Monthly Archives: December 2015

Mr. Westlake and The 80’s

If it seems like just a bit over four months ago that I posted my article about Westlake and the 70’s, that’s because it was.  I said it would go quickly, and it did.  The 80’s won’t take long to cover either, but in this case, I’m kind of relieved.   The actual 80’s, as I recall, dragged on endlessly, an unrelenting big-haired nightmare.  And this was the era I came to maturity in, curse the luck.  The 60’s I can barely remember, the 70’s are an adolescent blur, and the 80’s I only wish I could forget.

I doubt very much it was one of Westlake’s favorite decades either.  Perhaps the personal side of it went well, with a new and (finally) successful marriage, but professionally speaking–eh.

Westlake became a professional writer in the 50’s, but spent most of that decade developing a style (or several), and was mainly writing short stories for the pulps and novels for the sleaze paperback market.  The 60’s marked a flurry of creative activity–he wrote and published around forty (!) books in that decade, as himself, Stark, Coe, Clark, etc– that’s not counting all the additional sleaze paperbacks.

The 70’s, as I wrote four months ago, were about him slowing down, taking stock, developing his comic voice to a higher level of sophistication, finding new wrinkles to the formulas he’d pioneered in the 60’s; the Nephews, Dortmunder–but also losing the clarity of Stark, the conscience of Coe.   He was mainly a solo act.

And somehow, without all those additional names to write under, other people he could be, he couldn’t write as much.   Maybe fifteen books for that decade, all told (it’s a bit unclear, since his books were not necessarily written the year they were published, and a decade is not such a precise thing, when considered in a cultural context).

I think he enjoyed the 70’s, particularly that part of it he spent writing for M. Evans & Co., but that relationship came to an end with Castle In The Air, and he only published two books with his next house, Viking (it sometimes seemed like he was competing to see how many publishers a writer can have in one career), before forming an alliance with his good friend Otto Penzler that would last the rest of his life, under several imprints.

This was good news for the independent in him, but there are certain advantages to a major house when it comes to distribution, promotion, remuneration, etc.   If there was any chance of him becoming a ‘mainstream’ author, that pretty much died out in the 80’s (though it didn’t go quietly, and showed distinct signs of life in the mid-to-late 90’s, much to his surprise).

Kahawa was the transitional work–he started work on it at the very end of the 70’s, and published it early in the 80’s–and after investing so much time and effort, it was a resounding dud in the marketplace.  The new publisher didn’t know what to do with it–or him.   Vanished with barely a ripple.

Perhaps some of his reaction to this can be found in the title of the fifth Dortmunder novel, Why Me?   He’d produce three Dortmunders in the 80’s, each of them a triumph, creating a momentum for the series that would carry it well into the next century.  Somehow, Dortmunder was the perfect antidote to the 80’s.

And he went on experimenting with the possibilities of the comic novel, of satire, of farce.   He wrote an epistolary novel about the foibles of the publishing business (no one was better qualified) that rivals Adios Scheherazade.  He wrote another about a weekly scandal tabloid that featured his only female series protagonist.   He looked deeper than ever before into the maelstrom that is an actor’s soul.   He produced some of his best work in this decade, please don’t misunderstand me.   I only wish 80’s music had been as good as 80’s Westlake.

But there were some significant misfires.   A book about Latin America–this time a real country that actually exists there!–that just does not quite work.   Another novel, about a celebrity kidnapping, that he completed, and it’s good–but it didn’t see publication until after Westlake’s death, because he found out a Martin Scorsese film with a superficially similar storyline was coming out around the same time it was originally due to hit the bookstores, and people would talk.

And he started a new detective franchise, with a really ‘high-concept’ hero, very much a reflection of that era–and I like those books.  I’ll make it clear how much I like them.  And yet, that new beginning turned into yet another cul de sac for Westlake, a failed attempt to create a new literary persona, a chance to prove he could start over again from scratch.  And to a certain extent, I have to think that was self-sabotage, but we’ll get to that.

He’d never again craft a pseudonym that would stand on its own.  He learned, to his sorrow, that he’d become too well-known a writer to disappear into another identity anymore.   Well, that’s what actors who become stars all have to contend with, isn’t it?    The answer to this quandary would have to wait until the following decade–and he’d be toting a Smith & Wesson Terrier when he came.

And that was the 80’s.  Honestly, I like Westlake’s version of this decade a lot better than the one I lived through.  If I can stick to a post a week (I’m making no promises), shouldn’t take more than another four months to negotiate it.   But in the words of an otherwise unmemorable 1990 Dennis Hopper/Kiefer Sutherland buddy comedy, “Once we get out of the 80’s, the 90’s are gonna make the 60’s look like the 50’s.”  You better believe it.   See you next year, peeps.

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Review: Castle In The Air

“In this world . . .

It’s Heaven when:
The French are chefs
The British are police
The Germans are engineers
The Swiss are bankers
And the Italians are lovers

It’s Hell when:
The English are chefs
The Germans are police
The French are engineers
The Swiss are lovers
And the Italians are bankers.”

Hidekaz Himaruya

Here and there in the bustling center of Paris underground garages have been built–dug?  constructed?  scooped out?–with access direct from the wide busy streets.  The hustling little vehicles of Paris descend into these nests without slackening their street speed, so that to an innocent bystander on the sidewalk it looks as though every once in a while a hurrying automobile is simply swallowed up into a hole in the ground.  Zip zip zip, go all the cars, and then zip-floop.  Zip, zip, zip, zip-floop, zip zip, zip-floop, all day long.  It can become unnerving, at least to innocent bystanders who continue to stand there all day long instead of going about their business.

On a sunny Tuesday, at midday, such a bystander would have seen, amid the other zipping beeping traffic, a black Volkswagen beetle convertible with the top down, looking like a midget command car, sporting front and rear the oval white license plates of West Germany.  Driving this VW, and yelling at the nearby French drivers in German, was Rudi Schlisselmann, burglar extraordinary.  Beside him, munching morosely on pills to aid dyspepsia, sat Otto Berg, the last of the happy wanderers.  And seated ramrod straight in back, looking to neither left nor right, suffering the cacophony of the traffic as he would suffer any fools–that is, only up to a point–sat Herman Muller, team leader.

Zip-floop.  Volkswagen all gone.

Shortly thereafter, if your bystander were still standing by, he would have seen a little red Fiat zipping among the blue and white Renaults and Simcas, and at the wheel of the little red Fiat he would have seen Angelo Salvagambelli, teeth sparkling in a lush smile, black hair glistening in the wind, a white polyester scarf wrapped in devil-may-care fashion around his neck.  Beside him, blinking in terror at the traffic and the noise and the people and the sunshine, cowered Vito Palone, retired master criminal dragged out of retirement by popular demand.  Or at least by demand of Rosa Palermo, who was now squeezed uncomfortably into the small back seat of the Fiat, from which command post she kept up a steady stream of advice and warning to Angelo in re the other traffic, all of which Angelo cheerfully ignored.

Zip-floop.  Ta ta, Fiat.

Almost immediately after that, our loitering bystander’s attention would have been attracted to the smallest, oldest, most battered and dented little gray Renault ever seen on the streets of Paris.  Since its license plate began with “75,” the number code for Parisian cars, this bedraggled little Renault must frequently have been seen on the streets of Paris, and it’s only a wonder the dogcatcher never grabbed it.  Alone at the wheel of this mutt–for who could possibly be induced to travel anywhere in it other than its driver?–slouched Charles Moule, pianist and existentialist, a cigarette smoldering from the corner of his mouth.

Zip-floopA bas, Renault.

After a few minutes of no activity, our bystander–doesn’t he have a home?–next sees coming along the street sailing gaily through the traffic, a bicycle built for two, with Jean LeFraque in front and beautiful cat-burglar Renee Chateaupierre in back.  This bicycle, with its attractive riders, being taller, more slender and more agile than most of the other traffic, was not only attracting a lot of attention from the other travelers but was also making better time.

Zip-floop, Away the bicycle, accelerating.

But what’s this coming?  A London taxicab, in Paris?  Naturally, with everybody’s pal but nobody’s fool Bruddy Dunk at the wheel.  And reclining in comfort in back, feet stretched well out, were Sir Mortimer Maxwell and Andrew Pinkenham, discussing Great Crimes of the Century.

Zip-floop.  To the depths, Austin Taxi.

Our bystander, convinced that he’d seen everything, departed at last, but he was wrong.  One more vehicle now came down the same street, growling mightily and cutting left and right through the slower traffic; a motorcycle, with sidecar.  At the handlebars of the motorcycle, head sheathed in leather goggles, perched Eustace Dench, master criminal, the singular begetter and deviser of this entire caper.  And in the sidecar, startlingly beautiful and windblown, the Yerbadoroan lovely, Lida Perez, for whom–perhaps–this whole enterprise was being undertaken.

Zip-floop.  Motorcycle and sidecar down the ramp.

That’s a very long quote, I know, but it’s there for two reasons–to save me some of the trouble of introducing all the main characters in this book, and to demonstrate that said book is a lot more fun than you might have heard.   I think Westlake had fun writing it, and I know I had fun reading it (twice).  But no doubt about it–it’s different.  It’s not Parker, it’s not Dortmunder, it’s not even Grofield.  It’s not Dancing Aztecs either, though that’s what some people compare it with, to its considerable disadvantage.  If that’s what you’re expecting, you will be very disappointed.   But as I’ve said before, the one thing you can always expect from Donald E. Westlake, writing under his own name, is the unexpected.

What makes it so different?  For one thing, it’s set entirely in Europe,  and all but one of the main characters are from Europe.  The one exception comes from Yerbadora, another of Westlake’s fictional South American countries (he comes up with a few more, there’s not going to be any room left there for the real ones) .

Westlake very rarely wrote about Europe, and when he did, it was mainly in passing, as in last week’s book, Nobody’s Perfect, where Dortmunder spends a few days in London and Scotland, and you can tell Westlake has been there, but–well–there’s this scene at a Scottish manor where a policeman shows up at an inconvenient moment and says “Ul-lo ullo ullo, what’s this; then?”   I feel confident Westlake could have written a better line for a Scottish policeman than that, had he given a royal damn either way.   If you’re going to play around with clichés  you’d best play well.

That book is not about Europe.   This one most certainly is, and the difference is palpable.  Westlake gives a damn about getting it right here, but he’s still hampered by the fact that he does not know Europe the way he does the U.S. or even the Caribbean or Latin America, nor is he ever likely to.   But then, you know, there is a tradition of foreign travelers writing extremely well and perceptively about lands they experienced only briefly–Alexis de Tocqueville certainly had some highly pertinent things to say about America–not all of which were complimentary, but somehow he was so diplomatique, so genuinely interested in our queer ways, that we just assumed they were compliments, and we teach that book in school to this very day.

The thing is, there’s an advantage to being an outsider–you get a different perspective–what seems commonplace to the native will seem strange and wondrous to the foreigner.  Something as mundane as a parking garage may strike him as fascinating.  Still and all, he’s going to be vulnerable to the usual nationalist memes, using them as a form of shorthand–but then, so are the natives, albeit not in the same way.   We all have ideas about our nationalities, conceptions of who we are as a people, and those ideas can be deeply misleading, but they’re rarely made up out of thin air–and they can be a very important part of our identities, singular and collective.

Westlake drew heavily on the movies when writing this one–not Hollywood movies, but films made in Europe by Europeans about Europeans, in France, Italy, Britain–all of which have exceptionally fine traditions of crime fiction, and films about heists, comic and otherwise.  Germany has made perhaps an underrated contribution to this genre, but most of Germany’s crime fiction isn’t available in English translation–Westlake certainly would have seen a lot of German films about crime (Fritz Lang’s, for example) at New York art houses, but I think in the case of Deutschland, he may have been drawing more on his experiences while stationed there during his hitch in the Air Force.  He couldn’t fall back much on their cinema here, because the comic caper is not a form the Germans are known for, though they seem to enjoy it as much as anyone else.

Somebody familiar with the various nationalities involved here may read this book (or this review) and say “What rubbish!”, but really–are people in America actually like Dortmunder or Parker?  Didn’t Westlake to some extent draw on established tropes in pulp fiction and movies to create those two iconic figures, and their various cohorts?  Didn’t Americans more or less create the notion in our popular fiction that we were a nation of gangsters and cowboys (and, somewhat paradoxically, boy scouts)?  We’re nothing of the kind, you know.   But sometimes we like to think we are.

And in reacting to the myth, we may end up making it more real.  We’d rather be something than nothing–and so it is with people everywhere.  The French, Italians, Germans, Brits, etc, all believe in myths about themselves as well.  Because the alternative is so very dreary.  And because any nation needs some kind of myth to unify around, otherwise it wouldn’t be a nation at all.  National myths aren’t necessarily lies-just heavily embellished truths.  Freely mixed with lies, until you may not be sure where one leaves off and the other begins.

Westlake wasn’t only drawing on his knowledge of European cinema, naturally.  He also had a pretty fair knowledge of European literature (that which was not British he’d read in translation, since he was a monoglot, as am I, alas).  And as already mentioned, he had a sharp eye for detail, and at some point in time we know he did visit Europe with a large family contingent.

The article Abby Adams wrote about him and his various literary personas, in which she mentioned this grand tour, was produced in 1977, according to The Getaway Car.  I quoted it in my review of Brothers Keepers, and don’t like to trot it out again, but she says they were in the UK for a year, then spent a few weeks jaunting about the continent.   So that explains him wanting to try writing about London and Scotland in Nobody’s Perfect, but the results were, as I’ve already said, less than satisfactory.   And he’d want to try again, see if he could do better.

David Bratman, in his invaluable short Westlake bibliography (to which I am indebted for the term ‘Nephew Book’), had only this to say about Castle In The Air.

Westlake must have been going through a brief slump, because this book is an attempt at a remake of Dancing Aztecs set in France, way too short and simple, and it doesn’t work at all.

I somehow feel Mr. Bratman and I are as two in our approach to book reviewing. Ethan Iverson is only slightly less terse.

The dedication reads, “And this one is for the guys and gals at the Internal Revenue Service.” It’s the weakest over the top caper novel – was it written desperately to pay a tax bill? Don’t let this be your introduction to Westlake.

Well no, definitely don’t do that, but I guess he doesn’t consider Who Stole Sassi Manoon? to be an over the top caper novel?   Or does he actually think that book is better?  Maybe I’ll ask him sometime, but let me just say,  as somebody who agrees with the majority of both their assessments of Westlake’s novels under his own name, that I vigorously dissent here.  This is not one of Westlake’s worst novels.   It’s far from the best he was capable of in this genre, but I’d rank it firmly in the middle.

Westlake may well have been in some kind of a slump–he did not, after all, produce any book under any name between Nobody’s Perfect (1977) and Castle In The Air (1980)–a huge gap in the bibliography–for him.  But there’s any number of possible explanations for that, other than a lack of inspiration.

Perhaps he was being inspired in other directions–he got married for the third and final time in 1979.  He was doing extensive research for Kahawa, some of it in Africa, with Abby.  There may come a moment in any over-prolific writer’s life when he or she wants to stop writing about life for a while and start actually living it.  He was probably also exploring certain revenue options vis a vis Hollywood (a year abroad with a large family would have been expensive, to say the least).

He probably owed M. Evans a book (his last for them, as it turned out), and there evidently was some kind of tax bill that needed paying, but if we’re going to discount books of his that were written to cover overdue bills, we’d probably have to throw out most of the Starks.  Many would say Westlake was at his best when he was under pressure, writing quickly, completing entire books in a matter of weeks–not invariably the case, but I certainly have noticed that the books he really took his time with are not, in the main, what we remember him for.  James Joyce he wasn’t, and thank God for that (and did Westlake ever get to Ireland?).

So this is not at all in the vein of Richard Stark, being very light and witty and discursive, almost as much travelogue as heist story.  And it’s not a comic caper in the style of Dortmunder, because we’re not supposed to get too involved with these rather caricatured figures–good characters, strong voices, enjoyable to read about, but intentionally left on the sketchy side, because that’s what’s called for here.   This is a European comic caper film done in prose form, a wicked little criminal farce; cynical, urbane, blasé, playfully acidic, written to experiment with a somewhat different style of storytelling.

But is that all it is?   Might there be something more going on beneath the surface, some subtextual (or damned near subliminal) commentary we’re missing, from a writer who liked to sneak telling little asides on events of the day into seemingly light material?   Well, let’s start with the surface, and work our way down from there.

English criminal mastermind, Eustace Dench, has been approached by Yerbodoroan patriot, Lida Perez.   She has informed him that the President of her country, one Escobar Diaz McMahon Grande Pajaro Lynch, is planning to expropriate a huge fortune, ‘the blood of the peasants’ as she charmingly calls it, to Europe, so the Lynch family can retire in splendor before El Presidente is overthrown.  It will be concealed in the stones of a castle he and his wife, Maria Colleen San Salvador Porforio Hennessy Lynch are importing to reassemble in Paris.   Yes, Westlake always has to get the Irish in there somewhere–Yerbadoro was ‘liberated’ from the Spanish by Irish pirates, centuries before–but if you knew your South American history, you’d know this is totally plausible.  The founding father of Chile was named, I kid you not, Bernardo O’Higgins.

The idea is that Dench recruits a string, they steal the stolen wealth, heisting an entire castle in the process, and they get half–the other half going to the Yerbadoroan revolution the idealistic Lida is helping to spearhead.  Dench has no intention of keeping his end of the bargain, but needs Lida’s cooperation to pull it off (also, she’s really really beautiful, and he’s hoping to bed her before the caper is done, a goal shared by most of the male members of the string, and possibly one female member, but I digress).

Dench recruits four other master criminals, one each from England, France, Germany, and Italy–who will each in turn recruit talented thieves from their native lands–each national team will have three members, operating on their own, with Dench planning and overseeing the entire operation via walkie-talkie.

There’s just one teensy tiny little hitch–see, the three continentals Dench recruited are multilingual, all speaking English fluently, and maybe another few tongues as well–Lida is also a polyglot.  But the people they recruit are monolingual, as is Dench himself–none of the Englishmen speaks any language but English.  Well, when you speak English, you shouldn’t be expected to learn any other languages, right?   English is the lingua franca.   The actual franca mainly dissent from this view, which Eustace firmly deplores.   We had the Empire such a long time,” he laments, “You’d think somebody would have learned English.”

There’s actually one more problem–each of the national teams fully intends to take all the Yerbadoran treasure for themselves, and screw their allies of convenience.  Forget Starkian professionalism, or Dortmunderian loyalty.  In Europe, the phrase “No honor among thieves” means something.     As it happens, the Germans find the loot first, with stereotypical efficiency, but what follows is an intricate dance of interweaving double, triple, and even quadruple-crosses, some of which are intra-mural–national solidarity being well and good, but money is money, and thieves are thieves.    Each of them wants as much as he or she can possibly get.

But first they’ve got to steal it–the components of the castle (it’s just a small castle, in case you were wondering), are in four shipments, one for each team.   Eustace is, as mentioned, coordinating their efforts via four walkie-talkies, from a rooftop.  His plan is perfect, but the people executing it are not, and he’s frustrated by his inability to know what’s going on.

What Eustace wanted, what Eustace needed, was for the entire city of Paris to suddenly be reduced to the size and aspect of a model train layout, with himself on a high stool overlooking the whole thing.  Then he could see if the English contingent was doing its job in Ménilmontant, he could see if the French contingent was successfully performing its task in the Gare de la Chappelle, he could see if the Italians and the Germans were performing profitably at the Arc de Triomphe.  Instead of which, here he was on this windy hotel roof, seated in this wobbly folding chair at this rickety folding table, holding down all his maps and charts and memorandums with these god damn walkie-talkies, and trying to get somebody somewhere to tell him what in hell is going on.

There’s probably an app for that now, but a fat lot of good that does him.

Here’s how I’m seeing Eustace Dench, if anyone cares–

Lavender-Hill-Mob-3

(Alec Guinness, in The Lavender Hill Mob.  Like you didn’t know.)

The operation is a success, in spite of everything, but turns out all the expropriated wealth was hidden in the stones the Germans got, and the Germans are not feeing inclined to share.   Herman Muller, leader of the German group, has recruited former military men like himself, who served together in WWII, and one of them expresses a certain disquiet that they are working with the Italians again.  Hmm.

Well, leaving that aside for now, Herman is described as “a skeleton-thin smooth and eerie man with a long pockmarked face.”  I rather see him as Conrad Veidt, don’t you?  (No, I am not making the least attempt to cast this in such a way that they could have actually done a movie with these specific actors after the book was written–anyone quibbling about who died when is missing the whole point of that noble game, Imaginary Casting Director).

(Ja vohl, mein herr!)

So the German plan is to defeat Dench’s plan by floating the building blocks of the castle with the hidden treasure down a disused canal, and then reassembling them to look like the wall facing one side of that canal. And it seems Mr. Westlake was taking notes during his trip to Paris.  Still the architectural conservative, as we saw in Brothers Keepers.

Progress doesn’t merely add, it also subtracts.  One of the unfortunate subtractions currently under way in Paris is the gradual filling in and removal of the system of canals running northward through the eastern part of the city from the Seine to the suburb of Pantin and beyond.  At one time, goods from northeastern France and meat from the slaughterhouses of the 19th Arondissement were barged south along the Canal St. Denis and the Canal de l’Ourcq into the Bassin de la Villette, just north of the Place de Stalingard.  From there, the waterway tunneled beneath Place de Stalingrad and underwent a change of name, becoming the Canal St. Martin as it zigzagged southward through the 10th Arrondissement.  Running through the 11th Arrondissement, the canal has been covered by the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, but the waterway still exists, in slimy and rat-infested darkness, beneath the broad boulevard, and at least re-emerges just south of the Place de la Bastille, where this last section just north of the Seine is called the Gare de l’Arsenal, and is the only segment of the canal still in any ordinary kind of use.

Westlake concludes this bit of travelogue/obituary by lamenting that the canal as a whole will disappear entirely in future–“Too bad it never became a tourist attraction.”  Ah, but you underestimate the French genius for cultural preservation, Monsieur Westlake.  As I’m sure you were pleased to learn, upon future visits.

The other members of the gang have realized the Germans are up to no good, but get to the warehouse housing the partly reassembled castle too late (“Germans!” roared Rosa, shaking her fists at the castle.  “You can’t trust Germans!”  She should talk.)

But the French, subtle as ever, have figured out where the Germans have gone with their loot, and how–and of course do not choose to share this intelligence with the others (Qui trouve, garde–google it).   It’s one of them in particular who cracks the code, one Charles Moule, and Westlake made head-casting him far too easy.

stpp2

(Don’t shoot him, he’s only the piano player!   And a David Goodis homage to boot!)

Charles has been recovering emotionally from some past emotional trauma, involving a woman (naturellement), and has been helped no end in his recovery by lovely cat-burglar, Renee Chateupierre, who has seemingly been carrying a torch for him.  I can’t get such a firm fix on her–Isabelle Adjani would have worked out fine, but there’s no end of haunting dark-haired beauties in French cinema (like Michèle Mercier, for example, seen above).

As they are lying together in a bed on the train to Paris, before the heist begins, we get this uniquely gallic love scene between them–

Charles was saying “After Claudia was shot by the tourists in Barcelona, life no longer seemed worth the effort.”

“You don’t have to talk about this, Charles,” Renee said.

“But I feel I must, Renee.”

“It’s not necessary, Charles.”

“It’s necessary to me, Renee.  After–after what has happened between us, I can no longer remain silent.  Tonight is my rebirth.  I want you to understand my soul.”

“I do understand your soul, Charles.”

“Do you understand how I felt after Barcelona?”

“But you could never show it,” Renee said.

“How could I show it?”

“You never could.”

“I never could show it.”

He never could show it.   Just talk about it.  Endlessly.   With a beautiful naked brunette next to him.  Who wants to listen.  Vive la France.

Everybody gets a turn, and next the Italians grab the boodle, and of course their style is entirely different.   Their leader is a woman, the multi-lingual Rosa Palermo, who recruited the roguish Angelo Salvagambelli and  the dignified elder statesman of crime, Vito Palone (who was enjoying a nice quiet retirement in prison, writing his memoirs before these diavolos broke him out without even asking nicely first).

Vito would be played by Carlo Battisti in my movie (Have you seen Umberto D? If you ever do, in a theater–bring tissues).   I think Marcello would be fine as Angelo (don’t you dare ask ‘Marcello Who?’)   Now for Rosa, the studio heads will doubtless be at me to cast Sophia, Gina, maybe even that chick from The Matrix Reloaded, but I shall stick to my guns–only one woman was ever born to play her.

(Magnanimous of me, I know.)

“I’ll trace places with you,” Vito suggested.

“To do what?”

“To unload the truck.”

Rosa couldn’t believe it.  “You,” she demanded, “would ask a woman to do such a job?  A woman like your own mother?”

“All right,” Vito said, “All right.”

“A woman like your sisters,” Rosa said.

Vito, defeated,  climbed back up into the truck, saying “Yes, yes, I’m going.”

Angelo, cheerful, vaulted up into the truck.  “Here we go, then.”

Rosa stepped forward to yell into the truck: “A woman like the Holy Virgin!”

“All right,” Vito’s voice came, plaintively, from within the truck.  “All right, all right, all right.  I didn’t mean it.”

(That’s what I call making a big deal about the Madonna.  Presumably near a street.)

At a certain point in time, none of the string members know what’s going on, or who has the loot (other than whoever has it at that given moment). Because they could not trust each other–or even understand each other terribly well, and we’re not just talking about language here–cooperation between them was necessarily going to be short-term, unreliable, easily disrupted.  They share a common heritage, a common profession, but it’s not enough.

Finally Eustace, fed up with their lack of professionalism (and seeing his moment at last), drives off in the truck full of Yerbadoroan treasure, with Lida (perhaps the greatest Yerbodoroan treasure of all, and I don’t need to post an image of a young Salma Hayek, right?  Yes, I know she’s from North America, but I don’t care), who still thinks they’re going to give it back to the people, and it was only those other ruffians who were going to take it for themselves.

Her expression becoming tender, Lida said, “Oh, Eustace.  And you saved it all for the peasants.”

“They were never out of my mind,” he said, giving her knee another little squeeze.

(Yes, definitely Sir Alec.  As to the other Brits, if you want to know my casting picks, you can pull my ear in the comments section, mate.  This is getting bloody long.)

Finally, the teams are so scattered and in disarray from innumerable betrayals, that three members of the French, Italian and German teams decide to try and form a Triple Entente, to regain their money.  But sadly, only one speaks a language other than his own, and it’s the wrong one.

Switching to French, Jean said “We three will have to work together.  We are all of us competent criminals in our own right, after all.”

Emphatically, Rudi said, “Now we’ll have to work together.”

“We’ll have to make plans together,” Vito said.

Silence.  The three men looked at one another expectantly.  Gradually their confidence and determination faded away, and they finished by staring at one another in bewilderment.

Jean broke the unhappy silence.  In English he said, “Neither of you speaks English?”  And in French, “Not French either?”

Sadly shaking his head, Vito said, “Did neither of you study Italian in school?”

Rudi looked from face to face.  “You have no German?”

Silence again, broken by Jean: “How–”

Rudi: “When–”

Vito: “What–”

Another silence, and this time a kind of fatalism gradually overtook all three. They began to smile and shrug at one another, as though to say what-the-hell.  With many rueful smiles and shrugs and hand gestures, they shook hands all around, and waved, and slowly backed away from one another.

“Au revoir,” said Jean.

“Auf Wiedersehen,” said Rudi.

“Ciao,” said Vito.

And then Lida figures out what’s really going on–she’s idealistic, not stupid–and hijacks the truck with the treasure one last time, driving it through the plate glass window of a newspaper office by mistake, but she acts like she did it on purpose, is captured on film, raising her fist in a revolutionary salute, and becomes an international sensation, because if there’s anything people of all nationalities agree on, it’s that beautiful passionate Latinas with a cause make for interesting headlines.

So Eustace and all his confederates get rounded up, but Lida intercedes for them, feeling that they did, after all, save the money for the peasants, even if they did it by mistake.   They get short sentences (probably helped that none of them was actually caught red-handed with the loot), and after they get out, they join forces with the now-exiled Yerbodoroan President and his shrewish wife, who had a lot of other valuables stowed away in their castle (furniture and such), and they need the help of the thieves to find it.   And then invest it, along with reward money Eustace & Co. got from the grateful new Yerbodoroan government.

And would you believe they all end up running a restaurant together?  The Brits, the French, the Italians, the Germans, and the two exiled South Americans.  Le Yerbadoro–an enterprise that puts all their many unique talents that don’t involve thievery to good use–yeah, it does oddly prefigure the end of Ratatouille, doesn’t it?   Coincidence?  I have no idea.  Eustace, now managing the place, concludes our story by saying “I never would have guessed it, but there is something pleasant about being an honest man.”

So.  Thieves from four European countries, out to claim the spoils from a distant Latin American country, form alliances and break them, steal from one another, each gaining the advantage and then losing it again, until finally the whole criminal enterprise breaks down in confusion, and after the dust has settled, they decide to join forces as honest people, and open a restaurant, probably catering heavily to tourists.  National boundaries forgotten.   Maybe they even learned each others’ languages, some of them–probably not all of them.

Mr. Westlake?   One somehow hates to ask–knowing there will be no answer–but is this, in fact, an exercise in criminal farce?   Or another of your occasional attempts at political satire disguised as farce?

Let me just check something–this book was published in 1980–since it was, we all agree, written in a hurry to pay the IRS, that means he probably wrote it sometime in 1979.  I’m sure if I look at the history of the European Union (called The European Economic Community at that time), I won’t find that anything terribly significant happened in that —Oh you sly bastard.

So yes, that’s what I think this is.  Political satire, disguised as criminal farce. Westlake’s Condensed History of Europe.  Westlake was having a bit of fun here, as he often did, without letting us in on the joke–if we happened to twig to it, all the better.  Really, it’s not that hard to see, but most people just kept missing out on his references, because he wasn’t supposed to be a ‘deep’ writer.   And he’s not really trying for depth–it’s not that kind of story, not an ounce of pretension here–but I find his blithe shallowness rather profound, for all that.  Candide is very shallow–Moliere’s best plays are all light comedies–Oscar Wilde never took anything seriously, until he was given no choice.  But when you look beneath the facile surface, you may find there was, after all, a point lurking amid the drollery.

He wishes their honest new enterprise well.  Of that there can be no doubt.   So they’re thieves–like all of us, all nations, everywhere and always, and particularly the ‘great’ ones–it was Balzac who once wrote that at the foundation of every great fortune is a great crime.  America’s was chattel slavery, and the theft of the land from its aboriginal inhabitants.  Europe’s was colonialism, which led quite directly to America’s crimes, and many others besides.  We’re all villains and thieves, and I do mean all of us, but we mean well.  We really do.  No, seriously.

But you’re left to ask, bidding adieu to these reformed criminals, whether their newfound unity and sense of shared enterprise will endure.   Are they not still, after all this time, different peoples, with different languages, different cultures, each of which engenders a different mode of being, thinking, living, even loving?

And we don’t want to lose that sense of self, do we?   It’s part of who we are, and we treasure it.  But as long as we hold to it, can we ever truly be one with our brothers and sisters in other lands?   Can we ever learn to trust each other?  Can there be honor among thieves?   If Westlake didn’t know the answer, I sure don’t.

I do know that this is my last review for 2015.   I’ll return with Kahawa in the New Year (more well-meaning thieves), but I think I will get in one more article before the ball drops.

PS: If you like that joke map of Europe up top, there’s plenty more where that came from–the work of Bulgarian artist, Yanko Tsvetkov.  Europe has always done the best job satirizing Europe (sure, Bulgaria is part of Europe, why not?).

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Castle In The Air, Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Review: Nobody’s Perfect

Oppressed by the continuing silence in the cab, these four large bodies sweating lightly in the hot July London air, Chauncey made a desperate stab at Smalltalk: “This your first trip to London, Dortmunder?”

“Yeah.”  Dortmunder turned his head slightly to look out the window.  The cab, having come in the M4 from Heathrow, was now inching through the normal traffic jam on Cromwell Road.  “Looks like Queens,” Dortmunder said.

Chauncey came automatically to the city’s defense.” Well, this is hardly the center of town.”

“Neither is Queens.”

I don’t really know what my favorite Parker novel is, but I know my least favorite–Flashfire, which is the first thing of Westlake’s I ever read.  It starts out great, then somehow loses its way once it gets to Palm Beach.  This just does not seem to be a place Parker belongs.   You could write a perfectly good crime novel set in Florida, don’t get me wrong (I believe it’s been done once or twice)–just not with Parker in it.

I don’t really know what my favorite Dortmunder novel is, but I know my least favorite–this one.   Which starts out great, then somehow loses its way once it gets to London, and from there to bonny Scotland.  These do not seem to be places Dortmunder belongs.  You could write a perfectly good crime novel set in London and/or Scotland, don’t get me wrong (they’d probably wear funny hats and there’d be fog)–just not with Dortmunder in it.  I believe I vaguely detect a pattern here.

Terra incognita is one thing for a fictional character and another thing entirely for an author.   Westlake had probably been to London by this point, perhaps more than once–referring back to an Abby Adams quote I employed in my review of Brothers Keepers, he reportedly uprooted much of his family for a tour of Britain and The Continent (dates not specified), and of course a writer never takes a trip purely for pleasure–there’s always mental note-taking going on, and perhaps the other kind as well.

Still, he could hardly claim the same familiarity with European locales as he could with New York and other American cities (Britain is still kindasorta European, right?  I mean, there’s a tunnel and everything).   So much of Westlake’s better writing is about the fine details, and particularly his comic writing.  To get the fine details right, you have to know the territory very well.  Or else fake it to beat the band.  That’s always an option.

More than that, though, Westlake must have been wondering where he could go with this series that had dropped into his lap unexpectedly at the tail-end of the 60’s.  What was he supposed to do with Dortmunder & Co?  People loved the books, and he could hardly pass up a steady paying gig, particularly now with Parker, Grofield. and Tobin all out of the picture.

But he’s already on the fourth book, and he’s got a problem–with Parker, he had a lot of options–Parker might steal a lot of money and get to keep it–or go on a blood-soaked campaign of ruthless retribution, which was what he did in the first book.  Dortmunder doesn’t seem constitutionally equipped for the latter course, and anyway, it wouldn’t be funny.  Nor can he do what Grofield does, and play-act his way through a variety of roles, swashbuckler, detective, secret agent.  Dortmunder is just Dortmunder.

The whole point of the character is that he does these elaborate heists that go hilariously wrong, and he ends up with a mere pittance–enough to keep him going until next time. How many stories like that can you write and keep it fresh?    If he wanted to keep writing these books, and cashing those royalty checks, Westlake had to find ways to expand Dortmunder’s options, without surrendering the essential qualities of the character.

Part of that will involve expanding the cast of regulars, but the finale of this book radically shrinks that cast down to just Dortmunder and Kelp.  Who normally make a great team (from our perspective, anyway), but here, not so much.   I’m probably spoiled after the last three books, the pioneering works of the series–this is a transitional book.  There’s so much to like about this one.  So many brilliant moments.  Somehow the pieces don’t quite fit together.  Well, a Dortmunder that doesn’t quite entirely work is still a Dortmunder.   But I’m making this a one-parter, because I don’t want to dwell on it.   Short synopsis follows, and then I shall analyze what went wrong–and right.

Dortmunder gets nabbed stealing TV sets from a repair shop.  He figures he’s going away a long time.  He figures wrong–out of the blue comes this famous legal eagle, J. Radcliffe Stonewiler, who mysteriously agrees to take up Dortmunder’s defense without Dortmunder even asking him to.

The wily Stonewiler performs a little courtroom razzle-dazzle at the preliminary hearing (something to do with doors), and the delighted judge, bored to tears with his humdrum routine of obviously guilty people stringing things out in hopes of getting off on a technicality, dismisses all charges out of sheer gratitude.   Dortmunder goes home to May about six years early, by his reckoning.   Hey, I thought next time he went to jail it’d be for life, due to his prior convictions?   Retconning already, Mr. Westlake?   Hedging your bets, in case you want to do another jailhouse comedy someday?

Dortmunder knows there’s always a catch.   The catch this time is named Arnold Chauncey.   The shiftless wealthy heir to a great fortune, who spends his days lolly-gagging about, jet-setting around the globe, enjoying the fruits of other mens’ labors–enjoying them so much, in fact, that he’s perpetually on the brink of insolvency, due to cash-flow problems.

These problems he has twice addressed in past by claiming that a valuable painting from his extensive collection has been stolen, then cashing a hefty insurance check (he just sticks the painting somewhere nobody but him can look at it).   Now he wants to try it again, with a painting he’s particularly fond of (Folly Leads Man to Ruin, by Veenbes, and there is no such work, or artist, don’t even bother to look) .   The insurance company is getting skeptical.   Hence the need to hire a professional to make it look real this time.  Hence Dortmunder.

But what, you may ask, would prevent Dortmunder, after he’s pretend-heisted the Veenbes, from actually heisting it?   Dortmunder asks this question himself, and then wishes he hadn’t, because it turns out Chauncey hired another professional–from a different profession.   Leo Zane is his name.  Tall, skinny, pale, pronounced limp.  His gun, you might say, is for hire.  Or for sale, same difference.  If Dortmunder doesn’t give back the painting, Dortmunder’s going away for keeps, to that big house in the sky.

So he recruits a string, some of the usual suspects, plus a new guy, Tiny Bulcher, and they steal the painting–and then lose it.  At a gathering of Scotsmen, of all things.  Okay, now what?  Not only can they not get paid without the painting, but Dortmunder is going to get whacked if they don’t cough it up.

So Kelp has an idea (doesn’t he always?).  They approach Griswold Porculey, an artist friend of his nephew Victor’s (the former FBI agent from Bank Shot), who can turn out a really convincing copy of just about any painting in any style–but he can’t get it exactly right without the original to work from.   It will stand up to a cursory examination, but not an extended one.

Dortmunder calls in some favors from a variety of old friends he re-connected with at this fantastic heister’s Christmas party at May’s apartment, including bisexual black revolutionary Herman X, and heister turned full-time TV actor, Alan Grofield (formerly Greenwood), and they pull an elaborate sting that ends with Chauncey believing Dortmunder brought him the real painting, but then a gang of terrorists or something stole it, and they were seemingly tipped off by Leo Zane (Grofield, giving the performance of a lifetime, in silhouette).   Dortmunder made sure to trap the real Zane in a blockade of trucks over on the west side–by the time he gets out, Chauncey won’t return his calls, and he won’t whack Dortmunder gratis.

So they have a fantastic heister’s Post-Christmas party, with the whole gang present, and Dortmunder feels really good about one of his schemes finally working out the way he planned it, and then he and May go off to Puerto Rico on Chauncey’s money (which of course the ‘terrorists’ stole along with the painting).

Dortmunder is, as I said, atypically contented with his lot in life after making this score, but he can’t help but think he’s missed some crucial detail, and he starts looking around nervously, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And part of me thinks this is where it should have ended, but that would be too simple, right?  Still and all, up to this point, it’s a very creditable effort.   Westlake, playing his usual structural games, divided the book into three ‘choruses,’ First, Second, and Final.  It’s the Final Chorus, only fifty-six pages long in the first edition,  where the enterprise begins to founder.   And in fiction, as in life, how well you end things matters more than how well you began them.

See, Leo got out of the trap Dortmunder set for him, and managed to convince Chauncey that they’d both been had.  And now he and Chauncey are in Dortmunder and May’s apartment (Kelp is there too), Porculey’s fake thumbtacked to the wall (Dortmunder had considered tacking the original up there as well, before they lost it), and not even Kelp can come up with a good enough story to get them out of this.

This is bad–Chauncey didn’t even get the insurance money, because the real painting has shown up (wouldn’t you know it) in Scotland, where an impecunious squire by the name of MacDough (pronounced MacDuff, but no relation, so lay off) is claiming, with a completely straight face, that it’s been in his family for generations.

They are all going to die (even May).  Chauncey believes they lost the painting, knows there was no planned double-cross, but that just means they conned him out of the money with that terrorist gag, and like all rich men in a Westlake novel, his well of compassion runs dry very quickly.

But now Dortmunder has an idea–and here’s where we may detect that most extreme rarity–a genuine gaping plot hole in a Westlake book.  See, Dortmunder says they can go to London and steal the painting back, putting the copy in its place, and then Chauncey can demand the one in London be re-appraised by experts, who will declare it a fake, and he’ll have the real one stashed back at his crib, no one the wiser.

Okay, who knows why this doesn’t work?   First of all, the experts in London would probably have taken photos of the original, which they could refer back to, and see that it doesn’t quite match up to the fake, in ways they would have noticed on their first perusal.

Now that might not be too much of a problem for Chauncey, insurance-wise (he just needs to prove the other guy doesn’t have the real painting), but why is he risking everything, even his own liberty, to help commit an art heist, in a foreign country, with one surly hired assassin and two guys who already bungled it once on their home turf?  Aside from the fact that Westlake figures he needs another fifty-six pages of story?  Obviously because he has a collector’s obsession with hanging onto his collectibles, but that doesn’t work here.

Because once Dortmunder tells Chauncey the whole story, you see, he can get the painting back without their help.   Because he can prove the doughty MacDough was there in New York, in a theater a block away from Chauncey’s townhouse, at a gathering of be-kilted Scotsmen attending a concert.  The very same night his painting was stolen.  And then, shortly afterwards, Mr. MacDough ‘discovered’ this old Flemish master, worth a small fortune, in his dungheap of an ancestral castle, part of his inheritance from a land-rich relation who never had two farthings to rub together.

It’s too much of a coincidence for anyone to swallow.   Even a Scotsman (sorry lads, couldn’t resist).

You can rationalize it, if you want–Chauncey didn’t really want to be an accomplice to murder, he was intrigued by the prospect of engaging in art theft directly, he just didn’t think of it (though he’s no dummy).   If Westlake thought any of these were viable excuses, he’d have trotted one or all of them out for our approval, but he didn’t.  Because he knew they weren’t viable.  And he just devoutly hoped we wouldn’t notice the hole.   Well, to be honest, I didn’t notice it myself–the first time.    His legerdemain is always adroit.

But much as the Dortmunders are not exercises in gritty realism, there does have to be that underlying credibility–Westlake has to play fair.  He painted himself into a corner here, and he cheated.  Bad form, old scout.

And that may be why what follows just lacks the usual Dortmunder flair, aside from the change of venue.  Oh it’s fun to read, don’t get me wrong–Westlake can’t be boring, ever.  But you compare it to what came before, and there’s something missing, some secret ingredient, and while the ending rather cleverly hearkens back to the overriding theme of Folly Leading Man to Ruin, the final image seems more like the ending of a third-rate Abbott & Costello movie.  Or maybe Tom & Jerry?   You’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it (there is no way they could have gotten that armor on so quickly by themselves).

(‘Newgate Callendar’, NY Times music critic and part-time mystery maven, loved this one, by the way.   I don’t know if he saw the plot hole, and if he had, I don’t know that he’d have given a damn, because to him, this is just a silly entertainment, nothing more.   The more depth a book in this genre has, the more it departs from the established format, the less he likes it.   Someday I’ll have to share with you all what he thought of Charles Willeford and Patricia Highsmith.  Maybe you can guess.)

So I’ve prefaced and synopsized and dissected the whole novel in a bit over two thousand words, and delivered my final judgment, and just one short prefatory quote, and it’s not at all my normal way of doing things, is it?

Because, you see, I want to end this on a positive note.  Because even a Dortmunder that doesn’t quite work is still a Dortmunder–just like a painting by an old Flemish master who was having a bit of a dry spell is still an old Flemish master, and as I have said before, sometimes we learn more from an artist’s failures than his successes.   Whatever the Book of Proverbs may think, Folly often leads man to more inspired efforts in the future–if he recognizes it as such, as I believe Westlake did in this case.

So let’s go back to the beginning, and look at all the fine details of the picture, all the things that do work, all the masterful little brush strokes that don’t quite add up to a masterwork this time, but still make for an interesting book.

Detail #1: The Terror of Tiny Town

“Hello, Dortmunder.”  Tiny had the voice of a frog in an oil drum, but less musical.”  “Long time, no see.”

Dortmunder sat opposite him, saying, “You look good, Tiny,” which was a palpable lie.  Tiny, hulking on the little chair, his great meaty shoulders bulging inside his cheap brown suit, a shelf of forehead bone shadowing his eyes, looked mostly like something to scare children into going to bed.

Westlake had introduced many a massive supporting character in past novels–George, the good-natured and oddly philosophical leg-breaker for the Machinists Union in Killy; Lobo, the silent and comically terrifying evocation of Rondo Hatton, in The Spy in the Ointment; Dan Wycza in the Parker novels; and there were two giants in Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.  I think it was the shorter and scarier of the two, Billy Glinn, who provided the main impetus for Mr. Bulcher’s genesis.

Billy was always telling stories about this or that person who had irritated him in some way, and those stories had a tendency to get rather bloody in their details.   Tiny has the same disarming habit of  going off on gruesome tangents, but the point, of course, is to keep reminding his colleagues that he’s not somebody you want to piss off.

And yet, in all his many appearances in the series, we never once see him seriously hurt anyone, because that’s just how the Dortmunder books tend to work out (with only one exception, and even Tiny was scared of him).   So does Tiny just make these ripping yarns of his up, or embellish them, simply to give himself a more fearsome reputation?   Looking at him, one would not think that necessary, but he’s smarter than he looks, and he might just figure the more scared people are of him, the less actual work he has to do.

Mainly he just carries heavy things (like cars), and Dortmunder may want him on some jobs because he provides that intimidation factor that makes actual violence unnecessary.   Dortmunder’s smarter than he looks as well, and he wisely assumes Tiny isn’t making anything up–their professional relationship is always somewhat guarded, with Dortmunder not wanting to let on he’s intimidated, and Tiny not really wanting to head up the string.  He just wants whoever is in charge to know they better not screw up.  As he meets each member of the string in this book, he is moved to recall some person in the same specialty (Driver, Lockman, etc), who disappointed him in some crucial way, and let’s just say you really don’t want to disappoint Tiny Bulcher, and leave it at that.  But the main thing is, he never disappoints us.

Detail #2: The Duo’s Dynamic

“Maybe you’re the jinx,” May said, very softly

Dortmunder gave her a look of affronted amazement.  “Maybe what?”

“After all,” she said, “those were Kelp’s jobs, and he brought them to you, and you can’t really blame any one person for all the things that went wrong, so maybe you’re the one that jinxes his jobs.”

Dortmunder had never been so basely attacked in his life.  “I am not a jinx,” he said, slowly and distinctly, and stared at May as though he’d never seen her before.

“I know that,” she said.  “And neither is Andy.  And besides, this isn’t you coming in on a job he found, it’s him coming in on a job you found.”

“No,” Dortmunder said.  He glowered at the TV screen, but he didn’t see any of the shadows moving on it.

“Damn it, John,” May said, getting really annoyed now, “You’ll miss Andy, and you know it.”

“Then I’ll shoot again.”

The pattern of the books up to now had been simple, though the execution was not–Kelp pitches a crazy heist to Dortmunder, Dortmunder wants nothing to do with the job but somehow gets pulled into it anyway, it all goes to hell (which on some level actually gratifies Dortmunder, because it proves he was right all along), and Dortmunder swears never to work with Kelp again.   And repeat.

Westlake was a lot like Dortmunder (and Parker, and Tobin), in that he often wrote books based on ideas that somebody had pitched to him.  Some of these ideas worked out better than others.   His was a reactive form of creative genius–he needed something to get him started, some outside stimulus.   And anyway, nobody could write as much as Westlake did and only use his own ideas.  And sometimes his own ideas didn’t work so well either.

Dortmunder is a genius (as Kelp is constantly telling him), but left to his own devices, he seems to mainly do penny-ante burglaries, and that’s what he’s doing at the start of this book.  The small job leads to a big one–this time pitched to him by Chauncey.  Work for hire, which isn’t his favorite source of income, but he’s having the same problems Parker is having, with finding heists where he can simply take a lot of insufficiently well-guarded cash.  He’s got to diversify.

So he takes the job, but he doesn’t tell Kelp about it.  Obviously Kelp finds out anyway, and is deeply offended.  May remonstrates on Kelp’s behalf, as always, and Dortmunder relents.  And ends up regretting it, again, but as matters work out, Kelp probably saves his bacon in the end, though Dortmunder is not feeling terribly grateful by then.

Westlake is trying to figure out how to use Kelp without always going back to that same old pattern.  At the end of the book, the two of them are a team, working to steal the painting (again) in London, and then (still yet again) in Scotland.  Yeah, it’s too much like The Hot Rock, only not nearly enough like it.

And yet Kelp is responsible for much of what’s best in this book.   Westlake is starting to develop ways to use him as something other than Dortmunder’s albatross.  His contacts and resourcefulness serve Dortmunder well after the first heist goes wrong, and one contact in particular–a police detective named Bernard Klematsky, who considers Kelp a dubious but useful source of information (and free Italian food)–will factor into future escapades.   As the books go by, it will often seem like Dortmunder is the jinx, not Kelp.  But don’t ever tell Dortmunder that.

And somehow, I always get the notion that what we’re seeing here is an encoded history of real-life friendships Westlake had, that as loyal a friend as he reportedly was, he was also sometimes irritated beyond words with certain (mainly male) associates, and that irritation found expression in the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic–and that way, he can write from the perspective of the overly helpful friend,  see things from his side, and convince himself that he’s worth the trouble after all.

Dortmunder would like to think he doesn’t really need anybody, but we know better, and so does May, and (at the deepest core of his being) so does Dortmunder.   In the Parker novels, as we saw in Butcher’s Moon, this contradiction between the protagonist’s rugged independence and his need to sometimes rely on others gets expressed with the tried-and-true Starkian romanticism.  In the Dortmunders, it’s expressed in the manner of a Laurel & Hardy comedy, with Dortmunder playing the ever-exasperated Ollie.  And once in a while giving we the audience an aggrieved look–“What did I ever do to deserve this?”  I dunno, John–just lucky, I guess.

Detail #3: Old Friends

Stately plump Joe Mulligan paused in the privacy of the hallway to pull his uniform trousers out of the crease of his backside, then turned to see Fenton watching him.  “Mp,” he said, then nodded at Fenton, saying, “Everything okay down here.”

Here’s another thing I missed the first time I read this–a glaringly obvious reference to the opening paragraph of Ulysses.

Now I’ve read a fair bit of James Joyce, but I must shamefacedly confess, I’ve rather cravenly shied away from his magnum opus over the years (I start reading, and then I stop, and they keep revising it anyway), and am thus not properly equipped to know if this is merely a surface reference, a little wink at the more erudite members of Westlake’s readership–or if there’s something more involved going on.  Probably not.  Then again, possibly so.  But I do know, having read virtually all of Westlake, that stately plump Joe Mulligan, and the six other other security men at Chauncey’s mansion, were in Bank Shot.

They’ve stayed together as a team, and have, as we’re told, been exiled to the wilds of Manhattan after their disgrace (losing an entire bank!).  Used to be cops, public and private, wanted to work Manhattan, but those days are gone–they’d rather be anywhere else.  They’re hoping to get back in the good graces of the Continental Detective Agency, and get posted back out to Long Island, Staten Island, any island but this.

Three of their number are still named after Hal Dresner, Lawrence Block, and Brian Garfield, and they still play a lot of poker during their down time.  They’re guarding the valuables of Arnold Chauncey at a party Chauncey has arranged for the sole purpose of making the theft more palatable to the insurance company, and of course they will fail in their sworn duty, because Chauncey wants them to, and also because Dortmunder is most definitely a jinx to them, whatever else may be the case.  And this won’t be the last time their paths cross, but we’ll get to that.

Detail #4: Kentucky Nepenthe

“Would that be bourbon?” asked the Prince.

“It would.  May I offer?”

“You certainly may.  Say what you will about jazz, the Hollywood movie, the Broadway musical or the short story, but I say America’s contribution to the arts is bourbon.”

I never drank a drop of bourbon in my life before I started reading Westlake novels, and now there’s a bottle of Knob Creek in my living room, and I’ll just pour myself  a dram to get in the mood to write this segment.  I’ve always been more of a beer&wine guy, but you read enough Westlake, you just can’t help getting curious.  Maybe I’ll go with Wild Turkey Rare Breed next time.  Widow Jane is pretty damn good (distilled in Kentucky, bottled in Brooklyn, with limestone-rich water from the Widow Jane mine in Rosendale NY,  not that you asked, but Westlake would have, I bet).

Dortmunder is a bourbon man (as is Kelp), but they normally drink the cheap stuff.  Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon: “Our Own Brand”.  Dortmunder thinks to himself, having sampled Chauncey’s extremely fine bourbon, that the stuff he drinks at the O.J. is probably distilled in Hoboken, from a combination of Hudson and Raritan waters (adding a whole new dimension to the phrase ‘Bourbon and Branch’).

So Dortmunder has to steal a lot of valuables from Chauncey’s mansion, along with the painting, just to make it look good, and having had a taste of the top drawer stuff, he crams all the bottles he can find under his suit jacket, and this proves to be his undoing, trapping him in an elevator shaft until after his colleagues have lost the painting.   This would never have happened to Parker, who never seems to give a damn what he drinks (and yet he often drinks bourbon).  Dortmunder learns to compromise, buying a decent if unremarkable brand to have at home, but at the O.J. he’ll stick to the stuff from Hoboken.  And speaking of the O.J.–

Detail #5: The Boys at the Bar 

When Dortmunder walked into the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue at eleven that night, three of the regulars were deep in discussion with Rollo the bartender about private versus public eduction.  “I tell ya what’s wrong widda private schools,” one of the regulars was saying.  “You put your  kid in there, it’s like a hothouse, you know what I mean?  The kid don’t get to know all kinds a people, he don’t get prepared for  real life.”

One of the others said, “Real life?  You wanna know about real life?  You put your kids in a public school they get themselves mugged and raped and all that shit. You call that real life?”

“Sure I do,” the first one said.  “Meeting all kinds, that’s what real life is all about.”

The second one reared back in disbelieving contempt.  “You mean you’d put your kid in a school with a lotta niggers and kikes and wops and spics?”

“Just a minute there,” the third regular said.  “I happen to be of Irish extraction myself, and I think you oughta just give me an apology there.”

The other two stared at him, utterly bewildered.  The main offender said “Huh?”

“Or maybe you’d like a swift left to the eye,” said the Irishman.

It is now an established feature of these books that Dortmunder will walk into the O.J. Bar and Grill and Rollo will be at the bar, and will tell him who’s in the back room waiting for him, identifying them by their drinks.  And as Dortmunder waits for his Hoboken bourbon, he will hear snatches of very strange conversations, and here’s one of the stranger ones, though by no means the strangest.  And let me say, I fully believe that Irishman is out there, to this very day, defending his Celtic race from wholly unintended ethnic slights, and if you don’t believe me, how’d you like a swift left to the eye?  Huh?  And it’s not just the Irish, either.

Detail #6: Family Resemblances

And now some of them were fighting.  Over there by the head of the second aisle, two or three lads were rounding and punching and clutching at one another, while another half dozen tried to either stop them or join in, hard to tell which.  “What are they fighting about?” Kelp cried.

A passing Scot paused to answer: “Well, you know,” he said, “if it’s neither football nor politics, it’s more than likely religion.” And away he waded, to join the discussion.

Since Scotland voted ‘No’ in the referendum, any visitors I get from there fall under the sway of the Union Jack, which is a damned shame, because I’d love to add the Saltire to my collection (118 flags and still counting).  And maybe for other reasons, but we all compromise at times, don’t we?  I’m quite sure a referendum in Northern Ireland would go the same way for the present time, and sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.  Tiocfaidh ár lá.

Anyway, I haven’t known a lot of Scots, and that’s only my misfortune, but there’s this one story that reminds me of the Dortmunder gang’s experience at the concert hall.

It was a different kind of concert hall–The Ritz, in lower Manhattan, and not my usual type of venue at all, but I wanted to see The Pogues live, just once (it was twice, eventually, but Joe Strummer was in for Shane MacGowan the second time at the Beacon Theater, and that doesn’t really count).  Anyway, once the lads started playing their Celtic Punk, an impromptu mosh-pit quickly developed, and at its center were these muscular fellows, whipping their shirts off, and pouring beer all over each other, and (inadvertently) myself.

“We’re sorry, we’re from Scotland,” one of them cheerfully informed me. I forgave them at once.   That’s a perfectly decent excuse.  Fight on, Scotland the Brave.

And perhaps I’d best wrap up this itemized list with–

Detail #7: A Portrait of the Artist as a Lewd Man

While waiting, Dortmunder  looked around, absorbing this weird dwelling place and noticing here and there on the dark walls unframed paintings, presumably Porculey’s.  They were all different, and yet they were all the same.  In the middle foreground of each was a girl, either naked or wearing something minimal like a white scarf, and in the background was a landscape.  The girls were mostly seen full length, and they were always very absorbed in what they were doing.  One of them, for instance, sitting on the grass with some ruined castles behind her, plus in the distance a couple of trees and a small pond at which two deer drank, was studying a chess set laid out on the grass in front of her.  Another showed a girl on a beach, leaning over the gunwale to look inside a large stranded rowboat, with a huge storm way out at sea in the background.  (This was the girl with the scarf.)

The girls were not quite identical.  Glancing around, Dormunder saw maybe four different girls among the paintings, and it was with a sudden shock that he realized one of them was Cleo Marlahy.  So that’s what she looks like with her clothes off, he thought, blinking at a picture in which, against a background of an apple orchard white with spring flowers, an unsmiling girl was rather leggily climbing over a rail fence.

My favorite part of this book involves Kelp taking Dortmunder to see Oswald Porculey, Victor’s artist friend, whose studio is rather improbably (and yet entirely plausibly) situated in a Long Island shopping mall (the sheer wealth of detail in its description puts to shame the rather threadbare descriptions of London later in the book)–he gets cheap rent on a space that formerly housed a clothing store, in exchange for doing some security work.  He’s described to us as a man around fifty, overweight, unshaven, sloppily dressed, with about the most beautiful model/mistress any artist might desire, and somehow we know that much as he may enjoy fucking her, he’d much rather be painting her. She’s that beautiful.  Even Dortmunder ogles her, and he’s not generally the ogling kind.

Porculey is a tremendously gifted artist, with (let’s be honest) somewhat banal tastes.  Technique is not all.  His ability to mimic other artists is nothing short of uncanny, but left to his own devices, he mainly does very elaborate pin-ups.  And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  And what is the point of all this?

It may interest those of you who collect old paperbacks (like the Gold Medal editions of the Parker novels) that at the time this book was written and published, Robert E. McGinnis was just about exactly fifty years of age, and while I couldn’t possibly know what his shaving and dressing habits were, that physical description matches him to a proverbial T, and the descriptions of that artwork bear an even more striking resemblance to what McGinnis generally paints when left to his own devices.   Though I would tend to doubt he was ever reduced to doing night watchman duty at a Long Island mall.

I don’t believe this is a coincidence.  You may draw your own conclusions.   And really, since McGinnis drew himself as Parker (fondling a nearly-naked Claire) on his cover for The Black Ice Score, one might argue this is merely one feminine-obsessed artist returning the sincere compliment of another.   And I would hope McGinnis would take it as a compliment (particularly since Westlake wrote him into the final chorus of this book), but in the unlikely event that I ever meet him, I think maybe I won’t bring it up.

I could say more.   I can pretty much always say more.   But I think that’s enough.  I like this book.  It could have been better.   Pretty nearly all the subsequent books in this series are better, I think.  But there’s so much here.  So much richness of description, so many little flourishes put in there for those able to enjoy them, that you can’t call it a failure.  It’s just a bit less of a success.  Anyway, Newgate Callendar liked it.  I can imagine Westlake reading his rave review, having previously read his pans of far superior efforts, and wondering where he’d gone wrong.  And where he might, with a bit of extra effort, go right.

I am now going to commit heresy.  Our next book is Castles In The Air.   Perhaps Westlake’s least-loved comic caper featuring a cast of professional thieves–operating out of Europe this time.  And I think it’s funnier than Nobody’s Perfect.   And if you can refrain from the tar and feathers until next week, I’ll tell you why.

PS: One final array of covers–and again we see that the foreign editions tend to have the best artwork, where Dortmunder is concerned.  Some really creditable efforts.   No McGinnis art, though.  Somehow, I don’t think Dortmunder would have appealed to him.  Maybe that’s why he’s in a Dortmunder novel.

More at the Official Westlake Blog–my favorite place to commit art theft. 😉

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Nobody's Perfect, Uncategorized

Review: Enough, Part the Second–Ordo

 

Ordo is a story in which absolutely nothing happens.  At least by the standards of crime fiction.  And that’s rare for Westlake.  He didn’t normally write that way.  Lots of famous authors do, of course.  ‘Serious’ authors.  The ‘slice of life’ folks.  They show us ordinary people having experiences, conversations, epiphanies, while performing various mundane tasks along the road to death.  Because that is, after all, most of what happens in life, (or if not, who has time to read?).

That’s why we eagerly consume crime fiction, along with a host of other entertainments.   To get the hell away from that mundane aspect of daily life.   Cunning genre writers find ways to tell us things about life, convey their personal insights, while still giving us a nice thrilling story, and that’s Westlake’s normal thing.

I think this is crime fiction, though.  In its own fashion.   It’s a murder mystery, and the title character, Ordo Tupikos, is the detective.  This is his only case.  He is not a reluctant detective, like most of Westlake’s other protagonists in this type of story, who get roped into finding out whodunnit, and having done so, usually feel like they should have left well enough alone.   They are perpetually discontented, not at ease with themselves, and a lot of fun to read about.

But Ordo, who is not the least bit discontented, who is totally at ease with himself at all times, really wants to crack this case, and when he finally does, he’s contented with the answer he got, and he goes back to his life, and that’s it.  End of story.  It’s interesting; I wouldn’t say it was fun.   It’s funny at points, but you don’t laugh while reading it.

So why would anyone want to read this?   Well, aside from the fact that it’s very well written, it’s mainly set in Hollywood, and the other main character in this mystery–at once the murderer and the victim–is a beautiful famous movie star, who used to be married to the title character.   Well, she was and she wasn’t.  It takes a little time to explain.

American writers of prose fiction are perpetually fascinated by Hollywood (they can’t afford not to be), and Westlake was no exception–he was increasingly dependent on the entertainment biz to supplement his income, he had friends and colleagues in Hollywood, he spent a fair bit of time there, he knew a lot of producers, directors, screenwriters, and must have met at least a few real film stars.  He’d tried the acting life himself for a while,  the straw hat theater circuit, none too successfully.

His first series protagonist was an actor (the Phil Crawford Trilogy, if you want to call it that), and he repeatedly wrote about actors in his fiction–he also wrote a short tell-all biography of Elizabeth Taylor  under a pseudonym–which had the misfortune to end just before she met Richard Burton.  Still a very sympathetic and rather insightful portrayal, I thought.  Taylor never really chose stardom, though, at least not at first–that life was chosen for her, by her mother.   Most people who become stars (as opposed to mere actors) choose to be stars.  That’s a rather important point.   The star in this book is much closer to a certain Norma Jeane Mortenson.

As I mentioned last week, to the extent that Enough got any critical notice, it mainly generated a lot of head-scratching from the critics.  Why is this story paired with A Travesty, a farcical yarn about a detective/murderer, when the protagonists, the stories, even the writing styles, are so blatantly mismatched?

Both stories have first-person narrators, yes.  But whereas Carey Thorpe is the more usual type of Westlake narrator, full of clever urbane asides, pop cultural references, and inadvertent revelations of his own confused identity that he may fail or succeed in grasping before the story ends (this one fails), Ordo Tupikos addresses us in a simple unadorned fashion, describing his experiences to us matter-of-factly, much in the manner of Paul Cole, the amnesiac narrator of Memory, a book Westlake chose not to publish in his life, perhaps because he knew it wasn’t what people expected from him, perhaps for other reasons (see my review).

But while Paul Cole (an actor, reportedly on his way to stardom before he was skulled with a chair by a jealous husband) is prevented from achieving self-understanding by his amnesia, Ordo, much like Parker, has a very complete understanding of himself.  He knows who he is.  He’s always known.  He can’t understand how anyone couldn’t know that. He’s Ordo, and he’s never wanted to be anyone else, anything else.  What would be the point in wanting something like that?   What else can you ever be but you?

Unlike Parker, though, he has to tell us his story himself–no Richard Stark to translate, and really, no translator needed–he’s not a wolf in  human form–he’s just a man.   He doesn’t rob banks.  He has no problem performing those mundane tasks I mentioned above to earn his bread.  He has no creative impulses to satisfy, frustrated or otherwise.  His intelligence seems to be quite normal.  He isn’t what you’d call intellectually curious, but then he finds himself presented with a puzzle, and it triggers this itch in his head (like Parker gets sometimes), and he has to go solve the puzzle before he can be at ease with himself again.

Ordo is a sailor, thirty-eight years of age at the time our story begins, doing a hitch in the U.S. Navy, as he has been for most of his adult life.   But he’s no military lifer–his job isn’t who he is–it’s just what he does for a living.  He’s going to retire at some point, and get another job.  He is mainly out of touch with his mother and siblings–his family isn’t the source of his identity, nor is his ethnicity, a mixture of Greek, Swede, Native American, Irish, and Italian.

Two marriages, both short-lived, no children.  Nothing in the way of religious convictions, and no indication of any kind of conventional patriotism, though he’d surely fight for his country if called upon.   Born in Wyoming of all places, he’s been all over, and has no ties to any particular community.   Not even a ball team to root for.  He just lives.

The end of the second marriage seemingly upset him (he implies his wife was unfaithful).   He drank a bit, got into some fights, and the judge suggested he go back to the Navy for a while, which he did–the routine straightened him out, and he started dating a divorced woman with three kids.  He likes her, and she him, but it’s not true love, just companionship, sex.  He doesn’t identify himself by who he’s sleeping with either.

One day he’s working at the Naval Repair Station that is his current assignment, and one of his fellow sailors shows him an article in a magazine about Dawn Devayne.  He knows who that is, one of the reigning blonde bombshells, he’s seen some of her movies, but is confused by the fact that his buddy is telling him that the article mentions she was once married to a sailor named Ordo Tupikos.  There’s a picture of him and her on their wedding day, in San Diego.   Her name was Estelle Anlic when he married her.

Ordo doesn’t understand it–Estelle Anlic, then just a teenager (she lied to him about her age, and her mother nearly had him arrested for statutory rape before she had the marriage annulled), looked nothing at all like Dawn Devayne.  She wasn’t a blonde for one thing, but it’s much more than that.  Estelle was pretty enough, but nothing special–Dawn Devayne is widely considered one of the most beautiful glamorous women on the planet.  She’s got ‘It’, as the saying goes.

Estelle didn’t even know what ‘It’ was.   But they were happy together, for the short time they were married.   He loved her.  It was real, whatever it was they had between them.   Wasn’t it?

He’s confused.  He knew Estelle Anlic.  This woman in the magazine, the woman on the movie screen–that isn’t her.  That’s another person entirely.  And yet this person used to be his wife.  She’s become somebody else.  He didn’t know that was possible.   It never occurred to him that people change their identities.   Not just their names, their appearances, but who they are inside.

His navy buddies kid him about it for days, until one of them makes the mistake of calling Orry (his nickname) by his former wife’s current last name, at which point he picks up a wrench and walks toward the man.

“My name is Orry.”

He looked surprised and a little scared.   He said:

“Sure.  Sure, I know that.”

I said:

“Let me hear you say it.”

He said:

“Jeez, Orry, it was just a–”

“Okay, then,” I said, and went back to where I was working, and that was the last I heard about that.”

But what’s he supposed to do when his girlfriend, having heard about his first wife, gets all excited, and wants to try a lot of weird sexual positions?  And gets upset when he doesn’t understand, and won’t play along with her fantasies?   He doesn’t understand people any more than Parker does.

What did Fran want from me, anyway?   Just because it turns out I used to be married to somebody famous,all of a sudden I’m supposed to be different?  I’m not any different, I’m the same guy I always was.  People don’t just change, they have ways that they are, and that’s what they are.  That’s who they are, that’s what you mean by personality.  The way a person is.

Then I thought: Estelle changed.

That’s right.   Estelle Anlic is Dawn Devayne now.  She’s changed, she’s somebody else.  There isn’t any–she isn’t–there isn’t any Estelle Anlic any more, nowhere on the face of the earth.

And if she isn’t the same person she was when he knew her, loved her, does that mean he’s somebody else now?

He’s got to understand.   He’s got to find out what happened to Estelle.  So he requests some leave, and on his way to L.A. makes a brief stop in New York, where he meets a hooker who specializes in pretending to Dawn Devayne, and is insulted when he passes up her services, screaming after him that what he’s after is Robert Redford.   Who now I think on it, is probably who they’d have cast to play Ordo if there’d been a Hollywood film based on this, but never mind now.

He gets to Hollywood,  a small town within the labyrinth that is L.A., and it doesn’t take him long to find Dawn Devayne’s agent, who is obviously suspicious at first, but being a rank sentimentalist, is delighted when he finds out that yes, this really is his client’s first great love, and he facilitates their reunion happily. And Dawn herself is eager to see Orry again.

He’s giving us his impressions of Tinseltown as all this is happening, and what he’s showing us is an entire community of people who are all trying to become somebody else, who are proudest when you recognize them for playing some other person, even in just a bit role.  The ones who haven’t made it yet try to look as though they have, as they push carts through the supermarket with an air of privilege, while picking up only the cheapest items.

Even the limo chauffeur who drives him to the agent’s office is playing a part–the guy who knows all the stars.  Dawn Devayne?  Great lady, very real, doesn’t give herself airs at all.  He’s completely thrown off balance when Ordo mentions he was married to her.   That wasn’t in the script.

What really fascinates Ordo is the Walk of Stars, where the names of icons past and present are embedded in the sidewalk.   He hears a family of tourists talking, the kids asking about all the names they don’t recognize, Emil Jannings,  Dolores Costello–the boy teases his sister by saying that all these people are buried underneath their names, standing straight up to save space.  She isn’t 100% sure he’s lying.

So finally he meets Dawn Devayne.  Who remembers him.  Very very well.  She says he hasn’t changed a bit (which is not the lie it usually is when old friends meet), and of course he can’t return the compliment, if that’s what it is.

And before you know it, they’re lovers again.  She just decides they should be, so that’s what happens.  He says she’s everything men imagine she would be, everything his girlfriend Fran was trying (and failing) to be.   And he adapts to that rather effortlessly, and she’s very pleased with his performance in bed.  But there’s something about the way she treats him–like he’s her old dog that she had brought up from the country to play with.  The old dog learns a few new tricks.   But he’s still just a dog.

He asks her current co-star, heterosexual onscreen, gay in real life, and whose name is Rod (of course it is) how Estelle Anlic became Dawn Devane.  When Rod realizes Ordo is seriously asking the question, he gives him the best answer he can.

“She decided to,” he said.  He had a crinkly, masculine, self-confident smile, but at the same time he had another expression going on behind the smile, an expression that told me the smile was a fake, a mask.  The inner expression was also smiling, but it was more intelligent, and more truly friendly.  He said, using that inner expression, “Why did you ask me that question, Orry?’

It was, of course, because I believed he’d somehow done the same sort of thing as Dawn, that somewhere there existed photos of him in some unimaginable other person.  But it would sound like an insult to say that, and I said nothing, floundering around for an alternate answer.

“You’re right,” he said.

“Then how?” I asked him.  “She decided to be somebody else.  How is it possible to do that?”

He shrugged and grinned, friendly and amiable, but not really able to describe colors to a blind man.  “You find somebody you’d rather be,” he said.  “It really is as simple as that, Orry.”

I knew he was wrong.  There was truth in the idea that people like Dawn and himself had found somebody else they’d rather be, but it surely couldn’t be as simple as that.  Everybody has fantasies, but not everybody throws away the real self and lives in the fantasy.

The only real drama in the story comes from two painful moments where Dawn is forced to confront her past–see, she won’t admit she’s changed that much.  Orry tries to ask her about it, in spite of Rod warning him not to, and she just blows him off, says she’s the same person she always was.  But when her agent, the sentimental old fool, presents her with a goddam standee made from a blown-up copy of that old wedding photograph of her and Ordo–with her looking as she did then–she flies into a rage.

Then later, her mother Edna (every bit as vulgar and common as you’d expect in a movie about a starlet’s past, but that’s how it often is in real life as well) shows up with her husband–also a navy man, retired, he and Ordo understand each other very well.   Edna, not quite recognizing Ordo, starts asking probing questions about what he’s doing there, is he going to be husband #5, like that.

Finally, Ordo, irritated by her attitude, probably still angry that she broke him and Estelle up, tells her he was husband #1–and with those words, Dawn gives him a stricken look, and makes her exit.  He never sees her again.  She just stays away from the house until he gets the message, and leaves.

He goes back home.   He finishes his term of service in the navy, retires, and marries his girlfriend Fran, who he says calmed back down, and they had perfectly good, perfectly ordinary sex, lived a perfectly ordinary life, and were contented with that.

He understands now, you see.  He doesn’t have that itch in his brain anymore.  Rod’s answer to the mystery of Estelle Anlic was good as far as it went, but Ordo figured the rest of it out.  To become somebody new, you have to kill the person you used to be.  There’s no other way.

Dawn Devayne murdered Estelle Anlic, who in Orry’s imagination is now buried standing up under her name on the Walk of Stars.  The reason Dawn seduced Ordo so passionately, luring him into an erotic fantasy of swimming pool sex and wild Hollywood parties was because he brought back memories of Estelle, and she wanted him to think only about Dawn, the fantasy woman she’d become, so dull mediocre little Estelle would slip back into nonexistence.  But after he identified himself to her mother as the man who had married and loved Estelle Anlic (as he had never loved Dawn Devayne), she just had to write him out of existence as well.

Why did Westlake give Ordo Tupikos a Greek name, even though he’s only one-fifth Greek at most?   Because simple and uneducated a man as he is, he’s a philosopher.  He looks beneath surface appearances, at the way things really are.  His first name means ‘order’, ‘rank’, or ‘class’ in Latin.  His last name can mean ‘shape’ or ‘type’ in Greek.   Like another laconic sailor man of fiction, he is what he is and that’s all that he is.   And like that fabled spinach-eater of yore, he’s perpetually confused by the airs the people around him put on (well blow me down, I finally got an Elzie Segar ref in edgewise).

And why is this story a good companion piece for A Travesty, after all?  Aside from the fact that its hero actually does solve a sort of metaphorical murder mystery?  Because Ordo is the polar opposite of Carey Thorpe, a man who ran as fast as he could from self-knowledge, who defined himself by his work, his women, his social position, his possessions, and yet had an identity so poorly rooted that he slipped effortlessly into detective work without even thinking about it, and committed murders just as thoughtlessly, one identity blending into another, until the whole confused structure collapsed on itself.

And as I’ve said too many times already, the only real crime in the world of Donald E. Westlake (under any of his many names) is the crime of not knowing yourself.   That’s the crime that gets you caught.  Keep it simple, stupid.  Only is Westlake practicing what he preaches, when two such fundamentally different stories of his appear at the same time, in the same book?   He might have asked himself that same question.

This is a very existentialist piece, isn’t it?   Ordo, I mean, not A Travesty (or this review).   That’s probably why the French took to it–short as it is, Ordo seems to have had at least two solo editions in French translation, and as you can see up top, one translator was Jean Patrick Manchette, a rather eminent Serie Noire author in his own right.   I’d guess that would have pleased Westlake even more than the French film adaptation made about five years before his death, which I haven’t seen, but which is reportedly quite faithful to the original–except it’s not set in Hollywood.   Much as I admire Le Cinema Francais, much as I know its many great stars are self-creations just as much as the American screen idols (if not more), is there really a French equivalent to Hollywood?   The Riviera, perhaps?  Cannes?  ::shrugs gallically::

Westlake was no Ordo Tupikos, and well he knew it.   Neither was he Carey Thorpe.  But both men existed within him, and many others, and that’s the enduring mystery of human identity–that in containing multitudes, we are still ourselves.  And one of the most outstanding citizens of Westlake’s inner metropolis is next on our agenda–Mr. Dortmunder himself, in his fourth outing.

And overall, the least distinguished to date (it’s probably my least favorite installment), but a pivotal work in the canon, not least in that it introduces a rather looming figure to the ever-enlarging list of usual suspects in the Dortmunder-verse.  Later described as an ICBM with legs.   Let’s just set out a glass of vodka and red wine to propitiate him, and hope he doesn’t notice us gawking.  Though really, how can we help it?

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Enough, Ordo, Uncategorized