Review: Enough, Part the First–A Travesty

“It’s so hard to keep track of an individual death, isn’t it?” she said.  “There are so many deaths, so many injustices, they all blend together.”

“Well, that depends how closely they affect you.”

She smiled; she had bad teeth.  “That’s right,” she said.  “It isn’t morality at all, it’s personal convenience, personal emotions.  None of us really care how many strangers get killed.”

Well, if you’re going to a cocktail party you have to expect cocktail party conversations.  I said, “Naturally, it affects you more if it happens to somebody you know.”  And even as I was saying it, I knew I was giving this girl an irresistible opportunity to quote John Donne.

Which she took.  I received the tolling of the bell with my best glazed smile, and she said, “But the point really is morality, isn’t it?  People are liberal or conservative these days, they believe in women’s rights or property rights or whatever, some of them are even still ethical, but nobody’s actually moral any more.  Nobody hates sin.”  Then she nodded, looking amused at herself, and said, “See?  People smile if you even use the word sin.”

Was I smiling?  Yes, I was.  Wiping it off, I tried another catch phrase: “The only sin is getting caught.”

Nobody knew what to make of this book when it came out, and to the extent anyone remembers it, they still don’t.  It isn’t a novel.   It isn’t an anthology of previously published material; short stories, essays, whatever–it contains two stories, neither of which had ever seen the light of day before.   A farcical novella about a critic/murderer who turns detective (while still committing murders), followed by a longish short story about a sailor who finds out his ex-wife is a movie star, goes to see her, then goes back to being a sailor.   They’re both written in the first person by Donald E. Westlake, and that’s about all they have in common, aside from being in the same book.  Or so it seems, anyway.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ still writing his pseudonymous crime fiction column for the New York Times that he inherited from Anthony Boucher, was baffled.  He liked the first story a lot–it was what he and most people expected from Westlake–a funny mystery.  But the second story, which he admitted was well-written, had no murder mystery in it (well, no dead body, put it that way), no heists, no illegal activity of any kind.  It’s not crime fiction by any accepted definition.  “What it is doing in this book is anybody’s guess” he wrote.  Well, we’re anybody, so let’s guess.

Westlake’s work for M. Evans & Co. was eclectic, to say the least.  You really never knew what was coming next.   He published ten books with them (not including the western/crime hybrid he co-wrote with Brian Garfield).   Except for the two Dortmunders, no one book much resembled any of the others–but they were all  at least nominally in the genre he was known for,  with the exception of the political thriller Ex Officio, his first book for them, which he published under another name, so nobody got confused by that.

Westlake was producing much less by this time, and the previous year he’d come out with Dancing Aztecs, a sprawling comedy epic, which must have taken longer to write than his usual thing, and had perhaps depleted his energies somewhat.

He’d finished with Parker, Grofield, Tobin–couldn’t really write as Stark or Coe anymore, at least for the time being. He was probably enjoying the novelty of just being one person for a while.  But it was perhaps harder for him to write as much as he used to with only one voice, and the publishing industry still didn’t like putting out too many books by the same author in one year.

He’d just about run out his string with the ‘Nephew’ books–only so many viable variations in that story.   His personal life was more complicated than ever, with two ex-wives, four growing sons, and a new relationship that was heading towards a third and final marriage.   It has to have cut into his writing time at least a bit.

You could say that he simply owed M. Evans a book for that year (1977), so he foisted some odds and ends on them–but he gave them a Dortmunder later that same year.  Hard to believe this was a mere contractual obligation volume–particularly since he published nothing with them in the next two years, only to finish off with one last rather head-scratching heist story set in Europe.

Westlake’s relationships with publishers often seem to have soured towards the end, and he’d head off to the next one.  You get a shift in personnel at the top, a change in priorities, and all of a sudden the rapport isn’t there anymore.  Or maybe his agent got him into another bidding war.  He’d had an amazing run there, but it was winding down, along with the 70’s.  The 80’s would be–problematic.  But we’ll get there.

The title itself is odd–Enough what?   The first story isn’t really long enough for a hardcover mystery, so maybe the second is just to pad things out, so the book buyer would feel it was worth the $7.95 pricetag.  I love the cartoon-strip artwork on the cover of the first edition, but it says absolutely nothing about the contents.

None of the covers ever managed to address both stories, which demonstrates an underlying problem of the book.  How many people looking for a nice little comic crime novel really want to stick around for a somber, poignant, and impossible-to-pigeonhole story about a sailor and his starlet ex?

The dedication reads “For Avram Avakian, fondly, this two-reeler.”  Avakian being the guy who made a workmanlike but rather uninspired film from Westlake’s screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which Westlake later turned into an excellent novel.  Westlake felt that Avakian was a brilliant film editor who didn’t really have the full skill set to be a successful director.

The opening quote is from Ambrose Bierce (a favorite writer of Westlake’s, which is an interesting coincidence, since I was mildly obsessed with Bierce as a kid, and didn’t know Westlake was similarly afflicted until well after I started reading him)–it’s from The Devil’s Dictionary–“Enough: too much.”  (Or perhaps, two much?)

And then there’s a quote from Thomas DeQuincey  (who I keep meaning to read), specifically geared towards the first story, which basically says if a man commits murder, this may lead to worse sins, like bad manners.

Allow me to theorize (like anyone can stop me).  He normally gave M. Evans two books a year–maybe they didn’t insist on it, but he wasn’t getting paid for books he didn’t produce.  Dancing Aztecs had, of necessity, been his sole contribution for ’76.  He had a Dortmunder for ’77, but he needed something else.

He had an idea for a mystery novel, but it wasn’t ‘enough’ for a full-length book.  And at some point in time–maybe recently, maybe years before–he’d turned out a short story, that he liked, but couldn’t find a buyer for, because it wasn’t what people expected from him, and it was too long for a magazine.  He talked M. Evans into publishing them both in the same volume.   That way with the Dortmunder published shortly afterwards he’d have two books for ’77–not much, for him–but enough.  And then he published no books at all for over two years.  Well, I didn’t say it would be a flawless theory.

We can’t discount the possibility that Westlake did think there was a link between these two stories, different as they are.  That one served as counterpoint to the other, and of course they’re both about identity, because that’s what he writes about.  Probably a few years earlier, he’d have published the second story under a pseudonym, but he was fresh out of pseudonyms.  Maybe he wanted to remind people yet again that Westlake wasn’t just the comic caper guy.

And maybe I’ve speculated long enough about Enough.   I debated about whether to review the two stories in it together or separately, and mainly decided on the latter because in subsequent editions they were often published separately, particularly overseas.

The second story actually got a film adaptation, many years later, in France–which must have come as a surprise to Mr. Westlake.  It would have come as a surprise to ‘Newgate Callendar’ as well, but he’d died the year before.  Really no surprise a part-time mystery reviewer and full-time music critic liked the first story better–the protagonist is, after all, a critic who solves mysteries, while bedding luscious ladies, and outsmarting (and cuckolding) befuddled homicide detectives.   Seriously, show me a critic who’ll give that story a bad review.

Carey Thorpe is another of Westlake’s unapologetic cads–in many ways reminiscent of Art Dodge in Two Much.  But he has a somewhat more conventional profession–he’s a film critic, moderately successful, who writes semi-scholarly articles for various obscure film journals, as well as reviewing recent releases for a small Manhattan weekly called The Kips Bay Voice (for those who are not Gothamites, Kips Bay is a neighborhood on the east side of Manhattan, just below 34th, and since the British used it to land their invading forces during the Revolutionary War, has never been known for much of anything other than absurdly high rents).

As we meet him, he is standing over the dead body of one of his two girlfriends, Laura Penney.   They had quarreled, and he hit her, and she hit her head on her own coffee table, and is no more among the living.  If this were the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham writing this, he’d say the manner of her passing was almost like a cliche, but this is a murder mystery novel, let’s remember.

Thing is, nobody knew he and Laura were sexually intimate–they were seen at various social events, screenings and such, but because he has a somewhat more serious girlfriend, Kit Markowitz, and he wanted to date both of them at once without either of them knowing, he’s created the illusion that when he’s seen with the other it’s only for the purposes of having somebody on his arm at the aforementioned social events.  The quarrel that led to Laura’s death was a byproduct of this deception.

Carey, who is separated from his wife Shirley (only an offstage character in this play), doesn’t sound to be all that much of a hunk, but he’s clever and charming enough to talk his way into bed with any number of desirable females, though talking his way out again is a more challenging proposition, as many a rake has learned.

He’s been under a lot of stress from work and multiple bedmates and insufficient funds and an estranged wife who wants his head on a platter (which ties neatly into the insufficient funds thing), and he’s been taking a lot of valium, which allows him a somewhat more abstracted view of his increasingly dire situation (maybe a bit too abstracted).

But even when he’s not popping pills, he’s never going to be the soul of compassion.  His main agenda here is going to be to make sure he doesn’t take the rap for Laura’s death, so he tidies up the crime scene a bit, and makes his exit.   When two police detectives greet him at Laura’s apartment (he’s keeping the date he knows she put in her appointment book, because it would look suspicious if he didn’t), and inform him of her demise, he is suitably horrified–and rather surprised to find that as the investigation proceeds, neither of them seriously suspects him.  They’re nothing like the police detectives in the movies he reviews.

Carey thinks of everything in terms of movies–when somebody buzzes him into Laura’s apartment, and just for a moment he thinks she’s alive, he starts envisioning Gene Tierney.  The first detective, named Bray, reminds him of Dana Andrews–he wonders if that makes him Clifton Webb.   The second detective, Fred Staples, doesn’t remind him of anybody, but he, surprisingly, is a fan of Carey’s reviews in the Kip’s Bay Voice.    He says his wife loves them too.  This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

For a short book, this one has a lot of plot twists, and I don’t have the patience to cover them all.   I’ll list a few–there’s a blackmailing private detective (working for a company called Tobin-Global, and let me just say, this book makes me miss Tucker Coe very badly), who was tailing Carey on behalf of his wife, and wants ten grand to keep quiet.   Carey liquidates every asset he has, then actually robs a bank to get most of the rest–then realizing the detective has set himself up as an ideal suspect that Carey could finger in turn, makes him give the money back.

As if things weren’t complicated enough already, Carey is rather effortlessly seduced by Fred Staples’ outwardly placid and domestic blonde wife Patricia, while Carey is screening Gaslight for her (Gaslight becomes their code word for sex).   Contrary to his first impressions, she turns out to be a total narcissist, and a really incredible lay.   He knows this is a bad idea, screwing the wife of a detective investigating a murder he himself committed, but he just can’t seem to stop acting on bad ideas.

In the meantime, the private detective (who reminds Carey of Martin Balsalm in Psycho), unwilling to play the patsy, refuses to go away quietly, and you know that recurring line from the Parker novels about how you shouldn’t make murder the answer to everything?   Seems like Carey never read any Parker novels, and that line never made it into any of the movie versions.   And private detectives rarely come off well in Donald Westlake novels.

So is that the end of his problems?   Alas, no. Because the detectives suspect his favorite girlfriend, Kit Markowitz, of murdering Laura in a fit of jealous rage.  She doesn’t have an alibi, and once they question her, the indignant Kit decides to play girl detective–she even throws a party (with Carey’s help) where she invites all the potential suspects.

That’s where the little exchange up top occurs, Carey talking to a woman who showed up with two gay male friends–who just got married in San Francisco–interesting little bit of social data there, we tend to forget that gay marriage was going on for decades, with varying degrees of legality, long before it became a major national issue.   The dialogue rather reminded me of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which only goes to show that Carey is not the only one out there who is constantly making connections with movies.

God is a luxury Carey can’t afford either, not that he ever brings up religion.  Unfortunately for Kit, she turns out to be a pretty good detective after all, and she figures out who the killer is–and rather inexplicably, chooses to tell him that in private.

Now this is a major problem with the story.   Are we supposed to believe the otherwise bright and perceptive Kit is so engrossed in her role as detective that she thinks Carey will simply turn himself in, or the police will break in just in the nick of time–or that she’ll have a hold on him, to keep him from straying in future?  None of the above happens, and he feels just terrible about what he does next, but in for a dime…..

So this is all entertaining enough, but frankly it’s rather sub-par Westlake, full of characters that are intentionally tissue-paper thin (this is a farce, after all, but Westlake doesn’t normally use that as an excuse for poor characterization).   And yet for all that, it’s still worth reading, and it’s worth asking why.

The central gimmick, what sets the story apart, is that in the midst of trying to avoid being identified as the murderer, and committing two further murders (and a minor bank heist) towards that end, Carey finds out he’s a far better detective than he ever was a film critic.

Fred Staples is just delighted to pal around with (as he sees it) a celebrity, and Carey wants to keep an eye on him and his partner to make sure they don’t get the right idea about him.  So he accompanies them on another case, and he just happens to solve it–in that way that fictional detectives in bad mystery stories so often do.  Just spots something the professionals missed.

It’s not something he particularly wanted to happen, it’s not something he ever aspired to do.  He just wants to attend film screenings, write articles, go to bed with pretty girls, and live a generally shallow meaningless pleasure-filled existence, like any civilized man who reads Esquire.

But having done it once, to Fred’s awestruck delight, Carey finds himself in demand as a consulting detective.  And over and over, he spots that one little clue that cracks the case.  He has a gift for both committing murders and solving them.  Go figure.

Now if he actually wanted this to happen, it would be impossibly contrived and far-fetched (like most detective novels), but because it’s just something Carey finds himself doing reflexively, more or less because it’s so damned obvious to him that he can’t keep from speaking up, and because, after all, it’s what detectives are always doing in the movies, you sort of let him slide, because you want to see how far Westlake can stretch this gag out.  And he can stretch it pretty damn far.

First he solves the mytery of a murdered director, shot while he was screening his own film.   Turns out the killer was an aspiring screenwriter whose work was used without attribution.   He immediately confesses, as fingered killers so often do in mystery stories, because trials are so messy and time-consuming for dramatic purposes.

There’s this leitmotif of otherwise sensible people behaving like cheap genre cliches, when they really ought to know better, because they, like Carey, think that’s how you’re supposed to behave in this type of situation–the movies have programmed them.  Life imitating bad art, badly.

Then there’s another murder, this one a gay travel writer murdered by a lover–Carey realizes the man put a coded message into what he was writing at his desk when he realized he was in danger.   See, the murdered copy-writer refers to Antigua as being right next to St. Martin.  They check a map.

When he removed his finger, I bent to read the lettering: “Anguilla.”

“Anguilla, Antigua.” Staples shrugged, saying, “He was upset from the argument, that’s all, he just got mixed up.”

“Does that make sense?”  I studied Ailburg’s writing again, shaking my head.  “No, it doesn’t.”  This was his job, he knew what island was where.  And look how he broke that sentence, starting a new line after the word ‘charming.’  It looks awkward.”

Staples said, “I don’t see what you’re driving at.”

Only because you’ve never read Under An English Heaven, officer.

Then there’s a seeming suicide that Carey realizes was a murder (see if you can spot the clue), but he decides not to finger the killer for personal reasons (this one’s a bit of a reference to The Sincerest Form of Flattery, a Westlake short story that appeared in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution).

And finally, a classic locked door mystery at the consulate for some tiny obscure nonexistent Eastern European nation, and I have to confess, Westlake plays fair with all these mysteries, puts in enough information for the reader to solve them all, and I didn’t solve any of them–even on the second reading.   Well, I remembered whodunnit, but I didn’t remember how Carey figured it out.

(All the chapters in this book have mystery novel titles, even when they don’t have an actual mystery in them–The Adventure of the Missing R–The Problem of the Copywriter’s Island–The Chainlock Mystery–The Death of the Party–see if you can guess which of these features Carey solving a murder mystery, and which is just him dealing with the complications attendant to his own personal murders).

So Carey’s rather enjoying being the criminal sociopath’s answer to Ellery Queen, but he’s gotten so wrapped up in playing detective/murderer that he misses the obvious denouement.  Fred finds out Carey’s been diddling the missus.  So he frames Carey with planted evidence.  For murders Carey actually committed.

Fred does not know, nor will he ever, that Carey actually is the murderer–nor does he care who actually did the killings.  He thinks he’s just being petty.   Being framed for something you actually did is an old obsession with Westlake, ever since The Affair of the Purloined Microscope (see The Getaway Car).  It’s just so–unprofessional.   Detectives should care about their craft.  Carey rubs it in just how much better a detective he is, by pointing out an obvious (to him) clue in that one case he’d decided not to solve–something Fred missed entirely.  Fred is most admiring of Carey’s sagacity, but what’s that got to do with the fact that the man had sex with his wife?

So Carey is in Fred’s car, going to the inevitable Station House, knowing that he’s going to prison, because the only way he can prove he was framed is to admit his actual guilt.  He’ll have to plead guilty, get the lightest sentence possible, and hope to rejoin the civilized world someday.  And there’s every indication in the book that he will do that, and he might be a more successful film critic than ever–notoriety will bring him a wider readership.  But it’s still so unfair.  All he did was kill three people, and he didn’t mean to kill the first one, and the other two were just–loose ends.  He’s guilty, but he’s not the least bit guilt-ridden. He’s only sorry he committed the sin of getting caught.

Westlake was experimenting with a very detached yet whimsical tone in this novel, and it doesn’t entirely work.  And it doesn’t entirely fail.   It’s one of those middling efforts, cleverly worked out, fun to read, and easily forgotten.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the very detailed knowledge of film that Westlake reveals–he probably could have been a fairly successful film critic, but I have this feeling he wouldn’t have been a very enthusiastic one.   He can’t really make Carey live and breathe the way his best characters do, because he can’t identify with somebody who’d spend his life writing about movies–even writing smutty greeting cards would be more creative, because they’d at least be your smutty jokes.  Movies are fun and all, but are they worth all that analysis?   Is anything?   (Yes, I do seriously wonder what he’d have thought about this blog).

In his capsule review of this same story, Ethan Iverson quoted a passage I surely would have used myself if he hadn’t beaten me to it–it’s an interview Carey does with some aging Hollywood director, one of those guys who made a bunch of classic films and never wrote the scripts for any of them, but he still gets the credit, and the money, and a gorgeous young thing to keep him warm in his declining years, because that’s how it works in Hollywood.

And it really sums up that mixture of affection and disdain Westlake always had towards the movies–how well a good filmmaker can tell a story, and how helpless he is without a good script, and yet look who gets all the worship and acclaim in that business.   How can you say it’s your work when so many other people contributed?   And how could somebody who has decided to just live in the reflected glow of that unreal medium ever know himself?  Carey Thorpe got caught up in unreality, captured by it, and was ultimately undone by it.  And yet it really doesn’t matter, because there doesn’t seem to have been much of a person there to start with.   That’s the weakness of the book.

I think Westlake might have been influenced in the writing of this one by Charles Willeford’s The Burnt Orange Heresy, which is about an art critic, and which is roughly ten times the novel this is (and Westlake would have agreed).   Willeford wrote a lot less than Westlake, and he had to make his shots count more.  Westlake, having so much more ammo, could afford a few misses.

But while it’s not the kind of story we remember him for, the second part of this two-part tome was by no means a miss.   It’s a palpable hit, and ‘Newgate Callendar’ should have seen that, but let’s just say Westlake had a point about critics.  Yes, me too.  It’s a fair cop, Mr. Westlake.  But being a mere amateur, typing all this nonsense for absolutely no monetary compensation at all, I can always plead insanity.  I’ll be out in two years, tops.

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24 Comments

Filed under A Travesty, comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, Enough, Uncategorized

24 responses to “Review: Enough, Part the First–A Travesty

    • Thanks for the link, Todd–I found much to agree and disagree with in your article (I think you missed the point of Anarchaos entirely, and a damn good point it was), but we mainly agree about these two. I doubt Westlake provided a story treatment for the film made of Ordo–he mainly avoided adapting his own work to the screen, he didn’t speak French, and that film came out about four years before his death. I’d love to see it sometime. The French often find things in Westlake that American readers/viewers tend to miss.

      I note you’ve read some short stories of his that I haven’t gotten to, and this reminds me that we still don’t have an authoritative collection of his stories–something any other author of his stature and popularity would have certainly gotten by now, but he’s just so associated with crime novels (one reason most people have a hard time with Ordo). Personally, I found Nackles a bit sparse, and I feel he wrote much better stories elsewhere, but I’ll be getting to that and others when I review the few remaining anthologies.

      • OK, belatedly, I’ll bite…what was the point I missed in ANARCHAOS?

        • Well, there’s more than one point to that book, but I was specifically referring to your notion that anarchists inspired by Pyotr Kropotkin (among others) couldn’t possibly degenerate into a violent rabble. I don’t see how they could do anything else, in the circumstances Westlake outlines in that novel.

          His point was that the first generation, in spite of themselves, had absorbed the values of the more collectivist culture they’d grown up in, ideas of cooperation, ethics, doing the right thing. The idea behind anarchism is that people are naturally good, and that left to their own devices, without any interference, they will naturally respect each others’ rights, and congregate peaceably, no one infringing on anyone else’s domain. Oh yeah?

          As each successive generation was born on the planet (as is explained to us), without that basic grounding in civics the Anarchaotian immigrants had, they got further and further away from that ideal. When the only basic value you are instilled with is “Do what you wilt shall be the whole of the law” (I know, that’s Crowley, not Kropotkin, but it amounts to the same thing, really), you are going to lack the capacity for compromise, and putting your own personal needs aside for the common good, which Westlake, a very thorough-going individualist himself, knew was necessary for us to mature as individuals and as a culture. He may wish it were otherwise, but he knows it is not.

          For example, how are there going to be schools? How is anyone going to get educated? No kid wants to go to school, and no parent really wants to make them (particularly in a pioneer society, where you need the extra labor). You have to MAKE them go, and probably some government needs to make you make them go. For them to know what to do with liberty once they’re adults, you have to deprive them of some liberty when they’re young. Though really, I doubt any children had any liberty on Anarchaos, unless they ran away from home. Because we wouldn’t have had slavery or children working in sweatshops or child prostitution, if human beings were inherently good, when pushed to their limits.

          And anyway, Kropotkin wasn’t a pacifist. He was opposed to organized warfare, because that’s the state imposing its will on the individual. He was not in any way opposed to terrorism, if terrorism would bring about his ideal society (which is to say, no society at all). That’s why anarchists, often inspired by his ideas, often went about shooting people and blowing things up. When you get right down to it, there’s quite a bit of Kropotkin in ISIS, whether they know it or not–not their ultimate goals, but certainly their methods. I mean, the man was a goddam PRINCE. What did he know about poor people, people with limited resources, people living in the real world? Absolutely nothing. And he could have cared less. Thinkers like him build their castles of the mind, and expect us to live in them. We can’t. Because we’re real.

          But really, the point of the set-up for the world Westlake made for that book is that nothing succeeds as planned. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions–in this case, quite literally.

          I think it’s a really good book. Possibly his best short novel that wasn’t written as Stark and isn’t Adios Scheherazade. What science fiction dystopias do you like?

          • You are incorrect here about Kropotkin’s pacifism (which was influential on Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their peers at LIBERATION magazine and the like), and have a rather distorted view generally of his work, experience and advocacy…you seem to be conflating, as Westlake does, the nihilist Social Revolutionaries, the far less pacifist but still anarchist Bakunin, and Kropotkin. Nope. I’m tempted to use stronger language.

            “(I know, that’s Crowley, not Kropotkin, but it amounts to the same thing, really),” Well, if Crowley had anything to do with anarchism rather than chaotic Magick, you might have a stronger case, as the kind of socialist anarchism Kropotkin proposed, based in his notions of mutual aid which he also traced in biology, where he demonstrated that Darwin’s early models didn’t take into account the interdependence, up to and including symbiosis, of various species and were flawed to that extent…all this was most assuredly Not about doing whatever you wanted to regardless of the consequences. I have to wonder where the hell you and Westlake got your information on Kropotkin, whose followers among anarchists were not the bomb-throwers, as much as most anarchists weren’t so big on bomb-throwing in the first place.

            And not a few kids do enjoy going to school…when school isn’t defined by drudgery. The novel’s a snarky bit of business that libels the more responsible anarchists, and damned near all the anarchists, it names, and your linking Kropotkin to ISIS is comparable. Really, I’m not sure where the hell you’re getting this from. ANARCHAOS about as stupid in its way as Rand’s ANTHEM is in its.

            What are your sources for your opinions about Kropotkin?

            Among the vastly better dystopian novels I can think of are THE SPACE MERCHANTS (a far better satire) by Pohl and Kornbluth, 1984, BRAVE NEW WORLD, THE TIME MACHINE (more a novella), THE FEMALE MAN by Joanna Russ (in part), THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (even given how it ends), HAWKSBILL STATION by Robert Silverberg…there are relatively few dystopian novels that aren’t better, given how much Westlake should’ve known better.

            • Kropotkin believed violence could be justified–in a good cause, namely his. He would greatly prefer some other method, but to paraphrase Dostoevsky, if killing an innocent child would bring about his Communist Utopia, he’d kill the child. He didn’t think you could destroy the established order with a few sticks of dynamite, but he didn’t condemn those who tried. To him, they were perhaps misguided, but still heroes of the revolution.

              You’re assuming that because his writings on pacifism influenced later pacifists like Gandhi (who you might argue was using pacifism as a means to an end, and who was probably more influenced by Daniel O’Connell’s Moral Force Argument anyway, not to mention Jesus and Buddha), that means he completely rejected violence–he liked the idea of nonviolence, but in practice, he figured, like Lenin, that sometimes you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs (Lenin was just a far better egg-beater, praxis defeating theory, every time).

              The mere fact that he was originally enthused about the Russian Revolution–which was hardly pacifist in nature, and had resulted in many deaths before the Bolsheviks co-opted it–is all the proof you need that he was more concerned with the omelet than the eggs. He influenced many people who were violent, as well as many who were non-violent. Ideas have no loyalty, they can always be misapplied, you know that already. People read selectively, see the message that speaks to them, leave the rest behind. Teresa of Avila read Augustine, and her takeaway was forgiveness, mercy, compassion. Others read the same books and get hellfire, damnation, Inquisition. Don’t even get me started on Plato, though how anyone can not see he was a early advocate of totalitarianism is beyond me. And yet he was an influence on the people who created our modern Democracies.

              Westlake probably knew more about this than both of us combined (his formal education didn’t amount to much but he was a voracious reader), and he wasn’t conflating anything, nor was he saying that the Anarchaotians were violent because Kropotkin told them to be. He was saying they were violent because Kropotkinism gave them no basis for a stable society–that his basic ideas about our species were wrong. Nobody could possibly build a working society out of his writings, even if they weren’t living under the constant glare of an evil red sun. You could build a social reform movement out of some of them, within a larger civil society. But when you sweep everything away and start fresh, you’re creating fertile ground for the worst elements in human nature to spring forth unfettered, and revolutionary history over the past few centuries proves that beyond any doubt. In the end, the Lenins will overcome the Kropotkins, the Stalins will overcome the Lenins, and then it all falls apart.

              For the record, I studied Russian history at the graduate level, including the revolution, and I’ve done a fair bit of supplemental reading since then (you should try Isaiah Berlin sometime, if you haven’t already). Tolstoy was probably the closest thing to a genuine pacifist that Russia ever produced. His most famous book is about a massive war, and he really enjoyed writing those battle scenes. To be fair, he wasn’t a pacifist by that point in time. He wasn’t a very good writer after he became a pacifist, IMO.

              I liked some classes, sure–most kids do–but you can’t have an educational system based on kids only doing what they like, when they like–they have to try different things to even know what they like, what they’re good at. Compulsion is needed. It’s a necessary evil. Absolute freedom means absolute chaos. And how can a socialist not know this? You think we can have social reforms (like universal healthcare) without imposing them on people who don’t want them? Where have you been the last few years?

              ALSO, you didn’t read the backstory very closely, I think. We’re told that the founders of Anarchaos were required by the law of the galactic federation or whatever it was that they had to use existing ideas to found their society upon. They didn’t want a society, they just wanted to do their thing. They picked Kropotkin and others precisely to give them the most room to maneuver. And anyway, if you don’t think kids should be forced to study things that don’t interest them, how many of the second and third generation there would have read one word of Kropotkin? I’m quite sure that by the time our hero gets there, there’s no more than a few dozen people left on the planet who know who Kropotkin was–let alone read his books–let alone read, period. And yes, that does make sense to me. It’s an extreme portrait, a satire, and your comments indicate you can enjoy this kind of writing–when it tells you what you want to hear. But that’s not what satire is supposed to do.

              And Westlake was not libeling pacifists in general. That’s libeling him. He has a deep respect for pacifists, as long as they are honest about what they’re up against–not just the violence in other people, but the violence in themselves as well. If you’d read The Spy in the Ointment, you’d know that. How can he be libeling people in a work of fiction, set far in the future, on a nonexistent planet? You might as well say Swift was libeling the Irish peasantry when he created the Yahoos. He was expressing his general feelings about humankind in a very specific way.

              You’re making it very obvious that your objections to the book are entirely political in nature. You can’t admire a book if you don’t agree with its premise?

              Science fiction in particular is a trying ground for ideas people might find offensive–a distancing device. That’s why Star Trek and The Twilight Zone could tackle racism in primetime when television mainly shied away from it, and Theodore Sturgeon could write and publish a story called If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? It’s about a planet where incest is normal and commonplace, and basically anyone, including your mother or father, is a potential sex partner. Sturgeon strongly suggests that the incest taboo causes cancer (pretty sure it doesn’t). Actually, that was published in Dangerous Visions (Harlan Ellison’s magazine) in 1967, same year as Anarchaos. (You know, we really should be having this discussion in the comments section for my review of Anarchaos, but what the hell.)

              The Space Merchants is a fine book of its type, and I think it’s about half the book Anarchaos is–as a book. The characters are paper-thin, and the solution posited at the end, with the Consies setting up their colony, is a cheat–as soon as the heavy lifting has been done, the Space Merchants will set up shop on Venus, and that will be that–either that, or the Consies will set up their own little gulag–Orwell’s dystopia, instead of Huxley’s.

              Westlake had it right–you need a strong government to hold the corporations in check, and that government has to be Democratic, or it becomes a tyranny. If it’s Democratic, you can’t control the media, and if you can’t control the media, there’s gonna be advertising of some kind–there’s no perfect solution, you just have to keep fighting for a proper balance. Pohl’s writing about the ad business is the best part of it, and small wonder, since he worked in that business to support himself. But he wanted so badly to escape that world, he wrote himself an escape hatch. He was not even close to being Westlake’s equal, in his prose, or the complexity of his ideas, or basic honesty. He makes the omelet without breaking any eggs.

              1984 is a bit obvious, obviously an immortal classic–that maybe gets a bit bogged down in socialist boilerplate later on, and you can tell from the ending that Orwell doesn’t even believe in these ideas himself anymore.

              I’ll happily agree PKD was a far greater science fiction writer than Westlake, and so would Westlake. But Anarchaos is a great book, with some enduring truths to impart, and it’s as much hard-boiled noir as it is science fiction.

              Um–did you read my review of it here, perchance?

              It might save us some time if you did. I’m just saying.

              • I don’t mind when someone disagrees with me, even when they are writing what did strike me as an uninformed critique of anarchist thought, with such lines as (to paraphrase from memory) the Anarchaotics have no sense of cooperation, which only comes with government. It’s that they are offering such dumplings with no real reason why I not only should agree with that, but even accept it as a premise. The book otherwise struck me as a fairly routine hardboiled sf adventure novel, one the conflation, and it does remain conflation, is over. I didn’t find the characterizations compelling, either…not much if any less cartoonish than the worst of the Pohl and Kornbluth. And while I will agree that Kropotkin wasn’t by any means purely a pacifist, as he did endorse fighting back against the Germans in WW1, he was still not the ambivalent nor enthusiastic supporter of random Propaganda by the Dead you paint, while willing to suggest that some violence was inevitable. He was, indeed, not the pacifist that Tolstoi became. But you were going on about his elitism, etc., rather than noting how he was an advocate for the liberation of the serfs even as a young adviser to a czar…ah, well. There are means of applying pressure that don’t require a formal government, and people have lived for years on end in relatively anarchistic circumstances and limited government, or none. It’s simply not impossible, though it can be difficult, as life can be under any sort of organization. Ah, well. No, Westlake didn’t know more than either of us combined, but we shall not see eye to eye on this novel…and I did read your review some time back.

                Ah, well. You’d be surprised how much kids want to learn when taught properly and without much in the way of coercion. And the author of a story as almost hippyish in its libertarian message as “The Winner” seems oddly silly making some of the assertions he does as Curt Clark in this book. The libel was in the conflation.

              • Sorry for some of the repetition there…I’m writing while distracted. Enough for now from me till the table’s cleared…if even then!

              • Todd, I was a substitute teacher in New York City middle schools, back in the 1980’s. You don’t have to tell me how smart kids are, how much they can enjoy learning. You will never convince me they are just going to line up, all bright-eyed and eager, to learn what you have to teach, even if they really need it. Your experience may differ, but that’s the point–experiences always differ, because people do. A universal system has to work universally, or it doesn’t work at all. And that’s why they never do work.

                You are quite wrong to think Westlake was uninformed about this. He was, self-evidently, giving his opinion of how such a society would work, but you’re failing to see that he was being so harsh precisely because the ideas of anarchism were so attractive to him, but he couldn’t help but see how easily they could be misapplied, how impractical they were as a blueprint for a social order (since order is precisely what they want to avoid). His view of human nature made him skeptical that they could function in reality, without any kind of structure to hold them in place, and I see no evidence in all of history to suggest he was wrong about that.

                The characterizations are not out of Pohl and Kornbluth, of course–they are out of Hammett and Goodis. Noir has its own stylistic failings, to be sure–but it’s a powerful way to tell a story, and this is a powerful story. The characters are as deep as they need to be for the story to work, and no more. Orwell’s characters aren’t exactly marvels of nuance either.

                Pacifism, as Westlake understood, is one of those things where you’re either all the way in, or you’re out. It can’t be conditional. That’s why it’s been so rarely employed in human history. Seriously, read The Spy in the Ointment. It’s fun. And painfully true.

                I’m rather surprised you didn’t bring up Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which I think is the one honest attempt to show anarchistic socialism, warts and all. And it’s beautiful–and horrifying. Starving people flinging themselves at a food train on a dry desolate moon orbiting a lush green decadent planet where nobody appreciates how good they have it. The individual genius suppressed by the mediocrity of a mob. It’s not the kind of image that inspires people, is it? Le Guin is very tough-minded. There’s always a yin to her yang. She knows there are no simple answers to any question worth asking.

                I really do not think I painted any such picture of Kropotkin as you suggest. Nor did I say he was an elitist, except to the extent that anyone from his background would be, to some extent. And so was Marx, of course. When he fathered a son on his chambermaid, and wouldn’t even acknowledge the boy, let alone see to his education, that wasn’t him being egalitarian, was it now? He saw the proles as his tool to humble the elites–the ones who made him feel inferior. I much prefer Kropotkin, but honestly the one Russian revolutionary theorist who impresses me is Herzen. He knew what human beings are, and he liked us anyway.

                So did Westlake.

              • Alas, had I (or anyone) actually brought up Marx as a good example in contrast, that might be more telling. And, yes, the point is that even Le Guin, and as intelligent a man as Westlake was, can both be quite wrong about how they demonstrate the flaws of left-libertarian society…when we actually look at those that have, however stormily or briefly and sometimes not so much of either, in their fictional work. I have read “The Spy in the Ointment” and it didn’t make nearly as strong an impression on me as it diid you. And you did indeed imply that Kropotkin’s being a prince necessarily divorced him from any understanding of the plight of the non-aristocracy. You can love Herzen’s view of humanity, I will tend to be more in tune with, say, Paul Goodman’s, and so it goes. I’m afraid you won’t convince me that ANARCHAOS is remotely responsible nor meant to be, and that it does comport with your understanding of humanity and has little to do with mine is simply how things will continue to be.

              • I respect that this is your opinion, and nothing will change it.

                I don’t think you’ve really explained it, though. Well, opinions are, more often than not, emotional in nature. We don’t always want to understand our emotions. We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. We’re mainly not.

                And this is why anarchism will never work.

                Great fiction is about telling inconvenient and often conflicting truths. And that’s why it never matches up terribly well with ideologies. Often even the ideologies of those who write it.

                I’m genuinely surprised you have read The Spy in the Ointment. I’m afraid you missed the point of that as well. Art is like a transmitter, and we’re the receivers, and the reason we don’t all like the same things is that we’re not all on the same wavelength.

                My blog. Last word. I still wish this had been in the comments section for Part 2 of my Anarchaos review. Oh well. 😉

  1. I was also a huge Bierce fan when I was younger, though perhaps fonder of Fantastic Fables than The Devil’s Dictionary. (I know of no better explanation of one of the main idiocies of our legal system than this.

    As far as Enough goes, it’s really, really meta in a way that’s unusual for Westlake: it’s a mystery story about someone who at times consciously acts like he’s in a mystery story, and also keeps getting into mystery-story-cliche situations, and then becomes a cliche amateur detective, and is almost undone by another character who becomes a cliche amateur detective, even to creating a gather-all-the-suspects scene. And because his job is understanding and explaining stories, he observes all of this and gives us his take on it.

    Yet none of this is as much fun as it should be. My theory is that Westlake put all those layers in as a writing exercise, and did an awesome job of it, because he’s just that good, but discovered by doing so that meta isn’t his thing. So, (1) he never returned to it, and (2) since he wasn’t really enjoying himself, neither are we.

    • I think that works. Maybe the idea is to examine how people in these mysteries behave–as if they’re playing a game, murderers and detectives alike, which of course they are, but the outcome is always certain, because the rules of the genre (in this particular form, at least) say murder will out. So few stories in which the murderer is not caught–because the reading public wants to say “We’re not approving of this behavior, we’re just observing it.”

      He’s created a protagonist who is not really evil, takes no pleasure in killing, would never consciously plan a murder–and yet, because of his background, and perhaps all the pharmaceutical aids he needs to function in his world, his life, has become very abstracted from the reality of what he’s doing.

      The simplest thing for him to have done would have been to call the police, explain what happened to Laura was an accident, hire a good lawyer. But he’s trapped by the structure of his life. It’s his nature to try and get out of the consequences of his actions.

      That little philosophical discussion I started the review with doesn’t quite seem to fit the story does it? And that’s the point. He lives in a whole sub-society of people who act as if they’re in a game, not really living, not really thinking, and this woman (who Carey describes as rather unattractive, basically a ‘fag-hag’, not that such an impolite term is actually used) is playing a different game, forcing him to see the contrived nature of his reality, and he’d much rather not, because then he won’t be able to play the game properly. That’s why she’s the only woman in the story who isn’t attractive (as women in this type of story nearly always are)–she represents the ugly truth.

      But then is it a comment on how people in real life behave as if they were fictional characters? How we put on masks? Why do we like these stories so much if they have nothing to do with us? Why do so many inoffensive nonviolent people love reading about murders committed, in many cases, with less passion than a spider devouring a fly?

      You say he never returned to this, but there is The Hook, isn’t there? Not quite the same, not entirely different. And of course the book just before The Hook, which was different from just about everything, but the same theme–how people do what they know is wrong because they can’t stand the thought of failing. Because they want to keep the life they have, or had, so badly that they will do anything to anybody. To retain their self-created identities, but of course you can’t do such things without irreparably changing your identity.

      I mentioned Willeford, but perhaps this is closer to Highsmith, even though she mainly stuck to the third person. However, neither of them would have made it so ‘meta’, as you say–real people stuck in a genre contrivance, trying to get out, mired in absurdity–more like Pirandello, really. Or Ionesco. Or even Pinter or Joe Orton. But he didn’t quite carry it off–he didn’t entirely fail, either. You know, come to think of it, it probably would work a lot better as a play.

      Maybe he should have given that a try–given his fascination with the theater, you’d think he would have done–Dame Agatha certainly proved that mystery writers can make a splash on Broadway. Never saw any of her plays live, but I’ve seen Deathtrap (John Collum taking over for John Wood)–Ira Levin did a nice job with that, but there’s no underlying substance–that’s purely an exercise in thrills and laughter, and a very enjoyable one too. Actually, that premiered the year after this book came out.

      I’m not sure I believe Westlake ever wrote anything purely as an exercise. Too much the philosopher for that. He really does want to know what it all means, this play we’re all caught up in. He may not believe he’ll ever find the answers, but he’s got to try. He tried harder with the next story.

      • I saw the film version of Deathtrap. The third or fourth time Michael Caine mentioned Dyan Cannon’s heart condition, I knew what was going to happen. Which pretty much spoiled the movie for me, because, as you say, it was just a contrivance.

        • The film is okay, but the play was a lot better. Obviously I saw all the plot twists coming in the movie theater, but not at The Music Box Theater (and such a lovely little theater it was, and is).

          I realize I let your comment on Bierce go unacknowledged–I guess Bierce was my original Westlake–I wanted to read everything he wrote, and it was hard finding everything back then (in fact, I never did). The short stories were easy enough, and the Devil’s Dictionary, but there were a lot of other things of varying quality that were still of interest to me, and no internet to search on.

          I enjoyed his proto-horror–what first drew me to him, after reading Ray Bradbury’s story about all the great writers of scary stories being up on Mars, waiting for their last books to be burned by a sanitized over-rational society, and Poe is raging, but Bierce is laughing at them all, including himself–but I liked his satire even more. He wrote a lot of his funniest stuff for the newspapers, notably the Hearst papers. Hearst went about, as you know, collecting talent for his papers, and Bierce was a prized piece in his collection, whose wit he greatly enjoyed. He let Bierce get away with quite a lot, and Bierce was not the least bit appreciative, but took full advantage.

          Bierce wrote a review of a local vintner in California for the Examiner, and this is what he said. I swear I did not make the name of the vintner up, and neither did Bierce. I guess he sold some wine before its time.

          The wine of Arpad Haraszthy has a bouquet all its own. It tickles and titillates the palate. It gurgles as it slips down the alimentary canal. It warms the cockles of the heart, and it burns the sensitive lining of the stomach.

          The aggrieved Haraszthy threatened a lawsuit, if the paper did not print a retraction. Bierce was told to submit one forthwith. He did so.

          The wine of Arpad Haraszthy does not have a bouquet all its own. It does not tickle and titillate the palate. It does not gurgle as it slips down the alimentary canal. It does not warm the cockles of the heart, and it does not burn the sensitive lining of the stomach.

          Small wonder Westlake yearned to meet him in the Afterlife, and I hope he did so. He’d have gone to the good place, I have no doubt. Whoever made this world has a great sense of humor, and would likewise be out recruiting talent to make him laugh.

  2. rinaldo302

    Our blogger and regular respondents are knowledgeable way beyond my level, so I’m mildly surprised that (as far as I can tell) nobody’s mentioned this, so for the record:

    This story was filmed too, for TV. I think it aired on the USA network but I no longer trust my memory on that. I remember that the very early previews actually called it “A Travesty,” but by the time it aired, it was “A Slight Case of Murder.” William H. Macy in the central role, with Adam Arkin, Felicity Huffman, James Cromwell. All the names were changed, but otherwise I think it was relatively faithful (haven’t seen it since it aired in 1999; I see that it’s out on DVD). I may have been too indulgent, as I was so surprised that this of all Westlake made it to film.

    • Well I’ll be……!

      I’ll have to review this, once I get the chance to watch it–maybe I’ll wait until we reach the late 90’s. Exceptionally good cast. But honestly, even Westlake never seems to have talked about it. I’ve read multiple interviews and things he’s written about adaptations of his work, and I don’t think it ever came up. He was of a generation that didn’t necessarily take television all that seriously, though he loved The Rockford Files, and The Sopranos. He was probably as surprised as anyone when somebody wanted to adapt A Travesty. And they should have stuck with that title–A Slight Case of Murder had already been used, for a Lloyd Bacon film in the 30’s, based on a Damon Runyan story.

      William H. Macy is one of my favorite actors of all time. One of the few really good neo-noirs I’ve seen in recent years was The Cooler, which had a lot of Westlake’s sensibility to it, I thought. I have got to know what Mr. Macy did with this one (and he wrote the script as well).

      So not one but both parts of Enough got adapted–and strange as this may seem, it’s not inexplicable. Both are just about the perfect length to be adapted for a movie–both are clever well-written stories–and both would have been relatively cheap to get the rights for.

      • I just watched this. It’s not streaming anywhere, as far as I can tell, but the DVD is easy available used.

        It’s not bad. A good TV-actor cast, with Macy as Thorpe, Huffman as Kit no-longer-Markowitz (they unsurprisingly have great chemistry), James Cromwell as the blackmailing P.I., in a performance that for some reason kept reminding me of Ed O’Neill, Adam Arkin as the detective who’s now Italian, and the amazing Julia Campbell as his wife. (No idea why she isn’t a big star.)

        The movie cuts almost all of the Thope-as-detective scenes to dwell more on his cat-and-mouse game with the blackmailer and his relationships with the two women. It does include one nice piece of meta: Early in the plot, Thorpe is interviewing a famous noir director played by Paul Mazursky, and, pretending that his situation as an accidental murderer comes from an unfinished screenplay, asks what the hero should do next. “He killed the woman?” Mazursky asks. “Then he’s not the hero.”

        Macy is constantly breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience. None of what he says sounds like Westlake to me, but without the book in front of me, I can’t be sure.

        • Julia Campbell should have had a bigger career, but I’ve lost count of all the actors I’ve said that about.

          Stylistically, it sounds a bit like A Guilty Conscience, a 1985 TV movie, starring Anthony Hopkins as a lawyer looking for a way to kill his wife and get away with it, and constantly talking to the audience about his schemes. Different stories, but same general approach. And again, two great actresses, Blythe Danner and Swoozie Kurtz.

          Getting rid of the reluctant detective angle here pretty much robs the story of what makes it unique. But I suppose it does save time.

  3. rinaldo302

    It was on TNT, not USA; I had the right general echelon of cable network, at least.

    I would love to know more about how it came about: whether Macy initiated it and pitched it, for instance. His having written the screenplay suggests as much, and how else would a project like this happen unless an actor decided he really wanted to play this part? (I can’t see a director, producer, or network saying “We gotta make a movie of this thing!” on their own.) He was nominated for a Best Actor Emmy for it, too (lost to Jack Lemmon).

    I just ordered a copy on Amazon.

    • I certainly don’t think Westlake’s agent was out there selling it. Macy was a very hot property in the late 90’s. I could see him having the clout to get something like this greenlit–TNT would be delighted to get somebody of his stature doing a movie for them. And Westlake’s name wouldn’t have hurt–hell, 1999 was the year Payback came out. And Westlake had gotten an Oscar nomination at the start of the 90’s, for The Grifters.

      And of course it was TNT that later did Leverage, which took from Westlake’s work with both hands, but they named the skinny blonde female cat burglar ‘Parker,’ so what the hell. Her Parker was better than Statham’s. Cuter, too. 😉

      • rinaldo302

        My speculation is that it’s TNT that asked for the title change at a late stage, as I saw a promo some months in advance under the original title. (I whooped out loud when I saw that, by the way; it was the last Westlake I ever expected to see on a screen.)

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