Monthly Archives: February 2016

Review: Levine

If you’re a man fifty-three years of age, there’s a statistical chance your heart will stop this year.  But there’s no sense getting worried about it.  There’s an even better statistical chance that it won’t stop this year.  So, if you go to to the doctor and he says don’t worry, then you shouldn’t worry.  Don’t think morbid thoughts all the time, think about life.  Think about your work, for example.

But what if it so happens that your work, as often as not, is death?  What if you’re a precinct detective, the one the wife calls when her husband just keeled over at the breakfast table, the one the hotel calls for the guest who never woke up this morning?  What if the short end of the statistics is that end you most often see?

From The Feel of The Trigger, by Donald E. Westlake

In any mystery story, one element is inevitably the detective’s attitude towards death, his reaction to the concept of death.  The amateur detectives, for instance, the whimsical Whimseys and quaint Queens, view death in the shallowest possible way, as a solvable puzzle, which is in any event one of the subliminal comforts of the mystery form.  Death is stripped of its grief, horror, loss, irrevocability; we are not helpless, there is something we can do. We can solve death.

Similarly, it has become the convention that policemen, professional detectives, are hardened to death, immune to life untimely nipped.  “All I want is the facts, ma’am,” Jack Webb used to say in his Sergeant Friday persona on Dragnet; nothing would make him scream, or cry, or–o’ercome–turn aside his head.  (Although they broke with that just once, when the actor who played Friday’s partner died.  They wrote it in, and on camera Jack Webb–somehow no longer the cop–did cry, was human, faced death squarely.)

From the Introduction to Levine, by Donald E. Westlake

Donald Westlake’s first series character was either Phil Crawford or Abraham Levine.  I don’t know which.   Crawford, an aspiring stage actor who got lucky with the opposite sex far too often for credibility’s sake, was the protagonist of three semi-porn novels Westlake published under the name Alan Marshall, starting in 1959.

Abraham Levine made his debut in a short story published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that same year.  But that story was published under Westlake’s own name, so overall I’d say Abe gets the winner’s garland, no matter who came first.   Westlake would be the first to admit Phil was never much of a character, but maybe we’ll take a look at him sometime, once I can afford to buy those highly collectible never-reprinted paperbacks that are not yet available electronically, dammit.  Neither is this book, and that’s a much bigger shame.

I feel like I don’t need to write a long introduction for Levine (though of course I will anyway), because Westlake already wrote it for me.   The preface to the book that ultimately collected all the Levine stories together (and added one last story to finish the character’s arc) lays everything out beautifully, and you’ll find it not only in every edition of that book, but also in The Getaway Car.  It’s valuable on a lot of levels–as much as any of the stories it introduces–not least in the way it broadens our understanding of a critical period in Westlake’s life and career.

He begins by telling us that 1959 was the most productive year he ever had as a writer (and this is a guy who published six novels and a children’s book in 1967).  Other than the pseudo-porn he cranked out for his then-employer Scott Meredith to sell to fly-by-night outfits like Nightstand Books, pretty much all that output was short stories, written for the pulp magazines–mystery and science fiction, for the most part.

Having started out expecting to be a science fiction writer who dabbled in crime fiction, Westlake was finding the SF genre increasingly hard to write for, because his primary interest was in character development.   Science fiction was heavily geared towards conceptualization, and characterization tended to be rather basic, often bordering on nonexistent.  Also the pay rates stunk.  So he started looking around for publishing niches where he didn’t have to write about horny actors bedding nubile starlets, or square-jawed spacemen zapping BEM’s with rayguns.  Mystery is a very large and diversified genre, so he had to find his proper place within it, via trial and error.

The sub-genre he explored here–one might argue the ultimate sub-genre–was the police procedural.  Part of the larger mystery genre, but also very much a form unto itself. Le Policier, the French call it.  And at its best, it can be amazing.  And at its worst, you might start getting nostalgic for the horny actors and square-jawed spacemen (and I happen to like BEM’s).

The Fall 2015 Network Primetime Schedule had no fewer than fifteen shows that are, more or less, about police detectives of various kinds.  That’s not counting cable.  To be sure, many of these shows are not about ordinary working cops–they’re supercops, members of elite units, or (in the case of Gotham or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) a warm-up act for vigilantes running around in tights.

But at the core of them all is the concept of the police procedural.  A crime is committed.  Trained people working for the state go out and investigate that crime.  They find out what happened.  They apprehend the perpetrator(s), and report their findings.  Anything else that may happen in the course of these events is incidental (and so is life, in case you hadn’t noticed).

Though it’s impossible to say who invented this form, since you can always find some antecedent to whatever story you’re looking at, certainly when you’re talking about the modern incarnation, there are two names that come first to mind–Jack Webb and Ed McBain (AKA Evan Hunter, OKA Salvatore Albert Lombino).   Less remembered is Marvin Wald, who wrote the story for The Naked City, directed by Jules Dassin (who, like Westlake, would end up being more interested in robbers than cops).

It was that pseudonym of a pseudonym McBain (Lombino preferred to be called Evan Hunter in real life) who Westlake learned the most from.  Hunter created the ridiculously long-lived 87th Precinct series–54 books published in just around 50 years–all stemming from Hunter having seen unrealized potential in Webb’s Dragnet.

His innovation was to make the procedural an ensemble piece.  The precinct itself is the protagonist.  Multiple rotating leads, multiple storylines in one book, an all-seeing worldly wise narrator tying it all together, and pontificating to beat the band.  Beat cops, detectives, coroners, police lab techs–all working as a team to bring Law & Order (dun!dun!) to a fictional city that is sort of New York, but not exactly, because he didn’t want to have to do a lot of extra research on streets and neighborhoods and etc.

Hunter was wryly sardonic about the fact that television, having only managed one thirty episode season of a direct adaptation of his books, proceeded to cannibalize them for spare parts, that later helped spawn a virtual industry within the industry.  But given that he was influenced by a TV series to start with, maybe that’s poetic justice.  You tell me.

Westlake was reacting more to Hunter’s work than anything else here, and the influence is obvious–so much so that one of his Levine stories served as the basis for a script on the short-lived 87th Precinct show.  In his introduction to this book, he mentions having to be out the night that episode aired, and it’s unclear if he ever got to see it.  This being the 21st century, you can certainly see it if you want.  I wasn’t quite interested enough to spring for the DVD box set.  Maybe later.

Westlake, as we know, was never comfortable with making policemen his protagonists.  He’d make them the heavies, or the butt of jokes, or solid pros outwitted by some wily crook, or all of the above.  He’d been arrested for petty theft as a young man, interrogated, thrown in a cell, treated in a way that clearly left a permanent mark on his psyche, which must have been fairly anti-authoritarian to start with.

If he makes a policeman his protagonist, he’s a disgraced ex-detective like Mitch Tobin, or a cop turned robber, like the two heister heroes of Cops and Robbers.   Abe Levine is the only instance I can think of where his hero is a working lawman doing his job honestly and well, and never once questioning his vocation (certain aspects of it, maybe–a Westlake hero can never be a true organization man).

And he did this not once but six times.  Creating what amounts to a mini-saga, six standalone stories linked by a common theme, taking place over perhaps a year’s time, even though it took over twenty years for Westlake to complete the saga, and he’d never really planned it as such–it just came out that way.

Now I think it’s time to review each of the six stories, one by one (do I need to remind you my reviews are spoiler-laden?  Consider yourself reminded).  Westlake calls them ‘novelettes,’ and they’re a bit short for that (20-30 pages, on average), but there’s never been any strict criteria separating a short story from a novelette/novella. It’s the term he prefers to use, and they’re his stories, so why not?

I think in this case it’s not about length so much as it is Westlake feeling more like he’s condensing a novel than stretching out a short story–taking what would be just one plot skein from an 87th Precinct book and making it stand on its own, giving it a bit more depth and emotional heft, focusing on one unique perspective.   Since he typically had trouble with the short story form (less time to build character), that may be what he liked about these stories–and their melancholy mensch of a protagonist.  Who we first meet in–

The Best-Friend Murder: Westlake says in his introduction to Levine that he only realized years later how much of his own daily existence he was putting into this story that he originally wanted to call Intellectual Motivation (he had the same belated realization about the Parker novels he started writing not long afterwards).  Given how feverishly he was hammering out story after story, I can well believe this, up to a point.  But it strains credulity just a mite with regards to this particular piece, which is about one aspiring writer who claims to have murdered another, and let’s just say they both sound really familiar.

Abraham Levine, detective with the 43rd precinct in Brooklyn, goes with his partner Jack Crawley to an apartment on Prospect Park West (did they call that neighborhood Park Slope back then?  Not many unemployed writers living there now, I bet).  They are investigating the poisoning death of a young man named Al Gruber.  Perhaps I should mention that Westlake’s father’s name was Albert, though it’s also the original middle name of Evan Hunter.

(Sidebar: Right off the bat, we learn that Levine is at an age where he’s worried about his heart,  is thinking a lot about his own mortality, but not much supporting detail, or any specific reason to think Levine is in any immediate danger of having his ticker give out–Westlake, as usual, is starting a series without knowing that’s what it is, or what its full potential might be–well hey, Chester Himes didn’t know he was starting a series when he wrote For Love of Imabelle.  Great series characters often creep up on a writer, uninvited, unanticipated, maybe even unwanted [ask Conan Doyle]).

Gruber, in his 20’s, was going to college on the GI bill, while trying to sell stories to various magazines, and it was going so badly that he kept a bottle of poison around as a macabre joke–he’d kill himself if he couldn’t make it as a pro.  His close friend and fellow journeyman wordsmith, Larry Perkins, walked up to a patrolman in Prospect Park and said he’d just put some of that poison in Al’s beer when he wasn’t looking, Al drank it, and he’s dead.  He won’t explain why except to say that the decedent was a pompous ass.  Levine thinks this is a lousy motive.

So he and Crawley, having failed to get anything that makes sense out of Perkins, make the rounds in classic procedural style, talking to people who knew the deceased and his purported killer, learning a bit more with each interview (Levine also gets to read Gruber’s notebooks, that contain a lot of personal material, as well as copious notes on people and settings that could be used in stories he was writing).

The picture gets clearer, particularly after they talk to a professor of a writing course both men attended, and a young woman both men dated (they seem to have been rivals in just about everything).   Both acquaintances say that the two friends were polar opposites–Gruber wanted to learn how to express ideas he had about life, about people–he was interested in the way other people thought, in the way the world worked, and how you can get all that across in a story.  Perkins just wanted to be famous and figured being a writer was as good a way as any to get there.  Both were talented, but they had different ideas about how to use that talent.   Gruber comes off a lot better out of the comparison.

The professor says that each would react to the others’ work, particularly Perkins towards Gruber–if Gruber started working on a particular type of project, Perkins would do something similar, and try to one-up him.  He can’t for the life of him believe one would ever try to hurt the other, though.  That doesn’t make any sense to him, or to their shared girlfriend (saddened but not really heartbroken over the grim news), who has a hard time processing that this isn’t all a prank, and Gruber isn’t still alive somewhere.

“I don’t really believe it anyway,” she said–“Al–he’s a lot quieter than Larry.  Kind of intense, you know?  He’s got a kind of reversed Messiah complex.  You know, he figures he’s supposed to be something great, a great writer, but he’s afraid he doesn’t have the stuff for it.  So he worries about himself and keeps trying to analyze himself, and he hates everything he writes because he doesn’t think it’s good enough for what he’s supposed to be doing.  That bottle of poison, that was a gag, you know, just a gag, but it was the kind of joke that has some kind of truth behind it.  With this kind of thing driving him like this, I suppose even death begins to look like a good escape after a while.”

New York had the death penalty in 1959.  Perkins is confessing to cold-blooded premeditated murder without any motive other than spite.  He’s going to the chair for sure, but he sticks to his confession like flypaper, and seems angry at Levine for questioning it.  He’s being put through the system, prepared for indictment and inevitable conviction, when Levine asks to talk to him–he brings another officer Perkins doesn’t know, who at Levine’s request is pretending to be a newspaper reporter.

And as Levine steers the conversation towards publicity, Perkins perks up–then is visibly shaken when the faux-reporter (accurately) tells him that without a sex angle or some serial killer vibe, the story will be lucky to end up buried on page ten.   Too many murders in New York.  Nobody cares if one unemployed scribbler poisons another.    And that’s when Perkins cracks.

Okay, fine, Levine had him figured right.  He didn’t kill Gruber, Gruber killed himself, in a fit of despondency over his failure to achieve his grand ambitions (that pompous ass).  Perkins, feeling just as frustrated by his own failure, decided to piggyback his way to fame by claiming to murder him and frying for it–thus simultaneously copying and one-upping his friend, as he’d been doing all along.  He burned the suicide note.  Murderers are always better remembered than those they murder.  Nobody remembers a suicide, unless he was famous already (maybe if there’s a country-western song about him).

Perkins hadn’t thought it through, and he realizes that now–he doesn’t want to die a nobody, so he’s ready to recant.  But Levine won’t let him.  Levine is furious, at him and Gruber both.   “Youth is wasted on the young,” Shaw wrote, and no truer words were ever penned.  Levine hates both of them with all his faltering 53 year old heart, because they threw away what he’d give anything to have–their healthy young lives, their healthy young hearts, the potential to go on for decades, to see the 21st century even.  He can’t hurt Gruber, but damned if he’s going to help Perkins.

His partner, Jack Crawley, heard the whole thing–as Levine knew he would–and it’s hard to say whether the kid is really going to be tried and convicted.  But as far as Levine is concerned, he’s dead already.  To give up on life is to prove yourself unworthy of it.

So I can well imagine that Westlake had both Al Gruber and Larry Perkins inside of him–along with a host of others, and so do we all have that Greek chorus of selves inside of us, each striving for dominance, but is that really what this story is expressing?  Doesn’t feel like it to me.  It feels more like Al Gruber is a less encumbered version of Donald Westlake–as he both wanted to be and feared he might become.  And Larry Perkins?  Larry Block.

Westlake had met Lawrence Block (Larry to his friends) just a short time earlier (November of ’58), and had quickly formed a close combative connection with him, in spite of a nearly five year age difference–a lifelong rivalry, as well as a friendship, and I think Block is everywhere in Westlake’s writing.  I need to read more of Block to know where Westlake crops up–haven’t seen it yet.  Maybe it’s not there.  Block approaches fiction differently than Westlake did.  But no question, they were learning from each other all the time, and this is just a snapshot of some early impressions Westlake had, no more, no less.

A writer uses people he or she knows when writing.   There’s no avoiding it, and you can’t be thinking all the time “Is this fair?” or the writing will stink on ice.  If you have to cut, cut deeply–it’s a story, and that’s what they’re for.  I think Westlake was dissembling a bit in his intro when he said he didn’t know at the time what he was doing here.  He did know, but he didn’t want to say, because Lawrence Block was his best friend, and it was a real friendship, and a lasting one, and what he said about himself and his friend, the harsh  judgment he passed upon them both, clearly wasn’t the whole truth, but I doubt it was made up out of whole cloth either–obviously I can’t know.

I do know I’d give anything–even my youth, that I don’t have to give anymore–to have a friend who knew the very worst about me, along with the best, and still wanted to be my friend.  Maybe I got that just once.  It’s hard to know, isn’t it?   Point is, you can’t know anything if you end the story before it’s done.  Gruber and Perkins never get to find out who they might have been when they grew up.  Westlake and Block did.

Somehow, Levine brings out these kinds of thoughts, and that continues in the next story–

Come Back, Come Back:  Westlake put Levine aside after that first story, not expecting to write about him again, but the character had touched something in him–there was a potential theme in his love of life, his hatred of death, and his inability to understand anyone who doesn’t feel the same way about the two.

So over a year later, he wrote this story, self-evidently patterned after the 1951 Henry Hathaway film, Fourteen Hours, starring Paul Douglas as the cop and Richard Basehart as the jumper.  That movie was remade for television in 1955 under the title Man On The Ledge, which is probably why Westlake’s original title of Man On A Ledge was not used, and just as well, no?  Particularly since they used that title for a not terribly well-regarded suspense thriller starring Sam Worthington in 2012.  Westlake admits in his preface to this book that titles were always a problem for him, and he’s not the only one.

So it was already a well-worn idea when Westlake got to it, and it’s seen a fair bit of wear since, but that’s the point–how does Levine react when put in the same situation as some other fictional cop trying to talk somebody off a ledge?  What makes him different?  So sure, he does some of the same things Paul Douglas does in the movie; talk to people close to the jumper, try to find out what’s driving him to this, learn about problems in his life, failed relationships, etc.

While all the while Levine’s partner Jack says that the guy standing on the eighth floor ledge of his own office building, his own successful business, is a fraud–that if he wanted to jump he would have already.   It has come out that the jumper’s real problem is his marriage–his wife won’t let him be himself, has controlled him all his life, pushed him to be a success to vicariously fulfill her own ambitions.

He’s met someone who will give him the chance to be his own man (she works at his office, naturally), but his wife won’t talk to him about a divorce–he’s trying to get her to talk to him, but she won’t even come there, or talk to him on the phone.  She’d rather he jumped–in the movie, it was the jumper’s bitchy controlling mother (played by Agnes Moorehead, naturally) who was the problem.

When the moment of crisis finally comes, Levine doesn’t talk to the guy about how they’ll go fishing together, go drinking together, everything’s gonna be okay, life’s not so bad–in other words, he doesn’t lie.  He lashes into that man on the ledge with a fury.  He’s as honest as one human possibly can be with another.  This is probably not approved police procedure for dealing with people on building ledges.  But it’s who Levine is.

“Cartwright, you’re alive.” Levine stared helplessly at the man, searching for the way to tell him how precious that was, the fact of being alive.  “You’re breathing,” he said. “You can see and hear and smell and taste and touch.  You can laugh at jokes, you can love a woman–for God’s sake man, you’re alive!”

Cartwright’s eyes didn’t waver; his expression didn’t change.  “I want to talk to my wife,” he repeated.

“Listen,” said Levine.  “You’ve been out here two hours now.  You’ve had time to think about death, about non-being.  Cartwright, listen.  Look at me, Cartwright, I’m going to the doctor at three o’clock this afternoon.  He’s going to tell me about my heart, Cartwright.  He’s going to tell me if my heart is getting too tired.  He’s going to tell me if I’m going to stop being alive.”

But he still can’t break through, so he screams at Cartwright, tells him to go ahead and jump, throw it all away, JUMP!!!

And Cartwright, face white with shock, begins to cry, loses his balance on the ledge, is about to fall–and at that moment understands the living truth of Levine’s words, and that’s when Crawley grabs him and hauls him in.

And then, crisis averted (for now at least), Levine gets a ride from Crawley to the doctor’s office, telling his partner he’ll get a cab home after he hears the verdict.  And as he stands there alone at the curb, he murmurs “I wanted him to  jump.”

Paul Douglas would never have said that.

Westlake still didn’t think he had a series here, but the character refused to go away, and six months later he had another idea, which became–

The Feel of The Trigger:  Westlake says this story in particular shows the influence of Evan Hunter and the 87th Precinct books, and he was confirmed in that belief by the fact that it was the one that got adapted into an episode of the TV series based on those books (there not yet being enough of them to sustain a series).  Meyer Meyer, the 87th’s resident Jewish detective with the ironically repetitive name, was predictably chosen to stand in for Levine, and was played by Norman Fell (a bit young and healthy-looking at the time for a heart condition, but otherwise a perfect fit, I’d say).

Now there’s a problem with Levine’s heart problem–if it’s that bad, the NYPD would pension him off.  And he couldn’t be a detective anymore, and there’d be no more stories.  And then maybe he and his wife have to be foster parents to a bunch of bratty kids, and that wouldn’t work at all (I know at least one of my readers gets this joke, but the real joke is that Abe Vigoda died eight years after Donald Westlake, having been born twelve years earlier).

So in this story, taking place a few months after the last one (the time lag between when the stories were written and when they took place keeps getting wider, you see), we find out that the doctor told Levine he’s fine, nothing to worry about, just a slight irregularity in the heartbeat, take care of yourself and you’ll live to be a hundred.  (Yeah, that’s probably what Bernie Sanders’ doctor told him, never mind, I didn’t say anything, let it go.)

Levine doesn’t buy it, because he’s listening to his heart all the time now, and it skips every eighth beat; only when he’s under stress, it’s seven, then six, then five, and if it ever skips twice in a row, he’s dead.  I have no idea if this is medically accurate or not, and I have no intention of finding out.  For the record, Marvel Comics introduced Iron Man in 1963, this story was published in 1961, and no I’m not suggesting an influence.  Great minds and all that.

So cutting to the chase (figuratively now, literally soon) Levine and Crawley are investigating the robbery of a tiny Jewish-owned grocery store, where the owner was killed by some trigger-happy kid with a gun.  The widow didn’t know she was a widow, since he died on the way to the hospital, and Crawley, with cruel necessity, uses the shock of the revelation to get her to spill the identity of the killer–a boy who lives in the building next door.

The parents don’t want to believe it, are giving their only son an alibi on pure faith, and there’s no search warrant, so again some psychological manipulation is called for, and when the mother seems ready to break, the kid makes a break for it, up the fire escape, over the rooftops, putting a bullet in Crawley’s leg as he goes, meaning Levine has to follow him alone, the combination of physical exertion and fear putting ever greater strain on his pump.

He corners the perp, but the perp figures he’s cornered Levine– doesn’t think Levine has a gun because he’s not shooting back, and the boy keeps moving closer in the darkness, hating Levine for having exposed his crime, saying he’s going to kill him, and Levine keeps trying to tell him, there in the darkness, don’t you understand what death is, what it means to take a life, how horrible it is, how wrong?   Of course he doesn’t.  He’s not old enough yet for death to be real for him.  All that was real was that the store owner had money and he didn’t.    Nobody is real to him but him.  That didn’t start with videogames and action movies, people.   It didn’t start with guns, either.  Guns just make a bad situation worse.

And Levine realizes that he won’t kill this boy, he can’t, no matter what he did, no matter what he’s about to do, Levine can’t do it, life is too precious, anybody’s life, even a murderer’s.  He’s defenseless.  Then one of the uniformed patrolmen blunders in, and the boy is about to shoot him, and Levine, acting on pure gut instinct, puts a bullet through the boy’s brain, only then feeling the trigger pressed against his index finger, understanding what he’s done, the immutable irreversible nature of it.  “I’m sorry,” he whispers, once again to no one in particular.  And once again, for all of us in general.

So by this point, Westlake knew that any story he wrote about Levine had to be about his relationship with death, and it was almost a year before another idea came to him, and that story was–

The Sound of Murder:  Now all of a sudden I’m seeing Julie Andrews twirling around on a mountaintop with a gun.   But this is probably derived from The Bad Seed (plus one other story I’ll get to in a minute), and I mentioned there’d be spoilers, right?

A remarkably self-possessed and intelligent little girl, ten years old, clearly from a well-off family, comes into the precinct office, and reports the murder of her step-father by her mother.  It’s been four months since Levine went to the doctor, and he’s trying to quit smoking, just to improve his chances–he’s rather irritable as a result, but he’s still very sympathetic to the child, and while dismissing her story at first, is increasingly inclined to give it credence.  Because little children don’t lie, right?  Imagine, sure.  But she doesn’t seem like the type to make things up.

So skipping over the obligatory procedural stuff (that contains a clue as to the real killer, that you will probably fail to spot, just like I did),  Levine suddenly wakes up with a horrifying insight–he’s got to get to the girl’s house–another murder is about to be committed!

He gets over there, and is greeted by a horrible apparition–and a bloodcurdling scream, that affects his heart, but not fatally so.  And then he tells the killer it’s all over, the gambit has failed.

See, the killer knew that Levine, like the murdered man, had a weak heart–but not weak enough for the taped and amplified scream to cause heart failure.  The killer overestimated her cunning.  It’s the little girl, as everybody who saw The Bad Seed has already guessed, though I must say Westlake covers it well, makes you doubt.

Levine is always more about the why of a killing (something he shares with the soon-to-be created Mitch Tobin)–you learn the why, you can figure out who.  His partner asks the questions, he listens closely to the answers, looks beneath the surface of them.

Who had something to gain from the father’s death?   A little girl who hated being told what to do, whose mind had developed too quickly, who wanted the independence of an adult while still a child.  And now she’s killed her mother, poisoned her, and forged a suicide note from her, confessing to the murder of her husband.  And having known Levine was coming, since he called first, the child thought she could kill him too, to shut him up.   But now he’s going to kill her.

Do you know what’s going to happen to you?” he asked her.  “They won’t execute you, you’re too young.  They’ll judge you insane and they’ll lock you away.   And there’ll be guards and matrons there, to say don’t do this and don’t do that, a million million times more than you can imagine.  And they’ll keep you locked away in a little room, forever and ever, and they’ll let you do nothing you want to do, nothing.”

She tried to kill him with a sound, and now he’s going to kill her with words–obviously she might be released someday (and who might she kill then?), but she doesn’t know that, and he won’t tell her.  Goaded to a frenzy by the vision he paints of her future,  she screams “No, they won’t!” and leaps from the window to her death.

Levine had been telling himself all through this that the old have to make way for the young, but looking without guilt at her small broken body below (it was her choice, and this story takes place before The Feel of the Trigger), he says, to all the impatient young people in the world, “don’t rush us.”

(This story, Westlake informs us, was written during the very period when he was writing 361–then hit a wall with it, so he wrote The Hunter–then he wrote The Sound of Murder–then he finished 361, feeling his humanity restored enough to do so by writing this story, which sounds weird to me, because this is the starkest, coldest, and least compassionate of the Levine stories by far.  He was sure in a dark mood that year.)

And the other influence on this would be Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin, unless I miss my guess (and I frequently do).  Westlake was Bradbury’s intellectual superior, and a better writer in many ways, but couldn’t match him as a word painter, and really, how many ever could?  I finished Bradbury’s story in a cold sweat, my heart beating wildly.  I didn’t react that way to this (well, I’m older).

But again, the point is not to surpass the earlier story on its own terms, but rather to use it to tell us something about Levine, and about the way different people feel differently about death.   At least Levine doesn’t use a scalpel.  Well, a different kind of scalpel.

And that leads us to–

The Death of a Bum:  The gaps between the stories got longer and longer–The Sound of Murder clearly takes place before the events of The Feel of the Trigger, but was published afterwards.  Westlake had an idea for another Levine, but he couldn’t sell it to Hitchcock’s, probably because the murder in it is never solved, or even shown.  About three years after the last one was published, he finally found a home for it in Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine.

This one takes place after Crawley was shot in the leg, and Levine has been saddled with a new temporary partner, hotshot go-getter Andy Stettin (this development reeks of 87th Precinct, btw–Hunter would have to keep bringing in handsome lusty new detectives to keep the female readers interested, or so his publisher thought anyway).

They’re investigating the murder of a smalltime bookie, hustler, and part-time heister named Morry Gold, found shot dead in his rented room by his landlady, chunks of potato indicating that the killer used a tuber as a silencer (a little tip of the hat to Peter Rabe and Anatomy of a Killer).

So again with the procedural stuff, and it becomes increasingly clear that while Gold knew a whole lot of people, absolutely none of them are even remotely moved by his death.  Nobody has any idea who’d care enough to kill him, though it seems to be a mob contracted hit.  His own brother tries to get Levine to drop the case entirely, talking to Levine as a fellow Jew, not a cop–telling him there are higher laws.  To Levine, there is no higher law than justice, and he resents the notion that his being Jewish means that he and this equally shady character are linked, part of the same club.

While running down one possible suspect, Levine and Stettin are shot at through the door, because the guy was selling narcotics, had them right there in the apartment, and wasn’t ready to take such a long fall–Levine senses it coming, tries to warn Stettin, but he still gets a potentially fatal wound (a year later, Westlake would recycle this idea for Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death–in that case, Tobin wasn’t there, and his partner was killed, and his relationship with guilt, rather than death, drove that entire series).

His superior gins up the men of the precinct to go out there and find the would-be cop killer, saying that a policeman is a symbol, and an attack on a police officer is therefore an attack on society itself.

No, thought Levine, that’s wrong.  Andy Stettin is a man, and that’s why we have to get Jake Mosca.  He was alive, and now he may die.  He is a living human being, and that’s why we have to get his would-be killer.  There shouldn’t be any other reasons, shouldn’t have to be any other reasons.

So now Levine is doggedly continuing the Gold investigation on his own, and he won’t let go of it, even as other casework piles up, and finally his superior orders him to ‘open’ the case, meaning really to close it, mark it unsolved, pending, stick it in a file, forget about it until such time as new evidence presents itself, which may well be never.

Levine realizes he is literally the only person on earth who cares about what happened to Morry Gold, a man he never met, a man who really was a bum, who led a worthless life, and died a worthless death, and nobody gives a damn.  He does what he’s told, and as he rides the subway home alone, he begins to weep to himself, his shoulders heaving with inconsolable grief.

Yeah, it’s not very Hitchcock, is it?  Then again, Vertigo.   Not like Hitch was editing the magazine.  Maybe if Morry had turned out to be alive?  I kept thinking suppose it turned out the brother was actually Morry, but there’s no ironic twist here.  There’s no resolution.  There’s no closure.  You know.  Like life.

So that was it for Levine–as Westlake explains, he’d moved into the comic phase of his career by then; there was Parker, there was Tobin, there were ‘Nephews’, there’d eventually be Dortmunder, the short story market for mysteries was drying up, and there just wasn’t time for Levine anymore.  Did he forget all about him?  Of course not.

So much time passed, nearly two decades, and Westlake began to form both a professional and personal relationship with a guy named Otto Penzler, and we’re going to be seeing that name a lot in future articles, so I don’t feel any need to go into detail here.  Penzler was starting his own publishing company, and when he found out about the Levine stories, he said all he needed was one more and he could publish them in book form.

And Westlake really wanted to do this, but he had a problem–Levine, 53 years old in all the previous stories, couldn’t possibly still be working as a detective at 73.   Even if his heart had held up.  And for him to live that long negated the point of the earlier stories anyway.

But Westlake never liked writing period stuff.  Nor did he want to rewrite the older stories to match up with the 80’s (thank God).  So the solution, he figured, was to write a story that took place very shortly after the previous one, still in the late 50’s/early 60’s, Levine still worried about his heart, still musing over what he’d learned from those five previous cases, and his partner Jack out of the hospital at last, while Levine is still visiting the recovering Andy Stettin in the hospital.  But he’d avoid any details that might tip the viewer as to when it took place, even though the earlier stories had such details that he left intact (I’m sure this made perfect sense to him).  And this final story was called–

After I’m Gone:  It’s rather a shock seeing how much Westlake’s writing had developed since the early 60’s.  A much more sophisticated and involved piece, that really could have served as the basis for a novel, this has a Mafia hook to it. Levine is approached by a made man, the right hand of a local crime boss, whose son was whacked on the orders of that boss because the kid had been caught screwing the boss’s pretty young wife.  And he’s heard through channels that his head is next on the chopping block, if only to make sure he doesn’t take revenge at a later date.

This guy’s name is Banadando, and in spite of himself, Levine likes him, appreciates his guts and his cunning, his determination to avenge his son and live to tell about it.  He’s no rat–he won’t turn state’s evidence, go into witness protection (he says he himself has bribed NYPD officers to look the other way when witnesses under their protection were murdered).  It’s not his style.  But he will provide enough evidence to jail his boss, and put him in a situation where his own people will have no choice but to kill him.

So he wants Levine to serve as his messenger, help him get the materials he needs, while he dodges the button men, and it’s all working out fine, but then Banadando’s luck runs out.  Levine has been working with just a handful of other cops, including his partner Jack, hoping to keep the cops on the mob payroll from finding out what’s going on.  But now he realizes, out in a lonely spot on the coast of Long Island, that the jig is up, Banadando has been hit, reinforcements are going to be too slow arriving, and he has to somehow hold Banadando’s killer at bay until they get there.  If he fails, it will all have been for nothing, the evidence will have been destroyed, the murders will not be avenged.

And he can feel his heart skipping with the tension and stress, as the killer shoots at him–three beats–two beats–no beats.   Mother of mercy.  Is this the end of Levine?

It is.

His partner and the Suffolk PD get there in time to catch the hitman, who couldn’t get away because he didn’t know Levine was dead–he was crouched behind a boat, with his gun held up in the air, and he was still holding it up in his lifeless hand when they found him, blocking the killer’s escape.  “The wrong ones die,” Crawley says.  Everybody dies, Jack.

Abraham Levine is the only Westlake protagonist to ever definitively unquestionably kick it.  It’s pretty damned likely that Tim Smith, the anti-hero P.I. of Killing Time is dead a second after that book ends, but we don’t see it. Nobody stands over his body and pontificates.  Westlake did not like killing his leads.  Because, I deduce, he had a fairly strained relationship with death himself.  Killing the characters he’d put the most of himself into was too much like suicide for his taste.  And we know what he thought about  suicide.

Did he kill Levine because he didn’t identify that strongly with him, Levine being a cop and all?  I’ve thought that in past, but I don’t anymore.  That’s not it.  It was because he had to respect the character’s integrity, and part of that was respecting the character’s relationship with death, which meant Levine’s story could only end one way.

Much as he feared the end, he feared losing himself more–and the best part of himself was his professionalism, his pride in doing his job, in seeing murderers brought to justice (of one kind or another), and while he may not die without fear, he dies without overpowering fear, knowing that it must be done, knowing that it means something, and knowing he will be mourned.   By his wife, by his colleagues and friends, and by me.  Because as I finished this story for the second time, it was my shoulders heaving, as I quietly sobbed to myself in a local restaurant near my job.  I’m 55, by the way.  I was younger the last time I read it. My heart’s fine, far as I know.

And we can imagine his funeral procession weaving its way through the streets of Brooklyn, the bagpipes droning, the drums beating, the shots fired over his coffin.  I don’t know what special provisions might be made for Jewish officers, and we never do find out much about Levine’s religious beliefs, but I fondly imagine Crawley ordering the hearse to make a stop at a local pub along the way to the cemetery, where he and a few other cops, Irish of course, give tribute to a man they loved without ever really understanding, in the only way they know how.   With a song that the Irish have long used to bellow defiance at that bastard Death, and may they ever do so.

And let’s end with that (the next book is funnier, I promise–it’s about the publishing industry, so it would pretty much have to be).

(And they’re all dead too.  Liam went the last, almost exactly a year after Westlake.  Maybe Westlake is having a drink with them right now.  Isn’t it grand?)

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, Levine, Uncategorized

Review: Why Me?

May said, “Are you absolutely sure I’m not asleep and dreaming?”  She sat across the kitchen table from him and simply stared and stared.

“Maybe we both are,” Dortmunder said, through a mouthful of Wheaties and beer.  He looked at his left hand.  The red ruby in the green detergent looked like a toad Cardinal in a swamp.

“Let’s try it again,” May said.

Dortmunder lifted his green-oozing hand out of the pot, and while he chewed beer-soggy Wheaties, May twisted and struggled with the ring.  Simple soap hadn’t done it, hot soapy water hadn’t done it–maybe Palmolive Liquid would do it.  “If I can’t get that off,” Dortmunder said, “I’ll never be able to leave the house again.  I’ll be a prisoner in here.”

“Don’t talk about prison,” May said.  Shaking her head, she said, “Let it soak some more.”

Dortmunder looked with loathing at the toad Cardinal in its swamp.  “My greatest triumph,” he said, in disgust.

“Well, in a way it is,” May said.  “If you stop and think about it.  This has got to be just about anybody’s biggest heist ever.  Particularly for one man working alone.”

“I can see me boasting,” Dortmunder said.  “To all those guys getting rousted by the law.”

“Someday you’ll be able to,” she assured him.  “This too will blow over.”

Dortmunder understood that May was trying to make him feel better.  What May didn’t understand was that Dortmunder didn’t want to feel better.  Given the circumstances, any attitude in Dortmunder’s mind other than frustration, helpless rage, and blank despair would be both inappropriate and a sign of mental incompetence.  Dortmunder might be doomed, but he wasn’t crazy.

When Westlake wrote The Hot Rock, he had no idea of writing a long series of books about a hapless band of heisters.  Just like he had no idea of writing another Parker novel after The Hunter.  Just like while he was writing The Fugitive Pigeon, he had no idea of writing a series of funny mysteries featuring various directionless young men dropped unexpectedly into the soup.  You see where this is headed?

As a general rule of thumb, when Westlake actually wrote a book with the express intent of making a series out of it, the series ended up not doing so hot (the books might be good, but the sales would be less than stellar).  His greatest successes were almost invariably accidental and serendipitous in nature, precious gems that just dropped into his lap, while projects he may have put far more time and thought into frequently fizzled,  and this may at times have been a source of irritation to him.

Yes, it’s very Dortmunder, isn’t it?

I don’t doubt for a minute that he enjoyed writing the Dortmunder books.   There is a sense of fun about them that can’t be feigned.  The established voices of the characters would have been a joy to return to, and there would have been the further pleasure of adding new characters to the ensemble as time went on.

Still and all, Westlake was the type of writer who reflexively rebelled against the constraints placed on him by critics, by his readers, by publishers who saw him as that comic caper guy.  He had escaped some of those expectations by writing under multiple personas, each with his own unique style and approach, but he’d let that option lapse in the 70’s.   As the 80’s wore on, he might have started doubting the wisdom of that move.  It was getting hard being just Westlake all the time, when people only ever wanted the same kind of book from Westlake, over and over, ad infinitum.

As he started working on the fifth book in the series, therefore, he had to think about how he could keep this franchise interesting to him, keep it from getting stale, because the one thing Donald Westlake never wanted to do under any name was write the same book over and over again.

With Parker, it was easier to change things up (which is one reason there’s so many more Parkers than Dortmunders, in spite of the long break he took from writing the former).  Parker can work in just about any setting, with a wide variety of fellow professionals, large numbers of whom may die in the course of the story.  Westlake never let the supporting cast get too established in that series.  Familiarity was something he tried to avoid when he was writing as Stark.  He never wants us to get too comfortable in that world.

But the challenges of Dortmunder are different–the comedy stems precisely from our extreme familiarity with the characters and their quirks.  And he can’t kill anybody off–not even temporarily, as he did with Dan Wyzca and Ed Mackey.  And Dortmunder hates anything new with a holy passion–if he had his way, he’d never venture outside the five boroughs of New York City for the rest of his life.   Dortmunder likes to keep everything simple.  So how can his creator go about complicating his existence without too obviously going over old terrain, or pulling the character out of his proper setting?

The series began with Dortmunder trying to steal the same priceless African emerald, over and over, and it just kept getting further and further away.   Suppose this time he stole a similarly famous jewel–only without even trying?  Without even knowing he’d done it, until it was too late?   And all the complications ensued from him trying to give it back?

It’s a great idea, and it works–but rereading the book, I did find myself thinking that it might have worked better as a novella, even a short story.  To stretch it out, Westlake has to introduce all kinds of subplots and minor characters–some more successful than others.  There’s this whole bit involving rival groups of foreign agents and terrorists trying to get the ruby, and it’s funny while it lasts, and then it ends up marching off into oblivion, never to be resolved (in a later book in the series, Westlake would do a much better job with this foreign intrigue angle–he still runs into problems when he juggles too many balls at once).

And as I will be forced to point out, the final resolution doesn’t really make sense.   Westlake maybe wrote this one a bit too fast.  It’s his second and final book for Viking, a relationship that presumably went sour with Kahawa, after they stuck him with an editor he didn’t like, and did a crap job with promotion.  He probably owed them this one and dashed it off on his way out the door (I have this feeling that most of his publishers in this time period signed him on in expectations of getting Dortmunder into the bargain).

Sometimes with the Dortmunders, Westlake started out with less of a central idea than he needed, started fleshing it out, and ended up with more peripheral ideas than he could possibly use–this is one of those times.   This gem is flawed, but a gem it remains.  And the Dortmunders are always a percentage game, anyway.    But to demonstrate just how little story there actually is in this very funny book that runs 191 pages in the first edition, I’m going to sum up the entire plot in one paragraph.

Dortmunder breaks into a small jeweler’s shop near JFK airport.  He finds mainly junk, but there’s this big fancy ring with a red jewel he figures is a fake, but he decides to take it anyway.   It’s really a huge magnificent ancient ruby, the Byzantine Fire, which has enormous historical/political/religious significance to Turks, Greeks, and other Mediterranean groups, and was just stolen from the airport by a group of Cypriot Greeks, who are using the jeweler (also Greek) to smuggle it out of the country, before the U.S. government can give it to Turkey.  By the time Dortmunder finds out what he’s done, there’s this huge dragnet, and a high-powered NYPD inspector is hauling in everybody who ever got so much as a traffic summons for questioning (while engaging in a turf war with two pesky FBI agents), and all these people from Cyprus and Turkey and Eastern Europe and etc. are swarming through the city looking for the sacred ruby (and the blood of whatever infidel dog profaned it), and Dortmunder’s own friends (led by the very frightening Tiny Bulcher), are teaming up to find whoever took the jewel and turn him in (not necessarily in one piece) just to get the heat off them (shades of Fritz Lang’s M).   Dortmunder confides in Kelp, who proves once more to be a true friend (or maybe he’s just nuts), and they go underground (literally), trying to find some way to give the gem back without getting Dortmunder arrested.   Finally, Dortmunder figures out a way to unheist the Byzantine Fire, and get a bit of his own back against some of the people who gave him a hard time, but we never find out what the Turks and Greeks and etc. think about all this, nor does Dortmunder ever so much as see any of them, because that subplot fizzles out.  Oh, and Dortmunder gives May a nice digital watch he stole from the shop, but he has to exchange it for one with the instructions included, because they can’t figure out how to set the time on it.

I didn’t say it would be a short paragraph.

So that’s the book, and much as I love it, it’s another of those Westlake efforts that is mainly the sum of its fascinating parts, rather than a balanced coherent whole.  But much more successful, for all that, than the previous Dortmunder outing, Nobody’s Perfect, partly because it’s set entirely in New York and its immediate surroundings (Dortmunder’s natural habitat), and partly because Westlake is getting better and better at hitting the right notes with his ever-expanding comic orchestra (sort of the prose equivalent of Spike Jones and his City Slickers).

This is the last transitional work in the series.   From this point onwards, Westlake knew what he had here, and what to do with it, and the books would be less eclectic, more consistent.    And maybe now and again he’d try to come up with an epic to end it all, but that never worked out as planned.   Dortmunder had tenure.

One lesson he probably drew from this one, which would have serious implications for those that followed, is that given his growing proclivity for adding all these extra elements to the Dortmunder stories (in a sense using them as a clearing house for ideas he couldn’t come up with a whole book for, or had used already but wanted to revisit), he needed to make the books correspondingly longer.

191 pages would be fine for an elegant little exercise like Bank Shot or Jimmy the Kid.   This one probably seemed simple enough at the outset, but as he kept adding bells and whistles, it got away from him a bit.  So easy to drive from the back seat.   Which is something I’d ask you all to remember as I now once again am moved to analyze various bits and pieces of the story, one at a time, instead of the synopsis-based reviews I more typically produce here.

1)The Early Adopter and the Luddite.

“You got a machine on your phone,” Dortmunder accused him.

“You want an extension for your kitchen?”

“What do you want with a machine on your phone?”

“It’d save you steps.  I could install it myself, you wouldn’t pay any monthly fee.”

“I don’t need an extension,” Dortmunder said firmly, “and you don’t need a machine.”

“It’s very useful,” Kelp said.  “If there’s people I don’t want to talk to, I don’t talk to them.”

“I already do that,” Dortmunder said, and the phone went guk-ick, guk-ick, guk-ick.  “Now what?” Dortmunder said.

“Hold on,” Kelp told him.  “Somebody’s calling me.”

“Somebody’s calling you?  You’re calling me.”  But Dortmunder was speaking into a dead phone.  “Hello?” he said. “Andy?” Then he shook his head in disgust, hung up, and went back to the kitchen to make another cup of coffee. The water was just boiling when the phone rang.  He turned off the flame, walked back to the living room, and answered on the fourth ring.  “Yeah,” he said.

“Wha’d you hang up for?”

“I didn’t hang up.  You hung up.”

“I told you hold on.  That was just my call-waiting signal.”

“Don’t tell me about these things.”

The Bell System got broken up in 1982, just about when Westlake was writing this.  We can argue all day long about whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, but it was a huge thing.  All of a sudden, something very simple became very very complicated.  Used to be you got a phone, you paid a bill, and you called people, and either they were home or not home.  If you were out, nobody could reach you.  You just walked around, unplugged.  I can picture some of my younger readers (I must have some) reacting in horror–how did you people live, disconnected from The Matrix?   Freely, friends.   Flying around in perpetual airplane mode.  You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.  Ah, Zion.

Answering machines had been around a while (a running gag on The Rockford Files, that Westlake would have particularly appreciated), but with any tech company anywhere now being able to manufacture and market phones and phone-related gear, there was a massive proliferation of communications paraphernalia, of varying degrees of usefulness, and most of it didn’t last very long, but some of it led to what we have now, which I don’t need to tell you about, because you’re reading a blog (how endearingly old-fashioned of you). And what Westlake does throughout this book is remind us of how that all began in earnest.   Through the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic.

Andy Kelp never met a gizmo he didn’t like.  Or wouldn’t steal.   Some unfortunate wholesaler for all these new phone-related doodads has a warehouse right behind his apartment.  He just breaks through the wall, concealing his means of ingress and egress, and strolls in whenever he feels like it, helping himself to whatever strikes his fancy.  Happy as a clam with a phone extension in his kitchen, his bathroom, his hallway closet–wherever he wants an extension he’s got one.  Sometimes he puts one on the roof of his apartment building. Then forgets to bring it down, and these punk kids make prank calls on it.  Now he wants everybody he knows to have multiple phones.

He brings Dortmunder a phone for his kitchen.  Dortmunder tosses it out the window.  A man after Thoreau’s heart.   As was Donald E. Westlake, a man who went on hammering out novel after novel on a Smith Corona manual typewriter, right into the 21st century, and it got damned hard to find replacement parts after a while.

Throughout the book, Kelp keeps telling Dortmunder about all these neat new things you can do with phones now, and Dortmunder doesn’t want to hear it.  To him, the phone is just a tool, and the simpler the tool, the better it is.  He doesn’t want all these new options complicating his life.   Life is complicated enough already.  Stop gilding the lily, already.

But as it turns out, Kelp’s tech savvy saves Dortmunder’s ass in the end–he’s able to use his know-how to thwart attempts to trace calls Dortmunder makes to the cops, gives Dortmunder an alibi to save him from his angry fellow crooks (Dortmunder was helping him figure out ways to use the new phone tech), risking his own neck in the process.   He proves once again that he is the most devoted friend and ally Dortmunder could ever ask for (and never did).

And like Parker with Handy McKay (in The Outfit), Dortmunder is somewhat nonplussed by this strange altruistic behavior–he doesn’t understand that kind of loyalty (he feels that way about May, but as with Parker and Claire, that’s a separate category).  He just thinks Kelp is crazy (well…….).

Being Dortmunder, not Parker, he’s not so cold about it.  He does appreciate Kelp’s weird devotion to him, impossible as it is for him to comprehend it, or even to fully reciprocate. But he still thinks the new phone stuff is stupid. Honestly, most of it was, and most of it still is.  But friendship–real friendship, not the Facebook kind–that’s something the telecoms can never upgrade.   That’s an app that never gets obsolete.  As Damon had Pythias, Dortmunder has Kelp–whether he likes it or not.

2)My Mologna Has a First Name….

Here was Chief Inspector Francis Xavier Mologna (pronounced Maloney), 53 years of age, a God-fearing white male Long Island Irishman, and be damned if the person in all of life whose thought processes most closely matched his own wasn’t some damn 28-year-old smart-aleck faggot nigger called Sergeant Leon Windrift.   (Had Leon been only homosexual, he would have been bounced out of New York’s Finest long ago.  Had he been only black, he’d be a patrolman forever.  Being a faggot and a nigger, he could neither be fired nor kept in some damn precinct, which is why he’d risen so rapidly through the ranks to a sergeancy and a job at Headquarters, where Mologna had first noticed him and stolen him for himself.)

“One suggestion,” the FBI man–Zachary–was saying, “has been that a second Greek Cypriot group was responsible for the second purloinment.”


“The advantage of this theory is that it explains how the second group had so thoroughly infiltrated the first group as to be aware of their intended disposition of the ruby.  There are contending factions, of course, within the umbrella groupage of Greek Cypriot nationalism.”


“A second theory proposed here has been that agents of the Soviet Union, pursuant to the claims earlier put forward by the Russian Orthodox Church in re annexment of the Byzantine Fire, were responsible for the second theft.”


“In support of this theory is the fact that the USSR mission to the United Nations has already denied Russian complicity in the events of last evening. However, a third potentialism would be a transactage by a dissident factor within the Turkish populace.”




We will be seeing Inspector Mologna (pronounced Maloney, but WordPress keeps trying to make me spell it Bologna) in the next Dortmunder, and Westlake put a lot of himself into this character, more than he usually did with policemen in his work.  Mologna is a tough, smart, funny, pragmatic, capable, cunning professional lawman and back alley political infighter.  Absolutely nobody’s fool, and he runs rings around the FBI Agents in this book, figuring out right away that the theft of the ruby must have been done by a smalltime heister, who didn’t know what he had until after he had it, while the Feds spin tales of international intrigue.

He’s also a stickler for correct English usage, as was his creator–it’s fine to be idiomatic, to resort to slang, but not to just make up bizarre tortured bits of jargon and pretend they are actually in the dictionary.  Westlake had this same bee in his bonnet in Brothers Keepers, and it’s still buzzing away.

(Westlake would perhaps be conflicted in his reaction to the fact that WordPress kept telling me those words Mologna takes exception to up above don’t exist–on the one hand, it means his side won some key battles on the linguistic front; on the other, it means that there are machines telling us what to type now.  And if you don’t mind, I’m going to call Inspector Mologna either Francis or the Inspector from here on in, because it’s getting tiresome having to type his last name twice, sensing my blog’s silent disapproval as I do.)

About that name–best as I can tell, no Irishman ever spelled it like that, nor does it make sense that any Irishman would, given the endless need to correct people as to its proper pronounciation.  Now all kinds of unfortunate things happened on the way through Ellis Island, but I think Westlake is having his little joke here.

And it’s a pointed one–because as smart as the Inspector clearly is, professional as he is, relatively incorruptible as he is (he won’t take bribes from anybody he doesn’t know very well–call it honest graft, as George Washington Plunkitt surely would), he’s still a cop, and Westlake always figures there’s some bologna in all of them.   Or blarney, if you prefer.   He likes the guy well enough, but he likes Dortmunder more.

Francis has the situation with the ruby well sussed out, and his plan–to squeeze the city’s criminal element until the culprit is found–is sound enough, if a mite crude.  He faces down one of the foreign factions after the gem (who figure they can scare and/or bribe him into helping them) with admirable aplomb.  He makes the FBI guys look like chumps, as already mentioned (they are such complete chumps, in fact, one much more than the other, that I’m not inclined to give them their own section here–Westlake really really did not like the FBI, and I think I covered this adequately well in the last review).

He’s even got that rather charmingly au courant relationship with the invaluable Sergeant Windrift (I’m sure Francis never refers to him by the N-word out loud, though probably the Q-word comes up here and there), who is dropping sly double entendres all over the place, and Francis just snorts humorously, and tells him to get back to work.  And yet the Inspector (who could easily have starred in his own series) has egg all over his face at the end of this book, and it’s worth asking why.

See, Dortmunder gets in touch with him, to try and arrange to give the ruby back, and Francis can’t just make a deal with him, even though it’s in everybody’s best interests to do so.  He’s a cop, and cops catch crooks.  He has no sense of honor where someone like Dortmunder is concerned.   He wants the gem and the culprit, all in one neat package.  Another feather in his cap, another flattering headline, another step up the ladder.

So he tries to trip Dortmunder up, trace the call, close the net (he’s a more sophisticated variant on the police chief from Bank Shot).  But he hadn’t reckoned on Kelp, who thwarts the trace through the use of his beloved gizmos. And this so infuriates the Inspector,  unaccustomed as he is to being cheated of his rightful prey, he screams at Dortmunder that he’ll be falling downstairs for a month once he’s caught (cop code for getting beaten up while in custody, and don’t for one minute believe that’s not still a thing)–and hangs up.  Then spends the rest of the book trying to make up for this one inexcusable blunder.

But he’s more than clever and connected enough to work his way out of the corner he’s painted himself into.  Trouble is, he’s enraged Dortmunder, who knows that he never meant to steal this damn ruby, that it’s not his fault, he was just doing what he does for a living, and it’s not fair to make him the scapegoat.

Dortmunder quietly broods on the great wrong done him, and that’s when he’s at his most dangerous.  He comes up with a plan to not only return the ruby where he found it, but to make everyone believe it was there in the safe all along, and the cops just didn’t see it.  And who gets it in the neck over that?  Three guesses (and the other two are the FBI guys).

And my problem with this otherwise brilliant denouement is that the cops have Dortmunder’s address (they come to arrest him at one point, while he’s actually got the ruby ring stuck on  his finger, but he manages to conceal it–the Inspector would have a bloody stroke if he ever found out about that).

Though he’s willing to give Dortmunder a break to save his own skin, Francis Mologna (sorry, WordPress) does not seem to be the type to forgive and forget.   He set up an alibi for Dortmunder, as part of their deal (that Dortmunder honors in his own vindictive way), but he still knows how to find Dortmunder, and Dortmunder is still a practicing thief within his jurisdiction.  So I don’t remember if the next book with the good Inspector in it explains why Dortmunder never fell down any stairs, but it’s a minor flaw in the plot.  The next section contains a somewhat more critical flaw.

3) All Dogs Go to Limbo

Marko grimaced, scrinching up his eyes and baring his upper teeth: “What kind of debased language is that?”

“I am speaking to you in your own miserable tongue.”

“Well, don’t.  It’s painful to my ears.”

“No more than to my mouth.”

Marko shifted to the language he presumed to be native to the invaders: “I know where you’re from.”

Gregor did his own teeth-baring grimace: “What was that, the sound of Venetian blinds falling off a window?”

Speaking Arabic, another of the men at the table said, “Perhaps these are dogs from a different litter.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Marko told him.  “Even we don’t understand it.”

One of the invaders repairing the door said over his shoulder, in rotten German, “There must be a language common to us all.”

This seemed reasonable, to the few who understood it, and when it had been variously translated in several other tongues, it seemed reasonable to the rest as well.  So the negotiation began with a wrangle over which language the negotiation would use, culminating in Gregor finally saying, in English, “Very well. We’ll speak in English.”

Almost everybody on both sides got upset at that.  “What,” cried Marko, “the language of the Imperialists?  Never!”  But he cried this in English.

“We all understand it,” Gregor pointed out.  “No matter how much we may hate it, English is the lingua franca of the world.”

The sections involving the foreign factions trying to regain the ruby (and kill Dortmunder) are fun to read, and make some interesting points, and ultimately they don’t go anywhere.   Westlake got lured into a fascinating tangent, and could not figure out how to sustain it–a perennial weakness of his, that he usually managed to keep under tighter control.

Basically some of these guys are terrorists (the old-fashioned nationalist kind, that Westlake’s Irish forebears knew well), some are secret police, and there’s not much difference between them, particularly since none of them are supposed to be operating on American soil, though The Powers that Be are well aware of them doing so.  FBI Agents Zachary and Freedly go to see a CIA contact, to get the full skinny.

Having bludgeoned the previous conversation to death with practiced civility, Cabot said, “Whichever of our Free World allies turns out to be responsible for this theft, if any, the fact is that just about every group we’ve mentioned, and some we haven’t discussed as yet, has become active since the theft.  So far, we know of the entrance into this country in the last twenty-four hours of a Turkish Secret Police assassination team, a Greek Army counterinsurgency guerrilla squad, members of two separate Cypriot Greek nationalist movements (who may spend all their time here gunning for one another and therefore fail to become a substantive factor from our point of view), two officers of the Bulgarian External Police, a KGB operative with deep connections to the Cypriot Turk nationalist movement, and a Lebanese Christian assassin.  There is also the rumored arrival via Montreal of two members of the Smyrna Schism, religious fanatics who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the late seventeen hundreds and live in catacombs under Smyrna.  They are rumored to favor the beheading of heretics.  In addition, various embassies in Washington–the Turkish, Greek, Russia, Yugoslav, Lebanese, some others–have requested official briefings on the matter.  And the UN, the British have called for–”

“The British!” Surprise unsealed Zachary’s lips.  “What’ve they got to do with it?”

“The British take a proprietary interest in the entire planet,” Cabot told him. “They think of themselves as our landlords, and they have called for a United Nations fact-finding team to assist the rest of us in our investigations.  They have also volunteered to lead this fact-finding team themselves.”

“Good of them,” Zachary said.

But the main problem right now,” Cabot said, “aside from the loss of the ring itself, of course, is all these foreign gunmen running around New York, hunting the ring and one another.  This theft is enough of an international incident as it is; Washington would be very displeased if New York were turned into another Beirut, with shooting in the streets.”

“New York would be displeased, too,” Freedly said.”

Not so funny anymore, is it?

As seen above, they become so frustrated at their shared lack of success in finding the Byzantine Fire, that they join forces, agreeing only that the ruby must be found, the thief who stole it (after it had already been stolen) must be done away with in some highly unpleasant manner, and then they can go back to shooting at each other and referring to each other as ‘dogs’, which at least shows a common and lamentable cultural disregard for man’s best friend.  And Westlake greatly enjoys the irony that they can only express to each other their shared contempt for the English speaking world by speaking English.

It’s a worthwhile addition to the story, giving us another valuable glimpse into Westlake’s satiric take on politics, but whether Westlake wrote this one too fast, or  was under certain constraints from the publisher with regards to how long the book could be, their subplot basically expires without further explanation or resolution. Once the ruby is recovered, it’s back to the old drawing board for all the dogs (as they will sadly inform each other in English) and they certainly do not have Dortmunder’s name and address (or that would be the end of the series).

Before the subplot expires, though, it links up with a rather more promising one, involving Dortmunder’s own beloved colleagues in crime.

4)Dial “M” for Monster

The back room at the OJ looked like one of those paintings from the Russian Revolution–the storming of the Winter Palace–or, perhaps more appropriately, from the Revolution of the French: a Jacobin trial during the Terror.  The place had never been so crowded, smoky, so hot, so full of strife and contention.  Tiny Bulcher and three assistant judges sat together on one side of the round card table, facing the door, with several other tough guys ranged behind them, on their feet, leaning against the stacked liquor cartons.  A few more savage-looking types lurked to both sides.  A couple of chairs had been left empty near the door, facing Tiny and the rest across the green felt table.  Harsh illumination from the single hanging bare bulb with its tin reflector in the middle of the room washed out all subtlety of color, reducing the scene to the work of a genre painter with a poor palette, or perhaps a German silent film about Chicago gangsters.  Menace and pitiless self-interest glinted on the planes of every face, the slouch of every shoulder, the bend of every knee, the sharpness of every eye, the slant of every smoldering cigarette.  Everybody smoked, everybody breathed, and–because it was hot in here–everybody sweated.  Also, when there was no one being interviewed everybody talked at once, except when Tiny Bulcher wanted to make a general point, at which time he would thump the table with fist and forearm, bellow “Shadap!” and insert a sentence into the resulting silence.

It was, in short, a scene to make even the innocent pause, had there been any innocents around to glom it.  Dortmunder, of the guilty the most singularly guilty, was very lucky he had to cool his heels in the outer brightness of the bar long enough to knock back two double bourbons on the rocks before it became his and Kelp’s turn to enter that back room and face all those cold eyes.

As already mentioned, the police have been rounding up and interrogating everybody who has a record that even faintly suggests they might have robbed that jewelry store the ruby was nabbed from, or might know who did, and since these are criminals, they are often nailed for some other unrelated crime in the process, and at bare minimum are being seriously inconvenienced, and prevented from getting any work done.  They are not happy about this, they are seriously pissed at whatever boob it was took this damn ruby, and none is more pissed than that menacing mass of malignity, Tiny Bulcher.

So a small time swindler and part-time police snitch named Benjy Klopzik, trying to divert suspicion from himself, suggests to Tiny that they, the crooks, should band together and find this menace to their society, since the cops are clearly not up to it.   After due reflection, Tiny decides it’s not such a dumb idea, and a Committee of Public Safety is thereby convened at the OJ, its objective being to grill every crook in the city, using interrogative methods the real police might find–unconventional.

And of course this is a not terribly veiled reference to Fritz Lang’s classic crime film that involved Berlin mobsters trying to find a child murderer to get the heat off them, and I already linked to that movie, but wouldn’t it have been so incredibly cool if Peter Lorre could have played Benjy in the movie?  Which he couldn’t, since Lorre died in 1964, the book came out in 1983, and the (terrible) film version Westlake did some early work on that got totally wiped out by a host of Hollywood hacks (including uber-hack David Koepp, writing under a pseudonym) came out in 1990.

Tiny is in rare form here, Westlake giving him a big build-up, recognizing his long-term potential as a supporting character (that will be fully realized in the next book).  He’s still telling those blood-curdling stories about what happens to anybody who displeases him in some small way, and yet again he never actually hurts anybody–though at one point he’s planning to commit bodily mayhem against a red-headed cop who took him in for questioning–“He was impolite,” Tiny explains.  Best brush up on your Emily Post before meeting Mr. Bulcher in any professional capacity at all, and maybe Amy Vanderbilt too, just to be safe.

Kelp risks more than just his reputation by giving Dortmunder an alibi for the night of the theft, but it’s got a few holes in it, and things are looking bad, when suddenly Benjy turns out to be wired for sound–the cops forced him to put on a wire, to monitor this unusual situation they’ve become aware of.  Dortmunder and Kelp make their getaway, and by the time they see Tiny again, the finger is pointed firmly in Benjy’s direction, and Benjy has been fortuitously relocated and given a new identity by the law.

And that’s about all, except for–

5)Kiss Me, I’m Irish.  No Seriously, I Am.

(no quotes, I’m over my quote quota already)

One of the shortest of the seemingly innumerable subplots in the book centers around Tony Costello, an Irish American TV reporter, who never gets any hot scoops from the Irish cops, because they don’t know Costello is an Irish name–first name Tony, last name ends with a vowel, must be a wop.  They give the breaks to Jock MacKenzie, who is Scottish-American, but they think he’s Irish, and Jock doesn’t disabuse them of this notion.

I wish I could say I didn’t totally buy this.  The Irish are a suspicious race, and I would know.  Brendan Behan, in Borstal Boy, doesn’t believe a guy named Sullivan he meets at the boys prison camp, who says he’s of Gaelic extraction–Behan thinks to himself he never met anybody named Sullivan in Dublin–only Sullivan he ever heard of is that Yank prizefighter.  I’ve encountered the same weird phenomenon in real life.  I’ve also had people tell me–at Irish political rallies and cultural events–that I don’t look Irish at all, even though all my grandparents hailed from there.

I bet Westlake, with his dark hair and upstate accent, went through the same damn thing (though he did look Irish, more and more, as he got older).  Don’t ask me what Irish people are supposed to look like, given Ireland’s millennia-old penchant for getting invaded.  My maternal grandmother was convinced my dad was Italian when my mom brought him home for dinner the first time.  Black Irish, you see.  Tanned like a Spaniard, he was.  He was asked various tactful questions, and then welcomed into the clan he’d been born into.

So Costello gets tapped by Dortmunder as his catspaw in the final move against Mologna, whose name doesn’t look so Irish either, but it’s more of a phonetic deal, I guess.  And at the end, he’s triumphantly finding a way to sneak into his broadcast regarding the recovery of the Byzantine Fire that it now turns out was never stolen to begin with (and honestly, if there’s no intention to commit theft, can you truly say there was any crime at all?) that he himself is Irish and Jock MacKenzie is not.  So Dortmunder has brought a little sunshine to one man’s life, and he’s got May a nice digital watch with a direction manual, and I’m over 6,000 words, and maybe I’d better do the segue now.

Next book is a collection of short stories about a police detective with a good heart, but at the same time, a tragically faulty one.  Westlake’s first series character, in fact (at least in the crime genre).  He’s maybe not quite as interesting as Inspector Mologna, but at least there’s no confusion about how to pronounce his name.  Which is very definitely not Irish, though you might want to kiss him anyway.  If only to say goodbye.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, Why Me?

Review: The Comedy is Finished

“And now,” Koo was going on, “I’m supposed to read this statement. Here goes: I am being held by elements of the People’s Revolutionary Army–huh, think of that–and have so far not been harmed–except for the punch in the nose, let’s not forget about that.  The People’s Revolutionary Army is not materi–Wait a minute.  I don’t usually get words like this in my scripts.  The only really big word I know is BankAmericard.  The People’s Revolutionary Army is not ma-ter-i-a-lis-tic-ally or-ien-ted–there–and so this is not a kidnapping in the ordinary capitalist sense.  Well, that’s a relief.  We have chosen Koo Davis not because he is rich–smart, very smart–but because he has made a career of being court jester to the bosses, the warmongers and the forces of reaction.  You left out the Girl Scouts.  Okay, okay.  The United States, which trumpets endlessly about civil rights in other nations, itself has thousands of political prisoners in its jails.  Ten of these are to be released and are to be given air passage to Algeria or to whatever other destination they choose.  These ten are to be released within the next twenty-four hours or a certain amount of harm will come to me.  I don’t think I like that part.”

“You’ve two hopes. Bob Hope and no hope.”

Variously attributed

At the end of my last review (so very long ago, sorry about that, life gets in the way), I left out my usual segue into the next one, because I hadn’t decided yet what the next review would be.   I do these based on order of publication, but as with Memory, this is a book that wasn’t published in Westlake’s lifetime, so I have to estimate when it would have been published, the alternative being to review books he respectively wrote in the early 60’s and late 70’s after the very last Parker and Dortmunder novels he wrote in the early 21st century.

This would be unsatisfying to me, since I’m trying to chronicle the evolution of a writer here.  Each book Westlake wrote was a product of the time he was writing it in, and almost invariably set in that time, or not long before it.  This book he seems to have written sometime in the late 70’s;  it would have presumably been published after Kahawa, and was certainly written before Why Me?   So I’m putting it here.   It’s a judgment call, and I’ve called it.

Hard Case Crime handled both posthumous additions to the bibliography, and did a splendid job with both.   However, I’ve never been fully satisfied, in either case, with the explanations presented as to why these books were only published after Westlake’s death.   In both cases, a manuscript turned up, and his estate gave the okay–in neither case did he leave any instructions in his will or with loved ones for what might be done with two full length novels he clearly spent a lot of time and effort on–and they are finished novels.  Complete polished works that must have undergone multiple drafts and are easily superior to any number of high profile critically lauded novels that will be published this year, or any year.

If he’d wanted to, he could have gotten them both in print before he died.  Why didn’t he want to?   Westlake published pretty nearly everything he wrote–few writers have been his equal at getting into print, and many of the books he produced were difficult to pigeonhole, not what people associated with him, but they still got first editions, and sometimes second and third editions.

Far as I know, the last remaining unpublished work of any significance is an autobiography, that he put aside unfinished, and we hope to see that someday, but not hard to understand why an unfinished book full of personal revelations about himself and others would stay in the vaults a while longer.   Memory was not in an identifiable genre, and is an exceptionally dark pessimistic story by any standard, so you can understand him feeling like maybe there wasn’t a market for it (I have some other ideas about why he didn’t try to get it out there, and you can read my review of it to find out what they are).

But this novel we’re looking at now is very much in the crime/suspense genre he was known for, with plenty of the wry oddball humor people expected from him. It’s a fast-paced entertaining read, with a bloody yet weirdly optimistic finish, and I’ll just say it right now–it’s one of the best books he ever wrote.  I’ll climb all the way out on the limb, and say it’s a minor masterpiece.  It’s a book that contains many a portent of things to come–things happening right now.  And it would have been a damn dirty shame if it never got into print.  So why did it take so long?

The official story is that Westlake found out that Martin Scorsese was making a movie called The King of Comedy, based on a script by Paul D. Zimmerman that had gone through many rewrites since Zimmerman had first come up with the concept in the Mid-70’s (right around the time The Fan Club became a bestseller), and sold the rights to Robert DeNiro.

Although the stories are extremely different, both center around the kidnapping of a famous comedian.  In the movie this comedian is patterned after Johnny Carson (who was approached to play the character, but declined, so they got Jerry Lewis, who was terrific and atypically low-key in the role).  In the novel, he’s quite unmistakably modeled on Bob Hope.  So much so that you almost have to wonder if there were inquiries from Hope’s attorneys, but who knows if Hope ever even heard about the book, or would have minded?  Not me.

Westlake felt like he’d been beaten to the punchline, so to speak (even though he’d written a comic novel about a movie star’s kidnapping in the 1960’s).  By the time the movie (a box office flop, but an enduring cult favorite) had faded somewhat from memory, Westlake’s novel, which was about the lingering consequences of the 60’s generation gap and the counterculture, seemed dated.  The national conversation had changed; nobody would care anymore.  So he shelved the book permanently.  Westlake never was one to live in the past, and once he abandoned a project, he tended not to ever return to it.

There are some problems with the story.  For one thing, the movie came out in early 1983, and Westlake’s novel was probably finished in the late 70’s.  He could have gotten the book out well before the film if he’d wanted, and at a time when the subject matter would have seemed more current.   And for another, aside from the bare bones premise of a famous funnyman being kidnapped by people who want publicity rather than money (and one of them has a more personal motivation), there’s just not a lot of similarities there.

The King of Comedy is about the cult of celebrity, people who are obsessed with fame, with show business, whose identities get swallowed up by it (Westlake did a very different take on this concept later in the 80’s).   There are no meaningful human relationships of any kind in Scorsese’s film, because it takes place in a world where such relationships have become impossible, even unimaginable.  The Comedy is Finished is about politics, and is full of very deep passionate relationships that have been tragically distorted by radical ideologies, mutual incomprehension and (in one case) personal irresponsibility.

I admire them both–I saw the movie when it came out, considered it a classic at the time and still do–but having reread Westlake’s novel, I have to say that I consider it the better piece of work overall.  Less modern, more timeless, in spite of being set in a very specific era–one reason why Westlake, with his deep aversion to period pieces, wouldn’t have wanted it published later.  Probably wouldn’t have made as good a movie as Zimmerman’s concept.   Scorsese put his own auteurial stamp on The King of Comedy, and it became his story, much more than Zimmerman’s.  As we’ve seen again and again, no director ever quite managed to do that with anything Westlake wrote, though not for want of trying.

Zimmerman basically produced nothing else of note in his career as a fiction writer (he was a film critic), and Scorsese made a lot of changes, but an early draft of Zimmerman’s screenplay can be viewed online.   All the later changes improved it, but the basic set-up is there from the start.  Westlake had many contacts in Hollywood by this time, and that’s probably how he knew about the movie well before it came out.  It was really Robert DeNiro’s project, that he kept pushing on Scorsese, much as Rupert Pupkin keeps pushing himself on Jerry Langford.

So we may posit that Westlake worried some people would whisper that he had seen Zimmerman’s script, rushed a book into publication before the film came out.  Both stories have a deranged sexually aggressive woman menacing the kidnapped comedian, which would raise eyebrows, coincidence or no.  He’s got enough problems already, selling a story that’s full of politics and sex–two things readers of his comic capers would write him angry letters about whenever he indulged in them–that furthermore paints a sympathetic but scathing portrait of a legendary showman, beloved of Middle America.

And he’d get no support from the Left, because elements of the counterculture are his principal target here, though hardly the only one.   Where’s the audience for this book?   There’s not much comfort here for anybody.   He’d just had a major disappointment with the book sales for Kahawa.  A few more high-profile failures could really hurt him.

Even if he did know about Zimmerman’s script before starting (and my opinion is that he didn’t; that this is a sort of creative confluence that happens much more often than people realize), there’s nothing in this book that approaches plagiarism.  Professional writers know very well that’s no defense against a lawsuit if anyone can prove you knew the work allegedly copied, and while I doubt Scorsese would have sued, Zimmerman just might have, the studio might have backed him up, and Westlake depended on Hollywood for a good part of his income–and the book is full of observations that would hardly endear him to Hollywood insiders.

(Fittingly enough, years later Westlake and Scorsese would both be involved in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, adapted from Jim Thompson’s novel–Westlake wrote the screenplay, and Scorsese ended up as one of the producers, after originally being attached to direct.  He had a fairly important consultative role; Westlake mentions meeting with him several times, and one would love to know if the subject of Westlake’s book ever came up, but somehow one doubts that question will ever be answered.)

So that’s a whole lot of speculation, without a whole lot of facts behind it, but this is a strange story, any way you tell it.  It’s one thing for a writer to work on a book, put it aside, then it gets published after his death, either in its extant form, or finished by some other writer.   Or maybe the writer just figures it’s not good enough and refuses to publish it, as Harper Lee decided with Go Set A Watchman.  I have a hard time believing either possibility holds true here.  This book is 100% finished, a finely-tuned piece of first-rate storytelling, and if not for Max Allan Collins holding on to a manuscript Westlake gave him, we wouldn’t have it now.

And no, I don’t think Collins finished it himself, though he did get hired to finish a Mickey Spillane novel recently, and critics have made open accusations regarding the provenance of Go Set A Watchman.  Let me state for the record that nobody but Donald E. Westlake could have written any part of this book.   Then let me try to explain why that is.

The story begins in 1977, with Koo Davis, aging comedian and movie star, taping a TV special before a live audience in L.A.   His career has suffered from him getting involved in conservative politics, taking the law&order/love-it-or-leave-it side of the culture wars during Vietnam.   But Vietnam is over, things are calming down, and he’s concluded he made a mistake–it’s his job to make people laugh, not lecture them.

He got involved, against his own better judgment, because ever since WWII, he was out entertaining the troops, sometimes in very dangerous places.   He sees America as The Good Guy, always, and so whoever we’re fighting must be The Bad Guy, right?  That’s how it is in the movies.  If you used the word ‘Manichean’, he’d just get confused, and probably make a crack along the lines of “Manny Kean?  I think that guy owes me twenty bucks.”  Basically, there’s nothing Koo Davis can’t turn into a punchline.

But his comic stylings are put to the ultimate test when he’s kidnapped at gunpoint while heading back to his dressing room, punched in the face, and tossed into the back of a van with a bag over his head (who writes this stuff?),  then taken to a house in the Tarzana section of L.A., where he’s imprisoned in a truly bizarre basement room, where one wall is made of glass, and looks out into a swimming pool, like an aquarium for the jet set.

This clown’s captors are a motley collection of white 60’s radicals, the kind that formed groups like the Weathermen, that set bombs in college science labs, that kidnapped Patty Hearst and reprogrammed her to spout revolutionary rhetoric and rob banks (obviously that news story helped inspire this book).

The 60’s are over now, their group’s once burgeoning ranks have been decimated, and they’re worried that history has somehow passed them by, the assurances of Marxian dialectic notwithstanding.  They need to do something to get noticed again, and kidnapping a famous conservative might do the trick–the ones that actually deserve any real blame for the state of things are too well-guarded.

Westlake once again plays with structure–the book alternates between POV’s, but with a key difference.   Most chapters are written in the past tense, and focused around one character or another–cops, kidnappers, and Koo’s deathlessly loyal agent, Lynsey Rayne, far and away the most admirable person in the book, though of less dramatic interest, because you always know what she’ll do–fight for Koo.  Like a pit bull with lots of bracelets.

But when the chapter is focused on Koo himself, it’s always written in the present tense (not including flashbacks, of which there are many), because Koo Davis lives perpetually in the here and now–all the more because he’s increasingly afraid that now is all he’s got left.  And if there’s one thing Koo can do to utter perfection, it’s terror.

“My brain is happy to be here,” Koo Davis says, “but my feet wanna be in Tennessee.”  That’s a line from Saturday Evening Ghost, one of a series of comedic spook movies Koo made in the early forties.  Portraits with moving eyes, chairs whose arms suddenly reach up and grab at the person seated there, wall panels that open so a black-gloved hand can emerge clutching a knife; and Koo Davis moving brash and unknowing through it all.  It was a genre then, everybody did the same gags: the candle that slid along a tabletop, the stuffed gorilla on wheels whose finger was caught (unknown to him) in the back of the hero’s belt so he’d be tiptoeing through the spooky house with this gorilla rolling along behind him, the hero pretending to be one of the figures in a wax museum.  The audience didn’t seem to care how often they saw these gags, and a recurring bit in Koo’s movies was the point where he would suddenly notice all those weird things around him, and become terrified.  Koo’s bit of going from absolute self-assurance to gibbering terror was one of his most famous routines, so much so that Bosley Crowther wrote in a review, “No one can make panic as hilarious as Koo Davis.”

I’m scared, Koo thinks, but he doesn’t say it aloud; it ain’t that hilarious.  Remembering how often he simulated fear in all those movies and later on television, he’s surprised at how different the real thing is.  Of course, like everyone else he’s known brief moments of fear in his life–mostly on those USO tours–but what he’s feeling now is steady, growing, ongoing.  He’s afraid of these people, he’s afraid of what will happen, he’s afraid of his own helplessness, and he’s afraid of his fear.

(And I’m afraid I know now where Westlake got the idea for the wax museum scene in Slayground, only I’ve already written that review.  Not necessarily from a Bob Hope film–he actually only did two movies in this precise sub-genre; The Cat and the Canary remake, and The Ghost Breakers, both filmed in the late 30’s.  I’m sure it seemed like more.)

You learn a lot about Koo in these chapters, most of it not the least bit complimentary.  He’s a self-centered, womanizing, cowardly little twit–not a mean bone in his body, his intentions are always good, but as a husband, a father, a lover–he just never made the grade.  He’s been married to the same woman for most of his life, but he never took his vows seriously, and it’s in name only now (a good way to keep all the busty starlets he keeps bedding at bay).   He desperately tried to connect with his two sons as they grew up, one of whom is gay–they’re basically strangers to each other.  He sees nothing of himself in them.  They don’t even laugh at his jokes, except to be polite, and as Koo knows full well, when you’re polite to a comedian, you’re killing him.

He earns some genuine moral brownie points by going to war torn areas to entertain the troops, and he’s truly happy to do it.  He was 4F during WWII, you see, and anyway, there’s no better audience than soldiers in a war zone.

But when he learns that some private has been brainwashed by the commies during the Korean ‘police action’, he goes to talk to the boy, thinking he can snap him out of it–and he gets a foretaste of what it’s like to argue with somebody who knows ‘The Truth’–thing is, not everything the boy said was wrong, and he got under Koo’s skin in spite of the latter’s patriotic self-righteousness–and it came as a shock to Koo, years later, when he found out the Feds were keeping a file on him, because of all his left-wing entertainment buddies.  That was when he realized it was time to put the politics away, and go back to making people laugh.   Better late than never.

So we see him stripped bare of every illusion, a fat aging skirt-chasing buffoon, whose only real friend is his agent (who he slept with almost as an afterthought years ago, and she’s still carrying a torch)–and we love him.  He’s Harlequin, Scaramouche, Falstaff, Punch without a Judy–the eternal clown, taking his pratfalls and slapstick blows with elan, vibrantly unquenchably alive.  And the fact that this Punch maybe deserves that crocodile hand-puppet to come swallow him up doesn’t make us root any less for him.   We’ll cheer his disembodied voice emanating from the croc’s gaping maw.

The Clown isn’t supposed to impress us with his moral fiber.  He’s there to remind us how ridiculous we are.  He’s there to spit in Death’s ugly face.   His only mission statement is to be himself.  Koo’s being punished here for having forgotten this, during the Vietnam era, the Watergate imbroglio.   But he’s remembered it again, belatedly.  So he’s the hero of the piece–one of two, really.  Koo’s out of the Westlake stable, a Nephew type, despite his age–the other hero is a bit more out of Richard Stark.  That’s right.

This is Westlake’s third and final book about a kidnapping (making me suspect he thought he’d finally licked the problem of how to write that kind of story, then put it aside forever)–it’s also the the only one to present it in the form of a conventional police procedural, switching back and forth between cops, abductors, and abductee–but there’s no easy discerned line between good guys and bad guys–the formula is deepened, made to serve a different agenda, much as Westlake had already done with the heist story.

There’s an FBI Agent, Mike Wiskiel, a smart seasoned pro, and we learn to respect his abilities–and to him, Koo Davis’ life is much less important than his own career, which hit a snag when he participated in the Watergate cover-up–which is what he thought he was supposed to do, follow orders, do favors for the big boys, but then it all went sour, the politics changed, and he found himself holding the bag, exiled to the Hollywood beat.

“Retroactive,” Mike said, dealing with the word as though it was a pebble he was moving around in his mouth.  “‘Do this,’ they said, ‘it’s your patriotic duty.’  ‘Oh yessir,’ I said. and salute the son of a bitch, and I go do it, and when I come back there’s some other son of a bitch in there and he says, ‘Oh, no, that wasn’t patriotic, it was illegal, and you shouldn’t have done it’  And I said, ‘Why I got my orders right here, I’m covered, I got everything in black and white, this is the guy told me what to do,’ and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we know about him, he’s out on his ear, he’s in worse trouble than you are.’  So that guy’s ass is in a sling and my nuts are in a wringer and Al Capone is up there at San Clemente in a golf cart.  And who’s loyal now, huh?  Who do you trust now, the shitter or the shit-upon?”

This kidnapping case is Mike’s ticket back to the show, and he admits to Lynsey at one point that given a choice between saving Koo’s life with no good press for him and catching the kidnappers with lots of it, he’d choose the latter.  In a heartbeat.  He doesn’t want to be the shit-upon, ever again.  But aside from that, he’s just more interested in the hunt.  Protecting honest citizens doesn’t ring his bell at all.   Which reminds me of the cop from The Seventh, who is all gung-ho to catch Parker, but doesn’t give a damn who killed Ellie Cannaday.  Stark has been out of the picture for years before Westlake wrote this, and yet he’s still there, looming in the darkness, waiting his return.

Westlake’s ambivalence about law enforcement types is on full display here–his cops are by no means always comic bumblers, nor are they mere brutish stereotypes, but he can never entirely trust anyone with a badge.  Wiskiel ought to be the hero–he does eventually crack the case, performs his duties admirably (except for one serious stumble, where he badly underestimates his quarry and puts Koo’s life at risk).  He’d be the hero in a movie, or a TV show (he’d probably end up dating Lynsey), but not in this story, somehow.

Westlake respects professionalism in anyone, cop or robber, but what drives Wiskiel is careerism, which a very different thing.  He is tested and found wanting.   It’s not really his failure so much as it is that of the entire system he serves so ably and unquestioningly.  He wants to be a cog in a machine.  The one thing his creator can never forgive.

So the establishment boys are not the heroes, but neither are the would-be revolutionaries, Westlake being very much in the vein of Mercutio’s death scene here.   The greater part of the book is devoted to Koo’s abductors–that’s generally how a  kidnapping novel works, ratcheting up tension and division between the people who did the snatch, exposing their inner weaknesses, and there’s no end of those.  If the revolution depends on these people, not only will it not be televised, it won’t even get through pilot development.

Their leader is Peter Dinely, 34 years old, who has a nervous habit of chewing at the insides of his cheeks, and a determination to remake the entire world in his image.  Someday everything will be different, and people will remember that he was leading the way.  He has taken to heart Lenin’s lighthearted gibe that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.  Koo’s just another egg to him.  He doesn’t particularly want to hurt anyone, certainly not in person, but he needs to make a statement.   He’s worked up a little list of ‘political prisoners’ (most of whom he’s never met, or communicated with, an unfortunate oversight on his part), and he’s going to trade Koo’s life for their freedom, then use that victory to establish himself as an important radical figure, a man of importance. The others are mere foot soldiers. He’s the general.

He knew he was the only one in the group who thought historically.  None of the others could project beyond the immediate results of action, but at least they were prepared to follow where they themselves could not see the path. Did they know why it was so vital to free the ten?  No and if he were to waste his breath with explanations, they still wouldn’t understand.  But they acknowledged his capacity and followed his orders, which made them both essential and unbearable.  Soon I must have equals about me, Peter thought, or I shall wither.

Far less dangerous (or so it seems) is Joyce, a soft-spoken shy unassuming young woman, who doesn’t seem to have strong opinions on any subject, but who somehow ended up in this group–because she always has to have a group.   She watches the TV report of Koo’s kidnapping with them.

It was the group that Joyce loved, the very idea of being part of a group.  In her childhood, she had been a Brownie, later a Girl Scout and for a while simultaneously a Campfire Girl, also a member of a Junior Sodality at church, the 4-H Club, other groups at school and college; and tonight she sat with her feet curled up under her at one end of the sofa, the complete group around her, the television offering its flickering light to the room, and she was back where it had all begun; an “overnight” with friends.  Her hand over her mouth so no one would know, her eyes on the screen without seeing it, her ears ignoring the loping cadence of Koo Davis’ voice, she giggled.

Most dangerous of all (because he’s the Richard Stark character) is Mark Halliwell, who doesn’t really seem to know or care much about left-wing politics, or anything else.   He just knows he’s angry, that the world is full of evil, and there are people out there who are responsible, and they must be punished.  It’s like an itch in his brain that he can never scratch.

Mark burned with a pure fire.  He knew what he wanted, and how to get it.  The people who made pain in the world would be stopped.  The uncaring, the smug, the self-confident, the lofty, too high and mighty to think about the people down below; they would all be toppled from their pedestals, and afterward the world would be clean.  No more hatred, no more pain, no more suffering, no more pity.  No need for pity in a world without pain.

He’s Koo Davis’ bastard son, or at least he believes he is–his mother was one of the starlets Koo was shtupping on those USO tours (she was supposed to get an abortion, and never told Koo she didn’t).  He’s the reason Koo was kidnapped, but no other members of the group know about his personal agenda, or that they’ve been manipulated to serve it.  Koo finds out pretty quick, though.  Mark can’t resist telling him.  Koo understandably believes Mark is the most serious threat to his life, but nothing is ever as it seems in this book.  Nothing and no one.

Mark is the one who keeps figuring out the ruses the FBI will come up with to try and find them, the one who understands trickery and violence best.   Even Peter is afraid of him.  Because he’s afraid of nothing.  He’d be perfectly at home in a string led by Parker, but I don’t know if Parker would want to work with him.  Too volatile, too emotional.  Maybe a bit reminiscent of Edgars from The Score, the disgraced police chief who wanted to use Parker and his fellow heist men to get revenge on a whole town.  But is Mark’s motive really revenge?   Or something else?

Larry Crosfield, by contrast, has no personal agenda, no megalomaniac ambitions, no obsessive need to be part of a group.   He just has a lot of ideas about what the world could be–some from Marx, some from himself.  He’s the group theoretician, theologian really, the one who can cite chapter and verse, but he’s having a crisis of faith lately.   We get a glimpse of what he’s writing in his notebook, to distract himself from the crime he’s helping to perpetrate.

The dreadful paradox, of course, is the absolute necessity to do evil in order to bring about good.  To make the world a better place, one must be worthy.  To be worthy, one must strive for sainthood (in the non clerical sense of total commitment to unattainable but appropriate ideals), and yet the lethargic and static forces of Society are so powerful that it requires, specifically requires, extra-social acts in order to promote change.  One must do evil while knowing it to be evil and at the same time one must strive for sainthood.  This paradox–

–is a rather sadly recurrent leitmotif in the history of ideas and social movements.  Isaiah Berlin could tell you more, if you’re interested, and so could Karl Popper, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Anatole France, Dostoevsky….  But for our purposes, Larry is merely an overly idealistic young man who persistently advocates for Koo’s health and well-being (at some risk to himself), who really wants no part of any violent act, who has let himself get pulled into a situation he doesn’t belong in.   He’s basically a more detailed work-up of the same kind of character as Dan Tynebourne, from Don’t Lie To Me.   His true nature is at odds with who he thinks he’s supposed to be, what he wants to believe.

He spends quite a lot of time trying to indoctrinate Koo, while the latter is sick as a running dog capitalist from not having all the pills he routinely pops to stay alive.   He can’t understand why Koo suddenly asks to see Mark.  Better the devil who scares you than the devil who bores you.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is when Larry and Joyce realize they’re in love, that they have been for a long time, but the no-strings sexual ethic of the group, and their own innate shyness, had kept them from acting on it.  They make love, and Larry has a brief coital epiphany, courtesy of Alexander Pope.

Years ago, in college, he had memorized a portion of Pope’s An Essay on Man, thinking it expressed his own beliefs better than he ever could, and only now understanding he had always misunderstood it.  In a murmering voice, slowly, in time with their lovemaking, he recited:

“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, the proper study of mankind of man.  Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, a being darkly wise and rudely great: with too much knowledge for the skeptic side, with too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, he hangs between: in doubt to act or rest; in doubt to deem himself a god or beast; in doubt his mind or body to prefer; born but to die, and reasoning but to err; alike in ignorance, his reason such, whether he thinks too little or too much.” 

“Don’t think,” she whispered, and the hint of a smile touched her lips in the semi-dark. “Larry, don’t think at all.”

(Thanks for introducing me to that poem, Mr. Westlake.  Explains a lot, doesn’t it?  About us in general, and you, specifically.)

She may be The Girl, but this isn’t a Nephew book, and the course of true love never did run smooth.  I’ll leave that plot twist for you to discover yourself.

The last member of the group is Liz (Westlake clearly chose that name thinking of a certain passage from Adios Scheherazade), a hard lean lethal blonde, with a killer body, and a back lined with scars that will never heal, the origins of which we never learn.  She walks around naked much of the time, swimming in the pool where Koo can watch her through that basement aquarium window, knowing the sight will frighten rather than arouse him.

The scars inside her are much worse.  She’s stopped believing in anything at this point, too damaged by the life she’s led, the comrades she’s lost, to really give a damn anymore, but there’s still so much anger there–towards the world, towards herself, towards men.  Towards Eric Mallock, one of the prisoners they’re trying to get released, her mentor, lover, and destroyer.

Eric had been everything.  Eric had taught her what her body was for, what her brain was for, what the world was for.  “It isn’t hard to change society,” he used to say, with his easy bright intelligent grin.  “Society changes all the time, whether we help it along or not.  Capitalism is an aberration, a mistaken turn away from feudalism–it would have been so much easier to go directly to collectivism then, simply remove the landlord class and permit the masses to absorb the land they already occupied.  All right, an aberration.  But it’s coming to an end, and unless somebody gives the whole mass a shove in a new direction we’ll simply go right back to feudalism under another name, with General Motors and Chase Manhattan instead of the kingdom of this and the duchy of that.  We have to push on it, that’s all, deflect it a little.  We may not even see the effect in our lifetimes.  Not everybody can be Martin Luther.  Columbus died having no idea how much he’d changed the world.

Change the world.  Eric changed me, and then he went away, his work unfinished.  If he’d even been killed, if he’d died along with Paul and the others, it would be easier to forgive.  What did it matter that he had abandoned her unwillingly, only because he’d been captured and put in jail? He had swept her beyond the point of no return, that was all that mattered, and then he had gone away.

Take an interest?  Yes.  She did have an interest after all.  She raised her eyes, finally, to gaze at the giant television screen, where the program was about to begin, where the government was about to announce whether or not they would release Eric Mallock.  Let him go, you bastards, she willed at the screen.  Let him go so I can kill him.  And then myself.  That last journey they would take together.

And so they all watch the broadcast together, where the authorities announce their decision whether to release the ten prisoners on Peter’s list in exchange for Koo’s life.  What follows is a series of filmed or written statements from the prisoners.  And Peter really should have done a bit more research into those names.

One by one, we learn that all but three of them don’t want to go to Algeria.  The three that want to go are clearly just killers and thieves, who want out so they can go back to killing and stealing for the sake of killing and stealing, which was all they got into that revolutionary shit for in the first place.  One of them is so clearly a psychopath with no political principles (or any other kind of principles) that Algeria has refused to take him.

But the ones who want to stay in prison–their reasons are more complex.  Some are just tired, want to go back to something like a normal life.  One has a book on revolutionary theory she wants to finish, she says her activism was a mistake, a wrong turn.  One, a pacifist defrocked priest, wants to go back to being a missionary to this barbarian country.   Another, a labor activist, has been inspired by Caesar Chavez, now believes change is possible without violence.

There’s a general sense of confusion, indignation, from the ones who haven’t given up, who still believe in the cause they went to prison for (often for nothing more than minor vandalism, begging the question of why they’re in maximum security, and Nixon is golfing at San Clemente)–why would they want to go to Algeria?  The work is here.  They know who they are, and where they belong. They aren’t alienated from society–society is alienated from them.  From itself.   They are true revolutionaries–and they make the pretenders sitting in that room feel small, embarrassed, ashamed–and angry.   Peter, in particular, is filled with inchoate rage.

Eric is the biggest disappointment–his spark is all but extinguished.  He’s given up.  His revolutionary zeal has vanished with his youth.  He works on the prison newspaper, and has started a bookkeeping course for the inmates.  He doesn’t think the cause they fought for was wrong, but he now thinks their methods were wrong.   He has a pretty good idea of who is behind this kidnapping, and he flashes them a bit of his old grin, but as Liz watches him on TV, her last illusion dies.  She can’t kill the man who ruined her life.   That man died in prison.

The law is closing in.   You’ve all seen kidnapping stories, you know how this goes.  It always ends with a big showdown at the hideout, but the difference here is that you give a damn what happens to the victim, and strangely, what happens to the kidnappers, at least some of them.  Mark, particularly.  He and Koo have somehow forged a bond.  Koo is more surprised than anyone, except perhaps Mark.  Turns out Mark (who could easily be some other man’s son, and doesn’t look even the least bit like him) has somehow inherited his sense of humor, and this delights Koo–finally, somebody gets him.

Barricaded in a room together, while Peter tries to get in there so he can at least be remembered as the man who murdered Koo Davis, they trade quips, beginning to love each other, to span the generation gap, and only occasionally does Mark bring up the possibility of killing his old man.  He doesn’t really want to anymore, but it’s an option.

I’ve left out a key character–Ginger Merville, British, a smirking little rock god, not a real star, just a high-priced sideman to the stars, who for reasons of his own has chosen to bankroll these revolutionaries, without really believing in their cause.  Westlake never did care much for rock, did he?   Less about the music than the lifestyle, I think.  Too much fame and money for too little effort. Ginger seems to be playing both sides against the middle, figuring that whoever wins, he wins along with them–he figures wrong, and when he gets caught by Wiskiel, he breaks like an egg, spills everything he knows, and maybe they’ll let him play for his fellow inmates.

At a Malibu beach house they fled to after the house in Tarzana was discovered, surrounded by an army of cops and Feds, the bullets begin to fly–Liz has her final moment of vengeance on basically everything and everybody–and Mike Wiskiel reveals his true colors, as Lynsey looks on in horror and revulsion, the liberal shocked by the violence lurking in every human heart, as liberals always are (and I would know).

And all that remains at the end is a father finally standing up for his son (and it does not matter a damn whether there’s a genetic relationship or not).  All that matters to Koo Davis, when the law breaks down the door of his cell, having shot all the other kidnappers to pieces, is that they don’t hurt his boy.   He’ll do whatever he has to to keep Mark alive, and hopefully free, and that’s how he earns his survival–by acknowledging the monster he helped make, and loving him.

This is Westlake’s final dirge to the 60’s and what followed it.  It was a wild creative era, that produced much of lasting value, and much that didn’t stand the test of time.  He understands and sympathizes with the revolutionary spirit, feels the same soul-deep antipathy towards authority, has no faith at all in the system, but he knows the truth of Mike Wiskiel’s comment that “once people lose the social thread, they’re capable of anything.”

Westlake’s conservatism, if you want to call it that, is of the Burkean strain–yes, things need to change, but if they change too quickly, too chaotically, you lose everything you were fighting for.  Change can’t be imposed from outside.  It comes when people are ready, and not a moment before.  And the people who are determined to make revolutions ‘by any means necessary’ are the very last people you want in charge of your destiny.  Because they aren’t doing it for you.  You’re just another egg in the omelette.

You have to know where the line is.  “There are things a man must not do to save a nation” wrote an Irish  revolutionary named O’Leary once, and he was more right than he knew.  Today’s ‘conservatives’ don’t even seem to remember who Burke was, and they never knew O’Leary.  They’re quite often the crazed wild-eyed revolutionaries now, only believing in law & order if they can control it absolutely–and the role reversal would be comedic, if it wasn’t so horrifying.

 The Comedy Is Finished--was this Westlake trying to say goodbye to the image of him as a man who wrote funny crime books that nobody should take seriously?   Maybe not, but it must have bothered him at times, this man of many ideas, many insights, that people thought of him as nothing more than a shallow jester, his books good for nothing more than a few chuckles.   Then again, he may have decided, like Preston Sturges’ John L. Sullivan, that there’s much to be said for making people laugh in a world full of pain and disappointment and shattered dreams.

In any event, our next book is the fifth John Dortmunder novel, and a rather pivotal book in the series–also rather atypical–it culminates, you might say, in a sort of anti-heist.   I’ll try not to take so long finishing that one.   This review you’re reading now just didn’t want to get written, but at some point you have to shit or get off the pot.

As for the real Bob Hope, he died less than six years before Westlake, at the most improbable age of 100 (seriously, who writes this stuff?), and the story that was reported afterwards was that as the great comedian lay on his deathbed, his wife asked him where he wanted to be buried, and Hope replied “Surprise me.”

Westlake must have laughed for days.

Bravo, Pagliaccio.  Bravo.  

PS: Okay, I have another theory as to why Westlake gave the book its title.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, The Comedy is Finished, Uncategorized