It is no small pity, and should cause us no little shame, that, through our own fault, we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are. Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is a great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies and have a vague idea, because we have heard it, and because our faith tells us so, that we possess souls. As to what good qualities there may be in our souls, or who dwells within them, or how precious they are — those are things which we seldom consider and so we trouble little about carefully preserving the soul’s beauty. All our interest is centred in the rough setting of the diamond and in the outer wall of the castle – that is to say in these bodies of ours.
From The Interior Castle, by Saint Teresa of Ávila
Dear Sister Mary Grace,
Wonderful News! God has seen fit to put us in the way of being helpful to a man who has just the skills needed to effect your rescue. He is a burglar by profession, which means he has studied the art of going in or out of difficult or locked places. (He came to us through our roof!)
Before we cast the first stone, my dear, we should remember St. Dismas, crucified with Our Lord, a common criminal who repented at the very end. “This day you shall be with Me in Paradise,” Our Lord promised him. So it was St. Dismas, the thief, who was Our Lord’s chosen companion on his first momentous journey back to His Heavenly Father after his earthly travail, not one of the Apostles or Disciples, a fact we would do well to remember.
In any event, it is our hope, and our constant prayer to the Almighty, that this association with us and rescue of your own self may be the beginning of the path of reclamation for this latter-day Dismas, whose name is John. Even now he is studying the best way to reach you and bring you out of your imprisonment. If you happen to have any advice or suggestions you might want us to pass along to John, concerning the physical details of your incarceration, I am sure he would be most pleased.
Praying for your early release, long life to the Pope, forgiveness of the souls in Purgatory and the conversion of Godless Russia, I remain, as ever,
Mother Mary Forcible
Silent Sisterhood of St. Filumena
The sixth of the Dortmunder novels, this marks a real turning point in the series, and maybe the last of any significance. Westlake had been assembling this world, piece by piece, book by book, character by character and it would never be 100% finished, but neither would it ever get much more developed after this one. The wildly inventive experimentation of the first three books, the fumbling around for a way to go on in the next two–over and done with. And another thing is over and done with–Dortmunder’s four book losing streak.
The Hot Rock ended with him at least half-victorious–he’d finally stolen that emerald that didn’t want to be stolen, and he got revenge against the employer who had tried to cheat him, and he was supposed to get a sort of finder’s fee for returning it to its original owners.
But in the next four outings, he somehow always ended up with the short end of the stick–to the point where the introduction in the next book of his true love May, with her supermarket clerk gig and her light-fingered penchant for (literally) bringing home the bacon, was the only explanation of how he hadn’t ended up going on relief. It sometimes seemed like Dortmunder wasn’t so much an armed robber as a smalltime burglar who occasionally planned a heist for some deep-pocketed client, and was lucky to just avoid going back to prison.
The heist would always come off (because we the readers want to see stuff get stolen), but he never profited from it, at least not directly. The god of his universe kept him on a much shorter moral leash than Stark kept Parker on. And he didn’t appreciate that one bit, but he bore his humiliations with a stoic wounded dignity. He really is a master thief, a brilliant planner, just like Andy Kelp keeps telling him, but because he does not, like Parker, live in an amoral universe (with an amoral audience), his destiny is always to end up holding an empty bag. Or is it? Can he find a loophole somewhere? Get time off for good behavior?
The first of the two images up top, beneath the book covers, is St. Teresa of Ávila, also called Teresa de Jesus. The granddaughter of a Jewish converso in Spain, she was raised in a wealthy family, dreamed of going on a crusade to the Holy Land, joined the Carmelites as a novice, and being a beautiful girl with a passionate nature, may not have been strictly faithful to her vows of chastity and poverty for a time, something church and state often winked at, since noblemen found certain convents a good place to find willing partners.
Depressed by what she saw as her failure, she then experienced a true vocation, and vowed to create a new reformed Carmelite order, devoted to both worldly service and otherworldly contemplation, a goal she attained (with a little help from her friends), and it still exists today. She also began having intense haunting religious visions. She also wrote some truly great books. She also nearly got burned by the Inquisition once or twice. She lived her life.
Then she died, and was interred in such a way that when her body was dug up some time later, it was found in a state of preservation that was deemed miraculous (it probably wasn’t), and she was eventually declared a saint–not for what she’d achieved in life, but for not decomposing normally after death. If she’d married some grandee’s son, as might well have been her fate, she would have had children, died, and been forgotten. Her strange genius for self-understanding–for plumbing the depths of the human spirit–would have been lost to the world. In losing herself, she found herself.
The second image is of St. Dismas, the penitent thief, who belongs entirely to the realm of myth. His feast day on the church calendar is March 25, which this year happens to be Good Friday. A whole host of extremely dubious stories have been told about him since he first popped up (without a name) in the Gospel of Luke. In art, he is usually depicted crucified with his hands pointing downwards, his arms sometimes hung backwards over the crosspiece of the crucifix, or else tied to it by his elbows, like so–
“Come here often?”
“Nah. Just hanging out.”
Not a fellow professional whose career path John Dortmunder would wish to emulate. And yet–looking at the picture of him up top–there is something oddly familiar about the world-weary expression on the larcenous saint’s face, and that diffident gesture he makes with his left hand as he shoulders his cross, isn’t there? You can almost hear him asking–“Why me?” Why anyone, pal?
Donald E. Westlake was born a Catholic, raised a Catholic, schooled a Catholic, and for all I know he died a Catholic, but if you’re going to get persnickety about it, he was a lapsed Catholic for most of his life (two divorces is precisely two more than a practicing Catholic is ever allotted).
It meant something to him, but precisely what is never easy to discern. The Roman Catholic Hierarchy is one of the world’s oldest and most stratified authority structures, and you know how he felt about those. He wrote most sympathetically of monks and nuns, I’d say, because they were at the very bottom of that structure–holding the rest of it up. And because in at least some cases, their primary mission statement is self-knowledge.
I would think he saw Catholicism as part of his identity, but identity is a house with many rooms, and he spent most of his time elsewhere in the manse. But now and again, he’d stray back in and revisit that room–or observe with great interest those who had chosen to live there exclusively. What did they know that he didn’t? What could be learned from them? What stories did they have to tell?
And why is it that there’s always this strange affinity between saints and sinners? Jesus himself is said to have spent much of his time in the company of morally questionable persons. The scum of the earth is how most upstanding citizens saw them–to him they were just people, like everyone else. His followers have often (granted, not often enough) chosen to emulate this odd behavior.
Pope Francis (long life to him, seriously) visits prisons, washes the feet of inmates. Maybe the point is that there’s really not such a huge difference. The current pontiff says he might have been a criminal himself, had things gone differently–and has pointed out that many clergymen have themselves committed horrible crimes. The line between saint and sinner is a fine one indeed. By their works shall ye know them. I think that’s enough sermonizing, don’t you? Time for synopsizing.
Dortmunder is pulling yet another ill-fated burglary–this time on behalf of a food wholesaler named Chepkoff, who wants him to steal some high-end delectables from an importer in Tribeca. Oh yeah, about that–
This building was on the corner of two streets in a southwestern area of Manhattan recently rechristened Tribeca, which means “The Triangle Below Canal Street,” and whenever any section of New York get a cute new name–SoHo for South of Houston Street, Clinton to replace the honorable old name Hell’s Kitchen, even NoHo for North of Houston Street–it means the real estate developers and gentrifiers and condominiumizers have become thick as locusts. It means the old handbag factories and sheet metal shops and moving companies are being replaced by high-ticket housing. And it also means there’s a long transition period of years or even decades when the plumbing supply places and the divorced advertising executives coexist, uneasy neighbors, neither entirely approving of the other.
And so it remains to this day, in neighborhoods most people never even knew existed until the real estate people started touting them as the next big thing. Gowanus, anyone? Say this much though, they’re not doing the cute hybrid names so much anymore–“It’s a neighborhood built around a toxic canal, you wanna buy or rent?” I think Westlake would approve. Then again, I would have sworn he’d have disapproved of a word like ‘condominiumizer,’ so what do I know?
So Dortmunder is doing this job with a guy named O’Hara, and any hopes the latter had of joining the regular cast vanish when an alarm goes off, and the cops start closing in. O’Hara gets nabbed below, the cops ascend, and Dortmunder is off and away over the rooftops, looking for a way out. Any port in a storm, right? No atheists in foxholes.
So he winds up dropping in to visit a local convent (and I don’t have to say literally, do I?) He is discovered clinging to the chapel rafters by its denizens, the Silent Sisterhood of St. Filumena, which I presume to be as fictional as the Crispinite Monastic Order invented for Brothers Keepers, and perhaps even more eccentric–the sisters have taken a vow of silence, which they can only break on Thursdays, and it’s not Thursday. So what follows is a lively game of charades, and everybody’s having fun, until Dortmunder asks them why they can’t just write notes, at which point they look a bit embarrassed. Killjoy.
(Parenthetically–hence the parentheses–if you read that Wikipedia article I linked to, you’ll see that St. Filumena has turned out to be something of a fiction herself, or at least of rather questionable historical veracity, and her sainthood was more or less revoked, quietly, in 1961–and you can bet Westlake knew that. But he didn’t like it. No takesie-backsies, Vatican!)
So he’s wondering why they haven’t called the cops. Obviously it never occurs to him to take a hostage and bluff his way out. Leaving aside his badly sprained ankle, Dortmunder is still somewhat intimidated by memories of having been raised as an orphan (abandoned at three minutes of age, which is more data than we had before) by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery. His memories of them are not fond (they swung a mean ruler), but he was well-programmed to do whatever nuns tell him, at least when they’re looking right at him. Force of habit, you might say. Oh please, you knew that was coming.
So then Sister Mary Serene, who first discovered him, has a duel of notes with Mother Mary Forcible, over how this fugitive felon might be the answer to their prayers (again it seems redundant to say literally); a solution to the problem of Sister Mary Grace (they can’t sing either, so no Rodgers & Hammerstein sextet, more’s the pity). By the bye, there’s also a Sister Mary Chaste, a Sister Mary Lucid, a Sister Mary Amity, etc. and so forth. They don’t make nun names like that no more.
And the problem of Sister Mary Grace is this–she’s a prisoner. In a tower. How medieval. (Seriously, it is. We’ll get to that.) Her birth name was Elaine Ritter. She had come to them as a novice, their first new recruit in ages, and her youth and spirit had won their hearts, you’ve seen the movies (so many movies).
But then her ogre of a super-rich father, a godless despot who controls the lives of all his children (and aspires to control much more) had her grabbed by his goons, and she’s being held on the top floor of his office tower, where a guy who deprograms cult members is working on her. Hendrickson is his name. He’s a minor character, and he walks out well before the story is over, but he’s there for a reason–to inform us that Elaine Ritter didn’t become Sister Mary Grace on a whim. Some people might join a cult or religious order to give up their identity, and those are the people Hendrickson can reach. She’s not one of those people.
The fact is, Elaine Ritter was not at all the sort of person he usually contended with. His clients were almost always vague and confused, with very poor self-image and only a scattering of half-remembered education. Generally, they had left their homes and gone off with Swami This or Guru That mostly because they were looking for a parent other than the parents they’d left, feeling some need for a parent who was more strict, or less demanding, or more attentive, or less cloying. Different, that was the point. Different parents, a different tribe, the growth of a different self who would be so much more satisfactory than the miserable original. Religion and philosophy had little to do with those kids’ actions and decisions, and Hendrickson’s task, really, was not much more than to wake them up to the world around them and hold a mirror to their potential for selfhood. Easy.
Elaine Ritter was something else. No self-image problems for her, and religion and philosophy had everything to do with her decision to renounce the world and join that convent down in Tribeca. On the religious side, she firmly believed in God and the Catholic Church. Philosophically, she just as firmly renounced the world that men like her father had made. Vocation was a fabulous beast as far as Hendrickson was concerned, but if the beast ever did live, it was in this girl. She knew her own mind, and she would take no shit from Walter Hendrickson.
Too bad. Shit was all he had for her.
(And as Hendrickson takes his leave, later in the story, having conceded failure, he warns her that her father is conceding nothing–he’s hired a different type of deprogrammer. One who made his living in the Eastern Bloc nations, whose methods are somewhat more–intrusive. He’s broken Cardinals. He’ll break her. Unless someone breaks her out.)
Frank Ritter is very influential, has more lawyers than Disney, and can block any legal action the Sisterhood may take indefinitely. They know there isn’t much time for them to act, if they want their Sister back in one piece, mentally speaking. Possibly not just mentally speaking.
They can communicate with her through Enriqueta Tomayo, the Guatemalan housekeeper (Westlake still remembering downtrodden Guatemala from his last book), who loves the little sister, is furious about the way she’s being treated, and will happily smuggle letters on her behalf. But the security on that floor is tighter than hell (which is about how Sister Mary Grace sees it). Which is why they need a professional. Like Dortmunder.
So he says he’ll help them, and he goes home to May, and tells her what happened, and he has no intention of risking his neck for some nun he’s never met. Dortmunder’s not a bad guy, but he’s never cherished any heroic fantasies. It’s not who he is. This is high-risk, low-reward. He has enough troubles with jobs that are low-risk high-reward.
Kelp comes over, Dortmunder tells him about it, and Kelp laughs. What suckers, these nuns, letting him go with nothing more than a pledge they can’t enforce, because they don’t even know his name. Then Kelp looks at May, whose face is very stern and set. “Now you see the problem,” Dortmunder says.
Here and there in the Parker novels, Claire Carroll would try to serve as Parker’s conscience, steer him to use his powers for good, and Parker would humor her, and do just as he pleased with his powers. That’s how it works in the Stark Realms. In the Duchy of Dortmunder, women have a lot more power (in part because more women are following Dortmunder than Parker. At least that’s what the publishers think).
Dortmunder may not want to be a hero, but he’s got to at least put in a good faith effort here, or May will walk out on him–the sisters kept him from going back to prison for the rest of his life, he made a promise to them, he has to keep it. His relationship with May is the only thing in Dortmunder’s life that doesn’t seem like an endless practical joke being played on him. And he can’t live without her tuna casserole. So he and Kelp start scoping out the job. What the hell. How bad can it be?
Bad. The most advanced locks and alarm systems money can buy. Hosts of armed security men. They can’t even find the private elevator that goes up to that floor. Now on the good side, there’s a lot of rich targets they could hit in that building–dealers in jewelry, antiques, and (to Kelp’s delight) a magic shop. If they could figure out a way to get into those places, and get the swag out undetected, they could maybe get some of their colleagues interested. This is definitely not a two-man job.
But Dortmunder just doesn’t have enough information about the security, and May’s research at the library makes this Ritter sound pretty intimidating–the guy effectively owns whole countries in Latin America (Dortmunder doesn’t understand how that’s possible, and May has to explain about national debts and stuff). He’s nobody you want to piss off. And as matters stand, if Dortmunder gets picked up for so much as jaywalking, he’s going away for life as a repeat offender.
May doesn’t like it, but she’s ready to concede that it’s not looking like a good idea to pull this nun-heist, promise or no promise. She doesn’t want to visit John in the joint for the rest of eternity. She’s grown accustomed his face (such as it is).
But see, while Dortmunder may be more hen-pecked than Parker, he shares one very key aspect with him–once he actually starts working on a job, he has a hard time letting go of it. A dog with a bone. He’s proud of his larcenous skill set. “I don’t like to believe there’s a place I can’t get in and back out again,” he tells her. And something in you sings a little bit when he says it. He’s our guy.
But he’s May’s guy too, and she reluctantly says she’ll go with him to the convent, and explain his dereliction of duty to the Silent Sisters (on Thursday, so they won’t have to do the charades thing). May wasn’t raised by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, so she’s not so intimidated by nuns.
Now as Dortmunder and May enter the convent to break the sad news–you see that letter Mother Mary Forcible sent Sister Mary Grace up top–where she mentioned that maybe there was some information about the place of her confinement that she could share with the latterday Dismas? Sister Mary Grace is no wilting violet–she’s a rose with many thorns. She figured out the internal security code that gets her past some of the doors in her fairly capacious cell.
She still can’t escape, but she can go places she’s not supposed to go, and she got her hands on something she’s not supposed to have–the security manuals for the entire building. Specs and schematics for all the alarm systems. A list of all the tenants–including the businesses Dortmunder & Kelp have it in their minds to rob, and how much security each has opted to pay for. Everything he could possibly have asked for and more. The Idiot’s Guide to Heisting The Avalon State Bank Tower. Is what gets dropped right in his lap, before he can say a word about quitting.
And his eyes shining, the path before him now clear, his vocation fully engaged, Dortmunder says to Mother Mary Forcible, “Let us prey.” He’s not passing her a note, so she doesn’t have to know how he’s mentally spelling it.
So that’s how Part One ends. Entitled Genesis. Part Two is Numbers. Yes, it’s a theme.
And this is a very short Part 1 (for me), but it seems like a good spot for a break (Part 2 will be arranged somewhat differently), and I wanted to get this kicked off before The Feast of St. Dismas concludes. I did not plan to reach this book around the time of that feast day, let alone Good Friday, in case you were wondering. Call it divine intervention. And now comes the divine intermission.
Happy Easter, all. Praying for the early completion of Part 2, long life to the Pope (if Benedict hadn’t resigned, I’d be more lukewarm about that), forgiveness of the Souls who go see that Batman v. Superman movie (my idea of purgatory), and the conversion of godless Ray Garraty, I remain, as ever.
Brotherhood of the Mock-clever Review Segue.