Monthly Archives: April 2016

Review: What I Tell You Three Times Is False

 

“That is excellent. I think, perhaps, it is almost time that I prepare for the new role I have to play.”

He disappeared into his bedroom and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman. His broad black hat, his baggy trousers, his white tie, his sympathetic smile, and general look of peering and benevolent curiosity were such as Mr. John Hare alone could have equalled. It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.

From A Scandal in Bohemia, by Arthur Conan Doyle

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.

Lewis Carroll

Bly said, “You know, when Jack French said that about Daphne having been killed by her lover in a rage, that’s when I knew for absolute sure that he was wrong and Harriet isn’t the killer.  Because that thing wasn’t done in a rage, or any kind of high emotion at all.  It was cold and planned, Raven without the limp.”

Bly tends to be surrounded from time to time by bewildered faces, and here it had happened again.  Doubtfully, Mort said to her, “Is that something from Poe?”

I answered for her, mostly because I’m always pleased when I follow that labyrinthine brain of hers.  I said, “No, it’s Graham Greene.  Raven was the professional killer with a limp, the lead character in This Gun For Hire.”

“Sorry,” Bly said.  “Those things just slip out.”

The four Sam Holt mysteries Westlake wrote in the 1980’s have been following an arc roughly equivalent to that of the five Mitch Tobin mysteries he wrote in the 1960’s.  The first book in each series introduces a character who has lost his profession, though their reactions are quite different.  Mitch Tobin can no longer work as a police detective, and doesn’t care, because he’s given up on life, on himself. Sam Holt can no longer get work as an actor, and he cares a lot, and hasn’t given up on anything, least of all himself.  There’s  not much similarity in the cases they’re presented with in their first outings, though.

The second book for each is about somebody they have a connection to coming to them with a problem to be solved.  Again, the stories are very different, but the emotional core is the same–the reluctant detective, feeling obliged to put in an effort, solves the mystery, but feels no sense of triumph in doing so.  Mitch Tobin has at least saved a young woman he’s related to from wrongful imprisonment or institutionalization for a murder she did not commit.  But Sam Holt has merely helped make up for failing to prevent an old friend’s murder by picking up where his friend left off, and finding his murderer, which may or may not lead to a helpful resolution of the larger case his friend was working on.

I don’t know that Westlake was actively looking to follow the arc of the Tobin mysteries when he wrote the first two–he certainly knew from the get-go there were similarities between the two series and their protagonists.  He’d have wanted to avoid too direct a likeness between them for that very reason (while still leaving hints for observant readers that their authors were one and the same).  But by the time he wrote the third one, he’d seemingly become more aware of the  parallels that were nonetheless emerging, and decided that he’d do for Holt precisely what he’d done for Tobin in Wax Apple.  

That is to say, take Holt entirely out of his daily life in New York and L.A., confine him in an enclosed space, put him in close quarters with people who are suffering from professional difficulties similar to his, then force him to solve what is generally referred to as a parlor mystery or even better, a country house mystery.  The kind that more traditional and not even slightly hard-boiled detectives typically solve. Detectives like the three you see up top, underneath the book covers.  Do I need to tell you who they are?  I didn’t think so.

There’s a touch of the parlor mystery in I Know A Trick Worth Two of That (the murder happens at a party and is solved at one), but Sam’s constantly moving around during that one, coast to coast, New York to Atlantic City and back again. This time he’s going to be placed into an environment with exceedingly limited range of movement, where just walking away from the murder house (which is what most sane people would do, after all) isn’t even an option.

(Westlake did something similar in The Dame, by virtue of having Grofield be held prisoner by a vengeful mobster in Puerto Rico, but even there, Grofield got to escape for a while and frolic with a hot blonde before coming back to face the music and solve the mystery.)

A truly epic level of contrivance here, and one that reminds us of perhaps the least ‘cozy’ mystery Agatha Christie ever wrote–the one where no cerebral sleuth steps in to save the day.  Also the one that originally had the most offensive title of any mystery ever (when did the n-word become publicly verboten in the UK?).  The current title offends nobody, but kind of spoils the ending.

It was right around this time that the Westlakes (Donald and Abby) got involved in planning murder mystery weekends at the Mohonk Mountain House (I’ve never stayed there, but I’ve seen it in person, and small wonder Stephen King made it a setting in one of his books).  They collaborated on two books documenting the comically gruesome scenarios they’d dreamed up for the guests, which I’m sure were supremely fun to enact, but having read those books, I’m thinking you had to be there.   Meant to be played, not read.  Only Westlake books I can think of where the cover is the best thing.  I only wish Messrs. Gorey & Wilson had provided the artwork for other Westlake books, but alas.

(I’ve pretty much decided not to review these books in depth, since they have none, so I guess this is my review.  You can check them off your list, if you’re keeping track.)

So all these things factored into the creation of this book, but above all, I think it’s Sam Holt’s version of Wax Apple–and Wax Apple is, to my way of thinking, the finest murder mystery Donald Westlake ever wrote, and my personal favorite of any murder mystery I’ve ever read.  He liked this kind of story, had a long relationship with it, but he didn’t really believe in it–the setting of the Tobin novel, a halfway house for recovering mental patients, gave him that grounding in reality he needed to make the story ring true (as did Tobin, which is why he’ll always be Westlake’s supreme achievement in the art of whodunitry).

And this book we’re looking at now is as far from reality as you can get without bringing in the supernatural.  I think the idea was that Holt, stuck in a confined space with other actors trapped in a single role, would have some kind of small personal epiphany, that could lead to further development of the character (the ‘narrative-push’ method of writing), but if that’s what it was, it doesn’t really work here.

Sam Holt resolutely resisted character development.  It’s the TV Detective in him–much as I love and revere The Rockford Files, did Jim Rockford develop one iota from start to finish?  He developed bad knees, but that’s about it.  When they brought him back for those TV movies years later, he’d developed male pattern baldness, but was otherwise unaltered. Holt is such a dedicated health buff, with such award-winning genes, unlikely he’d even develop that way.

Holt’s very much the same guy when we leave him as when we first met him.  None of his issues have been resolved, nor does any resolution seem to be in the offing.  That, in my opinion, is the real reason Westlake left him.  And overall, I’d say this is his least distinguished outing to date.  But like any Westlake novel, this has many interesting little rooms and winding hallways to explore.  So let’s explore.

As the story begins, Sam and his west coast gal pal, Bly Quinn, are flying in a small private plane to a tiny remote island, off the coast of Latin America, where an eccentric drug lord who clearly saw too many Bond movies built himself a sort of castle out of the bedrock the island is made of.  There’s basically nothing else on the island.   I suppose there’s a slight echo of The Handle here, and maybe even Slayground, but this is no casino, nor is it an amusement park.  It’s a redoubt.

The drug lord was apprehended by the law, and wanting the princely abode upon which he’d lavished so much loving attention to to be cared for, he cut a deal–he’d rat out many a highly-placed associate if they’d let him turn the house over to these Hollywood producers he knew, and they would maintain it, and not let it be used in any way not befitting a drug lord’s dream house.

The producers, Danny Douglas, and Mort Weinstein, presented with this white elephant (paid for by white powder), want to use it as a sort of studio, shooting various things there, renting it out for other people’s productions, setting up editing facilities and such.  This sounds so horribly impractical, even as I type it (the real story turns out to be more complicated, but you can read the book for the details).  I guess weirder things have happened in the world of entertainment.  Looking at you, Waterworld.

They’re not fully set up for this yet, but they do have this small PSA project they’re working on now.  The idea is that four famous fictional detectives played by actors who achieved fame by playing them will go looking for a cure for cancer in a spooky old mansion, only to learn that the best way to fight it is to support The American Cancer Society.   And as Sam sourly thinks to himself, they probably only called his agent because James Garner and Tom Selleck both said no.

He wasn’t going to do it, but on the way to a nice weekend in the Hamptons with his east coast girl, Anita Imperato, she convinced him that he needs to think about something besides his career, or lack thereof.  He doesn’t want to play Jack Packard anymore–not even in dinner theatre, which was an actual proposal made to him by a producer in the first book–but this is for a good cause, and he should do it.  And he should take ‘the tennis player’ (Anita’s dismissive term for Bly), because Anita can’t leave her restaurant that long.  Sam wisely makes no response to this rather odd suggestion from a woman he’s been seriously dating for years, but to us he remarks–

Mmm.  Anita and Bly have never met, which we all think of as a good idea, but they are aware of each other.  It’s complicated enough to be involved with two women on two coasts three thousand miles apart in the first place; I’m not going to make matters worse by lying to anybody.  This arrangement grew of itself, without anybody planning it, and though it usually works out reasonably well, the living isn’t always easy.  I suppose there’s some of the same selfishness at work that Anita had just jabbed me for in connection with the Cancer Society spot, but the fact is, I could not possibly choose either Anita or Bly to give up, and neither one of them wants to give up on me–at least, not so far–so we just go along and try not to worry about it.  And on those rare occasions when one of them makes a glancing reference to the other–rather like a glancing blow in the Golden Gloves–I just watch the scenery go by and listen to the silence for a while.  As I did this time, and the next thing Anita said had to do with the people we were visiting, so that was that.

To re-purpose Fitzgerald (F. Scott, not Harriet); rich celebrities are very different from you and me–they have more lovers.

And Bly is clearly the appropriate companion for Sam in this book, since she’s the one who always wants Sam to play detective (I suspect she didn’t approve of his decision to give up playing Packard after a mere five seasons, when the show was still hugely popular), and in fact she’ll spend much of her time on the island geeking out and making mental notes.

Anita would like Sam to move into legit theater and a more grounded lifestyle (that would not-so-coincidentally entail him being in New York a lot more); Bly would prefer he find work in Hollywood, and moonlight as a real sleuth, with her tagging along as an exceptionally sexy Watson.  And he can’t figure out what the hell he wants, so he pursues both career options while enjoying both romantic options.  Fitzgerald might have something to say about that as well, but it’ll keep.

Sam’s co-stars in this PSA are Harriet Fitzgerald, the current TV incarnation of Miss Marple–Clement Hasbrouck, the reigning Prince of Baker Street–and Fred Li.  Fred is the first Asian-American to play Charlie Chan, a character yet to be played in our reality by a non-occidental, except in China.  They, like Sam, are both benefiting and suffering from an age-old actor’s complaint–captives of their characters.   But as that article I just linked to makes clear, not all actors react the same way to this situation.

Harriet takes it all in good spirit, a classically stage-trained British trouper, who had a good career before Miss Marple came along to more or less supplement her retirement income.  Fred mainly feels lucky that there’s a well-paying leading role for a short plump Asian guy with a sly sense of humor (his father, also an actor, played a lot of amiable chuck-wagon cooks in westerns).  Clement, in contrast to everyone else, has become utterly possessed by Holmes, and can’t seem to imagine a life without him.

(Sidebar: I feel certain Westlake must have seen at least some of Jeremy Brett’s version of Holmes, which had aired in America for several years by the time he wrote this.  And much as there are some real points of difference between Mr. Brett and Mr. Hasbrouck, whose accent is described as ‘mid-lantic’–I do wonder if Clement is a bit of a dig at Brett.  It may simply be that I can’t imagine anyone else as Holmes anymore.  To me, it was a grand and glorious thing to know back then that I was witnessing the most brilliant and compelling thespian interpretation of The Great Detective, and let me just say the current interpretations have only confirmed me in that belief.

But Westlake more than once expressed a certain coldness towards Holmes, even while referring to him constantly.  He must have been reading Conan Doyle long before he got to Hammett.  Something about the authoritative nature of the character–and the writing–may have rubbed him the wrong way.  I’m probably saying too much here.  Oh well, it’s not that great a mystery.)

So these are the four famous detectives, and Sam feels like a rather odd duck among them, since he’s the only actor to ever play Packard, a creature of television, with no literary antecedents.  He also feels out of place because the other three had much more varied interesting careers than him before settling into the roles that ended up defining them.  I mean, it is a bit like they stuck Magnum P.I. or Remington Steele into this movie.  (Except Selleck and Brosnan never had much trouble finding work afterwards, did they?  Sure, rub it in, why don’t you? )

Murder_by_death_movie_poster

(I would imagine Westlake might have thought something along the lines of “If they’re going to call me the Neil Simon of the crime novel, I might as well live up to the name.  Or down to it.”)

So anyway, you know what’s coming, right?  I don’t even have to say it.  But I will anyway.  Somebody is murdered.  The entire party of actors, their various companions, the producers, and one director (named Jack French, another clue to the author’s identity for those who had read The Rare Coin Score) were already in a somber mood, having witnessed the pilot who flew them in crashing into the sea as he tried to make it back to the landing strip in a major storm–a storm that has made the island completely inaccessible for the time being).  He wasn’t murdered–as far as anyone knows–but everybody is thinking about death now.

And then Daphne Wheeler, Harriet’s ‘longtime companion’ (as they used to say), is found dead in the bathroom, an apparent suicide–but hark!  Clement finds a clue!  A small feather floating in the bathtub, that proves she was smothered with a pillow, then dragged into the shared bathroom, where the killer slashed her wrists to feign suicide.  Quickly Watson, the game’s afoot!   And that quote is originally from Henry V, but never mind that now!

Harriet, who had a terrible fight with Daphne at dinner, is obviously a suspect, but her grief and shock seem too overwhelming to be an act–then again, she’s one of the finest stage-trained actresses of her generation.  Jack French, a recovering alcoholic, knew Daphne from before–she may have had some damaging information about him.  Professor Plum–oh never mind, bad joke.

In the meantime, George, the Jamaican cook hired on by Danny and Mort, assumes the police will pin it on him because he’s black.  Which to be fair, is exactly how a lot of real policemen play Clue, but Sam reassures him that in a situation like this, there’s no way the real cops won’t find the real killer.  When they arrive.  After the storm has ended. Days from now.  Did I mention somebody smashed the radio after Daphne’s murder was called in?   It’s starting to seem less of a murder mystery than an homage to hoary dramatic clichés.  Made somewhat believable by the fact that the murderer is clearly reacting to those very clichés.  But why?

Jack French, aggravated in the extreme by Clement’s impromptu investigation, disappears before anyone can really question him–search parties come up empty, but there is no way he could have left the house during the storm, short of falling to his death.  There’s a cryptic message written on his bed sheet–in Pepto Bismol.

Harriet is incommunicado.  Clement is all agog at the chance to solve a real mystery, become Holmes in the flesh.  And Fred keeps resorting to Chan-related aphorisms, many of which he made up himself.  “When danger threatens, is not the time to discuss the price of tea.”   (I never really liked those movies, but I always felt like I should, somehow)

Meanwhile, Sam and Bly are trading quips, drinking, and having lots of sex, which I suppose could be considered an homage to Nick and Nora.  In fact, that’s exactly what it is.  But there’s some dispute over who’s going to play Nick.

There’s an expression Bly gets in her eye every once in a while that I think of as her plot-maven look.  Being a writer of television sitcoms, she lives with those simple threads of storyline on which one strings the broad dialogue that goes in front of the laughtrack.  It’s impossible work unless you have a knack for it, like Bly, in which case it’s apparently very easy.  And from time to time I can see her busy brain reducing the circumstances of reality to the dimensions of a sitcom pilot, looking for the storyline, the useful pegs, the broadly laid-in motivations.  She had that look in her eye when I finished telling her about the initials in Jack French’s bed, and I said to her, “There’s no laughtrack on this one, Bly.”

“Somebody,” she said darkly, “is playing a double game.”

Bly really is the life of this party, the one making all the sharpest pop cultural references (she and Fred have this running bit where he’s an evil Japanese commandant and she’s a plucky Yank).  She’s actually rather delighted to be there in the midst of this dangerous situation, and isn’t really that bothered by all the murdering going on–and yet, she sobbed in Sam’s arms after witnessing the pilot die in that crash.  Basically, she’s so familiar with the genre the killer is parroting, the other deaths aren’t real to her–or to us.

That’s kind of the point Westlake is making here, and he’s made it before.  The murder mystery, as practiced by most writers, is a distancing device.  We’re all going to be killed by something, but the mystery story makes death a solvable problem, with an identifiable culprit who can be apprehended and punished (unlike cancer, which just recently murdered one of my dearest friends–no arrests so far).  How does finding the murderer and punishing him or her make the murder any less horrible?

Well, maybe some people might say there’s a point to that.  Harriet Fitzgerald, for one.  Harriet truly loved Daphne, and she’s learning that she differs greatly with Miss Marple over the healing powers of knowledge and justice.  She doesn’t want justice.  She wants vengeance.  She knows the killer will be found once the police arrive.

“But then,” she said, “they’ll fly him away to the mainland and give him psychiatric examinations, and the newspapers will be full of headlines about him, and the picture will be on television and he will be treated as a very important and interesting celebrit for a while.  And even more so if it turns out to be a woman.”

“That’s all true,” I admitted.  “But only for a few months.  And then the trial–”

“Commitment, I should think,” she corrected me, “as he or she certainly is mad.  In any event, whatever jurisdiction we eventually turn out to be in, whatever set of laws our murderer will face, the death penalty is extremely unlikely.  So, whether it’s commitment or a trial, at the end of it there he’ll be, or there she will be, warm and cozy, with a lovely scrapbook of clippings. And here I’ll be, without Daphne.”

“I see what you mean.”

“It’s more than unfair,” she said.  “Because, no matter what, he’s going to win.  Or she’s going to win.  It doesn’t matter if that person is caught or not, he’s won already.  So that’s why I would like to murder him–or her–myself.  I just see that gloating figure, in a comfortable little room somewhere, not even a cell really, leafing through the scrapbook.  I’d like to remove that vision from both my imagination and from reality.”

“I can see why you would.”

“So that’s another difference between Miss Marple and myself,” Harriet said with a very cold smile.  “She wants to solve murders and tidy up.  I want to commit a murder.  That’s my kind of tidying up.”

(Note to self: How much Patricia Highsmith was Westlake reading in this time period?  Had they actually met?   Did they ever?  Based on comments he made, I believe he actually wrote that screenplay adaptation of Ripley Under Ground before she passed.  He loved her writing. He wasn’t so sure about her, personally.)

As Sam ponders the clues, homing in on the answer, the score is up to three murders.  Mort Weinstein is found stabbed to death.  Jack French is shortly after discovered in the walk-in freezer, with a wire hanger wrapped around his neck (he got it before Mort did).  The murderer is telling them something, not once, but three times.  But what the murderer is telling them is a lie.   There’s no heart to these murders, no comprehensible motive.  They aren’t personal.  That’s what makes them so unforgivable.

But all through the story, the people there are distracting themselves from the horror (and the fear of death, since any of them might be next) with seemingly pointless conversations about fiction, movies mostly.

Fred’s companion, Crosby Tucker, a tall glamorous African American torch singer, at least has something useful to do–Clement’s wife collapses, and since her formidable mother only let her become a singer on condition that she study to be a nurse (in case the singing career failed), she’s coming in quite handy.  And pretty sure I detect a little echo of a character from Up Your Banners, but times have certainly changed, and this is not an exercise in social realism with a satiric filter, like that book.

But mostly they just eat, drink, and gather together for safety, talking about things that don’t matter (though never the price of tea)–except they do matter, to this particular professional gathering, because changes in the fashions of popular entertainment impact them all.

For example, what happened to the western?  How could that whole genre just up and die, or at least wither away to a mere shell of its former self, after being so dominant for so long?   Clement (who has contempt for any genre he can’t get work in) says the audience grew tired of them because they were just rote repetitive formula.  Fred points out that mysteries are mainly pretty hackneyed as well, while Crosby says  that most westerns had stopped being original long before they began to disappear from big and small screens.  Harriet says society stopped valuing the rugged individualist so much.  She mentions Star Wars as an example of something that may have western trappings, but is really much more about team effort.

Danny Douglas has the best answer–or at least the answer I know Westlake himself most favored, since he mentioned it in an essay once.  Then again, probably all the characters in this debate are expressing opinions he’s considered himself–the Shavian approach.  An internal debate, made external. Anyway, Danny says the western killed itself, via Deconstruction.  As in Derrida.  But much less intellectual.

Bly protests that deconstruction has its uses (Sam knows she herself wrote that kind of story before she sold out to Sitcomland).  There’s nothing wrong with a story that’s aware it’s a story.  That’s a valid approach, she thinks.  Danny thinks it’s an inherently self-defeating approach, particularly for popular entertainments.  Here’s part of their exchange–

Crosby said, “What do you mean, the story’s aware it’s a story?”

“By referring to itself,” Bly told her, “and by referring to the whole line of stories that came before it in that genre.  In a western, the tough but honest foreman is aware that he’s an archetype, that Ward Bond is the basic figure he’s modeled after, and that the purpose he’s been created for is to represent that element of the story and not to live a regular life like a regular human being.  He knows he’s a Kabuki mask, and once we all agree that’s what he is, then he can comment on and even disagree with the values his character represents.  Like Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles, who knew he was playing the smooth evil saloon owner and was delighted at how well he was doing the part.

“That’s the trouble with deconstruction right there,” Danny said.  “You can’t tell a straight serious story with it.  You can only do comedy, and the comedy usually comes out pretty goddam arch.  Once you’ve got westerns like Dirty Dingus Magee and Goin’ South, where the actors spend all their time winking at the audience, the western was through.  Audiences thought they were being made fun of, and audiences don’t like that.  So they left the wise guys winking and grinning and making believe they were hip, and the audience went somewhere else.”

The irony of the exchange, of course, is that Westlake is doing precisely what he’s critiquing here, referring directly to earlier manifestations of the mystery form, and winking to beat the band.  That quite assuredly means he doesn’t expect anyone to really believe in Sam Holt, and doesn’t really believe in Sam himself.

This was the last of the Holt novels completed before Tor Books ruined his fun by revealing he was Holt, but assuming he didn’t write this in after that happened (and I find that hard to believe), he was having problems with this series well before that small professional betrayal occurred.

And he’s suggesting, obliquely, that the mystery may be running into the same problems as the western–at least as he writes it.  Mystery is a larger more complex genre than the western, but except for the police procedural (which takes itself perhaps too seriously, except for the occasional outright parody–and do check out Angie Tribeca when you get a chance), isn’t the current crop of TV mysteries incredibly arch and self-referential–and low-rated?

And when’s the last time we saw a real cerebral whodunnit mystery story on the big screen that amounted to anything much?  No, those garish SciFi Action pics with Robert Downey Jr. do not count.  Noir is a separate room within the mystery manse.  And yeah, they still make westerns too, but c’mon.  It’s dead, Jim.  As a viable genre, dead.  Every western that comes out now is either an homage to or a commentary on past westerns.  Danny’s right.

He’s also dead, by the end–the tally is four.   I don’t know how this works with the title.  The titles for this series can be problematic as well.  The entire series is problematic.  And I have to admit, I enjoy the problems.  But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t much rather have an organic well-balanced crime story that fully grips and convinces me while I read it, even if I look for hidden meanings in it afterwards.  Westlake at his best delivers that kind of story as well as anyone ever has.  But he must have been asking himself, more and more often, if he’d ever do it again.

Critics often go crazy over self-referential deconstructionist genre stories, preferring them to the stories they’re sending up.  But Westlake is clearly (and I would say deliberately) blocking any potential appreciation on that front by mocking and deriding this type of storytelling even as he resorts to it.  You remember what he said–a hack is someone who writes something he does not believe himself.  Is this hackwork?

At points, yes–self-consciously so.  But then he turns it on its head–the winking stops, and the story becomes deadly serious, reminding us that no matter how many pop cultural references we amass within our fevered overloaded brains, trying to avoid reality, reality comes for us all, regardless.  Harriet, the most deadly serious character in this book, the least enamored of her alter-ego, gets most of the best lines towards the end.

“The survivors,” Harriet said without expression, looking at her plate, “take longer to die.”  No one found anything to say to that.

The drug angle resurfaces late in the story with a vengeance–people in showbiz quite often self-medicate to avoid the crushing weight of reality impinging on their unreal world, and that comes with many terrible consequences, to them, and to a host of poor people who get caught up in the drug trade ( I’m all for ending the War On Drugs, but face it, if we legalized every drug there is, they’d just invent new ones for people to buy for that thrill of illegality–we’re going to legalize crystal meth?  PCP?  Heroin?  Crack cocaine?).  It turns out drugs are behind the murders–including the drug called fame.

Fred and Sam had been in a sort of friendly competition over who might solve the mystery (Clement too, but there was nothing friendly about that).  As the book draws near to its conclusion, and Sam is second-guessing how he’s done here, the lives he might have saved if he’d been quicker on the uptake, Fred offers a combination of reassurance mingled with good advice.  And he can’t resist going back into character, but somehow it works this time.  There’s nothing wrong with a bit of wry self-awareness, as long as it doesn’t get out of control.

“Well, what I think is,” Fred went on, “if this will make you feel any better, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have seen it.”  Grinning at me, he dropped into his Charlie Chan.  “Wise man who know limits of own wisdom not likely to fall off edge.”

“Thanks, Fred,” I said.  “I appreciate that.”

“Oh it’s sincere,” Fred told me.

“Sunshine,” Bly said, looking out the window

Donald E. Westlake knew the limits of his wisdom–and  his talents–all too well. He was pushing against them hard in the late 80’s, looking for an out. He knew Sam Holt wasn’t it.  But he owed Tor Books another one.  So that’s next in the queue (even though it came out after two other Non-Holt books, because I am more than ready to ring down the curtain on this exhibit).

There is no equivalent to A Jade In Aries in this series (how could a story about gay men as an outsider subculture work in the context of the entertainment world in the 1980’s?). But there is a pretty clear analog to Don’t Lie To Me, the last (and least) of the Tobins.  Will the last of the Holts also be the least?   Tell you next time.

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Filed under Samuel Holt Novels, What I Tell You Three Times Is False, novel

Review: I Know A Trick Worth Two Of That

 

Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus—yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.

From The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad.

 This table is set for twelve,” she said.  “but there are thirteen of us.”

“One of us won’t be staying,” I said.

Well, I may be a mere television actor, lacking stage experience, but I do know how to deliver a good line.  I couldn’t have gotten more attention at that moment if I’d announced I was the reincarnation of Vishnu.  Everybody gaped at me, and Terry Young said, “You don’t mean it, Sam?  You cracked the goddam thing?”

“Yes.”

Enjoy those three foreign editions of the first Holt novel I posted up top last week?  They’re going to have to tide you over a while, because the Official Westlake Blog has no more of the same to offer with regards to the other three books in this series.  I’ll have to make do with the Tor first editions and the much more recent Felony & Mayhem paperback reprints (which I cordially loathe, though they probably do give a fairly accurate if superficial rendition of how most people would have perceived the Holt novels).

Tor Books may have done Westlake the dirty in terms of not keeping the secret of who ‘Samuel Holt’ really was, and most of their covers for this series were just okay, but for this book they really outdid themselves–that’s a brilliant little bit of cover art, that tells you just enough about the story and sets the mood perfectly–whoever did it clearly read the book carefully (as opposed to whoever did the paperback reprint cover up top, though I suppose he did at least give us a fair rendition of Anita Imperato–Bly Quinn never made the cover–except are we supposed to believe Anita is almost as tall as Sam?  Those heels aren’t that high).

And in my estimation, this is the Holt book that most especially rewards the careful reader.  It’s my personal favorite of the bunch.  And it’s still just okay.  But Donald Westlake’s version of okay is several cuts above the average mystery writer’s best work.

The first novel had been a ‘mystery’ in the broader sense of the term–violent mysterious goings-on, questions that need to be answered, villains that must ultimately be dispatched, but it almost falls more under the heading of an espionage novel (or certain types of P.I. novel).

The remaining three books in the series, beginning with this, had unemployed actor Samuel Holt playing detective in the classic sense–somebody is dead, and he has to solve the murder.   He doesn’t want to–he’s a reluctant detective, like pretty nearly all of the Westlake sleuths.  He’s dragooned into it, a victim of circumstances, and he’s not really trained to be a detective–he just played one on TV.  So in each case, Westlake had to be innovative in terms of how he motivated his sleuth.

A real weakness in this series, which I’m going to get out of the way now, and which I just know was bothering Westlake at the time, is that no matter how cunningly the author motivated his hero, there’s an underlying improbability to the whole thing that works for a television show–like Packard–but not so well for this.  Why does Mr. Holt keep getting into these situations?  And why does he never ask himself that question?

In the course of what seems to be less than a year (starting in winter) he foils a terrorist plot, then solves three completely unconnected incidences of murder relating to people he was acquainted with in one way or another.  I used to cruelly tease my poor mother about this kind of contrivance when it came to her favorite show, Murder She Wrote–clearly Jessica Fletcher was doing the murders herself–how else can you explain all the bodies dropping wherever she goes?   How else could her sleepy New England hamlet have a homicide rate that rivals Detroit?  Hmm, that question probably ties better into the book after this one, but let it go for now.

Since Sam is a TV star, trying desperately to escape the role everybody knows him for, in which his character was constantly running into unsolved murders, obviously this is more or less along the lines of “Magnum P.I. meets Pirandello.”  One character in search of an exit.  Somebody is playing a very extended practical joke on him, and we know who that is.  But he doesn’t.

It’s not just a joke, though–a mere satiric commentary on murder mystery conventions, such as we saw in A Travesty.  Westlake hated the way mysteries made light of murder, ignored its deeper emotional aspects, and generally comported themselves as if to say the detective could solve all problems in life by solving the conundrum of whodunnit.

He’d been making a similar commentary in the Tobin novels, but since Tobin was a former police detective who needed money to support his family while he diverted  himself from thoughts of suicide by building a wall in his backyard, it was easier to make the reader believe he could run into five murder mysteries over the course of a few years, and then solve them.  People would bring the mysteries to him, he’d try to come up with some excuse for not investigating them, but he’d always get dragged into it somehow, because Life just wouldn’t leave him alone to brood on his sins and dabble in masonry.

Sam is a rich TV actor with many highly pleasurable diversions (blonde and brunette), no family to support (he seems to have lost both his parents, only occasionally visits his remaining family in Long Island), and he has four mysteries to solve in less than one year.  The mysteries have to revolve around his career (or lack thereof) somehow.  So the first one comes from him knowing a TV writer in trouble.  And the second will likewise stem from a personal connection, somebody who needs his help.  The third and fourth will also stem from his professional limbo.

But it’s an inherently self-limiting premise.  And a writer of Westlake’s caliber couldn’t possibly be unaware of that.  A less exacting writer could have probably written dozens of Holts (Richard Prather wrote forty-one Shell Scott mysteries), and maybe there would have been an actual TV series based on them at some point, but Westlake wants these to be real books that really mean something.  Let’s see how he does with this one.

It all starts when Sam gets a call from somebody claiming to be Holton Hickey–Sam Holt’s real name.  Somebody from his past, obviously–and Sam realizes it has to be his old partner on the Mineola police force, Doug Walford.  But he doesn’t want to identify himself over the phone, for some reason–and he wants Sam to meet him in a spot way out on Long Island where they used to ‘coop’–take a nap in their squad car when they were supposed to be on duty.  Sam agrees to the meeting and the call ends.

(Walford is a name that crops up here and there in the Westlake canon–first appearance I know of was in Wax Apple, one of the Tobin mysteries.  There was a Walford in the previous Holt book as well.  I don’t know what the significance of it is for Westlake–in Wax Apple and this book it’s seemingly a reference to a road not taken and just as well it wasn’t–but as I’ve already mentioned, I think this was one of the many little hints Westlake put in the Holt books that were supposed to tip sharp-eyed readers off as to who really wrote them).

But before he goes out there for the meet, he’s got dinner plans at Anita’s restaurant, Vitto Impero, where he’s also dining with his reporter friend Terry Young (a columnist for the Daily News who got into a big fight with Sam when assigned to interview him, and that’s how they became chums), Terry’s German-born wife Gretchen (who Sam greatly admires and ze feeling is moochul), and his personal physician (when he’s in New York), Bill Ackerson, plus Bill’s date, who doesn’t really figure into anything.

So Sam has to make his excuses early to pick up a rental car and get out to the sticks, and Anita jokes lightly that he better not be ‘three-timing’ her.  She accepts his west coast relationship with Bly Quinn, because to a Manhattan girl like her, nothing that happens west of the Hudson really matters–if he was seeing somebody else on her turf, that would be something else again.  She’s kidding on the square, he realizes, and he can’t tell her where he’s going, or who he’s meeting up with.  But he still has to go.

So he gets out to the meeting place, and after waiting around a while, gets back in the car, feeling a bit disgusted with himself–and Doug’s been waiting in there for him, hiding in the back seat. He snuck in and waited for Sam to get bored.  He tells Sam to just start the car and take him back to the city.  He’s being that careful.  And Sam is the only person on earth he trusts now.

Trusts him enough to tell him the story while they’re driving back.  After he and Sam parted ways, he got a job offer from a private detective agency.  The work was interesting enough, certainly paid better than traffic cop, but in the course of doing an investigation for a woman looking to divorce her husband, he found out some things about the husband’s business he wasn’t supposed to find out.  The husband’s name is Frank Althorn, and he’s a rich businessman, owns casinos and such.  You see where Doug’s going with this.

Frank’s not technically mobbed up–his own hands are always lily white, because that’s his function–as Terry explains to Sam later, he’s the mob’s shabbas goy–a term that has to be explained to Sam, because he only grew up near the city not in it–in New York proper, most people pick up some Yiddish terms.  A shabbas goy is a non-Jew who is employed by strictly observant Jews to do things they’re not supposed to do on the Sabbath.  And Frank Althorn does things known members of the mafia can’t do at all (like operate casinos).

Doug can’t tell Sam a whole lot about it–truth is, he still doesn’t really know what he learned that was so dangerous, and he’s been trying to find out–but it’s to do with pharmaceuticals, the legal kind, that much he knows. The woman he was living with and her kid were killed when these people tried a hit on him.  He’s been running ever since.  His one-man crusade is wearing him down.  He needs to come in from the cold for a while.

So much to the displeasure of Robinson, Sam’s personal Jeeves (only not so helpful and much less forbearing), he becomes a long-term house guest, but as Robinson reminds Sam, he’s got a dinner party coming up there in a few weeks, and it won’t be possible to hide Doug from the other guests (it’s a townhouse, not a mansion).  And as Terry informs Sam, Anita really is wondering if Sam left to see another girlfriend that night, and Sam can’t risk losing her to preserve Doug’s secret.

Anita was at the cash register, ringing up accumulated lunch receipts.  I could see her through the window in the locked front door, it now being almost three-thirty in the afternoon, lunchtime over.  Very faintly, I could hear the ding-ding-ding of the cash register.  She looked absorbed in her work, oblivious of the world around her, and I paused a few seconds before knocking, just to look at her.  A good-looking woman.  An intelligent, interesting, complex, sometimes irritable woman.  Very valuable to me.  I knocked on the glass.

So he tells her what’s going on, and she’s ready to help out, put some weight on Doug for one thing, so he’ll be harder to recognize.  They come up with an alias for him–he’s a TV writer Sam knows, having troubles with writer’s block.  He’ll mingle at the party, and everything will be fine.  Except everything isn’t.  Doug is murdered at the party.

He’s found locked in the upstairs bathroom, having apparently taken pills.  The police ask questions, Sam tells them what Doug told him, and they don’t buy it.  They write it off as suicide.  Doug Walford was depressed and paranoid, making up stories in his head to explain what had happened to him.  Sam flies back to L.A.

And that would be the story, except Sam doesn’t believe it was suicide, and after what he describes as ‘a moderately good mid-afternoon sexual encounter,’ Bly Quinn tells him so. And he’s still angry about it, and so it’s time for him to play Packard again.  With her as the daffy sidekick who pulls S.J. Perelman references out of thin air.  “Personne ici except us chickens, eh?”    

(You know why I don’t think Bly’s the right girl for him?  Because she’s so obviously Donald E. Westlake’s idealized female self-image, sharing all his interests, and Sam is his idealized macho self-image, and it’s just weird, sometimes.  The strangest take on auto-eroticism I’ve yet to encounter in literature.  But enjoyable, for all that.)

And it’s a nice drive anyway, to San Francisco, through Big Sur, to see Joe Kearny, the investigator whose firm Doug had working for him to try and get enough solid information so he could go to the law with his suspicions.  And of course Joe Kearny is clearly an alternate universe doppelganger of Dan Kearny, a tip of the hat to Joe Gores and the DKA novels, the first of which had a cross-over with Plunder Squad. I shouldn’t even need to mention that, but I will anyway.

He can’t tell them much, gives them little hope of success, but he produces Doug’s file, and tells Bly that when she’s had enough of this game, she should distract Sam.  He doesn’t know that she’s the one who always wants Sam to play detective, so she can play along with him.

And they have a good game, complete with two thugs threatening Sam out by the waterfront, as they investigate a shipping company that has some obscure tie to Frank Althorn.  The cops pull up just in time to stop the fight before it starts, and Sam wonders about that.  But one thing he knows–somebody wanted to send him a message.  He really is onto something here, but what?   All the leads have been dead-ends.  They head back for L.A. (pausing for some really great sex, because it’s a Sam Holt novel).

So they can’t expose the larger conspiracy, anymore than Doug could–they’re not equipped for it.  But as Bly reminds Sam, there is a less nebulous, more specific mystery to solve here–who actually killed Douglas Walford.  Not who gave the order, and why, but who carried it out. The suspect list is not that long.

She tells him that the real reason he’s so upset is that he knows Doug Walford was murdered, and the only possible suspects are people who attended that party–friends of his, and people his friends brought with them.  Somebody betrayed his hospitality, and his friendship, something Sam can never forgive or forget.  And furthermore, Doug was his partner, years ago, and you know what Sam Spade would say about that.  What Sam Holt says  is “Shit.”  She’s right.  And she found yet another excuse for an obscure reference, this time from The Big Knife“Why do you come fling these naked pigeons in my face?”

And naturally, one of those pigeons is Anita (she catered the event).  She is, after all, Italian, and owns a restaurant.  It’s not impossible the mob could have a hold on her.  Sam doesn’t want to believe it, he actively disbelieves it, but he can’t rule it out.  He can’t rule any of them out.  Because, like Mitch Tobin, he’s a completist.

You can’t help but think Bly is wondering if this is the moment the romantic stalemate between her and Anita gets broken in her favor, but her main concern is Sam–he’s never going to be okay with himself if he lets this go.  He’s never going to fully trust anyone again.  Already an occupational hazard for any celebrity.  To know who you are, you have to know who your real friends are.   So back to New York, to settle accounts.

He meets Bill Ackerson, his doctor, for lunch.  Softens him up with some Hollywood gossip–a well-known star, the kind who does romantic leads, who happens to be gay, has been talking about coming out of the closet, and his agent told him “Wait another ten million dollars, John.”  Damn, seems so long ago now that this was a thing (and am I naive for thinking it isn’t still very much a thing?).

Bill wants to know how a murderer could threaten someone into taking poison–Sam says they already did that on Packard–the poison would have been injected from behind, and the pills planted to explain the death. Bill, a fanatical fan of the show (Sam is appalled to find out he has every episode on tape–that’s going to be a thing too, Sam), can’t believe he forgot that one.  Anyway, it’s pretty clear Bill couldn’t have administered the injection himself–the key to this case is to figure out where everybody at the party was at the moment Doug was killed.

He’s been putting off seeing Anita.  She’s noticed that.  She demands he present himself to her, and he goes to her apartment, over the restaurant.  He kisses her passionately, then explains the situation.  She is not the least bit happy about it, but she somehow understands–and having read his list, which contains her name, has a partial solution to the problem.

Carefully folding the paper, she handed it back to me and said, “Let me offer you a drink now, okay?  If I’m the one who poisoned Doug Walford, and if I know Packard is on the case, which means sooner or later I’m bound to be found out, then I’ll poison you, too, right now, and your worries will be over.  If you survive the drink, you can run a faint pencil line through my name.  Is it a deal?”

I had to laugh.  “It’s a deal.”

“Hemlock and soda?” she asked, getting to her feet.

He’s still alive later that night, lying in bed beside her, unable to sleep–didn’t we have the same post-coital scene in Anita’s bed in the last book?  Sex with Anita seems to bring out a contemplative soul-searching side in him we never see when he’s with Bly (because what he has with Bly is a fantasy, and his thing with Anita is real, is my take).   Anita didn’t poison him, but suspicion has.

At this point, his investigation isn’t really about justice for Doug Walford, bur rather vengeance against someone who betrayed him.  And about being able to 100% trust a woman he has very deep feelings for.  It’s personal, and he can’t let go of it.

But there could be very serious personal consequences–one of the people he has to question is the very serious girlfriend of his acting chum, Brett Burgess–she can’t come up with an alibi for the party.  Brett, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, only belatedly realizes what Sam is saying, and gives him a look–tells him be careful not to break anything.  Like a friendship.

The plot thickens further, when Terry Young takes him out to Long Island to go yachting with a Republican congressman named Toomey, who Terry happens to know has been looking into links between organized crime and defective or experimental U.S. pharmaceuticals being unloaded on third world nations.  He doesn’t know anything about Doug’s murder, but it’s possible that’s what Doug stumbled into, and that means whoever killed Doug could be a link that leads to the people Toomey is after.

(Again, Westlake is using this series to write about a real issue, as he did with Islamic fundamentalism in the first Holt novel.  It’s less effective here, a bit too soap-boxy, and he seems to have dialed back on that angle for the next two books.  I’m no expert on this issue, but with decades of hindsight, I’d say it was a bit naive to think Big Pharma needed any help from the mob to do this kind of thing.  Naivete is not a trait I generally associate with Westlake, and maybe he decided he was out of his depth here.  Maybe we all are.)

Sam is still busily interrogating various friends and acquaintances–he’s got the list down to six names–he thinks.  At one point, he has to talk to Vera Slote, a fashion designer who came as Bill’s date, and later in the book she’s throwing herself at him quite unapologetically, as women often do. A rather unpleasant person, who cattily disparages Anita’s taste in clothing– but a very well-known designer, with no apparent motive, and of course none of the needed expertise to pull something like this off.  It just doesn’t seem like any of them could have done it.  Yet one of them did.

He also talks to his New York attorney, Morton Adler (one of the best supporting characters in this series, there are actors out there who could have had a ball playing him if this had ever become an actual series).  Mort says you never believe two witnesses alone–two can collude.  Three’s a crowd, when it comes to a conspiracy.

He heads out to Atlantic City to see Frank Althorn, shake the tree a bit.  Althorn has opened a new casino hotel, and the headliner at the theater there is a female stand-up comedian named Sandy Sheriff.  As luck would have it,  the guy opening for her (in this context ‘to open’ means to facilitate, make sure the talent is happy in every possible way) is Robin Corrigan, who used to make Sam’s life as a TV star so much easier when he was doing promotional stuff.  His primary concern at the present time is that the hotel, having just opened, is an organizational nightmare, and they can’t get Sandy the right kind of stool for her to use in her act.

Sam’s former life can be a nuisance at times, but at others it gives him a decided edge–he just calls Robin, and asks for an introduction to Althorn.  All he has to do in return is go to Sandy’s show, and stand up for a round of applause when she points him out. Robin is unequivocally gay, and again we see Sam has zero issues on that front–well, homophobia in straight guys is mainly about sexual insecurity, isn’t it?    Sam has nothing to be insecure about on that front, and finds Robin a delight to be around.  Robin likes Sam too, but he’s working for Sandy now, so Sam has to tread lightly.

Sandy Sheriff is, quite self-evidently, Joan Rivers.  You can know this simply by the fact that Westlake and Rivers worked together on a screenplay for a never-produced film that went by the title A Girl Named Banana.  Or you can just read her description in the book, without any background info at all, and that works about as well.  How that creative partnership ever came to pass, I have no idea, but Westlake, always interested in comedians, was very impressed with her stand-up work, as you can see here–

They found her a stool, a black one, and Sandy Sheriff, a tall skinny blonde with gawky knees and elbows, dragged it back and forth on stage behind her, occasionally sitting on it, at times leaping from it, all the while she harangued her audience, who loved her.  She talked very fast at top volume, she yelled and screamed and flung her arms around and wrestled with the stool, and I would say she used up more energy in fifty minutes on that stage than I do in a week in my gym at home in Los Angeles; and this was the first of two shows tonight.  Her material was somewhat blue, but it was mostly an inflamed report of her ongoing gun battle with the world around her: arguments with cabdrivers and telephone operators, put-downs from agents and movie stars, struggles with pets and locked doors and income-tax forms.

(Westlake’s opinion of the compatibility of his and Rivers’ comic styles can perhaps be divined from an exchange Sam has with Bly over the phone–he’s got to pretend to Robin that he’s seriously thinking about doing a project with Sandy, so he cold calls Bly–a well-known sitcom writer–and basically clues her in to act like she knows what he’s talking about when he talks about this potential series they’re working on.  She’ll play along, but she can never resist an easy punchline.  “Sandy Sheriff and Sam Holt.  Not since Wallace Beery and Rin Tin Tin.”)

So Althorn comes in, and Sam finds a way to let him know–he knows.  And Althorn finds a way to let Sam know–he better know what he could be in for if he doesn’t stop this.  And just to make sure the message hits home, he has four professionals armed with blackjacks work Sam over in the elevator later on.  They’re really professional.

At this point, Sam (bruised but not broken) makes the acquaintance of Charles Petvich, Treasury Agent, who has been keeping an eye on him–certain persons in the government are curious about his connection to Althorn.  Knowing that the thing about bureaucracies is that the left hand really doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, Sam introduces Petvich to Toomey, and now he’s got some heavy muscle of his own to aim at Althorn–but he’s still got to find the killer in order for them to have a target to zero in on, somebody to grill.

And this is when Sam finally has that flash of insight you’re waiting for in a story like this–one of his suspects slipped up, said something that clued him in–he knows who the killer is. And now comes the obligatory gathering of the suspects in the drawing room.  Only in this case, the detective has already played this scene many times in the past while pretending to be a detective on TV.  Life imitating Art imitating Life……

And it’s not anybody Sam (or the reader) really cares about, which I suppose is a bit of a cop-out, but this was never really about whodunnit, and this is true of most Westlake mystery stories, as I’ve noted in past.  I don’t want to give it away–truth is, with this genre, you can come back to a book years later, and find that you’ve forgotten how it ended.   It’s not crucial for my purposes to reveal the guilty party or parties at the party, so I won’t.  Except I will say that the best speech in the big finale scene goes to the best actor–Brett Burgess.  And Brett can be smart about some things.  Actors are smart about motivations.

But there he is, in his own townhouse, Sam Holt, a man who achieved fame and fortune playing a suave debonair amateur sleuth on television, and he’s playing it for real this time, before most of the people in this world who mean something to him, and on one level he’s enjoying himself–and on another, it feels so empty, so pointless, in a way it never did when he was faking it before the cameras.

Because, you see, he knew what he was doing it for then–to entertain people.  To fill an hour of primetime.  To sell soap.  But what did he do this for?  To prove something to himself?  To the world?  To prove he’s not just a has-been?  He still can’t get arrested in Hollywood.  But he can get somebody else arrested in New York.

He’s ruined somebody’s life–granted, that person deserves most of the blame for that, but Sam gets an assist.  And of course Doug Walford is still quite dead, and if any posthumous good comes from his quixotic one-man crusade, he won’t be around to see it.

It didn’t feel like a victory, or an accomplishment.  It didn’t feel like anything good at all.  I looked around at my friends, and saw my own feelings reflected.  “Well,” I said.  “Probably we could use another drink before dinner.  Robinson?”

As with the previous story, Sam was just trying to help out a friend, and it backfired, badly, forced him to see some things about himself he didn’t really want to acknowledge–he was trying to help Doug achieve his mission, because he didn’t have one of his own other than to go back to pretending to be someone else.  Doug was his secret sharer for a while (hence the Conrad quote up top), living clandestinely in his home, and they opened up to each other–but the strange optimism of Conrad’s ambiguous narrative won’t play here.  He still doesn’t know where to steer the ship of his life.

It’s hard to convey all the things about this book that do work–it’s much easier to convey all the things that don’t.  There are so many small scenes that come off perfectly–and Sam Holt is an interesting protagonist in that his celebrity allows him to move effortlessly through the different interlocking parts of the entertainment world, and all the other worlds (like politics and organized crime) that the entertainment world is always rubbing up against.

Westlake had spent a lot of time around people in showbiz, starting with his brief stint in small time theatricals, then writing for movies and TV, and he likes show people–he does.  They have many fine qualities, they make the world a more interesting place, and he must by his very nature appreciate anyone who is in a constant state of self-invention. He knows as well as anyone what that’s like.

But there’s something he wants to convey about that world–its unreality, the way it eats away at identity, until nobody is quite sure who they are–everybody’s as good as his or her last project.  And the fans who worship them from afar (or up close) don’t even see them as real people.  He’s going to have to find a better way to express this than these books, a darker way, and he will, soon enough, at which point he’s going to put his fascination with the world of actors aside, at long last.

But see, it’s not all bad, this world he’s showing us–he wants to be fair, as well as honest–and in the Holt books he shows that these often fairly messed up people, with their vanities and addictions and delusions, are still people, with understandable agendas and aspirations of their own.

And after all, people who aren’t in showbiz can be pretty confused as well.  Judge not lest ye be judged.  It’s not as if you wouldn’t trade places with them in a minute, right?  We’re all so damned interested in them, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.  They have the ratings and box office stats to prove we’re liars (not to mention the supermarket tabloids).

His title is yet again a hint as to the nature of the story (going to be  hard to sustain these numerical titles longterm).  And for his next trick, he’s going to take Sam Holt out of that world entirely, along with a handful of other actors trapped in their roles, in a rather odd admixture of Agatha Christie and Rod Serling–the latter of whom is mentioned in this book–by Anita, believe it or not–why should Bly get all the pop cultural references?  One little two little three little–never mind.

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Filed under I Know A Trick Worth Two Of That, novel, Samuel Holt Novels, Uncategorized

Review: One Of Us Is Wrong

But a few years later, my good bad luck made me find the big money maker.  It wasn’t that in my eyes at first.  It was a great romantic part I knew I could play better than anyone.  But it was a great box office success from the start–and then life had me where it wanted me–at from thirty-five to forty thousand net profit per season.  A fortune in those days–or even in these.

Bitterly.

What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth–well, no matter.  It’s a late day for regrets.

He glances vaguely at his cards.

My play, isn’t it?

James Tyrone–From Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill. 

Well, I can’t read backgrounders.  On the show I would never read the plot summaries, the character descriptions.  Just tell me what I say and what the other guy says, and I’ll figure out the details for myself.

Samuel Holt (playing himself) 

Perhaps now would be a good time to clearly state the premise of this four-book series, that I somehow failed to adequately explain in my very long preview to the reviews of it.   Ahem.

Holton Hickey, born and raised in Mineola, Long Island, dropped out of an upstate college after one year, and joined the army, mainly serving as an MP in Germany, and playing on the basketball team, because he’d shot up to six feet six inches in height, and was a strong athletic guy.  After his hitch was over, he went back home and spent a year and a half on the local police force, traffic detail for the most part.

Then one fine day, a film crew came to town, and he was, as the saying goes, ‘discovered.’  Didn’t have to hang out at Schwab’s Pharmacy.  Never even thought about being an actor before that day.  Never really had any long-term ambitions to speak of.  If he wasn’t ridiculously tall and a cop, he could have easily qualified as the lead of a Westlake ‘Nephew’ book.  But this was too good to pass up.  He moved to L.A., got an agent, and a new name, and various small parts here and there, and he took acting classes.

And then out of the blue he got the leading role in a TV series named Packard (Westlake loved those cars) about a rather implausibly young and dashing criminologist named Jack Packard, who worked for a university, and was always solving murder mysteries and other criminal conundrums that just kept dropping into his lap (don’t you hate it when that happens?).   Packard had a very large and diverse skill set (basically, if this week’s plot called for him to be able to fly a plane or karate chop somebody, he could do it).  It was maybe a little better than Magnum P.I., but not nearly as good as The Rockford Files.

He tells us that they were casting against type–since the role involved a lot of physical bits of business, stunts, fight scenes, they figured better to cast somebody who could plausibly do all that stuff (with lots of coaching), rather than some older more experienced actor who’d need a lot more stunt doubling.  Also, he was very good-looking, and networks like it when women watch their shows.  And presumably they got him cheap for at least the first season.

But there were four more after that, because the show was an enormous hit, and made him a major celebrity almost overnight.  He says they ended it at five seasons only because everybody was tired of doing it.  (Yeah, I don’t think that happens with huge network hits either–these days it doesn’t even happen with some flops.  But we’ll let it go for now.)

His agent and his lawyers (by this time he had a lawyer on each coast) made sure he got a very nice share of the syndication rights, which turned out to be quite lucrative. If he’s not too careless about money, he doesn’t need to work again for the rest of his life.  Not for money, I mean.

So he can afford a swanky home in Bel Air, and a brick townhouse in Greenwich Village (the nabe he says still looks like the New York of his adolescent fantasies), and a live-in manservant named William Robinson (hmm–you think maybe?), himself a retired actor, whose specialty was playing prissy supercilious man servants with pseudo-English accents in the movies and on TV, and the habits of a lifetime have stuck.  Robinson has become the character he played, and he likes it that way.  And Sam?  Maybe not so much.

Sam also has two beautiful boxers, Max and Sugar Ray (female and male), who cheer him up when he’s at his L.A. digs, and two beautiful girlfriends, Bly Quinn and Anita Imperato, one on each coast, who cheer him up in different ways, and I did get around to explaining that last time.  It takes some deal of explaining.

The two women know about each other, but it’s not so much an arrangement as something they’re all putting up with for the time being, because he doesn’t want to give either of them up, and he’s showing them both a really good time, and he lives a bi-coastal life anyway, spending summer and winter in Tinseltown, spring and fall in Gotham.  Towards the end of the series, he describes himself as being part of “two pairs, each complete, each in its own world.” 

Tall.  Handsome.  Athletic.  Famous.  Rich.  Two sexy intelligent charismatic women in his life, blonde and brunette, day and night, each tolerating the existence of her rival, and not asking for any commitment (they both have lives and careers of their own, but no other boyfriends we ever hear about).  Each woman appealing to different parts of his nature.  The best of both East and West, available to him at a moment’s notice.

And two cool dogs who ask for nothing more than to go for a ride in his station wagon now and again, and the blonde even agrees to look after them when he goes to New York with Robinson to bed down with the brunette for a while  (Robinson, who is on Team Bly, strongly disapproves of Anita, but Sam doesn’t care), and eat in her excellent Italian restaurant a few blocks from his house.  Okay, what’s wrong with this picture?  Seriously–what?

Just one little thing, as it turns out–Sam Holt is unemployed.  Not underemployed.  Unemployed.  Has been unemployed since Packard ended, about three years before we meet him (and it’s been three years still at the start of the last book, so time is passing very slowly for him).  Nobody knew him at all before the show started, then everybody knew him, and now nobody can see him in any other role.  Not audiences, not producers, not directors, not casting agents.  Nobody.

He keeps nagging his own agent to find him work and the agent keeps coming up with bupkus.  He’s not unreasonable, is our Mr. Holt.  He’s not holding out for a major starring role in a movie, or even necessarily a leading role in a TV series.  He’s open to suggestions.  As long as it’s not Packard, and it’s not out and out insulting, he’ll do it.  The phone never rings.  No, I don’t believe that either.  The phone would be ringing all the time.   But this is, in many ways, a story of contrivance.  A man whose real life reads like a fiction.  Or like a pitch for a TV pilot.  (Which for all I know is what it started out as.   Westlake was spending a lot of time in Hollywood himself in this time period.)

He knows he’s the luckiest sumbitch alive.  But the thing is, having gotten into acting as a lark, he’d gotten to like it.  To like the work, not only of acting but of writing, since he’d written some of the later scripts for the show. He wants to get back to it.  But Life, his real agent now, has put him on hold, and he just waits there for it to get back to him.  And when it does, it’s not with an acting job.

And he’s going to tell us all about it in first person mode–so is he writing and publishing books about his Post-Packard experiences?  Is that why the books are credited to Samuel Holt?   On the whole, I don’t think so, any more than I think Mitch Tobin was writing books about his experiences under the name Tucker Coe.  For one thing, there’s way too much kissing and telling, and Sam’s too much of a gentleman (and fiercely protective of his own privacy) to write that kind of book.  Sam’s telling somebody about his life, but in this genre, in this narrative format, you never do know quite who that is, do you?  Well, he’s telling us.  That we know.  So what’s he telling us this time?

First of all, he tells us some guys he never saw before tried to murder him by running his car off the San Diego Freeway.   They bang up his Volvo pretty badly (he’s got some nicer cars but rarely drives them), but he gets away from them, and calls his West Coast lawyer, Oscar Cooperman (always on the move and deeply in love with his cellular car-phone).

Then, with Oscar on the way, he arranges for an interview with two L.A. Sheriff’s deputies, who are pretty sharp and professional, as are most law enforcement personnel in this series–maybe because Westlake was wary of the the old “amateur knows better than the professionals” mystery trope you can trace all the way back to Poe’s Dupin.  But also, I’d guess, because he was trying to disguise himself here, and too many people know Westlake has a thing about cops.  The bad cops show up in the last book, after Westlake had been outed as Tobin.

They question him politely over quiche (a running stylistic motif in these books is established here–Sam will set up a question of some kind at the end of one chapter, then answer it at the beginning of the next–“Do sheriff’s deputies eat quiche?”–“Yes.”)  He can’t think of anything anybody would want to kill him for, anything unusual that happened to him recently.  Until they leave.  Then, after a brief conversation with Oscar (who mentions doing some legal work with regards to a mosque being built nearby),  he suddenly remembers.   Ross Ferguson.

Ross was one of the writers on Packard, and good at his job–he showed Sam some of the rudiments with regards to crafting a teleplay.  He can be hard to take at times, but Sam considers him a friend.  And one thing we’ll learn about Sam Holt is that he is loyal to his friends–sometimes to a fault.  And Ross called him at his New York residence three months ago, in a panic, begging to see him.

Sam had to go see his old acting buddy Brett Burgess appear in a play first, then eat with him and Anita at her restaurant, Vitto Impero (she took it over from her scapegrace ex-husband, and why do I think we’d have met the husband sometime if there had been a few more books). Anita won’t actually eat much, because according to Sam, running a restaurant has given her a contempt for food.

(Sidebar: Brett and Sam–weirdly, the cookie company this makes me think of started the year before this book came out, and that has to be coincidence, right?–are about the same age, height, and appearance, but their careers went in different directions–Sam became a big TV star, and can’t get an acting job to save his life.  Brett works all the time, all kinds of roles, legit theater and TV guest spots mainly, but will probably never make as much as his mailman.

Sam sometimes envies Brett, Brett sometimes envies Sam, but they’re still fast friends.  Brett makes an appearance in every Holt book but one, and nothing important ever happens with him.  He’s just there for counterpoint, to remind us what a real working actor’s life is more typically like, living from one job to the next, blending into his roles, not getting recognized on the street, or confused with his characters.  He’s probably a somewhat better actor than Sam, but unlike Sam, not terribly insightful when it comes to anything other than acting.  There’s a moral in there somewhere, I’m sure of it.)

So Ross is waiting for Sam outside his townhouse–he’s in trouble.  Somebody made a video of him killing Delia West, an ex-girlfriend of his.  Except he didn’t kill her–Sam, watching the video with a practiced eye, realizes it’s a very professional fake–except the final shot, with her dead in Ross’s Malibu beach house (oh, of course he has a Malibu beach house, and real-life Barbies to go with it)–that’s real.  It’s a snuff film.  With an actor made up like Ross playing the killer.

And just to make things worse, Ross panicked, put her body on his boat  (oh, of course he has a boat, it’s Hollywood), and dumped her at sea.  And this means whoever made this film has him at their mercy.  Ross figures what the hell, maybe he can work something out with them, what could they want that’s so bad–Sam urges him to go to the cops–these are murderers, not just common blackmailers.  But loyalty prevents him from calling the law himself.

And then he heard nothing from Ross for a while, and it just sort of went out of his head until now, though he did just happen to ask Ross about it recently over the phone, and Ross got really flustered like maybe somebody was listening in, and oh damn, that’s why somebody tried to kill Sam just now, isn’t it?

And now he needs to call those deputies, and tell them he knows who tried to kill him (well, not exactly who, that’s the mystery), except he feels like he owes Ross the courtesy of talking to him in person before exposing him to a potential murder rap.  Let’s all say it together now–No.  He does not owe Ross any such thing.  Somebody tried to kill him.

(This is going to be a recurrent problem with the series, by the way–Sam Holt is an incredibly smart guy who often does incredibly dumb things.  And if he doesn’t, there’s no story.  So Westlake has to keep figuring out ways to make this believable, keep it from turning into the kind of formulaic tripe such as you’d see on a show like Packard, and sometimes he manages it, and sometimes he doesn’t.)

So he heads over to Malibu, and the aforementioned beach house, and Westlake, via Holt, has some observations to make about that–

Malibu is a peculiarly Los Angeles sort of idea.  A narrow strip of land along the ocean’s edge, it is backed by steep precarious hills, with most of the slender flat band between ocean and hill given over to a six-lane highway, generally without dividers, called Route 1.  Stores and fast-food joints are shoehorned between the road and the hills, while restaurants and luxury vacation homes are lined up like houses on a Monopoly board between the traffic and the tides.  From time to time the sea reaches out a crooked finger and plucks some of the houses away.  From time to time one of the unstable hills falls over onto the shops, and occasionally, the highway itself  The whole place is insecure and transitory and ephemeral, and besides that the traffic is dreadful and the houses are too close together.  And yet…

And yet.

Real estate values are through the roof.  If you can talk about real estate in a place where at any moment the ocean may foreclose your house or a mountain fall on it or a runaway tractor-trailer dropkick it into the next wave, then the values are through the roof.  If the wind doesn’t take it.

Nobody answers the doorbell.  Sam has borrowed the place now and again, and he knows where there’s a key stashed.  He goes in and cases the joint (just like Packard would, and he’s painfully aware of this irony, as he will be so many more times before these books are over).  And then he opens a closet door and a nearly naked girl holding a knife jumps out.

It’s Ross’s current girlfriend, Doreen.  She doesn’t trust Sam at first, but then she recognizes him (Sam says that there’s a sort of mixed blessing to celebrity, in that people just assume they know you, even though they don’t, and trust you, even though they probably shouldn’t).

Anyway, now that she knows this is ‘Packard’, she opens up about what happened (one of the advantages of being a celebrity detective).  She was staying there, and says these Middle Eastern types showed up, asked her some questions, then sort of offhandedly gang-raped her.  More or less to pass the time of day.

Sam tries to make her understand how much trouble she could be in, but she’s really young, wants to think of herself as tough and savvy, and Ross is her only real contact in L.A.  She makes it very clear she’d be delighted to make contact with Sam (once she’s had a little time to get over the rape thing), and she’s cute enough, but his dance card is full, as has already been discussed (at no time in the series does Sam ever cheat on his two girlfriends, and I can imagine my female readers rolling their eyes now, and possibly some of the guys too).

So not wanting Doreen’s blood on his conscience, he offers to put her up at his place, and on the way out the door they get jumped–by tabloid reporters, armed with cameras, looking for a nice spicy photo spread of Sam Holt departing his secret love nest.  He gets a bit rough with them, but they’re used to that kind of thing, not the least bit deterred from future assaults on his privacy (and you can imagine Westlake thinking to himself maybe there’s a novel in this, and this being Westlake we’re talking about, it wasn’t long at all before there was a novel, and then two, and a character in those books greatly resembles a character in this one.  But we’ll get to that).

Sam finally gets to talk to Ross, and it’s worse than he thought–Ross won’t tell him what the blackmailers want, but it’s clearly something pretty bad–and Ross wants to write a book about it.  He’s tired of being a TV writer (this was at a time when 99.99999% of people who watched television had no idea who wrote it)–these guys are going to do something that will get a lot of attention in the press, he’ll be right in the center of it, and the publishers will be beating down his door, assuming there still is a door to beat down by then, and he’s still alive to open it.

We know how this kind of agenda tends to play out in a Westlake novel–some guy with a poorly developed sense of self trying to make a big change in his life out of the blue, distracted from reality by some personal agenda.  But of course, if you were reading this in the Mid-80’s, you didn’t necessarily know it was a Westlake.  And it’s still pretty obvious that Ross has a rather odd showbiz version of Stockholm Syndrome.

And yet Sam still promises to keep quiet–for now.  Never mind how loyal he is–I don’t care if he’s Rin Tin Freakin’ Tin–why would he make such an absurd promise to a man basically living as a prisoner in his own house, who is most likely going to be dead when this is over?  Self-evidently, because Sam himself is so desperate to break out of his own professional niche, he can totally relate.  And he still doesn’t really know what’s going on.

The setting changes to Manhattan.  Sam flies over there on business (and to see Anita, of course), and on the plane he finds himself sitting next to a man named Hassan Tabari, who is Minister of Justice for a small oil-rich Arabian principality called Dharak (Westlake’s list of fictional nations continues to grow).  Basically a glorified policeman (who expresses an admiration for The Rockford Files, when informed Sam played a TV detective–I seem to recall there was a Rockford episode based around Arab politics–oh yeah, this one).

Sam is pretty sure this is not a coincidence, but he can’t for the life of him figure out why he suddenly receives an impromptu lecture on Middle Eastern politics, and internecine Muslim rivalries, and we’re reminded that our present-day difficulties did not spring full blown from empty air.

Reading it over, I find myself devoutly wishing this book had been a huge bestseller when it came out.  Even when he wasn’t writing absolutely top-drawer mystery fiction (perhaps especially then), Westlake had an almost frightening capacity for seeing around corners, and–well, read for yourself.

“So,” he said, shrugging, “we are not all bombers of defenseless sailors, hijackers of innocent tourists.”

“All Arabs, you mean.”

He considered the term, and rejected it.  “All Moslems,” he decided. “After all, the Iranians are not Arabs, as they never tire of announcing.  The dispute is religious rather than racial.  In fact,” he said, suddenly voluble, shifting position so he could face me more comfortably, “I sometimes think the internal Moslem struggle is infinitely more important than Arab versus Jew.  That one is merely about territory, but the war within Islam is for the soul of the world.”

To have such an overblown hyperbole come from so restrained and self-controlled a man at first startled and then amused me, which must have shown in my face, because he cocked an eyebrow at me and said ,”Do you think I overstate the case?”

“Slightly,” I said.

“Perhaps,” he agreed, and nodded, and said, “but only very slightly.   We control the world’s energy for the next century.  We shall decide whether or not the machines of western civilization turn.  Don’t you think we will have some say as to what that civilization looks like?”

“It’s possible,” I admitted.

“The fundamentalist sects,” he said, “have captured Iran, taken control of Libya, assassinated Sadat, helped to destabilize Lebanon, performed terrorist acts against you of the West, and are creating great trouble and concern in every moderate Moslem nation.  Even Saudi Arabia is not as proof against the virus as it appears.”

This was far from any area of expertise I might claim.  I said, “We can see the struggle’s going on, all right.”

“But who are these people in white nightdresses, eh, slaughtering one another?” The twist he then gave his mouth could not have been called a smile.  “The Jewish lobby in this country makes no distinctions among Arabs,” he said, “and therefore America does not, and that is a very bad mistake.”

“I’m really not up on all this,” I said, wondering how to get back out of this conversation, deciding the thing to do as to find a need to visit the lavatory.

Tabari leaned back, shaking his head at himself, as though aware he’d gone too far, made me nervous.  “I’ll say only this,” he told me.  “Our fundamentalists are to us a more violent form of what your fundamentalists are to you.  The sort of people who a generation ago forced the famous Scopes monkey trial and still today try to keep evolution out of your schools.  The kind of people who bomb abortion clinics.  In America these people are merely an irritant, one point of view among many at the fringes of a strong center.  In my part of the world there is no center, there are only the extremes.  You would not like a world, Mr. Holt, that would please some of our imams.”

Now he tells us.  Oh right–then he told us.  Anyway, Sam tries to follow Tabari from JFK after they land, but he’s taken precautions to make sure Sam can’t do that.  And then Sam gets wrapped up in talking to Anita (among other things), and he stays over at her place above the restaurant, which turns out to be a good thing in more than the usual ways.  As she sleeps next to him, when he was just sleeping over at Bly Quinn’s place a short time earlier, the strangeness of his life becomes overpowering to him–his built-in identity crisis.

In every part of my life, it now seemed to me, the story was the same, I was neither one thing nor the other and yet both.  I was neither a New Yorker nor an Angeleno, but I was both.  I was neither Bly’s fella nor Anita’s, but I was both. I was neither a true star nor a has-been, but somehow I was still both.  What frequently seemed to me a good and rich and rewarding life now seemed, in this wakeful February night in Manhattan, merely a life of well-controlled vacillation.  “Indecision is the key to flexibility,” read a sign I’d once seen over a producer’s desk; it was meant to be a joke.

But when Sam walks back to his closed-up townhouse the next morning, he’s reminded that there are far worse fates imaginable–there’s a dead body there.  Some people broke into his house, and one of them is dead in a shoot-out with the cops (they triggered a silent alarm going in).

Talking to the NYPD detectives in charge of the case, including one Sergeant Shanley (a woman, we’ll see her again), he realizes that he’s doing what he always thought the characters in TV scripts were idiots for doing–not telling the police what’s going on until it’s too late.  Bad enough for him to be forced to play Packard, but now he’s one of the idiot supporting characters who end up dead in act three.

He heads back for L.A., and after one more futile attempt to reason with Ross (who insists he’s fixed that little problem with his friends apparently trying to kill Sam yet again), he stops being stupid, and calls the sheriff’s deputies.  But then he finds out that in real life, calling the cops doesn’t solve everything either–sometimes the cops really can’t do anything, even if they believe you (and they do in this case).  Ross’s house can’t be searched without cause, and he refuses to cooperate.  There’s no legal pretext for them to intervene until these people do whatever it is they’re planning to do.  Great.

So I don’t really want to give this the full synopsis treatment, and you can see where this is going–deep into Travis McGee country.  Westlake was consciously patterning some aspects of this book after those John D. MacDonald Floridian epics, which were never much about ratiocination and whodunnit but rather about conspiracy and intrigue and lots of violence, interspersed with lots of sex.  And frequently a dead or kidnapped lover (the better to justify the violence), but Westlake’s not going that way with it.  Too obvious.

Sam ends up being held prisoner by the terrorists–yes, obviously they’re terrorists.  We’ve all figured that out by now.  The question is, what do they want?  To blow up that mosque Sam’s lawyer mentioned earlier.  Because it’s insufficiently fundamentalist, one supposes, and they don’t like the government that’s behind it (I’ll give you one guess whose government that is–you got it!), and some people they really hate are going to be at the opening dedication for the building.  Security is very tight there, but guess whose property abuts the land the mosque is on?  That’s what they wanted Ross for.

Sam gets into this mess because he can’t stop thinking of himself as The Hero–that’s obvious.  He knows this about himself, he’s embarrassed about it, he knows he’s not really Jack Packard, but he’s still stuck in that role, will remain stuck in that role until he can find a new one.  But having gotten himself into this situation, behaving like Packard is the only way he can get himself out of it, and save a lot of people from being killed.  So that’s what he does.  If you want to know how, read the book.

The title refers to the conflict between himself and Ross–and the affinity between them.  Ross is just as determined to somehow recast himself in life, become a great author, turn his fictions into reality.  That obsession–combined with his inability to see just how poor a fit he is for the role he’s playing now–makes him not only willing but eager to collaborate with people who framed him for murder–and to betray a friend who tried to help him.  But when you’re so deeply unhappy with the life you have, you may be willing to do anything to change it.  Even if that means losing it.

One of them is wrong, yes–but how much less wrong is Sam?  Again, we see the parallel with the Tobin novels.  Tobin would find a way to obliquely express to us that he sees how easily he could go down the path of someone he encounters in the book, whose life has gone disastrously wrong, whose identity has become terminally confused.  He hasn’t gone that far down the road yet, but it’s the same road.  With each subsequent book, he gets a bit closer to admitting this to himself.

But it’s done a lot more skillfully in those earlier pseudonymous novels. It’s much more organic and unforced.  It works one whole hell of a lot better than it does here.  And Westlake was not the kind of writer to be okay with a do-over that turns out worse than the original.

Still effective enough–these are good books, everybody who noticed them thought so at the time, including those who didn’t know who wrote them. But Westlake must have realized, as he wrote three of them in close succession, that there was no natural endpoint for Sam, as there was for Tobin.   Tobin could just go back to his life, his family, when he came to the end of his depression.  But would getting work as an actor again really resolve Sam Holt’s identity crisis?   Seems to me that would only deepen it.

So to enjoy these books, you sort of have to accept them for what they are–a failed experiment, with some interesting results, some acute observations of the contemporary scene, and some damn good writing.  And that’s just as true of the next book on our list, my personal favorite of the four, but that may be because it’s the most Gotham-centric of them, and therefore the most Anita-centric.  Have I mentioned I’m on Team Anita?  I’ll go into more detail about why that is next time.   Not that either team ever wins.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books and this one really justifies that name)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, One Of Us Is Wrong, novel, Samuel Holt Novels

Mr. Westlake and The TV Detective

RF1

Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet: Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.

Rosencrantz: Why, then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind.

Hamlet: O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Guildenstern: Which dreams, indeed, are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

Well, we’ve certainly had an interesting time exploring The Westlake Museum thus far, haven’t we, kids?  Let’s take a nostalgic stroll back through its venerable hallways, passing along our way many a fascinating exhibit.  The Hall of Sleaze (don’t tell your parents we went there!), the Science Fiction Diorama (with derisive graffiti by Westlake himself), the Early Hardboiled Exhibit, the Mitch Tobin Memorial (walled up, naturally), the Nephews Nativity Scene, the Dortmunder Display (still under construction), and of course the Stark  Shooting Gallery (always popular but somehow never crowded).  Plus many an odd little cul-de-sac that leads nowhere, but may be well worth exploring, regardless.

And what’s this?  Something we’ve missed up to now.  The entrance is unmarked.  There’s cobwebs on the door handles.  Well, let’s go in.  Nothing ventured and all that.

The hinges creak.  In the mustiness and gloom of a long abandoned space, we see a mid-sized exhibit.   Some work was put into this one, clearly.  To our right, we see the majestic yet seamy Gotham skyline, and in the foreground a lissome pallid brunette in a very simple little black dress; streetwise, practical,  in equal parts sardonic and sexy, standing in front of an Italian restaurant, her arms akimbo.  To our left, we see the Los Angeles sunshine and smog, and in the foreground a luscious bikini-clad blonde lounging by the pool, book in hand, a sly winsome expression on her sun-drenched face–she clearly knows more than she’s saying (and she’s saying plenty).

And hovering solicitously between the two, a haughty-looking gentleman’s gentleman holding a tray of hors d’oeuvres,  who seems perhaps a mite too aware of his role–overplaying it to the veritable hilt.  A splendid anachronism, and don’t you forget it.  Also two lawyers (one on each side), a Hollywood agent, and an accountant holding out a ledger that somehow is never examined too closely.  Also assorted friends (quote marks sometimes necessary), colleagues, well-wishers, general hangers-on, milling about, begging for attention.

Last and not even remotely least, two delightful boxers (pooches, not pugilists), scampering about on the west side of the exhibit, having a good time for themselves, ignoring the general goings-on most of the time.  Not really relevant to anything, but they sure decorate nicely.

As we look around, we see a neglected barren stage, a television screen airing a nonstop test pattern, promotional posters touting a show we’ve never watched which is nonetheless perpetually in repeats.  There are cases full of murder weapons, and the deadliest of them all seems to be boredom, followed by indecision.  And far at the back, overlooking the tableau with a decidedly melancholy air, we see a looming figure, half in shadow; handsome, charismatic, piercingly intelligent, yet somehow unformed, incomplete–he’s dressed as Hamlet, or rather as Hamlet would dress were he a  TV Detective of the late 70’s/early 80’s.  Very high concept.

And behind him, in a roped-off alcove, a display case with framed obituary notices from the New York Times and Variety in it, but there’s a large question mark hovering over it in space, making us wonder….

Ah yes.  The Holt Wing.

Westlake’s last sustained attempt to write a series character under an assumed name came about, according to him, as an attempt to find out if he could start over from scratch, with a name no one knew, write in a voice he hadn’t used before, and still sell books, win converts, blaze new trails.  One would think that having done this already as Richard Stark and Tucker Coe (not to mention Alan Marshall et al, and he’d doubtless have preferred no one mention that), he’d have felt like he had nothing to prove in this regard.  But as he said in his brief intro to the very belated paperback reprints to this series, “Times change.  Cultures change.  Markets change.”  Had he changed?   Could he still pull it off?

In the intro, he mentions Stephen King’s alter ego Richard Bachman as an inspiration.  King cited similar reasons for adopting a nom de plume (having never been known for this kind of thing, whereas Westlake had been writing stories under multiple pseudonyms years before he published his first novel under his own name), but later said the question was never satisfactorily answered as to whether his previous success had been talent or luck, because people quickly enough figured out who Bachman was, and none of the Bachman books sold very well until his true identity became common knowledge.  Let’s be honest here–no matter who you are, luck is always involved in success.  It’s just a matter of degree.

The ‘Richard’ in the name was derived from Richard Stark (with Westlake’s bemused and unneeded consent), a name Westlake felt like he could no longer write honestly under, and people knew who Stark was by now anyway–there’d never been any real effort made to hide it.   Westlake’s earlier pseudonyms were not created to fool the reading public but rather to get around the publishing industry’s annoying tendency to only let you put out so much under your own name in a given year.

But somehow, for Westlake, the fake identities became real–alternate voices, parts of his personality he couldn’t fully express under his own name, writers who were memorable in their own right–who rivaled Westlake, competed with him, and some might even say surpassed him (Stark actually did outsell Westlake in the late 60’s/early 70’s).  King obliquely referenced this when he wrote The Dark Half.  But catering to his usual market (I have to say, I don’t really see any difference between the way he writes as King or Bachman), he just told another thrilling horror story with a psychological edge to it, and didn’t really try to capture what Stark and the others meant to Westlake–they were not monsters to be suppressed, demons to be exorcised.  They were truths that needed to be told.

But Westlake couldn’t tell them anymore–his other voices had abandoned him, one by one, as the 70’s wore on.  Tucker Coe just sort of tuckered out, with nothing more to say about Mitch Tobin–Coe’s voice was Tobin’s voice, so Coe went when Tobin did.  Westlake seems to have been equally concerned and relieved over the disappearance of Stark–there were obviously more stories to tell about Parker, but he wanted to explore other avenues, types of stories Parker didn’t go with at all, and the further he went down that road, the harder it was to summon back the Stark voice.  This was a lighter-spirited time in his life–Stark would wait for the darkness to return, as it always does.

The other pseudonyms he’d used in the 60’s and 70’s had never really amounted to anything–just brief attempts to branch into other genres, and the books hadn’t sold well enough to merit another try.  He was a mystery writer, a crime writer, and to most people by this point in time, a comedic writer within that genre.  And he’d liked that for a while, but it might have been wearing on him a bit.  He’d tried branching out under his own name (Kahawa, A Likely Story, High Adventure)–the books had been good, the reception less enthusiastic than he’d hoped.  People knew what they wanted from Westlake now.  Comic capers.  Dortmunder and such.  For him to write something else he had to be someone else.

Which he could do easily enough in the 1960’s and early 70’s, when people were not paying that much attention to who wrote what in his designated genre (Random House had made a big fuss over the secret identity of Tucker Coe, but I think everybody who cared solved that mystery quickly enough–they were promoting Westlake novels on the back covers of Coe novels).

His output had declined dramatically since then.  He could no longer disappear into a sea of pseudonyms.  He could no longer write paperback originals either, because that market was dead.  So could he make a deal with a publisher to put out something he wrote under a false name, and see how people liked it?   And then, obviously, spring the news on them that it was none other than himself?

Because that had to be the plan.  He never meant for the secret to last.  He wanted people to ask “Who is this Samuel Holt who writes mystery stories about a guy named Samuel Holt?”  Richard Stark didn’t write stories about Richard Stark, any more than Richard Bachman wrote stories about Richard Bachman.  King went out of his way to create a false bio for Bachman (then killed him off once the ruse was exposed–Westlake did something chillingly similar with Holt, after these books were written).

But how seriously can you take an author who says he wants to disappear into a pseudonym when he never seriously tries to make the pseudonym stand up to scrutiny?  Obviously there’s no such person as Samuel  Holt.  There’s people sort of like Samuel Holt, but they don’t solve mysteries.  They just make bad movies, and wait for their next series to start.   Well, that’s not fair.  Not entirely.

Whatever he thought would happen, what actually did was deeply disappointing.  He’d been developing a relationship with Tor Books (an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates LLC, known primarily for Science Fiction and Fantasy)–they’d handled the paperback reprints of a few books of his, and he’d been pleased in particular by them agreeing to reprint A Likely Story.

Even though these books he was putting out would be classic mysteries, ideal for The Mysterious Press, he clearly couldn’t publish them there without effectively outing himself right off the bat, since his close association with Otto Penzler was so well known (and yet the dedication to the first book is to “Otto and Michael, unindicted co-conspirators.”  Seriously, this was never going to be a mystery for the ages, folks.)

So he signed a contract with Tor, and in return for getting a much smaller advance than Donald E. Westlake would typically get, he was promised anonymity–a fresh slate.  Emulating John D. MacDonald’s example when writing the first Travis McGees, he hammered out three novels in close succession, and handed them in.  Two were published in 1986, one in 1987.  No books under Westlake’s name appear between them in his bibliography (yet another telltale clue for the amateur book detective).

Tor did a good job with the books, it must be said.  They’re nicely executed volumes, with decent artwork for the era (particularly the second entry), and lack the many egregious typographical errors of the much later reprint editions from Felony & Mayhem (with a clownish caricature of an 80’s-style detective cavorting on the covers).

But as Westlake revealed in his intro to those reprints, he was betrayed–the publisher (Doherty himself?) had told his staff to let bookstores know who ‘Sam Holt’ really was, so that they could put promotional displays up (because obviously they remembered how much better the Richard Bachman books sold after people knew there was no Richard Bachman).   Westlake eventually wanted people to know the secret–but not so soon–not this way.  The game was no longer afoot–the game, in fact, had been ruined.  Might as well have told everyone the butler did it (though technically, in the Holt books, all the butler does is sulk).

So he owed them another book, and he made it quite a bit darker than the previous three, and its ending is powerfully reminiscent of the final chapter of the last Mitch Tobin mystery.  Because in fact, these books are a reworking of the Tobin series.  And Samuel Holt is, in many ways, a reworking of Tucker Coe, and Coe’s protagonist.

The Mitch Tobin mysteries, which I believe deserve to be ranked with the best work Westlake or any other mystery writer ever wrote under any name, stemmed from a personal insight he had about The Thin Man, the last novel Dashiell Hammett published in his lifetime, before his long creative drought set in.   Westlake felt that Nick Charles was deeply depressed by his decision, brought on by his marriage to Nora, to give up his career as a detective.

His life now lacked purpose, so he resorted to heavy drinking to dull that pain.   Nora, loving him every bit as much as he loved her, and having been attracted to him in the first place primarily because of his dangerous profession, wanted him to go back to doing what he was born to do, so that they wouldn’t have to drink themselves to death in too much of a hurry.  The Days of Crime and Roses.  The movies made it a lot cuter, as they tend to do (maybe Blake Edwards would have given it a darker tinge).  But there’s a nice terrier named Asta in the book as well (Schnauzer, not Fox Terrier, and yes there’s a difference, but we hardly need belabor it here).

So Westlake got rid of the high society thing, the solving mysteries with your wife and dog thing, but kept what was really interesting to him–a man who has lost the will to go on, because everything that mattered to him has vanished from his life.  Tobin’s partner died while covering for Tobin’s marital infidelity, and his subsequent exposure led to the end of his career as a police detective and the total loss of his personal and professional identity.

He manages not to kill himself by means of various ambitious home improvement projects he makes up to keep occupied, his wife Kate willingly forgives him (and like Nora Charles, pushes for him to go back to his real work), his son just sort of tunes the high drama out, and what follows is Tobin just looking for ways to avoid life altogether. But life keeps shoving itself at him, in the form of blood-stained mysteries he has to solve.

And bit by bit, he regains his equilibrium, learns the lessons he needed to learn from the people he meets along the way, and rejoins the human race.  End of series.  Only five books, and the last one was, as I mentioned when reviewing it, not really necessary except as a means of tying up a few loose ends, and proving to Westlake that he had nothing more to say with this character.  So really, just four books that matter.  Hmm.

The Coe voice is quietly powerful, done in first-person narrator form, with Tobin telling his own story, filling us in from book to book as to how he became the person he is now, observing the world around him with great clarity and perceptiveness brought on by his uniquely abstracted outlook on life.  He sizes up the people he encounters rather brilliantly, much more concerned with character and motivation than with clues.

Although he always cracks the case, Tobin never really feels like he’s made the world a better place for doing so. There’s a powerful existentialist feel to the novels, a sense that this ratiocinative activity is something that needs be done for its own sake, not because it will fix anything, but because the truth matters.  The truth about whodunnit, but also about who you are, down inside.   But of course the most important thing anyone must know about the truth is that it hurts like holy hell.

So not nearly as many people remembered the Coe books as the Starks.   Westlake was known to have written them, but mainly by aficionados.  If you look closely at the Holts, you can see more than a few intentional hints, clues Westlake left for those very cognoscenti–like the repeated use of the name Walburn, briefly in the first Holt, much more significantly in the second–that name appears in Wax Apple, with Westlake’s own first name appended to it (a road thankfully not taken, as I pointed out when that book came up in the queue).

In fact, there are many many deliberate clues as to the provenance of the Holts within their pages, not least their style, which I think comes closer to the way Westlake wrote nonfiction articles under his own name than any of his other fictional guises.  In many ways, Samuel Holt (the character) is simply Donald E. Westlake, only famous, handsome, rich, six feet six inches tall, bi-coastal, single and polygamous (it takes some explaining), and most unhappily unoccupied.  A fantasy and a nightmare come true at the same time.

Sam Holt gets everything his creator could ever have idly desired in his wildest dreams, except the most important thing–a job he actually wants to do.  And kids, of course, but he’s got the two boxers–which really is an actor thing, by the way–can’t tell you how many actors in my nabe I’ve met while exercising my dog, and the dogs introduced us–I think actors just need somebody in their lives who can’t read their reviews, and cats of course are born critics.

Westlake has always seemed a mite canophobic to me (maybe someday I’ll get to ask someone who knows), but writing as Holt he even conquers this long held phobia, and enjoys a healthy rewarding relationship with two fictive furry friends who couldn’t care less about his identity crisis.  Take us for a ride, dad!  Let’s have fun!  And that happens far too rarely.

Simply the close empathetic interest in the acting profession should have been a solid clue as to the author of these novels–this is also, to some extent, a reworking of the Grofield books, except Grofield, trying to live up to the Starkian ideal, refused to sell out to television, remained true to live theater, no matter how non-remunerative. Westlake wrote more about actors than any mystery writer I know of (his next two books after finishing the first three Holts both had actors in them, and likewise dealt with the tribulations of celebrity).

The East/West coast rivalry was another trademark of his. And his mingled predilection for blondes and brunettes. Honestly, I’m having a hard time believing he thought the secret of Sam Holt was going to last very long. It’s easy to see how he’d be upset that the publisher had failed to live up to the nondisclosure agreement (except if it was in the contract, couldn’t he have sued?)

He says they tried to hit the reset button–I don’t know what that means. If it came down to some bookstores advertising the Holts as Westlakes in their windows and displays, would that really have been such huge national news? How many ordinary mystery readers would have even noticed? How big a secret had Richard Bachman ever been? King’s last book under that name was in 2007, long after Bachman had been thoroughly outed (and killed off via publicity dispatch).  Why was Westlake so angry about this?  He knew what publishers are.  He wrote an entire novel about what publishers are.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ still handling the crime fiction beat for the New York Times (not for much longer, though–I think this might be his last crack at anything Westlake did), wrote a glowing review of the first Holt novel–with no apparent knowledge that it was actually a Westlake. If he’s playing dumb, I have to say, it’s a bravura performance. And either way, the irony might have tasted bitter to Westlake. The critic who never seemed to fully appreciate his work that broke with expectations was heartily applauding this incognito effort. Should he be elated–or deflated? It think it was more the latter.

So the part of me that sometimes feels obliged to question Westlake’s explanations of why he started or stopped writing this or that is moved to wonder–how upset could he be that people didn’t believe ‘Samuel Holt’ was writing the Samuel Holt books, when he’d included so many clues as to who really wrote them? Was this really the problem? Or did he just decide, after cranking out three in a row, that the books simply weren’t as good as he’d hoped they’d be? Because they are definitely not as good as the Coes. Not even close. Was Tor’s show of bad faith simply a good excuse to pull the plug on a project that hadn’t worked out as planned?

I don’t think he had ridiculously high expectations here–he just wanted to create a nice entertaining mystery series, about a reluctant detective (yet another clue it was him), with perhaps a touch of Rex Stout in the mix (Archie Goodwin with fame, money, a Manhattan townhouse and a busy sex life, but no Nero), all of this neatly distracting from the fact that as with the Coes, he was using these stories to make social commentaries. But instead of dealing with outsider subcultures, as Coe habitually did, he’d examine the ultimate insider subculture–showbiz–and all the various insider cultures it bumps up against.

It’s a subculture he’d learned a lot about while working as a screenwriter, hobnobbing with various friends in that biz, and as he admits in his foreward to the reprint editions, he wanted to use what he’d learned, but didn’t feel comfortable doing it under his own name (he would soon anyway, but apparently some of the portraits in the Holt books are more–personal). So another reason to dislike the books–maybe they got him in some hot water with certain people, once it came out he’d written them. Impossible to say.

Westlake’s ambiguous relationship with the movies has been much commented upon here (he commented upon it a fair bit himself).  His relationship with television is even more tortured.  He contributed to the (literal) train wreck that was Supertrain in 1979, and is actually listed as its creator, something that I have no doubt haunted him all the rest of his days.

Probably one reason I get a weird incestuous feel from Sam’s relationship with Bly Quinn, ace sitcom writer, is that she’s as much of a Westlake alter ego as Holt is, maybe more.  Many of her conflicts–feeling like she’s become trapped in a mode of storytelling she doesn’t entirely believe in–are Westlake’s as well.  But so is her delight in the conventions of genre, her wealth of arcane historical and literary trivia, and she even gets a reference to Graham Greene and This Gun For Hire in there at one point.

But Westlake didn’t want Sam to just be out there in LalaLand all the time–one of the central conceits of the books is that he’s a Long Island boy, to who New York will always be The City, and all other towns mere pretenders to that name (it works the same way with upstaters, I’m sure).   Fact is, he needs New York to keep him honest, and he needs  a New York girl as well, so Westlake gave him a Greenwich Village townhouse to go with his Bel Air mansion, and a smart sassy Italian-American restaurateur named Anita Imperato to serve as a counterpoint to his California girl (Bly is actually from Maryland, but she’s long since gone native).

Anita is closer to Sam’s age (a year older, actually), much more rooted in the here and now, and they feel like a real couple, in ways Sam and Bly never quite do–Bly is very much an aspiring Nora to Sam’s Nick, encouraging Sam to be a detective, solve the mysteries, go on adventures, but Sam’s no drunk, and he’s hardly miserable (you’d kind of have to hate his guts if he ever dared whine about his lot in life), so it seems more like she’s doing it for herself–as a way of living out the kinds of stories she loves to read and write, and to keep Sam more in her sphere of influence.

Anita, by contrast, encourages him to find out what he really wants to do and do it already–he tells us that when he tries to get more serious with her (meaning that he’s tried more than once), she pushes him away–knowing he’s not ready to commit to anything yet, let alone anybody.  I never feel like there’s quite enough of her in the books, and for what it’s worth, if any resolution of Sam’s divided love life is even possible, put me on Team Anita.

It’s a weird gimmick (taking Archie Goodwin to the next level–Lily Rowan and Lucy Valdon in explicit competition instead of merely implied), and I suppose offputting to some readers–he’s not technically cheating on either of them–it’s an open arrangement that just happened, and he can’t seem to resolve it either way.

After he became a famous TV star, he could basically have any woman he wanted, kid in a candy store, but he found that palled on him after a while (I suppose that could happen), and the really interesting women didn’t take him seriously anymore (that I believe)–so he cut back on the harem, until it was just the final two contestants–and he can never decide who gets the final rose.  They’re both so determinedly independent, it’s not clear either of them even wants the damn rose, yet they’re always obliquely vying for his favor, regardless–they never meet, each remaining on her respective coast, and Anita refers to Bly disparagingly as ‘the tennis player.’

Bly scarcely refers to Anita at all, which I think is partly because she recognizes Sam’s connection with Anita is deeper, more real, a threat to the exciting fantasy life she and Sam are living out in California.   She’s enjoying the hell out of all the various intrigues Sam gets her involved in–it’s great research material for her screenwriting.   But at some point, aren’t all three of them going to want more?  And Utah wouldn’t suit any of them very well, methinks.

Sam’s actually put a whole lot of major life decisions on hold.  That’s the central theme of the book.  That’s the conflict he has to resolve, and the mysteries are supposed to help him do that, the way they did for Tobin.  But it just doesn’t work as well, does it?   The contrivances are too contrived.  The fantasy is too fantastic.  The TV Detective is too damn much of a TV Detective, supercilious manservant and all.

And who seriously believes a guy who is the hugely popular star of a major hit series that ran five seasons isn’t getting any serious job offers for three years?   Job offers that don’t work out, sure.  Movies that flop, shows that tank, guest shots that make him look diminished somehow, people saying “One Hit Wonder,” that I could buy.  But nothing at all?  Even though he never stops bugging his agent to find him more work?  It’s not like he’s holding out for a major motion picture here.

Westlake knows it’s a stretch, does his level best to justify it, and I still don’t buy it.   But for the books to work, you have to buy it.  Holt’s deep professional frustration–a guy who lucked into the coolest job in the world, then figured out he really wanted to be an actor, right around the time he couldn’t be one anymore–is central to the whole enterprise.

Westlake refers more than once to The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. in the books.   The former series he has Holt call ‘The Gold Standard’ and that it was.  But Holt is closer to being a Tom Selleck type–his character, Packard, was too much of a Lance White (seen up top)–Stephen J. Cannell’s brilliant parody of over-idealized TV detectives (the very kind that made Cannell a rich man) who Rockford had to perennially contend with, which had the added benefit of making Rockford seem realistic by comparison.

And Holt recognizes that (as a Rockford fan, he doubtless remembers the Lance White eps all too well), hates it, wants to escape that into some more valid form of self-expression, but who’s ever going to let him break out of the typecasting?  And who knew more about typecasting than Donald Westlake?  Okay, maybe Tom Selleck, but I’m not sure it ever bothered him as much as it does Holt and (in a different way) his creator.

Depth of character may not in fact be a professional advantage for an actor or a writer.  Why can’t Sam Holt get another acting job?  Why couldn’t Donald Westlake ever write a best selling novel, or get people to fully accept the novels that didn’t fit his proper genre cubbyhole?   But point is, he kept writing novels, and not just as Westlake.  Actors have a more difficult time disguising themselves than writers do (hard as the best of them work at it).

The realization Holt is reaching for and never quite gets to is that there are no small parts–that he has to let his stardom go somehow, if he wants to truly join his chosen profession.  And much as he enjoys the celebrity (both an advantage and a handicap when it comes to solving mysteries), you wouldn’t think it would be so hard for such a smart guy, not hampered by deep depression like Tobin, to figure this out.

That’s one reason the books all take place in a rather unrealistically short time period.  One over-the-top escapade after another, self-consciously parroting and rationalizing various conventions of the mystery form (like the Grofields), distracting him from the choices he has to make, while at the same time forcing him to notice very real problems in the world that make his own troubles look shallow and silly.  How could that be sustained over a long series?  It couldn’t.  Another reason to pull the plug.   And blame the publisher.  Who should have kept his word.

But even if that had happened, if the secret had been kept for a year or three, the books still wouldn’t have worked, I think.  Westlake wanted to go incognito again, yes–disappear into another persona,  as he had with Stark, but this wasn’t the way.  He’d have to do it on the up and up, and that nettle would be grasped, when the time was right.  Because unlike Samuel Holt, Donald E. Westlake was a consummate professional before anybody knew who he was–he’d worked hard and long for everything he’d accomplished, and sure there was luck involved, but he was ready for it when it came.  The failure of this series was a setback, but it didn’t set him back for very long.

So why bother to review all four books, one at a time, as I am now preparing to do?   Well, that is the mission statement of this blog.  Review everything.  But fact is, I like these books.  I see their weaknesses, the fundamental flaws of their premise and protagonist, and I still like them.  I enjoyed reading them the first time, and I’m enjoying them again now.  They contain many valuable insights, about fiction and life, and the myriad ways that each acts upon the other.  What we are, and what we think we should be.

So standing here in the sadly neglected Holt Wing of the Westlake Museum, let us ring back the curtains, open up the windows, let in some fresh air and light, grab some of those hors d’oeuvres (still good after all these years, Robinson’s a marvel), and take those two enchanting boxers for a long-delayed romp.  They’ve earned it.  So have we.  Books are made to be read, as life is made to be lived.  Let’s see what you have to teach us, melancholy Prince of Bel Air.  Damn, that’s copyrighted, isn’t it?  Oh well, let the lawyers figure it out.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Samuel Holt Novels, Tucker Coe

Review: Good Behavior, Part 3 (God help us)

“Lie down with wolves, you get up with toothmarks.”

Frank Ritter sat at his desk in the corner office suite of Margrave Corporation and studied this addition he’d just made to his commonplace book.  Was that truly an aphorism?  Possibly it was merely a low-level epigram, or even, God help us, just a joke. Ritter didn’t like crossing things out in his commonplace book, it made for a sloppy appearance, but this particular statement, well….

In his dream, Dortmunder walked a tightrope between two tall towers.  Instead of a balancing pole, he carried a long heavy lance, tipping first to the left, then to the right. And the tightrope itself was made of long blonde hair.  In the arched window at the top of the stone tower out in front he could see the girl whose hair this was, still attached to her head, long and braided and looped between the two towers; from the strained and painful expression on her face, she didn’t much like what was going on.

The tale is well-known of the Spartan who said to her son as he was going out to battle ‘Come back with your shield–or on it’: for to throw away one’s shield was the ultimate disgrace.  But Archilochus could write cheerfully–setting a literary fashion that Horace followed more than five hundred years later:

Some lucky Thracian has my noble shield:
I had to run; I dropped it in a wood.
But I got clear away, thank God! So hang
The shield! I’ll get another, just as good.

There is something very attractive about Ionian life.

From The Greeks, by H.D.F. Kitto. 

This book has been one long exercise in creative anachronism, and the same could be said of many another Westlake novel, and arguably Westlake’s entire literary career (conducted as it was on a manual typewriter, right into the 21st century).

But his anachronisms of choice were typically more out of Dashiell Hammett and Warner Brothers gangster movies than medieval ballads and romances.  Seeing as he does that we are sliding inexorably back towards feudalism, all over the world, something he hopes can still be forestalled, he’s chosen feudal figures (like robber barons), and feudal institutions (like convents) to tell this story.

And for his champion, to take the place of We The People in the lists, he’s chosen John Dortmunder, a smalltime thief and (let’s face it) a devotee of practical cowardice, who wants no part of this fight, has no discernible politics or beliefs of any kind (other than that everybody but him is nuts, and can you blame him?).  Because he’s an individualist, sure.  But also because sometimes you need to see through the eyes of someone normally standing outside the scrum of a social conflict, to see that fight clearly, distinguish its outlines.

I said last time that maybe this is the Dortmunderian equivalent of Butcher’s Moon (the only other book to date I’ve done a three part review of).  Unquestionably Parker’s greatest epic, and his greatest triumph–where he is, basically, going up against a feudal institution, namely a branch of the Mafia that controls an entire midwestern town, with well-placed vassals everywhere along the lines of power–but still needing to be wary of the looming if often ineffectual forces of law & order, as a medieval baron would need to be wary of incurring the wrath of a  distant king or emperor, who might assert what would otherwise be mere nominal authority at any time, given enough of an opening.

And Parker basically finds their weak spots and exploits them–if they really did have absolute power, he couldn’t win.  But in any society, no matter how seemingly monolithic, there are always struggles going on beneath the surface, fissures in the lines of power. If you are not strong, you had best be cunning.  He sees that he can strike at their sources of revenue, and they can’t effectively strike back without making themselves vulnerable to the law, right before an election they’re out to fix.  Then, as they huddle in one place, trying to wait him out, he can finish them off.

But for all that he needs allies, and that’s the crucial scene in the book–where Parker has called in some fellow wolves to serve as his army of the night, drawn by the smell of an easy kill (lots of badly guarded cash), but he has to convince them to help him with an additional goal–the rescue of Alan Grofield, being held prisoner at the home (this is America, so redundant to say castle) of the local mob lord.

The assembled uber-heisters don’t see why they should stick their necks out for Grofield, who most of them don’t even know, but somehow Parker shames them into it.  They’re not doing it out of nobility, or altruism, or even professional courtesy.  They’re doing it because to do otherwise would be–disappointing.  There are times when you have to stand up and fight the bastards, if you’re going to respect yourself in the morning.   It’s not Quixotic, because Don Quixote picks fights where no fight exists, sees enemies where there are no enemies.  There are real giants in this world, you know.  They’re not all windmills (though damn, there are a lot of actual windmills lately).

Dortmunder is akin to Parker in many ways, not least in his caustic view of humankind, but he’s not Parker.  Parker is of the old Doric strain, simple, unadorned–stark.   A Spartan, you might say, except a Spartan is a cog in a machine, a servitor of the state–Parker is not so constrained, being a polis of one, answerable to no one but himself.  A wolf in human form has no government (though he may still pay taxes to one, just to blend into the herd).

Dortmunder is likewise unique, a coyote in human form as I see him, but no Spartan he.  No, I’d say Dortmunder is clearly Ionic, not to mention ironic.  He’d drop that shield and run in a New York minute.  There is something very attractive about his view of life.  And his deep attachment to it.   But the real Ionians were not opposed to fighting on general principle; simply much less anal about it than the real Spartans, who left us great stories of their martial valor (told by other Greeks) and pretty much nothing else.

Archilochus, the Ionian poet, was a citizen soldier, a hoplite–he wrote that poem I posted up top from hard experience.   He fought when he had to, and he ran when he had to, and if he left a shield behind sometimes (those things were damned heavy), that doesn’t necessarily mean he’d leave a friend–or someone he owed a favor.  Honor may have no skill in surgery, but it does make life more tolerable at times.  We all draw the line in different places.  (Yes, I know this isn’t remotely medieval–Archilochus or Shakespeare–but I can be anachronistic too, can’t I?)

So out of what I suppose we’ll have to call a sense of honor, pricked on a bit by the profit motive (and the fear of May’s disapproval, because seriously without the need to impress women, men would never have gotten anything done), Dortmunder has led his merry band of heisters into the Avalon State Bank Tower, to grab some loot and rescue a nun, in that order.

Wilbur Howey has disabled the alarm systems, Tiny Bulcher has kicked down some doors, Andy Kelp has learned how to make a bouquet appear out of a trick cane he got from a magic shop, and honestly I don’t know why Stan Murch is even in this one, since there’s basically no driving, but he’s always good company.  And Dortmunder, the only one with a debt of honor to pay, has ventured up to the restricted topmost floors of the tower, where a heavily panting Wilbur (lots of stairs) has gotten him past the main door, and Dortmunder figures he can handle any lesser locks easily.

What he didn’t figure on was that there’d be a meeting of mercenaries Frank Ritter is hiring for the purpose of overthrowing a pesky Latin American dictator who wouldn’t play ball with him.  Dortmunder gets mistaken for  one of them (coyotes can easily be mistaken for wolves if you don’t look closely), and is forced to sit in a small auditorium with this horde of ravening beasts of prey, eagerly anticipating the sweet joys of rapine, and the whole scene is mightily reminiscent of one from The Spy In The Ointment, but never mind that now.

The gist is that he’s terrified but he does his best to pretend like he belongs there, making light conversation with the heavily tattooed psycho with the Soldier of Fortune subscription who is sitting next to him, and he prays not to be discovered, and of course he is.   And then the lights go out, and he runs like hell for the door, and the mercenary comandante, fellow named Pickens (and he ain’t slim), fires a Finnish-made automatic rifle in his direction, but only succeeds in slightly wounding him with some splinters created by the bullets, and in creating holy hell inside the darkened room full of trained killers.

(If this were a Parker novel, I’d most definitely post an image of the gun in question now, which is an M-60 Valmet, basically an AK-47 only not, but this is a Dortmunder, and I’d feel silly doing that, so I won’t.)

So this is where we left off–with Dortmunder learning that the nun he’s here to rescue, Sister Mary Grace (nee Eileen Ritter, Frank’s daughter, and she pretends to vomit every time someone reminds her of that filial relationship), has in fact rescued him, by turning the lights off, and leading him eventually to her room, which she’s not supposed to be able to get out of but she can anyway.  But now they’re both trapped, and as soon as the chaos they’ve unleashed subsides, there are going to be search parties of mercenaries and Ritter’s security men looking for them, and they have nowhere to run.

And cutting ahead, Dortmunder is eventually found hiding in a dishwasher.  Don’t ask.  Seriously, don’t.  You shouldn’t even be reading this if you haven’t read the book yet.  If you have, you know better than to ask. Suffice it to say Archilochus would be proud.  Though he might have a hard time finding a rhyme for dishwasher.

All is lost.  Dortmunder will be interrogated and disposed of.   Sister Mary Grace, having resisted the gentler methods of a cult deprogrammer, will be placed under the care of an Eastern Bloc expert on what might be politely termed behavior modification, along with what I believe is now called ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ in certain intelligence circles (Westlake must have loved that), until she renounces everything she believes and swears fealty to her father, and if she’s still breathing when it’s over, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll still be alive.   When Frank Ritter talks about how he’s bringing back feudalism for a return engagement, he’s not talking about some sissy Renaissance Fair.

And Dortmunder’s summer soldiers and sunshine patriots down below, having turned J.C. Taylor’s office into something that looks like the mail-order equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave, are disinclined to intervene on his behalf, as they watch squads of security men and soldiers with automatic rifles running back and forth looking for him and the nun.  If any of them were to entertain any brief tender feelings towards their absent chum, Tiny Bulcher stands ready to remind them how permanently tender he could make them feel if they risk his freedom and this beautiful score over a guy who should have stuck to what he knew, namely stealing.

Now.  You remember what Professor Kitto, that erudite Cornishman, said about the Spartan mother who famously told her war-bound offspring “With your shield or on it.”  Tiger-mom indeed, but there are even more formidable females to be found in the annals of legend, and one of them is entering the office right now, and it happens to be her office.   Even she’s a bit impressed by the piles of treasure being prepared for shipping, but she covers it well, and she wants to know where ‘the guy with the worry lines’ is.  She can’t remember his name.  Tiny wants to know what she’s even doing there over the weekend.

“I wanted to check on things,” she said, and shrugged.  Monsters didn’t intimidate her, she’d worked with them all her adult life.  “Where’s the other one?” she repeated.  “Dort-whatever.”

“Munder,” Kelp said.

“Gone,” Tiny Bulcher said.  “Like you.  We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Gentle down, big fella,” she told him, and turned to Howey, the most malleable of them.  “Where is he, Wilbur?”

“Well, say,” Howey told her, and threw a worried glance at Tiny, “he’s gone, you know?”

“No, I don’t know.”

Tiny said, “He went upstairs to get the nun and he didn’t come down, so that’s it.”

“Nun?”

Kelp said, “It’s very simple,” and then proceeded to tell her a story that wasn’t simple at all.  For some strange reason, there was a nun imprisoned at the top of the tower.  For some other strange reason, Dortmunder had to go rescue her.  The whole robbery business was to pay for partners to help in the rescue of the nun.  Last night, Dortmunder went way to rescue the nun, and so far he hadn’t come back.

J.C. said, “And?”

Everybody shifted around uneasily.  The others all glanced at Tiny Bulcher, who said belligerently, “And nothing.  He’s on his own.”

Slowly she looked him up and down.  “So that’s why they call you Tiny,” she said.  With a graceful sweeping gesture of the arm that she’d learned in ballet class at the age of four–J.C. Taylor was not always as we see her now–she indicated the king’s ransom strewn helter-skelter around the room. “Dort-whatever brought you all this, she said, voice dripping with scorn, “and now you’re going to just leave him.”

She could care less about some stupid shield.  But without your friend?  Without your partner?  Walk away from somebody who led you to a good score?  Maybe this is just that frustrated romanticism in her I referred to, some remnant of an earlier life, before the world got hard and mean for her–or maybe something older, and colder–maybe she’s the Parker in this story.   There are things you just don’t do.   When you’re working with somebody, certain things are expected of you, certain unwritten laws must be observed.  If you want to go on thinking of yourself as a man or woman to reckon with.  And when a woman like Josephine Carol Taylor implies that you’re not, what wouldn’t you do to prove her wrong?

So yeah, this is very much an alternate universe version of Parker’s speech in Butcher’s Moon (which is why I quoted it at length).  I’ve no doubt Westlake recognized it as such.  And it has much the same effect, only J.C. Taylor isn’t Parker, and she doesn’t have some perfect plan of attack worked out in her head–the planner is being hauled out of a dishwasher upstairs, and held for interrogation.

So they have to do it on the fly, improvise.  Wilbur’s lock-magic gets them into the hidden private elevator leading to the penthouse suite Dortmunder is being held in.  J.C. doesn’t really need to come along, but she wants to, and who’s going to tell her no?  Tiny has surrendered any attempt to pretend he’s not utterly in her thrall.  The beauty has tamed the beast (who will never seem quite so beastly again).  And now she’s leading him and his friends to the top of a Manhattan skyscraper where there are many machine guns waiting.  Hopefully this works out better than the last time.   Well, that was a different gorilla.  And J.C. is no Fay Wray.

While all this is going on, Pickens is getting ready to resort to various extreme persuasive measures to get Dortmunder (who is calling himself Smith, because hey, there are people named Smith) to talk–and if you’re not the romantic type, here’s an actual pragmatic reason for the crew to come get him.  He might just crack under torture, and spill the beans about their location, and they’re not ready to make their getaway yet–they’d have to leave the boodle behind.  So this really is the smart move, as well as the right one.  And since when does the Dortmunder gang ever think that far ahead?

But somebody up there likes them (and we know who)–as they come out of the elevator, they meet up with Sister Mary Grace.   She tells them where Dortmunder is, and that there are ten armed mercenaries in there with him.  More than even Tiny could handle all at once, but he’s going to try anyway for J.C.’s sake  (man’s in love).  Sister Mary Grace, still bound by her oath of silence, writes them a note.  She’s got a plan.   A very un-nunly plan, you ask me.

As Dortmunder’s hand is about to make the acquaintance of a hot stove, one of the mercenaries says he just saw a topless woman in the doorway.  It’s not the nun.  Others say they saw her too.  Then a little old man moons them.  Okay, Pickens humors them, sends out scouts.  The scouts do not return.  Then one, named Ringo, does return–as a hostage, only his captors remain outside.  He’s bringing terms of surrender.  Pickens’ surrender.  Dortmunder, now pretending to be the black sheep of the Ritter family to buy time, is feeling suddenly encouraged–bewildered but encouraged.

In warfare, morale is everything–even the best soldiers are worthless when confused, off-balance, scared.  And these mercenaries are not the best soldiers by a long shot, just the most unscrupulous and crazed, which is decidedly not the same thing.  They don’t know what’s happening, their nerve is cracking, and Pickens figures he’s got to set an example to restore order in the ranks.  He issues a most medieval challenge.  Seems there’s a little romantic in everybody.

“One-on-one,” Pickens shouted, and started pulling handguns out of his clothing and slapping them down on the butcher block island in the middle of the kitchen; three guns in all.  “A fair fight, goddamnit,” he yelled, “like the old days, like the knights!  Send out your best man, damn you to hell and back, no guns, no weapons at all!  I’ll met him one-on-one, and if I beat him, you surrender to me, whoever the hell you are!  But if he beats me, I’ll surrender my entire company!”

Ringo moved backward, and from around the corner came Tiny Bulcher, stepping into the doorway, filling it, arms at his sides, carnivorous eyes on the blanching Pickens.  “You called?” Tiny asked.

(Myself, I would have gone with “You rang?” but maybe Tiny never watched that show.)

Thus endeth Pickens’ charge.  Westlake doesn’t show us the fight, or even tell us if there was one.  But we can guess.  The whole free company threw down their weapons and wet their khakis, with perfect military precision.

And elsewhere in his besieged citadel, Frank Ritter’s certainty is beginning to crack as well–first the chaos of this search, the unleashed dogs of war he’d hired humiliating and beating up his security men, then the disappearance of his daughter from what was supposed to be her cell, and now suddenly the police are there responding to a call from some woman named Hannah McGillicuddy (I wonder if that’s J.C.’s real name?) saying there’s mercenaries running around with illegal guns in an office building, crazy story, right?

Ritter, still seeing himself as the Lord of the Manor, employs his usual intimidation tactics on them, the ones that work so well with browbeaten underlings.  You can say a lot of things about New York City cops, good and bad, but no one could ever say they respond well to intimidation tactics from civilians.   The cop in charge looks at Ritter, and you can guess what he’s thinking.  Amateur.

So that could have been the end of the story, right there, cut to the epilogue.  The mercs are led away in handcuffs, Ritter’s South American scheme is going to be exposed, and probably even he doesn’t have enough friends to get him out of this one.  What’s more, he’s on the hook for all the stuff Dortmunder & Co. stole from his tenants.  (Meaning that no honest people were hurt by the robbery, how come this wasn’t a movie?)   The lesson from medieval history that he forgot was that feudal barons themselves often ended up imprisoned in towers, when they overestimated their importance within the overall scheme of things.  Lucky for him the headsman hasn’t made a comeback yet.

Dortmunder and the rest are addressing packages full of booty (not that kind of booty, shiver me timbers, dueling slang definitions can be irritating), to be sent to various locations where it can be claimed later.  J.C. is going to take Sister Mary Grace dressed in Wilbur’s clothing (ew) and a false mustache out the front door.  J.C. and Tiny are suddenly quite chummy–he’s calling her Josie.  And she seems to like it.  Well, a tame monster is a useful accessory for any woman in her line of work, and he did prove himself to her.  All’s well that ends well, right?  Dortmunder is confused.  Isn’t something supposed to go wrong now, so they don’t get the money?

His suspicions are well-founded.  Westlake isn’t quite done with the gang yet.  See, the police are searching the tower, floor by floor, and they can’t get out, or explain their presence, or hide the loot well enough to foil a determined search.  They made too much noise–unavoidable, to be sure.  But now it looks like they’re caught.  Tiny is backsliding into I Told You So mode.  And here comes the scene that really makes me wonder how this wasn’t a movie.

Dortmunder still hasn’t actually saved anybody, you know–that’s the problem, and that’s why the story isn’t over yet.  He’s got to come up with a plan for the Exodus.  He does.  They call in the nuns.   Turns out that even though this isn’t Thursday, and the oath of silence is in force, there’s always one nun on phone duty at the convent, in case of emergencies.  The sisters pile into a rickety bus, and head for the tower.  Maria’s Messenger Riding.

J.C., in music mogul mode, passes them off as a religious choir making a recording for her.  They are rapturously reunited with their beloved Sister Mary Grace, who is once more wearing her habit, restored to her true self.   But they brought a lot of extra habits with them, in all sizes–even Tiny Bulcher’s size.  Do you believe this?  Seriously?  A convent has a nun’s outfit that can fit Tiny Freakin’ Bulcher?

Here’s where I think maybe Westlake loses his fine control–the ending is what, for me, keeps this from being in quite the same league as the very best Dortmunders.  It’s maybe a bit too cute, too busy.  But that’s what happens when you send in the nuns.  Comes with the territory.  And it worked fine up until this point.  But just a little too much mass appeal, pardon the pun.  I have this suspicion Westlake never stopped wondering why there wasn’t a movie.  But two movies of Two Much.  You can go nuts trying to figure Hollywood out.  Many have.

So nobody notices there’s a few more nuns leaving than entering.  Inspector Francis Mologna, still in disgrace after his last encounter with Dortmunder in Why Me?, is officially in charge of the search operation, as well as talking to the media (he hates talking to the media).  If he knew Dortmunder was passing right under his nose in a nun’s habit, no telling what he’d do, other than it would involve Dortmunder falling down a lot of stairs.  But of course the Inspector’s too busy ogling J.C.

Westlake can never end on a purely sentimental note.   Sister Mary Grace certainly believes her saviors deserve to profit from their efforts.  Her father will have to pay for it all anyway, and the laborer is worthy of his hire.  That’s in the bible.  Somewhere.  But you might say she tithes them a bit.  While helping them address boxes and envelopes, she redirected some of the treasure to the revolutionaries in Guerrara, via the U.N.  So the gang still gets a nice payday–but quite a bit less nice than it would have been.

And Dortmunder is still brooding about that small betrayal, as he and May soak up the sun in Aruba, months later.  (It’s not the Ionian Aegean, but it’ll do.) Dortmunder is lying on a towel with a picture of Elmer Fudd on it.  May is reading in Newsweek (remember Newsweek?) that General Pozos has been ousted, packed off to exile in Miami, without any help from Frank Ritter, so the people there will have a shot at building a real democracy of their own, instead of a corporate client state.  Ritter isn’t jailed yet, but he’s too tied up defending himself in court to do much of anything else.

You’re a hero of the people, John Dortmunder!  Conqueror of warlords,  liberator of nuns, restorer of justice!  What are you going to do now?  Later, we know you’re going to blow all that money on slow horses at the track–May asks you about that, and you make evasive noises. But having started all this by trying to rob an importer of fancy delectables that you fully intended to sample yourself before delivering them to a crooked wholesaler, what would be your pleasure at this rare moment of triumph, champion of the downtrodden, defender of the meek?

Dortmunder lay back on Elmer Fudd, with his hands under his head.  Through the dark glasses he looked at the blue sky.  The lines of his face shifted themselves around, making accomodation for a smile.  “I think I’ll have caviar,” he said.

Caviar!  Caviar for the champion!  And a Daily Racing Form!   Because a rich Dortmunder is no fun at all.

So granting the thesis that this is Dortmunder’s equivalent of Butcher’s Moon (and much as I like it, I like Butcher’s Moon better, even without the nuns and the more overtly medieval metaphors and J.C. Taylor), did this mean Westlake was hitting a wall with Dortmunder too, searching, perhaps not entirely consciously, for a fitting way to end the series?

This much we can say for sure, there were no more Dortmunder novels for five years, and the next one is certainly a lot more dark and serious, and a whole lot less fun for the gang.  It’s also really long and convoluted, and I will not make that review a four-parter, I swear by all that’s holy.

With the exception of the final Levine story, I doubt Westlake ever wrote any book about one of his series characters with the express intention of never writing another one about that character.  (The series I’m reviewing next may prove the exception, but that had nothing to do with the character.)

I think he did sometimes aim to sort of temporarily exorcise a character from his head, so he could concentrate on other things, and sometimes he just didn’t return to that character, because there was nothing left to say with him or her. But even if there was, he needed a break, a time-out, and so he felt like he had to put a bit extra into the book to tide everybody over until the comeback.  Call it an act of propitiation–to the character and to his readership.

Given half a chance, a big part of his audience would cheerfully badger him into writing nothing but Dortmunder novels for the rest of his life, and that’s not what he wants.  So he put Dortmunder aside, as he put Parker aside, the difference being that when he tried to return to Parker later on, he found that he couldn’t write effectively in the Stark voice anymore.  The comic voice remained active, so he could return to Dortmunder at will, once he’d found a story–but the next Dortmunder is by far the most Starkian of the bunch, mingled with other and maybe even darker influences.

Now I was mean to Newgate Callendar in Part 2 (fellow never did me any harm), and I’ve often been a bit dismissive of professional reviewers in general, and gee I wonder why?  But let it be said that America has produced some truly great critics, who look deep below the surface of our various entertainments.  I’m going to conclude with a passage from Tragedy and Comedy, a book by Walter Kerr, husband of Jean, one of the finest drama critics of his or any generation.   He also wrote The Silent Clowns, probably the best book ever written about the first cinematic comedians, who I’ve mentioned before have much in common with Dortmunder, and I’ve never thought that a coincidence, but it’s much more than an homage.

Kerr said that tragedy and comedy are linked–two sides, one coin.  Comedy was a reaction to tragedy.  We told dark stories of bloody retribution and catharsis before we invented the clown to take the edge off.  The clown sprung from the tragic hero, only to mock him, cast doubt upon his validity.  But without the hero, there is no clown, and true heroes–even anti-heroes–are getting dangerously thin on the ground, while clowns proliferate ceaselessly, which made Kerr worry that the balance between the two was being lost.  And now I’m going to type out an outrageously long quote:

Pain is common to both forms and is so far from being a distinguishing mark between them that it actually attests to their close relationship.  The contest that is going on in a play–its agon–is an agony whether in a comedy or a tragedy.  It so happens that the theatrical use of the term agon derives from comedy rather than tragedy.

But the pain of comedy is possibly more protracted and more frustrating than that of tragedy, because it does not know how to expel itself.  Tragedy’s pain is productive; it comes of the abrasiveness of moving forward toward transformation.  Comedy, making capital of the absurdity of seeking transformation, must forever contain its pain.  By denying freedom it denies release.  Tragedy uses suffering; comedy can only live with it, that is to say, against the possible day when tragedy, in an ultimately successful transformation, frees them both.  Comedy, hugging the fox to its breast, stays close to tragedy against that possible, eternally doubted, day.

But this interior anguish of comedy, this intense impatience and exasperation with self, in itself becomes an energy.  Dissatisfaction with self is a goad, perhaps the most powerful goad man knows.  The tragic hero courageously, sometimes presumptiously, even wrongly, takes up arms to advance the self; the clown, holding back as he must if he is to be a clown, retains the dissatisfaction as a canker which can neither be expelled nor quieted.  Impatience kicks and thrashes inside the clown, like a violent baby in the womb that cannot bring itself to term.

It is just this powerful agitation that is, in the end, comedy’s strongest assurance of survival.  Detesting its work while half despising itself for being so good at it, finding its limited situation intolerable even while it is being applauded for the hilarity it provokes in so accurately describing the situation, comedy burns with a fever that may prove unquenchable.  Transforming anger into laughter abates the anger temporarily, slightly; it does not remove its causes.  The causes fester, seek expression in any which way, generate activity.  If we have seen comedy cropping up on all sides in all hues in our time, willing to offer itself as a sacrifice to seriousness or to paint itself black where it was once too carelessly thought to be a painter of rainbows, it is because it can never be content to lie fallow in the face of the contempt it feels for itself.  Comedy may keep kicking, because it cannot help kicking out at itself.  And because it owes everything to tragedy, both the original gift of a thing to be parodied and also the only ultimate promise of a new state of being in which all private exasperations and secret despairs will be melted away in the annealing passage through time and space, it must keep kicking to see if it can kick tragedy awake.

The clown screams at his sleeping companion.  He wants him up and on with it.  Once he has got him up, if he ever succeeds, he will of course tell him his activity is absurd.  But he wants it to be absurd.  Only the tragic absurdity is capable of transcending itself.

What a good man the clown is, to endure so much, to survive so relentlessly, to keep us company in all weathers, to provide us with a way of looking at the worst that enables us to take a temporary joy in the worst!  For that is what he does: he stands horror on its head to keep us tolerably happy against the day when tragedy will look horror straight in the eye and stare it down.

What a good man John Dortmunder is, to keep us company, yes.  But the day will come, and not so far away, when he will succeed in kicking Parker awake, and then they shall briefly pull together in the traces, coyote and wolf, as a writer of many seemingly conflicting voices, his final moments approaching fast, prepares to stare down death itself.

But in the meantime, that writer is going to try creating yet another voice, an endeavor that will ultimately fail, but the question for us is whether that was entirely his failure, and whether there is something worth salvaging from the wreckage.  Let’s talk about it.

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Filed under Butcher's Moon, Good Behavior, novel, John Dortmunder novels, Uncategorized

Review: Good Behavior, Part 2

 

“Couldn’t anybody stay awake?” Dortmunder demanded of the room at large, and Andy Kelp shifted on the folding chair, his elbow brushing the piano and producing a quote from Wozzeck, which in turn made Tiny rumble and change position, knocking a phone book onto the floor.  Stan Murch sat up straight, clutching for a non-existent steering wheel, crying “I’m awake, I’m awake!  Stay in your own lane!” Kelp then jolted up, wide-eyed and glassy-eyed, attempting to stand without disentangling himself from the folding chair, which meant he toppled over onto the piano–excerpt from Bartok’s Mikrokosmos–before tumbling to the floor.  All of this racket aroused Tiny, who reared up like a walrus, flinging his arms wide, clearing the desk of everything that had been on it, before lunging away in astonishment, causing the swivel chair to over-balance and tip him backwards onto the floor, huge thick legs waving in air.  Meantime Stan, desperately trying to make a left turn, hurtled out of the leather chair and into the side of the desk just under where a lot of staplers and pens and desk calendars and memo pads were falling.

There then followed a brief silence, with dust motes.  Dortmunder looked around. “Are you finished now?” he asked.

“Say!” shouted Howey from the other room, followed by a crash that was probably a full rack of metal shelves going over, with several thousand books.

“Hand-picked,” Dortmunder commented to himself.  He looked at his own right hand with dislike.  “Hand-picked,” he repeated.

When you write a Dortmunder book, be prepared to lead a Dortmunder life–assuming any other kind is on offer.  Famed Dallas department store Neiman-Marcus commissioned a special limited edition of this book, one thousand copies, signed by the author.  Westlake autographed each and every copy like a lamb, only to learn that on the flyleaf Neiman-Marcus had somehow been mis-transcribed as Nieman-Marcus (wasn’t his fault), and he was going to have to sign each and every copy all over again.  With his own right hand, unless he was a southpaw, which I would think he’d have mentioned somewhere.

Fortunately for him, given all the books he had to sign in his life, Westlake went to Catholic schools, where I trust he was drilled relentlessly in the cursive arts by nuns and/or brothers–perhaps the Sisters of Mercy, who taught the elementary classes at the Vincentian Institute in Albany (where he got his high school degree).  There were nuns somewhere in his early life, bet on it.  And perhaps some of them were armed with rulers, like the ones Dortmunder knew as a youth, and used them perhaps a touch over-literally to impose their authority upon their young charges.  And others perhaps used kindness and patience and a much-needed sense of humor.  And I really wish he’d completed and published those memoirs of his, so I wouldn’t have to type the word ‘perhaps’ so often.

This book didn’t get a limited edition from Nie–Nee–from that store without being a crowd pleaser, and that’s just what it is.  I wouldn’t quite put it up there with the very best of the Dortmunders (at this point in the series, the first three are still unquestionably the top three, in my estimation), perhaps precisely for this reason–the elitist in me.  And for all its many virtues, this is not one for the elitists.  I think Westlake consciously wrote this one to sell big, because he’d given Otto Penzler two challenging literary properties in a row (A Likely Story and High Adventure), and he wanted to hit one out of the park for his new coach.

It’s not like he wrote the other two not to sell, but he was writing them more to please himself, stretch out a bit, do what people didn’t expect from him.   This book is precisely what people expected from him.  Only more so.  ‘Newgate Callendar,’ writing in the Times, so often disparaging of Westlake’s more unconventional stuff, was practically having multiple orgasms over it.

The ensuing events are in Mr. Westlake’s usual manner. He has a wonderful feeling for the absurd, revels in farce and slapstick, piles complication upon complication and throws things at poor dazed Dortmunder that even Hercules did not face in his various tasks. At one point Dortmunder has to take on, single-handed, a company of man-eating mercenaries.

Yet Mr. Westlake, through the farce and nonsense, manages to create characters who are a curious mixture of stereotypes and archetypes. If he is a master of the comic crime caper, and he is, he also does what the best comic writers throughout history have done – make a comment on society. One does not want to make too much of a book like ”Good Behavior.” It is an entertainment, brilliantly done in its way. But it also does have a strong cutting edge.

As flatteringly condescending (condescendingly flattering?) as ever, but fair play to Mr. Callendar, one of the shallowest professional book reviewers I can think of (he must have saved the deeper ruminations for his classical music gig under his real name).  He’s seeing past the hijinks and hilarity here, and in fact, Westlake can never write a story that’s nothing more than hijinks–he might start one, but he’d never finish it.  He’d fall asleep at his Smith-Corona without something to keep that agile mind of his occupied.

He can’t write a good book if it doesn’t engage him intellectually at some level–but he can shape the material to be more audience-friendly, when he wants to.  This is a book you could hand to anybody who isn’t a militant atheist of the more humorless variety (or perhaps one of those equally humorless evangelicals who think the Pope is antichrist and nuns the handmaidens of Satan), and be assured of an enthusiastic reception.   Entirely possible even the Richard Dawkinses and Bob Joneses of the world would enjoy it–privately.

My mom loved the large type edition I sent her for Mother’s Day (she loathes Kindle).  Then she gave it to a local lending library, because that’s what she does with the books I give her these days after reading them (no collectible signed editions for you, mom).  She’d never read a Dortmunder before, and may never read one again–can’t find a large-type edition for any of the others–and the fact that there was one for this book is more evidence that it was seen as having a broader readership.

(The other Westlake I found for her in the appropriate typeface was Trust Me On This.  And I could have gotten her that Parker novel that opens with a naked girl pinned to a bed with a sword, but then I thought nah.  Though she’s probably read worse. But not as a Mother’s Day gift.  Hell no.)

The fact that she’d never encountered these characters before made no never-mind–the Dortmunders in general are extremely  user-friendly, but this one more than most.  No advance knowledge of the characters and their past exploits is required.  Though you certainly enjoy it more if you’ve read the ones that came before it.  Having stuck with Dortmunder & Co. through the bad times, it’s somehow especially rewarding to be with them now, at one of their rare moments of triumph.  A hard-fought victory, for battle-scarred protagonists and loyal readers alike.

And now let’s just enjoy it, character by character.  No lengthy synopsis–having thoroughly covered the set-up in Part 1, I’d just as soon focus on individual story elements in Part 2.  I think I’ll go with titled subheadings followed by quotes this time.   I  like that format.  Possibly you don’t, but since I’m doing this for free….

I’m Gonna Get Medieval on Your Ass!

“It’s more than exciting, Garrett,” Ritter said.  “It’s real.  The truth is, the pendulum has swung all the way back, several hundred years, and we are today entering upon the next great era of feudalism.”

Garrett blinked.  Feudalism was something that had wafted by once or twice in college days, leaving no residue.  Doubtfully, he said “You mean, King Arthur and like that?  The Round Table?”

Ritter laughed, a sound that always had a threat in it.  “I don’t mean myth,” he said.  “I mean reality.  Feudalism is a system based not on national citizenship but on loyalties and contracts between individuals.  Power lies not in the state but in ownership of assets, and all fealty follows the line of power.  Very sensible.”

“I guess so,” Garrett said, blinking slowly.

Frank Ritter is the central villain in this story, and just possibly the most despicable character Westlake ever created–even if you include the sociopathic sickos and murderous mafiosi Parker routinely dispatched in the Stark  novels.  They’re small time.  Frank’s major league.

And like many another Westlake villain, he has a prototype–Jaekel Grahame (Jack to his friends, if he had any), from I Gave At The Office.  Not one of Westlake’s better books, as I mentioned when I reviewed it.   I did however find Mr. Grahame’s philosophy, as enunciated to the protagonist, to be of considerable interest.   He said that the gun was the cornerstone of civilization, and also that the multinational corporation was going to come to see itself as the true governing power in the global society, superseding and ultimately warring with the nation-state.

He also said that there was nothing inherently immoral about armed robbery (take whatever you can from whomever you can), but armed robbers would be foolish to take on a vastly superior force, such as himself.  And to some extent, Frank Ritter’s fate in this book is Westlake’s way of saying “Oh yeah?” but we’ll get to that.

Ritter, like Grahame, fancies himself a philosopher, jotting down pithy little axioms in a notebook (“The real world is just beyond the visible world”), presumably to be published someday as a testament to the wit and wisdom of a founding father of the (so old it’s) new order.  He, like Grahame, believes that the common people always have an outdated notion of what kind of society America is–they went on thinking it was an agrarian rural democracy after it had become an industrial urban republic, and now they think it’s still a center of industry when it’s actually about services and technology, and is ruled by the multi-nationals that link it to the true industrial nations that make all our stuff.  Not formally ruled by them, of course.  Work in progress.

He can’t control everybody’s life yet, but he can sure as hell control his own daughter’s.  She became a nun in no small part as a rebellion against him, but not a childish rebellion.  An act of adulthood, young as she is–something her siblings, bought off by all the pleasant accoutrements of wealth, will clearly never be capable of.  She wanted to reject without qualification this devil and all his works, and to in some way try to negate them, stand in opposition to them.  She saw how her mother basically drank herself to death, her spirit broken, all sense of purpose gone, and she won’t let that happen to her.  She would rather die.  That is not a figure of speech.  But she is afraid, for all that.  She knows too well that there are no lines her father will not cross to get what he wants.

And the former Miss Elaine Ritter is being quite medieval in her own right–for in fact, many a rebellious daughter of some medieval baron took the veil to find her own place of power, a sanctuary from what was expected of her from her patriarch and feudal lord (to be sure, convents could also be convenient dumping grounds for discarded spouses and elderly relations, but we have our own modern equivalents).  People tend to forget that aspect of medieval history.  I bet Frank hasn’t.  I know Westlake didn’t.

Did you know the word Margrave means a military commander assigned to maintain the defense of one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or a Kingdom?  If you’d read the Wikipedia article I just clipped that from, you would.

Ritter said, “Think of it this way.  I am the baron.  Templar International and Margrave Corporation and Avalon State Bank and so on are the castles I have built in different parts of my territory, for defense and expansion.  The subsidiary companies we’ve bought or merged with owe their allegiance not to America but to Margrave.  We reward loyalty and punish disloyalty.  When necessary, we can protect our most important people from the laws of the state, just as the earlier barons could protect their most important vassal knights from the laws of the Catholic Church.  The work force is tied to us by profit-sharing and pension plans. I don’t expect national governments to disappear, any more than the British or Dutch royal familes have disappeared, but they will become increasingly irrelevant pageants.  More and more, actors will play the parts of politicians and statesmen, while the real work goes on elsewhere.

“With us, you mean,” Garrett said.  His puffy face lit up with excitement.  He thought about buying new skis in Scandinavia.

Ah, Garrett.  Seemingly one of the brighter of Frank’s children who is not currently a Catholic nun–one can only imagine the rest of them.  The great flaw in the feudal system, and its ultimate downfall–hereditary authority.  Your kids are either too stupid and weak to emulate you, or too smart and tough to live in your shadow–either way, your legacy is an illusion.  The stronger you are, the more you try to dominate and shape them, the more you either destroy what’s good in them, or else turn it to some end you had not anticipated.  Well, that’s what boards of directors are for, I guess.  And who ends up on those?  Other entitled children of rich men.  You taken a good look at the progeny of Donald Trump?  Not that he’s anything more than a low-ranking vassal with delusions of grandeur.  Frank’s more in the Koch line, I’d say.

So Frank is a dangerous man, but also a dangerously self-deluded one.  Powerful and brilliant, but his power has made him myopic, and his brilliance has become too inward-looking.  He sees a great many things that are unquestionably happening in the world, then and now (because his creator sees those same things happening, and hates them with an infernal fury), but he can’t see past his own ambitions, and he has absolutely no self-understanding.

If he understood himself, he wouldn’t have denied Elaine–the only one of his children to inherit his force of will–the chance to seek her own path.  But in fact he understands very well that she’s striking directly at the core of his ideology, and much as he may regret the necessity of it, he will break her down to nothing, as he broke her mother, rather than let her go on defying him.  “The sharpest thorns are in your own roses” he writes in that little book of his, and he somehow thinks that’s original. And he sees himself as a fine man.  Obviously.  He’s doing all this for the greater good.  Elaine will thank him someday.  And I am Marie of Romania.

And is there no errant knight out there, no band of heroes to scale that tower, free the maiden (perhaps not literally, nobody asks) from her dismal if well-appointed cell, and slay this vile robber baron?   We’ll settle for metaphorical slaying, but the rescue operation has to be quite literal, as well as dangerous.  And this modern tower has many a locked door in it, many a brazen alarum bell.  Were any of you good at analogies on those standardized tests?  I was a wiz at them.  See how you do with this one–

As Drummers Are to Spinal Tap–

“This is Wilbur Howey,” Tiny said.

Dortmunder looked at the doorway to see if there was any more to him, but apparently not.  “How are ya?” he said.

“Terrific,” Wilbur Howey said, and cackled.

Dortmunder led the way to the living room, where May was reading the latest issue of Working Woman.  Howey tossed a salute in her direction, winked, and said “Hi, Toots.”

“Hi,” May said, putting the magazine down and getting to her feet. “Hi, Tiny.  Anybody want coffee?  A beer?  Anything?”

“Just an hour with you on a doubledecker bus, Toots,” Wilbur Howey said, and cackled again.

“Shut up, Wilbur,” Tiny said.  “They ain’t no more doubledecker buses.”

“How about bunkbeds, huh, Toots?”

(–so lockmen are to Dortmunder.  Yes of course I knew you’d get it, but  I had to type it out for the ones who aren’t good at analogies like us.)

Specialists are always a problem–so incredibly good at one thing.  So incredibly bad at everything else.  That’s the trade-off.  You can’t push a human mind to know one area of expertise really well, and still expect it to function adequately in all the other areas.  Not that this necessarily applies to all specialties.  Like off the top of my head, people who blog incessantly about the same writer. Competely different, huh Toots?

So Dortmunder is, as he himself puts it, a good utility infielder in his profession (though a genius in the area of planning), but for some jobs he needs a first-rate lockman–somebody who can open any door in front of him like it was a doggy door and he was a Labrador.   And this means he’s had to put up with the idiosyncracies of the specialist, as any professional will sometimes have to do.

And so he has had to deal with Chefwick, a slightly cracked model train enthusiast, who ended up somehow riding a train to Cuba, then running a Chinese railroad in California (don’t ask).  Or Wally Whistler, an absent-minded fellow who would sometimes go to the zoo and let lions out of their cages, just because he couldn’t resist fiddling with the locks, and then he managed to end up in Brazil because he was robbing this pier at the waterfront, and he just kept going until he was on the ship, and the ship sailed away with him on it, and now he’s trying to get to Uruguay so he can confess to some crime he did not commit to get extradited back home.  Did I just type that?

Or Herman X, a black bisexual revolutionary gourmet (it says something for this series that he’s the most relatively normal of the bunch), who we learn in this book has actually become part of a successful revolution in Talabwo (the fictional African country that Dortmunder was working for in The Hot Rock), and now he’s their Vice-President, so not available for the tower heist.

So Tiny suggests Wilbur Howey, who is available, and local, and just got out of prison after serving forty-eight years of a ten year sentence that should have only run three years with good behavior.  Wilbur basically is not capable of good behavior, which makes him the ideal lockman for this book.  He kept breaking out of jail, more or less out of boredom, and they’d find him very easily, and drag him back, and tack more years onto his sentence until they just decided enough was enough, and let him go.  He’s a cracker-jack lockman, make no mistake, and he’s kept up on his trade while he was in stir (when you think about it, there’s no better place to keep in touch with the latest advances in locksmithing).

But he was very young when he went in, and obviously not terribly well-experienced with the opposite sex, and there’s really no worse place to keep up with that aspect of life.  The poster boy for arrested adolescence, full of randy pick-up lines that were old when Bob Hope was young.  After making pass after pass at May, who does not receive his advances in good humor, we next see him standing outside the Avalon Bank Tower, winking and saluting at every skirt that passes, including some pretty obvious transvestites, but a skirt’s a skirt, right?

Dortmunder finds him the most irritating co-worker yet, but he must admit, when the guy gets down to business, he’s all business.  It’s only when he’s focused on his work that his fey mannerisms fall away, and the professional comes out.  He means absolutely no harm at all with his endless come-ons–and he’d never hurt a fly, even if he could.  You like him, but you can’t help but nod in agreement when Dortmunder, taxed beyond words, mutters that the only thing that gives him any satisfaction is that Wilbur Howey is about to meet J.C. Taylor.

And I kid you not kid, nobody in this book affords the discriminating mystery reader deeper satisfaction than–wait for it–

Josephine.  Carol.  Taylor.  

J.C. Taylor was being the receptionist again, typing labels.  Today she was in a plaid shirt open halfway to the waist, and designer blue jeans.  Glancing up when the door opened, she said “Hail hail, the gang’s all here.  There’s three guys already inside.”

“Good,” Dortmunder said.

Meanwhile, Wilbur Howey was inhaling.  He’d been inhaling steadily ever since he’d set eyes on J.C. Taylor, slowly rising  up on his toes as though the volume of air he’d taken aboard was turning him into a balloon.  Finally, he released a bit of that air: “Tooootts,” he said, half sigh and half croak.  His hand moved up to his hat, moving like part of a mechanical figure, and raised it clear of his wisp-covered scalp.

Now she became aware of him.  Her fingers slowed and then stopped on the typewriter keys.  Her left eyebrow raised, and the corners of her mouth wrinkled in amusement.  “Well, look at this,” she said, like somebody finding a really good prize in a Crackerjack box.

Westlake always did a good job writing good girls.  He excelled at writing bad girls.  But to him, you see, there are no bad girls, at least not in the conventional sense of the term.  They’re just drawn that way.   Or rather, they draw themselves.  His most intriguing ladies are invariably tramps, in the Rodgers & Hart mode.  Because that way lies freedom, and individuality, and self-actualization.  It’s not really about sex at all.  But sex certainly comes with the package.

And something in him resisted this–I don’t know why.  He played at creating female protagonists here and there, and they were classy blonde ingenues, pouting prettily, with a touch of Nancy Drew, and they’re fun to read about–but somehow there’s always something a bit lacking–not enough there there.

If he really wanted a female lead for a series, I strongly believe he should have given J.C. Taylor a ring, but he never did.  If he were still around, I’d ask him why.  But I don’t know if he’d have had an answer.  A writer is his or her choices, good and bad.  When he chose to make J.C. Taylor nothing more than a recurring peripheral character in the Dortmunder-verse, he made a bad choice. But nobody else could have made her at all.

J.C. comes into the story because she runs a somewhat shady mail-order operation in the Avalon Bank Tower, on a lower floor with no security.  She’s not worried about being robbed–she’s not worried about much of anything.  She’s just about an inch away from the wrong side of the law, and that’s just where she likes to be.  Bent enough to be open to a crooked proposition; not so bent that the law is taking a good look at her–too bad for the law.

At first glance, she’s just the receptionist in an office hosting a music company, a correspondence course for aspiring detectives, and a business offering aid to couples looking to improve their sex lives (by way of a pornographic manual featuring her own sweet self in many a revealing photograph).  She’s just some office girl, “a hard-looking brunette of about thirty,” but that’s merely one of the masks she hides behind–once she’s sure Dortmunder and Tiny are who they say they are (and not process-servers), she unveils the dominatrix within.  Like Frank Capra said about Barbara Stanwyck, when she turns it on–everything stops.

On the way up to see her, Dortmunder and Tiny ride the elevator with some Japanese businessmen, and one of them looks at Tiny, muttering something that sounds like “Godzilla.”  That’s the effect Tiny has on most people (when we first see him in this book, he’s hoisting compact cars with Stan Murch–not a typo–he’s actually hoisting them onto a flatbed truck, with his bare hands.  The real Godzilla might want to bring back-up.

She just sees another man–she knows men.  They hold no mysteries for her.  She was, as she matter-of-factly lets drop, a call girl for a while; long enough to raise the capital to start her own business, be her own boss, and she makes it very clear to them both that the two things she will never do for money are kill somebody or fuck somebody.  Wants no part of the former, had all she cared to of the latter.  Whatever damage was done is her business, and she doesn’t want to talk about it.

And in no time at all, Godzilla is eating out of her hand, figuring she’s the kind of girl who puts out (since he’s been reading the sex manual she appears in with a glazed expression).   But she won’t give him the time of day, and he starts uttering the not-so-veiled threats he typically resorts to when he perceives rudeness of some kind–threats that would intimidate a suicide bomber–and she could not care less.  She has his number–when she finds out what his nickname is, she smiles and says “I wonder why?”  She knows every weak spot in the masculine ego, and she herself has none.  And yet–there’s more to her than money and put-downs.

When she sees Howey, stimulated almost to the point of meltdown by his first encounter with Femininity Incarnate he’s had since–probably ever–you think she’s going to hurt him somehow, punish him for being a sexist pig–and she doesn’t.  Not really.  She’s seen sad cases like him before, and what she feels isn’t exactly pity, but it’s not hostility either.  Because this is the female H.L. Mencken.  Remember?  He said if anybody wanted to pay him homage after he was gone, they could forgive a sinner and wink at a homely girl on the street. Can she, a sinner herself, do any less?   In fact, she can do a whole lot more.

With a little reflective half smile on her lips, Taylor reached out her left hand and touched the tip of her first finger gently to the side of Howey’s jaw, just beneath the ear.  Eye to eye, leaning just a bit toward him, breathing deeply and regularly, she slowly moved the fingertip and just an edge of fingernail lightly along the line of his jaw.  Howey’s bobbing grew more spasmodic, he vibrated all over, and by the time her fingertip had reached the middle of his jaw he was just standing there, spent, mouth hanging open.  “Very nice,” she told him, patted his cheek, and said to Dortmunder, “He’ll be all right now for a while.”  And she sat down, turning back to her typewriter.

Marry me.  What?  I didn’t say anything.  I think I had a point to make–oh yes. Saints and Sinners.  I talked about that last time.  J.C. Taylor has sinned, and she fully intends to go on sinning, and yet there is something about her that suggests that her external cynicism is just a cover for a wounded romantic–she’s come down in the world, but she’s also risen in it by her own mischievous machinations.  And in spite of herself, she likes these wacky heist-men, and finds something appealing in their quest.  And that will figure heavily into the climax, but meanwhile back at the ranch–

The Trusty Brunt of May.

“I wouldn’t work for you,” May told him, “for a million dollars an hour.”

The clipboard man gave her a surprised look.  “Then you’re crazy, he said.  For a million dollars an hour, you could put up with certain things.”

“Not rudeness,” May said.  “I have an aversion to rudeness.”

May gets her own subplot in this one, and given how much happens in this book in the course of only 244 pages, that’s astounding–that the subplot is there, and that it works so well.    Dortmunder is dumbfounded to find he is being sued by the client he was burglarizing a gourmet food importer for–he got three hundred up front, and then the job, as already mentioned, went to hell, and Dortmunder opted not to give the money back, since it’s not his fault the guy didn’t give him enough information about the alarms and such, and he’s owed something for time and labor and falling through a convent roof and all.

Dortmunder can’t believe it–what kind of a man sues a burglar for not burglarizing at his own criminal behest?  Are there any sane people left in this crazy world?  But Chepkoff, the sleazy wholesaler he had the arrangement with, figures Dortmunder has more to lose than him, and will give back the money rather than show up in court.

May knows this Avalon Tower job is the toughest one her man has ever tackled, and she firmly approves of his saving that poor nun, so she wants him focused on that, so he comes home to her in one piece.  Without telling Dortmunder, she goes to the warehouse, and beards this food lion in his den.  He brushes her off, and that, you should know, is a very serious error on his part.

Because May works in the food service industry herself–as a slightly larcenous check-out girl at a supermarket.  And properly motivated by his extreme rudeness, she does a bit of digging, and comes back at him with indisputable proof that he’s been stealing from her employer on a much larger scale than she ever did, and unless he drops the suit, he’s going to have more to worry about than three hundred dollars he should have known he was never going to see again.  He folds like a cheap suit.

This is one of the joys of the Dortmunder series–much as I may complain that J.C. merited more than a supporting character gig, the fact is, being a supporting character in the Dortmunder books is no mean avocation, and Dortmunder should stop acting like he’s been cursed by fate–professionally, perhaps.  Not personally.   The Great God Westlake was in a giving vein when he made Dortmunder walk into that Bohack supermarket where May was working, and charm her with his failed attempt at shoplifting.  A pearl beyond price I called her back when I reviewed Bank Shot, and if anything I was undervaluing her.

And this subplot very much fits the overall theme of the book–bad behavior–namely blackmail–that is somehow good behavior.   Right and wrong are not so easy to distinguish in this fictive world, any more than they are in our world. Context is everything.  Universal laws don’t function well in a universe of endless variety.  Somehow, I don’t think Immanuel Kant would have been a fan of these books.  But I could be wrong.  Even prissy German philosophers like to laugh sometimes.  But Dortmunder doesn’t feel much like laughing when he finally makes it to the top of the tower and encounters–

The Wolves of War.

“Freedom fighters,” Garrett echoed, and couldn’t prevent a slight expression of repugnance to curl his lip.  Coming through the Margrave offices to this meeting he had seen them lolling about in the various rooms, telling one another hair-raising anecdotes, nearly sixty hard-bitten mercenaries, merciless veterans of uncounted wars in Africa and Asia and Central America, assembled by Frank Ritter to spearhead the “liberation” movement that would repay that upstart South American dictator Pozos for becoming an annoyance.  Garrett considered himself manly, God knows, but he was also civilized, and these “freedom fighters” were nothing but timber wolves in human shape.  You could smell the testosterone.  He said, “I just don’t understand why you’re assembling that bunch of thugs here.”

General Pozos, decadent dictator of Guerrero (Guerrera in this book), Westlake’s Latin American answer to Ruritania, was a character who was introduced in the first Grofield novel by Richard Stark, figured obliquely in the next two, and had never appeared in a Westlake novel–and he does not physically appear in this one, but he still clearly exists in Dortmunder’s world.  And that somehow makes sense, even though Parker has been established as a fictional character there in Jimmy the Kid, created by the very real (and litigious) Richard Stark.  Because after all, Grofield himself had somehow jumped over to Dortmunder’s world in somewhat altered form, so why couldn’t Pozos and an entire country make the jump with him?

Westlake is recycling again–the main plot point of The Damsel is that a very wealthy and powerful American politician is trying to have Pozos assassinated, so he can take over Guerrero and reshape it to his liking, using his close relationship with Pozos’s son and heir to make that happen.  But in the end, the politician realizes that Pozos Jr. is really more his son than the dullard who sprung from his loins (who worships Pozos).  And he chooses that personal relationship over his political ambitions.  Well, we already know this story is going another way with that premise.   No personal relationship means much of  anything to Frank Ritter.  The political always comes first.

So he’s just going to use mercenaries and money to hijack an already-existing revolutionary movement aiming to overthrow Pozos.   Completely illegal, of course.  But he’s grown accustomed to thinking of the Federal government and its laws as a ceremonial gloss on a world he and his kind already control.  And he figures nobody will even notice these guys assembling in New York.  And they just happen to be assembling right at the moment that Dortmunder has Howey get him past the locked door leading to the suite Sister Mary Grace is imprisoned in.

His colleagues are downstairs, robbing several lucrative businesses blind–his own rather ingenious plan (even for him) is that they’ll just mail the swag from J.C. Taylor’s office (superbly equipped for that end), and walk out the door on Monday, unburdened by evidence.  But since he’s the only one who owes the nuns a favor, he’s got to do that part of the job himself–only as soon as he gets inside, he gets mistaken for a mercenary, and forced to join a sort of general assembly of mayhem.  A gathering of wolves.

Yeah, ‘timber wolves in human shape.’  You noticed that, did you?   They’re not like Parker, of course–but don’t ever try to tell me the idea of a wolf in human form didn’t cross Westlake’s mind on a regular basis, only he wouldn’t actually come out and say that’s what Parker is, because that’s actually what Parker is, and that would take all the piss out of it.  He can say it about these guys because it’s only a metaphor.  But to Dortmunder, the cowering coyote, at risk of being exposed as a ringer at any moment, to a roomful of men who are being armed with assault weapons, it’s a nightmare made real.  He uses a still-meeker animalian analogy.

Dortmunder’s mouth was dry.  His hands were wet.  So far, the seat was dry. He was up here looking for a nun, and all of a sudden he’s in this absolute army of killers.  Attila would be happy to come back and hang out with these guys; all Dortmunder wanted them to do was disappear.

They were an excitable crowd, too.  Almost anything might set them off; disliking the weapon they were supposed to use in their upcoming slaughter, for instance.  There was no telling how excited they’d get if they found out there was a noncombatant among them; a sheep, in wolf’s clothing.

A Lamb of God, you might even say.  You caught that reference in the opening quote up top, right?  When he chides his disciples for not staying awake with him?  Westlake has done this before, in The Score, and Butcher’s Moon–twelve men on a mission of robbery and (in the latter book) murder.  Can we make this twelve as well?  Dortmunder, Kelp, Tiny, Stan, Howey–that’s five.  I’d say J.C. Taylor is the Mary Magdalene of the bunch–and never mind if the real Magdalene was a prostitute (historians demur)–the metaphor still holds up nicely.  Six.  May is certainly part of the gang, and they also serve who only stand and wait–seven.  Sister Mary Grace makes eight.  The Guatemalan housekeeper acting as a secret emissary could make nine if you want to stretch a point.  Well, it was worth a try.   Where two or three are gathered in my name….

So Dortmunder escapes the wolf pack, due to a fortuitous blackout in the conference room, very slightly wounded by a stray bullet, and as the chaos he invariably unleashes erupts around him, he finds himself gripped by a small firm hand, and guided to a place of relative safety, and of course it’s Sister Mary Grace–slipping around quietly within the office complex, she interceded on his behalf, but it’s not Thursday, so she can’t talk to him.  And if you ever wondered if John Dortmunder is familiar with the work of George Lucas–

“I’m uh,” Dortmunder said, but what the hell, might as well admit it.  “I’m John Dortmunder.”

She nodded again, patting the air: She too had figured things out.

Dortmunder sighed; it had to be said.  “I’m here to rescue you.”

She raised an eyebrow, grinning ever so slightly, but otherwise refrained from comment.

We’re way over six thousand words here.  I would have sworn I could do this one in two parts.  I know, I got sidetracked a lot, but there’s a whole lot of sidetracks here.  Maybe this really is the Butcher’s Moon of Dortmunder, short though it be.

We are now through the first three parts–GenesisNumbers, and Acts.  For reasons that are beyond my ken, Westlake chose not to reset the chapter count after each part concluded, so Part 4–Exodus–begins with Chapter 34.

It’s not looking good.  The crew downstairs has been made aware of the ruckus upstairs, and is feeling disinclined to come up and join the crucifixion party. Kelp, deathlessly loyal as he is to his friend, can hear the cock crowing in the distance, and sighs to himself, thinking what a pity it is–then he goes back to figuring out how this gizmo he lifted from the magic shop works.

Tiny, learning of Dortmunder’s predicament, is going to utter the starkly Nietszchean commentary, “There is no Dortmunder.”  Well, he could have just said Dortmunder was dead to him.  Well really, that’s what he said.

We’ll see what Mary Magdalene has to say about that.

Mind the rocks.  Go with God.  (Flann O’Brien).

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