more of the Paul Standish type–maybe a George or two as well. My paternal grandfather was a bus driver, who belonged to Mike Quill’s Transport Worker’s Union, and Quill was like his tribal chieftain, based on what my dad told me. Quill was one hell of a character, but that’s a very different kind of union than the Machinists.

    Westlake had what I’d call an ambivalent attitude towards the whodunit mystery. He did write quite a few of them, throughout his career, though if I recall correctly, the last was 1994’s ‘Baby, Would I Lie?’ Shortly before that, he wrote the Sam Holt mysteries, his last attempt at a series detective (who played one on a TV series, and really just wants to be an actor again). Judging by what happened to Sam after his series ended, I don’t think Westlake was satisfied with the results, but we’ll get to that later.

    I think he enjoyed the mental exercise, the challenge of crafting a good brainteasing mystery, but he found the need to end with the typical “Here is the killer!” denouement wearying. He looked for ways to change it up, give it some emotional punch, but I can’t help but feel his heart was never entirely in the game. That’s part of what makes his better mysteries so much fun to read, of course. He’s basically telling us “Okay, I don’t buy this shtik any more than you do, but let’s try to make it interesting.” But basically, it’s just something his publishers and readers expect of him, working in the genre he does. Hell, Conan Doyle only kept writing Sherlock Holmes because that’s what people wanted out of him. Still pretty good mysteries, right?

    Thanks for that list–hadn’t seen that. I’m not familiar with most of them, but those I do recognize are not exactly positive depictions of unions. The mystery genre is vast. You can find a murder-solving shamus (professional or amateur) of every possible variety. I’m a bird watcher, and out of curiosity I picked up a few books about a birder who solves murders. And is a charming little old lady, of course. And FULL of glaring ornithological errors! Shoddy research, but the publisher still bought it. 😉

  5. I think Parker might be a bird watcher. While doing nothing he could watch at birds, or – past birds more really. (I just thought of a question about Parker, but I’ll ask it after the review of next Parker novel.)
    And while I haven’t forgotten, whose shelf is it below the main banner? Yours or just random Internet image?

  6. Ah, I was waiting for someone to ask–it’s mine. Originally it was just a generic image of untitled books provided by WordPress, but I finally decided I had to personalize it a bit. I can’t really overstate how much I suck at this kind of thing. But it wasn’t as hard as I thought. I gathered together a good sampling from my personal collection, took a number of photos, picked the best one, and uploaded it.

    It’s a little unfocused, but then so am I a lot of the time.

  7. Ray

    Chris, now I have trouble leaving comments. The Westlake Review had enough of me.

  8. I was making some changes yesterday–maybe I somehow managed to make it harder to post. At present, with just you commenting, and no spamming of any kind going on, I’d rather people just be able to comment without going through all kinds of contortions. I’ll try to fix it.

    Editing–were there links in the post? Apparently WordPress is suspicious of posts with links. I eased the restrictions there a bit.

  9. Ray

    OK, I just wanted to sort of complain that the res of your banner photo is small, I love looking at shelfporns.
    You can look at my shelf of Parker novels:

    It’s a bit dated, but I have almost complete Parker now. I don’t have a special shelf for Westlake yet, his books for now just here and there.

  10. Don’t even recognize all those editions. My primary concern when I started collecting was to get good reading copies, but I do love the Gold Medal paperbacks and the Pocket editions as well.

    I used the highest resolution I could for the photo. As I said when I started this blog, it’s never really going to be about visuals. I try to use photos of my own books in each review, but if I don’t have the right edition in my collection, I try to find an image online–without heisting a photo off somebody’s blog. I don’t hit you guys because I figure we’re on the same side. 😐

  11. Yeah. it’s all about the reading, not about editions. Some would get angry at me if I said that I started reading Westlake from pirated, scanned e-books, just because I didn’t have sources and capacity to order even cheapest copies. I hope DW will forgive me for that heresy.

  12. I feel certain he would. Honestly, I’ve bought quite a few new editions of his books, but so often I prefer the older ones, and obviously that means used copies, which means his estate gets nada. From an author’s financial POV, buying old editions and buying pirated editions is the same, except at least he or she got paid when the old editions were sold originally. Hey, you’re nobody as a writer until people start stealing from you.

    When you get a chance, post a response, so I can see if I’ve fixed this business with needing to authorize comments.

  13. I think we’ll not be waiting for long before Westlake’s heirs sign off to continue Westlake’s various series. Everyone gets hungry. And we will see new adventures of Parker, Dortmunder, Toibin etc etc from different writers.

  14. I hope not. And given the nature of the Parker fanbase, I think they’d devalue and diminish the value of the whole body of work by doing that. He’s not James Bond. Westlake went out of his way to make it clear he’ll never be James Bond. If there were unfinished books, maybe–there aren’t.

    I don’t see how anybody but Westlake could write Dortmunder. And Tobin has never been popular enough.

    TV adaptations would be the way to go. Pay cable for Parker, basic cable for Dortmunder. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. They tried once.

    So obviously I have fixed the posting problem.

  15. I will say heresy again, but I’d like to see two more Parker novels, written by some really good writers. That would be Parker in the pen doing a bid, and Parker vs. gangbangers (joke premise, I know, but it could be very gritty in the right hands).
    And heirs wouldn’t give a damn about old fans, when they could make money off new ones.

  16. I still think Parker couldn’t survive in prison. It would destroy him. If Westlake had wanted to do that, it would have been his right, but obviously he didn’t. I remember the story he told about writing “Breakout”–he got Lyme Disease while writing it, and he was in a terrible state, but he kept going until Parker had made his escape. He couldn’t leave him there.

    Westlake felt so strongly about the Stark books that he stopped writing as Stark for the better part of two decades, because he felt like he couldn’t get the voice right. I doubt anybody else ever could. But you know, there’s no reason somebody couldn’t write Parker fanfic. As long as they didn’t charge anybody to read it. I’ve sometimes pondered writing a Mitch Tobin Mystery where he gets in touch with Parker because–well, that would be telling. And I doubt I’ll ever write it. But one thing I know I’d never do is kid myself this was the real Parker. Hell, it wouldn’t even be ersatz Stark, since I’d be trying to emulate Tucker Coe. Point is, the last Parker novel is Dirty Money, and nothing can ever change that.

    I don’t think they’d make that much money from new books–no Parker novel was ever a best-seller, or probably anywhere close to being one. How much of an advance you think they’d get from U. of Chicago, or any other publisher? The books sold well, but a few more wouldn’t really swell the family coffers, particularly since a lot of devoted Stark fans wouldn’t buy them. No, I think the real money would be in keeping interest in Westlake’s books alive, and waiting for a big TV series score.

  17. No one is safe in prison, even tough guys like Parker. Stark could kill Parker in prison, when he decided to end the series. But he didn’t, and Parker still lives somewhere.
    It’s interesting how you ignored another idea about Parker, Parker vs. gangbangers. Probably nobody like them except me. Westlake never wrote gang novels, even when his peers had a try at the theme. perhaps he was more interested in an individual, not in a group of people, especially as violent and not really smart as gang members.

  18. I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by gangbangers. That covers a wide range of ground. I assume you meant violent drug gangs, which can mean inner city blacks, Latinos, Asians, Neo-Nazi skinheads, etc.

    It might be too much social realism for the Parker series, which is about a romanticized world of rugged individualist criminals, even though many of the ugly realities do break through. I think one could argue we saw some of that in Backflash. But that gang didn’t fare very well at all.

    Parker had nothing to do with illegal drugs. He stayed well away from that world, and for good reason–it brings down too much heat.

    Parker could just as easily have bumped heads with terrorists. After 9/11, that would have been very popular. But here’s the thing–he’s not Batman, any more than he’s James Bond. So while there is this aspect to the books where we see him take out this or that menace to society, and we think “Well, he did some good there”, it’s written into the story in such a way as to make it very clear Parker is just doing his thing, and if his interests happen to coincide with society’s, fine. But he’d be doing it either way.

    To put him up against such a negative social force as gangbangers or terrorists would make him the hero. Parker is never the hero. Parker is Parker. That’s all he cares to be.

    And you know, after I get through with Memory, I’m going to be reviewing four Parker novels in a row, so there’ll be plenty of time to discuss him. 🙂

  19. We walked a long way from Killy, for sure. I’m slightly confused why you have chosen Memory as the next review. I thought it was written in the mid-60s, not early 60s. (I need to read it fast, Memory fell out of my chronological Westlake reading list somehow.)

  20. It was written in 1963. Probably around the same time Killy was written (there are a lot of parallels). Mainly I’m going with order of publication here, but if a book was not published in Westlake’s lifetime, I have to make a judgment call.

    And a question I have to ask when I finally get that review done (you have a few more days to read it) is why wasn’t it published in his lifetime? Why did Westlake want Memory to be forgotten?

  21. I just finished reading The Takeover by Richard Wormser. I think this novel might be influenced by Westlake’s Killy. But I have doubts, though. First, Wormser, who was not only a writer, but a Hollywood screenwriter as well (I have a singed copy of one of his books, which is very scarce), and by 1963 Wormser was 55-years old, which is a bit older that Westlake was.
    Second, I quote:
    “when I first read the masterpiece that is Butcher’s Moon, I loved how Westlake dissected the corrupt political structure of a small city. Now I see that this was a strong theme in genre books of the late ’60s and early ’70s.”
    So maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe it was zeitgeist. Anyway, you betetr dig into this.

  22. Nice blog–and he’s right, of course. Small town political corruption was something a lot of writers dealt with back then. Actually, Hammett got that trend going in earnest with “Red Harvest”, you could argue, and it’s made periodic comebacks ever since.

    The synopsis doesn’t ring any bells with me–what was it particularly about the book that made you think of “Killy”? At the library I work at, we don’t seem to have any books by Richard Wormser.

    Here’s the thing–we tend to look back at a given era of crime fiction (or any other genre) selectively–what happens is that over time, the better-written efforts tend to hold up better–or even if forgotten, get rediscovered. So we think “Oh this guy must have been the first to do this”, but he was just the earliest one to do it and be remembered for it.

    Like Hammett didn’t create the first hard-boiled detective–a bunch of guys beat him to the punch there–but The Continental Op and Sam Spade are still around, still vital, still enthralling readers and influencing writers–and the rest are just curios of a bygone era. Fascinating to those of us who really want to know the whole story of how that genre came to be, but otherwise not of any great interest.

    That being said, “Killy” isn’t currently in print either. Though it ought to be.

  23. The Takeover was published by GM, with byline “from the publisher of The Godfather”. It was sold as a mafia novel, that’s why the synopsis doesn’t ring any bells. But it isn’t a Mafia novel. It’s about corruption and reform group. It reminded me Killy mostly because of the plot and the final twist. Though Jerry from The Takeover is no Paul from Killy. He’s corrupt already, but likable.
    And Wormser calls Mafia Mafia and Cosa Nostra.

  24. Sure, because it’s after “The Godfather”–that book (and the movies) changed everything about the way writers in all mediums told mob stories.

    “Killy”, of course, has no organized crime angle–Wittburg is so sewn up, there’s probably no room for wiseguys to maneuver. And it might be too small a town for them to even bother with.

    We don’t really see any elected officials, either–just the union guys on one side, the plant manager, and the cops on the other–that’s where the power is.

    When you say ‘reform group’, it sounds a bit more like “Killing Time.” But I know from long experience you can spot influences in a book that on the surface seems completely different from the book you suspect influenced it. I’d have to sit down and read it to form an opinion.

    Peter Rabe dealt a fair bit with small city corruption, before Westlake ever got to it–“Dig My Grave Deep”, the first Daniel Port novel (and in my opinion, the best, though Westlake seems to have disagreed), covers that ground to some extent–you hardly know how to distinguish between ward heelers and gangsters in that book–basically the same thing. I see snatches of Rabe’s ideas in Westlake’s work, but it’s all quite well digested–there’s never a moment where I think “he stole that.”

    It would be surprising if anybody writing in the crime genre in the late 60’s/early 70’s hadn’t read some Westlake. He was a name to reckon with by then.

  25. Fugitive Pigeon

    I think this is the best early W. The way the two union men are treated after the murder of the workman is spot on, with the violent cops scenes and Paul’s reflections on the ineffectuality the lessons heard at University. So the mystery plot comes quite as a letdown, I couldn’t care less about who killed the two workmen SPOILER (and if the first murder is little credible, the suicide is ridiculous). BTW W. plays dirty, as he lets Paule declare, after the hangover, that he NOW knew who had killed whom when he knows from way before about the message left by the suicide (of which nothing, of course, is told to the reader) (or have I missed anything?). So the value of the book lies more in the depiction of interpersonal relationships (of course, firstly among Paul and Killy) than in the goofy murder twists. For me this ranks a 8/10

    • It’s an important development of Westlake’s style, but no, it’s not the best. It does merit more attention, and I have some notion of re-reviewing it, since I missed a lot the first time through (including a major influence upon it, that I just came across recently). You seem to have missed that he wrote this for the mystery division of a major publishing house, and that as a struggling writer, he had to give them a whodunnit, and so would any other writer have done. For me, your review ranks a 0/1000.

  26. That’s why there’s 24 Parker novels–more than all Westlake’s other series characters combined

    Dortmunder: 14
    Tobin: 5
    Holt: 4
    Grofield: 4
    Joslyn: 2

    Makes 29, it seems to me. (The things a person gets up to when they can’t sleep …)

    • And I didn’t even include Levine or the sleaze book actor guy whose name I can’t remember right now, because I didn’t get enough sleep either. Oh, and Boy Whatisface from the Joslyn novels got at least two short stories.

      But if we’re being real here, there’s only four Westlake series characters who really count for something in the grand scheme of things, and the other three have 23 books between them. My statement was technically inaccurate, but still expressed a fundamental truth, which you will recognize once you take a nap. 😉

      • Phil Crawford! Boy Cartwright! I’m awake now!

      • We can agree on Holt being best forgotten.

        • I don’t want to forget any of them, but you can think a given book was a worthy experiment, and still ultimately call it a failed one. As Westlake clearly did. And while I’d call the Joslyn books a success (the first much more than the second), Sara as a series character didn’t work out well at all. She and Jack were all used up by the end of the first, and the second wasn’t really about either of them.

          It’s really hard to say what makes for a great series character. I mean, wouldn’t you have thought Sam Spade would be one? Granted, Hammett was near the end of his string when he created that far more memorable Sam, but even so, why no serious attempt at a follow-up, when all the ingredients were there? A few desultory short stories that are only Spades because Hammett typed the name in there. (Whereas the stories Chandler retroactively reassigned to Marlowe feel like Marlowe stories because Chandler was writing the same character the whole time, and the name didn’t matter).

          Somehow, that glorious caper with the Black Bird was the only real story Sam had in him. Spade was unquestionably a large influence on Parker–but unlike Parker, he has a human conscience, much as he covers it up. More of a hunting dog than a wolf, but not the kind who hunts in packs.

          Obviously many have written endless novels about such characters (you remember Westlake’s remark about how Ross MacDonald must have had really good carbon paper), but Hammett didn’t know how to make that work with a truly private detective, with no Old Man to report back to–and honestly, neither do most of the writers following in his footsteps. The Continental Op was based on real people. The Private Dick is based on fantasies, albeit potent ones.

          Spade was too real, too honest, to become one of those shambling shamuses, endlessly pursuing red herrings. That’s why he towers above all the others who came after–but he really only had one story in him (two if you count Flitcraft), and once that was told, he couldn’t go any further. Parker could. Because Parker could never be used up.

          Neither could Dortmunder, but comedy is hard, so fewer books. Tobin had a decent run, but again, like Spade, there’s going to come a point where he looks honestly at himself (with the help of a woman who loves him but doesn’t kid herself), and then it’s all over. Grofield, being an actor, resists honest self-inquiry (gets in the way), but as I said years back, once Westlake finally wrote a good Grofield, he lost interest in writing any more. He’d solved the puzzle. Moved on to others.

          (Imagine how long this would be if you’d typed two sentences.)

          • Anthony

            “Neither could Dortmunder, but comedy is hard, so fewer books.”

            There were twelve Parker books before The Hot Rock. I’d say that has more to do with the count.

            And as much as I love the poor guy, I tend to think that Dortmunder did get used up. In the last few Dortmunder novels Westlake was coasting.

            • But zero Parker novels between Bank Shot and What’s The Worst That Could Happen? Dortmunder had a very long time to run up the scoreboard, and never did catch up. (In fact, if there had never been any more Parkers after Butcher’s Moon, Parker would still win by two books–one, if you count Thieves Dozen).

              You know my thoughts here–Westlake got to the point where it was harder for him to muster the concentration needed to write a first-rate Dortmunder. Stark was the core program, the aspect of him that still worked in old age, got him focused. Fewer moving parts (and fewer characters to service, since Parker never had a regular crew and Claire was never one of the gang as May was).

              The long Starkian pause had to do not with Parker, but with Stark–Westlake lost the voice. He’d trying writing a Parker, and it would read like Westlake trying to write a Parker. Only Stark can write a Parker, and Stark went out for coffee, came back about a quarter century later. I continue to think this is because Westlake’s domestic situation had greatly improved, he was no longer a hungry striving journeyman in his profession, and it took the rigors of old age to bring back that grim spareness.

              I assert that Dortmunder couldn’t be used up, because Dortmunder is primarily about irritation at change, and change never stops. By the second book, it was already about the growing ensemble, so he never had to carry a book. (I mean, who really cares about Bertie Wooster’s development as a character? He has none. He needs none. He just needs a little help from his friends–and by help, I mean frustration–and of course, Jeeves.)

              It’s not like I think the Final Eight Parkers are equal to the First Sixteen. And I’d take any of the Dortmunders over Flashfire. Even Stark could go haywire sometimes.

              Our question of the moment is, why do some characters who appear in more than one story prove so much more fruitful than others? Commercially and creatively. I mean, we could argue about why Rabbit gets six novels from Updike, while Bech just gets a bunch of short stories. But I’d have to read some Updike first. I keep meaning to.

              It works or it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, do something else. Unless you’re a hack, in which case just write whatever the suckers will buy.

              • Greg Tulonen

                The last six novels Westlake published in his lifetime were either Dortmunder or Parker novels, and I sometimes wonder if Money for Nothing and A Scared Stiff were “attic” novels written somewhat earlier. If they were, then it’s the last twelve novels. Nowhere else in his career do we see that kind of clustering. But by the end, it seems like there really were only two voices working for him — both creatively and professionally. (I get the feeling that by the end, his publishers weren’t interested in any other voices either.)

              • He needed the strong established voices to lead with. Creating new series characters gets a lot harder when you’re old, set in your ways. His newer creations (like Judson) mainly didn’t work out so well. He could still do pretty well with the one-shot characters, because there you just need a decent arc, let the story shape them for you. A good series character shapes the story around him/her. Makes everything easier–except innovation. Too much change ruins it. Not enough makes you go stale.

                And yeah, far as the publishers are concerned, path of least resistance looks pretty good when you’re just trying to stay alive.

              • Anthony

                Even the irritation at change can only go so far. It started in The Hot Rock about payrolls going from bags of cash in factory safes to checks. It morphed to technology: phones then computers. It took odd tangents such as what if the OJ was no more. The Dortmunder’s cast of thousands aspect gave Westlake a big playpen, most of the time enjoyable, but – again – coasting.

                Frankly, after figuring out dozens (possibly hundreds?) of things to heist and ways to heist them, I think the well was going dry. Westlake, and Stark, maintained a dignified distance from drugs, human trafficking, and the other extremes of actual crime. When mentioned at all, they were either stereotypes to mock (Westlake) or gritty realities the story acknowledged but had no time for (Stark).

                As far as why some characters go the distance and others don’t – even when there is an intention to develop a series – I suspect Westlake had no better idea than anybody else. He was just happy when it happened and certainly skilled at keeping things rolling.

              • Oh he had ideas, same as we do, but I agree there’s no sure way to know. As we’ve discussed, it was when he wasn’t intending to create a series that he best succeeded at it.

                I get a lot of pleasure out of the way Westlake made Dortmunder his window into the 21st century. That was consistent, and it was skillfully done. The heists, to be sure, were getting hard to justify, but I still appreciated some of the variations on that well-worn theme.

                Were the characters getting tired? The concepts? Or their creator? It’s rather a miracle that he kept producing so much worth reading, right to the end. He had sustained them, now they sustained him. Fair is fair.

                None of the books were bad, even at the end. Hell, not even Flashfire. I mean, I read that before I read any of the others, and all I could think was “Where’s the next one?”

  27. mikesschilling

    I am so pleased to have started that conversation, even at the cost of a sleepless night.

    Anyway, I think relying on well-established series characters is common towards the end of a career. Of Wodehouse’s last 21 novels, all but 5 did, the series books including 6 Jeeves and 5 Blandings Castle. When Asimov returned to writing SF novels (after a decades-long long gap, because he’d lost the voice), all but two of the result were either Foundation or Robots.

    The unusual case is Pratchett. He could have gone on writing the same Discworld characters forever, but after almost 30 books he created Tiffany Aching and Moist von Lipwig to head their own subseries.

    • Something tells me Tiffany and Moist aren’t going to be among the more durable parts of the Pratchett canon, but one must salute his inventiveness (I’d be more inclined to try and read the rest of Andre Norton, but I don’t have that much time left). They were, however, part of the Discworld saga, meaning that anybody into that series would show up for the subseries. Same publishing niche. A big part of this is authors facing the constraints of what they can get published at the end–publishers already looking past them for fresh talents. It’s harder to break out at the end.

      Westlake kept introducing new characters to the Dortmunder and Parker series. Some of which could have inspired novels of their own, as happened with Grofield–but Westlake didn’t have a great experience with that spinoff attempt. Not bad, but not good enough to think it was worth the effort–somehow, it wasn’t him. But it was worth a try. Grofield works better as Parker’s sidekick than he does as his own thing. A lot more fun when he didn’t have to carry the whole plot on his shoulders. I’m still glad those books exist. I understand why Westlake never did it again.

      Would we want a series of Kelp novels? Well yes, of course we would, and you know how I feel about J.C.–but wouldn’t it feel a bit off balance? You end up having to change the character to make him or her the lead, added detail, backstory.

      I’ve mentioned my adoration of Game of Thrones. The series, because frankly the books put me to sleep. But while I loved basically all the characters, good and bad (except Euron), my deepest affection went to Tyrion–and I used to dream there’d be this web series, maybe just 20 minutes an ep (Peter Dinklage needs to sleep sometimes), where he discovered this dimensional portal that led to modern-day Manhattan. Set up an alternate life there–and when he returns after a few weeks, hardly any time has passed at King’s Landing. Has a nice apartment in the Village. A bunch of friends who know nothing of his life in Westeros. He just hangs out, enjoys the scene, samples the beverages, has a romance or three–maybe he solves mysteries. Explores the paranormal.

      You know–like Baywatch Nights.

      (Yeah, spin-offs are usually a bad idea.)

      Has any author of fiction known for series characters created a genuinely memorable one towards the end of his/her career? I’m not talking about a good book. I’m talking about a character that, if this author had created nothing else, he/she would still be remembered for that alone.

      • Anthony

        He acknowledged that short stories weren’t really his thing, but he certainly wrote a lot of them. I could see all kinds of possibilities for one-off short stories featuring the supporting cast. Tiny having to hideout in a Daycare Center. Herman X stopping for a meal at Handy McKay’s diner. Kelp happily talking diodes with the manager of a Radio Shack while casually filling his pockets. No reason for Dortmunder to have all the short story fun.

        But this is kind of what Westlake did in the novels themselves. Every time Murch dropped off a car at Max’s we’d get a little sidebar story having little if anything to do with the main plot. Every Arnie Albright appearance is a story within a story (although, admittedly, nobody would make effort to read anything with him as the protagonist). Even May got into the act now and then.

        • Short stories have to be sold–used to be to magazines. Nowadays, you can just go straight to ebooks, I suppose, but hardly an option then.

          Now Westlake did experiment with at least two Boy Cartwright stories I know of, one of which I rather like (the one that got anthologized, with the deceased GSD), but that was in the wake of a rare late success with a novel not based on larcenous activity. He was testing the waters, and clearly decided they were too cold.

          Would you and I read all those stories about beloved sidemen and sidewomen? With joyful alacrity. But how many more would? And how many novels would they have cost us? It would have taken a great deal of time and effort to figure out how to make those characters work as solo acts. As he’d learned rather painfully from Grofield–three intriguing but ultimately failed experiments to get us one genuinely fine heist book that still can’t hold a candle to the best Parkers.

          As you say, in effect, he did write short stories about them when he gave them their own chapters. But he didn’t have to worry about the mass appeal of those characters (or in Arnie’s case, the polar opposite of that), in the context of a complete book.

          I mean, did Dickens write about Micawber after he got packed off to Australia? Did Twain give us a short story about Jim after his emancipation? Did Shakespeare write a short play about Iago’s subsequent fate? As the villain himself proclaimed–

          Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
          From this time forth I never will speak word.

          I’d say Westlake’s people counted themselves lucky by comparison.

      • mikesschilling

        He could date Liz Lemon.

        • I never got into that show. So if that’s a reference to her having a thing for short sarcastic men who drink and know things, I wouldn’t catch it. 😉

          And I actually have a belated answer to my question–Dashiell Hammett. Nick and Nora. While he lived quite a while afterwards, never stopped trying to write, that was basically his last significant effort. A fine book in its own right, far from his best work (perhaps his most personally revealing). However, the characters have in some respects proved more durable in the public imagination than The Op, Spade, or Beaumont. People fell in love with them to the point where they lived on after Hammett (in a very toned-down form), and everybody knows who you mean when you say the names.

          Now this is with the caveat that he was 40 years old when that was published. But it was a really old 40.

          • mikesschilling

            Hammett wrote treatment for the first couple of sequels, and they were very clever farces. Haven’t seen the films, so I don’t know how much of them survived.

            Oh, and Peter Dinklage was a guest star on 30 Rock, His character dated Liz, and it did not end well.

            • Ah. I had not realized. His roles away from Westeros have mainly not served him well, though The Station Agent is good. Such a damn shame he’ll never get to play Little Bob Negli.

              I’ve read the Hammett treatments (my research into him was thorough–I’ve got most of the bios), but they come across as hackwork to me–something he didn’t believe in, was just doing to support an extravagant lifestyle, while he tried to find his way back into a groove he could never quite recapture.

              The films are great entertainment–no depth to them at all, but they’re not about that. The chemistry between Powell and Loy is really all they’ve got going for them, but that’s nothing to sneer at. The most perfect casting for any Hammett adaptation, though Asta should have been a Standard Schnauzer. Oh well, probably harder to train than Fox Terriers. After a few films, Asta was really the star. 😉

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