When Parker got to the intersection he made a U-turn and stopped, facing back th way he had come. He and Angie waited in the Dodge while Henley took the ROAD CLOSED–DETOUR sign out of the trunk and set it up blocking the numbered country road, with the arrow pointing toward the smaller blacktop road leading off into the woods to the right.
Kelp went over and set up the sign. It was a three-by-four piece of thin metal that had once advertised 7-Up, and the shape of the bottle could still be seen vaguely through the yellow paint. Kelp had also thought to bring a triangular arrangement of sticks to lean the sign against, a detail not mentioned in Child Heist. He put the sign in place, trotted back to the Caprice and said, “How’s that?”
Dortmunder looked at it. It said ROAD CLOSED–DETURE. He said “Jesus H. Goddam Christ.”
“What’s the matter?” Kelp looked all around the intersection, worried. “Did I put it in the wrong place?”
“Do you have that goddam book on you? ”
“Sure,” Kelp said.
“Take it out,” Dortmunder said, “and find the page where they set up the sign.” Turning to May, he said, “I’m following a book he read, and he doesn’t even know how to read!”
Kelp said, “I got it.”
“Look at it. Now look at the sign.”
Kelp looked at the book. He looked at the sign. He said, “Son of a gun. Detour. I thought sure you–”
“You can’t even read!”
Between the film adaptations, foreign editions, and reprints, I think this book got as many different covers as anything Westlake ever wrote–more than I feel like featuring here, but I am bemused by how many of the first edition foreign covers prominently featured that well-known rodentine leader of the club that’s made for you and me. Do I have to spell it out? The American covers mainly didn’t go there. And I assume that’s because the Disney legal department has a lot less clout overseas, and couldn’t be bothered to chase down every last little trademark infringement. Surprised Ballantine Books risked it for the paperback reprint, though it’s pretty clear that’s just a kid in a mask. The Japanese cover makes it look like Mikki-san is actually in the book. Nefarious. And delightful.
But if you want true pop cultural sacrilege–
Much as I agree Kelp and Dortmunder have a sort of hardboiled Stan & Ollie vibe going on a lot of the time, this is just wrong. I mean, clearly Dortmunder is the Ollie in that relationship, but he’s the skinny one. And somehow I just can’t imagine Kelp getting all weepy and squeaky-voiced when Dortmunder admonishes him. And Stan & Ollie with guns? Pointed at a child’s back? It’s very very wrong. I’m surprised at you, Denmark. You’re supposed to be setting an example here.
So last time I mentioned Lionel White’s The Snatchers. His second novel, published by Gold Medal in 1953. I now have a copy in my possession (they’re thin on the ground these days), and the first thing I have to say is that it sucks as a novel. As a rough blueprint for a kidnapping executed by two French criminals, it seems to have worked very well. So the kidnappers in that book get away clean, right? Of course not. Every last one of the kidnappers are dead by the end of that book. I’m not sure any of White’s criminal protagonists are ever alive and free at the end of his stories. Nobody was doing that in the early 50’s.
Patricia Highsmith didn’t publish The Talented Mr. Ripley until 1955, and that was an extreme outlier in the genre until at least 1962, when The Hunter came out. Writing in the early 60’s, Westlake originally had Parker cut down by police bullets at the end of The Hunter, and was persuaded to change that ending by Bucklin Moon. Westlake later said he didn’t want to kill Parker, but that was just how you were supposed to end that kind of story, with that kind of protagonist. He would have assumed the book wouldn’t sell otherwise. Highsmith was much better established when she wrote the first Ripley book, having had Strangers On A Train adapted by Hitchcock. And she still makes you feel at the end like Ripley’s going to get his someday.
I doubt any crime writer of that general period, even Highsmith, would have shown a gang of kidnappers grabbing a small child, getting their money, and walking off into the sunset. That would be a hard sell today–certainly for anything published as popular entertainment. Highsmith did write a book about a well-off couple’s little dog being kidnapped and murdered by a low-life sociopath, who pretends the dog is alive to get money out of the couple. Virtue is rarely rewarded in her books, nor is evil always punished, but Highsmith loved animals (people not so much), and she made damn sure the bastard got what was coming to him.
The kidnapping in White’s book is planned by a cool calculating fellow named Cal Dent, looking to score big and retire. His gang are a mixed bag of misfits and psychos, he being the only solid pro in the group (a pattern White returned to frequently)–and there’s one really hot blonde who’s along for the ride to provide sexual tension. It’s told mainly from the POV of the kidnappers, the kidnap victim, and the victim’s lovely young red-headed nursemaid (Irish, of course), who got snatched as well, which leads to more sexual tension, of course. The kid and the nursemaid both survive in the end, thanks partly to Dent having a change of heart, making a noble sacrifice. Hey, I didn’t say it was Richard Stark.
Cal Dent is extremely reminiscent of Parker, though–a forerunner, you might say. This is a Dortmunder review, so I can’t go into much detail about it, but the similarities are striking. The blonde looks at him and thinks he’s not even human, he’s like a lean tawny cat. She wants to hook up with him, even though her current boyfriend is another member of the gang, and Dent tells her maybe after the job–no sex while he’s working (but he breaks that rule).
He has a conscience, much as he doesn’t want to admit it–the redhead isn’t like any dame he’s known before, gets under his skin, makes him regret he’s such a bad seed, arouses his bestial lust, and you’ve seen this movie before.
The kidnap plan is clever enough, the people executing it not so much, and there’s some strokes of bad luck nobody could have foreseen. So the Peugeot kidnappers would have thought “Okay, we’re not crazy like those people, and we were born lucky, so we’ll do it the way it was supposed to be done, get the money, give the kid back, and no blondes or redheads until afterwards.” It worked fine until, as Westlake said, they ran out of book, and did the usual stupid things people tend to do when they suddenly have a lot of money. Quite possibly involving blondes and redheads. I wouldn’t know.
The Snatchers has got some good ideas in it, and a nicely atmospheric Long Island setting. But that aside, it’s mainly tawdry ‘ripped from the headlines’ melodrama, which makes sense given White’s professional background as a crime reporter (he can’t resist showing off his insider knowledge a bit).
White unquestionably was an important pioneer of the heist novel (once described as ‘The Master of the Big Caper’ in the New York Times, which can be annoyingly inconsistent in its literary standards). But as anybody knows who has read Carroll John Daly–then compared him to Dashiell Hammett–getting there first isn’t everything.
I could easily see Westlake reading this book and finding Dent’s mindset interesting. The other members of the gang feel like shopworn stereotypes. Westlake would look to writers like Hammett, Himes, and Rabe to show him how to craft a good crime story, how to make characters jump off the page at you, how to avoid getting mired in cheap cliches. That being said, you can get ideas from anywhere.
Westlake later went to some pains to identify White as the indirect inspiration of Jimmy The Kid–if he did draw some inspiration from White’s work when creating Parker, he might have felt a certain sense of indebtedness–and caution, since White was still alive in 1978, when Westlake wrote that piece for Brian Garfield’s anthology in which he told the story of this book’s genesis. He once said that he didn’t like talking about his influences until the copyrights had expired. Never give another writer an opening for a lawsuit, particularly if he’s not a buddy of yours, and your career is going better than his.
If White’s work was one inspiration among many leading to the creation of Parker, that means it also led to the creation of Dortmunder, since the latter began as an attempt to write a funny Parker novel. So in a way, it all ties together in this one book.
One thing I can say with certainty now is that the kidnapping in Jimmy The Kid owes nothing to the one in The Snatchers. Entirely different plans, entirely different crews. And as I remarked in Part 1, it doesn’t seem like anything at all goes wrong with the plan in Child Heist, the ‘Richard Stark’ novel Kelp has become obsessed with. Everything unfolds with clockwork precision in those three chapters we get to read from that book-within-a-book.
Briefly, Parker and his string identify a rich kid being regularly chauffeured to and from the city, and make sure the limo has a phone in it. They follow the car, scope out the route in advance. The next time the limo is heading back, they put up a fake detour sign, and lay a rather involved trap involving multiple vehicles (this is the part of the book Murch likes). They wear Mickey Mouse masks so the kid won’t be scared (it’s impossible to imagine Stark ever letting his people look that ridiculous, or for Parker to give a damn whether the kid is scared or not, and I’d be terrified if I saw armed men in Mickey Mouse masks–why not clown masks?). There are two women in the string to look after the kid, keep him from panicking (and provide a pretext for May and Murch’s mom to be in on the action this time).
They make contact with the father, tell him to get the money, put it in a suitcase, and get on a highway of their choosing, to await further instructions. They expect the father to have contacted the Feds, and for the Feds to be keeping a close eye on the limo, but they call the father en route (that’s why they needed the car to have a phone). They tell him to stop at an designated overpass, heave the suitcase over the guard rail, and leave. They’re parked down below. By the time the Feds figure it out, the gang has absconded with the loot. We never find out how they were going to return the kid, and maybe that’s where something went wrong, and Kelp papered it over in his mind, like the French guys did in real life.
That’s Child Heist, and I don’t think we need mourn the fact that three chapters is all we get. Westlake wrote it for ironic counterpoint, and that’s all you get from it. Still better than The Snatchers, though.
And as you may gather from the quote up top, every last little thing that works perfectly in Child Heist falls to pieces in Jimmy The Kid. But not all for the same reasons. Kelp misspelling ‘detour’ isn’t a major problem, but it’s a bad omen. The fact is, life is never as simple and stripped-down as it is in a Parker novel–that’s one of the allures of those books. Yes, Parker has a lot of bad luck, but he never has any bad luck that makes him look silly. When you read a Richard Stark novel, you get to watch a perfectly executed plan, then you get to watch some unforeseen complication sour it, then you get to see Parker find some way to salvage something from the wreckage.
But in a Dortmunder, there are no perfect plans, the bad luck never stops coming, and yet there’s always these odd strokes of good luck to counterbalance it, and keep Dortmunder from going back to prison, so we can laugh at him again later on.
Part of the problem is that Dortmunder and his string, while seasoned pros, are still clay-footed bumblers at times, because we all are. They’re maybe a bit too nice for the business they’re in, a bit too easily distracted, a bit too (for want of a better word) Runyonesque. Not only could they never harm a kid, no kid in his right mind would ever take a good look at them and think they could. Another part of the problem is that the kid himself, Jimmy Harrington, is much smarter than any of them, and has his own agenda that they never figure out until it’s too late. Mainly, the problem is that the God of their universe is Donald E. Westlake.
Right after they grab Jimmy (who is rather insulted they think he’d like something as babyish as Mickey Mouse) the phone in the limo rings–and it turns out a local Sussex County radio station–the exact part of New Jersey Parker and Claire settled down in, and I seem to recall Westlake lived there a while as well–has picked this exact moment in time to call Jimmy, because he wrote to them about one of those those phone quiz contests radio stations love to do for promotional reasons that have never made any sense to me.
And the gang, caught off guard, can’t think of an excuse for Jimmy to get off the line. So he sits there inside the limo, which is halfway inside a truck, answering every question perfectly, while the gang of desperate kidnappers waits breathlessly to see if this filthy rich kid wins 500 bucks worth of prizes. The last question is in astrology, and Jimmy doesn’t know that subject, but Kelp gives him the correct answer (that he knows, but not how to spell ‘detour’).
Now you can’t call that realism–there’s no way that would ever happen in an actual kidnapping, and they’d just disconnect the call if it did. But it illustrates the sheer perversity of existence that afflicts us all. Maybe you’d never get a call like this when you were kidnapping somebody, but if you got a call like this, it would happen at the worst possible time, bet on that.
Parker’s setbacks are usually related to human weakness in some way–that he can’t understand our confused identities, his own being so sure and settled. But Dortmunder’s problem is that the universe itself conspires to make him look ridiculous–to undermine his self-image, his identity as a tough competent heist planner. His cohorts will never betray him, as Parker’s routinely do–they’re more of an extended family than a gang, really–but that just makes things harder in many ways. For one thing, it means he can’t just do what Parker does when his colleagues thwart him in some way–shoot them. That’s a nice perk, you must admit.
They’re supposed to finish driving the limo into a truck Murch obtained, but the limo doesn’t fit, and the planks they put out to drive it up on won’t hold it, and this is something we’ve seen in so many heist novels and movies, driving one vehicle into another to confuse the law, and it always works flawlessly in stories–Dortmunder says fuck it, it’s too complicated, they’ll just drive to the hideout in their own car–anyway, doesn’t the father have to have the limo with the phone in it in order to carry out the rest of the plan? What was the point of taking the limo to start with? (And yes, Dortmunder did plan a job that involved driving a car into a truck in The Hot Rock, but in that case the car was a lot smaller, and the style of the series is changing.)
It took Murch a long time to find an abandoned farmhouse, like the one Parker’s string uses in their book, because they’ve all been converted into country houses by city people with more money than brains, so they can be featured in those hoity-toity magazines you see at your doctor’s office and never bother to read. He finally found one, with absolutely no amenities of any kind, other than a roof and walls.
It’s really well-hidden. The cops will never find it. We know this because Murch himself can’t find it for quite a long time. They just keep driving up to one converted farmhouse after another, and then get driven off by a seemingly endless succession of Great Danes and German Shepherds, all well aware their job descriptions include keeping the riff raff off the property You ever think maybe Westlake had mixed emotions about country life?
Jimmy isn’t scared at all, now that he’s had a good look at these clowns, but he is determined to get back to his life as soon as possible (he’s got a film career to pursue), and he quickly escapes the locked room he’s in, finds a handy toolbox in the attic, and uses it to rig the nails fastening the boards over the window in his room, so he can leave anytime he wants–they won’t even be able to figure out how he did it. Which seems a mite sadistic. But I don’t think it’s meant that way. He’s just acting out a different kind of story, and we all read those stories as kids, right? “Daring boy adventurer outwits dimwitted criminals using ingenious methods.” Those were cool. Now if he was trying to scalp them in their sleep, that would be sadistic.
Now we get to meet Jimmy’s father, Herbert Harrington, and he may be the funniest character in the book. He is genuinely (if distantly) fond of his son, who he had with his second (now-estranged) wife, relatively late in life, and Jimmy is turning out much better than his older brother, who we’re told is living on some hippie commune or whatever. But Harrington Sr. is not one for big emotions, you might say. He’s the rich guy in the book, and we’re well familiar with Westlake’s reaction to that class of human, but he’s not super-rich, and he earned his money doing something he genuinely enjoys (corporate lawyer), and Westlake is a dad himself, so Herbert gets off relatively unscathed. Accent on relatively.
He’s just gotten off the phone with Murch’s Mom, and the whole thing was taped by the FBI, and they’re playing back the tape–he’s shocked that his voice sounds like that. Is that really him? The man has probably taped hundreds of memos for secretaries to type up, and he never listened to one.
He knew Jimmy had been kidnapped, because they let the chauffeur go back with the car. He’s more confused than worried. This is all so unexpected. Anyway, Murch’s Mom tells him not to call the police, and he immediately tells her he already did (because they forgot to tell the chauffeur to tell him that, probably because the book didn’t mention it). It’s a good thing he’s dealing with nice kidnappers here.
Murch’s Mom is confused as well, because she’s reading from a copy of Child Heist, and it doesn’t match up to the conversation that well, but she adapts the material as best she can. They want Harrington to get one hundred fifty grand in cash. He says that will take some time–would eighty-five thousand be okay? No, it will not (Murch’s Mom is a bit shocked he’d even bring this up). Afterwards one of the Feds asks him if he was actually haggling over his son’s ransom, like this was an ordinary business deal, and he realizes he was–conditioned reflex. Man doesn’t know himself at all.
The head FBI man says this is a cunning gang of professionals, and there’s something oddly familiar about their MO, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Well, I doubt the Harringtons would have those kinds of books in their library, anyway. Herbert says it’s interesting that Modus Operandi and Method of Operations have the same initials. He’s taking all this rather well, you must admit.
That night, Jimmy escapes while the gang watches TV on a battery-operated set. It’s easy. Almost too easy. But then he realizes that it’s cold, and it’s raining, and he can’t see even see the dirt road leading to the main road, and maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all. Whatever kinds of stories he’s been reading, it seems they have their drawbacks in terms of practical application as well.
So he walks back into the house–he was supposed to be sleeping upstairs–in a locked room. Everyone is startled, and they start grabbing for their Mickey Mouse masks, because he’s not supposed to see their faces. Dortmunder is more concerned with how he got out, but when he starts interrogating the kid, May immediately takes Jimmy’s side, starts fussing over him like a mother hen, and the mystery of his Houdini-like escape remains unsolved or the time being.
Their cover has been blown now–the masks were really uncomfortable anyway–but in exchange for getting to stay up and watch a movie, Jimmy promises he’ll never identify them to the police. It’s The Bride of Frankenstein–when I was twelve, I’d have promised anything to stay up and watch that, though Channel 9 usually showed the Universal horror pics on Saturday mornings, anyway. Jimmy starts telling them about James Whale’s innovative use of camera angles–I probably wouldn’t have done that at age twelve, but I did know who James Whale was, because I read a lot of monster movie books–it was very sad that he drowned in his pool–the books were a bit vague about that part. I digress once more.
Kelp, still stuck in his book, keeps his mask on a lot longer than the rest, but finally relents. This living out a fictional story in reality thing is not as easy as he thought. But all that’s left is getting the money–that should be a cinch!
So they tell Mr. Harrington to get on the road, with the notion of course being that they’ll call him and have him drop the money the way it happens in the Parker book. But there’s a small problem. The limo phone is busy. For a long time. Well, he is missing a day at the office for this, you know–there’s a lot of important work he needs to get done, and he brought it with him, and he’s using the phone in the limo to make business calls. A man is allowed to do that in his own car, surely. By the time Mrs. Murch finally reaches him, he’s all the way to the Delaware Water Gap. A scenic wonder, as is well known. He’d never been there before. Never had the time. So it’s not a total waste.
There are other problems–they are using Interstate 80, and according to the book, they have to find an exit that has no people or buildings near it. There is no such exit on I-80, and Dortmunder thinks darkly to himself that he bets there’s no such exit along the Northern State Parkway on Long Island, which is what’s used in Child Heist. “The writer had just been making things easy for himself.”
Maybe my favorite scene in the book occurs in this chapter–Murch’s Mom, being the one picked to make the ransom calls, is trying to reach Harrington from a pay phone by a Burger King. She drove there in a Plymouth Roadrunner her son thoughtfully stole for her. But these bikers are outside the restaurant (technically, that’s what Burger Kings are) eating lunch, revving their engines, and making so much noise she can’t possibly have a civil ransom-related discussion with anyone. What on earth can this helpless old lady do, faced with such inconsiderate ruffians?
Murch’s Mom, leaving the phone off the hook, stepped out of the booth and went over to the Roadrunner. She had seen tools on the back seat; yes, there was a nice big monkey wrench. She picked it up, hefted it, and went over to stand in front of the motorcyclists, who were sitting on their throbbing machines, filling their faces with whoppers. She didn’t say anything; not that it would have been possible in any event. She stood looking at them. She thumped the monkey wrench gently into the palm of her left hand. She lifted it, thumped it gently again, lifted it, thumped it, lifted it, thumped it.
They became aware of her. Their eyes followed the small movements of the monkey wrench. They looked at one another, and they looked at Murch’s Mom’s face. Methodically, without any appearance of undue haste but nevertheless efficiently, they stuffed their mouths with the rest of their whoppers, packed their pockets with french fries, tied their Cokes to their gas tanks with little leather straps, and drove away.
Nobody fucks with Murch’s Mom. Not even Murch. And now I better show a picture of her car, before she gets mad at me.
(You can think what you like, but I think the Roadrunner is a tip of the hat to Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese).
So after every last possible thing that could have gone wrong has gone wrong (up to and including the Harrington limo being stopped for speeding by an overzealous state trooper who can’t wrap his mind around the fact that the chauffeur is an undercover FBI agent who likes to drive really fast), they get to the right overpass, and Harrington almost throws his briefcase full of business documents that he shouldn’t have had with him to begin with over the side, but it’s the suitcase of money that goes over–and right onto Dortmunder’s head, knocking him out cold.
But they have the loot! It worked! What can possibly go wrong now? Well, for one thing, the book didn’t mention that the FBI has little tracking devices they can put into things like suitcases, and everyone, Herbert Harrington included, is amazed these people managed to find an actual abandoned farmhouse that has not been turned into a posh country home already, but that’s not important now–a small army of G-Men has surrounded the Dortmunder Gang’s criminal redoubt, and will move in shortly before sunrise, because Feds read books too, and that’s how these things are done.
(Perhaps now is the time to mention that the kidnappers in The Snatchers didn’t find an abandoned farmhouse on Long Island–they rented a summer cottage on the beach in the off-season. I’ve gone through three Lionel White novels while researching this piece–no expense was spared–not an abandoned farmhouse in sight–it’s more of a David Goodis thing, wouldn’t you say? Or, for that matter, a Richard Stark thing. This isn’t a Lionel White parody. Perhaps in part because there’s not enough of a style there to hang a parody on. Oh, that was mean).
Jimmy escapes again–he’s grown somewhat fond of these strange people, but the weather has improved, and it’s time to go. He did get to enjoy watching The Thing (1949, credited to Christian Nyby, probably directed by Howard Hawks) with them, so that’s something.
And as he leaves the house, better prepared for his escape, he hears the FBI men whispering to each other in the dark. He thinks about it. He goes back inside to warn the gang. Dortmunder still wants to know how this damn kid gets out of a locked room so easy, and now he finds out, because that’s the escape route. They sneak through the enemy lines, and camp out in the woods all night, cold and wet, watching Captain Blood (1935, Michael Curtiz, Jimmy would you please give the screen credits a rest already?).
Jimmy is still lecturing them about camera angles as the sun rises. It’s time for them to find a car and get back to the city, but Jimmy asks if they can’t please wait until the movie is over? It’s very well done! “I’m almost willing,” Dortmunder said. “I’d like to see something well done.” He really can be such a Debbie Downer, sometimes.
Kelp, as we know, must always steal the automobiles of doctors, because doctors, being so aware of their own mortality, make sure they have the most comfortable life-enhancing vehicles. But in this remote area, all he can manage is a van from a local veterinary practice that smells of sick dog. They’re all ready to throw up by the time they get back to New York.
They drop Jimmy off at Eighth Ave. and 42nd St (we are informed that nobody there pays any mind, because a twelve year old getting out of a veterinarian’s van at 8:30am on a Friday is the most normal thing that’s happened there in years). He can get to his psychiatrist’s office and call his dad from there, then have his appointment, and of course enjoy a good gloat at Dr. Schraubenzieher’s expense, since someone was watching him, ha-ha, Q.E.D.! He waves goodbye, and tells them not to feel bad.
Yeah, he took the ransom money. Got it out of the suitcase when they weren’t looking, and stuffed it into his cute little Air France bag. Didn’t think of that angle, did you, Richard Stark? And just to add insult to injury, as rich people come out of the womb knowing how to do like no one else, he leaves them a goddam tip–a thousand bucks–two hundred apiece. And that’s how the caper crumbles.
And next chapter jumps ahead about a year. Richard Stark (the one who lives in Dortmunder’s world) is contacting his attorney. He wants to sue the makers of a film called Kid Stuff, which is clearly based on his novel Child Heist, and is furthermore an irreverent burlesque of it. This Dortmunderverse version of Stark is no more indulgent of such frivolities than the one we know. He demands retribution.
But he shall not get it, because as his lawyer informs him, the director and writer of this film was one James Harrington, thirteen year old Hollywood wunderkind, whose rich father financed his first film to the tune of one hundred fifty thousand smackers (give or take a thousand). It’s all based on his own real-life kidnapping, and is therefore legally bulletproof. Because you can’t copyright real-life events. Remember?
See, when the elder Harrington finally spoke to his son over the phone, prior to his release, he felt a surge of some emotion I suppose one must refer to as love. He’s been very distant and distracted the whole time, but he finally realizes he really did want his son back more than anything, and when the FBI guy asks him if he wants to hear the tape of the conversation played back, he says no–he’s afraid he might start weeping, and he doesn’t want that.
But once his admirably resourceful youngest son and heir presented him with the ransom money–then no doubt innocently raised the notion of making a movie about the whole thing–well, what proud father could say no? And a father Herbert Harrington is, in his own constipated way. And Jimmy Harrington achieves his career goal at roughly the same time he achieves puberty (convenient!). Another identity puzzle solved–kind of. Some people are born to win. And others–well…….
The book ends with Dortmunder and Kelp–it’s been a year since they’ve spoken, for obvious reasons–and this time Dortmunder accidentally screws up a heist Kelp is pulling. And he feels really bad about it. Maybe he’s been too harsh on Kelp. Nobody’s perfect, after all. Perhaps those words will come back to haunt him in the near future, but in the meantime he and Kelp decide to go see a new movie together. They don’t know anything much about it, but it’s supposed to be really funny. Care to make a guess?
(I can make a little guess of my own–Westlake was probably writing the original screenplay for a movie called Hot Stuff right around the same time he was working on Jimmy The Kid, and that movie actually got made a few years later, and I’ll be reviewing it next, just to link in with this book. I got the DVD, so I might as well. My expectations are suitably low. They did not shoot the script Westlake sent them. Well, he wasn’t financing the film, was he?)
We are a race of storytellers, all of us–the only animal on this planet that is obsessed with the unreal (“The Dream Animal,” Loren Eiseley called us, and he got that right). We don’t all make a living at it, but we all do it. We tell stories based (often rather loosely) on things that really happened. Then we start basing things we do in real life on the stories we made up–an endless feedback loop. And when we run out of things that happened to us, we base new stories on stories somebody else made up, which are based on stories somebody else made up, and we try to add bits and pieces of ourselves to these stories to make them our own, and the result is that our identities are constantly trapped somewhere between reality and fantasy, original and copy.
Professional criminals exist in real life–then people write stories, make movies, based on what they’ve heard about these criminals and their exciting lifestyle. Then the criminals read/see these stories, and think “Hey, that’s pretty neat!” and start adjusting their real-life behavior and appearance to be more like the fiction. And then you start losing track of where the story ends and the reality begins.
And some people make obscene amounts of money feeding this hunger we have for stories. And others use stories to tell us subtle truths about ourselves–and maybe even make us laugh at ourselves now and then. Because we are one mixed up bunch of monkeys, and we might as well get a few laughs out of it, no?
And that’s all I have to say about Jimmy The Kid. Except that earlier in the book, when May feeds Dortmunder all his favorite dishes to make him do this kidnapping job, one of the items she prepares is Boysenberry Jell-o. And it does not seem any such Jell-o flavor ever existed.
Just my little contribution to distinguishing reality from fantasy. Feel free to make your own in the comments section.
12 responses to “Review: Jimmy The Kid, Part 2”
The farmhouses are a great metaphor: Dortmunder’s world is the gentrified version of Parker’s
Westlake himself may have lived in a converted farmhouse when he lived in northern New Jersey. If not, he certainly saw plenty of them. And the big scary dogs guarding them.
Stark was not as careless about little details like this as Westlake makes it seem here. When Parker hides out at an abandoned house in the country, it’s usually credible enough that there’d be such a house there–not always a farmhouse. But it’s still a well-established convention of the genre–the criminal hideout in the countryside–that long predates the Stark books. And when writing the Dortmunders, Westlake lives to make fun of those conventions, even if his own work catches a few satiric bullets in the process.
Parker simply adapts to these changes going on around him–he becomes part of gentrification himself, by moving into that little lake house with Claire–protective coloration. Change just sort of flows around him, like the stone in the stream, in Yeats’ Easter 1916. Everything around him changes, and he remains the same.
Dortmunder is like that too, but instead of flowing smoothly around him, the stream irritates him, erodes him, pushes him around the creek bed. He’s a very indignant kvetchy stone in a stream. He’s got to struggle to remain the same.
I will say, growing up further south in New Jersey in the 70’s there were abandoned farmhouses that did not get converted into country homes–in fact, such houses were usually left to rot. But Sussex County was an ideal bedroom community for well-off commuters who could afford that kind of This Old House project, in the days before developers were building much there. Today, they’d just tear down the farmhouses and build hideous McMansions. Dortmunder has by no means seen the worst ‘progress’ can do yet.
As far as distinguishing reality from fantasy, nothing off the top of my head (well, Acura never made a “Silly,” but that’s another book). Just wanted to make a comment regarding technology. Westlake admitted in an interview once that while Dortmunder and gang manage to stay in their mid-forties, the world advances around them. When fax machines ruled, Dortmunder was not spared the aural assault by which they once announced themselves. When car GPS came on the scene, Murch adapted. With the advent of DNA testing, Tiny noted that you can’t pull “Anastasia” type jobs anymore. John Archibald D does not have a cell phone, but the rest of the crew does. Etc.
So even though Westlake clung to his typewriters to the bitter end, no doubt to the disgust of his publishers, he always remained aware of the current state of technology and inflicted it on his characters. So much of Jimmy the Kid’s plot is dependent on the exact level of technology available in the early to mid 70s: car phones existed, but were exclusively the domain of the wealthy. Busy signals had not yet been demoted by call waiting and voicemail. Calls had to be traced. You needed dimes to use a payphone.
All of which, I think, gave Westlake a wonderful pool from which to craft both plot and comedy. I always hoped that he would revisit the Parker/Stark book mine one more time after the Stark voice came back. By then both Parker and Dortmunder would have to act/interact in the 21st century world of wireless clouds. A cell phone and the internet would be non-issues for Parker – just more tools. But Dortmunder’s opinion on these things is well established. I can’t take the concept further, but of course Westlake would be able to. Oh well, as a friend of mine once told me “wish in one hand and crap in the other, and see which one gets full first.”
I’ve nothing of any substance to add to this–you got it exactly right. Westlake had a real love/hate relationship with technology. And in the Dortmunders he leaned heavily towards the hate.
Parker seems more indifferent about it. He does use cellphones at the very end of the second cycle. He’s forced to confront the changes in his world, and he doesn’t have a Kelp, so he has to work out his own compromises.
But he’s never going online, I bet. No more than Dortmunder is.
Just as well, since I don’t want either of them reading this blog. 😮
Huh. Just curious why you think Parker wouldn’t go online. I can see him typing with one finger, and only using it as a tool to research a job or whatever. Yeah, he wouldn’t waste his time on Facebook or reading blogs (lucky you), but, again, as a tool….why not?
Well partly because I think of him as a wolf, and I can’t believe he’d be able to interest himself in a world that isn’t three-dimensional, that can’t be tasted and felt. It wouldn’t be real to him. If he can’t lay his hands on it, to him, it does not exist. Like he enjoys looking at women, at least when he’s in the mood–can you imagine him looking at porn?
Yes, he reads newspapers to gather information about the world, so it would seem reasonable that he could use a digital device to access that same information, but I have a hard time envisioning him doing that. And you’ll recall that in Butcher’s Moon, he sent Grofield to gather information about Tyler at the library (and that wasn’t all Grofield gathered, but never mind Robert Herrick now). He understood what needed to be done, and yet it never occurred to him to do it. A newspaper is a tangible thing, a compromise he can make with the human world–but rolls of microfilm projected into a screen–somehow not.
Thing is, to use the internet–really use it–you have to become a part of it–let it use you in turn–it’s a two-edged sword. When you read a newspaper, the information is going entirely one way, from the page to your mind. When you gaze upon that electronic abyss that is the World Wide Web, it gazes back at you–it watches you, keeps tabs on your purchases, your interests, and (most critically) your location. And that creates a major point of vulnerability–it means you can’t hide anymore. And I think Westlake made this point pretty handily in Firebreak.
Parker might, conceivably, use some kind of public information terminal, say at a library, if he didn’t have a Grofield to do the ‘legwork’ (fingerwork?) for him–but that, to me, is not really going online.
Dortmunder just reflexively cantankerously mistrusts all newfangled things, but Parker, living in a far more dangerous world (how many times did Dortmunder even have a gun fired at him in his books?) has to be even more careful. He doesn’t avoid the internet because it’s new. He avoids it because he knows it would be fatal to a creature such as himself. He’d drown in there.
Are we all quite certain we won’t drown in there? In here, I should say.
Just asking. 😉
Man, this one’s a toughie to discern.
On the one hand, it’s yet another improvement over the previous installment. Dortmunder continues his character evolution, having fully become his own entity (or at least damn well near). The supporting cast is better than ever, May continues to be kickass and I’m really loving Kelp. I was pleasantly surprised by the titular Jimmy, expecting a shitheaded brat like The Ransom Of Red Chief but instead getting a bright minded and actually really decent kid. I didn’t expect all the twists and turns this time around (…well, ok, I did call Jimmy pulling a switch but otherwise no) and the comedy continues to be really damn good! The other new characters are fun too, especially the head FBI guy. And, I gotta admit, I was charmed by the interactions between Jimmy and the Dortmunder crew. They were really sweet. Most importantly though, I didn’t feel cheated when Jimmy started to side with the crew out of genuine fondness (he had his own selfish reasons, sure, but having grown fond of them was also one of them).
On the other hand though, there are two words that I feel very aptly describe Jimmy The Kid : Missed Opportunity. The idea of Dortmunder and co. using a job from a book as inspiration, let alone a Parker novel, is utterly brilliant but the book doesn’t really run with the concept. Imagine if some copies of Child Heist had crucial pages missing from being so worn and used so the unfortunate crew member with that copy has to wing it. Or imagine another crew member having an entirely different book that just happens to also be named “Child Heist” and being utterly lost.
But perhaps the biggest opportunity missed? The fact that Dortmunder and co. are attempting to pull off a crime like it happened in a book…a book in a series that regularly chastises amateurs for expecting things to happen like they do in the movies. (Yeah, different mediums but the principle is the same.)
The Parker portions were alright. I will admit to being underwhelmed by them, yeah, but as you yourself pointed out, this isn’t meant to be a Parker novel. I do wish we would’ve gotten more of them, if only because they’re so infrequent they kinda come off as an afterthought despite being part of the book’s premise.
I also wish we could’ve gotten more Jimmy. Not to say he doesn’t get prominent scenes in the spotlight, he does, but I still think he’s not as prominent as he should be.
Actually, that could lead into my main critique for Jimmy The Kid : It’s not long enough. I feel we could’ve benefited with more Jimmy scenes, more Parker excerpts, more instances of Dortmunder and co. trying (and failing) to follow the book. This installment is way too short with the premise and group of characters it has.
And yet, for all that I feel the book misses with its potential, when Jimmy The Kid hits it scores a home run. The opening scene is so far the funniest in the series (admittedly easy thing to say, given I’m very early in but still). And again, when it comes to the titular kid himself and the relationships he has with the characters, this book is an undeniable success. I just wish it played with the concept more.
Okay, first of all, points for the creative use of ‘discern.’ Not sure I’ve ever seen it used that way before. I would have said ‘parse.’
One key difference between Parker and Dortmunder is that Parker doesn’t really form friendships, per se. Some consider him a friend, he knows better.
Dortmunder has some of that same quality of standoffishness, but Life somehow won’t let him be a lone coyote. People stick to him, in a way Parker won’t allow. Dortmunder is given no choice in the matter, and one can question, at times, whether he really wants one–whether there is some loneliness in him, that craves companionship, even as he claims to want no part of it. (Parker may go to a bar sometimes, but not the same one, over and over, where everybody knows his name and they’re always glad he came. He’d say that was just asking for trouble–too predictable).
This, to me, is Westlake writing about a division in his own character–that he wants at times to be left alone to do his work, but at the same time, people can be fun to hang with. Stupid and crazy as they are, most of the time. We don’t know where the hell Parker came from (ancient mythology?), but Dortmunder was found on the steps of a convent, a foundling, raised Catholic, and something in him does seem to want a sense of community, even if it’s never precisely what he was looking for–he keeps looking. (Or really, it comes looking for him.)
So the gang keeps increasing in size as the series goes on, and Kelp flat-out refuses to go away. The Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic changes a fair bit over the next few books. But always there’s that underlying theme of Kelp bringing jobs to Dortmunder, and Dortmunder trying (and usually failing) to make them work as planned. If they work at all. This is probably the nadir of their partnership, professionally speaking. Given the source material, it would kind of have to be.
Understand that Westlake knows full well many who read Jimmy the Kid will have never read a Parker novel in their lives (now that’s a missed opportunity). I’m sure many never even realized this was a reference to real books they could actually read. So while we Parker readers may want that expanded upon, it’s going to be a problem for all the other readers who don’t have the context to get all the in-jokes (you yourself complained about the in-jokes in the earlier books, please to recall, and you have context galore).
There are all kinds of gags you could run with a scenario like this, but the main point being made here is that Dortmunder is about telling the same kind of story differently–as well as the weird interaction between criminals and crime fiction, how fiction can be inspired by a subculture, and then that subculture starts being inspired by the stories it inspired–often becoming overly self-conscious in the process. It’s still happening today. I’m sure it was happening thousands of years ago. “Here I am, a Greek going to war, and do I look as cool and deadly as Achilles? Am I as wily as Odysseus? Or am I a vain cuckolded idiot like Menelaus? Gods, please don’t let me be ugly and common like Thersites! Though actually, wasn’t he making some pretty good points about war being a colossal waste of time and lives? Hmmm….”
It’s short, yes–but it’s the right length for Westlake. He often struggled with longer novels. Writers train for distances, as a certain critic once observed. He’s got enough room here to make his points, and there’s no reason to belabor them. Comedy doesn’t often lend itself well to marathons, though there is one Dortmunder that proved a partial exception. (To this and other things.)
I note you don’t mention Jimmy’s father, and he’s one of the best things in the book. His total inability to process the fact that he loves his younger son (the elder, not so much), and is terrified of losing him. He can’t even stop working when he’s supposed to be arranging for Jimmy’s ransom. Funny only because we know there’s absolutely no chance of anything bad happening to Jimmy, now or ever. Jimmy’s just too smart. And also a bit of a stranger to himself, emotionally speaking. He’ll do very well in Hollywood.
This is probably the one that made me laugh the most (the second time more than the first, because I understood it better). The other being The Hot Rock, but this is less about gags, more about people. It is, to me, the deepest of the books, and my personal favorite. The best? Oh what does that word even mean? If it made you happy, what more do you want? Dortmunder’s misadventures pretty much always make me happy. He’d be very bothered to know that. Please don’t tell him. 😉
I suggest that this – or these if you want to consider each series as a whole – is not solely about the Parker Dortmunder dynamic. Westlake knew full well that fiction by necessity is unrealistic. In real life people wait for buses. In fiction, unless something important happens during the wait, the character is shown already on the bus. I think to a large part the Dortmunder series gave Westlake opportunity to have just a tiny bit of fun playing with this. Riffing on it. He was known to acknowledge things like Parker always finds a handy parking spot, for example, whereas Dortmunder never does. This book is the most prominent example of this. In Parker’s world, the caddy WILL fit in the truck and the planks WILL be strong enough. Nothing to do with Parker per se, more that the “standard” fictional conventions are more appropriate when writing about Parker.
(Of course, in Dortmunder’s universe, parking spots don’t matter because Kelp happily double parks or just blocks a fire hydrant. Still, the point is that Dortmunder is plagued by inconveniences, part of which is character driven and part of which is, as I said, Westlake riffing).
Parker is, of course, inconvenienced all the time, by double-crossers, by intelligent cops (rare as they may be), by the personal shit his colleagues inadvertently bring to work with them. Even by his own inescapable compulsion to get even when somebody aggravates him in a particular way. Parker’s heists basically never go completely according to plan–if something doesn’t go wrong during the job, it will shortly after.
But nothing ever goes wrong in such a way as to make him look ridiculous, and make us laugh at him. That’s what Dortmunder is for. That’s why Westlake had to stop writing The Hot Rock as a Parker, and find a new character to serve as Fortune’s Fool, which Dortmunder does most unwillingly, but them’s the breaks, pal.
And this (to speak to HeistGirl’s cavil) is why the chapters from Child Heist have to be so brief and selective in their nature. If we got an entire Parker novel, or most of it, inside this Dortmunder novel, we’d have to see where that job went wrong. There are zero Parker novels where nothing goes wrong. But we may intuit that Kelp just edited all of that out, and focused on the part that thrilled him–as it thrills us–that criminals plan a heist, and (as happens almost nowhere else in all of fiction) get away with the loot, even if some (or in the case of The Seventh, all but Parker himself) end up falling by the wayside.
It’s along the same lines as the two episodes of The Rockford Files featuring Tom Selleck as Lance White, the utterly perfect private detective who dresses beautifully, always cracks the case without really putting in any work, cops adore him, beautiful women fall at his feet, rich men make him their heir, and then everything resets at the end, and he’s right back where he was before, the heiress having died in his arms, and he gave the money to kids or something.
Now is Jim Rockford like any private detective who ever lived? Hell to the no. He’s also a fictional trope–more realistic, sure. Somewhere between The Op and Sam Spade. With a touch of Philip Marlowe, to make him more sympathetic. But realistic? How many time are we supposed to believe he’s just about to die, and then the cops come riding to the rescue?
He also is handsome, but a bit more shopworn, like Garner himself. He doesn’t dress as nicely, but he’s no schlub, and those blazers cost money, as do the silk shirts, as does the Pontiac Firebird (different model almost every season). Sure he lives in a crappy trailer–in Malibu. By the beach. He pays no rent we are aware of. He can take the trailer somewhere else when there’s bad guys looking for him, then return to find his spot not taken (and no other trailers anywhere around there). And clearly he’s got electricity and plumbing and a landline and everything, all waiting for him upon his return. If you can do that in California, why doesn’t everybody? It’s about as realistic as Superman’s Fortress of Solitude–but on the surface, more believable, more relatable, more plebeian. I want to believe in it, so I do.
I can’t even begin to count how many interestingly beautiful women he dated (ie, bedded) in the course of the series (and in some cases, the same one by several different names, because there’s only so many competent attractive female thespians available to do guest star roles at any given time–hey, far as I’m concerned, they could have had Susan Strasberg appear as a different femme fatale in every single season and I would not complain).
Point is, they aren’t just love interests, eye candy, they’re all characters in their own right, and they don’t ever once die in his arms. If they don’t come back in the next episode, that’s just because Jim’s not the marrying kind. (Yeah, he got married at some point between the end of the series and the TV movies, and I don’t accept any of those movies as canon, fuck you David Chase, he did not marry Joanna Cassidy and then get divorced–he married Beth Davenport and then got divorced–you did that just to spite all of us Jim/Beth shippers, like you did with those two eps with Kathryn Harrold as a blind psychiatrist who is supposedly the love of Rockford’s life, man you just can’t stop writing about beautiful shrinks can you?)
Rockford’s just as much a fictional paragon as Lance–but better written, and better cast (nothing against Selleck, but then again, I never saw Jim Garner plugging reverse mortgages on cable channels for old people).
So what Cannell did with those two episodes was not to say “This is what a real detective looks like and this is what a fake one looks like”–it’s to say “This is what a well-written detective story looks like, and this is what TV mostly does.” And then TV proved him right by making Magnum PI, which isn’t entirely fair, but fair enough. He’s sending up bad writing with good writing, like Westlake did with Comfort Station.
Here, Westlake is sending up non-funny crime writing with funny crime writing. It’s one style of fiction commenting on another. Or really, Westlake commenting on Stark. (Who was still outselling him at this point in time).
I think you said that already, and much more pithily, but you know how I am. 😉
Yeah, in case you couldn’t tell, I had a tough formulating that first sentence onto the keyboard lol.
There’s plenty of things I’ve forgotten to comment on, Mr. Harrington indeed being one of them. Though, in my defense on that point, you’ve already done a thorough job discussing him that I didn’t have much to add. But yeah, he’s a well written character and I too was touched at the scene where Herb hears his son’s voice on the phone.
I also forgot to comment on something that happened in the comments section of part 1, namely Dortmunder and Kelp’s dynamic being so hostile that it feels like it’s leading to divorce. I personally didn’t get that vibe from them here. To me it felt more like an old married couple you see on tv. Vitriolic to hell and back, but you know deep down that they’ll never want to permanently stay away from each other. And, as I’m told, that’s pretty much Dortmunder and Kelp’s dynamic for most of the series.
One more thing I forgot to bring up. It’s interesting to note that, several decades later the Coen Brothers would create another kidnapping movie, with much more devastating and tragic results for its victim. And yet, Fargo still manages to be hilarious in its own right. It’s pitch black comedy but comedy nonetheless.
Fair enough on my cavil regarding the Parker sections. I would like to point out that the hypothetical extra sections wouldn’t necessarily have to be full of injokes but still, I did indeed get overwhelmed with the injokes in Bank Shot and yeah, it probably was a good thing we only got a few of these chapters in the book.
I keep meaning to watch Fargo from start to finish, and somehow I never do. But it’s not a child being heisted there, is it? Not so sure I’d ever laugh watching it, though I’d have to watch it through first. It’s a different kind of funny, put it that way. The kind that makes you shake your head–I mean, I never laugh reading Candide, or A Modest Proposal. They’re funny, but they cut too deep for laughter. Plenty of humor in Richard Stark–but Stark has yet to raise even a chuckle from me. Nor is Stark trying for that.
A better point of Coen comparison would be Raising Arizona, and I laughed like hell, for precisely the same reasons–you know the kid is untouchable. Even lying on a highway, with an evil biker played by Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb roaring down upon him with only ill intent. It’s a cartoon clothed in flesh. I don’t get that feeling from Fargo, what little I’ve seen. (And for the record, I don’t see the point of a spin-off series, but I guess somebody did.)
Regarding Dortmunder/Kelp, you sound like May–just one book away. Pretty sure Dortmunder would dissent, but since when does anyone listen to him? But since his defacto marriage to May (I somehow don’t want to say ‘common law’ in this context) is so generally felicitous (there’s a few bumps in the road ahead, because she has this thing called a ‘conscience’), he does need a more acrimonious relationship to balance things out. Ah, but the course of true crime never did run smooth.