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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29 Comments

Filed under Cops and Robbers, Donald Westlake novels

29 responses to “Review: Cops and Robbers

  1. Ray Garraty

    I’m not going to say more before I finish reading the book, but for now I’ll say this:
    Very early into the novel the partner of the cop robber says something like, for this robbery you can get 20 years in prison. And I said: what? Whom he’s kidding? For this innocent heist? A cop? A family man? Twenty years? Westlake clearly miscalculated.

    • You mean for the liquor store hold-up. I agree that if caught and convicted, Joe probably wouldn’t have served 20 years, but it’s not a miscalculation–it’s a very real possibility. This cop got up to 15 years, and he didn’t commit armed robbery. So maybe you get paroled in 10–or less–how long you figure a cop is going to last in prison?

      http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/11/nyregion/ex-bronx-police-officer-gets-prison-term-for-robbery-and-drug-crimes.html?_r=0

      Here’s what you don’t get–this would have been in all the papers. “Cop turns Robber!” People would be enraged–as they always are when the same officers who give them tickets for misdemeanors commit felonies. Politics alone would absolutely demand that he get the book thrown at him. His brother officers would turn their backs on him–I mean, did he do it to feed his family? He did it to pay for swimming lessons! This would be seen as going too far over the line.

      I’m not claiming our judicial system is 100% fair, but one reason you don’t hear about police officers getting convicted for crimes like this is that they don’t commit crimes like this. Joe’s an oddball. That’s kind of the point. Corruption, kickbacks, bribery–under the radar stuff–tolerated–until it isn’t. But walking into a store unmasked, in a police uniform, and telling the cashier to empty the till? That could have backfired in a million ways. Joe got away with it because he was lucky AND ballsy.

      Hard to convict a cop here for doing his job the wrong way–like shooting a kid holding a water pistol. But cops do get convicted of crimes here. And they can serve very long sentences. And again, even five years in gen pop as a former cop might as well be life, in many cases. The other cons find out who you were, and come after you.

      • Ray Garraty

        But even his Joe’s partner snitched on him, Captain might just put it under the cover or – worst case – force Joe to retire. Anyway, even 10 years for robbery is too harsh.
        As for the cops in prisons, there are “red” prisons in Russia where only cops, attorneys, judges, other state officials are serving time, separated from those they once put away.

        • No, I don’t think so. Not a robbery. It’s too far out of the norm, Ray. 20 years for armed robbery isn’t that unusual, though it’s on the high end–it might actually be a harsher penalty for a cop. He can’t very well plead poverty–or say that he came from a background that encouraged a life of crime. Anyway, if you’re weighing the consequences of committing a crime, of course you consider the maximum penalty–you’d be stupid not to. The actual sentence will depend on how good a lawyer you can hire.

          We don’t have separate prisons for jailed policemen here. But they are generally kept away from the general population, and for good reason. This mainly keeps them safe, but it means they lead very isolated existences, locked in their cells, with limited chance to interact, or engage in the few activities that make prison life bearable.

          http://articles.latimes.com/1988-02-27/local/me-11983_1_jail-cell-jail-trustees-men-s-central-jail

          Make no mistake, Joe took a huge risk, and as for the second robbery he did with Tom–you have to realize they’d be lucky to ever see daylight again after robbing the people who basically own this country. And of course, the mob would be looking for a way to get at them, once they were unmasked.

          Though if they ever did get out, and avoided getting whacked, they’d be celebrities–they might make more than a million apiece for the book and movie deal. I’m not sure if by that time they’d passed laws to keep incarcerated felons from selling their life stories while they’re still jailed. A law I happen to agree with, btw.

  2. I agree, it’s a great heist. Very clever — although their end game (the trade-off with Vigano) is a little sketchy. In fact, they haven’t worked out their end game at all by the time of the heist, the plot point that snagged at me. But ultimately, these guys are amateurs. Clever amateurs. Lucky amateurs. But amateurs nonetheless. They’re no Parkers, which is precisely the point.

    Joe’s repeatedly whittling down of the post-heist waiting period feels like ominous foreshadowing of possible post-novel complications (reminding me of a small detail in the answering machine message at the end of The Ax). The criminal is never, ever “home free” — something Parker understands all too well, but Tom and Joe (and later, Burke Devore) may not.

    This novel is also a terrific portrait of early-’70s New York City, a vibrant, grungy city, overrun with graffiti, drugs, violence, and other crime. A city in decay. (A few years later, Barney Miller would come along and give us another take.) I moved to New York in the early ’90s, just before Giuliani took office and the Disneyfication began in earnest. By then, they’d figured out how to keep graffiti off the subway cars, a crucial change in how the city was perceived. I loved Tom’s musings about graffiti. Westlake couldn’t have known how thoroughly and relentlessly the city would work to eradicate graffiti a couple of decades later, but that passage works as a sort-of preemptive elegy.

    • I personally thought a lot of the graffiti on the outside of subway cars was fabulous–at the college I was attending, we had a guest lecturer who talked about how ingenious the graffiti guys were at getting past security to do their tags, but eventually they just turned their attentions elsewhere. Graffiti isn’t gone, but they got it off the subway cars. Now if they could just keep the subway cars running on time. Disneyfication remains a work in progress. But they cleaned up The Deuce, which I confess I did not think was possible. And then what happens–people start getting mugged by Elmo, Spongebob, and Spider-man. New York is New York. Some parts of its identity can’t be covered up no matter how much money you throw at it.

      The end game is what it’s supposed to be–uncertain. They got into this situation more or less daring each other to keep moving forward, because they can’t stand the way their lives are now, and they can’t figure out any other way to get out (and of course there are other ways to get out). Westlake said, you may recall, that some crime stories are about ‘amateur brilliance’, as he put it. They don’t have a perfect plan, but they have a working plan, that they can improvise around when the time comes.

      In a sense, Tom and Joe form a sort of collective organism–Tom is the brains, the planner, the one who spots the opportunities–Joe is the troubleshooter, the enforcer, the one who takes over when things go wrong. So together, they are Parker. Individually, not so much. We’re left in no doubt that the final confrontation could have gone either way. So the question is, do they have the same kind of strange luck Parker does.

      I go back and forth as to whether Westlake is telling us they’re going to screw it up after all. I think his point is “That’s another story.” Which he doesn’t feel like telling us. It’s pretty clear at the end (now we’re in full spoiler mode) that the mob is no longer a threat. And the NYPD doesn’t WANT to find out who did it, if cops actually did do it. The political ramifications are just horrifying for all concerned. The papers would talk about nothing else for months. They might even make a movie about it.

      So even if some detective on the Wall St. detail goes ‘hmmm’ when he sees two cops who are best friends and neighbors both took early retirement and left town six months after the heist, does he really want to open that can of worms? Will that be a good career move for him? I think more likely than not they get away with it. But they’d never be 100% sure–and we still don’t know what the wives will say when they find out. In a sense, it still isn’t real–it’s still just a scheme they dreamed up They’re still driving in to work together. They’re still cops. And robbers.

      Barney Miller showed us a city in decay, but nowhere near as mean and gritty as this–even when he’s writing something humorous, Westlake is a lot more hard-boiled than any sitcom. Barney Miller, I belatedly realize, is just 87th Precinct played for laughs. And played damn well, but you can see why Evan Hunter sometimes sounded a bit sour talking about TV copshows. 😉

      • Well, Steven Bochco probably should have paid Hunter royalties (or at least bought him a steak dinner once a year with all his residual money), but I think Barney Miller was ultimately about storytelling, with most if not all of the action taking place offstage, relayed to us through the stories told by the cops and crooks who came into the squad room, a stage device utilized so often by Shakespeare (Salanio and Salerio would have fit right in at the ol’ one-two), and man, this sentence is running on, isn’t it?

        • ‘Tis. And I agree, and you could argue the Precinct as Protagonist gimmick was kind of played around with in Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (later a TV series), though it was not so well-developed. Hunter didn’t own the idea outright, he just perfected it–Bochco’s copying off his paper was a bit too obvious. Hunter had the whole thing broken down for him, and all Bochco had to do was update it, take his bows, and collect his Emmys.

          Barney Miller was following on the heels of these earlier attempts, and doing a legitimate variation on them. You might argue it was more directly influenced by Detective Story, the Kirk Douglas movie that got adapted from a stage play, but there the melodrama took center stage, and the comedy was just there for relief. Barney Miller reversed the polarity, and it works a lot better, you ask me.

  3. Anthony

    I read this book as a teenager. It was the first work of fiction I had ever read in which the author played around with first person and third person narrative in a single novel. I found it to be a surpassingly brilliant tool – surpassed later only by the sleight of hand William Goldman used in the Princess Bride. I realize now that neither Westlake nor (later) Goldman invented these useful mechanisms. But boy did they ever enhance my enjoyment of what I was reading.

    Now it seems that half the books I read use variants of these multiple points of view, which to my mind dilutes their effectiveness. Westlake himself rarely used this approach again. “Humans” is the only book I can think of off the top of my head in which he plays around with point of view and first person/third person (even going so far as to employ multiple fonts). And that book, like this one, had good reason to allow for a little narrative back and forth.

    • Inventing a literary mechanism is a bit like inventing fire, or the wheel–you’re unlikely to ever find out for sure who did what first.

      It works very well here, but that may be precisely why he used it so rarely afterwards–a problem he’d solved, and therefore lost interest in. In this case, the more successful attempt by far was the first, and when he returned to it in Humans–well–we can talk about that later.

      I just finished reading Sterling Hayden’s autobiographical book Wanderer, and he switches from first to second to third person, with little attempt to warn the reader when he’s going to switch again, and it’s fascinating, and confusing as all hell. Great book for what it has to say, but very clearly not the work of a professional writer. He didn’t consider himself a professional actor either. He was sort of a lifelong amateur.

      • Anthony

        There may be something to the “problem he’d solved, and therefore lost interest in,” which applies to so much of his writing. However, I’m inclined to see it also as story driven. If a particular plot or story works with this type of writing tool then use it. If the tool is overly complicated for a given story then it is unnecessary and wrong. In any given Dortmunder novel, for example, he could have gone first person for the individuals and third person for the exposition but it would mar the end product as an unnecessary encumbrance. Not that he necessarily parsed this all out for every book – it’s probably as much instinct as planning. Trial and error.

        I imagine that, like many writers (John Irving comes to mind), he may have had the occasional episode of starting in first person, realizing it didn’t work, and starting over in third person (and vice versa).

        A similar concept is that he started writing a Parker book, found it wasn’t working, shelved it, got the idea stuck in his head like an earworm, and ultimately rewrote it with a new character – the result of which was The Hot Rock. In that case, it was a problem he’d solved which he became very interested in.

        • Nicely reasoned, and I strongly agree–still, we should remember that he didn’t originally intend Dortmunder to be a series character, anymore than he set out to write twenty-four Parker novels, or a string of humorous crime novels featuring a variety of ‘Nephews’. He’d go into a book figuring “I’ll get this out of my system, and then move on to something else.” But then it would turn out to be a hit, and he couldn’t very well lose interest in a hit. He couldn’t afford to lose interest in books a lot of people wanted to read, and movie studios wanted to option.

          Mitch Tobin, whose last book I’m about to review, was a problem Westlake felt he had solved, and therefore had to abandon–but if the books had been selling really well–not just well enough so that Random House would keep publishing them–if that film with Mitchum as Tobin had been made, leaving open the possibility of more adaptations, more Hollywood gold– might he have decided he could drag things out a bit? Impossible to say, and I’m just as happy that he didn’t. But while his creative decisions may pose a very pleasurable literary puzzle for us here to worry at, we should never forget that for him it was an economic puzzle as well.

          In the case of this book, he was in the rather unusual position of having had the film adaptation come before the book. He’d already gotten his Hollywood gold, and he wrote the book because he felt like the idea hadn’t gotten the treatment it deserved. So in a sense, he really did write this one just for himself, purely to solve that puzzle–and the odd narrative devices he used were, I suspect, a way of keeping the reader a bit confused–who’s the hero? Is there a hero? Do these guys win out in the end? You’re never quite sure, even after you’ve gotten to the end of the book, because he pulls you in close with the first person, makes you identify with them–then pushes you away, makes you see them more objectively in the third person. It’s a much more complex book than it seems to be. But it’s still one hell of a good story.

          Years later, when he wrote The Ax, which is also about an ordinary working joe trying to fix his life through committing crimes–much worse crimes–he decided to simplify things–you’re in the protagonist’s head the whole way, because he doesn’t want to give us readers the option of distancing ourselves. He wants us to be fully complicit in the crimes being committed. And as good as this book is, it’s not as good as that one. But this was, you might say, a warm-up act for that masterpiece. Not that he knew it yet.

  4. Anthony

    Reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke discussing writing the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. Having the first draft written on a film set was an interesting, invigorating and expensive way to write a book…

    • But in that case, I would have to opine that the film is more important–I always feel like such a traitor when I say that, and I’m very far from being a Kubrick nut, but Clarke’s book seems more like a commentary on the film–an explanation of its events–than its own thing. The book is not in any way a deepening of the film and Clarke’s rather dry prose can’t compete with Kubrick’s stunning imagery.

      Also, the perverse little SF nerd that lives inside of me can’t help but point out that Clarke’s story bears some suspicious similarities to the Quatermass teleplays of Nigel Kneale, even if his (very) short story The Sentinel came first.

      There are points of similarity, but in the case of 2001, the book was an intended by-product of the film–an amiable collaboration between two very strong creative personalities. Whereas in the case of Cops and Robbers, Westlake saw that the weakness of the director had led to an unsatisfying result, and having had the foresight to retain the novel rights, he improved greatly on the film–and changed the story in a number of key ways. In a sense, this is him telling Hollywood “This is how it’s done, suckers!”

      I may not have another chance to say this, and I warned everybody to steer clear of the comments section if they didn’t want to know what happens, so here goes–the big climax, with Joe and Tom making their getaway from the small army of mobsters in Central Park is so much better in the book it doesn’t even bear comparison (and I must say, I’m kind of amazed they got the rights to use that final chaotic riff from Sergeant Pepper’s).

      I think they just didn’t have the budget–and the leadership–to do what Westlake wanted; that high-speed chase going the wrong way down a busy Manhattan street. Kind of a pity Westlake didn’t get Peter Yates for this one instead of The Hot Rock, eh? The guy who made Bullitt could have made that scene work like gangbusters. 😉

  5. Ray Garraty

    Plotwise it’s very good, smart story. I enjoyed it a lot. It kept me guessing until the end. Narrative-wise it all could have been written in third person. There wasn’t a need for first person switch, as Tom and Joe are very much alike and don’t want to double cross each other. The third person is very close to the first person in this book, it wouldn’t change anything if it were fully in third person.
    This book also shows the shift in Westlake. Ten years ago he wouldn’t allow two straight citizens (and cops are sort of straight, right?) to get away with the crime. Now he does. He sort of takes Wambaugh’s patrolmen and place them into Westlake\Leonard plot (Leonard because they act like small time crooks).
    It’s certainly lightweight. In a Higgins’ book they both would end up dead (but then Higgins would never have made cops criminals). Leonard would probably would let them free but without money. In a McBain book they both would get chair (or is it gas?). Remember how in old noir films and books cop who commits a crime eventually is recognized by a sudden witness?
    Write about patrolmen usually is an ungrateful work. They don’t solve crimes, they usually are miserable, they are just pawns. Westlake used the main loophole, that patrolmen have small salaries, as an important element of this book. And even if you don’t like cops, you can’t not root for them – they are protagonists. And if the wriiter can’t make the reader to like protagonists, this writer can’t write.

    • A great capsule review, which I am now going to take issue with on several points, because otherwise there’s no discussion, and that would suck. 🙂

      First of all, he’s not taking Wambaugh’s anything, because Westlake would have written this one before Wambaugh’s first novel came out. I know you were just using him as an example of somebody else who might write a book about two morally ambiguous cops, but he wasn’t writing books like this just yet, or at least not publishing them. The Blue Knight came out in 1971, and is basically just a somewhat more emotionally complex take on the standard police procedural. Wambaugh’s darker work is still a ways off at this point.

      Wambaugh obviously knew far more about police work, but few writers have ever understood people better than Donald Westlake, and a book about cops is a book about people. I don’t know how Westlake felt about Wambaugh as a writer–no mention of him in any of the articles in The Getaway Car. Leonard he certainly admired, but there’s no discernible influence here. Not that you said there was.

      The entire book could have been written in third person, but it would be more awkward to get across what he wants to say here–the fact is, the two partners are very different–Tom is more cerebral, more reflective (more like Westlake himself); Joe more instinctive, a man of action, somebody who lives in the moment (perhaps more like the man Westlake sometimes wishes he was). Joe could never have figured this heist out, Tom could never have executed it without somebody like Joe. The chapters featuring their first-person narratives establish their characters, their different voices, in a way a strictly third person narrative never could.

      They don’t double-cross each other because they are, in a sense, two halves of the same person. This is why I wonder if them going their separate ways in six months is going to be a mistake. I suppose it’s true that this is the first time he’s had two guys who aren’t on the bend get away with something like this, but it’s not 100% sure they will get away with it long-term, and they’re hardly civilians. I mean, Grofield was just an actor when he knocked over his first supermarket. I think it’s less that he wasn’t ready for this before now, as that he didn’t know if the market he wrote for was ready for it before now. The heist genre was changing.

      And of course, he’s so cunning about it–the only people they actually get anything from are crooks, who were going to rob and kill them. All they stole from the brokerage was the idea of ten million dollars. What is money, really? Does it exist outside our heads? How come we have lots of it one moment, and then it just disappears into thin air because somebody in the financial sector was fooling around with stocks. That’s one reason one might speculate they do in fact get away with it–because even though they were ready to steal from anybody, they ended up stealing from two groups of people who steal from the rest of us all the time. Karmically speaking, one could argue there was no crime at all.

      Westlake remains a bit obsessed with figuring out what went wrong with that microscope heist in college–even though he knows it’s just as well he got caught, he still wishes he hadn’t been, still wants to figure out how to do it right. Part of the joy of reading him is the way he appeals to the thief that lives inside us all. There’s nobody on this planet who isn’t descended from thieves–it’s part of our evolutionary history. That’s why this genre has lasted so long (I think I mentioned some time back that you can find many examples of it in ancient mythology).

      The book itself refers to this vicarious enjoyment even the most honest citizen can take from fictional robberies. The robbery can be very dark and bloody, in which case the robbers are caught or killed–or very lighthearted, in which case they may survive, even win–Westlake is combining both approaches here, maybe better than anyone else ever did. But he’s very aware of what he’s doing, what part of the reader’s psyche he’s appealing to. He knows we want these guys to win–he also knows we’d like to see them punished in the end, so as to have that symbolic cleansing represented by the thieves/killers/whatever getting their comeuppance–it’s how we go on telling ourselves we’re honest people, even though we like seeing dishonest goings-on. And it’s probably more dishonest than actual theft.

      I don’t think whether the protagonists win or not is what makes a book light or heavy. That’s too simple. Would The Hunter be a deeper book if Westlake hadn’t heeded Bucklin Moon’s advice, and had Parker get away for 23 more books? It would actually be far more shallow–after all, Westlake only wrote the original ending because he figured that’s what happens to bad guys–it was by defying the expectations of the genre that he enlarged it. By having that bullet miss Parker, but Parker grabbed the wrong suitcase–forcing him to get his money the way he’s supposed to get it–by heisting it.

      Tom and Joe aren’t Parker, and damn–it just occurred to me this minute–the climax of this book is a rewrite of how Parker got that money from The Outfit–the same money he ended up leaving behind when he ran from the cops. It’s the same basic set-up, but better–because for Tom and Joe, two policemen, that’s an appropriate way to get money. That’s more in character for them–some part of the cop in each of them remains, even as they become robbers. They’re just confiscating ill-gotten gains from gangsters. What works for Parker wouldn’t work for them. They had to find their own kind of crime. They had to play the right kind of game for them.

      There is something to that hoary old chestnut of a poem by the great sportswriter Grantland Rice, and I think more people in all walks of life need to remember that–it’s not a mere moral filip, but a deeply insightful observation. We’re all going to lose someday. Individually, and collectively. It’s a matter of when, not if. All triumph is fleeting. But in the meantime, it bears mentioning…..

      “For when the One Great Scorer comes
      To mark against your name,
      He writes – not that you won or lost –
      But HOW you played the Game.

      If just once in your life you can say you did something absolutely right–that you will always have, to the bitter end. The One Great Scorer, I think, is well pleased with Tom and Joe. Even if they’re jailed or dead in six months. To thine own self be true. Speaking of hoary old chestnuts by outmoded writers. 😉

      • Ray Garraty

        The heist itself was tricky and smart, it’s what surrounded it was far from credible. It’s as if the heist was taken from a Dortmunder novel. When I first got to the scene where Joe pitched the Mafia his idea, I thought: what fool! Let your death be quick and not painful. You can’t expect a mafia boss will agree to that deal, not kill you and even bring the money. Fools like Joe and Tom die every time something foolish comes to their heads.
        In the final scene I also expected that Mafia will use all the methods available to prevent the pair’s escape. They could have used machine guns or just guns. They had nothing to lose. Their partner? Possible prosecution? It was all nothing to Mafia compared to 2 millions.

        • Okay, first of all, Tom pitched the idea to the mob, not Joe. You’re not the only one who knows how to nitpick, Mr. Garraty. 😉

          You’re forgetting, I think, that Vigano’s house is under constant FBI surveillance (and yes, this is a real thing here). They’re filming every coming and going at the house, hoping to get something they can use to nail Vigano with. So if they see somebody go in, and they don’t see him go out again…..

          Why would Vigano kill Tom? We know why he doesn’t just unmask him–Tom would refuse to do the job. If this is some kind of sting operation by the law, he’d definitely be putting the noose around his neck by killing Tom–if not, what’s his motive for doing it? He doesn’t think it can be a sting, because his lawyers would make mincemeat of any prosecutor who tried to get him for saying “Sure, crazy man in a wig and false mustache with no ID, go ahead and steal ten million in bearer bonds without giving me any proof you know how to do it. Why not?” He could just say he thought it was a joke. Wouldn’t anyone?

          Either Tom doesn’t steal the bonds, and Vigano never hears from him again–or he does steal them, and then he can kill Tom and his partner, and take all ten million for himself and his cronies, and rich as he is, that’s a whole lot of money in 1969, tax free. And you yourself said that it’s hard to believe that Tom and Joe could get away with the two million, whether they have the ten million or not–even Tom has a hard time believing they can pull that off. So where’s the risk?

          Vigano isn’t even thinking that far ahead when he first talks to Tom. But once he reads about the heist, he wants those bonds, and he can’t find the guys who took them (because Tom was thinking a few moves ahead of him), so his only choices are to make the deal (and plot the doublecross) or else to let go of the money. I think you know how guys like this feel about letting go of that kind of money.

          I don’t know what stories you’ve been reading, but even in 1969, mafia hoodlums with machine guns (or any other kind of guns), in Central Park, in broad daylight, surrounded by thousands of civilians–c’mon, Ray. We still had the electric chair in New York back in ’69. This isn’t some restaurant in Little Italy.

          And that’s what those guys would be asking for if they opened fire in the middle of a crowd of civilians–the chair, or at the very least very long prison stretches. Only Vigano’s life is directly endangered by not getting the two million back, and Vigano isn’t there in person, because he can’t be (the boss can’t be involved in this kind of thing personally)–and his ability to direct the operation is very hampered as a result–by the time he knows they’re getting away, it’s too late to start threatening his gunsels. And even if he did, those guys are not putting themselves in the chair to save Vigano. That kind of initiative is above their pay grade–cogs in a machine, remember?

          Tom and Joe came very close to getting caught and disappeared, but if you can believe two convicts in upstate New York can avoid a massive manhunt for 20 days, not so hard to believe two cops in a squad car could get out of Central Park in broad daylight–and that’s all they had to do. It was a near thing, but believable–overall, of course, the story is unbelievable, but when you look at each link in the chain individually, you can’t say “No, that could not have happened”–because far stranger things have happened. It’s a tall story, but an impeccably constructed one.

          I think you’re going to have to concede Mr. Westlake did not leave us a single plot hole.

          • Ray Garraty

            I see a lot of plot holes. But that depends on how you approach the book. Westlake portraited mobsters as cogs in the machine, though not everyone of them was just a pawn. Westlake forgets ruthless types, those who could kill for nothing, just to show how fearless he was. There were cases when Mafia used machine guys in the 80s. People were killed in broad daylight. Then who killed them? Those meek mobsters? Weak mafiosi? I could hardly believe in the final scene.
            You see in this novel a story of transformation and willingness to escape the dullness of the everyday life. I see that this story is about how mediocre persons (and Tom and Joe are nothing but mediocre) sometimes hit jackpot.
            As one brother said, Everybody wants fast money, but fast money might be your last money.

            • Ray, there is not one instance of the Mafia using machine guns in Central Park in the middle of the day. Ever. Yes, they’d kill people in broad daylight, but to do it there–with all those innocent bystanders–c’mon. It would not happen. They aren’t meek–they’re realists. They can’t afford to get that kind of attention. I don’t think you comprehend what that kind of mayhem would entail, in terms of media exposure, public outrage, political pressure. These are BUSINESSMEN.

              All their carefully developed contacts in law enforcement and government would suddenly come undone–nobody would answer their calls. Prosecutors would be making their careers–maybe running for office–on the strength of having put these stupid mobsters in prison for the rest of their lives (or in the electric chair)–and bear in mind, the mafia in 1969 is not the mafia in the 1920’s–they’ve lost a lot of their old power. Vigano at least gets a quick death this way. And everybody else is fine. We’re supposed to think Joe and Tom were very lucky, as well as very intrepid, but there’s a reason they picked the area they did for the meet.

              I grew up here in the 80’s–I was living in New York City. You think we didn’t hear about the mafia? That was the Gotti era. We never heard about anything like that. It did not happen. There were hits–planned hits. Sometimes in public, but with the parameters determined in advance, public exposure carefully controlled. They don’t have that kind of plan here–and with the need to blanket the area in mobsters, you have to figure they can’t just have their top guys involved–they don’t have that much real talent. Most of them–the overwhelming majority–really are just cogs in a machine.

              Mobsters can be incredibly dumb. Since there’s no longer any barrier to Italians succeeding in all walks of life here (the governor of New York State is named Cuomo, and he’s the son of a former three-term governor–our mayor is part Italian), the Italian mob has a much smaller talent pool to draw upon. Even among kids born into that life, the smartest ones go elsewhere, and their parents usually encourage that. By 1969, this process was well under way. Westlake looked at the mob of that era, and was clearly not impressed. If you want to argue with him about it, you’ll have to wait for the afterlife. 🙂

              They’re just supposed to take these guys away and dispose of them quietly–they’d be instructed not to use guns unless there’s no other option, and Tom and Joe have a huge advantage because of the squad car–regular cars being banned from that part of the park. The notion that Vigano’s men would open up with semi-automatic weapons in Central Park–on a police car–when the park is jammed with people who could get hit by stray bullets or serve as witnesses in court–is ludicrous. This isn’t some drug gang in Washington Heights. I hate to put it this way, but there’s too many rich white people around. Seriously, one college co-ed gets a bullet in her, the papers would never shut up about it. What did Tony Soprano used to say? Don’t shit where you eat. I seem to recall him taking one of his girlfriends to Tavern on the Green. It’s neutral turf. They just can’t go all-out there.

              I think you’re letting your dislike of cops color your view of the book. I think if the same exact story was told about the same exact two guys and they were not cops, you’d buy it 100%. And you’d talk about how believable they were.

              Case in point–361. How is that any more believable? In many ways, it’s far less believable. Ray Kelly not only survives, but wins–kills a major mob boss (two, actually) with most of his men in the next room–with basically no plan of any kind–he’s making it up as he goes along. He’s got no real help from his brother–it’s all him. Here, you have one really smart guy and one really tough guy, both of them far more experienced than Kelly, and between them they can just barely pull it off–with a lot of luck.

              It’s a story. It’s crime fiction. You can’t just get selectively skeptical because you don’t like the characters. Well you can, but I’m going to call you on it. Be as skeptical as you please, but you have to be skeptical across the board, or not at all. 🙂

  6. Anthony

    Apropos of nothing, Westlake touches throughout the book include various wry and humanizing little asides. Tom or Joe, don’t remember which one, idly and happily appraises all the mothers in their swimsuits at a child’s birthday party. Tom and Joe in the early phases of discussing the crime while ostensibly watching a baseball game on TV – but it’s in the background of their awareness because nobody had done a damn thing since the first inning. There is a scene showing Tom’s ever increasing internal pressure to leave police work – having to look at a deceased body which had been dead for some time, and there had been rats. The person who sprung this on him says Oh, sorry, just assumed you were hardened to this sort of thing.

    Just observational comments sprinkled here and there which make these real people rather than stock characters from central casting.

    • Pretty sure that was Joe–Westlake’s appreciation of the female form is very much on display here, and mainly refracted through that character–Tom is more focused, less inclined to free-floating lust. He’s Parker during a job–all about the work. Joe is Parker right after a job. And I believe Abby Westlake once commented that this was an aspect of Westlake’s own character–she described him as being obsessed with sex, but said elsewhere that would switch off at times when he was very focused on something else. Parker is just an idealized version of that dichotomy. I’m sure in Westlake’s actual life, his impulses did not arrange themselves so neatly. He wasn’t that kind of wolf. 😉

      There’s this constant refrain in the book that while both men are good at their jobs, neither of them really belongs in those jobs. That’s one reason why what they do isn’t necessarily ‘wrong’ in the context of the story being told. They stumbled into work they weren’t properly constituted for, and it’s undermining their identities–to become who they were supposed to be–whatever that is–they have to get out. Of course, in real life, a job like this would probably get innocent people hurt–it very nearly does a few times. But this isn’t a story about real-life consequences. It’s a story about being willing to take chances to realize your potential–something any professional writer knows about.

    • Ray Garraty

      Strangely, but I found these little touches too blunt and obvious, more suitable for a movie than a book. And the episode with wounded partner is beaten to death. We have to expect from Westlake more.

      • Strangely, almost none of these little touches made it into the actual movie that preceded this book, as you’d know if you’d seen it. 😉

        How else is he going to get the point across? He has to motivate the crime–which involves huge risk. He has to make us feel how desperate these two men are to escape their jobs, their lives, to have a fresh start–he also has to show us they aren’t saints, that they have large appetites, for sex and all the other good things in life.

        Joe’s wounded partner is a reminder that he could die at any time. It’s also a way of showing us that he doesn’t have much in common with his fellow officers, other than Tom. He can’t come up with anything to say to his own partner, in the hospital. All he can think is “That could have been me.”

        Tom is likewise reminded of his mortality by the rotting body of a murdered teacher–he’s reminded of how bad the city has become–he’s reminded that the ideal for his profession is to become numbed to this kind of thing. He doesn’t want to become numbed to anything like that. He’s afraid if he stays long enough, he might be.

        You say we expect more from Westlake–I expect him to surprise me, and he did. These are among the most three-dimensional characters he’s created up to this point. I totally believed their reactions to what they went through. I 100% believe people like this exist (as opposed to Parker, a man who could never possibly exist outside of Westlake’s imagination). Which makes it easier to believe the incredible things they do in the course of the story. To make the heist and its aftermath credible, even within the confines of a story in this genre, Westlake has to work extra hard to establish both character and setting–setting having a major impact on the characters, and vice versa. The verisimilitude of both the external and internal landscapes we see are what creates suspension of disbelief. That you could pretend to steal ten million from Wall Street, and then actually steal two million from the mob.

        But see, it also makes us understand why having beaten the odds twice already, they’d risk a third time by leaving after only six months. That’s what these guys would do. Whether it backfires or not, these characters could not do anything else. The same impatience that compelled them to pull the job will compel them to start their new lives. Because their hearts were never fully in the old lives, and in the course of planning and executing the job, they were already mentally cutting what ties they had to their profession, and to New York. They aren’t cops anymore. They’re just two guys disguised as cops.

        I’ll say it again–this is one of the best books he ever wrote. And he was stretching himself a lot when he wrote it.

        • Ray Garraty

          Westlake’s more subtle at showing us that there’ll be possible disagreements between the two protagonists pretty soon after the end. The way one of them (Tom?) changed his mind about the time of their getting money from the hiding place is an indication (and subtle at that) that there’ll be big trouble and possible fight between them. The possible trouble, I suspect, will come from their wives.
          I’m with Anthony here: not Westlake’s best.

          • Anthony said it was top 20%, and far as I’m concerned, when you’ve written around a hundred books (not counting the ones you didn’t want anybody to remember you wrote), any book in the Top Twenty counts as one of the best.

            And while I agree the wives are a problem they’re not thinking hard enough about (they’re also barely even characters in the book, which is not about them and the kids), I really don’t think Westlake meant to imply Tom and Joe were going to fight each other. They both agree on the six months–Tom is secretly grateful to Joe for forcing the issue. They have a very high level of trust between them. Neither is going to get greedy and want more than his share. You’re seeing something in the picture that the artist did not intend to put there.

            Which doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Loren Eiseley, the evolutionary biologist and essayist, wrote that he used to drive an artist friend of his crazy by claiming he could see a fox hiding in a hollow log in one of his paintings. The artist insisted no fox was there. Then under repeated urging from Eiseley, he said he was starting to see it himself. Suggestible creatures, artists. 😉

            So to conclude my thought (I’m editing this), if something happened–if the mob found them, if the police got wise to them, and we’ve been given some pretty good reasons to think neither is going to happen–maybe then their partnership would break down under the strain. Then again, it’s already held up incredibly well in a situation that could not be much more stressful.

            I think the main question is whether having shucked off their old identities, they are able to find new ones that work better–will Joe be happy farming in Canada? Will Tom be content in his tropical paradise? Or will it just turn into another trap? Will they start looking for an escape hatch once more?

            I’m content to leave them there in the car, driving home, happy in their achievement. But I am mindful of the sobering dictum of the Ancient Greeks–“Call no man happy until he is dead.” Actually, the modern Greeks are probably saying something similar at present. Oh that was mean. 😦

  7. Anthony

    “To make the heist and its aftermath credible, even within the confines of a story in this genre, Westlake has to work extra hard to establish both character and setting–setting having a major impact on the characters, and vice versa. The verisimilitude of both the external and internal landscapes we see are what creates suspension of disbelief. That you could pretend to steal ten million from Wall Street, and then actually steal two million from the mob.”

    In his introduction to the reissue of Kahawa, Westlake notes that part of the art of the caper is that it be outlandish, the more so the better. He gives two examples – Parker robbing an Air Force Base payroll and Dortmunder stealing an entire bank. This probably falls into that category.

    As far as this being one of the best books he ever wrote, I’m not sure I’m there with you. Top 20% yes. Tell you what, when you are done reviewing every book we’ll all (you, me, Ray, Greg, and all the others on board by then) will make our lists of our top ten favorite Westlake books. I bet there will be very little agreement on that list, if any, and that will be perfectly okay.

    But I imagine that my list as of July 2015 may be somewhat different by then, modified based on the things I learn from, and the lively discussion inspired by, this blog.

    • Top 20% doesn’t count as one of the best?

      Kahawa would be an example of a book where he works even harder to establish character and setting, though somewhat less effectively overall, I think–he doesn’t know the territory so well. But he went out of his way to learn as much as he could about it.

      I know what he’s saying, but taken to its logical extreme, that would mean the greatest caper movie of all time isn’t The Asphalt Jungle, or Rififi, or (my current fave) Mise a Sac–it’s probably Fast Five or one of those Ocean’s 11 remakes/sequels/whatever with Clooney. Outlandish isn’t enough. You have to do the groundwork. You have to know the territory. Westlake knew that better than any other writer I can think of.

  8. Pingback: The Tangled Blue Line | New Beverly Cinema

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