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 an illustrated 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.)