“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.