Monthly Archives: January 2015

Review: Up Your Banners

up_your_banners_1up_your_banners_2 Blackboard-JungleTo-Sir-With-LoveUp-Down-Stairs

I worked on my Fresca while I thought about things, and then said, “Leona, I’m just not the right kind of guy for all this.  You say all those things, and you may be right, and I do understand and sympathize, but I’m just not the fighting kind.  I’m the floating kind.  I drift very slowly and easily through life.  I prefer things to be funny.”

“Ghetto schools aren’t funny,” she said.

“I agree.”

Up Your Banners is an odd book.  The origin of this one is very strange.

Donald Westlake

Must have been sometime in 1968 that David Susskind (of all people) called his literary agent, Henry Morrison, who also happened to be Donald Westlake’s literary agent, and asked Morrison to set up a meet between the three of them. He had an idea to pitch. He wanted Westlake to write a novel about a racially troubled high school in New York.

Like most people, he knew Westlake primarily as someone who wrote comic treatments of dangerous situations, and that was the approach he wanted–somebody seeing the humorous side of the very dangerous situation involving inner city schools.  Westlake had a hard time seeing how that was going to work. What’s so funny about poverty, racism, and a failed educational system?

As he described his reaction much later, it went like this–“I really don’t know the area, I’m not interested, I don’t know whose side to take, I don’t see who you make fun of, I don’t see who you don’t make fun of”–I didn’t see any way to do it at all.  

But Susskind was persistent, and he promised to buy the film rights to the book if Westlake wrote it.  Westlake thought about it a while, and finally he hit upon an approach he thought was viable–he’d write it as a ‘Nephew’ book–not that he called them that.   He said it came to him when he found his hero–“the innocent, the Candide who could carry the story.”   His reference to Voltaire’s famed satiric picaresque was very much to the point, as we shall see.

It’s basically the same set-up as his five earlier comic novels (this doesn’t include Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which wasn’t originally conceived as a book).   A naive young man, who has been putting off maturity, gets enmeshed in something he doesn’t understand, becomes the center of a dangerous chaotic situation (only political, instead of criminal), and people make all kinds of false assumptions about him.   And in figuring his way out of this mess, he finally grows up, and meets a great girl–only this time she’s black.  Simple, right?

Susskind began sending him the serious books, fiction and non-fiction, that had already been written on this subject recently, including Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (the link is to an excerpt in The Atlantic Monthly).  But the fact is, works of fiction about dysfunctional schools and noble overburdened teachers already amounted to a sort of genre of their own.  You can see the covers for three of them up top, and odds are good you’ve heard of at least one or two. Westlake would certainly have been familiar with The Blackboard Jungle, since it was written by Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain.

But none of these novels really confronted racism in any direct way–even To Sir, With Love, written by a black teacher working with white cockneys in London (played by Sidney Poitier in the movie), seemed to gloss over the race issue–just a matter of white people recognizing that some black people had exceptional abilities, and accepting them into white society–and what about all the black people who were just average, and stuck in the ghetto, with little chance of ever getting out?

Truth is, none of these then-popular novels have held up very well over time (Kozol’s nonfiction work remains a classic).  They were a response to a growing awareness that something was brewing in the schools–the generation gap, racial conflicts, urban blight, the breakdown of the family, loss of respect for authority. Probably Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, written in comic epistolary style, with a protagonist who is brave and sympathetic, but not really in control of the situation she’s in, has stood the test of time best.

The heroine of that book is a young Jewish woman teaching in an impoverished inner city school.  She  loves her students, and many of them love her, but it’s still a crazy and sometimes scary situation–not so much because she’s in danger from her pupils as that she has a terrible time dealing with the bureaucracy, and the expectations society has of her.

But even that book doesn’t really deal with racial issues to any great extent, as I recall (been a long time).   The proper liberal attitude back then was that you were supposed to ignore such things as best you could.   And after all, it’s New York City, not Selma.  No Jim Crow here. It’s a class problem, not a race problem. We’re above such things up north.

One would surmise that Susskind, who dealt with issues like integration and forced busing all the time on his talk show, noticed that all these earlier novels had been made into films–but all of them just kind of avoided the real questions, mainly because the real questions tended to rile people up.  Kaufman had dealt humorously with the problems facing teachers  in these schools, giving her a bit more leeway, but what about all the other players in the drama?   There were certain built-in limits to her approach–still, a bit of humor can sometimes help put things in perspective.  Everybody loves to laugh.  But nobody likes being laughed at.   Ay, there’s the rub.

Before I go any further, perhaps I had best confess that I myself worked briefly in the New York City Public School system, after I graduated from college, back in the 1980’s.   I aspired to be a public school teacher, sue me.   I got a TPD (a provisional teacher’s license), and was immediately hired to work at a school in Far Rockaway, at the arse-end of the city (two hour commute by train–each way).

I had no training of any kind.  I got almost no help from anyone–mainly just the odd pep talk from the principal, who mouthed platitudes about positive thinking and success, which didn’t seem to be doing anyone much good.  I was filling in for a teacher who was sick.  My first student stuck his head in the door, and a big grin slapped itself across his face.  “SUBSTITUTE!!!!” he yelled down the hall, like he was ringing a dinner bell.  I think you can guess how it went after that.   I never had a chance.

I can still remember their faces.  They’re more real to me than most of the people I’ve met in my life.  I wanted to reach them, and I didn’t know how.  And I could feel the frustration changing me, making me bitter, angry at them for not wanting to listen to me–resistance I could handle, but they just tuned me out entirely, acted as if I wasn’t there.   I quickly had to give up on that school–the commute was killing me, and if I moved to that remote beachfront nabe, I was going to be stuck there, cut off from the rest of the city.

I spent a few more months taking substitute jobs at a variety of middle schools around town–middle school is the hardest–that’s when the hormones kick in–much harder than high school, by which time most of the real troublemakers have dropped out or gotten slotted into special classes.   I worked mainly with black and Latino kids–one class was mainly white, and they were every bit as rowdy and unfocused.

And they were all so damn funny.  And they were all so damn smart.  And they all broke your heart.  And much as I was frustrated at them, the people who really gave me hives were the administrators–who I’m sure had nemeses higher up the food chain to blame, and so on.  There were really good teachers, here and there, doing their best, and the students listened to them.  But most were just trying make it to retirement.

The only time I ever once felt like I was teaching was when I taught a special ed class–for developmentally disabled children.  Just a few kids, so I could talk to them one on one.  But that, of course, is even more painful in some ways.  If there’s a tougher job than teaching this age group in a system like this, in a city like this, I don’t know about it.   You get it from both sides, and there’s nobody to help you.  Maybe it’s better now.

So that’s my story, but it isn’t Westlake’s–far as I know, he never worked as a teacher.   He must have at least considered it–not an uncommon day job for a writer (the late Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, who I knew very slightly, made a career of it–and a book).  Salvatore Lombino (Evan Hunter’s birth name) taught at a vocational school in The Bronx for a few weeks, and based The Blackboard Jungle on that. Not often a writer gets paid for doing research (if you can call a beginning teacher’s salary getting paid).

Based on what I’ve read, if Westlake ever seriously considered teaching, it was at the college level.  It was a potential fallback position if his writing career foundered, as Peter Rabe’s did.  But it was never really what he wanted to do.   But, you can hear him asking himself, “Suppose I had been been programmed to think teaching was what I wanted to do, and then I found out it wasn’t?”   Identity confusion–his wheelhouse.  But this isn’t a fantasy like his comic crime novels–he’s going to need more of a build-up than usual.

The book begins with a quote from Thomas Carlyle, that is guaranteed to offend just about anyone.   And makes it clear that Westlake is not going to shy away from the question of race–or racism.  “A merry-hearted, grinning, dancing, singing, affectionate kind of creature, with a great deal of melody and amenability in his composition.”   We’re told this is from a work entitled The Nigger Question.  Which is true, but that’s the title Carlyle republished it under, basically just to shock people (not as much as it would today, of course).  It was originally called Occasional Discourse on The Negro Question.

The choice of Carlyle is interesting because that quarrelsome Scot also had some fairly controversial opinions on The Irish Question–he considered the Catholic Irish peasantry (as opposed to the mainly Protestant gentry) to be basically white niggers, which is how many English people thought of them back then (yes, I know this is offensive, but we’re talking about real history here, so let’s not mince words, shall we?).   We should now pause to consider that Donald E. Westlake, like most Irish Americans, was descended from those peasants–and quite aware of that fact.

In Mr. Carlyle’s opinion, these merry-hearted grinning dancing peoples like the plantation-living blacks and the bogtrotting Irish were obviously not suited to living as full equals to decent folk, and what would be best for them would be to live in a kind of perpetual serfdom, as opposed to chattel slavery, which his country had recently abolished–which is what Carlyle was taking issue with.

See, the goal for Carlyle was not emancipation, but to reform existing systems of bondage, to make them a bit more humane.   Perhaps with the passage of time, some among these lesser races could be elevated to the point where they could enter polite society as free men and women, but there was no need to rush things.  It would be cruel to raise their expectations of life, and cast them willy nilly into a world they were not properly constituted to live in.  You can read more about Carlyle’s racial ideas here.  Interesting philosophy.  Also disgusting.  Also surprisingly durable in some circles, even if it has learned how to disguise itself better.

So having assured with his opening quote that the easily offended will venture no further, Westlake introduces us to his Candide, who is just heading out to his first day of work as a teacher in a public high school in the fictional Brooklyn slum neighborhood of South Romulus (Brooklyn has many nabes with far stranger-sounding names).   He lives only eight blocks away, but as is common in New York City, his own adjoining neighborhood is mainly white and reasonably prosperous.

He crosses the dividing line of Romulus Boulevard, starts seeing dead cars on blocks and many other signs of urban blight, and soon enters Schuyler Colfax High School, where his father is principal, and his father’s father before him.  And now he’s going to start teaching there himself, continuing the family tradition, as we later learn has been drilled into him since he was a little boy.  He walks into his home room, and writes his name in big letters on the blackboard–Oliver Abbott.  And his students (all black) collectively gasp.

And then this tall thin sly-faced grinning black man with a pointy Lucifer-style beard walks in and says class is dismissed until further notice–okay, I don’t care where you grew up, or how much money your dad made, when they tell you school’s out, you get the hell OUT before they change their minds.  And that’s what Oliver’s students do, leaving him standing them dumbfounded.   He has absolutely no idea what’s going on.  Nobody told him he’s the cause celebre of a brewing race riot.

Oliver Abbott (who is the first-person narrator of the story, meaning this is not an attempt to see things from multiple perspectives, but rather an attempt to show one character come to terms with a variety of perspectives) was not always good with being a teacher.  He rebelled.  First by  joining the Navy.  Then by going to college way way upstate at good old Monequois, a Teacher’s College in this incarnation.  Then he went bumming around the country in his white MG (the affordable hot car for young people at this time).

So he’s been incommunicado, and his father, Principal Jacob Abbott, has never been terribly communicado at any point in their relationship, and just decided not to tell him about the controversy, figuring it would go away by itself.  But the fact is, the local black community made a deal with the city that when new teachers were needed at Schuyler, and a qualified black teacher was available for the position, that teacher would fill the position.

Oliver’s father unilaterally decided to fill this position with his son, who is equally well-educated, but less experienced–the black teacher is already working at a white school nearby, and has a wife and two children.  By the way, we never once hear from this other teacher, and find out whether he even wants to change schools.   That’s not the point.  The point is that the community wants one thing, and Jacob Abbott wants something else.  And Jacob Abbott is used to getting what he wants.   And the community is sick and tired of never getting anything they want.   And this is generally known as an impasse.

Oliver’s naivete, as one character is about to tell him, does stretch credulity at points–the brewing controversy has been widely reported in the news, but he wasn’t reading the papers (or the hate mail coming to the house he currently shares with his mom and dad).  He wasn’t watching the news.  He also doesn’t know the name of the union defending his right to teach–the Fraternal Union of Teachers, or FUT, which Oliver thinks is a silly-sounding name, but nobody asked him.  Anyway, Candides are supposed to be naive.  Goes with the territory.

Here in the real world, the NYC teacher’s union was and is the United Federation of Teachers, or UFT (you see what he did there?), and if you’re interested, here’s the story Westlake would have been reading about in the papers in 1968, which clearly inspired this story, in which that union played a pretty significant and rather controversial role.

South Romulus is Brownsville, only on a smaller scale.   And what happened in Brownsville in 1968 was no tempest in a teapot–we’re still feeling the effects today, still seeing variations on the arguments people were having then.  Many think that racial politics in New York, as we now know them, came into being during this conflict.  When the dust had settled over Brownsville, Jews and blacks in particular were divided in a way they hadn’t been before, and some historians think white working class New Yorkers started seeing things more in terms of race than class than had previously been the case, because of that conflict.

That’s debatable–what isn’t debatable is that for the first time, Westlake was using a book to directly respond to recent events. Not the last time, though. This is Part One of the review, I think you’ve all figured out now. Like Anarchaos, this is too unusual and complex a novel to dissect without going into some detail over its background.

But having read it twice, and looked deeper than most readers probably ever have into the events that spawned it, I still find it a tough nut to crack. Westlake is telling a pretty simple story here–boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. That’s the story, and actually, this is the first time he’s really done what you could call a classic love story, interracial or otherwise.

Yes, there’s nearly always a romance brewing in his comic novels, and it’s sometimes a crucial part of the story, but it’s not usually the main focus. The point of the previous Nephew books was always the hero figuring out who he is and how not to get killed/arrested/etc–and those two objectives are closely linked.

Here there’s relatively little chance of the hero getting killed (getting his ass kicked, definitely) and basically no chance of his being incarcerated (because, you know, white). So the link-up is between the identity crisis and the love story. Who you love is who you are. But can you know who you truly love before you know who you really are?

The very reluctant hero of The Spy in the Ointment (my favorite of Westlake’s comic novels at least until we get to Dortmunder), Eugene Raxford (Westlake loved to give his comic heroes wimpy-sounding names), is only a partial exception to this rule–at the crucial moment, he realizes his girlfriend Angela (who he’s been involved with for some time before the story begins) is more important to him than his pacifist principles–but he and Angela both recommit to those principles afterwards. The point being that love and ideology don’t always agree, and you have to find some way to make them balance out.

I mentioned in my review of that book that I’m convinced Westlake partly based that character on Bucklin Moon, the writer/editor who told Westlake he’d buy The Hunter for Pocket Books if Westlake would agree to write three Parker novels a year for Pocket. Westlake always spoke warmly of Mr. Moon, and certainly would have known about his past troubles–that he’d been an up and coming novelist who wrote very serious novels, mainly about black people–even though Moon was as white as they come–and then his career as a writer was essentially destroyed by the McCarthy witch hunts, even though the most revolutionary idea he seemed to have was equality. I guess that’s still pretty revolutionary.

Moon wrote two novels about The Black Experience–The Darker Brother and Without Magnolias–as well as something called A Primer for White Folks, and he edited an anthology of writings by and about black people. He also helped discover Chester Himes, who started out writing very serious books about the black experience, before he realized he could get a lot more readers by doing funny thrilling crime novels about the black experience.

I’ve looked at some of Moon’s books, and they’re well written (his use of African American dialect is a bit dodgy), they were very well-reviewed at the time, and extremely well-intentioned, and let’s just say it’s not surprising they’re long out of print (as is this book we’re looking at now, by the way, though it did get a paperback reprint, not long after the hardcover came out, because there was supposed to be a movie, only Susskind seems to have gotten sidetracked, or else he read the book and decided people weren’t ready for a comedic race riot involving school-age children yet).

So Westlake’s takeaway from Moon’s experience is that it’s probably not a good idea for a white man to pretend he knows what it’s like to be a black man. There’s plenty of black writers to do that job by 1968. He’s going to stick to what he knows–what it’s like to be a young white New Yorker without much money who isn’t sure yet what he wants to do with his life, is drifting along a bit, but knows that he likes girls a heck of a lot.

Only, as Oliver tells us, because he was in the Navy, and then away at Monequois a few years, he kind of missed out on the best girls of his generation in his general locale–he’s in his late 20’s now, not necessarily looking to get married anytime soon, but he’d like to have a steady relationship. He’s had a few short flings with some extremely short girls his mother fixed him up with (mothers used to do that?), but he can’t find anybody he wants to get serious about.

And then he does. But she’s black. And beautiful. And a fellow teacher at Schuyler Colfax. And politically radical. And a judo expert. And wants to get him fired from his job. Obviously he falls head over heels in love with her (this was going to be a movie, remember?). And I think that’s enough set-up for now. Next week–the actual review. What’s that you say? Will I stick to talking about the book, and avoid out-of-left-field asides that don’t seem germane to anything? This must be your first time reading The Westlake Review. Later, bros.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance

Addendum: 361 Revisited

361_original_1higgins

“This thing about family,  now, he said.  “It’s an important thing with a lot of people.  All kinds of people.  And I’ll tell you a group of people it’s important to, and that’s the people who make up the mob.  Particularly in New York.  You don’t think so?  Hard cold people, you think.  No.  There wasn’t a two-bit gun carrier on the liquor payroll didn’t take his first couple grand and buy his old lady a house.  Brick.  It had to be brick, don’t ask me why.  It’s in the races, national backgrounds, you know what I mean?  Wops at the national level, mikes and kikes at the local level.  Italians and Irish and Jews.  All of them, it’s family family family all the time.  Am I right?”

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake.

I had planned to post my review of Up Your Banners this week, but between rereading the book itself, and researching its background, I fell behind schedule.   And in the process of researching it, I came across an article I wish I had known about when I reviewed 361, last April, because it sheds some light on aspects of what I think is now widely agreed to be Westlake’s best book written under his own name in the first half of the 1960’s, and one of the best crime novels of any era.

It fell along the wayside for a time, I think, because of the notion, still prevalent in some quarters, that Donald E. Westlake wrote comic capers, and his alter-ego Richard Stark wrote hard-boiled heist stories.  It was never that simple, but it was an appealing meme–here’s this guy who writes funny lighthearted criminal romps with sad sack protagonists like Dortmunder, but sometimes he’s this other guy who writes about a cold-blooded killer named Parker.

The implied dichotomy was even turned into a best-selling horror novel by Stephen King, who had named his alter-ego Richard Bachman partly out of homage to Richard Stark, and then borrowed the other half of the name–but it’s hard for me to see how Richard Bachman is any darker or more ‘visceral’ than Stephen King.  He’s just a bit harder to pigeonhole, which I assume was the point.   Westlake is a far better example of a writer doing radically different things under different names, but under his own name he might do almost anything–and he nearly always did it well.

In any event, 361 was hardly ignored when it first came out, even if it was no best-seller.  It was reprinted in many countries, many languages, and inspired some of the most interesting cover art I’ve seen for any book, as well as a variety of new titles (though the original title proved fairly durable).

Mexico and Portugal:

361_mexico361_portugal_1

British hardcover and paperback:

361_uk_1361_2uk_1

French Serie Noire and Italian Giallo:

361_france_1361_italy

Japan and Germany:

361_japan_3361_germany_1

Finland and Sweden (sharing the same publisher, if not the same title):

361_finland_1361_sweden

Sometimes I don’t know what I’d do without the Official Westlake Blog’s cover galleries.  But please note, every single one of these editions came out in the 1960’s.  This was a forgotten book for quite some time after that, until Hard Case Crime put out the first American paperback edition, which is how I first came to read it, and probably many of you as well.

361_1

So now that we’ve all rediscovered the glories of the early hard-boiled Westlake, before the Nephews, before Dortmunder, and quite a long time before The Ax proved beyond all doubt that he could still write the hard stuff under his own name–what do we make of this book, and its odd multi-ethnic pre-Godfather take on organized crime?

Ray Garraty and I have had many discussions here and elsewhere about why Westlake seems determined throughout the 1960’s to not make the mob an exclusively Italian thing.  Italian mobsters do show up (Italian by name only, it often seems), but so do lots of Irishmen, Jews, and some guys with generic ‘American’ names.  I’ve put forth a variety of explanations for this.  Was he trying to avoid offending Italian-American readers, sensitive to the assumption that they were uniquely responsible for racketeering in America?  Was it just a convention of the genre as a whole, going back to the old Warner Brothers gangster pictures that had inspired so many crime writers, Westlake included?

Well, it may not have been any of that.  I now enter into evidence Exhibit A–a New York Times article, dated April 13th, 1980–Donald Westlake: Larceny and Laughter, by Sheldon Bart (himself a novelist).  It was printed right next to a review of Westlake’s latest novel at the time, Castle in the Air, and is mainly devoted to an interview with Westlake (after first mentioning that he was working with Joan Rivers on a script for something entitled A Girl Called Banana). 

The reader of this article is informed about the Westlake/Stark thing, and further told that “His style is bright and zingy and his books abound with clever twists and fast dialogue.”  Well I guess you’re supposed to say stuff like that when you’re interviewing a writer.

Bart kicks off the interview with the usual “Where do you get your ideas from?” sort of question, only it’s got a somewhat odd spin to it–why does Westlake write so much about crime?  I guess Bart never heard of the mystery genre before? Or is this something pre-arranged between them?  Either way, he opens by asking “Was your father a criminal?”  

Now in Bart’s place, I personally would not have gone there, but instead of taking umbrage, Westlake tells a story–I’d copy/paste it, but you can’t do that with the database I found this on, so I’ll just have to type it out.

Sometime before I was born, my father and mother and another couple were in a speakeasy in New York, and a tall skinny man in a shiny black suit came in, followed by two tough-looking guys with their hands in their topcoat pockets.  They headed toward the rear of the place, but as they passed by my parents’ table the skinny man looked at my father and said “Hi Al.”  My father said, “Hi, Bill.”

Bill pulled up a chair, sat down and called for a bottle of champagne for the table, on his tab.  The two guys with him didn’t sit down or look at anybody in particular.  My father didn’t introduce Bill to the others at the table.  Bill and my father talked baseball for a while, my father being a very passionate Giants fan, the Giants being at that time a perfectly respectable Major League baseball team in Upper Manhattan and not a lot of padded psychopaths in a Jersey swamp.  Then the champagne came.  Bill had a taste, and then he got to his feet and said “See you later, Al,” and he and his two friends went away through the door in the back.  My mother said “Who was that?” and my father said, “Bill Bailey.  I’ll tell you about it later.”  But he never did.  Now Bill Bailey was a prominent gangster and bootlegger, Dutch Schultz’s right-hand man who took over the Schultz mob for a while after Dutch was killed.

My mother told me this story after my father was dead, so I couldn’t ask anybody any questions.  Then later on, after my mother died, I found something very curious in a trunk in the basement.  A packed-away trunk is in geological layers, the most recent stuff on top, the oldest on the bottom, and that’s the way it was with this trunk, working on down all the way to my father’s World War I uniform on the bottom.  But then under the uniform, out of proper sequence, were a lot of newspaper clippings about the death of Bill Bailey, which took place in 1931.  It was a strange death; he walked into a hospital, and was admitted, and by midnight he was dead.  The death certificate said advanced pneumonia, but doctors I’ve talked to tell me nobody walks around like a healthy man seven hours before dying of advanced pneumonia.  Anyway, those are the only newspaper clippings my father ever saved, and he went out of his way to  hide them, and that’s all I know about it.  Except that for a while my father was a bookkeeper for a sugar company, and I know the bootleggers needed a lot of sugar in making their booze, so maybe that’s the connection.  Anyway, the mysteriousness of it, the completely impenetrable aura, if that’s what I mean, has occasionally gotten into my books, particularly the early ones.

Hard to say how much research he did into the history of organized crime in response to this–some, certainly–but based on the bit of research I did via Google (hardly an option for him back then), I think we can say that Westlake never made much attempt to master the subject.  William ‘Bad Bill’ Bailey was the right-hand man of Vannie Higgins. Higgins was a bitter rival of Dutch Schultz during the Prohibition era, who exchanged shots with The Dutchman on more than one occasion, and was eventually fatally wounded (perhaps by Schultz’s men), several years before Schultz himself was killed.

There’s not a lot of information about Bill Bailey out there.  That’s him standing (appropriately enough) to the right of Vannie Higgins, in the photo up top–in a dark topcoat–Higgins is in the trench coat.  And before you ask, the song “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” is not about him.  I checked.  That must have been another Bill Bailey.   But if there’s one thing we can know for dead certain, it’s that this Bill Bailey couldn’t have taken over for Dutch Schultz, because he died (of natural causes or otherwise) in 1931, and Schultz was famously (or infamously) murdered on October 24th, 1935.   Westlake wouldn’t have needed Google to find that out.  He didn’t give a damn.  He was writing fiction, not history.

So why all the mob stories?  Because to him, the point of that little anecdote about his dad was that all your parents have secrets, lives they lived before you were even born.  Mostly those secrets stay buried, though if they live long enough, maybe they’ll tell you some of them (my dad’s shared some real corkers with me in the last decade or so–no ganglords so far).  Westlake lost his father when he was still a very young man, his mother not long after, and there were questions he was never going to get to ask them, answers he was never going to find.

He’s writing in a genre where stories about organized crime are de rigeur, but how does he put his own unique spin on them?  His most important literary role model, Dashiell Hammett, wrote mainly from the detective’s point of view–saw criminals only from the outside, though he had the advantage of actually knowing a whole lot of them from his work as a Pinkerton.

His more contemporary influence, Peter Rabe, used mob stories as a way of dissecting character–strong willed, resourceful, but ultimately chaotic individualists, striving for power in an organization, and eventually undone by a combination of hubris and emotional vulnerability.  Psychological case studies, from a future psychology professor.  The only ones who survive are the ones who just give up the game they’re playing before it’s too late, let go of their ambitions, learn how to live for the sake of living.

Westlake probably never made the acquaintance of any real crooks until he started getting fan mail from them, mainly for his Parker novels–in the article I quoted above, he says he got a letter from one guy who was about to start serving a long stretch in prison, and he was hoping Westlake could fill a few holes in his collection of Parker novels, because he wanted to take the whole series into the joint with him.   Westlake doesn’t say if he provided the books–the guy only needed two of them.  I’m guessing Westlake helped him out.

But while he clearly got some ideas from these letters–I see references in that interview to missives he received from criminals that almost certainly inspired Help I Am Being Held Prisoner and Bank Shot–his knowledge of the criminal class remained primarily second-hand.  He maintained a certain distance between himself and his subject material, which was certainly prudent.  And he had to start writing crime novels before he could get fan mail from criminals–361 can’t be based on correspondence he hadn’t received yet.

No, he was mainly working from pre-established fictional models–Hammett, the Gold Medal novelists (Rabe, Jim Thompson, Chester Himes), the Warner Brothers pictures of the 30’s and 40’s.  And many others.  But he’s going to make this old subgenre new and personally relevant, by linking it up to his belated discovery that his father was connected, however peripherally, to the world of organized crime.  As so many Americans were, during Prohibition.  Perhaps the majority, in the sense that most Americans never really accepted the 18th Amendment, went right on drinking what they damn well wanted to drink, and came to admire many of the colorful characters who supplied their illicit hooch.   That goes on to this very day, of course–but never to the same extent seen in the 20’s and early 30’s.

The Italians (chiefly but not entirely Sicilians) were gaining ever-greater power in the gangs of that period, because of the syndicate subculture some of them had brought from the old country, and the fact that it was harder for them to assimilate into the mainstream (the most talented individuals from other groups would more often find other outlets for their talents).

But they were joined by German, Russian, and Eastern European Jews (who also had assimilation issues), the Irish (troublemakers wherever we go), and quite a few poor WASP’s–basically every group that was on the outs with society in some way.   And that’s a lot of people.   And while some members of these groups would fight Italian control, others were quite happy to go along with it, as long as they got their slice of the pie.  The ethnic boundaries were never that clearly drawn, and certainly not back in those days.

At their peak, these racketeers were so politically and socially well-entrenched that Vannie Higgins could land his private plane at a state prison in Washington County, New York–and have a nice public tete-a-tete with the warden there, an old friend of his.  This was widely reported,  and the warden didn’t even lose his job.  You absolutely could not trust the police and many other authority figures of that time, so many were on the payroll.

That’s why Elliot Ness and his men were called The Untouchables–because a cop who couldn’t be bought was such an oddity.  But in the end, the Prohibition mobsters made themselves too visible, too obvious a source of public corruption, and a lot of them went to prison, often on tax evasion charges.

The most important Chicago organization was called The Outfit–and was heavily Italian, but to Westlake that was never the point–the point was that it supplied things people wanted–liquor first, then gambling, prostitution, etc–and was run like a business–and as time went on, a modern corporation.

In 361, you see a war between the old-era Prohibition guys getting out of jail, and the new corporate-style mobsters, who have assimilated more into the mainstream–and learned to keep out of the public eye most of the time.  Ed Ganolese, introduced in The Mercenaries, is the boss of this faction in New York–and Eddie Kapp, the biological father of 361’s protagonist, Ray Kelly, is the old-school boss who takes him down, with Ray’s help.

From this one glimpse into the elder Westlake’s past, we see the genesis of these early books.  Westlake imagining an alternate family history, where his dad had been a smart lawyer who got enmeshed in mob politics, and was good friends with Eddie Kapp.  Westlake himself, who we gather didn’t look much like his dad, could ask himself what if his father was somebody else–what if the mobster buddy was his true genetic forebear–though Ray makes it clear that he considers Willard to be his father either way.

The most powerful emotional moment of the book comes between Ray and Willard Kelly, very early on–Willard meets Ray in the city, after a long separation, and they’ve clearly missed each other a great deal.  “We cried like a couple of women, and kept punching each other to prove we were men.”   It’s hard not to think this is based on a reunion between Westlake and his father after he got out of the Air Force.  And very shortly before Albert Joseph Westlake died.

Westlake had powerful but mixed feelings about his father, and fathers in general–he never forgot the way his father had intervened on his behalf when he was arrested for stealing a microscope at college, pulling every string to get the case squashed, and his record scrubbed clean.   And then, as he wrote in his unpublished memoirs, his father apologized to him for not being able to better provide for him.  Love mingled with gratitude and guilt–always a heady mixture.

And always behind that–in just about every parent-child relationship that ever was–is that underlying realization that comes upon us as as we mature, if we mature–that we never really knew our parents completely.  That they used to be these other people, who will always be strangers to us.  That they had their own identities, completely apart from being ‘mom’ or ‘dad’, which most of us ignored until it was too late.

And the less we know about our parents, the less we know about ourselves.   Many an autobiographical work has been devoted to someone’s quest to better understand his mother or father, in order to achieve self-understanding–the current President of the United States wrote a rather good one.  I wonder if Westlake read it?

So maybe a good alternate title for 361 would be Schemes From My Father–or fathers, plural, since Willard Kelly wasn’t as innocent as he seemed.  We never get to hear Willard’s side of the story–just like Westlake never got to ask his father what his connection to Bill Bailey was.  Some mysteries are never completely solved, even in a mystery novel.  Let alone a blog about mystery novels.

Still, I think I’ve stumbled across a big piece of the puzzle here.  Westlake wrote about organized crime the way he did in the early days because he didn’t see it as this separate exotic world, cut off from the rest of us, the way many others in the genre depicted it as, full of strange codes and foreign rituals–its roots might be foreign, but its genesis was entirely American and familiar–it was made up out of our fathers and uncles and brothers and cousins (and occasionally Nephews).

He knew that perfectly ordinary decent ‘respectable’ people had roots in that world, whether they cared to know it or not.  He went digging for his past in an old trunk in the attic, and he found out some things his father maybe didn’t want him to know–or maybe he did on some level, and that’s why he didn’t just destroy those newspaper clippings.  It’s hard to let go of your past–it’s like turning your back on a part of yourself.

He also wanted to point out that dishonesty was not something unique to criminals–there are other kinds of ‘Outfits’ in the world, many of them quite legal, their methods sometimes even more contemptible.  The corporate world was something he despised on a very deep level, but he also knew it was unavoidable.  He may not have been an employee of any corporation, but he still worked for them.  Publishers, movie studios, etc.  Increasingly all just one big conglomerated mass of mendacity and mediocrity.

To be sure, that was part of the point Mario Puzo later made with The Godfather–the book that at least temporarily made non-Italian mobsters seem quaint and old-fashioned, and that was about the time Westlake started writing more about the mob as a specifically Italian thing.  The fashion had changed, and he’d mainly gotten mafia stories out of his system anyway.  It wasn’t going to be a major thing for him–he was about the independent operators.

And this is a sort of symbolic rebellion against his father, who may not have been any kind of mobster (maybe he and Bailey just knew each other from school or something), but who had been a loyal company man all his life–a cog in a machine, never really getting anywhere, never making it, doing everything he could to see his son got a better shot than he did.  And his son was grateful, but he had to try it his own way–he didn’t think his dad’s way had worked out so well.

At the end of 361, Ray Kelly is alone–his family erased from existence–but he’s his own man.  He’s learned the whole truth about himself, and he can build on that, if he wants.   That’s very much how it was with Westlake himself in the mid-1950’s, with both parents dead, and a younger sister he seems to have never been close to.   Like Ray, Westlake is going to have to make a life for himself–standing on the shoulders of those who came before him.  But free to make his own mistakes, instead of just repeating theirs.

And standing on Albert Westlake’s shoulders, Donald E. Westlake became his own man, never holding a steady job for most of his adult life, making his living a book at a time, which wasn’t an easy way to live, we can be sure.  He was never 100% secure, never had the kind of big seller that makes a writer’s fortune.  But he was free.  Of everything but the past.   Nobody’s ever completely free of that.

Case in point–there was another group involved in organized crime–Kapp, talking about how it takes three generations for the children of poor immigrants to become ‘respectable’, mentions them–

This is about Cheever again.  The Negro.  He wants to be respectable too, same as everybody else.  But he can’t be, and it don’t matter how many generations he’s been here, you see what I mean?  So he’s liable to wind up in the organization.

Already, Westlake was feeling some curiosity about African Americans–they keep turning up in 361, and other novels, but just as minor characters–he’s nibbling around the edges of something.   He’s got some opinions on The Race Question, but he’s not quite ready to share them.

In our next book, he’s going to tell us what he really thinks.

(Addendum to the addendum–I should have checked earlier, but according to the New York Times, William Bailey died of pneumonia on December 1st, 1934–not 1931. Westlake got that wrong too. He still died before Dutch Schultz. Westlake really didn’t give a damn about the fine details of mob history.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: Somebody Owes Me Money

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“That’s very funny,” I said.  “Abigail.  You don’t look like an Abigail.”

“I’m not an Abigail,” she said.  She was getting irritated.  “Everybody calls me Abbie.”

But I was enjoying needling her about it, maybe because of the trouble I have about Chester, maybe just to get some of my own back with her.  “Abigail,” I said.  “It’s hard to think of you as an Abigail.”

“Well, you’re a Chester, all right,” she said.  “You’re a Chester if there ever lived one.”

“That’s it,” I said, twisted around, started the car, and we moved out onto Flatlands Avenue again.

“I think you stink,” she said.

“The feeling is mutual,” I said.  “In fact, the feeling is paramutual.”

In the mirror, I could see her looking blank.   “What?”

It had been a pun, on pari-mutuel, of course, the betting system at race tracks.  I’d meant “para” like more than or above, like parapsychology or paratrooper.  But try explaining a pun.  Explanations never get a laugh.  So I didn’t say anything.

This was, for quite a long time, a forgotten Westlake.   It doesn’t seem to have been reprinted in the U.S. for decades after it came out–which is unusual–Westlake almost always got at least one paperback edition for his Random House hardcovers.  This one got reprinted in Playboy, of all places–it’s maybe just a little bit sexier than the average Westlake, though there’s no actual sex in it (typical for a ‘Nephew’ book, where the hero mainly gets laid after the final curtain falls), and maybe that had something to do with the lack of reprint editions?   The rights got screwed up somehow?  They figured everybody just read it in the magazine?   I’ve no idea.

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Book sales were probably not that great.  And honestly, look at the cover Random House gave it–can you blame people for not buying it?  What the hell is that garish headless down-pointing torso even supposed to signify?  Was the artist dropping acid at the time? Did he read the book?

Back in 2008, Hard Case Crime took pity on this poor orphan, and gave it the paperback edition it had always merited, with a cover from Michael Koelsch that leaves little to be desired.  Sexy blonde in orange fur coat, blue miniskirt, yellow Checker Cab at her feet.  Maybe a deck of cards or a racehorse wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it covers enough of the bases.  How hard is that?  Apparently too hard for whoever was in charge of seeing this book to market when it first came out.

Random House and Westlake were increasingly on different wavelengths by this point.  This is his last book for them under his own name.  His agent got a bidding war going between Random House and Simon & Schuster, and it wasn’t a very protracted tug of war–Random House just let go the rope.   The end of what had been a mutually profitable ten year relationship–but not quite–because Random House would publish the next four Parker novels, and the remaining three Mitch Tobin mysteries.  So Westlake was outta there, but Stark took his place, while Coe remained where he’d always been, and they both published some of their best work there as the 70’s got into gear.  Such ironies abound in the multifarious world of Donald E. Westlake–and the publishing industry in general.

But is it just a case of a book that wasn’t properly packaged and sold?  This is an entertaining story, make no mistake.  It got good reviews, as Westlake’s comic crime novels nearly always did.  But it’s still one of his weaker efforts–fun–interesting–more than worth the time it takes to read–but of his non-sleaze books to date written under any name, I’d rank it near the bottom.  Much better than Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which was a new thing for Westlake–a genuine comic caper.  But not up to the standard he’d set with the four previous Nephew books, which are basically criminal picaresques.  And indicative that this little sub-sub-genre he’d created for himself was already showing its age, and needed some serious revamping.

It’s a bit take one from column A and one from column B.   Affable if somewhat clueless young working class New Yorker who has been delaying maturity runs into trouble with organized crime, has a wild adventure, and meets a great girl along the way–The Fugitive Pigeon (Westlake’s biggest seller up to that point, and maybe ever).  He’s got a little quirk–he’s a sucker for the ponies–then he unexpectedly comes into a lot of money, and that gets him into trouble–God Save the Mark (Westlake’s only Edgar-winning novel).  And the girl in question, a leggy stylish blonde, is basically a smarter tougher blue-collar version of the endearingly ditzy Angela Ten Eyck from The Spy in the Ointment (his best comic novel of the 1960’s–because I say so).  So that would be column C, I guess.

Westlake basically hit the jackpot with The Fugitive Pigeon–struck a vein of pure gold, when he thought he was just indulging himself by letting what was supposed to be a serious crime book turn into a comic romp.   But having found this goldmine, he didn’t know quite what to do with it.  He experimented with different ideas, different approaches, and while his technique improved, the books mainly didn’t.

There’s a spontaneity, a conviction, to Pigeon, that doesn’t quite come off in the subsequent six comic novels–that always end up feeling a mite too contrived, though Spy succeeds by dint of its fascinating ideas, and a unique protagonist (who is really only half a Nephew, since he’s already found his life’s work and his true love, and merely has to recommit to both).   It’s a bit like a chef who more or less on a whim cobbled together a pièce de résistance out of an unlikely blend of ingredients salvaged from the kitchen shelf–and then keeps trying to do it again.  He can’t quite get the flavor right–but he keeps working at it.   Just need to find that missing ingredient.

Like all but one of the ten Nephew books, this is a first-person narrative, and our narrator is one Chester ‘Chet’ Conway, a New York City taxi driver, 29 years of age (so just on the cusp of adulthood, as Westlake sees it), who lives with his retired father at their small house at 8344 169th Place, Jamaica, Queens.  There is no such exact address, of course, but there is a 169th Place in the Jamaica section of Queens, as well as a 169th Street, which is entirely different.  Hey, I’ve lived in New York City most of my life; my mother was raised in Jackson Heights, and I’ve yet to figure out the street grids in Queens.   I’m not convinced anyone ever has.  Maybe we’re not supposed to?

Chet is yet another charming garrulous slacker, like his not-terribly-distant ancestor, Charlie Poole.  He’s perhaps a bit more sophisticated and experienced than Charlie–as well as a few years older in calendar terms–but still basically living out a cheerfully undistinguished protracted adolescence. He reads a fair bit, and can hold up his end of a conversation with just about anybody he happens to pick up in the course of his workday, but of formal education he has only the minimum. He’s an inveterate gambler; playing the ponies, the numbers, Sunny Dollars (whenever he needs to fill up the gas tank), and he’s got a running poker game going with a pretty disparate assortment of friends, who figure into the story pretty significantly (and yet not quite enough, in my opinion).  Oh, and he hates being called Chester.  Well, who wouldn’t?

One day he picks up a fare from JFK, heading into Manhattan, and the guy, very prosperous looking indeed, seems to be connected in some way–when it’s time to pay up, instead of a tip–as in money–Chet gets a tip–as in a winning horse.  Purple Pecunia, running that very day in Florida, and currently listed at twenty-two to one.  Charlie is skeptical, but then again, this fare who gave him the tip seemed to be able to work out odds in his head like an IBM machine, and he didn’t have any reason to hand Chet a bum steer, and hey–Chet’s a horseplayer.  And this guy says the horse can do, can do, can do……

Chet phones in the bet to his bookie, Tommy McKay, who agrees to cover him for thirty-five bucks (Chet already owes him fifteen).  He keeps track during the day with a transistor radio he keeps in the cab, and just as he’s shuttling around a racist old biddy (reminds me of my Great Aunt Bridie, who lived in Jackson Heights too, and boy would she not want to live there now, were she living at all), he get the good word–his horse came in.  And how–twenty-SEVEN to one!  Taking out the fifty he owes Tommy, that leaves Chet with nine-hundred and thirty dollars–a working man’s fortune.  Cue the Pogues!

But when he shows up at Tommy’s place in Hell’s Kitchen (West 46th between 9th and 10th, and would you believe I used to live around there?  If you could call it living.), he gets two nasty surprises:  1)His money isn’t there.   2)Tommy’s dead bullet-riddled body is.   And hence the title of this book.

After a comedy of errors in which he reports the murder to the police, while Tommy’s wife (now widow) Louise accuses him of being the murderer and says she’s going to call the cops, which he’s already doing, and he meets a rather unnervingly laconic detective named Golderman, and is (almost) cleared of complicity in the crime (obviously he can’t come out and tell them he was there to pick up his illegal winnings, which makes things a bit awkward), Chet goes home, and finds out later his complete address has been printed up in the papers, as a material witness (Do they still do that?   Why would they ever do that?   Oh never mind).

He goes over to the McKay apartment a few times, hoping to find out who he goes to in order to get his money, which arouses Detective Golderman’s suspicion.   Then he gets picked up by two armed hoodlums (the old recurring pattern of the Nephew books–always two), who take him to meet a ganglord named Droble, who tells him a poker buddy named Sid Falco works for a rival of his named Solomon Napoli, and so does Chet, so why did Napoli tell Chet to whack Tommy–Chet vigorously denies all these dangerous assumptions they’re making about him, and they (eventually) kind of believe him, so they take him home.

He’s thinking all the time that if he was Robert Mitchum, he’d show these guys a thing or two.  Chet is absolutely not Robert Mitchum, and he knows it.  This is important, by the way–Chet may not have figured out what he’s going to do when he grows up, but he knows his limitations–he’s got a pretty good sense of himself.  It keeps him alive.  For the time being.

Next thing he knows, he’s picking up one hell of a cute fare–see the paperback cover up above for a good visual approximation of her general pulchritude.  If they’d made this into a movie around the time it came out (and it might have actually worked as one), they should have cast Blythe Danner–she was a vision in the early 70’s.  She doesn’t look half bad today, actually.

Her name is Abigail McKay–that’s right–Tommy’s sister.  She prefers to be called Abbie, and though she wasn’t that close to her brother, he was all she had in the world, so she’d also prefer whoever killed him to end up behind bars.   And she thinks Chet killed him.  Probably because he was having a fling with Louise, Tommy’s wife, who put him up to it (he wasn’t, and he’s insulted more at the implication he would have such desultory taste in female companionship than he is about the murder thing).

She tells him this while holding a gun on him.  Chet gets the gun away from her (as he puts it, there’s a little Robert Mitchum in all of us), and much to her surprise, starts talking about taking her to the nearest police station.  So now she knows Chet didn’t do it.   She changes tack, and asks him to help her find out who did.  She’s very aware of the way he’s been looking at her (she gets those looks a lot), and she kind of likes him anyway, so she’s going to play that card for all it’s worth (I’d call it a hole card, but that would be in poor taste.)

They agree to meet at Chet’s card game that night, after she goes to Tommy’s funeral–she wants to sit in (she’s not exactly in deep mourning here, which cuts into her motivation a bit, but what the hell).  And as Chet arrives at the game, we finally meet his poker buddies, and an interesting bunch they are.   The game is being held at Jerry Allen’s apartment this time, a fifth story walk-up on the Upper West Side (yeah, I lived there too, and I remember those walk-ups–not fondly).

Jerry is gay, not that the word appears in this book.  He owns part of a flower shop–and I just want to state for the record that from what I’ve seen, a lot of NYC florists are actually pretty butch–I remember passing one down in the 30’s one time (lots of plant shops down there), unloading some wares out on the sidewalk, and he gave this cold hard stare at someone nearby and said “Gimme those fucking begonias” in a classic Noo Yawk accent, and a tone that would have intimidated John Gotti.  I would not want to mess with that florist, regardless of sexual persuasion.  But I digress.

As Chet puts it, “it’s possible he isn’t entirely heterosexual, but he isn’t obnoxious about it and none of us care what he does away from the card table.  I think in losing to us and hosting the game he’s sort of paying for the privilege of being accepted by a bunch of real guys, whether he realizes it or not.”   And whether Mr. Westlake realized it later on or not, passages of this general ilk in books of this general time period, and the attitudes that lay behind them, are among the many reasons why some gay men decided it was time to get really obnoxious. Come to think of it, this book was published right around the time of the Stonewall Riots.   The times they are a’changin.  Westlake will be catching up with them a bit, not too long from now.

This is a twice a week game, with a rotating group of regulars, including the henpecked Fred Stehl, schoolteacher Leo Morgentauser, gas station manager Doug Hallman, and the aforementioned Sid Falco, who has been outed as a connected guy to Chet.  Chet makes the sixth man, and then in comes Abbie, puffing a bit from the stairs, but still making quite an impact on everybody there (except maybe Jerry).  Abbie says her game is seven card stud.  They’re more than happy to oblige her.

She didn’t find out anything at the funeral–except that Louise didn’t show, which just confirms her suspicions.   Turns out she’s got a hidden talent (as well as the obvious ones).  She’s a blackjack dealer in Vegas.  By the time she’s finished showing the gang some of the tricks she can do with cards, they’re all eating out of the palms of her dainty clever hands.   But Chet actually has a great night himself–wins 53 bucks.  His luck is changing, he thinks.   If he only knew.

Abbie drives him back to his house in her rented Dodge Polara (do I need to post an image?–nah).  Abbie realizes they’re being tailed by somebody, and then demonstrates a knack for creative driving that rivals her Packard-equipped predecessor from The Fugitive Pigeon, Chloe Shapiro (apparently women with suicidal driving habits turned Westlake on–well, it takes all kinds).

Dodges have more pep than they used to.  We took off like the roadrunner in the movie cartoons, shooting down the Expressway like a bullet down the barrel of a rifle.

“Hey!” I said.  “We have cops in New York!”

“Are they staying with us?”

I looked back, and one pair of headlights was rushing along in our wake, farther back now but not losing any more ground.  Fortunately there was very little traffic on the road, and our two cars wriggled through what there was like a snake in a hurry.”

I said “They’re still there.”

“Hold on,” she said.  I looked at her, and she was leaning over the wheel in tense concentration.  I couldn’t believe she meant to take that exit rushing towards us on the right but she did, at the last minute swerving the car to the right, slicing down the ramp without slackening speed.

There was a traffic light ahead, and it was red.  There was no traffic anywhere in sight.  Abbie got off the accelerator at last and stood on the brake instead. Bracing myself with both hands against the dashboard, I stared in helpless astonishment as we slewed into the intersection.  I believe to this day that Abbie made a right turn then  simply because that was the way the car happened to be pointing when she got it back under control.

Chet pays Abbie a number of very nice compliments in the course of the story, but the one she likes best is when he says she’s just driven a car in such a way as to terrify a New York City cabdriver.

As exciting at this all is, it’s reminding Chet that this girl is maybe not as survival-oriented as one might hope, and he tells her he won’t be helping her find Tommy’s killer, and she should just leave that to the cops.  They are about to part on somewhat frosty terms, in front of Chet’s house, when somebody shoots him in the head.

Okay, maybe more alongside the head.  He wakes up in Tommy’s apartment of all places, with a bandage on his head–he got grazed pretty bad.  Abbie is tending to him–she got a doctor to come and look after him.  He’ll be okay, but he’s pretty weak, and he can’t go out for a while.  And this is where he’s going to spend about a third of the book, believe it or not.

It’s actually made into a metatextual joke–Chet says he’s like Nero Wolfe, with everybody coming to him for answers–only he doesn’t have any, and does Abbie look like Archie Goodwin to you?  Droble and his people, Napoli and his people, Detective Golderman, Louise McKay (who turns out to be having an affair with one of Napoli’s top men, Frank Tarbok, who had kept her incommunicado a while, since she was hysterically accusing him of killing Tommy), keep trooping in and out of the place, making all kinds of bad assumptions, but also providing some possible answers about what was going on with Tommy that might have gotten him killed.

If this was a play that got adapted into a movie that then got turned into a novel, this long strange stationary interlude would all make perfect sense, but it’s a novel, and on the whole, I think it slows down the plot a bit too much. Interesting choice, but perhaps not an entirely successful one.

It does give Chet and Abbie a bit more chance to get acquainted–the first night, she actually sleeps next to him, and they wake up in each others arms the next morning–then she figures he’s recovered enough for her to start worrying, and somehow in the Nephew books, when the hero meets his dream girl in the course of the plot, the deed is never done until after the curtain has fallen.  Which is the one thing I like least about the Nephew books.

Chet has to keep explaining to both sets of mobsters visiting the McKay residence for answers that he doesn’t work for either one, and he has to explain all these suspicious happenings to the increasingly skeptical Golderman, and he and Tarbok strike a pact to find Tommy’s killer together, but then Chet realizes what’s actually going to happen, once these warring gangs get their heads on straight, is that they’ll realize he and Abbie know too much to go on breathing, so they both go up the fire escape, and over the rooftops, and into a passing cab, which happens to be from Chet’s company.  It’s freezing cold, and they have no coats.  And the mob guys are in hot pursuit.  But they’re together.

This is one thing I will applaud about the book–it doesn’t split up the cute couple it’s created for our entertainment, as The Fugitive Pigeon did with Charlie and Chloe (who I happen to like better than Abbie, if only because Abbie is such an obvious shiksa Chloe clone–mental note–must check later to see if Google can find this article with just the phrase ‘shiksa Chloe clone’).  They stick together all the way through the final part of the book, which is mainly them looking for answers while the mob looks for them.   Only fair, since the nominal mystery of the book is who killed Abbie’s brother.  Chet has basically given up on getting his money.

They end up at Detective Golderman’s house on Long Island (seems all the NYC cops who could afford it were living there, even then).  He turns out to have made his basement into a sort of monument to suburban kitsch, and he seems a lot less impressive a character now that he’s off-duty.

Only is he ever off-duty?  After telling him the whole story, figuring he can trust him not to be on the mob’s payroll (because he’s sure seemed like he’s on the up and square up to now), Chet suddenly realizes–he’s on the mob’s payroll.  And he’s just tipped the mob off as to where Chet and Abbie are.  Abbie distracts him, and Chet knocks him out with a bottle of Black & White Scotch Whisky.  A nice brand.  With terriers, yet.

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As they discuss their next move, Chet figures something out–he was shot with Abbie’s now-missing gun, which he’d brought to the card game in his coat pocket.  Golderman informed them that the gun used to kill Tommy was a much more powerful weapon, that would have blown Chet’s head clean off.  He also thinks the real target was Abbie–since her gun shoots pretty badly to the left.  They spend maybe a bit too much time talking this over, because as they’re sneaking out of Golderman’s house, after borrowing a lady’s coat and a hunting jacket (and a really ridiculous looking hunting cap for Chet), the mobsters show up, and we’re off to the races again, through the dark chilly streets of Westbury.

So not to interrupt the big chase scene (which involves jumping onto a moving Long Island Railway train, and then falling off it, and then Chet is getting choked by a mob guy, who then gets knocked out with a shovel by Abbie), but let’s cut to the chase already.   Back to the card game–still at Jerry Allen’s place.   Chet’s problem, as the reluctant detective, is that he knows one of these guys must have taken the gun out of his coat pocket, which would seem to mean one of them is the killer.  But he doesn’t really believe any of them would do such a thing.  And you know what?  Spoiler alert–it was somebody else.  Read the book to find out who.  And here’s Abbie, to speak for all of us–

“But that isn’t fair,” she said.  “How can I solve the murder if I don’t even know the murderer, if I never met her?  The woman never put in an appearance!”

“Sure she did,” I said.  “She walked right by me with a baby carriage.”

“Well, she never walked by me,” she insisted.  “I say it isn’t fair.  You wouldn’t get away with that in a detective story.”

Westlake never does tire of poking fun at the genre he earns his bread with. Overall, the solution to the murder mystery makes sense, after its own fashion–with the exception of the killer’s punishment.  Hey, it’s the late 60’s–going into a convent is hardly a prison sentence.

But see, that was never the point–in a Nephew book it never is.  The point was for the hero to have an adventure, and to meet a great girl, and to learn something about himself–and wait a damn minute.   What exactly did he learn? Is he going to stop driving hacks for a living?  Not clear.   Will he stop gambling? He and Abbie are sitting down to play cards as the book ends.   She’s the only real change in his life–he asks her to consider moving to New York, so they can get to know each other better (they’ve made a pretty good start already).   Will she move in with him and his dad, who spends all his time trying to work out some way to beat the life insurance companies?   Not clear.

Chet finds out he’s a bit braver and more resourceful than he’d realized, but is that really worth the price of admission all in itself?  As Nephews go, he’s not much of a learner–there’s no real sense of transition here.   He’s clearly ready to give up his bachelor life–for a beautiful blonde card-shark who drives like a maniac, and is self-evidently nuts about him.  That seems more like a wish-fulfillment fantasy than a lesson well-learned.

Maybe I’m being too nitpicky.  There’s lots to like about the book.  I’m glad it got reprinted.  I can see why Westlake didn’t talk about it much, and why it went so long without a paperback edition.  I think he probably wrote it in too much of a hurry–to finish out his book-a-year contract with Random House.  He threw together a bunch of ideas borrowed from his earlier books in this vein, and added in a personal passion of his own–card playing.  Westlake himself played a whole lot of poker with his buddies.  That part of the book works really well, and one wishes there’d been more of it.   What you get from those scenes is how card players learn to size each other up, figure out each other’s weaknesses, their ‘tells’, and that at least partly explains how Chet survives his ordeal.

Read with limited expectations (which may be difficult to manage, after seeing the cover Hard Case Crime came up with), this is a fun read, and that’s all it has to be, but Westlake is capable of much more.   Still–there are a few interesting things about it I haven’t mentioned–like for example–Abbie?

Westlake would, of course, eventually take as his third and final bride, the gardening writer, Abby Adams, who best as I can tell (photos of her are hard to find online) somewhat resembled her defacto namesake in this book.  That’s a hell of a coincidence, and yet given the timeline, I have to assume that’s what it is.  I mean, If he’d already met her in 1968, when he was writing this, and was just recently married to Sandra Foley, who was in the process of presenting him with two more sons, would he really have made her a character in a book his then-wife was presumably going to read–and used her own name, with a slight variation in spelling?   I think not.

But then one must ask–was this a wish his heart was making, which Ms. Adams later appeared to grant?  Like the Abigail in the book, I can’t solve a mystery without knowing all the players, and I never met any of them (except Abby Westlake herself, very briefly, at the signing for The Getaway Car, and very charming and gracious she was, and I never did find a tactful way to ask whether she had a penchant for reckless driving as a young woman).   Much as I like the romantic relationships Westlake created for these books, I think we have to acknowledge that love in the world of the Westlake Nephews is a whole lot simpler than love in real life.  Intentionally so, I might add.

One thing I can say definitively–this is the first Nephew book that doesn’t include a Westlake spouse in the dedication up front–the usual pattern up to now has been for Westlake to dedicate his comic novels to a friend and to Nedra Henderson, his first wife–and as we saw, Who Stole Sassi Manoon? was dedicated solely to Sandra Foley, his second.

My Hard Case edition of this book has no dedication at all, but I got a look at a first edition, and the dedication there reads “This is for Joe Goldberg, a titled man.”   Joe Goldberg, in case you didn’t know, was a very highly-regarded Jazz critic (his book on the Jazz music of the 1950’s is still considered definitive), who also worked in Hollywood and that’s probably how he met Westlake, who shared his passion for the greatest American musical form, and if you don’t agree, that’s your problem.  Goldberg’s the guy who when Westlake complained that Parker had been played thus far in the movies by Anna Karina, Lee Marvin, and Jim Brown, made a joke Westlake never tired of repeating–“The character lacks definition.”

But no mention of Sandra in this one (and certainly no mention of Nedra)–what’s that mean?   Possibly nothing.  Personally, I’d have said the next Parker novel would have been the ideal place to tip the hat to Joe Goldberg, but that got credited to Joe Gores–‘for the hell of it’.   And again, I just don’t know enough to draw any conclusions at all based on Westlake’s book dedications, but maybe I’ll do an article on them sometime.  For the hell of it.

And for the sake of maintaining rough chronological order, our next book is yet another Nephew story–but set a bit more in the real world, featuring a hero with very real problems, which were quite timely back then, and sadly, still are.  And he’s in hot pursuit of a girl who could not be much more different from Abbie McKay–if Abbie might have been played by Blythe Danner in a movie, this girl would have been depicted by Pam Grier or (even better) Vonetta McGee.  And it’s a much better book, all around.  A truly odd duck in the Westlake canon, and we’ll talk about how that happened next week.  See you then, fellow Westlake pupils.  Class dismissed.  Keep those banners flying.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels