Review: Drowned Hopes, Third Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not with these cheesecakes.

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

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

From 32 Cadillacs, by Joe Gores.

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

Gordon Lightfoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelp: A wiry little guy with a sharp nose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess it is,” Dortmunder agreed.

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

“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.

“And nothing at all up your veins.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember the specific rule of the game of Real Life.

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

Nevertheless.  It is:

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

I know.   I know.  I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At times in this world, we all are.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

25 responses to “Review: Drowned Hopes, Third Down

  1. rinaldo302

    Nice. One bit I didn’t quite get: Doug meets “the delightful Myrtle Street, illegitimate daughter of Tom Jimson (unbeknownst to either of them, which is just as well)” — unbeknownst to either of who? Tom and Doug? (But Doug hasn’t encountered Tom yet.) And Myrtle found out about her father much earlier in the book, as you recounted. Not a big deal, but I stumbled over this.

    The crossover with 32 Cadillacs was odd at the time. I own only the paperback of Drowned Hopes, as I’ve said, but I think I must have first checked it out of the library when it was new. Because while it was clear that we were crossing over with a DKA novel, it wasn’t one that existed, and Ken Warren was not a character in that series. So the whole chapter was kind of puzzling. And then the Gores book appeared in 1992, two years after Westlake’s (and I probably didn’t know about it immediately), and all was made clear. But at the time, it sure seemed like a long wait for everything to make sense.

    Thank you for questioning “glottal stop.” I always let it go when reading, not bothering to look it up, but in my experience (as a musician sometimes dealing with vocal music, and hence the phonetics of enunciation) a glottal stop is a matter of pronunciation, a stopping of the air between two vowels (like the New Jersey accent I hear around here which says button as “buh-un”), the glottal stop substituting for a T (it happens in some “lower class” British dialects too). And that’s the only sort of definition I’ve found. What Ken has is a speech impediment, of the type I would associate with a cleft palate, but I’m not at all an expert on that. Maybe I’m altogether wrong.

    • I’ll tweak that sentence a bit–hell, I tweak sentences months after I write them. Sometimes more than months.

      Gores really took his time with that book–Westlake just whizzed right past him, and got Drowned Hopes (a substantially longer novel) out a long time before 32 Cadillacs. Well, call it a preview of coming attractions–I doubt Gores minded at all. DKA was never as big a deal as Dortmunder & Co, best as I can tell. Good advertising.

      I do think speech therapists use the term glottal stop, but I’m not sure it applies to Ken’s specific problem. Gores doesn’t explain it either. It doesn’t actually need explaining. He’s a big tough looking guy who talks funny. He has to find ways to compensate. And he does.

      I don’t know if you noticed, but Ken goes to a fancy restaurant at one point, something he hasn’t done much, and the woman doing reservations, a hot brunette, is all agog over him, and imagining this ‘inarticulate tree falling on her in the night’, which is a pretty obvious paraphrase from the opening chapter of The Hunter. But Ken is, in that very same part of the book, helping his dead Vietnam buddy’s mother out of a jam. Under the tough exterior, he’s a big softie. And he doesn’t even notice that hostess with the mostest. He’s mainly just interested in the food. So I’m not sure who that joke is on. 😉

  2. Anthony

    I dunno, I dunno.

    In one sense EVERY character is in some way Westlake himself. There is an argument to be made (and you did) that Jimson is Westlake taken to an extreme. But so much about Westlake doesn’t jibe with that. I’ll just mention one – Abby. Sure it took him three tries, but when he got it right he got it right. Jimson would never give any woman that much power in his life. JImson can therefore only be one specific aspect of Westlake taken to the extreme. Which is maybe what you said and I read too quickly to see.

    I still consider Kelp to be the character closest to Westlake himself. No scholarship to back this up, in my mind it just fits. Kelp was probably the funniest kid in school’s best friend too. There’s also the insight when Anne Marie shows up (later) that prior to her Kelp’s interactions with the ladies were all either short and sweet or long and bitter…

    Yes, I know – Kelp is a technology lover and Westlake wasn’t. The thing about that is that Westlake had all the gadgets – computers and cellphones and the like. He kept the typewriters to write books on – that was a remarkably strong quirk of his – but beyond that he lived in the current world. Hell, lot’s of writers even today still prefer to do first drafts long-hand but that doesn’t make them Luddites.

    • You can always make the argument and the counter-argument, about Westlake and any of his characters. Like an actor, a writer has to be the people he writes about. But ask yourself why that reference to a W.R. Burnett novel that I doubt Westlake thought was very good, and just happened to be published the year he was born was in there, and highlighted rather over prominently for just a casual mention. Why does Tom like fiction (and responding to your point further down, so does Kelp)? Why is Tom interested in history, giving those lectures on obscure and possibly somewhat apocryphal past events that illumine some perverse aspect of human nature–something we know was very much an interest of his creator?

      I’m absolutely saying that’s just one part of his personality taken in isolation–you were reading too fast, and given the length of this thing, I don’t blame you one bit (it’s not far from 7,000 words–just the Third Down alone).

      But isolated parts of our identity can grow stronger or weaker over time–a Greek (or geek) chorus of selves inside of us. I think Westlake was feeling the part of himself that was Tom Jimson waxing in strength, in reaction to various stimuli–not least of which was old age. And it’s not like Tom ends up–well, we’ll get to that next time. But think about the next two books in the queue. Something was going on with him. Darker thoughts were becoming predominant, even when he was writing humorously. And then came his masterpiece. Whose protagonist even Tom Jimson might find hard to take. And then Parker returned, and brought him somehow back into balance.

      Kelp is part of Westlake too, certainly. Dortmunder is really his center, his ultimate muse (and paradoxically, so is Parker). Dortmunder is closer to Westlake than Kelp.

      And Dortmunder tells Wally to sell his computer. And that’s Westlake telling his readers to do the same. Knowing full well they will never do that.

      I don’t know offhand if he ever owned his own computer–I’m sure there was one in the house eventually. Not by the time of this book, though.

      • Anthony

        In at least one of his interviews he acknowledges owning a computer for such things as email and whatnot. Also, technology shows up in his books whenever they showed up in the real world (fax machines, etc. – hell, even Bank Shot has a plot point dealing with a newfangled phone) even if just to be made fun of.

        One of your responses below about Tim Jimson liking to give history lessons; now that IS Westlake. Frank in Kahawa does the same thing, and I always find it entertaining when Westlake does it. Westlake wrote an entire non-fiction book – Under an English Heaven – to give a quirky history lesson. He’d have probably been a really fun college professor in this regard, albeit somewhat of a source of misinformation most likely.

        • He doesn’t make Tom an utterly repellent person, the way he does some of his villains, like Matt Rosenstein. He’s not a sadist, Tom Jimson, he has an engaging (if unsettling) sense of humor, and I really don’t think of him as a sociopath.

          He just decided a long while back that he was trapped in a universe of beings who were all somehow less real than himself. And in that situation–not seeing them as real, a condition that began with his deprived youth, was encouraged by the Dust Bowl and Depression and ‘Dilly’ (I imagine Dillinger himself might have been somewhat like Tom, and someone Westlake would have had very mixed feelings about, individualist that he was)–and then of course prison. Lots and lots of prison.

          He tells Dortmunder this–that these people Dortmunder is concerned about aren’t real to him, that even Dortmunder seems only half-real to him. That’s an easy frame of mind to get sucked into. The internet can definitely make you feel that way. I spend some time arguing politics in certain places in here, I start indulging fantasies of mass extermination on a global scale. Let the ants have a chance, ya know? Oh if you had but a single neck. I watch The Matrix on cable, and I find myself saying “Morpheus, dude, you have to admit Agent Smith is talking sense here.”

          But Dortmunder, like Parker, can’t go down that road–yes, he thinks we’re all crazy. Because we are. But because he’s not, he knows that other beings are real, and their lives matter as much to them as his does to him. They may be stupid and self-destructive and obsessed with stuff that doesn’t matter, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t alive. And much as we may sometimes have to take life in order to sustain our own (and in my philosophy “All Lives Matter” applies to cows and pigs and chickens too, even though I finally had to give up vegetarianism), that doesn’t excuse forgetting that we’re only the heroes of our own stories. In the overarching story, there is no hero, and no happy endings either. Just happy interludes.

          Westlake is letting this side of himself present his argument. Then he shall present the counter-argument. And then Tom Jimson shall have some very ironic last words.

  3. I know that the series isn’t known for its realism, but Tom’s willingness to finance Dortmunder’s multiple attempts, traveling thousands of miles to retrieve stashes left behind by Roger Thornhill (or was it George Kaplan?), begins to strain credulity by the third down (if not earlier). Yes, a clean, quiet collection of money no one knows is there is preferable to a mass-murdering, attention-grabbing spectacle, but just HOW preferable? For a man like Tom, I’d guess not very.

    Maybe if the gang had offered him Parker’s standard deal to backers (you’re paid back double if the caper is successful), it would have eased this concern, but since Tom was always planning on taking the whole thing, maybe not.

    It’s a small quibble, and the stash retrievals are diverting enough for me to just go along with it for at least one more down. As long as I’m not the one who has to go down in that reservoir.

    • I think Tom likes watching people. The way you or I like watching ants. He enjoys putting Dortmunder and the others through their paces. It’s entertaining to him. So he pays for his entertainment. And he probably does know that Stan is right, that he wouldn’t get away with dynamiting the dam, but it’s his money, and he’s got to get it. He’s hoping good old Al will come through, and he’s willing to give him a fair few chances. But please note, he’s actually not doing much of anything in this book. He’s sitting back and watching the others do stuff. Waiting his moment, sure, but also enjoying the spectacle. These people are nuts, but they sure are fun to watch. Almost a pity to have to kill some of them.

      And that’s another way in which he’s like his creator.

  4. This book was also my introduction to the DKA universe, which I have dabbled in but not embraced. They’re certainly enjoyable though. I like to imagine Westlake and Gores collaborating and conspiring under their publishers’ noses, so there was absolutely no official cross-promotion or back-cover acknowledgement of the “special guest stars.” Just a little present for the fans.

    • Yeah–they’re never true crossovers, of course. The protagonists of two different series teaming up. They’re more of a crossing of paths–each group has their own mission, and they just run into each other, and don’t really understand each other terribly well. Because each fictional universe is its own discrete entity, and much as fanfic writers may love to bring them together, it rarely works well, except as parody.

      • Exactly right. But I have to believe that if the publishers had known what Westlake and Gores were up to, they’d have tried to drum up some cross-promotion razzle-dazzle, like when Norm from “Cheers” stops by the “Wings” airport (or, you know, a more contemporary reference), and the network hypes it to the heavens. My guess is that the publishers didn’t have a clue this was happening.

        • I dunno, they were both put out by Mysterious Press, and Otto Penzler was friends with both writers. I don’t think they felt like they had to ask permission, but they didn’t have to sneak it through–Otto would have been delighted. He probably wished more of his writers did that. Maybe they discouraged any active attempt at promoting the cross-over–publisher’s promotions, in general, strike me as being somewhat ineffectual for books that are actually worth reading (except in certain types of publications frequented by readers of good books). For mass market rubbish, with a huge ad budget, they can work. I have never in my life seen an ad for a good book on the subway. Nor have I ever seen anybody reading the awful books in those ads on the subway. Other awful books, but not those.

          I don’t know how I’d search for promotional material for 32 Cadillacs. I would think they’d mainly just let the critics do the plugging for the crossover. But honestly, I’m not well-versed enough in the publishing world to have an informed opinion.

  5. rinaldo302

    the stash retrievals are diverting enough for me to just go along with it

    I wish they were that diverting for me. I get impatient, especially with the one in Oklahoma, feeling “OK, we have to go through this step to justify the next down, but does it have to be so drawn out.” I suppose part of it is that I don’t enjoy spending time with Tom as a character; obviously he’s not supposed to be fun company, but that’s the danger an author runs with such a character. Also — and I KNOW this is a silly point to get stuck on, when I happily buy so many other fantasy elements in Westlake’s fiction — I just don’t believe someone would stay put in a ghost town for THAT long, confident that the guy who hid the money would come back. Day after day, for that many years? Yes, I know he’s supposed to be around the bend, but it has that sent of plot contrivance for me, and I start checking out a little bit.

    • I dunno–how many times were we supposed to believe an African dignitary would keep paying the same thieves to steal the same jewel, even to the point of providing a helicopter, and renting a small locomotive? And it ends with a hypnotist, and a hijacked plane. That’s just a more tightly constructed series of improbable events. If anything, much more improbable, far less reality-based than here. But this is a more loose-jointed narrative. I don’t consider it one of the best Dortmunders in terms of structure. It rambles, loses its way, stops, starts up again. But then again, so does The Pickwick Papers.

      I liked the Oklahoma stuff, because it gives us some background for Tom, sets up a necessary connection for the finish, and I just enjoyed Tom’s history lectures. And Dortmunder’s reaction to such an alien environment. And the Jay Cronley homage.

      I think Jimmy the Kid, to name one, is a much better book. But it’s also much smaller. Westlake liked to stretch out sometimes. And long books were all the style then, as I believe they still are. People want something long and rambling to keep them occupied on trips, or in waiting rooms, or whatever. The short sweet ones end too quickly.

  6. Martin

    Jimmy is my least favorite of the Dortmunders. Drowned Hopes was so much better.

    And why didn’t you like Burnett’s book?

    • I think Westlake was better at tight focused stories with a very specific point to make than on sprawling epics that are essentially a grab bag of topics. If I had to pick the best of the Dortmunders, I’d be torn between Bank Shot and Jimmy the Kid. As to the best of the later Dortmunders, I’d be somewhere between Good Behavior and Why Me?, though I’m very fond of What’s The Worst That Could Happen? After that, I think the series lost some steam, while remaining very enjoyable.

      But consider how varied these books are. Now the Parkers have quite a bit of variety to them, but are much more stylistically cohesive, overall. Westlake experimented a bit with the Random House Parkers, and then returned to many of the more familiar aspects of the series with the latter run of books, though the last three formed a true epic in the form of a trilogy (I have another word for it, but that’s some ways off yet).

      There are almost twice as many Parker novels as Dortmunders. And yet so much more variety in the way he wrote the Dortmunders, and I think that’s one of the glories of the series–he took more chances, experimented more, and some experiments worked out better than others. So in saying I prefer Jimmy the Kid, I’m not dismissing Drowned Hopes. I may think Ben Webster was better at slow lyrical romantic ballads than fast-paced hard-driving solos, but we’d all be the poorer if he hadn’t done both. Well, Westlake would get that analogy, anyway. 😉

      Dark Hazard was not a book I greatly enjoyed, even though I love dogs, and didn’t have a problem with the ending (as many others have had, judging by some of the reviews I read). I felt many of the weaknesses of Burnett’s style are present there, his tendency to overexplain, to pontificate, to get too flowery in his prose–it’s an early work, not as mature as The Asphalt Jungle (which isn’t perfect either, but it’s a much better book–there’s a reason John Huston picked it).

      But more than that, I think Burnett was wrestling with a division in his own nature, a personal dilemma that was bothering him, and was finally unable to really come to grips with it, make it bear artistic fruit. Bear in mind, I’m extrapolating a lot here from the little I’ve been able to find out about him, but as always, I think nothing reveals a person’s inner nature better than the stories he or she tells.

      Burnett kept greyhounds himself, loved the sporting life, the racetracks, gambling–that’s obvious. In his omniscient narrator mode, he’s telling us how people like the middle class Ohioans (the people he came from) despised this lifestyle, and that much of the abolitionist opposition to slavery came not from a moral disapproval of human bondage, but rather from their dislike of the more free-wheeling fun-loving southern culture.

      The abolitionists had their flaws like everyone else, and were actually a pretty diverse group of people (and many were black, obviously) but it’s a damned shabby thing to say about people who risked everything to help people they didn’t even know achieve freedom. And to read his book, you’d think stiff-necked bible-based moralism didn’t exist in the south. Burnett was no social historian. And he was no Faulkner, either. Well, that’s hardly a reasonable standard to hold him to. But he’s also far below Hammett in his ability to convincingly describe seamy milieus.

      There is a fair bit of pretty nasty racism in the book (we forget just how common this was in crime fiction and fiction in general back then–that’s also true of Chandler). The word ‘dinge’ appears quite often (I think on the whole I find this worse than the n-word), used by the protagonist himself, a goodhearted man, who clearly has no problem with black people–but black people are portrayed very much as childlike simple folks with little in the way of an inner life–and yet, interestingly, Jim is seen as being closer to them in his outlook than he is to his wife. Because he’s a sportsman–which somehow, in Burnett’s mind, is halfway to being a ‘dinge’ himself–something he both desires and fears.

      Burnett came from respectable roots, I gather–he worked respectable jobs, he led a respectable middle class life–and then he broke away. He began to live the way he wanted to live, writing crime novels and other popular entertainments, working in Hollywood, leaving his first wife and marrying a beautiful (and much younger) studio secretary who was helpful in his career. And he started keeping and racing greyhounds.

      I think the successful Ohio man who Jim’s wife finally leaves him for is Burnett–the man Burnett was supposed to be, the man his family expected him to be. And Jim–tall, blonde, powerful, easy-going, generous, desired by women, with a natural talent for picking winners and shooting craps–that’s who he wanted to be as a younger man, and he’d indulged that side of himself somewhat in his later life, but at the end of the day, he was still a middle class man who kept cranking out books and having movies made of them, so he could have the material trappings of success (trophy wife and all). You never really escape your background.

      But Jim actually represents that escape–he gets the life Burnett secretly yearns for, but only at the expense of all those material trappings (other than the dog, and to a true dog lover, they are not possessions, but family, dependents). Jim’s beautiful wife ends up with the more staid responsible side of himself (who is not a developed character in the novel, or a terribly sympathetic one, even though we’re told he’s a decent fellow).

      I don’t really know to what extent Burnett knew he was writing about this, but to me it seems glaringly obvious–just as when I watch Birth of a Nation, with the lecherous leering black people played by white actors in blackface, I know they are not really representations of black people, but rather of the Victorian D.W. Griffith’s own suppressed desires and demons. And I am quite sure Griffith was never honest enough with himself to understand what he was doing there. I couldn’t say about Burnett.

      There’s nothing wrong with exploring such a personal identity conflict in a story–Westlake did so with great success–but Burnett can’t be honest enough with himself to make it work. He feels disloyal to both parts of himself, doesn’t fully understand either of them, and the end result is unsatisfying, because he can’t step far enough outside himself to really see the true outlines of the conflict, and where it comes from. Maybe that works for an H.P. Lovecraft, but now we’re talking about a whole different dimension.

      It’s not a bad book, but I’d call it more of an interesting relic of a past era of literature than an enduring classic. Doesn’t stand the test of time. Burnett is important as an influence on the genre he helped pioneer. But most of his work doesn’t really hold up in its own right, now that the era that produced it has gone the way of all things. It has nostalgic appeal, but not universal appeal.

      • It occurs to me, after all that typing (and re-typing) that the simpler (and therefore better) answer to your question would be that Dark Hazard is at best a novella’s worth of story, and it runs almost 300 pages.

        Well, you asked.

        Well, I asked you to ask.


        • Martin

          I enjoyed both explanations, and I’ll bet I’m not alone in that.

          • It was damned hot here in the room I have my computer last night. I can’t wait to get out of here. Overlook Lodge, here I come. But I’m going to put the last installment of this review to bed before I go, and you guys can discuss it in my absence. I may chime in here and there. But then again, it might be fun to see what you all say to each other when I’m not around to throw a goddam essay at you every time you ask a six word question.

  7. What’s the Worst That Can Happen? is my runaway favorite Dortmunder, but it only works by building off what we know of the characters. I would never, ever recommend someone start with it. I consider it the last great Dortmunder, though Bad News is pretty strong.

    (I have another word for it, but that’s some ways off yet)

    Is that word “triptych”?

    (I know. I’m jumping ahead. It’s a thing I do.)

    • My GOD, Holmes! Uncanny! 😮

      But I suppose if you’re really paying attention, it is elementary. I would say I look forward to discussing it with you, except for the fact that once we have, there won’t be much else left to discuss, at least unless I can get into that archive in Boston.

      I still haven’t decided whether to end the main part of the blog with Dirty Money or Get Real. I guess I could write both reviews, and then post them simultaneously, but one would still have to come last.

  8. I’ll take the Lot pun with a grain of salt. (You do realize that Lot was the original nephew.)

  9. I wasn’t sure either, so I asked the regulars at Rollo’s, and it turns out that canastas are those clicky things they use in flamingo music,

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