“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.
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.
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.