Review: The Spy in the Ointment

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“You should dream more, Mr. Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.”

From Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene.

The borderline between crime fiction and spy fiction has always been sketchy, to the point where one could argue it doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense (some might argue the line between real crime and real espionage is equally porous). Westlake once argued, rather convincingly, that his acquaintance Robert Ludlum was writing best-selling crime novels dressed up as espionage thrillers. Graham Greene wrote about criminals and spies alike under the general heading of “Entertainments” (later, he repented of making even that cursory distinction between those and and his ‘serious’ books about conflicted Catholics and such).

Dan Marlowe created one of the most hard-boiled crime protagonists of all time in The Name of the Game is Death–that character being a murderous bank-robbing sociopath with a somewhat redeeming affection for animals and redheaded tomboys–but by the third novel in the series Marlowe had transitioned his anti-hero over to the ranks of spy fiction, where he remained.

The character stayed at Fawcett’s Gold Medal division the entire time–there was no need to relocate him, because Gold Medal did both genres, and probably encouraged Marlowe to make the switchover, due to changing trends–it was assumed that people who read sexy violent paperback crime novels were every bit as inclined to read sexy violent paperback spy novels, if not more so. After all, Mike Hammer had never made any distinction between fighting gangsters and commies. A crime is a crime is a crime–and what’s more, a genre writer is a genre writer is a genre writer.

Westlake had experimented with several different genres in his early days as a writer, but since publishing his first crime novel, had focused more or less exclusively on that form, perhaps feeling the need to better define himself, stake a claim on a specific market. Having started out doing what could best be described as ‘noir’, he had recently started experimenting with a comic approach to the crime/mystery/detective story, against the advice of his agent (because comic mystery novels had been defunct as a subgenre for years).

His first two novels in this vein had been notably successful, and this would have encouraged him to stretch out even further–hence, a comic spy story. But in this case, he was not bucking existing trends in the publishing industry. Quite the contrary.

There may have been comic spy novels before Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but I can’t find any, and as was typical of Greene, he did it first and best (and got an astonishingly good film adaptation to boot). And in writing this book, he laid out the most enduring theme of the comic spy story–which is that the people working in ‘Intelligence’ are often surprisingly devoid of that quality. Misunderstandings abound. Comedies of errors are never-ending. Also, and much less surprisingly, many of the people working in that area of endeavor have a remarkable talent for telling stories.

Working for MI6 during WWII, Greene had learned that German agents in Portugal were passing on completely fictitious reports to their spymasters, which were being taken quite seriously, not only in Berlin but in London. Having nothing of any significance to report, and wanting to keep their comfortable well-paying posts in what must have been one of the safest places in Europe during the war, these enterprising informants had simply made stuff up.

This was the core of Greene’s book–his protagonist, an unsuccessful British businessman selling vacuum cleaners in Batista’s Cuba, shortly before the revolution, is recruited by a British spy agency, which assumes for some reason he’ll know how to recruit assets and collect vital information–and they have no end of money to dole out towards this end.

Not having any idea how to do any of this, but desperately needing the aforementioned funds, he begins crafting bogus reports full of bogus intelligence, and nonexistent assets to draw very real paychecks–only to learn to his horror that his opposite numbers in Havana are taking his accounts as seriously as his London employers, and that real people are being endangered by his doctored dispatches. Enemy agents who have broken his code are zeroing in on people who seem to correspond to his fanciful descriptions of his operatives–one of whom is actually killed. He himself is being targeted for assassination. It’s as if his creations have taken on a life of their own–the novel is as much about fiction itself as it is about espionage–and human folly.

The book was a great success, as was the delightful Alec Guinness movie that followed it, and whether it was the first true spy comedy or not, it served as the mold for nearly all such stories ever since. Spy comedies are, most often, about amateurs somehow confused with professionals–mistaken identity. Ah-HAH, you can hear Westlake thinking to himself.

Before long, you had Bob Hope in My Favorite Spy (1951), where a comedian is recruited to fill in for a real secret agent he coincidentally resembles–a plot that was later recycled for Fred Flintstone, of all people–in 1966. That very same year, the late James Garner appeared in A Man Could Get Killed, which was at least a bit more realistic than a movie about cavemen with ICBMs, but still revolved around its hero being mistaken for a spy.

More interesting to a novelist in 1966 would have been The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax–about a bored elderly widow who actually wants to be a spy, but only succeeds via a bureaucratic snafu, combined with her own previously unrecognized talents. That led to a very long-running series of books, as well as a 1971 movie. The joke here is that Emily Pollifax was born to be a spy, but doesn’t look like one. Which of course is probably true of most actual spies.6900202-M

Only a short time earlier, there was The Liquidator, published in 1964, with a film adaptation in 1965. John Gardner wrote it as a direct satire on the Bond novels (which he ended up writing himself, after Ian Fleming’s death), about a tall good-looking Brit named Boysie Oakes, who looks like a ruthless coldblooded killer–you see, under extreme stress, he has this facial tic that makes it seem like he’s leering diabolically (Gardner filched that from P.G. Wodehouse’s The Smile That Wins, if anyone cares), but he is actually a tenderhearted soul, incapable of harming a mouse, let alone a man.

His only real vice is–well–vice. Meaning women. For Boysie, “Make Love, Not War” is a way of life, not merely a slogan for protest rallies. All he wants is to get paid and get laid. He may resort to violence when given no option, and he’s even semi-competent at it, but he could never act with malice aforethought.

He is recruited to be a government assassin by an otherwise highly competent spymaster who has formed an unshakeable but entirely mistaken view of Boysie’s character due to a wartime incident–needing the money, Boysie accepts the job. Then realizing he can never actually do the job, he hires a contract killer in the private sector to do the dirty work for him, and everything is fine until–well, read the book. Seriously, it’s a lot of fun. It’s no Our Man in Havana, but what is? Well, aside from that, I mean.

The Liquidator led to yet another long-running series of books, and as already mentioned, a remarkably faithful film adaptation with Rod Taylor, Trevor Howard, and Jill St. John, that flopped miserably at the box office, which I’ll always think is because they didn’t actually let Boysie and the Jill St. John character knock boots in the movie, though they do so repeatedly in the book (did the producers never see any actual Bond films?). Perhaps also because Jack Cardiff, the greatest cinematographer who ever lived, does not even rank in the Top 1,000 as a director. Yes, I digress. Don’t I always?

My point in recounting all of this is that Westlake was hardly breaking new ground here. His agent, when told he was working on a funny spy story about mistaken identity would not be the least bit concerned, since at that point in time, everyone was doing this story. Though the French, for some reason, didn’t get to it until 1972. And that may be the best spy comedy ever made (not the American remake, though). The last shall be first, they do say.

Neither last nor first on this particular scene, Westlake was content, as usual, to be different. The Spy in the Ointment, his eighth novel for Random House, is a departure for him in several senses–first of all, it’s not a murder mystery, as all his previous Random House books had been, at least nominally. (You will note the first edition cover doesn’t have the legend ‘A Random House Mystery’ on it).

There are murders, but there’s not the slightest confusion over who committed them, so the hero is not a detective, reluctant or otherwise–he’s a spy, which is not the same thing, though there is some overlap in that they both go around looking for information. A detective typically figures out who did what to whom and why, after the fact. A spy ideally figures out who is doing what to whom and why, before it’s actually done.

It’s the first novel Westlake published under his own name without a murder mystery somewhere within, and his delight at being able to at least temporarily put aside the onerous duties of whodunnitry is palpable. This is, I think, one of the reasons he decided to try the spy genre, since nobody ever asks James Bond to solve murders. Well, Bond is usually the murderer himself, right? That’s what the ’00’ stands for.

Secondly of all, and distinguishing it not only from Westlake’s previous work, but from all the other spy comedies discussed here, other than Greene’s, the book is full of politics. Not electoral politics, but the other kind–the kind that would like to dispense with those messy noisome elections, and use more direct efficient methods to effect hope and change, mainly firearms and high explosives, and the occasional garrote.

There was politics in Killing Time, as well as firearms and high explosives, but it was all of a very local nature, and we’re never told which parties any of these machine politicians are affiliated with, because it doesn’t really matter. Mainstream politics is about money and power (though it aspires to ideology). Fringe politics is about ideology (though it aspires to money and power). And the people our hero runs up against in The Spy in the Ointment are about as fringe as fringe can get.

But our hero himself, much as he’d object to that term, is also quite ideological. He is that ultimate in oxymorons–a militant pacifist. J. Eugene Raxford (Gene for short) is somewhere in his middle 30’s; as perpetually impecunious and lecherous as Boysie Oakes himself, but differing in one very key respect–he’s got principles. Studying at City College in the early 1950’s, he got involved in the Citizens’ Independence Union, fairly popular among his fellow students then, partly because it advocated against them being sent to die in Korea, and partly because it was a good way to hook up.

Gene fell under the sway of Ethical Pacifism at this time, and when most of the CIU membership drifted away (no longer worried about the draft, and figuring there were easier ways to get laid), he and other pacifists of varying bents took over the group, and have continued to write and disseminate pamphlets no one reads (except the FBI) and organize protest rallies no one attends (except ditto). This is his life, and for all its little deficiencies (mainly of a financial nature), he seems to be enjoying it.

Most of all, he’s enjoying his current girlfriend, Angela Ten Eyck, a raving beauty in black stretch pants and a Chinese red bra, who enjoys the dubious distinction of being Westlake’s first dumb blonde of any consequence–perhaps ditzy would be a more tactful way to put it. Ethereally lovely, sweet-natured, mechanically gifted (comes in handy when the mimeograph machine breaks down), and as devoted a pacifist as Gene, mainly because her father is a massively wealthy and thoroughly unpleasant munitions manufacturer. Imagine a felicitous co-mingling of a 20-ish Blythe Danner and Teri Garr as she appeared in Young Frankenstein

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Like that. But dumb. There really is no other word for it. And Gene spends a good part of the book complaining about this deficiency in his lady love, while simultaneously conspiring to rip her clothes off. Which she’s perfectly fine with, as long as she’s not busy fixing something. A fine specimen of The Girl, that essential factor in all of Westlake’s ‘Nephew’ books, but his girls have not, up to now, been so endearingly yet irritatingly helpless, or so–blonde. The operative term here is “Shiksa Goddess”, and once again we see why Westlake never has any trouble identifying with nebbishe Jewish guys. Spiritually, at least some of the time, he is one.

As the narrative begins, Gene tells us how one Mortimer Eustaly came to his door one day, inviting him to a meeting to be held uptown, at the Odd Fellows Hall at Broadway and 88th Street–there never was an Odd Fellows hall there, best as I can tell, but maybe Westlake knew something Google does not. In any event, an Odd Fellows hall is certainly the appropriate setting for this event–

“Mr. Raxford,” he said, leaning forward and pointing a tapered clean finger at me, “have you ever heard of the American Sons’ Militia?”

“No.”

The National Fascist Reclamation Committee?”

“No.

“The Progressive Proletarian Party?”

“No.”

“The Brotherhood of Christ Defense Fund?”

“No.”

“The Sons of Erin Expeditionary Force?”

“No.”

The Householders’ Separatist Movement?”

“No.”

“The Pan-Arabian World Freedom Society?”

“No.”

“The Eurasian Relief Corps?”

“No.”

“The Gentile Mothers for Peace?”

“What? No!”

“The True Zion Rescue Mission?”

I shook my head.

Gene is bewildered by Mr. Eustaly’s seeming assurance that he has anything in common with this motley assortment of seemingly overspecialized enthusiasts. Only later does he learn that his devoutly pacifist group–the Citizens’ Independence Union–has been confused with a devoutly non-pacifist group who called themselves the World Citizens’ Independence Union, before one of their bombs exploded prematurely at a meeting and wiped out the entire membership.

The State Department published a list of dangerous terrorist organizations, and through a regrettable clerical error left out the ‘World’ part of the now-defunct organization’s name. Not knowing of the WCIU’s untimely demise, Eustaly has mistakenly assumed Gene is the leader of a group of violent bloodthirsty fanatics who want to eliminate all borders everywhere. This would be the mistaken identity component of the plot, we may safely assume.

Eustaly intimates that the goal of this meeting is to unify all these highly disparate but individually rather small and ineffectual groups under a single umbrella, and channel their combined energies into something suitably impressive–say, blowing up the United Nations building. Unmindful of Gene’s horror-struck reaction to this (which he probably interprets as astonished delight), Mortimer Eustaly departs.

Gene (who is under constant FBI surveillance, because wanting to end all violence is subversive), tries to get the Bureau interested in his predicament, but they just assume he’s trying to play them for fools–which in all fairness, he’s been happily doing for years–Aesop could have warned him about that kind of thing.

Advised by his close friend and attorney Murray Kesselberg that if he doesn’t attend the meeting, its attendees will probably come gunning for him, he decides to go there, with Angela, and since he’s constantly tailed by the FBI (because wanting to end all violence is subversive, remember?), he figures they’ll follow him there, and deal with the bad guys.

What he doesn’t figure is that the Feds tailing him will lose him at Columbus Circle, and having been there many times, I can tell you he should have figured that. Westlake, it should be said, is none too impressed with J. Edgar’s boys.

At the meeting, Gene and Angela are admitted by a looming monstrous individual who goes by the name of Lobo and seems rather less intelligent than your average Golden Retriever (and far less affable), but as Gene puts it “brains aren’t everything.” They are then treated to a succession of increasingly bizarre political manifestos from the leaders of the various groups–all of whom seem to hate each other even more than society at large (and that’s saying something).

But with Lobo’s help, Eustaly is able to keep order, until one of them–who seems to be the head of a disgruntled order of plutocrats (perhaps distantly related to the Koch Brothers?)–refuses to play nice, and says he’s going to report all of them to the authorities.

What happens then is not entirely clear, because Gene, our pacifist narrator, closes his eyes, and we’re treated to a succession of highly suggestive sound effects. But the general gist is that Lobo rips the rich twit’s head off and rolls it down the aisle like a bowling ball. That is not meant as a figure of speech. Have I mentioned that Westlake really really did not like The One Percent? I probably have, yes.

So any hopes Gene had that this was just a gag, or that these people were all talk are now thoroughly flushed, and it’s only going to get worse. Because Eustaly and Lobo are not actually the worst people he’s going to meet here. In comes a man introduced as Leon Eyck–“tall as an eagle is tall, lean as a wolf is lean, quick as a cheetah is quick. Lupine, saturnine, sure of himself and contemptuous of everything around him, he was dressed, inevitably, in flowing black, as black as his hair, as black as his eyes. His face, sallow and cruel and sardonically handsome, glinted like an evil thought.”

And just to throw one more gasoline-soaked log on the fire, he’s really Angela’s brother, Tyrone. A truly dangerous revolutionary who fled the country years ago, after a happy childhood of torturing cats, servants, younger siblings, and anyone else unfortunate enough to command his attention. He’s been selling his services to the Red Chinese and anyone else who’ll have him, but his loyalties are only to himself. And he’s always hated Angela. Who is mortally afraid of him, as well she should be, but Gene tells her to just stay calm and he’ll never notice her. Which he doesn’t, until in her panic she knocks down a whole row of folding chairs.

Somehow, they manage to get away, and finally they talk to somebody who believes them–not the FBI, but one of those shadowy fictitious intelligence groups, so much more hush-hush than the paltry likes of MI5 or CIA, that nearly always crop up in this type of novel. It should be mentioned, by the by, that nearly all the various agents Gene and Angela meet are identified by letters of the alphabet, and now I have mentioned it.

An agreement is reached–Gene will infiltrate this new patchwork organization, the League for New Beginnings (is it just me, or does that sound like a glee club?), learn their evil plans, and try not to get too dead in the process. They will accept him back because the newspapers will report that he murdered Angela, and even the regular police will have no idea the story is a plant. Gene is not overly thrilled by this scheme, but since his alternative is to wait for the League to come to him, and he’s already seen (or rather heard) what happens to informers…..

He goes through a rushed five-day training program, in which he’s schooled in self-defense, among other things. He makes it very clear to his trainers that whatever the provocation, he is a true pacifist–he will not resort to violence even in defense of his own life. Not for any reason. Never. This is the one part of his conception of himself that he will not bend on.

J. Eugene Raxford is anything but a saint–he’s actually something of a cad, self-centered as all hell, and his manners leave much to be desired, but he is not calling himself a pacifist just to avoid having to fight anyone. Though that certainly doesn’t hurt. Not like getting shot, or having your head ripped off, anyway.

The plan works–up to a point. Gene contacts a young member of the group, a blonde, muscleheaded young Nazi living in Queens named Jack Armstrong (a much funnier joke in 1966), and through him meets Sun Kut Fu, leader of the aforementioned Eurasian Relief Corps (also from Queens), who takes him to Tyrone Ten Eyck. And in the process, he loses his shoes, which were full of transmitting equipment that was going to keep him in touch with his handlers.

Gene is completely on his own now–the spy is fully immersed in the ointment. He can summon the spy cavalry by submerging a coin they gave him in a glass of water (don’t ask), but until he has actual information, there doesn’t seem to be much point. His faith in the efficiency of his handlers is less than 100%, and he wants to make damn sure there’s nobody left in this group to come after him once he’s been outed as a spy. His natural cowardice is leading him to discover heretofore unsuspected reserves of courage.

But he feels the strain of putting up this facade most sorely–he thinks “What a nerve-wracking way to live! If I’d never found any other reason to advocate pacifism, this would be it; it is so much easier on the nerves not to be perpetually circling your fellow man, hand warily on the hilt of your knife.”

So he spends several days in the company of this assorted bag of nuts, this ‘volley of terrorists’ as he calls them (Westlake’s original title for the book) noticing to his surprise that they are all quite human, and getting on better than you’d expect now that they’re all living in the same house, and working towards the same goal. He also learns that Ten Eyck is gradually eliminating them, as they cease to be useful to him (many never were to begin with). It’s like Big Brother, only with an actual Big Brother, in the Orwellian sense.

Ten Eyck is an interesting villain, and I am quite convinced, an alternate take on Parker (you’ll note the physical description is highly reminiscent)–he’s similarly ruthless and amoral, but being brought up in an obscenely wealthy family seems to have corrupted his nature, driven him insane. A wolf cursed with ideology is a mad wolf. Though he’s more often described as a panther.

He thinks Gene is a fellow carnivore, and Gene does a good job faking it–and just by accident survives an attempt by Ten Eyck to have him eliminated while out on a little trip to Canada to pick up explosives. Which just further convinces Ten Eyck of Gene’s formidability. Gene has figured out that one way to avoid violence is to convince others you are supremely good at it, and are only refraining from it out of a dislike of wasted effort. But he knows that’s only going to work for so long. He hands Ten Eyck a pistol with which he could have tried murdering him in response to that attempt on his life–only he couldn’t–only Ten Eyck doesn’t know that.

He looked at the pistol in his hand, and then at me. “You amaze me, Mr. Raxford,” he said.

“I prefer reason to violence,” I told him. Which was the absolute truth; in my groggy state, my true and false personalities had found a basis for merger. (If I had come to Ten Eyck under my true colors and advocated pacifism to him, he might have murdered me merely in rebuttal. But coming to him now in the guise of another panther like himself, advocating the identical pacifism, I seemed to him a dangerous and capable man, an awesome opponent, and he embraced my ideal [in this limited and local application] with pleasure and relief.)

“Reason,” he said, his glinting smile touching me and the pistol in turn, “is always preferable to violence.”

Gene’s penchant for tangents, as you see, often makes him place bracketed asides within parenthetical remarks. Westlake is putting a lot of himself into Gene–he knows one of his weaknesses as a writer is going off on tangents (it’s one of mine too, which I guess is one reason I like him so much). He turns it into a strength here by making it a window into Gene’s confused personality, his overly glib but nonetheless acute intellectual capacities.

Gene is a true Nephew–somebody with lots of potential, who has been drifting, liking his bohemian existence, but not committing to any part of it. Unlike his predecessors in the previous two Nephew books, he’s found his life’s work, but he’s never been fully serious about it. What’s missing is focus–and as Dr. Johnson so aptly remarked, nothing concentrates the mind like knowing you’re going to be hanged tomorrow. If not sooner.

So skipping way ahead, past the revelation of the villain’s evil plot (which is pure MacGuffin, and never really the point of the story), Gene’s hangman faces him at the Ten Eyck Mansion, where Angela has been hiding out with her father, who Tyrone intends to murder, along with his sister, to inherit the family fortune, and just because it’ll be a fun thing to do. By the way, this is the point you really need to stop reading if you have not yet gotten to this book.

Seeing Angela is alive (and that therefore Gene did not murder her), Ten Eyck’s pantherish illusions about Gene are dispelled. “What are you?”, he asks Gene–not whom, but what. Gene takes advantage of his momentary confusion to grab Angela’s hand, and run out of the room–they hide in the attic, but Angela once again manages to betray their location. Gene is beyond exasperated with her now. How dumb can a girl get? He manages to turn Sun Kut Fu and his men against Ten Eyck and Lobo, but the ensuing battle leaves one survivor–and sadly, it’s Ten Eyck.

Luger in hand, Ten Eyck points the gun at Angela–he knows Gene is no panther now, but some kind of double agent, and unarmed, anyway. He’ll attend to him in a minute, but sister dearest comes first. He tells her how much he’s going to enjoy killing her, while she stands there like the proverbial deer in the headlights. And Gene runs.

He runs right at Tyrone Ten Eyck. He takes the Luger out of his hand and tosses it away. He then somehow channels his five day intensive training course in self defense into an all-out adrenaline-driven physical assault on the most frightening man he has ever met. He does this without thinking, without any conscious choice, though he is painfully aware all the while that he is flagrantly violating his most sacred principles. He lays Ten Eyck out cold on the floor. “That was a terrible thing for a pacifist to do, Gene.” Angela says quietly.

He is neither proud of himself, nor relieved to be safe once again. Instead, he asks himself a question he says he may spend the rest of his life trying to answer–“If I’ve been right all my life about who I was, how came I to be where I was?”

How indeed? Not via his instincts for self-preservation–the gun wasn’t aimed at him, and he could have just run away again–he’s always been good at that. Anyway, he’d had a perfect chance to push Ten Eyck off a cliff a short time earlier, and hadn’t taken it, because of his principles.

No, it’s because J. Eugene Raxford, much as he may not want to admit it–much as he never once admits it in the entire course of the story–is a man in love. And what he cannot express in words can still be expressed through violence. What he could not, would not, do for himself, he can do for her. In fact, he could not stop himself from doing it. This was a part of himself he never acknowledged, but it was there all the same, waiting its time.

All well and good, and after a few more wrinkles, the case is closed, the plot is foiled, Gene is eventually cleared of Angela’s murder (the police have a hard time processing the fact that she isn’t dead), the remaining terrorists are rounded up, and Gene’s alphabetized Federal agents all say he’ll be left strictly alone from now on, having proved his loyalty beyond all question, and anyway he surely realizes now that his pacifist ideals are just a big joke, right?

Wrong. What happened only served to show him, more vividly than ever before, how much true pacifism is needed in this violent world of Tyrone Ten Eycks and all their ilk. He and Angela rededicate themselves to that cause for which so many others have given the last full measure of devotion. He tells us that he’s related this story not as an account of his unexpected bravery and proficiency, but as an admission of guilt.

The fact of the matter is, my activities before all this mess were pale and half-hearted attempts by comparison with my pacifist work thereafter. Since that night with Tyrone Ten Eyck outside Tarrytown, I’ve had something to live down, to pay penance for, to equalize.

It’s only the fool who, because he’s fallen once from grace, believes he should never have tried to be in the state of grace to begin with. I fell, when sorely tempted by Tyrone Ten Eyck, but I stand again, and I hope eventually to have made up for that slip.

And Angela helps me. We discuss it from time to time, as she fixes the mimeograph machine or we drive together in her convertible to peace rallies, and she has admitted to me that when I attacked her brother she was glad, she stood there delighted, urging me on with shouts of encouragement that in the excitement of the moment I never even heard. So we are both struggling back.

Man’s nature is violent because man is partly animal. But we’ve come into an era in which that violence must be quelled, and if it must be, it can be.

And who would know this better than a man supporting his family by crafting supremely enjoyable tales of mayhem and bloody retribution? This book, in a very real sense, is Donald Westlake’s own personal act of penance–the lapsed Catholic inside of him comes out in full force here, and you can see that effect on the language. You also see that Angela’s name was not chosen merely because it sounded pretty.

He must have spent a good bit of time talking to his editor at Pocket Books, Bucklin Moon, who as I discussed in my review of The Hunter, was himself a dedicated lifelong advocate of ethical pacifism–who got denounced as a subversive and had his writing career ruined as a result. So this book is also a tribute to Mr. Moon, to whom Westlake owed a great deal for seeing the potential in a series of books about a wolflike armed robber who kills without qualm–the contradictions in human nature really can seem insurmountable, can’t they? But what was true in 1966 is even more true now–that violence in our natures must be quelled. And if it must be, it can be. Right?

As his story concludes, Gene describes how, accompanied once more by truly perplexed Federal agents, he and Angela picket the United Nations building–still there, unexploded, in spite of the worst efforts of Ten Eyck and his volley of terrorists, who have been exposed to us not as evil geniuses, but as deluded buffoons, like the rest of us, only better armed and less inhibited.

Gene and Angela carry no weapon but signs, and you know what those signs say? They say BAN THE BOMB. That’s how the book ends, and years later, in an interview, Westlake recounted how he’d just received a very upset letter from a woman who said she didn’t expect to read radical propaganda in a nice spy thriller.

But to Westlake, that’s not what it was at all, and he couldn’t see how this woman (who sounds herself like a potential inductee to the inaptly named Gentile Mothers for Peace), could possibly have come to the conclusion that this was a political book in the sense that she meant it. Gene, after all, had very narrowly escaped being blown up himself–his message is not political, but personal. Pacifism is not a partisan ideological stance, or shouldn’t be. We can argue about politics all day if we like, but the point is, let’s keep arguing. For as long as we possibly can.

But in the meantime, I still have many violent novels to reread and review, and I expect to vicariously enjoy them all, as I have before. Including the extremely violent Richard Stark novel that comes next on our list, where Parker (the non-ideological one) takes out an entire island–and then commits an act of mercy that would probably confuse the hell out of Tyrone Ten Eyck. As Saint Augustine used to pray–before he was Saint Augustine–“Oh Lord, make me virtuous–but not yet.” He was actually a lot more likable before he was a saint, but never mind that now.

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12 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels

12 responses to “Review: The Spy in the Ointment

  1. I was aware of a comic spy subgenre before reading this novel, but it seemed I never actually read anything comic about spys or watched any spy parodies.
    This one is a strange piece of work. Westlake already stepped on the territory of international intrigue before (and will step after), yet it wasn’t fully conscious decision. TSITO is fully realized work, well planned and executed.
    It is also probably Westlake’s most heavily stylized work to date. I recall it’s written in some kind of old-fashioned style. More important it’s very funny. I find it funnier than God Save The Mark.
    It’s an odd piece of work. I doubt TSITO is anyone’s favorite DW work, but it’s a good one.

  2. I think it’s definitely one of the best humorous novels he did in the 60’s, if not the best. But as I’ve said elsewhere, he didn’t fully hit his stride in that area until the 70’s.

    One thing I’d wanted to get into more in the review, but couldn’t quite fit it in, was the way he nailed the fundamental similarities between these little political groups–how each is convinced that they and they alone have found THE TRUTH.

    I’ve never hung out with terrorists (brushed shoulders with them now and again–Irish, you know). But I spent a lot of time in my youth hobnobbing with people on the far far left–none of whom had anything good to say about each other. The thing about individualists is that they’re individuals. They don’t make good soldiers.

    They were no threat whatsoever to the established order, much as they aspired to be, because as Gene observes at one point in the book, you can never get them organized–they’re too self-centered. But then somebody comes along who knows how to make them work together, and then they can be useful–or dangerous–or both. It depends on who’s uniting them, and to what end.

    “Hearts with one purpose alone,
    through summer and winter seem
    enchanted to a stone
    to trouble the living stream.”

    What you note about the various groups in this book is that they run the full political gamut–far left, far right, working class, plutocrat (I mentioned what happened to the plutocrat), nationalist, religious, etc. And he’s saying they’re all basically the same general type of machine, running slightly different softwares. Certain personality types just seem to need a cause–and an enemy. And I’d be the last to say there aren’t causes worth fighting (even dying) for, or that there aren’t real enemies out there. But if they don’t find one, they’ll make one up.

    Westlake didn’t quite live to see the Tea Party. He’d have had a lot of fun with those guys. But he had a good bit of fun with some of their predecessors in this book.

    😉

  3. If anyone’s wondering, I’m working on my review of The Handle, and hope to have it finished soon. Sorry for the delay. Life gets in the way. 😉

  4. Um . . . the name Mortimer Eustaly I know, and Dimitrios Rembla I recognize — but who’s this Mostyn?

    • I have no idea. A word search on the blog I conducted several minutes after seeing your post doesn’t find any Mostyn. Perhaps you just inexplicably misread Eustaly as Mostyn. Five or six separate times. I lost count. Have a nice day. 😐

      • Steven Flanagan

        Mostyn is Boysie Oakes’ boss in “The Liquidator” – but he’s not mentioned by name in this post, so far as I can see.

        • No, but that probably does explain the confusion. I read that entire novel in preparation for this review (and because I was curious how it stacked up to the film). Mostyn’s name got stuck in the wrong file. Happens all the time.

  5. Actually, I was kind of hoping there was some perfectly rational and thoroughly arcane reason for it.

  6. (BTW, for some reason that “Five or six separate times” sounds in my mental ear with an echo of “Bang bang. Bangity.”)

  7. Steven Flanagan

    Thanks for this review. I’m going to put off reading most of it until I’ve read the book, so I’ll be back.

    You wrote, “There may have been comic spy novels before Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but I can’t find any…”.

    The earliest that comes to mind is “The Man Who Was Thursday” by G K Chesterton, an absurdist tale of infiltration of a terrorist organisation, published in 1908 – almost co-eval with the genre.

    There is also “Water on the Brain”, published in 1933 by Compton Mackenzie, author of “Whisky Galore”. Mackenzie had run a British counter-intelligence network in Greece during WW1, and was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act in 1932 because he wrote about it in his war memoir. So he decided to take the mickey out of Intelligence rather than documenting it. In his preface to a later edition Mackenzie wrote, “…those responsible for Secret Intelligence do, in very fact, as often as not behave like characters created by the Marx Brothers. ‘Duck Soup’, for instance, appealed to me as a film of stark realism.”

    • I read about Mackenzie recently, in a book about WWI, 1916: A Global History. Interesting fellow, but of course they all were. Maugham ran into some problems with his former spymasters as well, when writing his Ashenden stories, but those aren’t comic in nature.

      Chesterton’s story is certainly absurdist, but I’m not convinced it qualifies as comedy. Or that Chesterton was ever really funny. If indeed he was trying to be. I mean, some people may get chuckles from Kafka, I couldn’t say.

      Please note, this is not really a spy novel in the strict sense. It’s not about people who have chosen to do this kind of work. Westlake heroes never volunteer for anything, other than theft, or nookie. They just get dragooned now and again. That’s how Westlake chose to approach the subject matter. Of course, he knew very little about it, and he wasn’t one for heavy research. He reads the papers, he reads books (fiction and non-fiction), and he’s got an underlying worldview that shapes everything he writes. How the individualist interacts with various types of social machinery. And tries not to get ground up in it.

      The point of this type of story is somebody who shouldn’t be a spy, and really isn’t a spy, is doing the work of a spy. That’s not Chesterton’s story–he’s interested in the absurdity of people who are already in the belly of the beast, have been thorougly digested by it. Westlake could never understand anyone choosing that, doesn’t really want to understand it. To him, that’s insanity. That’s why the handlers in this book are not really characters, just satiric caricatures. He believes far more in the villain. This is all very relevant to my next piece here, btw. 😉

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