Monthly Archives: July 2016

Guest Review: Fall of the City–the last unpublished Westlake novel.

I’ve been awaiting this eagerly, and Greg Tulonen has finally gotten the article done, and I’m going to post the link to his blog.  Right here.  Right now.

Honestly, I may be more excited about this than any article I’ve published here myself.  This is a direct glimpse into a book Westlake hoped to publish in his lifetime, but was discouraged from doing so–perhaps for good reason.  Perhaps not.   It’s certainly different from anything he wrote before or since, going by Greg’s very detailed synopsis (detailed by TWR standards, so even though it’s impossible to say whether this book will ever see print–spoiler alert–Greg has prudently omitted some details about the ending).

Sometimes Westlake’s best books were precisely the ones that radically diverged from what people expected from him.  Sometimes those books were miscalculations (we’ll be getting to one of those soon enough, but that got published, so go figure).

But always, invariably, he revealed something of himself in these outliers of his, and to me, the most sacred thing about any writer’s legacy is the indelible imprint it leaves us of a human soul, a human intellect–a human life.  So except under very exceptional circumstances (like somebody will die if it’s published), I’m for getting it out there, and letting the readers decide.  And if it’s Donald E. Westlake, well obviously I’m pre-sold, and if you’re reading this blog, probably you are too.

Is Go Set a Watchman the masterpiece fans of Harper Lee’s only book published in her lifetime dreamed of?  Hell no.  It’s a deeply flawed and often disturbing piece of work, that shows how conflicted she was about her origins, her hometown, her family, her father, her race, herself.  In its own right, it is not a great book, but in reading it, don’t we know her better?   And respect her achievements in life all the more?

Fall of the City sounds to me like a book that could have sold very well if it had been marketed properly, perhaps reaching a whole new audience for Westlake. That’s neither here nor there–today, it would be of interest primarily to Westlake readers.  Some of whom would love it.   Others would find it an intriguing but ultimately irrelevant artifact of a great career.  And some might actively dislike it.  But don’t we all deserve a chance to decide for ourselves?

Well, it’s not our call.  And it shouldn’t be.  Copyright laws exist for a reason, and are heritable for equally good reasons.  And they eventually expire, also for good reasons.  But since I can be fairly sure I’ll expire before this book goes into the public domain….

A synopsis is not a book.  I can’t offer an informed opinion as to who was right or wrong with regards to the worthiness of this manuscript now languishing in an archive in Boston.  I’ll say this much–I’ve learned to greatly respect the judgment of Mr. Tulonen when it comes to fiction of any kind, and certainly with regards to Westlake.  And without further ado, here is his synopsis and assessment of Fall of the City

PS: Since I could imagine some people avoiding the comments section to avoid discussion of plot elements (which so far hasn’t occurred there), let me mention here–Greg just found out from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime, that the manuscript is being edited for publication there, as I type this.  We’re going to get to decide for ourselves how good a book this is.   Now that’s what I call prompt service.




Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Review: Drowned Hopes, 4th (& 5th?) Downs

Wally asked, “Well, when do we do it?  Do you want to wait for the rain to stop?”

“Yes,” Tiny said.

“Well, I don’t know,” Doug said.  “Depends on how long that is.  You know, the engineers in the dam put a little boat in the water every once in a while, run around the reservoir, take samples and so on, and if they run over our line they’d cut it.  Even if they didn’t foul their propeller, even if they didn’t find it, we’d lose the line.”

Tiny said, “They won’t do one of their jaunts in this weather, count on it.”

“That’s true,” Doug agreed.

May cleared her throat and said, “It seems to me, John would point out right here that the instant the rain stops the people in the dam might go out in their boat so they can get caught up with their schedule.”

“That’s also true,” Doug agreed.

Wally said, “Miss May, what else would John point out?”

“I don’t know,” May said.  “He isn’t here.”

Everybody thought about that.  Stan said, “What it is, when John’s around, you don’t mind coming up with ideas, because he’ll tell you if they’re any good or not.”

“Dortmunder,” Tiny said, ponderously thoughtful, “is what you call your focal point.”

With his patented bloodless lipless cackle, Tom said, “Pity he tossed in the hand just before the payout.”

All spring now we’ve been with her on a barge lent by a friend.
Three dives a day in hard hat suit and twice I’ve had the bends.
Thank God it’s only sixty feet and the currents here are slow
Or I’d never have the strength to go below.

But we’ve patched her rents and stopped her vents, dogged hatch and
porthole down.
Put cables to her ‘fore and aft and girded her around.
Tomorrow noon we hit the air and then take up the strain.
And make the Mary Ellen Carter Rise Again!

That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men!
All those who loved her best and were with her ’til the end,
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter Rise Again!

Stan Rogers

I don’t consider this one of the very best Dortmunder novels, you might be surprised to hear, given the amount of time I’ve spent on it.  I think it was well worth the time, but I look at The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, Jimmy the Kid, Good Behavior, and a few of the remaining books in the series, and I find them to be better-crafted narratives, with more coherent points to make, and while I like Wally Knurr as a character, he’s sure as hell no J.C. Taylor.

And I suppose I am a mite peeved at Westlake for dangling the magnificent Ms. Taylor in front of us in the last book, referring to her in passing in this one, but refusing to give her even a brief walk-on.  He only partly made up for this omission in the next book.

As I was telling someone in the comments section for the Third Down review, this novel is, for want of a better word, ungainly–loose-jointed, as ponderous as Tiny Bulcher making a point.   It operates in fits and starts, breaking down, then starting up again, going off in all directions.   But as I said, you could make the same statement about The Pickwick Papers.  People still like that, and I still like this.  A pity, in fact, it wasn’t published as a serial–it has that kind of feel to it.   It holds together quite well enough as a single volume.   But I’ve rather enjoyed taking it apart section by section, to analyze what I suspect is just a small sampling of its moving parts.

And if it has many disparate points to make, instead of just one, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make them well, or that its variant themes don’t ultimately blend harmoniously together.   Uniformity of execution was never something Westlake strived for in his series.  He aspired to make each book different from the one before it.

The central theme, as always, is identity.   But with such a large cast of characters, and so much room to run, Westlake is free to come at it from many different angles.   The dark mystery of Tom Jimson.  The amateur turning pro saga of Doug Berry.  The coming of age of Myrtle Street (and the belated realizations of her mother, Edna, that she’s made serious mistakes as a parent). The social awakening of Wally Knurr.   The psychic unraveling of poor befuddled Bob.

And our beloved gang faced with a terrible new foe–the small rural town environment, in all its bucolic splendor.  Eating away at their sense of self, trying to reshape them into compatible components of a radically different social order. Trying, in fact, to make them into solid citizens.  If they didn’t have the reservoir job to anchor them, and they couldn’t get back where they belong, it might eventually succeed.

And Dortmunder–the focal point–turning his back on what he was born to do. Sure, he’s not going straight, but he took on this job, and twice he’s walked away from it, only to be sucked back in.  Three times he’s nearly drowned in that accursed lake, and as the Fourth Down begins, he says he’s really out this time. “Game called on account of wet” is his final word.  Or so he thinks.

The gang accepts his decision graciously, and Kelp, agreeing with Dortmunder that the Vilburgtown Reservoir is out to get him, steals him a car–a Buick Pompous 88.  No mention of whether it has MD plates.  Dortmunder drives back to New York, and he should be relieved it’s all over.  He doesn’t have to ever see that reservoir again.  The money has been located, they can get it without him, right?  Tom will try to take it all, but Tiny’s there, Kelp is there, Murch is there, Murch’s Mom is there–not even Tom Jimson is that tough, right?  May will be fine.  But most importantly, he doesn’t ever have to see that reservoir again.  And of course he’s violating his nature by giving up this way.  And people who violate their natures have bad dreams.  That sometimes turn out not to be dreams at all.

It was during a somewhat shallower stretch that Dortmunder was slightly disturbed by the scratchings and plinkings of someone picking the lock on the apartment door, opening it, creeping in (those old floors creak, no matter what you do) and closing the door with that telltale little snick.  Dortmunder almost came all the way to the surface of consciousness at that instant, but instead, his brain decided the noises were just Tom returning from one of his late-night filling-the-pockets forays, and so the tiny sounds from the hallway were converted in his dream factory into the shushings and plunkings of wavelets, and in that dream Tom was a giant fish with teeth, from whom Dortmunder swam and swam and swam, never quite escaping.

The intruder, of course, is Guffey, from the ghost town of Cronley, Oklahoma, who we last saw when Tom broke a very smelly wine bottle full of money over his head in that godforsaken little burg, and just left him there.   And he shouldn’t have done that.   Left him there.  Alive.   Easy man to underestimate, Mr. Guffey.

We get a short chapter detailing rather plausibly how Guffey tracked Dortmunder down and made his way east, and now he’s got a rifle pointed at Dortmunder’s head, and he’s making it very clear–he wants Tim Jepson (as he insists on calling Tom Jimson).  Dortmunder helps him, or Dortmunder dies.

And meanwhile back at the bungalow in Dudson Center, Myrtle Street, no longer content to peep at the gang through binoculars while speculating on what they’re up to and who the boss is (there isn’t one, Myrtle), comes creeping up to the house, and is immediately apprehended by Tiny Bulcher, which would be enough to scare anyone, but then she sees Doug looking out through the window, and he looks scared, and now she’s bloody terrified.

So this is where Doug’s young Lochnivar side comes out, right?  He’s the Nephew in this story, and the Nephew will do anything for The Girl.  Except here’s the thing.  He’s not a Nephew.  And Myrtle isn’t The Girl.  Not for him, anyway.  All he cares about, seeing a woman he was professing tender feelings for just recently being on the edge of getting killed, is not getting mixed up in a murder.

Fortunately, the only one advocating that Myrtle be disposed of is (you guessed!) Tom Jimson–Myrtle’s father–not that Myrtle is dumb enough to bring this up with him.  If anything, that might make matters worse.   Leave him in the dark about her being the fruit of his loins and all.  You just do not want to know how he’d react to that.

And the true Nephew of the piece springs to the fore-Wally Knurr.  He, the Hero, has waited his moment, as his computer instructed, and here it is–he says they can just lock her in the attic until they’re ready to escape–she doesn’t know enough about any of them to help the authorities–she doesn’t even know what they’re doing there.   Tom objects that she can yell out the window.  Wally shrugs and points out that in this rain, nobody will hear her, or care if they do.  At this point, Myrtle concludes Wally must be the ringleader.  Nancy Drew she ain’t.

And back at the apartment, Dortmunder and Guffey are waiting for Tom to come back.  Dortmunder showed Guffey some handcuffs he’s got (trying to remember if they figured in an earlier book) that would guarantee his good behavior, and Guffey’s not really a killer, just because he wants to kill Tom Jimson (I mean, who wouldn’t?).

Guffey had mentioned something about shooting parts of Dortmunder off until he told him where Tim Jepson was, but he’s decided he just has to sit tight and wait.  And as he waits there, and they watch TV (Fantastic Voyage), and they drink beer, and eat pizza, and try to figure out what Guffey’s first name used to be, they kindasorta become friends.  Well, friendly acquaintances.  Dortmunder has this effect on people.

Guffey even takes the handcuffs off him, so he can go to the bathroom.   Then Guffey goes to the bathroom.  Without the rifle. By the time he comes back, the hostage situation has just sort of petered out, and Dortmunder is telling him any enemy of Tom’s is a friend of his, and they finish watching microscopic Raquel Welch save the President’s life or whatever that movie was about, and head back to Dudson Center, because what the hell.

Guffey rested a scrawny fist on the kitchen table.  “That man ruint my life,” he said. “And I mean that, Dortmunder.  I was just a young fella when he got his hooks into me, and he ruint my entire life.  My destiny is to catch up with that son of a bitch, or why would you and him come all the way out to Cronley, Oklahoma?  What happens after I catch up is between him and me, but I got to have him in my sights one time before I die.”

“I guess I can understand that,” Dortmunder said.  “So this is what I offer.  You give me your solemn word you won’t make a move on Tom  until this other business is over with, and you can come along with me upstate.”

“Where to?”

“But you have to swear you won’t do anything till I say it’s okay.”

Guffey thought about that.  “What if I won’t swear?”

“Then I go out to the living room and I get your rifle,” Dortmunder told him, “and bring it back in here, and wrap it around your neck, and go upstate by myself.”

Guffey thought about that.  “What if I swear, only I’m lying?”

“I got a lot of friends up there where I’m going, Guffey,” Dortmunder said. “And all you got up there’s one enemy.”

While all this was going on, Doug has persuaded the gang that they need a real boat this time–something that won’t sink in the rain, and that they can use to winch up the coffin with the money in it.  Tom refuses to even consider going after any more stashes to pay for it (in this one instance, I’m on his side), and so very reluctantly, Doug becomes party to a felony crime–he happens to know this guy with a boat dealership on Long Island who screwed him in a deal once.  They get a real nice boat, a 20 foot Benjamin inboard cabin cruiser.  There does not seem to be any such boat maker as Benjamin.  There’s a Gannon & Benjamin, but they make wooden sailing vessels.  No, I don’t know why Westlake made that name up.  If it’s a joke, I don’t get it.

Doug’s not comfortable with crime, doesn’t consider himself a criminal, though he’s always been on the shady site.  But he’s committing serious crimes.   He’s also been seducing a nice young girl, making her fall in love with him, then he turns around and acts like she doesn’t matter a damn to him, which she doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to know who he is, where he belongs.  He’s changing his identity without really stopping to consider the implications.  You have to figure something bad’s gonna happen to him.  That’s how it always plays out in a Westlake novel, right?

So the reservoir gang goes out one last time to get that money, and everybody, even Wally’s computer, knows Tom is going to pull a cross once they have the money.  Wally talks this over with May and Murch’s Mom, back at the house.  He says if Tom manages to kill the other string members and take the money for himself, his first move will be to come right back to the house and tie up loose ends.   Meaning them.  And most importantly to Wally, meaning Myrtle.

He suggests they all move over to Myrtle’s house, where they can keep watch on the bungalow from a safe distance.  Now that’s a guy who knows who he is–I’m sure his virtue shall be rewarded in the end, and the princess will fall swooning into his arms.  Yeah, that’s what Luke Skywalker thought too, before Lucas sib-zoned him.  Storytellers can be real bastards sometimes.

So of course when Dortmunder and Guffey arrive at the bungalow, they find it empty.  Dortmunder can’t believe he’s doing this, but he decides there’s nothing for it but to go back to that damn reservoir, and give it one last chance to drown him.

So they find the gang just before they push off in the cabin cruiser (fittingly named the Over My Head), and Tiny knocks Guffey out with a sap before recognizing Dortmunder.  Dortmunder says Guffey is a hitchhiker he picked up in the rain.  It says something for the gang’s assessment of Dortmunder’s judgment in matters other than heist planning that they accept this.

They lock Guffey in the cabin, and set off.   Tom, of course, doesn’t recognize Guffey.  See, the problem with seeing humanity as one indistinguishable unimportant mass, Mr. Jimson, is that sometimes it pays to notice things like this one guy who’s spent his whole life waiting to kill you.   But Tom is, in all fairness, distracted by more important matters.  He’s got to kill five guys, none of them pushovers, though Doug won’t be too hard.   One of them is Tiny Bulcher. He needs a little something extra in the arsenal.  And he’s got it.


The Ingram Model 10.   More popularly known today in both white militia and gangsta rap circles (how guns bring us all together!) as the Mac 10.  Thirty 45 caliber rounds.  Easily concealed, quiet, accurate.  So ten rounds for Tiny, and five each for the other four.  That’s what Tom is probably figuring.  I’m figuring more like twenty rounds for Tiny, but that’s still plenty left for the others.  He can just smother that hitchhiker with a pillow or something.   See, this may be a Dortmunder novel to us, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s a Tom Jimson novel, and they all end the same way.

The thing was, Dortmunder and his pals would expect Tom to make a move.  Everybody always did, that was written into the equation.  Tom’s job was to figure out the earliest point at which they’d expect something from him, and the earliest point before that when he could usefully make his move, and then pick the spot between the two.

This time, it seemed to him, they wouldn’t really expect much trouble before they got the loot ashore, but they would probably start being tense and wary once the casket was actually inside the boat.  But now that they had a boat with its own winch attached to its own motor, so that Tiny was no longer needed to drag the casket out of the reservoir, Tom’s actual first potential moment was much earlier than that.

Not when Doug found the marker rope.

Not when he tied the boat to it.

Not when he untied the marker rope from the monofilament and handed it to someone in the boat.

When the marker rope was attached to the winch: then.

So Doug finds the marker rope.  He ties the boat to it.  He unties the marker rope from the monofilament and hands it to someone on the boat.  Tom, down in the cabin, reaches under the mattress Guffey is unconscious upon, where he’s concealed his Mac–it isn’t there.  And all of a sudden, he find himself handcuffed to a wild-eyed maniac, holding his gun.  “Now, Tim Jepson!  Now!”   Followed by the sound of gunfire.

So I guess really it was a Guffey novel all along.  Short-lived franchise.   Tom wins, of course–even with that gun, Guffey’s no match for him, never was.  But they’re still handcuffed together, and Tom, figuring Dortmunder had this planned all along, comes up saying he’ll give Dortmunder the gun in exchange for the key (which Guffey actually has, and Dortmunder isn’t dumb enough to tell Tom that).

Tom’s clearly still hoping to pull the cross somehow, but the main thing is, he’s chained to another human being, and for such a singular soul as himself, that’s a terrifying situation to be in.  It’s skewing his judgment, dulling his instincts.  So he’s not ready when Guffey comes to, and grapples with him–and they both go over the side.

You ever wonder why sailors all stick together in a pinch?   It’s because sailors spend their lives out on large bodies of water that are constantly trying to kill them.  They may not always love each other, but they need each other.  A boat full of Tom Jimsons is a boat full of dead men.  Even Jack London’s superlative Sea Wolf didn’t survive longterm.  No atheists in foxholes, no solo players at sea. Or at reservoir, same difference.

So as Guffey, his life’s work achieved, lapses back into unconsciousness, sinking down under the waves, taking his enemy with him, Tom Jimson’s last words turn out to be “Al!  The key! For Christ’s sake, the key!”  A bit late to bring Him up, wouldn’t you say?  And Tom, for literally the last time, Dortmunder’s first name is John.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Tom’s best-laid schemes that have gone agley.   Doug lost the rope.  Guffey filled the hull of the boat with holes when he was grappling with Tom.  They’re going to sink.  It’s getting to be a habit.

Doug has gone back under, looking for the rope.   While the gang, faced with the very real possibility of both drowning and being caught by the law, makes its way back to terra firm by way of Tiny hauling them in with the monofilment line anchored to the shore.  They can’t wait for Doug.  And Doug can’t seem to wait to die.

For the first time in his diving life, Doug was being stupid underwater.  Greed and panic had combined to make him forget everything he knew.  He was down here alone, an incredibly dangerous thing to begin with.  He was improperly equipped for the kind of search he’d suddenly started to undertake.  And, most stupid of all, he was paying no attention to the passage of time.

He’d had an hour of air when he started.

Reading this the first time, I knew this was where Doug Berry met his final end. And (spoiler alert)–he doesn’t.   He just keeps looking for the money, for those train tracks leading to the casket of cash, thinking that it just wouldn’t be fair for him to get so close and not get it.  He refuses to give up.  He’s a salvage diver, and he’s getting his salvage.  He finds the tracks, but by that time he’s about to black out from oxygen deprivation–only instinct gets him back to the surface alive.  And then pure dumb luck takes a hand.

As he tries to hitchhike his way back into town, still wearing his wetsuit, who should pick him up (in a Chevy Chamois) but the pregnant wife of Bob–poor confused Bob, who spent the whole book questioning his lot in life, his place in the universe, his decision to marry a girl he barely knew, growing more and more confused, until his sanity just gave way entirely.  Leaving his wife still pregnant and apparently that condition agrees with her, because Doug, very much in the mood for a nice comforting lay, is instantly very attracted to her (more than he ever was to Myrtle)–and she to him.  Oh God damn.  He’s getting a happy ending, isn’t he?

There is no greater certitude in the world of Dortmunder than this–Life Is Not Fair.  And in this specific sense, these books are an exercise in realism.   There may be moments of justice in this world, but they are far and few between (looking at you, Roger Ailes).  Doug broke nearly all the rules for suvival in the world of a Westlake novel, and he would just be stone cold dead in a Richard Stark novel, but somehow Westlake decided to let him off the hook.

And you could argue he’s earned it–Dortmunder gives up, and this time, so does the rest of the gang–they’re just not meant to get that money, and they don’t have to worry about Tom anymore, and it’s just time they all went back where they belong.  Wally never really belonged there, so he’s going to stay in Dudson Center, at Edna and Myrtle’s house, and he’s hoping it somehow leads to more than friendship with Myrtle, and best as I can recall (we see Wally later in the series) it never actually does.  Because Life Is Not Fair.  But he’s better off than he was before.  Life is not totally unfair, either.

So in the final two-page section of the book, entitled Fifth Down?, Dortmunder and May are watching television at home, and it’s this travel show, and they suddenly see Doug Berry, who is the proud new owner of a Caribbean resort hotel, his beautiful wife on his arm, holding ‘little Tiffany,’ Bob’s baby, and Doug just could not possibly be any happier.

Then there was a shot of Doug wind-surfing, grinning like a baboon, huge ocean, huge blue sky, fantastic yellow-white sun.  The off-screen announcer said, “Berry himself, a qualified professional dive instructor, leads the snorkel and scuba-diving classes. His emphasis is on active vacation life.”

And now a shot of Doug bursting out of the ocean into close-up, in full scuba gear, pulling off the face mask and mouthpiece, giving that shit-eating grin right at the camera.  “Come on down!”

“You’re goddamn right I will!” Dortmunder raged, on his feet, about to jump headfirst into the TV.

And of course he won’t.  They don’t even know what island he’s on, nor could they do anything about it if they did.   He won.  They lost.  It’s over.   Dortmunder might as well go to Hollywood and tell little Jimmy Harrington, boy director, to cough up Dortmunder’s ransom money or die.  It’s just not who he is. Born to lose.  Like most of us.  Which is why we love him.  And why we pray for Doug Berry’s island to be hit by a tsunami.   Soon.  Please, God, soon.  Or if that’s too hard on all the other people there, how about a shark?   Huh?   Just one little fifteen foot Great White Shark mistaking Doug Berry for a seal.  Is that too much to ask?   Okay, then how about a Bull Shark?   Since Doug is full of–oh never mind.

So that’s Drowned Hopes, and I honestly think this was a transitional work for Westlake (he had a lot of those).  If he could write a comic novel this dark, a Dortmunder story where people actually die violently, something’s happening with him.   His early books are very dark indeed, but as the 60’s waned, and the 70’s took hold, he tended more towards the lighter side of things–not light-weight, by any means.  But more optimistic, more upbeat, more inclined to look for the good in people, without ignoring the evil.

But thing is, evil is an interesting subject.  Tom Jimson was an interesting character.  And as I said last time, partly derived from Westlake himself.  From the misanthrope that lurked inside of him, casting a caustic eye on the fatuity of humankind–there’s a moment where he calls Doug ‘Popeye,’ and Doug doesn’t get the joke, is just confused by it.  We’re told by the narrator that “Tom had found, in his long life, that an astonishing number of people had just about no sense of humor at all”   The narrator and Tom are totally in synch at that moment.

But where they go out of synch is that the narrator, Westlake himself, knows that Tom was wrong–no matter how tough you are, you’re going to need somebody sometime.   Like when you’re going down under the water for the last time.  It’s tempting, to live your life like you’re the only person in the world who is really real, but it’s not smart.  And it’s not really living.  Solipsism isn’t a philosophy. It’s a delusion.

Still, there’s something there–something he might do more with, in a different context.  Our next book isn’t really his–it’s a sort of Mad Libs for Mystery Authors, conceived by a guy who clearly had too much spare time on his hands, and it’s a lot of fun–Westlake’s contributions most of all.  And you ask me, it’s the Tim Jimson in him that wrote those.  And then comes a book where Westlake takes his misanthropy to cosmic levels.  He wants to see how far he can go with it–and you ask me, he went too far that time.  But sometimes you need to find where your limits are, before you can do your best work.

And all of this is leading, inexorably, to what may well be his best book.  But perhaps even more importantly, this rediscovery of his darker self is sending out signals, to a long-buried alter ego.  You’re needed.   Come back.

And what rough beast, his hour approaching fast,
Slouches towards Monequois to be reborn?

PS: I did enjoy finding nautically themed poems and song lyrics to introduce each segment.  For the last one, I considered several alternatives, including the Popeye Song, one of the racier versions of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, or maybe something from H.M.S. Pinafore.  But nothing seemed quite as right as Stan Rogers’ great salvage chanty, and I’ll end with that–but not Stan Rogers’ version (which you can find yourselves easily enough). No, I think I’ll go with Liam.  Still missing him.  Three times I saw him and Mr. Makem perform live.  And I’ll never see them again.  No, Nay, Never.  No Never, No More.


Filed under John Dortmunder novels

Review: Drowned Hopes, Third Down

We need another plan,” May told them.  “We need some other way to get to that money that isn’t dynamite and that Tom Jimson will go along with.  But John won’t even talk about it, and he absolutely won’t think about it.  So what I was hoping from this meeting, I was hoping one of us would come up with something I could tell Tom, something that would at least slow him down, some kind of plan, or even an idea for a plan.  Something.”

There was a little uncomfortable silence in the cab, punctuated by Mom’s maledictions against the world of drivers and pedestrians and New York City traffic conditions generally.  At last Tiny spread his catcher’s-mitt hands and said, “May that ain’t my field.  I pick up heavy things, I move them, I put them down, that’s what I do.  Sometimes I persuade people to change their minds about certain things.  I’m a specialist, May, and that’s my specialty.”

Stan said “I’m a driver.  I’m the best in the business–”

“He is,” his Mom said, as she swerved around a wallowing stretch limo driven by a Middle Eastern refugee who’d cleared Customs & Immigration earlier that morning.  “I’m his mother, but I’ve got to admit it, my boy Stan is a good driver.”

“The best,” Stan corrected.  “But, May, I don’t do plans.  Getaways I can do.  Vehicles I can drive; there isn’t a thing in the world with wheels and a motor I can’t drive.  I could give Tom Jimson very professional advice on how he’ll never get away from that county if he blows the dam, but that’s about it from me.

May said, “Andy?  What about you?  You have millions of ideas.”

“I sure do,” Andy agreed.  “But one at a time.  And not connected with each other.  A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I’m sorry, I’ve never been good at that.”

“God damn the State of New York!” Mom cried, sideslipping past a pipe-smoking psychiatrist in a Mercury Macabre.  “They give anybody a license to drive a car!

“They also released Tom Jimson,” May pointed out.

Ken had his Cadillac, but as he drove away, he just didn’t feel very happy about it.  Much of the fun had gone out of the transaction.  There were right ways and wrong ways to do things.  A repo-man took a car, the people driving it resisted.  That was the way it had always been, that was the way it would always be.

But not with these cheesecakes.

Halfway back to the city, however, the Toyota behind him on the towbar, Ken brightened.  First Gyppo blood for him, right?  He turned on the radio and started to drum his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music.  He’d finally figured out what was wrong with those screwy people who’d just given him the Caddy without any argument.

They were crooks; and you just couldn’t trust crooks.  Crooks never did what was right and proper.  Only the old guy who’d wanted to kill him had it right.

From 32 Cadillacs, by Joe Gores.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’
“Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven pm a main hatchway caved in, he said
“Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Gordon Lightfoot

This is the second and final Westlake novel to cross-over with a Joe Gores novel about the San Francisco based detective agency, Dan Kearny and Associates (DKA for short).   The first had actually been a Stark novel, Plunder Squad, and the crossing of paths took place relatively early in both books.  Dan Kearny is looking for a guy Parker is tangentially connected to–they met briefly just before the events of The Hunter, and it’s just enough of a connection for Kearny to persuade Parker to help him–more or less just to make Kearny go away.  It’s understood (not least by Kearny himself) that if Kearny was enough of a problem, he’d be going away for keeps.  But Parker doesn’t make murder the answer to every problem in life.

32 Cadillacs isn’t as long as Drowned Hopes, but it’s much longer than Dead Skip, the book that crossed over with Plunder Squad.  It’s also very different in subject matter and tone and even style.  Whereas Dead Skip was a grim hardboiled detective drama, full of life and death choices, 32 Cadillacs is a light comedy, where nobody gets killed at all.  DKA goes after a band of gypsies (the Romany kind, nothing to do with Jimi) who have used false identities to swindle (not heist) their way to thirty one brand new fully loaded Cadillacs  on the same day (and there’s one more, but I don’t need to explain that here).  The bank responsible for all those never-to-be-repaid loans wants the cars back.

What you see up top is a passage where a new employee of the firm, tough savvy Vietnam vet and repo zen master Ken Warren (introduced in this book, and I enjoyed the sections dealing with him most of all) proves his superior mettle once again by finding one of the Caddies,  which Kelp had unknowingly stolen from one of the Roma who had stolen it via subtler methods (it had MD plates, how was he to know?).

Contrariwise to the previous collaboration, this crosstextual encounter happens quite late in both books.  Ken’s interaction with the gang (and all other aspects of his life) is complicated by his very serious speech defect, which Westlake refers to as a ‘glottal stop.’  I have no idea if this is technically accurate in speech therapist terms, but it gets the point across.   Ken drives up in his rented Toyota Chemistra (Gores just calls it a red Toyota, since his readers won’t get the joke), and takes possession of the pilfered Caddie, only to be caught in the act.

There’s this moment of disorientation, Ken and the gang misunderstanding each other’s motives, and then Kelp figures out the mistake, and there was never a more affable guy than Kelp.  Sure, take the car, what do we care, have a great day.   Tom Jimson, who absolutely does want to make murder the answer to everything, briefly argues for killing Ken.  Well, it’s not an argument so much as a dictate, but he’s not in charge, so it’s ignored.  The Dortmunder Gang doesn’t make murder the answer to anything.  Ken, perversely enough, seems more sympathetic to Tom’s outlook.  The most hard-boiled character in Gores’ book, even though he’s got a heart as big as all outdoors.

32 Cadillacs is a light-hearted romp, as I said–a good part of it involves two members of DKA who are secretly sweet on each other going to bed with two dangerously attractive gypsies they’re pumping for intel (and I use the word ‘pumping’ advisedly), and there’s also something about a gypsy king who is said to be dying, which triggers a lot of the machinations of the book.  Ken Warren aside, it’s about as hard-boiled as a one minute egg.  I assume it was always meant to be such, since Gores says in the introduction that he was already well into writing it when Westlake, having read some early chapters, suggested another cross-over, which turned out to be in this book we’re looking at now.

But Gores, who quite possibly might have retooled aspects of his book to link up better with Westlake’s, certainly is trying for his own version of Westlake’s comic stylings here, and I will state my opinion that while Dead Skip was a fair match for Plunder Squad, this one doesn’t come close to the level of Drowned Hopes–which is a comedy, of course, but a very black one indeed.  The darkest of the Dortmunders.  The starkest, even.  So it’s both funnier and harder than Gores’ book.  Which is still well worth reading, for fans of that series.  But for fans of this series, the most interesting stuff is probably Ken’s (and therefore Gores’) impressions of the gang.

Kelp: A wiry little guy with a sharp nose.

Dortmunder: Tall and bony and middle-aged.   (Ken isn’t impressed).

Tiny: An elephant in clothes.  Not a fat elephant either.  (Ken is rightly confident in his ability to handle the toughest customers, but he gives himself no chance of taking this guy).

May: A not-bad-looking woman making unconscious motions like a person lighting a cigarette.  (Drowned Hopes is the book where chain smoker May finally kicks the habit, and it’s been hell on her, as it is on everyone).

Murch’s Mom: A feisty little woman in a man’s cloth cap.

Now of course, if we wish to, we may say that this proves that Dortmunder and Parker inhabit the same universe, since both have had dealings with DKA (even though Parker is indirectly cited as a fictional character in Drowned Hopes, when Dortmunder brings up the events of Jimmy the Kid).

But to me, 32 Cadillacs is so different from Dead Skip as to make it an alternate universe take on the DKA characters, even if it’s part of the same series overall (and the timelines don’t match up very well either).  I’ve never been a huge fan of literalism, anyway, and least of all when it gets in the way of a good story. Worth mentioning that this was the first DKA novel since the late 1970’s.  A lot has changed in the genre during the interim.  Gores is updating his technique.   To some extent so is Westlake, but he’s on much surer footing in comic terrain.  Anyway, it was a good excuse to read Gores’ book.  Back to the book at hand.

May convenes an impromptu meet of the string members in Murch’s Mom’s taxi cab.  This meeting pointedly excludes Dortmunder (who won’t even discuss going back to the reservoir) and Tom Jimson (who is in the process of recruiting people to help him blow up the dam and drown all the townspeople, something you suspect he’d cheerfully do for beer money, let alone the $700,000 buried there).

Nobody has any useful ideas as to how to persuade Dortmunder to help, nor can any of them come up with a viable plan for getting at the money without the use of dynamite.  Because none of them are heist planners–not their area of expertise.  Dortmunder is the planner, and two consecutive incidents of nearly being swallowed alive by that malevolent body of water  has left him with a serious case of PTSD (Positive Terror of Stupidly Drowning).

So Murch’s Mom (her first name still unknown to anyone other than her son–I would hope), who is, like so many loyal residents of Gotham, experiencing that periodic burnout that comes from living in the most stressful place on earth that isn’t in a state of all out civil war (not formally, anyhow), comes up with her own plan–she and May go to Dudson Center.  They rent a house (a bungalow yet!).  They live there.  Directly in the path of the impending deluge.   May keeps house.  Murch’s Mom gets a job driving for the local cab company–she drives a Plymouth Frenzy.   She gloats over the fact that the drivers there “don’t fight back.” This is what she calls a ‘vacation,’ and that’s what any real New Yorker would call it.

Dortmunder hears about this from Stan, who is peeved at his mom for abandoning New York City (and endangering her life, that too).   Dortmunder is appalled, horrified, but at the same time, he must admit to himself that the woman he’s sharing his life with is no one to be trifled with when her moral dudgeon is up.

And much as May, consort to a thief, serial shoplifter of her own employer, may practice situational ethics with the best of them, nothing arouses her moral dudgeon like the death of innocent people.  To the best of her knowledge, at least some of the people in Dudson Center and the adjacent lesser Dudsons are innocent.   And after all, God said he’d spare even Sodom and Gomorrah if there were just ten righteous men living there.   And now there are two (selectively) righteous women living in Dudson Center (possibly two more, and we’ll get to them).

Dortmunder isn’t God, but since whatever else you may say about him, he loves May with all his scruffy downtrodden Wile E. Coyote heart, it is now his sad Lot in life to try and spare this picayune Gomorrah from destruction.  (That pun was old school.  Not to mention Old Testament).

In the meantime, Doug Berry, diving instructor/playboy of the southeastern coast of Long Island, is fishing–for clues.  He knows these criminal types who had him train and equip them for freshwater diving are after something good at the bottom of a reservoir, and he wants a piece of it.  There are a lot of reservoirs in New York, but he assiduously eliminates them until he comes to do research at the North Dudson library, which is staffed by none other than the delightful Myrtle Street, illegitimate daughter of Tom Jimson, daughter to Edna, newfound friend to Wally Knurr, and now potential love interest for Doug Berry, though his primary interests lie elsewhere (namely the mirror).

The girl at the counter was pretty enough, though not as pretty as he, which he knew without gloating about it; his good looks were simply a fact of nature, a part of who he was.  (Pretty men feel differently about their beauty from pretty women, are less proud of it and protective toward it and prepared to display it.  Their attitude toward their looks is rather like the attitude of the old rich toward their money: they’re pleased to have it but consider mentioning it vulgar, even in their thoughts).

Doug approached the pretty-enough girl, smiling a winning smile, and said “Hi.”

“Hi,” she answered.  As women tended to do, she perked up in his presence.  “What can I do for you?”

“I’m interested in two things,” he told her, then grinned at himself and shook his head and said “Let me rephrase that.  Right now, there’s two things I’m interested in.”

“Two library things,” she amplified, flirting with him just slightly

Very reminiscent of Grofield’s exchange in Butcher’s Moon with Doreen, the perky young blonde librarian he charms into helping him do research, then later genially fucks in a Chevy Impala.  Is Doug a variation on Grofield?  Leaving aside the fact he’s blonde, and Grofield most definitely isn’t, Grofield is very serious and committed about both of his professions by the time we meet him. The blondes are just a sideline.  He’s already found his life’s work, and his life’s companion.   Grofield has everything he ever wanted in life other than enough cash to put on his plays.

Doug seems more like he’s shopping around for a new modus vivendi.  He’s athletic, friendly, flirtatious, generally lacking in malice but determined to get the better things in life for himself without doing the 9 to 5 crap, and while he feels the odd bit of guilt here and there, he’s mainly looking out for #1–doesn’t form strong personal attachments, at least in this stage of his life.  He figures there must be somebody who can point him to a better way of getting what he wants, give him a few pointers, get him on the road to real freedom at last.  Doesn’t think of himself as a crook, but not the least bit averse to breaking the law as long as he figures he can get away with it.  An amateur on the way to becoming a pro.

Oh right.  Stan Devers.  That’s where Doug comes from.  But this time with a very specific skill (diving) and without the military background.  Not nearly as tough and ruthless as the guy from the Parker novels (Doug wouldn’t have been able to cut it there), and with the exception of Tom (who he hasn’t met yet), neither are the guys he’s been working with here, who have tried to shut him out of this sweet score, working for a mere pittance.  He’s a bit intimidated by them, but not really scared (yet). And right now, courtesy of some old newspapers, he’s figured out that he has found both the site of the buried cash and a good looking girl to seduce and abandon.  He can multi-task.

So while Doug begins a relentless campaign for Myrtle’s maidenhead (her mother, who was getting knocked up by a felon when she was Myrtle’s age, is a bit disgusted that her girl’s still a virgin in her 20’s–each generation inverting the mistakes of the one before it), Dortmunder must embark upon the far less pleasurable and considerably more dangerous campaign of persuading Tom Jimson to give him another crack at solving the reservoir puzzle without resort to high explosives.

He’s in luck–well, you know–Dortmunder luck.   Tom is holed up in a rundown apartment building in Alphabet City, the intersection of 13th St. and Avenue C, which is a crime and drug invested hell hole in 1990 (if you want to know what it costs to live there now, you couldn’t afford it).  He recruited a few addled addicts to pull the job, figuring he didn’t need real pros to just blow the dam–two of them get blown up along with the dam, and as Dortmunder quickly deduces, the other, tasked with pulling the money coffin out of the mud would meet with some unfortunate accident afterwards (“You know me so well, Al,” Tom chuckles without actually smiling).

Well, just before Dortmunder got there, these guys decided that since they knew where the reservoir was, they didn’t need Tom.  A mistake only slightly less serious than agreeing to work with him in the first place.  The police will find their bodies eventually.

Tom was not at all pleased that Dortmunder is only interested once more in pulling the job because of a woman.  Had his existing string not unraveled so abruptly, he was probably going to give Dortmunder the same treatment.  But he must admit, finding solid professionals with absolutely no scruples or knowledge of Tom’s reputation for whacking his accomplices is harder than one might think (outside the financial sector, of course, but this isn’t their kind of job).

As they descended, Tom said, “The quality of help these days, Al, it’s a real scandal.”

“I guess it is,” Dortmunder agreed.

“You and your pals, Tom went on, “seem to have a little trouble closing with the problem, but at least you’re steady and reliable.”

“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.

“And nothing at all up your veins.”

“My blood and me,” Dortmunder said as they reached the ground floor and headed toward the smashed defense of the front door, “have an agreement.  It does its job and I don’t pester it.”

So it’s agreed.  Tom will once again put off the drowning of the Dudsons, to see if Dortmunder can find an alternate path to the coffin full of cash.  They will all move out to the bungalow in Dudson Center.   Yes, that means Tom too.  Tom himself says, the only way they can be sure he’s not blowing up the dam is if he’s directly in the path of where the water would go afterwards.  So once again May’s firm moral stance comes not without a personal price for her (and everybody else in the gang).   Well hey, if doing right didn’t have any drawbacks, we’d all be saints, right?

We see Tom take the Amtrak train from Penn, robbing a naive kid along the way, and enjoying  what the narrator describes as ‘interior monologue’, informing us parenthetically that “A man no one can trust is a man who can trust no one, and therefore is a man liable to take to the diversion of internal monologue.”

But internal monologue can only divert one so long.  And in this transit-based chapter, there’s a reference I’m still trying to comprehend.  We’re told Tom is reading a paperback book.  Fiction.  Something we know Parker would never ever do, and probably not Dortmunder either, unless Kelp made him.

The book is Dark Hazard, by W.R. Burnett, and I’m belatedly pleased to confirm my earlier suspicions that Westlake was well familiar with that pioneering crime author, not that there was ever much doubt in my mind.  I’ve read Drowned Hopes before, but didn’t pick up on this last time out.  Having recently read The Asphalt Jungle to prepare for my article about potential influences on the Parker novels, my curiosity was piqued.  I got a copy of Dark Hazard.  First edition.  Not expensive.  Wish I’d gotten the paperback.

Tom has almost finished the book after two hours on the train (it’s over 300 pages in hardcover, so Tom’s a fast reader).  We’re told that he can see by that time that it’s not going to have a happy ending.  We’re not told what that means, though.  We’re not told a blessed thing about the book except its title and that Tom Jimson is reading it intently.

So when I reached that passage a few weeks back, I figured maybe Tom just likes to see a lot of mayhem and murder in his stories (and who doesn’t?)–we’ve been told about his unnerving habit of cackling gleefully when he’s watching television and bad things happen to good people, so for him maybe the only happy ending is a tragic one.  Or maybe it’s a heist story, and for him a happy ending means the crooks get away with it.  But see, neither of those could be the answer to the question of why he thinks it’s not a happy ending, because this isn’t really a crime novel at all, per se, and there’s absolutely no killing and damned little violence in it.  Two brief fistfights is about all.

Dark Hazard is about Jim, a big shambling good-hearted guy who used to keep a string of thoroughbreds.  Gambled on the races and any other action he came across.  He was good with the horses, but he had to give them up, because they eat a lot, and his finances were erratic, as is the case with most gamblers.  Then he met this classy dame whose once-genteel family had come on hard times due to irresponsible men, and somehow the two of them clicked, and got married, and he reformed for her, because she despises all aspects of the Sporting Life, considers it low-class (she’s from Ohio–as was Burnett himself).  It’s all very O. Henry, up to this point.  You could imagine him selling his watch, only to find she’d sold her hair.

Then through an odd series of events, he becomes enamored of greyhound racing, and in particular of this one dog named Dark Hazard (you can just call him Pat), a shy mild-mannered coal black pooch who just happens to be a demon on the track, and who returns the hero’s affections in full measure.

Clearly Burnett knew his onions about these dogs, as he ought to have done, since he owned War Cry, a champion racer, who appears in the movie version of this book with Edward G. Robinson, because nearly every book Burnett ever wrote had a movie version, only they should have waited until Sterling Hayden was available (but how could they know that in 1934?).

Anyway, Jim’s wife feels like he’s backsliding, she’s pregnant, she’s terrified of economic ruin, of coming down in the world, after what she’s been through already, so she leaves him, taking most of his winnings with her, leaving Jim destitute and broken.  He eventually rejoins  her in Ohio, but then he finds out Dark Hazard has fallen on hard times, and will be destroyed if he doesn’t buy him, so he does.  Having such a dog, he wants to race him.  That’s the final straw for the marriage (the wife had already cheated on him with her old Ohio boyfriend, who she will now marry, and whose physical description sounds oddly like Burnett’s, based on the photos I’ve seen–Jim knocks him down before he leaves).

So as the book ends, our hero is heading towards the dog track, homeless and broke, and he’s sad over what happened, but he never belonged in that life, you see.  It was never right for him–he was just pretending, working boring dead end jobs in the Depression, never having any real fun, never being who he was, just so he could stay married to a woman who didn’t even want to understand him.

And then he cheers up at the very end, forgets his sadness, faces life bravely once more, because now he can have the life he originally wanted, the one he had before with the ponies, except anybody who isn’t a total bum (which Jim isn’t) can afford to keep a dog (hell, I’ve seen actual bums with dogs who looked happier than many a pampered poodle).  And the dog, unlike the woman, loves him for exactly who and what he is.  When this dog dies, there’ll be others, perhaps sired by Dark Hazard.  Jim’s living the life he was meant for, and it’s not perfect, it’s not without risks, but neither is any other.  So to me, that actually is a happy ending.  Bittersweet, let’s say.

But not to Tom.  Why?   He doesn’t care about women–when Dortmunder braces him about May, he says Dortmunder needs to realize there’s a lot of women in the world and just one you.  From Tom’s POV, Jim wasn’t living the good life when we met him, he was working as a hotel clerk, with basically zero chance of advancement.  All he’s done is change a life he didn’t want with a woman he loved for the life he does want, with a dog he loves basically just as much, only the dog doesn’t nag.  Jim’s attractive to the bolder brassier women who frequent the racing world, so there’ll be female companionship as well as canine.

Tom probably doesn’t give a damn about dogs either (maybe he’s even a bit scared of them, as Dortmunder is, and as I’ve sometimes thought Westlake was), but what would have been a happy ending for him?  Westlake knows, because he always knows more about his characters than he tells us in the books.  But I can’t figure the angle here.  And that bugs me.  The book is referenced three times in this chapter.   Why mention it at all?   There was never a more thoughtful writer than Donald E. Westlake.  He had his own interior monologue going on at all times.

Hmmm.   Maybe that’s it.  Tom Jimson is Donald E. Westlake.   An aspect of him he doesn’t often give voice to in his books, except maybe here and there in his villains.  A darker version of his own self, with that patented sardonic sense of humor, and a jaundiced view of human nature–without the compensating empathy and friendliness, not to mention a means of self-expression that doesn’t require actual violence.  Somebody who has entirely tuned out the needs and wants of others, to concentrate exclusively on what he wants and how to get it.

And here’s the clincher (and it took me too damn long to notice it).  Burnett’s novel first saw the light of day in 1933–same year Westlake was born (prematurely) in New York.  Coincidence my Aunt Fanny. Tom is Westlake.  Westlake isn’t Tom, but he doesn’t have any problem imagining how he could have become some version of Tom, if a few things had gone differently (like for example if his father hadn’t gotten him out of trouble when he was caught stealing that microscope in college).

Same way he created Parker–imagine a different path, focus in on an isolated part of his identity, magnify and extrapolate it–but Parker was given life by the romantic in him–Tom by the cynic.  What all romantics become someday.  And as he told us in an earlier book, cynicism is a spectrum–there’s always somebody more cynical and selfish than you.  But suppose you turned the dial all the way up to eleven?  Then you’d have Tom Jimson.

So for Tom, a happy ending would be Jim realizing that caring about anyone else, even a dog, is the bunk.  He should have gone back to the life he enjoyed, sure, ditch the ball & chain–but just live for himself, nobody else.  Take what he wants, who he wants, when he wants.   But the big dumb ox is a natural born simp–he’s got to have somebody in his life to care about, to look after, to come home to, even if it’s just a dumb animal.  That’s why it’s not a happy ending to Tom Jimson.

And how many people reading this book would get any of that?   This isn’t Little Caesar.  Dark Hazard is barely even remembered as a movie these days.  That’s not the point.  The point is that Westlake knows his man.  Because part of him is that man.  And the best way to exorcise a devil in yourself, or at least hold him in check, is to see him, clearly, for what he is.

Okay, now I feel better.  By the way, ending aside, I personally didn’t think Burnett’s book was that good (you can ask me why in the comments section if you give a damn), but that isn’t the point either.  Synopsis resumes.

Dortmunder knows Tom isn’t going to wait very long for him to solve the problem.  He goes back to see Wally Knurr, who serves John cheese and crackers (he does this anytime somebody comes calling), and Dortmunder levels with him about what Tom is going to do if they can’t find an alternate plan.  Realizing that people he’s come to like–Myrtle Street and ‘Miss May’ (this is what he calls her, nerds can be courtly)–Wally runs through a bunch of simulations on his computer, and the ones that involve Spaceships from Zog go fine, but the ones that involve dynamite invariably mean drowning a lot of people.

Dortmunder expresses his discontent that he came to talk to a person about his problems, and now he’s talking to a machine that thinks there’s a planet named Zog–Wally realizes he’s been using the computer as a crutch to avoid dealing with people.  He turns it off, and they talk–and he asks a simple question–why not just get that diving instructor guy in on the job?  This is his area of expertise, just like heist planning is Dortmunder’s, and computers are Wally’s.

Dortmunder is dumbfounded as to why he didn’t think of this before–he realizes he likes to be the one who makes the plans, and was resisting bringing in another specialist.  He tells Wally to sell the computer, he doesn’t need it.  And of course Wally won’t do that, but that’s Dortmunder’s way of telling him he’s smart.  If the computer is any good for anything, it’s because Wally made it that way.

They can’t find Doug, because Doug is too busy trying to find his way into Myrtle’s vagina, and he’s almost fucking there (I know what I said), when Dortmunder catches the two of them on the porch of Myrtle’s house, about to adjourn to the bedroom.  Doug gets dragged away, and Myrtle is very confused, and somewhat relieved, and very disappointed, and still a virgin.  And I’m somewhat reminded of a similar and yet very different coitus interruptus scene in Memory, involving an amnesiac actor and a plain girl named Edna (which I’ll remind you again is Myrtle’s mother’s name).

After listening to Tom Jimson calmly discuss how they should dispose of his body, then having Stan Murch do an abrupt 180 turn on the highway as they head back to New York (just to show off his own skill set, Doug is feeling very very cooperative, as people in a state of mild shock generally tend to feel.  He’ll take whatever cut they’re offering.

Studying the layout on Wally’s computer, he says the way to do it is to get a boat and dive for the treasure–there are ways to triangulate in on it, and to get it up to the surface, without resort to walking along the surface, or following the train tracks in a converted AMC Hornet.  Dortmunder was thinking like a landlubber, because he is a landlubber (he’s lubbing that land more and more, all the time).

So Dortmunder and Tom retrieve one last old stash of Tom’s to get the needed materials, and if you’ve somehow gotten this far without having read the book, and I told you where it was, you wouldn’t believe it.  Honestly, I don’t believe it either.  Call it an homage to The Master of Suspense.  Or The Great Emancipator. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

So they’re all set–and the weather is wrong.  Clear skies, day and night.  Big bright moon in the sky.  Like all thieves, they need the cover of darkness.  So they wait for the clouds to set in, and as they wait–they change.  They’re just living there in Dudson Center, in this little bungalow, and it’s not their natural habitat, and it’s changing them.  Travel, a change in setting, changes people, alters their identities in ways subtle and otherwise.  Westlake wrote an entire book about that, you may recall.

Stan buys an old wreck of a Lincoln Atlantis (I’m pretty sure that’s another made up car name, but I won’t check, because I kind of wish it wasn’t), and starts fixing it up in the driveway.  His mother starts playing canasta with Myrtle’s mother Edna (neither of them knowing they’re connected to each other through Myrtle and Doug), and I know there is such a game as canasta but I have no idea how it works, and I’d rather no one told me.

Murch’s Mom was enjoying the country at first–the way nobody fights back on the road, the way they let you make a turn, the way everybody is polite–as Stan warned her, it’s starting to wear on her now–she’s afraid she’s getting soft. They’re all getting a bit soft (except for Tom, obviously–he’s happy to watch the rest of them getting soft, makes his part of the job at the very end easier). They’re all starting to lose that city edge.   They’re on vacation.  Until the clouds roll in.   And they always do.

Andy’s going to have to dive with Doug, and Dortmunder feels a bit guilty watching him get ready, but not guilty enough to volunteer to go into that water again.  Andy ends up enjoying the dive, once he adjusts–this is fun!  He’s flying like Superman!   Dortmunder’s plodding along the bottom was never the way. He and Doug find the coffin with the money in it.  They grin at each other down under the water–a meeting of minds.  Two rogues with a shared purpose.

In the meantime, Myrtle has been spying on the bungalow, just a stone’s throw from her house.  Who are all these people?   So much intrigue–the father she’s never known, the seemingly nice little fat guy who showed her how to use a computer, and the big handsome guy who almost showed her how to–you know. Somehow they’re all connected.   There’s some kind of master plan.  But who could be behind it?   Who’s the boss?   She’s a librarian who has led a sheltered life in a small town.  All she really knows is books.   And since it’s a small town library, mainly not very good books.

Conspiracy.   Was Wally the mastermind?  Or was he even now in contact with the mastermind, either in an experimental laboratory concealed within Mount Shasta (Bond) or in an unknown cavern deep beneath the Pentagon (Ludlum)?  Absorbed by Wally’s absorption, feeling that secret pleasure known to peeping Toms everywhere, Myrtle rested the front edge of the binoculars against the window and watched that round, gleaming, wet-eyed, passionate face.  Aliens?  SPECTRE?  A conspiracy at the very highest levels of government?

Or could it, could it somehow be…the Mafia?  Good God!  Was she going to have to read Jackie Collins?

Now that’s what I call a fate worse than death.  Myrtle wonders what nefarious schemes Wally is concocting through his diabolical device.

Wally, of course, is communicating not with a mastermind in an experimental laboratory, but with his computer, which isn’t hooked up to the nascent internet, but still has all the protocols Wally has programmed into it, so he can use it to puzzle out the varied dilemmas of his life.  He sees Myrtle as The Princess, and wishes to rescue her–but he’s not sure she needs rescuing from anything.  The computer, only knowing the games they play, assures him that the hero need only wait for his moment.  But the computer has been given to understand that this particular game is being played in the Real World, which it only knows through Wally.

Remember the specific rule of the game of Real Life.

Of course I remember it.  I entered it into you myself.

Nevertheless.  It is:

  • The tape of Real Life plays only once.
  • There are no corrections or adjustments.
  • Defeat is irreversible.

I know.   I know.  I know.

Why any hero would wish to play such a game is incomprehensible.

(And why I even try to replicate these typographically complex exchanges here in the digital world is also a bit of a puzzle.  As I’ve mentioned, even the Kindle edition doesn’t really manage to get it right.)

So out on the reservoir, that specific rule is asserting itself–it’s raining.  Well, they wanted clouds, didn’t they?   Dortmunder first writes it off as just another jest of the Almighty at his expense, but quickly realizes the inflatable dinghy with the outboard motor Doug said would be adequate for the job is filling with water. It’s going to sink.  He tries to stop it from sinking.  He ends up making it sink faster.

So when Doug and Andy see Dortmunder’s shoe sinking down towards them, they get the idea something’s not right.  They go up, and they can’t find the boat. Or Dortmunder.  A search is made.  No Dortmunder.  They go home sadly.   May, just beginning to despair, goes into the bedroom she and John share. Dortmunder.  She screams.  Women, right?

He saw a light off in the distance and swam for it.  It was the reservoir office in the dam itself, where Bob works.  Remember Bob?   Oh I won’t do that to you again.   But Dortmunder does it to Bob one last time.  He crawls into Bob’s car. In his underwear.  Just to get out of the rain.  He falls asleep.  Then Bob and two co-workers get into the car, to drive home.

Bob has just gotten out of the hospital recently.  Many strange things have happened to him.  His grasp on sanity has become tenuous.  The drugs are not entirely helping.  Apparently he’s now seeing an irritated looking man clad only in wet underpants, crouched below the front seat of his car, frowning at him, and warning him with various threatening gestures not to tell his co-workers (both of whom think Bob is nutso anyway) he’s there.

Dortmunder made his escape without Bob’s coworkers noticing.  Bob quietly asked to go back to the hospital.   No more is seen of Bob.

And no more remains of the Third Down.  Just one more to go (well, there’s a small fraction of a down after that, but we’ll just roll that into the fourth one, because seriously).

I think I myself need a vacation, and in fact I shall soon be departing my fair city, currently in the grips of a heat wave, and make my way to a fine hostelry in Upstate New York for a few days of west and wewaxation at wast.  The Overlook Lodge.  I don’t know why you’re reacting that way, it’s a real place, I can assure you.  We have reservations and everything.   It’s dog friendly (I believe we have the Cujo Room).  I do hope they have red rum there, I’ve always wanted to try it.

So I will try to get this one finished before the end of the month–there’s wifi there, and like Murch’s Mom, I sometimes do a little work while I’m vacationing. All play and no work makes Fred a dull boy.  All play and no work makes Fred a dull boy.  All play and no work makes Fred…….

PS: If anyone’s wondering, no, I am not getting any payola from the Great Lakes Brewing Company, located in beautiful Cleveland (I’m not even getting free beer!), but I finally managed to get some of their superlative brews, bizarrely unavailable here in New York City–ordered them from a company there that specializes in Trappist Ales and other quality items made in monasteries, and Great Lakes decidedly isn’t a monastery, but Clevelanders stick together, which I trust shall stand them in good stead tonight. You survived burning rivers, guys. You’ll survive this.  We all will.  And I love my new t-shirt I bought on ebay.

At times in this world, we all are.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Drowned Hopes, Second Down

“The thirty-thousand dollar driver,” Tom said, and did his chuckle noise.

Stan looked pleasantly at Dortmunder.  “Am I supposed to get that?”



Kelp and Stan took chairs at the table, Kelp sitting next to Dortmunder who had in front of him two glasses–one of them sparkly clean–and a muddy bottle with a label reading AMSTERDAM LIQUOR STORE BOURBON–“Our Own Brand.”  Kelp took the bottle and the clean glass and poured himself a restorative.

Meantime, Stan was saying, “So you’ve got something, huh, John?  And you need a driver.

“This time,” Dortmunder said, “we’re gonna do it right.”

Stan looked alert.  “This time?”

“It’s kind of an ongoing story we’ve got here,” Dortmunder told him.

Kelp put his glass down, smacked his lips, and said to Stan, “It’s trains again.”

“Let’s do it from the beginning, okay, Andy?” Dortmunder said.

“Sure,” Kelp said.

Stan sprinkled a little salt into his beer and looked around, expectantly.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot – Oh Christ!
That ever this should be.
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs,
Upon the slimy sea.

By Some Guy Named Sam.  I hear he did drugs.  

At some point in this novel that I am reviewing as four separate novels, Donald Westlake got tired of remembering names for current automobile makes (so many cars in this story), and started making them up.  Early in the book, Kelp steals a doctor’s Cadillac Sedan de Ville to provide transportation for the gang–and then later on, there’s a “Cadillac Sedan da Fe” with MD plates.  And that’s not all.  The Mercury Macabre. The Buick Pompous 88.  The Pontiac Prix Fixe.  The Chrysler Country Square.  The Chevy Chamois.  The Acura Silly.  The Datsun S.E.X. 69.  I’m not sure how many such made-up car names appear in this book.   Hell, I’m not even sure all of these are made up.

And this fecundity of fictive flivvers is appropriate, because of all the Dortmunder books, I believe this one gets the most Murch for the mile.  Stan Murch, that is.  And his mother, Mrs. Murch, normally referred to as Murch’s Mom (and this is the book we find out her first name, but out of a mixture of respect for her and fear of her, I’m not going to mention it, because she hates that name.  You can look it up on Wikipedia, which is less easily intimidated).

Stan and his mom were part of the franchise from the first book, but there wasn’t always much for them to do, and they often made only token cameo appearances.   Frankly, for a guy who probably created more (and more interesting) getaway drivers than any three other writers combined,  Westlake had a tendency not to actually show them strutting their stuff–he didn’t write a lot of high speed chases.  I guess his feeling was that if you’re actually being chased by the cops, and they’re close enough on your tail for you to need a first-rate getaway driver to give them the slip, you’re already as good as caught, somewhere on down the line.  An actual car chase would be too Bonnie and Clyde.  There’d have to be banjo music or something.  But he liked writing about drivers, so he found things for them to do.

Thing is, he really created most of his drivers as Richard Stark.  As Westlake, writing Dortmunder heists, he’d found the perfect driver right off the bat in Stan, with just the right set of skills and quirks–his obsession with the fine points of urban navigation.  His admirable refusal to ever drink more than one beer if he was going to be driving, just nurse it along endlessly, restoring the head with a bit of salt (I’m not sure this method works as well as Stan insists, but maybe I’m using the wrong beer–or the wrong salt?).  And his deeply devoted and even more deeply competitive relationship with his cabdriver mom, who taught him everything he knows (but probably not everything she knows).

His services were not required in the First Down, but from the Second Down onwards, Stan and his maniac mater are full-fledged members of the string, Westlake using the extra space to give them their proper due, and flesh them out a bit more (this may be the first book to mention Stan is a redhead).  As I’m using the fact that this part of the book that I’m reviewing as four separate books is less than eighty pages long to do a Stan-centric review.  But keeping up with the Murches isn’t all we’ve got on the agenda here.  Drivers, start your engines.

The Second Down begins with May taking one of her famous tuna casseroles out of the oven–the opening salvo in a campaign to persuade Dortmunder to reconsider his vow to never return to the reservoir that nearly killed him last time, and Tom Jimson can just go ahead and blow up the dam and drown all those people if he likes.   Andy Kelp is there, and Tiny Bulcher, and their newly recruited computer expert Wally Knurr, and unfortunately so is Tom Jimson, still quite determined to go ahead and blow up that dam (and, there can be no doubt, to murder all his confederates in that or any other criminal enterprise, so he can keep all the loot for himself).

Dortmunder isn’t budging–you can’t see your hand in front of your face at the bottom of that reservoir, because of the turbidity–all the muck that gets stirred up.   There’s no way to find the spot where the coffin full of money Tom cached there is buried.  He and Kelp were lucky to get out of there alive.  Kelp isn’t so sure–he’s been reading again.

“What it kind of reminds me of,” Andy said, “is a book I read once.”

John gave him a dubious look.  “Are we gonna hear about Child Heist again?”

“That isn’t the only book I ever read,” Andy told him.  “I’m a pretty big reader, you know.  It’s a habit I picked up on the inside, when I had a lotta leisure time to myself.

Tom said, “I spent my time on the inside thinking about money.”

“Anyway,” Andy insisted, “about this book.  It was a story about the Normandie, the ship that sank at the pier in New York in–”

“I got pictures of that,” John said, “in that Marine Salvage book.”

“Well, this is a different book,” Andy told him.  “It isn’t a fact book, it’s the other kind.  A story.”

“The Normandie‘s a fact,” John maintained.  “I’ve got pictures of it.”

“Still and all,” Andy said, “this is a story about the fact of the Normandie.  Okay?”

“Okay,” John said, “I just wanted to be sure we understood each other.”  and he filled his mouth with more pound cake, stuffing a little mocha butterscotch ice cream in around the edges.

“Well, the story, Andy said, with a little more edge than necessary, “is about the divers who went down inside the Normandie and tried to fix it up so they could float it again.  And I was thinking when I was down in that lake, what we had there was exactly the same as what this guy described in the book.”

John looked at him with flat disbelief.  “Down in that lake?  You were down in that lake and you were thinking about books?”

“Among other things.”

“I was concentrating on the other things,” John said.

May wants Dortmunder to do the right thing, save those people, get his share of the money, and not drown himself, which is  a lot to pull off, even in exchange for her tuna casserole, pound cake and mocha butterscotch ice cream (which sounds horrible, but hey, more chocolate chip mint for me).  So she asks Andy to find that book, and get the name of the author, so they can call him and try to learn the secrets of defeating turbidity.

The author’s name turns out to be Justin Scott.  He wrote a lot of books about boats and salvaging and stuff, and he wrote mysteries, and he often liked to combine the two, and he still does, sometimes under pseudonyms.  Westlake mentions him in the dedication to this book.  Apparently Westlake called upon the fraternal bond of the Mystery Writers of America to get some technical data from Mr. Scott, who also agreed to be featured in an offstage cameo in Drowned Hopes.  Talking to Kelp on the phone.  Well really, who wouldn’t agree to that?

So Andy bends his ear, telling a story about how he’s a huge fan, and this friend of his upstate dropped a very expensive camera in this pond, and there’s all this turbidity, and isn’t there some way to find that camera that world-renowned author Justin Scott would know about?   Mr. Scott says he’s had calls of this general nature before, though with a slightly different objective.

“Reason I know is, my novel The Shipkiller is always falling overboard. It’s about boats, and sailors drop it in the water accidentally.  I know it’s accidental because they call me up for another copy.  They can’t find it in the stores.  Well, I can’t find it in the stores either, and—”

“A truly excellent novel,” Kelp silenced the writer.  “My friend on Parmalee Pond admired it greatly, my friend who dropped his camera.  Overboard.”

Dortmunder watched Kelp with grudging admiration; this crock of horse elbows just flowed out of the guy with no effort at all.

Mr. Scott probably doesn’t get calls like this so often, now that you can just find used books online.  Calls about salvaging sunken valuables maybe he still gets.

(Since 2009, Justin Scott has been collaborating on a series of novels with best-selling author Clive Cussler!  Translation: Justin Scott has been writing nautically themed novels by himself, trying not to make them so good that people get suspicious, then Cussler puts his name on them next to his, and Scott gets a split of the greatly increased take.  It’s called ‘expanding the brand.’  I’m tempted to call it The Dirk Pitts, but nobody ever said making a living as a novelist was easy.  Well, Cussler might say that, privately.  And doesn’t this sound a bit like the premise of a Westlake novel published in 2000?  Which sounded in turn a bit like the premise of a Patricia Highsmith novel published in 1950.  Mr. Scott, I trust no services other than writing were required of you?)

Sadly, Mr. Scott can offer no useful input, other than to say that 80% of salvage divers working in these sightless underwater conditions went insane from claustrophobia.  20% were able to work by feel alone to get the job done.  Dortmunder is in no doubt regarding which percentile he’d be in.  (Me neither–I pushed the panic button on my MRI after ten seconds in that lined coffin.  Ultrasound scan worked just fine.)

Dortmunder wakes up that night, cussing a blue streak–he’s thought of another way to get at the money.  So he’s got to go back down there again.  Why was he cursed with this criminal genius?

It’s trains again.   Like the Tom Thumb, from The Hot Rock, which Kelp cheerfully informs a mystified Wally about as they find the spot where the tracks of the now (obviously defunct) Dudson, Endicott & Western disappear into the water–the good old DE&W (heh).

The train tracks go right through the center of Putkin’s Corners, right by the site of the buried treasure.  So the plan is to figure out some way to roll right down those tracks in a vehicle of some type, avoiding excessive turbidity, then float the coffin to the surface.  The town is in a valley.  Gravity will provide most of the needed propulsion.   Poling will provide the rest.

But now they need money again for the necessaries.   Tom has a bunch of little stashes all over the place, but none nearby.  He grudgingly agrees to take Dortmunder out west, to his old stomping grounds of Oklahoma (and in Tom’s case, we may assume the stomping was not metaphorical).  To a little town name of Cronley.   And this, believe it or not, constitutes yet another friendly shout-out to a fellow mystery writer.  Who certainly seems to have been a kindred comic capering spirit (and he’s also still around, and still working out of Oklahoma).

If you’ve never heard of him, you still might have heard of this–

Damn, this guy gets good artwork.  None of his stuff is evailable, and some of his first editions are really pricey, but I loved the Bill Murray movie (on cable, I missed it in the theater like nearly everybody else), and I expect I’ll get around to him in due course.

So as they head for the now-deserted (or very nearly) town of Cronley, Tom gives Dortmunder, who is rather disturbed by the sheer flatness of the place, a little impromptu history lesson.  Why is the Oklahoma town he stashed this money in just as dead as the upstate NY town that got turned into a lake?

“See, Oklahoma stayed dry after Prohibition. What it is, you take people, you give them a lot of trouble and misery, what they always do, every single time, Al, you can set your watch by this, what they do is, they decide God gave them all this trouble and misery because they done something wrong, so if they give themselves even more trouble and misery maybe God’ll let up on them.  You see it everywhere.  In the Middle Ages–a guy inside told me this–back then, the big way to keep from getting the plague was to beat yourself with whips.  So Oklahoma, poor and miserable and dry as dust, decided to make itself even drier so then maybe God would leave them alone.  So, no booze.”

“That was the mistake?” Dortmunder asked.  “That’s what killed Cronley?  No booze?”

“It set the situation up,” Tom answered.  “See, what happens is, you put a law on the books, no matter how dumb it is, sooner or later somebody’s gonna come along dumb enough to enforce it.  That’s what happened back in the fifties.  Oklahoma cops boarded a through passenger train and arrested the bartender in the bar car for serving drinks in a dry state.”

“Wait a minute,” Dortmunder said.  “On the train?”

“The through train, comin in this side of the state, going out that side.  Took the barman off, put him in jail overnight, the railroad people come around the next day and got him out.”  Tom did that thing of grinning without moving his lips.  “Fun night for the barman, huh?  Al, you’re gonna take that county road up there.”

And according to Tom Jimson, this is what led the railroad (or Amtrak as we now call it) to eventually shut down all railway lines in the entire state of Oklahoma, and that’s why no trains go through that state to this very day.   Now I probably would have remembered to fact-check this, but Greg Tulonen (and Cecil Adams) saved me the trouble.  And as was sometimes the case with Mr. Westlake’s little history lessons, some creative liberties were taken with what was undoubtedly a bizarre episode in the annals of American mass transit.

Dortmunder takes that county road, and turns out Tom hid the dough in the sewage system of the town’s tallest structure (all of five stories), the Cronley Hotel.  Figured nobody would ever look for it there.   Figured right.  What nobody figured was that one of his screwed ex-partners (one he didn’t get around to murdering) would have gotten out of a really bad stretch in prison that happened due to Tom being a treacherous bastard on general principle, and he’s been haunting the ghost town of Cronley ever since, hoping Tom would come back for the loot, and he’d get them both–the loot and Tom’s head.

He’s seen them all come and go, the hippies, the scavengers looking for odds and ends, the urban archeologists and other such folks, and he’s outlasted them all, just waiting for that one supreme moment of his life when he gets his own back.  He got some sex from a good-hearted hippie chick once (The Great God Westlake taking pity on a fool), but other than that, he’s had the typical life of a batty old hermit living for revenge.

So this fella, name of Guffey (he can’t remember his first name anymore), who thinks Tom Jimson is named Tim Jepson (close enough, and maybe he was for a while), gets the drop on Dortmunder, and then Tom/Tim/Whoever comes up behind him and knocks him out with a smelly wine bottle stuffed with cash.  Now here’s where you’d think Tom would tie up a loose end and kill the guy (as Parker would have done in a New York minute), but Dortmunder doesn’t want to be party to any killings, and the beat-down wreck of a human being that is Guffey just doesn’t seem worth the effort.   Thing is, Tom, people can fool you sometimes.

We then get a nice little meet-up at the OJ Bar and Grill, where Kelp gets to listen in on an argument about where these damn yuppies came from–there’s a dispute among the regulars as to whether they are aliens from outer space, or the new buildings they’re moving into are sort of roach motels put up by aliens from outer space in order to lure them in and then take them to outer space, where they’ll be kept in zoos for the amusement of said aliens.  I’m taking no position on this, as both opinions seem reasonable.   This is where Stan Murch is introduced to Tom, and briefed on the situation at hand, as you see up top.

So Stan is tasked with obtaining a car specially modified to run on the train tracks down into the reservoir.  As cheaply as possible.   To this end, he and his mom go searching for an extra-special car to steal,  which turns out to be a dove-gray Aston-Martin with diplomat plates–perfect!   The New York cops will barely even pretend to look for it, hating diplomats and their immunity as they traditionally do.

The car is intended as a gift for Max, proprietor of Maximilian’s Used Cars, somewhere around the border of the far fringes of Brooklyn and Queens, out near the Nassau county line.  Outlaw country.  Max and his fabled automotive emporium were introduced in Jimmy the Kid, I believe, and this is his first appearance in the series since then.   His first appearance here at The Westlake Review as well.   Not his last, I trust.

The relationship is simple–Stan lifts cars, Max pays him as little as he can get away with, then sells the merchandise for as much as he can.  It seems that without Stan, Max would never have anything but junkers and lemons on his lot–he can sell junkers and lemons, but you like that extra touch of class to give the suckers, I mean customers, a bit of hope.

(Sidebar: Stan never hotwires the cars he steals–he’s got a ring of keys, and sooner or later he finds one that will unlock the car and start the ignition.  Was this really a thing?  Even if it was, given all the security tech now embedded in modern autos, I’d assume it wouldn’t work anymore.  So what would Stan have nowadays?  Some little gizmo that keeps sending electronic pulses to the car’s sensors until it hits the right one?   Is that a thing now?

You can always just put the car on a flatbed truck and drive away with it.  That’s what happened to my friend’s old reliable Toyota Camry.  Heisted over near the George Washington Bridge, taken off to New Jersey, probably meant for the used car market in Latin America, or else they were going to chop it.  The cops found the car theft ring in Paramus, if memory serves, but by that time my friend had the insurance money and a new Ford Escape, which he still has.

But I was there when he discovered the theft, his jaw kind of hanging down to the sidewalk as he gaped at the space his car had occupied only an hour or so before (and do I need to mention that many many people drove right by on that busy bridge-access road, as the theft was occurring in broad daylight?   I guess it’s kind of humorous in retrospect.  I wouldn’t have given him any Dortmunder novels to read around that time.  It’s funnier to read about than experience.  I’ve never owned a car, so I’m Murch-proof.  End-sidebar.)

So anyway, Stan and Max have their usual lively discourse, and as they’re out there on the lot, there’s these swarthy gentlemen eagerly perusing an ancient ugly Chevy Impala, which no reasonable person would want, but they do, and Stan suddenly starts talking about how perfect this car would be for a suicide bomber, and the guys make their excuses and leave in something of a hurry.

Max is livid–why would Stan do such a thing?  Sure, probably that’s what they wanted it for, but so what?  All that means is that they’ll never come back complaining about how the car broke down on them, as most of the cars he sells invariably do.  Good hard cash, no returns.  The Perfect Customer.   Stan points out that he would shortly afterwards receive a visit from the FBI, who could not arrest him for the legal sale of the Impala, but would surely notice all the many other illegal activities going down there at the lot.

Max realizes Stan did him a huge favor–and we realize that these guys will eventually just rent a van,  try to blow up the World Trade Center with it, then claim it was stolen in order to try and get the four hundred dollar deposit back, and if there was one problem Westlake had about writing realistic crime stories it’s that he hated writing about stupid criminals.

So for doing Max a solid, Stan gets in return, absolutely free, an AMC Hornet, with the necessary alterations (engine removed, top taken off) made by Max’s mighty mechanics.  Stan had intended to give Max the nearly-new Aston-Martin in order to get this favor, but now he will simply sell Max that creampuff for a price so low he’s practically giving it away.

(And hey–it’s not spelled out–but wouldn’t Tom’s Cronley stash have mainly been for the purposes of getting this car and the alterations needed to turn it into a sort of gravity-powered locomotive/submarine?  So did Stan just pocket the cash they gave him, produce the vehicle without a lot of unnecessary details regarding its procurement, and get paid again by Max into the bargain?   Not a man to underestimate, Mr. Murch.)

So it’s time to pull the heist.  Again.   Off to the reservoir.  Again.  This time with Stan Murch, in addition to Dortmunder, Kelp, Tiny Bulcher, and Tom Jimson.  The string keeps getting longer.   Tom is supposed to get half of the 700k, and the remaining funds get split up between whoever Dortmunder needs to do this thing without dynamite.  Tom keeps going “Hee Hee” every time somebody mentions the split.  A whimsical fellow.

And here comes what may well be the only Buster Keaton reference in a series of books I have good reason to believe was at least partly inspired by The Great Stone Face.

The thing is, the railroad doesn’t have handcars anymore.  Those terrific old handcars with the seesaw type of double handle so one guy would push down while the other guy facing him pulled up, and then vice versa, and the handcar would go zipping along the track, that old kind of handcar that guys like Buster Keaton used to travel on, they don’t have them anymore.  All the good things are gone: wood Monopoly houses, Red Ryder, handcars.

Which is why the big sixteen-wheeler that Stan Murch airbraked to a coughing stop at the railway crossing on the old road west of Vilburgtown Reservoir at one A.M. on that cloudless but moonless night did not contain a handcar.  What it contained instead, in addition to diving gear and a winch and other equipment, was a weird hybrid vehicle that had mostly been, before the surgical procedures began, a 1976 American Motors Hornet.  A green Hornet, in fact; so not everything is gone.

And still not gone–I can’t find one converted into a handcar, but I found this pretty easy. Just try to imagine it with the top sawed off and the tires deflated, and you get the general picture.  Just mentally airbrush out the happy picnickers.  Little do they know the bizarre and terrible fate that awaits Old Betsy.  Please don’t tell them.  It might upset their digestion.197620amc20passenger20cars-17

So as we and Dortmunder wait to learn what goes wrong this time, we are moved to ask–what about Bob?  Bob whose wedding got crashed by the gang in the First Down, Bob who got his girlfriend pregnant and reluctantly tied the knot, Bob who works inside the dam Tom Jimson still wishes he could blow up just for the sheer hell of it, Bob who saw a struggling gasping Dortmunder break the surface of the reservoir during the last salvage attempt, and assumed he was a lake monster, Bob who then decided he was going to become a mercenary and leave this unsatisfactory Dudsonian life of his behind forever, Bob who was unable to find a copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine, and ended up coming back home, and had to accept psychiatric counseling as a condition of keeping his job and his pregnant wife?   That Bob.  You surely could not have forgotten.

So as Dortmunder and Kelp climb into their green Hornet (obviously Kelp is Kato), and start rolling down the train tracks into the murky depths (with full air tanks, obviously, and slightly shady dive shop proprietor Doug Berry is still trying to figure out if he can grab a piece for himself of whatever they’re after), and coast down to the very bottom, and the large quantity of ping pong balls they brought with them to float the coffin to the surface (an idea Wally’s computer might not wish to take credit for now) become more and more buoyant as they get deeper, and start lifting the Hornet (never a large car to start with, and significantly lightened by the removal of its engine and roof) up off the tracks, taking Dortmunder and Kelp with it, back up to the surface of the water, only upside-down this time, Bob, who gazing up at the starry skies,  coming to terms with his sheer insignificance in the cosmic scheme, just then reaching a state of calm acceptance of his unsatisfactory Dudsonian life, has yet another epiphany, influenced no doubt by reading too many science fiction stories and maybe supermarket tabloids, I couldn’t say for sure,  I love run-on sentences, don’t you?

A submarine?  In the reservoir?  Ridiculous.  It couldn’t possibly–

And then, with a sudden leap in his heart, Bob knew.  A spaceship!  A flying saucer!   A spaceship from the stars, from the stars!   Visiting earth secretly, by night, hiding here in the reservoir, taking its measurements or doing whatever it was doing, now rising up out of the water, going back, back to the stars!   To the stars!

Bob ran forward, arms upraised in supplication.  “Take me with you!” he screamed, and tripped over a root, and crashed flat onto the ground at the edge of the water, knocking himself cold.

(The notion of a human secretly wishing to be abducted by aliens could have been obtained from any number of sources, including Westlake’s own youthful yearnings, but I would like to think he at some point read this classic story by James Tiptree Jr., aka Alice Sheldon.  It’s not only the women men don’t see who might like to get off this dead end dirtball sometimes.   Plenty of beaten-down males out there, o my sisters, with your faces filled of light.)

So once more–defeat.   Kelp and Dortmunder emerge yet again dripping with muck, and devoid of cash.  Dortmunder, now quite certain this reservoir will not rest easy until it has drowned him, emerges from his aspiring watery grave, divests himself of everything but his underpants and boots, and stomps off going “Oo!  Oo!  Oo!.”   Nobody tries to talk to him.  It would not be prudent at this juncture.  And the Second Down concludes.

So this is just a bit under 5,000 words.  For a section totaling 78 pages.  And I have two more Downs to go.   I am literally drowning in detail trying to review this book in all its labyrinthine intricacies, and I still had to leave things out.

Oo!  Is that an alien spacecraft I see?   TAKE ME WITH YOU!!!!!

They left without me.  No room left in the ark.  Damn yuppies.  Okay, fine, see you next week.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books, and there’s a lot of them in this one).


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Drowned Hopes, First Down


A secret is revealed.

But why is it a secret?  The treasure is hidden, but it isn’t a secret.  Comment.

Tom plus treasure is the secret.

That’s right.  So it matters to Tom that he has a secret.  Comment.

One secret means more secrets.

Tom is a man with many secrets.  Also, Andy and the one called John were both afraid of Tom, but they tried to hide that.  Comment.

Tom is the warlord.

Does Andy work for Tom?

The warlord stays in his castle, surrounded by minions.

Are Andy and John minions?


What are the roles of minions?

Guard.  Soldier.  Knight.  Spy.

So Andy is a knight, employed by Tom.  Andy does knight errands for Tom.  Andy is a knight-errand.  What is John?

John is the spy.

No. The characteristic of spies is that they look trustworthy but are not.  John does not look trustworthy.  Comment.

Tom is the warlord.  Andy is the knight.  There is nothing to guard, so John is the soldier.

But what do they want?

The treasure beneath the water.

The cascade of doom, yes.  But why do they want it?  What is it?

More information is necessary.

Loudly the bell in the old tower rings,
Bidding us list to the warning it brings:
Sailor, take care! Sailor, take care!
Danger is near thee, beware! Beware!
Beware! Beware!”
Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep,
So Beware! BEEEEE-warrrrre!

Arthur J. Lamb

And now we come to the longest, the darkest, the weirdest, and by far the wettest of all the Dortmunder novels.  Fully twice the length of a normal book in this series, even longer than Butcher’s Moon, the ultimate Richard Stark epic.  422 pages in the first edition.  A veritable airport novel of a heist book, though it’s debatable whether any actual heists are seen in it. Maybe if you count grand theft auto as heisting, which Stan Murch probably would.  Andy Kelp just borrows cars from wise physicians who understand the fragility of life, so he probably wouldn’t.

There’s something for everyone here.  In many ways a summing up of everything Westlake had done with the Dortmunder franchise to date, and a return to the recurrent theme of the habitual crime–the job you have to keep pulling over and over again, until you get it right, or until it gets you.  That’s how he’d started off, with The Hot Rock.  He’d tried it again, much less successfully, with Nobody’s Perfect, and then you might say he inverted it with Why Me?

Here Dortmunder is trying, over and over again, to recover money that was stolen a long time ago by a past acquaintance he devoutly wishes had remained in the past, that is now lying at the bottom of a reservoir in upstate New York.  And if he thought he was having problems with the Balabomo Emerald, or Folly Leads Man to Ruin, or even the Byzantine Fire, well he ain’t seen nothing yet.  Westlake had given him a pretty nice day out with the previous escapade, the one where he rescued a nun, and walked away with a small fortune in valuables, and I think Dortmunder would have been quite happy if his saga had ended right there, with him and May lounging on a beach in Aruba.  But we his devoted readership would not.   Get off of that beach, Dortmunder–once more into the breach with you.

And once more, much to his disgust, he’s being forced to do a good deed.   The kind of job Richard Stark would never impose on Parker.   But there is much of Stark about this story, and most of all in its primary antagonist, Tom Jimson, whose name is an anagram of Jim Thompson, whose novel The Grifters Westlake was adapting into a film when he first started work on this novel.

And I’ve already explained in the previous article here that I don’t actually think anything Thompson wrote was much of an influence on this book, except perhaps for one brief interlude set in Oklahoma, where Thompson originally hailed from, and even that isn’t really what you’d call Thompson-esque.

Westlake would also have been thinking about a certain flowering weed, and as I explained last time, one of the basic story ideas in this book is probably lifted from a novel by Dan J. Marlowe.   But as always when he borrowed from fellow writers, Westlake so drastically remodeled the merchandise as to transform it into something entirely new, and in many respects, superior to the original.

Taking all this into account, Tom is most of all a symptom of something we’re going to see a lot of in the first half of Westlake’s work from the 90’s–Westlake starting to recover that part of himself that was Richard Stark.

What’s the biggest difference between a Parker novel and a Dortmunder novel?  Lots of people die in the first, absolutely no one in the second.  Not so here.  Death comes to the Dortmunder-verse, for the first and I believe only time (offstage deaths don’t count).  Actual death and potential death, the latter looming over an entire town, like the Johnstown Flood (referred to in the book–kinda).  This is the grim outcome Dortmunder must somehow prevent in this case.  Because he is our champion.  Whether he likes it or not.

Is Tom Jimson the Dortmunder-verse’s equivalent of Parker?   No, because that’s Dortmunder himself.  Tom’s something else again [Tom is the warlord]–computer, if I want you to start writing these reviews, I will let you know, okay? We’ll have plenty of time to talk about Tom.  Three more articles after this one.  This is just the First Down.  (Westlake divided the book into four main parts and one brief epilogue, which in his ineffable quirkiness he called ‘downs’, like this was some sort of aquatic football game, and actually isn’t there such a game in reality?–oh never mind.)

Check your tanks, spit on your masks, and we’ll start the dive.   Mind the sharks.  Not normally a problem in New York reservoirs but this book is the exception to every rule.

Dortmunder comes back from a typically harrowing honest night’s burglary (dogs.  why is it always dogs?), only to find May waiting up, and there’s a guest with her.  Tom Jimson.  I mentioned him already.  A tall wiry cold-eyed heister out of Oklahoma and the dust bowl era, and boy does he look it.  He used to be in Dillinger’s string–called him ‘Dilly.’  He addresses Dortmunder as ‘Al’ for reasons you can read the book to learn (Westlake’s reasons probably have something to do with Ring Lardner, but it’s worth noting Westlake’s father was named Albert).

“Well I’ll be goddamned,” Dortmunder says, “They let you out.”  He seems less pleased than you would expect by a colleague’s reprieve.

They roomed together in prison for a while.  Tom, who more or less defines the word ‘recidivist,’ and a few other terms derived from criminology, was never supposed to get out, but as he explains, there’s all kinds of unqualified people committing armed robbery these days, amateurs on drugs, screwing up the whole profession, and the prisons are so full of these yo-yo’s they gave him what they call compassionate release at age 70.  But ya know, just because somebody’s compassionate to you does that mean you have to respond in kind?  Golden Rule?   He who has the gold…..

Tom made a big score before he went inside, all of 700 g’s (he had a few partners, but they’re all dead, which seems to happen to pretty much everyone he ever works with, hmm…).  He buried the cash in an airtight coffin of all things, in this little upstate New York burg called Putkin’s Corners.  But then the cops nabbed him for something else (he likes to keep busy–the devil really does make work for idle hands, it seems), and then just a few years after the heist, the state of New York, in its infinite wisdom, built a dam that put Putkin’s Corners under water, for keeps.

I mean, they moved the people out first, of course.  Bureaucrats, always adding unnecessary details to a job.  Tom favors a more efficient approach than those pork barrel politicians.  He wants his money.  The water is in the way.  He wants to blow up the dam, dig up the coffin, retire to Mexico.  He’s asking Dortmunder if he’ll help out for a cut.  He doesn’t mention the dynamite part up front.  He probably figures that part of it goes without saying.  Dortmunder has never particularly relished the thought of working with this guy, but 700 g’s is 700 g’s, so they rent a car and check it out.

It’s a large dam–the kind you can drive over.  The kind that even has offices and stuff inside of it.  A whole lot of water behind that dam.   And right in front of the dam lie several slightly less forgotten small towns (all of them with Dudson in the name), that still have people in them.  This is where Tom chooses to mention the dynamite part of the job.   Dortmunder doesn’t shock that easy.  He’s shocked.

“Everybody asleep down there,” Dortmunder said, musing, imagining it, “and here comes the water.  That’s your idea.”

Tom looked through the chain-link fence at the peaceful valley.  His gray cold eyes gleamed in his gray cold face.  “Asleep in their beds,” he said.  “Asleep in somebody’s bed anyway.  You know who those people are?”

Dortmunder shook his head, watching that stony profile.

Tom said, “Nobodies.  Family men hustlin for an extra dollar, an extra dime, sweating all over their shirts, getting nowhere.  Women turnin fat.  Kids turning stupid.  No difference between day and night because nobody’s goin anywhere anyway.  Miserable little small-town people with their miserable little small-town dreams.”  The lips moved in what might have been a smile.  “A flood,” he said.  “Most excitin thing ever happened to them, am I right?”

“No, Tom,” Dortmunder said.

And he means it.  And just for the record, I think Parker would say the same thing.  This is nuts.   It’s not morality speaking here, or humanity.  It’s sanity.   Something Tom Jimson said goodbye to, maybe during all those years in prison, maybe sooner.

You know how I’m sure Westlake didn’t intend Tom as a satiric Parker?  He talks too damn much.  The one thing Dortmunder most remembers about Tom in prison is that he never stopped gabbing.  He even talks too much about how he talks too much, explains that it comes from being alone so much of the time, so once he’s in the company of somebody else on the bend that he can open up to, the words just come pouring out.

He’s actually a pretty eloquent guy, with a lot of interesting and deeply nihilistic ideas.  In that respect, not much like Blackie, the character from Dan J. Marlowe’s Four For The Money (see previous article).  Much more like like Tyrone Ten Eyck from The Spy In The Ointment, without the political gloss, or the inherited wealth, or a formal education.  Just for the record, we’re told there’s a Ten Eyck Hill overlooking this reservoir.  Westlake was never averse to borrowing from himself, either.

Tom explains, with unusual insight for a sociopath, that other people just aren’t real to him.  He can wipe out all those lives without losing a minute’s sleep.  Well maybe just one minute–to chuckle softly, envisioning the townspeople’s reaction when the water hits them, all those astonished gurgling sounds.   You can’t accuse him of not having a sense of humor, anyway.

So they drive back to the city, and as they do, Dortmunder is made to understand that his refusal to participate in this dam(ned) job hasn’t dampened Tom’s enthusiasm in the slightest.  He’s got a list.  Dortmunder was at the top of it.   He’ll just keep going down it until he finds some guys who’ll do it, and then they’ll do it.  This is the part of the book where Parker would just pull out a gun and shoot Tom for being a liability.  Unfortunately, Dortmunder can’t do that either.

So most unhappily, he proposes to Tom that he will find a way to get at the money without blowing up the dam.   Although Tom doesn’t quite see the point of going to all that trouble, he is forced to concede that the manhunt for a gang of mass murderers might be a slight hitch in his retirement plans.  But where’s he going to stay in the meantime?    Guess.

May is most displeased with the ensuing domestic situation (Tom likes to watch television in the living room and cackle loudly when somebody gets hurt or killed), and though she’s no rat, she does broach the tender subject of maybe just telling the law what Tom wants to do. Yes, she understands it’s not professional, but maybe they could make an exception to the sacred heister’s code of ethics, just this once?  Particularly since it only exists in crime fiction, anyway?

Dortmunder points out that the law can’t arrest Tom on the basis of hearsay evidence regarding something he hasn’t done yet.  All they could do (since he’s not on parole) is give him a stern talking to, tell him “Don’t you dare blow up that dam, you mischievous old rapscallion!  You should know better at your age!”  Tom would then murder Dortmunder and May for informing on him, then blow up the damn dam in spite of the civics lecture, because that’s the kind of thing people who have said goodbye to sanity tend to do.   Just because Dortmunder won’t kill for money doesn’t mean he’ll die for nothing.   They need some help from their side of the law.

So as ever, the call goes out for that hero of heroes, Andy Kelp, who is just then engaged in some serious shoplifting at an establishment called Serious Business.   It’s some kind of techie store.  Games, apps, etc.  His cellphone rings.  Yes, of course he has a cellphone already, have you not been paying attention?   If there’s a gizmo, a geegaw or a doodad to be had out there, Kelp already has it, and odds are he didn’t pay for it.

Dortmunder is confused.  He called Kelp at home.  Oh now he remembers, the forwarding thing.  They talked about that in Why Me?     But see, now Kelp can forward his calls to a compartment in his voluminous many-pocketed peacoat, now bristling with pilfered wares, of the soft variety.   As he prepares to head over to the apartment, figuring there must be a job in the offing, he thinks about how Dortmunder should have a PC.   But Andy, he’s the creative type–shouldn’t you steal him a Mac?

Yes, at long last, the cyber-age has impinged upon the literary domain of Donald E. Westlake.  At the very moment in history that Westlake was writing this book, a fellow named Tim Berners-Lee was writing the code that would shortly lead to the World Wide Web (and just typing those words, I realize they would make Dortmunder very very nervous–isn’t a web something you catch unwary flies in to suck their blood?  That’s exactly what it is, John).

The Dortmunders are always about social change to some extent, but never more than in this book.   Westlake, still working on a manual typewriter, couldn’t know just how soon even technoklutzes like me would become intrepid navigators of the netscape, but he could see the general trends emerging, with his usual precognitive perspicacity.

And he could see just as easily that a certain class of formerly despised persons would now suddenly be in great demand. You know.  Nerds.   There was a movie in the 80’s, you may recall.  But this particular nerd isn’t the vengeful type.  Well, not in three dimensions, anyway.  Wally Knurr wouldn’t hurt anybody.   Though I could imagine him possibly someday filing a lawsuit against the producers of The Big Bang Theory.

You roll aside the two giant boulders and the tree trunk.  You find the entrance to a cave, covered by a furry hide curtain.  You thrust this aside and see before you the cave of the Thousand-Toothed Ogre.

Wally Knurr wiped sweat from his brow.  Careful, now; this could be a trap.  Fat fingers tense over the keyboard, he spat out:

Describe this lair.

A forty-foot cube with a domed ceiling.  The rock walls have been fused into black ice by the molten breath of the Nether Dragon.  On fur-covered couches loll a half-dozen well-armed Lizard Men, members of the Sultan’s Personal Guard.  Against the far wall, Princess Labia is tied to a giant wheel, slowly rotating.

Are the Lizard Men my enemies?

Not in this encounter.

Are the Lizard Men my allies?

Only if you show them the proper authorization.

Wally Knurr is  twenty-four years old, four feet fix inches tall, exceedingly plump, friendly, and perennially damp.   Companionable though he is, he does not have a lot of friends, but one he does have is Andy Kelp, who shares his passion for computers–they met at a computer course Wally was giving at the New School For Social Research.  Kelp sees Wally as a potentially useful ally, to whom he need show no authorization–Kelp, as we have seen, collects people as eagerly as he collects devices.

Kelp brings Dortmunder and Tom to see Wally, figuring Wally’s computer might be able to find a solution to getting that money out of the reservoir without resort to high explosives.     They are necessarily vague about the parameters of the problem, telling Wally they’re doing a sort of treasure hunt, a game.

Wally is naive, not stupid (he lives in a very bad neighborhood), and just one look at Tom tells him these guys are not playing around.   That conversation he’s having with his computer up top is basically him using the computer’s pre-programmed responses to tell himself what he already knows–which isn’t much. A sort of gamer’s version of symbolic logic.  Useful to a point, but not very rooted in reality.  More information is necessary.  And he’ll be getting plenty of that as his latest scenario unfolds–as he thinks later in the book–“Real life.  The greatest interactive fiction of them all.”   Indeed.

As he was in Jimmy the Kid, when Kelp suggested using a lousy crime paperback as the blueprint for a kidnapping, Dortmunder is offended that Kelp is bringing in yet another amateur to do his job for him.  He’s the planner.  But underwater salvage isn’t really his area.  He’s reading up on it–he finds a book in the library, Marine Salvage, by one Joseph N. Gores.   Here it is–check out the subtitle on the first edition–“The Unforgiving Business of No Cure, No Pay.”   You know, there’s something familiar about that style…..

Donald Westlake also collected potentially useful people, and as it happens, this is the very same Joseph Nicholas Gores who ended up writing crime fiction for a living, with whom Westlake had formed a close friendship (Marine Salvage was only his second published book, from 1971)–one of Gores’ DKA novels crosses-over with the Parker novel Plunder Squad (from 1972).  And in fact, one of his novels in the same franchise crosses-over with Drowned Hopes, but I’m not ready to talk about that yet.   (Nor am I ready to shell out for a copy of Marine Salvage, because damned if it’s not a lot more expensive than most of his crime books).

John and Andy head back to Wally’s apartment to hear what he and the computer have come up with–to wit–

  1. Laser Evaporation
  2. Spaceship From Zog (don’t ask)
  3. Magnet
  4. Ping Pong Balls
  5. Plastic Bag

John tries not to look too smug, and Andy tries to look somewhere else.  But in fact, John’s preliminary research tells him some of these ideas are potentially workable.  Not the first three, though.  Not in this genre.

But they need to actually go under the water to make anything work.   Meaning they need diving equipment, which is to say sporting equipment, and when New Yorkers need sporting equipment, they go to a sporting goods store; in fact the Paragon of all such stores.  Mr. Westlake takes some pleasure in informing us that their underwater equipment is sold on the top floor, even though they have a perfectly good basement (where I have on occasion purchased footwear).  I have just now ascertained this is no longer the case, that the diving gear is currently located at street level, and they no longer sell oxygen tanks.  They did then (at least in this book), but there’s a catch.

Kelp said, “You know, you’re not supposed to drive a car without a license, too, but I bet some people do.”

She gave him a severe look and shook her head.  From a sunny happy healthy young woman she had segued with amazing suddenness into the world’s most disapproving Sunday School Teacher.  “It doesn’t work quite the same way,” she said, sounding pleased about that.  Pointing at the display of tanks, she said “I’ll sell you as many of those as you want.  But they’re empty.  And the only place you can get them filled is an accredited dive shop.  And they won’t fill them unless you show them your certification or agree to have an instructor go with you.”  Her look of satisfaction was pretty galling.  “Diving or walking, gentlemen,” she said, “you will not want to go very far underwater, or for very long, with empty tanks.  If you’ll excuse me?”  And she turned on her heel and went off to sell a $350 Dacor Seachute BCD to a deeply tanned Frenchman with offensively thick and glossy hair.

Leaving, slinking away, clumping morosely down the wide stairs towards Paragon’s street level with their tails between their legs, Dortmunder said, “Okay.  We gotta getta guy.”

(Though the location and variety of the diving equipment at Paragon Sports may have changed, this I can assure you–that pitying look the younger salespeople there direct at you when you say something stupid has not.)

Dortmunder just figures they can walk on the floor of the reservoir to the area where the money is buried, and dig it up.  Simple, right?  But they need somebody to show them how to use the equipment, so they avail themselves of the services of yet another expert, Doug Berry, the tanned blonde proprietor of South Shore Dive Shop in Islip, Long Island.

Doug’s not quite exactly on the bend, but he’s not 100% on the up and up either. He’s one of those in-between guys who tend not to fare so well in Westlake novels (always a first time).   He knows a guy named Mikey Donelli (Donnelly? Doug’s not sure, and he’s afraid to ask).  Mikey provides him with fine diving equipment to sell his customers, at a bargain price, and Doug doesn’t ask why the price is so good.  But now Mikey’s providing him with two customers, and Doug’s not supposed to ask them too many questions either.  But he gets the general picture–there’s money somewhere, lots of it, at the bottom of a body of fresh water, and in his mind, it’s there for whoever gets to it first.   But that’s for later.  In the meantime, he’ll gladly train and equip these guys for a nice fee.

And John now has to remind Tom that since he’s the one who insists on getting this money from a place he shouldn’t have put it in the first place, he should be the one who finances the job, and it’s going to cost a pretty penny.  “Oh I dunno,” Tom said.  “Dynamite and life are cheap.”   He still hasn’t completely reconciled himself to the prospect of getting his loot without loss of life.  (In fact, there’s going to be loss of life no matter how they get it, but that’s also for later).

So they drive back up to Dudson Center, one of the towns Tom would like to see underwater in place of Putkin’s Corners, and crash a wedding.  The money’s stashed under the altar of the church, you see.  The Elizabeth Grace Dudson Memorial Reformed Congregational Unitarian Church of Putkin Township (depopulation has led to consolidation).  The wedding involves someone we’ll be seeing more of later in the book, but on the way there we see somebody who has already been introduced, one Myrtle Street, who happens to live on Myrtle Street, in Dudson Center.  Myrtle is described as being pretty, but not ostentatiously so (I figure maybe Anna Kendrick pretty, which is pretty good).

And she is, as we’ve already been informed, Tom Jimson’s illegitimate daughter. Her mother, Edna Street, had a brief ill-fated affair with Tom (as if there could be any other kind of affair with Tom) while he was in the area for criminal purposes, years before.  Edna, who had been devoutly circumspect about the identity of Myrtle’s dad, figuring like everybody else he ever met that nobody would ever be dumb enough to let him out of prison, blurted out his identity when she happened to see Tom driving by with Dortmunder some weeks back, thus arousing Myrtle’s curiosity about the nature of her long-lost progenitor. And now he’s down there again, with a larger group of suspicious-looking individuals.   It’s all very mysterious and exciting.

So back to the wedding, which has something of a shotgun aspect to it, the bride being pregnant.   Mr. Westlake’s first marriage, also perpetrated in upstate New York, may in fact have had a similar element of biological compulsion involved, but we don’t have much in the way of details.  He makes up for that with a wealth of detail regarding this wedding.  Jane Austen never provided more details of a wedding, but I’d say there’s considerably more prejudice than pride going on here.

Relatives of the bride continued to predominate for first ten minutes or so; giggling awkward large-jointed people wearing their “best” clothes, saved for weddings, funerals, Easter, and appearances in court.  Soon this group began to be supplemented by members of the groom’s family: skinnier, shorter, snake-hipped people with can opener noses and no asses, dressed in Naughahyde jackets and polyester shirts and vinyl trousers and plastic shoes, as though they weren’t human beings at all but were actually a chain dental service’s waiting room.  Intermixed with these, in warm-up jackets and pressed designer jeans, were the groom’s pals, acne-flaring youths full of sidelong looks and nervous laughter, knowing this was more than likely a foretaste of their own doom: “There but for the grace of the Akron Rubber Company go I.”  The bride’s girlfriends arrived in a too-crowded-car cluster and hovered together like magnetized iron filings, all demonstrating the latest soap opera fashion trends and each of them a sealed bubble of self-consciousness and self-absorption.  The groom, a jerky marionette in a rented tux, a wide-eyed pale boy with spiky hair and protuberant ears, appeared with his grim suspicious parents and entered the church with all the false macho assurance of Jimmy Cagney on his way to the electric chair.  The church door shut behind him with a hollower boom than it had given anyone else.

Mr. Westlake isn’t done with the groom yet, or the bride for that matter, but let’s leave that to one side for now, and observe that Tom’s stash is obtained, and Dortmunder & Kelp obtain their underwater training from Doug–at a high school pool in Islip, no less.  It’s more complicated than that, but I don’t have the time.

Wally Knurr, who has delighted Andy Kelp by informing him that he knows they’re obtaining stolen money from a reservoir (Tom is not so delighted) ventures himself to Dudson Center, and makes the acquaintance of Myrtle Street.

He is (understandably) smitten.  She is  (understandably) not.  Friendzones him in two seconds flat, but he shows her how to use the computer terminal at the library she works at, she is suitably grateful at finding out how useful digital information resources can be, and friendship with a gal like Myrtle is nothing to sneer at.   As much to her surprise as anyone’s, she introduces herself to Wally as Myrtle Jimson.   The Warlord’s Daughter!   A Princess!

And, as his computer aptly reminds him, The Purpose of the Princess is to be rescued.  This is the part where he thinks that thing about life being the greatest interactive fiction of them all, but somehow one sadly suspects he’ll never know the half of it where girls are concerned.

It just keeps getting more complicated–they need a really big strong guy to winch the coffin out of the reservoir, and also to keep Tom in his place.   Who better than Tiny Bulcher?   Still happily domiciled with the delectable J.C. Taylor (who most unhappily does not appear in this book), Tiny is approached by Dortmunder and Kelp during a meat heist he’s perpetrating in the wholesale meat section of Manhattan, on Ganesvoort Street (now better known for being an access point to The High Line)–he’s carrying an entire dead cow on his own meaty shoulders, as easily as you or I would tote two pounds of ground round.

After the usual string of reminiscently threatening remarks, he’s amenable to joining their enterprise–there’s just this one little bit of news they have to break to him.  One would not wish to say this to Mr. Bulcher’s face, or anywhere near it, but–well, listen in, as they and the dead cow are traveling together in yet another unfortunate physician’s purloined automobile.

Tiny thought about that.  “From inside?”

“That’s the one,” Dortmunder agreed.  “That’s where we both knew him.  He was my cellmate awhile.”

“Nasty poisonous old son of a bitch,” Tiny suggested.

“You’ve got the right guy,” Dortmunder told him.

“A snake with legs.”


“Charming as a weasel, and gracious as a ferret.”

“That’s Tom, okay.”

“He’d eat his own young even if he wasn’t hungry.”

“Well, he’s always hungry,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s true.” Tiny shook his head.  “Tom Jimson.  He was the worst thing about stir.”

Looking in the mirror, Kelp said, “Tiny, I never heard you talk like that before.  Like there was a guy out there somewhere that worried you.”

“Oh, yeah?”  Tiny frowned massively at this suggestion that another human being might give him pause.  “You’re lucky you don’t know the guy.”

At which point Mr. Bulcher must be informed that Kelp does know the guy, because the law was actually stupid enough to let said guy go, and they’re doing this job with said guy, upon which it becomes very difficult to persuade Tiny and his cow not to exit the vehicle.   Tom Jimson, Tiny points out, has a way of not having any partners left to split the take with after the job is over.  He is assured they’ll watch Tom carefully for any sign of treachery.  “Birds watch snakes” Tiny replies.   Yeah.  He’s scared.  (He’s scared!).  But it’s a lot of money.

So it is that the four of them, Dortmunder, Kelp, Bulcher, and (unfortunately) Tom arrive at the reservoir late one April night (in a doctor’s stolen Dodge motor home), and the first two of them, donned in scuba gear, march resolutely into the water, attempting to find the old blacktop road that will lead them to the site where the money is buried.  They have underwater flashlights and everything. Much good it does them.

As they walk along the silt-encrusted floor, they stir up debris.  Turbidity, it’s known as in salvaging circles (you learn so much in these books!).  Visibility goes from bad to non-existent. There’s also stumps of felled trees, and various other unanticipated obstacles to ground navigation.  Their feet become enmired in the mud.  Dortmunder’s boots come off.  They don’t know where they are.   They don’t know how long they’ve been down there.  They don’t know which direction is up.  They panic.  You can imagine a self-satisfied look on the face of the girl at Paragon Sports right about now.

Kelp remembers his gizmo that controls buoyancy, and surfaces.  Dortmunder does not, and has to be winched all the way back in by Tiny.  In the process, he scares the living hell out of the young man we just saw get married a few chapters back, who works nights inside the dam, and thinks Dortmunder is some kind of lake monster.  Nobody believes him, of course.  Nobody will ever believe him.

So really, a typical first attempt in a Dortmunder novel.   And equally typical is Dortmunder’s reaction, much as Kelp tries to deny it.

This creature, looking in fact less like a sea serpent and more like one of the clay people of Mayan mythology and Flash Gordon serials, stomped up out of the reservoir and slogged straight to Tom, who actually looked kind of startled at this abrupt approach, saying “Al?  You okay?”

“I got one word to say to you, Tom,” Dortmunder announced, pointing a muddy finger at Tom.  “And that word is dynamite!

Tom blinked.  “Al?”

“Blow it up!” Dortmunder raned wildly, waving in the general direction of the reservoir.  “Do it any way you want!  I’m through!”

Tiny, sitting up from his supine position, said, “Dortmunder?  You’re giving up?”

Dortmunder swiveled around to glare at him.  In a clear and praiseworthy effort to keep himself more or less calm and under control, he pointed again at the reservoir with his mud-dripping finger and said, “I am not going down there again, Tiny.  That’s it.”

Kelp approached his old friend, worry creasing his features.  He said, “John?  This isn’t you.  You don’t admit defeat.”

“Defeat,” Dortmunder told him, and squished away to the motor home.

Huh.  An unusually negative ending, even for a Dortmunder.  But that’s where Westlake leaves us, in Chapter 29, Page 150 of this–oh damn.  I forgot.   This is just the First Down.  We’ve not even halfway through the book.   It’s taken me over a week just to write this.


[Computer here.  Fred Fitch squished away to the basement to do laundry, vowing never to return.  The blog lord has no pity.  Maybe if we baked him a nice tuna casserole?  Actually, he would probably prefer a case of that beer you see up top, which is very difficult to obtain in New York City for some reason.  Well, see you next week. Hopefully.   Can’t wait to learn how Wally’s computer rescues the Princess. Spaceship from Zog, I bet. Computer out.]


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Uncategorized

Mr. Westlake and Mr. Marlowe

As I mentioned when I started this blog, I’m a relative newcomer to crime/mystery fiction.  Sure, I encountered the usual stuff growing up, Poe, Doyle, Christie, a bunch of short story anthologies.  A little Hammett.  Lots of old movies.  But several years ago, more or less on a whim, I started reading the Parker novels, and when I ran out of those, I started on the Tobins, and when I ran out of those, I moved on to the books Westlake wrote under his real name.

And I began to be curious about his influences, and his contemporaries–about writers who were like him in some ways, who shared certain affinities, who covered some of the same ground.  If he mentioned an author favorably, I tried to read works by that author.  I also reasoned that if I really liked these particular books about a tough enigmatic armed robber, I might like other books about similar characters written by different authors.  Sometimes I did.  More often I didn’t.  But I learned things, either way.

Thanks to bloggers like Trent at Violent World of Parker and Nick Jones at Existential Ennui, who were similarly interested, I began to selectively explore the rest of the crime/mystery field, a fathomless genre, most of which remains a cipher to me, and quite honestly much of which doesn’t seem worth the deciphering (as Sturgeon’s Law helpfully informs us, 90% of everything is crap).  Ray Garraty, who has often posted here, was perhaps more helpful than anyone–as I helped him with his voracious book-collecting habit, often reading the books I ordered on his behalf, before dispatching them off to the general vicinity of the Urals.  We helped each other, as fellow enthusiasts so often do.

I’m still very far from being any kind of expert on the mystery genre, and doubt I ever shall be.  But I can honestly say I know more than most, for what that’s worth.  And coming at the field from a somewhat unusual perspective, I may have sometimes picked up on things that more experienced eyes missed.

One of the crime authors I became interested in for a time was Dan J. Marlowe.   And he is nothing if not interesting.

Marlowe was well into his 40’s when he became a professional writer, a very late start for anyone.  His wife had died, and after living a seemingly staid Middle American lifestyle for most of his life, full of grey flannel suits and offices, he just decided to pursue his long-suppressed creative ambitions full tilt.   He did not produce that many books, and most of his books are not that impressive–but a few of them became minor classics, and one achieved legendary cult status (though never a film adaptation, and at this point I doubt it ever will, unless Tarantino wants to do it).

Marlowe worked a lot with collaborators–two of whom were ex-military men, and those books mainly didn’t hold up that well.  Another was Al Nussbaum, formerly one of the most notorious bank robbers of all time–that collaboration worked out somewhat better, turned into a decidedly odd friendship that has inspired a lot of head scratching in various quarters.

Still, his best books were invariably written solo.  It seems a fairly safe bet to say that he didn’t have many good books in him, that his inspiration didn’t hold up over time, that his very late start negatively impacted his development as a writer.  But he enjoyed the authorial life, and wanted to go on producing crime/espionage paperbacks (mainly for Gold Medal) and getting paid for it.   The lifestyle agreed with him.  And who can argue with that?

Then he developed amnesia in the Mid-70’s–no, seriously, I didn’t crib this from a daytime drama!  He didn’t even remember writing his best book–he read it for the first time a second time, and didn’t remember a word of it.  Unless he was faking it.  Nobody knows for sure.  For all we know, he somehow got hold of an unpublished manuscript by Donald Westlake, about an actor with amnesia, and decided to see how that would work in real life.  I don’t believe that for one minute, of course.  But it’s just one of a slew of odd coincidences we’ll be looking at here.

In spite of being anything but a handsome man, he reportedly had many passionate affairs with a variety of women, but again, it’s hard to know where reality ends and fiction begins.  He also seems to have had a serious spanking fetish (giving, not receiving), that keeps turning up in his novels.  Hey, as long as it’s consensual…

He was politically conservative, as were most crime fiction authors of the time (Westlake was, in the main, an exception to that rule), but never predictably so. The small town he was living in when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated was somewhat shocked when he contributed an Op Ed to the local paper, in which he compared the late civil rights leader to Hitler, and said King, who he believed had started out fighting for a just cause, had brought his murder on himself by resorting to extremist methods and radical politics.  He meant this to be sympathetic, folks.   And let’s not get too superior about past racial attitudes, given who one of our Presidential nominees is now.

Honestly, the most interesting book connected to him may not be The Name of the Game is Death–it may well be Charles Kelly’s Gunshots In Another Room, a recently released unauthorized biography of Marlowe (there was nobody left to authorize it).  In spite of his relatively low status in the ranks of English letters, he’s a biographer’s wet dream.  His life is a better story than most of his stories.

As I see it, he wrote exactly four books worth reading (unless you’re one of those people who just have to read everything, and I can certainly respect that).

The Name of the Game is Death (1962)

Never Live Twice (1964)

Four For The Money (1966)

The Vengeance Man (1966)

And if you want to get pure about it, just the first. He basically said all he had to say with that one.  At his best, he had a weird sort of intensely detached immediacy that stands out from the crowd.   Most of his writing is derivative hackwork–written purely to the market.  But when he was fully engaged, he rose above the material he worked with.

Some would include Strongarm  on that list I just typed.  I found it mediocre.  Tastes vary.   One Endless Hour, the very belated sequel to The Name of the Game is Death, I don’t really consider to be a Marlowe novel.  According to Kelly, Al Nussbaum, the aforementioned bank robber, came up with most of the story ideas for that book, probably helped quite a bit in writing it, and although it’s a gripping suspenseful read–that feels like it should have been a film by Russ Meyer, or possibly John Waters, with maybe a pinch of Edward D. Wood Jr.–it comes nowhere near the level of the first book.  It’s mainly a Marlowe pastiche, even if Marlowe did all the actual writing.

Strange man.  Strange life.  And now I’m about to tell a strange story.  That may just be in my head.  It involves Donald Westlake.  And, not coincidentally, the next Westlake novel I have to review here.  So that’s why I’m doing this piece now, after putting it off for some time.  I still don’t really know what to make of it.  So I’ll put it out there, and you can decide for yourselves.

I don’t know if Westlake and Marlowe ever met, or even corresponded.  Al Nussbaum and Westlake corresponded briefly while Nussbaum was in prison (part of their exchange can be read in The Getaway Car).  He and Marlowe had other mutual acquaintances.  And they were most definitely aware of each other.

Marlowe’s first five books were about a supremely rugged and muscular hotel bell captain named Johnny Killain, who doubled as a two-fisted private investigator, working out of New York.  I’d call them more enjoyably terrible than terribly enjoying.  Every hardboiled trope you can think of, and a few you haven’t (because nobody dares use them anymore).  In spite of his modest station in life, Killain can beat any man in a fight, take any woman he wants to bed.  I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that (Marlowe had a genuine knack for fight scenes and sex scenes), but reading the last Killain, Shake A Crooked Town (1961), I found my eyes rolling with some frequency.

I also found myself wondering at an odd coincidence–1961 was the year Donald Westlake’s Killing Time came out.  That, you may remember, is about a private detective working in a small town in upstate New York, where Westlake grew up.  The protagonist is short, chunky–physically a lot less impressive than Johnny Killain, and is in fact rather reminiscent of Hammett’s Continental Op–an everyman type.

The book is basically a variation on Red Harvest.  It makes no pretense of being anything else.  But Westlake has his own take on the idea.  Very different from Hammett’s.  It’s not his best work (it’s only his second novel under his own name), but it’s a far better book than Shake A Crooked Town–which is also set in a small corrupt town.  In upstate New York.  Where Marlowe never lived.

And even though both books are about the hero getting caught in the middle between rival factions vying for control of a small town (with radically different outcomes), it’s hard to see how one could have influenced the other.  Marlowe’s novel was released very early that year,  Westlake’s just months later.  Westlake had far more direct experience with the setting than Marlowe (and boy does it show).  They were both clearly reacting to Red Harvest.  The stories aren’t really that similar, and the heroes aren’t similar at all.

(I rather suspect Marlowe got the idea for making his hero a bell captain from Jim Thompson, who had in 1956 published a short story entitled Bellhop, based on his colorful experiences working hotels in wild corrupt boom towns out west.  Two-fisted bell captains were not something Marlowe just dreamed up out of thin air, and I suppose he might have met a few, but he was definitely reading a lot of Thompson, and probably everybody else writing this kind of crime fiction.)

Okay, so that’s a big bag of nothing.  But then, of course, we move to 1962.  When another strange coincidence occurs.  Both men published paperback novels about an amoral armed robber going on a bloody campaign of vengeance against someone who heisted his heist and killed his comrades in crime.  Both books are vivid gripping reads.  The Hunter is unquestionably the superior book overall, more disciplined, better written, with a protagonist who has far more potential than Marlowe’s–but this was the one time in their overlapping careers that Marlowe could be said to have given Westlake a run for his money.   He put everything he had into that one.

Both protagonists had an oddly irregular sex drive.  Marlowe’s (who I won’t refer to as Earl Drake, because that name never appears in the first book, and I just don’t want to acknowledge the others as being about the same guy) can only seem to get it up right after he’s engaged in violence of some kind.  This problem just went away completely in the later books, with no explanation.

Westlake’s heister (or rather, Stark’s) has no interest in sex while he’s working, then a very intense interest after the job is done, which lasts a few months, then fades away entirely until after his next job. I’ve explained in an earlier piece where I think Westlake got the idea for that (see Genealogy of a Hunter).

Marlowe’s idea, according to Kelly, may have come from the fact that he had a problem with his foreskin that sometimes made intercourse very painful for him (you know, there are downsides to having a biographer, even one as capable and devoted as Mr. Kelly, but thankfully the dead don’t embarrass easily).

Really, the crucial difference is that Marlowe’s guy has a sort of resigned tolerance to what he regards as a problem he and the women in his life have to put up with.  While Parker doesn’t give a damn, has no problem at all with his cyclical drives.  Everybody else has a problem, not him.  It’s not a disability.  It’s how he is.  If you don’t feel like having sex, why should that bother you?  When his cycle changes, later in the series, we’re given believable explanations for that.  Marlowe wasn’t that good at developing his characters over a series of books.  Westlake was as good at writing series fiction as anyone ever has been, or ever will be.

But yet again–hard to see how either of these books could have influenced the other.  They came out too close together, and they were being written right around the same time.  So again.  Coincidence.  But starting to get weird.  And you know what Freud said.

And one thing I’d like to know–Westlake wrote The Hunter specifically for the Gold Medal imprint–where The Name of the Game is Death was published.  Gold Medal rejected Westlake’s novel.  Because it was too hardcore for them?   Much as I think The Hunter is a better book, Marlowe’s protagonist (who calls himself Chet Arnold for most of the book, though we’re quite sure that’s not his real name), makes even Parker seem gentlemanly by comparison.

Parker mutilates his dead wife’s corpse after she kills herself (at his urging), so she won’t be identified right away (this being the same wife that shot him earlier in the book, but who claims to still love him).  Marlowe’s Chet rapes a woman more or less to see that look on her face (no erectile dysfunction there), then later shoots her several times in a rage. He has his reasons, she’s not a good person, she did terrible things, but you see what I mean about a movie adaptation being a challenge.

No, in all probability, they rejected Westlake’s novel because they already had their sociopathic armed robber book for the year, and didn’t feel like the market needed another one.  There were never a whole lot of books in this vein, even at the peak of the era of lurid paperbacks–it was a very specialized sub-genre, and the bad guys almost always died in the end.  Westlake seems to have gone to Dell after that, and they also turned him down.  And then to Pocket Books, where Bucklin Moon told him to rewrite the ending so Parker got away with everything, and then write a bunch more books about him.

Gold Medal might have asked for more books about Marlowe’s robber (who didn’t get away with anything, but was still alive at the end, if not very happy)–except Marlowe’s book was apparently was too hardcore for even the Gold Medal readership.  Not a big seller for them.  The Hunter seems to have done much better for Pocket.  As it well deserved to, but that’s got nothing to do with book sales, as anyone who has perused the best seller lists knows full well.

Skipping ahead to 1969, Marlowe, who had hit a bit of a slump, had been persuaded by Nussbaum and others to do a sequel to The Name of the Game is Death, and as already mentioned, it’s at least as much Nussbaum’s book as Marlowe’s, and it’s not nearly as good (though it sure ain’t dull).   Reception to this one was apparently more enthusiastic, though–the first book had acquired a reputation by then, and the market was more permissive (thanks in part to the Parker novels).

So Gold Medal wanted a third book, stat–it was published the same year as the second, 1969.  But they wanted the protagonist, now calling himself Earl Drake (a name Nussbaum came up with) to stop robbing banks.  They asked Marlowe to change the genre–from hardboiled crime fiction to spy thriller.

According to Joseph Hoffmann’s well-known article on Marlowe,  Gold Medal made this request because they were now publishing the Parker novels, and once again, they felt like one ultra-violent armed robber was enough, and this time Marlowe was the odd man out.  Irony abounds in this story, as you see.

However, Marlowe never said anything about this (if he had, I would have at least one instance of him referring directly to Donald Westlake).  His story was that they wanted Drake to get dragooned into secret agent work because they were publishing John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee private eye series, which had started in 1964.

Charles Kelly found this very hard to swallow, and so do I.  Drake and McGee have nothing in common except a propensity for gunplay, and gunplay was the raison d’etre of every other book Gold Medal ever published.  Drake became more like McGee by turning secret agent, not less.   So why didn’t Marlowe just say they didn’t want another heister on the payroll?   What’s going on here?

The story is even more confusing when you consider that The Sour Lemon Score, the last Gold Medal Parker, came out that same year, 1969.  But negotiations probably took place the year before that.  Gold Medal was never on the best of terms with Westlake, though he gave them four great books.  If Marlowe had held out a little longer, maybe his criminal protagonist could have remained his old independent sociopathic self (not that he was ever what you’d call a goody-goody).

But my own feeling is that Marlowe didn’t have another book like Name of the Game in him by then, and it was probably easier for him to just crank out a bunch of formulaic espionage potboilers–not to mention more lucrative.  But again–coincidence?   And again–I don’t know.  Wherever one writer was, the other seemingly had to be somewhere else.   And if either of them ever said one word about this parallel track they were on for around a decade, I’m not aware of it.

I should also mention that One Endless Hour, the long-delayed sequel to The Name of the Game is Death (a book that Marlowe never originally intended to have a sequel) begins with the protagonist getting plastic surgery to change his appearance after he was badly burned in the previous book.  The Man With the Getaway Face, the brilliant and quickly penned sequel to The Hunter (a book that Westlake never originally intended to have a sequel) had, six years previously, begun with Parker getting plastic surgery to alter his appearance, so that he could avoid the retribution of his enemies from the first book.  Though that’s not so much a coincidence as a necessary development stemming from the endings of the two earlier books, and of course David Goodis had beaten both of them to the punch there with Dark Passage.

When Gold Medal turned Chet Arnold into Earl Drake, and made him the improbable hero of a long-running spy series, they promoted him as “Drake–The Man With Nobody’s Face.”  Which probably isn’t coincidental (or terribly coherent), but I don’t think Marlowe came up with that ad copy, any more than he came up with the name Earl Drake.

Now let me go back a bit, to 1963, when Westlake published The Score, one of the best of the Parker novels (honestly, one of the best novels I’ve ever read–I try to avoid fanboy gushing here, but it’s an amazing little book).  The premise is that a disgraced police captain of a small western mining town, who was fired for corruption, has proposed to Parker and some of his associates that they plunder all of the town’s assets in one night.  He doesn’t share his motives with them.

The premise of Marlowe’s Shake A Crooked Town is that Carl Thompson, the disgraced police chief of a small upstate New York burg who was fired for corruption (by equally corrupt cronies) comes to Killain, knowing his reputation for toughness, asking Killain to help him get his job back and throw these other bums in that sewn-up town out (for a fee, naturally).  There’s no heist, Thompson is murdered before they ever get back to his hometown, no indication he wanted to burn the whole place to the ground–his wife and kid are there.

Oh, and I should mention Killain is clearly about to take Thompson’s attractive French widow to bed as the story ends.  He knew her as an attractive tomboy (I believe the French would say ‘gamine’) when they fought together in the French Resistance many years before.  This is after he repeatedly beds the luscious town librarian, having previously bedded his longtime steady girlfriend in Manhattan. Plus a cute redheaded sixteen year old at the boarding house he’s staying at throws herself at him, but he turns her down flat, telling her to come back and see him in two years.  You see what I mean about the rolling eyes thing.

And this is a minor minor thing, but the big fight scene in Marlowe’s book comes when Killain tangles with a hulking brute named Jigger Kratz (and pulverizes him, I shouldn’t need to mention).  I would hope no parent would ever willingly name a child Jigger–maybe it’s a nickname.   I’ve only come across the name Jigger in one other book–Who Stole Sasson Manoon?, by Donald E. Westlake.  And in that book it’s the name of a cute young redhead who wants to be an actress.  You may remember I wondered in my review of that book where the hell Westlake got that name from.

Okay, I don’t believe these similarities are coincidence.   I think Westlake read Marlowe’s book, saw a useful plot component in a very bad novel, lifted it, remodeled it, and vastly improved upon it.

And one more thing–Westlake’s book ends with Parker going to bed with a woman who was sleeping with the disgraced police chief who lied to him and tried to use him, and ended up dead.  It does add a nice little ring of masculine triumph to the ending, doesn’t it?   But it’s so damned well written, my eyes never rolled even once.

Moving on to 1966, Marlowe produced Four For The Money, a sort of anti-heist novel.  The narrator/protagonist is Slick, a young hustler, not the violent type, who has just been released from jail.  While there, he got roped into a scheme concocted by Blackie, a hardened repeat offender, who is in the heavy, as Alan Grofield might put it.  There’s two other members of the string Blackie recruited in prison.  They’re all due to be released, and since Slick gets out first, he’s got to go to Desert City Nevada, a fictional gambling town, midway between Vegas and Reno in size.

His job is to set things up so that the gang can blend in once everybody else arrives, and look around for an easy target to hit.  When they do that, it quickly becomes apparent there are no easy targets to hit.  But Blackie, who spends a lot of time cleaning his little Mauser handgun, is obsessed with this job, and makes it clear that if his increasingly cold-footed colleagues pull out on him, he’ll just pull jobs on his own.  They know he’ll get caught and lead the law right to them. They’re all ex-cons, and they roomed together in the joint.  If Blackie goes down, they all do.

Here’s the kicker–they don’t really want to pull the job anymore.  Slick managed to buy a motel in town, to serve as a front for their operation, and it turned out to be a very lucrative business.  He met a nice girl (really nice, a short stacked brunette, who sounds an awful lot like the girls Jim Thompson protagonists keep getting hung up on, only not crazy).

Slick wants to settle down with this girl.  They’re all enjoying the straight life now, him and the other two guys in the string–they never want to go back to prison, and they don’t need one last big score.   But they have to pull the job so Blackie will go away and leave them alone.  Then they pull the job, and turns out Blackie always intended to kill them and take it all for himself.   You want to know what happens then, read the book.  One of Marlowe’s best, as I said.

It’s a bit reminiscent of The Score–gang tries to plunder a town out in the desert–but not very.  I’ve no doubt Marlowe read Westlake’s book, but he’d have also read Lionel White’s The Big Caper, published in 1955.  That’s probably an influence on both of the later books, but much more on Marlowe’s than Westlake’s (White’s book has the same idea of a scary master criminal forcing people who want to go straight to pull a job with him, and there’s a romantic subplot, and etc).   I’ve read all three, and White’s is the weakest of the bunch. Having an idea first is not the same thing as doing it best.

So I would hope those of you who have read the next book in the queue, which is Drowned Hopes, already know what I’m getting at here.  There’s a character in that book named Tom Jimson.  People have assumed that’s an homage to Jim Thompson (as well as a certain noxious weed).  Westlake was adapting a Jim Thompson novel to the screen right around the same time he was working on that book, so no doubt it is a humorous anagrammatic tip of the hat.  But I also think it’s a cunning head fake.  He points in one direction while his eyes go another.  Tom Jimson was inspired in part by Blackie from Four For The Money.  

See, there’s no Jim Thompson novel that ends that way.   Thompson didn’t really write much about heisters–not his area.  Yeah, The Getaway, but it’s not very similar at all.  And honestly, Tom Jimson is a much better scarier funnier character than Marlowe’s Blackie, but he’s got that same dogged single-mindedness, the same touching devotion to guns,  the same general lack of regard for human life, that same nasty little one-track mind (and Westlake knew all about one-track minds, well before he ever read Marlowe’s book, so I’m not saying Tom is all Blackie–there’s lots more there, and we’ll talk about it).

Westlake once again seeing a good idea (this time in a pretty decent book) and making away with it.  I can’t know this, but I see what I see.  I just don’t know what it means.  I don’t know what any of this means.  I can just sort of fumble around in the dark, with insufficient information to go on, knowing there’s something there, but unable to make any kind of sense out of it.

Westlake and Marlowe had to be aware of each other, from the early 60’s onwards.  They undoubtedly kept up with each others’ work to some extent.  They knew their paths kept crossing and recrossing in the incestuous little branch of the mystery genre each was so well known for.  Many of the coincidences I’ve listed here are coincidences, nothing more–but they’re coincidences Westlake in particular would have noted with interest. Because Westlake didn’t believe in coincidences any more than Freud did.  “A realist is someone who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood.  It isn’t.”

So they borrowed ideas from each other, and from other writers, and they each did their own thing with them, and they co-existed, occupying the same space, without ever directly encountering each other, or perhaps understanding each other.  Such different men, writing such similar stories, in such variant ways.  If Westlake had started writing in his 40’s, and Marlowe in his 20’s, maybe their positions in the genre would be reversed.  Again–I don’t know.  I do know Marlowe died a few years before Westlake started work on Drowned Hopes.

Anyway, I thought it was worth mentioning.  What do you think?

I think I’m going to take a break for the holiday weekend, and then tackle one of Westlake’s longest novels–definitely his longest series novel.  The Dortmunder Epic par excellence.  Very long, and very densely packed with both story and trenchant social observation.  I swore I would not make this a four-parter.  And I won’t.  I’m a man of my word.  But you know me.  I’m sneaky.  I find loopholes.  I make mental reservations.

See, my feeling is that this book is actually four books in one volume.  So I’m going to write four separate book reviews.  That’s not at all the same thing as writing a four part review of one book.  Oh look, now you’re rolling your eyes.  Well, go ahead and roll ’em.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark