Donald E. Westlake will always be remembered as a novelist, having published his first novel (that he wanted people to know he’d written) in 1960. But he’d started out over a decade earlier, as so many aspiring writers have, with the short story. When he first started submitting for publication, that was a very sensible thing to do, because there was an enormous market for short stories. Pulp magazines catering to fans of various literary genres (most of which have now folded like the proverbial cheap suit), but also ‘mainstream’ magazines that published short fiction on a regular basis (some still do, but not like they used to).
In the late 50’s/early 60’s, his short story output was, to say the least, prodigious–in his introduction to Levine, a collection of short stories about a police detective, he says he turned out 46 short stories and novellas (he says ‘novelettes’, but I hate that word) in 1959 alone, of which more than half saw publication–not all in that year, of course. Magazine editors stockpile. So when I give the publication date of a story below, bear in mind that it may have been written much sooner than that. Back then, you could make a living writing short stories for mystery magazines. Not a princely living, but a living.
The short story still exists as a form, and doubtless always will, but it’s damned near impossible to make any kind of living writing them today. None other than Lawrence Block was moved to ask Whither the Short Story? on his blog, a few years back, and a damned good question it was, and still is. It’s reached the point where you might actually be better off as a poet than a short story writer. You’d almost certainly have better odds at getting into The New Yorker or some similarly toney publication with a poem; they take up less space.
I have greatly enjoyed many of Westlake’s short stories–I’ve read all the major collections, and some uncollected work–and I’ve yet to read one where I thought to myself afterwards that my understanding of the human condition would be less complete if I’d never read it. Whereas I think that pretty much every time I read a Frank O’Connor story. O’Connor wrote exactly two novels, neither of which is much remarked upon today–different skill sets (ie, you can do both well, but very few do them equally well). That being said, I certainly think that my understanding of Westlake as a writer has improved from reading his short fiction–it contains the building blocks of better things.
Westlake wrote well over a hundred short stories–but unless there’s a bunch more of them than you could find in his bibliography, and there may well be, he wrote significantly more novels, under his name and others (most of his shorts were not written under pseudonyms). By the early 60’s, he’d figured out the short story was never going to be his primary thing, but he went on publishing them pretty regularly, until the shrinking market (and the lousy pay-rates) made it impractical for him to do more than the occasional one-off.
He wrote a lot fewer in the late 60’s and 70’s, and his short stories after that are mainly light stuff (often written for Playboy) that he doesn’t take seriously, nor does he expect anyone else to. A lot of them are science fiction, believe it or not–and from what I’ve seen, are rife with the very flaws he’d excoriated that genre for in his infamous article for Xero. He did, however, write some very good stories featuring characters from his novels that he felt were worth a bit more exploration.
His last story collection was devoted to Dortmunder (many of those were published in Playboy as well, which somehow seems like the wrong venue, but never mind), and those stories are brilliant–to a reader of the Dortmunder books. The characters are already established, you see. In novels. The groundwork is done, leaving him free to just tell the story. It was a Dortmunder story that got him his one and only Edgar nomination (and the award itself) in that category
So that may be the problem–he needs a bit more space to establish his characters, room to run, to stretch out–and in a short story, he can’t quite make his people live and breathe the way he can in a novel. But he can still try. And in trying so hard to work in miniature, he doubtless got better at the dark detailed portraits and complex comic murals that we came to know and love him for. His best novels read like really good really long short stories, quite often–fast-paced, intense–he runs into problems sometimes when he tries to write very long novels–too much room can be as bad as too little. His novellas are superb, though that form flat-lined commercially even before its diminutive cousin.
This is Westlake’s first story collection, from 1968, and was an important professional milestone for him. It was published by Random House, his professional ties with which were severed the following year, though confusingly, Richard Stark and Tucker Coe remained there well into the 70’s. The ‘and other fictions’ part of the book begins on the inside of the dust jacket, where we are told Westlake is ‘barely turned thirty’–he was more like thirty-five, but I guess they hadn’t bothered to update the author bio.
There are fifteen stories, all of which (with one possible exception) had been previously published in various magazines, some of which were defunct even before this book came out, but two–Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s respective mystery magazines–simply refused to die, and are with us yet today. And I suppose now there’s nothing for it but to review each one in the order it appears (they are not arranged in order of publication), as succinctly as possible:
The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution: One of several short stories published under the name Richard Stark before The Hunter came out, this is an acidic little farce with a twist ending–Westlake wrote a lot of them, and so did everybody else writing for the mystery magazines, but only Stanley Ellin ever got them 100% right, in my opinion. It’s about a man who plots to murder his selfish grasping consumerist wife Janice, so he can marry his loving decent frugal secretary (who knows about the impending murder, so how decent can she be, really?), but is sabotaged in the event by a succession of door-to-door salesmen, girl scouts armed to their rotting teeth with cookies, phone solicitors, and nosy neighbors, making it impossible for him to conceal the fact that he was present when the murder was committed.
Basically, he never knew what the suburban neighborhood he lives in is like, because he was never home during the week. He belatedly realizes that his wife turned into the shallow shopaholic she was because it was the only way to mentally survive these hellish surroundings, and with this insight achieved, he awaits the arrival of the police with existential resignation. It has a nice little satiric point to make, and does so efficiently, but the point of a story like this is never to make you give a damn about any of the people in it.
You Put On Some Weight: My personal favorite (and a really important story for Westlake), this was published in 1960 under the title Fresh Out Of Prison in Guilty Detective Story Magazine (which, true to its name, went to the chair after 35 issues) and contains the seeds of both Parker and Dortmunder.
Charles Lambaski (alias Charlie Lane, alias Chuck Lewis, alias Jack Kent, but just call him Charlie) has just gotten out of the joint after serving four and a half years for armed assault. He used to work with the local rackets, but as he looks up old cronies, he finds most of them have gone straight, or to jail, or the cemetery. Sure, there’s still crooks around, but they’re not his crowd. His peer group has evaporated, and he realizes he’s alone, bereft of purpose.
He has absolutely no desire to reform, no regrets concerning his past career choices, and is thinking about how to get back to his life of crime when two clueless young hoods show up at his apartment window, looking to rob the place. These hapless hooligans have no idea how to do the job, and he realizes, with a glow of renewed purpose, that he can teach them to be better burglars, and they’re delighted to follow his lead. Which is all very heartwarming, except maybe they’ll be breaking into your apartment next time.
Thing is, he’s going to show them how to make sure nobody’s home–the way they were going about it, they’d end up surprising some old dame, and then hitting her over the head with something heavy to shut her up, and that’s bad for everyone concerned. This way, nobody gets hurt (just robbed). Whatever you’re going to do in life, you should be professional about it. And is there even the suggestion here that it’s a bad thing when the authorities are too efficient in rounding up the experienced crooks? Who’s going to teach the up and coming crooks, make sure they know the rules? Young people need role models!
There’s a touch of Stark-ian spareness about this one, as well as a soupcon of Dortmunder-esque good humor, and we’ve already discussed how Parker feels a need to pass on his skills. The burglary aspect is more Dortmunder, of course–these guys aren’t going after banks and payrolls. But this really is where it all started–this is the genesis of our two favorite felons. Their common ancestor in a criminal family tree. Worth the price of a copy all by itself.
Sniff: From 1967–Albert White, clerk to a truly rotten old attorney, has concocted an elaborate scheme for blackmailing his corrupt employer, which involves sending damning evidence back and forth through the mail–the idea is that if anything happens to him, the incriminating envelope will go to an investigative reporter.
But having put this blackmail machine into motion, he can’t summon the nerve to actually tell his boss about it. It’s just not who he is–it’s who he’d like to be. He’s created a false self-image. And he’s deluding himself into thinking he will someday spring his trap by keeping up the pretense of sending the evidence back and forth, forth and back. It gives him a sense of impending empowerment.
Albert catches a bad cold one day, and hard as he tries, he can’t get to the post office to pick up the evidence, or persuade an enthusiastic young postal clerk to hold onto it, contrary to his strict instructions. The reporter gets the scoop, his employer has to flee the country, but he knows who fingered him, and he threatens dire and bloody vengeance. And Albert, out of a job, and out of illusions, has nothing to do but await his impending denouement. In Monequois, no less.
Good Night, Good Night: This feels like it should have been an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and wouldn’t you know, it was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in 1960. A vulgar narcissistic TV variety show host–some sociopathic hybrid of Milton Berle and Bill O’Reilly (I know he never had a variety show, and he was 11 years old when this came out, but the resemblance is startling)–lies dying in his dressing room, shot by an unseen assailant, and as his time runs out, along with his life’s blood, he tries to figure out whodunnit, while his own pre-taped show, full of suspects, airs on the set in front of him.
He’s got so many enemies–basically to know him is to hate him–that he has to run down a long list of people he’s horribly wronged, looking for clues, and by the time he’s solved the mystery, The Great Mystery itself is upon him. So a detective story where the protagonist literally solves his own murder, but has nobody to share his revelations with, and you can’t really root for him–but you can’t quite separate yourself from him either.
There’s no final moment of insight–that he brought this on himself. This type of personality is incapable of that kind of understanding. So he dies as pointlessly as he lived. And the murderer presumably gets away with it. Beautifully written, with an ending that oddly recalls the final moments of Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, though I doubt Hijuelos ever read it, and the emotions invoked are entirely different. I guess lots of people die watching television, though not usually their own shows.
Devilishly: From 1966–William Piedmont III, born into old money, fell hard for a remarkable girl named Doris, but she was also remarkably poor, with disreputable origins, so his family disowned him. Clever and amiable, but as he himself admits, utterly derivative in his ideas (whereas Doris is a true original), William and his beloved enter into a life of crime–mainly short cons, burglary, etc. No heavy stuff. Now he wants to rob his own family, for profit and revenge. So he and Doris go to a costume ball at the old manse.
He disguises himself as a devil–along with seven others at the party–Doris has a much more original costume–a form-fitting black suit and a mirror–she’s come as ‘everybody else’. The robbery goes off as planned, after a few close calls, but after Doris wins the grand prize for most original costume, William, unfortunately, is picked for the least (along with all the other devils), and is exposed, and incarcerated, while Doris makes her getaway.
But he does not despair–he knows his beloved will find an original way to get him out of jail. Westlake always has a soft spot for this kind of love story–somehow, you wish he’d found a longer tale to spin for this intriguing pair of knaves. Great banter between them, but not much of a story here
Oh wait–is this where Smoke came from? That literally just occurred to me. At one point, black-clad Doris becomes ‘invisible’ by covering the mirror on her face with her hands. Maybe just the idea of two lovers who are on the bend and on the run–add genuine invisibility, make both of them working class, add a whole lot of story, and shake well.
Murder in Outer Space: Originally called The Risk Profession–from 1961. The only science fiction story in this bunch, but also a murder mystery. It’s interesting that he liked it well enough to include it–this well after he’d publicly renounced the genre (though he never did stop writing SF entirely). Me myself, I never thought much of it. It’s all ideas, no characters. The protagonist is a clever enough fellow, a company man with an independent streak. He’s a futuristic insurance claims adjuster, investigating the suspicious death of an asteroid miner. He cracks the case, and ends up profiting mightily by it, and I’d rather just move on to the next story, if you don’t mind. Maybe I’ll revisit it when I get to Westlake’s SF anthology. And maybe not.
No Story: From 1968, originally published in–um? Not mentioned in his bibliography. Did this get published anywhere before this book? It’s a purely stylistic exercise–as the title indicates, it is not a story so much as an extended practical joke–it’s a dark and stormy night–the gentleman at the club are enjoying a spot of brandy–an retired British officer begins a story–that leads into another story–that leads into another story–and etc. And somehow none of the stories are ever told. Like Passage to Marseilles, but shorter, and more fun. And rather forgettable, but Westlake would do much better with a longer and more specific ‘literary’ parody, in just a few year’s time.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery: From 1966, and again first published in Hitchcock’s–perhaps a whiff of science fiction here. A man named Albert and his wife Janice, once a sweet loving girl but now a ‘harridan with the soul of a Borgia’ (man, Westlake really did not like that name), live in a vast soulless highrise apartment building (didn’t J.G. Ballard write something like this?), and the relationship has, shall we say, deteriorated.
Like the protagonist of our first story, he’s got his eye on a more sympathetic mate, and needs to eliminate the current missus. Lord only knows how many variations on spousal homicide have been penned in this genre, read avidly by both husbands and wives, and no doubt there are gay variants as well by this time. Anyway, Albert recently won the sweepstakes, and if he divorces Janice, she’ll get the money.
Albert has a Rear Window moment (well, remember whose magazine this is), seeing a man push his wife to her death across the way, and he decides not to tell the police–he’s going to plagiarize his neighbor’s murder. He does so–and then realizes yet another harried husband has seen him do it–and is likewise inspired. It’s going viral. Well-written, and very much in the style for this particular venue, but I don’t much care for it. And wasn’t Westlake’s first marriage breaking up right around this time? One imagines the first Mrs. Westlake edging away from open windows for a while.
Just One Of Those Days: From 1966, and first published in This Week, a magazine ‘supplement’, that was syndicated all over the country–it would be inserted into Sunday newspapers–so a whole lot of people read this one. And this is another venue for short stories that went the way of all things, since it folded (in the bad sense of the word) less than three years later.
It’s a heist gone wrong story–two guys named Harry and Ralph are robbing a bank–Ralph is the planner, and the first person narrator, and he’s just disgusted. They have this job worked out to perfection, but then Harry says the bank’s closed–on Tuesday. Ralph wants to know why such a stupid thing would happen, and Harry tells him–it’s Kenny Griffin Day.
“I give up,” I said. “What’s a Kenny Griffin?”
“Astronaut,” he said. He opened his shirt collar and tossed himself onto the bed. “Comes from this burg,” he said. “It’s his Homecoming Day. They’re having a big parade for him.”
“By the bank?” I asked.
“What difference?” He moved his automatic out from under his hip, adjusted his pillow, and shut his eyes. “The bank’s closed anyway,” he said.
I cocked my head, and from far away I heard band music. “Well, if that isn’t nice,” I said.
“They’re gonna give him the key to the city,” Harry said.
“That is real nice,” I said.
“Speeches, and little kids giving him flowers.”
“That’s so nice I can’t stand it,” I said.
“He was in orbit,” Harry said.
“He should have stayed in orbit,” I said.
“So we’ll do it tomorrow,” said Harry.
“I know,” I said. “But it’s just irritating.”
So they pull the job a day later, and they’re making their getaway–the whole key to the caper is that they get to the airport and catch a flight out before the cops get wise–but they can’t find the exit–they just keep going around and around on this beltway, and finally the cops get wise. And when a handcuffed Ralph asks a cop why the exit for Airport Road wasn’t clearly marked anymore, like it was when he cased out the escape route, he finds out they just renamed it Griffin Road. Isn’t that nice?
And more than a little reminiscent of Dortmunder, yeah. Westlake started working on the Parker novel that eventually became The Hot Rock (after first becoming The Black Ice Score) not long after this came out. But Ralph and Harry are basically the same character–no foil, no Stan to Ralph’s Ollie–just a bit of bad luck, accepted philosophically. Still–it’s nice. And acceptable to a mainstream middle American audience (can’t get more mainstream than a Sunday supplement), because you like the crooks, identify with their long-suffering professionalism, but you don’t feel like they’d croak you and your whole family just to make their escape.
Never Shake A Family Tree: Ah, this one is the goods! Again from Hitchcock’s, again from 1961. An elderly widow with a passion for genealogy meets an elderly widower with the same interest–and turns out two distant relatives of theirs were married–and her forebear died of an unknown stomach ailment–and so did a lot of other men who married this female ancestor of her charming (and somewhat younger) new beau. And so did a lot of women who married him in the past few decades. A pattern begins to emerge.
And the twist to follow the twist–she decides this is too good to pass up–how long can a person live anyway? He’s the perfect companion for her golden years. She’ll marry him, and then deny him every possible avenue for discreet murder. He can’t leave her, and if he gets her someday, she’s made sure he’ll burn for it.But there’s no ill will on her part–she’s never had so much fun in her life. A truly original ending to a genuinely clever story. But again, no emotional involvement–that’s not what the form calls for.
Just The Lady We’re Looking For: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, 1964. For some reason, door-to-door salesmen show up constantly in Westlake’s work–either thieves taking a break from thievery and hating the work intensely, or else grifters happily working short cons. Or actual foot-in-the-door salesmen, being annoyingly persistent, as in the first story here.
So did Westlake have to put in some time as a salesman to make ends meet, or did he just have a lot of them showing up at the door when he was trying to write? He was working at home, so unlike the unfortunate protagonist of the first story, he knows damned well how many pesky salesmen there are out there, and probably a fair few were on the grift.
Anyway, this isn’t much of a story. A con man posing as a salesman thinks he’s found a pigeon ripe for the plucking in a timid housewife, not realizing she’s wise to his game from the start, because she isn’t what she appears to be. Be fine as a minor vignette in a longer work, doesn’t really stand on its own.
I do have to question the inclusion of some of these pieces–what were the criteria being applied? Many years later, a second anthology came out (A Good Story and Other Stories), and more than half of those had already appeared in this one we’re looking at now, making it a dubious buy for collectors–particularly since the ones that had already appeared were the best in that bunch. Were some of his stories harder to get the re-publication rights for than others? Bit late to ask now.
Domestic Intrigue: From 1966, published in The Saint Mystery Magazine, which went to heaven the year after (if more of these magazines had survived, would Westlake have produced more short stories? And perhaps fewer novels?). Written in the first person, from the perspective of an adulterous wife, who married for money, and has been seeing the man she really loves on the side. A blackmailer appears, threatening to expose her to her brutish husband. All men are beasts, you see–except for her devoted lover.
She sets a trap for the blackmailer–arranges to meet him at a motel, and for her husband to catch them en flagrante. But she realizes two things a bit two late–first, that the blackmailer is in cahoots with her lover, who feels life as a kept man isn’t as financially rewarding as it should be. And second, that her husband, finding her with another man, would be moved to shoot her, not him. So as she desperately runs for her life, she realizes all men really are bea….
All Men Are Bea was the title of a 1968 story in Argosy, and I’d assume it’s the same one? I find these nasty little tales of spousal murder a bit unworthy of Westlake, but again, that was the market he was writing to. Murder in general he wrote about quite a bit–murderers getting away with it he wrote about more often than most–but not one of his novels is specifically about the protagonist deliberately dispatching his or her life partner, or being dispatched by same. Still, I think he had some fun with this specific form–good enough for a very short story.
One Man On a Desert Island: From 1960, first published in Hitchcock’s. Maybe the best and most haunting short story Westlake ever wrote. And therefore, naturally, the best identity puzzle of the bunch. A man grows bored with his empty humdrum existence, and wants to go adventuring on the high seas in his small boat. The authorities try to stop him, but he’s determined, and of course completely unprepared, and he ends up shipwrecked on a small island.
As he gradually goes mad from isolation, a beautiful woman–literally the girl of his dreams–appears to him. She is everything he’d ever wished for, and they fall deeply in love–and then she starts to bug him. She turns from dream lover to nagging mother, and he begins to hate her. So he drowns her. Too late, he is struck with deep remorse and bitter regret. She was the best part of him.
Rescuers arrive, and he tells them what he did. There’s no body (there was no woman), but they see no reason to doubt his story. You’d think habeas corpus would apply here, but I checked–you don’t necessarily need to produce the body. He is turned over to the proper authorities, and is eventually tried and executed for murdering a figment of his imagination. He goes to his death feeling that he fully deserves his fate; relieved to be punished for his terrible crime.
The real kicker–the guy is an aspiring writer. And what bugged him most about his fantasy woman was that she kept pushing him to write more.
Worth noting that in 1959, when this was presumably written, the Twilight Zone episode The Lonely aired, which bears a certain familial resemblance. Rod Serling, that famed native of Binghamton New York, penned that script. Westlake was a bit dismissive of The Twilight Zone at times (he called it ‘bad fantasy for television’), but he certainly watched it, and it’s not hard to believe he’d have used that story as a jumping off point. Or that a similar idea came to him independently. But I’d guess it was the former. And much as I admire Serling at his best, Westlake’s story is better.
The Sweetest Man In The World: 1967, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Another guileful older woman embroiled in a murder plot, but it’s not what you think, and neither is she. It must have gotten wearying turning out twist ending after twist ending for these magazines, but a pretty clever job of defeating reader expectations, all the same. But when you think about it a minute, you don’t really believe it. Insurance claims investigators aren’t that gullible. Still, in a world where Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire were both hit films, I guess we can’t be too skeptical.
Which finally, brings us to–
The Mother of Invention Is Worth a Pound of Cure: Published in something called Dapper, in 1966. No, I never heard of it either (seriously, I hadn’t), but it seems to have been a sort of minor league Playboy–definitely racier than Esquire. There’s a men’s magazine out of Dallas going by that name now, but I don’t think it’s the same one. Here’s a cover from 1966, the image of which I filched from ebay–
I think we all get the idea. And this is, based on a few minute’s research, a fairly modest cover for Dapper.
And strangely, I think this is the best of the four spousal murder stories in this collection (I don’t count Never Shake a Family Tree), though no spouses actually die during it. The premise is implausible, but arresting–a beautiful but dangerous woman and her latest boy toy are having a post-coital conversation, and she shows him a letter she’s written, confessing to the murder of her husband–who is still alive, but she’d rather it were otherwise. She says that if he were to die, the aforementioned boy toy (the narrator of the piece) could blackmail his way to a comfortable retirement–and enjoy her considerable charms in the process. Or he could refuse–and she’d murder him. Carrot and stick. How can he refuse?
He thinks about it, and the story ends with an interesting reveal–all this time he’s been telling this story, he’s actually been talking to the husband himself–and holding a gun on him–but only for self-defense, to give him time to explain the situation. A cad he is, our narrator, but no killer. He knows his limitations. He has no illusions about his identity, unlike the dithering Albert White.
And having told the seemingly dumbstruck husband what’s going on, and provided the undeniable proof of the murder confession itself (which he points out could be read as a suicide note) he figures one way or another, his problem is solved–whichever one succeeds in eliminating the other, he’ll be off the hook. And on his merry way. Poor, but free.
That is a Westlake protagonist. Some of the others, anybody could have written just as well. But the best of these stories show him transcending the formulaic limitations of the genre he’s working in, and the markets he’s writing them for. As he did in his novels, but it must be said, he never managed to do it as well in the short form. Like Cole Porter, Donald Westlake seems to always be saying Don’t Fence Me In. He needs the structure of genre–the constraints of established conventions–gives him ideas to work from, an audience to aim for–but he needs to make fun of it, even while he’s celebrating it. It’s just who he is.
And he was more free to be that when he was writing novels. And hopefully none the poorer, though I bet he missed having some of those magazines to write for. A writer can have a lot of ideas that don’t quite rate a novel–pity to waste them. But with only so many hours in the day, I think it’s just as well for us Westlake readers that his short story production dropped way off in the 1970’s–which were his best single decade as a writer.
Yes, the 1960’s were his most prolific period, his most seminal, his most creative–the decade in which he became Stark, and Coe, and the master of the comic caper (though he didn’t really achieve mastery in that area until the very end of that decade). But the 70’s were where he achieved his fullest potential–one amazing book after another, and no two of them alike. I expect to review them all next year, and it’s going to be a challenge–but imagine writing them all. In ten years. While dealing with an increasingly complex personal life. That we know almost nothing about, but we know enough to know it was pretty damn complex. The 70’s were the beginning of his mature period, and the end of his youth.
But I reiterate, whatever his limitations as a short story writer, he learned a lot from writing them–and who’s to say if he hadn’t come along sooner, before the market began to fade, he might not have mastered that form as fully as he mastered the novel? I just compared him to Wodehouse in my last review, and Wodehouse wrote novels and short stories equally well. One of the few who could say that, though. Different skill sets.
I may post one or twice more before the year is out, depending on how hectic the holiday schedule gets. Next up is The Sour Lemon Score, which fairly brims over with the Christmas spirit, doesn’t it now? (Then again, there is a sort of miracle in it.)
If I don’t post again before 2015, thanks to all of you, all over the world (66 flags and counting!), for coming by, and putting up with my lengthy spoiler-laden ruminations. The best really is yet to come.
PS: I don’t know how it happened, but this became a book-on-tape–the stories read by none other than Arte Johnson, best remembered for Laugh-In.