Holding the mask out from his mouth with his free hand, Kelp said “Let’s not scare the kid. Nobody’s gonna get hurt.” It was a line word for word from Child Heist, which Kelp had been rehearsing for two weeks now.
According to the book, the chauffeur was supposed to ask Kelp what he wanted. Instead of which, Van Gelden pointed at the pistol and said, “Scare the kid?” Then he gestured a thumb over his shoulder and said, “Scare that kid? Hah!”
This book enjoys a rather unique distinction among the Westlake canon. In 1978, Westlake’s good friend Brian Garfield (who I talked about in two recent articles here) published an anthology of pieces in which crime fiction writers described personal encounters with actual crimes. Westlake’s contribution was an imaginary account of him at a fashionable cocktail party, where the only food available is fancy potato chips, regaling bewildered onlookers with the story of how he came to write Jimmy The Kid. It’s funny, clever, and more than a touch convoluted, as the origins of popular fictions so often are. I strongly suggest you obtain, have you not already, a copy of The Getaway Car, and read this fascinating piece. Save me a lot of trouble, for one thing.
But perhaps you expect me to save you some trouble? Okay, the upshot is that the story of this book was inspired by the story of an actual kidnapping which was inspired by yet another book. Namely The Snatchers, aka Rapt, by Lionel White, a native New Yorker, who wrote a lot of taut suspenseful crime books, often published in paperback by outfits like Gold Medal, many of which became movies, and the movies were rarely very faithful to the books. Sounds familiar, huh?
(Westlake and several other sources refer to the book as The Snatch, but I can’t find any edition with that title.)
Like many another Lionel White outing, this one much later got turned into an exceptionally unfaithful film adaptation (with Marlon Brando, no less). But it is probably better remembered today for the fact that a pair of rather impressionable French criminals decided to use the Serie Noire translation of it as the blueprint for (successfully) kidnapping a toddler who happened to be the grandson of the head of Peugeot.
You know, Peugeot? Cars, bicycles, etc. The cars were never that common here, but Lt. Columbo drove one on TV. First car I can remember is my dad’s little dark blue Peugeot (don’t ask me which model, I was about the same age as the kidnap victim at the time). My mom later said it was his rebellion against adult responsibility, or suburban conformity, or something. You know how mothers are.
Not only was the boy not harmed (because the book specifically said not to do that), he actually seems to have had a rather interesting time–the elder Peugeots, having received some very threatening missives about what would happen to little Eric if they didn’t pay up, were not so amused.
And the kidnappers, not having had the foresight to get a book telling them how to behave after scoring big on a kidnap caper, threw their ill-gotten gains around like water, made snide allusions in bars as to their daring enterprise, and they both went to prison in short order. Life may imitate art up to a point, but then comes Murphy’s Law. Or, if you prefer, The Dortmunder Effect.
The idea of adapting a crime adapted from a novel was not originally Westlake’s (in fact, it wasn’t even originally the French kidnappers’ idea; see The League of Gentlemen). He was approached by some film producers who wanted to do a story along similar lines. Not the Peugeot kidnapping, but something like it. Westlake gave it some thought, and wrote a treatment which tried to change the crime to counterfeiting, which didn’t work. So he changed it back to kidnapping, which reportedly worked better, but the studio head, a grandfather himself, didn’t see the humor in the concept for some odd reason.
The movie was scrapped. But as had happened twice already in the past, Westlake had retained the book rights, and eventually decided (with encouragement from his then-girlfriend, Abby Adams) to try and turn the story of a kidnapping adapted from a novel back into a novel. Art imitating Life imitating Art.
(Anyway, as is mentioned in this very book, you can’t copyright real-life events. Anybody could do a story about the Peugeot kidnapping, or a story inspired by it. Even though it was itself directly inspired by a book that is, far as I know, still under copyright. Plagiarism laws only apply to fictional events and persons, not real events committed by real persons, inspired by fiction. Westlake thought this was very funny).
He’d been down this same exact road already, with Who Stole Sassi Manoon? That comic kidnapping caper was a creative failure, in spite of some good writing, mainly because the characters had poorly defined voices, perhaps because they’d been written as film characters who had to be played by popular film stars, and something was lost in translation between mediums. Here, he’d remake the story basically from scratch, and instead of using the characters from the two treatments he’d written for the movie that never got made, he’d use characters with very strong voices that he’d already featured in two previous novels–eighteen if you count Parker.
Yeah, this is the Dortmunder novel where Parker has a cameo as a fictional character in Dortmunder’s world, and Stark has a epistolary cameo as his pissed-off creator. That, I think, is how most people tend to remember it today, and that’s why a good first edition can run you a bit more than other Dortmunders from this general time period. Overlapping fanbases. But if you’re a Stark reader who ran out of novels and is hoping to find a new Parker heist contained in the pages of this book, you’re in for a disappointment. Because this isn’t really Parker, it’s only three chapters, and it’s not very good–the Parker chapters, I mean.
It only makes sense. If Westlake had come up with a really great idea for a Parker novel, he’d use it to write another Parker novel. Possible this is a rejected idea he pulled out of his Parker slushpile, but I don’t think so. We know where he got the kidnapping angle from. And we know something else–Parker–the real Parker–would never get involved in a job like this. Kidnapping isn’t his line. And kidnapping a child? Stark wouldn’t have it. But Stark’s not pulling the strings here. Stark’s taken a long coffee break (black, of course), leaving Westlake not really knowing how to write in that voice anymore.
I think there is some attempt to contrast the Westlake style with Stark’s here, but it’s not that effective, because as I explained a few weeks back, in the course of writing the hybridized Westlake/Stark epic that is Butcher’s Moon, he’d somehow slipped out of the groove, as far as Stark was concerned. It would be quite a while before he got back in that groove, and he’s faking it to beat the band here.
And that’s perfectly fine, because this isn’t a Parker novel–it’s a Dortmunder, and one of the better ones, I think. Not everyone agrees–it’s certainly not a classic of the series, since kidnapping isn’t Dortmunder’s line either, and for obvious reasons he’s not planning the job this time (much to his disgust)–but I was shaking with laughter at my local, as I finished it over tacos and beer. And I picked up on some things I missed the first time through. It’s a funny, insightful, and deceptively simple little book, with a lot of layers to it. And a fine addition to a rather odd little sub-genre–the comic kidnapping story.
I mean, kidnapping shouldn’t be funny, should it? It happens all the time in real life, and the kidnap victims and their families are rarely laughing about it. And yet something about it excites us–even the word ‘kidnap’ itself, which originally meant exactly what it sounds like–child theft. We all have some kidnappers in our family trees–just as so many of our great national epics are about armed robberies of some kind or another, as I explained in my review of The Score, you can just as easily go back through ancient mythology and find one long series of colorful (and often sexual) abductions.
Hell, that’s how Rome was reputedly founded, with those Sabine women, only they didn’t call that kidnapping at the time. But why is that story so unexpectedly funny, and later the source of a Hollywood musical comedy with great choreography? Because the women want to be abducted. Because they end up having a good time, and wanting to stay with their abductors. So that’s the secret to making it humorous, as opposed to suspenseful, or tragic. Turn the tables. Dramatic reversal.
The funniest kidnapping story of all time debuted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907, and Westlake knew damn well he was never topping that one. The inner dust jacket for the first edition up top says otherwise, but it lies. Westlake came up with a splendid variation on a theme, make no mistake–but some things in this world can’t be improved upon.
How long since you last read it? It had been quite a long while for me, and I savored every paragraph, every last impeccably chosen word. As close to perfection as any mortal can get, but the message is very simple, isn’t it? “Boys are a lot more trouble than you think.”
Reading it as a child, you think “This kid is great!” Reading it as an adult, you realize your loyalties have somehow inexorably shifted, and you marvel at the stoic saintly patience of the kidnappers. You look at some banal Hollywood re-rendering of it, like those Home Alone movies, and you yearn for something heavy to fall on Macauley Culkin and put an end to his tow-headed malevolence (mercifully, adolescence eventually achieved the same result without the need to resort to bloodshed).
But from either generational perspective, it’s funny, because much against their will, the abductors have become the abductees. Because they could never really harm the kid, they are subject to being seriously harmed by him. And he has no intention of ever letting them go. They’re just too much fun. I think The Joker said that to Batman once.
Westlake said in that piece he wrote for Garfield that he didn’t want to use a child the age of Eric Peugeot at the time he was grabbed because an infant kidnapping is ‘inimical to comedy’–the Coen brothers kind of proved him wrong with Raising Arizona, but of course that was abduction for love, not money. And it had the aesthetic sensibility of a Chuck Jones Roadrunner cartoon. But it’s still the same basic idea–you create comedy in a story about a kidnapping by creating sympathy for the kidnappers. They did not know what they were getting into.
And in fact, Eric Peugeot said later he was fascinated by his kidnappers, entranced by them–he’d never been around two grown men so much before, let alone men of this class, and he watched them avidly. He was certainly scared at points–not traumatized in the least. But he was no real trouble to them, being past the terrible two’s, yet still too young to ask a lot of silly questions, or get up to any serious mischief (okay, I hear parents of three year olds objecting now, but he wouldn’t be trying to scalp them, would he?).
The only problem the kidnappers had was their own stupidity once the kidnapping was concluded. The kid was just quietly curious about them. Okay, that’s not funny, or at least not the right kind of funny. Need an older victim. Perhaps older than his years? Can’t make him too much like O. Henry’s kid.
P.G. Wodehouse did several stories about child kidnappings, but those were early works, before he’d arrived at the brilliance of Jeeves, Mulliner, Uncle Fred, or Blandings. His gift for comic language was developing rapidly, but his grasp of characterization and plotting was still in embryonic form. So those books have dated rapidly, and the kidnappings are treated rather offhandedly, lost in the shuffle of too many implausible story threads, and too much forced banter (like Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, only worse). Even Plum had to start somewhere.
If you’re going to tell a story like this, to make it funny you have to build on the logic of it, not just throw it in for a lark. So O. Henry, that most consummate of craftsmen, would be Westlake’s model here, not Wodehouse. Have to match the tool to the task. And now my tool had best be the plot synopsis.
Having repeatedly failed as a heister, Dortmunder is trying life as a mere burglar, going down a fire escape (there’s going to be a lot of those fire escapes) to break into a furrier’s shop, and then he hears a voice calling him from above–is it the Lord? No, it’s just Andy Kelp. (Interesting though, that Dortmunder, as opposed to Parker, seems to have some sort of half-hearted religious notions in his head, no doubt put there by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, who raised him as an orphaned youth).
Turns out Dortmunder was on the wrong floor of the building (he’s never going to be much of a burglar–made for bigger things), and to have Kelp point out his mistake adds insult to injury. Kelp opens the door of the shop for him, and he won’t even look at the furs on the racks–Kelp has ruined yet another job for him. He’s just doing to get into his stolen VW Microbus and leave. But their squabbling has roused the whole neighborhood, and they have to get out of there, and he accidentally bloodied Kelp’s nose in his wrath, so he lets Kelp ride with him. And this is a mistake of course. Because Kelp has an idea. Kelp always has some damn fool idea. But this one is weird, even for him.
With the hand that wasn’t holding his nose, Kelp reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a paperback book. “It’s this,” he said.
Dortmunder was approaching an intersection with a green light. He made his turn, drove a block, and stopped at a red light. Then he looked at the book Kellp was waving. He said, “What’s that?”
“It’s a book.”
“I know it’s a book. What is it?”
“It’s for you to read,” Kelp said. “Here, take it.” He was still staring at the roof and holding his hose, and he was merely waving the book in Dortmunder’s direction.
So Dortmunder took the book. The title was Child Heist, and the author was somebody named Richard Stark. “Sounds like crap,” Dortmunder said.
Dortmunder takes the book, figuring what the hell. Kelp’s next errand is to go find Stan Murch and give him a copy of the same book–he tells Murch (whose reading is mainly confined to newspapers and car magazines) the guy in it will remind him of Dortmunder. And Murch also takes the book, also figuring what the hell. Kelp says to make sure Murch’s Mom reads it as well. What the hell?
Then Kelp shows up at Dortmunder and May’s apartment, along with Murch, to make the pitch. Kelp’s idea is simple–and not original to him, but how’s he to know about the French guys? See, he got pulled in by some cops out in the sticks a few days, a bum rap, they didn’t have anything on him, which isn’t to say he was innocent, but cops should know better than to put a crimp in a man’s schedule over a bad arrest. It’s unprofessional.
Anyway, the jail had a bunch of books donated by a local ladies club (heh) and a lot of them were these books about this armed robber named Parker, written by this Richard Stark person. You may have heard of them. Having nothing better to do, Kelp read the books, and was immediately captivated by the idea of a hardened criminal who pulls daring complex heists and never gets caught.
I already used the money quote from this chapter for my review of The Score (check it out, or just read the book), but basically Kelp is saying they should just do the plan from this book he particularly liked named Child Heist–which is about a kidnapping. Just follow the same plan Parker and his associates employ, right down to the letter, and it’ll succeed, like it does in the book. Why wouldn’t it?
He wants May and Murch’s Mom (she has a name, but it’s hardly ever used) to babysit the kid, which Murch’s Mom says is very sexist, while simultaneously conceding that Kelp and the other guys in the string would have no idea how to take care of a child.
May, who has no problem at all with crime as a modus vivendi, thinks it would be mean to frighten a little kid by taking him from his home and family. Murch’s interest is predictably limited to the wide variety of motorized vehicles needed to pull this job. Dortmunder says very little, brooding to himself, and then he suddenly says he never wants to see Kelp again. He’s furious. Because he’s the planner, and Kelp is bringing in this Stark guy, who probably never so much as knocked over a candy store in his life, as a ringer, to do his job! He’s been outsourced! And that’s not even a thing yet!
But as they all admitted earlier in the meeting, the problem here is that big cash scores are getting hard to find in this increasingly cash-free modern world (same problem Parker has been having in the dimension next-door). Dortmunder has no better options at present, and he hates living off May and her meager supermarket salary (that she steals most of their food from her employer is neither here nor there). He’s only really happy when he’s planning a big heist, and May knows that. She likewise knows that because of his past offenses, if he gets caught stealing so much as a pack of Luckies for her he’s going back to prison for life, so he might as well pull something big.
May is also concerned that Kelp is so obsessed with pulling this job that he’ll do it without Dortmunder, and something will go horribly wrong, and the kid will get hurt, even though nobody wants that. Somehow, hearing about this proposed federal crime has roused her maternal instincts. So she fixes Dortmunder all his favorite dishes for dinner, and works on him, like only she can. She explains to him that he’s still needed to make the plan in the book work in the real world.
“Kelp brings a plan to me.”
“To make it work,” she said. “Don’t you see? There’s a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you’ve got and the places you’ll be and all the rest of it. You’d be the aw-tour.”
He cocked his head and studied her. “I’d be the what?”
“I read an article in a magazine,” she said. “It was about a theory about movies.”
“A theory about movies.”
“It’s called the aw-tour theory. That’s French, it means writer.”
He spread his hands. “What the hell have I got to do with the movies?”
“Don’t shout at me, John, I’m trying to tell you. The idea is–”
“I’m not shouting,” he said. He was getting grumpy.
“All right, you’re not shouting. Anyway, the idea is, in movies the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director, because he takes what the writer did and he puts it together with the actors and the places where they make the movie and all the things like that.”
“The writer isn’t the writer,” Dortmunder said.
“That’s the theory.”
(Godard liked it well enough. You’re still mad at him, aren’t you, Mr. Westlake? Him and that Boorman guy who said he liked to exploit writers, steal their ideas, and then discard them. In public he said this, while adapting your book into a movie. A movie you kind of liked, but a movie that bombed. ‘The writer isn’t the writer.’ Sheesh. These new filmmakers got no couth. No wonder you’re so grumpy. As to what Dortmunder has to do with the movies, probably better not to ask, but for those who must know, read my piece Dortmunder At The Movies. On this very blog. And don’t say you weren’t warned. Back to the synopsis.)
So the gang all meet up at the O.J. Bar and Grill (this time the chatty barflies are two telephone repairmen about to get into a fight over the derivation of the word ‘spic’ to refer to Puerto Ricans), and Dortmunder grudgingly admits that the book could serve as a jumping off point, but it needs to be adapted. See, talking like an aw-tour already! And then we get a whole chapter of Child Heist, showing us Parker and some guy named Krauss scoping out potential kidnap victims. Here’s how the Parker chapter begins:
When Parker walked into the apartment, Krauss was at the window with the binoculars. He was sitting on a metal folding chair, and his notebook and pen were on another chair next to him. There was no other furniture in the room, which had gray plaster walls from which patterned wallpaper had recently been stripped. Curls of wallpaper lay against the molding in all the corners. On the floor beside Krauss’ chair lay three apple cores.
And here’s how the Dortmunder chapter begins:
When Dortmunder walked into the apartment, Kelp was asleep at the window with the binoculars in his lap. “For Christ’s sake,” Dortmunder said.
And this is a recurring theme of the book–that in Parker’s world, every job goes smoothly, everyone’s a consummate pro, nothing ever goes wrong–and in Dortmunder’s world, it’s the exact opposite. Westlake knew this was a rank oversimplfication–Parker, if anything, has worse luck than Dortmunder with his strings (only once would any of Dortmunder’s associates ever try to kill him), and he never once pulled a heist without something going seriously wrong, but here’s the thing–how can Westlake get that across to that very large section of the Dortmunder readership that has not read the Parker books? Who may in fact assume they’re something Westlake dreamed up specifically for this story.
It ruins the sly meta-textual joke he’s making here if he brings in all those inconvenient nitpicky details. So he doesn’t. But for those of us who have read the Parkers, this can be irritating. It’s still fun to read, mind you. But we know it’s wrong. It’s one of the less effectively executed gags, but still fascinating to read, for those who follow both series. I don’t think it’s really meant as a commentary on the Stark books. That’s not really what this book is about, contrasting Stark and Westlake, but it’s there, and it doesn’t quite come off, because Westlake can’t really write like Stark in this context. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to. There’s plenty else going on here. Layer after layer, joke within joke.
So going by the book, they have to scope out limos from a handy lookout spot. They need one with a built-in phone that routinely carries some rich kid to and from an appointment in Manhattan. In Child Heist, ‘Parker’ and his buddies find a Lincoln that fits the bill nicely–Dortmunder & Co. find a Cadillac. This leads to some confusion later, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
And the deceptively diminutive backseat occupant of said Cadillac is one Jimmy Harrington, twelve years of age, youngest son of a rich corporate lawyer, and boy genius. So much so that he’s going to a psychiatrist in the city, to work out some of the personal issues that tend to arise when you’re smarter than all the kids in your class, and probably most of the adults you know as well. Would it sound arrogant if I said I can relate? Yeah, it probably would. Never mind. But something tells me Westlake related a whole lot. In this specific regard, at least. It’s not a rich kid’s fault that he’s rich. It is, on the other hand, very much a psychiatrist’s fault that he is a psychiatrist.
Jimmy Harrington, lying on the black naugahyde couch in Dr. Schraubenzieher’s office, looking over at the pumpkin-colored drapes half-closed over the air-shaft window, said, “You know, for the past few weeks, every time I come into the city I keep having this feeling, somebody is watching me.”
“A very specific kind of watching,” Jimmy said. “I have this feeling, I’m somebody’s target. Like a sniper’s target. Like the man in the tower in Austin, Texas.”
“That’s obviously paranoid, of course,” Jimmy said. “And yet it doesn’t truly have a paranoid feel about it. I think I understand paranoid manifestations, and this seems somehow to be something else. Do you have any ideas, Doctor?”
Though he responds with more than “Mm hm?” this time, the Doctor seems more concerned with scoring a rare intellectual point over his precocious patient than in getting to the bottom of Jimmy’s actually quite well-founded anxieties. But you get the gist of the character here–Jimmy has a first-rate brain and tremendous intellectual curiosity, bolstered by extensive reading, and no doubt the best private schools and tutors money can buy. He seems to have no friends his own age, and this doesn’t seem to bother him much, but the boy could use some seasoning. Like a Captains Courageous kind of deal. Only tougher on the captains than on the kid, as matters shall arrange themselves.
Jimmy seems to me like a much younger and far less irritable reworking of Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, the main protagonist of Who Stole Sassi Manoon? But Westlake had a hard time identifying with the spoiled wealthy Kelly, even though Kelly’s physical appearance and interests seemed to be somewhat modeled after Westlake himself. Jimmy, being younger–I’d assume some of Westlake’s own boys were around Jimmy’s age, or had been recently, or would be soon–comes off much better than Kelly. Westlake often did wonder, I think, what life might have been like for him if he’d had all the advantages growing up. Better in some ways, worse in others. There’s always a trade-off.
Oh, and one more thing–Jimmy knows what he wants to do for a living. At age twelve. Okay, in this I can not even slightly relate. But wait until you hear it–he wants to direct. As in movies. Wants to be an aw-tour. And somewhere, the God of Dortmunder’s Universe chuckles wickedly, and the net begins to close. And I say see you next week, kids. I’ll be watching you–well, those of you that post comments, anyway.
(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)