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?”

“No.”

“Good.”

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).

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27 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

27 responses to “Review: Drowned Hopes, Second Down

  1. Anthony

    He did the car name thing once more in a later Dortmunder. But he never topped the Acura Silly.

    • I kind of think Acura topped it, by naming the very first car they ever put out the Legend. We can take it for granted Westlake thought that was pretty silly. Then a few years later came the Acura Vigor, which sounds like something Westlake made up, though maybe Westlake would have substituted an ‘R’ in place of the ‘V’.

      • For a while there were using random combinations of letters, like the RSX. Which is ridiculous — what do I want with a 16-bit car?

        • Come down to Maximilien’s Used Cars, off the Jericho Turnpike, at the Nassau County Line, and you will find many a car that ain’t worth two bits. Or possibly a brand-new Aston-Martin, at a shockingly low price. Might not want to drive it in the general vicinity of the UN Building, though. If you do, probably better keep one hand near the ejector seat button.

  2. If you hadn’t quoted the handcar passage, I would have quoted it in the comments. All the good things are gone, including Donald E. Westlake’s wonderful authorial tangents. Burke Devore’s musings on the word “clearances.” Richard Stark’s history lesson on state capital placement (in “Backflash”). Westlake’s thoughts on handcars. Man, I miss that guy.

    • Lots of crime writers do this–an interest in history, even sociology, is not unusual for authors in that genre. But none of them do it quite so well.

      Case in point, I just finished reading Dark Hazard, by W.R. Burnett–it’s referenced in Drowned Hopes, and I wanted to know why, and I still don’t know why. We can talk about that in the next Down. But in reading it, a story about a man and his dog (which I’m almost invariably a sucker for), I found my attention waning, and my fingers flipping from page to page a bit too quickly, and part of that was that it’s really no more than a novella’s worth of story bulked out into a full length novel–when you get right down to it, it’s an O. Henry story bulked out into a full length novel, and for all his sturdy workmanlike attributes, Mr. Burnett was no O. Henry, and neither was anybody else other than O. Henry, so that’s no crime.

      But see, Burnett wants to do the social history thing, he wants to give us background (and lots of it) on what makes his characters behave the way they do, and he does the history thing–and it doesn’t work.

      For one thing, he doesn’t really know or understand the history that well (which was true of a lot of very well-read Americans back then–there was a lot of very bad history out there). He has some truly horrible notions about who the Abolitionists were (did you know they didn’t really care about slavery, they just wanted to make those sporting life southern folks stop having so much darned fun?), he sticks everybody into convenient little social cubbyholes, and it seems to me like the book is mainly him trying to work out the conflict in himself between two different parts of his nature–and failing. He’s trying to be an Important Writer. And as Westlake knew full well, that’s deadly. Even for actual Important Writers. Never fall into that trap. Tell the damn story.

      He’s not a good enough writer or a perceptive enough social observer to make it work, so it’s mainly just boring and somewhat irritating to get through. O. Henry, of course, never bothered with that kind of thing, because he could tell you everything you needed to know about his characters in a few perfectly balanced sentences.

      But I liked the stuff with the greyhound. I have a distinct feeling I’m going to like the Alfred E. Green movie with Edward G. Robinson and Glenda Farrell (and Burnett’s own personal champion greyhound in the title role!) a lot better. Now if TCM would just oblige me with an airing.

      • So Burnet is basically Tom Wolfe? Though he probably doesn’t announce his cubbyholes by compulsively listing what kind of stuff the people have, the way Wolfe does.

        • It’s been a very very long time since I’ve read Tom Wolfe. I liked him in high school (we had a good library, and a girl I had a crush on once told me she was getting tired of seeing my name on all the cards in the back of the books she took out there, which was perhaps not a good omen for that attachment), but a lot of his most famous books hadn’t been written by then. I knew him more as an essayist. As an essayist, I would not say he is much like Burnett. As a novelist–I wouldn’t be qualified to comment, since I have never once read his fiction. If you want to expound further, please feel free. It is perhaps relevant to comment that Westlake adapted one of his nonfiction works into screenplay format. But I can’t say anything more about that until I’ve visited a certain archive in Boston.

  3. Also, I’ve never read Cronley, but when I saw Quick Change (the movie), I thought that the whole thing was very Dortmunderian. I wonder if that’s how the novel reads.

    • Me too, but a first edition will really set you back. Why he’s not evailable, I’ve no idea. Probably not a huge seller, but he published a fair few books, and several were made into films–he clearly has a fanbase, here and abroad. I could see myself doing a piece on him in the future, after I’ve obtained and read the books–comparative criminology. And yes, when I finally did see Quick Change on cable, I was thinking “Man, Westake would have really dug this,” and self-evidently he did. Probably read the book before he saw the movie that most people never went to see in a theater, which was their loss. And mine.

  4. rinaldo302

    I just checked out Cronley on Amazon — he’s a new name to my conscious mind, though I did see Quick Change on cable so I must have seen his credit. For some reason Good Vibes is astronomically more expensive than his other titles, but the others aren’t unreasonably priced, and a couple can be had for literally one cent (OK, plus shipping).

    Seeing various editions reminds me: Drowned Hopes is one Westlake that escaped my attention on first publication, and I caught up with it in paperback, so that’s all I have in the house. Which means I can’t answer my question: at what point did the Westlake books start listing ALL his titles, regardless of publisher and organized by genre? Was it with this one, or did it start later?

    • I don’t care about first editions so much as I do good cover art (which very often occurs with the paperback reprint, and not with the first edition, but Cronley had good luck in that department, as I mentioned). Honestly, I’d rather just get him on Kindle, to save the strain on my aching bookshelves, but I’ll probably pick up a few of his books in the near future. Given all the films, surprising he hasn’t been made evailable yet, but maybe he’s trying to line up a deal as we speak.

      My first edition of Drowned Hopes does in fact have that intimidatingly complete list of books credited to Westlake (not Stark, Coe, et al). It’s so regimented, split off into all these distinct categories, like Graham Greene. Novels (non-pigeonholed stuff), Comic Crime Novels, The Dortmunder Series, Crime Novels, Juvenile (Philip), Western (Gangway), Reportage (Under An English Heaven), Short Stories, and Anthology (Once Against the Law, and I probably should have reviewed that–not an anthology of Westlake but rather an anthology compiled by Westlake and William Tenn–well, I’ll stick that in somewhere, never fear).

      I’m quite sure this is just a Mysterious Press thing, and it’s not in the earlier books I’ve looked at from that publisher. There were often such lists at the beginning of books of his for other publishers, but never so authoritative–it wouldn’t necessarily be only books from that particular publisher. I think the idea was just to remind people how many books Westlake had produced. But in 1990, what were they going to do about it? I envision many a frustrating (and occasionally thrilling) visit to local libraries and bookstores. Amazon.com was founded in 1994.

      I’m nostalgic for many things about the past, abundant and varied brick and mortar bookstores not least among them, but I feel no pang for the way I used to endlessly search for books and not find them. Is it too easy now? Better than impossible.

      • I recall my dismay in the early ’00s when I realized that Mysterious Press’s matchbook-cover reprints of the Parker series were stopping with The Jugger, with used copies of the rest of the series floating around at often ridiculous price points. Still, with eBay and bookfinder and abebooks and Amazon’s then-brand-new Marketplace, these books were easy enough to lay hands on, if one was willing to pay. I still have my used, cracked-spine remaindered library copy of Butcher’s Moon, for which I spent about $90. Who knew?

        • It’s all in the timing–I got interested at just the right moment. When basically everything was becoming available in one form or another, when I could obtain once criminally expensive vintage editions cheaply, when I could network with other Westlake readers online, when I could set up a blog like this all by myself in my spare time at work–and I really can’t overstate how incompetent I am at this kind of thing, but WordPress makes it easy (I get irritated sometimes when they change things, but I wouldn’t be a Westlake reader if that was not the case).

          I stand on the shoulders of many who came before me, and I’m enjoying the view.

  5. Some thoughts about Guffey: Why does it never occur to him that Tim Jepson may have already come back to Cronley to collect his money long ago, while Guffey was in prison? I guess just because he’s a single-minded fool who happens to be right, but did I miss a line in which he worries that he might have missed his window? Also, while Parker’s instinct may have been to tie up the Guffey loose end “in a New York minute,” we’ve seen again and again Parker hesitate to kill an unconscious or incapacitated enemy. It’s not compassion, it’s just irritation at the illogic of killing a neutralized threat — even if that threat will not remain neutralized forever. And it always comes back to bite him (just as this decision comes back to bite Dortmunder and Tom, which is a terrific twist).

    Also: I’m just now realizing that Cronley is ALSO the author of the book behind the Richard Dreyfus comedy Let It Ride, an under-appreciated comic gem. On Amazon, used copies of THAT book (“Good Vibes”) range from $300 to $4,000 (!!!). I’ll stick to the movie for now.

    • Cronley definitely seems to have had better luck than Westlake with regards to the movies. Or maybe he’s just easier to adapt. However, that luck has not extended to box office. “Under-appreciated” is a term frequently applied to movies made out of his novels.

      It doesn’t occur to Guffey that his nemesis may have already absconded with the loot mainly because he can’t accept that possibility. He’s not only there in Cronley for money and revenge–we’re told he also likes that there’s no people there most of the time. He’s really had the hell knocked out of him in prison, and he just wants to be left alone (except for that generous hippie chick). But his entire life is built around waiting for this guy.

      You might as well ask why Jehovah’s Witnesses and others of a Millennarian bent don’t just accept The Big Day is never coming (not the way they want it to, anyhow). When we ask that kind of question, we’re missing the point of the waiting, which is the waiting itself. But once in a butcher’s moon, the thing somebody’s waiting for actually happens, and then of course he has no idea what to do. At least not at first.

      I thought that too, about Parker not killing George Uhl. But Uhl was drugged, not unconscious–he had been reduced to a childlike compliant state–he wasn’t really George Uhl for the moment–he was the person he had been before the George Uhl Parker knew came to be.

      If Parker had simply knocked George out, and no longer needed him alive for information purposes, I don’t know that he wouldn’t just finish the job. Stark doesn’t really want us to know–he doesn’t want Parker to kill a helpless person in front of us–because he’s a romantic. But we’ll shortly be looking at a book where Parker kills somebody who might as well be unconscious–somebody perhaps even more pathetic and pitiable than Mr. Guffey. He does it after the chapter ends, of course.

      No, I think if Parker knew Guffey was determined to kill him, he’d just dispose of Guffey, quickly and relatively painlessly, after the chapter ended. Parker may sometimes underestimate certain people, but he knows the power of a vendetta. If somebody’s whole life revolves around killing you, kill him first. Ask questions never.

  6. I’m more than glad we get to see so much of Murch’s Mom. Two letters more than glad.

  7. Tom J. from Oklahoma? Probably a coincidence.

    • Speaking as someone who prides himself on picking up on obscure references, I am often humbled to find I can’t quite follow yours. Please don’t feel obliged to explain, unless you feel like it. 🙂

      • Both Jepson and Joad begin their respective novels by getting paroled from prison.

        • ahhhhhhh—-!!!!!

          NOT a coincidence.

          And I can prove it.

          “I grew up in this territory,” Tom said. “When the dust came.”

          “The Okies, you mean,” Dortmunder suggested

          “I guess I was an Okie,” Tom said. “Not like in that movie, though.”

          “No.”

          “Sit around the campfire, sing a song. Go into a gas station with your big old dead truck full of mattresses, women, dying old men, whadda you do?

          “Run,” said Dortmunder.

          “In the movie,” Tom said, “they bought gas. Paid for it.”

          “You rent cars,” Dortmunder pointed out.

          “Not the same thing,” Tom said. “I do what I gotta do to make life smooth. I rent cars because I can.”

          “Wha’d you do, back in the Okie days, in that gas station?”

          “Shot parts off the kid until the remembered the combination to the safe,” Tom said. “There’s your turn up there.”

          “Wherever there’s a kid needs a few parts shot off him to remember the safe combination–I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a soft bank with an old hick security guard can’t even remember how to shoot his gun–I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a dam needs blowing up so I can get my money, drowning a bunch of folks I don’t give a damn about–I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way people get scared, thinking how I’m gonna slaughter ’em like spring lambs to get all the take for myself, and go off to Mexico to spend my golden years screwing fine young senoritas…..”

          Been a while since I read Steinbeck, too. But nobody ever forgets a good scene from a John Ford movie. You know who would have been a great Tom Jimson? Henry Fonda. Seriously. You’ve seen Once Upon a Time in the West, I trust?

          • Yeah, he’d be good. I was picturing Tom Skerritt, in that he’s an older hard case with a mustache. Sam Elliott may be too well-loved to be truly scary, but he was pretty terrifying (sans mustache) in the final season of Justified.

            • Yeah, Sam Elliott was great on Justified (the season itself had its ups and downs, but on the whole a pretty good send-off). Not sure he could do justice to Tom’s whimsical side. And maybe still a bit too attractive? Tom Jimson can’t be sexy. Not allowed. :\

              Re-reading the book, I found myself thinking about Willem Dafoe, for some reason. He’s not 70 yet, but he could play 70. Tom Skerritt is–82? That’s–impossible. 😮

              Christopher Walken could do Tom Jimson in his sleep, though I don’t know how good an Okie accent he could do (I’d assume he could do just about any accent, but people tend to prefer him to do the Christopher Walken accent, which I believe he has patented). For that matter, he wouldn’t be a half-bad Dortmunder, though probably too old now. Spring chicken compared to Tom Skerritt, though. Where does the time go, man?

  8. Martin

    I didn’t expect to stumble across a Jay Cronley reference, but it pleases me that there is one. I read and really enjoyed QUICK CHANGE, found FUNNY FARM shortly thereafter, and went on a used bookstore hunt for other Cronley-novels. But I’d gotten lucky twice and that’s all I’ve found.

    I still have the paperbacks and, now, I want to read them again. Except that your blog sent me on a Westlake run, so the six on the shelf are next to be read. Then Cronley. Maybe it’s time to haunt the used bookstores again.

    But Christopher Walken as Dortmunder? Any version of Christopher Walken — younger, older — as Dortmunder? I don’t see it. But 65-year old Ed Harris as Tom Jimson? Sign ‘im up.

    • I was surprised none of my Monequois Irregulars up to now were familiar with Mr. Cronley’s work, beyond the Bill Murray film (which I saw for the first time quite recently, though I remember the ads, and the flopping, and such). So glad at least one of you is hip to his jive.

      Harris could do Tom Jimson very well (he’s played similarly bloody-minded persons), but he’s the wrong physical type–Tom should be tall and cadaverously thin.

      Frankly, there’s no end of great character actors out there who could do him. James Cromwell, for example. Maybe the best of all. And I was just watching a repeat of All in the Family (so old it’s new again, unfortunately) the other night on one of the old people cable channels (::sigh::), and hark! What do my eyes perceive? Stretch Cunningham was played by a young James Cromwell? I had no idea there ever had been a young James Cromwell! I just thought he sprang into spontaneous existence as a middle-aged man who sings to pigs! He apparently had an entire career before that. Now that’s what I call a second wind.

      I said Walken wouldn’t be a half-bad Dortmunder, which is far from saying he’d be the best Dortmunder. Frankly, I’m still seeing Tim DeKay. I mean, he can’t be Robert Redford (except for that one time he was Robert Redford), but he has to be at least a little appealing, or why would May be living with him? You have to consider the female viewership, Martin. You also have to consider that I want May to be played by Winona Ryder. Let me just do a search at The Hollywood Reporter to see if anything’s happening with that reputed Dortmunder series pilot. Hmm–for some reason getting a lot of articles about European football. :\

  9. Martin

    You’re right about Harris and you’re especially right about Cromwell. Cromwell is a wonderful bad guy, and could play Jimson in a heartbeat. I think you’re off-base with Tim DeKay — that man doesn’t carry any of the hangdog quality of John Dortmunder — but I suppose DeKay could play Bernie Rhodenbarr. Women seem drawn to Bernie, he usually ends up a winner in his stories, and he’s fairly athletic…kind of how I see DeKay. Since Rhodenbarr never keeps a girlfriend for very long and Ryder deserves better than a one-off, I suggest signing her for the best friend/dog groomer role of Carolyn. Not that she’s a great fit but she could make it work.

    If, you know, Hollywood casting agents want to go by my opinion.

    Thinking about Jay Cronley, I remembered another of his novels that I’d read. SHOOT! was the third of his books I’d come across, but it didn’t have the whatever-it-is that makes a novel come alive. I didn’t keep it. Cronley has a website with a $20 joining fee attached (per Wikipedia), giving readers access to his columns but not his fiction. Perusing the website, it seems as if his novels are almost an afterthought. It’s a shame. At his best, he’s very readable.

    • Cromwell’s a no brainer, for the movie/show that will probably never be made, and just the right age now–in a few years, maybe too old. I never could get into the Rhodenbarrs, so I’ll take your word for it–take mine that DeKay’s a very versatile actor mainly stuck in thankless straight arrow roles. And seriously, why doesn’t Winona get more work? She was looking foxy as all hell in that David Simon miniseries HBO had on some months back. But foxy in a shopworn down to earth sort of way. Which is how I see May.

      “Very readable” seems like a decent standard for a parti-time novelist to aspire to. I’ll give him a try, and maybe there’ll even be a blog article in it, and maybe not. Anyway, I’m pleased to have sniffed out Westlake’s reference to him here–and lest my methods seem supernatural, I was just trying to find out of there was really a town called Cronley in Oklahoma. His name popped up, and I made the connection.

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