Monthly Archives: May 2016

Review: Trust Me On This, Part 2

 

The death of Johnny Crawfish stunned the civilized world.  The thirty-eight year old  country singer who had risen from poverty and squalor as the child of migrant farm workers, the gravel-voiced balladeer who had found both God and his muse in a Tennessee prison where he’d been sentenced for manslaughter, the self-taught millionaire songwriter/businessman who by his thirty-fifth birthday had appeared in command performances before both Queen Elizabeth and President Reagan, died that Saturday morning of at first unknown causes in The Shack, his palatial thirty-room waterfront estate on Chesapeake Bay north of Newport News, Virginia, and when the news was flashed round the globe it was as though four billion human beings had just lost their best friend.

What we call fiction today is different from either the history or poetry known to readers before Cervantes’s time.  For a prose narrative to be fiction it must be written for a reader who knows it is untrue and yet treats it for a time as if it were true.  The reader knows not to apply the traditional measure of truthfulness for judging a narrative; he suspends that judgment for a time, in a move that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized as “the willing suspension of disbelief,” or “poetic faith.”  He must be able to occupy two opposed identities simultaneously: a naive reader who believes what he is being told and a savvy one who knows it is untrue.  In order to achieve this effect, the author needs to pull off a complex trick.  At every step of the way a fictional narrative seems to know both more and less than it is telling us.  It speaks always with at least two voices, at times representing the limited perspective of its characters, at times revealing to the reader elements of the story unknown to some of or all those characters.

From The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In The Modern World, by William Egginton.

Donald Westlake loved to experiment with the structure of his novels.   Rarely did he write a book that was just Chapters One Through Whatever.  He split his books–even the short ones–into different parts, with different purposes, and he named them, and you just never knew, opening a new Westlake, how it was going to be laid out.

This book starts off with The First Week, which runs four chapters–the week in question is Sara Joslyn’s first on the the Weekly Galaxy, obviously.  The First Day also runs four chapters, and refers to the fact that Sara gets a permanent parking sticker for her car at the end of her first week, and that’s really when she’s a Galaxy employee in full earnest.  The First Hundred Years takes up eight chapters, and is meant to indicate that even though she’s only been there a month by the time it ends, in reality (as with all indoctrination periods) it’s been more like a lifetime.  Our jobs tend to change our identities, the daily routine marks us, for good and ill, and it doesn’t take long at all for those changes to be noticeable.

Which brings us to The Wedding, the longest part of the book, a very busy eleven chapters worth of mendacious maneuverings.  As we saw last time, having learned that she’s actually brilliant at the job she was initially ambivalent towards, Sara Joslyn, once a strong believer in journalistic integrity and serious news, has been well and truly corrupted by her new job–not by the insanely large salary, the basically unlimited expense account, or even the tender ministrations of her nominal boss and newly minted lover, Jack Ingersoll.

No, she’s just found out it’s really really fun to think up ways to con people, to dream up cunning subterfuges, to obtain unobtainable information about the rich and famous–and get paid for it. Basically a tabloid reporter is a professional grifter/spy, with a weekly paycheck and a presumably excellent healthcare plan. Sara Joslyn, who a short time earlier was worrying about which of her half dozen or so half-finished novels to finish, now believes she may have found her true calling in life.

Jack, watching her rapidly become the the most intrepid scandalmonger the Galaxy has ever seen, worries he may have degraded an idealistic young soul. But he’s so enjoying her idealistic young body.   It’s a moral quandary.  And here he was thinking he’d left all such tiresome concerns behind in the 1960’s, where they belonged.

So John Michael Mercer, the brooding hunky star of Breakpoint, is getting married to a delightful young woman named Felicia, who is quite simply a doll. Sweet-natured, unostentatiously sexy, low-maintenance, neurosis-free, with nary a skeleton in her doubtless immaculate closet.  One would think there would be no story there at all, or at least no story other than “John Michael Mercer got married, sorry girls (and boys who hoped he was secretly gay).”

But it is Mr. Mercer’s misfortune that he is the object of a driving obsession on the part of Bruno DeMassi, the Galaxy‘s pernicious publisher, who owes his success to the fact that he understands his readership on an almost cellular level–he knows what Inquiring Minds Want to Know.  (I want to know!)

So ‘Massa’, as his staff only half-humorously refers to him, will not brook any excuses, or set any budget to the single-minded quest of extensively and intimately covering what is supposed to be a strictly private ceremony.  He has decided in his infinite wisdom that ‘the story’ is going to be an interview with Mercer, complicated by the fact that only certain pesky laws against bodily mayhem have stopped Mercer from habitually doing to Galaxy reporters what he presumably does to bad guys every week on his show.

So in brief, this is to your typical wedding coverage in the news what the D-Day Landings are to the Staten Island Ferry making its 30th docking of the day (at Staten Island).  Think I’m being hyperbolic?  Wanna bet?

Jack’s team having won control of the wedding coverage, he, Sara, Ida Gavin, The Aussie Trio, and many others fly to Martha’s Vineyard and set up a command center in a house the paper has rented at obscene expense (hotel rooms being scarcer than poultry dentition).  Louis B. Urbiton and Harry Razza are deployed to waylay the other ‘legitimate’ journalists coming in to cover the wedding, and get them all royally drunk.

Bob Sangster has an additional assignment–to pose as Jack Michael Mercer’s cap-tugging limo driver.  “I’m just a simple Aussie,” he keeps saying.  Simple like a bloody dingo.  More brass than a Big Ten University marching band.

“I don’t mean to intrude, sir,” the driver said, with a little stiffening of the shoulders to indicate the distance he knew he was expected to keep, “but if at some point you wouldn’t mind to give me just a little autograph for my daughter, it would be the thrill of her life.”

“Of course,” Mercer said, smiling, while Felicia squeezed his hand.”  “What’s her name?”

“Fiona,” the driver said.  “She’s your biggest fan.”

“Is she?”

“But we all are, sir, if truth be told.  The whole family, we wouldn’t miss a thing you do.  Not just Breakpoint, you know, but everything.  That blind rodeo rider in the movie for television, Study in Courage, was it?  That was beautiful, sir, if you don’t mind.  Beautiful.”

“I am proud of that one,” Mercer agreed, nodding in manly acknowledgement.

“Not to intrude, sir.”

“Not at all, not at all.”

You feel kind of sad when the vigilant staff of the exclusive hotel the happy couple are staying at, find Bob out, beat him to a pulp, and show him the door. Fortunes of war, mate.

The Galaxy‘s next move–which both shocks and thrills Sara, increasingly aware of just how much power and money her employer has to throw around when the situation warrants–is to moor a world-class yacht, the Princess Pat, within sight of the hotel, and inform Mr. Mercer that in exchange for his agreeing to an interview, he and his intended may sail off on it, anywhere they please (what do you suppose the odds are there would be no hidden cameras and listening devices installed onboard?).   Mercer is still not allowed to shoot anyone in real life, even in Martha’s Vineyard, so he just says “No” and slams the door in the messenger’s face.

At this point, Massa must acknowledge that ‘the story’ will not be an interview with John Michael Mercer, so it will have to be the wedding album.  Pictures. Exclusive to the Galaxy.  By any means necessary.  And as always wishing to set his reporters at each other’s throats, he tells Jack’s eternal nemesis, the smarmy Boy Cartwright, to go there and get those pictures.  Boy departs with all due alacrity.

Sleeping off a spate of drinking brought up by the aforementioned fortunes of war, Jack and Sara hear shots fired outside Jack’s motel room.  Turns out they were fired inside Sara’s vacant motel room.  Into Sara’s vacant bed.  Unclear if this is a real murder attempt or a very stern warning.  Jack manages to conceal Sara’s presence in his room, since the Galaxy (if you’d believe it) will not brook any moral turpitude from its staff.  Now the police have to actually go interrogate John Michael Mercer, to make sure he didn’t actively follow up on one of his innumerable threats towards the Weekly Galaxy and all those attached to it.  He didn’t, of course.  But now things are really getting out of hand.

The war is going against Mercer and Felicia, in spite of the valiant efforts of the hotel staff–there’s always somebody on the staff who can be bribed.  The manager is sadly forced to admit that he won’t be able to guard their privacy, but being a throughgoing professional (something Donald Westlake appreciates deeply in all walks of life), has a back-up plan.

The couple can stay with Lady Beatrice Romney (no relation, I’m sure), widow of an English general who was forced to leave that more happier land under a cloud after his military bungles led to the Dunkirk evacuations (the most glorious retreat in all of history).   A new Romney Hall, with grounds quite capacious enough to hold the ceremony, has been constructed in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lady Beatrice still broods on the iniquities of the British gutter press which hounded her late husband to an early grave.  No, I don’t believe a word of this either, and I don’t give a damn, do you?  Rarely have I suspended disbelief more gladly.

Hearing that a fellow subject of Her Majesty is now the person to approach, Boy figures he’s got the inside track to nab those wedding photos.  Yes, you see where this is going.  But the thing is, Boy doesn’t.   Been away from home too long. Forgot about the class system.

“Well, he says he’s from a newspaper, Mum,” Jakes said, with a faint but  unmistakable edge of disapproval.  “He says he’s from the Weekly Galaxy, Mum, it’s a sort of servant-girl paper, all in color.”

Lady Beatrice’s eyes glinted.  So the villainous press had traced the fair couple, had it?  Well, it would not be permitted to destroy their happiness.  “And the scamp,” she said, “has the effrontery to come to my front door?”

“He asks if he can have a word with you, Mum.”

“Put the villain on.”

“Boy Cartwright here, Lady Beatrice,” said the villain, and the instant she heard that glutinous voice, that style of Uriah Heep after assertiveness training, Lady Beatrice placed the fellow precisely and unerringly in his proper pew in the great English pecking order.  A tradesman’s son from somewhere like Bradford, a redbrick university dropout, the sort of fellow who in Manchester or Liverpool sells used cars to Pakis.  “If I could have a bit of a chat, Lady B,” this mongrel said, “I’d be most appreciative.”

You’ve had your bit of a chat, my lad, Lady Beatrice thought, and said “Put Jakes on.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That large strapping fellow there with you.  Jakes.  Put him on.”

“Oh, of course, of course.  See you in half a tick, then,” the creature said, and Lady Beatrice heard him, away from the phone, say snottily to Jakes, “Your mistress has instructions for you.”

Oh, that she does, my lad.  Let us avert our eyes from the distasteful events that follow, involving a large leather belt.  At least she didn’t say ‘release the hounds.’ Later on, she does, in fact, release said hounds, but we’ll get to that. A great pity Dame Edith Evans could not be cast to play Lady B.–certain tonal inflections only she could do to complete perfection.  I rather suspect her Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest was in Westlake’s mind when writing this scene–but of course she’d gone to her final reward over ten years before this book came out.  Hopefully they have plenty of cucumber sandwiches there, and I trust no journalists of any kind.

These scenes at Romney Hall are written very much from the perspective of Lady Beatrice and her two young guests, who she takes an immediate liking to–somehow, all aristocrats understand each other, and what else are celebrities but modern aristocrats?  John Michael Mercer starts reverting to the courtly western accent of his boyhood, accentuating it to the point where he might as well be doing Gary Cooper.  He positively beams when Lady B. mentions her late husband’s frequent avowal that all reporters should be horse-whipped on sight.   And you fully sympathize with them, and identify with their perfectly sane and understandable desire for privacy, and you want them to win out against these ruthless ink-stained sewer rats.

And then you switch back to Jack and Sara, who are themselves such a fine couple, so brave and resourceful and determined to get the personal data the great unwashed who constitute their readership demand as their rightful due for making Mr. Mercer rich and famous and privileged beyond all belief, and you’re right back in their corner again.  And this is intentional.  Westlake is pitting our divided sympathies against each other, forcing us to think about the underlying realities that make up our confused modern world.

A bit earlier in the book, Sara, frustrated beyond all endurance by the obdurate refusal of Mercer to allow them any access whatsoever to his personal life, speaks for all us inquiring minds–and we’re a bit embarrassed by how well she does it. Ida asks who the hell Mercer thinks he is (well he’s an actor, so obviously it depends on the script).

“That’s right,” Sara said, as fierce in her own way as Ida.  Jack stared at her in ambivalent surprise–did he want Sara to become Ida?  What a thought!–as the girl shook her fist and declared, “What do people like John Michael Mercer have, except their celebrity?”

“That’s right,” Ida said, glaring at Sara in aggressive solidarity.

“And where do they get their celebrity?” Sara demanded.

“From us,” Ida snapped.

“That’s right!” Sara cried, in full voice.  “When they want publicity, we give it to them.  And when we want, they’ve got to give!”

(Westlake used the the pithy declarative phrase “that’s right” perhaps more than any other writer I can think of, but not even in a Parker novel did it ever occur so many times in so short a passage.  Does this mean he thinks tabloid reporters are harder cases than bank robbers?  Hmm.)

Jack’s own identity crisis, relating to Sara, is now in full bloom.   He’s increasingly seeing her as his own perky blonde Frankenstein’s Monster.  And with her sleeping in his arms, he lies awake, trying to puzzle it out.   Is he having–feelings?

With what trouble and difficulty Jack had rid himself of extraneous emotion several years ago he could barely stand to remember.  A thoroughgoing romantic in college and beyond, slopping over with empathy and fellow-feeling, as naive as a CIA man at a rug sale, he had been hardened, annealed, by circumstances too harrowing to store in the memory banks, and since that time he had been safe.

It had been a conscious decision he had made, four years ago, to retire from the human race, to care about nothing, to become as self-sufficient as Uncas. He had chosen deliberately an environment where emotional attachments of every kind from the greatest to the smallest, were literally impossible.  It was not conceivable to care for one’s fellow workers at the Galaxy, for instance. One amusedly pitied a Binx Radwell about as meaningfully as if he were a puppy with a thorn in its paw; one used an Ida Gavin and then washed one’s hands; one rather relished a Boy Cartwright as so thoroughly representing the environment.

Equally, one could not become emotionally involved with the job.  Not this job.  Nor could one care about the pip-squeak transitory celebrities on whom they all lived their parasitic existence.  Even the state of Florida helped; anyone who managed to sing the glorious rocks and rills of that sunny buttcan needed psychiatric care.

Too thoroughly burnt-out a case even to relish the romantic self-image of being a burnt-out case, Jack Ingersoll had retired to Florida and the Weekly Galaxy and the likes of Ida Gavin and Boy Cartwright to lick his wounds and care never again about anything at all.  Not even possessions; his Spartan life not only gave him more money to put into blue-ribbon investments, the better to prepare for that inevitable day of involuntary retirement, it also kept him from falling–like puppy Binx–in love with things.  He who has nothing has nothing to lose.  And he who has nothing to lose has already won.

Except, Jack realizes with bewilderment, looking down at the sleeping blonde head on his chest, he has everything to lose now.   And he doesn’t have to break up with her to lose her.  He can lose Sara by Sara ceasing to be Sara.  And then what is he?  And that’s romantic attraction in a nutshell.  An identity crisis within an identity crisis.  Because Sara is only doing all this to prove herself worthy to him.  And he’s proud of her.  And ashamed of himself for being proud of her.  Ain’t love grand?

So finally, all gentler strategems having failed, the order comes down from on high–STORM THE WEDDING.   An all-out nuptial assault, by land and sea and air.  And you think Westlake is making this shit up?  Google pictures of Madonna and Sean Penn’s wedding, if you get the chance. Coming back to you now?  Yes, I know they’re both stuck-up assholes, and that marriage had about as much of a future as Betamax VCR’s, but still.

Sara leads a cavalry charge–on horses rented from a riding stable.  Boy leads a naval assault, a small flotilla of boats attempting to unobtrusively mingle with the vessels belonging to members of the Mercer wedding.  And Ida takes command of a helicopter bristling with long lenses, the heavy artillery of the paparazzi.

And all for naught.  If only Lady Beatrice had been leading Her Hajesty’s forces in spring of 1940, instead of her late husband (unkindly dubbed The Dunce of Dunkirk by the aforementioned gutter press), there wouldn’t be nearly so many WWII movies and documentaries.  The attack is beaten back on all fronts, with no loss of life, but considerable loss of dignity.  Clubs are brandished.  Non-metaphorical hounds are released.  Pants-seats are ripped.  Riders are thrown. Shotguns are fired.  The helicopter pilot has PTSD from Vietnam, and gets the hell out of there.  Napalm regrettably not an option.

All is lost.  No usable photos.  They have an interview with the minister who performed the ceremony–in exchange for them publishing his treatise on how to solve the Northern Irish Troubles–send the Protestants to Mars–not entirely without merit, but not nearly enough to satisfy Massa and the readership.  They mussed the bride’s hair up a bit with the backwash from the helicopter, made her lose her veil, made her cry.  Oh good for them.  A hard-fought victory for John Michael Mercer and his blushing bride, but victory all the same, as the happy couple kiss, and are seen no more in this book.  “Bastards,” Sara says, gazing upon them with hatred.  “Bastards, bastards.”  That’s the spirit.

And that defiant indomitable spirit simply will not allow the possibility of defeat. Sara’s gift for lateral thinking comes into play once more.  Lady Beatrice took the wedding photos herself, being an accomplished amateur photographer.  And where do amateur photographers get their photos developed?   Back in the days when photos still needed to be developed?  The drug store.  She finds out which one.  She picks up the photos herself, claiming to be doing so for Lady B.  The Mercer wedding album is presented to a delighted Massa.  The forces of evil have triumphed after all.

And in appreciation of this magnificent service performed on behalf of Vox Populi, Jack’s team is given a Body in the Box assignment.  In Part Five of this book, which is predictably entitled The Body in the Box.  Sara has been hearing this phrase repeated over and over throughout the book, and she’s been afraid to ask what it means.

It means you have to get a photo of a dead famous person in his or her coffin. The family of the deceased typically objects to this.  But certain disreputable members of that family (and what famous person in all of history did not have disreputable family members?  what person, really?) can often be bribed to provide a covert snapshot, of generally execrable quality, but that’s not the point.

No, the point is that The People demand to see their idol’s decomposing corpse, perhaps merely to reassure themselves that if Life is not fair, Death is nothing but.  You see those photos up top?  This is still very much a thing, people.  And will remain a thing as long as people keep buying the papers containing these photos–and then buying reprints of them (the National Enquirer has been reprinting that Elvis issue for decades now).

So the dead famous person is country music legend, Johnny Crawfish, and this is where we came in.  So let’s cut to the chase, shall we?   Sara, not so much a reluctant detective as an absent-minded one, has completely forgotten about the murder mystery.  The murderer has not.  The murderer is a Galaxy reporter. The murderer intends to shut Sara up for good (even though she’s basically given up trying to solve the mystery) .

Sara and that same killer who now intends to kill again have entered The Shack under cover of being from the Virginia board of health, because (they say) Johnny Crawfish’s corpse has AIDS, so all non-essential personnel must be evacuated, so now they can take all the photos they want. Yes, this is in terrible taste, most insensitive, and I bet it would have worked if somebody had actually tried it back then.  In the rural south, definitely.  But quite possibly anywhere.

This is a terrific book, make no mistake, but I doubt there’s anyone who reads it who doesn’t have a pet peeve.  Here’s mine.  Sara was the detective here, distracted though she may have been.  Westlake typically put his amateur detectives (all of them guys, up to now) in a position where they had to solve a murder mystery to save their own asses.   And they invariably do so, and get to explain to all present not only whodunnit but how and why it was done, and they’re always right.  Because that’s the genre.

This is not really a mystery novel, but it has a mystery in it, and Sara is the detective.  She did all the legwork (and she has much better legs than all the previous Westlake detectives).  And she not only does not figure out who the killer is until it’s very nearly too late, but having survived, she lies there in a gurney, in a state of shock, while Jack, who has raced to the scene of the almost-crime, after belatedly realizing he’s sent her to her death, tells her what happened, and why.

It works.  Dramatically speaking.  Emotionally speaking.  Jack needed the shock of Sara’s near-death to get him to declare his love for her, and it makes sense he’d be able to put together the pieces Sara had assembled, knowing more about the background of that particular crime.   I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the scene, that it’s not very well written.  I’m just saying it’s not fair.

Donald E. Westlake was simply not put on this earth to write novels about female protagonists–great female supporting characters, yes.  But as the central figure in the story, no.  That’s neither a criticism nor an excuse.  It’s a statement of fact.  Even though he’s put much of himself into Sara Joslyn, even though he’s imbued her with many admirable qualities, even though he was destined to write one more book about her (in which she does solve the mystery all by herself, and Jack is relegated mainly to the sidelines)–his great protagonists are all Americans, all caucasians, all males.

That’s the perspective he was most comfortable with, even though he loved writing from many others, needed to stretch outside of his comfort zone–he still retreats back to it, when all is said and done.   It’s not that he’s a man, because many of the most compelling heroines in all of fiction were created by men, quite a few of them before Donald Westlake came into this world.  It’s because as is true of all of us, his strengths are bound up in his weaknesses.   A package deal.

Sara’s a fine experiment, and since the book does not revolve solely around her, her deficiencies–chief among which is the fact that maybe she’s just a bit too damn cute for her own good–do not detract from the many pleasures of the narrative, which is not about who murdered whom at all.  And maybe I’m still sulking a bit that the estimable J.C. Taylor from the Dortmunder novel Good Behavior never got her own book.  But a writer is his or her choices, and all writers, even your favorites, make choices you don’t approve of. You live with that, or you read somebody else whose choices you don’t always approve of.  Or you write your own stories, and make choices other people don’t approve of.

And his final choice here is to end on a rather deliciously ambiguous note, in Part Six, The Way We Live This Instant.  Jack and Sara have achieved a fuller understanding of each other, and of themselves, and they know now they don’t want to waste the best years of their lives together serving the whims of Massa. So they make their way to the offices of Trend (promoted as The Magazine For the Way We Live This Instant), which Sara has previously deemed nothing more than the Weekly Galaxy for people with money.

Armed with certain embarrassing personal data, they successfully blackmail an editor there into hiring them on (this relates to his having earlier tried to do a Galaxy-style story about the Galaxy).  And though initially discomfited and angered by this violation of his privacy, the editor decides it’s actually a win–these two sharks will make him look good.  And eventually take his job, but hey, that’s the news biz.

And here’s where we have to ask ourselves–the same way we ask at the end of that brilliant fast-paced gender-switched remake of The Front Page that Howard Hawks gave us so long ago, and nobody has come close to equaling since (except maybe here)–have we been rooting for the wrong side?

Sara and Jack have made strides, certainly.  They’ve escaped the feudal bondage of the Galaxy, the trap that represented–only to wander into a larger trap. They’re still going to be reporting mainly on things that don’t really matter, to satiate the morbid curiosity of a better-heeled class of readers.   They have found love, and material success, and personal empowerment, and all the things that are supposed to matter–but have they lost themselves?   In the media-dominated world they–and we–inhabit–is anyone really completely themselves?

So there’s a double-meaning to that ending–the book is on two sides at once, and so are we.   And nothing has changed.  The Weekly Galaxy is still out there in many appalling forms, and can anyone honestly not look at the media scene we have now, 24/7 cable channels, news blogs that often make the National Enquirer and Weekly World News look positively quaint and old fashioned, and not conclude that Massa is the only real victor here?

And how has he won?  By being “an executive who is fond of promoting rivalries among subordinates, wary of delegating major decisions, scornful of convention and fiercely insistent on a culture of loyalty around him.”  You know who that quote actually refers to? Guess.

Viva Love.  Viva Mystery.  Viva Celebrity.  Viva Chicanery.  And viva Freedom of the Press, seriously.  For all its myriad abuses, it’s our best weapon against the plutocrats. But it’s also their best weapon against us.  And the war goes on.  And Jack Ingersoll and Sara Joslyn are not going to be very helpful to us in that war. They’re too busy enjoying life, and each other.  But they entertained us, and taught us a few things about ourselves.  And that’s something, surely.

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Review: Trust Me On This

 

 “Sara,” she said, as they started off.

“I’m Jack.”  They walked between the lines

I remember,” Sara told him, with a faint edge in her voice.

“Don’t kick me, lady,” Jack Ingersoll said, “I just left my bowels back there.”

“What was all that?”

“Every morning at ten A.M.,” he said redundantly, “the editors, of whom I am at least one, go to that shrine back there and lay thirty story ideas at the feet of–”

“Thirty!  Every day?”

“Believe it or not,” Jack Ingersoll said, “I came here as a young and beautiful woman.  Much like yourself.”

She looked sharply at him, but somehow the remark hadn’t had the quality of a pass, or a compliment.  That left it unanswerable, so Sara continued beside him in silence.

The ordinary English public did not want thoughts but sensations. I had begun to edit the paper with the best in me at twenty-eight; I went back in my life, and when I edited it as a boy of fourteen I began to succeed. My obsessions then were kissing and fighting: when I got one or other or both of these interests into every column, the circulation of the paper increased steadily.

From My Life and Loves, by Frank Harris

Throughout the 1980’s, Westlake kept trying to break the mold he’d been cast in, resulting in many interesting books, but little in the way of tangible success.  People liked Parker, people liked Dortmunder, people liked Comic Capers (whatever that means).   Parker was incommunicado until the 90’s, Westlake couldn’t write Dortmunder all the time or he’d go crazy, and he’d written about all the stories he could take about directionless young males who get into trouble, meet a fetching female, and find themselves.

He liked writing foreign intrigue (Kahawa, High Adventure) but the book sales had been disappointing.  He’d really enjoyed satirizing the publishing industry, but you can only bite the hand that feeds you so many times before it gets jerked away.  He’d tried a new series character with Sam Holt, and it had not gone as planned.  A male wish-fulfillment fantasy where the hero is deeply ambiguous about his fantastic life was tough to pull off.

Maybe time to try writing from the other perspective?  A female protagonist?  He’d done lots of those back in his days of writing pseudonymous sex books, and his political thriller Ex Officio, with its enormous cast of characters, was more or less centered around the brave and likable Evelyn Canby.  Interesting female characters were never hard for him, but he had never really tried to write a mystery novel where the main protagonist was a woman.

He’d clearly enjoyed writing Bly Quinn, Sam Holt’s west coast girlfriend–blonde, brassy, brilliant–very much the ingenue, but with an edge to her.  Bly was a writer, like him–that made her easier to identify with.  Okay, so take a version of that character, less experienced, still finding her feet.  Put her in a strange situation, that would test her resourcefulness–and her character.  And of course put her in some kind of danger, like he’d done for all the picaresque protagonists of his ‘Nephew’ books (except hers would not be the only POV, so this would be written in the third person).

And he’d give her a love interest who was a sort of Ex-Nephew.  A reformed idealist, a wounded romantic;  somebody who used to believe in principles and fighting for the common good, and all that hopey-changey stuff, before Life had its way with him.  Two people at different stages of their respective learning curves.   Nephew and Niece, jousting their way towards love, in the midst of doing their jobs and fine-tuning their identities.  Wouldn’t that be incest?  I suppose since all his characters are technically his children……

And he could still do another satire of the publishing industry–just another kind of publishing.  The kind that is basically already a satire of itself.  The Supermarket Tabloid.   Who does these things?   Where do they get their ideas?   How do they live with themselves?  How do they know themselves?   This has been a ripe source of comedy for generations now, as two images I posted up top can attest.

There can be no doubt at all which tabloid in particular caught Mr. Westlake’s attention, as he pushed his grocery cart into the checkout lane.  Started up not quite a decade before this book came out.  Published by Generoso Pope Jr.–yeah, try improving on that name, Mr. Westlake.  Should I mention that the Jesuit college I attended had an auditorium named after the generous Mr. Pope, a benefactor of my alma mater?  (Or possibly his slightly more respectable dad, who had the same name, I never asked.)  Nah, why bother.

Headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, along with its sister rag, the National Enquirer (in essence, the tabloid featured in this book is a diabolic admixture of the two), this curious publication first saw print in 1979.  And the world of ‘news’ would never be quite the same again.

You see the inherent problem to writing this?  Westlake surely did.  No matter how wild and wacky he got, the source material would always top him.  I mean, these are relatively tame examples I’ve posted up above.  I didn’t even mention Bat Boy.  Did you know he led us to Saddam Hussein?

Anyway, Mr. Westlake was well aware of the large legal staff employed by that publishing group.  His experience with Scott Meredith would tell him not to underestimate such a personality’s (if you want to call it that) capacity for small-minded vindictiveness.  So a small disclaimer opens the book.

Although there is no newspaper anywhere in the United States like the Weekly Galaxy, as any alert reader will quickly realize, were there such a newspaper in actual real-life existence its activities would be stranger, harsher, and more outrageous than those described herein.  The fictioneer labors under the restraint of plausibility; his inventions must stay within the capacity of the audience to accept and believe. God, of course, working with facts, faces no such limitation.  Were there a factual equivalent of the Weekly Galaxy, it would be much worse than the paper I have invented, its staff and ownership even more lost to all considerations of truth, taste, proportion, honor, morality or any shred of common humanity.  Trust me.

I really don’t think Ambrose Bierce (or Messrs Hecht, MacArthur & Waugh, how’s that for a law firm?) could have said it any better.  Since Bierce worked for William Randolph Hearst a while–one of the fathers of Yellow Journalism, who would start actual wars to boost circulation (along with the guy the most esteemed prize in journalism is named after)–I greatly doubt any modern skullduggery of the press could have shocked him.  I trust we’re all beyond shock now, in the era of 24/7 cable news.  With that shared sense of inurement taken as a bitter yet inescapable fact–shall we proceed?

Sara Joslyn, not too far into her 20’s, her dark blonde hair long and straight, with legs to match, is driving down a strangely empty highway just outside Miami,  when she sees a car stopped by the road.  She’s a reporter by trade, recently had her first newspaper shot out from under her (the death of print journalism just then becoming a thing).  Nosy by nature, much like Pandora, Nancy Drew, or Bluebeard’s wife, but with a journalism degree to legitimize it.  She goes back to check it out.  There’s a man in the front seat.  He’s been shot in the head.  “Oh jeepers,” she says.  The story won’t be as G-rated as her language.

She reports the crime to the security man at the gate of her new employer, the Weekly Galaxy.   We’ve already discussed what they do.  She’s not crazy about the gig, but they are offering an enormous starting salary (35k per annum, and remember, it’s the late 80’s).  Her employment alternatives are thin on the ground right now.  How bad could it be?

She’s got about half a dozen novels in the works (show me a journalist who doesn’t), one of which is called Time Of The Hero (at least it’s not A Sound of Distant Drums).  She doesn’t really know who she is, and at that age, who does?  Maybe this job helps her find out.  If she lives long enough.

She stumbles into a daily ritual at the Galaxy–as mentioned up top, every editor has to submit thirty story ideas–per day–to ‘Massa’, otherwise known as Bruno DeMassi, the publisher of the Galaxy, and for all his plebeian origins, the Westlake-ian equivalent of Lord Copper from Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.  He Who Is Not To Be Questioned.   An absolute dictator, as capricious as he is uncouth–and so powerful that he was able to have a twelve-mile four-lane highway built to service his corporate headquarters, even though there’s absolutely nothing else there for it to service.

That’s why there was no traffic when Sara arrived.  That’s why there were no witnesses to the murder. Which absolutely no one at the Galaxy gives a solitary shit about.  Not their department, unless he was murdered by aliens, or Bigfoot.  All they have to do is come up with those thirty ideas a day and not have too many of them red-penciled (ie, shot down) by their boss.  Somebody (namely our male lead) suggests the Galaxy clone a human being.  This conversation ensues:

“Which human being?” Massa asked.  “Man or woman?”

“Well, I was thinking of a man originally–”

“Where’s the cheesecake?”

“We could do a woman, of course,” Jack conceded.  “But remember, sir, it’s going to be a baby for–”

“A what?”  Massa glowered.  “You mean we don’t start with a person?”

“No, sir,” Jack said, with every appearance of calm.  “Clones have to be born like anybody–”

“You mean we got a baby around here for twenty years?”

“Well, we don’t have to–”

Binx, who at odd moments tried to help other people, even though no one ever tried to help him, said “It might be a mascot, sir.”

“Oh, no,” Massa said, with a negative wag of the beer bottle.  “We had that goat that time, and it didn’t work out.  A baby isn’t gonna be better than a goat.”

Worse, really, but hardly the time to bring that up.  Binx Radwell, in case you were wondering, is Jack’s best friend at the paper, which isn’t saying much.  A born loser, though his day will come, in a subsequent book.  Where do these Wasp boys get those first names from?  We’ll talk more about him later.

Lord Copper aside (I don’t know who the model was for him, never even read the book–somehow Waugh is not me), I’ve already mentioned the real-life model for Massa– Munificent Pontiff, or whatever it was.  Here’s a picture of him.

Generoso-Pope-Jr

(Before I bothered to look any of this up, just from reading the book, I’d head-cast DeMassi as Danny DeVito–and the weird thing is, he’d have worked just as well for the role in the late 80’s as he would today, not that anybody’s making a movie, but it’s good to know he’s still available if they ever do).

So Sara, like Alice through the looking glass, is our entry-point to this topsy-turvy world.  Nobody has offices, they have ‘squaricles’, which is to say desks with lines drawn around them to designate the non-existent walls, and everybody is expected to pretend the walls are actually there.  The phones don’t ring, because there’s so many of them and so many incoming calls that everyone would go mad as a hatter if they were not instead fitted with flashing lights (Actually, hatters in the days of mercury poisoning were probably quite unexceptionable persons compared to your average Galaxy staffer).

Only  Massa has an actual office, but it’s located in a large service elevator, fully equipped with desk, mini-fridge stocked with beer and etc, so he can move unpredictably from floor to floor, keeping an omniscient eye on everyone, and nobody knows when the door on their floor might open and the Voice of God might issue from within, along with the occasional belch.  I don’t know if the real Generoso Pope Jr. really did this, and I don’t want to know.

It’s a cutthroat working environment, with each editor assembling a team of quack I mean crack reporters, and each team striving to outdo the others, which means getting more stories into each edition (if you start getting too few, that’s where throats start getting cut).  There is, believe it or not, actual fact-checking involved in this process, but it’s done mostly for tedious legal concerns rather than for veracity’s sake. Did I just say ‘mostly’?

The stories involve weird (and quite possibly fatal) diets, strange scientific discoveries the staff has made up that they’ve gotten some tame expert to half-heartedly verify (a huge part of the workday involves getting ‘money quotes’ from such people to cover the paper’s inquiring ass), the colorful activities of various paranormal beasties, but of course most of all the private lives (and deaths) of celebrities.

Massa has become obsessed with one such luminary in particular,  John Michael Mercer, star of the hit television series Breakpoint.  Who for reasons I’m sure we could not begin to guess hates the Weekly Galaxy with every charismatic fiber of his being, and is constantly firing all the people working for him that are actually working for the object of his truly puzzling hatred.  What, a person can’t moonlight?   You might think such industry would be commended, but show people are notoriously eccentric.

So Jack and Sara meet, and the proverbial sparks fly.  They’re attracted to each other immediately, but she’s assigned to his team, and his first concern is that she do her job the right way, which at any other paper would be the wrong way–she needs some retraining, and occasional restraining.

She’d be willing enough to date him if he played his cards right (even though such fraternization is technically frowned upon at the Galaxy), but his caustic domineering manner rubs her the wrong way (much as he’d privately like to rub her in more pleasant ways).  Sara Joslyn is nobody’s little plaything, and she’s determined to prove she can be as scurrilous a scandal-monger as any man. Over the course of the rest of the book, she sets about doing exactly that.  And Jack, his conscience not quite as dead as he’d like to think, watches this pulchritudinous pilgrim’s progress with mounting concern.  Oh grow up, you know what I meant.

Jack’s reminiscent of many earlier Westlake protagonists, such as Eugene Raxford of The Spy in the Ointment (the activist thing), but also that scurrilous scoundrel Art Dodge of Two Much, most of all in his bickering yet somehow sibling-like relationship with his secretary, Mary Kate.  Jack’s somewhere in-between–more cynical than Eugene, less caddish than Art.  Early on, he muses to himself about why some small voice within him says ‘fire the broad’ after Sara hangs up on him because he forgot her name.  “You want to save her from corruption,” Mary Kate suggests.  “No, that can’t be it.”  Later, he says out loud, “Maybe I hate women.”  Mary Kate tells him he’s not that selective.

There is also a professional nemesis for Jack (who by extension becomes one for Sara)–the most successful editor at the Galaxy by far, Massa’s pet pupil, one Boy Cartwright, scandalmonger supreme–incurably English, 40 to Jack’s 30, dissolute, degenerate, and dead to all concerns other than material ambition.  Which means getting his stories into the paper, which he does with nauseating frequency.

(Westlake goes to some pains to explain that because gutter journalism of the very lowest order is commonplace in the UK and Australia, Brits and Aussies are commonly found in the ranks of the Weekly Galaxy, having been so well-drilled for its comparatively innocent little excesses in the slimy trenches of Murdochville.  Would that News of the World phone-hacking scandal have come as any kind of a shock to Donald E. Westlake?  Don’t make me sneer.)

Sara finds this out for herself, when she’s given a special assignment.  This comes as a reward for helping Jack find out a juicy tidbit about John Michael Mercer, who has thrown over all his prior bimbos I mean ladyfriends for a shockingly sweet and wholesome girl named Felicia who has the temerity to have absolutely nothing at all wrong with her.

The assignment is a trip to the sacred heartland of America (or whatever Indiana may be).  She’s to cover the 100th birthday of identical twins, living in a nursing home there.  To provide back-up, she’s given three Australians, and let’s just say Westlake had way too much fun writing them.

Whitcomb, Indiana, on a Tuesday in mid-July.  Even the dogs were bored.  A couple of them lying around in the shade under Edsels and LaSalles didn’t even look up when the Trailways bus groaned to a stop in front of the Rexall store, farted shrilly, and opened its door to release the big-bellied sweat-stained driver and the Down Under Trio.  Bob Sangster scratched his big nose, Harry Razza patted his deeply wavy auburn hair, Louis B. Urbiton gazed about the somnolent downtown of Whitcomb in mild amaze, and the bus driver opened a bomb-bay door in the rib cage of the bus to remove the Aussies’ battered and disgusting mismatched luggage.

“So this is America,” Harry Razza said.

“Can’t say I like it much,” Bob Sangster said.

“Oh, good,” said Louis B. Urbiton, “there’s a pub.”

“Bar,” Harry corrected.

Bahhhh,” Louis amended.

“Have a nice day,” the driver said, and remounted his bus.

The Aussies stared after him, in astonishment and shock.  “What?” demanded Bob.

“I call that cheek,” Harry said.

The bus door snicked shut.  The bus groaned away.  The dog under the Edsel opened one eye, saw the six well-polished shoes of the Aussies, decided in his doggy innocence that these must be acceptable functioning members of society, and closed the eye again.

So they proceed to do what they always and invariably do, shameless raconteurs that they are, the life of every party–get everyone on their side simply by temporarily relieving everyone’s deep  boredom with free drinks and improbable yarns.  The only one in the ‘bah’ who isn’t laughing at their antics is a disreputable bag lady hanging out there.  Sara arrives, and demands to know where their photographer is.  Guess.

After badgering the local master baker (oh shut up) into engineering a twenty-foot birthday cake, Sara is horrified to learn one of the twins has chosen this precise moment in time to quietly expire.  They were both vile cantankerous lecherous old coots who didn’t even like each other, but that’s neither here nor there.  The story calls for two beaming oldsters to be photographed in close proximity to an enormous cake.  What actually happened is not the story.  The story is what was decided upon by editorial before any of them set foot in Whitcomb, and her job is to deliver that story, and no other.  No twins means no party, no cake, no free booze.  Massa says.

So oddly anticipating Weekend At Bernie’s, Sara, while explaining the debacle to Jack over the phone, and hearing Massa’s stern decree shouted from the elevator, suddenly changes tack and says the dead twin has been miraculously revived, not to worry, everything’s great.  She delivers the story, twins, cake, party and all–who’s to know the dead twin is actually Bob Sangster, cunningly made up to look like the deceased sibling, with the bag lady photographer shooting him in such a way as to conceal the artifice, and the living twin threatened by his fellow inmates not to raise any fuss about it, because they want free cake and liquor, as do all decent god-fearing Americans, except maybe in some of the dry counties.

And Jack, who knows Sara lied about the twins, even though she staunchly refuses to admit to it, and should by all rights be applauding his reporter’s ingenuity, is instead strangely troubled by it.  Is he ruining this girl?  Without even going to bed with her first?  Where’s the fun in that?

So Sara pulled off a minor triumph, which is all well and good, and makes for a nice two-page spread, but pales before the significance of John Michael Mercer’s rumored impending nuptials to the lovely Felicia, which must of course be covered in depth by the Weekly Galaxy (Massa wants), even though Mercer would much rather see all of them dead, and has said as much.  His and Felicia’s goal is a small private ceremony in a beautiful and secluded location, with no press of any kind (and a few hundred close friends and family members present, and the press still encamped nearby, because after all, major TV star).  The Galaxy‘s goals are less than fully compatible with this deeply selfish agenda.  Let the games begin.

And the games are multi-tiered, because even as Mercer fights for his right to party privately, Jack’s team, which found out about Felicia first, has to fight Boy Cartwright for the story.  Massa encourages such high-spirited competitiveness among his editorial teams.  Boy has a mole in their ranks, and Jack puts Ida Gavin, his top reporter, in charge of smelling the foul subterranean varmint out.  He knows it’s not Ida, because she has an ancient blood vendetta against Boy for having seduced and abandoned her, years before, purely in the line of duty, of course.  Jack’s pretty sure it’s not Sara who’s giving Boy the goods, but no one is above suspicion unless they hate that bilious Brit at least as much as he does.

Sara is enlisted to infiltrate an elite employment agency Mercer has contracted to replace his repeatedly infiltrated domestic staff, and does a great job with the interview–very nearly fools the sharp-eyed proprietor into assigning her to Mercer, but with an almost supernatural canniness, he spots her as a ringer (neither knowing or caring which newspaper or magazine hired her), and shows her the door.   Frankly, I don’t know what Jack was thinking there, since he identified Sara as a Galaxy reporter to Mercer in a Miami restaurant earlier in the book, as part of a ruse–so wouldn’t she be recognized?  Perhaps a plot hole, but a moot one, since the intrepid interviewer sniffs her out, complimenting Sara on the smoothness of her delivery.  Says she’ll really be something once she gets her growth.  She’s suitably flattered.  Not even the least bit embarrassed.  She’s getting her growth by leaps and bounds.

And the name of this paragon of personnel, this maid-vetter to the rich and famous?  Henry Reed.  Huh. Why does that name sound familiar?  Oh right!

So really you could argue he’s still baby-sitting.  And why is Westlake making this reference?  Well, Keith Robertson also wrote murder mysteries under the name Carlton Keith, you see.  The first two Carlton Keith novels were published by the Cock Robin imprint of Macmillan, where Richard Stark briefly held court with the first three Grofield novels.  And Mr. Robertson (like his bespectacled young protagonist) was living in New Jersey at around the same time as Westlake.  That might well explain it.  It’s not really that important, but sorta neat, wouldn’t you say?

And in the midst of all this, Sara is still trying to solve the murder mystery that started this book.  She gets sidetracked a lot, but it keeps nagging at her.  She finds out, to her confusion, that the story never appeared in the local papers–okay, probably a drug killing, not worth mentioning in the greater Miami area.  Except then she finds out the police were never notified.

And the security man at the gate she reported the crime to has himself disappeared–without a trace.  And Sara realizes–the murdered man was  on his way to the Weekly Galaxy.  On that highway, he couldn’t have been going anywhere else, until he got rerouted to the Great Beyond.  And since she’d seen nobody driving the other way when she herself made that passage, only a Galaxy employee could have been the murderer.  The plot thickens!

But such paltry matters cannot long distract her (after all, the only reason there’s a murder mystery at all is that this book is being published by The Mysterious Press).  The Galaxy doesn’t cover murders, unless it’s Bigfoot murdering the Loch Ness Monster (I’ve heard there’s bad blood there).  The Mercer Wedding takes priority.  And her growing affection for Jack, her desire to impress him with her brilliance, and that she does, when she snatches victory from the slavering jaws of Boy Cartwright.

Boy had won the right to cover the wedding away from Jack’s team, since a well-placed spy on Mercer’s staff (even Henry Reed is only mortal–his books would have been so boring were that not the case) has revealed that the nuptials are to be held at Martha’s Vineyard.  Still, Boy had to know about Felicia’s existence in the first place to gain this advantage, and as Ida Gavin triumphantly reveals, Phyllis Perkinson, Sara’s co-worker, friend, and roommate, is the spy.

Not just for Boy, either–he only got a hold over Phyllis because he found out she’s doing an expose on the Galaxy for Trend magazine (which sounds a lot like New York magazine, going by the description, and I rather suspect Westlake was more of a New Yorker man, but never mind that now).   Not about the fact that they report things that are not true (that would be reminiscent of John Stossel’s legendary “Pro-Wrestling is Fixed!” segment on 20/20 that got him beaten up by an irate grappler), but rather the squalid inner workings of the paper.

Sara is furious at Phyllis, more than she would have imagined possible–how could she betray Jack Ingersoll, the man whose character Sara herself has never had one good word to say about?   But that’s different. She’s not merely offended on Jack’s behalf, but on that of the paper she is feeling an ever-increasing loyalty towards–even as she wonders if she’ll be employable as a reporter on any other paper, if she stays there much longer.  And she just saw poor Binx get his ass fired–saddled with a house, kids, and a wife who doesn’t give a damn about him, he’s been living right at the edge of his means, as overpaid people so often do, and she knows he’s tried repeatedly to get a job in serious journalism, only to be laughed out of each and every office.

She has it out with Phyllis at the apartment they share, and Phyllis (who comes from Old Money, don’t you know) has the nerve to pull the First Amendment on her.  These people are a threat to decent news media everywhere!  To which Sara sarcastically asks if Froot Loops (sic) are a threat to sirloin steak.    I guess that depends on whether you can afford the latter, and actually neither is very good for you, but we’ll let that drop.

With a pitying smile, Phyllis said, “So the Galaxy is just a harmless enterprise?”

“No, I don’t mean that,” Sara said.  The memory of Binx Radwell leaving the office this afternoon, briefcase and shopping bag hanging from his arms, brown-uniformed armed guard trailing him, employees along his route turning their backs and studying reference books and doing anything they could not to meet poor Binx’s eye, was still fresh in her mind.  “The Galaxy is very harmful in one way,” she said.  “It eats its young.  That part scares me sometimes, but I think maybe I’m smarter and tougher, and it’ll come out all right.  But our arthritis cures and our interviews with people from outer space don’t hurt the First Amendment, for Pete’s sake!”

“We have a difference of opinion,” Phyllis said, shrugging again.

Sara said, “What it comes down to is, you want to do the same kind of muckraking we do, but you want to feel holy while you’re having your fun.  Like television movies about the evils of teenage prostitution.”

“Isn’t teenage prostitution evil?”

“So are the crotch shots on TV.”

“Oh, really, Phyllis said airily, “if you can’t see the difference between the Weekly Galaxy and Trend–”

“That’s right, I can’t.”

(And I rather think Mr. Westlake was bothered by how little difference there really was–and is–but more on that in Part 2, and of course there’s going to be one).

So she concocts a plan involving Betsy Harrigan, a beautiful red-headed telephone repair girl I mean person that Sara met earlier, and she’d wanted to do a story about Betsy, but she couldn’t quite find the right Galaxy-esque angle.  She finds it (a seemingly prophetic dream the girl’s mother had that prefigured her daughter’s future employment).  The girl happily reciprocates the favor (her mom is a devout Galaxian) by bugging John Michael Mercer’s phones.

So in no time at all, Sara’s got far more and far better intelligence than the elderly Asian gardener in Boy’s employ could ever hope to obtain.  So she goes to inform Jack at his modest surburban home (modest because he’s socking away most of his outrageous salary against the day Massa cans him), and finds him baking of all things, drowning his sorrows in cake dough (you never know about some people).  She tells him they’re going to Martha’s Vineyard, and explains how she made it happen.  He explains they still need to get a personal interview with Jack Michael Mercer (Massa wants).   Well, that’s going to be a little harder.  Also possibly fatal.  But the bug has well and truly bit her, and she says they’ll find a way.

“What I really think is,” she told him, this is fun.  This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life.  Absolutely nothing in the world matters except that we beat Boy Cartwright to the John Michael Mercer wedding.”

“Grinning crookedly,” Jack said, “Not even your murdered man beside the highway?”

Sara laughed.  “On what series is he a regular?”

“None.”

“Then forget him!  We’re on our way to Martha’s Vineyard, that’s all, and whatever Massa wants from us, we’ll get it!”

“By golly, Sara,” Jack said, gazing upon her in wonder, “you are not the girl who walked into the Galaxy office last month and told me you were a real professional reporter.”

“You’re darn right I’m not,” she said.  “I don’t have a serious bone in my body.”

“I want to put my arms around you,” he said looking down at himself, “but I’d get you all over flour.”

“Flour from a gentleman is always nice,” she said.

Asterisks follow.  Then, as they lie (and lie and lie and lie) post-coitally  in Jack’s bedroom, he pops the question–“Tell me one thing.  Were those twins legit?”  “Of course they were” she prevaricates easily.  Too damned easily.  And he knows it.  This is the problem.  But it can wait until Part 2, which shall arrive on deadline, sometime next week.  The veracity of my statement vis a vis the matter at hand may be fully relied upon.  Words to that effect.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Genealogy of a Hunter, Part 2

As I said, in some subterranean way Parker had come out of or been formed by that experiment in unstated emotion in “361”, and his habit of doing rather than reacting has made him for me the ideal series character; since he won’t tell me what he really wants, he can never use himself up by becoming completely satisfied.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic when I suggest my own creation is in some ways still mysterious to me. I record his doings, and I know when what I put down is right, but I can’t always explain it, least of all to myself. Why does Parker wait in dark rooms? Why is he so totally loyal without ever showing comradeliness? What is the money for?

Going back to Buck Moon’s suggestion, I did hesitate for some time, unsure what might lay further down that road. I was very aware of the dangers inherent in sequels; any number of writers have returned to a well only to find it poisoned. (A sequel to The Desperado, that early Gold Medal Western, was written and was so bad it almost destroyed the original.) Nevertheless, finally, because of Parker, and also because of the money (a motivation Parker would understand), and also because of the implicit test of my skills (another nod from Parker), I told Buck Moon I’d give it a shot.

The change in The Hunter was so easy, so easy. It became at once evident that my earlier ending had been false, that Parker wouldn’t have permitted himself such a sleazy finish. When I let him have his way with those cops, he was even quicker and less emotional than usual; because I was watching, I suppose, and life was starting. The look he gave me over his shoulder as he went through the revolving door contained no gratitude, but on the other hand it didn’t contain scorn either. He isn’t a wiseguy.

A few years after his birth, I discussed Parker with a movie director for a (finally aborted) planned film from one of the books, and this director claimed that Parker was really French, since the difference between fictional French robbers and fictional American robbers is that the French steal because that’s what they do, while the Americans steal to get money for their crippled niece’s operation. English-language villains (other than Iago) have to be explained, while French-language villains are existential.

It was an interesting distinction he’d found there, but I thought it at the time too narrow, and I still do, since in every other respect Parker is as American as Dillinger. In fact, I think he may have appeared now and again in the past, in war stories and police stories and even Westerns, the silent, morally neutral fellow barely visible in a dark corner of the setting, who suddenly and inexplicably helps the hero out of a tight spot, than laconically fades into the shadows again, with no explanation asked or given. That was romantic bunkum, of course; it would take more than a hero in trouble to make him really take a hand. But the writers were aware of him back there, and wanted to use him somehow. So did I, but without embarrassing either of us.

Donald E. Westlake, from (again) the Introduction to the Gregg Press edition of The Hunter

Jupiter commanded all the birds to appear before him, so that he might choose the most beautiful to be their king. The ugly jackdaw, collecting all the fine feathers which had fallen from the other birds, attached them to his own body and appeared at the examination, looking very gay.

The other birds, recognizing their own borrowed plumage, indignantly protested, and began to strip him.

“Hold!” said Jupiter; “this self-made bird has more sense than any of you. He shall be your king.”

Ambrose Bierce (plagiarizing Aesop)

What is originality?   What does it mean to be original?  The question itself is deeply derivative, but worth asking again in this context, I think.  When it comes to art, does it mean to do something first, or to do it so well, so memorably, so influentially, that all those who follow in your wake owe something to you?  Many later works trace their origins to what you did.    But didn’t that ‘original’ piece of work in fact find its own origin in many earlier ones, and they in turn to still earlier works, going all the way back before the dawn of history, to artists whose names no one will ever know?

Most people who care, Donald Westlake most definitely included, would say the most original writer in American crime fiction was Dashiell Hammett, but he did not, in fact, originate hardboiled detective fiction, cynical worldly-wise two-fisted private dicks navigating the seamy underside of industrial-era America, or really any of the now-familiar tropes of that genre.  What made him original?  His style.  His eye for character, for story, for the telling little detail.  Not what he did, nearly so much as the way he did it.

His authenticity as well–his firsthand knowledge of the terrain–but the problem with that was that his success as a writer took him further and further away from the life he’d drawn upon for that authenticity, and when he ran out of experiences to draw upon, he didn’t know where else he could draw from.  He stopped writing, and started drinking.  But he’d started something that could survive–and thrive–without him.  And still does, after a fashion.

Well, that’s mere genre, of course.  Nobody expects originality in Genre-ville (and yet it shows up there with perverse regularity, for all that).  When we talk about originality in literature–when we talk about Literature with the upper case ‘L’–don’t we really mean somebody like Vladimir Nabokov?  A writer Westlake oddly compared to Hammett once, said they both had a knack for writing characters who could show us their emotions indirectly, without speaking them out loud.  But Hammett was just cranking out entertaining nonsense for the pulps.  Nabokov was crafting revolutionary innovative stories nobody had ever told before.  Like Lolita.  A book without any direct antecedent. Except for a book with exactly the same title and premise published forty years earlier.

And this should serve as a lesson to all of us who say this or that writer was the first to do such and such.  How do we know?  How could we ever know?   So many novels and stories and plays and films and radio shows, and television shows and comic books and my head spins around in circles just thinking about it.

Even something as seemingly simple as divining what influences went into producing a hardboiled crime paperback in the early 60’s can turn into a maze of obscure references and cross-references.  The more we read, the more we know–and the more we know that we know nothing.  Because we realize how selective our memory of literature really is, how many innovative fascinating works have been stuffed into our pop cultural attic and forgotten by all but a handful of cognoscenti–I daresay even Patti Abbott doesn’t know how many.

All of which makes it even more remarkable when a book that by all rights should have been relegated to that attic, isn’tThe Hunter is by no means the most famous or well-regarded book published in 1962, or anywhere near it, but it’s the only hardboiled crime novel that appears on this list.  It’s also one of the very few mystery novels on it.  And perhaps more importantly, it’s currently at #42 on this list.  Critical respect is nice and all, but not as nice as being read from generation to generation.  Because, as Westlake liked to say, the difference between being in and out of print is the same as being alive or dead.  The Parker novels are very much alive, and look to stay that way.

And sure, that’s partly down to famous film adaptations, Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novels, a certain website I might name, and Levi Stahl’s one man crusade to get those novels back into bookstores (and assorted digital devices).  But all of that derives from the enduring fascination inspired by the books themselves, and all of them spring from this book, the start of a saga that spanned twenty-four novels written over the course of maybe forty-six years, depending on when Dirty Money was finished.

So if a book is that important, maybe we could devote a little time and thought to figuring out where the hell it came from.  Because books don’t just write themselves.  Not even paperbacks with deliciously lurid covers.  Worth a try, no?

Last time, I touched on some plot elements in The Hunter that seem to have been inspired by Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler.  But the real key to the longterm success of the Parker novels is Parker himself.  Where did he come from?  From a lot of places.  There had never been a character like him before–but at the same time, Westlake suggested, he’d always been there,  though not usually as a protagonist.  Storytellers sensed the potential of a morally neutral character who is somehow still admirable, even heroic, in ways that are hard to explain.  But they were held back by the conventions of whatever form they were working in (and all forms have their conventions).

Westlake himself was going to kill Parker off, then an editor at a publisher said “If you bring him back for a few books a year, we’ll buy the first book.”  And as he said in the quote up top, he quickly realized the story worked better that way.   Not really believing in what he was doing, he’d written an arbitrary “Bad guys always get their just deserts in the end” finish to a story it just didn’t belong in, because its hero didn’t live in a world of good and bad, right and wrong. He was outside of all that.   He was something else.

And the fact that Gold Medal published The Name of the Game is Death that same year–with its unapologetic thief, murderer (and rapist) still alive, if somewhat worse for wear, vowing he’ll be back–shows that publishers in this declining niche were willing to experiment a bit.  That character’s moral ambiguity didn’t hold up long, though–because Dan J. Marlowe simply wasn’t as good and honest a writer as Donald E. Westlake (and maybe because that book actually wasn’t a big seller for Gold Medal).  He turned his bank robber into a government agent by the third book, an organization man–that ruined him.  The problems were already there in the second book, though.  Marlowe didn’t know what he had, didn’t know how to build on it.  Sequels are tough to write for characters like this.  Westlake knew that.

We’ll talk more about Mr. Marlowe in future, but leaving him aside, as I mentioned already, Patricia Highsmith had beaten both him and Westlake to the punch with Ripley, in 1955.  Except she had not known what to do with Ripley after letting him walk away from cold-blooded murder with a nice income left to him by his victim.  Unlike Parker, he would kill people who were not really guilty of anything except bad life choices.  Ripley wouldn’t return until 1970, and would only be in five books over the course of 36 years.  He personally murdered a total of ten people.   His only real goal was to be independently wealthy, and live in his nice villa with his rich beautiful French wife.  And to not be bored.

Highsmith liked writing about him, the books sold well, but there just wasn’t all that much she could do with him–he wasn’t a character you could write lots and lots of books about.  He got used up too easily, once you solved his problems.   The last book quite intentionally did just that, and she was done–a few years before her death in 1995.

Westlake, having taken a long break from Parker starting in the mid-70’s, came back to him in the 90’s, and was writing Parker books up until very shortly before his sudden death from heart failure.  The last book was published the year he died.  He self-evidently was laying the groundwork in that last book for more books he didn’t know if he’d get to write or not.  Parker couldn’t be used up, so he doesn’t have an ending.  Moral or otherwise.  But he had a beginning–many of them–false starts, I’d call them.  Three in particular.

W.R. Burnett‘s The Asphalt Jungle, probably the first modern heist novel (depends on how you define it), is not that much read today.  Burnett isn’t that much read today, you get right down to it.  His deep influence on crime fiction came about in an odd and lucrative way–by having Hollywood grab his books when the ink was scarcely dry, and make truly great movies out of them, that overshadowed the original works, made them almost irrelevant footnotes to themselves. (Would I have read the book at hand if it weren’t for John Huston’s movie?  Nope.).

He seems to have liked Hollywood, met his second wife Whitney there (an ambitious and very attractive studio secretary), and I don’t know exactly how he felt about the creative compromises he’d made.  But I do know that without him, we wouldn’t be talking about Parker novels, because there’d be none to talk about.  Here’s a picture of himself and the missus, from the back dust jacket of my personal copy of The Asphalt Jungle.

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I guess her horse is just out of frame.  It’s really hard to read that book, look at that photo, and not make certain connections to the story (if you’ve seen the film, you know the story), written a few years after he married the second Mrs. Burnett, who I rather suspect he left the first Mrs. Burnett for, but I don’t know offhand.  Looks expensive, doesn’t she?  But this book is dedicated to her, and I get the impression she was a driving force in his career, much more than just a trophy.  There was no third Mrs. Burnett.  Anyway, that’s not our main point of interest here.

The book opens with a quote from William James–“Man, biologically speaking…is the most formidable of all beasts of prey, and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on its own species.”   Hmmmmmmm……..

I shouldn’t need to summarize the plot–Huston was maybe the best and most faithful adapter of crime novels in the history of film.  But never slavishly faithful.  The novel has a lot of extraneous details that Huston necessarily cut out, and makes a few significant changes (to the ending in particular), all of which improve the story.  The book reads at points almost like a treatment for a movie.  Burnett knew by this point who his real audience was–the studios.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have things of his own to say.  His prose is plodding but effective.  His characters maybe a bit two-dimensional at times–stock types, to be eventually played by stock players, but vivid and believable for all that.  His plotting is solid and sure.  And he’s got a vision, a theme, of outsiders struggling against the system, and against themselves.  He’s not a great writer, even by pulp standards (the pulp standard being Hammett), but he’s maybe half of the way there.  Sometimes more than half.

A tall rawboned, dark-faced man of indeterminate age was standing in the doorway, looking down at him with mild surprise.  Riemenschneider felt a sudden prickliness in his scalp and an unpleasant coldness in his hands as the tall man probed him with his dark eyes.  “A bad one,” said the little doctor to himself, as he looked up blankly.

Dix  Handley.  You hear that name and you see Sterling Hayden in your mind’s eye, and that really was Hollywood casting at its best–but that’s not quite the image that comes to you when you read the book.  Still, the movie captures everything essential to the character, his laconic toughness, his odd criminal sense of honor, his implacable need to mete out retribution to anyone who insults or crosses him.  But he’s not a thinker, a planner.  He’s all action, instinct, no brains. He’s only good in the moment.  But he’s damned good in the moment.

Then there’s Riemenschneider, the little German heist planner (one of a number of roles Sam Jaffe was born to play).  A genius at what he does, almost more in love with getting the money than spending it (mainly on women).  His weakness is that he can’t resist a pretty young face, even when he’s on the run–and of course he’s no good at violence, it rather disgusts him (though he’s not a man you want to cross either).

He’s increasingly impressed by Dix, sees some mysterious power in him he can only vaguely recognize and understand.  He begins to see Dix as almost a missing half that would complete him–Blaster to his Master, you might say (Fafhrd to his Gray Mouser?).  He suggests they become partners, escape to Mexico together, but Dix isn’t interested.  Westlake was interested, though.  Don’t even try to tell me he wasn’t.

Dix’s main weakness, aside from his lack of planning ability, is that he thinks that down inside he’s still the horse farmer he was raised to be down south, still a Jamieson, still remembering the life that was taken away from him, still dreaming of getting it back, buying the land they lost, raising horses.  It’s not who he is anymore, but he can’t bring himself to see that.  The old country boy in him is stronger than the beast of prey.  He’s best when he’s living in the present, but he’s usually mired in the past.  That’s his tragedy, and tragic characters always come equipped with tragic endings.

(Did I mention Dix has huge knobby-knuckled hands?   No?  Remiss of me.)

Anyway, this is the book that really started the specific sub-genre Parker lives in (there may be earlier examples, but between the book and the film, this would still be the real starting point).   The loot is in a tough spot to get at, but there’s a plan that could work.  You have to finance the job, which means dealing with suits.  You have to gather together a talented string of professionals, each of whom comes with a certain amount of unavoidable baggage–there are weak links, unanticipated wrinkles.  Nothing ever succeeds as planned. The robbers are caught and/or killed.   So that the honest people reading about them can enjoy the thrill of plotting and executing a heist without sharing in the guilt–so they can tell themselves “We’re still good people, after all.”

Well, maybe that last part isn’t 100% necessary?  Who do we like in this story?  The cops?  Not even a little bit.  They’re just the Hayes Office censors with badges and guns.  The only people you ever love in a Burnett crime novel are crooks.  You root for them, and then you grieve for them.  But sometimes, in Burnett, that veers over into cheap sentimentality.  That we could do without.  That’s maybe what stops him from getting all the way to being a great writer.  But he got close a few times.  And he got rich.  And he got the second Mrs. Burnett.  There were compensations.

(Obviously I’m not qualified to judge him as a writer on the basis of one book–those who have read more of him sometimes paint a more glowing portrait. But still have to concede his reputation today stems mainly from the movies.)

Anyway, compensations aside, there were imitators.  Lots of them.  That’s how genres begin.  The book was published in 1949, and the movie released in 1950 (meaning MGM had probably gone into pre-production before the book was even printed).  It was a critical success, but a box office dud.  A bit ahead of the curve.  As truly influential works often tend to be.  Other aspiring storytellers read that book, saw that movie, recognized the potential.  One of them was David Goodis.

The heist story was never his main thing.  ‘The Poet of the Losers’ was more about people who had hit rock bottom in life finding themselves in some kind of trouble, looking for an escape hatch, not always finding it.  He came at this story from a variety of angles, drawn mainly from crime fiction, but not invariably.

The way Black Friday came about was that Goodis had submitted a novel to Arnold Hano at Lion Books–The Blonde on the Street Corner.  It’s a book about a poor Philadelphia kid in the Depression who can’t get work, and he lives with his parents, hangs out with his loser friends, and they dream about making it big, and there’s this nice girl he loves but he can’t afford to marry her, so he decides to settle for easy sex with a married woman.   That’s how it ends.  That’s the entire story.  It’s not noir, it’s not crime fiction, there are no actual crimes committed other than adultery, and I believe there’s exactly one fist fight, because there has to be a fist fight in a Goodis novel.

Hano reluctantly published it–Goodis was a name, and Lion Books was the bottom of the barrel.   Goodis kind of enjoyed the bottom of the barrel (it’s a Goodis thing), and probably figured if he wanted to keep getting published there, he better write a book with some crime in it.  Black Friday was it.  Hano thought there could have been a bit more action, but overall, he was fairly satisfied.

Black Friday starts with a young man of limited funds and no shelter facing a Philadelphia winter without an overcoat.  So he steals one.  The cops are after him, and not just for the overcoat; there’s a backstory (always a backstory). Through an unlikely sequence of events (though not for a Goodis protagonist), he ends up joining a gang of burglars who specialize in robbing rich houses on the Main Line.  Because hey, why not?

The protagonist in this book, named Hart, is not our primary concern.   For my money, the most interesting character is the leader of the string, a thin silver-haired man whose name is Charley.  He doesn’t need a last name.  What he really needs is to be played by John Slattery if they ever make another movie of this book (though Robert Ryan, in the 1972 French version I haven’t seen yet, might be even better).

The man with silver hair was saying, “You’re too much trouble.”

Hart said, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be choked.”

“Do you think I like to shoot people?”

“No,” Hart said, “You’re a nice guy.  You’re a swell guy.  You wouldn’t shoot anybody.”

“Unless I had a reason.”

“And would it have to be a good reason?”

“Sure,” said the man with the silver hair.  “I don’t like to shoot people.  I don’t get any special kick out of it.”

Charley, unlike Dix, is the heist planner–the brains of the outfit.   Surrounded by temperamental idiots who complicate his work.  He’s constantly being forced to decide who lives or dies.  He’s also suffering from impotence, a problem he can only temporarily solve by getting really drunk every few months.  And he is suffering–he does not see this as a normal loss of interest that can be fixed by pulling a job.  But Charley’s not the type to whine about a bad break–what can’t be cured must be endured, as the saying goes.  (Pfizer begs to differ.)

His amply proportioned lady love (big lusty women are another Goodis leitmotif, and not just in his fiction) is having a hard time dealing with the abstinence thing, and even though she truly loves Charley, she turns to the young protagonist to solve her problem, and even though he’s falling for a girl his age who lives at the hideout (it won’t end well, because Goodis), he’s in no position to say no, because this older woman knows he’s not really a crook.  The big crime the law wants him for was not committed for money.   He’s an amateur.

Charley doesn’t like it, the two of them knocking boots, but he doesn’t kill over sex.  He kills over unprofessional behavior.  If he found out Hart wasn’t really on the bend, he’d whack him on general principle.  Nothing personal.   People should do their jobs.  His job is to steal.   He only trusts people who see that as their job too.  He’s got some pretty dangerous guys in this gang of his.   They’re all scared to death of him.  One of them has a beef with Hart.  Charley could care less about his beef.  They have a chat.

“Look Charley, I don’t like that guy.”

“And I don’t like you,” Charley said.  “But I put up with you because you know your work.  I like the way you work, but there’s got to be satisfaction on both sides.  Do you like the pay?”

“Look, Charley–”

“Do you like the pay?”

“I like the pay.”

“All right, then, you do as you’re told.   And don’t do things I don’t want you to do.”

There’s this weariness in his voice you can hear in every word he utters.  He knows he’s the only real professional in the bunch.  He knows they’re going to keep doing stupid things, and he’s going to have to clean up the mess.  But this is what he does, and these are the people he needs to do it with.

So he’s got these rules, this code he lives by, and you think you know what he’s going to do, but then he surprises you.  There’s a guy a bit like him in Goodis’ earlier book, Nightfall, but he’s much better developed here.   On the one hand, he’s got no conscience, no qualms about killing people who complicate his work in some way, professionals or civilians.  But on the other hand, there seems to be more to him than that.   He’s not so easy to sum up, Charley.  I won’t even try. Read the book.

Westlake read the book–he mentions Goodis specifically in that intro to the Gregg Press reprint of The Hunter I keep bringing up.  He was reading the Gold Medal crime novels incessantly, probably even before he was a professional writer.   This particular book isn’t a Gold Medal, but he would have been reading Lion Books originals as well, particularly if he already knew the author from Gold Medal.

I was the right age at the right time to be very heavily influenced by the arrival of Gold Medal books. These were in the fictional form known as the novel; but not really–or so it seemed at first. They were stripped down and lumpy and crude, like a beach buggy. Half the time they seemed little more than 50,000-word short stories; all that build-up, all those characters, all that preparation of setting and emotions and scenes and relationships, just to end in a shootout in a swamp. These yellow-spined paperbacks had compulsive strength, but without beauty, like acid rock: but they were interesting.

And either the books got better or my critical sense got worse. In any event, I began gradually to make sense among the by-lines in this new garden, and to realize that here too there were gradations from very good to very very very very bad. Once I’d separated the writers from the bricklayers, everything was fine.

Gold Medal introduced me to John D. MacDonald, Vin Packer, Chester Himes, David Goodis and, by far the most important, Peter Rabe. (Rabe’s Kill the Boss Goodbye [1956] is one of the best books, with one of the worst titles, I’ve ever read.) The understatement of violence, resulting from Rabe’s modesty of character rather than modesty of experience (which is why Hammett had it down pat and Chandler could never quite make it work), was refined in these books to a laconic hipness I could only admire from afar.

See what he does there?   He puts the emphasis on Rabe.  Yes, Rabe was a huge influence on Westlake, and Westlake went out of his way to see that he was rediscovered.  But I’ve read most of Rabe now, and I can’t point to a single moment in any of those books that seems like a specific influence on the book Westlake was introducing (in fact, I can’t think of a single moment in any Rabe book that reminds me that much of any moment in any Westlake novel).

And yet, he goes out of his way to mention writers who did very directly influence this book, or so I think.  Like I said in the comments section last time, he points one way, while his eyes go another.  He’s playing fair.  He’s giving us the clues, but we’ll have to work for it.

So maybe he got the idea of Parker’s bizarre sexual cycle from Charley–maybe not.  Maybe something of Charley’s obsessive monomaniacal professionalism went into Parker.  Maybe not.  And maybe a story Goodis wrote called Black Pudding was a second influence (along with A Gun For Sale) on the main revenge story of The Hunter.  Actually, I don’t think there’s any maybe about that.

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Black Pudding is about an armed robber named Kenneth whose partner has a thing for his gorgeous blonde wife, so while they’re on a job, he knocks Kenneth out with a pistol butt, and leaves him for the cops.  He’s doing five to twenty at San Quentin when he gets the divorce papers from his wife Hilda, who has left him for the partner.  He goes crazy for a while.  After nine years, he gets out, and does he seek revenge?  Nope, he decides to go back home to Philly, and put it all behind him.  But the partner is worried he’ll have second thoughts, so he sends some killers after him to make sure.  Kenneth’s running for his life in Philadelphia, and man that’s a tough town if you’re a Goodis character.

So hiding from the killers, he meets this horribly scarred young woman named Tillie (not just emotionally scarred, but that too).  She also had spousal problems.  So they start liking each other, but she convinces him he needs to get revenge–she felt better after the husband who cut her face and made her an opium addict killed himself.  Revenge is like black pudding, she says.  Kenneth needs to get a taste of it if they’re going to have a future together.  He can’t hide from his anger.  Anyway, if he doesn’t finish them, they’ll finish him.  She wants to help, but he wants her out of it.

So it all works out (unusually, for a Goodis story).  He gets his revenge without bloodying his hands (well, not too much), and he heads back to Tillie, with the emotional closure he needed to start over fresh.   And they all lived happily ever after (after Tillie gets plastic surgery, that is).

It’s a good yarn (Goodis, like Westlake, wrote a huge number of short stories for magazines, but didn’t typically excel at that form–this was a decided exception).   There are no really great bridges in Philadelphia for him to walk over (the memorable George Washington Bridge opening of The  Hunter really did come from Westlake’s own personal experience), but you see how the personal angle of Parker’s revenge–the sexual angle, a more personal type of professional betrayal than Greene wrote about in A Gun For Sale–could come from this.  The idea that you might need to even a score, balance out a sheet, before your mind could stabilize itself.  And the trip across country to get it done.  But Parker would never run away from himself, like Kenneth does.  Parker wouldn’t need a Tillie to tell him about black pudding.

So that leaves the third novel, that came out the year before Black Friday, from a writer who did specialize in heist stories (maybe the first to do so), who also had a bunch of his novels adapted into films.  He was quite popular at the time, but in my humble opinion, Lionel White was never much of a writer.

Well, so what?  Any writer can have good ideas, which then influence other writers.  White’s main attribute, what brought him fame for a short time, was that he’d worked the crime beat for a newspaper, and he had some actual knowledge of criminals, which gave his work an extra touch of verisimilitude. But I’ve read several books of his, and at his very best–he’s just a bit more than mediocre.  What the hell, he’s dead, the truth can’t hurt him now.

I’ve already talked about The Snatchers.  I had to, because Westlake cited it as an indirect inspiration for the third Dortmunder novel, Jimmy The Kid.  He was fascinated by the fact that some French hoodlums had used that book as a blueprint to do a real kidnapping.  I read it to see if Westlake had borrowed directly from it.  He hadn’t.  For that book.  But in reading it, probably long before he wrote Jimmy The Kid, he would have seen yet another character whose potential he might have felt was underutilized in the book.

Pearl thought, God, he isn’t really human.  He’s like a lean tawny cat, crouched and waiting.

His leather spare face was ascetic in its immobility, and the prematurely white hair, with its cowlick over one eye, lent him the contradictory look of a little boy who had suddenly grown too old.  He had charm, but it was a dangerous sort of charm.  The mediocrity of his lean average-sized body was belided by the dynamic quality of his astringent personality.

That’s a description of Cal Dent, and it does sound a lot like Charley, doesn’t it? Probably not a coincidence.  Goodis was not above the odd bit of honest theft himself, but Charley’s a much more compelling and complex character than any of White’s heisters (and a fair bet that White had lifted a few things from Goodis before now).  Still, White did touch on something there–the non-human quality. The comparison with a beast of prey that keeps coming up, over and over again–and yet never gets developed the way it needs to be.  Still, there are some interesting things about Dent.  Like his attitude towards sex.

Dent had known many such girls, but few as attractive as Pearl.  Cal Dent was that unusual sort of man–the sort that can be found fairly often among ex-cons–who could take his sex or leave it.  Pearl attracted him, it is true, but there was nothing exclusive or personal in the attraction.  To Dent, she was merely another woman, to be had or not to be had, according to the circumstances of the moment.

The man was able to put aside all thoughts of women, irrespective of their proximity, during those times when he was immersed in a job.  The fact that at this time he was in the middle of the biggest thing in his life precluded any possibility in his taking more than a purely academic interest in her.

So that’s what I’ve got so far–and what does it amount to?  Not much.  Have I proven anything?  Not really.  Westlake knew all these books, we can be sure.  He actually went to some pains to make sure we’d be sure.  But are any of these characters Parker?  Not even close.  Did he take anything from these books and stories that he couldn’t have gotten elsewhere?   Probably not.  Could I just be starting at shadows?   Quite possibly.   If I’d read ten times as much crime fiction as I currently have, I’d have read maybe a tenth as much as Westlake did.  I haven’t proven a damned thing.

But my point stands.   As does his.  Parker was always there, long before Westlake started typing the manuscript that became The Hunter.  He says he saw hints of the character in many places, many writers, never quite fully manifested, but waiting–waiting for somebody who could bring him to full fruition.  The statue imminent in the marble.   Waiting.  Waiting for Stark.

There’s one more thing, though.   I think there’ll always be one more thing, but this one really bugs me.  See if it bugs you too.  Westlake mentions, in that Gregg Press intro, a fairly obscure 1950 western novel, The Desperado, by Clifton Adams (who also wrote a few contemporary noir stories for Gold Medal and others).  They made a movie of that too (I get the impression it’s not a very faithful adaptation).   He speaks glowingly of it.  I knew I had to read it, and as luck would have it, it’s evailable.  Five bucks.  What could I lose?

Terrific little book.  Did it influence The Hunter?   Not even a little bit.  I suppose  a character the protagonist meets, an outlaw named Pappy Garrett, does somewhat resemble that character Westlake mentions, the morally neutral man who maybe helps the protagonist out for enigmatic reasons of his own.  So there’s that.  But anyway, it was a brilliant story of  how a young man from a decent background becomes an outlaw himself.

It reminded me a whole hell of a lot of Charles Willeford’s 1971 work The Hombre From Sonora, aka The Difference.  Probably because Willeford pretty directly copied Adams’ story, as he was sometimes known to do (if you have the time, compare his Wild Wives with the Robert Mitchum vehicle, Where Danger Lives, with a story by Leo Rosten).  Do I know of a more original writer than Willeford?  Not hardly.  Did that mean he was above taking a story he liked and doing his own thing with it?  I’m not sure any professional writer is above that. Vladimir Nabokov wasn’t above that.

Originality matters, but what is originality?   Having an idea first?   Any schmo can have an idea.  Being the first to bring out the full potential in that idea? That’s more like it.  And what Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, did with the ideas he’d gathered from many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, mingled with his own personal experiences and perceptions, was to make all the previous incarnations seem quaint and curious by comparison.  Parker is far more than the sum of his parts, and that’s why he’s come to overshadow all his influences, whatever they may be.

But why did I bring up The Desperado?   Why did Westlake?   Remember what I said about how he points one way, but his eyes go another?   He also mentions the sequel to that book–A Noose For The Desperado.  I read that one too.  It seemed prudent to do so.  He was on the money, as usual–it’s an inferior sequel, that tries to resolve the protagonist’s conflicts, and somehow diminishes him in the process.

Few and far between are the writers who can follow a book like The Hunter with The Man With the Getaway Face.  And another twenty-two brilliant books after that.  The protagonist of Adams’ book was all used up by the end of the first story, and there was no reason to bring him back.  But even so, there’s a passage very early in it that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end. Maybe it did the same for Westlake as well.  You tell me.

The hero, as I said, is a young man from a respectable background, son of a small Texas rancher, who was drawn into the life of a gunman by the oppression that followed the end of the Civil War (obviously he’s not much concerned with the oppression that came before the Civil War, but that’s the western genre for you).

As the second book begins, he’s killed a few too many men, he’s on the run from the law,  and he’s taken refuge in a small border town in Arizona.  A Mexican girl gives him a shave and a haircut, and he looks at himself in a mirror for the first time in a while.   Looks into his own eyes.

I studied those eyes carefully because they reminded me of some other eyes I had seen, but I couldn’t place them at first.

They had a quick look about them, even when they weren’t moving.  They didn’t seem to focus completely on anything.

Then I remembered one time when I was just a sprout in Texas.  I had been hunting and the dogs had jumped a wolf near the arroyo on our place, and after a long chase they had cornered him in the bend of a dry wash.  As I came up to where the dogs were barking I could see the wolf snarling and snapping at them, but all the time those eyes of his were casting around to find a way to get out of there.

And he did get out, finally.  He was a big gray lobo, as vicious as they come. He ripped the throat of one of my dogs and blasted his way out and disappeared down the arroyo.  But I heard later that another pack of dogs caught him and killed him.

Nobody runs forever.   But The Hunter will.

You want to see how far it’s run to date?   Check this out.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Addendum: Genealogy of a Hunter

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Generally speaking, I don’t think writers know who they are; it’s a disability–and an advantage–they share with actors. And it’s probably just as well, really. Self-knowledge can lead to self-consciousness, and in a writer self-consciousness can only lead to self-parody. Or silence.

Whereas actors receive an endless supply of surrogate identities in the roles they’re given to play, writers tend to begin their search for identity in their predecessors. Every one of us began by imitating the writers we loved to read. Those writers had made their worlds so real and appealing for us that we tried to move in and live there.

Donald E. Westlake, from the Introduction to the Gregg Press edition of The Hunter

I’ve had this article in mind for quite a while now, and I’ve put off writing it for a reason. I didn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. And I still don’t, and it’s increasingly clear to me that I may never have them all.   I keep coming across another piece, then still another, and they’ve started to accumulate.  I’ve got a pile of books on my desk to prepare for writing this, and I just realized, the morning I started writing this, that there’s another book I have to read, and thankfully it’s on Kindle, so I can download it, finish it in a day or two, and see if it’s worth adding to the pile.  But the pile will probably never stop growing.  So maybe I better start writing.

The Hunter is a deceptively simple book, much like Parker is a deceptively simple character.  There are hidden depths under all that bare bones language, those emotionless onyx eyes.   It runs 155 tersely worded pages in the original paperback edition–a book that was specifically designed to fit any decent-sized pocket, which is why the publisher called itself Pocket Books.  I’ve often taken that quite literally, when in the process of reading one in the course of a workday.   That image of the book up top is substantially larger than the book itself, at least on my computer screen.   Your device may differ.   But the book itself, in any edition, never changes, never dates, never needs an upgrade.

You can get lost in those 155 pages.  I’ve no idea how many online reviews there are (in all languages?  hundreds, at least), but a while back, somebody actually started a blog devoted to nothing more than analyzing the entire book, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence.  And I thought that a worthy endeavor, and also thought maybe he didn’t have quite enough context to pull it off yet, but look who’s talking.  He stopped updating, and now I can’t find it anymore.

Those who try to bring this story to life in another medium invariably founder on the rocks of its seemingly simple narrative, adding bells and whistles, subtracting sense–of all its adapters, the late Darwyn Cooke (sad to type ‘the late’ before his name, but everybody’s elevens come up sometime) got closest, by sticking closest.   Still far from a match.  I doubt anybody will ever really capture it.  Like its ‘hero,’ it just can’t adjust to life in captivity.  It always breaks out–slips through the cracks, and it’s gone.

I’m not a deconstructionist–I don’t really want to take it apart like a watch to find out how it works–I can’t do that with a real watch, not that I wear one anymore (even they’ve become obsolescent, except as status symbols).  Westlake often admitted he never fully understood what makes Parker tick.  But he wasn’t averse to explaining what made him, personally, tick–as a writer. What, and whom.  If he liked another writer, learned something from that writer, somewhere or other, he talked about that writer, made his admiration known.  Some he liked much better than others, but a useful lesson–positive or negative–might come from anywhere.

So before I get lost in prologue, let me state the point of this article–I’m looking for all the stories that went into the making of this particular story, and the intimidating figure at its center.  In that introduction I quoted up top, Westlake made it abundantly clear there were many.  I’ve made it clear I may never know how many.  Westlake was a voracious and omnivorous reader, who also cheerfully admitted to borrowing heavily from the movies (or had Stark admit it for him).   Maybe you’ve seen some things I’ve missed.  Maybe that’s what the comments section is for.

When I first discovered the Parker novels, only a few years back, I saw people speculating on their influences.  They would mention books, and I’d read them.  I usually ended up feeling that yes, there were parallels, but not very close ones.  Then I’d read something I didn’t connect at all with Parker, more or less by chance, and I’d find something that seemed very direct and obvious to me.  Like this book.

That’s the first edition to the left, from 1936, but I read the 1955 Bantam Books reprint edition to the right, with the title changed to match the Alan Ladd film–and not nearly so pristine a copy as you see above, either.  Picked it up vacationing in Colorado–one of those tiny paperback exchange shops you sometimes find in aging strip malls.  There’s a lot of Greene I’ve yet to get to, and this was one of those.

Believing then, as I do now, that Parker is a wolf in human form, and that Westlake at least sometimes wrote him that way on purpose,  I couldn’t help starting when I saw how Raven, the titular gun of the story, was described as a ‘mangy wolf in a cage.’  That probably helped me to notice that the entire story of his single-minded vendetta against the men who had double-crossed him –that’s Parker’s story in The Hunter.  Very freely adapted.  Raven is an assassin, not a thief.  He was hired to kill an idealistic politician on the continent, who was proving an impediment to a British industrialist who hopes to get another big war going –good for business.

Raven’s employers had betrayed him to the cops after he’d done the job.  They wanted to cover their tracks–he’d resist arrest, get shot down, loose ends all tied up.  In retrospect, this seems like a bit of a plot hole.  Why would they risk him being captured alive, talking to the law?  It’s a fine book, but it has quite a few weak spots, that Westlake would have noted as aptly as its strengths.

The point is, Raven’s hunting the rich man’s paymaster, Cholmondeley, following him to a little industrial town–Raven knows his number is nearly up, and he just wants to take the guys who screwed him over down with him. A compulsion he can’t shake, a driving obsession–maybe even an instinct–he can seem very human and vulnerable at times, but at others he really does seem like some kind of predatory automaton–a killing machine who finally gets pointed in the right direction.

Cholmondeley, a fat frightened flunky, has delusions of being an impresario, uses his money to fund cheap music hall entertainments, and sleep with the showgirls.  That’s how Raven gets him–through that weakness.  Then from Cholmondeley to Sir Marcus, the rich man, a sort of legitimate mobster.  Then the cops kill Raven.  Because he’s still a villain, a murderer, and he’s got to be punished.  Even though technically he just averted, or at least delayed, a second world war (in The Assassination Bureau, Oliver Reed is decorated as a hero, and gets to screw Diana Rigg–unfair!).

It’s more complicated than that, as well as a bit preachy and Little Englander at points, and though Greene was certainly right about a war coming (not so hard to spot on the horizon from Britain in the mid-30’s), it’s rather unfortunate that his rich warmonger is Jewish–that book has actually dated a lot in some respects, but it’s still Graham Greene, and Westlake couldn’t have thought he was going to improve on it–just streamline and repurpose it–get rid of all the excess baggage.

There’s a nice girl caught up in the story, just to remind us what nice people look like, provide a moral underpinning, a witness to Raven’s partial redemption (and someone to point him, like the gun he is, at the real villain of the piece).  But that’s basically the whole story.  Raven’s quest for retribution, which indirectly makes the world safe for Democracy, or whatever.

He’d never had a chance, being raised the way he was, in the class he was born into, with a nasty birth defect (harelip–they never put that in the movies, somehow), but God, Greene quietly implies, was using him for a higher purpose.  And part of me thinks that purpose was to give Donald Westlake the bare bones idea for a book that wouldn’t be even the least bit preachy, about a wolf without a trace of mange in his coat.   Better in every way?  Of course not.  But The Hunter holds together as a narrative in ways A Gun For Sale does not.

Westlake referred to this book more than once (as in the Samuel Holt novel What I Tell You Three Times Is False).   He didn’t come close to plagiarizing Greene’s very different story and protagonist, but he still wanted to quietly admit the debt.

He was never going to come out and say “I got part of the idea for Parker’s hunt for Mal Resnick in The Hunter leading him to (eventually) kill Arthur Bronson in The Outfit from Graham Greene, and that’s why Parker finds Mal with a high class call girl, and Parker is, in some ways, an idealized version of Raven, translated into a Gold Medal style crime fiction paperback.” I mean, just reading that over, you’d see why no professional writer would ever say something like that, unless it was about something long in the public domain.  (Anyway, that probably wasn’t even his only influence for that part of the plot, but another template I’ve since located will have to wait a bit.)

He just saw a fascinating but imperfectly motivated story and protagonist that he thought he could improve on.  And on reflection, I’d say that’s exactly what he did.  It’s not one of Greene’s more highly regarded books (one of his ‘entertainments’, as he called them), and I doubt Greene would have minded that much had he ever noticed, but better safe than sorry.

And I talked about some of this already, in my review of The Hunter, but see, I didn’t stop reading books not written by Westlake after that, so these things keep jumping out at me.  Even just rereading Greene’s book a bit today, I came across a section relating to Anne, the young woman who Raven abducts to keep her from going to the cops, and then her kindness brings out something resembling a conscience in him.

Some other minor villain has bound and gagged Anne, and when Raven finds her that way, unconscious, he’s terrified she’s dead–then she wakes up, and their adventure continues. His emotions on finding her like that are wild, contradictory, confused.  He’s swearing to avenge her before he revives her.

In The Hunter, Parker needs a place to scope out the mob hotel Mal has taken refuge in, and towards that end he knocks out a woman in a beauty shop, binds and gags her, and when he returns, he finds out she’s asphyxiated–she had asthma.  He didn’t mean to kill her, as there was no reason to do so, but feels no remorse, just irritation at the pointlessness of it.  This marks the only time in the twenty-four Parker novels that he causes the death of a (presumably) innocent person.  It sticks out a bit–the shop could just as easily have been deserted, or the woman could have lived. Why put that in there at all?   Aside from the fact that something similar happens in Greene’s book?

Westlake, intrigued by that moment in Greene’s book, wants to test his protagonist’s reaction to having caused the death of someone he had no quarrel with.  He intends for Parker to die at the end, just as Raven did–though he wrote later that this seemed wrong to him at the time, false.  Is life really fair like that?  Death isn’t a moral ending slapped on by the Hayes Office.  Everybody dies, often sooner than they expected.

Westlake’s point is to prove to himself that this character isn’t Raven, who is still very much a human being under all his bloody-minded cynicism.  Parker isn’t eaten alive with resentment and guilt.  We’re not going to hear about his unhappy childhood.  He has no class consciousness, because he’s in a class by himself.  There are certain things he’s got to do, and he does them.  There’s no moral other than “Know yourself, know your capabilities, know what has to be done.”  Someone like Anne might be safe from him, but she’d never get to him.   She wouldn’t be able to appeal to his conscience, use him like a weapon.

That’s the first major influence I found–the most recent relates to Rose (aka Wanda), a bright enticing redhead working for The Outfit as a call girl, who knew Parker in the past, and self-evidently has been carrying a torch for him.  He goes to her hoping she can help him find Mal.  She does, eventually.  It doesn’t work out very well for her.  Parker is carrying no reciprocal torch.

That’s another odd little episode that somehow fits into the book, yet sticks out.  The point of all these encounters is to tell us who Parker is, how he’s different–but in this case, different from whom?  Well, in this case, from Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.

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I’ve read very little Chandler.  I’ve long known Westlake wasn’t his biggest fan (as has been multiply attested to, by Lawrence Block and others), but I didn’t really know why. In hardboiled detective fiction, there’s the Hammett School, and there’s the Chandler School, and Westlake was firmly in the first column.  But sometimes he took a little from Column B, just to see how it tasted.

Chandler is basically the guy who invented the popular and deeply stereotyped image of the private detective–yes, Hammett and many others got there first, and Hammett was much better, but Chandler really created most of what we now would call the romantic clichés surrounding private detectives in hardboiled crime fiction.  “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.”  Really?  Then how far do you suppose that man’s going to get down those streets?   Is what Westlake was thinking.

Anyway, I’m as much of a sucker for those clichés as anyone, and I had a chance to read a vintage first edition of Farewell My Lovely a short while back, so I took it.  I get why people liked him so much, and still do.  He had some serious skills.  Crafting a solid believable story featuring properly motivated characters was not one of them.  Westlake was on the money, as usual.  But he still would have read quite a bit of Chandler before reaching that conclusion.

No, there’s nothing I can find in the second Marlowe novel (Chandler’s favorite among his books) that reminds me of The Hunter.  Though Moose Malloy reminded me of a less hulking more dimwitted version of Tiny Bulcher.   Different franchise.

Reading the novel put me in mind of the short-lived 1980’s cable series, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.  Not a creative high point for HBO, but also not without its pleasures, not least of which was Kathryn Leigh Scott’s take on Anne Riordan, a bright enticing redhead who Marlowe first met in Farewell My Lovely (she’s not the title character).  Anne didn’t appear in any subsequent Marlowe novels, but after many years, she made her second and final appearance in 1959, when Chandler published the very last Marlowe story, The Pencil.  He died that same year.

The relationship between Marlowe and Riordan is frustrating.  I mean really frustrating.  They meet cute at a murder scene, and she spends the rest of that book and the subsequent short story throwing herself at him, and he likes her as much as he’s liked any woman.  She is, when you get right down to it, the girl of his dreams, and he keeps giving her the brush-off.  She’s basically too perfect–she likes solving mysteries, she can match Marlowe wisecrack for wisecrack, she doesn’t scare easy, she’s smart as a whip–she’s a dead cop’s daughter.  She knows the score.

And in The Pencil, taking place years after their first encounter (which ended with her asking to be kissed), she lets it drop that she’s still a virgin at 28, and none too pleased about it, and not asking for any jewelry, and they should just adjourn to her nearby bedroom right now.  He doesn’t want to ruin her.  Whatever that means.  So he keeps giving her the brush, and she keeps taking it, and running whatever errands he has for her.  And this is generally regarded as the most convincingly three-dimensional female character Chandler ever created, folks.  I mean, she’s not his long-suffering gal friday, like Sam Spade’s Effie–he’s not even pretending to pay for her services.

Now I head-cast Marlowe as Robert Mitchum a few pages into Farewell My Lovely (Mitchum in the 40’s, I mean–how it took until 1975 for Hollywood to get around to that, I’ll never know–would you believe they wanted Richard Burton for that movie?).  In the books, he’s frequently described as a very attractive man, and he leads an exciting life, and he’s good with the banter. So bearing all that in mind, it’s not implausible Miss Riordan would hold onto a wee torch.  But she’s toting a torch that would snap the Statue of Liberty in half.  (See, you get into the habit of making colorful expressions like that when you read Chandler).

So anyway, why is Anne Riordan in The Pencil, if Marlowe isn’t going to make a dishonest woman of her at last (and didn’t he get married to some simpering heiress in the last novel, that Robert B. Parker finished)?    Because he needs a favor.  He’s got a client who’s had a hit put on him by the syndicate.  Or, as it is known in that 1959 story, The Outfit.

Yeah.  That got your attention.  You thought Westlake was doing research on the Chicago mob for a story set mainly in New York?  Westlake never cared about getting the fine details right when he was writing about organized crime–to him, that’s just a metaphor for corporate culture, organization men.  He got The Outfit from Chandler, or at least the name for it.  But again, what he does with it–entirely different.

Marlowe needs to find out who the hitters the Outfit is sending are, where they’re staying.  So he sends Anne to the airport to spot them, and report back to him.  He’s worried about the risk to her (bizarrely, he’s less worried about this than his mobbed up client, who hasn’t even met Anne), and it seems a bit perverse to use her that way when he could just as easily hire some stringer, but it gets her into the story.

He can talk to her about the wrap-up to the case at the end of the story, when they have dinner at the famous Romanoff’s in L.A., with champagne and everything, and this is the last we see of Philip Marlowe and Anne Riordan, and once Chandler wasn’t around anymore to hold them back, I say they tore each others clothes off right there in the fancy restaurant and did it on the table, while the waiter looked on with a mixture of disapproval and arousal.   Try and stop me, copper!

So again–the same story, turned on its head.  Parker goes to Wanda’s apartment seeking help, appealing to ‘the loyalty of friendship’ as she puts it, somewhat sarcastically.  She’s throwing passes the whole time and he’s not catching any, because he’s Parker.  It’s been explained to us.  No sex while he’s working.  He sort of hints maybe they could get together after he’s done, but only because he needs her help.   If she happened to be there when he was done, he’d give her all she could handle and more, but Parker couldn’t carry a torch if you welded it to one of those big veiny hands of his.

He’s just using her.  And he’s not pretending otherwise, at least not to himself.   Not the way Marlowe uses Anne, while never quite admitting that he’s doing that.  Marlowe has a tendency to say things like “If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive.  If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive.”  I can appreciate the sentiment, and still think to myself that’s a big stack of baloney, and so’s Marlowe, most of the time.

When Parker thinks Wanda’s betrayed him (like Lynn), tipped Mal off, he’s in a rage–much less in control of himself than in the later books.   But she hasn’t, and now fearing for her life, she gets the information he needs, but by a less discreet method, that leads back to her. When Parker leaves, she’s getting ready to pack up and run, before her employers get wise.  He should be guilty about this.  He’s not.   No champagne at Romanoff’s for Parker and Rose/Wanda.  She’s never heard from again.  And the point is that Parker, unlike Marlowe, is an honest bastard.  He’s not dishing out any baloney.

So is that it?  Not even close.  But I think I’m going to need a Part 2 to deal with it all.  And by all, I mean all I’ve found up to now.   There’ll be more, I’ve no doubt.  But let me get something out of the way here–all the books people might think were an influence, but aren’t.  Why?  Because I say so.  But I’ll say why I say so, because that’s what I do here.

People often point to a book written by a different Marlowe, name of Daniel J.   You know the name of that game.  And there’s another book Westlake made no secret of his admiration for (and therefore, a book he’d be damned cautious about taking anything too obvious from).  You may note my title is itself an homage.  And finally, Parker’s one true rival in the field of cold blooded crime fiction bastardry.  Who beat him to the bookstands by seven years.

I’ve read Dan J. Marlowe’s bloody masterpiece maybe three times now–I have a British reprint of the Gold Medal original paperback I cherish like it was made of real gold.  In many ways, it’s the best novel ever written about a bank robber (much more specialized than Parker).  But it’s in the first person, multiple chapters are devoted to telling us where this guy came from and why he is the way he is (short version–it’s always somebody else’s fault), and even though there’s a revenge subplot, it’s got nothing in common with Parker’s.  Telling a story about a thief and killer who has no guilt over being a thief and killer isn’t a plot idea, it’s just a concept that could occur independently to many people. Westlake took nothing from this book.

And that’s not just my opinion.  Because he couldn’t have taken anything from it if he’d wanted to.  Because as we now know, those two books were in the gestation stage about the same time.  (So was I, actually.   Must have been something in the air.)  Westlake showed Lawrence Block the manuscript of the book he was planning to submit to Gold Medal sometime around the end of 1960 or the start of 1961.   And thanks to Charles Kelly’s brilliant biography of Marlowe, we know that at that same time, he was living with a couple in Florida, working on his book.  No way of knowing who finished first, but we can be quite sure there was zero influence on either end–which is not to say they never influenced each other.  That’s an entirely different article I keep putting off writing.

Anatomy of a Killer is clearly a book that influenced Westlake in many ways (he drops little references to it here and there), and elements of it may have gone into the creation of Parker–it came out in 1960, so there was time.  But since that book is itself clearly following in the wake of A Gun For Sale, I’d call it a secondary influence.  Rabe’s assassin is a rather pitiable, almost adolescent figure, who switches off his humanity to do his job.  Rabe usually made his hit men menacing supporting characters, with little in the way of an inner life, but here he wanted to delve deeper into what might make a man choose that job.  Basically the job chose him, and he went along with it.  Then he  meets a pretty girl, and gets confused. Confusion is almost invariably deadly in a Rabe novel (in a Stark novel as well).

Some of how Rabe gets into his characters’ heads, describes their emotions, certainly impacted Westlake.  But that would be just as true of Rabe’s other books, some of which Westlake liked even more.  Point is, it’s mainly a stylistic influence, the way the story is told, much more than the story itself–I’ve read pretty nearly all of Rabe’s books, and I didn’t see much in the way of direct influence–except maybe Westlake was trying to improve on one of Rabe’s weakest books, The Out is Death, when he wrote The Jugger, and as I mentioned in my review of that book, Westlake ended up thinking he’d failed in that attempt (I disagreed, and you can read that review to find out why).

So that leaves Mr. Ripley.  I don’t doubt Westlake read the book within a few years of its publication.  He probably read most of Highsmith, adapted her once (it didn’t work out), admitted to finding her both fascinating and repellent, which was a common enough reaction.  Perhaps he had some problems with Highsmith’s intriguingly convoluted writing style that sometimes makes even her most ardent admirers throw up their hands in despair, but he would have appreciated her gift for looking below the surface of things.  It’s one of the most original pieces of work in all of crime fiction–I’m not sure the qualifier is even needed.  It would be difficult to find a previous story in the annals of popular storytelling where somebody who committed cold blooded murder–not of some stranger, but a friend!–was not punished in some way.

But Ripley and Parker have little else in common.   Ripley feels guilt all the time–it just doesn’t stop him from doing what he feels he has to do. He sees himself as a force for evil.  He doesn’t live in the present like Parker does–the past is always haunting him, often in physical form.  We’re told in almost excruciating detail what he’s thinking and experiencing at all times.  That’s the point, from Highsmith’s POV–to get all the way into  his head, which I’d argue is actually her head–an aspect of her own personality, that she both dislikes and wishes she could give freer rein to.  Ripley is a sociopath, not a wolf in human form.  He’s very much a human being, but with some crucial parts left out, which makes him at the same time more and less free than the rest of us.

And most importantly, Ripley is a dabbler in crime, a dilettante–the ultimate amateur.  Parker is the ultimate professional.  He’s not playing games.  Ripley never does anything else.  Nor does Ripley have that weird trigger in his head like Parker, that when pushed, leads him to incessantly hunt down those who have offended him in some way.

But what both books have in common, of course, is their lack of moral pretense, embodied by a ‘hero’ who defies all social norms, and somehow never pays the price.  So I could see Westlake reading that and wondering if he could get away with it–but he wasn’t in Highsmith’s position.  She wasn’t a huge bestselling author, but she had a certain prestige most crime writers never had, partly because of her association with Hitchcock via Strangers on a Train.  Partly because she became a sort of protege of Graham Greene’s, who rather oddly found her a kindred spirit.  But mainly because most of her books were published in hardcover.  She didn’t do series fiction until the 70’s, and she never did much of it.

She was in a somewhat more refined area of publishing, and she was writing about more refined sorts of characters, and the rules were different.  She was pushing the envelope pretty hard, but she had that option open to her.   Westlake didn’t think he did.  He didn’t even think he could let Parker live past the end of The Hunter, until Bucklin Moon told him that would be the condition for Pocket Books picking up the option Gold Medal had passed on.  Which those who have read my earlier review of The Hunter will know I think was an offer Mr. Moon made for reasons as much personal as professional.

Bad guys are supposed to die, no matter how much you like them.  It’s a fictional convention that stretches far beyond the confines of genre.  You can find it in Tolstoy.  You can find it in ancient mythology.  You can find it in the goddam bible.  Exceptions are rare.  Dan J. Marlowe’s protagonist was only a half-exception, since at the end of his first book he’s alive, unrepentant, but in a sort of living hell.  Ripley is still looking nervously over his shoulder for the cops at the end of his book.   That final shoe doesn’t drop for him until the last novel.

And by the time either of them came back for another go, Parker had already appeared in a dozen outings.  He, more than either of them, more than any character in fiction that I know of, would define what it meant to be a really bad guy and get away with it–over and over and over again, with a lot less excess verbiage along the way.   And what makes him so different from any of the other literary badmen I’ve compared him to here is that he keeps his secrets a lot better.   He’s a protagonist treated almost like an enigmatic supporting character.  Because that is, in many ways, how Westlake conceived him.

And when I get back to this–this week, next week, not sure yet–I’ll delve deeper into his consciousness–and his antecedents–without the slightest hope of ever fully comprehending either.  Because Parker always gets away.  The Hunter is never successfully hunted.  But I’ll do my best to stay on the scent.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Stepfather

Stepfather_1987JOHN LIST MONSTER

The story goes like this:  John Emil List, born 1935, raised a devout Lutheran, served in WWII, saw combat, spent some time in the military post-war, honorably discharged.  In 1971, he was living in a big rambling old house in New Jersey with his wife, three children, and elderly mother.  An accountant, he had been fired from his job as vice-president of a Jersey City bank a few years back, and had lost a number of less prestigious jobs since.  He even tried selling insurance, with little success.  His ambitions tended to outstrip his abilities.

He did not tell his family when he was unemployed.  Instead, he left every morning as if he was going to work, often sitting at the local train station the entire day, reading the Wall Street Journal. He was mired in debt.  His marriage was deeply unhappy.  At some point in time, he decided there was no other option but to erase his existing life and begin a new one.

When he was ready, he murdered his family, one by one, laying all the bodies out in sleeping bags downstairs (except for his mother, who he said was too heavy to move from her upstairs room).  He used two guns, including one German-made pistol he’d brought home as a souvenir from the war (hmm–that rings a bell). He left various explanatory letters, including one to his minister, where he claimed he was doing this to save their souls–it particularly bothered him his daughter was planning to become an actress.   The text of this letter was not available to to the public until 1990.

He destroyed every photo of himself in the house, so the police couldn’t use them in wanted posters.  He arranged for the neighbors (with whom he and his family had little interaction) to think they were going on a trip together.  Weeks passed before the police were called and the bodies were found.  By that time,  nobody could find John List.  By that time, John List did not exist.  But the man who had been John List was still alive, and free, and remained so for many years to come. Most people figured he’d either killed himself out of remorse for his bloody deeds, or left the country.   They figured wrong either way.

Carol Lefcourt, editor at a publishing house, brought this story to Brian Garfield.  Some months back I reviewed his book Hopscotch.  That’s about a man who employs non-murderous methods to create a new life and identity for himself after spending many years as a CIA Agent.  That book’s protagonist also destroyed all photos of himself in his CIA file prior to going on the run–an idea Garfield might well have gotten from the List story.  Lefcourt thought he might be interested in basing a novel on the story of John List, as Robert Bloch had based Psycho on the all-too-real story of Ed Gein.

The difference being, of course, that by the time Bloch started writing that book, people knew what had happened to Ed Gein–he’d been caught.  Nobody knew what had happened to John List.  Because of the timing of his disappearance, some people even thought he’d been D.B. Cooper (I thought that was Don Draper, I mean Dick Whitman, oh never mind).

Garfield considered the story, decided he was never going to write a book about it, but he was starting to produce movies (I would imagine the huge success of the film based on his novel Death Wish had something to do with that), and he was, of course, a close friend and admirer of Donald Westlake, with whom he had collaborated on a comic western novel that I have also reviewed here.  Small world.

He gave the story to Westlake, and said if he wanted to write a screenplay about it–not a factual rendering of the little that was known about John List (quite a few well-researched books about him now, none at the time), but a fictional story inspired by it.  Garfield’s production company would pay him for it, possibly make a movie of it, and whatever happened, he’d have a lot of say over the finished product.

Garfield and Lefcourt would both get story credit–their precise contributions are difficult to determine, based on available information.  There wouldn’t have been any movie without them, but Westlake was, as he himself put it, ‘the main writer.’  Very rare for there to be just one writer working on any film–this film came closer than most.

The idea of creative control was probably what most piqued Westlake’s interest. Nobody could change the script without his approval.  Talk about an offer you can’t refuse.  Joseph Ruben, later known for Sleeping With the Enemy, would be the director, but this, for the first (and last) time in Westlake’s now twenty-year old relationship with Hollywood, would be a movie where the writer was holding the reins, at least as far as the story was concerned.

But there would have been other things that attracted him to this project.  The murders had, after all, taken place in Union County, Northern New Jersey, not far from where Westlake himself lived with his family for a number of years. Also not far from where a certain fictional heist man lived for a number of years. And the name of the town List had lived in?  Westfield.  Cue theme from The Twilight Zone.

So Westlake started work on the screenplay sometime in the mid-70’s–right around Watergate–and the industry being what it is, the actual movie wasn’t shot until the Mid-80’s.  Many studios passed on it until finally Jay Benson, a producer at ITC, decided he wanted to make it, partly on the strength of Westlake’s involvement.  He was a fan of Westlake’s mystery  novels.  I mentioned it’s a small world, right?

It was shot in 1985, released in 1987.  It got solid critical notices for this kind of film, particularly for the acting.  It got a tiny release and did miniscule box office. Biggest name in the cast was Shelley Hack, former Charlie’s Angel, who had just proven she could act in The King of Comedy, the film that more or less blocked publication of Westlake’s novel The Comedy Is Finished until after his death (man, it really is a small world–entertainment, I mean).

But over time The Stepfather became a cult classic, and had a vigorous post box office life on home video (just then becoming a thing).  Nobody lost money on it. It had been shot very cheaply in Vancouver, where making Hollywood-funded movies and TV shows was also just then becoming a thing.

So there were several sequels, that neither Westlake nor anybody else from the first picture worked on, other than the brilliant Terry O’Quinn, unknown before now, TV stardom still in his future–they even replaced him for the third film.  The sequels really made no sense on any level, given the way the first movie ended for the title character. He’s a scary guy and all, but he doesn’t wear a William Shatner mask.

But you see, the rule in Hollywood is that if you are a creepy psycho who cuts people up with various sharp implements (the real John List had used guns, because this is America), you will come back in movie after movie, they don’t care if the original writing and production talent is involved, and they did this to Alfred Freakin’ Hitchcock, so of course they’d do it to Donald Everlovin’ Westlake.

And when the sequels are done, almost as a matter of protocol, they’ll remake the original movie, most often with absolutely nobody from the original film (even actors!), and it will stink to high heaven, and that remake was released the year after Westlake died (to general mourning), and then the remake died at the box office (to no discernible mourning at all).   It did not become a cult classic, or any other kind of classic.  Didn’t even get a Razzie nomination.   It opened in 2,734 theaters, to the original’s 148.

But in anticipation of the remake’s release, the original movie was re-released on home video, and the DVD has a nice making-of featurette with interview clips from Brian Garfield, Joe Ruben, and cinematographer John W. Lindley. Westlake could not participate, being deceased and all.   Interesting as that making-of featurette is, it does not contain any insights from the man everybody (except maybe Joe Ruben) agrees was the dominant creative voice on that project.

But Westlake had been interviewed, years before, by a man named Patrick McGilligan, for a book about screenwriters of the 70’s and 80’s.  This was one of the films they discussed.  And so he did get to share with us some of the ideas and influences that went into his screenplay for this film that was being made before anybody other than John List knew what happened to John List after he erased his family and vanished from the face of the earth.

And as he told McGilligan, he was drawing (not for the first time, or the last) upon his often painful memories of his parents, and especially his father, Albert.  A man he loved very deeply, but not always an easy man to understand.  A man who kept secrets, some of them to his grave.

The story did connect with me in a very strange way.  At one point during the Depression, my father lost his job and didn’t tell my mother that he had lost his job, and spent several weeks leaving the house every day as though going to work–but actually looking for work and not finding any.  On Fridays he would take money out of his savings account and bring it home as though it were his salary.  One day a woman friend of my mother’s blew his cover.  My mother and father always had trouble comprehending each other.  As far as my mother was concerned, the marriage was a partnership and she had been frozen out.

This guy in the clipping had done the same thing: either quit, or been fired from, his Wall Street job, and then for the next several weeks, he did the same thing my father did, except in his case it led to murder.  I found that a little spooky.  I decided not to turn away from that idea, but to take a look at how people had different viewpoints of what their communal experiences are.

As we’ve seen before, Westlake tended to focus on the underlying essentials of a story when doing research, and often botched the details of real life events that inspired his stories, because they weren’t significant for his purposes–and to be fair, the available newspaper accounts of List’s crime when he was writing had botched quite a few details as well.  List does not seem to have worked on Wall Street, and if he did, it wasn’t for very long.

Westlake probably did little more than read existing newspaper accounts about the murder.  It’s not ‘True Crime’ he’s writing here.  It’s a psychological thriller with a bit of a horror hook–a kind of story he’d done once before–Pity Him Afterwards.  About an escaped mental patient who steals the identity of a young actor he murdered, and keeps right on murdering.

Westlake’s characterization of the story he told doesn’t sound very scary, does it?  The movie most certainly is–still, it’s very different from what came before it, or afterwards, in this specific sub-genre.

Norman Bates, in Hitchcock’s 1960 film (faithful to Robert Bloch’s novel in most important respects),  is so attached to his identity as mama’s boy/motel proprietor/taxidermist, so rooted to the scene of his original crime, he can’t leave it for any reason, or admit that he’s killed his mother and stuffed her (spoiler alert).  He can’t stop being Norman Bates, wouldn’t even know how.  But finally his other identity, created to protect his original identity from the truth, kills him to protect itself.

The Honeymoon Killers, a decade later, was a more or less accurate account of a real life pair of multiple murderers, moved forward considerably in time, and told as a tragic love story, which is what the two real-life Lonely Hearts Killers had insisted it was all the way to the electric chair, so maybe they’d have liked it.   (The French absolutely loved it.)

About a year before The Stepfather, Michael Mann’s Manhunter,  the first film to feature Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, was more of a procedural story about a cop trying to catch a killer while dealing with his own inner demons, but did spend some time getting into the head of the killer himself.  It didn’t really succeed very well.  Who is this guy?  What’s his motivation?  All the psycho-babble in the world won’t make him anything more than an oddly sympathetic Frankenstein’s monster without the neck bolts.  Personally, I think Karloff’s take was better, but it’s not a bad movie.  Lector’s barely even in it.

And a few years after The Stepfather, Jonathan Demme made The Silence of the Lambs, and the All Powerful and Oddly Urbane Serial Killer was well and truly a thing in our popular culture, and still is, and personally I think Freddy Krueger is more fun, at least when Robert Englund is playing him.  But a nice gig for Sir Anthony.  I do not acknowledge any other actor in that role.  (I also prefer Julianne Moore’s Clarice to Jodie Foster’s, sue me.)

So now we have movies like this all the time, but back then they were far and few between, and they didn’t tend to get us into the pattern killer’s head very much, or very well.  The story may acknowledge, at times, that the killer is human, has feelings–but not like us.   The killer must be some kind of social misfit, unable to have long-term relationships, live a normal life.  Not a family man, a scout troop leader, a regular church-goer. Certainly not vice-president of a bank.  But John List had been all of these things.   If he was putting up a front, it was a damned convincing one.  You had to look very closely to see the cracks in the picture.

So as he burrowed into the head of this monster, while creating his own somewhat different monster, Westlake had to ask himself the obvious question–“If I had done what John List did, what would I do next?”  And the answer, to him (and perhaps to Garfield before him) was obvious.  “I’d pick up right where I left off.”   Create a new identity.  Change his appearance. Find work.  Find a woman.   Make a new family.  Make a new life.  Fresh start.  It’ll work out better this time.

There are no second acts in American lives, Mr. Fitzgerald?   Says you.  American life is nothing but second acts, and third acts, and there’d be fourth and fifth acts if we took better care of ourselves.   The play may not be much, but we don’t ring down the curtain just because the first act was a dud.  The show must go on.

List would never kill himself, because he wouldn’t really believe he’d done anything wrong (he would later say it was because he was afraid of going to hell for the sin of suicide, and I can imagine a dark chuckle emanating from Mr. Westlake when he read that).  He wouldn’t leave the country, because there’s no better country to reinvent yourself in. That’s the jumping off point for the script. And gee, maybe a good jumping off point for me to review the movie, huh?   Since there’s a perfectly good synopsis on Wikipedia, I can mainly skip that part of it.

The Stepfather opens with a man standing in his bathroom, covered in blood.  He’s cutting his hair, shaving off his beard, shedding  his eyeglasses in favor of contacts, putting on a nicer suit of clothes.  When it’s done, he looks at himself in the mirror, well-pleased with his new appearance.  He walks calmly downstairs, past the butchered bodies of several people, some of them small children.  His family.  Or they used to be.  He seems completely unaffected by this.  He takes a ferry to a new city, smiling happily to himself.  Whatever just happened did not happen to him.

Next we meet Susan (Shelley Hack), married to Jerry Blake–the man we saw take shape in the bathroom mirror.  About a year has passed.   Susan is a widow, with a beautiful 16 year old daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), who has predictably failed to accept her new stepfather.  He gives her a sweet little dog, who she instantly adores.  But nothing can change her mind about Jerry.  Something’s not right about him.  Kids, huh?

Westlake didn’t mention this to Patrick McGilligan, but in fact he was having problems with his own stepdaughter, as Brian Garfield mentions on the DVD.  Being a father of four boys with two previous wives, who had married a woman with three children of her own, he’d been variously successful in establishing relationships with her kids, and as someone who had  problems connecting with his own father, this clearly bothered him a great deal.

We saw some indications of this in A Likely Story, the protagonist of which is guilty that he did such a lousy job connecting with his girlfriend’s very young and insecure daughter.  But that relationship ends before the book does.  Westlake’s relationship with Abby Adams would last the rest of his life, and therefore, so did his relationship with her daughter, Katharine.  Whose name came up on some Westlake-related blogs, some time back, in relation to her thankfully brief disappearance.

The stepdaughter in the film actually rather strikingly resembles the description of Tom Diskant’s own daughter by his first wife in A Likely Story.  Dark-haired, feisty, competitive. And the story of this film rather strikingly resembles Hitchcock’s favorite of his own movies, Shadow of a Doubt, except that Jerry’s not Stephanie’s favorite uncle, or her favorite anybody.  All the same.  The film is much more about her relationship with Jerry than it is about anything else.  She’s the one he’s trying to convince here, and she’s the one sniffing out clues, smelling a rat.

His interest in her isn’t precisely sexual–he mainly seems to have very little interest in sex, except as a means of convincing single women with young children to marry him.  He wants Stephanie to remain pre-sexual, basically forever–like any father, really, but much much worse.  He’s infuriated to the brink of violence by her innocently kissing a friend from school, a young man named Paul (a name Westlake often used for male protagonists –the author is present in more than one form here).

Not sure how much Westlake knew about John List’s troubled relationship with his own daughter, about the same age as Stephanie when she died, and to all accounts a very attractive and somewhat flirtatious young woman–who confided to a teacher that she was afraid her father would murder her.

Stephanie is seeing a psychiatrist in the film, due to some behavioral problems in school.   She confides her own suspicions about her stepfather to him, and he arranges to meet Jerry, posing as a potential client.   This goes about as well for the psychiatrist as it does for Martin Balsalm in Psycho.   There are just some professions you do not want to be working in when Donald Westlake is writing the story.

Perhaps the least successful subplot in the film–but also one of the most necessary in terms of establishing a backstory–involves Jim Ogilvie, the brother of the woman Jerry murdered just before the film’s opening, along with everyone else in the house at the time.  Jim had been away in Europe when the killings occurred, and has become obsessed with finding his sister’s murderer.

He has a theory that ‘Henry Morrison’ didn’t move very far away when he disappeared, and is living a perfectly normal life with another woman, probably one with children.  And he’s supported in this theory by what the detective on the case tells him–that Henry Morrison didn’t exist.  That this was just another manufactured alias–there’s no telling how many identities this man has had, or how many families he’s destroyed along the way.  The detective also says that if it was his sister, he’d kill the guy himself–if he could find him.

Stephen Shellen, who plays Jim, does a perfectly creditable job in the role, but just isn’t that compelling–his obsession feels like a youthful whim.  Maybe that’s intended–Jim seems not to know himself or his capabilities very well, often a fatal flaw in a Westlake character.  He’s there to fill in details about the killer’s past, his m.o., to represent Jerry’s past catching up with him.  He plays a fairly important role in the finale, though not at all the one he’d hoped for.   Much like the role Scatman Crothers played in The Shining.   He provides what you might call the machina ex deus.  Bit thankless, but such is the life of a supporting character in this type of film.

But there’s no point taking issue with Shellen’s performance, or anyone else’s in this film–how many actors would ever look good compared to Terry O’Quinn?  Westlake was absolutely taken aback at how stunningly perfect O’Quinn was in the role of Jerry–this kind of casting magic had never really happened with anything he’d been involved with before (that it was a fellow Irish American bringing his creature to life was a nice bit of lagniappe).

O’Quinn somehow makes you like Jerry, even after you know what he’s done, and to whom.  He makes you believe he could just walk into the lives of these (invariably attractive) women, and yet never quite fit in there, always some part of his unfinished personality sticking out, making him dissatisfied, until he has to pull out the eraser, start from a blank slate again.

And the true climax of the film isn’t when he turns violent again–it’s just before–when he makes a critical error, forgets who he’s pretending to be for just a heartbeat–O’Quinn captures that moment of identity confusion in a way that’s both chilling and heart-rending.  “Wait a minute–who am I here?”  Well, we all ask that question of ourselves sometimes.  But we don’t usually follow it up with murder.

Shelley Hack does her job exactly right, not a false note in her performance, but Susan is mainly there to be conned, then terrorized.  Not much depth to the character.  No, the only two performances really worth talking about are O’Quinn’s and Schoelen’s–a few years older than her character at the time, she found something in herself I’m not sure she found again in any other role–a mixture of toughness, intelligence, humor and sensitivity that makes you root hard for Stephanie–not exactly the ‘final girl’ of your typical slasher (which this was never meant to be).

Rather more, as I said, a modern take on Teresa Wright’s Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt.  Not that good, of course, but amazingly close for someone working on a low-budget horror film shot over 40 days in Vancouver.   (Though the shower scene she does is more out of Psycho, and probably not strictly necessary to the story.  Appreciated nonetheless, Ms. Schoelen–gratuitous female nudity in films is one of the very few things about the 1980’s I remember fondly).

This is not, as the cinematographer mentions in the DVD, a dialogue-driven film.  There are a number of nicely rendered lines, but Westlake was much more interested in just telling the story visually, with the utmost of economy, and he had all the allies he needed for that–and he proved to be a willing collaborator on set.  Ruben suggested to him that the character’s backstory of parental abuse as a boy be eliminated–he readily agreed–maybe that was in the story treatment he’d been given, and he never liked it to start with.  John List had a somewhat troubled childhood, with a very strict father, but there was nothing there that really explained what he became.

Westlake didn’t write a lot about the childhoods of his characters.  We never found out anything about Parker’s early life, only slightly more about Dortmunder’s.  We find out who we are not in our earliest experiences, but in how we responded to them.  Two different people with the same precise background could be poles apart.  Personality–or in some cases, the lack thereof–is a mystery that no one has ever been able to solve.

A nice little story on that making-of featurette gives you an idea of what a good working experience this was for Westlake–the producer, Jay Benson, relates how Westlake wasn’t happy with the scene where Jerry corners Stephanie in the bathroom–she’s trapped in there, and the locked door won’t keep him out long–so she’s dead.   How can she credibly escape?  Benson had a rather neat solution to the problem, and instead of bristling at someone impinging on his script control, sticking his oar in, Westlake accepted the suggestion happily, wrote it in, and it still works.  Well, probably didn’t hurt that Benson had presumably already mentioned to him several times how much he loved Westlake’s novels.   There were many difficulties involved in making this film (mainly weather-related), but serious professional conflicts or misunderstandings–apparently not among them.

Another detail I didn’t get from the featurette–the images below are from the storyboards for the movie.  Snipped them from a site hawking an original copy of the script.  (Six hundred bucks is way out of my price range–I’m not that interested.  It’s not like Westlake drew the pictures.)

Probably my main nitpick is the score, composed by Patrick Moraz–which isn’t bad.  But it’s a synthesizer score, and while I suppose that does kind of fit the artificiality of Jerry Blake and the world he’s constructed for himself, that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to listen to.   At least John Carpenter would stick a little piano in here and there, some throbby bass lines.  You were expecting maybe Bernard Herrmann conducting a studio string ensemble?    Psycho was considered a very low-budget film for its time, but times had changed, the studio system was dead, standards had fallen.   The score doesn’t quite work, but it’s not a major problem.

(Reportedly, Jerry was supposed to whistle The Way We Were at key moments, but they couldn’t afford the rights–they had to substitute Camptown Races.  That works just fine.  Somehow I don’t see Jerry as a Streisand fan, though his ability to selectively suppress memories is precisely the point of the character–maybe a bit too on the nose?)

I guess my only remaining observation would be Westlake’s treatment of the dog–here’s the thing.  During the course of that one bloody day in his life, John List seems to have killed the family dog, Tinkerbelle.  Westlake doubtless read about that in the papers.  Nobody really knows why.  Did List think the dog was also on the path to a sinful life, and had to be killed to avoid the flames of dog hell?   Unlikely.  Nor could the dog ever bear witness against him.

Not sure anybody ever asked List why he did that (there were so many other questions to ask by then), but I suppose he might have said that Tinkerbelle would have starved to death by herself, and he was sparing her that–more pragmatically, if he’d let her go, neighbors might have brought her back, and discovered the murder scene before he’d completed his disappearing act.  That’s what he might have said, but I’d say the real reason was that he wanted to destroy every last vestige of his old life.   His family, wife, mother, children, pets, was merely extensions of his public persona, and had no right to exist apart from him.  I wish this kind of attitude, and the behavior that ensued from it, was unique to John List, but we all know that isn’t true.

There’s a scene where Jerry Blake looks up and sees the dog he gave Stephanie, an appealing little terrier mix, looking at him–he’s just beaten his wife unconscious and left her in the basement.   He’s picking out a knife to butcher her and Stephanie with, and his thoughts are accordingly dark.  The dog is scared.   Jerry speaks reassuringly, beckons the dog to him, knife in one hand–it comes to him, whimpering softly, uncertain. He caresses it gently, comfortingly, still holding the knife.  Then he lets it go.

Contrary to popular opinion, dogs really don’t know or care who’s good or evil–that isn’t relevant to them.  They sense emotions, positive or negative, nurturing or potentially dangerous–not character.  The dog comes because right at that moment, Jerry’s completely forgotten about what he just did, and is giving off genuinely affectionate vibes.   And feeling that way, he has no desire to hurt the dog, so the dog isn’t scared of him, does not perceive him as a threat, licks his face, scampers off to greet Stephanie at the door, not sensing any danger now. Jerry returns to the job at hand.

Aside from cunningly defeating the audience’s expectations here, Westlake is obeying certain  rules of popular storytelling–he knows damned well you don’t kill a cute little dog in a movie unless it’s a really important plot point (like motivating Spencer Tracy to wreak terrible vengeance in Fury).   He’s had his little joke.  He’s also conveyed something about the deeply compartmentalized nature of his killer. His emotions towards canine-kind remain mixed.   I note with some disquiet that the dog does not seem to be present in the final scene, where Susan and Stephanie get rid of the bird house Jerry built for the back yard.  It’s not only dangerous psychotics who might want to get rid of anything that brings up unpleasant memories.

The Stepfather opened in January of 1987, and as I mentioned already, very few people went to see it in a theater.  One of those who did was myself.   Plenty of seats in the auditorium, as I recall.  I didn’t know any of the actors in the cast other  than Shelley Hack, and I wasn’t particularly a fan of hers, though I thought she was good in The King of Comedy.  I didn’t know from Joseph Ruben, had never heard of John List (and the film wasn’t promoted as being inspired by that then-forgotten story, anyway). I’d read some favorable reviews, was in the mood for a good bit of horror, and I went.  I thought it was a pretty decent film at the time.  I never watched it again until I got the DVD so I could write this review.

I didn’t notice Donald Westlake’s name in the credits while sitting there in the dark, and would not have experienced even the slightest tingle of recognition if I had noticed the writer’s name.  It would be nearly a quarter-century later that I would first pick up a book of his and read it.  This was my first encounter with him, and as is so often the case with first encounters that ultimately prove fateful, I failed to perceive any significance in it.  Like pretty nearly everyone else who has seen that film, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on enduring themes and interests of its screenwriter, even if I’d tried.   And now I can, or so I flatter myself.  You learn as you go.

Unless, of course, your life is devoted to not learning as you go.  Unless you’re stuck in the same place, living out variations of the same sad story, over and over, forever, and no matter how many times you leave your old life behind, it keeps coming back for you.

John List was found and arrested less than two years after The Stepfather came out.  I don’t know if he also went to see it during its brief run, but I rather think not.   He had relocated several times since then, married a woman he met through his church, and according to Brian Garfield, might have been having financial and relationship problems once more–Garfield implies he might have actually started fresh again, maybe even killing his second wife as well, if he hadn’t been found.  I don’t know if that’s true.  I think probably everybody reaches a point in life where he or she decides it’s too late to start over.  Even mad killers.

The point of Westlake’s story wasn’t to say “This might be what happened to John List,” even though some of it actually did.  It was Westlake’s take on what might drive a man to do something like that–the conflict that exists in most people between the lives they imagined for themselves and the lives they have.

‘Jerry Blake’ is putting up a front, always, trying to embody the American Dream he was raised with (though he hints his childhood was anything but perfect)–he seems considerably more successful in his work life than John List was, effortlessly excelling at any field that requires some level of salesmanship (and as we know, for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life–I would certainly know, since that’s what my father was, but thankfully, that was never all he was).

It isn’t financial failure, or personal unhappiness that drives Jerry to murder.  It’s that he can’t accept anything less than perfection, and perfection always remains somewhere just out of reach, as it does for everyone else, but he can’t see that–he can only see the surface of things, envying the happy families he sells houses to, wanting to somehow Stepford-ize himself and each new family, always falling short.

Since he doesn’t know himself, he can’t know anyone else, can’t empathize with the failings of his adopted family members, extend them forgiveness for having (as he sees it) failed him.   How did he start down this path?  How do most of us, subject to the same social pressures, the same mass-manufactured media imagery, avoid it?   Do we really want to know the answer?   Who do we see in the mirror every morning?  Who are we here?

It’s a good story, and a good film.  It makes a solid point without belaboring it nearly as much as I have.   Of all the screenplays Westlake worked on that became movies, it’s second only to one, and serves in some ways as a prototype for it–but I think its significance goes well beyond that.

Because here and there we can see hints of the old Westlake coming back to the surface.  The more focused, less playful writer who gave us Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, 361, Killy.  Since there’s no narrator here, and dialogue isn’t the point, he’s free to focus entirely on story and character, and perhaps begin to rediscover parts of himself he’d put aside for a while in the comfortable middle part of his life.  Parts that would be useful to him in future projects.  Parts that might, in time, lead him back to the best of his old work, and forward to the dark masterpiece only he could have written.

And since I miss that kind of Westlake book as much as anyone, I’m going to put off reviewing the rather neat little exercise in farce that would technically come next in our queue, in favor of an article delving back into the origins of an earlier criminal protagonist of Westlake’s who would have made very short work of Jerry Blake and all his Rockwell-esque aliases, had they ever been unfortunate enough to cross him in some way.  You know who I mean.  But do you know how many cunningly scavenged bits and pieces went into the making of him?  I think I’m just starting to get an idea.

I almost forgot to mention–John List died in prison in March of 2008–about nine months before Westlake died in Mexico. Just another strange little detail that makes you wonder who writes this stuff.  Just FYI, I didn’t plan to finish this one on Friday the 13th.  I mean, that’s not even the right franchise.

It can be strange, doing this blog–disorienting, because from week to week, I’m constantly forced to shift gears, as Westlake himself so often did, changing styles, subjects, emphases, the basic tonal quality of his work–while still somehow maintaining an underlying unity to it all.  It’s certainly been a challenge to convey all this, in the midst of living my own life, with its own confusions and cross-currents.

Anyway I certainly hope to see you all at the dog run clean-up next week–what?  What did I say?  Who am I here?  Fred?  Fred Fitch.  That’s right.  Care for a song?  They probably couldn’t have gotten the rights to this one for the movie either–hard to whistle, anyway.

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Filed under Donald Westlake screenplays

Review: The Fourth Dimension Is Death

The fundamental cause for the split between Stanislavsky and Meyerhold at the very beginning of the century lay in their divergent views of the place of the audience  in the theatrical event.  Stanislavsky taught that ‘an actor must have a point of attention and this point of attention must not be in the auditorium’ and that ‘during a performance…it is important that the sequence of objects you focus on should form a solid line.  That line must remain on our side of the footlights and not stray once into the auditorium.‘  Meyerhold always opposed this conception of the actor deliberately and unwaveringly excluding the spectator from his consciousness and as early as 1907 posited an actor who ‘stands face to face with the spectator and freely reveals his soul to him, thus intensifying the fundamental theatrical relationship of performer and spectator.’  For Meyerhold, the audience was the vital fourth dimension without which there was no theatre.  The other three dimensions–the playwright, the director, and the actor–worked to no avail if they had no audience, for it was somewhere between them and their audience that theatre ‘happened.’

From Vsevolod Meyerhold, by Robert Leach

The receptionist gave me a jaded look as I emerged from the elevator and sauntered toward her.  “Hi, beautiful,” I said, and smiled like an idiot under my moustache. “Would you tell Mr. Henry that Ed Dante’s here?”  Instead of trying to disguise my well-known voice, I used the flat nasal Long Island twang I’d grown up around.

“Of course,” she said, cool and professional.  “If you’ll take a seat.”

I kept the stupid smile and leaned forward, shifting some of my weight to my palm, pressed down on her table.  “And what’s your name?” I asked.

She was used to jerks.  “Miss Colinville,” she said, clipping the syllables off, her eyes astonishingly hostile.

“Brrrr,” I said, still grinning as I turned up the collar of an imaginary overcoat.  “I’ll be over there fighting frostbite,” I told her, pointing at an empty area of the room.

“You do that,” she agreed, but she did release a faint and frosty smile as she reached for the phone to announce my presence.

That was sufficient.  I wanted to be enough of a jerk to go with my appearance, but not so obnoxious that no one would talk to me.  So I went over and sat on a flowery sofa and beamed at the groups of chatting people as though I’d just love to join in.  As expected, they worked very hard not to be aware of me.

The fact is, within obvious limits we do decide what we look like.  Our clothing, jewelry, eyeglasses, hairstyles, way of standing and walking, a hundred other things, all go together to create that person the rest of the world sees.  Every element of that involves a choice, and in our choices we make a lot of declarations, including which other human beings we’re most comfortable having contact with.

I would guess Westlake started this novel in something of a foul mood.  He’d set out to create a brand new nom de plume, coupled with a brand new protagonist, which would test whether he could, in middle age, do what he routinely did as a younger man, create a literary persona and reputation out of thin air.  He wrote three Holt books in a row, apparently barely stopping to take a breath in-between. And he was not happy with the results.

In fact, the Holt mysteries got decent enough reviews, and probably sold reasonably well–most mystery writers would have been well-pleased.  But Westlake held himself to higher standards, and for him the experiment in self-reinvention was ruined by the fact that Tor Books had revealed his identity in the course of promoting the novels.  And as I’ve said several times already, I don’t think that was the half of it.

As we saw in the last review, he’s arguing with himself in one chapter–questioning the very approach he’s taken to writing the third book, and really the series as a whole.  He’s hitting a wall.  He’d always had a bit of a split personality as a writer, and I don’t just mean that he wrote in different styles.  Part of him wanted to focus with laser-like intensity on story and character, keeping the underlying themes of the work well-hidden–that side found its ultimate expression in the Parker novels, though there’s much of it in the Tobins as well, and in the early hardboiled novels under his own name.

But another part of him loved to play with words and ideas, to philosophize, to mock the very genres he used to get his points across, to wink at the reader from the page, bring us all in on the joke.  That’s the part of him that wrote the comic works, the criminal farces, the satires, the parodies–mainly under his own name.  He could do both approaches superbly well when at the top of his game–but in the Holt books, he tries both at once–a hybrid approach–and neither is working very well.  His inner Meyerhold is not getting along with his inner Stanislavsky, and why do I feel this weird conviction he’d have understood that analogy a lot better than I do?

So in my opinion–and that’s all it is, but I’m not backing down from it–he was unhappy with the Holt books in ways that had nothing to do with the perfidy of a publisher.  The man started his career with Scott Meredith, one of the most double-dealing bastards in the history of western letters.  He’d done business with most of the major houses in New York, and a fair few minor ones, and he had precious little good to say about any of them, much as he respected the genuine professionals he was fortunate enough to work with.  No one ever had a less idealized view of that industry than Westlake.  He can’t have been that surprised that Tor hadn’t honored their pledge to keep his secret, because they wanted the books to sell better.

If he’d been happy with the Holt books, he’d have kept writing them, regardless of whether people knew it was him or not (and as some readers have revealed in the comments section, that was not widely known at the time, nor was it for many years after the books came out).  That’s what I think.  But he’d signed a contract.  He owed Tor one more.  So that’s the frame of mind he’s in writing this one.  That contractual obligation frame of mind.   I don’t know if he told them this was the last one when he was writing it, or when he handed it in.

I do note that the dust jacket, for the first time, calls it “A Samuel Holt Mystery.”  As if it was a continuing series.  It’s not marketed as the final chapter in Holt’s story, and you’d think it would be, because that would be good for sales too.  Could be he kept his options open, just in case it was a big seller.

Still and all, Westlake never really wrote a true finale for any of his series characters, other than Levine.  We have to assume he at least had the idea in his head that he was writing the last book in this series, if not necessarily a definitive finish to the strange narrative of Samuel Holt.

And wouldn’t you know, this may just be the best of the bunch.  My personal favorite is the second, and I greatly admire aspects of the first–the third is mainly fascinating for the window it gives us into the author’s mind, his doubts about what he’s supposed to be doing as a storyteller.

But the fourth, which closely (and no doubt consciously) mirrors certain aspects of the fifth and final Tobin novel, actually succeeds in clarifying Samuel Holt, as a character and a writer–and an actor.  Just in time for him to make his exit, stage left.  Without any real resolution of his central dilemmas, but short of killing him off, I don’t see how Westlake could have done that.

As we’ve seen, Westlake did not like killing off his protagonists.   Though he made a partial exception to that rule, in what you might call a belated postscript to the Holts, stuck into an entirely different book that Holt is not a player in.  I’m not sure how seriously anyone should take that postscript.  We’ll talk about that.  But let’s talk about this book first.

No old friend in a jam asks for Sam Holt’s assistance this time.  Nor is he stuck in a spooky murder house in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of fellow actors who also play detectives.  He does have to solve a murder mystery, but who is the victim?  Sam Holt.  Or rather, somebody who plays him on TV.

Sam’s coming back to New York on some company’s private jet (ah, the joys of celebrity), with his meticulous manservant, Robinson.  Robinson, as mentioned previously, is really an actor who used to play butlers, valets, officious maitre d’s and such.  But when he was between gigs, he’d supplement his income by doing that kind of work for real, usually for more successful actors.

On the plane ride back, one of the executives recognizes him from old movies, and turns out to be a huge fan.  Robinson is in seventh heaven, not that he’d admit it. Sam, maintaining a diplomatic silence, has to listen to him going on at length about how Bly Quinn, Sam’s sitcom-writing west coast girlfriend, begged for him to play a butler on a pilot she was working on, but then he had to walk off the set, never to return, because they just wouldn’t listen to all the helpful suggestions he was making with regards to his character, or let him rewrite the script. Oh the pain. The pain.

Robinson’s companionship means far more to Sam than the services he provides (Sam clearly lost both his parents long before he was a star), and Sam is secretly relieved not to lose him to Hollywood–which furthermore would be pretty damned embarrassing for Sam, since he still can’t get acting work of any kind.  He is, however, bothered by the fact that having once adored Bly, Robinson is now giving her the cold shoulder, as only an actor who specialized in snooty butlers for decades can do.  This subplot has been ongoing throughout the series, is not resolved in this book, and I guess Robinson will be holding that grudge forever.  So let’s look at the main plot.

Sam and and some other people who own the syndication rights to his show, Packard, have been suing over some ads using an actor playing a parody version of Packard to promote a chain of supermarkets.  The lawsuit wasn’t really Sam’s idea (he’s sick of people identifying him with Packard), but he’s expected to participate in it.

The lookalike actor in question, one Dale Wormley (didn’t his agent tell him to change that?), who Sam doesn’t think looks like him (everyone else does), is not inclined to be understanding about this onerous legal necessity to protect Sam’s character and likeness from copyright infringement. Far as he’s concerned, he should be the star, and Sam should be impersonating him in cheesy TV ads.

Since it’s more satisfying to hate a person than a consortium, he approaches Sam on the street in front of his Greenwich Village townhouse, just as Sam is getting back from the airport, and gets abusive–verbally, then physically. Sam, not in a mood for abuse, and trained as a police officer, employs the ‘comealong hold’, bending Dale’s thumb back.  The real police arrive, and after giving his side of the story, Sam goes inside, leaving Dale to discuss the general unfairness of life with them.

There’s a later incident at a general audition for a play.  Sam is only there to give moral support to his less famous but much busier acting chum Brett Burgess (Brett says the role is ‘Alan Alda as a lumberjack’, which I find interesting since Alan Grofield and a number of Westlake’s comic protagonists always seemed very Alda-esque to me).  But then Dale shows up, and assumes Sam is trying to steal this role from him as well.  Sam is forced to knock him out. With one punch.  Delivered from a sitting position.  Impressive.

(Sidebar: The weird thing about Sam, as you may have noticed, is that he’s genuinely badass, can play that part in real life when he has to, and yet Hollywood still won’t hire him to play any fictional badasses who aren’t named Packard.  I can’t for the life of me figure out how in the first book, he personally foiled a major terrorist attack in Los Angeles without getting any positive publicity that would have revived his acting career.

I get that he would be unwilling to exploit that kind of event for professional gain, particularly after what happened to his writer friend who was trying to do just that, but wouldn’t the press have caught wind of it?  The gutter press, at the very least.  In that same book that he fought terrorists in, we’re told that the supermarket tabloids are immediately notified if any major celebrity has some kind of significant interaction with the law, such as being at the scene of an attempted mosque bombing in L.A.  The Weekly Galaxy should have had a field day with this.  At a certain point in the Holt series there’s more holes than plot, which is most atypical for Westlake.)

So anyway, this is all most unfortunate, stems entirely from misunderstandings and insecurities on Dale’s part, and Sam doesn’t really bear his doppelganger any ill will.  He can appreciate that an actor’s life is often frustrating, particularly since he’s feeling quite a bit of that same frustration himself. What he doesn’t appreciate is having the police show up at his door a few days later, and tell him Dale Wormley was found murdered a few blocks from his townhouse.  Beaten to death with a two-by-four taken from a nearby construction site.

He’s down in his basement, exercising in the small stationary lap pool he’s installed there (I think they call them ‘endless’ pools now), when Robinson arrives to announce the detectives are there, greatly enjoying the impressive echo effect he can generate down there with his sonorous voice.  Detectives Feeney and LaMarca by name, and after going to such pains to show us intelligent professional (and somewhat boring) police officers in the last three books, Westlake has decided he can once more indulge his anti-authoritarian leanings, since he doesn’t have to hide his identity anymore.

Why had I expected them both to be men?  I guess the ingrown assumptions don’t change.  Anyway, one was male, the other female, both probably in their late thirties.  The man was short, chunky, with thinning brown hair and a blobby lumpy face, like something made of Play-Doh.  The woman was an inch or so taller than he, big-boned rather than fat, with straight black Vampira hair and a long horsy face.  The man wore a brown jacket, checked shirt, dark blue bow tie and gray slacks, while the woman was dressed in a severely cut dark blue suit, plain white blouse, dark hose and sensible shoes.  All in all, he looked like a high school math teacher and she looked like the woman who interviews you when you plan to adopt a child.

They prove, if anything, more unpleasant than their oddly detailed descriptions.  No good cop, bad cop here–both looking for any possible weakness in Sam’s story.  They take their own sweet time telling him they’re from Homicide, and Dale Wormley is dead, and obviously Sam’s a suspect.  Not merely because of his two altercations with Dale, but because a young actress who was living with the victim, name of Julie Kaplan, had told them it must be Sam Holt who killed her boyfriend–Dale had driven her out of their shared abode to a girlfriend’s apartment  with his long paranoid rants about how this Holt bastard was out to get him, and now she realizes he was right all along!

Julie then shows up at the offices of Morton Adler, Sam’s New York attorney, and maybe my favorite character in these books who isn’t sleeping with Sam (I would assume).  Mort is the guy any New Yorker with a lick of sense would want for a lawyer, but I can’t find him in the phone book.  Just the Holt books.

A rumpled man with a neat round balding head, Mort’s usual manner is one of shy amusement, as though he doesn’t particularly see why everybody wants to make such a fuss.  His office, with its large windows overlooking the remaining air-rights in mid-town Manhattan, is probably large enough, but is so cluttered and messy as to look small.  Stacks of papers and books mound messily everywhere, most of them crowned by some recent copy of the New York Times, quarter-folded with the crossword puzzle on top, completed in neat black inked letters.

So Julie wants to apologize–she said what she did in a state of shock over Dale’s murder, and never meant to be taken seriously.  But it’s too late to undo the damage, and Mort figures the best thing she can do for Sam is nothing.  Let the investigation play itself out.

But in the conversation, she reveals some things about Dale–shows Sam his resume (Sam sourly reflects that it’s not much but still more impressive than his before he became Jack Packard).  And she says he was very excited about a major role he was getting in a play that starts rehearsals in three months, the star of which is the well-known actress Rita Colby.  Sam is surprised by this.  Journeyman actors like Dale don’t get cast in plays that far ahead of opening night.

Feeney and LaMarca keep coming after Sam, even more motivated to nail him after he rashly tells them to fuck off when their questions cross the boundaries of professionalism (and they also plant a story in the papers suggesting he’s a ‘person of interest’ in the case), but he handles them easily enough–between his reporter friend Terry Young and the formidable Mr. Adler, it isn’t long before they’re both off the case entirely, replaced by the much more capable Sergeant Shanley, an attractively chunky female officer he met after his townhouse was invaded by terrorists in the first book.  There are no leads on the killer, but the NYPD is satisfied the killer wasn’t Sam Holt.  So that’s it, right?  Short book.

Sam flies back to L.A. to give the story time to cool off.  Without him being present in New York, the local press will lose interest quickly.  What he doesn’t count on is that Dale’s mother, who was living vicariously through her son’s career, believed those early stories the two detectives planted, is convinced Sam Holt murdered her son, and won’t let him get away with it.  So she files a civil suit, for millions of dollars in damages, accusing Sam of having deprived her of her son.  Yeah, we’re all a lot more familiar with that kind of thing now, aren’t we?

It started, Sam’s west coast attorney Oscar Cooperman informs Sam (and us), with the best of intentions.  Civil rights activists in the south were being murdered, and local juries wouldn’t convict their killers.  So there was no way to seek redress except through civil courts, where the standard of evidence is much more lenient.  No presumption of innocence there. It was an understandable tactic to make racist murderers pay for their crimes, and let their associates know they couldn’t kill with impunity anymore.

Thing is, once you’ve opened that door for the families of martyred activists, you’ve opened it for everybody else.  This is the social issue of the book (every Holt book’s got to have one), and I have to say, Westlake convinced me.   You shouldn’t be able to convict somebody of a capital crime in civil court.  The right of families to seek justice shouldn’t mean depriving the rest of us of due process.

Sam and Bly are talking it over, and it’s becoming increasingly clear, the case will drag on for a long long time, and the lawyers will be the only winners.  His name will be dragged through the press, and a final decision in his favor won’t change public perceptions.  His already stalled career will be stuck in limbo.  Sure, maybe he could use it, leverage the notoriety to start playing bad guys (which he’d love to do), but that isn’t how he wants to succeed as an actor, and it’s a dead end street anyway.  He’s screwed no matter what he does.

They do a conference call with Mort (who’d be handling the case) and he grimly concurs with Oscar’s assessment of the situation.  Sam can settle the lawsuit, therefore admitting guilt.  Or it’s war to the knife for years to come, and tons of media coverage of the trial(s).  Oscar suggests a change of venue, but Mort says that would just make Sam look guilty and the request probably wouldn’t be granted.  Oscar’s response chills Sam to the bone….

“I suppose you’re right,” Oscar said, sounding rueful.  “I wish I could take part,” he said, and then he added the absolute worst thing you can ever hear your own attorney say. “It sounds like a fascinating case.”

Sam and Anita talk it over at his agent Zack Novak’s ski lodge, up in the San Gabriel mountains.  They have a lot of great sex, as they always do, but it doesn’t really make Sam feel any better.  Or you any sorrier for him (it’s an inherent problem with the character–on his worst day, he’s still better off than you ever will be).

Bly, always loving the drama of Sam’s life (so much great material for her scripts), forces him to see that he’s got just one option open to him now.  The police in New York have ‘opened’ the Wormley murder case–meaning, in typical bureaucratic doublespeak, that they’ve closed it without resolving it.  No more work will be done on it until new evidence crops up, which will probably be never.  Unless, of course, some intrepid private investigator, unconstrained by bureaucratic red tape, were to turn some up, crack the case wide open. Gee, who could that possibly be?  Hint, hint.

Sam can’t believe it–all he wants to do is put that one role everybody knows him for behind him for good.  But apparently God is the biggest Packard fan of all.  Or else he’s got a book contract to close out.  Either way.

“You know,” I said, “how everybody, at one time or another, dreams about escaping from it all, going somewhere new, getting a new name, starting a new life?  This is one of those moments for me.”

Smiling in understanding, Bly said, “So here we are on Monte Cristo.”

“I suppose.”

“But you aren’t Eddie Dantes,” she said.  “You know who you are, and you know what you’re going to do.”

“Oh Christ,” I said, feeling the weight of it landing like an Inverness cape on my shoulders.  “It’s so stupid.”

“You don’t have any choice,” she told me.  “This time, Sam, there’s nobody else to do it.”

She was right, dammit.  I could feel the old stance come back, the set of the head, position of the elbows, placement of the feet.  I looked down at Bly, the old smile on my face calm and superior but friendly, the assurance in the very lift of my eyebrows.  “Packard’s the name, “Ma’am,” I said.  “Jack Packard.”

But he can’t actually go around as Packard.  No, he needs a new character, one people don’t know.  Ed Dante, unsuccessful aspiring actor (much like the man whose murder he’s trying to solve) , will do fine.  Nobody will recognize the Dumas ref (or the Eugene O’Neill ref behind it, but I did–check out one of the quotes leading into my review of the second book in this series).   He knows how to change his appearance–he’s still an actor, employed or not.

He’s got professional quality false mustaches, beards, and wigs.   He makes himself look a bit like a poor man’s Errol Flynn.  The kind of guy most people don’t want to be seen with.  That way they won’t look at him too closely.    He does other things  He’s still six feet six inches tall, but that can’t be helped.  Fortunately for him, people don’t generally look past your surface appearance and manner.  If you don’t act like a star, they won’t think you are one.

So he heads for Florida, incognito as they say, to see Julie Kaplan, get more information.   She was staying with Anita Imperato for a bit, but now she’s got a role in a play over in Miami.  He doesn’t learn too much more from her, but there is one interesting scene–he’s staying at a cheap dive hotel (to stay in character, you see), and he comes back to find two Hispanic guys casing his room for valuables.  He really ought to get out of there, but he’s not in the mood (because he’s playing Packard, the martial arts expert, in disguise). So he stands his ground (without a gun, which seems strange in Florida)–they come at him with knives.  And being such a badass, he beats the crap out of them both, and there’s this one interesting little moment when one of them pulls his wig off in the struggle–

The other one stopped still, astonished, and stared at me.  “Pah-karrr?” he asked me, unbelieving, and I kicked him twice: First in the crotch, and as he bent double, in the face.

So obviously the guy had seen him on TV, and couldn’t believe Jack Packard was kicking his ass (among other things)–but for those people who know who the writer ‘Sam Holt’ really is, there’s another level of meaning in the way he pronounces the name–Westlake was having a bit of fun there.  Because Sam is acting more like a very different Westlake series character here.  He takes their money, intimidates the hotel clerk who clearly gave them the key to his room, and actually drives away in a car belonging to one of them.   Really badass–and guess who Westlake is feeling really nostalgic for right about now?  Patience, man–he’ll come back when he’s ready.

Having gotten all he could from Julie, Sam jets back to New York (he has a hard time adapting to coach), and has dinner with Terry Young, his wife Gretchen, and Anita.  At one point, Gretchen, who has obviously been nursing a bit of a crush on Sam, makes a humorous pass at him while wearing his fake mustache (he says all German women have been into cross-dressing ever since Marlene Dietrich), and he responds willingly–that could have been a subplot later, if there’d been a later.   Or maybe not.

What follows is Sam trying to worm his way into Dale Wormley’s professional life–signing up with Dale’s agent, trying out for the role in that play Dale shouldn’t have been able to get a role in, seeing if maybe Rita Colby is involved somehow, seeing if he can find out who might have had a motive for killing Dale. All of this in character, as Ed Dante, but the thing is, Sam is actually enjoying being able to try out for a role without all the baggage of being SAMUEL HOLT.

He obviously can’t take the role in the play, but he’s being an actor just by pretending to be somebody who could take that role.  He’s having the time of his life playing this sleaze.  He’s going back to his professional roots, without the burden of expectation created by his unearned overnight stardom.  The only one who sees through his disguise is Dale’s acting teacher, Howard Moffitt.  Who, as Sam tells us (and we’ve seen a version of this character before, in Memory), is a good acting teacher, precisely because he could never be a first-rate actor.

Moffitt, a stooped and craggy tall man of about sixty, reminded me of three or four other acting teachers I’ve met in my career, people who are theoretically fine actors, who not only know how it’s done but–much rarer–know how to communicate their knowledge, but nevertheless their credits in actual performances and productions are amazingly skimpy.  Whenever one of these people takes a small part in a movie or a play, talked into it by some old student who’s made good, you see what the problem is: There they are, in the corner of the screen or the stage, acting.  You can see them do it.  Their strength as teachers is their weakness as performers: they don’t know how to stop showing you how it’s done.

But Moffitt has a good eye for a performance, and he can tell right off Sam is a fake, deduces who he must be.  He’s actually surprised a television actor has such good technique (Sam doesn’t know whether to feel complimented or insulted). But however slick the performance, his character shouldn’t have been asking the kinds of questions ‘Ed’ was asking, and goes on asking, until he starts drawing too much attention to himself.  And maybe now’s a good time to cut to the chase.

(And never mind that I’m skipping over an entirely different but related murder in this book.  When it comes to the Holts, I tend to become a bit synopsis-intolerant.  Yes, still not compared to most reviewers, I know.)

Sam comes face to face with the murderer (I see no purpose in revealing who that is), and the murderer doesn’t know who he is, but he’s also realized this guy is asking the wrong kinds of questions, and needs to be shut up permanently.

The motive for the killing was blackmail–Dale Wormley had damaging information he was using to further his career.  That’s how he got that plum role in the play.  And his murderer is going to kill Sam now, without even knowing it’s Sam.  The killer does know this Dante guy, whatever his name is, is really an actor (that couldn’t be faked so convincingly), so the trap is baited with the one thing the killer knows a hard-up actor can’t resist–an audition–different part, different play.  Sam is so excited to be really trying out for something, at long last, he drops his guard.  Doesn’t think to himself why would there be an audition for a play in a theatre that isn’t even fully built yet?

So the climax is in that very theatre–where else?–and the villain of the piece has a gun.  Sam has no choice but to remove his Ed Dante disguise and do the old ghost routine, pretend to be the vengeful spectre  of the man who stole his fake identity, and whose life he’s strangely come to inhabit for a short time–see if it buys him a crucial second for attack when the murderer sees not Sam Holt but Dale Wormley in the darkened auditorium.

It works, but only just.  Sam is shot several times before he beats the killer unconscious. Nothing necessarily fatal, but he has to find a cab to the hospital in a damned hurry, and if you’ve ever been to New York, you know how that went. He and Sergeant Shanley do the usual post-mortem discussion on who did what to whom and why, there in his hospital room.  And then he passes out.  Just like Mitch Tobin does at the end of Don’t Lie To Me.  It’s about as abrupt and unsatisfying an ending to a multi-book character arc as it was the last time.  But it’s the ending, all the same.

(I must belatedly add that he mentions Anita sending food from her restaurant to save him from hospital fare, and he does not mention Bly at all, which defacto means Team Anita WINS!  Haha, suck it, Bly shippers!)

I don’t think this would be much of a book for somebody who hadn’t read the previous three.  I wouldn’t recommend starting with it.  But if something about this series appeals to you, and you stick with it all the way through–it’s not a bad payoff, in spite of the anticlimactic climax.  Don’t Lie To Me was a bit of a disappointment after the brilliant storytelling of the first four Mitch Tobin novels–The Fourth Dimension Is Death is a much better finish, if only because one’s expectations are lower–and because Sam Holt, unlike Mitch Tobin after A Jade In Aries, needed to confront his demons–and his demons are all based around his chosen profession that has been refusing to choose him anymore.

But what, Westlake must have been asking himself as he finished it, could he ever do to resolve Sam’s dilemma?   Let him become a movie star?  Get another series?   Segue into a stage career (strongly hinted at here and elsewhere in the series, and Lord only knows, established TV and film stars are all the rage on Broadway now, along with repurposed movie plots, and not sure I’m any too happy about that, but nobody asked me)?  Is that really what Sam Holt needs?   To disappear into other false personas?   Can an actor, whose job is to disappear into alternate identities, ever truly know himself?   And isn’t that the proper goal of any Westlake protagonist?

Westlake had started this multi-book saga without knowing how it would end–that I’m sure of. The ‘narrative push’ method of storytelling he sometimes talked about.  You tell the story, and as you go, the characters tell you what to do, who they are, what they want. But this character may never know what he truly wants–west coast or east–Hollywood or Broadway–the blonde or the brunette. He’s caught in a limbo of his own making, and there may not be any organic way to resolve his conflicts.  Bly gave him the benefit of the doubt, but truth is, Sam Holt only knows himself well enough to know what he doesn’t want.

The one mystery he can never solve is the mystery of his own life.  Luckiest of men, and yet perpetually cursed to lament his ‘good bad luck’, as James Tyrone might name it.  Living a life most people would deem idyllic–he just can’t get comfortable in the role  he’s been cast in.  He’s got motivation problems.  And his acting coach–the one with the typewriter–has no more idea what to do with him than he does.

And maybe that’s why he killed Sam off via an offhanded mention in a later book (not the first time Westlake had done something like this–Ed Ganolese of The Mercenaries met a similar fate in 361).  Most people reading that later novel probably never even knew what Westlake was doing.  But truthfully, I think Westlake repented of this later on, and it doesn’t really count.  Sam Holt may feel a little sorry for himself sometimes, but he’s not suicidal.  You could write it that way, sure.  But it’s just too dark an ending for a character who isn’t quite deep enough to merit it.  I’m not sure if Sam would thank me for saying that, but I’ll say it anyway.

So that’s Samuel Holt.  I could say more, but on the whole, I think that’s enough. There’s other and better books to get to.  Maybe the melancholy prince of Bel Air never figured out what to do next, but his creator eventually did.  The Holts were probably no more than a couple months’ writing time for  the Man of a Hundred Novels.  Westlake wrote this hero off as a hopeless case, and went looking for his next big idea.  Leaving Sam and his entourage here, in an abandoned dusty wing of The Westlake Museum.  And this is where we came in, folks.

And what’s this?  Two cold wet noses, prodding me–two accusing sets of limpid brown eyes gazing dolefully in my direction.  Max and Sugar Ray, Sam’s boxers! Aw guys, I meant to give you more time, honest I did.  Truth is, you didn’t really factor that much into any of the books after the first one.  And I promised you a nice walk.  You’ve been shut up in here for decades now.  Well, let’s go–Central Park’s not very far away, or we could try Van Cortlandt if you really want some room to run.   Can’t wait to introduce you to my dog–he’s a Max too, hope that’s not too confusing.  He’s a shepherd mix, but he’s been chums with a boxer named Jack Johnson (get it? well, of course you do) for almost ten years now. You’ll get alone fine.

And as the three of us saunter out nonchalantly, the tableau behind us comes to life.  Suddenly Anita and Bly are strolling across the room that divides them, to have a little chat–Sam eyes them nervously, wondering what this betides.  Mort and Oscar are in an involved legal discussion, and Robinson approaches Bly with what is (for him) an apologetic air.  Zack Novak is on the phone, still trying to get Sam a part.  Dammit, even Matt LeBlanc had a second act!  How hard could it be?  Oh well, they’ll have to work all this out for themselves.  I have done.

And once I’ve given the dogs some exercise, I’ll be exercising my movie reviewing talents, because next up is the first movie Donald Westlake ever wrote a screenplay for that actually turned out to be pretty damn good.  It’s also the first thing he wrote that I ever saw.  Long before I ever heard of him, because who ever notices the screenwriter in the credits?   Anyway, that’s next in the queue. Or should I say–the List?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books, and I can almost hear Mike saying “It should have stayed forgotten.”)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Samuel Holt Novels, The Fourth Dimension Is Death