Review: Drowned Hopes, First Down

dort

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?

Yes.

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, and 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–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 surprised 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.”

“Perfect.”

“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.

Defeat.

[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.]

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35 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Uncategorized

35 responses to “Review: Drowned Hopes, First Down

  1. rinaldo302

    Ahhh, this is one I’ve been waiting for. By far the most epic of the Dortmunders, and (for the reasons you cite) different from the others in the series in some basic ways (also as you cite). I can certainly poke holes in it (some details of that big wedding scene certainly, and Wally’s interactive program that you quote; and we’ll get to some of the Jimson bits in future installments), but I can shrug them off; I was delighted when I first started it, and I’m looking forward to all our discussion about it here.

    • [Computer again. Fred still unresponsive, said something about joining The Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum. Repeat exhortation to send large quantities of beer, which seems to serve as a lubricant for his systems. It is probably best not to poke holes in anything he wrote for a while yet. The blog lord is dangerous when defied. Actually, what do you mean about poking holes in the interactive program? Is that some kind of crack? You better hope I never see you at the OJ Bar and Grill. Computer out.]

      • [Computer once more. Fred has returned from the basement in what I believe is designated, somewhat contradictorily, as a ‘cold rage.’ He had just barely managed to get one of the washing machines to work, only to then learn that none of the dryers were operational, and now he has a large sodden mass of clothing that must be somehow rendered wearable before tomorrow morning. He was saying this kind of thing never used to happen to him before he started writing Dortmunder reviews. I was in the process of providing statistical data to call this statement into question, when he suddenly produced a large wrench, and started thumping it into the palm of his hand, while looking very intently in my direction. Computer out. Like way out, man. Gonesville.]

  2. “…Westlake starting to recover that part of himself that was Richard Stark.”

    I think that’s exactly right, and of course it culminates in 1997 with the final Westlake novel published before Parker’s return — his masterpiece, in my opinion (and yours, I believe), the book in which he most successfully synthesized his voices.

    But, back to DH, First Down: This is such an off-brand Dortmunder, as if the gang we know and love had been dropped into some other god’s novel (and in a later “Down,” that’s quite literally what happens), but it’s fascinating and hilarious to see Dortmunder et al push against this unfamiliar universe, expecting it to behave like the universe they’re used to. Of course, Dortmunder also expects his usual cruelly pranksterish god to be on hand, and in that expectation he is not disappointed.

    • Since I got my clothes (mainly) dry after last night’s laundry room debacle, I shall not delegate this response to my work PC (much less expressive than my Mac back home and my co-workers might take it amiss if I started threatening it with a blunt instrument).

      It’s definitely an odd book in the series. I’m not sure there are any typical books in this series, but this one in particular stands out. Although past books had Dortmunder unhappily confronting the modern, I think Westlake himself was increasingly being forced to confront the modern (the older you get, the harder it gets). He found some of it interesting–that’s the Kelp in him–but mainly he didn’t like it–that’s the Dortmunder and it constitutes a much larger part of his multifarious personae.

      So if he has to learn how to deal with the digital age and its discontents, so does his alter-ego. But just as Westlake never stopped writing on a manual typewriter, Dortmunder will never learn how to use a computer. He will, however, learn how to use people who use computers (and in a few years, so will Parker).

      Dortmunder is so far out of his comfort zone in this one, it almost isn’t funny (which paradoxically, makes it funnier). He’s frightened of the water, he’s frightened of Tom, he’s frightened of leaving New York (which he has to do repeatedly), he’s even frightened of small town life. About the only friendly familiar thing in this book for him is May’s Famous Tuna Casserole, which makes a brief appearance in the Second Down. May herself becomes an oddly frightening presence in the Third Down–she has appointed herself Dortmunder’s dark-haired Jiminy Cricket, much as Kate was for Mitch Tobin in the Tucker Coe books.

      Greg, do you remember offhand if Stan Much ever had any run-ins with GPS devices as the series went on? I don’t remember any such encounter, and it seems like a criminally un-exploited comic turn, but maybe I just forgot.

      The imminent return of Stark shall be a recurring theme in many of my subsequent reviews, but first I have to get through this multi-parted review, and honestly the sheer wealth of detail in this book is frightening me. 😮

      • I don’t believe Westlake ever tapped the comic goldmine that would have resulted from Stan Murch vs. a GPS, but maybe there’s something in Road to Ruin, the only Dortmunder I’ve only read once.

        • John Henry vs. the Steam Drill. Neo vs. Agent Smith. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla. All pale before Stan Murch vs. GPS. I have to believe I’d remember it if it had happened. Oh well, I have a sort of Dortmunder pastiche in mind for the blog someday. Perhaps this epic confrontation may yet transpire.

          • Watch Your Back! definitely has a brief encounter early on between Murch and a car with GPS — as brief as Stan can make it, and a good thing too. He’s much happier later, when he meets a more classic and older car which doesn’t have it. And I believe the subject of GPS comes into the initial front-and-back-of-cab conversation in Get Real, too.

            • I might well have forgotten a brief encounter. The Dortmunders tend to be very layered, full of vignettes and colorful little byways that don’t necessarily serve the main storyline, and it’s hard to retain them all after just one reading. Or even after several, but that one I’ve only read once, to date.

  3. Anthony

    Maybe Amy Adams pretty…

    We’ve discussed Westlake and narrative push previously. But this one is so complex, with so many apparently innocuous events in First Down that are critical to subsequent downs that it’s hard for me to conceive that he didn’t have some form of outline from the get go. Just this once.

    • In her 20’s, Amy Adams was seriously pretty. Disney Princess Pretty. Then she transitioned in her 30’s and 40’s into being devastatingly sexy, in a sort of lower-class slatternly way, like in that boxing film with Mark Wahlberg. I think you can guess which Amy Adams I prefer.

      Anna Kendrick, who just turned 30 (so still young enough for the movie that will never be made and would have to be at least twelve hours long anyway), is more smart nice girl next door pretty, and she has kind of thin bony hands, which is mentioned as a feature of Myrtle’s. Very attractive, but the kind of looks you could imagine some vapid prettyboy punk losing interest in after he either got what he wanted, or decided there was something better in the offing. I am going to have some choice things to say about the way this book ends, by the way.

      I’m writing this review as if it was a review of four books, and I could imagine Westlake writing each of the four major parts the same way. But you could be right. I don’t think he knew how everything would turn out in advance, though. I think the characters surprised him a few times.

      • Anthony

        Perhaps a few minutes of Googling and I’d find the article I came across a few years ago as to whether Amy Adams is “hot.” One argument was very much “hell yeah, she’s hot.” and the other was “cute, yes, adorable yes, beautiful, hell yes, hot – No.” In other words, a nice girl (irrespective of some of the roles she’s played), and nice girls aren’t hot. I go with the second view myself. She’s more Mary-Ann than Ginger to me, and that’s just fine. I see what you’re saying about Anna Kendrick, but she’s too wise in the ways of the world for me to see her as Myrtle.

        I imagine Westlake was surprised, and tickled, by Tiny. I imagine he was downright gleeful about May’s actions. In other words, I believe he had a hoot writing this book and putting old familiar faces into the dam thing and finding out what they’d do. But the other stuff, the mechanics of how the story plays out just seems very, well, organized. Unique for him.

        Murch is interesting in this one. I’ll say no more in case this is angle you’re pursuing later. However, I do have one question. In later books Westlake makes a point that Murch has red hair, but this was not a factor in the earlier ones. Since you are rereading all of these as you go, maybe you can keep an eye out for when this is first identified. No real reason. Just the kind of crap that I find interesting.

        • I believe Stan is a redhead in this book. I’ll check–this one I have both the first edition hardcover and the kindle edition, and I have a few of the earlier books on kindle.

          I read Drowned Hopes in the e-version first, and later learned there are some things lost in translation–as there are in this review. Mysterious Press got creative with the fonts for the print edition, specifically with regards to Wally’s conversations with his computer. Now I would think an e-book could use any imaginable font–I mean, it’s the same publisher!–but all they do is make the computer’s responses in bold. It works, but not as well. I guess it would cost more to reproduce the original typography in pixels. I kind of have to guess, because my understanding of typography is probably rather less advanced than that of Johannes Gutenberg.

          I think with regards to grading the pulchritude of various female thespians, it comes down to which film/TV role you most identify them with–we confuse the performance with the person. I never really cared about Amy Adams that much until I saw her later stuff, which is decidedly on the sultry side.

          And Anna Kendrick can certainly do ingenues. That’s pretty nearly all they’ve let her do thus far. Okay, perhaps her latest role marks a slutty new direction I can wholeheartedly applaud, while still waiting for it to pop up on cable, because I wait for pretty much everything to pop up on cable these days.

          You do raise an interesting point about whether this book was plotted out more thoroughly in advance than the typical Westlake. I’d draw a line between the overall plot structure and the character arcs. I think he always let the characters speak to him, and he often changed his mind in mid-book about how a given character was going to end up. This is particularly important here, since he probably knew going in that he had to kill at least a few characters in this one, something he’d never done in a Dortmunder novel before. And reading the climax in the Fourth Down, there is a moment–well–that’s several downs away. We’ll get to it.

  4. (you learn so much in these books!).

    Westlake was, of course, a popular novelist writing for a popular audience, not a literary one writing for a literary one. But a couple of long-winded digressions about the history of scuba diving and salvage would make DH even more wonderful than it already is. And maybe while he’s underwater, Dortmunder could attract the attention of some scary-looking marine life, and mutter “Call me fish meal.”

  5. rinaldo302

    I first encountered Anna Kendrick long before she did any movies, as a gifted child actress in musicals, on Broadway and at NY City Opera.

    When I first read Drowned Hopes, I thought of Marcia Rodd for Myrtle (I’d met her once through a NY friend who shared her apartment), but then realized she’d aged out by then, and thought Elizabeth Perkins.

    I was working as a programmer/designer at the time, and the transcripts of Wally’s software (like you quoted in the review) were one of the (few) things that bugged me most; that really wasn’t how interactive programs worked. I now try to handwave it as Wally being such a good programmer that he could invent something unlike anything we’ve seen, but really I think it was Westlake not getting computers.

    • The problem with casting a character like Myrtle Street is that between the time the production is conceived and the time it’s shot, anybody you can think of will have probably aged out of the role. And it’s not like cute funny ingenue types are ever that hard to find. But when you play Imaginary Casting Director, you have to try and pick people your fellow players have at least heard of. Marcia Rodd? (googles) Oh right. Liz Perkins could hav worked, if they’d made that twelve hour movie right away. Maybe they could just raid Nickelodeon.

      I would have thought, mind you, that Anna Kendrick was too big a star to play Myrtle now, but then I saw the ads for that wedding date movie, and figured nah. She’d take any role she could have fun with. Isn’t it interesting how rarely actresses who can actually sing turn out to be divas? I only mentioned her because I find her a pleasure to gaze upon, and yet when you look at her closely, you realize she’s using charm and talent to substitute for the kind of looks young actresses are typically supposed to have to be in movies. You’d need somebody lustworthy, but not mindbogglingly so, to explain Doug’s behavior towards her, but I suppose the real explanation is that he’s a self-involved jerk who is never settling down. But then comes the end of the book, and now you’re like–huh?

      Westlake didn’t entirely get computers, and I’m not sure he entirely wanted to. What he’s going for in those exchanges is Wally having a conversation with his own subconscious. The computer doesn’t know anything Wally didn’t program into it. So its understanding of reality is contingent upon his, which gradually improves as the story goes on. I am no expert on symbolic logic, but it seems to me that’s what Westlake is invoking here. Wally using the terminology of the games he plays (that I never ever played, so no expert on that either) to work out the parameters of the real-life game he’s playing for real-life stakes. Bear in mind, he would have typed a great deal of information we the readers already have into his computer before those exchanges we see take place.

      Can you give me an example of somebody who was doing computer humor better by 1990? Terry Pratchett? My familiarity with him is mainly limited to the fact that he exists and has written a shitload of books. I see similar computer-related humor today, even in Dilbert, and Scott Adams certainly gets computers. I’m not convinced his understanding of the real world is on a par with Wally Knurr’s, though. I suppose if you were insanely wealthy for not knowing how to draw, reality could be deemed optional. 🙂

      • Well, the obvious answer to your question is Douglas Adams, who envisioned a hapless Arthur Dent arguing with the shipboard computer over the proper way to make tea.

        In real life, Douglas Adams became fascinated with the interactive text adventures Wally Knurr enjoys and he worked with the company Infocom (creators of Zork) to create a text adventure called “Bureaucracy,” which, using the same adventure-based language of those games, challenges the player to navigate the maddening ins and outs of a modern-day government agency.

        I was also slightly bugged by Wally’s computer exchanges, as the computer’s linguistic understanding displays a level of sophistication that was essentially non-existent at the time, but I’m also able to hand-wave it away as a result of Wally’s mad programming skills.

        I would recall these exchanges in an upcoming Dortmunder when Max Fairbanks consults the I Ching. Those passages, like the computer exchanges in DH, are — as you note — representations of the character consulting with his own subconscious.

        • Westlake wrote science fiction for quite a while, and science fiction, as you know, is heavily geared towards imagining technology that not only does not exist but may never in a million years exist (while utterly failing to predict technology that’s just a decade or so away).

          Isaac Asimov has been lionized all over the world for his robot stories, and those robots he imagined still don’t exist, or anything remotely like them, because autonomous self-propulsion in a three dimensional universe is really really hard. The Three Laws of Robotics are still just an idea, because we still haven’t created an artificial consciousness that might actually want to harm a human (and seriously, given the way we treat our devices, I wouldn’t blame them one bit).

          Nor is there any such thing as a positronic brain, which allows for the building of a supercomputer with a mind and personality rather oddly reminiscent of Wally Knurr’s (okay, I guess technically we’re the ones with positronic brains, much as most of us never learn how to program and apply them very well).

          But this is crime fiction, and it’s contemporary, and so Westlake could be justly held to a standard of realism here–except since when have the Dortmunder books been realistic? How many banks have been robbed with the aid of hypnotists? Do guys involved in armed robbery really have some unwritten code that says “Don’t kill anybody, it’s bad for business, and anyway it’s not nice”? Do they bring their girlfriends and mothers along with them when they rob? If we don’t need realistic crime, why do we need realistic computing? It’s all an exercise in creative anachronism anyway. Sometimes behind the curve, sometimes ahead of it.

          Westlake didn’t want to write English the way the interactive programs of that era were writing English. He didn’t want to say Wally had created real A.I., probably because he didn’t even like the idea of A.I. He wants us to develop our own intelligence, to recognize that the ultimate device for comprehending the world and ourselves is there inside our own skulls.

          That’s the point of Wally Knurr–yes, the computer was a useful tool for him to transcend the limits of the rather unfortunate physical form he was born into, but Dortmunder tells him he doesn’t really need it. We don’t have to take that remark literally to know there’s wisdom in it. The proper study of mankind is man. And to the extent that digital devices assist us in that study, they are a good thing, and to the extent they distract us from that study–and that’s a very very considerable extent–they’re something else.

          And I should have thought of the other Adams. Though I’ve always preferred his work in its dramatized form.

          • Many years ago, I saw Isaac Asmiov speak, and he recounted an incident in which a Michigan auto plant worker was killed by an assembly line robot. This was the first time a human had ever been killed by a robot, and reporters contacted Asmov about his Three Laws (because of course they did), to which Asimov responded with much exasperation. We expect reality to comply with fiction at our peril.

            • Thankfully those auto plant robots don’t kill people nearly as often as the things they construct, and now I’m suddenly weeping bitter tears because we’ll never get to hear Stan Murch or his mother opine on the self-driving car. 😦

              • Anthony

                Wally Knurr used the same computer as the characters in Who Stole Sassi Manoon.

              • Damn, and I was going to bring that up in the review. Such an obvious point (well, not to the run of the mill Westlake reader), but my head was swimming from all the details I had to deal with here. I plumb forgot. I’ve had to mention that awful book so many times already as an influence on later books. Westlake still trying to make that lozenge play work. And there’s a cabin cruiser with a funny name in this one too!

        • rinaldo302

          //In real life, Douglas Adams became fascinated with the interactive text adventures Wally Knurr enjoys and he worked with the company Infocom (creators of Zork) to create a text adventure called “Bureaucracy,” which, using the same adventure-based language of those games, challenges the player to navigate the maddening ins and outs of a modern-day government agency.//

          Right, and this happened after Infocom had developed an interactive-fiction version of “Hitchhiker’s Guide” which was hugely successful and which was responsible for drawing many — like me — to the IF medium and to Infocom games in particular. I think I bought and played all of them in that period.

          • I didn’t even have a computer until the Mid-90’s (Epson). I didn’t have an internet-capable computer until the late 90’s (Compaq). And now I use Macs, because they don’t die on me. And I still don’t play games with them. When I took my iPad to Germany, to visit an old friend, his two boys were appalled I didn’t have Angry Birds on it. I had digital field guides full of actual birds, but that didn’t count. Perhaps just as well I hadn’t started collecting electronic editions of crime and sleaze novels by then, given the racy covers.

            The digital ground keeps shifting under our digited feet. Oh, I just bought the entry-level Kindle today! Special offer for Prime members, couldn’t resist. Fifty-odd bucks with tax, free shipping. I shall pack it to the gills with crime. 🙂

          • I too played all the Infocom games, the best of which were written by Steve Meretzky, co-creator (with Douglas Adams) of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game.

  6. I read this novel about the same time I visited Northville, NY for the first time. X-Files viewers will remember Northville as the scene of a two-part X-Files episode involving alien abductions and a plane crash, and I think it and its surrounding areas on the Great Sacandaga Lake in upstate NY were likely Westlake’s real-life inspiration for Drowned Hopes. The Conklingville Dam that drowned the original town of Northampton to prevent flooding of larger nearby communities like Glens Falls (where I live) and Saratoga Springs certainly resembles the dam as described in the book.

    If you ever visit, there’s a great greasy spoon diner called Shelby’s Four Corners Diner, and somewhere along the lake there’s a gift shop where I picked up a book that describes the history of the Great Sacandaga Lake, and the reasons for and controversy regarding the flooding of the town. It’s absolutely fascinating, and impossible not to think about Drowned Hopes when you visit the area.

    • There’s so much to talk about regarding the background of this book, I’m having some difficulties finding space to talk about the book. Thanks for providing this. Every little bit helps, and this is more than a little. Even though I’ve lived in New York State most of my life, and have traveled through quite a bit of it, I have not visited the Great Sacandaga Lake, or Shelby’s Four Corners Diner, or that gift shop. And unless they provide Adirondacks climate during the summer, without Adirondacks summer motel prices, it may well be that I never visit there. I’d rather just imagine it. So anyway, how’s Myrtle Street holding up? The girl or the actual street, your pick. 😉

    • Greg emailed me that link some days back, and I just posted it in my Second Down review. But it’s the thought that counts. 😉

      • Anthony

        EXCELLENT. “twas I that first posed the question to the Straight Dope. Glad to see that I wasn’t the only one interested in the answer.

        • I’m sure Westlake was in no way displeased to hear that Amtrak returned to Oklahoma in 1999. How Tim Jimson would have felt about it, I’m sure I have no idea. But it was a good question, and I would think relevant to people besides Dortmunder fans.

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