Monthly Archives: March 2015

Review: Adios Scheherazade–Chapter 1

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To: Donald E. Westlake, c/o The Great Beyond

From: ‘Fred Fitch’ via The Westlake Review

Dear Mr. Westlake:

I hope I am not interrupting any conversations/drinking sessions/amatory exploits you might currently be engaging in with O. Henry, Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Benchley, or Ambrose Bierce (parenthetically, did you find out what happened to him in Mexico? Given the circumstances of your passing, you had a perfect excuse to raise the subject).  But I have a problem I hope you can help me with.

As you might have gathered, I publish something called ‘The Westlake Review’ (I had to call it something), under a pseudonym derived from a book of yours–the objective is to review everything you ever wrote.  Yes, I know, but it passes the time.  This is an internet thing, in case you were wondering.  Our correspondence shall be shared with other people.  Not a whole lot of other people at present (though it might please you to know you still have readers all over the planet), but I wanted to make that clear.

I am about to embark on a review of your novel Adios, Scheherazade, in which I also intend to discuss The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books and Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man, written respectively by your longtime friends and colleagues, Hal Dresner and Lawrence Block.  Mr. Block I know is still among the living–Mr. Dresner seems to have vanished from the face of the earth (or at least the internet), but has no NY Times obit, so I guess he’s still with us as well.  I could probably contact Mr. Block via email, but somehow one hates to take up people’s finite personal time.  You, by contrast, have all of eternity on your hands, and it never hurts to ask, right?

Since the more elevated plane you now inhabit (I’m assuming you’re not in Purgatory, though us lapsed Catholic boys should probably never assume anything) may have blurred certain details of your mortal existence, let me refresh your memory.  To put it bluntly, you wrote a quite a lot of books that could be described as pornography, though few people nowadays would consider them to be that.

The ‘sleaze’ genre, as it is now called in collector’s circles (yes, people collect them, and they’re usually a lot more expensive than your other books, sorry to tell you), was basically a bunch of aspiring writers–many of whom went on to greatness, you not least among them–who to pay their bills wrote a lot of quickie novels featuring a lot of sexy goings-on, that were nonetheless not explicit enough to warrant being confiscated by the law.

In Prohibition terms, they were ‘near-porn’, like the near-beer that often is sold where real booze is illegal.  They could be displayed in public places of business–newstands, drugstores, and all the usual places cheap paperbacks were sold.   They had racy covers, suggestive titles, and sold for maybe 35 cents or so.

They were probably not as obscene as Henry Miller or James Joyce; no more so than best-selling potboilers of the period–the sex acts were described euphemistically, and young people hoping to learn valuable techniques from them were invariably disappointed.  But what made this a viable publishing niche was that the books were short, and there was sex all through them–you didn’t have to keep turning pages to find the good parts.   Sex was basically the entire point of the endeavor, not merely a side-attraction.

While many if not most were badly written, because so many of the authors employed had genuine talent, and were basically using this as a venue to hone their craft while they sought more legitimate outlets, you could often find some decent quality prose in them.   Certainly none of them were as bad as E.L. James.  Oh wait, you don’t know who that is, do you?  That does sound like heaven.

You got into this racket via the famed Scott Meredith literary agency, and it’s never been terribly clear how many of these things you wrote.   You employed several pseudonyms, most notably Alan Marshall.  But as opposed to your other non-porn pseudonyms, there’s always been some controversy as to which of the books published under these names were actually written by you.  Some we’re sure about, others are more ambiguous.   Apparently your first wife wrote some of them.  That must have been an interesting conversation.

And as the years passed, you never seemed much inclined to help anyone figure out who wrote what.   You seemed to mainly want to forget the whole tawdry episode ever happened.  This gentleman here, who worked for Scott Meredith at the time, doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t proudly embrace your pseudo-pornographic past.  He’s rather indignant about it, in fact.  But once you’d reached the point where you could make a good living without the sleaze books, you stopped writing them, and were never terribly eager to discuss them–except, indirectly, in the book I’m reviewing here.

Probably the turning point was reached when you started publishing the Parker novels at Pocket Books–a few of those a year, combined with your book-a-year contract with Random House, combined with short stories, articles, and sales to Hollywood–by that point you had more than enough income to turn your back on the flesh pits forever.  Parker got you out of it.

However, like many others in this field, you seem to have briefly farmed out your porn names–letting other people write the books in your place, then taking a commission.  This didn’t last very long, and neither did the sleaze market itself, which dried up and disappeared as the 60’s ended.  A transitional stopgap, that was no longer relevant in an era where those who wanted porn could find the real stuff with increasing ease.  Also, I suspect the male libido prefers images to words.

And these days we have internet fanfiction–people writing stories and indeed entire novels, featuring famous fictional characters, often performing acts that would scandalize the relatively demure characters in your books, and the people writing these things aren’t even getting paid (except for E.L. James, but she had to change the names first).  So to sum up, sleaze is eternal, but the sleaze paperback book market is dead (perhaps someday to be followed by paperback books themselves).

While it lasted, there was a lot of money in it, though, and some pretty classy writers taking their turns at the trough.   You, Hal Dresner, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain (as he came to be called), Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Jim Thompson–the list goes on and on and on.  Charles Willeford seems to have written sleaze under his own name, which was typically atypical for him.  It’s more a question of which prominent genre writers did not write sleaze.  I don’t think Patricia Highsmith ever did, which is a mite ironic, no?  It was a big big thing, and now it’s gone.  And you didn’t miss it one tiny bit, did you, Mr. Westlake?

I think Hal Dresner agreed with you about that.   He was one of your group, your poker-playing porn-writing practical joke playing gang of aspiring wordsmiths who bonded in the 50’s.   And earlier than many of you, he seems to have decided he had to escape the sleaze market.  He went into writing for film and television, and had a pretty decent career–few of us haven’t seen something of his, at some point.  But I get the feeling from his one novel of any repute–the one I’m going to look at briefly now–that he once aspired to be a ‘serious writer’.  Whatever that is.

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The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books (aka This is a Plain Brown Wrapper) is a very funny novel, written in epistolary form–the entire text is letters and memos going back and forth between a writer of sleaze paperbacks named Mason Clark Greer (aka Guy LaDouche), his publisher, his lawyer friend Michael Westlake (we’ll come back to him), Mason’s mother (Jewish, of course), various other male and female acquaintances, and (most importantly) Lt. Commander E.B. Dibbs, a demented former naval officer, who wants to sue and possibly horsewhip Mason for (as he thinks) defaming his daughter Barbara’s morals under a slightly altered name in a recent book, and also for referring to her parents in a less than respectful manner.

Although he had a character with a somewhat similar name in that book, and coincidentally described the real Miss Dibbs with a fair degree of accuracy in his book (including a birthmark in an embarrassing location), Mason has never met the daughter in question–though many other lascivious scoundrels have, judging by the way her father keeps coming up with new boyfriends of hers to accuse him of being.   Dibbs finally settles on referring to Mason as Karl Vechtenmeisser, a former Nazi officer from Austria, who is related to the Habsburgs (or so Dibbs insists), and had a brief liaison with Barbara.

Mason, who is holed up in a cabin in Vermont, trying desperately to finish his next dirty book, assumes this is just a prank his friends are pulling on him, but as he starts to get letters from the law firm of Berry, Lock & Gru, it sinks in that he really is being sued for defaming people whose existence he was totally unaware of at the time.   Mason tells Dibbs his real name, and (rather imprudently) gives him his selective service registration info, which only incites the Lt. Commander to try and have him investigated for impersonating an American citizen.

(As the story goes on, it is revealed that the United States Navy had its own problems with Lt. Commander Dibbs during WWII, and had to find ways to distract him from the war, so he wouldn’t lose it for them.)

The lawyers Dibbs has hired are quite willing to believe Mason is Vechtenmeisser, as long as they see a good cash settlement in the offing, and likewise keep referring to him by that name.  Mason, suffering from cabin fever in a nasty Vermont winter, with no companionship other than a Weimaraner named Bastard, starts playing along with the gag, and referring to himself by that name as well.   He starts vindictively sending heavy boxes full of rocks to the law firm–C.O.D.   They inquire how he wants the rocks to be stored.   His missives to his friends become increasingly odd and off-kilter (and funny, but his friends mainly don’t seem to get the joke, or to understand what’s going on).

And as all this is going on, we learn the true reason for Mason’s mental distress–he’s been trying to write a serious novel, and he keeps ripping the pages up and burning them, because they’re terrible.  He’s worried that all he’ll ever be able to do in his life is write dirty books–which it turns out a lot of the people he meets in the course of this story have read.   He’s a very successful near-porn writer.  It’s just not what he wants to be.   It isn’t who he is.

He complains that his imaginary sex life has put an end to his real one–his own romantic resume seems limited to a few brief flings.   He’s been making it all up from Day One, but people keep asking him if this stuff in his books really happened–and they don’t want to hear it when he says it didn’t.   His fiction, bad as it is, has eclipsed his actual life.  Then a frustrated young FBI Agent shows up at the cabin to investigate Dibbs’ accusations, and it starts to get really weird.

Before long he’s sending farcical responses to a questionnaire sent him by a psychiatrist friend of Dibbs who specializes in delusions, and seems to be pretty deluded in his own right.   And no matter how crazy any of his responses to various communiques are, people insist on taking them all seriously.   And on believing he’s an Austrian Nazi jet setter who seduces gullible maidens in his spare time.   His life has become one of these bad novels he’s been writing.

The defamation lawsuit actually ends up in front of a judge, with predictably chaotic results.   I’d remind you how it’s all wrapped up, but I don’t want to spoil it for my readers–the novel is available in ebook form–maybe you could get it up there?  I mean, you’re literally in The Cloud, right?   Regardless, I think it would have made a good movie.  Or perhaps a staged theatrical reading, ala Dear Liar.   But maybe a bit dated now.  Very much of its era.  Still a lot of fun to read.

In the end, it’s Mason’s former frat buddy and present-day lawyer, Michael Westlake (I told  you we’d come back to him) who tells Mason that he can’t worry so much about not having lived up to his dreams of greatness.   Good or bad, Mason Clark Greer is a writer, and his letters prove that.   Maybe he can’t write The Great American Novel, but what really matters is to do what  you’re meant to do, and let other people worry if it’s any good or not.   If he doesn’t want to do the porn anymore, he can do something else.

And Mason decides that’s what he’ll do.   He informs his publisher that he won’t be finishing the book he was working on (and never got past the first chapter of), and starts thinking about maybe writing a play–it seems like dialogue is more his forte than descriptive prose.  And yes, this does does seem a trifle autobiographical, but I would assume not very.  You’d know better than me.

And as you already knew, this book is not about pornography, smut, or even sleaze.   It refers to it, uses it as background color, but it’s really about how people are nuts, and how youthful aspirations don’t always work out as you hoped.  Mason does talk about how flabby actual women he meets seem compared to the vixenish viragos he populates his fiction with (and he has no illusions about his own appearance), but you get the feeling he’d take flabby reality over fulsome fiction any day.   Still and all, this takes up a very small part of the book, which is mainly about his running duel with Dibbs, and his unfulfilled literary ambitions.  And apparently FBI men say ‘fut’ instead of ‘fuck’, because of some directive from J. Edgar Hoover, but that would take too long to explain.

I don’t know how well this book sold (it got more than one edition), but I don’t need you to tell me that you and Mr. Dresner’s other writing buddies liked it a lot, enjoyed all the in-jokes tremendously, and were pleased to learn that their tiresome apprenticeship in the porn pits could actually serve as the raw material for a funny book.

Working for Nightstand Books or one of the other publishing houses that cranked this stuff out, they had to stick very closely to established formulas–but as the form died out, they had a chance to write something reminiscent of sleaze, that was no longer so–constrained.   And another of your friends, Lawrence Block, who had rather enjoyed writing these books, bad though he knew they were, was moved over a decade after Dresner’s book, to write something directly inspired by it–and this book really is porn, I think.   If it isn’t, I’m not sure what porn is, and Judge Stewart did say you know it when you see it.

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It’s hard to know what to say about Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, except how did this guy not get arrested?   I mean the protagonist, but also quite possibly the author.   This is also available as an ebook now, and Block wrote an excellent afterward for that edition, explaining its origins.

By 1970, he was, as you know, a well-established writer of crime novels, like yourself, with most of his best work still ahead of him.  But the fact is, he missed writing about sex.  You and he had collaborated on several sleaze novels, most notably A Girl Called Honey, in which you took turns having protagonists modeled quite clearly after your own lustful selves seduce the titular seductress (an honest hard-working prostitute), and compete over her, and kill each other off, and drive her to madness and drug addiction in the process, and honestly you should both be ashamed of yourselves for what you did to that poor girl.  I suspect you actually were a bit ashamed of it, Mr. Westlake.

Writing in a New York City apartment, while his family were out in the suburbs, Mr. Block found he got a lot more work done, and had time for all kinds of literary escapades.  He decided to try writing a few sex books, to see if that was something a guy could still make a buck doing–they were mostly written under pseudonyms, like the sleazes, but this one–Ronald Rabbit–was published under his own name, and given the success other writers had been having with this kind of book published in a more mainstream environment–I assume he was thinking of a certain Mr. Portnoy and his various complaints–he briefly thought he might get rich off this one.

But two things prevented that from coming to pass:

1)The publisher chose that moment in time to go under.

2)The book isn’t that good.

I mean, he wrote it in four days–he says so in the afterward.  So I tend to take it with a grain of salt that he really believed he had a huge seller here, but as the publishing scene changed, it was hard to know, really.  I mean, who would have believed E.L. James would become so wealthy from writing  a bad Twilight fanfic?   Okay, I know I’m losing  you here, but trust me–nobody could have possibly predicted that.   You writers just never do know what’s going to hit big, do you?  We the reading public like to keep you guessing.

He didn’t write it to make money–that much is plain–it is, you  might say, a labor of lust.  Primarily lust for girls in their middle teens.  And any heterosexual post-pubescent male who claims not to feel that lust is a goddam liar.   But few men would cop to it as cheerfully as Mr. Block, and while I may disparage this book’s merits, I also read it with a great deal of prurient interest, which was of course the entire point of the endeavor.   It’s not badly written–Block doesn’t do bad writing–it’s just too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy.  With a thinly-disguised rendition of the author himself at its center.

Laurence Clarke, failed poet and 32 year old editor of a children’s magazine called ‘Ronald Rabbit’s Magazine for Boys and Girls’, is laid off from his job–the reason being that there is no job.   The magazine folded shortly after its previous editor was found to have committed (thankfully) unspecified improprieties with an 11 year old boy (who the man swore he thought was 14), and they hired Laurence (we’ll just call him Larry) as a replacement, before realizing the scandal couldn’t be hushed up.  Because this is a very large publishing business, they forgot to fire him–forgot he was even there–and as a result, he never did any actual work for over a year–just came into the office every day and did nothing but read, collect his paycheck, wait for somebody to give him something to do.

Clay Finch (something of a clay pigeon in this book), the President of Whitestone Publications, only came to realize they were paying Larry for nothing when he noticed Larry had never used his expense account (that would be dishonest, Larry explains to him).  So Larry is fired.  Obviously.  And his ex-wife is demanding her alimony.  And in his letter to her, explaining why no alimony payments are forthcoming (this being yet another epistolary novel), he goes on to say that on returning home, he learned that his current wife had just left him for his best friend, and they’d absconded to Mexico, with every penny he had in the world.  Seemingly oblivious to what a tired narrative cliche they were perpetuating.

Larry goes on to write another letter to his friend Steve (the one who went to Mexico with his wife), describing his current situation in depth–and he relates how he was walking down MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, stone drunk, and singing Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi (the one that says you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, remember?), when he hears two youthful female voices singing along with him–and the miracle happens.

See, the youthful female voices are coming from a station wagon full of teenaged girls–six, to be precise.  Escapees from The Convent of the Holy Name, a Catholic Girl’s School in Darien, Connecticut.   Which is quite clearly based on The Convent of the Sacred Heart, situated in Greenwich, Connecticut.

He calls them the Daughters of Lancaster (a sort of riff on Shakespeare’s Richard III).  They dub him “Mad Poet”, and proceed to abduct him to Darien, necking with him in the back all the way there, hide him in a tiny apartment they rent on the sly, and in the ensuing weeks he ends up having highly inventive and unbridled sexual congress with all of them, there and in New York.  Yeah, I didn’t think you’d have forgotten that.

His first conquest is ‘Merry Cat’ (real name Mary Catherine O’Shea, and I can’t help but think her nickname is a winking homage to We Have Always Lived in The Castle–would you know if Mr. Block is a Shirley Jackson fan, perchance?).  Though really, she conquers him–the little black-haired colleen slips into bed with him the next morning, and this is what follows–

“Oh God,” she said.  “Oh, you’re ready.  Oh, how nice.  Don’t wait, don’t even touch me, just get in me.  I want you inside me, I can’t wait.”

She wasn’t exaggerating.  She got off the minute I was inside her, coming in a sweet soft pink dissolve.  She came twice more and then it was my turn, and then we clung to each other while I waited for the earth tremors to quit shaking hell out of the room.

This is one of the tamest erotic passages I could find to quote from in the book.  He gets a lot more specific as things progress.

Five of these girls are sixteen.  The youngest (‘Naughty Nasty Nancy’ Hall) is fifteen, and the wildest of the bunch (she likes being spanked during intercourse).  It really doesn’t matter what the age of consent was then, you know–he’s in his 30’s.  At no time in the 20th century was any of this ever not a felony in the United States.

But all through the book he is fucking them ragged, with their hearty and full voiced consent that would matter not a damn in any court in the land, and they are minors, and their parents are rich, and there are supposed to be nuns watching over them, and they are trading filthy letters back and forth, and nobody ever gets wise, and no policemen ever materialize, and he’s never the tiniest bit worried that they will.   This book makes Lolita look like a documentary.    And no Clare Quilty to spoil the fun, naturally.  Guilt, as a concept, does not exist within the pages of this book.

(Maybe we better pause now to give some of my male readers a chance to download this book to their digital devices.  All done, fellas?)

Now it’s worth mentioning at this point that Lawrence Block had two major inspirations for the story of this book–one was an acquaintance of his who actually did spend many months sitting around an office with nothing to do before they got around to firing him (with a nice severance package, though not as nice as the one fate gives Larry), and the other was a member of your little poker-playing group of writers, who related one night a story about he himself hitching an impromptu ride to Connecticut with a bunch of errant Catholic school girls, only that was presumably as far as it went.  That wasn’t you, by any chance, was it?  Oh like you’d admit it if it was.  I withdraw the question.

And just to remind you, we are learning of these experiences through letters he is writing to his friend Steve, to his former and current estranged wives, and even his former employer–and he’s sneaking into his former place of business to Xerox them and send copies to seemingly everyone he knows, though Mr. Finch keeps remonstrating with him to stop doing that.

And at first, the assumption is that he’s making it all up, which would seem the most likely supposition, except we see that when he writes to the Daughters of Lancaster, at camp and such, they write back to him.   They are real.  There is no ambiguity about that.   The book is fiction, but Larry Clarke is not an unreliable narrator–whatever he tells us happened, happened, as far as his reality is concerned.   He is, if anything, excessively honest and forthcoming.

Then he manages to seduce Rozanne, the personal secretary of Mr. Finch, who has been typing Finch’s letters to Larry.  She is Italian American (why should Irish girls have all the fun?), beautiful, with a truly magnificent bosom, and is of course a repressed 26 year old virgin who needs to be rescued from her fear of sex.   Which Larry does by way of anal intercourse she had not previously given consent to–it’s not exactly rape, because they were doing stuff, and he just had this sudden impulse to go there, and Rozanne is incredibly happy about it afterwards, even though she was screaming bloody murder while it was going on.  And I am not typing that passage out.

(Sidebar: Mr. Westlake, I must again make an inquiry–Mr. Block mentions two specific literary influences on this book–the first being Hal Dresner’s novel I just talked about, but the other is a book I have not read–Wake Up, Stupid, by Mark Harris.  Both are composed of letters written by various people, which add up to a story.  I don’t doubt these are the primary influences, but I also feel like somewhere in Mr. Block’s apartment in New York where he wrote this there must have been a heavily thumbed-through copy of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.  There’s a lovely repressed virginal spinster who needs sexual healing in that one too, you may recall.)

His relationship with Rozanne becomes serious, and they live together, but that does not in the least impair his relationship with the Daughters of Lancaster, because the women in his life are all (who would have guessed it?) bisexual to some extent, and they come over and have sex with him and Rozanne, and everybody is just having this wonderful Bonobo-esque polyamorous experience, with Larry at the center of the scrum, except isn’t Bonobo society matriarchal?  Oh never mind.

Obviously Larry does not have sex with other guys the girls like (remember whose fantasy this is), and there are a few mildly slighting references to genuinely homosexual persons (it turns out Larry’s ex-wife–the one who stole his money and ran off with his friend–is a dyke–the exact word used), but I think you’d have a hard time making the case this book is homophobic.  It’s just very very hetero-centric.

Having had this amazing reversal of fortune through meeting the Daughters of Lancaster on MacDougal St., due to the good graces of Joni Mitchell, Larry Clarke seems to go letter-mad the same way that Mason Clark Greer did–but his madness is not merely a satiric overrreaction to the (much more pleasant) situation he finds himself in, but increasingly a way to manipulate everyone around him.   He eventually realizes that he can make anyone do anything he likes through the power of epistolary suggestion.

By the end of the story everything is going his way.  The wife who left him for his best friend dumps the friend–who ends up marrying the first wife, who Larry cunningly sets him up with, so she’ll stop dunning him for alimony payments.  And Mr. Finch agrees to buy a book he’s writing about his recent sexual exploits–he’ll change the names, though I don’t know why he even bothers.

So this is porn, and I have to say, pretty damn good as porn goes (emphasis intended).  It achieves the desired result, which is sexual stimulation, mingled with laughter (though it’s not nearly as funny as Dresner’s book).  The characters are not fully fleshed out (well, you know what I mean), but they are not mere stick figures either–he goes to some pains to give each Daughter of Lancaster her own personality and interests (and I’d assume he had some real-life models for them).

It’s quite clear that Larry Clarke cares about all the various women in his life, and feels no sexual jealousy when the girls relate their entanglements with boys their own age to him (but of course mere boys can never compete with a grown man who happens to strongly resemble the author).   After all, the teenagers seduced him, and the secretary self-evidently wanted to be seduced by him–matters have been arranged so that he has absolutely nothing to be guilty about.  Because sexual guilt has no place in true pornography.  Neither does reality.   And neither does emotional honesty.  And that’s the trouble with porn, isn’t it?

And that’s why you wrote the book I’m going to review now, isn’t it?  A far better book than either of the two I’ve been talking about.  And a much harder book to read, and review.  Only I’m actually going to review it next week.  Because in an homage to that very book, I’m going to call this Chapter 1, and end it when the little counter-thingy at the bottom of my computer screen says I’ve got exactly 5,000 words.

So until next week, Mr. Westlake, I remain your humble servant,

‘Fred Fitch’

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, erotica, sleaze paperbacks

Bonus Item: The Cute Rook

Ah, the joys of the comments section.  Anthony helpfully pointed out to me there was a Mad Magazine parody of The Hot Rock, which was published in issue No. 154, Oct. ’72, which sold at the time for 40 cents (cheap), and which I easily obtained via ebay for $5.50 (inflation).  My copy arrived this morning.  And having gained a bit more proficiency with the optical scanner at my place of business, I’m going to try to make it available to my loyal readers, so they don’t have to further clutter their gracious homes with useless collectibles.   (See, what I didn’t realize when scanning Philip is you can convert the images to JPEG’s.  Well, that all worked out for the best anyway.)

Now for Mad Magazine, as we all know, there has never been any such thing as a good movie or a movie star who knew how to act.  That’s just the form.  But I wouldn’t say they are equally hard on all movies–you can see them showing a bit more respect for something like The Godfather (The Oddfather in their version).  That one you can find elsewhere online.  I think there is some legitimate criticism being made here, as well as the usual by-the-numbers disrespect for everything and everybody that we all happily plunked down our allowances for when we were kids.

They did not feature The Cute Rook on their cover (it’s Alfred E. Neuman eating corn on the cob), but overall I think they did a credible job.  Worth it for the Zero Mostel caricature alone (Drucker obviously loved him, and so do I).  And I think I was right on target in my guess that their main target would be Redford.  Uppity goy.

So without further ado–The Cute Rook.   No need to thank me.  I live to serve.

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I’m obviously biased, but I think Westlake’s book was a lot funnier.   Still, you aren’t anyone until Mad Magazine has sent you up.   Any other Mad parodies of Westlake movies I could put up here?   Cracked would be fine too, I’m no snob.

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, John Dortmunder novels

Dortmunder at the Movies, Part 1 (in a one-part series): The Hot Rock

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Dortmunder at the movies was like a rock on the beach; the story kept washing over him, in wave after wave, but never had any effect.

From Bank Shot, by Donald E. Westlake

Rarely has a screenwriter talked to me about adapting one of my books.  The first time was William Goldman [scenarist of The Hot Rock], who holds the whole field of screenwriting in contempt.  Either in spite of that, or because of that, he is, I think, the best living screenwriter.  Nobody on earth could have made a movie of All the President’s Men [1976] and he did.

When he took the job of doing The Hot Rock, he called me and said “I want to take you to lunch and I want you to tell me everything you know about these characters that you didn’t put in the book.”  I thought, “What a smart guy this is!”  We spent time together.  The director [Peter Yates] and producers [Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts] didn’t give a damn, but Bill would send me portions of the script and say, “What do you think?”  He was very forthcoming.

He took out the only thing I thought of as a movie scene in the whole book, a scene where they have stolen a locomotive from a circus because they have to break into an insane asylum.  It’s a complicated scene, but that seemed to me like a movie scene.  Bill explained why he couldn’t use it and he was right.  Every once in a great while–I don’t think in terms of movies if I’m writing a book and I think anyone who does is crazy–I’ll look back at something I’ve written and say, “That’s a movie scene…” And if the movie rights are sold, that scene is never used.

Donald Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan, and you can read much more in The Getaway Car, still in fine bookstores near you I would hope, but if not, there’s always the internet.  (Parenthetically, the locomotive was borrowed from an amusement park, not stolen from a circus, but would you want to be the one to tell him that?)

I don’t really want to talk about the Dortmunder movies.  I’ve only seen two–the first two–and those are probably the only two I’ll ever see.  The first is a decent film that could have been a great one, and we’ll be looking at that now.  The second (Bank Shot) is a DeLuxe Panavision nightmare from which I briefly feared I might never awake.

(Can I just ask, while we’re on the subject, what do the people who adapt Westlake’s books have against Joanna Cassidy?  She was in both The Outfit and Bank Shot, and if I were her, I’d conspire to have all prints of both films destroyed.  A beautiful talented actress, who has done many fine things, and it seems like certain filmmakers once lived to dress her in the most horrible clothes imaginable and make her talk like the village idiot.  Except for Ridley Scott, who dressed her in glitter and snakes and not much else in Blade Runner, but she was an android in that one, so maybe that works–I think the book was better in that case as well, but that’s for a different blog entirely, which I’m quite sure already exists–probably hundreds of blogs like that exist.  Thousands, even.  But I digress.)

So this will not be a series of articles on the Dortmunder films, as I’ve already done for Parker, because I think there’s only one Dortmunder film worth discussing.  Or for that matter, watching.  And frankly, the world would not have been all that much the poorer if even that one had never been made, though obviously Mr. Westlake himself would have been somewhat the poorer.  In strictly monetary terms.

Why are the Dortmunder films so bad?   Probably for the same reason most of the Parker films after Point Blank are so bad–because the first Dortmunder film that was only half-bad flopped to hell, in spite of having a dynamite cast, a big budget, the same director who made Bullitt, and, as Westlake himself ardently agreed, the best screenwriter in the business.   And having failed with A-List talent, Dortmunder got relegated to the B, C, D, and possibly even E list ever afterward.  That doesn’t really answer the question of why it failed with the A-List talent, though.

There are, needless to say, quite a few immortal classics of the cinema that originally failed at the box office (like, for example, Point Blank).  This isn’t one of them.   I do think it deserved to do better than it did.   I’m not at all surprised that it didn’t.

I already discussed, in my review of The Outfit, how you can hire a great actor to play a role who gives it his all, and it’s just not good enough, because he’s wrong for the part.   Robert Duvall couldn’t play Parker because there’s just no way Parker looks like that, and because his acting style didn’t work for the character.   They did the same thing with Robert Redford and Dortmunder, only there’s no way Dortmunder looks that good.  How are we supposed to buy somebody who won the genetic lottery like few guys before or since as one of life’s perennial losers?

Redford was much more than just a pretty boy–you don’t have to tell me that.   From early in his career, you could tell he didn’t want to coast on his looks, anymore than Paul Newman did.  Fact is, he played a lot of losers in his career, but they were mainly losers by choice.   Dortmunder is a loser by fate, who occasionally guts out a victory by dint of sheer willpower and ingenuity.  He is not one of Mother Nature’s fair-haired boys–so why is he being played by the ultimate fair-haired boy?

The obvious answer is money.  To make an even half-faithful adaptation of Westlake’s novel, you’d need a very large budget.  For example, the sequence where Dortmunder’s gang invades a police station by way of a helicopter.   You remember how Major Iko kind of flinched when he was told a helicopter was needed for that job–imagine if they’d needed two of them–one for the gang to ride in, and another to film them riding in the first one.  Helicopter shots cost big money, particularly when they’re being done over Manhattan Island.   That’s just one short segment of the film.

The production budget, according to Wikipedia, was not quite 4.9 millon–which doesn’t sound like much, until you look at a list of other 1972 releases, and see that The Poseidon Adventure was made for 4.7 million.  Well, that was mostly shot on indoor sets, you see.  But Jeremiah Johnson was shot entirely on location, way out in the wilderness, much of it in winter, and cost 3.1 million.  The Godfather cost six or seven million, and that had Pacino and Brando.

So they needed a marquee name, to placate the money men.   Redford’s stardom was not, we should remember, an overnight thing.  He’d broken into movies in 1962, but didn’t really break out until Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969.  Then he had a solo hit with Jeremiah Johnson in 1972.  But he’d interspersed these successes with more challenging lower-budget ‘message’ pictures, like The Candidate.  By 1972, he was just becoming a really big established star, though he probably didn’t seal the deal until The Sting, and then The Way We Were.   The Hot Rock took maybe a little wind out of his sails, but not for long.

One thing Redford always knew how to do was read a script.  He knew how talented Goldman was, and how much fun it had been to read his dialogue.  Butch Cassidy proved they made a good team (on the right project, one should always add).   So it seems like a fair assumption Redford got a copy of Goldman’s script for this film while it was making the rounds during the development stage of the project–he signaled his interest, and that was that.  He wanted to try something different; they needed him to get the financing.

Now according to this blog, they wanted George C. Scott to be Dortmunder (as he eventually would be, in a much worse movie), and Redford would have been Kelp.   But the deal with Scott didn’t pan out, so Redford took the top spot, and George Segal got to be Kelp (and if there’s one perfect casting pick in the film, that’s it).  And that probably goes a good way towards explaining why the film feels so off-balance.  Sometimes unexpected cast changes work in your favor–sometimes not.

It’s possible Redford read Westlake’s book before he was signed, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  I feel quite confident in saying Peter Yates hadn’t read it beforehand.  Goldman, by contrast, had been a fan of Westlake’s for years, and said so (and as you can see above, they had a mutual admiration society going on there).

Westlake would later state his conviction that if they’d simply filmed Goldman’s script the way it was originally written, they’d have had a much better picture.   In particular, he thought it was a shame the big final scene at the airport was skipped, because Yates didn’t want to do another airport chase so soon after Bullitt (this probably also explains why we see so little of Murch’s crazy driving in the film).

Yates didn’t seem to be that enthused about the project, and though he would in his career direct a number of excellent slice of life comedies like Breaking Away, this wasn’t really his kind of comedy–he didn’t know how to make it work.  Since he could do both crime and comedy well, it might seem natural to assume he could do both at the same time, but such was not the case.

Yates, like Redford, hadn’t been a major player for very long.   Bullitt was his first hit, and it had been followed by two star-driven critically panned duds (John and Mary and Murphy’s War).  When he had a good script that he could understand, he usually delivered a solid piece of entertainment, but his two real high points, creatively speaking, are Bullitt and Breaking Away–which couldn’t be much more different, indicating that Yates wasn’t the secret ingredient in either.  He just made them both look really great, and to be fair, he made The Hot Rock look sensational as well.

Looking over his filmography, it’s hard to find any consistent themes–he was a capable director, not an ‘auteur’.  All surface, no substance.  He excelled at big visuals, lyrical wide-angle shots, and there’s always a certain romanticism to his work.  You can’t really place him among the cinema gods, but I must say, I’ve always enjoyed Krull.

I can’t evaluate the screenplay Goldman originally turned in, because I don’t have it (somebody must, but there’s not enough interest to justify publishing it).  I’ve just seen the film again, and I have no doubt there were major changes made to the script in the course of filming.  Even though this is filmed in New York City (and even in an era renowned for fantastic on-location shooting in New York, there’s some exceptional stuff here), they still had to change things around a lot.   And some changes they didn’t have to make, but made anyway.   They always do that.

The first thing we learn from this movie is that Robert Redford is actually a rather short man.

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This has been a matter of some controversy–he’s stated in interviews that he’s six feet tall.  He’s generally listed as being 5’10.  He’s probably closer to 5’8–but in most of his films, a combination of special shoes, camera tricks, shorter co-stars, physique, and sheer unbridled charisma, has made him look like a big guy.

In this film, he looked his actual height, which may well have been intentional–they knew this wasn’t the typical Redford character, and they wanted to make him less studly (he doesn’t even have a girlfriend, which may have been ill-considered, commercially speaking), so they didn’t go to such pains to conceal his stature.  He presumably assented to this, like the pro he is.

Personally, I always see Dortmunder as being somewhere in the six foot range, but I think it was the right call in this case to let him be short–creatively speaking.  Though I’m guessing a lot of Redford’s fans didn’t want to see him this way (why do you think he lies about his height?), and that was just one of many things that hurt the box office.

If you’ve never read the book or seen the movie, and you want to enjoy both, I’d advise seeing the movie first.  No, seriously.  That way you end with the more enjoyable story, and you won’t spend the whole movie saying “Why did they do that?”, over and over again.  Like for example, why does the warden in this movie tell Dortmunder he knows he’ll see him again–and why does Dortmunder agree, basically admitting (while he’s still in prison!) that he’s unreformable?  Because they don’t want to show Robert Redford being sneaky?  He’s playing a career criminal.

Why is Kelp married to Dortmunder’s hot sister (one of only two female characters of any note in the film), who has made Dortmunder an uncle, and who is barely even in the movie?   Because they don’t see any other way to justify Dortmunder agreeing to work with him?  Fact is, he actually brings up the problem that if they’re both caught, his sister won’t have anybody to support her and the baby.  So that doesn’t work.

They compound this error by making the devious attorney Eugene Prosker, (Abe Greenberg in the film, played by the great Zero Mostel) the father of Alan Greenfield/Grofield (just Greenberg in the film, played by the not-so-great Paul Sand).   Now I think this is to explain why Greenberg agrees to tell his lawyer where the stone is, but is that really so hard to explain?  The hard thing to explain is how either version of the lawyer got into the cell the jewel was stashed in when his client wasn’t there.  And the film doesn’t explain that either.  You notice it a lot more in the film, somehow.

And later, they try to leverage the father/son thing (which takes up way too much time in the film) to explain why the lawyer agrees to tell where the stone is.   The elder Greenberg seems to love his son, but not as much as money, and so he only caves when he thinks they’ve killed his son, and believes they’re going to kill him too (this is the scene where the audience is told that Dortmunder can’t actually kill anybody–like he’s a criminal Batman).  But he’s carrying the safe-deposit key on his person.  They couldn’t just search him?  Anyway, why would he think they’d let him live, when he believes he’s just witnessed his son’s murder?   Westlake must have been shaking his head wearily at the premiere.

If all this pointless family stuff was Goldman’s idea, shame on him.  It’s bad cliched writing, something he was not often guilty of at this stage of his career.  But a screenwriter is rarely the only person responsible for the story you see in a film.   He writes what the higher-ups tell him to write, as best as he can.   I have little doubt Goldman would have loved to adapt The Hot Rock the way he later adapted his own novels–sensitively yet efficiently, keeping in all the best scenes, cutting out what doesn’t fit, making it all flow together effortlessly.  The fact that it doesn’t flow at all in this movie–that it feels so choppy and forced, something one can rarely ever say of a Goldman scripted film–tells me that he got a lot of notes, had to make a lot of changes, and that it wasn’t just the end of his script that got the chop.   And I’m going to prove that theory before this review is done.

Because there are so many pointless scenes in the film, a lot of very important scenes are left out altogether, or get very short shrift.  Dortmunder at no time attempts to give up on getting the gem–which is a diamond here, not an emerald, and I guess they figured diamonds are more commonly found in Africa–except that the technology to cut and polish diamonds didn’t exist until modern times, and this is supposed to be an ancient sacred object that these African nations have been fighting over for centuries (if I tried to list all the errors in the film, the review would run to 10,000 words).  You just know they were hoping for something like The Pink Panther here, but if that’s what they wanted, they should have hired Blake Edwards.

Professionalism is a big part of any Westlake heist book, and it’s commendable that they want to go to such pains to depict Redford’s Dortmunder as a dedicated pro, but he’s so damn cool, even when he’s failing, the whole point of the story–his sense that the universe is conspiring to make him look foolish–is lost.  He never looks foolish, even when a half-naked bum steals his watch at knife-point outside a police station.   I’d blame Redford’s sang-froid, except he did disheveled frustration so well in Butch Cassidy.   But somehow, on that movie, everybody knew what they were supposed to be doing (and I think they mainly just filmed Goldman’s script the way he wrote it, because it would have been a crime not to).

Redford doesn’t have a firm grip on the character he’s playing here, and that’s because the people making the film don’t either.  Without any real sense of who Dortmunder is, he’s got nothing to project but poise and coolness, which undermines the whole concept of Dortmunder, who wouldn’t know from cool if you parachuted him into the Antarctic. It’s one of the weakest performances Redford ever gave in any film.

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Segal, by contrast, is so well-cast in his role that all the stupid lines they give Kelp don’t hurt him nearly as much.  Still, he’s also a far cry from the character in the book.  He’s playing the nervous nebbish to Dortmunder’s Mr. Cool, and there’s a lot of useless back-and-forth sniping between them when they’re supposed to be working (Kelp’s the lockman in this film, since they cut Chefwick and his toy trains out entirely, more’s the pity).  His whole role in the book is to keep cajoling Dortmunder back to work, and they try to work with that in the film, but it just doesn’t wash, because Redford’s Dortmunder would never give up on a job once he started it.

Why is this guy a thief?  With the Dortmunder in the book, it’s never necessary to ask.  We know he grew up in an orphanage, he got drafted to fight in Korea, he had basically no education, and he does not look like Robert Redford.  But the Dortmunder in the film is a thief because the script says he is–we’re just supposed to accept it.  We’re told he’s a genius planner who has been arrested and convicted over and over (not just twice, like Westlake’s Dortmunder–there’s also no indication that if Redford’s Dortmunder takes one more fall, he’s going away for keeps).

They do convey something of the odd fugue state Dortmunder will go into when he’s trying to plan a job, sketching on bits of paper, matchbook covers, trying to get an idea.  But Redford’s Dortmunder just doesn’t seem to belong in the professional world he inhabits.  George C. Scott (around 44 at the time the film was made) would have done a much better job, and it would be easier to buy him as a seasoned veteran who has been to prison quite a few times.

Ron Leibman’s Murch is pretty good–Leibman had fun with him, you can tell.   A character actor rarely has trouble playing characters.  They bring in Murch’s mom briefly (played by Charlotte Rae, who is also damn good), and do the bit with the Daytona Speedway record, but it’s an isolated moment in the film, that doesn’t tie in to anything–we don’t even get to see Dortmunder and Kelp look quizzical when they hear the engine sounds.

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I’m guessing it was better handled in the original screenplay, but Goldman probably had to fight to keep this much Murch in, when the producers clearly preferred Paul Sand’s Greenberg–there is way too much Paul Sand in this picture, and none of his scenes work at all–apparently he’s been to a lot of fancy schools where he learned about home-made bombs, and I don’t care.  Murch gets two quick chances to display his New York traffic expertise, but they’re just throwaway bits–Yates isn’t interested, so he doesn’t focus in enough, and the running gag just doesn’t get across.  None of them do, really–and this story is all about running gags.  These characters are a collection of running gags.

They don’t even explain why Murch wants salt for his beer when they’re talking at the bar.  So why bring it up in the first place?   How much would it have added to the budget to show a guy sprinkling some salt on his beer to restore the head?  One close-up of a beer glass.  They couldn’t be bothered.  And it’s the little details that make this kind of comedy work.  Not the epic panoramas.

But that’s what they thought would sell the movie–they obviously blew a big chunk of the budget on the helicopter raid on the police station, which really is well done, and must have been technically challenging, to say the least. It’s a bit haunting to see the nearly completed World Trade Center in the background, which sort of ruins the comic effect for us now, but it’s still an inspiring tableau. Goldman came up with a few original bits of business, like them landing on the wrong roof and asking some geezers for directions–and the police chief, believing (as in the book) that the raid is actually a revolution, and saying (in a satiric echo of Lyndon Johnson) that he won’t be the first American police chief to lose a station.

But having done that, they’ve shot their wad. There will be no locomotive raid on a mental hospital (I wish Westlake had shared Goldman’s explanation of why that wouldn’t work–my suspicion is that the main reason was money and time). There will be no face-off at the airport, nor will Dortmunder commandeer a small plane to make his getaway with the titular gem. Nor will we see his Machiavellian revenge against Major Iko (Dr. Amusa in the film, for reasons I could not possibly guess).   You can’t convince me audiences of that era–or any era–wouldn’t have liked that better than what they got.

But we do get Miasmo the Great–only just Miasmo here, and played by Canadian actress Lynne Gordon (apparently she had a talk show in Canada), who is effective, but not the least bit funny–the hypnotism scene in the elevator–the most absurd thing in the whole story–is played absolutely straight–like we’re supposed to take it seriously. Now it’s easy to poke holes in retrospect, but I’d have gone with Richard Libertini, who looked so much like the tall impressive black-bearded hypnotist Westlake described, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that wasn’t a coincidence. Gordon just comes across as–well–disturbing.

(Here’s Libertini in a scene from The In-Laws, in 1979–more of a Westlake comedy than any of the comedies anybody ever made from an actual Westlake novel, and still one of the funniest films ever made–at least somebody was paying attention).

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So anyway, Dortmunder goes and gets the jewel, like he does in the book, and the movie is over. He’s assuming, like the book Dortmunder, that something will go wrong, but it all goes smoothly, and he gets out of there just before the now-collaborating Abe Greenberg and Dr. Amusa show up to claim it (why did they wait so long?).

And Quincy Jones, who did a fine job with the score, has the first-rate modern jazz musicians playing it (who Jones went out of his way to get screen credit for) launch into a Dixieland riff, and Dortmunder does a sort of victory strut through the Manhattan streets, to the waiting getaway car with a giant key on the roof. He gets in, everybody cheers, they drive away. The End.

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The End? Just like that? Some people watch this film now and say “how charmingly counter-intuitive.” I like the scene for what it is, appreciate Yates’ undoubted talent for the lyrical, and I still say it stinks as an ending, and that’s what most people said back then. We already know Westlake thought so–he wanted that airport scene Goldman wrote. Of course, the point of the victory strut is that they worked so hard, did all these big elaborate heists, and then it just falls into their hands. We’ve already been told they can deal directly with the insurance company (we’ve also been told the Amusa’s people might come after them if they do that, but how many nitpicks can I do in one review?).

Thing is, they didn’t work that hard. They stole the gem from the Museum only to lose it (it was The Brooklyn Museum, since obviously they couldn’t manage the New York Coliseum, which was a busy place back then). They sprung Greenberg from prison–that’s another good scene, particularly the stuff with Murch driving the getaway car into the truck. They raided the police station. And then they did the thing with Miasmo (Miasma?), still believing they were on Amusa’s payroll, but they didn’t tell him about it (so where’d they get the money to pay her?).

That’s only three bad jobs to one good one. Dr. Amusa calls it ‘The Habitual Crime’ (a phrase Goldman probably got from Westlake during their chats), but they wasted so much time (and money) on lackluster scenes that aren’t in the book, there isn’t enough build-up to make the pay-off work.  It’s not quite habitual enough to make that line ring true.  The rhythm is off.

Watching it on your TV now, with limited expectations, you can see the charm of it, insubstantial though it be–but imagine shelling out money for tickets, and getting this fizzle of an ending, that doesn’t really resolve anything–if it wasn’t for the credit crawl, you’d think the projectionist lost a reel. This is how it ends? I’d have wanted my money back.

I think they went over budget, and started trimming desperately to get the film finished.  The producers gave up on it.  Can I prove this?  Surprisingly, yes.   Here’s Dortmunder near the end of the movie, doing a variation on the Jinx Speech from the novel–

Not me. I’ve got no choice. I’m not superstitious. And I don’t believe in jinxes, but that stone’s jinxed me and it won’t let go. I’ve been damned near bitten, shot at, peed on and robbed. And worse is gonna happen before it’s done. So I’m takin’ my stand. I’m going all the way. Either I get it, or it gets me.

When was this Dortmunder ‘damned near bitten’?  We know where that’s coming from.  The German Shepherd who menaced the book Dortmunder while he was trying to sell phony encyclopedias, and then Kelp and Greenwood come and talk him into another shot at the jewel.   One of the funniest scenes in the book–Goldman, being no dummy, obviously put it in his script.  Was it filmed?  One would think so, since the line is in there, but either way, it’s not in the finished film.   And there aren’t any dogs at all in the film, that I remember.

We saw him get mugged (which isn’t in the book), and his sister’s kid pees on him (which has nothing to do with the job and it seems a bit petty for him to bring it up), but there’s no near-biting episode–and what we learn from this–one of Redford’s better bits of dialogue–is that they were getting sloppy.  They needed to either show him being nearly bitten before this scene, or they needed to reshoot the scene, but it was the helicopter scene–they couldn’t possibly manage a do-over.  They didn’t have the money.  The film was probably already over-budget.  It’s the only explanation that fits.  But for the filmgoer in 1972, it’s like “I remember the mugging.  They shot at him during the prison break.  The baby peed on him.  When did he get almost bitten?  Did I miss something?”

Maybe that scene with the dog (if that’s what it was) wasn’t actually shot–movie scenes aren’t usually done in the order in which they occur in the narrative–maybe they did the helicopter scene early on, and it cost so much more than anticipated that they just threw out whole chunks of the script to compensate.  That would explain the way the film doesn’t flow–so atypical of both Goldman and Yates.  It feels very tacked together.  Because (rather fittingly, for a Dortmunder adaptation) things did not work out as planned on paper.  They did not shoot Goldman’s original script.  If they had, we might remember this movie quite differently.

There are many enjoyable moments in this film.  Westlake saw that, and so do we, watching it today.   It’s not a horrible film.   It’s just not a very good one. We know the screenwriter was genuinely great.   We know the director was capable of very good work.  So who’s left holding the bag with the paste diamond in it?

When all else fails, blame the producers.  Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts–who also produced the abysmal Bank Shot a few years later, with George C. Scott as Dortmunder this time, but they didn’t have the greatest living screenwriter, or Peter Yates–the movie was directed by former dance star and Broadway musical director, Gower Champion.  Who had never made a theatrical film in his life.  And never did again afterwards.

Landers and Roberts made some successful films over the years (their big hit was Death Wish, adapted from a novel by Westlake’s old buddy Brian Garfield–though maybe more of the credit there goes to Menahem Golam and Yoram Globus), but best as I can tell, they never made a really good picture in their lives.  They were, you might say,  small time operators who occasionally tried their hands at a big job.  And when they did, it never worked out well.

This is, I’m sorry to say, the story of Westlake at the movies.  It’s remained the story even after his death (see Parker).   Some very talented people have tried to adapt his books here and there, but the people behind those people–the people who hold a project together–have not usually had the right stuff.  Westlake badly needed the money from selling the movie rights to his books.  He had two families to support.  So he couldn’t sit around waiting for the right production team to come along.   He just sold the book rights to whoever made a non-insulting offer, and hoped for the best.  And never got it.

But so what?  He got the money.  So he could go on writing more great books, and not have to take a teaching job, or some other such indignity.  He got to hang out with people like William Goldman and talk about writing, got to see the movie business up close, learn things about it, things that would serve him well in the future, in a number of ways.  And did he really want somebody to make some brilliant hit movie out of one of his books?   I have my doubts.   Mr. Westlake knew the score too well.

The Hot Rock basically vanished without a ripple into the endless Sargasso Sea of Forgotten Films.  1972, as we all know, was the year of The Godfather.  For a long time after that, I couldn’t go to a garage sale without seeing four or five paperback copies of Mario Puzo’s novel lying around in milk crates.  The book had been a best-seller before the movie, but after it, everybody bought one.  Puzo must have made a fortune.  He even got to write the Superman screenplay.  But what happened to his career as a novelist?   Not much.   Who reads the novel version of The Godfather today?   Not  many.  The movie replaced the book.  Devoured it.  Subsumed it.   Puzo could never manage a convincing second act.

Movies based on books can do that, and they don’t have to be better than the book, or even half as good, to make that happen.  They just have to work well enough, and hit big at a strategic moment, and then people will always think of the movie first, the book last.  The list is endless.  It’s even happened to Lord of the Rings a bit (thankfully, long after Tolkien’s death).

But it never happened to anything written by Westlake–even Point Blank, a genuinely great (albeit flawed) cinematic expression, was too much of a flop when it came out–and too different from the book–to ever overshadow The Hunter, which is one of those books that gets bigger over time, not smaller.   As Westlake is one of those writers who get bigger over time, not smaller. And I think, given a choice, he’d have rather had what he got out of Hollywood–enough money to go on–and the learning experience.

If this or some other movie had been a smash hit, and spawned a franchise (the era of the franchise just now dawning with The Godfather), Westlake could have potentially become quite wealthy.  And without the need to keep hammering out more books on his legendary Smith Coronas, without the pressure of yet another deadline, yet another pecuniary shortfall created by kids braces, family vacations, alimony, child support, college tuition–would I be looking at maybe another two years of non-stop blogging to review all his remaining work?  A question that does not admit of an answer, and that’s probably just as well.

The question I have to try and answer next week is why are there not one, not two, but three epistolary novels, written by Westlake and two of his friends, all dealing in one way or another with the pornographic novel industry?  Well, not exactly pornographic.   Well, actually one of them is, but I’ll tell you about that next time.  Until then, adios, motherfuckers.

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, John Dortmunder novels

Review: The Hot Rock, Part 2

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An ideally good gag, perfectly constructed and played, would bring the victim up this ladder of laughs by cruelly controlled degrees to the top rung, and would then proceed to wobble, shake, wave and brandish the ladder until he groaned for mercy. Then, after the shortest possible time out for recuperation, he would feel the first wicked tickling of the comedian’s whip once more and start up a new ladder.

From Comedy’s Greatest Era, by James Agee

“Nice doggy,” Dortmunder said.

The German Shepherd wasn’t buying any.  He stood in front of the stoop, head down, eyes up, jaws slightly open to show his pointy teeth, and said “Rrrrrr,” softly in his throat every time Dortmunder made a move to come down off the porch.  The message was clear.  The damn dog was going to hold him here until somebody in authority came home.

“Look, doggy,” Dortmunder said, trying to be reasonable, “all I did was ring the bell.  I didn’t break in, I didn’t steal anything.  I just rang the bell.  But nobody’s home, so now I want to go to some other house and ring the bell.”

“Rrrrrr,” said the dog.

Dortmunder pointed to his attaché case.  “I’m a salesman, doggy,” he said.  I sell encyclopedias.  Books.  Big books.  Doggy?  Do you know from books?”

The dog didn’t say anything.  He just kept watching.

“All right now, dog,” Dortmunder said, being very stern.  “Enough is enough.  I have places to go, I don’t have the time to fool around with you.  I’ve got to make my rent money.  Now, I’m leaving here and that’s all there is—” He took a firm step forward.

“Rrrrrrrr!” said the dog.

Dortmunder took a quick step back.  God damn it, dog!” he cried.  “This is ridiculous!”

The dog didn’t think so.  He was one of those by-the-book dogs.  Rules were rules, and Dortmunder didn’t rate any special favors.

From The Hot Rock, by Donald E. Westlake

In many ways, The Hot Rock reads like a Richard Stark novel.  Which isn’t surprising, given that it started out as one.  I’ve said several times already that the first two Grofield novels feel like Westlake ghost-wrote them for Stark–I would not go so far as to say Stark ghost-wrote this book for Westlake (nor do I really think Westlake was the literary equivalent of Sybil Dorsett, though he and his third wife both made jokes to that effect).

No, this is decidedly a Westlake, but one with a distinctly Stark-ian flavor and cadence–a hybrid approach that succeeds on many levels.   The prose is simpler, the dialogue more terse, the narrator much less inclined to extemporize.  Westlake hadn’t written much in the third person under his own name by this point.   He’d only written one heist book under his own name before now, and he knew that book had not been one of his crowning glories.  It’s not surprising he’d fall back on what he’d learned writing the Parker novels–for what is, in essence, an informal send-up of those books.

But not a true parody–not an attempt to mock the seriousness of Stark (the third Dortmunder came close to being a Stark parody, but we’ll worry about that when we get there).  Rather an attempt to loosen up, have fun with the same subject matter–the playful passage I quote up above is not something Stark would have written under any circumstances.  Stark wouldn’t see the humor in that situation with the dog at all.  Westlake sees the humor in just about everything.  This is the primary point of difference between them.

Stark would never put Parker in that situation–if Parker was confronted by a dog, the dog would end up dead (and Parker would not be peddling encyclopedias door to door).  Dortmunder yearns futilely for a club to beat the dog senseless with, but we know he’s never going to do that. When it comes right down to it, Dortmunder’s never going to hurt anybody–over 14 novels, he periodically threatens physical violence, and never follows through–he’s in one fist-fight that I can recall–from a much later book–and loses it.   Oh, and he hits Kelp now and again, but you can hardly blame him.

He’s not afraid to fight, if he’s got to–he certainly knows how–but violence isn’t really his thing–it’s there gathering dust at the bottom of his toolkit, often referred to, rarely employed.   A wolf in human form like Parker may relish a bit of close combat on occasion.  A coyote in human form like Dortmunder knows the better part of valor.

And this is something we love about Dortmunder.   He’s every bit as no-nonsense as Parker, but he’s so much less dire.  So much more like us, little as he’d like to hear it.  He doesn’t see the humor in his situation at all; he resists being made the constant butt of cosmic jokes, but in the main he simply rails against his misfortunes, indignantly complains about them to whomever might listen (even a dog)–in a word we shall ever be indebted to the Yiddish language for, he kvetches.  And that gives us license to laugh, not so much at him as at the absurdity of existence, and the perversity of fate.  At ourselves, really.

Stark did put Grofield in a situation where he was confronted by a menacing German Shepherd (on a leash), who looked longingly at his throat–in The Dame.  Grofield conversationally remarks “Hello, Fido”, similar to Dortmunder–if a bit more ironical.

But where Parker would have had to fight the dog, and Dortmunder simply stands there looking frustrated, Grofield avoids the conflict, walks right past it–the situation (which like the other two, stems from Westlake’s own obvious dread of canine-kind) goes unexploited, because the character is not sufficiently well-defined.  Grofield is an intriguing protagonist, but not really a compelling one.   He never quite did take on a life of his own.   Westlake has to tell him what to do–but a great character–a Parker, a Tobin, a Dortmunder–tells his or her author what to do.  Much simpler that way, no?

And who ends up rescuing Dortmunder from the jaws of the slavering beast?  His own fictional dimension’s equivalent of Grofield, Alan Greenwood, who will have taken the name Grofield by the end of the story.  He just tells the dog to sit, and the dog obeys.  Dortmunder would have never thought of that.  Westlake once again referring to other books of his he has no reason to assume his readers are familiar with–simply to amuse himself.   But you don’t need to have read The Dame to be amused.  Like all good in-jokes, it’s thrown in for lagniappe.

The best jokes in this book are not private ones.   Westlake has gotten the range now–he’s figured out how to be funny.   He’s not just stringing isolated gags together anymore–like the great silent comedians William Agee wrote about in the famous essay I quoted from up top, he’s going to build a framework of laughs, a precarious geometric structure of hilarity, each new gag proceeding from the previous with inexorable logic, a sort of absurdist chain reaction, where he’ll enticingly dangle the bait in front of his characters, then jerk it out of their reach, over and over.

He wants to test their mettle–their professionalism, their camaraderie–but also their capacity to absorb punishment–to gaze sadly at us, like Oliver Hardy after an especially humiliating setback, and silently ask “Was this really called for?”  Then try try again.

One problem I’m going to have with the Dortmunders is that I may not always want to discuss their plots as thoroughly as I do the Parker books.  For one thing, to thoroughly explain a joke notoriously kills it.  For another, they’re generally much longer and more involved than the Parkers.  But it’s hardly a spoiler, 45 years after the book came out, to say, like the cover of that British reprint you see above, that it’s about a gang of thieves stealing the same thing over and over again.

Only that’s not quite accurate, is it?   They steal it once, and lose it before they even get out of the building.  Then they have to steal the guy who knows where it is.  Then they go where he says it is and find somebody else stole it first.  Then they have to steal that guy, and make him say where it is.   Then they finally steal it for real, only in a way no real thief ever stole anything.  Then they have to steal it again–so they can give it back to the people they originally stole it from.   That’s the book.   Contrived, yet simple–and so ingenious, no summary can ever do it justice.  You have to experience it–and I can say now with authority that the story–and the laughs–hold up to repeated readings.  Much better than Westlake’s earlier comic novels did.

The problem is never Dortmunder’s plans, all of which work to perfection.  One could argue Dortmunder is actually a better planner of heists than Parker, at least in this book.  But when things go wrong, he doesn’t seem to know how to adapt, improvise, tweak.  He’s not so good under pressure as Parker–not a great troubleshooter, which is Parker’s other talent.  When Dortmunder’s plans fall apart, he has to go back to the drawing board and start over again from scratch.  He plans, God laughs.  Oh God, how God laughs.

Dortmunder is not much of a self-starter–as a general rule, his big jobs are usually somebody else’s idea.  Also true of Parker, to be sure.   And frequently true of Donald Westlake, when you think about it.  How many of his books were originally pitched to him by someone else?  I’ll have to do a count sometime.  It’s quite a few.   Really, all the Parker novels but the first were technically Bucklin Moon’s idea.  Creativity is not such a solo venture as people often imagine.   We all bounce ideas off each other–hell, I’m only doing this blog because Nick Jones of Existential Ennui told me to, mainly so I’d stop clogging up his blog with my endless responses to him.  Hi Nick! (waves).

Dortmunder’s #1 fan, partner-in-crime, agent, life coach, and general pain in the neck is Andy Kelp, and as I think I mentioned before, I am moved to wonder who Westlake modeled him after.  He’s never very well described in this book, and his descriptions in the later entries are generally quite vague.  And yet he feels very real and vivid–almost as if Westlake has a very specific person in mind, but doesn’t want anyone to know who it is.  Well, possibly a composite.   But I bet it was a fellow writer.  Unless the character is simply a summation of mannerisms Westlake found in himself that irritated his core personality–come to think of it, he’s the only member of the string who drinks bourbon, other than Dortmunder.

One could say Kelp is to Dortmunder as Sancho Panza is to Don Quixote, but I’m not sure it isn’t the other way around.  Far from being dragged along on yet another absurd quest, Kelp is constantly exhorting his goodly knight to joust at yet another windmill, and Dortmunder keeps resisting–never successfully, but he keeps trying.  Kelp is nothing if not persuasive, and he knows a secret–Dortmunder wants to be persuaded–he needs to practice his avocation.  He can’t exist without work, and there’s only one kind of work he knows how to do.  But left to his own devices, he mainly goes out on his own to rob small appliance or jewelry stores.  Without Kelp, his heists would be rather desultory affairs.

In this book, having originally left prison vowing to the warden that he was a reformed man, knowing all the while he was going to go right back to his old ways, he gives up in mid-book–he’s had enough.   He tells his breathlessly delighted parole officer that he’s not going to associate with his felonious former friends anymore–he doesn’t tell the poor naive fellow that his idea of reform is to run short cons on householders, selling them nonexistent encyclopedias.   To him, that doesn’t even count as stealing.   A master of the mental reservation, is Dortmunder–you can tell he was raised a good Catholic boy.

Kelp knows better–Dortmunder can’t give up stealing–he just has to keep pitching, and Dortmunder will come back to the fold.  He really is Dortmunder’s alter-ego–the eternal cock-eyed optimist to Dortmunder’s confirmed pessimist.  The tech-crazy early-adopter to Dortmunder’s old school conservative, who despises change of any kind.   He’s a better thief than Dortmunder in most respects, nerveless as a sponge, slippery as an eel–but he lacks the one thing Dortmunder has–imagination.

Dortmunder can visualize a way to get at the goods, whatever the goods may be–Kelp lacks this talent.  And he knows it, cheerfully cops to it, and thus must continue to attach himself to Dortmunder, like a remora to a shark, keeping him company on his endless swim.  Whether the shark wants the remora’s company is entirely beside the point, of course.   It’s you and me to the end, pal.   Hey, any beer in the fridge?   Ya gotta love the guy.   But you can also understand why Dortmunder really doesn’t, most of the time.

In the same profession, living basically the same life, they perpetually misunderstand each other, which bothers Dortmunder quite a bit, and Kelp not at all–there in his dingy hotel room, Dortmunder tries to explain that he really is going straight, and his parole officer told him to stay away from criminal types, and this is the result–

“You don’t need me,” Dortmunder said.  “Besides, I been warned away from bad companions, and that means you bunch.”

Kelp waved his hands in negation. “That horoscope stuff doesn’t mean a thing,” he said.  “I got hooked on that stuff once, my second wife was a nut for all that.  The only fall I ever took, I did what the horoscope told me.”

Dortmunder frowned at him.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Horoscope,” Kelp explained.  He moved his hands like a man shuffling jigsaw puzzle pieces. “Bad companions,” he said.  “Tall dark trips.  Afternoon is good for business marriages.  All that stuff.”

Dortmunder squinted, trying to see Kelp clearly enough to understand him.  Finally he said, in some doubt.  “You mean horoscope?”

“Sure,” Kelp said.  “Naturally.”

Dortmunder shook his head, still trying to understand.  “You believe in horoscopes?”

“No,” said Kelp.  “You do.”

Dortmunder thought about that for a few seconds, then nodded heavily and said to the room at large, “I hope you guys’ll be very happy here.  I’ll let you know where to send my stuff.”  He turned and headed for the door.

So what gets him back on the job?  Well, this funniest of fictional thieves just can’t stand being laughed at.  Now, I’ve taken such an ass-backwards approach to talking about this book (plus I know most of you reading this already know the plot by heart), I haven’t even explained that this job is basically work-for-hire (which is obviously one big reason why it keeps going sour, since this is a Donald Westlake book).

Major Iko of the small fictional African country of Talabwo (the Westlake Atlas continues to grow) wants Dortmunder to steal the famed Balabomo Emerald from its current owners, the equally fictitious country of Akinzi (Dortmunder thinks that’s the guy who wrote the sex book that he could never get out of the prison library).  The Major promises to pay each member of the string thirty thousand dollars upon delivery of the emerald.  Dortmunder insists he pay living and work-related expenses as well.  He’s driving a shrewd bargain, but failing to grasp that Iko may not feel like he has to honor an agreement made with thieves.

The Major is quite a good character in his own right–increasingly befuddled by these strange men he’s hired, increasingly appalled by each new list they present to him, of needed items for the next heist–each successive job is a bit more complex, a bit more absurd–but he’s got to go along with it, because he’s hooked.   He’s set out to get something very valuable for as little money as possible, but like so many people who hire outside contractors have learned, in for a penny, in for a pound.  He’s like the villagers in the famous story of the Stone Soup, only the stone is an emerald, and he ends up in the soup himself.

When Westlake told a different version of this same story in The Black Ice Score, the Africans were treated very sympathetically, and the story ended up being about colonialism and African politics.   This is a Dortmunder story, taking place in a much less grim reality, and the Major’s race and nationality are not really important.  We’re all just God’s clowns, right?   The Major’s ultimate fate is probably not going to be a happy one, but mortality is rarely witnessed in the pages of a Dortmunder book.  The primary casualty is usually pride.

So anyway, back to my point–Dortmunder knows he’s being made fun of–he can’t always figure out by whom.  The author of his misfortunes is safely out of his reach (lucky for the author).  But give him a target for his righteous indignation, and that target is in trouble.  First a shyster lawyer named Prosker makes the mistake of openly laughing at him–then the Major gives him the finger.

Dortmunder may be something of a coward at times–it’s a wise man’s failing–but when sufficiently humiliated, his fear is quickly drowned out by a burning need for retribution, and his full resourcefulness is brought into play.  In his own way, he is as implacable a foe as Parker.  It just takes a lot more effort to get him motivated.   That’s one reason his books are usually longer.

The final chapter ends with another African dignitary (the only person in the book with any dignity left, if only because he was smart enough to come in at the very end) saying to Dortmunder “I must make a memo to myself never to try to cheat you.”  And that’s always good advice, when you’re dealing with Dortmunder.   He is a clown, yes–but he’s not your clown.  God can make a fool of him–God’s name being Westlake–but no one else.  He won’t have it.  And the truth is, we don’t begrudge him a bit of his pride–because we’ve had to swallow ours so many times, and we know just how he feels.

We’ve all been made fools of by the higher-ups, the suits, the bosses, the money men.  It’s happening right now, and it will go on happening.  It’s like we’re the Beagle Boys, and they’re Scrooge McDuck, and they always get their money back–with interest.   They steal from us, and we go back to jail, or back to work, same difference (hey, it’s my blog, and I’m entitled to the odd bit of ranting).  And of course if I’m reading a Carl Barks classic, I’m Uncle Scrooge, swimming around in my personal money bin, so that’s all fine and dandy.  But then I put down the comic book, and guess what–I’m Dortmunder.   We all are.  We always will be.

But does that mean we have to take things lying down?   Not on your life.   We’re not rich, we’re probably not even good-looking, but we can be smart.  We can fight back.  We can find weak spots in their armor–we can turn their arrogance against them–we can win temporary but oh-so-satisfying victories–and we can have fun along the way.

Much as he may enjoy teasing them, Westlake loves this motley gang of crooks.  You know he does, because he goes out of his way to treat them along the way.  Stan Murch gets to pilot a helicopter over New York City (without ever having flown one before!).  Chefwick, the model train nut, gets to be the engineer inside a life-size model train (a replica of the famous Tom Thumb, no less).   And where do they end up at the end of the tracks–in a looney bin–which one might argue is where they all belong, and so do the rest of us reading this joyous nonsense.

Yeah, they’re a team of losers–but they’re each and every one of them a character–an individual.   Life can thwart them, mock them, but it can never break them down.    In a world that seems determined to reduce and every one of us to a set of vital statistics–like the Major’s beloved dossiers–the Dortmunder gang keeps busting out.   And they take us with them.  And for that, we’ll never be able to thank them enough.

And there’s more gang members coming.  This is just the start of a long bumpy ride.   Not all the books will end this triumphantly.  Dortmunder will endure many far worse humiliations–and this guy who seems to want more than anything to be left alone will end up at the center of a sort of bizarre ersatz family, that makes even the Addams’ look normal by comparison.   And maybe he likes that more than he lets on, but he’ll never ever let on.  You wouldn’t really want him to.

Having read all the books, I think this is the funniest of the bunch in some ways.   Arguably, Westlake never again came up with quite as clever a comic extravaganza again, never did quite as good a job building the gag.   That’s neither here nor there, because all things considered, there are better books coming–the cast of characters expands, and the quirks of each individual character are elaborated upon.   The humor becomes more refined, better defined–and the truth is the books don’t even have to be that good for us to enjoy them–we’re just so glad to be back with these people again.  We’ll take them on any terms offered.

Not all the Dortmunders are classics–but the best of them surely are, and I wouldn’t personally part with a single one.  There are 14 of them, and a scattering of short stories, and I only wish there was some way Westlake could have cloned himself, and put one of the clones in charge of doing nothing but writing Dortmunder stories.

But there was only ever one Donald E. Westlake. And he had other things to write about.   Different kinds of jokes to make.  The kinds of jokes that might  make you cry as much as laugh.  Like suppose a guy wanted to be a writer, but the only writing he was allowed to do was smut.  And each and every chapter had to be 5,000 words long.  And he couldn’t even use his own name.  And his life–his very soul–is getting swallowed up by the work he’s doing.

Dortmunder got off lucky by comparison–and he got a movie–actually a bunch of them–but only one worth reviewing.  Which I’ll review next week.  And then it’s off to the porn pits we go.  Heigh-ho, heigh-ho.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Hot Rock

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One day in 1967 I was wearing my Richard Stark hat, looking for a story to tell about my man Parker, and I thought, he reacts badly to frustration, what if he had to steal the same thing four or five times?  I started to work it out, then realized the idea was only comic and Parker wouldn’t stand for it.  But I still liked the notion, and even–once it was comic–saw how to make it six thefts of the same elusive item.  So I’d do it that way.

But if it wasn’t Parker, who was it?  Who was this guy, dogged but doomed, and what was his name?  Without a name, I couldn’t see him, and until I could see him, I couldn’t write about him.

For a long time I just couldn’t think of the right name, and then one day, I was in a bar–the only time in my life–and one of the neon beer logos on the back-bar said “DAB–Dortmunder Action Bier,” and I said, “That’s what I want, an action hero with something wrong with him,” and John Dortmunder was born.

Donald Westlake, from his introduction to the Mysterious Books reprint of The Hot Rock.

Oh, I dream about being Bugs Bunny, but when I wake up, I’m Daffy Duck.

Chuck Jones

It’s 1970.  For ten years now, Donald Westlake has been writing and publishing crime novels–almost thirty in ten years.  He started out publishing some pretty dark and bloody work in that genre, under his own name, but early on he began to distill two very different voices out of this approach, which he published under pseudonyms–the spare unemotional Richard Stark, and the confessional guilt-ridden Tucker Coe.   If you’re out to read Westlake’s best work of the 1960’s, you’re mainly reading books bearing those two names.

But about halfway through the decade, he stumbled upon a third voice–the comic voice–which turned out to be his most successful in terms of book sales, and ended up being the only voice he employed under his own name for quite some time to come.   In the 60’s he mainly wrote these comic crime novels in the first person, and the Coe books as well–while Stark played it closer to the vest in the third person.

His only comic novel written in the third person to this point had been The Busy Body, a frenetic farce about a luckless criminal trying desperately to outmaneuver the slings and arrows of his own outrageous fortune, and complaining loudly about it all the way through (Who Stole Sassi Manoon? is also in the third person, but he’d originally written it in screenplay form, and that book is terrible).

As Stark, he had mainly written about Parker, who was known to laugh occasionally, but never at himself.   As an attempt at counterpoint, perhaps, he wrote several novels about Parker’s partner in crime, Alan Grofield, who kept up a never-ending patter of sardonic commentary, rather like Groucho Marx (or if you prefer, Spider-man), partly as a way of keeping people off-balance.  Like the kvetchy protagonist of The Busy Body, Grofield had a tendency to be a mite aggrieved with his own often-uncertain fate, but took a more positive attitude, overall.

And why shouldn’t he?  He was handsome, talented, successful with women, and usually walked away with a nice bundle of loot.  He was, in short, a bit too cool for school–fun to read about, but never really funny.  Stark, being a romantic, could not let his heroes become comic figures.  His protagonists are too self-possessed to be clowns.  There’s no comedy in a man who knows what he is.

No, comedy comes from identity confusion–which is why Westlake could succeed as a comic writer with his ‘Nephews’–young men caught up in ridiculous and usually life-threatening situations, that ended up teaching them who they were–the comedy of the picaresque, and while Westlake never measured up to the standards of Dickens, Fielding, or Twain in this area, he did pretty well, producing several first-rate books–only the thing about picaresque characters is that once you’ve told their stories, there’s not much more you can do with them.  They don’t really lend themselves to sequels.

The ultimate writer of comic sequels was, of course, P.G. Wodehouse, who did his share of picaresque one-shot protagonists, but also created hugely successful series characters like Bertie Wooster–who were incapable of ever really learning anything about themselves.  Who even in the most absurd scenarios, always took themselves quite seriously–and were all the more hilarious for it. Who never see the humor in their situations, because that’s your job.

And who were, of course, surrounded by a coterie of comic companions, each equally memorable in his or her own right.   For this type of farce, you need a sort of revolving repertory cast, who readers will greet in turn with cries of joyful welcome, anticipating the chuckles and guffaws to come.  Oh, and of course they need to have funny names.   What makes a name funny?  If you could explain it, it wouldn’t be funny.

Self-evidently, The Hot Rock shares a common origin with The Black Ice Score–Westlake had started out writing a story where Parker would steal the same item over and over again, but Parker simply didn’t bend that way (Westlake would later write a study in professional frustration for Parker that succeeded very well, and is not the least bit comic in nature, but we’ll get to that in the fullness of time).  It’s the same basic set-up, African politics and all, but the books could not be much more different from each other.  And not for the last time, the comic heister surpassed his somber cousin.  Or rather, the coyote surpassed the wolf.

Yes, Dortmunder is a coyote in human form.  Well, don’t act so surprised, you must all know by now how much I love this type of metaphor–only I don’t quite see it as that–my meaning is somewhere between the figurative and the literal, as are Parker and Dortmunder themselves.  Dortmunder is more seemingly human than the hard-eyed lupine Parker, his emotional reactions easier to comprehend, if only because we always find it easier to identify with comic foils.   But underneath, he’s looking at the rest of us with this expression that says “You’re all crazy.  I’m the only sane one there is.”  That’s very Parker, and that’s because Dortmunder is the opposite side of the same coin–not the idealized beast of prey, the antihero, but rather the trickster and buffoon.   Latrans, not Lupus.

The first Americans loved to tell stories of Coyote–who might take the form of the actual animal, a normal-looking man, or some hybrid of the two (they saw more clearly than us how thin the line between man and beast was)–and who was always getting himself into trouble.   Always stealing something from the gods, from other beasts, or from men–always another scheme, frequently self-defeating, but ingenious for all that.

And when sufficiently aggravated, Coyote could be quite formidable–he might set himself against the most powerful opponents and come out on top.  Often a figure of fun in the stories about him, Coyote always has the potential to transform himself in moments of high inspiration into The Trickster Incarnate.  And when he does, the gods themselves might do well to fear his wrath.  Reversals of fortune–in either direction–are his stock in trade.  He is a child of luck, bad and good.  And you never know which it’s going to be.

Long before Dortmunder, even before Looney Tunes, the great silent clowns had embodied this mythic type of comedy in modern form–Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, but most of all Keaton.  The Great Stone Face–caught up in the machinery of life, alternately struggling against it and learning to work with it, but never once laughing at his troubles, because IT’S NOT FUNNY.   We beg to differ, but we love him for refusing to see the joke, or at least to dignify it with a rueful grin (Dortmunder would not be quite so facially inflexible, but he came close at points).

And somehow, whenever Buster sees a cop, he ends up sidling nonchalantly away–then trotting–then running–because policemen, and authority figures in general, unerringly identify him as an instigator of chaos, their rightful prey, and set off in hot pursuit.  There’s nothing anybody can do about it.  It’s the natural order of things.

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So not surprising that when we first meet John Dortmunder, he’s just getting out of prison, and suffering through a well-intentioned lecture from the warden, knowing all the while that he’s just going to go back to his thieving ways, because that’s his place in life.   One wonders what he was like beforehand–we know that Stark protagonists can’t bear imprisonment–it eats away at their sense of self, breaks them down.   Dortmunder seems to have survived two long spells of incarceration better than Parker or Grofield would have, but it still must have taken its toll.

One thing that strongly separates Dortmunder from Parker is that we learn a great deal about his background, thanks to one character’s compulsive need to compile dossiers on people he works with.   We not only know his real last name, we even know his middle name (funny, of course).

In terms of facts, Major Iko knew quite a bit about John Archibald Dortmunder.  He knew that Dortmunder was thirty-seven years of age, that he had been born in a small town in central Illinois, that he had grown up in an orphanage, that he had served in the United States Army in Korea during the police action there but had been on the other side of the cops-and-robbers game ever since, and that he had twice been in person for robbery, the second term having ended with a parole just this morning.  He knew that Dortmunder had been arrested several other times in robbery investigations, but that none of these arrests had stuck.  He knew that Dortmunder had never been arrested for any other crime, and that there didn’t even appear to be any rumors concerning any murders, arsons, rapes, or kidnappings that he might have performed.  And he knew that Dortmunder had been married in San Diego in 1952 to a night-club entertainer named Honeybun Bazoom, from whom he had won an uncontested divorce in 1954.

That’s more background data in one paragraph than we got about Parker in 24 novels.   Making the reasonable supposition that the book takes place at the time it was published, his age would put his birth year at around 1933–same year Westlake was born (hmm!).  Parker would have been born maybe 1927-28, and served in WWII in his very early teens, which as I’ve remarked in past is not that hard to believe with regards to that war–there are many documented cases.

Dortmunder would have been just about legal age to join the army when the Korean ‘police action’ began–I guess the orphanage could have given consent for him to sign up at 17?  He was almost certainly drafted, in any event.  Though I guess if he did join of his own volition, that experience could have taught him never to volunteer for anything.   But he keeps right on getting forced to participate in operations he wants no part of, throughout the series.  Early life patterns, once established, can be damnably persistent over time.

I’ll be synopsizing the book in Part 2 (Hey, Parker always gets a Part 2!  Fair is fair!), but will mention now that it’s remarkable to me how many elements of the series as a whole were established right from the start.   Just as he walks out of the prison, Dortmunder meets up with Andy Kelp–his #1 fan, and single biggest headache–and often I’ve wondered who Westlake used as the model for him.  I’m going to guess a fellow writer, and leave it at that–there’s a fair few potential candidates.  Kelp isn’t that well-developed in the first book, but all the basic elements are there, up to and including his penchant for stealing cars with MD plates.

We also meet the stoic barkeep Rollo, of the O.J. Bar and Grill–and how many times have I walked down Amsterdam Avenue in the 80’s, hoping to run across it?  If I won the Lotto (which I never play), I’d be strongly tempted to create it–much further uptown, of course–Harlem maybe, or Washington Heights–it makes sense to me that it would shift location, fleeing an increasingly unsatisfactory clientele.  That section of Amsterdam is all glitzy singles bars now–back in 1970, that was a real blue collar working class nabe, seedy and low-rent.  Westlake couldn’t have known that it would transform itself almost overnight into an overpriced yuppie enclave in the late 70’s (I oughta know, I was living there when it happened).  But as the years passed, the O.J. somehow survived, a timeless relic of the past, as is Dortmunder himself.  A rebel against ‘progress’ at all times, is our John.

We also meet the redoubtable getaway car driver, Stan Murch, and his even more impressive cab driver of a mom (would any Richard Stark heister ever live with his mother?   And like it?)–also the less frequently appearing Alan Greenwood, who in the course of the book’s events is forced to change his name to Grofield.  He’s not really that much like Stark’s Grofield, other than his eye for the ladies (he has to work a lot harder than Stark’s Grofield to land them), but Westlake delighted in pointing out the odd connections between these two felonious fictional universes he’d created.

Dortmunder was no more supposed to be a series character than Parker, originally–at least if Westlake is to be believed.  After having come up with Parker, Tobin, and (in short story form) Levine, Westlake probably felt like it was time to liberate himself of the albatross of series fiction–having to keep coming up with new ways of writing the same story–he was always wary of being pigeon-holed.

But the book sold too damned well for him to let the character go–there were other stories to tell about him, though he ended up with slightly over half as many novels as Parker (and some very good short stories, including Westlake’s one and only Edgar winner in that category).  Comedy–good comedy–is a lot harder to write than a straight crime novel.  Building from one gag to the next, keeping it all logical within certain boundaries–writing all those Nephew books, and that one lousy comic caper about a movie star’s kidnapping, had prepared him for this.   He’d merely been a journeyman humorist before–with Dortmunder, he became a master of the art.  He had the characters, the voices–and the audience to sustain them, while he fleshed them out, made them a bit more vivid and alive with each book, until the thought of a world without Dortmunder & Co. became unbearable.

And yet at times he seems to have begrudged Dortmunder the time and effort he could have spent on other books.   He was increasingly eager to branch out, test his wings, write fiction that couldn’t be so easily categorized.   And he did, frequently–the 70’s were, in many ways, his most creative period.  But I think having Dortmunder to keep coming back to kept him honest, in a way–particularly in that long gap between the sixteenth and seventeenth Parker novels.   Writers don’t always know what’s good for them, which is why we the readers have to keep telling them–otherwise, A. Conan Doyle might have spent much more of his career writing turgid historical romances about the Hundred Years War.

One last point, before I break this off, and start work on Part 2–Westlake was fond of saying that Dortmunder lived much more in the real world than Parker.  I don’t agree.  Parker certainly lives in a brutally romanticized reality, where he gets away with far too much, and Parker himself is an impossible creature–an amalgram of man and wolf that I don’t believe exists in reality, though I’m sure there must be those few who come close at times.

Westlake said that if Parker was robbing a bank, he’d find a convenient parking spot right in front, but if Dortmunder was robbing the same bank, he’d have to park several blocks away.   Fair enough, but when Dortmunder robs a bank in The Hot Rock, he does so by means of a hypnotist called Miasmo the Great.  Earlier in the book, he employs a helicopter–to rob a police station!  Then he mounts an assault on a mental institution via a portable locomotive.  This is the real world?  Parker’s heists, even the wildest of them, could actually happen in the real world–and have.  Dortmunder’s could only happen in a Dortmunder novel–or maybe a Rube Goldberg cartoon–his stories are no more realistic than Buster Keaton’s–and no less believable when you’re engrossed in them.

The difference is Dortmunder himself–he’s more real than Parker, because he’s closer to us–and to his creator–in his reaction to his many misfortunes.  Parker has endless runs of bad luck–much worse than Dortmunder’s–think of all the times he gets betrayed, shot, left for dead–and he takes them all with a stoicism that the philosopher Zeno might envy.  Nothing like this ever happens to Dortmunder, whose colleagues (with one noteworthy exception) are all deathlessly loyal and steadfast–perhaps a bit reluctantly so, at times, but they stick by him, through thick and thin.   Dortmunder experiences fewer real calamities than Parker, but many more embarrassments–he’s the comic foil that Parker steadfastly refused to be.   Dortmunder would refuse if he could, but he’s not allowed to.   He was made for this life.

And you can almost see him casting the occasional aggravated sideways glance at his creator–“you wouldn’t do this to the other guy.”  No, he wouldn’t.  But he would do a lot worse, knowing the other guy could take it.   The younger of his kleptomaniacal alter egos he treated much more protectively.  Like a father shields his prodigal son from the consequences of his mistakes–but rejoices all the more when the screw-up makes good, as Dortmunder so often did (he actually heisted a LOT more money than Parker per book, believe it or not–then blew it at the racetrack).

Parker lives outside the world of men–only visiting it to gain the necessary cash to sustain his abstracted wolfish lifestyle–but Dortmunder–like the coyotes who have invaded America’s urban spaces–is a creature of this crazy modern world we live in, forced to march to its beat, however out of step he may be.

And he takes insults much more personally than Parker ever did.   Parker will just kill you if you cross him in some materially significant way–one way or other, your troubles will be over.  Dortmunder, if he gets angry enough, will make you wish you were dead.   Over and over, we’ll see him strip some wealthy powerful tormentor of everything, and leave him naked to the wind–the Trickster Incarnate is not to be taken lightly when he takes his aspect upon him, and directs the full force of chaos against you.  And then, of course, he goes back to being the same poor schmuck he was before.   Power doesn’t stick to him, any more than money does.

Laugh at him if you will, ye mighty of the earth, but the last laugh shall be his.   Because much as he may not know it, he is our champion–Robin Hood in a shabby suit, carrying a Smith & Wesson Terrier in place of a longbow, marshaling his not-so-merry men to some new enterprise of great pith and moment, whose currents often turn awry and lose the name of action.   But we the readers feel merry, watching them stubbornly ply their trade.   Because thieves though they are, they’re our thieves.   The heisters of our discontent.

For the eight years, Donald Westlake had dreamed that he was Parker.   But then he woke up and he was John Dortmunder.

Aren’t we all?

See you in a week or so.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels