Review: Tomorrow’s Crimes

And so we come to to my third Westlake anthology review (I’m counting The Getaway Car, even though it’s nonfiction).  Jut two more to go, unless something else turns up.  And frankly, I’m rather curious as to how this one came to be published in the first place. Donald Edwin Westlake was known as a mystery writer under his own name–mainly somebody who wrote funny crime novels.  Most of his straight science fiction had been published under the wry pseudonym, Curt Clark–and he’d terminated his relationship with the genre by writing a scathing polemic for a short-lived fanzine, aimed squarely at its shortcomings, and at some of its most influential figures.

The centerpiece (endpiece, really) of this collection is his only science fiction novel, Anarchaos, hardly a big seller when it came out in 1967 (I mentioned it was a science fiction novel, right?).  I’ve already reviewed it here, of course–my review was nearly half the length of the book (I mentioned I wrote that review, right?).  I consider it one of the most interesting things he ever wrote, and maybe the best mingling of the conventions of science fiction and crime fiction that anyone ever came up with.   Heinlein meets Hammett and Hammett wins by TKO was my summation at the time, and I see no cause to back down from that.

Tomorrow’s Crimes is not even close to being a complete collection of his science fiction (Westlake probably wouldn’t have wanted most of his early SF to be preserved for posterity), and most of the stories are rather dubiously of that genre anyway.  More in the Twilight Zone mode, I’d say–that nether realm between SF, fantasy, and straight-up horror).  “Anarchaos and Other Stories of Fantastic Suspense” runs the sub-title, and that’s about right.  The target audience is more mystery readers who dig a bit of SF/Fantasy, than SF/Fantasy readers who are in the mood for a mystery.  But readers can move back and forth between genres just as much as genre authors used to do.  And genres themselves can be surprisingly flexible.

Possible Anarchaos had developed a bit of a cult following over the years, and finding copies of the Ace paperback original would have been a challenge back in the 1980’s (no eBay yet).  So reprinting it for The Mysterious Press (since it is basically a hard-boiled detective story) made sense, but it was too short for a hardcover edition–less than 150 pages in this book–and the paperback original market had mainly dried up.  So take a smattering of Westlake’s more distinguished efforts for the various SF/Fantasy pulps (and other venues) to flesh the book out a bit. This is the result.

The main effect of which is to demonstrate yet again that there’s a reason Donald Westlake is mainly remembered as a novelist, even though he began with the short story.  He produced some exceptional work in that format, but it wasn’t his chief area of strength.  He needs time to establish character, room to run with a story.  Writing shorts helped him as a writer, gave him the discipline and economy he needed to pack a lot of plot into a relatively small space.  But he was never as good in miniature as he was with a few hundred pages to work with.  Even the novella was a bit confining for him.

And science fiction itself, as it was typically written for the pulps in the 50’s and early 60’s, was often equally constraining.  As a young man, he’d been powerfully attracted to the form, to the seemingly unlimited range of ideas you could explore with it, but he came to believe that the preoccupations of single-minded mavens like John W. Campbell were overly limiting, stifling even.  They were pushing their own ideas and personal philosophies on the young writers submitting work to them (while being paid mere pennies a word), and they were insufficiently concerned with character, story, motivation, or style–the things Westlake cared most about.

The best SF writers would find ways to transcend its commercially imposed limitations (still do, I’m sure–not keeping up these days), but Westlake had a family to support, a career to build, and couldn’t wait that long.  He busted out of that joint, and only rarely looked back.  And of course, the mystery genre had its own built-in limitations that likewise constrained him–a larger and somewhat more prestigious ghetto, is what it often amounted to.  No writer wants to believe he or she can only write one thing.  You want as many arrows as possible in your quiver.

So he would have eventually decided he’d been a bit too hasty–there were still things to say with this form, sometimes called speculative fiction–but he’d do it his way, and nobody else’s.  In fact, he’d publish at least two more novels that could be lumped into that category.  We’ll get to those pretty soon.  Worth pointing out that of the nine short stories collected here, six were written after he wrote that infamous polemic for Xero.

Anarchaos, as I mentioned in my review of it, was pretty clearly referred to in that polemic (though not by name).  He hadn’t finished it by then, and he thought he never would.  And yet he did, and got it published, and probably got paid a few hundred dollars for it.  Why bother?  Because he could never quite let go of his love for the limitless vistas of science fiction and its various fantastic cohorts .

The stories we remember him best for were rooted more in the prosaic (even if they were about heists and murders), but there’s always something a bit uncanny about them.  If he’d been raised in Latin America, perhaps he’d have written magic realism.  In a sense, he was always doing that.

Maybe we’re never told in so many words that Parker is a wolf born into the body of a man (because that would ruin it, somehow), but there’s something in him that doesn’t fit the genre he’s in.  Because his creator never quite fit in anywhere either.  The best writers always defy categorization.  And yet, so many of them wrote genre stories.  A paradox I doubt I could ever explain.  But I can review these particular stories, and you can pigeonhole them as you please–or not.  My job is to decide how good I think they are, and what they’re trying to say.  Shall we begin?

The Girl of My Dreams: An unusual provenance to this one, which was first collected in 1979, in a British anthology, The Midnight Ghost Book.  And it is a sort of ghost story, but not in the usual sense.

The narrator is a perfectly ordinary fellow, bit of a Caspar Milquetoast type, working as a clerk in a department store, harassed by his overbearing ambitious boss Mr. Miller, living with his mother and sister at home.   But he starts having these dreams–very real, he tells us.  Not at all like the usual disjointed perspective-switching narratives we experience in our sleep.  Very sharp, vivid, coherent, and he remembers them in complete detail when he awakes.  They all involve this girl.

He saves her from a mugger in the first dream.  Her name is Delia–derived, you should know (and Westlake surely did), from the island of Delos, where the goddess Artemis is said to have been born.  Oddly popular among the Irish, that name, but still quite uncommon.  She’s exquisitely lovely, as you would expect.  So grateful for his help.  And he’s at ease with her, confident, manly, as he never would be with any girl in real life.

They start seeing a lot of each other–each and every dream is solely concerned with the time they spend together.  Every single night he dreams of her and her only.   And more and more, his waking life becomes the dream, and his dream life is reality. He can easily withstand the abuses of his supervisor, the petty humiliations of working life, knowing Delia is waiting for him in his sleep.  He also starts to become attractive to women he meets in real life, due to his newfound confidence–he pays this no mind, since he has Delia.  He and Delia never do get around to making love, but he knows it’s going to happen, there’s no rush.  Then Delia starts to become distant with him; cold, abstracted.  What’s wrong?

She tells him.  She met Miller at the country club.  He seduced her.  She doesn’t love him, he makes her skin crawl, but she can’t resist him.   She’s meeting him in a sleazy little motel room–she tells him which motel, and he goes to see it later, while awake–it’s exactly as she described it in the dream.  She tells him exactly what she and Miller have been doing there in that motel room.  In excruciating detail.  She says she loves him, not Miller.  But she can’t stop seeing Miller.  He’s got a hold over her.  She doesn’t sing her dejected beau that song from Porgy & Bess, but it’s there in the subtext.

So, as he informed us in the opening line of the story, he’s bought a gun.  He’s thinking about leaving his bed in the middle of the night while still awake, going to that motel, and seeing what he finds there.  And if he finds Delia and Miller there, he’s not honestly sure what he’s going to do–or who he’s going to kill.  He’s not honestly sure anymore who–or what–Delia is.  And that being the case, how can he know what he is?

It’s very much in the same vein as One Man On a Desert Island, from 1960, which was collected in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution, and which I thought was the best story in that anthology–and I think the same about this one (excluding Anarchaos, of course).  In that story, a man marooned on an island by himself imagines his perfect female companion–then starts finding fault with her and imagines murdering her.  In a state of deep irremediable remorse, he confesses his crime when he’s rescued, and the absence of a body is easily explained.  He sticks to his story throughout his trial, and is executed.

I found some parallels between that story and a Twilight Zone episode, and I do so here as well, but not the same one.  This one reminds me of Miniature, written by Charles Beaumont.  One of the hour long episodes, this one featuring Robert Duvall as a lonely man living with his mother who starts seeing a beautiful woman in a dollhouse at a museum–just a doll, but to him she’s alive.  She’s being treated badly by a man, is lonely and sad like himself, and he wants so badly to get in there with her, join her in the dollhouse, comfort her, and finally he does.  Forever.  Happy ending.  For The Twilight Zone.  For Beaumont.

Westlake wouldn’t have liked that ending.  To him, that’s the wrong kind of escape (Beaumont’s tragically failing health would have made it hard for him to see any other kind–checking his bio, I see he got sick right around the same time he wrote Miniature).  But he could have had any number of stories besides Beaumont’s in mind–including his own earlier less paranormal attempt–when he wrote this one.  It’s less directly suggestive of Harlan Ellison’s 1967 story, Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes, and of course you can trace it back to mythology–Circe, Succubi, Lorelei.

The point is the same in both stories Westlake wrote–don’t get trapped in your own dreams, your false ideals.  You have to see the world as it is, and yourself as you really are.  You have to accept imperfection.  Falling in love with someone who doesn’t exist is bad.  Falling in love with someone who does exist but not in the same reality as you (the dream world or cyberspace, not that Westlake knew about that yet), and is enticing you to your doom–much worse.   Real lovers can be hard to deal with, fall short of expectations, but at least they’re real.

And I feel strange saying this, but pretty sure I met Delia once in a dream.  Or someone like her.   Haven’t seen her since.  Maybe I wasn’t her type?  (Oh God.  Do you suppose Beaumont was?)

But at least in that story, your imagination can only harm you.  Not so in the case of–

Nackles:  The narrator tells us about his brother-in-law, Frank.   A former football star, turned insurance salesman.  Frustrated with his life, he became angry and abusive, took it out on the narrator’s sister Susie, but the narrator, armed with a baseball bat, adequately made the point that this would not be tolerated.  Feeling like this somehow made them friends, Harry confided in the narrator afterwards, they hung out, even though Frank quite frankly remained a jerk.

As the years passed, and his family grew, Frank, feeling the burdens of fatherhood a bit too keenly (but probably thinking about that baseball bat), began telling his frightened children awful stories about Nackles, the evil opposite of Santa Claus.  The point was to make them stay quiet and well-behaved, and it worked–they’re even more frightened of Nackles than their dad who constantly screams at them.  However, no matter how well they behave, Frank keeps telling them they’re awful, and Nackles is going to get them soon.

He’s tall and skinny, dressed in black, gray face, black eyes.  He lives beneath the earth, travels in tunnels, in a sled pulled by eight goats.  He likes to eat children.  As long as the children in a house are good, Santa Claus can project a shield that keeps Nackles from getting in.  But when children are bad, Santa’s magic weakens, and Nackles will appear, stuff them in a sack, and take them below the earth to be devoured.  The Grinch, before his heart grew three sizes, would find Nackles a mite extreme.

There are many versions of this kind of story, and they all end the same way.  Frank disappeared from an upstairs room one Christmas, and was never seen again.   He did not take his car with him, and his car was the only part of his life he liked. Nor did he berate his wife before leaving, and tell her it was all her fault.  Which he would have done.

The police just assume he ran off on his responsibilities, and the narrator wants to go along with that, but he can’t.  See, Frank made his children really believe in Nackles.  And he told many other dads he knew, some of them salesmen from out of town, about Nackles, and how well the story worked as a way of making the rug rats keep quiet, and of course some of them tried it, and their kids believed.  Spread by both parents and children, the story of Nackles grew, promulgated itself, became an urban myth–and Nackles became real.  And what was Frank himself but an overgrown spoiled child?

It all depends, you see, like the chicken and the egg, on which came first.  Did God exist before Man first thought of Him, or didn’t He?  If not, if Man creates his gods, then it follows that Man must create the devils too.

With the possible exception of a Dortmunder tale penned much later (the one he got an Edgar Award for), this is probably the best-known and most influential short story Westlake ever wrote.  And that’s purely down to the idea itself, because well-written though  it is, taken simply as a story, it’s not that much.  I’d call it more of a dramatized thought experiment.  Jung would have enjoyed it, I’m sure.

It’s hard to trace the lineage of an idea, and certainly an idea in genre fiction.  The genome is too complex.  The basic idea that you can bring something awful to life by believing in it has undoubtedly occurred independently to many unconnected persons.  But I can’t, at least so far, find a story quite like this that predates Nackles.

De Maupassant’s Horla?  Bierce’s Damned Thing?  Perhaps the idea is latent there, but we can’t know that the haunted narrators in those stories created their own monsters. So many stories that came after Nackles, though.  The implicit became explicit.  With a vengeance.

Westlake had been stationed in Germany while in the Air Force, so very likely he’d heard about Krampus.  I’m guessing he did not approve of this aspect of Teutonic parenting.   And there had been a story in the 50’s EC comic, The Vault of Horror, that later made its way into 1970’s Tales From the Crypt, but though that also deals with a murderous Santa, that’s got quite a different point to it.  And about as much depth as a mirror (great artwork, though).  Robert Bloch published a story in 1968 called The Gods Are Not Mocked, which made the precise opposite point–irreverently disbelieving in folkloric beings–like Smokey the Bear–can lead to horrific consequences.

Nackles really seems like something Harlan Ellison could have written (he would have made a much freakier trip out of it), and I have to say I thought about Ellison a lot while rereading Tomorrow’s Crimes.  Westlake and Ellison are connected in many strange ways.  Perhaps the best short story writer science fiction ever produced–he was as much Westlake’s superior in that form as Westlake was his at the novel.  Ellison was just starting to really hit his stride in 1964, when Nackles was published (under the Curt Clark handle) in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, co-founded by Anthony Boucher in 1949, but just then being edited by Avram Davidson.

Ellison also tended to believe we make our own devils, one way or another.  He expressed his admiration for Westlake on more than one occasion.  I have more than just a vague inkling to convince me he was influenced by Nackles, and here it is.  Serling-ized.  Or really, Harlan-ized.  And a damn shame that segment never aired.  And at the same time, do we really want Nackles on television?   I don’t mean the story.  I mean Nackles.

But perhaps the ultimate homage to this story and its title character came in a more real–and horrifying–form.  What are his primary attributes?  He’s very tall.  He’s very thin.  He’s gray-skinned.  He preys on children. He gets stronger and stronger the more people believe in him, the more they spread belief in him–he’d absolutely love the internet. I’m not going to link to the Wikipedia article for Slender Man.  Look it up yourself, if you want. You can take thought experiments too far.  Westlake died the year before that one started.  Coincidence.  Sure.  If Rod Serling steps out of the background now…….

Frankly, the rest of the short stories are not so interesting, and I’m going to give most of them short shrift.  And most particularly–

The Ultimate Caper: The Purloined Letter:  A very short spoof, published in the New York Times magazine, in 1975.   A hardboiled detective is approached by a mysterious fat man (played by Sydney Greenstreet, or if he’s not available, Robert Morley) on a quest to find the fabled lost letter of the European alphabet.  A bit like the stuff Woody Allen used to write when he wasn’t making movies.  And quite a bit like Comfort Station as well, but not as good.  And a little over three full pages in length in this book, so how good does it need to be, really?

“No one has pronounced that letter,” the fat man said, “in over a thousand years.  Some think it’s the sound in a man’s throat on the third day of Asian flu when watching a rock record commercial during the six o’clock news.”

“Gutteral,” said Staid

The fat man, whose real name was Gutteral, frowned at Staid through narrowed eyes.  “It seems I’ve underestimated you,” he said.

The title is a bad pun, and so is the final line.  Everybody who reads Hammett or watches John Huston movies knows sneaky fat men never find the dingus they’re looking for.  Westlake had fun writing it, you might have fun reading it, but it’s no fun at all to review.  On to the next story, which like the two after it, is actual science fiction, huzzah!

The Spy in the Elevator:  When the high-rise apartment complex showed up, science fiction writers got very interested.  Could this be the new social unit?  Might people someday live entirely in self-contained environments, and stop going outside?   To sum up–no.  Extrapolation from isolated trends is not a reliable means of predicting future trends.  But the stories still got written, and this is one of them.

A man living in a  futuristic post-apocalyptic complex (called ‘Project’), is prevented from going to his sweetheart’s apartment some floors below him by a malfunctioning elevator.  He intends to propose to her that night.  He’s told by a friendly telephone operator with nice cleavage (it’s one of those phones where people can see each other, well that happened anyway) there’s a spy from another Project in the elevator, and they’re having a hard time getting him out.

So our narrator, worried his girl (who has a major thing about punctuality), will dump him if he’s late, tries taking the stairs, something nobody ever does anymore.  And with good reason–the spy is in there, and he makes the narrator take him back to his apartment at gunpoint.  And it turns out he’s not a spy at all–he’s from another Project, yes.  But his mission is to try and make people understand that the radiation from WWIII that drove them all into these horrid techno-caves is gone now, they can go outside, they can be free again, walk in the sunlight!

In reaction to this insanity, the narrator, well-versed in martial arts, gets the drop on the spy and kills him.   Why would anyone want to go outside?   That’s just nutty.  His girl does dump him for being late (even though he’s a hero for killing the spy), but it’s cool, there’s plenty of other girls who want to meet him now, like that busty operator.  Life is good.  Why would anyone want to change it?

If you were to collect all the science fiction stories about this particular idea in one book (including that J.G. Ballard novel I have a copy of and keep meaning to read), you might well end up with a book you’d need a forklift to carry around with you.  There’s nothing particularly special about this one.  It was published in 1961, in Galaxy, and entirely possible it was one of the first stories of this type, but I don’t know how you’d go about finding out.

I do know Westlake disliked the new high-rise apartment complexes–felt like they were a threat to individuality.  He later wrote a story called The Sincerest Form of Flattery, for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, that covered some of the same ground (and that I’ve reviewed here).  It’s a better story than this, I’d say–as a story–but philosophically speaking, this one is more interesting (Westlake used science fiction sometimes to get into a more philosophical mode, and so did many others).

The ‘spy’ asks the narrator if he knows how long it took for primitive man to leave his cave and go outside (and this is terrible anthropology, but I’m probably being too literal)–

“I’ll tell you this,” he said belligerently.  “A lot longer than it took for him to turn around and go right back into the cave again.” He started pacing the floor, waving the gun around in an agitated fashion as he talked.  “Is this the natural life of man?  It is not  Is this even a desirable life for man?  It is definitely not.”  He spun back to face me, pointing the gun at me again, but this time he pointed it as though it was a finger, not a gun.  “Listen, you,” he snapped.  “Man was progressing.  For all his stupidities and excesses, he was growing up.  His dreams were getting bigger and grander and better all the time.  He was planning to tackle space!  The moon first, and then the planets, and finally the stars.  The whole universe was out there, waiting to be plucked like an apple from a tank.  And Man was reaching out for it”  He glared as though daring me to doubt it.

One hates to nitpick, but wouldn’t going to the stars mean spending untold generations enclosed in hermetically sealed–sorry, being over-literal again.   The basic point is sound–we’ve turned from outer space to inner space–this blog itself is evidence of that.  Netflix alone is proof of that.  But isn’t that what Westlake himself did when he went from science fiction to mystery?  1961.  Probably written a year or so earlier.  He still had some growing to do.

But always, with him, the emphasis on the rugged individualist over the organization man, and while that didn’t work out so well for the individualist here (because he wasn’t rugged enough, talked too much, cared too much about making other people agree with him), it works out rather better for the independent in a longer story, published the same year in Amazing Stories (the very first SF mag, founded by Hugo Gernsback, a writer of enormous cultural significance who nobody can stand to read anymore).

The Risk Profession:  This is the one story in the collection that had already been collected–in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution and Other Fictions, from Random House.  I didn’t really want to deal with it in my review of that collection–in fact, I said I’d deal with it when I got to my review of this collection, so I guess I have to do that now, huh?  I’m just not that enthused about it.  And yet Westlake must have been, because he knew it had already been collected, and here it is, collected again.  He must have liked it.  I more or less forced myself to reread it.

It’s a murder mystery.  That may be the reason it’s in this anthology from The Mysterious Press.  As such, it’s fine.  The mystery is simple–an asteroid miner is dead. He had a policy with an insurance company–an annuity he paid into over the years, that was supposed to pay off after he retired, if he lived that long, which most of these miners don’t, or at least not very long after they retire.  The asteroids are low-g, so they fall apart once they come back to earth.  The company makes lots of money off the poor schlubs.

So his partner came into a mining town on a nearby planetoid one day, said his partner got himself killed in a stupid accident–they’d made the big strike all these miners are waiting for, they both got drunk, his partner got careless.  No body, because no gravity–he went up into space and never came back.  He left all his worldly goods to his partner, and since he had just applied to get his money from the policy refunded, that counts as worldly goods, and the partner gets it.  The insurance company suits smell a rat (other than themselves, I mean).

So they send an investigator.   Our narrator.  His name is Ged.  I can definitively answer one question–no–this is not a Wizard of Earthsea ref.  That book came out seven years after this story.  Ged is a real English first name, that non-wizards used to have.  I’ve never met a Ged, but maybe there’s still some of them out there.

So our Ged, who hates his boss, and his job, and outer space, goes out there, sniffs around.  In spite of his dislike for his job, he’s exceptionally good at what he does, and his gut instincts tell him the miner is lying–that he did in fact somehow murder his partner.  But he can’t figure out how to prove it.  Then he does.  When you see how, you think “damn, I should have noticed that!”  Just like you do when reading all the other mystery stories you’ve ever read based on a small easy-to-miss detail.  There is a certain element of masochism in the average mystery reader, I’ve often thought.

So that’s all the usual boilerplate–from two genres absolutely packed solid with boilerplate–so what’s interesting about this one?  That Ged uses the fact that he solved the mystery to get rich, and retire, and go lie on a beach somewhere, collecting interest.   It’s like a Continental Op story where the Op tells the Old Man at the Home Office to go screw himself.  Which is kind of cool, but to my way of thinking, not enough to justify the story.   Which has never been anthologized again that I know of, and honestly–once was enough.

I would like there to be more Westlake story anthologies in the future, and I would like even better for this story to not be in any of them. It’s not bad or anything.  It’s a fine professional piece of work.  It’s just not that interesting.  If this is what Westlake thought his best science fiction writing looked like, small wonder he mainly stopped writing science fiction.   The next story in this book is no masterpiece, but I liked it a lot better.

The Winner:   From 1970, first published in Nova 1, edited by Harry Harrison (a writer who had many things in common with Westlake, not least an affection for intrepid thieves).  Not very far in the future at all, political prisoners have been implanted with a small black box that causes them to feel unbearable pain if they venture too far away from a signal transmitted inside their unwalled and mainly unguarded prison.  It’s a pilot program, that may soon be used in all prisons, for all crimes.

A poet has been imprisoned for unknown crimes.   He refuses to accept his imprisonment, and tells the warden (named Wordman) so, before he walks out into the field surrounding the prison, in ever greater agony, until he collapses.  His screams can be heard from the warden’s office.  Wordman feels every scream in his soul, but he wants the poet to learn his lesson.  Then the screams stop.  They search for the poet.  They do not find him.

The poet was picked up by a farmer, who not understanding what was going on, took him to a doctor, who does understand what is happening, and thoroughly disapproves.  He removes the black box.   But by then the authorities have found them, and both are now imprisoned, with black boxes inside of them.  The poet says he’s sorry.  The doctor says not to be.  At their earliest opportunity, they both intend to go walking into that field again, together.  Wordman thinks they’re both insane.  But the madness may be catching.

Now this reminds me a lot of “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Tick-Tock Man.  Harlan Ellison turns it into a fairy tale, a fable, and it works better that way.  The story, as Westlake writes it, isn’t of the proper style to accommodate characters with names like Wordman.  It’s heavyhanded, but extremely sincere.

Wordman’s hands gripped the foot of the bed.  He said “What’s the matter with you?  You can’t get away, you have to know that by now.”

“You mean I can’t win.  But I won’t lose.  It’s your game, your home ground, your equipment; if I can manage a stalemate, that’s pretty good.”

It could be a lot better, but again, the main value of it for us is to get a less filtered version of the author’s own beliefs than you’d normally find in his novels, where he covers his tracks a lot better.  And makes his points more powerfully, I’d say.  And that’s it for the straight SF short stories in this book.  Up next is–

Dream a Dream: First published in 1982.  A young woman who married an older archaeologist she feels no passion for, simply because she wanted to explore Mayan culture, has a dream while they’re on a  dig together.  A Mayan priest brandishing a stone knife says they’re going to sacrifice her as a virgin.  She protests she’s no virgin, but he says she might as well be, since she’s never really given herself to a lover.

Waking up feeling oddly chastened, she proceeds to seduce a handsome young man working on the dig with them, though she’s not in love with him either.  She goes back to sleep, feeling quite pleased with herself, and dreams again of the Mayan priest, who says “Now what we do with adulteresses…”   Rimshot.  Man, what macho haven of misogyny published this Feathers or Lead fable? Cosmopolitan.  That figures. The worst story in the book.  Not worth another word.  But the next one is to die for….

In at the Death: First published in The 13th Ghost Book, 1977, another British anthology, same publisher as the first story.  The narrator informs us he’s a ghost.  But he’s not haunting anyone but him.  He hung himself, because his wife was unfaithful.  He wanted her to feel as badly as he does.  But as soon as he kicks the chair away, he wishes he could take it back.  Too late.  He vividly describes the sensation of death by hanging.  He tells us how he found himself a spectral presence, trapped in the room, forced to look at his corpse, with its bulging eyes and distorted features, and his only physical sensations are those he felt while he was dying.

He wants more than anything now for his wife to never see him like this.   But she does.  It destroys her.  She loved him.  Her affair meant nothing–her lover is actually bisexual, leaning towards gay–he was just comforting her, because her husband was emotionally distant.  The narrator finds out in bitter detail just how wrong he was, how much harm he’s done, how much he did in fact have to lose.  The police come, his wife is taken away, his corpse is taken away, and he’s alone.  And then he sees himself come into the room, with a rope.  The entire scene begins to replay itself.  He knows what hell is now.

I could compare this ghost story–not at all unfavorably–to James Tiptree Jr’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.   That has a science fiction gloss to it, but it’s the same basic point, and I don’t believe either influenced the other.  Just a shared fear that the failures of one’s life could haunt you after death.  To die, to sleep–to sleep, perchance to dream.

Westlake had very strong feelings about suicide, as the first Levine story, The Best-Friend Murder, made clear.  But in that story, the emphasis was on his contempt for those who give up on life.  Here, it’s more about the damage suicide does to the survivors.  He was, of course, raised as a Catholic with the belief that self-murder is a mortal sin.  But I don’t think his dislike of it is specifically Catholic.  It’s more the sense of a man who very nearly died as a baby, whose health may have been shaky at times, who died suddenly at the age of 75, that the real sin is to not take every bit of life–and love–you can grab a hold of.  And to throw love back in the face of those who offer it–no forgiveness.  Not in this life or the next.

And I almost forgot to mention the dead narrator’s name.  Ed.  Presumably short for Edwin.

And that brings us to the last short story in the book, which I’d call more eco-fiction than science fiction–an unusual sub-genre for Westlake.    It’s called–

Hydra: From 1984 (heh), first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction.  A man and his wife have returned from Latin America, where the man’s work for a corporation that manufactures chemicals had taken them both to live a while.  They’re showing slides, which they provide a sort of running narration for, very condescending towards the natives, bordering on contemptuous.

Their guests are curious, and one in particular, named Fay, is a bit more questioning of the husband’s attitudes.  He’s a company man, through and through.  Yes, there have been unfortunate excesses, that thing in Brazil was awful, but that was Europeans, multinationals–they know better than to go that far now, and these people should be grateful for the work they’re getting, all the modern improvements they can’t really appreciate, being so backward.

He’s a bit vague about what his company was doing down below the border, free of pesky government intervention that’s holding America back, keeping it from being competitive in the world economy.  There’s a mention of a company lake that everybody swims in.  A man named Julio who made wine from flowers he somehow grew from the poor soil.  There are slides of children with strange birth defects.

Then Fay goes to have a look at Vickie, their new baby, gestated down below the border.  Beautiful child.  Green eyes.  Forked tongue.  Well, her mother says from the doorway, so what?   They can fix that surgically later on.  So many children back around the company lake have them.  Don’t tell anyone about it.  Fay promises not to.

The only way you’d know this was a Westlake story is that there’s a mention of how they used to go swimming in Lake Monequois.  Somebody mentions it’s all covered in algae now. Well, that’s progress.

Westlake loved Latin America.  He loved the people, he loved the countryside, he loved the sense of the past there.  And he was ashamed of the way other Americans behaved there.  And he hated corporations, as few writers ever have, before or since.   He had a strong feeling that those who figured what we did in the so-called third world could never come back home to bite us were a bunch of damned fools.  And this is a nice little cautionary tale.   And it probably didn’t do any good, and he probably didn’t expect it would.  But slight as the story is, again, it does contribute to our understanding of him.  A man of many parts, Mr. Westlake.

And that’s Tomorrow’s Crimes.  I don’t like having to say, over and over, that somebody else did the same idea only better.   I rarely ever feel that way, reading his novels.  I definitely don’t feel that way reading Anarchaos, which is the last story in this book.

There, in that very short novel, all the different threads you can see in the earlier stories in the book (some of them written years later) come together seamlessly–the influence of Hammett and other classic mystery writers.  The admiration for tough-minded individualists who refuse to compromise with the system.  The hatred of corporations (which leads to the paradoxical awareness that true individualism requires laws and governments to enforce them, to protect you from the money men, inconvenient though that may be for the libertarians among us).

Above all, the hunger for human connection–the sense that the only real wealth we have in this world (or any other) is each other, mingled with a sad understanding that we throw that wealth away, get lost in fantasies, forget what’s real.  It’s all there, and it all works beautifully.

Westlake just wasn’t a great short story writer.  Anymore than I’m a great short review writer.  Over 6500 words about nine stories.  Yeesh.  This was a book on tape, as you can see above.  Same as the earlier anthology.  Theodore Bikel, huh?  That’s all I’ve got.

Anyway, we’re almost through the 80’s now.  Thank God.  Just two more novels.  The next of which is about an actor.  Yeah, another book about an actor.  A movie star, no less.  But with a difference.  Westlake’s just been playing with his actor books up to now.  He’s ready to get serious about this obsession of his.  And then put it behind him, forever.  Time to slay the monster.  Or be slain in the attempt.

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13 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake short stories

13 responses to “Review: Tomorrow’s Crimes

  1. CM Kornbluth’s The Luckiest Man in Denv is a much better version of The Spy in The Elevator, and was published, also in Galaxy in 1952. Kornbluth was a well-known SF writer; had he not died suddenly in 1958, he probably would have been the editor of F&SF. It’s unlikely Westlake had never read this one.

    • It’s unlikely he wrote many SF stories without knowing he was rewriting somebody else’s story. It was already getting quite difficult, by the 1960’s, to write a story in that genre that didn’t already exist. No new ideas, and unlike mystery (which is about execution), SF was mainly all about the ideas. Execution still matters, though.

      I rarely read Octavia Butler, one of my favorite SF writers, without seeing an earlier story buried in hers–but I also see she’s commenting on it, updating it, transforming it, giving it a different message than it formerly had. Westlake did that too, but in short story form, he rarely does it better than the authors he’s borrowing from.

      That being said, we can hardly be sure, given how many stories were written about this basic idea, that Kornbluth wasn’t borrowing from somebody else in turn.

      I swear, Mike, you don’t have to tell me Kornbluth was a well-known SF writer. This is not the only SF anthology I ever read. 🙂

  2. And Hydra is more or less the same the same story as Judith Merril’s https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/That_Only_a_Mother, first published in 1948 and chosen in 1970 for the SFWA’s anthology of the best SF short stories ever written. Again, it’s unlikely Westlake had never read this one.

    • It’s the same basic story, but also very different. The parents here are both incapable of understanding the horror they’ve perpetrated, on others, or on themselves. The mother in Merril’s story is in denial because she loves her baby. The mother in Westlake’s story can’t admit her comfortable lifestyle is built on evil. Merril’s is about the consequences of nuclear war–Westlake’s is about pollution, and third world exploitation, and the corporate mindset. Different generations, different preoccupations. Variations on a theme.

      Merril was fucking great. One of those writers who are influential in ways that go far beyond what they themselves publish. One of the writers who Westlake would have most wanted to emulate–and pay homage to. And thanks to your sharp eyes, I can prove that he wanted people to know where his idea came from here.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydra_Club

      I was wondering about that title. And the real irony? Merril was married to Frederick Pohl, who never forgave Westlake for that polemic in Xero. They had divorced well before Westlake’s break with the ruling SF clique, though. He wasn’t getting even or anything. He was paying her a compliment.

      Please note, Bradbury’s The Small Assassin came out in 1946–Merril certainly saw that. You don’t judge SF by originality. You judge it by execution, which is why I think the only great SF Westlake wrote was Anarchaos. Most SF ideas simply don’t rate a novel–most of them are, in fact, thought experiments, to some extent. And Westlake was good at those, but not so good at compressing a story into a few pages. Not so good at putting the idea up front, the characters second. So it wasn’t the right genre for him.

      How many SF stories can you think of–even the very best ones–where you can remember the characters’ names? That’s his problem, right there. To him, the characters are most important. But the ideas do matter to him. He recognized great SF when he saw it. He just had a hard time producing it. And writing SF novels paid like shit. Legendary SF writers were living hand to mouth, or working day jobs to support themselves. And then the movies would come along and take their ideas without even asking. A.E. Van Vogt should have been a millionaire. But the fact is, a basic idea is almost impossible to copyright. Only Ellison ever got the hang of shaking that money tree.

      • How many SF stories can you think of–even the very best ones–where you can remember the characters’ names?

        Hari Seldon, of course, and Salvor Hardin, the Mule, Arkady Durell, Preem Palver, etc.. Susan Calvin, along with Powell and Donovan. Lije Bailey and Daneel Olivaw. Which is odd, because if you asked which SF writer was all about ideas rather than characters, it would be him.

        • Ah, I wrote my response below before reading this–jinx! Yeah, Asimov had a knack for memorable characters, but they were usually series characters. And as I said below, he was in many ways as much a mystery writer as an SF writer. An authority on Sherlock Holmes. But then, an authority on everything.

          Hari Seldon isn’t really a character though, is he? He’s a concept. The Mule isn’t a name–it’s a title–the character is a brilliant embodiment of the X-factor in history–the things you can’t predict. Napoleon. Alexander. Rasputin. Susan Calvin is memorable simply for being a female scientist, in an era where fiction didn’t show you many (of course she had to be portrayed as frumpy, and sexually frustrated). Powell and Donovan are fun–not what you’d call very well rounded characters. A bit like a team of P.I.’s really. But they’re all memorable. I didn’t say none of them were memorable. But they’re never–EVER–the point of the enterprise. The story is never about getting to know them, understand them.

          Was Hari Seldon married? Did Susan Calvin ever go on a date? Were Powell and Donovan secretly an item? Shit, they did spend a lot of time together, didn’t they?

          I’d say the one real exception is Lige Bailey, because those books are about him dealing with his agoraphobia, conquering it. And because, I think Westlake would say, they’re detective stories, much more than science fiction stories.

          • Was Hari Seldon married?
            Yes. His wife is a main character in the last two Foundation books. (Which are not good. If you didn’t read them, don’t bother.) She’s probably a robot, which was kind of a trope in late Asimov, just like sexy young babes having the hots for old men was in late Heinlein. To be a bit less flip, she’s perfect for him, and I suspect based on Asimov’s second wife. That was a very happy marriage, unlike his first one.

            Did Susan Calvin ever go on a date?
            Do you remeber “Liar!”? She’s very attracted to a co-worker, and one of her robots tells her in great detail that he returns her feelings. After the co-worker announces his engagement to another, younger and prettier woman, Calvin figures out that the robot was lying to avoid hurting her feelings (First Law), and takes out her frustration on it by destroying its mind.

            That’s the only time we see Calvin in romantic mode. We do her teach a defective robot with the brain of a two-year-old to call her “Mommy”.

            Were Powell and Donovan secretly an item?
            I’ll agree that they don’t have much in the way of personalities, other than Powell being more thoughtful and Donovan more excitable. But this doesn’t stand out that much; in fact, in Harlan Ellison’s I, Robot screenplay, he got them backwards.

            • 1)There are only three Foundation books. That’s why it’s called The Foundation Trilogy. Just like there are only three Star Wars movies, and the last one sucked, and Lucas ruined all three of them with unnecessary CGI, but that’s a different rant.

              2)It’s been a while, but I remember that one, yes. It does not answer my question. She could have been on dates when she was younger. Why would being a scientist mean no sex life for a woman, and not a man? My point is, we know only as much about her as is necessary to tell us about robots. That story is not about Susan Calvin. It’s about a robot who can read minds and doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings because of the First Law.

              3)This I did not know, though I did know that screenplay existed. I do not blame Harlan Ellison for the movie being about Will Smith fighting robots and having a robot arm, and dammit Susan Calvin was smoking hot in that movie and still didn’t get to go on a date!

  3. Richard

    “How many SF stories can you think of–even the very best ones–where you can remember the characters’ names? That’s his problem, right there. To him, the characters are most important.”

    What a terrific insight, and one I completely agree with. My own interest in science fiction lessened as I approached my 20’s, when my fascination with “big ideas” began to fade. I wanted rounded stories, with fully-developed people in them. Characterization became increasingly more interesting to me, and I find it the best part of what I read these days, too. Westlake was a master at creating interesting characters.

    Michael Crichton, not so much. He was all big ideas but, in fairness, he topped the bestseller list with those concepts. (Except for THE AX, did Westlake ever hit a bestseller list?) Crichton’s characters were only cardboard standees but it didn’t seem to matter to the book buyers.

    It did to me. Drawn to Crichton’s concepts, I found myself rarely completing one of his novels. The ideas were brilliant but the people in those pages weren’t worth visiting for long.

    • I’m not sure even The Ax was a true bestseller–have you seen it on a list? It was a big seller for him, and it got him a lot of critical attention, and he wrote about how uncomfortable this made him feel. Like now people would be expecting things from him. He was very conflicted about mainstream success. And that may be one reason he so rarely had it.

      Only Crichton I ever read was Jurassic Park. And I’ve seen most of the movies, though only the first one in a theater. I can’t remember the name of a single character. And it’s not even that the characters are bad, or that Crichton doesn’t spend any time developing them. They’re just forgettable. They’re not the point of the book. They aren’t really alive. Now the T-Rex–him I remember.

      Only characters whose names I can remember from the entire Foundation Trilogy are Hari Seldon and The Mule. I can remember Lige Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw without looking up their names–but guess what? Those are mystery novels. 🙂

  4. Richard

    Westlake never hit the bestseller list? And James Patterson has made it over 100 times, if Wikipedia is to be believed?

    There is no justice. None.

    • I’ve done a lot of searches. I’ve yet to find a book of his anywhere on a bestseller list. It’s not like there’s one unified archive that will tell you–and there are different lists. He published a lot of books that sold very well. He published books that have gone on being read and loved long after most of the best-sellers of past decades have been forgotten. I’ve every faith he’ll outlast Patterson, just like he outlasted Arthur Hailey. But unless there’s a list somewhere I missed–which is possible–nope.

  5. So I wasn’t expecting a long involved discussion of every story, and I’m fairly pleased with the nice geeky SF conversation we’ve had thus far, but I must say, I’m a bit surprised the only stories we’ve talked about at all are The Spy in the Elevator and Hydra (and only about how derivative they both are). Nothing about Nackles? Granted, that’s the Westlake short that has been talked about the most–probably more than all his Non-Dortmunder shorts combined.

    Oh, I get it–don’t want to make Nackles any stronger by talking about him. We’ve all been very naughty, and Santa won’t be able to protect us next Christmas. Got it. Very prudent. Nackles Who? I don’t remember any Nackles. 😐

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