Monthly Archives: October 2014

Review: The Green Eagle Score


She said in answer to his question, “His name is Parker. I don’t know what his first name is, nobody said. I don’t like him.”

“Why not?”

“He’s–I don’t know, I look at him and I think he’s evil. But that isn’t right, exactly, I don’t think he’s evil. I mean, I don’t think he’d ever be cruel or anything like that, for the fun of it. I wouldn’t worry about leaving Pam around him, for instance. But–I know.”


“He wouldn’t hurt Pam, but he wouldn’t care about her either. If something bad happened to her, he wouldn’t be pleased by it, but he wouldn’t try to do anything to help her. Unless he saw some gain for himself in it.”

“You mean he seems cold?”

“He doesn’t care. There’s no emotion there.”

“Oh well,” Dr. Godden said, and even though she wasn’t looking at him she could hear the gentle smile in his voice, “everyone has emotions. We all have them–you, me, everyone. Even this man Parker. Maybe he has them bottled up more than most people, that’s all.”

As you’ve probably noticed, I like comparing Westlake’s books to other books, particularly when I think I’ve found one that Westlake used as a model for his own.  But some books of his are so unique, it’s hard for me to find any real parallel.  This is one of those.  In terms of its story, its characters, I don’t know of any book that strongly influenced The Green Eagle Score. Maybe you do.  But I think we all know this is not the first or the most famous novel about a master criminal robbing a U.S. military base.


But damned if I can find any similarity other than the idea of pulling a heist on Uncle Sam. Maybe the novel (and later the film) gave Westlake the germ of that idea, maybe not.  But the story he told could not have been more different–and far as I’m concerned, better.   Certainly more believable, not that one should ever judge Ian Fleming by that standard.  That wouldn’t be cricket.

Fleming wrote pure fantasy–Richard Stark is certainly fantasizing as well, but in a more grounded, tangible, ‘maybe this could actually happen’ sort of way.  Unlike Fleming, he writes from the criminal’s perspective, and his mastermind is not a bizarre wealthy egotist trying to prove a point, but a hard-eyed workman doing his job.  And one more thing–Fleming did some research on Fort Knox, I’m sure, but nobody’s expecting a plausible heist out of him–I can’t find any mention of his ever having been there.  Westlake spent several years of his life on Air Force bases.   He went into this one already knowing much of what he needed to know.

The United States Air Force had existed as a separate branch of the military for less than a decade when Westlake joined up.  Serving in peacetime, his military service seems to have consisted mainly of short stints on bases in Germany and elsewhere–flying back and forth over the Atlantic, doing drudge work, writing in his spare time.  And dealing with authority figures of varying types and qualities on a daily basis, because that’s what military life is. He doesn’t seem to have made many (if any) lasting friendships there.  If his unpublished autobiography ever sees the light of day, maybe we’ll learn more about that part of his life.

But for now, we can look at his fiction, and notice how many of his characters have had some military experience. Parker himself served in the Army in World War II (apparently joining up in his early teens, which isn’t as implausible as it sounds), but was discharged from the service for black-market activities. Grofield was in the army.  Ray Kelly had just gotten out of the service at the start of 361. Samuel Holt was an M.P. before he became a cop, then an actor, then a reluctant detective. Just a few examples out of dozens.  He liked to use that as a starting point for his heroes.

But Westlake never wrote a single book centered around an active-service military man (or woman), unless you count A Girl Called Honey, a ‘sleaze’ novel he co-wrote with Lawrence Block.  Westlake and Block each created a character to vie for the affections of the titular seductress, and Westlake’s was a scrawny Air Force grunt named Richie Parsons, who hates the Air Force, steals from his fellow servicemen, and then goes AWOL, which is how he meets the aforementioned seductress.  I don’t think it’s a self-portrait, exactly, but no doubt Westlake was expressing his own feelings there–he wasn’t impressed with the USAF, or most of the people in it. To be a military man is to be a cog in a machine.  It’s no place for an individualist.  I’m sure George Patton would have disagreed, but of course he was running the machine.

One other thing–we now know, thanks to The Getaway Car, that Westlake was arrested for stealing a microscope while in college. Given his age, seems plausible he had a bit of counseling after that experience–maybe saw a psychiatrist or two.  And I’d guess the Air Force had some psychological screening in place by the time he was there, though probably not much.

There’s a different kind of authority figure–the ‘headshrinker’–somebody who pries into your deepest thoughts and emotions, and in some cases tells you (in that prototypical passive aggressive ‘how did that make you feel?’ sort of way) what’s going on inside your noodle–trying to fit you into his little Freudian templates.  And how do you think that made Westlake feel? Not very well-disposed towards psychiatrists.

We’ve already seen his attitude towards that profession in Pity Him Afterwards.  And we’re going to see it again here. And yet there’s a lot of very good psycho-analysis in this book, albeit applied to some less than noble ends. Westlake might have been more impressed than he let on.

The book opens with a classic bit of Starkian prose, though we’re still missing the “When such-and-such happened, Parker did something” opening of the first eight books.

Parker looked at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits. He was standing near Parker’s gear, not facing anywhere in particular, and he looked like a rip in the picture. The hotel loomed up behind him, white and windowed, the Puerto Rican sun beat down, the sea foamed white on the beach, and he stood there like a homesick mortician.

That mortician is Marty Fusco, a fellow heister, who just finished a stretch in prison and is looking for a quick score to get back on his feet. The character is a lot like Lempke from The Rare Coin Score, but unlike his predecessor, he hasn’t lost his nerve–just his wife, Ellen.  She divorced him when he was in prison, and eventually took up with Stan Devers, a handsome cocky young gent currently finishing a stretch in (wait for it) the Air Force. He works in the payroll office.

Stan’s stationed at a base outside Monequois–a recurring fictional burg somewhere in upstate New York we see referenced in various Westlake books, but this can’t be the same Monequois we saw in The Seventh. That was a college town, around the size of Binghamton–and no way Parker would ever go back there to pull a job after the events of that book.  So Westlake is just reusing the name, as he already had several times before, because he likes it (I think he made it up himself–it’s supposed to be an old Indian name, but there never was any such tribe as the Monequois, in New York or anywhere else).  This version of Monequois is a small sleepy place, dominated by the much larger military base outside it. It’ll be waking up with a start in the near future.

Anyway, Fusco has a kid with Ellen, three year old Pamela, and he came back to see her, found Ellen was with Devers, and being an easy-going sort of guy, ended up becoming chums with him. And much to Ellen’s dismay, they ended up hatching a scheme together–the payroll for the base is huge, and all cash.  Marty thinks there’s a job here, but he needs Parker to plan it.

Parker’s response is predictably wary–as it was when the Copper Canyon caper was pitched to him in The Score, but something about the way he expresses his incredulity doesn’t sound very Parker-like.

Parker broke in, saying, “Wait a while. This is the job you came down here to offer me? Go steal an Army payroll right off the post?”

“It isn’t Army, Parker, it’s Air Force. And besides, they–”

“What do you mean it isn’t Army? Have they got a fence around the post?”

“Base, they call it a base.”

“Have they got a fence around it? And gates? And armed sentries on the gates?”

“Parker, it can be done. There’s better than four hundred grand in there, Parker, twice a month, ours for the taking.”

“Yours for the taking,” Parker told him. “I don’t take money away from five thousand armed men.”

“It isn’t five thousand armed men, Parker. Christ, you know what Stan calls the Air Force? The saluting civil service, he says. You know what they carry on their practice alerts? Empty carbines. They don’t even get bullets, for Christ’s sake.”

“Somebody’s got bullets,” Parker told him. “Somewhere on that post, base, whatever they call it, somewhere there’s somebody doesn’t want us to take that four hundred grand. I’ll leave that somebody alone.”

A great bit of dialogue, but Parker doesn’t talk like that.  It’s too wordy, and too funny.  Parker doesn’t kvetch.  It sounds to me like John Dortmunder trying to get born.  It wasn’t long after this that Westlake started work on a Parker novel that kept veering into comedy–which for this character, simply doesn’t work.

Parker remembers his own wartime stint in the military, when everybody was on full alert, and it takes time for him to accept this isn’t the same thing at all.  But he wants to work again, even though he doesn’t have to yet, and so he tells Claire he’s going to check this thing out.  She doesn’t want to know the specifics–and she doesn’t want him to leave–she thinks he may not be coming back this time. They have a tense little discussion, and he leaves anyway.

How much time has passed since the last book?  Salsa’s name gets brought up later, and we’re told he died a couple of years ago–based on what we see at the start of The Rare Coin Score, Parker spent just a few restless weeks of womanizing between the end of the Cockaigne job Salsa died on, and his first meeting with Claire–who became his permanent traveling companion two months after the events of the previous book.

So flush with cash, and greatly enjoying his new steady girl, Parker has taken well over a year off–his longest break since we’ve known him–and yet he and Claire still have a very passionate sex life.  He doesn’t need to pull a job to get it up anymore. Claire changed that for him. But he still needs to work–nobody can change that–and something about this job intrigues him.  The challenge of it–how sweet it would be to take that money away from the U.S. military.  Claire had a point about him–he does like to fight society. It brings out the artist in him.

Devers meets them at the airport with his maroon Pontiac, and they drive upstate–Fusco has been raving about this kid, how smart and on-the-ball he is, how he’ll be a great recruit to The Profession, and Parker thinks he may be right about that–Devers is already a pretty accomplished thief.  He’s clearly been embezzling from the Air Force–nice car, fancy duds, a charge account at Lord & Taylor’s in New York City (ah yes, I remember it well).

Expensive tastes, no love for daily routine or bosses, a maverick streak, nerve to spare–yeah, Devers is the type.  But does he have everything it takes? Well, we know he’s got a cool car–probably a lot like this–


Parker checks into a motel outside Monequois, in an even tinier town called Malone–and see, this is one reason I do these reviews chronologically. If we hadn’t just been looking at Anarchaos, would you pick up on Parker staying in a town with the same name as the protagonist of a book that came out the same year as this one?  I never did before (and this is my fourth time reading this book). Westlake liked to make these little meta-textual references that hardly anyone but him would ever notice.

Parker meets Ellen Fusco–and why did Westlake keep coming back to variations on that name, Elly, Ellie, etc?  She is not a happy person, and it’s hard to blame her.  She had a bad relationship with her strict parents, married Marty as an act of rebellion, only to see him wind up in prison, right after she got pregnant. She’s attractive, still young, and has hooked up with an even younger guy, who she thinks is husband material (not a good judge of character, is Ellen), and now the first husband is back, luring her new guy into a life of crime.  She was with Marty long enough to absorb the heisting ethos–don’t talk to the law. She won’t squeal on them.  Not intentionally.

But she’s not happy , and she wants everybody to know about it.  Particularly Parker.  Who of course she’s attracted to, even though she hates his guts.  And who does she talk to about all these conflicting emotions?  Her shrink, Dr. Godden.  Who is very interested in what she has to say about this impending robbery, and the four hundred thousand dollars it could possibly net.

As Parker, Marty & Stan scope out the base, come up with a plan, assemble a solid string, we alternate between chapters where they do all this and chapters with Ellen talking to Dr. Godden about it–he encourages her to participate more, involve herself, be present for all their planning sessions–it’ll be therapeutic for her.   She’ll realize her anxieties are unfounded.  Everything’s going to be just fine.  As long as she keeps telling him all about it.

“Perhaps on Wednesday,” he said, “you’ll feel like talking about the robbery again.  Perhaps you’ll understand your feelings better then.”

“I’ll talk about it now,” she said. “Now that I understand this, I want to talk about it, honestly.”

“There’s no time now,” he said, and his voice didn’t sound quite as sympathetic as usual. “We’ll see what happens on Wednesday.”

Now she did feel guilty.  She’d been keeping the plan from Dr. Godden for no reason, making him feel she didn’t trust him, causing a rift between them just when she needed him the most. “I’ll tell you the whole thing on Wednesday,” she promised.

“If you feel like it,” he said.

(Sidebar: Amazingly, in the 1960’s, Dr. Godden might  have been within his rights to not divulge this impending armed robbery to the police.  It wasn’t until the late 60’s/early 70’s that certain cases led to the passage of state laws creating exemptions to patient/doctor privilege–like a patient telling a doctor about a violent crime that had not yet been committed.  And since Ellen wasn’t actively participating in the crime, and the heisters would ideally prefer not to hurt anybody in the commission of said crime–it’s a bit of a grey area.   Psychiatrists committing crimes based on inside information from patients, not so much.)

This is the tenth Parker novel, and we know the score by now, which is to say we know somebody’s always trying to score off Parker’s score.  This time it’s Godden, who (once we’re inside his head) turns out to be a man in a pretty desperate situation, due mainly to personal weakness.  He keeps marrying women who are only interested in his money (judging by his physical description, there’s not much else to be interested in), and as they kept spending it all, he kept cutting ethical corners to make up the shortfall–writing prescriptions he shouldn’t have, facilitating illegal abortions that went wrong (Roe v. Wade is still about six or seven years off), and he got caught, which brought an end to his lucrative Manhattan practice.

He ended up in Monequois, still licensed, but not making nearly enough to support an ex-wife, a current wife, and a mistress.  And now he’s being blackmailed by someone who knows about his past indiscretions.  He wants to escape the whole sorry mess, but how?  Ellen Fusco presents him with the answer to his problems.  He just has to recruit a few accomplices, and they’ll heist the heist.  But he doesn’t know any professional thieves, and even if he did they’d demand their cut, and he wants the whole pile for himself.

So he recruits two of his patients.   The deeply disturbed Roger St. Cloud, a 22 year old rebel without a clue, who dreams about being inside gun barrels pointed at his controlling father’s head; and a big passive pliable lunkhead named Ralph Hochberg, who Godden convinces that he needs to do something assertive, like steal money from armed robbers.  Godden has betrayed every aspect of his professional identity, and his personal identity was never much to start with. For all the supposed amorality of Richard Stark, I find a very strong sense of alternate morality in him–in his world, people are punished, with extreme severity, for the crime of not knowing who they are.

Several chapters are devoted to Devers showing Parker the base, interpreting its culture–in many ways, it feels like a college campus–most of the people there are attending classes of one kind or another. There’s a movie theater, there are restaurants, even bus lines to take you around. Most of the men are out of uniform most of the time. We never see a plane, though they do have them there. Parker quickly realizes this isn’t the armed camp that he’d envisioned. These people are as soft as The Outfit–maybe softer. They’re not prepared to deal with somebody like him.

They’re more on their toes than they would normally be, because of a recent sting operation–an inspector got past the guards and planted several symbolic ‘bombs’ in the shape of bricks, just to demonstrate how poor their security was. But so many people have to go in and out of the base every day. No matter how carefully the guards are briefed, they can’t help but get bored and caught up in the daily routine. The bigger and busier the installation, the less secure it is. Well, we know that now, right?

Before they head for the base, Devers admits he’s got the jitters–Parker says most guys in this business do–but not him.

He wasn’t boasting, it was the truth. The situation they were going into tonight would only make him colder and colder, harder and harder, surer and surer. He knew everything was organized, he knew the way it was supposed to come off, the step-by-step working out of the prepared script, and he was like a cold-blooded stage manager on opening night; no jitters, just a cold hard determination that everything would happen the way it was supposed to happen. He knew that the others, the actors, were all atremble, but that wasn’t for him. Stage managers don’t tremble.

This seems more like a metaphor Grofield would resort to–Parker normally has no use for metaphors of any kind. Is this the way Parker thinks, or just the way Stark is interpreting his thoughts for us?

He seems a bit more human in this book. Waiting for the job to start, he’s surprised to find himself thinking about Claire, wanting to get back to her, take her to the casino in San Juan, where she invariably loses fifty bucks playing craps, then wants to go right back to their room to make love. He doesn’t live entirely in the here and now anymore. Part of him is always with her. And yet, as we’ve seen, when he’s with her, part of him is always looking for the next job. Like I said–more human than he used to be. But still a wolf down deep. A wolf with a mate.  Though described as a panther at one point in this book.  Stop screwing with my metaphor, Stark!

The plan involves going in during a period of peak traffic, right around 5:00pm, when the AP’s (Air Police) at the gate are under pressure to avoid a bottleneck. They disguise themselves (in gold tunics no less) as ‘Ernie Seven and the Four Score’–a dance band. They have a letter forged on stationary Devers obtained, saying they’ve been engaged to play at the Officer’s Club–and the Major in charge will be most displeased if they are late. Works like a charm.

They have to hang around until midnight to make their move–they get dinner, meet up with Devers, and catch a movie–twice. Parker pays no attention to the movie either time. He couldn’t tell you what it was about if he saw it a hundred times.  Just light, color, sound–nothing else. Some stage manager he’d make.

Midnight comes–there’s just a sliver of the new moon in the sky. They take out the guards at the payroll office–badly wounding one in the process, but raising no alarm. There’s six of them–Parker recruited Philly Webb, Jake Kengle, and Bill Stockton for the string. Solid pros, who do their job perfectly. It all goes off exactly the way Parker planned, except for this one guard who had to play cowboy and go for his gun, making Kengle shoot him–they hope he won’t die. That brings down more heat. They bandage his wounds. And leave him there. Some things you can’t control.

Before he got the call about this job, Kengle was trying to sell encyclopedias door to door.  Another element that shows up in the first Dortmunder book–many of the Stark heisters are very human, but that chapter about Kengle, who plays a pretty minor role in the story, almost seems superfluous in this context–bits of Westlake breaking through the Stark facade. Something about this story is making it harder for him to be Stark all the time.

They breeze back past the gate, back in their gold tunics, in a short bus with specially painted banners on it, and almost 400 large hidden under their musical instruments. The hideout is an abandoned hunting lodge, not far at all from the base–but Parker and Webb lay a false trail, making it seem like they crossed over into Canada. Devers heads back to Ellen’s house.  Fusco, Kengle, and Stockton will guard the cash. A near-perfect job. And then it all goes sour. Again.

Parker and Webb get back to the lodge, and find what we knew they would find–all three of their confederates are dead, and the money is gone. They head for the house, and find Devers in bed with Ellen–obviously they suspect him, but it’s increasingly clear he’s as shocked as they are. None of them, however, are nearly as shocked as Ellen–when she realizes what’s happened.   And her already-fragile mental equilibrium collapses on itself.

“Marty isn’t dead,” she said.

Parker said, “Devers, slap her face. I want her awake.”

But then Ellen shrieked, “Why would he do a thing like that? Face contorted with rage, she leaped off the bed and tried to run out of the room. Parker grabbed her and she twisted and squirmed, trying to get away, shouting “I’ve got to talk to him, I’ve got to find out! I’ve got to know why he did it, why he’d do something like this!”

Parker slapped her with his free hand, open palm across the face, and she sagged against him, her body abruptly boneless. Holding her up, Parker said “Who? Who did it?”

“I was supposed to be able to trust him,” she said, her eyes closed, her body slack with defeat.

Parker shook her. “Who?”

Devers said, “For Christ’s sake, Parker, don’t you get it? She’s talking about her analyst!”

No, of course Parker doesn’t get it. He’s never needed to confide in anyone–he’ll never be that human. We all understand perfectly well the need to confide, to share the thoughts and emotions we can’t openly express, the darker side of ourselves, the sins we’ve committed, the sins we wish we’d committed–with a family member, a friend, a soulmate, a priest, or if all else fails, a paid professional. All else had failed for Ellen Fusco.

If Parker truly knew what it was to be human, to have that weakness, he would have seen this coming–he knew she was going to see a shrink. They all did, but Marty was blinded by guilt, Stan by lust–Parker, whose most important function in any heist is always to see trouble lurking around each corner, was blinded only by the fact that he’ll never fully understand people. You tell somebody your deepest most dangerous secrets–and you pay him to listen? Lord, what fools these mortals be.

And this mortal was fool enough to think he could finish this review in under 6,000 words, but it doesn’t look promising. The stage manager in me thinks it’s time to take a break, and come back for act two next week. End scene–lower curtain–smoke ’em if you got ’em.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: Anarchaos, Part 2


Why is the element of crime so useful to the storyteller and such a magnet to the reader?  I’d like to try to answer that by borrowing from the classical description of theater: One character on a stage is a speech, two characters an argument, three characters drama.  The variant I would propose begins with society.  When  you have only society, you have predictability and order; life in an anthill.  When you have society and the individual, you have conflict, because the greater good of society is never exactly the same as the greater good of any one individual within it.  When you have society and a crime, you have a rent in the fabric, a distortion away from predictability and order; but to no effect, it’s merely disordered.  When you have all three, society and the individual and a crime, you have all the multiple possibilities of drama, plus all the multiple possibilities of free will; that is, life.  Society and crime are in unending opposition, but the individual is in a shifting relationship to the other two, depending on how this individual feels about this crime in this society.

That’s why there are detective stories about cops, but also detective stories about robbers; detective stories in which virtue is triumphant, and detective stories in which virtue is trampled in the dust; detective stories hinged on professional expertise, and detective stories  hinged on amateur brilliance; detective stories in which we root for the hero, and detective stories in which we root for the villain.

Donald Westlake–From the Introduction to Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Crime Fiction

He said “Are you very stupid, or very clever?  You present me with your mythic qualities, the slain brother, eternal questions, the unworldly view. You think if you show yourself to me as a saint you’ll impress me and I’ll stay away from you.”

I didn’t understand him, yet it did seem to be true that he was impressed by something.   He was getting more and more nervous.  I said “I’m not stupid, but I’m not clever either.  I came here, I came to this planet, I thought I was hard, I thought I was the strongest thing there was and it would all go my way, and nothing went my way.  I lost every fight.  I lost a hand.  I learned nothing and I’m sitting here a prisoner of a man I don’t know, caught up in some kind of problem I don’t understand.  You’re the one making the myths, the money myth, the golden fleece.  I don’t have what you want.”

From Anarchaos, by Curt Clark.  

If I gave the impression in Part 1 of this review that Westlake, by writing a highly critical opinion piece on the state of science fiction for the fanzine Xero, had completely alienated himself (so to speak) from the science fiction world, that may have been misleading.   He had some supportive mail–not, to be sure, from the influential people he’d attacked, but from younger writers, who felt just as oppressed by editorial expectations (and lousy pay-rates) as Westlake did.

Science Fiction was then, as it is now, a community of like-minded yet highly individualistic people, who shared a common passion.   And who often shared remarkably similar backgrounds. For example, Harlan Ellison’s life story is almost an alternate retelling of Westlake’s.   Born the year after Westlake, lower middle class family, didn’t finish college, got drafted into the military (the army in his case), lived in Greenwich Village, cranked out sleazy erotic paperbacks under pseudonyms to pay the bills, married repeatedly (though Ellison never managed to stay married very long), and wrote both science fiction and mystery.

As I said last time, there was nothing unusual about being a Mystery/SF switch-hitter back then.   You could win awards in both genres, and Ellison did (two Edgars, four Nebulas, eight Hugos).   He wasn’t the only one.   Westlake pretty much kissed any shot he ever had at a Hugo or a Nebula goodbye when Xero published his critique.  I don’t think it worried him much.

Ellison also contributed to Xero (so obviously he read Westlake’s polemic), and has said many highly complimentary things about Westlake over the years.  You don’t offend Harlan Freakin’ Ellison and escape unscathed, so it seems likely he admired Westlake’s chutzpah, and agreed with much of what he’d said. Ellison clearly didn’t agree that the only thing to do about the lousy state of SF was to go write in some other genre.  He went right on going to SF conventions and getting into fights, and we’re not just talking verbal disagreements here. Truth is, scrappy disputatious personalities have always been welcome in SF.   Westlake didn’t leave because there weren’t kindred spirits there.

Westlake wrote contemptuously of Robert P. Mills (called him a ‘journeyman incompetent’), who edited The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction–but that magazine was founded by Westlake’s greatest early critical champion, Anthony Boucher (real name William Anthony Parker White–emphasis added, and hmm!).   And Boucher, equally at home in both genres, went right on championing Westlake in the New York Times, with ever-increasing enthusiasm.

Basically, he’d been attacking the system whereby it was decided who got published in the science fiction field, what they wrote, and how much they got paid.   And the only people much bothered by what he said were the people in charge of that system, and those loyal to them.   It’s unfortunate he went after Frederick Pohl, who hadn’t had a chance to prove himself as an editor yet, but Pohl was in authority, and we all know by now how Westlake tends to feel about authority figures.   Like John Cougar Mellencamp, except for the ‘authority always wins’ part. When reading him, you always have to allow for that.

So as I said in Part 1, Anarchaos is a reworking of Robert A. Heinlein’s Coventry–which is about a young man with anti-authoritarian and rather libertarian leanings, who is living in a liberal society set up after the overthrow of a religious dictatorship. He expressed his rebellion by punching somebody in the nose for insulting him. Instead of agreeing to accept psychological reconditioning (which sounds terrible, but basically it’s just talking to psychiatrists for a few weeks), he opts for exile to Coventry–an area of the U.S. that’s been cordoned off by a high-tech force field, where America sends those who can’t or won’t agree to certain basic standards of behavior.

He expects to find Libertarian Paradise there, but instead he finds three messy oppressive rival systems, which show no respect for his rights, rob him blind, and throw him in jail. He escapes with the help of a seeming criminal, named Fader, and it turns out the only people you can trust in Coventry are crooks–except in the end, Fader turns out to be a government agent keeping an eye on the Coventry crazies.

By that point, our hero has realized the error of his ways, and gone to warn America that the crazies are banding together to smash the barrier and take over–turns out their plan was never going to succeed, and his warning was unneeded, but he’s proven himself loyal, so his sentence is rescinded. He’s pondering joining the same secret service as Fader at the end.

This is a product of Heinlein’s early liberal period, but he republished it after he’d become much more conservative, so I think we can say it’s representative of his general philosophy throughout his life–he liked the idea of freedom from all constraint, but didn’t much care for the chaos and tyranny he saw in countries that didn’t have strong Democratic governments.

In other words, his politics were confused, and continue to confuse readers to this very day. This is why right after Starship Troopers, a novel that is still required reading in military academies, that said only those who served in the military should be citizens and order is to be prized above all, he published Stranger in a Strange Land, which became a sort of bible to the Free Love Movement, and the counterculture in general, and contained phrases like “Thou Art God.” Forget it Jake, it’s Heinlein-town.

Westlake would have read Coventry with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. There’s the germ of a good story in there, and a rather prescient message for Libertarians of all eras (“be careful what you ask for….”) but it’s buried under civics lectures, bad satire, and two dimensional characters. Nothing the protagonist does makes the slightest difference, and his late-day conversion is abrupt and poorly motivated. His rebellious nature is simplistically blamed on a controlling father (Heinlein believed in psychiatry–unlike Westlake). He goes from being an idiot who hates the government to an idiot who wants to spy for the government, with scarcely a moment’s pause.

Because Westlake mentions having written 20,000+ words of a science fiction novel in the piece he submitted to Xero sometime in 1961 (and certain things he says in that piece and its follow-up make it clear that’s the year he submitted it in), it seems likely he started work on Anarchaos sometime in ’60 or early ’61, at the dawn of his career as a crime novelist.   I’d love to know if he started it before or after 361 and The Hunter–it shares a very similar sensibility to both, but is closer to the former than the latter, not least in that it’s written in the first person.   This isn’t ‘Parker in Outer Space’–this protagonist will tell us what he’s thinking and feeling in great detail.

It’s more like 361‘s Ray Kelly in Outer Space, and just like Ray Kelly, this guy is out to avenge a murdered family member.   Like Ray Kelly, he pays a heavy price, both psychologically and physically. But unlike Ray Kelly, he’s got a whole planet to fight, and he has a much rougher time reaching his goal.   He’s actually telling us a lot more about his feelings than Kelly–Westlake hasn’t yet perfected the muted emotional responses he favored in his most hard-boiled work–so I’ll go out on a limb and say he started it before 361.   And maybe just after Killing Time–because aside from Coventry, it also bears a familial resemblance to Red Harvest.   Hammett meets Heinlein–ain’t that a trip?

Our hero, if you want to call him that (he wouldn’t care whether you did or not), is Rolf Malone–he tells us he just got out of prison on Earth for killing a man in a fit of rage.   He’s been plagued by a vicious temper all his life, and he’s got serious anti-social tendencies, but he’s always loved his older brother Gar, who looks enough like him to be his twin.  Gar has always been calm, easy-going, trusting–perhaps too trusting–there’s a strong sense that the two brothers were opposite sides of the same coin–each incomplete without the other.

Gar asked Rolf to come work with him on the planet Anarchaos, once he was released, and Rolf was all too happy to get away from Earth and make a fresh start.   Gar was exploring for mineral deposits, on behalf of a major corporation there.  But before Rolf could leave, he got word Gar had been murdered–the other half of his identity gone forever.  And every time I type the name ‘Rolf’ I see a Muppet dog playing piano, so from now on when I say ‘Malone’, I mean the protagonist, okay?

Malone decides that his only purpose in life is to find whoever killed Gar–he’s told this is a pointless quest–that Anarchaos itself killed his brother. One way you can know this is a very early Westlake novel is that he’s not a reluctant detective–he’s also not a professional one. He prepares himself for his journey, reading up on Anarchaos, a world with a dying red giant for a sun–and where, because the planet doesn’t spin on its axis, only half of it is livable (if you use the term loosely), and is bathed in a perpetual red glare. The other half is dark and cold. This dying sun’s name is ‘Hell.’ A good alternate title for this book would have been Planet of the Noir.

Malone opens his narrative with a line from a book he read about Anarchaos–“Those who see by the light of Hell are blind to evil.” Basically, we’re in a universe where interstellar travel is as fast and easy as a Mickey Spillane blonde, and humans have colonized a wide variety of worlds. Each is free to create its own culture and political system, under the overseeing authority of The Union Commission, which has very limited power to intervene. The only stricture is that each new world has to choose a system of government that has previously existed, if only in the imaginations of men.

Anarchaos was founded by nihilists, who chose Anarchism as their guiding principle, as imagined by Mikhail Bakunin and Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, among others. It started out well enough, because the original founders of the colony had, in spite of themselves, absorbed Terran ideals of cooperation and human rights–but once a generation or two had been born and raised in this environment, living in the light of Hell, anarchy devolved into chaos (hence the name). Every man for himself. The planet is ruled by guilds, which are in turn ruled by offworld corporations, which intend to strip the planet bare of its rich mineral resources, and are pleased as punch at the total lack of regulations they find there. What a fantastic futuristic scenario! (that was irony, in case you missed it).

Most people are extremely poor, nobody respects anybody’s right to anything, there are no laws of any kind, slavery is legal and commonplace, murder is a perfectly normal way to resolve a dispute, and life, to coin a phrase, is nasty brutish and short–as is most of the citizenry, though that doesn’t really seem to be the word to describe them.

Malone knows all of this–in theory–but growing up in the far more placid law-abiding atmosphere of earth, and being a large powerful and aggressive man with little regard for law, has become accustomed to thinking of himself as an almost unstoppable force. He is going to challenge Anarchaos, and the system it abides under, and he’s quite ready to kill anyone who gets in his way.

He murders the driver who takes him to the city his brother was headquartered in–more or less proactively, before the driver can do it to him. He knows he can’t trust anybody on this world. And yet, he still fails to recognize just how bad things are there. In a sense, he’s almost enjoying Anarchaos–he can finally unleash his inner chaos. But the further he goes, the more he realizes that won’t be enough.

He gets what information he can from his brother’s employers, mainly from a cool blonde named Jenna, who works for ‘The Colonel’, the old man who runs this planetary branch of a multi-planetary corporation–she also has to sleep with the guy, because women’s rights–not an issue on Anarchaos. She had some kind of relationship with Gar on the side, and she ends up sleeping with Malone–because he asks her to. And a good time is had by all. It’s a science fiction version of a Mickey Spillane fantasy up to this point. A dream of absolute freedom, power, and sex.

Then the dream becomes a nightmare–Malone isn’t out on the street hunting for clues even a day before he’s ambushed, left for dead, and sold into slavery. He’s a slave for several years, mining some metal he doesn’t even know the name of–he forgets his own name after a while. He loses a hand. He completely loses his sense of self.

If a man is treated like an animal, he will become an animal. There is something inside every human being that craves mindlessness, that aches to give up the nagging responsibility of being a creature with a rational brain, that yearns to be merely instinct and appetite and blindness. Those who join a rioting mob have given in to this animality within themselves; alcoholics and drug addicts are perpetually in search for it.

Because the planet doesn’t rotate, wherever you are on the day side of Anarchaos, it is always the same time of day–morning, afternoon, or evening.

Without the solar rhythms of night and day it was impossible to keep hold of the passage of time, so that we lived our lives to a pattern we could not comprehend. We were awakened by shouts and the sun read evening. We ate gruel from a trough and then trotted into the mine, and behind us as we went the sun still read evening. We worked scraping out a vein of some pale metal through the interior of the mountain, and at a shouted order we put down our tools and trotted back to the compound along the damp cold tunnels, and when we emerged the sun said evening still. We ate again at the trough, and crowded into our shed, and closed our eyes against the light of the evening sun, and slept.

At first, I tried to keep hold of that within me which was rational and human, but it was impossible. My brain atrophied; in any realistic sense, I had ceased to exist.

Once he loses a hand to an infection, he’s given an indoor clerical job, that allows him to gradually come out of this mental torpor–during this time, he sees three company men, one of whom seems to recognize him. Then he finds a note some other slave left–“WE MUST UNITE”–it touches something buried inside of him. But slaves can’t form labor unions.  Resistance is truly futile here.  So he begins to plan his escape.

Having hitched a ride on a truck carrying minerals, he finds himself exhausted, in a barren environment, far from the nearest settlement. He’s going to die–but then a lone fur trapper who lives in the frozen twilight region between day and night finds him, takes him in, feeds him, tends to his wounds–and informs him that now he’s going to be the trapper’s slave. Even the Anarchaotians (actual word from the book) who most value their own liberty have no respect for anyone else’s. There are no good Samaritans here.

Malone knows he owes the trapper his life. There’s no real malice in the man–he’s not abusive, and he’ll treat Malone decently enough. The trapper doesn’t know any better than to think enslaving another human is perfectly okay–everybody does it. He can use the free labor, and maybe the company, but he’s already building a room to imprison the weakened Malone in, to make sure he never gets away.

Malone thinks to himself that if you want to be a true anarchist, Rousseau’s noble savage, utterly free of laws and limitations, this is the way–to live alone, relying on your own resourcefulness and strength–and dying alone, once your strength fails you. But if that was how the trapper wanted to live, he shouldn’t have tried to enslave someone else–not because it’s wrong, but because it’s inconsistent–a flaw in the pattern–he’s corrupted his identity, and in a Donald Westlake story, this is almost always a fatal error. Malone kills the trapper in his sleep, and uses his hairhorses (an Anarchaotian species used as pack animals) to head back to what passes for civilization on this godforsaken world.

Malone reaches a city, goes to the Union Commission outpost there, and identifies himself as a Terran citizen–but by this point in time, he looks like a native of Anarchaos, and they’re used to natives trying to escape their hellish world by telling tall tales–they feel no sympathy for them (the planet’s caustic atmosphere rubbing off a bit).

Malone, who long ago lost all track of time, tells the skeptical civil servant he’s been on Anarchaos four months–maybe six. But according to their records, Rolf Malone arrived four years ago, and vanished, and obviously he must be dead. The man claiming to be Malone fits the description of an escaped slave, and two familiar-looking men (the prototypical Westlakeian duo of sardonic hired killers we’ve seen in several books so far, though this might actually be their first appearance) arrive, pretending they’re going to take him back into bondage–Malone thinks they’re going to kill him.

But that isn’t their job–not yet–now that they know who he is, there’s someone who wants to talk to him. Turns out Gar Malone made a rich mineral strike before he was killed, but nobody knows exactly how to find it. So our Malone is taken to a ship on a frozen sea that belongs to a different corporation than the one his brother worked for–the same corporation that tried to kill him, then unknowingly enslaved him–and he sees the man who thought he recognized Malone at the mining camp–because he looks so much like his brother. They had him right in their grasp, and they didn’t even know it–they assumed their hit men had gotten the job done.

One thing we start to realize about these company men–they may be powerful and ruthless, but they’re not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer. The ones who get sent to Anarchaos are the ones who screwed up badly somewhere else. They make a lot of mistakes. Organization men usually do. The man interrogating Malone, named Phail (damn, I never even noticed the pun before) has been a screw-up even by Anarchaotian standards.

And his biggest screw-up to date was to try and kill Malone–their top man (called The General–well, haven’t you ever heard of the military-industrial complex?) believes Malone might be able to help them crack a code in his brother’s journal–that would lead them to the mineral deposit he found. That Gar was working for The Colonel’s rival corporation at the time is entirely beside the point. Finders keepers.

Phail wants to break Malone before The General arrives, and he threatens to use a drug called ‘antizone’–that makes the person given it literally spill everything he knows–erasing his memory and higher consciousness in the process, rendering him a vegetable. And still shellshocked from everything he’s been through, Malone confounds and horrifies his captor by demanding he be given that drug immediately. He’s tired of being who he is–he wants to be nothing, forever. He wants to give up, but he doesn’t know how.

While I live I have a responsibility and a purpose and they require of me strengths I no longer possess. It is not permitted me to stop with the job undone, but I cannot go on. Antizone rescues me from this dilemma. I embrace antizone with the last of my will.

Alternatively, you could say he wants what Paul Cole, the amnesiac protagonist of Westlake’s novel Memory got inflicted upon him, and finally accepted. Seemingly, the idea of oblivion, of surrendering the burden of identity, was going through Westlake’s mind back around then. But this is a a very different sort of story, with a very different sort of hero, and much as he may want to forget everything that’s happened, Malone still has a functioning memory.

A sympathetic functionary shows him his brother’s notebook, to see if he can help decipher the coded entries–Malone leafs through it, and sees something written in plain English–a note Gar wrote to himself, saying that he has to give his brother another chance in life, after all the hard luck he’s had. He admired Rolf (there’s the piano playing Muppet dog again). He says Rolf has a gift that he lacks–the strength to make hard choices.

Remember what I said–these two brothers were two halves of the same divided self–and symbolically reunited with his lost half, Malone finds the strength to shake off his existential malaise, and renew his quest for justice. Which he begins by torturing the sympathetic functionary until he tells him the truth. Then he strangles the man with his one remaining hand. Then he strangles Phail–after making it clear he knows Phail was the one who murdered his brother, trying to get the secret of the mine’s location (which the functionary revealed under torture). Then he sets fire to the ship, and everyone onboard (including The General) and leaves by way of a small boat.

Is he done? Not by half. He docks at a remote fur-trading outpost, and there’s Jenna, waiting for him–word got out. The Colonel wants to talk to him too.  Malone makes like he knows how to decipher his brother’s code (he doesn’t, but it’s easy to lie to people who want to believe you). He kills The Colonel in his room, and tells Jenna they’ll get the wealth of Gar’s mineral strike together, and leave Anarchaos in style. He asks her to obtain a few items for him. She eagerly complies. He knows she has no feeling for him, or anyone else, but it’s all moot now. He realizes now what has to be done.

They make the circuit of all the major cities on Anarchaos–five in all–and in each he leaves a suitcase at the Union Commission building–and one at the spaceport in the city of Ni. He tells the UC rep that if a blonde woman comes looking for him, she’s not to be allowed in–Jenna is staying right where she is, unless she can find her own way out. He gets the next shuttle off the planet, making his way back to Earth.

What everybody told Malone from the start was that no one person murdered his brother–Anarchaos itself did. He didn’t find that answer satisfying, but now that he’s disposed of the actual murderer, he realizes they were right all along. Anarchaos murdered Gar Malone–so Anarchaos must die.

Each of the five suitcases contains a powerful bomb–enough to level each Union Commission building, and the spaceport, killing everyone inside, destroying all records, and the planet’s system of currency–you can’t have an economy without some form of government. No one will know Malone was responsible–they’ll assume it was the insanity of the planet itself, and the UC will finally be forced to act–to either take charge of things, ending the lawless society, bringing order to chaos–or to isolate the colony, starve it, make all commerce impossible. Either way–his brother is revenged.

He’s taken on an entire planet of criminals–and he’s won. He really was the hardest strongest thing there was. But only after he’d discovered the whole truth about who he was–only after he’d gazed into the abyss, and seen it gaze back at him. And only after he’d reclaimed the part of him that was Gar Malone.

And now he’ll have that second chance Gar promised him–on earth. He doesn’t think his temper will be a problem any more. And he knows now the value of human society, of law and order, of rules one may follow or break, but  never just ignore. Because without them, there is chaos. And there is no freedom in chaos. Nothing but evil in a world where people see by the light of Hell.

It’s a powerful piece of work. Not quite Westlake, not quite Stark, not quite Coe–Curt Clark, brief as his pseudonymous existence was, had a voice of his own. Because he’s a science fiction writer, and in science fiction, anything is possible. That’s both a strength and a weakness of the genre–sometimes writers need limitations to struggle against, just as humans need laws.

When Westlake wrote that polemic and sent it to the editors of Xero, he was setting off his own bomb–destroying not science fiction, but his connection to that community of stargazers, future-dwellers, alien seekers. He was going to stay home, on Earth, and work to understand the world he lived in, the times he inhabited, and the species he was born into, and that would be more than enough work for a lifetime. He would stick to earth-bound mysteries, and human crimes.

But in openly declaring his rejection of the established order of the genre he’d once thought he’d spend his life contributing to, he was being true to the spirit of that genre–which has always been about rebellion, questioning the way things are, seeking something new. And perhaps to honor the best of that tradition, he finished this book, accepted whatever pittance Ace Books paid him, said little about it in interviews later on.  It was a job he had to finish, is all.

Is Anarchaos really just a crime fiction novel dressed up in science fiction clothing? The influence of Hammett is far stronger than that of Heinlein here–yes, he got ideas from Heinlein, a starting point, but the spirit of the book comes from Hammett, a far better writer than Heinlein, and a better teacher to Westlake. The lone detective comes to a corrupt lawless place, and by playing one faction against the other, he brings down the whole rotting structure. The Interplanetary Op.

But this specific story Hammett could not have written–where the detective becomes a terrorist, slaughtering thousands of (relatively) innocent people, to end a system that enslaves and brutalizes millions. For that kind of ending–for this kind of story–you need science fiction. You need the freedom that genre gives its practitioners, the ability to say what needs be said, in a setting where people can accept it, and hopefully not take it too literally.

That passage I put up top, where Westlake tries to explain why crime can be so valuable to storytellers, applies to more than just crime fiction. That, I think, is why so many writers used to go back and forth between those genres, finding useful elements in both, and often creating fascinating hybrids of the two (Alfred Bester, who Westlake never mentioned in his polemic, was certainly writing hardboiled crime fiction just as much as SF with The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination). But it was only once he’d begun to fully grasp that relationship between society, crime, and the individual, that he could write this book–where the individual has to bring an entire society to justice for its crimes. For failing to be a society.   For not finding an acceptable balance between order and chaos.

So by combining what he intended to be with what he’d tried and failed to become, Donald Westlake succeeded just once in creating genuine, first-rate science fiction–and he substantially improved on an idea borrowed from the most successful science fiction writer of all time. And I think he got some satisfaction out of that. And probably just a few hundred dollars for the book, but money isn’t everything.

Try telling that to Parker, though. Back on present-day earth, with no siblings to avenge, he’s going to have his work cut out for him in our next book–the last novel Westlake published in 1967, and one of his best. Parker may not be taking on a whole planet–being held to more stringent laws of credibility–but how about the United States Air Force? And the field of psychoanalysis–which Robert A. Heinlein may have thought held the answers to everything, but Donald E. Westlake feels quite differently about it, and so does Richard Stark.

PS: I’m not entirely happy with any of the covers this book has gotten–none of them really capture the mixture of wealth and squalor, futurism and primitivism, that is Anarchaos. The recent reprint actually has somebody wearing a space helmet on the planet’s surface–even though it’s very clear Anarchaos has a breathable atmosphere. But for what it’s worth, the cover art for the French edition came closest to summing it up with one image. Which makes perfect sense. Vive la France!


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Review: Anarchaos


“You complain that our way of living is dull and unromantic, and imply that we have deprived you of excitement to which you feel entitled.  You are free to hold and express your esthetic opinions of our way of living, but you must not expect us to live to suit your tastes.  You are free to seek danger and adventure if you wish–there is danger still in experimental laboratories; there is hardship in the mountains of the Moon,  and death in the jungles of Venus–but you are not free to expose us to the violence of your nature.”

“Why make so much of it?”  MacKinnon protested contemptuously.  “You talk as if I had committed a murder–I simply punched a man in the nose for offending me outrageously.”

“I agree with your esthetic judgment of that individual,” the judge continued calmly, “and am personally rather gratified that you took a punch at him–but your psychometrical tests show that you believe yourself capable of judging morally your fellow citizens and feel justified in personally correcting and punishing their lapses. You are a dangerous individual, David MacKinnon, a danger to all of us, for we can not predict what damage you may do next.  From a social standpoint, your delusion makes you as mad as the March Hare.”

“You refuse treatment–therefore we withdraw our society from you, we cast you out, we divorce you.  To Coventry with you.”  He turned to the bailiff. “Take him away.”

From Coventry, by Robert A. Heinlein

The other two looked curiously at me as they left.  Once the door was closed behind them I said, “You can’t stop me either, you know.”

“I know that.   Mr. Malone, there are no tourists on Anarchaos.”

“There’s me.  I’m a tourist.”

“No.  Customs at Valhalla reported you carrying a surprising assortment of weapons, for which you had no believable explanation.”

He waited for me to say something, but I had nothing to say.  I sat there, and looked at him, and waited.

He grimaced and half turned away, and then turned back to glare at me again; I was beginning to anger him.  People get angry at what they don’t understand; they always have.

“You can’t beat these people, Malone.  You’re on their ground, playing by their rules.”

“No rules,” I said.  “There aren’t any rules here.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“No.  This is my first time off Earth.”

“You won’t tell me what it is?  Unofficially, I give you my word not to use whatever you tell me.”

“I have nothing to tell you.  I’m a tourist.”

He made a quick gesture;  anger, bafflement, defeat.  “Go on, then,”  he said.  “Kill yourself.”

“See you later,” I said, as I started for the door.

“No, you won’t,” he said after me.  “You’ll never make it back.”

From Anarchaos, by Curt Clark

Sometime in 1961, the editors of a shortlived but influential science fiction fanzine called Xero received from Donald Westlake what can only be described as a polemic.

In this brief pungent tirade, entitled Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You, and in a follow-up he wrote in response to the deluge of outraged, offended, and often just plain curious letters it provoked, Westlake definitively cut his ties to the genre, openly mocking many of its most influential figures at that time, such as John W. Campbell and Frederick Pohl, and saying in so many words that science fiction had little to offer an aspiring wordsmith in terms of money or creative expression.

It is still a painful thing to read–painful because it was patently unfair and hurtful to many of his fellow professionals–and because it was devastatingly (if one-sidedly) accurate in its assessment.  Westlake had said in print what most of his peers only said in private.  The old guard had to be pushed to one side. Things needed to change (and eventually did).  But he wouldn’t be the one to change them–he was outta there.  That’s what you call making an exit–Westlake had not only left the space ship–he’d blown it up.

Along with his work in the crime genre (and in the ‘sleaze’ genre, which he was not at all eager to take credit for), Westlake had been writing science fiction  throughout the 1950’s, often under the sobriquet ‘Curt Clark’ (a rather pointed pun); mainly short stories submitted to an ever-dwindling number of magazines, as the genre (at least in its written form) declined in popularity, due to the the tastes of its primary audience of adolescent boys and young men shifting elsewhere–and as television and cheap paperbacks made the pulps increasingly irrelevant.

But Westlake was part of the generation that had made the ‘Golden Age’ possible–he’d spent much of his youth devouring science fiction stories–as well as mysteries.   It’s actually pretty rare to find a science fiction reader and/or author who hasn’t read Edgar Allan Poe and A. Conan Doyle (ancestors to both forms), and the later ‘hardboiled’ school also had a powerful influence.  Writers in one genre would often cross over to the other–for one thing, it was damned hard to make a decent living if you only wrote one kind of story.

For another, there were things you could say with science fiction that you couldn’t with mysteries–and vice versa.   And often, the two forms were blended with great imagination and creativity–I’d say Isaac Asimov’s two best novels as novels were The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun–set on a future earth, featuring a team of unlikely detectives–the agoraphobe Lige Baley and the robot R. Daneel Olivaw.   Asimov was, of course, a noted expert on Sherlock Holmes–and just about any other subject you can name–but this cross-pollination between the two genres had never raised the slightest eyebrow in either circle–the circles, in fact, heavily overlapped.

I don’t think this is true any longer, sadly–though Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory still quotes Sherlock Holmes as readily as Mr. Spock.  With few genre magazines to write for, most present-day genre writers have gone down Westlake’s path of specialization, just to survive.  The worlds of mystery and science fiction are no longer so easy to travel between, though science fiction and fantasy remain closely linked.

But even back then, most writers who crossed back and forth between the genres were known for one of them–if they were known at all.   In his polemic, Westlake referred to Jack Vance as a fellow escapee from science fiction, because he was writing mysteries at that point in time, but that was a misjudgment on Westlake’s part–Vance continued to write mostly science fiction, and is mostly remembered for that. Nobody will ever remember Isaac Asimov as a mystery novelist, or even as a nonfiction writer, in spite of his staggeringly voluminous output of nonfiction.

Nobody will remember Donald E. Westlake (under any name) as a science fiction writer, though truth be told, he found ways to contribute to that field well after he left it.  You don’t have to limit yourself, but to a certain extent, you do have to choose–or else posterity will choose for you, decide which stories defined you. Westlake had made his choice–but why did he have to make it so loudly?

The answer many have come up with, with which I partly concur, is that he was intentionally severing his ties to that genre–as long as Campbell and Pohl and all the other lions he’d bearded in their dens were influential, he’d have a much harder time getting any science fiction published after this (according to Lawrence Block, Pohl never forgot or forgave what Westlake said about him).   Without the option of getting published in science fiction magazines, and knowing most book publishers in that field paid next to nothing, he could concentrate on writing mysteries.  But couldn’t he just quietly stop writing science fiction?  Or just write it here and there, as a useful sideline, the way Jack Vance wrote mysteries?

For all Westlake’s avowed contempt, science fiction still held a fascination for him–the unlimited possibilities of the genre have attracted many eminent ‘mainstream’ authors like George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, and Margaret Atwood, after all–but he was wasting valuable time and energy cranking out stories that had to be crafted to appeal to editors whose tastes and ideological eccentricities he increasingly deplored, and it was creating a sort of professional identity crisis. He had to focus his efforts on the mystery field, figure out what he could do there, build a reputation.

He’d be dealing with many tiresome formulaic constraints in that area as well (and would later write about them in terms only slightly less impolitic than the Xero polemic)–but overall, he’d be more free to express himself, and better able to support his growing family.   It wouldn’t have been necessary for most writers dealing with this kind of inner conflict to have expressed themselves this way, but it was necessary for him. His agent was aghast that he’d intentionally shut himself off from a whole market, but then again, this was the same agent that later told him not to write a comic crime novel that turned into his first genuine hit.

So this is all prologue, of course–and this will be a two-parter, of course–the first time I’ve ever begun writing a review knowing that I wouldn’t finish it in one installment. But here is where we spy my point, looming in the distance, like a futuristic city on a barbarian plain–in that manifesto he sent to Xero, Westlake wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t sour grapes–that he was having no trouble getting published elsewhere.

He said he’d sold three novels to Random House, and was working on a fourth–only two of which had been published so far–he didn’t name them, but clearly he’s referring to The Mercenaries and Killing Time. The third would be 361, which was published in 1962; the one he’s working on would be Killy.   Besides these hardcover mysteries for Random House, there was a completed novel aimed at the paperback market, then being considered by Dell–The Hunter? The lack of a literary biography for Westlake can be irksome at times.

He also mentioned that in a desk drawer he had over twenty-thousand words of a science fiction novel that he thought was good, that would run to over forty-five thousand words if finished, but he would never finish it, because he had nowhere to sell it. He specifically ruled out Ace as a publisher because they didn’t publish books that long–either he was exaggerating, or something changed at Ace, because that’s who did eventually publish it, in 1967–I’m guessing Frederick Pohl didn’t read it.  But no doubt, that novel was Anarchaos.  Finish it he did, and it’s damned good.   But is it a science fiction novel?   We’ll talk about that next time.

In his article for Xero, Westlake was dismissive of everything else he’d written in the field–and as a lifelong science fiction fan, having read much of his SF output (you can guess my generation by my refusal to use the hated ‘SciFi’), I am forced to concur. It’s not bad, in the main, it’s just–average. Written to the market, which is what he was complaining about having to do–he sourly described how he’d written one character as a none-too-subtle caricature of John W. Campbell, and Campbell (never known for his sense of humor) had then insisted that character be turned into the hero of the piece.

He didn’t know how to be himself in that genre, and while part of the problem was the genre itself, another part, as Avram Davidson suggested in his response to Westlake’s polemic, was that Westlake was a mystery writer who had just wandered into science fiction by mistake.

In his response to the responses, Westlake didn’t take offense to that at all–he thought it was a fair point. He also said he’d given up Perry Mason for science fiction when he was fourteen years old.   He wasn’t in it just for the money (nobody with any sense ever went into print SF for money).   When he decided to be a full-time professional writer, his intention had been to write primarily science fiction, with mystery and crime fiction being the sideline. This had been an affair of the heart, and it was ending badly, as they so often do.

I think the deeper problem was that he was a novelist who’d started out writing short stories.  His early shorts in the mystery genre aren’t that impressive either, and well he knew it. But his early novels in that genre are remarkably good. Westlake realized more and more as he went on that he needed room to run, to explore an idea, create a world, build his characters.  It was easier for him to do this in the mystery genre, which was publishing a lot more novels, and paying a lot more for them. Westlake also wanted to write more about people than about ideas–science fiction tends to put ideas over people, though some authors in that genre have managed to do justice to both–very few were doing this at the start of the 1960’s–many more would be by the end of that decade.

He said the kind of book he’d like to write would be about somebody who (let’s say) suddenly found out he had the power to teleport, and instead of feeling empowered by this, would be frightened and confused; have a hard time figuring out how to make it work for him (he wrote a version of that book much later, only it was about a burglar who accidentally became invisible). Emphasize the personal over the fantastical.  Inner space over outer space.

But science fiction was most often about being special, unique, above the common herd–small wonder the likes of Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard would latch onto the conventions of the genre like parasites, use it as a springboard for their puerile empowerment fantasies, not to mention their self-seeking philosophical/religious meanderings. Today’s equivalent would be Orson Scott Card, or whoever writes those ‘Divergent’ books. The Hunger Games is science fiction, even if it’s not marketed as such (because it wouldn’t sell a tenth as well if it was).   Telepaths, mutants, secret organizations out to save and/or remake the world, cognoscenti of one kind or other–Westlake referred contemptuously to these types of characters as ‘Psupermen.’

It’s a valid component of the genre–basically that’s a big part of what Frank Herbert’s Dune is–but without anything deeper behind it, it becomes very tiresome and limiting and juvenile (often literally). Writing to the market–and getting swallowed up by it.  Herbert wouldn’t have written nearly so many Dune books if his wife hadn’t become seriously ill. And his heirs will never stop publishing more of them, until the vital original ideas of the first are buried under a dungheap of mediocrity and work-for-hire.

(Sidebar: Donald Westlake is not the only person who ever waxed polemical on the subject of science fiction. There’s a reason this is the genre Harlan Ellison is known for.)

So.   Let me point out one curious omission from Westlake’s two-part rant on the deficiencies of science fiction–Robert A. Heinlein.  Westlake refers to Asimov, Clarke,  Bradbury, and really all the most significant players at the time–all the people who had real influence and power in the field, the grand masters, the established elite (the wild and wacky up-and-comers like Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg are spared his withering gaze–and indeed, they were a big part of the next wave, that would at least partly invalidate Westlake’s critiques).

But not The Dean.  Quite possibly the most influential and enduringly popular SF author of all.  How can you write anything about science fiction in this period without mentioning Heinlein?   Well, that could be respect–maybe Heinlein meant a bit more to Westlake than the others.   Maybe he didn’t want to smash that particular idol.

But for all his remarkable achievements, doesn’t Heinlein embody the failings of science fiction as literature that so aggravated Westlake better than anyone else ever did?   His cardboard characterizations, his tendency to pontificate, his unfathomable narcissism (all his heroes are folksy idealized self-images–as bad as Campbell in this regard, if not worse).  And let us not forget his racism, which somehow got worse when he tried to address it, as in Farnham’s Freehold.

True, he was able to sell just about anything he wrote (he legendarily sold the very first story he ever submitted for publication–as Isaac Asimov once reminded aspiring writers discouraged by rejection notices, “He was Bob Heinlein.  You are only you.”).   He was not, like Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury, spending more time writing other things besides science fiction–and he was just about to become more popular than ever, following the publication of Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, each appealing strongly to opposite ends of the political spectrum, as they still do today.   Maybe Westlake thought mentioning him would weaken his argument that SF was not a commercially viable field for writers, that even the established masters were abandoning.   But somehow, I just don’t think that’s it.   He could have just said Heinlein was the exception that proved the rule.  So what else could it be?

One of Westlake’s earliest published stories saw print in Universe, in 1954 (so written not long after he turned twenty, right around the time he was in the Air Force)–entitled Or Give Me Death, it’s a prime example of how often science fiction veered over into pure fantasy, even in the heyday of the ‘hard’ stuff.

Westlake made fun of this kind of story in his polemic, saying that Ray Bradbury and all the ‘little Bradburys’ (Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont) were writing ‘bad bigtime fantasy for television and Playboy’–for The Twilight Zone audience he means–and I’d bet good money he gave himself a swift savage psychic kick in the pants when it came out later how horribly ill Beaumont was.   With a bit of fleshing out, this story of Westlake’s could easily have served as the basis for a Twilight Zone script.   Except it’s much too conservative for Rod Serling’s tastes.

The story is about a doctor coming into a newspaper editor’s office with a whopper of a tall tale to tell–Patrick Henry, perhaps the most famous ‘Founding Father’ of the U.S. who never became President and was not Benjamin Franklin, had come to him for treatment–still alive, in the 1950’s.  He explained his survival as the result of somebody up there having a twisted sense of humor, taking his “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech literally.  As long as there is liberty, there is no death for Patrick Henry.

But when the doctor met him, he’d been getting sicker and sicker, because liberty is being eroded–by things like Social Security.   Nothing wrong with government insurance, but it shouldn’t be mandatory.   Any time the state imposes something on the individual, Patrick Henry dies a little more.   Personal freedom is being chipped away, a piece at a time, by liberal do-gooders, who Henry perceives as “Tories” (yeah, it does sound familiar, doesn’t it?).

The doctor finishes his ripping yarn by saying that Patrick Henry just died.   Which means liberty itself is dead.   The editor says this is nonsense, freedom of the press is guaranteed in the Constitution, and he’ll publish any damn story he wants–and right on cue, in come the men in suits to shut him down, end of story.

Basically it’s a long involved joke with a not very subtle twist ending–you can recognize the outlines of Westlake’s later comic stylings in it–there was never a time when he couldn’t write kvetchy.   Patrick Henry says stuff like “I can back up my statements with diseases.”  It’s surprisingly well-written–but as a story, it stinks.  It’s all one idea, and not a very original one at that–a lot of people were saying this back then.  Ayn Rand was getting famous doing this same shtik, only taking it seriously.  Of course, Ayn Rand ended up on Social Security and Medicare, which allowed her some measure of dignity and independence in her declining years, but why ruin a good argument with facts?

Now we should bear in mind, reading Westlake’s early science fiction and mystery, that he was intentionally writing to the market–reading what genre magazines were publishing, and aping the conventions he saw–so part of this is him identifying a streak of libertarianism in science fiction, and appealing to it–he thought the editor would buy it, and he was right.

But I think it’s also true that Westlake had a streak of libertarianism–if not downright anarchy–in his nature.   He reflexively resented and feared all forms of authority, particularly the kind that can arrest and interrogate you, as had happened to him a short time before he wrote this story.   His heroes are rebels against the established order in one way or another–sometimes by choice, sometimes by accident, sometimes by nature (like Parker)–but they are never well-oiled cogs in a machine.  They resist–they get out of step–they go their own way.   Or if they don’t, things turn out very badly for them.

Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.  Says the guy who managed to avoid having a job with a boss for most of his adult life.   But of course, that’s what made him angriest about science fiction–that it couldn’t support him–so many of its practitioners had to take day jobs.   Frederick Pohl worked in advertising–he and Cyril Kornbluth turned that experience into The Space Merchants.  I’ve got a copy somewhere.  Fact is, Pohl distrusted authority as well.   It’s something that unites many who wrote science fiction–but in most cases, I wouldn’t call it a dislike of authority in general–rather a desire to be in authority–to reshape the world in their own idealized self-images–or, if you’re going the dystopian route, to imagine your own worst-case scenario, and give it flesh.   Oh Brave New World!

Heinlein was a prime example of this, but also a confusing one.   He had been very liberal in his early days as a writer–but after his second wife died, he married a third and final wife (now that does sound familiar), and it’s generally believed that she pulled him well to the right in his thinking (though not with regards to sexual morality, one area in which Heinlein would never conform to anyone’s expectations).   Only a few years after Westlake’s Patrick Henry story came out, Heinlein founded a small Patrick Henry League–and called on Americans who felt as he did to found more chapters across the country.   This was in response to groups pushing for nuclear disarmament, which Heinlein vehemently opposed.   So again, taking “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” a mite too literally.

Westlake would have known all about this–what was his reaction?   What did he think of Heinlein?   There’s no way in hell he hadn’t read most or all of Heinlein’s work, discussed it with peers, debated Heinlein’s controversial views.   His politics, such as they were, were also a mix of liberal and conservative and libertarian ideas–but he was a lot warier of trying to pontificate about them.   He understood the pitfalls, I think, far better than Heinlein did.  Politics can become a trap for a writer–he ends up trying to make people fit the ideas, instead of the other way around.   Actually, that’s a trap for all of us.  And we keep blundering back into it, left and right.

I have the cover for an edition of Heinlein’s story Coventry up top because I think Westlake used it as the model for Anarchaos.   And I think that’s why he didn’t mention Heinlein–he freely confessed in his polemic that he’d written to the specific tastes of editors like Campbell and Pohl, but had stoutly defended himself from the charge of copying them, or their styles.

But in this case, he’d written part of a novel, the nucleus of which was somebody else’s novel (novella, really), and that, I believe, is why he refrained from attacking The Dean–not so much out of respect, because a polemic is not respectful–but out of a sense of decency–and discretion.   He was taking a far more successful writer’s ideas and turning them inside-out and upside-down, without so much as a by-your-leave–and acknowledging his source would have been risky.  You never know what will make a fellow writer sue you for plagiarism.   Of course, this means he probably did still think on some level he was going to finish and publish that book.

Coventry is part of the Revolt in 2100 collection of stories, which fits into Heinlein’s Future History continuity, but it stands very well by itself.   It was originally published in John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction, in 1940–Heinlein’s liberal period–then expanded and republished in book form in 1953–early in his conservative period, and not long before Westlake published that Patrick Henry story. Wikipedia has an admirable short synopsis here.   If you like, you can read the entire story as a PDF.   I got my copy of Revolt in 2100 off a table full of used books on 231st St. in The Bronx, just a few years back.

In the introduction to my edition, Henry Kuttner calls Heinlein a ‘romantic idealist’, says that what makes Heinlein a great writer is his understanding of people, and the fact that they are pretty much the same wherever (or whenever) you go.   He says you can’t be a good writer without this quality–but Westlake was saying in his polemic that science fiction writers, even the good ones, frequently did not show this quality enough.   Their characters were not that well drawn, and were treated more or less as incidental to the story–one thing he particularly hated was the way the protagonist in a story like Coventry (which of course he did not specifically mention) would end up not making much difference to the outcome.

Heinlein and Asimov in particular liked to write stories about social trends, which the main characters would be witness to, but not seriously impact in any way.   I assume they’d defend this by saying this is how history really works–the individual, with the exception of a few Great Men of Vision (Valentine Smith, Hari Seldon) can’t make much impact on history–true enough, but Westlake would say that he or she can still make an impact on his or her own personal story, which is what the writer should be most concerned with.

Tolstoy writes about people caught up in the turmoils of history, making no great individual impact on it, but he still writes as if every decision they make has profound and eternal consequences, because it’s all our actions combined that make history–not just the great men.    And because each human being is of consequence–each of us is a universe unto itself–an identity in the making–or unmaking.  And this is something science fiction too often ignored, with its stock characters, and its grand tableaus.

Coventry is aspiring to be more than this, and not quite succeeding.   Its protagonist is in a process of self-discovery, but a rather shallow and not terribly moving one.   He has a lesson to learn about his proper place in society–he starts out as a not-so-rugged individualist, who doesn’t understand that everything he values is the result of the collective efforts of many who came before–the kind of guy who’d read Ayn Rand and take it seriously–and ends up  contemplating joining the secret police patrolling Coventry, to make sure things don’t get too out of hand there.

He isn’t even allowed to be the hero of his own story.   Nothing he does makes any difference to the outcome–the only thing that’s changed at the end is his perspective–he’s now willing to be an organization man, a cog in a machine–and how do you think the romantic idealist that was Donald Westlake (and even more so, Richard Stark) felt about that?   It’s a fascinating story, and a deeply unsatisfying one.   I personally approve of its message–that individuals need to learn the value of social conventions, even when rebelling against them–but to me, it shows the limitations of Heinlein’s approach to storytelling.   People go to him for ideas–not for people.   His characters are more interesting than John W. Campbell’s ‘Psupermen’, but that’s not saying much.

King Lear was once described as “A magnificent soul trapped in a puerile intellect”–I’d argue Heinlein was the obverse of this.  So much intelligence, so little understanding. That’s why ultimately, I turned away from him, looking for deeper expressions of the ideas and stories he helped pioneer, and finding them–in Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), Octavia Butler, many others.  Science Fiction can and does create vital three-dimensional characters whose personal choices matter, even as they struggle in the context of a much larger picture they can only incrementally change, for better or worse.  But maybe I read more crime fiction now, because like Westlake, I’m looking for a smaller story–in which the outlines of the greater stories can still be perceived.

In Anarchaos, somehow those two worlds–science fiction and crime fiction–come together more perfectly than anywhere else.  And only Donald Westlake could have done that.  And I’ll talk about how he did it in Part 2.   After writing almost 5,000 words of a book review and barely even mentioning the book.   Let us all collectively roll our eyes, and I’ll see you next week.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Review: Philip


Mr. Neep squatted down beside Philip.  When he bent his knees, they made large cracking sounds, like a cap pistol when you pull the trigger and the cap doesn’t fire.  Mr. Neep said “Philip, you keep getting into trouble today.”

“I know it,” said Philip.

“That isn’t like you,” said Mr. Neep.   “What’s wrong, Philip?”

Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.

Buckminster Fuller

Philip is a very unique work in the Westlake canon.  His one and only children’s book.  His only book attributed to ‘D.E. Westlake’, which I don’t think was meant to obscure his identity, so maybe he just wanted to see how that would look on a book cover.  His only book that was written specifically to be illustrated (nothing against Darwyn Cooke, but it’s a fact).  The only book he wrote that was, far as I can tell, sold directly to libraries, and not in bookstores, making it by far the rarest and most expensive to collect of all his first editions (and to date, there have been no further editions).

You may have seen one copy for sale online with an asking price of $1,500–it’s been on offer for quite a good long while now, and I don’t see any takers, but the reasoning behind the price tag, I suppose, is that sooner or later some rabid Westlake completist will pick the winning lotto number and say “What the hell.”

What is the reason for this anomalous item in his bibliography?   What motivated him to write it?   Though there’s potentially a good living in children’s books, he must have known going in he was going to make very little from this one.

Donald Westlake and Nedra Henderson divorced in 1966, having married in 1957.  He married Sandra Foley in 1967, the year this book was published.   He had two young sons from the previous marriage, Sean and Steven–one would assume Sean couldn’t have been much older than nine, if that.   Philip is dedicated to them–with a somewhat indirect choice of personal pronoun.   “To Sean and Steven–before they outgrow it.”

Ah, guilt.   The ultimate motivator.   But was this book really written for them?   Is it, in fact, a children’s book?   Yes, The Westlake Review’s well-established tradition of asking odd questions with seemingly obvious answers continues apace.

I love children’s books–the good ones.   There are innumerable bad ones, but of course Sturgeon’s Law holds true for all genres of literature.   Probably no better reason to raise a family or have younger siblings than to get to read Dr. Seuss or The Wind in the Willows to them.   My younger siblings used to run when they saw me coming with a book in hand, but I always caught them in the end.  R.H.I.P.

That other cover up above is, of course, Robert McCloskey’s Lentil, first published in 1940, when McCloskey was only twenty-six.  My earliest memories of this book are of Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan reading it to me through the TV set.  It’s a spellbinding tale of a young boy with a harmonica and his faithful dog foiling a grouchy old villain who is ruining the big town parade by sucking on a lemon.  It makes perfect sense when you read it in the right mindset.

Given his 1933 birth date, there’s a very good chance Westlake read Lentil when he was a kid.   You’ll note some visual similarities, though of course the book’s artwork and visual design are properly credited to Arnold Dobrin, a very fine artist in his own right, if not in McCloskey’s league–not that Westlake was in McCloskey’s league as a writer of children’s books, either.  Westlake was lucky to get somebody this good, and the simple color scheme, heavily centered around two or three primary hues, was typical of children’s books in this general time period, when the influence of McCloskey (and Seuss) was overwhelming.   Though really, they still loom pretty large–there are no statues of Parker or Dortmunder anywhere, that I know of.   Maybe they were stolen?

Philip (no last name given or needed) lives in a huge apartment house, “taller than a spaceship and wider than a movie theater,” in a prosperous neighborhood in a large city that is not named but we all know it’s New York.   The apartment is a spacious two-bedroom affair with a terrace.  He lives there with his mother and father, but we never see the father, an absent figure in the story (hmm).  We never see any other children, either.   Philip has no siblings–like Westlake himself, I believe–no pets, seemingly no friends his own age in the building, but he is a happy calm self-possessed boy, who is enjoying his life, and mainly appreciates the interesting environment he’s growing up in, and the distinct pleasures of being an only child in a well-off family–most unlike the family Westlake himself grew up in.


One of those pleasures is that your well-off parents will have well-off friends who give you stuff for no reason.   One day, the doorman Mr. Neep, ‘the biggest and shiniest doorman on the whole block,” rings up to say there’s a package for Philip.   It’s from Philip’s ‘Uncle Fred’, who is not actually an uncle, but went to college with Philip’s dad, and no I don’t know if his last name is Fitch, but I bet Westlake did.

The package contains the sort of gift any boy Philip’s age would be overjoyed to get–a big beautiful yellow toy dump truck, that actually works, and runs on batteries.   The kind of toy us middle class kids in the New York City area used to gaze at all googly-eyed when our parents took us to FAO Schwarz around the holidays, and then incessantly nag our parents to get us.   God, we were brats.   But seriously, parentals, why dangle the bait if you don’t want your kids to lunge at it?

Philip graciously accepts this majestic largesse like the little prince he is (reminds me of a good friend’s younger son, also named Philip, only he’s being raised in Germany), and then is faced with a problem–he has a dump truck.  Its only purpose is to scoop up dirt, carry it somewhere, and dump it.   But there’s no dirt to be found in his immaculate home, and his parents can’t take him to the park (Central, of course) until the weekend.   In the meantime, all he has to work with are toy building blocks.  It’s not at all satisfactory.

I had plenty of toys as a kid, and I (unlike Philip) grew up in the leafy suburbs of New Jersey, surrounded by lawns and gardens and trees, and no end of glorious dirt to track everywhere, and yes you may shed a tear for my poor mother now.   I got very obsessed with beavers at one point, and I decided I wanted to build beaver dams in the sloping concrete rain gutter in front of our house.  With my hands, of course–beavers don’t have trucks.

They were simple affairs at first, just mud and grass clippings, but I got more sophisticated in my building methods over time, and crafted very authentic-looking miniature beaver dams, with sticks and rocks and anything else that seemed appropriate.   I started to build twin dams like beavers often do, and I learned how to build them just before an overnight frost so the mud would be rock solid in the morning, but also just before a big rain, so there’d be a nice little river to dam, because otherwise what’s the point?   The neighbors started to complain I was flooding the street, creating miniature lakes they had to avoid Well, what did they think beaver dams are for?  The lakes proved the efficacy of my designs!    My parents told me to stop with the damn dams already.   Nobody appreciates a true visionary.

I’m sure many of you have similar youthful tales of thwarted creativity to tell, so we can all identify with Philip’s frustration–but somehow we know, from our own past experiences, that there’s always a solution to these types of problems, if you look hard enough, while simultaneously failing to think hard enough about the potential pitfalls.   This is part of the genius of childhood Buckminster Fuller was talking about, and exemplified so well in his adult life.  I bet I could have invented the geodesic dome if my parents hadn’t suppressed me.   Oh but the neighbors would complain!   Beaver-hating philistines.

Philip sees his window of opportunity–which happens to be in an actual window–with a window box full of dirt (DIRT!), that is currently not hosting any flowers.  It’s a bit confining for such a large truck, but he’ll work around that.  Next thing he knows, his pretty blonde mother is scowling at him, saying Mr. Neep called up to complain somebody was dumping dirt on his nice clean uniform.   Philip goes down to apologize, and Mr. Neep accepts in good grace.

Mr. Neep is the adversary in this not terribly adversarial story (certainly much less so than Lentil).  His uniform and size–and the absence of Philip’s father–make him the authority figure, and we know how Westlake feels about authority figures, particularly when they’re in uniform–but he’s actually a pretty nice guy, creaky knees and all.

Westlake is deliberately toning down his own anti-authoritarian streak, presenting a fairly benign and understanding (but still very impressive) authority figure who can be reasoned with.   Westlake knows his kids will be reading this, along with a lot of other people’s kids, and he doesn’t want to give them any subversive ideas that life will be giving them soon enough already, so what’s the rush?

(Also, there were probably real doormen in Westlake’s daily life back then, and you don’t want to piss those guys off, when you have to keep passing by them all the time.   Cops, Feds, gangsters, armed robbers, professional killers, terrorists, no problem–but not doormen.  Those guys are tough.)

As the story continues, Philip can’t abandon his single-minded quest.   He can’t wait until Sunday.  There must be dirt somewhere!   The sand in the lobby ashtray–no?   The tree pit on the sidewalk outside–no?   Shall he never find a place where he and his truck can make beautiful messes together?    Always the looming uniformed figure of Mr. Neep intercedes between him and his goal.

Mr. Neep finally talks to him (see above) and finds out what the problem is.   He tells the doorman at the next building something, and he tells the next doorman, and etc.  At first Philip thinks he’s just telling all the other doormen on the block how bad he’s been, and is rather downcast.  But it turns out this is the doorman message service, and Mr. Neep (a most exceptional figure of authority in a Westlake story)  has hit upon a solution to their mutual problem.

Philip sees workmen coming down the block, from a nearby construction site, carrying tools, boards–and dirt!   On his apartment terrace, they construct Philip a sort of sandbox, only with dirt from the excavation instead of sand.   His crisis resolved, Philip sets about happily to work with his truck.   His mother has no problem with all this dirt being brought into her home.   Nor do the construction workers wolf whistle at her and make comments about her bodily parts.   Well, you don’t expect realism from a children’s book.  You don’t even want realism in a children’s book.   Not that kind of realism, anyway.   Maybe construction workers were more courteous and self-restrained back then.   In the late 1960’s.   Never mind.

What you do want in a children’s book is a really fun exciting story, and that’s where Philip falls a bit short.   Westlake, I think is not writing a book about his own boys, but rather an idealized look at what his own childhood might have been like if his parents had been a bit more prosperous–his own mother worked very hard to supplement the family income, his father did a lot of business travel. I’ve already mentioned elsewhere the ghastly story Westlake told about how his dad felt a heart attack coming on during one of those trips, checked into a cheap hotel, drank cheap liquor, and waited it out.

So this, you might say, is to Westlake what Ah Wilderness! was to Eugene O’Neill–a wistful look at what might have been, a touched up photo of the author’s youth–only written at a small child’s level.   The menacing policemen who arrested and interrogated college-age Westlake for stealing a microscope become a friendly helpful doorman.  The mother who had to work her fingers to the bone, and probably had much less time for her son as a result, becomes a happy homemaker who approves of her son’s industry, even while expecting him to behave properly.  The absence of the father is interesting, but he’s only absent during the days.   He’s coming home to Philip every night, taking him to the park on Sundays, and certainly not in a fleabag hotel room, waiting to find out if he lives or not.   Nothing is really wrong in Philip’s world.   It’s perfect.   It’s a bit too perfect.

This is a children’s book written by a parent, from a parent’s perspective, and if there’s a message in it, it’s much more for the parents reading it to their kids than to the kids themselves.  The kids just want a good story.   The parents, Westlake thinks to himself (and at himself), need to be reminded that as annoying as the energy of their kids can be, as irritating as their endless curiosity and need to explore their world can become, they the parents need to remember what it was like–go back in their minds, and see it from the child’s perspective.   Show a bit more patience, and look for ways to help the child be creative–and to let the children explore at least some of the world around them by themselves.   Because once that time in your life is gone, you never get it back again.

The passage I quoted in my review of Murder Among Children, about how older people tend to resent the energy and noise of the young, might well have derived from Westlake’s awareness of how impatient he was with his own children.  As any parent will be, at times, certainly if he’s got a whole lot of books to write–and his marriage to their mother is falling apart at the seams.   But I think the main message is to just let children alone sometimes, and only step in when needed.   They need some unstructured time to seek their bliss, and make their mistakes.

There’s a real problem with that nowadays, with so many one or two child families–many of today’s parents tend to ‘bubble-wrap’ their kids, schedule every waking moment, never allow any free time for the child to just be a child, to explore, to learn on his own–they do this out of understandable fear, but they often do a lot of damage in the process.   Westlake isn’t reacting against that nascent trend back in 1967–but I doubt he’d have thought much of it later on.   Then again, he’s certainly gone out of his way to remove every last trace of potential danger from Philip’s life (though Mr. Neep does threaten to spank Philip at one point–something no doorman would get away with now).  He would have understood where those protective impulses come from.

So to answer my own question, yeah, it’s a children’s book, and a pretty good one, but far from a great one–there’s a reason it was never reprinted, though it continues to be in a number of public libraries around the country, which I hope will not all end up selling it on ebay, because then kids (and their parents) will never be reading it anymore. It’s kind of nice to know the book is still out there, reaching the audience it was meant to reach.   Even though most kids would much prefer Where the Wild Things Are.

It sympathizes with the problems of the child, but is written too much from the perspective of a parent.  It’s just a wee tad patronizing, I’d say–deadly to this kind of book, or indeed any interaction between child and adult.  This particular field of literature was never going to be Westlake’s metier, and yet we can still see elements of the writer we know peeping out–Philip’s little misadventures have within them the seeds of a personality that, if not properly channeled, might well end up planning crimes, if only out of boredom.   He doesn’t mean anyone any harm, but it’s just so much fun to figure out how to do things.   To look at the world around you, and figure out what’s possible and what isn’t.   You can go a lot of different ways with a personality like that–you can write crime novels–or you can steal microscopes.

Now, if a kid was writing this book, it would turn out a lot different.   Mr. Neep, much scarier in this version, might confiscate Philip’s truck, and hide it away in some dark room full of lonely toys.   Philip would have to figure out where his truck was, and then confront Mr. Neep, perhaps with a water pistol filled with water imbued with an indelible dye, deadly to Mr. Neep’s beloved uniform.   Philip would sight his weapon at Mr. Neep, standing in front of the room his truck is in, who would hold out his hands in fear, screaming “I’m only the doorman!”

“Now you’re the door,” Philip would tell him, and shoot him.

Well, that’s why children aren’t mainly allowed to write their own books.

But Westlake was still writing his, and safely away from the nursery, under yet another nom de plume, he’s about to publish one of his most hard-boiled adventures ever–set in the far reaches of outer space, on a distant and brutal planet, that might daunt the likes of Buck Rogers or Luke Skywalker–maybe even Parker.   It’s got sex and violence and weird-looking hairy horses, and everybody is really really mean.   “Dad, the book about the toy truck is boring–can we read this one with the cool cover, by this Curt Clark guy?”   “NO!   You can never read that book!”

I bet they did anyway, when he wasn’t looking.   Kids are natural anarchists.    Which is fine.   Until they grow up.

PS: One last time, I will repeat my offer–anybody who posts in response to this review may, if he or she so desires, receive an email with a scanned version of Philip–cover to cover.  Just include your email in the post, transcribed in such a way as to foil those nasty spambots.  I’ll do the rest.   My inner Neep would allow no less.


Filed under Donald Westlake

Review: God Save The Mark


1967 was a banner year for the many-headed beast that was Donald Westlake in the first decade of his career.   As Richard Stark, he published two more Parker novels at Gold Medal, and kicked off the short-lived Grofield series at Macmillan.  As Tucker Coe, he continued the Mitch Tobin series of detective novels at Random House.  As Curt Clark, he published the standalone science fiction novel, Anarchaos.   He also had a children’s book come out under his own name, in collaboration with an illustrator.   But when it comes to the six novels of his that were published that year, only one was actually credited to Donald E. Westlake.

That book was God Save the Mark, and it enjoys the distinction of being the only novel Westlake ever wrote that won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.   He won two more Edgars later on–one for the Dortmunder short story Too Many Crooks, and one for his screenplay adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.  But it’s his novels that defined him as a writer, and made all his achievements in other areas possible.   And while I’d assume he was nominated multiple times for best novel–well, why assume?   I can look it up.

Not one nomination for Stark.  None for Coe.   None for any of his pseudonyms, though pseudonymous novels sometimes won.  The Mercenaries, his first crime novel, and the first book published under his name, got nominated for Best First Novel.  Then he got nominated for The Busy Body, won for God Save the Mark, got nominated for The Hot Rock, and one last time for Kahawa.

Seriously?  The Ax didn’t get a nod, but Kahawa did?   Strange be the ways of Edgar.

Awards can be perplexing, all the more when the winners are chosen by artistic peers.  You look at the list of Best Picture Oscars, and if you’re a film buff, you grit your teeth and mutter obscenities.    Don’t even get me started on the acting awards.

Looking at the historic list of best novel nominees and winners on Wikipedia, I see a whole lot of names I don’t recognize, and a long list of books hardly anyone reads or even remembers today.   As well as some acknowledged masters and undoubted classics.  And a whole lot of espionage thrillers, which pretty dubiously count as mysteries in my book–get your own award, spymasters!

It took Ed McBain 46 years and 50 novels to get just a nomination for his enormously influential 87th Precinct series, which was all about detectives, though not the genius kind.  Paperback originals don’t seem to have gotten nominated at all (so déclassé), and the violent sexy hardboiled stuff Westlake originally was known for was apparently not even considered unless it was written as a mystery of some kind, and published in hardcover.   Sorry, Parker.   No Edgars for you.  Like you give a damn.

Just to add to the confusion, one of the books God Save The Mark beat out in 1968 (the award year) was Rosemary’s Baby.  Yes, that Rosemary’s Baby. Which heavily outsold the winner (over four million copies), and was not written or marketed as a mystery novel.  But Levin had already won the Edgar Best First Novel Award for A Kiss Before Dying, so he was in the club.

Repeat winners in the Best Novel category were rare, and none of them are favorites of mine–Dick Francis is the only three-time winner, and was nominated constantly (lots of horse lovers in the MWA?).   Agatha Christie, by contrast, had to settle for being the first Grandmaster, having produced much of her best work before the Edgars got started, though eventually a more specialized award was named after her.  English mystery writers did really well at Edgar time–Westlake was the first American to win for Best Novel in years, as well as the youngest up to that point.

Votes get split.   The genre is vast and multifarious, and many of its practitioners limit their attentions to their own patch.   Many times an author who should have already won for any number of superb earlier books gets the statue for a less impressive effort as a form of belated recognition.  And authors who got a great reception when they first showed up, thus pulling votes their way, may later end up in the remainder bin of literary history–but they still get to keep the award.  Their books stay on the winner’s list.

And all the many far more deserving books and authors we still read today remain off it.   No Edgar for Patricia Highsmith, though she was nominated three times–I’d guess her writing was too good to ignore, but her notoriously abrasive personality cost her votes.  George Pelecanos has never been nominated for his prose, though he got a shared win for his work on The Wire, along with an Emmy for a script he co-wrote.  I hope his day may yet come.  Life is not fair, and awards nominations are just erratic and often misleading tokens of professional esteem–not proof of enduring merit.   The true winner is the one whose books stay in print.

Westlake had scored the biggest hit of his career with The Fugitive Pigeon, and had done well with his two subsequent comic novels for Random House.   He was building a rep, and had many prominent supporters.  For him to win so young meant that he was increasingly being recognized as a rising talent by his colleagues.   The back of my Signet reprint of this book includes lavish praise from Rex Stout and John Dickson Carr–when these guys liked you, you were in like Flynn at the MWA.

Among the ten ‘Nephew’ books, I’d put God Save the Mark at the top of the bottom five, or on a good day, the bottom of the top five–and well below The Spy in the Ointment, published the previous year, though as I pointed out, Westlake was on well-trodden ground with that one, since comic spy novels and films revolving around mistaken identity were almost old hat by the Mid-60’s.  Comic mysteries were still very nearly Westlake’s personal domain at this point–he had done more than anyone to revive that form.  That no doubt helped him with the Edgar vote.   Everyone loves to laugh.

I certainly love to laugh, but among the six novels Westlake published under various names in 1967, I’d rank this one fifth–just above The Damsel, which I don’t consider a very good book.   This is partly because I think Westlake didn’t really get his comic act together until the 1970’s–he’s still in the journeyman phase here, though learning more with each comedy he writes.   But it’s mainly because he was doing such accomplished original work in a more serious vein–just not under his own name anymore.

I can hear what you’re thinking–“Okay, so why are you ‘fredfitch’, and why is your posting avatar the cover of (according to you) the fifth best novel Westlake published in just that one year?”   What an excellent question!    That I am not going to answer right now.  But for the record, I do like this book quite a lot, and I think it deserved the Edgar–certainly more than Rosemary’s Baby.  Just not as much as a slew of other books Westlake wrote, most of which had no chance of ever winning an Edgar, so why blame God Save the Mark?  It was standing in for all the others, past and future.   That’s how I see it.  And now I think I’d better start the review part of the review.

The hero of our story is Fred Fitch, a freelance researcher, who digs up information for writers, scholars, producers, and such, at the local libraries in New York City.  He makes a decent enough living this way, and dwells quite comfortably in an apartment that takes up the entire third floor of a Manhattan townhouse on 19th Street that he fears is going to get torn down to make room for progress in the near future.   One thing about all the Nephews thus far–they have very decent living accommodations when first we meet them, and they aren’t looking for any kind of personal or professional change in their lives–in fact, they’re all rather averse to change.

Fred is 31 but looks and acts much older.  He has a bit of a potbelly that he tries to walk off by not taking the bus in good weather.  He wears round spectacles, which he thinks is hopelessly square, so obviously not a Beatles fan.  He’s had little to do with women since high school (he did manage to lose his virginity there, somehow), and doesn’t seem to have any male friends, other than a detective on the Bunco Squad named Jack Reilly, who views Fred with a mixture of amusement and despair.   And that’s because Fred’s a mark.  A rube.  A patsy.  A sap.  A dupe.  A chump.  The prize sucker of all time.  King of the Conned.   Prince of Pigeons.  God save him.

It all began, he tells us, when he went off to his first day of kindergarten, and returned without his pants–some classmate had talked him into giving them up.   He has no idea how it happened, and this inherent cluelessness has not much improved in the ensuing quarter century, though he has become something of an expert on the con game–

From that day forward, my life has been an endless series of belated discoveries.  Con men take one look at me, streamline their pitches, and soon go off gaily to steak dinners while poor Fred Fitch sits at home and once again dines on gnawed fingernail.  I have enough worthless receipts and bad checks to paper my living room.  I own miles of tickets to nonexistent raffles and ball games and dances and clambakes and shivarees, my closet is full of little machines that stopped working as soon as the seller went away, and I’m apparently on just about every sucker mailing list in the Western Hemisphere.

I really don’t know why this should be true.  I am not the typical mark, or victim, not according to Reilly, or to all the books I’ve read on the subject.  I am not greedy, nor uneducated, nor particularly stupid, nor an immigrant unfamiliar with the language and customs  I am only–but it is enough–gullible.  I find it impossible to believe that anyone could lie to another human being to his face.  It has happened to me hundreds of times already, but for some reason I remain unconvinced.  When I am alone I am strong and cynical and unendingly suspicious, but as soon as the glib stranger appears in front of me and starts his spiel my mind disappears in a haze of belief.  The belief is all-encompassing; I may be the only person in New York in the twentieth century with a money machine.

Substitute spam emails for the face-to-face approach con men of that era were more often forced to employ, and I think we can all feel Fred’s pain.  But with online con artistry, at least we can read online reviews–assuming they weren’t written by the purveyors of what’s being reviewed.  And we do assume that, don’t we?   We are all Fred Fitch, though hopefully not to the same extent Fred Fitch is Fred Fitch.   Of all Westlake’s protagonists, he may be the most quintessential Everyman.   He’s not brave, brilliant, handsome, sexy, charismatic, or even all that interesting, aside from his mythic credulity.   A curious choice of heroes.

And as the story begins, after having been conned twice in one day, Fred gets a phone call from a shyster lawyer named Goodkind, telling him his Uncle Matt–a man he never heard of before in his life, let alone met–has left him half a million dollars, which after the hefty inheritance tax, will come to three hundred and seventeen thousand dollars–two and a half million in today’s money.   So for the second (and I believe final) time in the Nephew Books, we’re dealing with an actual nephew.

Though Fred immediately and understandably suspects a con, his instincts have misled him yet again.   The inheritance is legit–his family confirms that Uncle Matt was the black sheep of the family, and it seems like he decided to leave his money to Fred because all his other relations had been rude to him.   Word spreads quickly among Fred’s family and acquaintances out west about how badly they’d misjudged Uncle Matt, and of Fred’s good fortune, of course.   Fred, you might want to listen to a little advice from Bessie Smith right about now.

Case in point–Fred’s downstairs neighbor Mr. Wilkins, a retired Air Force veteran, suddenly shows up at his door with a massive book manuscript.  The book is an alternate history of Caesar’s military campaign in Gaul, only now Caesar has WWI biplanes, which he can use to drop rocks and spears on the hapless Gauls.   Because of course guns and explosives haven’t been invented yet.  I mean, it’s the 1st century BC, don’t be ridiculous.   Mr. Wilkins thinks Jack Lemmon will be perfect for the movie adaptation, and there’s this publisher who will happily print and promote the book–just a matter of ready capital, you see………

Fred is wavering–maybe this is a good idea, and anyway it would make Mr. Wilkins happy–then Mr. Wilkins and his book get kicked down the stairs by Fred’s second inheritance.   And by far the better one–we actually met her and the other female love interest in the previous chapter–all of a sudden, Fred is awash in women.   But only one worth talking about, as I see it–Gertie Divine, The Body Secular.   A former stripper, who was his uncle’s companion–probably not a euphemism in this case, since Uncle Matt was old and slowly dying of cancer.

She shows up on his doorstep, looking, as he tells us, like she’s been running through a few choruses of Lili Marlene, and she just bulls her way into his life without so much as a by your leave–though she has a handwritten note purporting to be from his uncle, ‘bequeathing’ her to him.    Fred is irritated and fairly intimidated by her at first, but the more he hangs around her, the more he likes her–she’s everything he’s not; brassy, blonde, bold, and beautiful, in a delightfully cheap and common way.  She’s as much of a hard case as he is a pushover.  Yang to his Yin.

Here’s one of my favorite Gertie moments–after their first meeting, Fred is walking her to the subway, and it suddenly occurs to him he can afford to call her a cab–

She instantly overreacted.  Putting her hand to her heart–a not easy thing for Gertie to do–she pretended to be on the verge of a faint, and cried, “Oh, the spendthrift!  He throws it around like it was pianos!”

I knew how to handle Gertie now, so I said, “Of course, if you’d feel more at home on the subway—”

Her answer was to put two fingers in her mouth and give a whistle that shattered windows as far away as the UN Building.  A cab yanked itself out of traffic and stopped, panting, at our feet.

Now that’s a broad.  And my primary complaint about this book is that she’s only with Fred in a handful of chapters–he spends a lot more time with the other female lead, a rather forgettable girl (probably why I keep forgetting her name) who is involved with Jack Reilly, and since this book is written in the first person, that means we see too little of the divine Gertie by far.   I can understand the reasons for this–Fred has to develop a spine, and that means he has to be left to his own devices for a while, but a life-altering relationship like this merited a bit more space, and to short-shrift such a great character is a crime worse than any perpetrated on Fred in the book.

(Sidebar: I bet if they had actually made the planned film adaptation in the late 60’s–with Bill Cosby as Fred–Gertie would have been much more prominently featured.  And probably wouldn’t have been a blonde.  Cosby, still playing a tennis pro/secret agent on TV at that point, might have been a bit hard to buy as the out-of-shape nebbish in the book.   Personally, I think Westlake name-checking Jack Lemmon was something of a wistful hint to Hollywood, though Lemmon was a bit old by then.  My ideal Fred and Gertie of all time would probably be Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in their 30’s, but it’s all quite quite moot by now.   Back to the synopsis.)

It probably says something about how I feel about the plot of this book that I don’t feel like relating it in much detail–the story, as I see it, is just a convenient excuse for a lot of great gags, and a look at the world of the huckster from the POV of the mark.  Basically, Fred learns that his uncle was murdered, and that he may be next.  What follows is a lot of running and hiding and talking to various people to try and figure out what’s happening, and how he can make it stop happening.

Along the way, we see repeated instances of his famed gullibility, but we also see that it’s mainly just a result of him being too obliging a soul–under the pressures of his current situation, fearing for his life, we see him toughen up, become more aware.  A dreadful girl he had a crush on in high school shows up on his doorstep, brandishing a letter he wrote to her from camp, saying it represents a legally binding proposal of marriage.   He marries her or she’ll sue.  He calls Goodkind, and asks him if she’s got a case–and holds up the phone for her to hear while Goodkind laughs himself sick, and says Fred should try to make her sue–the countersuit would be worth a fortune.  She runs out the door and down the stairs in a rage, swearing vengeance.  Fred feels incredibly good about this.  The worm has started to turn.

The more obvious short cons won’t work on him anymore–a guy comes up to him in Grand Central Station, doing the old Lost Bag Full of Money routine (aka The Pigeon Drop), and he tells the guy to get lost, after kicking him in the shin.  He knew about this swindle, and most of the others, but the old Fred would have fallen for it.  The new Fred, in fear of his life, is becoming more wary.

The problem wasn’t who Fred was–his identity is fine–he’s just a nice decent ordinary guy.  But even a nice guy has to learn how to say no sometimes.   Or everybody and his cousin walks all over you, I mean him.

But unlike many other Westlake protagonists, he will never get the knack of physical violence.  His reaction to being shot at or menaced in any way is to run like hell, which is probably the most valuable survival skill there is, and hardly to be disdained.  Westlake was getting better and better at crafting scenarios where the hero would be forced to find innovative ways to traverse the urban jungle–find escape routes where none seem to be present, make his way through courtyards, alleyways, adult bookstores, across rooftops, down convenient ladders–Fred even makes use of one-way streets to try and foil this black limo that keeps tailing him.

This improvised use of the convoluted vertically oriented Manhattan cityscape often seems to prefigure what would be known as ‘parkeur’ in later decades–which I assume is not a reference to Parker, who did some of the same thing in his books, but never for comic effect.   As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, this is basic slapstick, right out of the movies, and particularly silent comedy.  Westlake isn’t inventing it, or even improving on it–he’s just figuring out how to describe it in prose form, without getting bogged down in detail.

He was always well aware of the fact that filmmakers could show this kind of thing much more easily than he could describe it–but the descriptions can be remarkably effective in their own unique way, playing as they do with our shared knowledge of how something like this would be done in the movies, and somehow making it seem new again, with a sort of wry understatement.   It’s still in its formative stages here, but you can see once more where he learned how to write those paralyzingly funny scenes in the Dortmunder books.   The most important thing is attention to detail–describing how it actually feels to do what the movies only show us.  You’re not just watching it; you’re hearing it, smelling it, feeling it, living it.   Here, Fred describes how in order to escape one group of people he thinks mean him harm, he ends up fleeing an entirely different group of people–

I wouldn’t say I have an abnormal fear of heights, but that’s probably because I don’t consider a fear of heights abnormal.  I mean, you can get killed if you’re up high and all of a sudden you’re down low.  People who aren’t afraid of heights are people who haven’t stopped to think what happens when you reach the sidewalk in too much of a hurry.  I have stopped to think about it and I therefore felt very small, weak, nervous, terrified and top-heavy as I went down those iron rungs on the front of the movie theater, expecting at any second to lose my grip, fall through the marquee like a dropped safe, and make an omelet of myself on the sidewalk.

Amazingly enough, I made it.   The top of the marquee was some sort of thin sheet metal, painted black, which bucked and dipped and went sprong as I walked across it.  Looking back and up, I saw the two men from the bookstore still up there on the roof, looking down; they made no move to follow me, but contented themselves with threateningly shaking their pipes.

What makes Richard Stark’s prose so effective is its ‘flatness’, as Westlake described it–the matter of fact manner in which extraordinary events are described.   But there’s some of this in the way he writes his comedies as well.   His comic fall guys may be more inclined to share their feelings about the situations they’re in than Parker, but there’s still this sense of detachment–perhaps more of a defense mechanism than anything else.   The main difference is the sense of aggrieved indignation the comic protagonist feels at the unruly fates.   A Westlake Nephew is always asking himself “Why Me?”, which of course was later the title of a Dortmunder novel.   Parker has no such existential queries to pose.

Though he’s becoming more assertive as the story chugs along, Fred is still pretty darned passive.   Gertie gets grabbed, and he’s very concerned about her–more than he would have thought possible–but he still isn’t really trying to find and rescue her.  He’s been placed in protective custody at one point by his cop friend Reilly, and he hears there’s a woman there to see him–he immediately thinks it’s her, but it’s the other girl, whose name I still don’t remember.  She’s described as having ‘marzipan breasts’, and I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, but it’s probably a good thing.

He spends a lot of time with this girl (I know I could look her name up, but I don’t want to), hiding in her apartment, talking to her about her relationship with Detective Reilly (they are sleeping together, but Reilly won’t divorce his wife because he’s Catholic), and at some point in the story, hearing that the escaped Gertie Divine is coming over to see Fred, tells him he doesn’t have much time to kiss her.   This is not remotely credible, even in a fantastic story such as this.

Gertie comes over, and says “So this is the competition”, even though she and Fred have spent a few hours together.   The romantic aspect of the book feels tacked on, perhaps intentionally so.  It’s not a love story, but you have to have a girl in a Nephew book–I think Westlake was ill-advised to give Fred Fitch two, when it’s hard to swallow that he could get one, even with all that money.

It’s just a long series of MacGuffins.   Fred is being threatened by these Brazilian toughs who say his uncle stole the money from their father, and he has to give it up or be killed.  There’s this crime commission run by a Senator that’s involved.   Fred repeatedly says he doesn’t even want the money, and then it all winds up to a total reversal of everything we’ve learned thus far.   Fred’s been running into short cons all through the book–long cons are only for people with a lot of money, you see.  And then it suddenly occurs to him that he’s somebody with a lot of money now, and the scales start to drop from his eyes.

Crime books about grifters doing long cons were nothing new, but they were always from the perspective of the conners, never the connees.  Westlake’s buddy Lawrence Block had just done a truly nifty one in that vein, published in 1965, called The Girl With the Long Green Heart (to date, my favorite of all the Block novels I’ve read, highly recommended).   Not long before that, Jim Thompson’s searing noir masterpiece The Grifters had come out, that Westlake would someday win his third Edgar (and an Oscar nomination) for adapting.  So the innovation here was to put us in the position of the audience at a magic show, only we don’t know it’s a show–we’re so distracted by the short cons, we never stop to think about the long con.

Fred’s apotheosis, which must come to all Nephews at some point, is to have that moment of insight where a scam that would fool just about anybody fails to fool him.   He is no longer the Mark of Marks.  He’s gotten wise.   And the sweetest aspect of this is that Gertie (who was in on the sting from the start) is proud of him for wising up.

Fred then cons the other girl (Karen!  That’s her name!  I’ll have forgotten it again two minutes from now.) into thinking she’s got a good deal with Reilly, even though he’ll never marry her–this strikes me as a bit mean, and too convenient, but the romantic subplots have to be wrapped up swiftly, along with all the others–it’s just a bit too hasty, and Fred explains to Reilly how he did it–over the phone, if you’d believe it–and P.G. Wodehouse would have done it a lot better, as would Shakespeare, so go read them if you like.

Fred and Gertie seem to be an item, but it’s not entirely clear–when last we see them, she’s making them dinner at her apartment, so she did not move in with him.   We learn that he got the money, and Gertie convinced him to buy the townhouse he lives in with his uncle’s bequest, as opposed to giving it all away (“Are you crazy?  That’s money!”), so the building will never get torn down, and he never has to leave his comfortable digs–other than having Gertie in his life, and no longer being an easy target for grifters, his daily existence seems entirely unchanged.   He’s still got the same job.  He’s still a nice affable unexceptional guy, who will kick you in the shin if you pretend you just found a bag full of money.

We never learn what happened to Mr. Wilkins’ book about the conquest of Gaul through air power.   We do learn who killed Fred’s uncle, and another interesting character we didn’t see enough of–a very short man who appears in one very short chapter.  It’s not really that important, but he probably wouldn’t have won the Edgar for Best Mystery Novel of the Year if he hadn’t put a mystery in there somewhere.

It’s a really important book for Westlake, on a lot of levels.   It’s got an innovative and unique premise, and it’s full of clever funny moments, and some really good writing.  I just don’t happen to think it’s one of his best books, mainly because I think the supporting characters, though fun, are a bit too spottily developed, the best of the bunch is offstage most of the time, and the story feels a bit nailed together at points.

It’s still a book that has something to say about human gullibility, and the fact that the biggest reason we keep falling for all the ridiculous scams out there (some of them a lot more dangerous than others–they found those WMD’s in Iraq yet?) is that most of us don’t really know ourselves that well.   Fred’s basically the same guy at the end, but he’s gotten wise to himself, and thus to everyone around him.

Like Fred, we know there’s no end of liars out there, and yet we still have a tendency to believe what people tell us to our faces.  That’s true of nearly everyone, and on some level we all know it, and I think the way Westlake tickled that particular funnybone is what got him the Edgar.

It would lead to far better books in the future–you can see the building blocks for the great Westlake comedies of the 70’s and beyond being assembled here, as in the previous Nephew Books.  Edgar or no Edgar, I don’t think this book holds a candle to most of them.  And yet I am still writing all these reviews as ‘fredfitch’.   Go figure.

And figure this, if you will–our next book is 42 pages long, including illustrations.   It’s about a little boy and his toy dump truck.  And it’s probably the rarest and most expensive collectible of any Westlake book ever published, certainly under his own name.   I am never owning a copy of this book.   But I’ve read it.  And what’s more, I have it scanned into my gmail account.

And anybody who wants to read it need only respond in the comments section, and give me their email–I’ll forward it to you in its entirety.   Not nearly enough of my readers comment on the reviews, and I hope this will induce some of you to chime in.   I make this one-time offer, you might say, as a fillip.   I expect to do an extra century in purgatory for that pun, but so worth it.

PS: That’s P.T. Barnum up top, next to Bill Cosby.   I put his picture up there because he’s referenced in the book–that old saying attributed to Barnum, that there’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him.   Only it seems he never actually said that.  Conned again!

(Very very belated postscript: I see people are still reading this one, and I feel the need to confess–when I wrote this review, and put Cosby’s photo up top, I was not making a reference to the current scandal regarding his extralegal extramarital exploits–and amazingly, the earliest allegation of drug-assisted rape goes back two years before this book came out! I didn’t really become aware of the allegations–which are a lot more than allegations by this point in time–until some time after I posted the review.  No doubt Cosby fooled a whole lot of people for a very long time.   Not that it really matters so much, compared to what his victims went through, but just as well that movie starring him as the mark of marks never got made.  And all I can say is–conned once more!  And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I took the name Fred Fitch.  I may not get born quite every minute, but I come close sometimes.  Shame on me.)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels