Monthly Archives: June 2015

Review: Cops and Robbers

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Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.

Robert Kennedy

“What do you say; is it the bigger punishment to get sent out of this city, or to stay here?”

“You tell me,” I said.  “Why’d you stay here long enough to get yourself into a bind like this?”

He shrugged.  “Why do you stay, man?”

“I’m not dealing,” I said.

“Sure you are,” he said.  “You’re dealing in machismo, man, just like I’m dealing in scat.”

Ever since drugs got tied in with the cultural revolution, the junkies have had a richer line of horseshit.  “Anything you say,” I said, and turned away to look out my own window.

“None of us started out this way, man,” he said.  “We all started out as babies, innocent and pure.”

I looked at him again.  “One time,” I said, “a guy a lot like you, full of talk, he showed me a picture of his mother.  And while I was looking at it, he made a grab for my gun.”

He gave a big broad grin; he was delighted.  “You stay in this town, man,” he said.  “You’re gonna like what it does to you.”

“There’s got to be a way out,” Joe said.  He was clutching the steering wheel hard enough to bend it.  He was enraged and bewildered because he was the hero of his life, and the hero always has a way out.

“Keep rolling,” Tom said.  He expected nothing any more, but as long as they were moving it hadn’t ended yet.

I think anyone who has ever read this blog knows my reviews are spoiler-laden, and I’ve regretted that on occasion, but I’ve never really figured out a way to examine what a book is about, or decide how well it achieves the author’s ends, without talking a lot about what happens in it, because discussing the finer points of prose style or types of symbolism has never really been my thing, and terms like ‘post-modernism’ give me hives.  I like to talk about plot and character, which I think is 99% of what makes fiction work–or not.

See, this may very well be the best book Donald Westlake ever wrote that isn’t in print right now–not even as an ebook and that’s a dirty shame.  Used copies are cheap and plentiful online, but I feel a certain irritation seeing that the movie version is currently available on DVD (I saw it via Netflix a while back).

It’s not just a shame because it’s a thrilling and original crime novel, that keeps you guessing every step of the way, but even more because it’s a damned timely piece of work today, with all the controversy over ‘policing methods’.

This is not really a story about police work, though.  It’s about a heist.  It’s in that genre.  But to explain why and how the heist takes place, Westlake has to tell us a bit about a policeman’s lot, which as W.S. Gilbert once pointed out, is not always a happy one.

Westlake himself was no Ed McBain when it came to writing about cops–his heroes are rarely lawmen of any kind, cops are often very unsympathetic and even frightening figures in his work, and we know a bit more now about why that was, as I mentioned in the previous article.  His arrest and brief incarceration for stealing a microscope at college.

One gets the sense he could never look at a man in uniform without tensing up.  And on some level, ever afterwards–even though that episode was presumably the beginning and end of his criminal career–his sympathies tended to lie with robbers, much more than cops.   He just found it easier to identify with those who broke the law than those who upheld it.   He wasn’t alone in that regard–you can point to Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford (though even Willeford had his biggest success writing about a Florida police detective).  Still, rarely has any writer devoted so much of his career to chronicling the exploits of crooks.

So he has a prejudice, but it’s not a blind prejudice–he’s aware of it, knows where it comes from.  He knows he has to allow for it.  He knows not all cops are dirty, that most of them just sort of ended up in that line of work, that most are just trying to do their jobs, that it’s an exceptionally tough job to do right.   He doesn’t say in that brief snippet of autobiography you can read in The Getaway Car that he was mistreated by the police in any way, that his rights were violated–he just says they broke him down, got a confession, stuck him in a cell, where he went through several days of inner turmoil and despair.

He knows part of his hostility towards them is really based on resentment at how easily they got him.  He wants to be an honest storyteller, and that means he has to be honest with himself, above all.  Everyone has reasons for how they feel, and how they act on those feelings.   That doesn’t necessarily make them good reasons.

One of his three greatest series protagonists, Mitchell Tobin, is an ex-cop, of course–but that’s the point of the character, that he’s been rejected by that culture, permanently separated from it, and many of the worst people he meets in those books are policemen–and yet we know that he’s never quite relinquished that part of him that’s a cop.  That culture has left a mark on him that can’t be erased, though he sees its failings with great clarity.

Very early in his career, even before Parker, Westlake started writing short stories about Abraham Levine, a decent New York City detective with an emotionally sound but physically ailing heart.  One of those stories was the first thing he ever wrote that got adapted, for an 87th Precinct TV series.   Skilled conscientious policemen do show up repeatedly in his work, along with one equally skilled policewoman at the tail end of it.  He was never trying to say we don’t need good cops, or that good or bad, they’re any less human than the rest of us.

But what do cops need?  What makes them tick?  Why are they the way they so frequently are–the way that makes so many of us regard them with such mixed emotions?   What would be a good way to get at that, without writing another bloody police procedural?  That was one crime subgenre he had no affinity for whatsoever, and it’s not like there’s ever been a shortage of that kind of story, in any medium.   Westlake did like to avoid going over too-well trodden ground, if possible.

If you look at the novels coming up to this one, you see a lot of ideas he’s processing, things he’s been going over in his head.  The uneasy but often strangely intimate relationship between the police and organized crime (Slayground).  A guy trained in law enforcement coming up with an idea for a big robbery (Bank Shot, though as I mentioned last time, you can see that in The Score as well).  Truth is, if you started a list of all the story elements in this book that appeared in earlier Westlake books, you’d be at it a long time.  Westlake is almost never working on just one book at any time in this period (or any period, really), and this means all his books, under any name, are always affecting other books, and being affected in turn.

This marks the second time Westlake turned a screenplay into a novel–the first being Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, his very first ‘comic caper’, and one of the weakest novels he ever produced.  In that case, the movie was not made, and he’d retained the book rights, so he turned it into a book (waste not, want not).  In this case, the film did get made, with Westlake as sole screenwriter, and the result is not terrible. It’s a decent little 70’s crime flick, with a good cast, nice New York area location shooting, and you should watch it sometime.  But don’t feel like you’ve missed anything amazing if you never get around to it.

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Westlake had a good relationship with the director of that film, Avram Avakian, who he admired as a film editor, and who he thought simply lacked the right personality to be a first-rate director (not pushy enough).  Westlake was much more involved in the making of that film than he’d been with any prior production he’d been connected to, but said his job seemed to mainly be to reassure the insecure and overwhelmed Avakian that everything was going to be okay.   And that’s basically all it was.

He said it struck him as a ‘surface treatment’ of an idea that he couldn’t help feeling was worth taking a more detailed approach to.   And he had once more retained the rights to do a book version–not a novelization of the film itself.  The book is very much its own thing, and differs from the movie in many key respects.  Still, if you didn’t know the history, you’d probably just say the movies had taken one of Westlake’s great books and dumbed it down, as had happened so many times already.

No, in this case he took a so-so film and wised it up.  A lot.  He couldn’t even blame the screenwriter for the movie’s failure to blow anyone away, because he was the screenwriter.  Not for the first time, we are moved to wonder if there is something in Westlake that just doesn’t translate to other mediums.  But he was able to translate what he’d written for a film into something that holds up extremely well as a book.  So go figure.

The book opens in early summer of the year 1969 (I’ll explain later why we know what year it is), with an on-duty police officer walking into a liquor store on West 79th Street on the Upper West Side, just a few doors away from the Lucerne Hotel; originally a high-end place, where Eugene O’Neill lived as a child (I vaguely recall his memories of it were not pleasant)–by the time of this story, a seedy dive for barflies.   And just a few years later, gentrification would hit the Upper West, and they restored The Lucerne to something like its former glory, and you’d have to be a pretty well-off barfly to live there now.

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The officer, one Joe Loomis, 32 years old, wearing the standard blue uniform of the NYPD, pulls out his service weapon, and tells the startled cashier it’s a hold-up.  He gets $233.00–a lot more money in 1969 than it is now, but still hardly a fortune worth risking everything for.  He parked his ride around the corner, so nobody who saw the robbery sees him get into a real police car.  The witnesses can’t describe him well, because all they saw was his uniform.  When the story hits the news, the department says it was some joker disguised as a cop.   What else are they going to say?

This is recounted to us in first person, by Joe himself.  The next chapter is in the third person, with the all-seeing narrator showing us Joe riding into the city with his best friend, fellow officer, and next-door neighbor, Tom Garrity.  They’ve been car-pooling for years now.  Tom made detective, so they don’t work together anymore, but they met on the job, obviously.  Their wives are best friends too.  Their children play together.   It’s the stuff sitcoms are made of, isn’t it?  They’re as American as apple pie–or in a short time, Bonnie and Clyde.

So it makes perfect sense that Joe, feeling the need to tell somebody what he did, impulsively spills the beans to Tom–who is dumbfounded–then disbelieving–then delighted.  He thinks this is the greatest thing he ever heard.  And as he proceeds through his own work-day, which involves heading over to a rich woman’s luxury digs on Central Park West (not far at all from the scene of Joe’s crime), and sees what real prosperity looks like, he tells us (because we’re back in first person mode again) that he’s not nearly so interested in catching the robbers as he is in how nice it would be to live like that.

This is the pattern for the whole book–first person chapters from Joe and Tom (always entitled ‘Joe’ or ‘Tom’) alternating with numbered third-person chapters, mainly from their perspective.  It’s almost like those reality shows where they talk about a crime, and you go from some off screen narrator to a witness telling the camera his perspective of past events, and how he felt about them at the time.  I don’t believe any such shows existed when this book was written.  Westlake playing around with the format, as he often liked to do.

Neither man, as we learn, got into law enforcement because it was some deep-seated ambition, or he wanted to serve the public good, or like that.   How many cops can honestly say that’s what made them become cops?  Joe was in the army, he got routed into the MP’s, military cops, and when he got out of the service, cop was just the best-paying job he was qualified to do.  Tom, smart as a whip but lacking the bread for a good college, took the civil service exam, became a clerk in the unemployment office, and it was boring.  Already experienced at taking the exams, he switched over to the NYPD.  He figured that would be more exciting.  The excitement has mainly worn out.

Both men now hate their jobs–not just the jobs themselves, but the city they’re doing them in.   New York has never been an easy place to live and/or work, and by the late 60’s, it was entering one of its periodic crisis periods, with crime skyrocketing, urban blight spreading, and a general sense that its best days were behind it.   Then it got better, and now everybody wants to live here.   We New Yorkers will be doing this two-step for the rest of history, if nobody nukes us and sea levels don’t get too high.  Knock wood.

Throughout the novel, we see each man doing his job, and experiencing the worst side of it–intervening in horrible domestic disputes, dangerous chases after armed robbers, the constant knowledge that each day you go to work could be the last day of your life–Joe’s partner is seriously wounded when they break up a robbery not so different from the one Joe did a short time earlier.  And just the general sense that everybody, of all races and classes, hates their guts on general principle.

Late in the book,  Tom shows up when fellow officers are interrogating a gay man who was brutally beaten by a guy he picked up cruising in Central Park.   Already distancing himself from his job by that point, he’s astounded to find himself revolted by the total lack of sympathy they show to the victim; the way they just turn off their humanity entirely.

He realizes that he would have been the same a short while ago–that policemen in New York (and not just New York) often stop seeing many of the people they’re dealing with on the street as fellow human beings–and he’s reminded of this hippie he picked up for drug dealing, who told him (see above) that the job and the city he does it in would destroy his soul.  Change his identity.   Yep.  It’s about that again.

So no, they don’t much like their jobs, and when you don’t like your job, you don’t like your life, and when you don’t like your life, you don’t much care for yourself.   Not such an uncommon complaint among working stiffs, but driving home one night after a late shift, Tom, mulling over what that hippie said to him,  tells Joe he’s got an idea.   A big one.  They can just give up their jobs, change their lives, move out of the city, start afresh elsewhere–all they need is a million bucks.  Apiece.

A few days earlier, see, they were having a cook-out in the backyard, and this snotty neighbor of theirs, who manages a supermarket, started talking about how dishonest New York City cops are, all of them on the take.   Which Joe and Tom are not, best as we can tell–other than the money Joe took from the liquor store.  Joe, who has a bit of a short fuse (like many in his line of work), reminded this jerk that he comes home every damn night with a big bag of groceries he didn’t pay for.   The conversation got a little heated, and Joe ended up saying “In our position we could get whatever we wanted.  We restrain ourselves, is all.”

So Joe has inspired Tom–first by sticking up the liquor store in uniform–then by making that remark.   It’s true–up to a point.  Police officers make the perfect criminals.   They are in a position uniquely suited to commit perfect crimes.   Disguised as cops.  Joe, astonished by Tom’s suggestion at first, gets the joke immediately, and they both start to laugh.

So in the coming weeks, they start to toss around possible ideas, all of them centered around Tom’s notion that they can steal something really valuable and then sell it to somebody for two million.   They need to find a buyer before they can know what to steal for him or her.  So who has that kind of money, isn’t afraid of receiving stolen goods, lives in the general vicinity, and is easy for a police officer to find and contact?   The Mafia.   Naturally.

Tom takes the train down to Red Bank, New Jersey (a great little town, and that was true long before anybody ever heard of Kevin Smith), to visit Anthony Vigano, a mob boss of some influence, who has an estate there.  He makes damn sure he’s carrying no ID, because one thing he and Joe agreed on is that they are not going to pull this job if the buyers know who they are, and where to find them.   Not to mention Vigano’s house is under constant FBI surveillance.  And what a house.

It was a strange house.  Either Vigano had bought it furnished from the previous owner, who had been somebody with a lot of good taste, or he’d had the thing done for him by an expensive decorator.  We went through rooms filled with obviously valuable antiques, graceful furniture, flocked wallpaper, crystal chandeliers, heavy draperies, all sorts of tasteful and quietly expensive things; just the kind of surroundings I’m happiest among.  But then on the wall there’d be hanging some lousy painting of a crying clown, with real rhinestones sprinkled on his hat.  Or a lovely marble-topped table would hae one of those ashtrays on it made of a flattened gin bottle.  Or a modern black parson’s table would have a lamp on it composed of a fake brass statue of two lions trying to climb up the trunk of a tree and the shade would be cream-colored with a purple fringe.  Or a room with a beautiful wallpaper would have one of those porcelain light-switch plates in a free-form star shape.  Absolutely the most amateurishly done bust of President Kennedy I’ve ever seen was sitting on a huge gleaming grand piano, next to a green glass vase with pussy willows in it.

Tom isn’t counting on merely a lack of ID keeping his identity secret–he’s gotten into a room where disguises for undercover officers are kept, and gotten a wig, a false mustache, and thick dark horn-rimmed glasses.   Which really can change the way a person looks–as evidenced by the author photo on the back of this book.

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Here’s a later back cover pic of him without the beard (a relic of his Greenwich Village days he seems to have given up on), and with different glasses.

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If you saw him like he is in the first photo, and then were given the second–would you know it was the same guy?

They finally take Tom in to see Vigano, after searching him carefully, but they leave his disguise intact–otherwise there’d be no deal to make.  Tom will only say he’s a policeman–that he and his partner are willing to try and steal anything Vigano wants, as long as the pay-off is two million.   They have this discussion in Vigano’s own personal bowling alley down in the basement (crime does pay), and Vigano, not sure whether to believe Tom is a cop, but knowing this can’t possibly be some crazy sting by the Feds, says what the hell–bearer bonds.  Ten million in negotiable bearer bonds.  Nothing too small or too big.  They can change the numbers, cash them in.  They have the connections–Tom obviously doesn’t.

Tom agrees, but makes it clear he’s not just going to come back to Vigano’s house with the goods–he knows who he’s dealing with here.   He’ll call a pre-arranged phone number (identifying himself as “Mr. Kopp”), after the job is done, and they’ll work out the exchange.  This is just a one-time thing for him.  He’s an amateur at this.  He knows if these career criminals can get the ten without paying the two, they will.   And the easiest way to make sure the heist never gets back to them would be to make the heisters disappear, permanently.

And as Tom leaves, we get a chapter for Vigano, entitled ‘Vigano’–one of two–but not in the first person.   No attempt to identify with him–as we’ve seen, Westlake never really identifies with mobbed up guys–he’s with the independents.   So in third person narrator mode, we see Vigano tell some of his men to follow this guy, get on the train with him, find out who he really is, set things up for the double-cross–just in case these guys can actually steal ten million in bonds.

Tom figured they’d try that, so he arranged for Joe to be there at Penn Station, in uniform.  Joe blocks a staircase after he sees Tom pass–he doesn’t have to say why he’s doing it, he’s a cop–giving Tom plenty of time to make his escape, while the hoods just have to stand there and fume and look for alternate routes that don’t exist, because Tom planned it that way.  And just as with the liquor store hold-up, all they see is the uniform–they couldn’t pick Joe out of a line-up if their lives depended on it.   Which they just might, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

So now our heroes know what they are stealing, and they know who they’re stealing it for, and they also know that the people they’re stealing it for will happily steal it from them and give them a few square feet of the New Jersey Meadowlands in exchange (I’d say introduce them to Jimmy Hoffa, but that’s still a few years off).

They know the bearer bonds can be found at a number of Wall Street brokerages.  Pretty tight security there (including some brother NYPD officers on permanent Wall St. detail, who we’re told know more about the financial world than most CEO’s), but Tom does some casing in his time off, and finds one that fits the bill pretty well.   It goes by the moniker Parker, Tobin, Eastpoole, and Company.   Oh very good, Mr. Westlake.

Thing is, up to this point, it’s all been a game–for both of them, but particularly Joe, who never really believed they were going to pull a big robbery–when he did that liquor store thing, it was really more of a gag than anything else.   He needed a bit of extra cash for his daughter’s swimming lessons.  He did it on a whim, more or less.   He’s the guts of the operation, the one who can act on pure instinct when the time is right, but Tom’s the brains, and Joe’s not so sure Tom has enough brains to pull this off.

But Tom’s a natural at it–he keeps turning it over in his head, and he finally figures out that the one time he thought they should definitely not pull the job is the exact moment in time they should pull it.   See, there’s going to be a big ticker-tape parade for the moon astronauts.  That would be the parade they did after the Apollo 11 lunar landing, which was held on August 10th, 1969, in the celebrated Canyon of Heroes.

See, at first Tom thought the crowds and traffic jams would prevent them making a clean getaway, then he realizes that’s exactly the distraction they need–and the perfect cover for a truly ingenious maneuver he’s figured out.   It’s such a neat twist, I won’t even tell you what it is.   I just won’t risk being the one to spoil it for anybody.  Read the book (or see the movie, but I really can’t overstate how much better the book is, so please read that first).

Now what I can tell you, if you haven’t twigged to it yet, is that Westlake is plagiarizing himself again.   He already wrote a version of this heist, in short story form, entitled Just One of Those Days, and you can read about that in my review of The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution.

Evidently Westlake was figuring out the heist for this book, and he saw the coverage of the Apollo 11 parade (maybe he went to see it, I dunno), and a light bulb appeared over his head.   See, in the short story, the astronaut parade in a small city louses everything up for some luckless Dortmunder prototypes, because they didn’t figure it into their plan.   A good planner uses whatever he has to work with, whatever is going on at the time of the heist, and in this case, that’s the controlled chaos that such an event inevitably leaves in its wake.

So they do the job.   Seriously, that’s all I’m going to say.   If you’ve read the book, we can discuss it in the comments section, where those who have not read the book should tread carefully, if at all.  I think this may actually be the cutest caper Westlake ever dreamed up.   It’s that good.  I pity all the people who went to see the movie first (the movie actually does a pretty good job with the heist), but since the movie didn’t do such boffo box office, a lot of people reading the book when it came out were relatively unspoiled, as I was.

Most of the time, reading these types of books, by Westlake and others, you have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen–if the storyteller knows his business, he’ll keep you guessing about certain things, keep you off-balance, hit you with a few odd twists and turns, defeat expectations–but you’re still going to have a pretty good idea where it’s all going.  Because you’ll know what kind of characters you’re reading about.   You know if they’re winners or losers.  You know if it’s a dark story about a failed heist (and most heist stories were about failure in this time period), or a light-hearted comic caper, where somehow it all comes out right in the end.

If they’re series characters, obviously they’re going to survive.  If they’re one-shot characters, you can tell from certain things you’re told about them whether the author likes them enough to let them at least get out with their skins.  You know enough about their identities to form a good assessment of their chances, and you will usually guess right about their ultimate fates.

But these guys are cops.  Who have become robbers.  But they don’t want to be robbers, they just want to pull one big score to become rich.   They have nice families, but they fantasize about other women–in one chapter, Joe fantasizes about screwing Tom’s wife.  That he does not tell Tom about.   Joe also had a girlfriend in the city for a while, that his wife never found out about, and he’s not the least bit guilty about it.  Joe also gives tickets to rich guys just because they irritate him (in his defense, he doesn’t seem particularly racist–in my nabe, just driving while black can get you pulled over).

Tom is a bit less mercurial, but still has a dark side, as the hippie informed  him.  He lives maybe a bit too much in his head.  They’re not bad guys, but they’re not saints either.   They’re out for themselves. They are strongly loyal to each other, but that loyalty has its limits.  And ultimately, they plan to live far away from each other, which somehow seems wrong.  But at the same time, it makes a lot of sense.

They’re a complicated mix of traits–and heroism isn’t really one of them.  Greed most certainly is.  Greed for money, but even more for life.   To just know what it’s like to live differently than they do–to leave the lousy jobs and the lousy city behind, and remake themselves.   And we know, those of us who read Westlake, that this kind of crisis can go a lot of different ways in his books.   Identity transformations are never easy to pull off.   Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t.

So reading this one, I was trying to figure out whether Joe and Tom are doing the right thing–not morally, certainly not legally, but personally.   What are we supposed to think about them?   We know Westlake doesn’t really like cops, but they’re trying to stop being cops.   We know he often identifies with robbers, but they’re not really trying to become robbers.  They’re just trying to become–themselves.   But they don’t seem to have a very clear idea of what the new Joe and Tom will be like.  They need the money to find that out.   Don’t we all?

So as they move into endgame–getting the money from Vigano and the mob, without getting killed in the process–even the sharpest reader is left in suspense, knowing it really could go either way.   They don’t have to worry too much about the police, because as with Joe’s liquor store hold-up, the powers that be don’t want to admit that real policeman could have pulled the job.  Everybody keeps insisting they were robbers disguised as cops.  The union is threatening dire consequences to anybody who suggests otherwise.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Joe and Tom had agreed to wait two years after the heist to quit the force, but as it becomes clear that nobody is on the trail, they change it to a year, then six months.  Which seems–dangerous.   Careless.  The kind of thing that trips you up in the end.

So I don’t know that I can discuss this one any further without giving the game away.   And I don’t want to do that.   This is one you should read for yourself, and make up your own mind what you think about it.   Make your own guesses as to how it comes out in the end.   And why.   Joe and Tom never appear in any later books by Westlake–that I can tell you.  But that’s the joy of non-series characters–you can do whatever you like with them.

Westlake was determined to break out of the molds he’d set for himself in the 1960’s–Parker–Tobin–The Nephews–even his standalone noirs had this feeling of inevitability to them.  But what he’d be writing for M. Evans & Co. in the 1970’s–the house that published Ex Officio, which he would now be writing for under his own name–wouldn’t stick closely to any previous form he’d worked in.

It would mainly be humorous, but would often have a dark edge to it.   If he wrote a Dortmunder for them, it wouldn’t be like the other Dortmunders.   If he wrote a Nephew book, it would be so different from the earlier books that you almost wouldn’t recognize it as being part of that informal grouping.  The next book he wrote (actually co-wrote) for them is not a favorite of mine, but it was different, give it that.

At M. Evans, he began to seriously expand the parameters of what a Westlake novel could be, and that began right here, with Cops and Robbers–a book where he conquered his fear of policemen by temporarily putting himself in the place of two (Tom in particular seems like a pretty direct self-portrait, even though Joe is the former military man)–and yet demonstrated more vividly than ever before why he had good reason to feel that way.

See, we need cops.  We really do.   Nobody can take a good hard look at the way people are, everywhere, and think otherwise.   Somebody has to keep us in line, save us from the worst in ourselves, and can you imagine a tougher job?  I can’t.

But cops are also people, cut from the same flawed cloth as the rest of us, and that’s why they need policing as well.  And maybe a bit of sympathy and support–but no more trust than they earn, on a daily basis.   Because they’re like us.   Only in a much better position to take what they want.   Do they restrain themselves?   Depends on the circumstance.   The job makes the man–and can just as easily unmake him.  Thus endeth the lesson.  Oh who am I kidding?  The lesson is going on every day, on the news.  And when, for the love of Mike, are the flatfoots going to figure out that everybody has a smartphone now?

But even as Westlake is moving into new frontiers as a writer, he’s still got some unfinished business to conclude with his sixties stalwarts.  Including that most conflicted and confessional of cops, Mitch Tobin.   And next up is his final case.   I reread it while I was on jury duty last week, and I think I understand it a little better now.   All kinds of cops in this one–good, bad, in-between.  Just like the rest of us.   Only more so.

PS: This one seems to have made an impression, internationally speaking–well, conflicting emotions over policemen is about as universal as you can get.   The cover art was pretty consistent, and often quite good–

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I particularly like the one below for the Wall Street theme–please note, Westlake showed basically no empathy for the people Joe and Tom were robbing, because empathy has its limits, and the biggest thieves somehow never do get caught, do they?   He might show a bit of understanding for policemen, for psychiatrists–but the very rich remained on his shit list to the very end.   Because as F. Scott Fitzgerald so aptly pointed out, they are not like the rest of us.   They’re much much worse.

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Sidebar: The Dannemora Escape

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Dannemora is a little town.  In most of it, you wouldn’t know there was a penitentiary around at all.  The town doesn’t look dirty enough, or mean enough.  But the penitentiary’s there, a high long wall next to the sidewalk along the street.  The sidewalk’s cracked and frost-heaved over there.  On the other side, it’s cleaner and there’s half a dozen bars with neon signs that say Budweiser and Genesee.  National and local beers on tap.  Bill had Budweiser and I had Genesee.  It tasted like beer.

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake

I’m now quite sure I’m not going to finish my next review before I start jury duty this week–possibly next week, but that will depend on some unknown variables.  And there is something else we could talk about in the meantime.

I have thus far been privileged to receive visitors from 97 countries and territories, according to my WordPress stats.  I suspect news of the escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora NY (which has long been popularly known as Dannemora) has reached each and every one of them by now. Some are more interested than others, but it has become a story of interest, far outside the region it happened in.

Really, it’s not that big of a deal, is it?   Two minor crooks with violent records broke out of jail nine days ago.  Nobody knows where they are.  There’s been a massive manhunt, costing the taxpayer (according to one account) one million dollars a day, and it’s come up with bupkus.  Fingers pointing in every possible direction as to whose fault this is.  It is very unusual for prisoners who break jail in America to avoid the authorities for more than a day or two.  Many are caught hours later.  Not this time.  You could come up with almost any scenario, and have as good a chance of being right as anyone else.

All I keep hearing is how it’s just like The Shawshank Redemption.  I don’t know how the hell anybody makes that analogy.  I suppose the confusion could stem from the fact that Shawshank heavily copied a much better film that does resemble this escape quite a bit.

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Don Siegel crapped better movies than Shawshank.  (I do love to blaspheme against internet top ten lists.)

One person I have no doubt would be following this story with rapt fascination were he still around is Donald E. Westlake.  Not least because one of his earliest novels, 361, has a scene set right outside that prison–Eddie Kapp, former mob boss, gets released from Dannemora after a long stretch there, and is about to get whacked by men working for his former associates, when Ray Kelly and his brother intervene.   Dannemora might as well be called Monequois–upstate New York, edge of the Adirondack Park, near the Canadian border–Westlake country.  Hell, for all we know the name Monequois is partly derived from Dannemora (which is Swedish, not native American, but there ain’t no such tribe as the Monequois, and there never was).

Westlake didn’t write a lot about prison life, but when he did, it was memorable.  He got a lot of letters from guys in prison who read his books (particularly the ones written as Richard Stark), and one of them he clearly found inspirational, to say the least.  As he told a NY Times interviewer in 1980–

Another guy–this one was doing time in a penitentiary in Walla Walla–wrote me a letter saying that the prison was honeycombed with tunnels because it was built on sandy soil.  One day the gym caught fire.  The firetruck headed across the exercise yard, but then the middle section broke through into a tunnel; the cab angled up in the air one direction and the rear of the truck angled up the other way, in a giant V, and the gym burned down.

So if all these tunnels were still there, and the authorities didn’t even know about them until that happened (you can hear him thinking), suppose inmates were just going out to do stuff, and returning before anybody noticed they were gone?   He presumably heard other stories like this from incarcerated readers (though of course there’d be only so much they could tell him while they were actually in prison, private correspondence being a privilege you generally have to do without while you are a guest of the state).   And he would have been doing some research of his own along these lines.

This train of thought such letters put him on led him to have an untrustworthy character in Lemons Never Lie make up a story about inmates going out to pull small jobs at night, then returning to their cells–building up a nice chunk of change in the process, which they intended to leave for their families.   He developed this concept much further for Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.  The idea clearly delighted him.   These were decent civilized well-behaved comic caper type crooks, of course–not murderers.

Very late in his career, there was Breakout–the one where Parker goes to prison, and he feels it eating away at his sense of self–he has to get out of there.   It’s not a long-term set-up like Dannemora–he’s just being  held for trial there, so escapes aren’t so common–because of the constantly rotating population, prisoners rarely get to spend enough time together to come up with a plan, so Parker has to move fast.  We’re a long way from that book, but interesting that while there’s no tunneling involved in his escape with two confederates he’s met in there, they do end up doing some tunneling afterwards, while pulling a job together.  Anyway, it’ll keep.

Long before that book, in 1961, Westlake contributed an article of the same name (with an added hyphen) to Ed McBain’s Mystery Book.  It’s collected in The Getaway Car, and if you haven’t read it, you really should.

The main point of the essay was that telling prisoners they can’t escape is the same thing as daring them to try.   Westlake described several famous break-outs, from Alcatraz, Leavenworth, Newgate (in London), and Walla Walla State Penitentiary, which you see mentioned in the quote above–what he finds fascinating is that the escaped prisoners nearly always got caught not long afterwards, and they must have known that was the likely result, and yet they wanted to do it anyway.  The tougher the prison was to escape, the more exciting the challenge.

Whereas, Westlake notes, a model prison in Chino, California that was comically easy to escape from, and restrictions on the prisoners were very slight (they spent a lot of time outside), there were virtually no escapes.  Nobody felt like they’d been dared to give it a try.

A sage observation, I think–but these guys they’re looking for now are murderers–one of them a cop-killer–they were never getting out, and they knew it.  So much so that they pretended to be model prisoners in a not-so-model prison–for years–just to get the privileges that would make their escape possible.

And in fact, nobody had escaped from Dannemora in a long time–though there was one notably successful escape in 1974.  Unlike most escapees, those two men had a plan not just for getting out, but staying out, and were not recaptured for some time.  Matt and Sweat (sheesh, who writes this stuff?) will have a hard time equaling their record.

Some recent articles have pointed out that there was recent unrest at Dannemora, and that the habitual prison-wide cell search was not performed afterwards–which might have uncovered the work the two men were doing, and thwarted them.   Westlake talks about this as well–

The prisoner who is carefully working out the details of an escape, in fact, dreads the idea of a riot as much as do the prison officials themselves.

The result of a riot is inevitably a complete search and shakedown of the entire prison.  And this means the discovery of the potential escapee’s tunnel or hacksaw or dummy pistol or specially constructed packing case or rope ladder or forged credentials.  And the escapee has to think of some other plan.

What you realize, when reading this piece (without any great sense of shock if you’ve been reading his books), is that Westlake is very much on the side of the escape artists.  He had only spent a few days of his life imprisoned, after being arrested for stealing a microscope, and it wasn’t a penitentiary–it was just the Plattsburgh city jail.  And this is how it felt for him–

I spent four nights and five days in that jail, and hated it, even more than you might expect.  Every instant was intolerable.  I hate being here now; I hate being here now; I hate being here now.

Years later, when I was writing novels about criminals, and when at least some of the criminals were still literate, I’d occasionally get a fan letter from somebody doing time, and in a few instances, when I replied, I gave an edited version of my own jail time so I could ask the question; How can you live in an intolerable state for years?  I couldn’t stand one single second of it for a mere five days; how do you do it year after year?

The answer I got was always the same, with minor variations.  Yes, what I described was what they, too, had gone through, the absolute unbearable horror, but I’d quit the experience too early.  Some time in the second week, they told me, your brain flips over and this becomes the reality.  This becomes where you live now.  And how, I wonder, do you come back from that damage?

In the case of guys like Matt and Sweat–who have spent most of their adult lives in various prisons–you probably don’t.

So on a pure wish-fulfillment level, armchair criminals that we are, we can contemplate the minor philosophical question of whether, in spite of their awful crimes, some part of us wants them to get away, to beat the system, just to prove it can be done–that man’s ingenuity can overcome any obstacle to his freedom.

But we might better spend our time asking how  many more monsters we want to create, just like these two, via a penal system that has proven exceptionally good at doing that–when forced to confront the reality that no matter how high and thick we build the walls, they can still find a way over, under, or through them.

Or we can just wait for the thinly disguised ‘true crime’ novels (none of them, sadly, by Westlake), and the inevitable big Hollywood film.

You thinking Sean Penn or Edward Norton for Sweat?  George Clooney for Matt, I’d think.   They cast Matt Damon, I’m not showing.

Anybody else have any thoughts?  Because seriously, I don’t know when I”m going to get to finish that next review.  Nobody escapes from jury duty.  I’m not complaining, though–as long as they give me a decent lunch break.  In the Manhattan courthouse district.  Right over by Baxter Street and Canal.  Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.

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Filed under Dannemora prison escape, Donald Westlake

Review: Bank Shot, Part 2

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DORTMUNDER said, “I suppose it’s unfair to blame you for this job.”

“That’s right,” Kelp said.  He was driving, and Dortmunder was in the front seat beside him.

“But I do,” Dortmunder said

Kelp gave him an aggrieved look and faced front again.  “That isn’t fair,” he said.

“Nevertheless.”

I forgot to mention last week that my beloved Pocket Books reprint of this book contains an extra little treat for the sharp-eyed reader.   Look at the list of other books by Donald E. Westlake.

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This bogus book list is not in the first edition from Simon & Schuster (big hardcover publishers are so serious).  Ray Garraty tells me it is in the UK first edition, and it may appear in some others.  It’s a gag we’ll see repeated (in somewhat different form) in another book we’ll be looking at soon–a first edition paperback from an entirely different publisher.  That’s a list of books that never existed at all, but this, by contrast, is a rather eclectic list combining five books Westlake really did write (all of which have been reviewed here) with nine variously famous published works from other authors that mainly saw print before Westlake was born.  Pretty sure the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature has no author at all, but now who’s being too serious?

Just FYI, The Merry Devil of Edmonton is an Elizabethan-era play that was once attributed to Shakespeare, and I know that because I googled it like one minute ago.  I have to ask–did Pocket send Westlake some kind of form on which he was supposed to list past works that readers of this book might be interested in, and he was in one of those moods he got into sometimes?  And they just printed it verbatim?  I wouldn’t rule it out.

But people who work at publishing companies generally know something about books, I would like to think.  Pocket was probably in on the joke.   And the point of the joke, I’d imagine, is that this is a book where nothing gets taken seriously, even the usual publishing house boilerplate opposite the title page that most of us flip right past on our way to the story.

I do think the reference to the W.C. Fields biography (actually written by Robert Lewis Taylor) is more than a throwaway gag–Fields was a big influence on Westlake’s comedy, and certainly on the Dortmunder books.  That same sense of light-hearted (not to mention light-fingered) misanthropy.  And the next Dortmunder even has its own much more erudite version of Baby Leroy in it.  So that’s more of a tip of the hat than a wink of the eye.   And that’s all we need say about that, except that if Stuart R. Johnson wants his book back, he’s shit out of luck.

Bank Shot is dedicated “To Bill Goldman.  Here’s something to think about at the icebox.”  That would be William Goldman, fellow novelist and nonpareil screenwriter, who had adapted The Hot Rock into a film starring Robert Redford as Dortmunder.  The Italian edition of this book, seen up top, has Redford’s image on it, even though George C. Scott played the Dortmunder character (by another name) in the abominable second film.   Westlake loved Goldman’s screenplay, even though it was pretty badly mangled in the course of making the film (see my review of The Hot Rock movie).

This seems like his way of expressing a fond personal hope that Goldman would get another crack at the Dortmunder ‘franchise’, and they could spend more time discussing the characters, as they had for the previous film.  Sadly, it was not to be.   If you want to know just how sadly, rent the George C. Scott film, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.   You ask me, somebody should have warned George C. Scott.

So when last we saw the Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust (“Just Watch Us Grow!”), temporarily housed in a trailer, it was hitched to a stolen truck driven by Stan Much, with Dortmunder riding shotgun.  Meanwhile, the security guards inside are getting tossed around like radishes in a salad spinner, and are gradually losing consciousness because the robbers thoughtfully routed the truck exhaust into the bank (not enough to kill them, just knock them out–it’s not a Richard Stark novel).

The cops patrolling that street have just passed the erstwhile site of the bank, have called in the robbery to a very confused dispatcher, and are now mainly just staring at the place the bank once was in a state of quiet disbelief.  This can’t actually be happening, right?

One thing Westlake figured out writing The Hot Rock, was that in a comic crime story (much as in a silent comedy), a lot of the best comedic possibilities lay with the forces of law & order, such as they are (to be sure, Shakespeare had figured that out as far back as Much Ado About Nothing).  The second half of Bank Shot alternates between the POV’s of the Dortmunder Gang and the police, particularly one Captain Deemer and his trusty aide, Lieutenant Hepplewhite.

Captain Deemer, with a facial tic that makes it look like he’s winking when he’s particularly agitated, keeps saying they need to ‘tighten the net’ (he makes this ghastly chicken-throttling hand gesture every time he says that).   He is not a man to be trifled with.  And he knows full well that if an entire bank gets successfully stolen from right under his shiny red nose, he will never live it down in a million years.

And now he’s got to figure out how this supposedly wheel-less trailer just vanished from where it was supposed to be.  Towards this end, he is visited by a delegation–George Gelding (ouch!), an official of the bank that got stolen (he would like it back), George Docent  (heh), who works for the company that made the safe the money was in– and then there is Mr. Gary Wallah (Westlake is having too much fun with these names).   He works for the Roamerica Company, which made the trailer, only he insists it be called a mobile home.  The word ‘hippie’ does not appear in this book, but it should be noted that if Mr. Wallah is not a hippie, the word really has no meaning.

So it turns out Dortmunder has a problem he had not anticipated–the safe in the bank they just stole is the latest thing in asset protection, and it will take quite some time for even an experienced box man to crack it.  Somehow, the conversation in which this highly salient fact is revealed to Captain Deemer turns into a political argument.   Well, consider the time period this book was written in.  Then consider the passage below.

“I was saying,” Docent said, “that they’ll find that safe a tough nut to crack.  It’s one of the most modern safes we make, with the latest advances in heat-resistant and shock-resistant metals.  These are advances that come from research connected with the Vietnam war. It’s one of the ironic benefits of that unhappy–

“Oh wow,” said Gary Wallah.

Docent turned to him, firm but fair.  “All I’m saying,” he said, “is that research has been stimulated into some–”

“Oh wow.  I mean, wow.”

I’ve heard all your arguments, and I can’t say I entirely disagree with–”

“Wow, man.”

“At this time,” George Gelding said, standing at attention, and looking very red-faced, “when some person or persons unknown have stolen a branch of the Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust, and our brave boys are dying on far-flung battlefields to protect the likes of you who–”

“Oh, wow.”

“Now, there’s much to be said on both sides, but the point is–”

“I see those flaaaaag-draped coffins, I hear the loved ones in their cottages and on the farms of America–”

“Like, really, wow.”

Captain Deemer glowered at them all through the remaining slit of his right eye.  A bellowed shut up might attract their attention–all three were talking at the same time now–but did he want them to shut up?  If they stopped arguing with each other, they’d just start talking to the captain again, and he wasn’t sure he wanted that.

Well, we’ve certainly made strides as a nation since then in our ability to calmly discuss our differences, wouldn’t you say?  You wouldn’t?  Wow, man.

Meanwhile, in a high school football field on Long Island, having left the monoxide-befuddled security guards to take a nice long nap alongside a pleasant country lane, Dortmunder & Co. are painting the trailer lime-green with a quick-drying paint, while May puts up the curtains she made.   Herman X is studying the safe with a general air of consternation.   And back at his nerd cave, Kelp’s former FBI agent nephew Victor, whose idea this job was in the first place, is writing (and tape-recording) Dortmunder fanfic, a sort of one-man radio play, with Victor in the role of Mary Sue.

“Steely-eyed Dortmunder surveyed his work.  The wheels were under the very floor of the bank itself. Hungry desperate men, their hat brims pulled low, his gang had worked with him beneath the shield of night to install those wheels, turning the innocent-seeming bank into an…

ENGINE OF GREED!

“I myself had been one of those men, as recounted in the earlier tale, Wheels of Terror!, in this same series.  And now, the final moment had come, the moment that had filled our every waking thought for all these days and weeks of preparation.

” ‘This is the payoff,’ Dortmunder snarled softly.  ‘Tonight we get the whole swag.’

” ‘Right, boss,’ whispered Kelp eagerly, his scarred face twisting into a brutal smile.

Little do these desperate fiends realize that the man they know as Lefty the Lip is in reality SECRET AGENT J-27!  (I guess J-26 was already taken?)

Victor has no idea who he is.  This is the identity puzzle of the book, which for a Westlake novel, doesn’t really delve much into identity as such, but it’s got to be in there somewhere, and this is it.  The other characters know themselves pretty well, have chosen lives that make sense for them (if not most people), but Victor is just a kid trying on different hats, looking for one that fits.

If Victor were the protagonist of this book, we’d maybe find out how he resolves his confusion, but since he’s just one comic figure among many, we are simply faced with the hilarious yet poignant tableau of a former lawman who comes up with a robbery scheme, finds career criminals to carry it out for him, then imagines himself working undercover to nab them.  Which he has no intention of doing, he loves these people.  But none of it is real to him, just another role-playing game to delay maturity, and one has to figure that’s one of the reasons his idea is not working out so well in the real world.  Such as it is.   He just assumed the safe would open up like a tin can.  Because that’s how it always happens in the stories.

The desperate fiends have now taken shelter in the Wanderlust Trailer Camp.  An increasingly flustered Herman is explaining to an increasingly irate Dortmunder that this particular tin can will take at least 24 hours to open–with morning coming, and everybody from the cops to the Boy Scouts of America looking for the stolen bank, they have to get under cover somehow.

Inspiration strikes, in the form of Much’s Mom, who says they can stay hidden at the camp in plain sight, like The Purloined Letter, until Herman opens the safe (there’s a reason the most prestigious award for this genre is called The Edgar, you know).  They just have to hook the trailer up to power and plumbing, and pay rent on it.  It’ll blend in perfectly, and who’s going to suspect two nice middle-aged ladies like May and Murch’s Mom of stealing a whole bank?

May is nothing short of magnificent in this crisis, as is Mrs. M.–they calmly talk their way around the confused assistant manager of the park, who is wondering where these new tenants came from. He doesn’t really care, as long as he doesn’t get in trouble.  And right as May is filling out the forms, and handing him the rental money, in come the state troopers.  If you don’t want trouble, you need to stay the hell away from Dortmunder & Co.

As all this is going on, Murch is telling his cab driver mom to keep her (wholly unneeded) neck brace on, because they’ve got this whiplash case coming up in the courts, and she wouldn’t want to be seen without it, and she’s trying to make him see the absurdity of that, given their present situation, but do children ever listen to their mothers?  Meanwhile, Herman is trying all sorts of power tools and explosives on the safe, and as Dortmunder acidly comments, you can’t say he hasn’t made a dent in it.  He’s made a very small dent.

The troopers depart, not seeing any trailers that look like banks–the paint job and the curtains really paid off.  Just one little problem–it’s about to rain.  A lot.  And they used a water-based paint.  Well, they dry faster.   Was that not a good idea?

So the assistant manager, having just been informed about the bank, is horrified to see it materialize before his very eyes, as the green trailer becomes a blue and white trailer with a bank’s name on it.  Does he call the cops?  That would mean trouble, which he does not want, so he just tells them they have to leave before anybody sees them.  He gives them enough time to get the truck back and tow the bank somewhere else, assuming they can find another suitable spot to hide in plain sight.  So is that good luck or bad?   It’s getting hard to tell the difference.

It seemed to Dortmunder, sitting there in the stolen station wagon while Kelp optimistically dragged him around through all this rain on a wild goose chase, that this was the story of his life.  His luck was never all good, but it was never all bad either.  It was a nice combination of the two, balanced so exactly that they canceled each other out.  The same rain that washed away the green paint also loused up the police search.  They stole the bank, but they couldn’t get into the safe.  On and on.

It’s almost as if some whimsical deity was planning it that way–and of course that’s exactly what is happening, and his name is not  Yahweh, but Westlake.  But ask yourself this–who’s writing your life?   Didn’t Dortmunder just describe it to a T?  I won’t speak for you, but I know he just described mine.   So are we all in some three dimensional novel dreamed up by some bored omnipotent being, who rather than killing us for his sport (for the moment) is merely putting us through our paces, just to see what we do next?  Just to see what our next bank shot is like, and where the ball might ricochet?   Are we God’s Dortmunder?

And as Dortmunder likewise philosophizes, the ever-ingenious Kelp improvises–he’s noticed there’s a space by the road they’re on where a diner–the kind that used to be housed in trailers, or trolleys, or old railroad cars (you still see them sometimes) used to be.  And the signs are still there.   Pull the trailer up (on the side that doesn’t have the bank’s name on it–ditch the truck again–voila!   Instant restaurant.  Purloined Letter once again.

So they do that, and Herman is getting close to opening the safe, and who should turn up but Captain Deemer and Lieutenant Hepplewhite.  Tired, wet, and discouraged–they’d like a hot cup of coffee and a danish.   Hello, nice middle-aged ladies–what’s that you say?  Not open for business yet?   Too bad.  Hey, you haven’t seen a stolen bank pass by, have you?

So Deemer sends out for coffee and danish over the car radio, and a bunch more squad cars show up, hoping to allay his savage fury, so now the bank is totally surrounded by cops armed with takeout food–and they even share the extras with the nice people in the trailer.  And leave.  Finally.

And Herman is about to blow the safe.   Finally.  And he does.  The money is there–smouldering a bit on top, from the explosion, and all Herman could make was a round hole on one side, but it’s enough to reach in and start scooping out cash.  And as this is going on, they suddenly notice–they’re moving.

And turns out they should have remembered to put some blocks against those trailer wheels.   Because they’re on top of a hill.  And the only thing holding them there is inertia, which Herman’s explosion has just negated.  And the trailer is now rolling downhill, in the general direction of the Atlantic Ocean.   Trailers don’t have brakes, you ever notice that?  That seems like a design flaw, somehow.  Oh well, you know what they say about hindsight.

Do I have to say it?  The bank, safe and all, goes into the drink.  There, I said it.

(For the life of me, I don’t see how they could film this scene for a movie and it wouldn’t be even the least bit funny.  But that’s exactly what they did.)

Even though The Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust (“Just Watch Us Go!”) rolled through a small sleepy fishing town on its way to have a nice swim, it was early in the morning,  and the only witnesses were an irate crossing guard and a confused fisherman.  They have no idea what they’ve just witnessed. Neither is calling the cops.

So they got a bit of cash–enough so that after paying the backer, the gang members get about 2g’s each.  “Still, we did the job, you have to admit that.  You can’t call it a failure,” Victor days.  “I can if I want to,” Dortmunder replies.  So negative.

And the trailer, along with the safe, and most of the money, is drifting slowly out along the ocean floor, eventually to drop into the Hudson Canyon, where perhaps someday James Cameron will discover it (like he’d care; there isn’t enough there to pay for a day’s catering on one of his productions).  The Dortmunder gang can drive back home with their meager takings (and bad head colds), knowing that nobody will ever connect them to this heist (unless Victor tries to get his radio play produced).  The Perfect Crime.  Yeah.  Right.   It’s over.

But as far as Captain Deemer is concerned, nothing is over.  He’s tightening the net!   Three weeks later, he is still making Lieutenant Hepplewhite drive him up and down Long Island in search of the Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust (Just Watch Us–never mind”), and he will not give up.  Because once he does, he has to accept that an entire bank was stolen from under his shiny red nose, and nobody ever found it.   And he could not live that down in a million years.  And if it takes that long to find the bank, that’s how long he’s going to look.   Well, everyone needs a hobby.

They park up on the hill that diner was on, and Lieutenant Hepplewhite notices it’s gone.   Out of business already.  “I knew they wouldn’t make it,” he says.  He doesn’t know the half of it.

That’s a pretty short Part 2 (for me), but that’s really all there is to say about it.  What started out as a comic take on Parker has become very much its own unique creation, that Westlake can add to over a dozen more books, a number of short stories, and a depressingly large number of horrible movies.  Dortmunder won’t always do this badly–then again, sometimes he’ll do even worse.  Like next time.  But he’ll always have May–and Kelp.   He tries to lock Kelp out, but Kelp just picks the lock and lets himself in.

And the moral is, you have to take the bad with the good in life–well I don’t know that it’s a moral, precisely.   An aphorism, really.  Here’s another one I just found–

Cops and robbers would score the same on personality tests. Children who love guns and action, when they grow up, may act out their instincts on either side of the law. They may shoot people, or shoot people who shoot people. What we call brazenness in a criminal we call courage in a police officer.

Hmm–I almost feel like telling this guy it’s a little long for an aphorism (it’s really four aphorisms bunched together), but never mind.   My point would be this–are most cops really cut out to be cops?  Are most robbers really cut out to be robbers?   Aren’t a lot of people in both professions really bad at it?  How many people end up in the jobs and lives they are best suited for?

And suppose you were a cop by trade, but then decided to become a robber–while pretending to be a cop–which you really are–and then committed a robbery–only you didn’t really.  But you had to be a robber just once, so you could stop being a cop forever, and start being yourself.  How would that work out?

We’ll find out next week.  If I can finish the review before I report for jury duty downtown.  Where there’s no end of cops.  And all the robbers are on Wall Street.  Gee, it would be nice if somebody stuck it to those guys just once…….

PS: Quite a nice array of covers, huh?  Something about this story really inspired a number of artists around the world.  If you want to see more of them (and what those titles mean), I direct you to the Official Westlake Blog.

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

Review: Bank Shot

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CALLING all cars, calling all cars.  Be on the lookout for a stolen bank, approximately eleven feet tall, blue and white…”

May shook her head.  “I never saw a nephew yet,” she said, “that was worth his weight in Kiwanis gum.”

“Everybody’s somebody’s nephew,” Kelp said.

May said, “I’m not.”

This may not be Westlake’s best comic novel (it’s up near the top of the pile), but it’s got to be the easiest to sum up–“Dortmunder steals an entire bank.”  That’s not all that happens, but it’s the lead item.

The Hot Rock had been a great success, and was made into a major motion picture (which was no success at all, but Westlake’s check still cleared), so a sequel was obviously called for.   Westlake had himself a new series protagonist, and one who was palatable to many people who would never read a Parker novel.  I sent my mother a large-type edition of Good Behavior as a gift, and she liked it (she might enjoy Butcher’s Moon for all I know, but I’m not going to be the one to send it to her).

In this book, Westlake further refined and defined his new protagonist, and his partners in crime, adding to their number, as he would throughout the series.  It became much more obvious that Dortmunder was a comic take on Parker–obvious already to anyone who knew that The Hot Rock had begun as a Parker outing, but very few knew that at the time.  Dortmunder is described as dark-haired, tall and lean, with oversized knobby knuckles–obviously he has big hands, but he never kills anybody with them.  He never kills anybody, period.  He probably would, if he had to.   But somehow, he never does.  And he’s fine with that.  It’s hard to say if he has a conscience, but you might say he’s got a heart.

We hear once more that he served in Korea, as Parker served in WWII.   We learn that like Parker, he was once married to a woman of somewhat shady background, the professionally named Honeybun Bazoom–but he doesn’t seem to have been in love with her, and when it became obvious she wasn’t much into him either, they got a divorce.  She didn’t shoot him; he didn’t goad her to suicide.   Dortmunder is not one for drama.  He likes to keep things on an even keel as much as possible.   So does Parker, but Parker lives in a very different universe, administered by a very different god, with very different expectations.

And like Parker, he goes to movies, and doesn’t remember much of anything that happens in them–just light and color and sound that passes through him without much effect.  Fiction has no particular allure for him, nor does music, or athletics (except the equine variety).  He has no real opinions on anything that isn’t directly relevant to his work.  As we learn in later books, his only hobby seems to be blowing his  money at the racetrack–a convenient way to explain why he needs to keep working, even though some of his later scores are pretty damned impressive.

In short, he’s much more relatable than Parker, but he’s not really human either.   We’ve been over this–he’s a coyote in human form, making a living in a world he can never really understand, doing his best to blend in, but giving the rest of us these sideways glances that say “You people are nuts.   What the hell is up with you?”

But he’s found himself one hell of a great girl, all the same–not as glamorous as Claire Carroll, but a lot less high-maintenance.  In fact, most of the time she’s the one maintaining him.  We’re told that he ran into May at the Bohack Supermarket she works at while trying to walk out with a lot of items he hadn’t paid for–he may be a brilliant (if perennially star-crossed) heist planner, but he’s a lousy shoplifter, and May (a much more accomplished shoplifter) spotted him easily–and something about his hangdog expression as the groceries tumbled out of his sleeves, won her heart instantly.

Love at first sight.  So deep and true that neither of them ever has to say it in words, or formalize it with a ceremony.   They just clicked.   No drama at all, nor is there ever.  It is, in many ways, the most alluring romantic fantasy at all–to find somebody you don’t need to be romantic with.  Because it’s so right, that hearts and flowers stuff would just feel phony.  What he likes most about her is that unlike the not terribly bright Honeybun, who was only interested in herself, she’s very interested in everything around her–yet she doesn’t ask him a lot of questions about his work, and when she does, she only needs to hear the answers once.   That’s a keeper, guys.  A pearl of great price, is our May.

But despite not being overly inquisitive about it, May, unlike Claire, wants to be part of Dortmunder’s work life.   As with Claire, she doesn’t want to play any part in people getting hurt, but this isn’t the world of Richard Stark, so somehow that’s never a problem–in fact, she’ll successfully push Dortmunder into several jobs that involve helping people (as Claire tried to do in The Black Ice Score, but nobody reforms Parker).

So really, she is to Claire what Dortmunder is to Parker–less romantic and exciting, more down to earth and proletarian–but she’s a lot more successful in her remodeling effort than Claire ever was.  She has her own womanly wiles.  She may not look like a model, but she bakes a tuna casserole you would not believe.

She also wanted a more exciting life and an unconventional relationship, but she can do fine without the expensive shopping trips and the fancy vacations.  Just like Claire, May generally gets what she wants.  Unlike Claire, she can play a significant role in most of the books.   It just works better that way.

(I know I’m making it sound like I’d take May over Claire in a heartbeat if that were an actual choice, but that may have something to do with the fact that I’m currently imagining her as Winona Ryder–as Winona Ryder looks now, only without the expensive clothes, or the star temperament.  And hey, Winona got busted for shoplifting just a few years back, so that would be damn good casting, Hollywood–and she could use a steady gig.  I’m just saying.)

Obviously May is going to have to give up smoking at some point in the future.   I have never smoked a cigarette in my life (scout’s honor, though I was actually an Adventure Guide), and I’ve never considered it an attractive habit, but there is something oddly disarming about the way she does it.   She’s always running out of matches, and the moments where she has to go looking for them constitute the only times she doesn’t have a Virginia Slim dangling from her mouth (well hopefully not when she and Dortmunder are having an intimate moment, but delicacy forbids the question).   She finds some more matches, and this lovely little character-revealing moment ensues–

May lit the cigarette and dropped the match in the ashtray next to the TV.  She’d been concentrating on nothing but matches for five minutes, but not as her mind cleared she became aware again of the things around her, and the closest was the TV set, so she turned it on.  There was a movie just starting.  It was called The Tall Target, and in it Dick Powell played a New York City policeman named John Kennedy who was trying to stop an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln. He was on a train, Dick Powell was, and he kept getting telegrams, so trainmen kept coming down the corridor shouting “John Kennedy, John Kennedy.”  This gave May a pleasant feeling of dislocation, so she backed up until her legs hit the sofa bed and sat down.

Dortmunder came home at the most exciting part, of course, and he brought Kelp with him.  It was 1860 and Abraham Lincoln was going to his first inauguration and that’s where they wanted to assassinate him.  Adolph Menjou was the mastermind of the plot, but Dick Powell–John Kennedy–was too quick for him.  Still, it wasn’t certain how things would come out.

I’ve seen bits and pieces of that movie, but never watched it through.  How does it come out?  Anyone know?

Anyway, as the book begins, Dortmunder is back on the phony encyclopedia grift–getting ten bucks here, ten bucks there, from gullible housewives, only this one turns out to not be so gullible, and calls the cops, and he’s got to get out of there–he takes just one more fall and he’s going away for good (another parallel with Parker, whose fingerprints would link him to the death of that prison camp guard he killed while escaping, were he ever to get arrested).

He’s got no way to get out of suburbia in a hurry, but then up comes Andy Kelp in yet another stolen vehicle with MD plates, and Dortmunder starts thinking prison might not be the worst option after all–Kelp’s got another crazy scheme up his sleeve, and he needs Dortmunder to plan it.   This is yet one more way in which Dortmunder is like Parker–he’s nearly always the one planning the heist, but the heist is never his idea–it’s always something that gets pitched to him, and it’s always something crazy, and he’s got all kinds of problems with it, and he always goes ahead and does it anyway, because a guy’s gotta work, right?

But this time Kelp has surpassed himself–first of all, the ‘finger’ on this job–the one who spotted the opportunity–is Kelp’s nephew Victor (a nephew in more than one sense of the word), who is a former FBI agent.  Never a very high-ranking one, because he was so clean-cut and gung-ho, even the Bureau found him kind of creepy, and they eventually fired him for proposing ideas like an FBI secret handshake.  And now he’s got an idea for Dortmunder, who Victor is gazing at with awestruck delight, as if he just stepped out of an old Warner Brothers gangster film.   This certainly bodes well.

Victor thought of the FBI in terms of very dated stories about daring G-Men that he read in old pulp magazines, and never could get his mental image to match up with the drab reality.   He’s turned his garage into a sort of nerd-cave, crammed with juvenile pop-lit from eras other than his own.   Now that I think on it, we saw something very similar to this in Wax Apple, only that guy had just gotten out of a mental hospital.  Victor just got out of the FBI.  I believe a statement is being made here.

But as disturbed as Dortmunder may be to have a bank job pitched to him by a lawman who got fired for being a bit of a nut, that’s nothing compared to his reaction to the job itself–see, there’s this bank out on Long Island.   The old building is being torn down, and a new one constructed in its place.  And in the meantime, the actual bank is in a trailer parked near the construction area.  So Victor’s idea, which Kelp of course just loves (must be genetic) is to hitch up a suitable vehicle to the bank, and just drive away with it.

(Sidebar: Now here’s another Parker parallel–Parker also had a job pitched to him by a cop–to rob an entire town.   Only Parker didn’t know this guy was a cop, or that he had a score to settle with that sleepy western burg, hence the title of the book–the score is both the money to be taken, and the debt to be settled.  In the world of Richard Stark, that story leads to plunder and betrayal and death.  This book, however,  is in the world of Donald E. Westlake, writing with tongue firmly in cheek, so it all works out quite differently.   Nobody dies, nobody wins.  This bank shot ends up ricocheting every way but the right way.  Westlake did enjoy pun titles.)

It isn’t that simple, naturally–they need a planner, like Dortmunder, to work out the nitty gritty.  Six nights a week, there’s no money at all in that trailer.   The only exception is Thursday night, when the bank stays open late for shoppers, so they can’t move the money out of there.   Thursday  night, they have armed guards inside the trailer–from the Continental Detective Agency, no less.   Bit of a shout-out to Mr. Hammett and The Op, though I’m not sure either would approve.

One more little complication–the bank people took the wheels off the trailer.   And the money will be in a safe that has to be opened at some point.  Technical expertise of various kinds is called for, so Stan (the man) Murch, who knows everything there is to know about things on wheels, gets called in.

Their cracksman from the last job, who was you may recall, a bit cracked in the head regarding trains, somehow managed to ride a derelict subway car to Cuba (don’t ask–Dortmunder doesn’t), so they need someone new–and boy, do they get someone new.   Would you believe a bi-sexual black revolutionary named Herman X?   Holding a swanky bi-racial dinner party at his posh Central Park West digs.   Now dig this spread he’s prepared for his guests, at least two of whom he intends to seduce later–a black man and a white woman–which comes first is up to the vagaries of fate, but he’s left nothing to chance with the food.

He had planned the menu with the greatest of care.  The cocktails to begin had been Negronis, the power of the gin obscured by the gentleness of vermouth and Campari.  The caviar and pitted black olives to nosh on while drinking.  Then, at the table, the meal itself would start with black bean soup, followed by poached fillet of black sea bass and a nice bottle of Schwartzekatz.  For the entree, a Black Angus steak sauteed in black butter and garnished with black truffles, plus a side dish of black rice, washed down with a good Pinot Noir.  For dessert, black-bottom pie and coffee.  For after-dinner drinks, a choice of Black Russians or blackberry brandy, with bowls of black walnuts to munch on again in the living room.

Herman, to me, is one of Westlake’s more underutilized players–we really should have seen more of him than we did, though he did make a few return appearances in the later books.  I think Westlake liked the idea of him, but found it hard to make him mesh with the Dortmunder crew.  He’s a full-time revolutionary, loyal to some obscure splinter of the Black Panther movement, so his larcenous talents (which include safecracking) are mainly devoted to robbing banks, payrolls and (in this book) box offices, to pay for their various social programs.  Those jobs he does with other members of the movement.

But to finance his own lavish (not to mention lascivious) lifestyle, he also pulls heists on the side, and those he’ll do with any solid pro, regardless of race, creed, or color.  That’s how he knows Kelp, and it’s Kelp that calls him in.   Kelp asks Dortmunder if he has any problem working with a black guy–Dortmunder looks at him like “Why the hell would that be a problem?”  Again, very much like Parker–he does not understand our tribal fissions.  But he’s not sure about Herman, has doubts about his abilities all through the book, mainly I think because he doesn’t see why any guy on the bend would want to make his last name the letter X.  That’s just begging the law to take a second look at you.

They meet at the OJ Bar and Grill, of course–the ultimate Dortmunder hang-out spot, which Westlake mere touched upon in the last book, but now its full potential as becoming clear to him–there’s basically nothing you can’t hear in a New York City bar.  As Dortmunder enters, three Puerto Rican subway motormen are having a spirited conversation about whether there are alligators in the subway tunnels, or just in the sewers.   The first of many such thought-provoking barstool debates to come.

Herman’s a bit startled as well to find out Victor is a former FBI Agent, and Victor doesn’t help things by innocently asking him what newspapers he reads, and questions like that–it’s just force of habit–he wants to figure out which group Herman belongs to.  Herman would rather keep that to himself, thanks very much.   But they have a shared love of adventure, the romantic side of life, which serves as a point of understanding between them.

So they have to case the job out, do the legwork, and everybody pitches in.   May and Murch’s Mom (she’s got a name, but somehow that’s what everybody calls her) snap surreptitious photos of the bank, and May independently comes up with the idea of making curtains to disguise it as a regular mobile home.  The guys have to find a place to hide the trailer after they heist it, so Herman will have time to crack the safe.  And they need wheels to put under the trailer, which means they have to steal them–but in such a way as that nobody knows they’ve been stolen.

Kelp borrows a truck (no seriously, he puts it back afterwards, that’s borrowing), and they go to a plant that makes this kind of trailer, and along the way it turns out the seemingly innocent truck was being used to smuggle American cigarettes and Canuck booze back and forth across the border. The smokes are a nice bonus, but unfortunately some of the whiskey bottles broke during the previous trip, and the sickly sweet smell of Canadian Club (it ain’t Kentucky bourbon, folks) is soon making everybody in the back of the truck not so sweetly sick.

Everybody wants to sit up with Murch in the cab on the way home, and since there’s five of them, and the truck has a floor shift, it’s a really tight fit.  Murch thinks they deliberately didn’t share the whiskey with him (there wasn’t any, just the smell), so he keeps aiming for potholes on the way back.   These little misunderstandings will happen amongst the best of chums.

Not to get too far offtrack here, but damn, there’s a whole lot of cigarette references in this book.  May’s chainsmoking, for one.  The discussion in the truck over the smuggled smokes they find–L&M, Salem Virginia Slims–it’s kind of perversely sweet that Dortmunder immediately wants to take some of those home to May, even though she apparently steals all she needs from the Bohack (they sold cigarettes in supermarkets back then?).  There’s also this little exchange after Kelp picks Dortmunder up at the start of the book–Kelp offers Dortmunder a cancer stick (that’s what they are, leave us not forget)–

“True?  What the hell kind of brand is that?”

“It’s one of the new ones with the low nicotine and tar.”

“I’ll stick to Camels,” Dortmunder said, and out of the corner of his eye Kelp saw him pull a battered pack of them from his jacket pocket.  “True,” Dortmunder grumbled.  “I don’t know what the hell kind of name that is for a cigarette.”

Kelp was stung.  He said, “Well, what kind of name is Camel?  True means something.  What the hell does Camel mean?”

“It means cigarettes,” Dortmunder said.  “For years and years it means cigarettes.  I see something called True, I figure right away it’s a fake.”

“Just because you’ve been working a con,” Kelp said, “you figure everybody else is too.”

“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.

Oh if you only knew, pal.   There is grift, and then there is grift.  And right in the middle of my Pocket Books reprint of this novel (my favorite edition of all, in spite of what I’m about to show you, or maybe even a little because of it)–

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I know I shouldn’t even ask, vis a vis the ‘Kent Collectables’ (sic)–but–a popcorn popper?  In case you get the munchies while smoking?  What kind of cigarettes are these?

It’s probably just a coincidence that Kent isn’t one of the brands mentioned, but you never know, in the incestuous world of multinational corporations.  The Pocket Books reprint of I Gave At The Office also had a full color cigarette ad in it, also for Kent.

So anyway, in the wee wee hours of Sunday morning, when everything is closed and absolutely nobody is inside the bank, they jack up the trailer, very slowly and carefully, and put the wheels on.  There are concrete blocks around the base of the trailer, so nobody will know the wheels are there until they’re already rolling.   Dortmunder, in spite of himself, is pleased–this is good work, and it promises to be a nice score.   It’s not like that last job, where he had to steal the same emerald over and over.   This will be different.  Oh it’ll be different all right, Dortmunder.

So we get a brief chapter inside the bank, where the Continental Agency bulls are tossing the bull, and playing five card stud.  The guy whose head we’re inside is named Joe Mulligan–like many working this kind of gig, he’s a former cop, who got a P.I. license which he just used to get himself a steady security job with a reputable firm, instead of buying himself a trenchcoat and getting a seedy little office and faithful gal Friday with great gams, waiting around for Brigid O’Shaugnessy to come prancing in.   There’s no security in that line.

Aside from Joe, there’s some rather familiar-sounding names–guy named Block, another named Garfield, there’s even a Dresner.   These all being names belonging to writer chums of Westlake’s that he played poker with all the time.  This not being a joke 99% of people reading this book would ever get, but so much fun for the ones that do, eh?   There’s also a Fenton, who’s the boss of this shift, but I don’t know if he’s named after a friend of Westlake’s–I do know we see him again in some of the later books.  He and Dortmunder seem to have some kind of karma thing going on–mainly bad.

Westlake loved writing about card games, and I like reading what he wrote, but since I never even mastered the fine points of Go Fish, I can’t tell you how accurate he’s being.   All I can tell you is that Mr. Block has just laid down his cards, and Mulligan knows he has him beat, and he’s just about to slap his hand down triumphantly and claim the pot, when the trailer jerks violently, and everybody falls down, and the cards are all sent flying, and his winning hand is trumped by the bank he’s in being stolen by the Dortmunder Gang.  Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Something else you may have come to hate is my way of breaking these reviews off just when things are getting interesting, but it’s Friday, I want to relax this weekend, there’s plenty more to discuss, and anyway, making it a two-parter will really jack up my hits for the month.  If my review of his first outing taught me anything, it’s that Dortmunder is good for business.   He’d probably find that cruelly ironic.  Just suck it in, man.  Miles to go before you sleep.

PS: While helping Dortmunder make his grifter’s getaway from surburbia, Kelp gets rear-ended by a guy in a Pinto, who is hopping mad and wants to call the cops.   Kelp kindly points out to him that in the back of the car there are copies of some books the authorities might take an interest in–Passion Doll, Man Hungry, Strange Affair, Call Me Sinner, Off Limits, and Apprentice Virgin.   These are all ‘sleaze’ books written by Donald Westlake under pen names (see my review of Adios Scheherazade).  I must say, for a fellow who claimed to be embarrassed by his virginal apprenticeship in the porn pits Westlake certainly did bring it up a lot in his ‘respectable’ books.  If this qualifies as respectable.  I guess it’s all relative, no?

PPS: There are still more advertisements in the back of my Pocket Books reprint–

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I am particularly taken by that one on the right–“Invest $6.95 in a better marriage.”

J.C.?   That you?   Good Behavior, indeed.   How could I send my sainted mother that filth?  Oh well, she seemed to enjoy it.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder