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 convivially bloody discussion over Bloody Marys (I’m sure Westlake and Block 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 wants to, but like the Navajo weavers, puts an intentional flaw in the pattern so as not to anger the 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 deveopments 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 of 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.
So 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 right 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 really 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 apparently she’s still alive and presumably still in one piece.)
But 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 isnt’ 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 updating, 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 things he’s just 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. But at 78, he definitely won the longevity sweepstakes.
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 competitive 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? Precisely.
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 effectively.
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.