Monthly Archives: August 2016

Bonus Feature: Who Loots The Looters?; The Genesis of Charley Varrick


” ‘Charley Varrick, Last of the Independents.’ I like that. Has a ring of–finality.”

I should probably explain.

Donald E. Westlake had no role whatsoever in the writing or production of Charley Varrick.  It was not based on anything he’d written.  I don’t know if the people responsible for this movie ever read any of Westlake’s heist books, though given that it came out the same year as John Flynn’s adaptation of The Outfit, it’s a safe bet they knew his name.  I don’t know if John H. Reese, the author of the novel this movie was very loosely based on was familiar with Westlake’s work in the crime/heist genre, but there’s reason to think he was.  Reese was mainly known for westerns, and wrote very little in the overall mystery field (The Looters was his first crime novel, and he only wrote one more), so Westlake probably didn’t read much or any of him, but you never know.

Here’s the thing–I’ve loved this movie for a good while now.  It’s probably my favorite film ever made in this genre.  Not just my personal favorite–I think it’s the best.  I think Don Siegel, the guy who made it, was the greatest director of crime flicks who ever exposed a negative (it’s him or John Huston).  And I’ve been curious for a while now about what the novel this film adapts is like.  And now I know.

The first edition hardcover is from Random House–1968–Westlake was still publishing there under his own name, but not for much longer.  Coe was still around, and Stark would show up there soon enough, so yeah, Westlake and Reese would presumably each have had at least some inkling of the other’s existence.

A good first edition of The Looters (or even a crap one) will run you well over a hundred bucks online. The paperback, making its futile misguided attempt to entice Mario Puzo readers, is ugly, and not cheap.  I decided to go with interlibrary loan–the copy on my desk hails from a public library upstate.  It has to go back soon.  So I figured I better write this now.  (Also, I’m still rereading the next Westlake novel in the queue–try to get that review done by sometime next week.)

It’s really hard to say why some books get bought up by Hollywood and some don’t.  If this had been any kind of bestseller,  if it had done even reasonably brisk sales, copies wouldn’t be so expensive now.    The high price for used copies nowadays probably stems from relatively high demand (because of the movie) combined with relatively low supply (due to average sales for the genre and publisher, and the fact that a lot of copies have not survived the decades).

Doesn’t seem anything John Reese ever wrote (and he wrote a lot) has made it to Kindle. Completely out of print, in all formats. But somebody bought the rights to The Looters, probably not long after it came out (conceivably before it came out), and it wasn’t the first time Reese had tapped into that well.  Three of his short stories in the western genre had been adapted, one into a movie with Fred MacMurray.

But for many who went to school in a certain era, the book below would be what they remembered him for–won him an award.  I remember reading it myself as a kid.  Good story.  Mind you, back then I’d read pretty much anything with a dog  on the cover.


Also out of print.  Because stories about ranchers ruthlessly exterminating wolves with the help of really big dogs (not in the frontier days, there’s cars and electricity and tourists passing through) just ain’t gonna play in most parts of the country anymore, nor should they.  Old Yeller can still get away with it, because he’s protecting his family (and the wolf was rabid).  And because that book is much better written and illustrated.   But see who the hero is here?  Not the wolf–one of Life’s true independents, and among the last ones too, on that range (you might say they’ve made a comeback since then).  Nope, the dog is the hero.  A canine cop, out to eradicate the independents.  Hmm.

The screenplay for Charley Varrick is credited to Howard Rodman and Dean Riesner, but in reading Don Siegel’s account of the making of this movie in his credit-by-credit professional memoir, A Siegel Film,  I learned that the two never worked together on it.  Rodman had been tasked with writing a script based on the book for Universal, years before, and nobody liked it much (probably stuck closer to the book), so the project languished in development.

Siegel took an interest in it, and hired Riesner, who had worked with him on his previous film at Warner Brothers, Dirty Harry, which had of course been a box office sensation, and presumably that gave Siegel a bit more leeway to do what he wanted here than he usually had.  I’m tempted to say he felt lucky, but that would be so obvious.

He tried to get his buddy Clint Eastwood, who he’d just finished turning into a  legit A-List star, interested in playing the lead–the lead being a bank robber who gets away with it.  Eastwood, who thought the world of Siegel, turned him down flat.  He didn’t like the character–said he had no ‘redeeming qualities.’  Yeah, looking at his list of roles, before and since, I don’t know what he meant by that either, but I’m guessing he just figured the movie wouldn’t do that well (he was right too), and he was just getting some real traction in the biz.  I like Clint’s movies and all (even some of the ones he made himself).  He has long struck me as being a character with few redeeming qualities away from the film set, but anyway he photographs nice.

So instead of the combative macho camaraderie that generally prevailed between Eastwood and Siegel, who I get the impression never tired of putting each other through various forms of hell, Siegel had to work with Walter Matthau–who had, in fact, made his own movie about a bank robber, years before–one who didn’t get away with it, who met with the traditional fate of movie heisters.  Interesting film, shot in a near-documentary style, not very good, pops up on TCM now and again.  He must have enjoyed the experience.  Met his wife on that movie, too, and she looks quite enjoyable indeed.   Marriage lasted.  No Eastwood, he.

But he put Siegel through a few kinds of hell also.  Siegel loved everything Matthau did in front of the camera, and said he was a pain in the ass to deal with once the camera stopped rolling.  Did not understand the script.  Did not understand the character.  And apparently, he didn’t need to.  Because he just was the character.

Lalo Schifrin, the Argentinian composer best known for the Mission Impossible theme, who had also worked on Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry with Siegel, did the score. He and Siegel had a rare rapport, and Siegel talks with pure admiration of the way Schifrin figured out how to put music over the climactic biplane vs. muscle car scene in the movie, the kind of scene you normally never put music over, because it gets in the way, but somehow Siegel felt like this one needed it.

Michael C. Butler was the cinematographer–his first big gig.  His dad was close friends with Siegel.  His mother died just before shooting started. Siegel told him to go home, they’d delay shooting, he said no way, his mom would want him to work.  You getting the impression this was less like a film set than a family reunion?  (With Matthau as the cranky eccentric uncle everybody’s a bit in awe of, but not Siegel, because he was used to stars, and knew how to wrangle them.)

As was typical for many of his better, more polished, individual films–the ones he cared most about–Siegel was his own producer.  He always liked that.  Cleaner.  Simpler.

So you had a group of people behind the camera who knew each other very well, understood each other,  and since Siegel was the producer, no suits getting in the way most of the time.  No real star egos, except Matthau, who might kibbitz a bit, make a bunch of suggestions that wouldn’t work (because, I’d posit, he’d made his own bank robber movie, and it hadn’t turned out great, and he was trying to impose all the ideas he’d never been able to execute properly in his film on this film)–but he was all pro once the director yelled action.

(Lee Marvin could have maybe been an even better Charley, except he’d have been more dangerous, less cerebral.  It would have to be a different story, that would end with a fight, not a ruse.  Siegel had directed Marvin in a made-for-TV adaptation of The Killers that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Hemingway story, and I’d talk about that here, but Lady, I Haven’t Got The Time.)


Great supporting cast.  Joe Don Baker (his best performance ever, I think) as a Dixie-accented hitman.  Richard Vernon as a smooth unctious frontman for the mob.  Sheree North as a sly slatternly photographer who doesn’t impress easy.  And Felicia Farr as Sybil Fort, the Vernon character’s shrewd secretary/mistress, who implausibly but delightfully ends up ‘boxing the compass’ in a round bed with Varrick.  And the weird thing about that was that in real life she was married to Matthau’s buddy Jack Lemmon, and somehow it doesn’t seem fair that Lemmon never got to do a relaxed intimate grown-up sex scene with Matthau’s wife, but they do seem to be enjoying themselves.


Siegel claimed he believed every picture he ever made would be a hit, even though he knew in practice that you just never knowCharley Varrick was a flop.  Siegel’s alibi was that Matthau had been badmouthing the movie to every reviewer he talked to (what else would you expect from an independent?), but unlikely that would have made the difference between a hit and a flop.  A flop and a marginal success, maybe.

This movie wasn’t what anybody would have expected, and the objections of both Eastwood and Matthau were not entirely offbase–it’s not for everybody.

Some mainly pretty bad people rob a bank in a tiny hick western town.  Two citizens of the town  are killed, one of them a cop.  The heist planner–the hero of the movie, its title character in fact–didn’t kill anyone personally (never so much as punches anyone in the entire movie), but neither is he feeling any apparent guilt over his indirect role in multiple fatalities, then or ever afterward.

He’d tried making an honest living, working as a crop duster after his career as a barnstormer fizzled, and then the combines pushed him out.  He can’t work for other people, because he’s an independent by nature.  He can’t live on the dole, because he’s not a bum.  So he meticulously plans and executes minor bank robberies.  And he finally robs one full of mob money.  He realizes right away that’s what it must be.  Enough money to retire on, if you’re careful.  If you’re not careful, you won’t have to worry about retirement.

His wife  (played by a shopworn but still lovely Jacqueline Scott, best remembered for The Fugitive) was the driver on the job, and she died too, after getting them to safety.  He kisses her dead lips passionately, and then has his partner set the car to blow up with her inside it (and has guilt-free carnal knowledge of a total stranger very shortly afterwards, while wearing the ring he’d just taken from his wife’s cold finger maybe two days earlier).


The partner, played by another Siegel alum, Andy Robinson, is an edgy out of control fellow, unprofessional, untrustworthy.  He says to hell with whose money it is, who might be coming after them, he’s going to spend it, and he’s not going to wait long to do it.  He threatens Charley.  Charley, seemingly conceding, says “You called it, kid.”  He says that once more in the movie.

Most of the film is Charley, a deeper player than anyone could have guessed, working a long intricate con on both sides of the law, so that he can get away clean, with most of the cash, and nobody will ever know that he did that.  To just disappear into thin air, free as a bird–the Last of the Independents.  That was Siegel’s preferred title, the words that begin and end the film, but honestly, I think the title the studio stuck him with works better.  Though there were several.

There is no explaining Charley Varrick.  The film or the man.  You only know that a man like that can be either free or dead, and there is nothing in-between.  He’s precisely the kind of existentialist criminal character a filmmaker once told Westlake American movies don’t know how to do.  In American movies, either the bank robber is just a bad man who has to go down bloody, or he’s a good man who did the robbery because he needed money for someone’s operation (and may still go down bloody–High Sierra comes to mind, except that wasn’t exactly Roy Earle’s first dance, was it?).

Westlake said it wasn’t really that simple, but in commercial terms, it usually is.  People want the vicarious excitement of being in on some criminal enterprise, but then they want the robbers punished in some way–they die, they go to jail, they don’t get to keep the loot–to expiate their vicarious sense of guilt.  There’s none of that here.  You saw what Charley did, you wanted him to do it, you wanted him to get away with it, because if he doesn’t, that means the System always wins, and the System has to lose sometimes, or there’s no hope.

Yes, it was mainly mob money, but not entirely, and innocent people died because of what he did.  And his reaction to that is–well–there is none.  He didn’t want anyone to die, but he always knew it could happen.  He took his chances, and everybody else would have to take theirs.  No remorse, no regrets, no excuses.  They’re a waste of time.  Whatever Charley Varrick feels or doesn’t feel about what he’s done, he’ll never share those feelings with us.  His feelings are none of our business.

Not for nothing was this movie on a list entitled “Not Quite Parker” over at The Violent World of Parker site (RIP).  And not for nothing was blues guitar god Rory Gallagher inspired to write one of his best songs after seeing it.   Though when Joe Don Baker’s Molly is onscreen, Brute Force and Ignorance might be a better fit.  They debuted on the same album.


So anyway, there’s lots of reviews of this movie already, and it’s not directly on-topic for this blog, but here’s the thing.  I finally read the book they based it on.  And guess what?  It’s not very good.  Which is not to say it isn’t interesting–any storyteller with a vision, which I surely think John Reese had, can be interesting to read, if you are interested in people, since as I’ve mentioned several times since starting this blog, there’s no better pathway into a human mind than fiction, good or bad–and this isn’t bad at all.  It’s just not that good. It’s a bit of a mess, really.  Reese was out of his element here.

And it’s not about The Last of the Independents, either.  It’s really about a young, good-looking, sensitive, and deeply insecure policeman, serving his first day on the job in that tiny hick western town of Tres Cruces.  His name is Kenneth Steele, but his nickname–and it’s not meant as a compliment–is ‘Stainless.’  Yeah.  Stainless Steele.  That’s the name of the first chapter. And several others.  It’s one of those multiple POV books, where each chapter begins with the name of the character whose POV it’s written from.  The second chapter is from Charley’s POV, and a few after that.  Ten POV characters in all.  One of whom is named ‘Possum Trot.’  I am not making that up.

Okay.  Spoiler alert.  You want to know just how far the movie got from the book here?  If not, stop reading.

This novel is 177 pages long in the first edition.  Charley Varrick gets his head beaten in with a bowling ball by Molly Edwards on page 130.   Molly gets shot down by Stainless Steele on page 169.

Yeah.  Chew on that a moment.  I’ll wait.

In the novel, Charley Varrick is a career criminal, been to prison more than once, never remotely aspired to making an honest living, never gave a damn about anyone but himself. He was never married to Nadine, the character played by Jacqueline Scott in the movie, never felt anything but contempt for her, did not kiss her dead lips before setting her body on fire, felt nothing but relief that she was gone, except maybe irritation that she screwed up her job as driver for the heist (it’s not clear she actually did).  He has every intention of betraying his surviving partner.

He knows there’s something funny about that much money being in that little podunk bank, but never figures out he just stole laundered mob money until it’s much too late. He and Molly know each other from prison.  Molly, also nowhere near the fierce focused professional he was in the movie, but still a tough mean hombre (and also intending to keep all the money himself), spots Charley on the street, guesses right away he pulled the bank job, and that’s all she wrote for Charley Varrick.  Let me give you a sampling of Reese’s prose here, which is a bit hit or miss, but this is a solid hit.

Molly whipped the Imperial to the curb and rolled out of it.  “Charley!” he called softly.  “Come here.  Get in this car.”

Charley turned slowly.  In prison he had always been one of the wise old heads who by advice and example taught the wild youngsters to live out their terms without going mad. Molly was a different kind of aristocrat, solitary and dangerous, and he knew that he was one of the few people Charley Varrick feared.

But Charley tried. “Let me alone,” he said in a soft, expressionless yet carrying voice. “I been keeping clean, Molly.  See you around.”

“You ain’t been keeping clean,” Molly drawled.

“The least you can do is not make trouble for a fella.”

Molly walked toward him.  They were about the same height, but Molly was fifteen years younger and thirty pounds heavier than Charley.  He had moreover the quick, killing decisiveness of a panther, an animal quality somewhat lacking in Charley.

Yeah, I think Reese probably read some Richard Stark in his day.  Not that Stark invented the idea of a predator in human form.  And not that Reese could match Stark’s wily willful way with words, even at his very best.  Not going by this, anyway.  And none of his westerns are e-vailable either.  I mean, you can only read so many books in one lifetime.  This is a late book in Reese’s canon.  I have to assume he’s giving it his best shot here.

Reese’s Varrick has no ingenious intricate plan for survival, or anything resembling a sense of honor or professional integrity.  He’s the one threatening his frightened guilt-ridden out-of-his-depth partner, not the other way around.  He always intended to keep the whole score for himself.

He sure as hell never gets to screw a smart sexy blonde in a round bed–in fact, the characters never even meet, or learn of each others’ existence.  Sybil Fort is just a plot device here, to make sure the mobsters get theirs in the end too (she’s going to turn state’s evidence on her boss because one of his associates frightened the hell out of her).  And she’s not a blonde, or a knock-out, but that’s neither here nor there.  (It’s worth mentioning that Reese had a gift for describing ordinarily attractive women, and that is one of the legit pleasures of this book.)

The Charley Varrick in The Looters is, to put it plainly, a sleazy third-rate low-rent criminal sociopath, who knows his chosen profession pretty well, but thinks he’s a whole lot smarter than he really is.   Oh, and he can’t fly a plane–the crop duster thing, that ‘We are the Last of the Independents!’ motto on the side of the van he’s driving–that was just a front he was putting up to blend into the community, prior to looting it.

As a fellow once said, ain’t that a kick in the head?  Or a bowling ball, same thing.

Westlake said many times that Richard Stark was a romantic in the way he wrote about crime. Which doesn’t mean everybody in his books is perfect, far from it.  He wants us to see the ugly side of the underworld, but he still expects his professionals to be professionals, to know their business, to live up to some ideal that probably doesn’t exist anywhere in real life, and real life isn’t the point of the Parker books, never was.  You put enough reality in there to make the romance believable–and to convey the underlying truths about selfhood and identity the author is trying to get across.  You don’t have to believe Don Quixote is real to know Don Quixote tells the truth.

I think there’s a strong romantic streak in John Reese as well, but it expresses itself differently.  Like there’s an actual romance in the book–between Stainless and a slightly older girl who just moved into town to be the new art teacher.  He got a good look at the robbers, and they don’t have a police sketch artist in such a small department, so she gets dragooned to come see him in the hospital (he got winged during the robbery), and do some drawings based on his descriptions (which are of course superb), and of course they fall for each other at first sight, and they hop into a motel bed the moment he’s released, and are headed for the altar by the time the book ends, like maybe two days later, if that.  His frigid domineering mother doesn’t like it, but he’s determined to break free of her, and finally be a man, and you’ve seen this movie before, and it’s not nearly as good as Charley Varrick.  Oh, and he’s a virgin when the book starts–now you get why his nickname isn’t a compliment.

This would, by the way, have made a perfectly good 1950’s low-budget crime picture.  Which Don Siegel  might well have directed, and he’d have had somebody rewrite the hell out of it then too.  And the studio censors would have insisted the premarital sex at the motel be cut out.  Party poopers.   But it feels very dated for the time period it’s set in.

I’m giving the impression Reese wasn’t a good writer, and again, I haven’t read enough of his stuff to know how good he was.  There were points, here and there, where he really had me going, and I thought (as some online reviewers have) that this would turn out to be a forgotten classic.  But on reflection, I don’t believe it is.  I think it was forgotten because it’s largely forgettable.  Not because Reese wasn’t a pro–it’s very obvious he knows his business well, and he’s no hack–he believes every word he writes.  He’s damned sincere.  Maybe too sincere.

I found some points of comparison between him and another western-raised author, named Willeford, but Willeford was a whole lot more self-aware, and couldn’t write a clichéd turn of phrase or character development if his life depended on it.  So much comes down to knowing who you are, knowing what rings true, and what doesn’t. Literary technique is merely the medium by which you tell your truths to the world, and some truths are more compelling than others.

And yet, reason dourly asks me, isn’t this more true to life than the movie based on it?  Isn’t this the genuine nature and likely fate of a real-life Charley Varrick, and shouldn’t we be more sympathetic to an earnest young patrolman finding his way in the world (not to mention the older and highly professional lawmen, local and federal, who appear in this book), than we do to some sleazebag thief and killer?

Yeah, and we should probably care more about Banquo than Macbeth.  What’s your point? You want to see  a three hour play about Banquo?  Be my guest.   You can just bet that if Shakespeare hadn’t written that play based on scurrilous English propaganda about a great Scottish king who never did any of those vile deeds, the hero of any historical film they made of that story would be MacDuff.  I mean, he wins the final sword fight.

Reese creates potentially interesting characters, and then he over-explains them, while at the very same time under-developing them (it’s too many POV characters for such a short book).  He’s too much on the side of the law to be objective here.  Did he ever write differently about outlaws in the old west?   Maybe, but look who his hero is in that dog vs. wolf book.

He writes in some depth about organized crime, and not one word of it makes any sense–he dabbles in both anti-Italian and anti-Jewish stereotypes, and I don’t believe he was any kind of bigot–he just can’t quite see how offensive he’s being. Never mind offensive, great writing is often deeply offensive–he’s out of key.

He makes it sound like American Jews only got into the Mafia recently, after the Italians started losing interest–the book came out in 1968!  Meyer Lansky was in his 60’s by then.  Bugsy Siegel  (no relation, I trust) got whacked in 1947.

You compare it to Westlake’s brilliant little analysis in 361 (presented by an untrustworthy character, not the infallible narrator), of how it’s always outsider groups, of all ethnicities, who get sucked into organized crime, and you see the difference between a young master and an old journeyman (Reese was in his late 50’s when he wrote this book).

Siegel and Riesner got around the whole mess there by making Vernon’s character, who is Jewish in the book, a snooty WASP who makes snide comments about ‘bagelbiters’ (referring to Norman Fell’s honest put-upon FBI agent in the film, who is actually pretty close to Reese’s take on the same character–seriously, I don’t think Reese hated anybody, he does not strike me as the type).

Realistic?  Maybe not, but it’s better storytelling, because there’s no room in the story for that kind of in-depth social commentary, accurate or not (and it’s mainly not).  You have to know how far you can stretch it before it becomes a distraction.  Sneak those messages in, don’t blast them over the PA system.  Show, don’t tell.  But if you need to tell, tell it right.  Tell it straight.  And keep it simple.

Reese’s book provided nothing but the bare outlines of a story, and some raw character sketches, to the movie that is now better-remembered than any of his books (and still something of a cult film–you can’t even get a decent DVD of it in the U.S.–pan & scan!   Wait for TCM’s letterboxed version).  Siegel, who I think most definitely saw himself as one of the last independents, saw the potential for something much more interesting. And definitely for better dialogue (reading the novel, I don’t think I came across a single line I remembered from the movie).

And I’ve often complained on this very blog, and at some length, about this way movie directors have of taking some hard-working print author’s brainchild and remaking it so completely that it says the exact opposite of what it said before.  And I’m praising this director (and the screenwriter) for doing that here.  Because at the end of the day, it’s not about who did the story first.  It’s about who did it best.  It’s about who had the most interesting points to get across.   It’s about who knew precisely what he was trying to express, and precisely how to do that.   All stories are true, from a certain perspective.  Not all stories are equally well told.  Not all stories are equally memorable.  Some stories live on forever.  Others fall by the wayside.

Charley Varrick never had his brains bashed out with a bowling ball.  Charley Varrick never doublecrossed a partner who didn’t cross him first.  Charley Varrick had a plan.  Charley Varrick outsmarted the Law and the Mob.  Charley Varrick got away clean, and lived free, and died without regrets, except maybe he missed Nadine, who wasn’t some cheap slut–she was a hell of a driver.  Maybe that isn’t real.  But it’s true.  Charley Varrick was The Last of the Independents.  May his flame burn forever in the soul of man.  Because dammit, we can’t let the System win every time.   And Stainless Steele is a silly name.  You know what isn’t?



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Review: Don’t Ask

 “It’s just that I have to keep in mind,” Dortmunder explained, “what it says across the bottom of my family crest.”

Tiny lowered an eyebrow; in fact, half an entire forehead.  “And what’s that, Dortmunder?

‘Quid lucrum istic mihi est?’


“What’s in it for me?”

Everybody seemed to like this book when it first came out.  There was, one senses, an almost audible collective sigh of relief upon its release.  At last, back to doing what he’s supposed to do!   Even the previous Dortmunder was a bit too dark (and bizarrely long, much like my review of it).   Lighten up, Westlake!

The New York Times delivered, as always, the official verdict– “In this era of thrillers about serial killers and child molesters, Mr. Westlake’s psychology-free capers are balm for the nerves. “Don’t Ask” is one of his best.”  And let’s just forget all about the last book hardly anyone read about Armageddon and God and Demons and really bad things happening to really good people.

I mean, after you’d spent much of your life writing scores of brilliantly insightful books about the human quest for self-understanding, some comic, some decidedly not, how would you feel about being referred to as ‘psychology-free’?  No doubt there’s a compliment in there somewhere, and Westlake never did cotton much to psychiatrists as such, but motivating his characters, explaining the choices they made, was his primary goal as a storyteller.  Most people never got that.  Even those who were ostensibly paid to get it.

David Bratman, in his great groundbreaking collection of thumbnail Westlake reviews, had this to say about it, years later–

The eighth Dortmunder novel, a successful mixture of light comedy and something entirely new to the Dortmunder series. Once again, there’s a sacred object disputed between two countries, and as in The Hot Rock Dortmunder is hired by one country to steal it from the other. This time the two countries are Slavic, and the object (which again is in New York) is a saint’s relic, a holy bone. Once again, the object must be stolen several times, lost each time for reasons reminiscent of those in The Hot Rock. What saves this book from being a retread is the freshness of the writing, and the new tone of the second half of the book. Having been tricked and bamboozled by his antagonists, Dortmunder decides, in his last attempt on the bone, to wreak a thorough revenge and embarrassment on them — and he succeeds. At last, he is no longer purely a sad sack. It’s richly satisfying.

Except that’s a retread as well–a vengeful Dortmunder was featured in both The Hot Rock  and Why Me?–what’s different here is that he’s planning an elaborate caper with multiple confederates to exact retribution.  Far more ambitious, to be sure, but it’s the same pattern we’ve seen before, adapted from Parker–Dortmunder gets mad, Dortmunder gets even.  He won’t kill you.  He’ll just make you wish he had.

He was never purely a sad sack.  Westlake told a variety of stories in the early years of the series, and sometimes it suited the story to have Dortmunder lose from beginning to end (Jimmy the Kid comes to mind, and that of course was adapted from The Ransom of Red Chief), but more often his good and bad luck, his good and bad ideas, all balanced each other out–he’d win some and he’d lose some, and he’d live to steal another day.  Good Behavior was probably his most triumphant exploit to date, not this book.

In fact, he loses quite a bit here (including the loot).  But what he’s mainly losing, sad to say, is my attention.  I enjoyed this novel the first time I read it (it is, in many ways, the most generically representative of the Dortmunders, containing basically every key element from the series as a whole).  I was looking forward to reviewing it here, but on second reading, I found my opinion of it would shift radically from chapter to chapter–I’d get into it, then find my attention lagging. So many good moments, so many ingenious contrivances, but even admitting that there had always been some necessary and enjoyable repetition in the series, there’s far too much of it here, and what’s more, Westlake knows it.  The conviction isn’t there.

He’s going through the motions.  In a manner more clever and creative than most writers could ever aspire to, but fertile as his imagination remains, his heart isn’t quite in it this time.  And I still think this one merits an electronic edition–other than the one after it, this seems to be the only Dortmunder not currently available on Kindle–except it is in Germany.  What’s that about?  Don’t ask.

Maybe Westlake wasn’t quite ready to get back to Dortmunder yet (it had been just about exactly three years since the last one), but he probably had no choice–he had to make bank, for himself and his loyal publisher, after several recently failed attempts to expand his options as a writer.  Hence Dortmunder, his only available fallback position with Parker out of the picture (so maybe time to start thinking about getting Parker back?).

Hence the next book in our queue as well, another sequel that fails to live up to what came before it–both books having quite a lot in the way of keen social observation in them, something Westlake was still vitally interested in, and that keeps either book from being a total loss.  But when it comes to the characters, I’m just not feeling it, which I of course interpret as him not feeling it either. Yes, you may roll your eyes now at Fred the Psychic Book Reviewer, Spirit Medium to dead mystery authors.

But ask yourself this, oh skeptics–if he felt he’d done this story full justice, why would he basically rehash the latter half of it in the very next Dortmunder, three years after this one came out?   Like a dog with a bone was Donald Westlake with an imperfectly executed idea.

Much as the 90’s marked a return to greatness for him, the first half of that decade was a discouraging process of trial & error.  And yeah, I think his attitude towards writing this book–and several subsequent Dortmunders (though not the next one)–fell very much along the lines of Quid lucrum istic mihi est?  What was in it for him was money, of course–and breathing space.

It’s a fairly long book, and I could stretch it out, but I’m not making any bank here, and I’m mainly going to focus on the things that do feel inspired, and therefore inspire me.  That’s my quid pro quo.   No synopsis, or a very incomplete one, anyway.  We’ve heard it all before.  What was good enough for Dancing Aztecs (a much better book about New York and its environs) will do fine for this one.   I think I’ll start out with–

A Dubious Dedication:

Westlake dedicates this novel, ‘in awe and admiration,’ to Robert Redford, George C. Scott, Paul LeMat, and Christopher Lambert,  ‘Dortmunders all, and who would have guessed.’   You really wouldn’t think it would be that hard a role to cast appropriately, would you?  Unless you read a lot of Dortmunder novels, in which case you’d realize that it’s entirely appropriate that the movie adaptations never, and I mean ever, work out.   Moving on to–

Kelp the Climatologist:

Stuck in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge out of lower Manhattan in a stolen frozen fish truck full of stolen frozen fish at 1:30 on a bright June afternoon, with construction out ahead of them forever on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with Stan Murch on Dortmunder’s left complaining about how there are no decent routes anymore from anywhere to anywhere in New York City–“If there ain’t snow on the road, there’s construction crews”–and with Andy Kelp on Dortmunder’s right prattling on happily about global warming and how much nicer it will be when there isn’t any winter, Dortmunder also had to contend with an air conditioner dripping on his ankles.  Cold drips.  “My ankles are freezing,” he announced.  As if anybody cared

“Nobody’s gonna freeze anymore,” Kelp assured him.  “Not with global warming.”

Dortmunder is all for it, and decides to hasten the process by turning off the air conditioning, only he actually turned off the refrigeration unit, and by the time they get the fish to the Long Island restaurateur illicitly buying them (ever notice how often Dortmunder does theft for hire?), the entire load is spoiled, and Dortmunder has screwed up his own heist.  Can’t even blame Kelp this time.  Though he really wants to.

And if it hadn’t been for the ferocious summer heat, combined with the now-unavoidable traffic jams, probably this wouldn’t have happened.  Dortmunder is once more confirmed in his deep philosophical divide with Kelp.  Change is not good.  But Kelp the climatologist still looks forward hopefully to the death of winter, and somehow never quite grasps what summer would be like by then.  Or else maybe he loves hellishly muggy days, who knows?  He can have all of mine.

So now Dortmunder could really use a good score, to make up for this humiliating failure, and then he and the rest of the gang get a call from Tiny Bulcher, who has a problem for them to solve, namely–

The Osteology of Votskojek (grrrrr–and apologies to E.B. White):

“Tsergovia,” Dortmunder said.  “I never heard of it.”  He glanced at Kelp, who shook his head, and at Stan, who said, “If it isn’t in the five boroughs, I never heard of it.”

Tiny said, “This poor little country, it really got screwed around with over the years.  It was independent for a long time in the Middle Ages, and then it got to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one time it was almost a part of Albania, except over the mountains, and later on the Commies put it together with this other crap country, Votskojek–”

Grijk growled.

“–and called it something else, but now the Commies are out, that whole Eastern European thing is coming apart, and Tsergovia’s becoming its own country again.”

“Free at last,” Grijk said.

“So it’s gonna be a real different country,” Tiny said, “from when my grandparents decided to get the hell out of…”  He frowned and turned to his cousin.  “What was the name of that place again?”

“Styptia,” Grijk said.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Tiny agreed.  “My ancestral village home.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina were (was?) recognized as an independent nation by the U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations, about a year before this book made it to stores. The result was not peace and prosperity for that tiny nation, but one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern European history (and that’s saying something).

I don’t know when Westlake began work on Don’t Ask, but almost certainly before the shooting started, and I rather think he would have chosen another region if he’d known that was going to happen so soon (we’re told the two statelets are in the Carpathians, not the Balkans–given that all that separates the two ranges is a river, and both border Serbia, it’s kind of a moot point).  But he definitely saw the problems presented to parts of Central Europe by the break-up of the Soviet Union.   He knew there were a lot of ‘countries’ on the old maps that only existed on paper, and were only being held together by force.

So he imagines this scenario where two tiny nations in what was apparently a hybrid nation very much like Yugoslavia are each vying to be recognized by UN, and what will give one of them the edge is having the thigh bone of a saint revered by both.  Both claim to have it, but Votskojek (grrrrrr) actually does, and is in the process of proving it scientifically, in their embassy, an old freighter moored on the East River, alongside Manhattan.   Dortmunder & Co. are to steal the bone, so Tsergovia can say they had it all along.

This is a funny part of the book, particularly the part where the narrator gives us the unfortunate history of St. Ferghana, the far-from-virtuous daughter of a family of thieves and murderers, who saw the light and tried to reform them, and ended up dead for her pains–she whose preserved femur serves as the bone of contention here.

But it’s maybe a bit too Ruritanian in its approach (maybe?  there were goddam rape camps!).  Real life events overtook the fictional ones in this story (not the first time this had happened in Westlake’s career), and it’s not so funny to hear Tiny’s cousin Grijk (whose name only Dortmunder can pronounce correctly) say that the people in these two little countries would need only the slightest provocation to start slaughtering each other like sheep.

Votskojek (grrrrr…) is pretty clearly a slimmed-down Serbia, and yet what’s Tsergovia?  A cut-back Croatia?  Where do the Bosnian Muslims fit in?  I’m sure the satire was never intended to be that direct–and back when most Americans barely knew these countries existed, that was fine.  If it had been written a decade earlier, we’d call it prescient–now it just seems a bit–irrelevant.  And nobody cared when it came out, because the Dortmunder books were supposed to be irrelevant.  Westlake loved to sneak political messages into nonpolitical books, but his timing was off here.

The great tragedy of the Balkans conflict was that all the major players were guilty of horrendous war crimes (or of only selectively condemning them), and the people got crushed between them all.  And for once, the United States getting involved in a foreign civil war turned out to be a good thing.  So the fight between these two little nonexistent countries over which one gets recognized by the UN seems to me a bit too trite and beside the point.  Again, I think he was too far into the book to fix it by the time the outlines of the war became clear.

And yet so much funny dialogue–

Tiny continued: Also by that time you got two religions involved.  You got the regular Roman Catholic Church out of Rome that said the leg was a saint to begin with.  I mean, the girl was the saint, the whole girl.  And then there was a schism, the Eastern Unorthodox,”

Stan said, “Jewish, you mean.”

“No, no,” Tiny said, waving a big meaty hand.  “There’s no Jews around there.”

“Dere was vun,” Grijk siad, “bud he went to Belgrade.  Or Lvov, maybe.  Somevere.  Anyway, now we godda get our suits from Hong Kong.  It ain’d da same.”

Yeah, something tells me there’s more to that story, Grijk.   But to me, by far the most interesting (and neglected) story in this book by far is–

The Founding of The Great Nation of Maylohda:

Banks don’t give loans to people,” Stan said in the tones of outrage he usually reserved for traffic jams.  “My Mom knows some cabdrivers, can’t get any kind of loan.  Working stiffs, good credit.  Taxi loan, house mortgage, home improvement, refinancing, you name it, you can forget it.”

“Oh no, no, no,” Grijk said, “not if you’re a pipple.  Pipples don’t ged no money from a bank.  Bud if you’re a country, no problem.”

Tiny said, “I looked into this with Grijk, and it’s true.  There’s countries haven’t even paid the vigorish on their loans in nobody remembers how long, never mind the main money, and the banks go ahead and loan them some more, anyway.”

J.C., more interested in this conversation than she’d expected to be, said, “How do I get to be a country?”

Grijk took that as a serious question, having recently gone through the experience himself. “First,” he answered, “You have a var.”

Okay, confession time–one of my personal grudges against this novel is that it’s the first time we’ve seen the magnificent Josephine Carol Taylor since her debut in Good Behavior, and she has her own rather brilliant subplot–and it’s shamefully brief.  Inspired by Grijk using Tsergovia’s credit to pay the gang members something in advance for their services, she tells Tiny she’s got something to do, vacates the apartment they share, and sets off to set herself up as a nation.  The nation of Maylohda (she explains later that her Noo Yawk accent makes her pronounce her usual post office based venue for chicanery that way).

This might have made a good book in its own right, or at least a much more substantial subplot, and do we get to see J.C. strut her stuff with the United Nations and the World Bank, and etc?  Do we even get to see her fabricate a ‘var’? Nope.  She just tells the gang all about it (over the course of three pages) when she gets back.  It makes a good final flourish to the book, but it could have been a lot more.

It does tie up one plot thread–Maylohda will happily buy Tsergovia’s rock, its only export, using borrowed money (with J.C. skimming off the top), and dump it somewhere in the Atlantic, thus providing much-needed hard currency for the struggling statelet, and many a good time for her and Tiny.  She figures maybe someday there’ll actually be some land there if they do that long enough.  It’s not enough of a pay-off for me.  She deserved better, and that mainly continued to be true for the rest of the series.  I read this passage, from inside Ms. Taylor’s febrile female brain, and I mourn what might have been.

A cacophony of countries, a mob, a milling throng, a legion of nations.  Who would have guessed there were so many mother and father lands?  You could hide in a crowd like that.

And do what?

Westlake’s longstanding interest in small nations, all those obscure flags that even your average Jeopardy! champion couldn’t pick out of a lineup, does get a vigorous workout here, and it’s fun to see.  Just not developed enough.  Too many irons in the fire to make it work.  And speaking of torture–

Dortmunder’s Not-So-Extraordinary Rendition:

Oh, is there no story to cover this?  Let’s see:

“I’m an undercover CIA agent, infiltrating the Tsergovian secret police, and…”

“I had amnesia!  Wait a minute, my past life is coming back to me!  The year is 1977, and I live in Roslyn, Long Island, with my dear wife, Andreotta, and our two charming children, uh…”

“FBI!  You’re all under arrest!”

“Thank God you understood those signals I was sending.  Those bloodthirsty fiends kidnapped my mother and forced me to help them in their evil…”

“My left leg is artificial and filled with dynamite.  If you don’t release me at the count…”

“Whu–Where am I?  Who are all you people?”

The first heist fails, as you’d expect, since it involves water, boats, and Dortmunder.  So much intricate use of Manhattan/Brooklyn geography here, and it’s enjoyable, as always. The embassy is in an old freighter, as mentioned, docked by an old abandoned ferry station. Dortmunder has to get off the tugboat they’re using to scope the place, because he’s seasick.

The ambassador, an oily customer named Hradec Kralowc, empathizes with Dortmunder’s mal de rio (he came to America on that very freighter).  He has no reason to suspect this queasy-looking person of any nefarious designs, and is proud of his cushy riverfront ambassadorial digs, so he shows him the whole place, shows him where they’ve got the bone, shows him exactly how to steal it, and man isn’t Dortmunder lucky?   And what always follows Dortmunder having some good luck?

Dortmunder pretends to be interested in visiting Votskojek (grrrrr) as a tourist, which has Hradec all agog–they’ve never had any foreign visitors on purpose before, unless they were invading (for the record, I would love to visit the Balkans, as long as they weren’t killing each other too much while I was there).   Dortmunder works out a scheme to distract the security guards (hired from the Continental Detective Agency, we’ll get to that), while he distracts the embassy staff, and Kelp sneaks in from the river and nabs the relic.

So what happens is, they get the bone, but they lose Dortmunder, and then they lose the bone to the DEA, which impounds the boat they ‘borrowed’ from a guy who used it to smuggle drugs–with the bone still in it.   Meanwhile, Dortmunder is now in the hands of some very unhappy Vostkojekians.  Vostkojites?   Never mind.  And grrrr.

(This whole episode marks the beginning of a running gag in the series that I for one could have lived quite well without–Dortmunder has to come up with a false name for himself when he first meets Hradec, and on the spur of the moment, he calls himself Diddums.  John Diddums.  It’s Welsh. No it bloody well is not. There is an old English name, Diddams, and there is also an expression of sympathy used with small children “Aw, diddums skin your widdle knee?”  That sort of thing.  Point is, Dortmunder went on using this alias throughout this book, and several subsequent books, and he always feels obliged to tell people the name is Welsh.  And I guess somebody must have enjoyed this, but it never got so much as a chuckle out of me.  Aw, diddums not like the widdle Diddums joke?)

And here begins Dortmunder’s less than extraordinary rendition, because Hradec needs that bone, and is prepared to go to any lengths to get it, other than actually killing or torturing anyone, which is one of the reasons I have a hard time believing Westlake wrote this thing after the Bosnian conflict was all over the papers.  Yes, I know, it’s a Dortmunder novel, but c’mon.

Dortmunder is introduced to a mad scientist who goes by the name of Dr. Zorn, who dabbles in trying to make inedible substances into food, but his main specialty seems to be the less polite forms of interrogation.  And there is a brief gem of character writing for Dortmunder here–

Thoughts of truth serum flashed through his mind.  How would his system react to truth serum?  Wouldn’t it be like an antibody inside him?  Would his vital parts survive such an invasion?

He never finds out, because Dr. Zorn doesn’t believe in the stuff, and just slips him the old Mickey Finn.  Dortmunder wakes up in a cell, which he is told is located inside Votskojek (grrrrr?). He is somewhat abused by the guards, but not really.  He is fed some unpalatable-looking green substance, but he is fed.  So that he should understand that his employer, whoever that is, has been filling his head with foul propaganda, he is given a tour of the rustic lovely countryside and charming (Potemkin) village life of Votskojek, but no ‘grrrrr’ this time, because guess what?  The crappy Soviet-era car they’re driving runs out of gas, he escapes his captors, and then he finds out he’s in Vermont.  Those fiends!  The Hague shall hear of this!  And maybe Ben & Jerry!

And here is where the trigger in Dortmunder’s head, no less implacable than Parker’s, is irretrievably set off.  No, they didn’t actually hurt him.  Yes, they had a right to try and get their bone back, that’s all within the rules of the game.  But they made a fool out of him.   Dortmunder already has to live with the fact that he is Fortune’s Favorite Fool. He has to put up with that, God being safely out of range.  He doesn’t have to take it from mere mortals.  He will be revenged on the whole pack of them.

An interesting side-note to this whole episode is that at no time does Dortmunder come close to telling what he knows–partly because he doesn’t think it’ll do him any good, partly because that would mean telling tales on Tiny Bulcher, but mainly because the entire scheme, borrowed variously from 36 Hours, Mission Impossible, and Westlake’s own Ex Officio, has a crucial defect.  They think he did this bonehead burglary out of misplaced belief in the just cause of Tsergovia, when in fact he was only in it for the money.   They’ve been wallowing in nationalist zealotry so long, they can’t understand a man who can scarcely be said to have any national loyalties at all.  Unless you count New York City as a nation.

The problem was, Hradec never did understand Diddums.  He neither knew nor understood that Diddums was a prisoner and knew exactly how to be a prisoner.  Hradec acted throughout as though he were dealing with an amateur, but Diddums was a pro, from his expressionless face to his barely moving feet, and would not be impressed.

All that talk, all those displays of cooling towers and happy peasants.  The man Hradec called Diddums cared nothing about any of that.  A prisoner does one of two things: (1) he goes along or (2) he escapes.  That’s all there is.  His keepers give orders, he obeys them.  He doesn’t think; he doesn’t argue; he doesn’t engage in philosophical discussion.  He does exactly what he’s told, and all of his concentration remains exclusively on watching for a chance to move onto (2).  Then he sees an opening, and he coldcocks the economist from Yale, and he’s gone.

Anyway, while all this is going on, Dortmunder’s comrades have not forgotten him (well, Tiny kind of has, but he does that, and J.C. isn’t around to shame him into a rescue mission).   Kelp has not forgotten, not least because his lousy timing in snatching the bone (it wasn’t his fault!) led to Dortmunder’s capture.  But of course he doesn’t know where Dortmunder is.  He does find out where the bone is, and the chapters dealing with that may be the best part of this book, as I shall now detail in–

Fox and Pig Are Friends:

Andy Kelp’s head appeared over the top edge of the ventilation tower.  Fox eyes in a fox face scanned the darkness.  It was two in the morning, and while the dishonest burglar in the ventilation tower conned the scene, the honest burghers of Governor’s Island lay peacefully asleep in their beds, dreaming of strikes and spares. (Some were having nightmares about splits).

This book sees the reintroduction of Kelp’s cynical cop confidante, Bernard Klematsky of the NYPD, last seen in Why Me?   He knows very well what Andy does for a living, and he’d happily jail him for it given half a chance, but he figures that it’s good to know people in that line of work for both professional and recreational reasons–Andy can provide information, and he can also pay for the sumptious meals the penurious policeman loves to eat but never wants to pay for.   Klematsky never picked up a check in his life, and no point starting now.

It was Italian food last time, long a favorite of Mr. Westlake’s, but there’s a new kid in town, namely Thai food, which Bernard says he loves because they put peanut butter on everything.  Andy is skeptical, but ends up finding it rather good (without the peanut butter), and cheaper than Italian, even with that pricey bottle of wine Bernard ordered thrown in.

No matter how good the chow is, however weighty the check, Bernard won’t knowingly aid and abet Andy in the commission of a felony, but with a great deal of dancing on ethical pinheads, Andy convinces him that all he wants is the location of an item that belongs to him anyway, that he won’t be able to claim through regular channels.  Well, let’s say Bernard, happily sated, agrees to be convinced, and with just one phone call he finds out where the DEA stashes impounded boats–which is Governor’s Island, site of a Coast Guard station, a self-enclosed community that lives its own bucolic surburban existence off the coast of Manhattan, bowling alley, golf course, and all.  A brief history lesson (one of what seems like a dozen or so in this book) follows apace–

Just five hundred yards south of the island of MANHATTAN (qv) and even closer to the onetime proud city of BROOKLYN (qv) across Buttermilk Channel, but nevertheless governmentally considered a part of the borough of MANHATTAN (qv), lies a darling button of an island that the Indians called Pagganck, which seems unkind, but there you are.

In 1637, some enterprising Dutchmen bought the island from the Manhatas Indians (so that’s why!) for two ax heads and a handful of nails and beads, and changed its name to Nutten, which wasn’t much of an improvement.  But they were still a lot sharper than those other Dutchmen who bought Manhattan itself from the Canarsie Indians, who didn’t own it, but were just passing through and knew a live one when they saw a live one.

The Dutch held on to Nutten only twenty-seven years before the British adopted it, not paying nobody for Nutten, and changed its name to Governor’s Island, because the governor of the colony of New York was going to live there.  And so he did.  The first one, Lord Cornbury, was asked to leave when he insisted on wandering around in lady’s clothing and instituted a bachelor’s tax, but some of the others kept a lower profile and would surely be proud to learn they are utterly forgotten.

(The parenthetical qv’s refer the reader to a brief footnote saying these are mere historical asides, and not for credit, so I shall not bother to find out if Westlake is making any of this up, and odds are he’s not, because when it comes to New York City history, the stranger it sounds, the more accurate it is likely to be).

So clearly not a good idea to invade the Coast Guard by sea–happily, the Brooklyn/Battery Tunnel goes directly beneath the island, and there is a ventilation tower from the tunnel below that pokes right up through to the surface.   And then Kelp’s foxy face pokes right up through that, while Stan Murch waits down below, and he finagles his foxy way around the totally unguarded island until he finds the sacred relic, sacrilegiously deposited in a garbage can near the impounded boat.  He wipes it off and kisses it hello, the late Saint being no doubt grateful for the smooch.  What’s left of her.  I think that’s worth a Papal dispensation, at least.

And since Dortmunder is now free, this would normally mean the story is over, the gang can claim the rest of their fee, and nobody is going to care that Dortmunder wants his revenge, but there’s something funny about the unenthused way Grijk accepts delivery of the bone, and Murch figures something’s rotten in the sovereign storefront of Tsergovia (their embassy is in a ‘taxpayer’, an unimpressive structure erected to host small stores until the owners of the land can think of something better).

He’s right.  Hradec had their phones bugged, learned of the impending delivery, and the entire embassy staff was being held at gunpoint until perfidious Votskojek (grrrrr!) once more had that blasted bone in their possession.  All that effort achieved precisely nothing–except to make John Dortmunder extremely angry.   And an angry Dortmunder is a curious Dortmunder.  How did they manage to find all those spots in Vermont to double as prisons and castles and villages in Central Europe, complete with guards and colorfully garbed locals?  How could such an elaborate ruse be possible for such a cash-strapped little country?  Answer–

Hilton, Helmsley–meet Hochman:

For a man like Harry Hochman, Eastern Europe in its current post-Soviet disarray was a kind of wonderful Christmas present, a model-train set all for him,; some assembly required.  And Votskojek was the centerpiece.  Once it was securely enconced in its proper traditional United  Nations seat, once its economic treaties with its neighbors were in place, that little landlocked barren boulder in the Carpathians would become Harry Hochman’s stepping stone to Europe.  All of Europe.

Harry Hochman was Hradec’s benefactor–his literally palatial home in Vermont was the castle Dortmunder saw, he owns all the various places Dortmunder had been kept in, and since he maintains a small summer theater there, getting actors to play menacing guards and such was simplicity itself.

I think he’s more Helmsley than Hilton–his wife Adele sounds a whole lot like the fabled Leona, only not so mean (maybe that came later?).   But basically, he’s a composite figure, and the first real tycoon-type Dortmunder has come up against–first of several.  But he’s not really developed well enough to be a suitable nemesis, coming along so late in the book–this is one of the problems Westlake would fix in later stories.

Dortmunder finds out about Hochman from the despondent Tservogians, who have files on him–and when Tiny asks what’s the point of revenge–what about his family motto, as seen up top?–Dortmunder points out that the Hochman estate in Vermont is the site of an art collection worth about six million dollars.   Dortmunder has his army.  Now he just needs a plan.

Fugue in D Major:

For the first but not last time, we see Dortmunder go into a sort of waking trance, a fugue state if you will, where he is piecing together a very elaborate plan–and he doesn’t like this, we’re told–great plans should be simple–but this one needs to be baroque.  Because it’s not just a heist, but a sting he’s working out here, and he’s stretching past his normal thought processes, inspired by his fury.

He says he thinks he’s got a corner of something.  But he spends a lot of time staring off into space.  Because, you see, he needs to solve a whole lot of problems here–how to get the bone, how to make sure Tsergovia can properly claim it, how to make sure both Hochman and Hradek suffer horribly for their insult to him, how to get all that art and then get paid off for it (two entirely different things, since fencing famous objets d’art isn’t something Dortmunder’s regular contacts can do).

Shall I explain how he does all that?  Nah.  Read the book.  If you already have, read it again (even a sub-par Dortmunder is still a Dortmunder).  Point is, he does it.  A brilliant heist, a brilliant scam, and everything works out perfectly.  Except, of course, they lose the art to the law.  Which all ties back to the beginning of the book.

They get some cash up front from a somewhat shady art dealer who was negotiating with the insurance company on their behest, so they did okay, but no big score like last time.  And Dortmunder doesn’t care, because this was about satisfying honor.  He got his own back, with interest.  He does his tormentors the dirty about a thousand times worse than they did him.

Dr. Zorn the torturer suffers the Chinese water torture (which it turns out is a thing) in his secret laboratory in the burned out Bronx, and by the time it’s done, he will never be the same again.  He can dish it out, but he can’t take it, nyah.

Hradec Kralowc, the proud womanizer, is publicly labeled a homosexual deviant (in the 1990’s?   We were a little more advanced by then, weren’t we?) Dortmunder makes everybody other than his long-suffering wife believe he’s having an affair with Dr. Zorn.  This joke fell a little flat with me, it’s not like the guy was any kind of homophobe, and we never see him do anything that dastardly.   But it’s a necessary part of getting the crusty old Archbishop in charge of awarding the UN seat to change sides.  Okay, he would definitely not be advanced on that subject.  Oh, and Hradec also gets framed for the art theft, and the bone-napping, and has to return to Votskojek (grrrrr) in disgrace.

And Harry Hochman will be answering questions for years to come about where he got all that stolen art from, and since many of his answers will never be fully satisfactory, he will have other things to ponder than the conquest of Europe.   Which technically I think Conrad Hilton had already conquered, but never mind that now.

It’s fun.  It’s clever.   It’s a great idea for a Dortmunder story.  And it’s too busy.  There are too many threads.   There are a few too many mean-spirited jokes (and this is not, in the main, a series that specializes in mean-spirited humor).  Like Zara Kotor the hulking homely Tsergovian diplomat–a female Tiny Bulcher, who falls for the male one, and keeps throwing herself at him, while he retreats in terror, until she finds out he’s living with the beautiful J.C. Taylor, and her hopes are dashed.  Was that really quite necessary?  I feel certain H.L. Mencken would not have approved.  And “Eastern Bloc Women Not in Spy Thrillers Are Ugly” was surely a meme well past its sell-by date, and was never remotely true.

An awful lot of this book isn’t really necessary, and the beautiful thing about a great Dortmunder novel is that every last bit of it is necessary.   Why are there so many false notes here?   Why did the piece as a whole not play sonorously for me on the second hearing?  Because, I believe, the frustrated composer was not in the mood to write this composition.  Sure, he enjoyed writing this or that part of it, as I’ve enjoyed writing this or that part of this review, but the process as a whole was more of a chore than anything else.  He wanted to be more than The Dortmunder Guy, and people were talking like that’s all he was.

Even the title–Don’t Ask?  Why not?   Because if you did, you might find there isn’t really much of a meaning behind that title, or much of one behind this book, either.  Where’s the identity puzzles?  Okay, Hradec not comprehending Dortmunder’s true nature, but that’s hardly enough.  J.C. playing with becoming a nation of one, but that’s barely touched upon in the book.

The previous book in the series had several characters created especially for it, each going through major crises/transitions in their lives, creating rich material for the novelist.  But here Westlake is concentrating pretty much entirely on already-established characters–because that’s what people want from him. That’s why he basically trots out nearly every regular character from the series to date here, which I don’t think he ever did again.

And the problem with established characters is that they’re–you know–established.  Identity puzzles are harder to craft from a fixed identity, characters that never change, because we don’t want them to.  So from that perspective, this is the least satisfying Dortmunder novel to date–for me, and perhaps Westlake as well.  I can only speak for me.  It’s not necessarily the worst–that’s probably still Nobody’s Perfect.  But I enjoyed writing that review more.   If only because my expectations were lower.

So apologies to those who like this one–I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying I was, when I earlier referred to this as a great Dortmunder novel.  It’s merely the outer shell of one.  The ineffable essence of the series is not quite here, somehow.  Because Mr. Westlake’s heart was elsewhere when he was writing it.   Where might that be, you ask?  No, that’s okay, you can ask.

Not with our next book either, I think, but I’m rereading it now, and I may well write a slightly more positive appraisal than I thought I would–if only slightly. I’ve figured out which past book he reworked to make this one, and it’s not the one you think.  And I rather hope to finish that review in one go as well.  Because the Mid-to-Late 90’s beckon, with treasures beyond compare.  And we shall be there in only a few weeks time.  Mes enfants, would I dissemble?


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Humans, Part 2 (It is finished)

What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: 
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

John Milton

Here is a thing I’ve learned about the humans.  Everything they do is motivated by a crazy quilt of reasons.  Almost never do they perform an act merely because it’s the most sensible thing to do at that moment.  There are always political reasons as well, or social reasons, or emotional reasons, or religious reasons, or financial reasons, or reasons of prejudice.

Oh, who knows?  They wind up doing the wrong thing, usually, is the point, even though that small rational part inside them will briefly have shown the right road to take.  A human who can’t ignore common sense to leap firmly into the saddle of the wrong horse is a pretty poor example of the species, all in all.

“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

Did Westlake really believe he had a bestselling novel here?   That’s how he originally conceived of it, if Lawrence Block is to be believed, and I see no reason to doubt him.  But that was before he’d written one word of it.  When the time came to actually tell the story, when his muse took over, when each character began to speak imploringly to him, when he’d done all that research into the horrors afflicting so many parts of the world–including his own–did he really type it out thinking “I’m gonna make a fortune off this one!”  I’ll answer that one–no.   He couldn’t dance on all those graves.  He hadn’t with Kahawa, and he wouldn’t this time either.  He’d write the book he had to write, and it would sell or it wouldn’t.

Originally, he possibly intended something a bit more cynical and lighthearted (sure you can make an end-of-the-world story lighthearted; Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern did), and then his social conscience, always tugging at him, took control of the enterprise.  But now that he’s got a real message to get across, he’d still want it to reach a lot of people–would he expect it to?  I can’t answer that one, but I can surmise that what the book was originally supposed to be and what it ended up becoming were not totally in synch, which may explain some of the problems with it.

Donald Westlake was many things.  A romantic and a cynic.  A realist and a fantasist.  He loved people and despaired of them.  He valued individuality above all else, but was bitterly aware that even the most rugged individualists can never prevail long against machines–repressive state structures, multi-national corporations, organized crime.  Massed mediocrity wins out; a boot stamping on a human face forever.   But the individual does even worse in chaos, with no structure to rebel against or rely upon.  Who to root for here?  God, the Ultimate Authority Figure?   Or Satan, the Ultimate Anarchist?   Feathers or lead much?

There’s a conflict here, and he can’t resolve it–perhaps no one could.  Like Larry Slade, in The Iceman Cometh, he can always see the two sides of everything (and often more than two).

Why shouldn’t God destroy humanity, and the world along with it (just to prevent any possible repeats of the original failure)?  What have we done but waste every gift showered upon us?   We never learn from our mistakes.  We just make bigger and deadlier variations on them.  He had Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment say that man’s nature is violent because man is part-animal–but we have to learn to move beyond that, to evolve, to finish our journey towards civilization. The 60’s ended, and that project did not seem to be advancing much, if at all.

We always seem to be going back towards the animal, but animals with a capacity for evil and self-destruction no other ever had–it’s a bit harsh, I’ve long thought, God destroying all other life as well, but you could argue that the other species wouldn’t care–they achieved their potential–we didn’t.  And we’re destroying them all now, anyway.  So what difference does it make if they go a bit earlier?

Trapped between two modes of being–between Darwin and Jesus.  A built-in identity crisis.  What we want to have is always in conflict with who we yearn to be.

But one might say it’s the very complexity of humankind, our persistent flaws, our contrarily consistent contradictions, that attract the storyteller in Westlake.  Would you want to be a storyteller in a world of perfect people?   A storyteller best known for stories about criminals?  God the perfectionist wants us to achieve our potential–Satan the materialist just wants us to go on being what we’ve always been, because to a devil what could be more delightful than a being at perpetual war with itself?  That’s where all the interesting stories are.  God, seeking apotheosis, is bored by our repeated failures–Satan and his minions, seeking only gnosis (hence the apple),  can’t get enough of them.

And Westlake identifies with that perspective, perhaps more than he wants to, which is why the sections dealing with ‘X’, the demon assigned to prevent Armageddon, are in many ways the most entertaining parts of the book (and perhaps more what Westlake originally had in mind when he conceived of it).  “God, make me virtuous–but not yet.”  There’s a little Satan even in the saints.   There was no end of it in the man who created Parker and Dortmunder.

So he wavers between two sides of his own nature in writing this, and that’s a tough balancing act for a writer to pull off.   For a variety of reasons (perhaps including a 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman that covered some of the same ground), he can’t balance the two sides out perfectly.  It’s much more about the angel than the devil.  Here and there, almost miraculously, he gets the tension just right–but more often it feels like he’s teetering precariously on the tightrope, striving for something that’s a bit too far out of his reach.  And producing some of the best writing of his career in the process–mingled in with much that’s just workmanlike.

A book has to know what it is, as much as a person does.  This book never seems quite sure of its identity.  But the questions it asks were worth asking then–and are worth revisiting now.   Even synopsizing, though I’m going to be less thorough than usual.  This book is much more about character than plot, and I have two characters left to describe.   One of whom can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s more Parker or Dortmunder, and ends up being neither.

Ananayel has already recruited three out of the five people whose decisions, made of their own free will, will bring about the destruction of all life on earth.

Grigor, a Russian fireman turned comedy writer–technically perhaps a Ukrainian, since we’re told he’s from Kiev (most of the world still thought of the two as being the same thing then, and of course there are many ethnic Russians still living there, hence the current troubles, but maybe Westlake just screwed up).  Now being treated for incurable cancer he got courtesy of Chernobyl, at an upstate New York hospital, courtesy of his new friend Susan Carrigan, the unwitting tool of Ananayel, who is keeping an increasingly covetous eye on her as well.

Kwan, a Chinese pro-democracy activist, sought by the authorities for his role in the Tianamen Square demonstrations, who escaped from China to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to a cruise ship, from the cruise ship to a detention center in Manhattan where he awaits extradition, but he escapes from there as well (with the help of Ananayel).  His throat seriously injured by a failed suicide attempt, his voice silenced, he now has basically no remaining hope of ever achieving his goals, or of being the hopeful, idealistic, amorous man he once was.

Maria Elena, a Brazilian woman of great courage and composure, once a promising singer, then a wife who lost both her husband and her chance at motherhood to the pollution from a foreign factory in her hometown, then a frustrated ineffectual environmental activist who Ananayel fills with the notion that she can only combat this evil by going to the source of it, namely America.  But her attempts there have failed as well, along with her second marriage to an American doctor, and she’s trapped in a foreign sterile world, without passion or love or friendship, or even the will to sing again.

Three exceptionally good humans with exceptionally tragic life stories–who all lack the needed skill set to break into a nuclear plant Ananayel has arranged to contain the seed of earth’s destruction.  For that he needs a professional thief.  Well, he’s working for the right God then, isn’t he?

Frank Hillfen:

“Property of Alcatraz.” Frank saw a teenager in Tokyo, walking down a crowded street, wearing a sweatshirt that says Property of Alcatraz.  Doesn’t speak ten words of English.  Was the kid somebody’s property in Alcatraz, wouldn’t last a day.  People wearing the words, don’t know what they say.  Don’t know what they mean.

“The global village,” Mary Ann Kelleny said.

“Yeah,” Frank said.  “But do they get it?  I don’t think so.”

“Does it matter?  As long as they’re happy?”

“Okay,” Frank said.  “I’ll bite.  Are they happy?”

She glanced at him as she drove, curious and amused.  “Why shouldn’t they be?”

“Because they don’t know who they are,” he said.  “They don’t know who anybody is.  They mostly sound bewildered.”

A rocky hill arising from a hopeless mire–yeah, I think that’s the point of the name.  Frank is a proficient but strictly smalltime burglar, not remotely ‘in the heavy,’ (he never carried guns on the job)  who was caught carrying a wall safe out of a rich man’s house.  He went to prison.  It wasn’t fun.  Now he’s out again, walking down a highway, and Ananayel picks him up in the form of a woman named Mary Ann Kelleny, who fills his  head with the notion that he needs to stop doing a lot of small burglaries, and concentrate on One Big Score so he can retire, at least for a while.

On reflection, I’d say he’s a Westlake heister living uneasily in the world of Richard Stark.  There’s nothing cute or quirky about his life or his associates, that’s for sure.  He gets dragooned by an acquaintance in East St. Louis into robbing a mob courier, and the guy ends up dead, and Frank’s partner too after he tries to murder Frank, who fortuitously finds a .38 revolver in the dead courier’s pocket just in time to blow the doublecrosser’s head off (Ananayel informs us he didn’t intervene there, Frank did it all himself).

So Frank gets the whole score, $57,830–which is good.  But he’s a killer now.  Not so good.  And it’s the 1990’s, so that’s not a score a guy can retire permanently on.  So he keeps the gun.  Just in case.  He’s not the man he used to be either.

Fearing the retribution of both the law and the mob, he heads for New York, where a man like him can disappear.  And before long he meets up with–

Pami Njorage:

I wonder why I killed the Danish man, she thought.  I wonder what I wanted.  All I really want is to go to sleep, not go through this shit any more.  Not any of this shit.  Not all these johns that look like the Danish man, not this shitty building where you got to nail yourself in, not this sickness I got in my blood. What happens when the sores start to show?  Nobody gonna give me twenty shillings then.  Nobody fuck me for free then.  What did I want that time?  What do I want?

The last piece in the puzzle Ananayel is arranging is a Kenyan prostitute, a member of the Luo tribe, which has become better known around the world since this book was published. Westlake died a few weeks after the son of a more fortunate (if still tragic) Luo was elected President–I’d give a great deal to know his reactions to that.  (I’d also like to know if he consciously patterned Pami after the prostitute in Adios Scheherazade, and where he got the idea for that character).

If Grigor is the heroic comedian and philosopher, Kwan the quixotic fighter for love and liberty, Maria Elena the long-suffering Earth Mother, and Frank the ill-starred rebel without a cause, Pami represents not those who tried their chances and lost, but rather those who were never given a chance to begin with.  That very large segment of the world’s population we try very hard not to think about most of the time.  The hopeless of the earth–but somehow, she has not given up hope.

Ananayel poses as a customer, a Danish tourist, provokes her into murdering his confabulated human body, and taking the large amount of money in his suitcase.  After she has sex with him, and he finds that experience–intriguing–sex, then death.  These humans have intense existences, brief though they are.

She’s got AIDS, or ‘slim’ as they call it on the streets of Nairobi.   It isn’t full-blown yet, but the day’s not far off, and she knows it, and yet she still somehow wants to find a better life than the one she has, and in the guise of a fellow prostitute he gives her the plan–to go to New York, with the money she believes fate has provided her (and in a way it has).

She’s on the plane, feeling happy and excited and scared and against all odds hopeful, and Ananayel is sitting there next to her in yet another guise, which is fortuitous (or maybe not), because this is where X introduces himself into the plot.

He doesn’t understand how this woman, whose soul has belonged to his master for a long time now, could be of any use to God and his plan of world annihilation, but he figures he’ll just kill her and everybody else on the plane–he’s possessed the bodies of some hapless terrorists, who will do nicely for the purpose at hand.   But Ananayel, who can call upon his own master for all the power he needs, proves too strong for him, and he’s forced to flee his hosts, and live to fight another day.

(Sidebar: The various supernatural contests between Ananayel and X, that no mortal eyes can fully perceive, are ingenious and gripping, and although Ananayel clearly has the edge, the outcome is sometimes in doubt.   And the main point of them is to establish the fact that if X is to win their game, it can’t be by strength alone, but by cunning.  And to make the reader feel this is more than a really weird sociological tract, of course.)

So Pami, her money quickly used up in New York, ends up hooking there as well, and her pimp, a terrifying man named Rush (not that one, no), either was possessed by X from the start, or after he took up with Pami.   The scenes with them in a derelict building in lower Manhattan are just as sordid and disheartening as the equivalent scenes in Nairobi–maybe more so.

Pami now knows there is no escaping the life she was born to, no matter where she goes, and she’s starting to develop the sores that mean her time has nearly run out, and is confronted again by Ananayel, this time in the form of a hard-bitten police detective right out of an 87th Precinct novel (not that she’s ever read any), who is then set on fire by X. She flees the burning building, and runs into Frank Hillfen.  Who for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, lets her come with him.  And then they pick up Kwan, still unable to speak, or even eat solid food, and failing fast.  And then they run into Maria Elena with a conveniently flat tire Frank changes for her.

And in her car is Grigor, who Ananayel arranged for her to meet, and because she identifies so much with his pain, she’s taken him out of the hospital he’s dying in, because that’s no place for a man to die.  Earth Mother to the last, she invites them all to her house.   Just a short distance from the nuclear plant where they are all going to destroy the world.

It’s not always clear how much of this dramatic coincidence is really Ananayel’s work, though a lot of it is.  He tells us he’s amazed at how little he has to do, once he sets the wheels in motion–they’re doing most of the heavy lifting for him.   He picked his pawns well, and they are not his only playing pieces, of course.

He’s also been manipulating a variety of powerful people to arrange for a brilliant but somewhat tunnel-visioned scientist trying to harness strange matter as an unlimited energy source to have a new lab for him set up at the nuclear plant–because, you see, he kept blowing up his lab at the university he was at.   Ananayel’s wonderment at how easily he can trick these educated people, politicians and administrators and PR flacks, into doing something utterly insane on the face of it is reflected in the middle quote up top.  But as we’ve seen in recent months, you don’t have to be an angel to pull that off.

And of course one nuclear plant can’t destroy the world.  Could strange matter?   Well, nobody knows, really.  And God is master of everything we don’t know, which when you get right down to it, is almost everything.  And what follows is Westlake at his quirkiest, or should I say quarkiest?

Because, as he argues with fiendish Jesuitical glee, since we don’t know what strange matter might do, since we don’t even know if it really exists, if it turned out that it would destroy everything, that wouldn’t be a miracle.  God isn’t breaking the rules of the game if the rules have not yet been written.  And neither is Westlake breaking the rules of the genre he’s informally working with here, though he does so earlier in the book when he has a scientist tell us there are black holes just a few light years away from earth–there better not be.

There is one thing not even God can account for though–the way of a man with a maid.  Ananayel needed Grigor to sink into utter despondency, and the presence of a beautiful young woman who was possibly just a touch in love with him was detrimental to this goal. So he created another human guise–Andy Harbinger (X sourly remarks this is just what an angel would consider funny).

And he made Susan fall in love with him, which, knowing there’s nothing she could really do for Grigor, and Maria Elena being there, and still having her whole life ahead of her (or so she thinks), she was more than ready to do, because Andy is a hunk–Ananayel having the luxury of taking as pleasing a form as he so pleases, and he doesn’t even have to go to the gym.  Disgusting, isn’t it?

But here’s the sticking point.  He didn’t realize it was a two-way conduit, this love thing.  He wasn’t prepared for the feelings he’d inspired in her to reflect themselves back at him.  He has parried every demonic attack from X, but he has no defense against this.  His other human forms were held only briefly, but because of Susan he has to be Andy over an extended period of time, and it’s infecting him.  As they lie in each other’s arms after the first bout of intercourse, he tells her (and, in more detail, us)–“I didn’t know about this.”

I like being Andy Harbinger. I have made him healthy and attractive and reasonably strong.  (I’ve tried a number of human types by now, and prefer comfort.)  And he is human.  I constructed him from molecules of myself, so he is both me and human, and I am learning from him all the time, but I didn’t know about this.

The experience of being with Susan was unlike anything I could have imagined.  Not like that business with Pami at all, that brutal calisthenics. This was…this was like the best of the empyrean, distilled.  How can humans spend their time doing anything else?

Of course, it was even more powerful for me, since I was in some general contact with Susan’s feelings and reactions as well.  Andy’s and Susan’s emotions, sensations, all mixing together in my semi-human brain; what an explosive cocktail!

I’m so happy I’ve had this chance to get to know and learn about humans, before the end.

Sex, even great sex, is not enough to sway his resolve.  But he is starting to have doubts.  Humans are more than the sum of their flaws.  But God wants them gone.  But wouldn’t God, who made them, and has watched them since their earliest inception, have known something like this might happen if one of his unearthly servants took earthly form long enough?

Still, the momentum now established is getting hard to derail.  Ananayel is somewhat perturbed that now his five pawns are together, their shared understanding of life’s cruelty, the camaraderie of a war each has fought in his/her own way, has actually cheered them up.  They’ve lost everything, at least two are fatally ill (Kwan could probably be saved, but not without medical care that would expose him to extradition back to China), and they’re almost happy. Somehow, humans do better together.  The ones that are not evil, at least–and even Pami, who has knowingly infected men with AIDS, doesn’t really fall into that category.

Frank and Maria Elena are now lovers as well, and Frank is anything but hopeless–he’s still looking for the One Big Score, and when they’re all watching TV, he sees it–the nuclear plant, surrounded by protesters who are angry about the lab-destroying scientist having a lab there (he was on Nightline, talking to Ted Koppel about it).  They have to bus the workers in past the picket lines, and because of the confusion, the security is a joke.  He can get in there and hold the place up for ransom–he just needs a string.  Guess who volunteers?   That’s right.

Grigor, from hard experience, knows a lot about nuclear plants, and doesn’t have much in the way of tender feelings about them.  Kwan has the math skills, and finally sees a way of giving the Ancient Murderers one in the eye.  Maria Elena has grown to love these people, the only friends she has in the world now, so she’s in–anyway, the people who own the plant are one with the people who poisoned her town with chemicals.   And they have to take Pami, because where else can she go?

X is increasingly desperate–the only thing that held him back from killing all five, once he’d found them together (Pami had been the only one he knew about up to then) was that he couldn’t figure out Susan’s place in the scheme–because she doesn’t have one, Ananayel is just finding excuses to be with her, something X can’t understand (sex yes, love no).

In the ensuing battle Ananayel fought with X and his lesser spirits of the air, he came very close to being turned into a tree (while his physical form sat in a Manhattan theater with Susan, watching Night Fall [sic]), but he fought his way out and hurt X so badly that the latter now knows direct confrontation is pointless.

Still, once he sees that the five have taken over the plant, he knows this must be it–but he still doesn’t know how this desperate gambit achieves the destruction of earth.   (“I have come to save the world, only to find that truckling toady is content to destroy New York State?”) So he calls again upon his spies, and learns the terrible truth we’ve already learned from Ananayel.

As God has now written the formerly unwritten law governing such things, if just one drop of strange matter falls to the ground, it will sink down to the earth’s core, and transmute all matter it touches into strange matter–and since strange matter is impossibly dense and stable, far more so than the vibrant shifting stuff we’re made of, the planet will end up as nothing more than a smooth featureless lifeless marble, a shiny ball bearing several miles in diameter, spinning pointlessly about the sun forevermore, looking in vain for an arcade game to inhabit.

And nothing makes you like this infernal creature more than his reaction to this sanctimonious final solution to the Problem of Life–

Stable matter?  Stable matter!  Stabat Mater, what a vicious idea!  So is that what the experiment in that plant is all about, the search for what the instable humans call strange matter (as though they weren’t sufficiently strange themselves).

By Unholy Lucifer, he means to stabilize the earth!

No, no, no.  I have to get in there.  I have to stop this, and at once.

And that’s a pearl, that was my planet?  No.

In his own diabolic way, he too has been infected by earthly life–or perhaps it was those such as he who infected it to start with?–but hard as he tries, he can’t get in there.  The plant, now under the control of the fatal five, is in total lockdown.  There’s no danger of a meltdown, nobody wants that.   But as Ananayel knew would be the case, the authorities would rather risk a meltdown than take responsiblity for paying the requested ransom.  So they’ll just wait them out.

And now the five are trapped–three of them dying, Frank going back to prison for the rest of his life when captured, Maria Elena losing the last emotional connection to anyone she has left.  They need more leverage–and then Ananayel arranges for them to know where to find it.  In the laboratory.   With Dr. Philpott (heh).   Who has just this very moment succeeded in creating strange matter.

Philpott isn’t evil, either–he’s been warned by other scientists that this stuff could be dangerous, but it’s just his nature to need to know things.  He has himself been one of God’s tools, much as it might offend him to know it.  At first, he’s rather contemptuous of these people who have forced themselves in–not without sympathy for their plight, but still unmoved by their anger at the Way Things Are.  He’s above such things.  His goal is to improve civilization by supplying it with free unlimited energy.

“Civilization,” the exotic woman spat, and her scorn was no affectation.

Philpott looked at her.  “I can see that civilization has harmed you,” he said.  “It does that.  I can’t feel your pain, of course, but I still believe human civilization is worth the price we pay.”

“The price you pay, or the price I pay?”

He’s just the right man to remind these people of the sheer intractibility of human civilization–which by its very nature, seems to always need to have somebody down at the bottom, getting shat on by everybody further up the ladder.  Now they really believe there is no hope left.  Not even when they’re threatening the entire world will the world find the will to change.  So maybe it needs to stop being just a threat.

Grigor calls it–why not just break the containment bottle the strange matter is in, and see what happens next?

The Russian man said, “We could test the theory for you, Doctor.”  To the armed man he said, “We just go knock that table over.”

Philpott could hardly breathe.  He hadn’t known it was possible to be this afraid.  In a choked hoarse voice he said, “Man, why would you do that?”

The Russian’s eyes were sunk into his head, as though  his brain looked directly out from the center of his skull.  “I’m leaving very soon, Doctor. I don’t mind the idea of taking everybody with me.  I like that idea.  The best joke I ever thought of.”  He turned that fleshless head.  “Pami?  Should we bring them all with us when we go?”

“Yes!” You wouldn’t have guessed the woman could speak so forcefully, or that she could rise up so powerfully, onto one knee, one foot on the floor, before she had to reach out and clutch at the other woman’s leg for support.

The Russian shrugged.  “And we know how Kwan votes.”

They couldn’t all feel that way.  But the exotic woman, holding the black woman’s wrist with one hand, took the armed man’s free hand with her other and said, “There’s nothing for us here, nothing anywhere.  We can’t win.  Why should it be their world?”

“I’m not going back, that’s all I know.”  The armed man showed that chilling smile to Philpott again.  “It’s a crapshoot, right?  Fifty-fifty.  Either nothing happens, and we’ll figure out what to do next, or our troubles are over.  Even money, right?”

“Please,” Philpott whispered.  “Please don’t.”

“Fuck you,” the armed man said, “and the horse you rode in on.”

And then the phone rings.   It’s Mary Ann Kelleny.  Well, of course it isn’t.   It’s Ananayel, reaching out to Frank.   Because, as he tells us, he’s realized he just can’t do it–can’t let humanity extinguish itself–

It is not only Susan.  It is the whole existence of which she is a part, the existence that makes it possible for two humans to be so selflessly bound together, to elevate their mutual caring so far beyond their petty selves, for each of them to attain such an intensity of altruism toward one other person that all of eternity does exist in the space of one shared thought.

He should have sent someone with more experience of the humans, someone who had already grown as bored with them as He.  I tried to remain aloof, but I could not.  What at first seemed to me human squalor has become human vibrancy.  The cumbersomeness I first thought of as pathetically comic, I now see as endearing; and with what ingenuity they struggle to overcome their physical helplessness.  And the violence of their emotions, once repugnant to me, is now elixir to my pallid soul.

S(he) talks Frank down from the ledge, and the others, already remembering that there are people out there who showed them kindness, who have not earned such a grim fate, are persuaded to come down with him.  All except one.

Pami has known no kindness from anyone except these people, all of whom she believes to be as doomed as her.  She has also never known a single taste of real power in her life–and Power Incarnate waits for her on that table.  She makes her move, too quickly and savagely for anyone to stop her, but before she can reach her objective, she has this spasm like something out of The Exorcist, her body just gives out entirely, and she falls to the floor lifeless.

She was very ill, but this seems a bit too much of a coincidence.  And of course, like nearly everything else in this book, it wasn’t.  She was the only one of the five X had established a connection with, dominion over.   She was his way in.   Look who the hero of the story turned out to be.



Come into my arms!  Come into my arms!  Come into my arms!  I have saved you my darlings, come into my arms, let us dance!

How we’ll dance.

It’s a bit like one of Sauron’s Nazgûl, acting under his orders, forced Gollum to grab the Ring and fall into the fires of Mount Doom (spoiler alert), and this is how Evil wins, by saving the world it lives to torment from destruction.

And just like with Gollum, you kind of feel like Pami was badly used by everyone, including the author.  Westlake knew enough about people who have experienced that degree of privation and degradation to know that for many of them, there is no way back.   She wants to destroy the world, and looking at the life the world gave her–why shouldn’t she?  Why shouldn’t she?  

But here is my biggest problem with the book–that it recreates in its conclusion that very inequity it denounces.  Ananayel arranges for Frank and Maria Elena to get away, and live a nice life together (life insurance, resulting from her estranged husband being shot by his deranged mistress)–she’s singing again as they escape.

But there is no escape for the others, who will all die, not even knowing that their choosing life, even when their own lives were nearly over, gave earth another chance (nor will anyone else ever know).  They were protagonists–now they’re just redshirts.   If Ananayel can still perform such miracles, couldn’t he have healed Grigor and Kwan, and helped them escape too?  That’s what Jesus would have done (still not 100% sure if we’re supposed to believe he was an angel or a mortal in the context of this universe).

Why does only Frank get this favor–and a passionate Brazilian songstress to go with it?  Old habits die hard, for Gods and Authors (same thing).  And of course, Westlake was writing this for people who would expect the hardbitten heister in in the book to get away clean.  And it would feel like a cheat for them all to live. And maybe there wasn’t a fully satisfactory ending he could come up with for these characters.  But it could have been a lot better.

Ananayel, trapped in the mortal body of Andy Harbinger until his now-inevitable death as his punishment for disobeying, his angelic powers and vision stripped from him, will of course marry The Girl–he was the Nephew in this story all along.  Originally ‘Andy’  hadn’t even been a complete human body, but he’d earlier decided to fix that, and give his surrogate a complete dossier, with a social security number, and a job as an assistant sociology professor (hah!) at Columbia University.  Figuring that even Columbia couldn’t survive the end of the world (if you lived in New York, you might have some doubts about that), he didn’t bother to give himself tenure.  Too late now.

And since he’s no longer hooked into the heavenly hen party, he’ll get no scuttlebutt about God’s next attempt to make humanity off itself.  He hopes that what happened will have revived God’s interest in this world, make Him reconsider His decision.  But if not, he knows that some other angel is recruiting yet another string of malcontents, and God only knows what doomsday scenario they’ll be dragooned into, or how they’ll choose when the moment comes. I guess even God doesn’t know that last part.  Well, nobody’s perfect.

But mortal lives go quickly, while Divine Plans take time to formulate, and he’s happy.   He’s no longer some seraphim servitor, floating aimlessly about the aether until given some scut job or other.   He’s got his own identity now, mundane though it be, and true love, and New York, and he’s better off than most humans.

And it’s not fair, the way the people you’d expect to live happily ever after end up doing more or less exactly that, but what ever is?   The only thing that would have been completely fair would have been Pami knocking over that table.  And we don’t want that.  Not really.  Not most of the time.  Not if the polls are right. The polls damn well better be right.  Hmm.  It’s been about a quarter century since God’s last attempt, far as we know.  They seem to be marked by extraordinary events and extreme poor judgment.  You don’t suppose……?

Here’s to all the poor examples of our species–the ones who don’t leap eagerly onto the wrong horse.  As long as there’s enough of them, there’s still hope.  And where there’s hope, there’s life.  But while there are so many without hope, we must be prepared to abide the end.  We don’t really need God to make that happen, you know.

And I’m done!   I finished this review in just two parts, after some persons here doubted me!  HA!  HA HA HA HAAAAAAA!!!   I told you I’d save you from a four parter!  Come into my arms!   Come into my arms!   How we’ll dance.  And a New York Dance it shall be, as we come to the eighth Dortmunder novel.   Anyone got a bone to pick with that?  I thought not.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Humans

Once when he was dining with Rabbi Goldman in Chicago he stopped in the midst of Mrs. Goldman’s pot roast to discourse on the improbability of a God or a life after death.  Rabbi Goldman’s eleven-year-old daughter listened gravely,  then replied, “Mr. Darrow, Mother gave me a beautiful box of beads for my birthday, and when I dropped the box the beads rolled all over the floor because they had not been strung.  We need God to string together all the different parts of life.”

Darrow smiled as he replied, “I won’t argue with this younger generation.  I’ll stick to the older generation, they’re easier.”

From Clarence Darrow For The Defense, by Irving Stone.

We are all of us parts of God, parts of His dream, His desire, but none of us know any more than our own role in His plan, if indeed He has a plan, and is not merely moved this way and that by cosmic Whim, as sometimes seems to be the case.  And so I, a tendril in God’s imaginings, had to be informed by another entity, as insubstantial as myself, just what my task was to be.

“A messenger.”…..

“And an affector.”….

And my Task?

“To announce, and to affect, the end of their World.”

I don’t have to explain myself.

The instant I saw it there, sitting with the woman, I knew what it was.  The stench of God was all over it, like dried roots, like stored apples.  Laughing!  And a servant.

I am not a servant.   We are not servants.  He Who We Serve is not our master but our lover.  We act from our will, no others.  Could this…thing say as much?   Or any of its swooping, tending, message-bearing ilk?

And did its master really think he could sweep away this compost heap without the knowledge of He Who We Serve?  We love this world!   How it seethes, how it struggles, how it howls in pain,  what colors there are in its agony!  It is our greatest joy, the human race.  We cannot see it removed, like game pieces from a table at the end of the day, simply because he’s bored.

Don’t be afraid, you wretched vermin.  We will save you.

I’m going to try and make this a one-part review.  I have several reasons for this, but chief among them is that hard as I look, the only edition of this book I can find is the first one, from The Mysterious Press.  So I don’t even know what images I’d use for a Part 2.  I don’t believe that’s ever happened before.   Westlake novels nearly always got a bunch of editions, foreign and domestic.  If there are any foreign editions at all, I can’t find them.  And that’s more ironic than I can possibly express.

This is not on its surface the kind of book The Mysterious Press was established to publish.  If this is a crime novel, a mystery, and I think you could make a fair case that it is, then the criminal mastermind is God Himself, his primary henchman an angel, and their intended victim is Life on Earth.   The novelist Michael Upchurch (no, I never heard of him either), reviewing this novel for the New York Times, referred to it as ‘universal fiction,’ which I kind of like, and Westlake might have too, but the review, while decent enough, says that Westlake’s prose is ‘hokey’, that he has an excessive reliance on italics (oh really?), and this keeps the book from being as good as it might have been.

Much as I agree with Mr. Upchurch that this book could and should have been more than it is, hokey writing and over-accentuated typography are not the problems with it (oh no, I used italics!).  But in saying it failed to live up to its potential, I am, of course, assuming I know what it was supposed to achieve.    The Great God Westlake moves in mysterious ways.  That’s why he’s a mystery writer.

This much we do know–it was supposed to be a best-seller.  It was written for that express purpose.  Westlake mentions in the dedication that Evan Hunter told him he should write something large in scope, unexpected in subject matter, and in that it most certainly succeeds.  Lawrence Block, in a piece you can find in The Crime of Our Lives, went into a bit more detail about that conversation, and I think a rather vital clue to why this book failed (in more ways than one) is to be found there.

While Evan hit the bestseller list a couple of times,  it frustrated him that he didn’t sell better.  Men and women who couldn’t write their names in the dirt with a stick were hitting the list all the time, and he wasn’t, and he couldn’t understand why.  Once he and Don Westlake were on a plane together, lamenting the fact that neither of them was writing the sort of book that had a real shot at bestsellerdom.  They agreed that each would make a special effort to come up with a genuinely commercial idea, and before the plane landed Don told Evan triumphantly that he’d done the trick.  The perfect can’t miss idea had come to him.

The idea?  The narrator’s an angel, sent to earth on a mission.  Don wrote the book, called it Humans, and three or four people went out and actually bought it.

Probably a few more than that (I’ve found a surprisingly large number of positive online reviews), but then again, I can’t find even one other edition, and I looked hard.

I cannot help but detect a certain unseemly note of satisfaction in Mr. Block’s recounting of that telling little anecdote (it’s a writer thing), but had he been so inclined, Mr. Westlake could have reminded him of Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, a 1970 novel about a man in his thirties engaged in various orgiastic activities with a group of bisexual teen-aged Catholic school girls, that Block wrote in four days, and which he had at the time firmly believed would be a huge critically acclaimed racy best-selling novel along the lines of Lolita, The Ginger Man, and Portnoy’s Complaint.  They had good drugs back then, didn’t they?

Bad writers can write bestselling novels on purpose, by design.  With a few rare exceptions (maybe Stephen King), good writers can’t. Because good writers are good precisely because they are not prisoners of formula (even those known for a specific genre), because they listen more to their inner voices than to book sales.  The rest is up to us, our secret desires, which are hard to predict, once you’ve strayed away from the mediocrity of market surveys.

Westlake got close to the bestseller lists a few times in his life, but never, not even once, with a book he wrote to that end–the harder he strove to reach that goal post, the further away it got.  It always came as a surprise to him when a book of his sold especially well, and not always a pleasant one either (we’ll be talking about an instance of that a few books from now).

So right away, we see the identity crisis in this novel–not in its characters, but in itself–that it is at the same time striving to break away from the kind of story Mr. Westlake was known and admired for, to convey a powerful (and not entirely palatable) message to all of humanity–and at the same time is basically trying to out-Hailey Arthur Hailey, who Westlake had lampooned mercilessly with Comfort Station, years before.   “Earth–crossroads of five billion private lives.”  Or in this case,  just five, standing in for the five billion.

When you know you’re so much better than most of the people selling untold millions of books, it must be frustrating to keep failing to reach those Olympian heights.  You have to settle for having actual depths, and plumb them as best you can.

Westlake more than once referred to Humans as a special favorite of his among his many novels, but I’ll point out once more that calling something your favorite is not the same thing as calling it the best.  Our preferences and our judgment are often at odds with each other, a human oddity the angelic narrator of this novel (parts of it) would be at some pains to point out.   And if I want to make this a one-parter, I had better be at some pains to get the synopsis in gear.  This one’s going long, so bear with me.  And my italics, pace Upchurch.  (Upchurch–I can hear Westlake chortling all the way from 1992).

Humans is divided into three Hegelian sections–Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis.  The chapter count does not reset at the start of each new section.  As we’ve seen him do in several previous books, he alternates between numbered third person chapters, and first-person narrated interludes, in this case from two different characters–an angel and a demon–each commenting on the story thus far, and speaking directly to the reader about the apocalyptic situation that is unfolding–and with the usual Westlake perversity, it’s the demon who is trying to reassure us, and the angel telling us we’re all doomed.   For such beings, there is no fourth wall, it seems.

The premise is actually very simple–God has gotten tired of us.  We’re not entertaining Him any more.  We just keep doing the same stupid things, over and over again.  It’s boring.  He’s got a lot of other shows to watch (we’re informed there are many other inhabited worlds in His Universe), so He’s deleting us from the cosmic TiVo.  Permanently.  But there are rules to how this is done.   He won’t just smite us.  God gave us free will, and it is by our own volition that we must shuffle off this mortal coil.

God dispatches Ananayel, a relatively callow and inexperienced angel, who hasn’t been to earth in centuries (his last memories of Manhattan involve birch bark canoes).  He thinks this is because some of the more experienced angels like Michael and Gabriel could have hidden sympathies for humanity.   Knowing so little about us, he won’t have any interest in our survival.  Angels have free will as well, he explains.  They can choose to disobey, and one of them did, quite famously (there’s a very long poem about that, and you see an early edition of it up top).

All knowledge of our civilizations is available to him, along with the services of legions of cherubim (he insists they are not chubby infants in diapers like in the oil paintings), but his means of enacting the doom of Terra are limited.   And it’s the entire planet that is to be destroyed, you should understand–not just humans, but all biological life.   Clean sweep.  The Big Guy’s not kidding around like he was with that flood.  No rainbows this time.  No doves.  No bacteria, even. Nada.

Ananayel must find five representative humans, from each major racial group (black, white, Latino, Asian), and each major inhabited land mass (North and South America, Eurasia, Africa–sorry to tell ya, Australia, but you didn’t make the cut–and you’re doing so well at the Olympics too).  They must all speak a shared language (English, in this case, but we’re told if this attempt at Gaiacide doesn’t work, French might be next).   And they must all have some reason to give up all hope in the future–without having actually done so yet.  It is that choice–the choice to give in to utter and absolute despair–that Ananayel is to invoke within the five of them, at a crucial moment in time.  At that moment, they will be given the physical means to commit suicide on behalf of us all.

Ananayel is capable of possessing a human body, but this is a power that angels only rarely use, and on this mission he will use another ability to create physical forms for himself, which he can do with ease, becoming anyone he needs to be, creating a variety of human identities for himself, to influence his five catspaws, move his playing pieces across the board.  This latter power is something that the fallen angels have been deprived of–they can take on many different shapes, but not a human form–so they have to rely heavily on possessing existing bodies in order to interface with humans.

And as God dispatched just one angel to bring about our destruction, Lucifer, having learned of God’s plan, and thoroughly disapproving of it (we’re like the best most dysfunctional reality show ever–so fun!  God doesn’t know good TV when he sees it!), may only send one demon of consequence to oppose–we never learn his name–he is referred to only as ‘X.’  That’s him talking up top, and we never do get quite enough of him for my liking–far and away the most engaging character in the book, but that’s always going to be the case, isn’t it, when you bring demons into a story.

Everybody who reads Paradise Lost (I first read it in high school) sooner or later starts skipping over the tedious moral sections to the parts with Satan and his brimstone brigade.  C.S. Lewis, that most conscientiously committed of Christians, was invariably more entertaining when he wrote about such devilishly compelling creatures.   There is much of his senior devil Screwtape in ‘X’, but Westlake’s incubus is not addressing his dear nephew Wormwood–he’s talking to us.  The way you or I might talk to a hissing cockroach somebody gave us as a pet.   Kind of cool to watch, but still disgusting.

As for the widespread belief that they inevitably win, well, that’s just crap, isn’t it?  Of course it is.  If they inevitably won, we’d no longer be here, would we?  But here we are.

And here you are, you scrofulous fleas.  And now he’s after you as well, isn’t he?  Now you’ll know what it’s like to suffer his snotty displeasure.  But be encouraged.  He can be resisted, as we are here to prove.  He was just an early master of propaganda, is all.

But how shall we save you bilious earth-lice from your creator’s boredom? First we have to know what he’s up to.  He’s always, of course, up to something: testing Job and Isaac, tempting Thomas and Judas, on and on. Idle hands are whose workshop?

The notion that the biblical stories all happened in some form, but that the versions of them we have, the interpretations they place upon events, are mere heavenly hype, is not a new one.  The science fiction writer James Blish had covered this angle very well in 1968, with his short novel Black Easter (or Faust Aleph-Null).  I can’t be sure Westlake read it, but note with interest that a minor character in that supremely dark story (that I’m oddly disappointed to learn Blish wrote a more optimistic sequel to) was named after Anthony Boucher, that great linking element between mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and someone Westlake knew very well also.

Westlake had mainly cut his ties to science fiction by the late 60’s, but that by no means proves he stopped reading it.  And if we consider that book science fiction, wouldn’t this also qualify?  Westlake’s book actually has real science in it–well–kind of.  We’ll get to that.

Jesus was part of God’s plan, we seem to be told here, but he was a mere mortal–God was using him to try and get His experiment back on track.  God tempted Judas to betray Jesus, because he needed a martyr.  Somehow I don’t think Westlake’s Catholic School teachers would approve, but no question at all–they left a mark.  Once a Catholic, always a Catholic–you can never really shake it off, and the more you fight it, the stronger the influence becomes.  I know what I’m talking about.  But enough of the ethereal.  Let’s talk about the humans.   They are, after all, what the book is really about.

Although Ananayel is only supposed to recruit five people, factors in a planet-killing equation, he needs sufficiently appealing bait to dangle in front of one of them, and she ends up becoming a factor in her own right, so we’ll start with her.

Susan Carrigan:

Well, yes.  I have made a study of this one problem, while my players have been ricocheting toward one another, and I have proved to my own satisfaction that Susan Carrigan is nothing special.  There are millions of such young women scattered over the globe, unmarried as yet, doing small things with clean neat fingers, whether in banks like Susan, or in clothing mills, or in lawyer’s offices, or in computer assembly plants, and they are all the same.

Susan Carrigan lives in Manhattan, works in a job she doesn’t particularly love or hate, just got out of a bad relationship, and is tricked by Ananayel (in the form of a bag lady in a coffee shop) into entering a contest where the prize is a free trip to Russia (where another factor awaits, we’ll get to him).   She’s another of Westlake’s perky blonde ingenues, which we’ve been seeing so many of lately, and I wouldn’t say they’re all exactly the same, but none of them are going down as his most unique creations, and I kind of wish he hadn’t gotten stuck in that groove, and maybe he did too, at times.

Her significance in the story is both pivotal and peripheral (and in fact she never comes close to finding out what’s going on), but basically it’s the old story–angel falls in love with mortal.  Many variations.  There was one with Jack Benny once. Well actually he was in love with another angel in that one, but again we see Mr. Westlake taking with both hands from old movies.  The point is, the angel can remain detached from the impending death of humanity only so long as he remains detached from humanity itself, and Susan is the great sticking point.

She’s not a very interesting character (a fact much commented upon in the book itself), but you do like her.   She’s a certain kind of American that people all over the world look at with a mixture of bewilderment, affection, and perhaps a soupcon of contempt.  The ones who always think that something can be done. They don’t know what the world really is, and you’re not sure if you ever want them to know.  Somebody has to have hope, right?

Susan reminds me of something I read in a book of photos of feral dogs in the Greek Islands (who are, to my way of thinking, leading an utterly enviable lifestyle)–the way different sets of tourists react to them.  The photographer, in his introduction, said that the French find the dogs funny, the Japanese snap endless photos, the Germans think it’s a bit of a scandal they’re running around unsupervised, the English just pet them, and the Americans scream “They’re starving!” then run off to buy them food.  My people.  I’ve lost count of all the foreign ferals from far-flung corners of the globe I’ve met at our local dog run.  Sometimes we take strays home with us at the end of a vacation (or a tour of duty).  Well, I digress.  Well no, I really don’t.  That’s what happens to–

Grigor Alexandreyovich Basmyonov:

Was he not, after all, the power behind a television throne?  Was he not the author of half the words to come out of Boris Boris’s mouth?  Wasn’t he the next best thing to a celebrity; which is to say, a celebrity’s ventriloquist?  Be off with you, my man, Grigor thought, I have Romanov blood in my veins. (Hardly).

From the least interesting human to perhaps the most interesting.  Grigor was a fireman at Chernobyl during the meltdown.  He did his duty bravely, as so many others did, and is dying of cancer, as so many already have.  By some quirk of fate (that Ananayel does not take credit for) he met a rising comedian, Boris Boris (not his real name, it’s a joke, and if you’re Russian it’s apparently hilarious), taking advantage of glasnost to do a satirical television series (a Russian Jon Stewart, though maybe closer to Benny Hill in some respects–or Bob Hope?), and he liked Grigor’s understandably morbid sense of humor, hired him on as a writer, and he’s been a great success.  Which is fine, except cancer is one thing success doesn’t cure.

He’s a complex brooding sardonic personality, loving his country yet alienated from it, which is why he’s ideal for Ananayel’s purposes, and vulnerable to his method of attack–he arranges for Grigor to meet Susan at a party held at the Savoy Hotel in Moscow, and when she hears her story–do I need to say it?  She says he must come back with her to America, she knows doctors, who know other doctors–something can be done.  And she’s very pretty and appealing and alive, and interested in him, and he agrees.   He has nothing to lose–or does he? Does it ever go well for Russian characters in novels when they leave their motherland?   Not in Russian novels, and Westlake is writing in the spirit of that great branch of world literature here.

Sound billowed from the International Room like pungent steam from a country inn’s kitchen.  Cocktail party chitchat is the same the world over, bright and encompassing, creating its own environment, separating the world into participants and non-invitees.  Cheered suddenly at the idea of being among the blessed this time around, Grigor moved forward into that cloud of noise, which for him was not rejecting but welcoming, and was barely aware of the person at the door who took his invitation and ushered him through the wide archway into a large,  high-ceilinged room that had been deliberately restored to remind people as much as possible of the pomp and privilege of the tsars.  Gold and white were everywhere, with pouter pigeons of color in the Empire chairs discreetly placed against the walls.  Two chandeliers signaled to one another across the room, across the heads of the participants in their drab mufti; not a red uniform in the place.  It was as though, Grigor thought, the nobles had permitted the villagers one annual event of their own in the chateau’s grand ballroom.

Was there a joke in that?  Well, there was, of course, but was it usable?  Now that the proletariat had been shown to have made a mess of things, there was a great embarrassed ambivalence about the aristocratic baby that had been thrown out with 1917’s bathwater.  Both Grigor and Boris Boris had been trying for months to fit references to the tsars and their families and their world into the stand-up routines, but everything they’d come up with was too flat, too wishy-washy.

The trouble was, they had no clear attitude to express.  Surely no one wanted to go back to rule by a class of people who sincerely believed that peasants and cattle were at parity, and yet…And yet, there was something about the style.  Not the substance, the style.

 The tsars are still in our throats.  We can’t swallow them and we can’t spit them out.

That isn’t funny.  That’s merely true.

I think Tolstoy would have been proud to have written that passage.  The book as a whole maybe not, but who can say?  Leo was writing weirder things than this by the end of his life.  And even before that, there was an entire story written from the POV of a horse (quite good, too–livestock have things to say for themselves as well).

And over next to Russia, there’s China–even less free, but in spite of that, the birthplace of a truly free spirit, who goes by the name of–

Li Kwan:

“The trial would last one day,” Kwan told him.  “I would get to say very little.  The second day, I would be taken outside and told to kneel.  A pistol would be put to the back of my head, and I would be killed.  The third day, the government would send my family a bill for the bullet.”

Mortimer’s eyes widened at that.  “A bill?  You’re kidding me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“But why?  For God’s sakes…”

“That’s the family’s punishment,” Kwan explained, “for having brought up a child without the proper discipline.”

Kwan (Li of course is his family name) was one of the people holding bullhorns in Tianamen Square when the tanks rolled in.  Remember that?   All we here in the west really got out of it was that thing about the two characters signifying ‘crisis’ meaning ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ when looked at separately.  That was very popular at the time.  He got a lot less than that.  But he’s still in there pitching.  I think in many ways he’s the one Westlake admires and identifies with the most–and treats the worst.

Kwan is a libertine for liberty, a trickster with integrity–much like Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment (who ironically had to contend with a Chinese American secondary villain), and perhaps a few others among his protagonists.  Instead of pacifism, his goal is simple Democracy–something we take for granted here.   Kwan dreams of somehow overthrowing the ‘Ancient Murderers,’ as he thinks of the ruling class in China, all ruling classes in China, going back for thousands of years.  If not overthrowing them, at least giving them one in the eye.  Something.

He’s a shameless seducer of women (who find him nigh-irresistible), a sly and humorous person with a great zest for life, but he believes absolutely in what he’s doing–while knowing too well he’s actually done nothing but put his own life in immediate danger.   Tricksters don’t tend to do well in totalitarian societies.  Even fictional ones.  Ask Harlan Ellison’s Harlequin.   A trickster needs more room to maneuver than a closed society will ever offer.

He’s managed to make his way to Hong Kong, but with 1997 approaching, even there he has nowhere to run, no safe harbor–the authorities there will hand him back to Beijing if he’s caught.  He’s about to be apprehended, betrayed by a naively cynical American journalist in exchange for a story, when Ananayel directly intervenes, gets him onto a luxury liner, working in the kitchen, heading for America, but it all goes wrong when he reaches New York.  Ananayel intends for it to go wrong, makes sure of it.

He’s betrayed again and again, and languishing in a detention cell in New York, where the authorities fully intend to send him back to avoid an international incident, he tries to commit suicide (with toothpaste, yet–didn’t even know that was a thing), and by the time he meets the others, he’s a shadow of his former cocksure self, with a damaged esophagus, incapable of even speaking, or eating properly.  The point, again, is to crush all sense of hope.   To guide him to despair.  So he’ll make the intended choice.  At least he could take the Ancient Murderers down with him.  All of them, not just the ones in Beijing.

Oh, and that thing about the bullet fee?   Westlake didn’t invent that.  I forced myself to look it up.  It happened to this girl’s family.  If you feel like it, you can force yourself to read online discussions where people in our great Democratic West cast doubt on it, say it’s not really proven to have happened, just an urban myth, and if it did happen once, it doesn’t anymore (now they have roaming vans that give lethal injections, yay progress!).

Except it’s apparently happening in Iran too.  It’s a bit funny, people who accept the reality of the authorities shooting someone in the head for disagreeing with them doubting that they’d humiliate the family just to hammer their point home. Maybe they just charge the bullet fee if the family wants to claim the body.  Well, that makes it all better, now doesn’t it?  Kind of rooting for Ananayel now. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I get to writing about–

Maria Elena:

Frowning, Maria Elena said, “The company is Brazilian.  Isn’t it?”

“The subsidiary is Brazilian.   That’s the company you know about.  But the main company is far from here.  The stockholders don’t live in Brazil.”

“Where do they live?”  I’ll go there, Maria Elena thought.  With photos, with statistics.  How dare they not be part of what they’ve done?  How dare they not even have to lie?

“Where do they live?”  The pilot looked down at the copper colored river they would follow for the next quarter hour.  “Some in Britain,” he said.  “Some in Germany, Italy, Guatemala, Switzerland, Kuwait, Japan.  But most in the United States.”

“The United States.”

“The multinational corporation is responsible to no country,” the pilot told her, “but it was an American idea.”

“They couldn’t do this in America.  That’s why they come here.”

“Well, of course,” the pilot said, and laughed.

Maria Elena is, I believe, Westlake’s first and perhaps only Brazilian protagonist. She is described as exotically attractive, not thin, and we don’t find out her precise ethnic ancestry, but we can assume she’s a mixture of Portuguese, Indian, and perhaps African ancestry, like most people in that remarkable nation, regardless of color.   What we know about her for sure is that she is a person of conscience and determination–and almost unfathomable sadness.

She had been a singer in her youth, a minor star, growing in fame, but she put that aside to marry and have a family–only her rural town was next to a factory that poisoned the earth and the water, and even the children in her womb.  Her husband left her, saying she was cursed, and part of her believed that was true. The church offered no comfort.  Her environmental activism achieved no results.

And now a pilot, transporting her with the American doctor she works for, tells her that she hasn’t even been directing her efforts in the right direction.  The true malefactors are elsewhere, mainly in America.   That isn’t a lie.  But the pilot himself is–it’s Ananayel.  Bringing his players together.  Suggesting she only has to marry the doctor, named Jack, who is in lust with her, and he’ll take her back to America with him.

The marriage goes sour when the doctor’s passion fades, and her activism is no more effective there than it was at home.  She leads a drab passionless middle class suburban life, with nothing to anchor her.  One day a woman who has been having an affair with the doctor comes to the house, and accuses Maria Elena of refusing to give Jack a divorce (it’s the first Maria Elena has heard of it).  The woman says she and Jack deserve a chance at happiness.

Maria Elena looks at this deluded creature wearily, as at a spoiled child, and asks what she has ever done to deserve happiness.  A question I’m not sure anyone has ever had a good answer to, but if anyone ever did, it’s Maria Elena herself, and look at her. She can’t even sing now–the music isn’t there in her anymore. Everything has been taken away from her, partly by Ananayel and God, but mostly by her fellow humans, by what we have made of this earthly paradise God gave us so long ago.  But she somehow soldiers on, waiting for a change to come. All good things, right?   Sure.

Westlake was drawing here upon research he’d done for the 1984 short story, Hydra, which I covered in my review of Westlake’s science fiction anthology, Tomorrow’s Crimes.  I don’t know when he started research on Russian politics, but of course it was all over the news at this time.

I’m now wondering if his interest in China and Hong Kong predated his agreeing to work on the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, which he is supposed to have written in 1995.  Seems unlikely he’d be doing research for that this far in advance.  But really, all over this book, we see his enduring and all-encompassing interest in the world around him, his conviction that Americans ignored what went on beyond their shores at the peril of both their own material welfare and their immortal souls.  Hmm, I suppose that is a bit hokey.  Mr. Upchurch would be cross with me, no doubt.

You have perhaps noticed that these three humans Ananayel has recruited for God’s plan thus far are not the people you’d think would be chosen to bring about world destruction–each has shown exceptional courage and devotion to the common good.  Each is a true member of E. M. Forster’s fabled Aristocracy of the Considerate, the Sensitive, and the Plucky (and indeed there will be a secret understanding between them when they meet).

But that is, in fact, the point of choosing them–that they know, so much better than the average human, what a cruel place this world is, how resistant to change, how entrenched the Ancient Murderers (in all their innumerable forms) truly are.  To be hopeless, you need to have had some hope to start with.

And all have been afflicted physically in some way–not for nothing did Job, having lost his family and his fortune, only curse God when Satan (visiting God in heaven, as we are informed the Satan in this story sometimes still does) was given permission to inflict great physical suffering upon him.  As long as the body is strong, the spirit can withstand almost any reversal.  But the body is fragile, an untrustworthy bastion to fall back upon.  It always fails us in the end. Gosh, how did this book ever not make the best-seller lists?

And how did I think I was going to make a one-part review out of this?   I’m closing on on six thousand words, and I still have two more characters to talk about before I even move into the wrap-up.  Two very different characters than Grigor, Kwan, and Maria Elena, but not entirely different.  All human, too human.

So I’ll come up with some images for Part 2 somewhere–it’s hard to search for foreign editions when you don’t know what the title would have been.  But I would say the intended audience for this book was not the rest of the world.  It was America.  And it missed the target, badly.  And perhaps that was Mr. Westlake’s failure.  And perhaps it was someone else’s.  Perhaps there’s blame enough to go around.

And perhaps we could do with a song now.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Addendum: Plotting The Perfect Murder

As promised, here is the original Harper’s Magazine article that inspired The Perfect Murder.  

And, as I mentioned last time, you’ll see Mr. Westlake is not actually a dominating presence in the conversation.  He’s reacting mainly to what the others are proposing, offering suggestions, observations, relevant citations of both fact and fiction, but he’s really off to one side, watching the rest of them, I think.  His own murder plan that he came up with for the book is not here, even in embryonic form.  He came up with that later.

Only one of the writers–Hillerman–seems to have already arrived at a solid plan (the yuppie mushroom massacre), and merely needs to fine tune it a bit.  Much as I enjoyed Hillerman’s contributions to the finished book, I felt like he kind of mailed it in a bit–well, technically they all did.

What strikes me as interesting about Westlake’s reticence is that he did always say that in school he was never ‘the funny one.’  He wasn’t the life of the party.  He wasn’t the one who dominated conversations.  He was, ultimately, the one who could be funnier than any parlor room (or barroom)  wit–with a bit of time and contemplation.  But he was also someone who needed, it often seems, to be inspired by others–encouraged–presented with an idea, then given room to run with it.  Who does that remind me of?  Dortmunder.  Also Parker.  Not big talkers, those two.

So it’s a rather telling look at the way his mind worked in public, and how he wasn’t necessarily an overwhelming presence in person.  He liked to lay back in the weeds a bit sometimes, and make his presence known when the time was right.  Or maybe he was having a spot of indigestion that day, I don’t know.

Here’s the article.  You may have to download the scans yourself–or even print them out–to read them properly.  For whatever reason, you can’t expand the images by clicking on them, and I’m not sure why–maybe there’s something I’m forgetting to do, but I’ve forgotten what that is.  The section containing the discussion between the writers is in rather annoyingly small print.  Might want to be quick about it too–you never know when I might be forced to delete it.  If that happens, I can always email the scans upon request (which would probably work better anyway).  Try and stop me, coppers!

(Also, you’ll note a number of old newspaper articles interspersed through the piece, relating to the murder trial of Dr. Robert Buchanan.  The link I’ve created leads to the article about him on something called ‘Murderpedia.’  Well, I guess it would, wouldn’t it?  Bon Appetit.)

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Filed under Uncategorized

Review: The Perfect Murder

Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon trial, which lasted seven years. In summing up, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away.

At this my counsel rose and said:

“May it please your honor, crimes are ghastly or agreeable only by comparison. If you were familiar with the details of my client’s previous murder of his uncle, you would discern in his later offence something in the nature of tender forbearance and filial consideration for the feelings of the victim. The appalling ferocity of the former assassination was indeed inconsistent with any hypothesis but that of guilt; and had it not been for the fact that the honorable judge before whom he was tried was the president of a life insurance company which took risks on hanging, and in which my client held a policy, it is impossible to see how he could have been decently acquitted. If your honor would like to hear about it for the instruction and guidance of your honor’s mind, this unfortunate man, my client, will consent to give himself the pain of relating it under oath.”

From My Favorite Murder, by Ambrose Bierce

So.  You’re beginning to enjoy our correspondence, are you?  That may change, my friend.

Granted, I had understood from the outset that you were adding to your risk of exposure by consulting others as well as myself–yet another indication of your ambivalence toward the entire operation–but I had expected you would be forming a jury of at least my, if not your peers.  The latest Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, say.  Dr. Hannibal Lector.  Pol Pot.  Imelda Marcos.  A member of the Senate’s Intelligence Oversight Committee.  An executive from Drexel-Burnham.  People, in other words, who had already gotten away with  murder.  I’d thought, quite naturally, you understood that my own…

Well.  Never mind.  The point is, I had no idea at the outset that you intended to insult me in this fashion; to cobble me together with these, these scriveners.  I had no thought that you expected me to hobnob, rub elbows, shuffle along with the likes of these makeweights, these cutpennies, these artificers.

Well, it’s not their fault.  I mustn’t blame them overly.  They’ve done their best, poor catchpoles, and I shall give them–not you, my friend, them–the decent respect of treating their humble offerings with sympathetic patience and a critical eye well tempered by compassion for human imperfectibility.

Donald E. Westlake, writing to ‘Tim.’

For an article in the September 1988 issue of Harper’s Magazine, journalist Jack Hitt convened a panel of distinguished experts in the fine art of literary murder, which was held at the Union Club in New York City.  The participants were Sarah Caudwell, Tony Hillerman, Peter Lovesey, Nancy Pickard, and Donald E. Westlake.

To these worthies Mr. Hitt posed a problem–suppose his name was Carl, and he wanted to murder his wife Linda, who was having an affair with someone bearing the Joycean name of Blazes Boylan, and intended to divorce Carl shortly, cutting him out of her large inheritance.  How could he do this in such a way as to 1)Avoid being caught, 2)Have Blazes take the blame, and 3)Make the murder memorable and stylish, not at all the usual sort of dull tasteless thing one reads about in the papers nowadays.  Something that would be talked about for generations to come. Lovesey seems to have made the suggestion that Carl could publish the details in his posthumous memoirs.

What followed was seven pages of enthused back and forth between the writers (with little in the way of interruption from their moderator, if that’s what you want to call him–nothing terribly moderate about that discussion, you ask me).  Feeling suitably encouraged by the results of his thought experiment in execution, the aptly-named Mr. Hitt decided to do it all again on a larger canvas, and the result can be seen above.

Lawrence Block was brought in to sub for Ms. Pickard.  I want everyone to know that the images of him and Mr. Westlake up top being larger is a formatting thing, and not me playing favorites, though they are in fact the only writers in that assembly I am well familiar with,  ‘cozies’ not being my usual thing.  I just wanted to make a suitably chilling rogue’s gallery, and of course only black and white photos would do for this macabre array of blood-boltered fiends.  Though Mr. Block looks good in sepia, I must say.

And instead of a convivial bloody discussion over Bloody Marys (I’m sure Westlake opted for bourbon), it became a round robin correspondence between Hitt–now taking the deceptively mild-mannered name of ‘Tim’–and the five avariciously adversarial authors, who have been promised much in the way of filthy lucre should Tim successfully employ one of their plans.  Tim proposes, they disposes.  Perhaps literally, in one case.   Hitt mentions in the preface that the correspondence took about a year to complete–meaning, I’d assume, that the authors were not merely dashing off their responses–they were taking the project seriously.  Though not somberly.

(I wish the original article was available free online, but Harper’s has opted to insist that you either subscribe or shell out $6.95 to read it on their website–that’s nearly a dollar a page!  Did they even pay Hitt that much?  However, working at a library has its perks, and one of them is a thing called Proquest.  I have a print-out of the piece on my desk as we speak, for which I paid precisely bupkus. I had hoped to be able to send it to my readers individually upon request, but that doesn’t seem to work, so I’ll post scans next week.)

‘Tim’ opens with a lament on the sadly diminished state of the fine art of murder (consciously echoing De Quincey, whose famous Blackwoods essay on this subject is referenced specifically in his introductory missive).  He lays out a specific set of circumstances–he married for money.  He studied to be a doctor before that.  His wife is betraying him with his best friend, still named Blazes Boylan, but no Leopold Bloom is Tim.  He wants revenge, and he wants to inherit his wife’s fortune, and he wants Blazes to be punished for the murder, and he wants the murder to be artistic enough so that when he posthumously reveals it in his memoirs, people will never stop talking about him in awed and reverent tones.

He’s just read in his morning paper about a man who murdered a neighbor for money, and then attempted to destroy all evidence of the crime by feeding the body into a woodchipper–the police, unfortunately (unfortunately?), found residues of the deceased on the leaves of a nearby oak tree.   Had he just moved the chipper a bit further away before proceeding, he probably would have gotten away with it.  And Tim then poses a truly diabolical question.

Can it be true?  That we wish him to get away with this crime?  Of course, it’s true!  Because what really attracts us to this story–whether we are sitting in our housecoats after breakfast, or catching a paragraph or two at a red light on the way to work, or absorbing the details as we roar along in the common carrier–is the novelty of that damned woodchipper.  In some strange way, we wish to reward this man, privately, each to ourselves, with our regret over his loss of liberty for taking an act so wretchedly common these days and endowing it with a certain freshness.  I belive there is an entire school of thought that considers such cleverness to be the very soul of genius.

Mr. Westlake is the first of the consultants to respond, and he applauds Tim for his sagacity in seeking informed advice.   So many people just blunder their way into murder, as if just anyone can do it.

What your story demonstrates initially is that it is never too late to begin acting sensibly.  You yourself will, I think, admit that your choices till now have been less than satisfactory.   Let us begin by recapping the erroneous steps that that have led you to this impasse; an impasse which, happily, you seem to at least have delved deep within yourself to tap some previous unsuspected lode of wit and make the right move for a change, by turning to experts for their guidance and counsel. Would you install your own plumbing?  Take out your own adenoids?   Prepare your own tax return? Park your own car at a better restaurant?  Of course not.  In the very nick of time, at the ultimate brink of fate, you have suddenly realized what we all must sooner or later acknowledge: You need help.

Westlake makes a rather detailed analysis of what he perceives to be the crucial defects in Tim’s character, his mistakes in life, deduced from the slight biographical data provided.  Each writer is free to a certain extent to improvise upon the basic scenario provided them, to add certain crucial details to the tapestry being woven. This does, in fact, lead to some minor contradictions in the unfolding improvised narrative, because everybody is just making it up as s(he) goes along.  Did Tim provide a correct return address with his letters?  You would think not, but some correspondents behave as if they don’t know where and who he really is, and others claim to know literally everything about him. Westlake starts out by just taking Tim’s story as a given, and working from there.

His plan is, all admit, ingenious.  Tim must create and then assume a false identity, using methods any Westlake reader is familiar with–Tim is amazed to find that Westlake is correct in saying that you can claim the identity of a child that died shortly after birth, and through that ruse get a social security number, and a bank account under that name.  Tim must also get Blazes to join a local shooting club with him (this assumes there is one, but we know it’s a well-off community, so that’s not pushing things).  This will lead to Blazes’ fingers testing positive for gunpowder residue.

Basically, Tim is to use his false identity as his alibi.  He will go on a business trip to meet with his double, and then fly back again, going to the hotel room Blazes and Linda habitually use.  He will kill Linda right in front of Blazes, in mid-assignation.  He will hand the terrified (and naked) Blazes the gun and spray him with mace.  He will then fly to another city, where he will supposedly be meeting with his other self, establishing the alibi.   He will have to work at creating an alternate persona, so that the police interrogating both him and his alias won’t suspect anything.  Blazes will know who framed him, but the police will have him red-handed, and will not believe his ridiculous story.

Personally, I see some flaws in the scheme–which I half-think are put in there on purpose–Westlake could create the perfect crime if he wanted to, but like the Navajo weavers, puts an intentional flaw in the pattern so as not to anger the Navajo gods (for which one of our authors might accuse him of poaching on his domain). But still–with some variations–I think you could actually do this (be easier if you didn’t have to leave a witness alive).

In truth, Tim has set his experts a nigh-impossible task.  He wants to kill his wife, frame his best friend, get off scot-free, live a long prosperous life, and then brag after his death about the artful and original murder he committed, so that his name will rank with the immortals like Jack the Ripper or Gilles de Rais. Each writer will have to err in one direction or the other–to make the murder more practical, believable–or to make it more colorful.  Our next writer chooses the second alternative.

Peter Lovesey comes up with a scenario he entitles “The Jellyfish in the Jacuzzi.” It contains some of the same elements as Mr. Westlake’s scenario–obtaining a pass key to the lovers’ hotel room, traveling back and forth by air to develop an alibi, but it’s far more complicated and baroque (and the more complex a scheme, the more things that can go wrong with it, but Mr. Lovesey can rightly claim to have come up with the most unorthodox method for dispatching the unfortunate Linda, perhaps cribbed just a wee bit from A. Conan Doyle).

Basically, Tim is to spend some time creating the suspicion that Blazes is playing elaborate practical jokes involving marine life on Tim and Linda.  Then he is to obtain a Sea Wasp (a particularly lethal species of box jellyfish) from a local research laboratory in Tim’s community that just conveniently happens to stock them, and where they are left completely unguarded in an unlocked room most of the time (I must sniff a bit at this threadbare contrivance, but we’re supposed to be having fun here, right?).

Then, at a time when he can establish he was somewhere else, he leaves the jellyfish in the jacuzzi (an ideally warm environment for the tropical creature), where Linda can be expected to encounter it, and Blazes to be blamed for it.   In fact, people do often survive encounters with the Sea Wasp, which has caused only 63 documented fatalities since 1884–it depends on the size of the victim, and the amount of venom administered.  But if she’s by herself when stung, death is certainly the most likely scenario by far.

She could die from a non-lethal dose, simply by drowning after losing consciousness.   That happened to an uncle of mine–it’s happened to lots of people.  The drowning in a hot tub thing, not the stung by a jellyfish improbably resident within the hot tub thing.  I don’t believe.   The question never came up in my uncle’s post-mortem, to my knowledge.  A lovely man, but a drinker.  He slipped and hit his head.  Isn’t it grand, boys?   And wouldn’t you know, I inherited a fair sum of money from him.  Why are you all looking at me that way? I was nowhere nearby when it happened.  Let’s move on.

Tony Hillerman, author of many a best-selling multicultural murder mystery, who died only a few weeks before Donald Westlake, offers a western perspective, and heartily concurs with Tim’s opinions on the degraded state of modern murder.

Crime in our republic has indeed suffered a serious decline.  If you have noticed it in the effete East, consider how much more galling this condition must be to us Rocky Mountain Westerners.  Lacking ballet, literacy, major league baseball, and the other daintier pastimes, we had to build our culture principally on larceny and homicide, stealing all the states west of the eighty-third meridian from their previous owners, shooting the inhabitants thereof, and then, when that supply was exhausted, shooting one another.  Our bandits–from Black Jack Ketchum to Butch Cassidy–were giants in the land. Even our lawmen, I point to Wyatt Earp and the infamous Sheriff Brady of the Lincoln County War as notable examples, were often criminal enough to warrant hanging.

Alas, that was yesterday.  Today, as your complaint notes, we can boast only of quantity.  My own smallish city, Albuquerque, tallied fifty-two bank robberies last year–so many that the gunmen were reduced to robbing the same places two or three times.  Not one of these felonies showed the slightest sign of originality or imagination.  Nor were any of those elements applied by the polce.  The only arrests made recently were of a robber who used a bicycle as his escape vehicle and wasn’t very good at it and another who parked at the drive-up window, handed the teller his note demanding money, and waited patiently until the police came to lead him away.  The once proud Federal Bureau of Investigation, formed in large part to protect our banks back in the halcyon days of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, was finally stirred from its lethargy.  To what end?  It issued a press statement criticizing bank security systems, then went back to investigating librarians whom it suspects of checking out subversive books to Democrats.

His scheme in many ways is the simplest–but also the riskiest.  Tim is to confess to drowning his wife in her bathtub in a fit of rage.   The police, upon investigation, will find that she had no water in her lungs.  She was, in fact, a victim of mushroom poisoning.  As were many others, who happened to shop at something called the Yummie Yuppie Deli, where somebody–various hints will point to Blazes–put a handful of poisonous mushrooms on a mixed display of fancy fungi.  The natural suspicion of the police towards the husband of a dead wife will then naturally be diverted to Blazes.  Tim’s desire to confess to his crime will convince them he committed no crime at all.  When in fact he’s slaughtered half the community.

More than one other contributor points out a critical failing here–how many police detectives, faced with a confession of murder from a cuckolded husband, are going to look a gift perp in the mouth?   There is quite a bit of skepticism regarding the efficiency of police departments in this book–from people whose livelihoods often depended on depicting policemen as relentless seekers of truth, armed with the latest developments in forensic science.

(Hillerman brought up this scenario at the original gathering, but in embryonic form–merely the spore of an idea, you might say.  Westlake responded by mentioning a large coffee table book he had at home, composed entirely of photographs of beautiful mushrooms, which included a  loose errata sheet shoved unceremoniously into the back of the book, which mentioned all the highly poisonous mushrooms the author had erroneously identified as edible.   Bon appetit, gourmets.)

The late Sarah Caudwell (born Sarah Cockburn) hailed from a family of some renown–I used to read her uncle Alexander’s columns in the Village Voice (back when that publication was still worth reading) and even occasionally rubbed elbows with her niece Laura Flanders at various seditious gatherings in times long-gone, but I have not read her four highly regarded mystery novels, a situation I fully intend to remedy in the near future, because she was clearly brilliant, and the books sound intriguing as hell.

Still, she was a barrister by trade, not a writer.  That may be why in the original Harper’s article, she was one of the dominant voices–far more than Westlake, who was fairly reticent by comparison, offering only a few scattered (though telling) comments.  Her knowledge of criminal law and crime itself stands her in good stead there.  She is on familiar ground.

By contrast, I would say she’s a bit self-effacing (and quite brief) in her contributions to the book–perhaps just a mite overawed by the distinguished company she’s in, and while a trained legal mouthpiece (and a Brit to boot) may rightly feel she can out-talk anybody, particularly in a club that serves alcohol, she knew she couldn’t out-write the assembled company once they’d set about seriously to business (a few more books to her credit, she might well have done). She still comes up with a very engaging response to Tim’s query, that is not quite as impractical as her countryman Lovesey’s, but rivals it for vividity.

She says right off the bat that Tim must not even think of committing a murder in the United States.  It’s so–common.  Statistically, I’m afraid that is still true. No, she insists, he must somehow spirit Linda away to Europe–and after a quick overview of the grisly heritages of France, Italy, Greece, and foggy London Town, being of Scots heritage, she settles on a locale for the crime.   Again, terra cognita.

No country to compare with Scotland, and no city to compare with Edinburgh.

A city one might almost think designed with deliberate purpose to symbolize the dichotomy between reason and passion, the light and dark aspects of the human psyche.  Through it runs the long, deep cleft of Princes Street Gardens; on one side is the orderly decorum of the eighteenth century, wide streets and elegant squares, the quintessence of rationality; on the other the tenebrous wynds and narrow stairways of the old medieval town; and dominating all, the dark, majestic outline of the Castle and Cathedral.


She’s going into some depth about the long treacherous sanguinary history of Bonnie Scotland, and she’s making me feel more like visiting than anything ever produced by either Hollywood or their tourist board ever did (or Westlake’s one novel set there, for that matter).   She’s damned good, our Ms. Caudwell.   I find myself already lamenting how quickly I’ll get through her oeuvre.

But it’s very hard to see how her murder could be made to work.  It involves the Edinburgh Festival, a splendid affair held each summer, which I could see Linda agreeing to attend with Tim and Blazes tagging along just for fun, but already we’re pushing hard at the limits of plausibility here.  Now everybody has to be in traditional attire, and both Tim and Blazes are in full Highland regalia, kilts and all (the shameless feminine preoccupation with masculine limbs on full display here, pure objectification I calls it), and each ensemble comes with this little ceremonial dagger, the Sgian dhubh  (she uses the anglicized spelling, for which I am subtracting points from her final score).  Tim will arrange to get Blazes’ implement away from him without his knowing it.

You see where this is going.   Tim will immolate Blazes’ dirk in the blood of his bride, but through a very elaborate chain of events involving a tape recorder and a grand banquet with candelebras and all, Blazes will end up being the one caught red-handed, while Tim tenderly cradles Linda’s encrimsoned corpse, murmering broken endearments, and asking Blazes how he could have possibly done such a thing.  It’s very romantic, isn’t it?  Bring the life back into a marriage, while taking it out of one of the partners, but nothing’s perfect.   I suppose you’d prefer they took a weaving class together, or learned to do the cha-cha.

Finally Mr. Block has his say, and while none of the writers have been entirely complimentary to poor cuckolded Tim, he’s flat-out derogatory and dismissive.

You think this is funny, don’t you?

That’s what’s galling about this whole unhappy enterprise.  You think it’s amusing, with all your brittle patter, your happy horseshit about murder as an art form.  Murder is never artistic and it is rarely formal.  It is a means to an end.  Almost invariably, it is a bad means to a bad end.  An unamusing means, if you will, to an unamusing end.

Life, we are told, is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel. You, sir, reveal yourself as one who does neither.  You seem to crave applause for the artistry of your efforts at homicide while at once wanting to escape detection.  If your crime should be perfect, if your wife should perish and your friend Blazes be blamed for your death, whatever artistry you would purport to have displayed would in fact remain forever undisplayed.  It is as if you would feed to the woodchipper not a human corpse but the good Bishop Berkeley’s tree, the one that falls unheard, the one that makes no sound.

And having said all that, he provides the most ghoulish plan of all.   Tim shall set about becoming a full-fledged serial killer, who makes appointments with ill-starred sex workers (the preferred prey of Jack the Ripper, you’ll recall), has coitus with them, then kills and dismembers them, and arranges their body parts in various imaginative ways, to get the attention of the police.   He shall obtain physical evidence in the form of male pubic hairs from the adulterous sheets of Blazes and Linda, with which to implicate Blazes (while making sure none of Tim’s pubes are ever found at the crime scenes–okay, already I’m shaking my head a bit).

Mr. Block seems to think the one objection to his plan is that Tim may find out that he enjoys killing strangers so much that he no longer will wish to pursue his original plan.  He also says killing Linda, much as he hates her, might prove harder for Tim to stomach than murdering some anonymous whore.  Well, serial killers rarely go after people close to them, that’s true.  That’s actually a major recommendation for Block’s plan.  Except isn’t Blazes close to her as well?   So really, this is a variation on Christie’s The ABC Murders–somebody pretending to be a serial killer, in order to kill someone who has become inconvenient, and pin the blame on someone else.  You can’t get away from Dame Agatha in this area of endeavor, can you?   For sheer inventiveness, she topped the bill.

Mr. Block claims to have satisfied here both the need for getting away with it, implicating Blazes, and attracting the attention of the media to the murders, so that Tim may achieve the notoriety he so desires.   Block does not seem to have fully processed that Tim plans to reveal all the bloody details of his crime and/or crimes after he’s shuffled off the coil himself.  Maybe read the opening letter a bit too quickly, and of course he wasn’t at the original meeting at the Union Club.  (I was a bit worried about what Block might have done to Nancy Pickard to get her slot, but she’s still alive and presumably in one piece.)

Taken simply as pieces of writing, Block’s contributions are superbly enjoyable–he’s in rare form.  You don’t often get to see him play the curmudgeon in his fiction, and he’s deuced good at it.

So Tim, delighted by the malevolent machinations he has inspired, writes back to each author, enclosing copies of all the other scenarios, and explaining that as he received each new missive in the mail, he would be so taken with it that he’d immediately set about executing it–only to receive the next one, and he’d be so taken with that he’d start carrying it out, and so on, and so forth.

He’s just mixing and matching after a while, never carrying any one writer’s scenario out to the letter because he wants to be creative about it (maybe he should try making movies), and it sounds like a bloody shambles, only without any actual blood.  He’s done much of what they recommended in terms of set-up. He’s even created (elaborating on Westlake’s plan), a female identity for himself, named Diana Clement, and seems to greatly enjoy being a girl.  But he hasn’t actually killed anybody yet.  And since he hasn’t used any of their ideas to dispatch Linda thus far, obviously he doesn’t owe any of them a check.  It’s not like he signed a contract.   Maybe he should have just taken one out on Linda.

Is there anything in God’s own creation that so infuriates a professional writer as accepting a commission, and then not receiving full payment?  Or any?   If there is, it’s probably seeing another author vying to nab that paycheck away from you. Professional jealousy rears its verdant head.  Each will strive to excoriate Tim and eviscerate each rival’s scheme, while still insisting on the sheer perfection of his/her own.

Mr. Hillerman begins this round of recrimination (heh), purporting to be surprised to learn the original letter was a mere ‘fishing expedition’, without any commitment.  In fact, most of the respondents claim not to have realized this, even though it was made pretty clear (just not precisely who the other conspirators would be).  His analytical mind finds serious flaws in all the other schemes, predicated mainly on what he refers to headscratchingly as the Peter Principle, though he clearly means Murphy’s Law.

Caudwell’s tape recorded scream will malfunction, leading people to believe there are ducks in the house.  Lovesey’s complex advance scenario, which is supposed to draw the media’s attention to the events coming before the murder, will be pushed aside in favor of the Queen’s second cousin developing hangnails–or alternatively, some American equivalent of aristocracy, such as Donald Trump (okay, full marks there, Mr. H–just as well you didn’t live to see how right you were).  Lovesey’s scenario depends far too much on planes in America departing and arriving on their scheduled times (he’s English, he couldn’t know).

He accuses Lawrence Block of the high crime of being an intellectual, who holds Tim in contempt.  He says Block is trying to set Tim up to take the fall, not Blazes Boylan.  Honestly, I’m not sure he’s wrong about that, not that Block would ever admit it.  He also cunningly exposes Block’s inspiration, by mentioning The ABC Murders, and thus insinuating that if Block’s scheme were used, the check would be properly payable to Agatha Christie’s estate (not-so-veiled accusations of plagiarism are rife in this part of the book, and you’d expect nothing less when the ire of authors has been aroused).

He can’t find too much wrong with Westlake’s plan, but he does score one palpable hit–Westlake said Tim could get a copy of the key to the lovers’ room by making an imprint in soft putty.  Imprint of what, pray tell?

Mr. Westlake’s fame among mystery readers is long established.  For him the day has since passed when his publisher’s marketing people bundle him up and send him off on those awful tests of stamina known as book tours.  Thus, while Westlake remembers that a hotel with a room  number as high as 1507 must be a big hotel, he seems not to know what has happened to hotel keys in such monstrous places.  We who must still endure these mind-numbing journeys from one hotel to another know that Room 1507 isn’t opened by a key these days.   The hotel key is another victim of America’s progress in crime and technology.  The door to Room 1507 these days is opened by a little rectangular strip of stiff plastic.

To which I’d respond that I was just staying in a very small hotel that uses that same type of ‘key’, and the cleaning woman had one that opened all doors in the place, and how hard could it be, really, to get one of those?   Harder than planting poisonous mushrooms in a busy delicatessen?  Mr. Westlake’s tradecraft does need some updates, but I call that quibbling.  I’m far from convinced Westlake didn’t already know all that, since I doubt very much he was outselling Tony Hillerman in the early 90’s, and his love of Travel is well known.

But I do perceive the outlines of a professional compliment there, all the same.   Each writer is trying to say, at the very same time, to each of his/her colleagues, both “You are an adornment to our shared profession who inspires my deepest admiration” and “You are a shameless hack.”  And I have no doubt they are deeply sincere in both sentiments.  It’s a writer thing.

On the whole, Lovesey’s second response is the weakest of the bunch, if only because he knows as well as anyone that his murder scheme is the least practical of the bunch.   He also expresses great admiration for Westlake’s scenario, and then pokes holes in it, along with everyone else’s.  But mainly he’s just saying that his jellyfish is so much more memorable than anyone else’s weapon of choice that it would be criminal not to employ it and send him a check forthwith. Practicality be damned, this is art!

Caudwell, as I already said, is a bit too deferential here (as she was decidedly not in person at the club, when she met all the authors other than Block), and all the more once she’s read the other proposed murders.  She seems somehow more offended on Westlake’s behalf than on her own–she says “he has devised for you, at considerable personal sacrifice–he might have used it for his own next novel–a plan of great beauty and artistic elegance, and that you, by your rash and self-indulgent action, have rendered it entirely useless.”  I think she may spend more time defending Westlake’s plan than her own!   She doesn’t like the bit about changing the alternate identity to a woman, either.  Her generosity is breath-taking–but a bit out of keeping with the general tone of the book.

(Caudwell raises a valid point, though–she was probably wishing Westlake would write a novel about a murderer who painstakingly creates an alternate persona to serve as his own alibi–that actually would have been amazing, and much in keeping with Westlake’s usual obsession with identity.  Probably he had considered just such a book, and had discarded the idea for one reason or another. We’ll never know just how many Westlake books we missed out on.)

Still and all, she concludes by saying, as Lovesey before her, that her plan is the most aesthetically pleasing, and therefore the best.  She says she has enclosed a copy of the program for the Edinburgh Festival.   She wants to see those bekilted male legs.   But Lawrence Block suggests another motive for her.

Block is even more enraged with Tim now.   His vituperative bile fairly leaps from the page.   It’s always a pleasure to watch him work, but never more than when he is angry (or pretending to be).  He says he doesn’t know how he missed the implication that he was not the only writer being consulted, and has many a disparaging thing to say about his competitors, Mr. Westlake not least among them.

My first impulse, I must admit, was to toss out their contributions unread.  I have for years been doing just that with their novels, which their publishers persist in sending me in the hope of eliciting promotional blurbs.  A word from me, evidently, goes a long way in establishing a lesser writer’s reputation, and I’m continuously besieged with galleys from hopeful editors.  I have thus long formed my opinion of the work of Westlake, Lovesey, Hillerman, and Caudwell, and could well imagine what sort of a murder they would lay out for you.

Westlake would enlist the aid of some bumbling criminals, and he’d have all of them try to kill your wife, and they’d all fail, until she died laughing. Lovesey would have her slain in the ring by a bare-knuckled pugilist. Hillerman would dress you up in a feather headdress and have you make a sand painting, calling down the Great Spirit to crush your wife to death in a buffalo stampede.  And Caudwell would shuttle you between Lincoln’s Inn and the Isles of Greece, in the company of people named Ragweed and Catnip.

He then professes surprise that their actual plans are not so bad as all that.  He finds little things to admire about each of them.   Then, as all the others before him (with the partial exception of Caudwell vis a vis Westlake) rips them to shreds.  Like Lovesey (the artfulness of whose proposal he admires, while attacking its efficaciousness), he drips disdain for Westlake’s means of killing Linda–a gun.  So boring.  He rips into his closest friend more than anyone else here, even Tim–no doubt anticipating a similar fusilade from Mr. Westlake, aimed in his direction.  Well, that’s what friends are for, right?

But I particularly like what he did to Caudwell–which is to point out that Caudwell is, after all, a woman.  Of the unhappy coupling of Linda and Tim, who is more likely to hold her sympathy?   Who will really end up dead, or carted off by the bobbies, when her Scottish Play (Lovesey’s term for it) has concluded?   She’s luring Tim into a trap!  I can imagine Caudwell roaring with laughter at this.   Unless she just smiled slowly in a sinister secret sort of way….

Mr. Block then claims to have made private investigations (well, he is the progenitor of Matthew Scudder, and the back dust jacket informs us his most recent book was A Dance at the Slaughterhouse).  He says he’s found proof that Tim is in fact carrying out his plan (ie, murdering a series of unrelated women).

I don’t know, that seems almost like cheating to me–claiming victory over his peers on the basis of killings he’s made up himself (I would assume).

But he probably knows by now who’s going to follow him, and I think I’ve mentioned he and Westlake had a lifelong rivalry that went along with their lifelong camraderie.  A competition he probably misses as much as anything else in that friendship.

As he was the first to respond to Tim’s original letter, Mr. Westlake gets the last word in the second.  And the best.  I’m biased, that goes without saying.  But here is where we really do see that even in such a literally cutthroat environment as this, there was only one Donald E. Westlake.   And there is an air of cool practiced deadliness about him we have not seen in some time.  Not since 1974, to be precise.

Westlake has, as Block probably feared, done him one better.  He hasn’t just made discreet inquiries over the phone.  He’s tracked Tim to his (we are informed) tastelessly appointed McMansion, and he’s been inside of it.  He’s planted certain things in it.  He’s watching Tim, as Tim is reading his letter.   He’s not getting mad.  He’s getting even.   Certain promises were made to him, as he sees it.  Those promises were not kept.   What does Parker do when somebody makes a professional arrangement with him, then fails to keep his end of the bargain?  That’s right.

So here’s the deal.   Tim will carry out Westlake’s plan to the letter–the innovation of making the alternate identity female Westlake applauds as a worthy embellishment to the plan, that he wishes he’d thought of himself.  But Tim will, in all other respects, carry out Westlake’s plan as detailed.  He must show that he is proceeding with it–Westake will know if he does not.  Westlake will see.  Westlake sees all.  And after all is completed, Tim will be given some time to bask in the glory of his achievement.  And then—.

And just imagine, if you were to be found dead somewhere–oh, say, a stroke, an auto accident, you know the kind of thing–in Diana’s fig.  The police arrive, the medical personnel, the folk from the mortician.  Such surprise! Such confusion!  There’s art, if you want.  The laughter of the gods o’erlying a minor everyday human drama.

But there I go again, getting ahead of myself.

He is, of course, equally merciless and efficient in eliminating all his rivals’ proposals, one by one.  I doubt he’d read Caudwell’s admiring description of his own plan before penning his of hers–which he describes as having ‘a certain je de paume which would no doubt have a certain appeal for frivolous minds; the sort of people who can never guess the ending of a “Columbo” episode.’   Ouch.   Though he admits it probably will work in terms of Tim getting off with the help of good lawyers, if only because Scottish courts uniquely have a third possible verdict–“Not Proven.” Which he says means “You didn’t do it, and don’t do it again.”

He dismisses Hillerman’s proposal as impossible–Tim studied to be a doctor. Which means he will be automatically suspected of a poisoning.  Not to mention that all those grieving yuppie family members will hire private detectives to find ‘the real killer’, and while private detectives may be stupid, they also have no scruples, and they will be all over Tim like the cheap suits they typically wear. He says the same objection–as well as the tawdry repetitive aspects of it–eliminate Mr. Block.  If Tim was lucky enough to make Lovesey’s bizarre and complex plan work, he wouldn’t need to kill Linda–she’d drop dead of natural causes before he ever got around to slaying her.

(Block’s best salvo against Westlake also involved private detectives–hired by the wealthy Blazes Boylan to expose Tim’s alibi as a fraud.   Westlake has no defense to offer in this regard, and given that Tim’s life is reportedly in his hands, does he really need one?  In the comments section, we might be moved, I think, to try and plug the holes in Westlake’s scheme–or any others that take our fancy.   That would be highly diverting, I believe.)

Westlake’s entire response is a small masterpiece of chillingly methodical mastery–turning the tables on Tim, and establishing his dominance over the situation.  Others in the group have tried this gambit, but none half so well.

And Hitt, writing as Tim, seems just a tad unnerved to me as he concludes the book with a letter that amounts to a polite complimentary brush-off.  He tries to make it seem that Block must be lurking about his house as well, and Westlake should be watching his own back, and all the writers should be worried about each other instead of him, but that doesn’t hold water.   Block has made no such claim to proximity.  The others are mainly just concerned with getting their pay.

After Westlake’s final word, Hitt, a very fine writer whose three chapters in this book are all a delight to read, can’t quite avoid a sense of anticlimax.  He can’t follow Donald Westlake in top form.  Who ever could?

But in saying he still intends to go ahead with the murder, and that none of his consultants have any purchase over him at all (since they would be implicated in his crime were he found out, and then instead of being remembered as great mystery authors, they’d be remembered as his accomplices), ‘Tim’ does have one very interesting thing to say about all contrived murder scenarios that we scoff at in books–but don’t some of them actually work in reality?  Isn’t there always an element of luck in any plan?

One, I think, simply has to believe that it will work–that the planes will leave on time that day, that the damned cassette recorder will click on when the button is pressed, that Blazes will join the club on cue, that the detective will sense a contradiction in the neat confession, and that the tiny evidence when magnified by forensic technology will appear to be a milewide swath leading to Blazes.  One could make a case that the forensics of murder are the aesthetics of contingency–the beauty of luck.  It is only fitting that an art form that aspires to such high ideals must raise itself above the aesthetics of craft associated with other pursuits.  Who wants an art whose beauty is under the complete control of the artist?  Who could care for a beauty that would undoubtedly be atomized and sifted into categories of technique and become the subject of soporific seminars at the annual PMLA meeting?  Rather, let us have an aesthetics built upon the exacting hand of the artist and the palsied hand of fate, upon talent and faith.  I like it.

And I like this book, very much.  Which is why I’ve typed over 7,000 words about it, and I could probably manage 7,000 more without trouble.  I’ve left many an intended observation by the wayside here, and hopefully I can get to some of them in the comments section, or some of you will beat me to them.  But one last observation I must make.

Westlake, in his brief contributions to this work, seems, I must say, almost Godlike in his perceptions and abilities.  In the quote up top, he is putting himself in the same category as those who have destroyed untold numbers of human lives.   Why is that?  Probably because  of his work on our next book in the queue, mentioned as forthcoming on the back dust jacket for this book.  A novel in which God Himself sets about to destroy all life on earth. And chooses as His means of accomplishing His will, a rather odd assembly of players, human and otherwise. A very elaborate murder scheme indeed, and His intended victim is Earth. Hey, that’s our job!

And as I’ve said elsewhere, I think this could have potentially been one of Westlake’s very best books.  He sometimes referred to it as one of his favorites. And sadly, it’s not one of mine.  I consider it a failure.   But I’ll take an inspired failure over a safe success any day.  Because Hitt was right.   An art that is fully under the control of the artist is not art.  And a God that can be fully understood by mortals is not God.  As He remarked to Job once.


Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels