Monthly Archives: October 2016

Review: What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, Part 2

“The thing is,” Andy explained, “when I feel I need a car, good transportation, something very special, I look for a vehicle with MD plates.  This is one place where you can trust doctors.  They understand discomfort, and they understand comfort, and they got the money to back up their opinions.  Trust me, when I bring you a car, it’ll be just what the doctor ordered, and I mean that exactly the way it sounds.

Looking dazed, Anne Marie said, “You people are going to take a little getting used to.”

“What I do,” May told her, sympathetically, “is pretend I’m on a bus going down a hill and the steering broke.  And also the brakes.  So there’s nothing to do but just look at the scenery and enjoy the ride.”

Anne Marie considered this.  She said, “What happens when you get to the bottom of the hill?”

“I don’t know,” May said.  “We didn’t get there yet.”

It wasn’t a car that came for Max forty minutes later, it was a fleet of cars, all of them large, all except his own limo packed with cargos of large men.  He couldn’t have had more of a parade if he were the president of the United States, going out to return a library book.

His own limo, when it stopped at the foot of the steps from the TUI plane, held only Earl Radburn and the driver.  Earl emerged, to wait at the side of the car, while half a dozen bulky men came up to escort Max down those steps, so that he corrected that image: No, not like a president, more like a serial killer on his way to trial.

The president image had been better.

It came up in the comments section last time, and bears mentioning here–this novel marks the total reversal of the original Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic.  In the first three novels, Kelp brought Dortmunder a crazy-sounding job, the job would go sour, and Dortmunder would blame Kelp, call him a jinx.  Then work with him again in the next book.

This couldn’t go on indefinitely, so in the next five novels, somebody else brought Dortmunder the job, or, in the case of Why Me?, the job was a simple one-man burglary that suddenly got very complicated.    Kelp might be help or hindrance, usually both.

This book starts with somebody bringing Dortmunder a job; a simple two-man burglary, that suddenly gets really complicated.  The billionaire Dortmunder is ostensibly robbing robs Dortmunder instead.  Takes a supposedly lucky ring May gave him right off his finger.  Humiliates him.  Dortmunder wants his lucky ring back.  He needs help.  He has to track down this billionaire and take that ring off his finger personally, to undo the insult.  It’s about self-respect, not money.

So he calls Kelp in, and Andy is atypically hesitant–this job sounds crazy!   Dortmunder has to sell him, and in the end it’s not loyalty that makes him agree–it’s that Dortmunder, who has been the real jinx all along, is suddenly himself a good luck charm.  Now that he doesn’t have the ring.  Now that he could care less about money, he’s making money hand over fist.  Everybody wants to work with him now.  He’s got the Midas Touch.

First he went back to Max Fairbanks’ house in Carrport LI, and pillaged it, all by himself. Then he got together a four man string to hit an apartment in a theater/hotel complex Fairbanks owns.  Everybody made out great from that score.  But both times he missed Fairbanks, and Fairbanks is wearing the ring, never takes it off, because it bears his corporate symbol, the I-Ching trigam Tui, and he believes it will bring him good luck (which he’s already enjoyed an obscene amount of). Dortmunder has to catch him offguard somewhere. And the guy has to testify before congress, so he’s going to be staying at a little place he’s got in the Watergate.  Because where else, right?

Dortmunder and Kelp should be able to handle that gig by themselves, but they don’t know Washington.  Affordable GPS devices are not a thing yet, even for Kelp.  They need a guide.  Fortunately, Kelp just hooked up with the very recently single Anne Marie Carpinaw, daughter of a 14-term Kansas congressman, abandoned by her husband at the Fairbanks hotel in Times Square.  She knows our nation’s capital like the back of her lovely hand.  And is ambivalent about it, as she seems to be about nearly everything in her life, Kelp included.  Well, when you get right down to it, everybody is ambivalent about that town. Though it can seem awfully stuck on itself.

“The George Washington Memorial Parkway?   They really lean on it around here, don’t they?”

“After a while, you don’t notice it,” Anne Marie assured him.  “But it is a little, I admit, like living on a float in a Fourth of July parade.  Here’s our turn.”

There was a lot of traffic; this being Sunday, it was mostly tourist traffic, license plates from all over the United States, attached to cars that didn’t know where the hell they were going.  Andy swivel-hipped through it all, startling drivers who were trying to read maps without changing lanes, and Anne Marie said, “Now you want the Francis Scott Key Bridge.”

“You’re putting me on.”

“No, I’m not.  There’s the sign, see?”

Andy swung up and over, and there they were crossing the Potomac again, this time northbound, the city of Washington spread out in front of them like an almost life-sized model of itself, as though it were still in the planning stages and they could still decide not to go through with it.

Basically this entire chapter seems to exist for the purposes of telling people who want to visit our nation’s capital that they really do not want to drive there, but Anne Marie gets them through the urban maze unscathed.  The stolen car with MD plates having been abandoned, John and Andy still have to scope out the Watergate complex, while May and Anne Marie (who get along great from the start) go shopping and sight-seeing, but in fact they do a better job casing the joint as well–join a group of prospective renters touring the apartment complex, find out everything the guys needed to know.

And turns out the joint is empty when they break in (this isn’t a residence, just a place to crash when Max is in lobbyist mode, so no valuable art to steal).  They set up camp there and wait.  Dortmunder is disgusted.  Andy is somewhat more enthused, because there’s fifty thousand dollars in bribes, I mean PAC money, waiting there for a Fairbanks aide to take it to various recipients, as they learn from the answering machine message the underling left, referring to the ‘PAC Packs.”  Possibly to be put in a Fed-Ex PAK.  Dortmunder is irritated by all the variant spellings of ‘pack’ (as his creator would have been).  Andy is just delighted to see this unexpected dividend.  And horrified when John doesn’t want to take it.

See, Dortmunder figures Fairbanks has to show up at some point, but this employee is going to show up for the cash, and if he doesn’t find it, he might call the cops, and he’ll certainly call Fairbanks.  John is adamant–if it screws up his getting the ring back, they can forget about the Fifty G’s.

Kelp’s agile mind searches feverishly for a work-around, and he says they’ll leave a note saying Fairbanks’ secretary took it for distribution.  Dortmunder grudgingly agrees, and they leave with the money, figuring they’ll come back later for Fairbanks and the ring.

(Anne Marie is doubled over with laughter when she hears about this–“At last,” she said, when she could say anything again, “the trickle-down theory begins to work.” )

But before they can go back to the apartment to try again for the ring, Wally Knurr calls, saying that Fairbanks won’t be staying at the Watergate apartment after all, and that his location will no longer be made known to his corporate empire at large–so Wally won’t be able to track him via the internet anymore. What gives here?  Well, Mr. Fairbanks, staying at his beachfront condo in Hilton Head, has been consulting The Book, as he calls it.  And the ancient wisdom of the Orient is urging caution.

                                            The Image
Thunder in the middle of the lake:
The image of FOLLOWING.
Thus the superior man at nightfall
Goes indoors for rest and recreation

Hmmm.  The Book often spoke of the superior man, and Max naturally assumed it was always referring to himself.  When it said the superior man takes heed, Max would take heed.   When it said the superior man moves forward boldly, Max would move forward boldly.  But now the superior man goes indoors?  At nightfall?  It was nightfall, and he was indoors.

(At this moment in time, unbeknownst to Max, Dortmunder was breaking into his apartment at the Watergate for rest and remuneration, which for him amounts to the same thing.)

He probes further into the text, which is suggesting that someone is following him.  Could it be the annoying Detective Klematsky, who suspects him of burgling his own residences for the insurance?  He needs more information, so he does another coin toss, this one leading to a hexagram–The Marrying Maiden. Max doesn’t like that one.  He strives for the proper interpretation, and suddenly it comes to him–the ring!   That burglar is coming for his ring!

And Max is as perversely determined to keep the ring as Dortmunder is to regain it.  So this is why he never came to the Watergate apartment as planned, and this is why he’s made his movements a secret, even to most of his employees.  But there’s one trip he can’t conceal–he needs to go to his casino in Las Vegas.  And it occurs to him that this thief will make a try for the ring there–so he can set a trap.  He shall yet prove he, Max Fairbanks, is the superior man, not this bilious brigand!

So Max heads for Vegas, making the needed arrangements with his security staff to nab Dortmunder in the act of lèse-majesté.  While Dortmunder begins to put together a string for what will prove to be his biggest and best heist ever.

In the meantime, Andy Kelp has one of his little tete-a-tetes with his friend Detective Klematsky at a New York restaurant, a New Orleans themed eatery this time.  And weirdly, this time Klematsky is buying.  Because he’s the one that needs information.  He wants to know if his old friend Kelp has heard about any people in his profession doing fake burglaries as part of an insurance fraud scam.

He knows that Andy’s eyes blink rapidly when he tells a lie.  What he doesn’t know is that Andy can do that on purpose too.  So Andy tells him he never heard about anything like that, his eyes blinking furiously all the while.  Telling Klematsky exactly what he wants to hear, while pretending to do nothing of the sort.  Like Alan Grofield (the Stark version of that character), Andy Kelp can even lie with the truth.  And confirmed in his suspicions, Bernard Klematsky, who finds insurance fraud particularly offensive, is now determined to arrest Max Fairbanks for one of the very few white collar crimes Max Fairbanks is not guilty of.

And as Dortmunder enters the O.J. Bar and Grill, we get another scintillating discussion relating to issues of the day, while Rollo the bartender attempts to put up a new neon beer sign.

“It’s a code,” the first regular was saying.  “It’s a code and only the cash registers can read it.”

“Why is it in code?” the second regular asked him.  “The Code War’s over.”

A third regular now hove about and steamed into the conversation, saying “What?  The Code War?  It’s not the Code War, where ya been?  It’s the Cold War.”

The second regular was serene with certainty.  “Code,” he said,  “It was the Code War because they used all those codes to keep the secrets from each other.”  With a little pitying chuckle, he said “Cold War.  Why would anybody call a war cold?”

The third regular, just as certain but less serene, said, “Anybody’s been awake the last hundred years knows, it was the Cold War because it’s always winter in Russia.”

The second regular chuckled again, an irritating sound.  “Then how come,” he said, “they eat salad?”

The third regular, derailed, frowned at the second regular and said, “Salad?”

With Russian dressing.”

After a while, they start arguing about what the code is called–zip?–civic?–Morse? Rollo the bartender tries telling them it’s called a bar code, and is accused of having a one-track mind.  And you have seen far weirder and more uninformed conversations than this happening online, probably participated in a few, and there wasn’t any beer being served during them.  Think you’re so smart. Hmph.

Dortmunder is not kidding around with this job.  He’s calling in the heavy artillery.  If you know of anything heavier, all I can say is, I surrender.   This cannon already settled the argument up front by demonstrating a cold cure that involves squeezing all the bad air out of a person.

Kelp continued to hold the door open, and in came a medium range intercontinental ballistic missile with legs.  Also arms, about the shape of fire hydrants, but longer, and a head, about the shape of a fire hydrant.  This creature, in a voice that sounded as thought it had started from the center of the earth several centuries ago and just now got here, said, “Hello, Dortmunder.”

“Hello, Tiny,” Dortmunder said.  “What did you do to Rollo’s customers?”

“They’ll be all right,” Tiny said, coming around the table to take Kelp’s place.  “Soon as they catch their breath.”

“Where did you toss it?” Dortmunder asked.

Tiny, whose full name was Tiny Bulcher and whose strength was as the strength of ten even though his heart in fact was anything but pure, settled himself in Kelp’s former chair and laughed and whomped Dortmunder on the shoulder.  Having expected it, Dortmunder had already braced himself against the table, so it wasn’t too bad.”  “Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “you make me laugh.”

“I’m glad,” Dortmunder said.

Tiny is even more amused to hear Dortmunder’s plan–to rob an entire casino.   Knowing in advance that Fairbanks will be setting a trap for all of them.  Vegas is a hard target at the best of times. But casinos are one of the few places left in this modern electronic world that have a whole lot of untraceable cash on hand.  And in the midst of yukking it up over Dortmunder’s recent professional embarrassment, he’s been hearing about all these amazing scores that follows it. He’s listening.

So are Stan Murch and Ralph Winslow–the latter a lockman who is known for always having a glass full of liquor and ice cubes in one hand.  A string of five is usually as big as Dortmunder wants to get–he likes to say that if a job can’t be pulled with five guys, it’s not worth pulling.  But this is no ordinary job, and will require no ordinary string.  And it will require a plan.  Which falls on him.

“You must have an idea,” Andy Kelp had said at one point, for instance, but that was the whole problem.  Of course he had an idea.  He had a whole lot of ideas, but a whole lot of ideas isn’t a plan.  A plan is a bunch of details that mesh with one another, so you go from this step to this step like crossing a stream on a lot of little boulders sticking out and never fall in. Ideas without a plan is usually just enough boulders to get you into the deep part of the stream, and no way to get back.

Westlake had Kelp say something like this in Drowned Hopes, and clearly he’s talking about more than heists here.  A novel, you might say, is a bunch of details that mesh with one another, right?  Westlake liked to write from what he called the ‘push’ method of narrative storytelling, where he would start with some basic ideas, and then push forward into the story, working things out as he went, listening to the characters, minding the terrain.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.  Fact is, a plan worked out perfectly in advance of a job is one of those things God loves to laugh at (along with Dortmunder).

He can’t work it all out without going there and seeing the lay of the land. Knowing who he’s working with, what tools he has in the kit.  And the string keeps growing by leaps and bounds, as more and more old associates, many of whom have not been seen in some time, volunteer for this Vegas casino heist. You might say they’re an all-star cast.  Or you could come up with some ruder term.  Something rodentine, perhaps?

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Let’s lay it out.  Planner: John Dortmunder.  Drivers: Stan Murch and Fred Lartz (and his wife Thelma, who does all the actual driving in the Lartz family these days).  Lockmen: Ralph Winslow, Wally Whistler, and Herman X (who is now just Herman Jones, after doing a stint as Herman Makanene Stulu’mbnick in Africa, and being a Jones must make life much simpler for a thief, all things considered).  Utility infielders: Andy Kelp, Tiny Bulcher, Gus Brock, Ralph Demrovsky, and the frequently unfortunate Jim O’Hara (but not this time, baby).

That’s either twelve or thirteen (depending on whether you count Anne Marie, along for the ride, much to Andy’s consternation), and we’ve seen Westlake put on this kind of passion play before, in The Score, and Butcher’s Moon–one more indication that a long-buried alter-ego is stirring within him–but there’s also seven unnamed associates in the string, for a grand total of twenty.  Even Parker never had a string that big.  Or a target this well-guarded.

Most of them come down from New York with Andy and Tiny, in a purloined mobile home, an Invidia, and of course Westlake made that name up, along with a bunch of other fictional mobile homes they considered at a dealership in New Jersey, before deciding this was the one they wanted to steal.  There were Dobermans guarding the dealership, but they got some nice raw hamburger with happy pills inside, and went happily to sleep, dreaming of rabbits.  Cute.

But all this time, Dortmunder has been checking out the scene in Vegas (with Kelp, who then heads back to New York to round up some needed items, as mentioned).  And everybody who sees Dortmunder figures he’s up to something, which of course he is, and they’re all telling him forget about it.  Vegas is a burial ground for guys with big plans.  He keeps insisting he’s just a tourist, here to see the sights, try his luck.  “Uh-huh” they keep saying–the waitresses, the motel clerk, everybody.  He just does not look like the sight-seeing type, and the only gambling establishment he’d fit in at would be a racetrack.

The security men spotted him as a ringer almost immediately when he showed up at the casino, but Kelp got him some new clothes.  Which are very definitely going to stay in Vegas when he goes.

The pants, to begin with, weren’t pants, they were shorts.  Shorts.  Who over the age of six wears shorts?  What person, that is, of Dortmunder’s dignity, over the age of six wears shorts?  Big baggy tan shorts with pleats.  Shorts with pleats so that he looked like he was wearing brown paper bags from the supermarket above his knees, with his own sensible black socks below the knees, but the socks and their accompanying feet were then stuck into sandals.  Sandals?  Dark brown sandals?  Big clumpy sandals with his own black socks, plus those knees, plus those shorts?  Is this a way to dress?

And let’s not forget the shirt.  Not that it was likely anybody could ever forget this shirt, which looked as thought it had been manufactured at midnight during a power outage.  No two pieces of the shirt were the same color.  The left short sleeve was plum, the right was lime.  The back was dark blue.  The left front panel was chartreuse, the right was cerise, and the pocket directly over his heart was white.  And the whole shirt was huge, baggy and draping and falling around his body, and worn outside the despicable shorts.

Dortmunder lifted his gaze from his reproachful knees, and contemplated, without love, the clothing Andy Kelp had forced him into.  He said “Who wears this stuff?”

“Americans,” Kelp told him.

“Don’t they have mirrors in America?”

And it works.  The same security guys who started tailing him the moment he showed his face don’t give him a second look in this get-up.  Just another rube contributing to their payroll (as opposed to stealing it).  The motel clerk, who has seen them all come and go, just says “Uh-huh.”  She may be impressed, but she’d never admit it.

Dortmunder’s plan is starting to come together in his head now.  He’s made contact with a   former New Yorker, a former heist-man running a perfectly legitimate shady business operation manufacturing cheap knock-offs of famous brands of this or that, fellow named Lester Vogel.  He’s quite happy to provide needed materials for the job.  Just delighted to hear a New York accent again, accompanied by New York rudeness.  A bit confused as to why Dortmunder is expressing interest in tanks of various gases he has on the premises.

And staying at the hotel that goes with the casino, Anne Marie Carpinaw is wondering what the hell she’s doing here, and so is Andy, and yet they do seem to enjoy each other’s company, and quite a lot of sex seems to be going on, though this being a Dortmunder novel, it is only vaguely alluded to in passing. At one point, in her room, she says she’s not sure they belong together, but then he asks her if this is a good time to bring that up, and she says “Well, maybe not.” Not such an unusual conversation for a new couple to have.

She is, however, going to some pains to make sure she doesn’t get rounded up with the rest of the gang if the heist goes sour.  She watches a lot of Court TV. Actually appearing on it doesn’t appeal to her.

So all the players have been assembled in one place–even Detective Bernard Klematsky is on his way to Vegas.  And little hearkening to any of these impending events, other than his imminent capture and final defeat of that pilfering plebe who should learn to know his place, Max Fairbanks waits at a guest cottage on the casino grounds, his security men instructed to not stay too close to him, so as not to scare Dortmunder away.  They are not happy about this, but he’s the boss.

He’s also got to deal with the manager of the Gaiety Hotel, Battle Lake, and Casino, Brandon Camberbridge, a happily closeted gay man, with a wife who happily cheats on him with various non-gay men, a dowdy older secretary who happily serves as a surrogate mother, and he loves his job as much as anyone has ever loved any job in the history of work.  And in the course of his conversations with Brandon, Max realizes that this guy actually thinks of Max’s casino as being his casino, and makes a mental note to transfer him elsewhere.  Doesn’t pay to let his employees ever forget they are just employees.  Only one person actually matters, and that is Max Fairbanks.

Um, yes–the Battle Lake.  Las Vegas was, by this time, getting to be more and more about putting on a show for the tourists, and less and less about honest gambling.  A theme park with slot machines.  The Battle Lake is an artificially created body of water upon which remote controlled full-sized replicas of various warships do ersatz battle with each other, for the edification of the masses.  It sounds a bit more Disney than Vegas, but I guess that’s the point–that and the fact that the Tui symbol on that ring Max is defending, and Dortmunder is seeking, means Joyous Lake, and Max’s recent I-Ching readings have been referring obliquely to a lake, and intimating that less than joyous developments are in the offing.

He tries once more to divine his future through the coin toss, and the passages they lead him to, and here’s the thing–it’s pretty clear that in this story, the I-Ching really does work.  But convinced as he is that he is a Man of Destiny, Max is doomed to keep projecting what he wants to see onto the auguries of The Book.  “When one has something to say, it is not believed.”  (And would you believe that every single I-Ching quote in this novel is 100% real?)

He comes very quietly, oppressed, in a golden carriage.
Humiliation, but the end is reached.

Well, wait now.  Who comes very quietly in a golden carriage?  The plane that had brought Max here, he supposed that could possibly be thought of as a golden carriage.  But had he been oppressed?

Well, yes, actually he had been, in that he was still oppressed by the thought of the burglar out there, prowling after him.   So that’s what it must mean.

It couldn’t very well be the burglar in a golden carriage, could it? What would a burglar be doing in a golden carriage?

Again, Max went to the further commentaries in the back part of The Book, where he read,

“He comes very quietly,”: his will is directed downward.  Though the place is not appropriate, he nevertheless has companions.

I have companions.  I have Earl Rayburn, and Wylie Branch and all those bulky security men.  I have the hotel staff.  I have thousands and thousands of employees at my beck and call.  The place is not appropriate because a person in my position shouldn’t have to stoop to deal personally with such a gnat as this, that’s all it means.

And that’s why there’s humiliation in it, the humiliation of having to deal with this gnat myself.  But the end is reached.  That’s the point.

Come on, Mr. Burglar.  My companions and I are waiting for you, in our golden carriage.  The end is about to be reached.  And who do you have, to accompany you?

Oh, he really should not have asked that question.   And the Invidia has actually been painted silver, but that’s such a niggling little detail.

Stan Murch, Jim O’Hara, Gus Brock, and the one and only Tiny Bulcher start off the caper.  Stan and Jim pose as deliverymen bringing more oxygen tanks for the casino to ‘enrich’ the air inside the casino, encouraging people to stay up later,and lose more money.  The tanks are green, from Lester Vogel’s establishment, but what’s inside them is nitrous oxide–laughing gas.

And with a bit of not-too-gentle prodding from Stan, Jim, Gus, and most of all Tiny, the guards prove quite willing to show them just where those tanks need to go.  This is an upsetting and painful experience for the guards, as it would be for anyone, but they start to relax shortly afterwards.  These are considerate robbers, who bring their own anesthetic.

There’s some nice scenes with Herman, posing as one of Max’s employees from Housekeeping, marching right into Max’s guest cottage on the pretense of needing to clean up, Uncle-Tomming his way around Max and the guards (unable to process the notion that Dortmunder might have a black associate, or any associate)–laughing at them on the inside.  (And wouldn’t Sammy have been just perfect to play Herman, back in the day?   This is Vegas, I hardly need say which Sammy I mean.)

Herman is done playing around with politics, foreign or domestic.  He’s just a straight heister now (well, presumably still bisexual, you know what I meant). He’s going to let his profession know he’s back, black, and better than ever.  And I still think Westlake should have given him his own novel, but a bit late now.

So they do the heist.  That’s not really important to Dortmunder.   Much as these guys may be his friends, they’re still professionals, independents.  Nobody’s errand boys.  He needed to give them a reason to stick their necks out this far, and money usually works.  He’s not leading them–he gave them a plan, and they ran with it.  And now the rest is up to him.  He wants that ring.

He waits until the string is ready to leave with the loot (two million–more than Parker ever got by a long shot), then he calls the cops, and reports a robbery. And all holy hell breaks loose.

Klematsky picks this moment to try and arrest Fairbanks–he assumes this casino heist is just another insurance scam–Max’s local security man is disgustedly assuming the same thing–explains Max’s odd behavior–he was working with the heisters.

Max, unable to process that he, not Dortmunder, is being arrested, lams it out onto the grounds, as the Battle Lake catches fire, and bits of burning artificial shrubbery are flying everywhere.  All he can think now is that he needs lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers.  But first he needs someone to get him out of this inferno.  A helpful fireman in a smoke mask offers his services.  Guess who.

“Give me that ring!”

“No!” You’ve ruined everything, you’ve destroyed–”

“Give me the ring!”

“Never!”

Max, inflamed by the injustice of it all, leaped on the false fireman and drove him to the blacktop.  They rolled together there, the false fireman trying to get the ring, Max trying to rip that mask off so he could bite the fellow’s face, and Max wound up on top.

Straddling him.  Winning, on top, as he always was, as he always would be. Because I am Max Fairbanks, and I will not be beaten, not be beaten.

You didn’t expect this, did you, Mr. Burglar?  You didn’t expect me to be on top, did you, holding you down with my knees, ready now to give you what you deserve, kill you with my bare hands, rip this mask–

And at this point, wouldn’t you know, up runs the normally mild-mannered Brandon Camberbridge, in the grip of a berserker rage.  He must have heard about how Fairbanks set up the robbery.  His beautiful hotel.  Ruined.  Pillaged. Ravished.  He beats the bullshit out of Max, as so many other of his employees must have yearned to do across the years.  And as Max lies there, defeated, barely conscious, Dortmunder, back on his feet, calmly reaches down, takes his ring right off Max’s finger.  And that’s game.

As the book concludes, we learn that the insurance fraud charges didn’t stick (because they weren’t true), but in the process of being closely investigated, all this other stuff Max had gotten up to started coming to light.  His business, like his life, not to mention his character, could not hold up to close scrutiny.  Hey, I didn’t say anything, it’s just a fun crime novel.

So what was it all about?  How was this about identity?  Sure, we got Anne Marie Carpinaw’s crisis, going from unhappy wife to oddly entertained heister’s moll, and she and Andy will, against all odds, somehow stay together the rest of the series, and I don’t really care.

And we got Andy Kelp himself finding a new side to his identity; more stable, effective, reliable, amorous–but still crookeder than Lombard Street in San Francisco.   And we got Herman X/Jones, back from Africa, recommitting to life on the bend, having found that thieves are often more trustworthy than politicians in a developing nation (or any nation). And we got the confused identity of Brandon Camberbridge, the lackey who thinks he’s the boss, to amuse us, and serve as a convenient plot device for the climax.

And this is all entertaining enough, adds to the general fabric of the story, but none of it really matters.  This was about John Dortmunder vs. Max Fairbanks.   Who was the ‘Superior Man’ referred to in the I-Ching?   Who is the Superior Being in any clash of personalities?   If you’re Donald Westlake, you’d say it’s the one who knows himself.  (Or herself.)

Dortmunder could never, ever, if he lived to be a hundred, think of himself as superior to anyone.  The word isn’t even in his vocabulary.   He’s been a sad sack and a loser all his life, born under an unlucky star, cursed to be Fortune’s Fool, and he doesn’t kid himself about that.  But he knows who he is, and he knows what he’s capable of.   Never overestimating himself, he can rise to the occasion when destiny calls.  However, he doesn’t waste his time trying to know the future.  Not his department.

He tells May he’s not superstitious (while she rolls her eyes a little and says nothing), but he thinks now that ring isn’t lucky after all–he’s not going to wear it again.  All its luck must have been used up by her uncle, and now it’s a  jinx–losing it meant good luck for him, bad for Max Fairbanks.  That’s his explanation for what happened, for how one of the unluckiest guys alive turned the tables on Scrooge McDuck crossed with Gladstone Gander (the Beagle Boys always go to jail in the comic books).

But really, it was more about Max.   Max may have started out knowing himself, after a fashion–knowing he was a scoundrel and a liar, knowing that nobody mattered to him but him.  And that’s fine, I suppose, in its place–as long as you don’t start taking yourself too seriously.  If there’s anything more deadly to an honest unflinching sense of self than being filthy goddam rich, it’s delusions of grandeur–and the two so often go together, you ever notice that?

The oppressed of the world (some of us vastly more oppressed than others) can’t afford delusions of grandeur.  We’re too busy trying to survive.  And now and again we do come across a Max Fairbanks. And now and again, we do manage, against all odds, to give him  one in the eye.

But most of us don’t know ourselves as well as John Dortmunder, it must be said.  The Max Fairbanks’s of the world and their delusions can be damnably persuasive.  They play on our vanities, as we tickle theirs.  So sure, why not take a preening narcissist, an ego in search of a human being, a megalomaniac who can never have enough power, a seething mass of resentment, misogyny, racism, petty tyranny, and rage, and make him the most powerful man on earth?  With nuclear weapons to boot.  What’s the worst that could happen?

The thing about Dortmunder is, he’s not a killer.  But the ‘hero’ of our next book learns, to his amazement, horror, and disturbed satisfaction, that he’s a damned efficient killer.  And he can’t afford to indulge his newfound gift on personal vendettas.  He’s got to use it for job-hunting.  And I’ll have to write a little intro to this one, before I get to reviewing it. And I’ll do that. After I bury my father. Not a metaphor.

Hey, the Ax falls on all of us, sooner or later.   That is a metaphor.  I hope.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

“Max Fairbanks,” Max Fairbanks said, “you’re a bad boy.” The milky blue eyes that gazed softly back at him in the bathroom mirror were understanding, sympathetic, even humorous; they forgave the bad boy.

“Well, I’m not gonna chase him around London and Africa, that’s for sure,” Dortmunder said.  “I can wait till he comes back this way.  Washington isn’t so far, where’s he stay in Washington?  Got another house there?”

“An apartment,” Wally said.  “In the Watergate.”

“I’ve heard of that,” Dortmunder said.  “It’s some kinda place.”

Wally and Andy looked at one another.  “He’s heard of it,” Andy said.

Wally said to Dortmunder, “It’s a great big building over by the Potomac river.  It’s partly offices and partly hotel and partly apartments.”

“Apartments are harder,” Dortmunder said.  “Doormen, probably.  Neighbors.  Could be live-in help there, a guy like that.”

Grinning, Andy said, “John?  You planning a burglary at the Watergate?”

“I’m planning to get my ring back,” Dortmunder told him, “if that’s what you mean.”

Andy still had that crooked little grin.  “No big deal,” he suggested.  “Just a little third-rate burglary at the Watergate.”

Dortmunder shrugged.  “Yeah?  So?  What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Well,” Andy said, “you could lose the Presidency.”

I’ve read every Dortmunder novel, but none of them more than once before I started this blog.  I liked the first three best, a reaction confirmed by rereading and reviewing.  Since then, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, up and down and back up again.  I love them all, but love is blind.  A critic shouldn’t be.

The Dortmunder series isn’t really about crafting perfect stories, anyway.  It’s about renewing our acquaintance with these likable rogues, keeping in touch with them across the decades, seeing how they react to social change, how they adapt to it, and how they stay the same, in spite of everything.  If now and again a genuinely terrific book crops up, something that’s brilliant in its own right, not merely as an extension of the overall franchise, that’s just gravy.

This may be the last of those anomalies.  The last genuinely great Dortmunder novel.  I won’t be able to make my final determination on that score for a while yet.  Maybe the very last one also qualifies.  But I’m so glad we’re at this one.  It’s one of my favorites.  And more timely at the moment than even Westlake could have ever imagined.   Though he might not have been that surprised.  When you’ve studied and chronicled human absurdity as long and avidly as he did, nothing really shocks you anymore.

Starting with the fourth book in the series, struggling to find a way to keep this lucrative sideline of his going, Westlake began to experiment with making Dortmunder’s nemesis in the story a wealthy man–in that instance, an art collector/playboy, living off the wealth of industrious forebears, and at the very edge of his means.  Things don’t end well for him, but it’s only indirectly through Dortmunder’s actions that he is laid low.  Dortmunder is just trying to survive, as usual.  It’s one of the weakest Dortmunders.  Back to the old drawing board.

Cutting ahead to the sixth novel, Good Behavior, the villain of the piece is a billionaire tycoon, head of a multi-national corporation, a modern-day robber baron and part-time philosopher, out to dominate South America, and then maybe the northern part as well.  No playboy, he.  Very much along the lines of the Koch Brothers, not that Westlake was thinking about them at the time.  Dortmunder isn’t out to thwart this pontificating potentate in any way, he’s just obligated to rescue the man’s daughter from the penthouse prison he’s confined her in for becoming a nun, so she can resume the cloistered life she’s chosen for herself.

But again, through the strange alchemy of his being, unwitting chaos-bringer that he is, Dortmunder undoes this schemer’s grand plans, leaves him vulnerable to the law he thought he stood safely above, so that by the end of the story he’ll be lucky just to stay out of  jail, let alone indulge his neo-feudalist fantasies. And I love that book even more than this one, but they never really have a satisfactory confrontation (since this guy is so sure of himself he could never see someone like Dortmunder as a threat).  There’s room for improvement to that aspect of the story.

And once more skipping a book in the series (Drowned Hopes is about a lot of things, but rich pricks isn’t one of them), Westlake returned to the theme in Don’t Ask–but less satisfactorily than ever.  Here the rich man is an international hotelier, looking to establish himself in eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He’s happily married, a bit of an art collector himself, and he’s not so much a villain as a tunnel-visioned tool.  He’s not even Dortmunder’s primary target.

But because he enabled Dortmunder’s true nemesis, an unscrupulous diplomat, to make a fool of Dortmunder, he also finds himself on the receiving end of a grand vendetta, and a plan so ridiculously convoluted that it’s hard to buy into.  I went into this in some detail in my review of that novel, which I found much less satisfactory on the second reading.  It’s too many mismatching ideas crammed between two covers.  Westlake doesn’t invest enough time in the billionaire to make him a very believable character.  And his real-life models–Helmsley, Hilton, etc–aren’t suitable for this kind of story.   They aren’t scurrilous enough.  You need someone truly scurrilous, someone who richly deserves to suffer Dortmunder’s wrath.  And what’s more, he needs to enjoy being scurrilous.

And Dortmunder needs to be better motivated.  Motivating the vendetta was so important to Westlake that he dismissed one of the best Parker novels, The Jugger, because he felt he hadn’t gotten that one thing right.  Badly as Dortmunder was treated in Don’t Ask, it seems a bit much for him to want to revenge himself on a man he never met, who he knows was only tangentially involved in his disgrace.

So as I said in that review, Westlake probably came away from that one knowing he’d muffed it, feeling like he still hadn’t given this idea its best possible treatment, and maybe that’s why when it came time to write the ninth Dortmunder, he went right back to that well–but with a different bucket.  Well, maybe a composite of two different buckets–you see that photo up top.  You know who those men are.  You probably couldn’t pick 99.999% of the billionaires on this planet out of a line-up at the police station (though wouldn’t that be a fun day out?), but you know them.

And you also know that one of them (the poorer by far) is notoriously litigious.  The other has rather extensive media contacts, that extend to the publishing industry.  So perhaps it was prudent to give Max Fairbanks, the billionaire in this story, an origin that doesn’t closely resemble that of any famous rich person.  Though if you squint just right, you can still make out the general outlines.

As with so many self-made men, Max had begun by marrying money.  He wasn’t Max Fairbanks yet, not back then, the century in its fifties and he in his twenties, but he’d long since stopped being his original self.  Had there ever been loving parents who had given this child a name, their own plus another, no one by the 1950’s knew anything about them, including Max, who, having found himself in London, called himself Rupert, and soon made himself indispensable to a brewer’s daughter named Elsie Brenstid.  Brenstid père, named Clement for some reason, had found young Basil Rupert far more resistable than his daughter had, until Basil demonstrated just how the Big B Brewery’s company-owned pubs could be made to produce considerably more income with just the right applications of cajolery and terror.

The marriage lasted three years, producing twin girls and an extremely satisfactory divorce settlement for Basil, Elsie being by then ready to pay anything to get away from her husband.  Basil took this grubstake off to Australia, and by the time the ship landed he had somehow become a native Englishman called Edward Wizmick, from Devon.

Elements of Mr. Murdoch’s general bio (and his name) can certainly be discerned here, but with so many variations as to make it impossible to say it’s him, even though Max is described as having a media empire, newspapers, TV stations, etc.  None of which figure much in the story at all.  Nor does Max seem to have any interest in politics, other than bribing politicians to give him what he wants in terms of tax breaks and deregulatory measures.

At the time this story begins, the most salient fact about Max Fairbanks is that he just went through a rather bruising Chapter 11 proceeding, due to having overextended himself financially.  That and the fact that he owns hotels and casinos.  And that he’s a shameless philandering bastard, with utter contempt for women, and really for everyone.  And, it should be said, a genuine knack for self-promotion.  He’s as much a celebrity as anybody who performs at his casinos.  And perhaps this explains why the paperback reprint from Warner Books (A Time Warner Company) had this on the back of it.

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Because, you know, obviously.

And to hammer the point home, while there were several possible models for Max Fairbanks, only one of them was named Donald, which would make him an even more irresistible target for Westlake.   The most famous rich SOB on earth, even if his billionaire status was largely a hollow public charade, a cardboard castle covered in gold paint.  And, leave us not forget, the one most likely to sue if he felt he’d been attacked in some way.

So yes, Max is a composite.  Yes, he’s a fictional character with his own unique quirks.  Yes, he is different from Trump in many key respects (most notably in that he was not born wealthy, and yet is clearly much richer and more powerful than the real Trump ever was).  Everybody knew who Westlake was really writing about here, who he was sending up.  But nobody could ever prove it.

Westlake had learned a lesson or two from his failed attempt to publish a book with a protagonist based so directly on Bob Hope that it couldn’t be anybody else.  Don’t make it too obvious–not while the guy is still alive, anyway.  Look at all the trouble Orson Welles got into, and poor Marion Davies didn’t deserve to be portrayed like that.   Don’t get too literal about it.  Just tell the damn story.  Let reality take care of itself.  And I think I’ll follow that advice myself now.

Dortmunder is doing a job on Long Island, in a rich sleepy little town called Carrport (yet another sly little reference to Comfort Station, a long out of print book published under a pseudonym that most of his readers had never even heard of) .  His partner in crime for this job, the guy who suggested it, is Gus Brock and it involves burgling the house of Max Fairbanks.  Which is supposed to be empty, because a court has ordered this Fairbanks guy not to go there until this Chapter 11 matter has been included.  “Is this a person or a book?” Dortmunder asks.

Gus explains that although Fairbanks is technically bankrupt now, he still has huge amounts of money, all kinds of fancy possessions, but he owes a lot of people more than he wants to pay, and this is his way of stiffing his creditors, all legal-like.  Dortmunder, baffled as ever by the wiles of white collar crime, concludes “Okay, it’s just one of those cute ways rich guys have to steal from everybody without having to pick locks.”  (Is it too late to draft him for President?  Oh well, he’d probably prefer prison.)

So a judge has told Max not to be in this house, the law says he is not supposed to be there, but Max doesn’t think the law applies to him, and there’s this blonde bubblehead Max wants to bed–she’s a centerfold model, but she has dreams of getting into TV news, so she’s receptive to his advances, and there they are in bed, and they hear the burglars downstairs, and Max has a gun.  And he certainly thinks the law applies to people who are robbing him.

He only manages to catch one of them, and we all know which one that is (Gus slips away undetected).  He holds a thoroughly disgusted Dortmunder at gunpoint until the local constabulary arrive.  And then, just before they take him away in cuffs, Max notices something on the fourth proximal digit of Dortmunder’s right hand.

It’s a cheaply made ring with a strange symbol on it, which Max recognizes as the I-Ching trigram Tui–meaning The Joyous Lake.  His own lucky sign, and the name of his company.  Max is a believer.   (And we’re going to get a lot of I-Ching mumbo-jumbo in this book, just like we got our fill of Astrology in A Jade in Aries.  Westlake probably didn’t believe in either sytem, but he believed in luck.  It’s a story. Go with it.)

The ring had been delivered to Dortmunder and May’s apartment days before.  It belonged to a late uncle of hers, a denizen of the race tracks.  It was, the lawyer’s enclosed note explains, his lucky ring.  He left it to May in his will, but it won’t fit her.  May makes a diplomatically worded suggestion to Dortmunder–

“Skill you’ve got,” she hastened to assure him.  “Adaptability you’ve got, professionalism you’ve got, good competent partners you’ve got. Luck you could use a little. Try it on.”

He does.  It fits perfectly.  And this is the kind of luck it gave him.  He’s going to  jail, probably for a long time, possibly for life.  But hey, them’s the breaks when you’re in his line of work. Can’t blame anybody for that.  Not until Max Fairbanks points at the ring and says it belongs to him.  This thief took it.  He must give it back, now.  The Carrport cops, knowing who Fairbanks is, insist Dortmunder take it off and hand it to the smugly smiling billionaire.  Enjoying his little joke so much.   Not knowing or caring who he’s playing it on.  Not comprehending the psychic chain reaction he has triggered.

Dortmunder was very very very angry.

To be arrested was one thing, to be convicted, sent to prison, given a record, made to wear ill-fitting denim, forced to live in close proximity to thoroughly undesirable citizens, listen to lectures, take shop, eat slop, all part of the same thing, all within the known and accepted risks of life.  But to be made fun of?  To be humiliated?  To be robbed…by a householder?

He was ready to go quietly, to accept his fate, but this he can never accept.  This is one practical joke too many.  Max Fairbanks must pay.  Dortmunder wants that ring back.  Inspired by his rage, he becomes the Houdini of Crime, using the zipper tab from his own trousers to unscrew the window of the locked patrol car, jumping through that window, hands still cuffed, making his getaway before the fat suburban fuzz can register what’s going on.

He avoids the ensuing dragnet.  He breaks into a hardware store, gets the cuffs off.  He goes back to the Fairbanks house and strips it of all major valuables (a substantial haul, that Gus Brock will get no split from).  He makes his way home in Max Fairbanks’ own Lexus.  He fences the loot for 28 grand.  When he dumps it on the kitchen table, he tells May he’s got some bad news–all he can see is that ring.   There is nothing else for him now.

And he begins to make his plans.  And doesn’t immediately process the fact that his perennially bad luck has somehow–changed.  For this book, at least, Dortmunder makes even Parker look like a second-rater.  That 28 g’s is nothing compared to what’s coming.

Kelp, like all of Dortmunder’s other frequent string members, finds the story of Dortmunder getting robbed by the guy he was going to rob hilarious.  But he is taken aback by the unusual degree of focused intensity he sees in his friend’s eyes–and he can smell a good thing a mile away.  Dortmunder scored big off this guy, and there’s more where that came from.

He calls up Wally Knurr, their computer nerd pal from Drowned Hopes, who has not changed a bit, except that now he lives in Dudson Corners with Myrtle Street and her mom. (We’re told Myrtle is his ‘lady friend’, and she is a lady, and I’m sure they are good friends, and please don’t try to tell me it goes any further than that.  This isn’t The Big Bang Theory.  Wally is still five feet tall and just as wide.  Jimmy Rushing would stand a better chance with Myrtle, and he died in 1972.)

Wally doesn’t want any part of a violent revenge scheme, but properly reassured that Dortmunder only wants what is rightfully his, he can easily track Fairbanks online by hacking into TUI’s corporate database.  Max moves around a lot, and therefore so does that ring.  So Dortmunder will need to be able to anticipate his movements in order to get him.

He’ll need some help to get at his nemesis–and as word of his big Carrport score gets around, everybody suddenly wants to work with him again.  And when he drops the stolen Lexus off at Maximilian’s Used Cars (where all the best car thieves go), he gets a much better deal from that Max than he ever got before.  Yes, something’s definitely different about Dortmunder.  And it’s not the anger anymore.

The real fury that had driven Dortmunder on the eventful night, that had fueled his brilliance and expertise in escaping from those cops, was gone now; you can’t stay white-hot mad at somebody forever, no matter what they did.  Between the stuff he’d sold to Stoon, and the unexpectedly large return on the car, he’d cleared almost thirty grand from his encounter with Max Fairbanks, which was probably about three thousand times what the ring was worth.  So did he really want to pursue this vendetta, chase down some jet-setting billionaire who,as Andy had pointed out, would usually be surrounded by all kinds of security?  Or was he ahead now, enough ahead to forget it, get on with his life?

He can’t let this go.  It’s not about getting mad, it’s about getting even, and he can’t do that until he’s got the ring back.  Until he’s undone what Fairbanks did to him.  It’s Dortmunder’s equivalent of that button in Parker’s head you never want to push, because he will just keep coming after you until he’s negated the insult, erased it.  Parker does that by killing whoever pushed the button.  Dortmunder, born in Dead Indian Illinois, will settle for counting coup on the offending party.  A symbolic victory. That will come with a lot more cold hard cash into the bargain.  You can’t eat symbols.

And Max Fairbanks can’t catch a break, all of a sudden.  He had convinced the Carrport cops to keep the burglary quiet, but once John escaped them, that was no longer an option.  The judge overseeing his Chapter 11 proceeding is furious he violated that court order to stay away from the Carrport house.  So he just takes the house away–it’s going to be sold off to pay some of Max’s debts.  Max loved that house, and his rage is incalculable.  He’d like to strangle Dortmunder and the judge both (and the judge isn’t even Mexican).

The more we see of Max Fairbanks, the more we perceive that under his bad boy charm, he’s got a vicious uncontrollable temper.  A button in his own head, you  might say–that gets pushed every time anyone fights back, tells him no, forces him to act like he’s subject to any authority other than his own boundless hungers.   And the angrier he gets, the stupider he gets.  I can’t do that “Why does this sound so familiar?” thing I do, since I’ve already explained why it’s so familiar.   Mr. Westlake was doing his homework.  Would we had done ours a lot sooner.

But this is a comedy, and there’s a limit to how far he wants to push the parallels.  There is someone Max Fairbanks fears, and that’s his wife Lutetia.  Described as having an abundance of black hair and an aggressive way of walking that makes her look like she’s about to crush someone, she knows full well that Max is not faithful to her, but she’ll tolerate it as long as it doesn’t get in the papers, and she doesn’t get any STD’s.  She’s got lawyers of her own, and they are prepared to take Max out hard if he gives her just cause.  She’s not entirely unfond of him, which only shows there’s no accounting for taste.

(She’s also very aware of that temper of his–watching her handle him is a bit like watching a lion tamer act.  She’s the boss, she’s got the chair and whip thing down, but he could still turn and maul her at any moment.  Or anyone else in his way.)

So Max has to stay in New York, and of course he’s going to stay at her palatial apartment above the N-Joy Theater/Hotel in Times Square, a jewel in the crown of his media empire, currently hosting a production of Desdemona!, the feminist musical rewrite of Othello, complete with happy ending, culminating in the show-stopping number “Here’s the Handkerchief!”  (Mr. Westlake not entirely thrilled with Broadway in the 90’s, and it hasn’t improved a whit since then, but it keeps some people I know employed, and the tourists seem happy).

Dortmunder has his opportunity, and he and Kelp case the joint, and for reasons unknown, Andy Kelp gets his own romantic subplot.  Honestly, I think you’d have to say this is the only romantic subplot in the entire series.  The books have many seemingly felicitous domestic relationships, but don’t tend to dwell on them much.  Dortmunder met May between the first and second novels.  Tiny Bulcher and J.C. Taylor became an item between chapters in Good Behavior, and we never saw much of them as a couple afterwards.  Whatever’s going on between Wally Knurr and Myrtle Street, I do not want to know about it.

But starting with the job at the N-Joy Theater, we get a very extended subplot dealing with Kelp’s oddball romance with Anne Marie Carpinaw, who became a regular character in the Dortmunder books, and the only one she ever really contributed much to was this one.  Because she’s a midwestern congressman’s daughter (useful for a later subplot), and her marriage just broke up, and she’s pretty, and nice, and not really that interesting, but she’s looking for something different, and you have to give Andy this much–he’s something different.

But do I want to do a whole lot of analysis of that relationship and its significance in the overall scheme of things?  I do not.  They meet at the hotel bar, her husband has left her, Andy likes what he sees, and she figures what the hell.  And I figure about the same.  Let’s move on.

Dortmunder figures out a way into the Fairbanks apartment.  It’s fun for us to read about. It’s also fun for the string of pros who accompany him–Wally Whistler is the lockman (it’s fun to read about what absent-minded antics he’s been up to since last we saw him).  Gus Brock comes along for the ride–he was perturbed Dortmunder didn’t offer him a cut of the Carrport job Gus had masterminded, even though Gus turned out not to have been such a mastermind in this regard.  Dortmunder says he did all the work on that job, so he gets all the swag, but Gus can come along on this new job, just to show there’s no hard feelings.

By the time they leave the apartment, crammed with all kinds of priceless arts & crafts that a good fence will know how to put a price on, Gus says he and Dortmunder are square. They take it all out in the maid’s cart, and stow it in the room Dortmunder reserved for himself and May with a bogus credit card obtained from Arnie Albright (before she prudently left the hotel, prior to the heist taking place, May and Anne Marie began to become friends).

Gus is happy, Wally Whistler is happy, Kelp is ecstatically happy.  Only Dortmunder is not happy, because Max Fairbanks left–with Dortmunder’s ring–just as they were breaking in through the service elevator.  Lutetia insisted on going with Max, who is taking a last nostalgic look at the Carrport house (so Max won’t get to bring any more floozies there). They had a nice time there, almost like a real married couple. So she’s happy–until she gets back to her looted apartment.  Then she’s very decidedly unhappy.  And this means Max Fairbanks is unhappy.  And starting to get a little scared.  How is this happening to him?  And with his lucky ring still firmly ensconced on his finger!

And to make things worse, NYPD Police Detective, Bernard Klematsky (Andy’s old friend at the police department, who we’ve met in two previous books) is interviewing him almost as if he, Max Fairbanks, is a suspect in the burglary of his own home!  The Carrport police never dared suggest any such thing with regards to the burglary of his other home, but the NYPD is not a small town police force, and they don’t impress so easy.

Max doesn’t come out and ask Detective Klematsky “Do you know who I am?”, but he’s very obviously thinking it.  And the fact is, there are some things relating to these incidents that he can’t really explain to the detective, which just makes everything seem so much more suspicious than it really is.  And Klematsky is well aware, like everybody else on the planet, that Max Fairbanks just declared bankruptcy.

The absurdity of Klematsky’s suspicions, now that Max finally understood what they were, was so extreme that no wonder it hadn’t occurred to him what horsefeathers filled the Klematsky brain.  His own wealth and, in this instance, comparative innocence, combined with the distraction of thoughts about the burglar, had kept him from grasping Klematsky’s implications before this.  Now, astounded, horrified, amused, pointing at himself, Max said, “Do you think I committed these burglaries?  Hired them done?  For the insurance?”

“I don’t think anything yet,” Klematsky said.  “I’m just looking at the scenarios.”

“You should be looking at a padded cell,” Max told him.  “You think because I’m in bankruptcy court–?  Do you really believe I’m poor?  You–You–I could buy and sell a thousand of you!”

“Maybe you could buy and sell a thousand,” Klematsky said, unruffled, “but they wouldn’t be me.”

Well said, and Detective Klematsky is certainly a keen judge of character, but he is barking up the wrong tree here.  And normally, Max Fairbanks doesn’t have to worry much about the law, even when he really is breaking it.  Something’s gone wrong with his world, and he can’t understand it.   This kind of thing just doesn’t happen to him.  He’s been bragging to everybody about how he stole this thief’s ring right off his finger, and it is just now beginning to dawn on him that might have been a mistake–but Max Fairbanks doesn’t make mistakes.  He certainly doesn’t admit to them.  He just keeps doubling down, until he wins.  It’s always worked for him before.

And now he’s got to head for Washington, to face a congressional hearing.  Nothing dangerous for him in that, he’s just trying to get them to get rid of this entertainment luxury tax that is hampering him in his endless pursuit of wealth creation (who he is creating said wealth for, and how, is of course not relevant to the matter at hand).  He sarcastically remarks that maybe the congressmen broke into his apartment on his behalf.  “Wouldn’t surprise me,” Klematsky responds.  Well, it would be surprising if they didn’t get caught.

If Max Fairbanks is going to testify before congress, the world knows about it.  If the world knows about it, so does Wally Knurr, and well in advance of most people.  If Wally Knurr knows, certain other people know as well.  And if Frank Capra had made heist films, this would have been one of his best.  Mr. Dortmunder Goes to Washington.  He’s going to show G. Gordon Liddy and those Cubans how you do a little burglary at the Watergate.  We’re just about halfway through the book here.  I’ll try not to filibuster too long over Part 2.  Enjoy the debate.  Sheahright.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Addendum: Anarchaos in Russian

01

“There’s a way to make it easy,” the steward told him.  “Start to say anarchy, and midway through switch and say chaos.”

The missionary tried it: “Anarchaos.” The apologetic smile flared again, and he thanked the steward, saying, “It certainly is a name to give one pause.”

“I suppose they meant it that way,” said the steward.

“And their sun,” said the missionary.  “Do they really call it Hell?”

“It is Hell,” said the steward.

Though we’ve been seeing less of Ray Garraty since I came to the Great Starkian Interregnum in Westlake’s bibliography (hopefully he shall return once I’m reviewing Parker novels again), my correspondence with him has continued apace, and this past week he shared something with me–seems an online friend of his in Russia has created a special limited edition of Anarchaos–just thirty copies–with illustrations that look like woodcuts (but are not).

I’ll let him explain how this all happened–

It’s really only 30 copies been printed. They weren’t even offered for
sale, distributed through the small closed circle. Actually, the idea
to make this book came to the publisher Sergey after my review on
Anarchaos two years ago. A little later he found out that a translator
started to translate this novel, they got in touch, and after that the
publisher decided to make this edition.

All books by this press are made with illustrations. The illustrator
is a young artist who lives in Moscow, Diana Kuznetsova, who did
illustrations for other books by this press.

I think this is the first instance I’ve ever seen of an illustrated edition of a Westlake book (other than Philip) that really works.   Westlake didn’t write novels with the intention of having his words accompanied by pictures (his short stories for the pulps were another matter).  The publishers he was working with mainly didn’t do that.  They might hire superlative artists for the lurid paperback cover, or the more respectable hardcover dust jacket–they might not.  But never did any of his novels feature artwork like this.

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Or this.

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Or this.

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Not to mention this.

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If you’ve read the book, you can figure out which scene is being illustrated, most of the time, without needing to read the text.  And you can probably figure out what this picture is doing in the book as well.

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Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, whose revolutionary ideas were chosen as the founding principles of Anarchaotian government (or lack thereof). Interesting that they use a picture of the younger man, not the white-haired old sage.

(This is what I get for writing this too quickly, and not doing the research I typically do for my reviews–that’s Mikhail Bakunin, and a perfunctory check of Westlake’s novel would have prevented this egregious error, but ah well.)

If I might offer a very small criticism, Rolf Malone is supposed to be a very large strong intimidating looking fellow, and if this is supposed to be him, he’s a bit on the skinny side.

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But nothing wrong with his virility.

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So this is a very Russian vision of Westlake’s science fiction novel–and it translates beautifully on a visual level.  (I can only assume the textual translation is equally inspired.)    They’re not emphasizing the hardboiled American detective fiction element of the story.  This is Anarchaos transplanted into another literary milieu.  It feels more like Dostoevsky, or Tolstoy, or even Turgenev (with the Strugatsky Brothers thrown into the mix).  An earlier era, a period romance with philosophical overtones.  A harsh semi-feudal frontier environment, and a hero who is somehow just surviving from page to page.  It’s different, but that’s all to the good, I think.

There is something timeless about the story of Rolf Malone, and his single-minded quest for understanding and revenge, and finding the social currents he navigates deeper and more treacherous than he could have ever imagined.  You can find similar stories in many cultures, from long bygone eras, like the Irish saga of Máel Dúin.

If I might make a suggestion to the publisher, perhaps an additional copy could be mailed to the Westlake estate.  Westlake loved to collect odd foreign editions of his works–it gave him a great deal of personal satisfaction to know his ideas, his characters, his stories, were being read and appreciated in many languages, all over the world.  He understood that something is always changed in translation–something lost, something gained–and that this is part of how we as a species learn from each other, share our experiences, our perceptions–and find out how much they have in common.  He might have particularly appreciated the independent nature of this publisher, the almost hand-made feel of this edition.

This is one of many ways we have of staving off the nightmare scenario that Westlake painted in this book.  Stories have preserved the knowledge and legacy of many a fallen civilization.  Hopefully ours won’t be next–but just in case.

I’ll try to get the next review up shortly.  (Just in case).

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Review: Smoke, Part 3

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I am an invisible man.  No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of  your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.  I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.  Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.  When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ralph Ellison

“Nobody has ever seen me,” she said.  “Seen me.  Neither of my husbands ever saw me; they both felt cheated whenever that trophy on the shelf acted as though it were an actual living creature.  The last time my looks gave me pleasure I was probably nine years old.  I can’t scar myself deliberately, that would be stupid.  But this?  Why not?  No one can see me anyway, so why not be invisible?  Make the rest of my life a phone-in?  With pleasure.”  That dazzling smile had something too shiny in it.  “Let’s hope your invention is a success, Dr. Heimhocker,” she said.

Donald Westake

I know a funny little man,
As quiet as a mouse,
Who does the mischief that is done
In everybody’s house!
There’s no one ever sees his face,
And yet we all agree
That every plate we break was cracked
By Mr. Nobody.

’Tis he who always tears out books,
Who leaves the door ajar,
He pulls the buttons from our shirts,
And scatters pins afar;
That squeaking door will always squeak,
For prithee, don’t you see,
We leave the oiling to be done
By Mr. Nobody.

Nobody admits to writing this.

In writing about an invisible man, Westlake was primarily influenced by the first and best-known book on that subject, reacting to it, revising it, as I detailed last week.  But he could not possibly have failed to see the significance of a far more important book with virtually the same title, published when he was a teenager.

I don’t know when he first read it, but I would bet everything I own that he did.  Invisible Man is the supreme 20th century novel of human identity.  The fact that it’s specifically about the African American experience, black identity, does not in any way detract from its universality, any more than Shakespeare’s tendency to write ancient Romans, Danish princes, and medieval Scots as Elizabethan English people detracts from his universality.

We all know what it’s like to have people look at us and not really see us.  And in that moment of empathy, we can see past our own parochial little worlds, and feel the pain of Ellison’s nameless narrator, down in his basement, see his point of view, see him–and see ourselves in him.  And that is something only a great novelist can do.  And regrettably, Ellison could only do it once.  Tough act to follow.  But it earned him a monument in my nabe, where he used to live.  Want to see?

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Westlake isn’t trying to compete with Ellison’s vision here, let alone revise it.  That would be a fool’s errand.  But it’s there in the subtext.  H.G. Wells wasn’t really looking at identity in his novella about the abortive rebellion of Hawley Griffin, though it crops up here and there, tangentially–his story was about a failed one-man revolution that might pave the way for more successful future attempts. There’s at best the faintest suggestion that Griffin’s failure comes from his inability to know himself.

It was the very essence of Ellison’s book–a man who finds out that the revolution that really matters is the one going on inside–can’t change the world if you can’t change yourself first–and it’s central to this much less ambitious book as well. Westlake liked to put deeper messages into seemingly light stories.  Spoonful of sugar, don’t you know.

See, if you are literally invisible, not just metaphorically, the question of identity changes.  You can’t even see yourself in a mirror anymore.  You can’t see your own hand in front of your face.  The woman you love is starting to forget what your face looked like.  So are you.  So if identity is another term for self-image–what’s left? If nobody can see you, but you still get blamed for your actions, are you in fact Mr. Nobody?  Or is somebody still there, all the same?

Perhaps the closest thing here to a direct reference to Ellison’s book  comes in a brief episode where the two scientists who accidentally made Freddie Noon invisible try to do it on purpose.  They have two volunteers recruited by the tobacco company that indirectly funds their research.  One is a black man, George Clapp, who works as a limo driver for the company–he’s had a somewhat checkered past, and there are outstanding warrants out on him in other states.  His fingerprints are on file.  He’s one police stop away from getting arrested and extradited.  Invisibility sounds just fine to him (he probably hasn’t read Ellison), and they’re promising lots of money.

The other is a woman, a brilliant young nuclear physicist and theoretical mathematician, who has been cursed with extraordinary physical beauty.  Nobody can see past the way she looks. Nobody can ever take her seriously, no matter how good she is at her job.  In spite of her considerable intellectual gifts, she’s been forced to work as a statistician for a tobacco company.  To her, invisibility would be like taking the veil.  She can finally escape the ogling eyes of men, the envious eyes of women.  She can finally just be herself.

So to these two very different people, invisibility is the answer to their prayers, or so they think, but they never get to find out, because the two experimental drugs that Freddie took in combination are unpredictable in their effects.  George just becomes lighter-skinned (as Big Bill Broonzy sang, ‘If you’re brown, stick around’).  His scars vanish.  His fingerprints are simplified to the point where they can no longer be identified.  He looks years younger, says he feels like he did when he was nineteen.

And of course the company stiffs him out of his money, since they can’t use him as a spy, but he doesn’t care.  As far as he’s concerned, these are the best doctors in the world.  Free at last.

And the woman–Michael Prendergast–well, we can’t all be so lucky.

She was no longer the lushly healthy California-style beauty Mordon had met on Tuesday.  Her skin was pale and pink now, almost translucent.  A kind of ethereal glow surrounded her, as though she were an angel, or one of the lost maidens mourned by Poe.  She looked fragile, unworldly, un-carnal, and absolutely stunning.  She was ten times the beauty she had been before.

“Ms. Prendergast,” Mordon stammered, poleaxed.  “You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life!”

She burst into tears

Later, George tells his two saviors that Ms. Prendergast (also cheated out of the money she’d been promised for participating in the test) resigned from her position, taking a job working on the nuclear program of some middle eastern country (Iran, Iraq, George isn’t sure which), where she can hide behind a chador.  And there was some talk of her wanting to blow up the world, but I’m sure she got over that eventually.

There are basically two major antagonists in this story.  One is NAABOR, which stands for National American Allied Brands Of Raleigh–it would take too long to explain, but suffice it to say they make cigarettes.  And they devote an enormous amount of money towards the growing problem of people increasingly associating cigarettes with life-threatening illnesses, for some strange reason.

They were funding the Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis’ work on  melanoma cures mainly to say “Look, we’re against cancer too and after all, cigarettes don’t cause all cancer, do they?   There’d be cancer anyway!  So light one up, where’s the harm?”  But when the good doctors report the strange case of Freddie Noon to Mordon Leethe, a lawyer who works for NAABOR, and he reports in turn to his employers, they seem to think that now they own Freddie Noon, or his newfound ability, anyway .  And it could come in handy for spying on people, couldn’t it?

Mordon relates the details of Freddie’s very literal disappearance to Jack Fullerton the Fourth, who inherited the title of CEO from his uncle (who died of heart disease because he smoked), who in turn inherited it from his cousin (who got lung cancer because he smoked), and etc.  Jack is himself dying of emphysema.  Well, I suppose that’s one way to get rid of capitalist overlords, except they keep reproducing–there’s always a nephew somewhere.

Jack IV, whose voice is described as sounding like ‘the wind in the upper reaches of a deconsecrated cathedral, possibly one where the nuns had all been raped and murdered and raped,’ goes around all the time with two medical attendants and an oxygen tank, a tube jutting from his nose.

Some users wear that tube as though it’s a great unfair weight, pressing them down, down into the cold earth, long before their time; on others it becomes a ludicrous mustache, imitation Hitler, forcing the victim to poke fun at himself in addition to being sick as a dog, but on Jack the Fourth, with his heavy shoulders and glowering eyes and broad forehead and dissatisfied thick mouth and pugnacious stance, the translucent line of plastic bringing oxygen to his emphysema-clenched lungs was borne like a military decoration, perhaps awarded by the French: Prix de Nez, First Class.

Charming fellow.  Anyway, he mainly just wants Freddie so he can spy on his doctors, who he is convinced are lying to him about his health, and apparently they were, because he dies a little over halfway through the book.  (His funeral is compared to that of famed Columbia Pictures exec Harry Cohn, and if you don’t know that joke, I’ll just let you discover it for yourself).  He is succeeded by (ta-dah!) his nephew, Merrill Fullerton, who does not smoke, and fully intends to keep as many other people on this planet smoking as he possibly can.

And now that he’s privy to the existence of Freddie Noon,  he wants to use him for a much more Machiavellian end than spying on a few demurely diplomatic doctors who were just trying to keep a mean old bastard happy.   He wants Freddie to spy on elected officials, congressional subcommittees, that kind of thing.  And he wants Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis to devote themselves to a different kind of cancer research.

He’s been reading about this Human Genome Project (I get the distinct feeling Mr. Westlake did not approve).  Soon we’ll be able to identify faulty disease-producing genes in advance, and abort imperfect infants (they’re already selectively aborting girls in some parts of the world, not that you need the genome project for that). We’ll be able to tell which of our impending offspring meet our exacting standards of perfection (that we have never lived up to ourselves) and stop them before they happen.

(Merrill brings up the gene for homosexuality in this exchange, which you might imagine is not a comforting thought to the two gay scientists he’s basically inducted into his cause, but also shows Mr. Westlake now subscribes to the Born That Way view of sexual persuasion.   Mr. Westlake, as we now know, was a sickly infant, born with an inability to digest his mother’s milk.  He only survived because of an experimental soybean-based formula just developed.  His sympathy for the oddballs in life is well known–and well-founded.  Only Life itself can test  your worthiness.  Genes are merely a roadmap–not the destination.)

But how, you may ask, would any of this assist an industry known primarily for producing self-administered carcinogen delivery systems?

Merrill leaned forward, his eyes now hot ice.  This was the gist, at last.  “I want the code for lung cancer,” he told them.  “I want the code for emphysema.  I want the code for congestive heart failure.  I want the codes that tobacco taps into.  And then I want a reeducation program, aimed directly at our consumers, not just here, but around the world.  Abort the lung cancer cases.  Abort the emphysema cases!  Never let the little bastards see the light of day!”

David and Peter both blinked.  Merrill sat back, as though after an orgasm, and smiled.  “We’ve spent the last forty years,” he said, “trying to make cigarettes safe for the human race and we failed.  We can spend the next forty years making the human race safe for cigarettes!”

Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.  And believe you me, it does.

Since NAABOR clearly can’t make more invisible operatives, their desire to find and recruit Freddie Noon–forcibly if need be–takes on a new urgency.  Mordon Leethe had already enlisted the services of possibly the most cheerfully corrupt and brutal New York City cop Westlake ever created, which is saying something.  And a restaurateur to boot.   Also our other major antagonist.

A restaurant can be a very satisfying business.  Barney Beuler found that so, certainly.  It had so many advantages.  For instance, it always gave you a place to go if you wanted  meal, but you it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.  It gave you, as well, a loyal–or at least fearful–kitchen staff of illegals, always available for some extra little chore like repainting the apartment or standing in line at the Motor Vehicle or breaking some fucking wisenheimer’s leg.  It also made a nice supplement to your NYPD sergeant’s salary (acting lieutenant, Organized Crime Detail) in your piece of the legit profit, of course, but more importantly in the skim.  And it helped to make your personal and financial affairs so complex and fuzzy that the shooflys could never get enough of a handle on you to drag you before the corruption board.

The downside was that, in the six years Barney Beuler had been a minor partner–one of five–in Comaldo Ristorante on West Fifty-sixth Street, he’d gained eighty-five pounds, all of it cholesterol.  It was true he’d die happy; it was also true it would be soon.

To say his personal and financial affairs are complicated is somewhat understating things–“A man with three ex-wives, a current wife, a current girlfriend, a very small drug habit (strictly strictly recreational), two bloodsuckers he’s paying off to keep their mouths shut and himself out of jail, a condo on St. Thomas, a house and a boat on the north shore of Long Island, and a six-room apartment on Riverside Drive overlooking the Hudson from eleven stories up needs these little extra sources of income to make ends meet, as any sensible person realizes.”

So Barney is quite open to collecting a fat finder’s fee for fetching Freddie.  His off-the-books employers don’t consider it necessary for him to know why they want to talk to this small-time burglar, but Barney’s a man who likes to play all the angles, and he fully intends to find out anyway.  Little extra sources of income, you know?

His first ploy–a fake lottery notice, claiming Freddie won over 200 grand, gets sent to his parents’ house,  and one of his brothers gets the word to him, but Freddie’s too wily a bird to fall for that old game.  All that means is that the law is after him, which is what triggers his and Peg’s exodus to the Hudson Valley.

Barney has a meeting with Mordon at a parking garage (don’t ask me which one is Deep Throat), and tells him that Freddie’s been fingered–he left prints at his heists at the Diamond District and the Fur Warehouse.  Mordon muses this is because he couldn’t wear gloves.  Barney’s really intrigued now, and using the world-class intimidation tactics his career in law enforcement has equipped him with, he pressures the scared shyster into giving him the fully skinny on Freddie Noon.  (And as the plot progresses, he begins to think he could use Freddie’s talents himself–make him murder those blackmailing leeches clinging to him–hire him out to to the mob as a hit man.  Never mind if that’s in Freddie’s nature or not).

A game of fat cat and invisible mouse follows, which ends with Barney tailing Peg to a train station in Rhinecliff, through the use of a tracking device.  Whereupon Freddie and Peg turn the tables on Barney, and he not only loses them at the station, but gets four slashed tires into the bargain.  And now it’s personal.  Barney gets maybe a bit too involved in the case for his own good.  “The thing about anger is, it tends to overwhelm one’s sense of self-preservation, even if that one is such a one as Barney Beuler, whose sense of self-preservation had been honed for years on the whetstone of the New York City Police Department.”  He had to take a fucking Amtrak train home.  Vengeance shall be his.

And by all right, this actor should have been his, but he died in 1989, and there was no movie anyway.

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(But if things had arranged themselves differently, then Baron Vladimir Harkonnen of Planet Giedi Prime would be only the second scariest sumbitch Kenneth McMillan ever played.)

The hunt goes on throughout the long summer, through private detectives, and taps placed on Peg’s phone in her Brooklyn apartment.  But for some strange reason, an invisible man can be hard to trace.  He even arranges a meeting with Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis, figuring (correctly) that sooner or later, an invisible man will want to make himself visible again, and who else would he turn to?  That meeting could have gone better.

Barney and the doctors were meeting for the first time, of course, and it was interesting to Mordon to see how immediate and instinctive the loathing was on both sides.  The body language alone was enough to set off seismographs in the neighborhood, if there were any.  Mordon was watching two herbivores meet a carnivore on the herbivore’s own ground, and the rolling of eyes and curling of lips and stamping of  hooves was thunderous.

Mordon, as though nothing at all were wrong, made the introductions.  “Dr. Peter Heimhocker, Dr. David Loomis, I’d like you to meet Detective Barney Beuler of the New York City Police.”

“Harya,” Barney snarled.

Loomis remained wide-eyes and mute, but Heimhocker looked Barney up and down, raised an eyebrow at Mordon, and said, in a you-rogue-you manner, “Oh, really.”

Yes, really.  And as the two doctors become increasingly aware that NAABOR is trying to get its hooks into their former test subject, they become correspondingly determined to get him under their own control–not to use him for espionage, but to study him, and figure out where they went wrong–or right–whichever.  David and Peter’s feelings towards Freddie are complex–a mixture of guilt, responsibility,  and a sort of proprietary professional interest.  Plus there’s one little thing they need to tell him about his, urm, condition.

“It’s a one-way street,” Loomis said, and Heimhocker said, “Freddie Noon’s invisibility is irreversible.”

“Irreversible.”

“Think of albinos,” Loomis said, and Heimhocker said, “That’s a loss of pigmentation in a different way,” and Loomis said, “Not as thorough, not as severe,” and Heimhocker said, “But just as irreparable,” and Loomis said “You can’t paint an albino and expect it to stick,” and Heimhocker said, “And the same is true, forever, of Freddie Noon.”

“In the movies,” Barney said, “once the guy is dead, you can see him again.”

Heimhocker curled a lip.  “I have no idea what the scientific basis for that would be,” he said.

(Another little side-reference to the H.G. Wells novel, since Hawley Griffin was born an albino, and he does famously become visible once more after his death, and there’s really no science in these stories at all, you know.)

The final crisis is triggered by an announcement from Peg that has been brewing for some time now.  Being the Invisible Man’s Girlfriend has had its moments, but on the whole, she finds the role limiting, and more than a little unsettling.  She figures he’s got plenty of cash now from all the heists (of which she asks no split for herself, even though her role in each operation was vital).  She says she loves him–that hasn’t changed–but she wants to go back to Brooklyn, work as a dental technician again, and maybe they can see each other later, um, awkwardly phrased.  And she doesn’t really mean it, anyway.  She’s letting go of him.

Peg was all that was anchoring Freddie, and without her, he starts to become unmoored.  Stuck in the rental house, with nowhere to go, he phones the doctors at their townhouse–only to find they’re spending the weekend with friends–just a short distance from where he is.  Peg has the van, but he borrows a bicycle, peddles naked down back country roads, and you can imagine how that works out, but he gets there.  And spying on them, as they unburden themselves to a circle of equally gay friends and general hangers-on (they know he’s coming to see them, but they don’t know he’s already in the neighborhood)–he learns the truth.

See, they’re trying to persuade the other guests to help them restrain Freddie, so they can talk sense into him.  They’re his only real option, otherwise he’ll end up in the clutches of NAABOR, or (even worse) Beuler.  It’s just that they think he’ll be understandably upset when he finds out–

“When he finds out what?”

“That it’s permanent, of course,” Peter said, and then looked up and frowned at everybody, to see them all frowning at him. “Who said that” he asked.

They all went on looking at him.

“It’s permanent?”

“Oh, my God,” David whispered, “He’s here.”

“Impossible!” Peter cried.

“Peter,” David whispered.  “Can he fly?”

“I’m never gonna get myself back?”

This is also the point in the story where Freddie finds out that his fingerprints are not invisible, and he’s wanted by the police in connection to jobs at the Diamond District and the Fur Warehouse. Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed, ya know?

And so a merry chase ensues, with a very confused group of prosperous weekending gay men chasing a very agitated invisible man, who in his mental turmoil, drank a lot of (presumably excellent) champagne right in front of them, and it takes about two hours for food and drink to stop being visible inside of him, which is most upsetting to all, you can be sure.  He runs outside, breaking a four hundred thousand dollar Ming vase as he goes.  Peter and David are never getting invited back, you know.  (Oh, and can I recommend a friend of mine for the repair job?  Chinese ceramics are her specialty.  I have her card here somewhere…)

They finally have him trapped in the swimming pool, the retractable cover closed over his head, and he’s getting cold, and when all hope seems lost, a gray van comes roaring in, like Victoria’s Messenger Riding. It’s Peg. She came back to the house, figured out where Freddie was from the map he’d left behind, and she could have just said it was none of her business now, but then she wouldn’t be Peg, would she now? Freddie slips through the edge of the pool cover in the confusion and jumps in the van, which departs, leaving the lawn and the gardens in some disarray (the poor delphiniums), and Peter and David are very definitely never getting invited back.

And her courage and loyalty notwithstanding, she’s still going back to Brooklyn without him. She’s gotten him a car–an AMC Hornet with tinted bulletproof windows. It’s green. Don’t say it. And yes, we saw another green Hornet (damn, now I’ve said it) in Drowned Hopes. This one at least won’t end up at the bottom of a reservoir. Peg and Freddie end up in the pool at their rented house, having sex, and Peg seems to be warming up to the idea of an invisible man in her life (among other things), but she still needs some time to herself.

And so Peg Briscoe returns to her native Brooklyn, only to find Barney Beuler and some well-dressed thugs who work for NAABOR waiting for her. Barney intimates, in his usual disarming way, that she’s either going to help him get Freddie, or he’s going to start cutting her fingers off and mailing them to Freddie, care of his family, I suppose. And would you believe she actually tries to con him?

She gives him the address of a part-time smalltown lawman, who she and Freddie had a run-in with earlier. Lots of subplots, I can’t do them all, sorry. Only he wasn’t wearing his lawman hat when they arrived, and Barney caught him off guard, again in his usual disarming way. Barney’s really not kidding about the finger thing, and so Peg reluctantly calls Freddie at the house, and clues him in. Figuring it’s his choice whether he comes to rescue her or not. Not entirely sure what choice she wants him to make. But his choice is never in doubt.

Is this a problem with the book? I think so. We always know what Freddie is going to do. He’s one of Westlake’s most predictable heroes, and there’s a reason for that. Westlake was responding to H.G. Wells, and to a lesser extent, Ralph Ellison. Wells’ invisible man never really knew who he was, so invisibility breaks his already tenuous grip on sanity. Ellison’s nameless hero, invisible only to white people (and certain overly dogmatic black people), spends the entire book finding out who he is, and who he isn’t, losing the whole world, but gaining his immortal soul in the process.

But Westlake wanted to have as his starting point a man who had already gone through the long painful process of self-discovery before he became invisible–because he figured only such a person could survive invisibility, triumph over it. It challenged Freddie’s sense of identity, changed it–but he was coping very well, as long as he had Peg. Now somebody’s threatening to take her away from him forever. Bad idea.

But also, one might argue, a less than satisfactory protagonist–less interesting than Parker, than Dortmunder, than Tobin, than most of the Nephews. Because he was a finished product before we ever met him. That’s a weakness in the story–but its saving grace is that the normally obligatory romance angle you get in books like this becomes essential. Because like the song says, You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You. Whatever her doubts about their future, Peg proved her love and loyalty to Freddie. Now it’s his turn to save her.

And he does. Spoiler alert. I see no reason to spoil it any further. True love wins out, aided by invisibility, low cunning, and an everpresent willingness to dissemble. Evil is punished, and the shooflies of Internal Affairs are getting Barney Beuler giftwrapped, all tied up in a nice bow. Mordon Leethe and our two madly gay scientists, having chosen their master unwisely, will be forced to serve him indefinitely, but the money’s good at least. Oh, and you’ll never guess where Merrill Fullerton’s apartment is!

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And Peg pays a visit to Freddie’s mother’s far more humble abode in Ozone Park Queens, telling her that Freddie can’t come to see her right now, he’s been sick–but he’s okay, and they’re going to stay together now, he and Peg, because Peg realizes now they need each other. They’re going to take a plane somewhere, and be together, and it’ll be all right. There is one kind of glance that can pierce the veil of invisibility, after all. And hey, blind people fall in love all the time.

Freddie’s mother, who has no illusions about her son’s true nature, but doesn’t hold it against him (you have nine kids, you have to figure on some variety), and she fully approves of Peg. An easygoing girl, just right for her boy. She is worried about how vague Peg is being, and asks fearfully if he’s dead.

“I’m alive, Ma.”

Peg Briscoe smiled a slightly nervous smile, said, “He’s fine. Bye.” and pulled the door shut.

Did I hear that? What was it?

Elizabeth Louise opened the door and watched Peg Briscoe cross the sidewalk to a little old green car. As Peg opened the driver’s door, the passenger door opened by itself. She got in and shut the driver’s door and the passenger door shut by itself. She waved and smiled, and drove away, and another wide-body jet’s shadow crossed over Elizabeth Louise and the house.

This one she noticed. She looked up, as the shadow went by. One of those would be Freddie, with his nice girlfriend. From now on, it could be any one of them, going over. One of those shadows is Freddie.

It’s a big, teeming, funny, angry, intriguing, detail-heavy, and somewhat messy book, with a protagonist a bit too easy to figure out. I have a sense that Westlake put several different ideas for several different books he never wrote into it. But it’s a grand piece of work all the same, though it had the misfortune to be overshadowed by a novel that followed fairly close on its heels; shorter, darker, bloodier, more focused, more angry by far, and we’ll be getting to that one very soon.

But we have another book to cover before that, and let me say something before we do–I don’t plan for these little coincidences of timing that happen now and again here. I didn’t plan for my review of Adios Scheherezade to come along around April Fool’s Day. I didn’t plan for my review of Brother’s Keepers to come along around St. Crispin’s Day. I didn’t plan for my review of Good Behavior to start right around both the Feast of St. Dismas and Good Friday. The world is not simple enough to understand. We all need to understand that. So I can only assure you all that it just happens that my review of the next book in the queue has come up just about a month before Election Day. Serendipity trumps all, you know. And maybe it even trumps–well. Let me conclude with a snatch of poetry.

In the Land of Dortmunder, where the shadows lie.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them.
One ring to bring them all, and in Las Vegas blind him.
In the Land of Dortmunder, where the shadows lie.

It’ll be huuuuge. Believe me.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Review: Smoke, Part 2

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

From To A Louse, by Robert Burns

“The more I thought it over, Kemp, the more I realised what a helpless absurdity an Invisible Man was,–in a cold and dirty climate and crowded civilised city.  Before I made this mad experiment I had dreamt of a thousand advantages.  That afternoon it seemed all disappointment.  I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable.  No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got.  Ambition–what is the good of pride of place when you cannot appear there?  What is the good of the love of woman when her name must needs be Delilah?  I have no taste for politics, for the blackguardisms of fame, for philanthropy, for sport. What was I to do?  And for this I had become a wrapped-up mystery, a swathed and bandaged caricature of a man!”

Slowly, stroke by stroke, the face began to appear.  It was like magic, or like a special effect in the movies.  Cheeks, nose, jaws, all emerging out of the air, the slightly woodsy tan color of Max Factor pancake makeup.  Freddie complicated matters by flinching away from the brush a lot, and even sneezing twice, but nevertheless, slowly and steadily, they progressed.

Partway along, with just the major areas roughed in, the forehead and on down, Peg reared back to study him, and said, “I don’t remember you like that.”

“Like what?”

“That that’s the way you look.  Freddie?  I think I’m beginning to forget what you look like.”

The parts of the face that now existed contrived to express surprise.  “You know what? he said. “Me too.  I was just thinking this morning, when I was shaving.  I’m not sure I really remember what I look like, either.  If I saw me on the street, I don’t know that I’d recognize me.”

According to Leon Stover, that indefatigable student of all things relating to Herbert George Wells, Hawley Griffin (H.G. get it?), The Invisible Man, was named after that winged mythological beast of yore, because the griffin/gryphon is the vengeful destroyer of greedy avaricious men, and furthermore preys on horses, symbols of the aristocratic ‘horsey set’ of England.

Nobody to my knowledge has ever devoted that kind of intense etymological scrutiny to this book, so I guess I’ll have to try.  Why is Frederick Urban Noon named so?  Well, Frederick could denote a conqueror, I suppose.  Frederick the Great.  But more likely, it’s just a name Westlake liked to use, and frequently did (Fred Fitch, for example).

The Urban thing is fairly self-explanatory, Freddie being a New York City boy, born and bred, from a good Catholic family in the Ozone Park section of Queens (no doubt that’s also significant).  His middle name is derived from one of eight different popes, so good luck trying to get any theological/historical/allegorical meaning out of that.  The second Urban famously started the Crusades, and a few of them were later made saints, and I can’t see any reference there to Frederick Urban at all.

Ah, but Noon.  Good Irish name, that, frequently ends with an ‘e.’  There a subtler meaning can be discerned.  Because Noon shares a common liturgical origin with None, referring originally to the prayers said at 3:00pm each day at meals. Which has the additional meaning of–well, you know that.  And I need hardly explain how it applies to our hero.  Hey, this subtextual scholarship isn’t so hard.  I might as well have finished my doctorate, but of higher degrees I as yet have noon.

Thing is, nobody ever paid much attention to Freddie or any other of the nine Noon offspring, all of them nobodies.  They grew up, we’re told at the very beginning of this story, next door to JFK Airport–

Throughout his childhood, the loud gray shadows of the wide-body jets swept across and across and across Freddie Noon and his brothers and his sisters and his house as though to wipe them clear of the table of life; but every shadow passed and they were still there.

But now Freddie Noon casts no shadow at all.  A burglary gone wrong led to his becoming the unwilling guinea pig of two madly gay (but not gaily mad) scientists working on a preventative treatment for melanoma on behalf of a company that makes and markets cancer sticks, of which we shall be hearing more anon.

The drug is supposed to reduce skin pigmentation, which would supposedly prevent skin cancer.  Through an unfortunate miscommunication, Freddie took both of the experimental drugs they were working on (prior to walking out of their nicely appointed townhouse with many of its appointments), which have now abolished all pigmentation from his body, leaving him imperceptible to the mortal eye, even the loving eyes of his girlfriend Peg.

He’s not sure how long this condition will last, and since you might as well make hay while the sunshine passes right through  you, we rejoin him and Peg as they make a foray into Manhattan’s famed Diamond District.  Freddie is invisible, not intangible, and items he picks up remain visible themselves, seeming to float in mid-air, so his native wit shall be sorely taxed in the course of pulling this heist.

But as Hawley Griffin discovered before him, perhaps the greatest challenge to an invisible man involves walking down a crowded city street.

All those bodies in motion formed a constantly changing woven fabric, a six-foot-high blanket of rolling humanity, and now it was Freddie’s job to weave himself horizontally through this fabric, slipping through the weft and warp without any of the textile becoming aware of his existence; to be, in short, the ultimate flea.  To do all of that, and to do it successfully, would require every bit of his concentration, leaving nothing for the careful self-protective study of this dubious sidewalk that the surface really deserved.  Freddie knew his bare feet were just going to have to get along as best they could.

Freddie took one tentative step away from the van, and here came hurtling two hooky-playing kids in big sneakers, waving cigarettes and laughing at each other’s dumb jokes.  Freddie dodged them, but then almost ran into a guy carrying a roll of tarpaper on his shoulder, coming out of the roofing-company truck.  A rollout in the other direction put Freddie in the path of three middle-aged Japanese women, marching arm in arm, cameras dangling down their fronts, forming a phalanx as impenetrable as the Miami Dolphins’ defensive line.

Improvising his way past these and many other obstacles, Freddie gets inside one of the diamond merchant establishments, and uses a self-absorbed woman shopping for jewels to cover his exit with the loot.  Without a visible accomplice he can rely on, however (something the self-absorbed Hawley Griffin repeatedly failed to obtain), unlikely he’d be able to pull any of this off.  He’s so excited by his achievement, he tells Peg he’s going back for more.  As a thief, Invisible Freddie is a smashing success.

Freddie pulls two other scores in the book–a furrier’s warehouse in Queens gets burgled after-hours, but his only real problem there is that the place is heavily refrigerated, and he’s naked, so he ends up beckoning Peg in with the van so they can load it up with pelts while he’s wearing a fur coat and nothing else over his own invisible pelt, which freaks her out more than she let’s on.  Peg is just not adjusting well to Freddie’s condition at all.

In crafting the chapters involving heists, Westlake is, you might say, offering his professional criticism of Wells’ invisible protagonist, and his own attempts at thievery.  Griffin, who refuses to admit he even is a thief (because that would be so lower-class), is nonetheless constantly stealing from others, rationalizing to beat the band about how he has no other choice, he’s a revolutionary and all–but his actual technique leaves much to be desired.   He’s clumsy, careless, and often unnecessarily violent.  He doesn’t really ever think it through, and often has to abandon his loot, because he has no way of transporting it.  When he tries to get an accomplice, an indigent drunk, to hold the loot for him, the accomplice simply walks away with it (and at the end is hoarding a copy of Griffin’s scientific notes, while enjoying the expropriated fruits of Griffin’s larceny).

The most obvious point of comparison relates to Griffin trying to rob ‘Omniums,’ a London superstore, containing every imaginable item someone could want.  “A huge meandering collection of shops rather than a shop.”  Omniums is fictional, but the department store was already in its formative stages, in Britain and elsewhere, and Wells clearly found it an interesting capitalist development. Later, Griffin robs a much humbler establishment, representative of a dying form of commerce (that has actually taken a damned long time to die, since Westlake depicts a similar rundown shop in The Sour Lemon Score.)

Griffin gets in while Omniums is open, wanders around unseen  until it’s closed, and then helps himself to whatever he needs.  He intends to get food, clothing, and money, and then set himself up in an apartment, but having laid himself down to sleep on some quilts, clothed against the cold, he’s quickly discovered by the returning employees at dawn, and has to leave with nothing.  Though he does toy with the idea of mailing himself a parcel of goodies from the warehouse–he can’t figure out how.  He knows how to make someone invisible, but until he actually was, it never occurred to him how much work and thought was involved in making practical use of such an attribute, and thieving turns out to be much harder work than he’d imagined.

And what would the one writer most known for stories about thieves have said to all that?  “Amateur.”  And then he might say, “What would be the 1990’s equivalent of the department store?”

Wednesday, July 5, the day after the long hot exhausting holiday weekend, was a quiet one at the Big S Superstore on U.S. Route 9, the main commercial roadway on the east side of the Hudson River.  A few retirees with nothing else to do wandered the cavernous interior of this warehouse-type store, the no-frills successor to the department store, where mountains of items were piled directly on the concrete floor or stuffed to overflowing on unpainted rough wooden shelves.  Once you became a “member” of their “club” (not a hard thing to do), you could buy everything in here from a television set (and the unpainted piece of furniture to hide it in) to a goldfish bowl (and the goldfish) to put on top of the set for those times when there’s absolutely nothing to watch on TV.  You could buy canned and frozen food, truck tires, toys, books, washing machines, flowers, tents (in case your house fills up), small tractors, bicycles, benches, lumber to make your own benches, double-hung windows, storm windows, snow tires, dresses with flowers on them, blue jeans, and baseball caps honoring the team of your choice.

Here in the Big S (“the Big Sore for Big Savings!”), in other words, you could get everything you used to be able to get in the Sears Roebuck catalog, except now you have to go to the warehouse and pick it up instead of phoning it in and having them send it to you.  People enjoy a new wrinkle, and the warehouse you go to instead of phoning it is a very successful new wrinkle indeed.  Even the day after the big Fourth of July weekend, there were people in the place; not many of them, but some.  And in among the retirees with nothing better to do was an attractive young woman talking to herself.

And we need hardly be told who she’s really talking to, or why they are there. Freddie needs a really big score.  There are no end of re-saleable items here, but how can he get them in large enough quantities to give him the return on his labors he seeks, when he can’t make the goods themselves invisible?  This is the problem that thwarted Invisible Man The First (as Griffin modestly dubbed himself), but Invisible Man the Westlake Heister is made of sterner stuff.  If you want to effectively steal from large-scale shopkeepers, you need to understand and penetrate their bureaucracy, something wild-eyed revolutionaries tend not to do very well, visible or not.

At the top, he found the second floor was mostly one large room with a vaguely underwater feel.  The industrial carpet was light green, the walls and ceiling cream, the fluorescent lighting vaguely greenish, the office furniture gray.  The could be on the Nautilus, and out beyond those venetian blinds could be the deep ocean itself, with giant octopi swimming through the submarine’s powerful searchlights.

Instead of which, of course, this was the command center of the Big S, a long, low-ceilinged air-conditioned humming space full of clerks, mostly women, with an enclosed office at the far end for the manager.  Freddie looked around and saw, positioned atop the desk nearest the stairs, a small TV monitor showing the space in front of the desk below.  The woman seated at that desk was entering an endless series of numbers into her computer terminal, reading from a two-inch-thick stack of pink vouchers.  While Freddie watched, an employee appeared in the monitor and pushed the button; the woman at the desk never looked away from the vouchers but just reached out, pressed a button in front of the monitor, and went on with her typing.

Routine is the death of security.

Yeah, tell us about it.

Having learned to his pleasure that the Big S does not employ any guard dogs, Freddie figures out how to use one of the computer terminals to arrange for a very large shipment of valuable items to be loaded onto a truck by the loading dock, which he can just drive away with.  He and Peg return later, and carry the plan off without any significant hitches–the hitch comes when he drops the goods off with his fence.

This book has a whole lot of sub-plots to it, and I can’t possibly cover them all in any great depth.   One involves Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the fence Freddie uses, who is basically a more repellent version of Arnie Albright from the Dortmunder books–and who knew that was even possible?  Arnie has a famously unappealing personality and really bad breath; his idea of interior decoration is to paper his walls with old calendars–but compared to Jersey Josh, he’s George Freakin’ Clooney.

His apartment, where he keeps all his stolen goods, is right over by the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, and those of you who are New Yorkers know what a terrible place that would be to live (it’s getting gentrified never), but somehow it just suits him.  Dingy, gaseous, and toxic.  That’s Josh.

Long story short, Freddie phones Josh to say he’s sick and is sending Peg over with the gems from his first invisible score, and upon viewing her womanly charms, Josh immediately decides to rape her.  I mean, he doesn’t think of it that way.  He’s just going to hit her over the head with something to quiet her, and have a quick date, nothing wrong with that, guy has to have a social life, doesn’t he?  And of course, appearances to the contrary, Peg isn’t really alone, and Josh gets hit over the head with something while he’s eagerly groping Peg–he can’t figure out how she did it.

But Jersey Josh is a persistent fellow, and when Peg shows up with the furs from the next heist, he’s ready to try again, and by this time Freddie & Peg have had quite enough, so Freddie arranges for Josh to get a friendly visit from the Doberman Pinschers who guard the business establishment downstairs, and feel about Josh pretty much the same way everybody else who ever met him does.  (I do believe Westlake is starting to warm up to dogs just a bite, I mean bit.)

So this has been an enjoyable enough running plot thread, but it’s getting a bit more serious as Freddie and Peg drive to the arranged meeting place in the old meatpacking district of Manhattan, where Josh and some vaguely mobbed-up associates are going to accept delivery of the goods and hand over the cash.  If they feel like it.  I mean, it’s not like Josh has any bad feelings about being hit over the head, nearly ripped to pieces by savage dogs, and not getting past first base with Peg.  That would be petty, right?

As we’ve seen him do before ( Castle In The Air, that aside about the Paris canal system, which has since gone on to become a tourist attraction), Westlake focuses in on a neglected piece of industrial-era infrastructure that will, in the 21st century, become one of New York’s most-visited amenities).

A long long time ago there was an actual slaughterhouse in Manhattan, way down below Greenwich Village, near the Hudson River.  In the nineteenth century, they had cattle drives to Fifth Avenue, bringing the cows to the slaughterhouse, but then they built a railroad line that was partly in a cut between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, which is still used by trains from the north coming down to Penn Station, in the West Thirties.  Going down from there, the old train line was elevated, at second-floor level, and ran all the way downtown, the trains that carried the doomed cows trundling south and south, as buildings were constructed all around the track, and neighborhoods grew up, until here and there the elevated train line was actually inside buildings along its route.

Then it all came to an end.  The slaughterhouse shut down and there was less and less manufacturing of other kinds in lower Manhattan, and fewer and fewer cargo ships from Europe that unloaded there, so there was no longer a need for a railroad line down through Manhattan south of Penn Station.  But that old elevated line had been constructed of iron, and built strong enough to carry many tons of train and beef, and it was not an easy thing to tear that big old monster down, so for the most part it was left standing.  Here and there, when new construction was under way, it made ense to remove a part of the old line, but most of it is still there.  It’s there today, just above your head, black old thick iron crossing the street, out of that old building and into that old building, an artifact from an earlier and more powerful time.

And now a place to idly stroll with your sweetheart and drink lattes, surrounded by bars and restaurants.  Westlake lived to see construction on the High Line begin–wonder what he made of that.

The meeting place is in a deserted factory in the West Village, near the elevated tracks.  Freddie’s stolen truck has just enough clearance to get underneath those tracks (I’ve seen big rigs get stuck that way).  This time Freddie is wearing his Dick Tracy mask, and maybe this is why Josh acts like one of those grotesque Dick Tracy villains (maybe Mumbles, since he speaks in words of mainly one syllable, and sometimes just one letter–he pronounces the word ‘yes’ as ‘S’).  Pretty much on a whim, he decides he’s going to take the truck and all that’s inside it, and give Freddie nothing in return.  A very real chance Peg gets thrown into the bargain.

We have by now seen many examples of how stupid it is to doublecross a Westlake heister–how much stupider would it be to doublecross an invisible Westlake heister?  Not that they know he’s invisible–which just makes their situation more hopeless.

“Peg,” Freddie said, “go around the block,” and he was already ripping off the head and gloves when he dove down and went rolling under the trailer.

The henchmen shouted as Peg accelerated, and Josh missed her wrist by a millimeter.  The van went tearing away down the block.  The henchmen ran around both ends of the truck.  Josh bent to peer under the trailer, seeing nothing, hauling out his own very old and well-used pistol, just in case Freddie decided to come rolling back.

The henchmen met at the far side, and stood over a pile of clothing on the sidewalk there.  “He’s naked,” one of them said.

“Duhhh,” the other one said, and fell down.

The first henchman stared.  It was a brick, is what it was, a big dirty brick, waving around in the air all on its own, and now it was coming after him.  He backed away, stumbling over Freddie’s clothes, dropping to one knee in his panic, and took a shot up at the damn brick, and the bullet zipped away up into the infrastructure of the railroad, binging and caroming off the metal up there for quite a while.

With a moan, the henchman dropped his pistol, swung about, and tried to escape on all fours, which meant he didn’t have far to drop, when he dropped.

Josh had a whole lot of money there–for Freddie and for his two associates.   Freddie gets all of it–a hundred grand.  Josh gets to explain the loss of the money to his associates, after they all wake up (Josh doesn’t get knocked out–he faints dead away).  And that’s the last we see of Jersey Josh Kuskiosko.   But an invisible man with well over a hundred grand is still an invisible man.  Peg is about to tell Freddie that he’s lost something worth a whole lot more.

Yeah, I’m really skipping around, aren’t I?   My main interest here in Part 2 is showing how Westlake was riffing on the H.G. Wells novella, updating it.  I’d guess Jersey Josh is Westlake’s riff on Mr. Marvel, Hawley Griffin’s unreliable partner in crime.   But maybe the best riff of all occurred much further back in the book, Chapter 19, when Freddie and Peg, fleeing the city because they’ve become aware there’s people after them (more on that next time), are looking for a summer rental to hide out in, and have a brief stay at a quaint little Bed & Breakfast establishment in the Hudson Valley, just outside Rhinebeck.

See, probably nothing in the Wells novella is more fun than the humorous early chapters, where the people of the quaint little English village of Iping ,which really exists (as indeed does Rhinebeck) have to deal with a stranger who will not let them see his face (because he doesn’t have one anymore).  Wells used these chapters to mock the simple people of Iping, who remain unaware for a rather long time that there’s an invisible man in their midst, staying at a local inn maintained by a respectable older woman, who is rightly horrified by Griffin’s rude behavior.

So what would be the American late 20th century equivalent of Janny Hall, the late 19th century proprietress of the Coach and Horses Inn, catering mainly to urban tourists who want to experience the rural England they’ve read about in books; friendly, sociable, but an inveterate busybody who wants to know everybody’s business?

City people, they think they know it all.  Mrs. Krutchfield, a buxom motherly woman rather beyond a certain age, was sorry, but she just couldn’t help it, New Yorkers rubbed her the wrong way, they always had.    They were never impressed by anything.  You can take your tourist families from faraway places like Osaka, Japan, and Ionia, Iowa, and Urbino, Italy, and Uyini, Bolivia–and Mrs. Krutchfield could show you all of them in her visitors’ book with their very excellent comments–and you could show them your wonders of the Hudson River valley, and you could just happen to mention that this lovely old pre-Revolution farmhouse, now The Sewing Kit bed-and-breakfast outside Rhinebeck, was known to be haunted by a British cavalry officer slain under this very roof in 1778, and those people are, in two words, im pressed.

But not New Yorkers.  It was such a pity, then, since The Sewing Kit was a mere 100 miles straight north of Manhattan, into the most scenic countryside, that New Yorkers were so much more important to her operation than all the Osakians and Ionians and Urbinos and Uyunis put together.  Mrs. Krutchfield just bit her lip and kept her own counsel and tried not to look at the “wives” ring fingers, and did her level best to treat the New Yorkers just like everybody else.

(Including the ‘Briscoe snip’ as Mrs. Krutchfield’s privately thinks of our Peg, who gets checked into the General Burgoyne room, is blithely unaware of Mrs. Krutchfield’s opinion of her, and probably couldn’t care less.  Because seriously, rest of the world, we Gothamites don’t need to care what you all think of us, and I’m not saying that’s fair, but it’s reality.   We just don’t care.   And you know you’re going to come see us in your millions anyhow, so let’s  move on, shall we?)

As she heads up to her room, Peg, who has been regaled about the resident ghost, is informed that yes, there’s literature in every room, telling about him, and she sighs resolutely, saying “Well, we can only hope for the best.”  Well, we the readers certainly can.  Freddie Noon has had one hell of a practical joke played on him just recently.  Only fair that he shares the wealth.

That evening, the current guests are settled down in the parlor, watching television with Mrs. Krutchfield.  She’s got a satellite dish.  She controls the remote.  Or so she thinks.

At first, everything was normal and serene.  Then, at just about four minutes past nine, as everybody was contentedly settling in to watch a program broadcast from some parallel universe in which, apparently, there was a small town where the mayor and the fire chief and the high school football coach spent all their time joshing with one another at a diner run by a woman suffering from, judging by her voice, throat cancer, all at once the TV set sucked that picture into itself, went click and spread across itself an image of three people moving on a bed, with no covers on.  With no clothing on!  Good gracious, what are those people doing?

Some horrible corner of the satellite village, some swamp beside the information highway, had suddenly thrust itself–oh, what an awful choice of words!–onto their TV screen.  Gasping and shaking and little cries of horror ran through the room as Mrs. Krutchfield grabbed frantically for the remote control, only to find it had somehow fallen to the floor under her chair.

The channel keeps changing, one disturbing program after another.  Finally a refuge of black and white calm–TCM, no doubt–a woman is walking along the edge of a cliff.  With her clothes on, regrettably, since it happens to be–

“Gene Tierney!” cried a midwestern gentleman who had not shut his eyes.

She wouldn’t do things like that!” cried a midwestern lady, whose eyes were still firmly sealed.

“It’s a movie!” cried another midwestern gentleman.

Eyes opened.  On-screen, the action had moved indoors, into an extremely cute cottage not unlike The Sewing Kit itself, though perhaps a bit more cramped.  In this setting a recognizable Rex Harrison marched and harrumphed, dressed like a pirate captain or something, and behaving in a rough-and-ready way that didn’t at all suit him.  Also, you could see through him, which was odd.

A midwestern gentleman said, “It’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”

A midwestern lady said, “I remember that series.  But it wasn’t Rex Harrison.”

“No, no, no,” said the gentleman.  “This is the original movie.”

“There was a movie?”

A Canadian, somewhat younger, said, “There was a television series?”

A midwestern lady gave out a sudden shriek.  “It’s the ghost!” she cried.

“And Mrs. Muir,” said her companion on the sofa.

“No!  The ghost!  Colonel Pardigrass!”

That shut them up.  For a minute or two everyone in the room just sat and gazed at Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, finding love–or something–across the centuries.  So much pleasanter to contemplate than those other people.

This is all a great surprise to Mrs. Krutchfield, since she just made up the ghost out of whole cloth, or ectoplasm, whatever.  The real estate agent told her there were stories about ghosts connected to the old farmhouse that is now The Sewing Kit, and he was probably making that up to sell her the place, but all the fine details came from a newspaper story she’d read about a British colonel who had been murdered long ago in the general vicinity, and it might as well have been her converted farmhouse as anyone else’s this happened at.  A nice conversation piece for her hostelry.  But he’d always been such a respectable phantasm before now.  What could have possibly gotten into the Colonel?  Can you find an exorcist in the Yellow Pages?

Hawley Griffin is in too distracted and self-centered a mental state to really enjoy being invisible, you see.  His creator is having fun with these people, but he’s not.  He more or less inadvertently horrifies Mrs. Hall and her other guests with his bumbling invisible antics, terrorizes the entire village of Iping as the story goes on, and a short time later they terrorize him, in the process of beating him to death.  There are potential consequences to scandalizing small town people, you know.

But Freddie knows himself, he knows his limitations, and he knows how to have fun, and that’s all he was having here.  He and Peg leave the next morning, and she tells him that wasn’t very funny, and he asks then why is she still laughing?  Same reason we are.  Donald Westlake was not the social prophet Wells was, but he was a much better writer of comic fiction.

There may be other points of direct comparison between The Invisible Man and Smoke, but I can’t think of any offhand, and there is much in this book that owes nothing whatsoever to Mr. Wells, so I think I’m going to call this Part 2, and devote Part 3 to those remaining thematic elements of Westlake’s book.  Which is decidedly not one of the more tightly structured of Westlake’s books.  And consequently, this is not one of my  more tightly structured reviews.  Assuming you think I’ve ever written any tightly structured reviews.

See, this book isn’t named Smoke because its hero is a wraithlike specter who vanishes into thin air.  It’s named Smoke because its primary satiric target is the tobacco industry and its servitors.  And we’ll be talking about them next time.

(And yes, I’m horribly late with this, but let’s just say there have been distractions.  Personal and Political.  I don’t really know which is worse.)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels