Monthly Archives: January 2017

Review: Flashfire

“No,” Parker said.

All three were disappointed, gazing at him as though he’d let them down in some unexpected way. Carlson said, “Could I ask why?”

“You’ve got a place to stay,” Parker said. “If I ask, you’ll tell me how the mansion won’t trace back to any of you after it’s all over.”

“Sure,” Carlson said.

“But that isn’t the job,” Parker told him. “That’s nothing but the safe house. The job is still a whole lot of jewelry, twelve million dollars’ worth of jewelry, completely surrounded by people with weapons who don’t want you to get your hands on it. From this idea today–blow up something a little farther out of town as a distraction–I can see you guys like to be gaudy. That’s fine, fires and explosions have their place, but I think you mean to be gaudy in Palm Beach, and it won’t work out for you any better than it did for the movie stars.”

Fantastic fortune, thou deceitful light
That cheats the weary traveler by night
Though on a precipice each step you tread,
I am resolved to follow where you lead.

Aphra Behn

September 23, 2011. Not much more than five years ago. Having been watching Payback a lot on TNT (curse you Maria Bello, and your warm knowing brown eyes), having gone from that to Point Blank on TCM (curse you Lee Marvin, and your cold fathomless blue-grey eyes), noting the differences and similarities in the stories, I was curious. I knew both movies were based on the same book. I knew Richard Stark was a pseudonym for some guy named Westlake.

The library I work for didn’t have The Hunter, or any of the First Sixteen, but we had three of the Final Eight, and the earliest was this. So I went up to the stacks and got it. September 23, 2011. Nobody’s charged it out since. Why bother when you can download? Honestly, I’m wondering if this library thing has a future to it.

I finished the book same day I took it out. I wasn’t what you’d call blown away, but I wanted more. I read the other two. They went fast as well. I started hitting used bookstores, then ordering a lot of books online, vintage paperbacks, old hardcovers, U. of Chicago reprints.  I ran out of Parker novels. I moved on to Grofield. Then Tobin. Then I started reading the books Westlake wrote as Westlake. I finally accepted that I’d have to read all of them, every last book on that long long bibliography, because somehow they were all connected, infinitely varied in subject, tone, approach, style–but all about the same thing, underneath. There was this subtle satiric sensibility at the back of all of them.  I was, you might say, hooked.

I started discussing Westlake at The Violent World of Parker (now vanished from the internet, has anybody heard from Trent?), and Nick Jones’ Existential Ennui (still extant, but not talking about Westlake much these days). I published a guest article on the former site, in which I started promulgating my common sense observation that Parker is a wolf in human form, which was not uniformly well-received, as I recall.

I was my usual charming self, the very soul of diplomacy, on this and other subjects (including the awful movie made from this book I’m supposed to be reviewing now).  The conversation grew heated, and I got banned from that site’s discussion forum.  I been thrown out of worse joints for less reason.  Trent and I remained on amicable terms, and he was later gracious enough to plug TWR on VWOP.  Seems like a million years ago now.

Nick Jones, who had encouraged me to write that guest article, sort of tactfully hinted I was getting a mite too long-winded in my responses to his articles (oh now, I think that’s a bit unfair).  He suggested I might want to start my own blog, an idea I dismissed out of hand as impractical and overly time-consuming. And 161 posts later (counting this one), here we stand, back where it all began.  Thus endeth my rumination on causality, spare time, and the internet.

I believe this is the third or fourth time I’ve read Flashfire.  That’s more often than I’ve read many of the other Parker novels; the ones that aren’t The Hunter, The Score,  Slayground, etc.  That’s partly because I wanted to compare the book and the movie.  Partly because I read it first, and I reread all these books periodically.

But mainly because I want to  understand why this one bothers me so much.  Why it seems so much less right than any of the others, less than the sum of its parts.  It’s by far the worst book in the series, one of the weakest novels Westlake ever wrote under any name.  And still a good read for the most part.  Westlake never wrote anything he didn’t put something of himself into.  I’m here to try and understand him, and as I have said before, you often learn more about a writer from his or her misfires.  The most important question to ask about a misfire is always “What was the writer aiming at when he/she pulled the trigger?”

Westlake’s peak as a writer came between 1962 (the year of The Hunter) and 1976 (the year of Dancing Aztecs).  In that narrow window of time, he produced over fifty novels, along with quite a lot of less important work.  A lifetime’s worth of writing compressed into fourteen years.  What followed that productive era was often brilliant–he was a long way from finished, in fact he had almost as many books ahead of him as behind him (if you don’t count the sleaze paperbacks).  But he was working more slowly, having a harder time coming up with workable ideas, ways he could top himself.

Stark and Coe, his two most important alter-egos, deserted him.  The publishing market was no longer so well-suited to the kind of writing he did best.  He had to change with the times, and the times were not to his taste (probably neither were most of the books being published, but when is that ever not true?).  He was slotted as a humorous writer, and he liked writing in that vein, but it wasn’t enough for such a restless probing intellect.

Having resumed writing as Stark in the 90’s, he could not let the voice go again, as he had in the 70’s.  He needed to keep going.  But he struggled at finding ways for Parker to remain relevant in this not so brave new world he went on improbably surviving in.  Dortmunder is equally anachronistic, leading to many an absurd sitution but Dortmunder is supposed to be absurd.  Parker isn’t. Parker won’t stand for that.  Dortmunder is Fortune’s Fool.  Parker is nobody’s fool.  Not even Stark’s.

So that’s all well and good, but how do we explain this book, in which Parker repeatedly does things that could not be more out of character?  Impersonating a priest, then a rich foppish playboy.  Making jokes that display a familiarity with contemporary popular culture.  Pursuing a vendetta, which is very Parkeresque, but a vendetta so extreme and irrational that it stretches the boundaries of credulity, even within the context of this fictional reality.  Revealing himself as a secret romantic; basically confessing, both to himself and a total stranger that he’s madly in love with Claire, who is only marginally in the book.  Though at least we learn something about her reading habits.

And on the whole, you’d have to say Parker is less effective here than usual, making mistake after mistake, nearly dying as a result. He wins out in the end by virtue of his strange luck; a bit too strange for me this time.

Was Westlake testing Parker again, putting him to the question, as he had in past books where Parker seems to be acting out of character, but really isn’t?  Or did he have an idea for a book involving some other criminal protagonist, and decided for various reasons (commercial, let’s say) that it needed to be a Parker novel?

Personally, I think this should have maybe been the next Grofield, but how many people even remembered Grofield by then?  All those novels were out of print, and so were the Parker novels he’d first appeared in.  That would change soon, but at the time of writing this one, Westlake only had two marketable series characters, and Dortmunder clearly wouldn’t work.  Westlake wasn’t doing so well with one-shot characters of late.  It’s just a theory, but I wonder if that’s the answer to this identity puzzle–it wasn’t originally going to be a Parker novel at all.  Once it was, he tailored it to Parker as best he could, with very mixed results.

Whatever its origins, the final result is an interesting but frequently unsatisfying work, that still has that Starkian touch to it, which pulls you along, keeps your attention.  Were that not the case, I wouldn’t be typing this now.  So let me start typing the synopsis.

The book begins with a bank robbery, already in progress, in Nebraska.  Except that Parker isn’t in the bank, he’s some distance away, throwing a Molotov cocktail through a plate glass window into a gas station convenience store, to serve as a distraction.  The rest of the string is robbing the bank, and will use a stolen fire department vehicle to make their getaway, blending in with the real fire department.

And right away, I’ve got a problem–a firebomb is not a discriminating weapon, and casualties are not unlikely.  Parker doesn’t like killing civilians, because it brings down too much heat from the law.  Obviously the convenience store is open if the gas station is (that’s where he gets the gas), and there’s no mention of whether anybody is in there or not.  Unusually sloppy work for Parker–and Stark.  The movie skirted this entire issue by having somebody else set the diversionary blaze, and Parker is upset they killed somebody, which is even worse.

This is not Parker’s plan; he’s just been called in at the last minute to sub for Hurley (last seen in Butcher’s Moon), who recommended Parker after he dropped out. Parker got kind of a weird vibe from Hurley when they talked over the phone, but apparently he needed the work–some time must have passed since his previous two successful heists.  My feeling is that this book actually takes place pretty close in time to when it was written, unlike the previous two.  The internet is referenced, for the very first time in this series.  The guy we see thinking about it briefly is no Wally Knurr. Not only is he not web-literate, he’s just barely lit-literate.  The age of idiots online has dawned.

This is the last time we see Parker involved in a bank robbery (unless you count armored car heists, and I don’t).  First time was in The Score, but they were knocking over a whole town, with Parker overseeing the operation, and the banks were both closed for the night so it’s not a typical job.  Second was The Sour Lemon Score, the only classic daylight bank robbery in 24 books about a supposed bank robber.  This is the third time, and he never even sees the bank.  Or his money, except from a distance.

Melander, Carlson, and Ross.  Parker never worked with these guys before.  They like him, and they’re professional enough; maybe a bit too flashy, but good.  And ambitious–they pulled this heist, they belatedly inform him, only to bankroll a much larger one elsewhere.  They want him to come in on that.  Parker hates surprises.  But he’ll bite.  What’s the job?

Jewelry.  Twelve million dollars worth.  They’ll only get ten cents on the dollar, and they’ll have to use three different fences to unload the merchandise.  It’s going to be in Palm Beach, which for those of you who don’t know (and at this point in time, we all should know), is the world’s most overprivileged sandbar, off the coast of Florida.  No way to drive on or off it without crossing a drawbridge–no crocodiles in the moat, but probably sharks, and lots of patrol boats. The bridges can all be closed very quickly if anything big happens, like a major robbery.  Parker expresses a disinclination to participate.  He’d like his money now, please.  But wait, there’s more!

This is why they need the bank job money.  They’re spending 100k to put a down-payment on a beachfront mansion formerly owned by two movie stars, who found out Palm Beach society frowns on new money, and on people who like to draw attention to themselves (hmm).  The place got kind of trashed, and is definitely a fixer-upper, but all they need to fix here is an excuse for them to be in the richest part of Palm Beach, so they can hide out on the large fenced-off property, while the law looks for them in hotels and condos, and stops every boat on the water around that glorified sandbar.

A dodge we’ve seen many times before in these books; holing up near the site of the robbery until the heat fades, but Parker’s not buying it.  Something will go wrong, somewhere down the line.  Palm Beach and its pampered denizens are too well-protected, and there’s no escape route if things go sour.  He’s out.  Now fork over the cash. His share comes to $21,319.  He does not take IOU’s.

There isn’t enough money.  They knew going in that might happen, and what the consequences might be.  Just a bit over 85k.  They’ll have to borrow the remaining 15k, and pay back 30k.  If they give Parker a quarter of the take, they’ll have to borrow even more, and it cuts into their profit margin too much.  They promise he’ll get his share, and a bit extra, once the job is over.  But for the moment, they’re going to have to stiff him. Give him a tiny stack of bills, which they say is in addition to his share, once they’re ready to give it to him.  Like he’s the delivery boy, and this is his tip.

Understand, none of these guys has ever read a Parker novel.  Andy Kelp could have told them what a terrible idea this is.  They’re not like Mal Resnick, Auguste Menlo, George Uhl, George Liss, or any of the other former colleagues who just decided to take the whole boodle by eliminating the rest of the string.  They won’t kill him.  They have professional standards.

And his only response to that is to think about how stupid they are not to kill him.  He’s sure as hell going to kill them, and take their entire Palm Beach score as back interest on the debt, assuming they succeed.  The button in his head has been pushed.  These are dead men walking, far as he’s concerned.  He’s going to heist the heist.  But for that he’s going to need a bankroll of his own.

Thus begins Parker’s One Man Crime Wave, which is for many the most enjoyable part of this book, though I found it oddly disappointing this time through, because it’s too rushed.  Stark packs a lot of story into a small space, but this is too much, and I’m not even going to try to cover it all, because it would take too long.

Overall, not a terrible premise for a Parker novel, but it’s problematic on several counts.  First of all, by pulling a series of small quick scores, on a gun shop, a check cashing place, two drug dealers, a multiplex theater, and some rich people’s houses in Texas, he quickly amasses almost as much money as he’d get if he actually had gone in with the gaudy trio on their big heist, and it had succeeded.  So this isn’t about the money, because he could just go home to Claire with all that, and then wait for the guys to show up with his share, and he could kill them then if he wanted.  Assuming they didn’t get themselves killed or jailed, which would save him a lot of effort and risk.

This is the part of the book where he poses as a priest (collar and all), who is raising money for his church, and a more inappropriate look for him is hard to imagine.  The point is, he takes on several false identities, and sets up a bunch of bank accounts, all in order to set up a convincing enough false identity as a rich Texan/Ecuadorian of American parentage (and citizenship) named Daniel Parmitt, who can infiltrate Palm Beach society and wait for the heist to happen.  Parmitt has a mustache (Claire later advises him to make it look like Errol Flynn’s ‘stache, trims it for him herself, between bouts of intercourse).  He wears light-colored slacks, colorful shirts, and a yachting cap.  Okay, so there is a more inappropriate look for him after all.  At least it’s not a cowboy hat.

In order to get high quality fake ID as Parmitt, he goes to a guy Ed Mackey refers him to (a brief phone cameo by Brenda, who is clearly still wondering if she and Parker might end up together someday).  Julius Norte, a specialist in this field.  He seems professional enough, but when Parker comes back for his papers, Norte tries to kill him, because another client sent some thugs to whack him, so nobody would be alive who knew about his new identity (shades of The Man With the Getaway Face).  Parker would know too much if he let him go.  Parker has to kill Norte’s hulking bodyguard, and then has a cowed Norte kill the tied-up thugs himself, with a gun Parker then confiscates, so he’ll have leverage over Norte.

Now you see up top where he’s telling these guys they’re too gaudy, that their plan is too complicated, improbable, and risky?  It’s not like him to live in a glass house.  He’s being at least as gaudy as them.  There’s too many moving parts here already for a Parker book, and we’re just 74 pages in.

Then he meets Claire at a hotel in Miami they’ve stayed at before–as soon as he resolved to pull this risky scheme of his, he told her to vacate the house at Colliver Pond in New Jersey, so she couldn’t be taken by his former partners and used as a bargaining chip.  She learned something from the events of Deadly Edge, and complies with alacrity.  It’s winter, anyway, good excuse to get warm.  She’s sitting by the pool when he arrives, wearing a red bikini, and reading Aphra Behn (I think the above quote might help explain both her and her creator’s affinity for that author).  He sees her from across the pool, drawing many a lustful glance.  And if you’d believe it, he begins reminiscing on how their relationship began.

It had been a while since he had seen her at a different angle like this, coming upon her as though she were a stranger, and it reminded him of the first time they’d met, when he’d opened a hotel room door expecting some flunky driver and had seen this cool and beautiful woman instead.  When he told her then he hadn’t expected a woman in the job because it was unprofessional she’d said, “It doesn’t sound like a very rewarding profession,” and already he’d been snagged.  Closed off before then, indifferent to the world except as it had to be tamed and manipulated, he hadn’t known he could be snagged, but here she was.  And here again.  Still here.

Of course he’s snagged, that’s been obvious since the end of The Rare Coin Score, but we’re not supposed to see him thinking about it.  It’s supposed to be unstated, implicit, instinctual, oblique.  This is too wordy, too self-conscious.  This is Stark putting thoughts in Parker’s mind that don’t belong there.  And how could Parker be unaware he could be snagged, after all that happened with Lynn in the first book?

(This scene would work for Grofield just fine.  He could be meeting his wife Mary, or romancing an actual stranger, as he so often does.  In fact, it reads quite a bit like similar scenes between Grofield and one of his blondes, also in warm weather settings, near water.)

But Parker is working now.  Yes, his relationship with Claire is different, his sex drive is no longer so cyclical as it once was, but we’ve never seen him show any interest in sex when he’s on the job before now.  You can justify it (he’s saying goodbye, just in case, and he’s got some time to kill before the final phase begins), but there’s so much else to justify in the course of this story. It’s a lot of extra work for the reader, who doesn’t get to enjoy Claire’s lithe body as recompense.

But this is the only sex scene in the book, you see (rather on the tame side)–the main female character here isn’t Claire, and isn’t an option for Parker (him being snagged and all), and there had to be some erotic content, given the genre.  This is it, plausible or not.  Claire is seen no more in the book, but her presence continues to be felt.

As Part 1 ends, Parker leaves her, and drives over the bridge into Palm Beach.  In a leased Jaguar.  Wearing a yachting cap, a brightly colored shirt, a pencil thin lounge lizard mustache, and a silly-ass playboy’s expression on his face, or at least what he hopes is a reasonable facsimile thereof.  It’s maybe a bit like what Jules Feiffer once said about Superman.  That Clark Kent is his sardonic commentary on the society he’s blending into.  (Yeah, the title character in Kill Bill said the same thing, but he stole that from Jules Feiffer.)

Before he realized they were going to shortchange him, Parker told his former colleagues he didn’t want to know all the details of their heist, so he doesn’t know where this house is, when the heist will take place, or what high society event they’re boosting the jewels from.  Now he needs to know all of that, and to establish Daniel Parmitt as a legitimate aspirant to the Palm Beach scene.  And for all that, he needs to go house-shopping, for which he needs a real estate agent.

Enter The Amateur in the story, Leslie Mackenzie–this amateur is going to be on Parker’s side for a change.  A blonde in her early 40’s, a bit on the hefty side but appealingly so, a penchant for pastel-colored pantsuits.  Quite the contrast with Claire (whose hair color remains a mystery to this point in the series.)  She shows ‘Daniel’ around, and gives him a bit of background info, as much for our benefit as his.  She feels this newb should understand Palm Beach proper isn’t about how much money you have (poor people can’t afford to live there, except as servants of one type or another), but rather how you got it.  Some people seemingly have a hard time figuring that out.

“Donald Trump never fit in here,” Leslie said, having pointed out Mar-a-Lago, which for many years had belonged to Mrs. Merriweather Post, who definitely did fit in here, and which after her death had been for years a white elephant on the market–nobody’s inherited money, no matter how much of it there was, could afford the upkeep of the huge sprawling place–until Trump had grabbed it up, expecting it to be his entrée to Palm Beach, misunderstanding the place, believing Palm Beach was about real estate, like New York, never getting it that Palm Beach was about money you hadn’t earned.

“I should be pleased Mr. Trump took over Mar-a-Lago,” Leslie said, “I think we should all be pleased, because we certainly didn’t want it to turn into Miss Havisham’s wedding cake out there, but to be honest with you, I think a place must be just a little déclassé if Donald Trump has even heard of it.”

(Mr. Westlake certainly did have his eye on Mr. Trump, didn’t he?  Did you know dear Mrs. Merriweather-Post gave Mar-a-Lago to the Federal government to be a sort of winter White House, but none of the subsequent Presidents wanted to use it?  So it devolved back to her heirs, and they just wanted to sell, but not to that poseur Trump, who would obviously commercialize it in order to afford the upkeep of the place, as indeed he has done.  But nobody else wanted it, and he threatened to build stuff that would block its view of the ocean, so they ended up selling it for less than half his original offer.  And now Mrs. Merriweather-Post’s dream has been fulfilled.  And I can almost hear her screaming from rich people hell, “That’s not what I meant!!!”  So picky.)

Westlake obviously spent time in Palm Beach, soaking up the scene, and generally finding it ghastly.  The architecture is banal and derivative, the cultural scene barely can be said to exist, it’s all private clubs and mediocre McMansions, and leading citizens who only live there from November through May, and probably in some place with mild summers the rest of the year.  Weather is for the poor.

But again, I’m taken aback when we’re told Parker is actually observing the architecture, thinking to himself that it seems inspired by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and of course Parker wouldn’t make any such observation, because he doesn’t care about architecture, except to the extent it makes breaking and entering easier or harder for him.  Stark should be making these observations, but somehow he’s projecting his own interests onto Parker in this one.  The line between observer and observed is breaking down.

But of course what Parker’s really looking for is the house Melander purchased (partly with Parker’s money), while pretending to be a rich Texan.  And he spots it easily enough.  Leslie happens to have some sheets on it, useful information, alarm systems, floor plans, and she’s more than willing to hand this over to ‘Daniel’ when he asks, since that house is sold.

Having said goodbye to her for the day, he breaks into the house, finding it deserted, but not quite empty.   There’s a few bottles of beer in the fridge, and a metal footlocker full of guns in the garage.  He’s found them.  They’ll be back, and he’ll be ready.  He walks back to his car, only to see Leslie’s car nearby.  She followed him.  He needs to know how much she’s figured out, and who she might have been talking to, before he kills her for the crime of being stupid.

But she’s not stupid.  In the ensuing conversation, that becomes increasingly clear.  She saw something wasn’t quite right about Daniel Parmitt–she saw halfway through the mask Parker perpetually puts on around law-abiding citizens, to cover his true self.  Her background in selling high-priced real estate means she’s good at background checks, and she knows now there was no Daniel Parmitt until about two months ago (Parker hasn’t figured out yet how much more quickly these things can be checked online–technology is catching up with him).

His interest in the movie star mansion was a bit too obvious.  His asking for the info on it when he knew it wasn’t for sale was a dead giveaway.  He, like the men he intends to rob and kill, had  underestimated how hard it is to pass oneself off as legit in Palm Beach.  And he’d underestimated her. Most people wouldn’t have noticed the things about the front he put up that didn’t fit, because most people don’t notice anything that isn’t directly relevant to them.  He’s a thief, not a huckster–he counts on that lack of situational awareness in most people to get him through when he misses some crucial detail in his disguises.

Leslie, by contrast, knows very well that if he decides she’s a threat to him, he’ll kill her.  But she smells money, and she wants it.  She wants out of her life.  The same way Mary Deegan grabbed onto Grofield, way back in The Score, she’s grabbing onto him.  He’s her ticket out of an unrewarding existence.  One way or another.  And here we may perceive another little scrap of evidence Westlake might have originally toyed with making this a Grofield novel, but of course The Score was a Parker, so maybe not.  Grofield actually does care about architecture.  (And sometimes blondes he’s not married to.)

And here comes the scene that probably got this book turned into a movie in the first place (the money shot, if you will).  Parker is willing to consider Leslie’s offer to be his native guide to the Palm Beach jungle.  But he needs to know she’s not wearing a wire.  So she has to strip naked in front of him.  Every ad for that damn movie had that scene, with Lopez stripped down to her underthings while Statham checks her out.  Well, she was the right age and shape.  She wasn’t really the problem with that movie.  She wasn’t enough to sell it with, either.  We’d already seen all there was to see of Ms. Lopez.

Leslie is a bit of a problem for the novel and the movie.  Because she’s the sex interest, but there isn’t going to be any sex.  And she’s yet another moving part added to an already over-complex mechanism, though it’s kind of nice, imagining all her parts moving, as she walks.  Westlake was going through a phase where he liked to write about amply proportioned blondes, and why not?  To some extent, she’s a hybrid of the preacher’s buxom girlfriend from Comeback, and the PR woman from Backflash.  But this time she’s a much more central player.  She is, in fact, a secondary protagonist, the B-Plot girl, going through an identity crisis, a life transition.  But more about that next time.

Parker does his homework on Leslie, which (since he’ll never be an internet guy) means he breaks into the house she shares with her mother and developmentally disabled sister (the book uses an older euphemism).  She checks out fine–she is who she says she is,  the kind of person who might be willing to risk everything to get a new life.  He’s also pleased she didn’t try to use her body to entice him, back at the office, not that there was any chance of that working.  Okay, he’ll give her a try.  He can still kill her if it doesn’t work out.

They meet again, posting once more as realtor and client, checking out a luxury condo.  Mr. Westlake must have had some experience with this type of housing unit (timeshare, maybe), and was none too impressed.  If there’s anything more pathetically predictable than the very rich, it’s the people who futilely aspire to join them.

The condos along the narrow strip of island south of the main part of Palm Beach yearn toward a better life: something English, somewhere among the landed gentry.  The craving is there in the names of the buildings: the Windsor, the Sheffield, the Cambridge.  But whatever they call themselves, they’re still a line of pale concrete honeycombs on a sandbar in the sun.

I’ve never been to Palm Beach, but I’ve been to Hilton Head, and Long Beach Island.  It’s pretty much the same everywhere, up and down the intercoastal waterway.  Palm Beach just costs more.

Parker puts Leslie to the test, and she better not flunk. He tells her about these guys he worked with, who stole from him, and now he’s going to steal from them–their money and their lives.  She gulps a bit, but she’s still in.  He tells her what he knows about the heist.

She knows what the auction in question must be–Mrs. Clendon’s jewels.  She was the grande dame of Palm Beach,  and her collection of baubles and trinkets was the envy of every other society matron there.  She willed her jewels to a local bank official who got her interested in improving the local library.  They’ll be auctioned off to raise money so that all the hoi polloi there who can’t afford their own personal libraries can obtain free reading material (Let them eat books!).

Leslie is massively let down–this is a dead end.   There is no way these guys can get the jewels, they’re too well-guarded; from the bank, to the armored car, to Mrs. Fritz’s house (the newly reigning grande dame), back to the bank again.  Parker, just from listening to her descriptions, knows immediately that the weak spot is the house.  Full of rich people.  Who will be panicked by some explosion or fire, because that’s what these guys do.  Hundreds of silly stupid socialites, milling around like sheep–the armed security people won’t dare shoot, won’t even know what to shoot at.  In the confusion, they’ll grab the jewels, and get back to their hideout.

There’s no beach by Mrs. Fritz’s house–just a seawall.  He figures they’ll come in from the ocean.  “Like James Bond?” Leslie asks?  “More like Jaws,” Parker responds.  You know, I could see him paying attention during parts of that movie.  Still not a good line for him.

So he goes back to the hideout, and they still aren’t there.  He rigs the alarm so that it looks armed, but it’s not.  He breaks into their cache of guns, and rigs the firing mechanisms so that they look armed, but ditto.  He tapes his trusty little Hi-Standard Snub-nose Sentinel .22 to the underside of a Parsons table (nothing to do with clergymen) where he thinks they’ll have him sitting if they catch him there, and decide to interrogate him.

Oh heck, I might as well post an image.  Basically, just another version of the Smith & Wesson Terrier, only the bullets are even smaller.  With Parker, size really does not matter.  It’s how you use it.


(I’m going to type another niggling little quibble now.  Once he starts on his One Man Crime Wave, Parker thinks he needs better guns.  He’s only got the Sentinel and a .38 Special Colt Cobra, so in Kentucky he finds a closed gun shop along a sparsely traveled road, hijacks a backhoe from the county Highway Dept and uses it to scoop up a bunch of guns from the display window, of which he picks four, and makes his escape. We’re told he chooses this shop because it doesn’t have any guard dogs, so Parker still has more respect for dogs than people, which tracks.

What does not track is that in the course of his misadventures in this book, pretty much the only gun he uses is the Sentinel, because it’s so easily concealed, and he’s mainly shooting people at extreme close range, not necessarily to kill them but sometimes just to get their attention, let them know he’s serious–for that purpose, a smaller caliber weapon works better.  He goes to all this trouble to get better guns, when in reality he had one more gun than he needed already, and the least formidable of them turned out to be the most useful.  This really is a book about overkill–on every possible level.  Well, I guess that tracks with Palm Beach.  Back to synopsis.)

So it’s all going fine.  He’s got the information he needs, where the safe house is, when and where the heist will take place.  Parker figures he can kick back for a bit now, go see how Claire is doing with Aphra Behn or whatever.  This is also really out of character, but what the hell, go with it. Florida does weird things to people.  Why not wolves in human form as well?

On his way there, these two guys he can see are hired killers waylay him outside a restaurant, and drive him into the Everglades.  He knows they’re going to kill him, figures it’s something to do with Norte and that guy who wants to kill everybody who knows what his name used to be.

He knows he’s got to make his move before they get to wherever they intend to do him in.  He surprises the hoods, makes it out of the car, but the terrain is not favorable, and he gets shot in the back with a rifle, then pushed into the shallow water by the road.  Last we see of him, he’s badly wounded, underwater, blacked out, and there’s two guys with guns who want him dead.  End Part 2.  Part 3 is the round robin section of the book, so we’ll get multiple perspectives, none of them Parker’s.

Earlier in the book, when he’s with Claire, we’re told he’s been shot eight times in his life.  Once would be Lynn shooting him in the belt buckle in The Hunter.  Another would be Auguste Menlo winging him with his Hi-Standard Derringer in The Mourner.  We see him thinking (almost nostalgically) of Little Bob Negli, stinging his ear with his Beretta .25 automatic, in The Seventh.  And of course he got pretty seriously plugged by a Colt .45 wielded by the nefarious Baron, in The Handle, but he went right back into action once he woke up. Claire strokes his scars as they lie in bed, and says she’s lucky for him–he hasn’t been shot since he met her.  Well, even the strangest of luck has its limits.

This is the first time we know of that he’s been shot up so badly, he might actually die.  Only, of course, he won’t.  And I have very mixed feelings about how Westlake finagles that–fantastic fortune indeed!  I have very mixed feelings about this book.  I think that quote I used up top says it all pretty well–this one didn’t really work out for anybody.  But I still read it cover to cover the same day I got it out of the library.  I still found things to enjoy about it this time (not necessarily the same things as in previous readings).

And I’ll still be back with Part 2 next week.  If the Lord of Mar-a-Lago doesn’t blow us all up.  I do hope you’re enjoying rich people hell, dear Mrs. Merriweather-Post.  I hear the amenities are spectacular.  Probably a mite chilly compared to Florida in the summertime, but nothing’s perfect.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: The Hook, Part 2

Bryce couldn’t seem to get out of his temporal confusion.  He usually took the train up to Connecticut sometime on Friday, spent the weekend, left Monday.  This week, the New York apartment had just become too oppressive by Thursday, so he’d taken the train up shortly after Wayne had told him about the message from Detective Johnson, and now it was Friday morning, and he was already here, and he just couldn’t keep the day straight in his mind.

He phoned several weekend friends, wondering what if anything might be doing, this early in December, not yet massively Christmas, but of course none of them were here.  Today is Friday, he had to keep reminding himself, and they are in New York.  They work in New York.  This is their weekend place.

And me?  Where do I work?  Do I work?  Where do I live?  Where do I call to find me?

Having made extraordinarily little progress with the synopsis last time, I can’t let myself get bogged down in prologue this time.  All the more because I can’t find any other covers for this book, which clearly sold a whole lot fewer copies than The Ax (the book its title fairly begs comparison with), at home and abroad.  Four covers in all, three foreign–I found fourteen separate editions of The Ax.  If I did a Part 3 for this one, I’d have to use the audiobook cover, which is just too drearily literal for words.


And yet, this book still got a film adaptation, in 2004 (a year before The Ax!). With a title that would tend to indicate a certain lack of fidelity to the source, but what else is news?


Here’s what Time Out had to say about it–and they took so little time to do so, I’m just going to save you the trouble of clicking a link.

Vincent’s adaptation of Donald E Westlake’s ‘The Contract’ is a suitably nasty psychological thriller in the French-Hitchcockian mould. With echoes of Patricia Highsmith, a failed writer with a book and no publisher (Cluzet) strikes a bargain during a train journey with a successful colleague (Giraudeau) with a publisher but writer’s block. The former will kill the latter’s ex-wife in return for half the latter’s advance. Initially, the satisfying plot and motivational twists, fine performances, alongside the clever light and shade effects of cinematographer Dominique Bouilleret build to intriguing effect but unfortunately that gives way as the film dives too deep, too implausibly, into the murky terrain of sado-masochistic psychopathy.

Echoes of Highsmith so prevalent, it seems, that they decided to have the leads meet on a  train, which never happened in the novel, because a library makes more sense here, and possibly the late Ms. Highsmith’s estate could have raised an eyebrow or two.  I suppose meeting in a library then adjourning to a bar wasn’t noir enough, somehow.  Let the auteurs do their own thing (you know they will anyway), and we’ll get back to talking about the authors.

Famous best-selling author Bryce Proctorr and once modestly successful but lately unpublishable Wayne Prentice have a deal–kinda.  Wayne kills Bryce’s estranged wife Lucie, and Bryce will retool Wayne’s unpublished novel nobody will buy into a best-seller appearing under his own name, and give Wayne half the million-plus advance that would otherwise go to Lucie. Wayne figures Bryce is kidding at first.  Bryce figures Wayne won’t really do it anyway, but he’s just in love with the sheer cleverness of his own idea, as writers so often are.

Both men have serious qualms about all this–the first-degree murder thing, sure, but even more the ghostwriting thing, a crime their profession could far less easily forgive (the dreaded name Kosiński is mentioned).  They both have professional standards to uphold, after all–but see, to have professional standards, you need an actual profession to go with them, and both men are halfway out the door of theirs, desperate to find some means of remaining.

Wayne goes home to his loving wife Susan, a quietly atractive woman who works for a non-profit organization that oversees the fund allocations of still other non-profit organizations.  They have an apartment in the Village that many present-day New Yorkers would quite literally kill for.  A classic six, rent-controlled.  With a dining room, even.  No kids, because Susan can’t have any, and they’re both good with that.  She’s a fine cook, but mainly brings home pre-prepared multi-course gourmet meals they both enjoy (not Asian takeout or pizza, because that would be somehow unworthy of their dining room).

The sex is good, compatibility is high, Susan makes more than enough money to support them both, Wayne can always find some kind of writing work, and he’s no killer.  Obviously this murder scheme isn’t going anywhere.

Wayne considers Susan his rock, the designated pragmatist in the marriage, and trusts her judgment absolutely.  He tells her about his conversation with Bryce, confident she’ll veto any such risky and morally repellent scheme, and she does no such thing.  Because, as she explains, if Wayne doesn’t find some way to continue his writing career, the marriage is over.  Not because she doesn’t love him, not because she has any problem with supporting both of them, but because, pragmatist that she is, she knows Wayne can’t live with that arrangement.

Wayne needs a real job–he’ll fall apart without one.  The only job he’s qualified for that offers a (relatively) non-laughable salary and social position is teaching creative writing at a college.  The only colleges likely to hire him are nowhere near the city his wife’s job is in.  She isn’t willing to give up  her career and be some non-tenured professor’s wife out in the sticks, a life that would make both of them miserable.  They have the life they want, that many a cosmopolitan couple can only dream of.  But they can only keep it if Wayne finds some way back into his profession.  Bryce Proctorr’s bizarre offer is that way.

It’s pretty clear Susan likes being the wife of a published novelist, however little-known.  Wayne’s professional identity is part of her own as well, a splash of color in her otherwise mundane prosaic life.  Without making any explicit demands, she tells him she would prefer he do whatever is necessary so that Wayne&Susan remain Wayne&Susan.  Of course she disapproves of murdering some woman she’s never met in the abstract, but one has to face up to facts.  It’s them or her.

Susan may be the weakest link in this book, and that may be an inherent problem to retooling Highsmith’s original story.  There’s no time to properly develop her, so she’s a bit of a cypher, and we’re never inside her head.  But the same is true of the much more idealized love interest from Strangers on a Train, a sophisticated blonde socialite, who clearly suspects her architect fiance of having committed murder at the behest of a man she loathes at first sight–and she responds by marrying her fiance anyhow, going into full denial mode, and inviting that corrupting influence on her husband over for social occasions.

Susan is, in essence, the 90’s middle class version of that character–who works as a textile designer, but doesn’t really need to work at all–without the golden tresses or inherited wealth to hide behind.  Susan’s already married to Wayne when we meet her, and he shares everything with her upfront.  The equivalent Highsmith character remains willfully in the dark until sometime after the story ends.

Susan’s marriage and career are all she values, and she’s very strongly motivated to grasp at any straw that will keep her from having to choose between them.  Highsmith’s lovely heiress is only implicated in her lover’s crime by inference–Westlake obviously decided that in the more emancipated times he was writing in, her involvement should be explicit.

And she does, in fact, remind one a lot of Claire in the Parker novels–not wanting Wayne to tell her about the murder, which is fine and dandy by him–and then, gradually, wanting him to tell her all about it, and finding him all the sexier after he’s done the deed, which freaks Wayne out no end.  Y’know, Lady MacBeth is a problematic character as well.  First ice cold and remorseless, then driven mad with guilt.  But like Bryce, and unlike Lady M., Susan never saw the body.

Okay, there’s still one possible out–Wayne told Bryce he had to meet Lucie first.  Find out if she really is as horrible as Bryce insists, and therefore deserving of an untimely end (he muses to himself at one point that “There’s good and bad in everyone,” a phrase that Valerie Sayers, in her Times review, found impossibly trite for a professional writer to think to himself, as if professional writers are somehow incapable of even thinking anything banal or clichéd .  (FYI, Ms. Sayers herself, in her 1996 novel Brain Fever, had a New York based female character of hers say to the southern male protagonist  “Come on, you big lug.”  Seriously.)

Bryce arranges for them to meet at a preview of an Off-Broadway play written by a friend of his, but directed by a friend of Lucie’s.  He goes there, sits through the play, wangles an introduction to Lucie, a thin elegant blonde in her 40’s who treats all of life and everyone in it as if she were an Edward Albee character.  And not the one Sandy Dennis would play.  Uh-oh.

If I do a full synopsis of this book,  full of labyrinthine plot twists, involved character descriptions and general navel-gazing (because Highsmith), I’ll end up with my first-ever five-parter, and I’d so much rather not.  Let’s cut to the chase.  Wayne gets Lucie’s number.  They go on a date.  He’s torn between hoping she’ll be nice so he can’t kill her, and hoping she’ll be awful so he can. But he’s quite sure he won’t kill her that night. This is just reconnaissance.

Lucie alternates between applauding Wayne’s cleverness (he points out the one thing in her furnished apartment that actually belongs to her), and suggesting he’s a failure as a man and a writer–he’s told her he is also in mid-divorce, and she checked him out on Amazon before the date, musing out loud about how long it’s been since a Wayne Prentice book came out, and he doesn’t feel like explaining the pseudonym thing to her, since that would be just one more point of vulnerability for her to exploit.

She also snarks that he’s too cheap to pay for a cab, just because he took her to a good restaurant she really wanted to try, just a few blocks from where she lives (never occurs to her that Wayne doesn’t want any cab drivers placing him at her building).  Not what you’d call a fun date, unless endless mean-spirited verbal sparring is your idea of fun, but Wayne can see why Bryce was attracted to her.  ‘Fascinating but repellent’ was how he described her to Susan after their first meeting.  (Actually, that’s not a half-bad description of Patricia Highsmith, at her best and worst, but I don’t think we’re supposed to get that meta about it.)

Then, back at her place, as Wayne looks for a convenient moment to leave and start plotting The Perfect Murder, she off-handedly asks if Susan is any good in bed.  Because why not?  To her, this is how the game is played.  An endless struggle for supremacy.  Now Wayne is supposed to return her serve, and he does.  Much to his surprise.  More to hers.

How many people have you met in life who you’d at least consider murdering if somebody offered you half a million dollars to do it, and there was relatively little chance of you ever getting caught, and that person refused to stop being an infernal pain in the ass?  Some people literally do not  know when to shut up.  Mostly they get away with it because society says you don’t kill people for being obnoxious.  But now and again, one of them blithely trips over a human landmine, and you read about it in the tabloids afterward.

I don’t want to type out a quote from the murder scene.  Westlake had written a lot of murders in his career, some bloodier than others, a very small percentage involving men murdering women, sometimes by design, sometimes (as in The Ax) because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’d never before had a protagonist with absolutely no previous history of violence beat a woman to death in front of our eyes.

Acting on impulse, driven by greed, self-preservation, personal irritation, and blind rage at the insult to his wife (that Lucie probably meant as light after-dinner flirtation), Wayne realizes with horror that having struck the first blow, he has to follow through to the end or go to jail–his impractical fantasies of buying an unregistered gun out of state and shooting her from some dark alley on a deserted street are permanently shelved.

If she hadn’t offered any resistance, maybe he would have lost his nerve, run away (she knows his real name and former publishers), begged her to not call the cops, but that’s not Lucie.  She responds in kind, returning his volley with verve, only this isn’t her game.  Wayne is horrified to feel a brief moment of sexual excitement, once it’s nearly over and she’s laid out beneath him, but that ends as soon as her bowels release (he is simultaneously nauseated and relieved).  He finishes her off by tying a plastic bag over her head until she stops breathing (again, reminiscent of The Ax).  You see why I’m not typing out any quotes here, right?

He does a pretty good job eliminating any physical evidence that would link back to him (Westlake never stopped sneering at the CSI school of detection), and leaves.  The doorman at street level never paid any attention to Wayne (Wayne, in a clever bit of authorly improvisation, told him his name was Wayland when he called up, knowing the man’s accent would make it sound like Wayne over the phone, but not to the cops afterward) and the sketches produced from the doorman and restaurant staff descriptions predictably turn out to be worthless.  Lucie never talked to any of her friends about going on a date with this writer acquaintance of her soon-to-be-ex, probably because she wasn’t sure if he was going to be worth talking about.

In many ways, more disturbing than any murder scene in The Ax–definitely far more so than the equivalent murder in Strangers on a Train, where Charles Bruno quite unashamedly enjoys the experience of strangling another man’s nuisance of a wife, which is precisely why he did it, much as he pretended he was doing the guy (named Guy) a favor.  Even Charles Willeford might find it a bit off-putting, and he once had a protagonist beat a woman he actually liked to death because–well, that would be telling.

And the worst thing about it, from a mystery reader’s POV, is that it’s not enjoyable to read about. Because Wayne doesn’t enjoy it, is sickened by it, and didn’t even plan it–it simply happened, and he had to start improvising. He’s not a master assassin, or even a talented amateur. He just got lucky.  If blundering your way into being a successful killer can be called luck.

We love reading about murders, or we wouldn’t be reading books full of them all the time.  We want to know what it’s like–to kill or be killed.  The crime genre couldn’t exist without that curiosity, or the ‘true crime’ genre either.  What Westlake does here is take all the fun out of fictional murder, that vicarious sense of empowerment it gives us.  The shock is not that there’s a killer inside us all (we knew that already), but rather how horribly unglamorous killing another human being really is.  Damn him anyway.

But for Westlake, the murder is not the point.  The point is how his two writer-protagonists react to it.  And they will, of course, react to it as writers.  Because that’s what this book is about.  Not psycho-sexual pathology, or suppressed male rage against womankind, which is most assuredly a real thing (and not so suppressed lately, going by the election results).  But the way writers habitually turn fact into fiction, because that’s their stock in trade.

Bryce never believed Wayne would actually do this.  It was a story idea he came up with.  Wayne never really believed he’d do it either–but having written about murders, he could not help but be curious what it would be like to commit one.  He got enmeshed in Bryce’s plot.

The parallel fictions that are their lives have converged onto a single dead-end track, and now, just like Highsmith’s two doomed strangers, they can never escape each other, will become more and more entangled, each feeling a strange connection to the other, neither really understanding the other, each capable of destroying the other.  Two people caught up in a destructive relationship based on a dark secret–Highsmith’s speciality.  Westlake’s, not as much (well, he was a lot less specialized).

Hitchcock’s film of Highsmith’s novel is a pleasant lie, rooted in Hitch’s recurrent fascination with innocent men implicated in crimes they never committed.  In Highsmith’s world, there are no innocent men, or women.  Westlake lies in-between, not seeing humanity through as dark a lens as Highsmith, but still recognizing how easily corrupted our sense of self can be, how even the parts of ourselves we most prize, such as the skills he’d amassed as a writer, can turn like a snake in our hands and bite us.

See, the whole point of somebody doing a murder for a stranger, or near-stranger, is that you just go your separate ways afterwards, so no connection can ever be drawn between you.  However, the arrangement Wayne and Bryce have made necessitates them working together, becoming more and more involved in each other’s lives.  Bryce has to rewrite Wayne’s novel, which he retitles Two Faces in the Mirror.  He likes the book very much as Wayne wrote it, and immediately sees many things about it he can improve upon, as would any writer (as Westlake did, when he read Strangers on a Train).

But a well-written book is not a structure so much as a living breathing organism, and changing it around comes with certain inherent perils.  In making Wayne’s book his own, Bryce creates story problems that his highly capable editor, Joe Katz (the most admirable person in this book) says need to be fixed.

Bryce, unable to explain that he had no role in writing this book at all until just now, and unable to see any way to fix the problems himself, has no choice in the end but to ‘confess’ to Joe that he’d collaborated with another writer on this one.  He suggests bringing in Wayne to help with the tinkering.  Joe isn’t that shocked at Bryce’s confession (he knows his star player has been in a slump lately) and immediately recognizes Wayne as a talent worth cultivating, as Wayne senses a valuable professional connection in Joe.  They become fast friends in the coming weeks.

Bryce observes all this going on with a growing sense of disquiet–Wayne is moving in on his turf.  But there’s nothing he can do.  Including write any new books of his own.  He’s still blocked.  Lucie’s death, the end of the divorce proceedings, the temporary solution of his financial problems–none of this addressed his underlying problem, which is that he’s lost his creative focus–as a Eugene O’Neill character once said in a different context, he hasn’t even got the makings, he’s only got the habit.  Endless potential plot ideas drift in and out of his mind, like seeds born on the wind, and not a one ever settles into fertile soil and germinates.

His very pleasant relationship with a sultry Spanish-American divorcee sputters to an end, partly because she suspects him of murdering his wife, but mainly because he can’t focus on her any more than his work.  He abandons the apartment he once shared with Lucie, and retreats to his luxurious country home in Connecticut, where he meets a stay-at-home wife who recognizes him, wants to have an innocent little fling while her husband is at work.

Following her back to her place, he realizes with horror that all he can think about is beating her to death, so that he can experience the act of murder, as Wayne did.  He drives away from his confused would-be hook-up, just before it’s too late.

He can imagine it, and does, constantly–but does he really know what it’s like?  Before Lucie’s murder, in spite of his vastly greater wealth and status, he and Wayne were still somehow on equal footing professionally, like all storytellers who write about things they themselves have never experienced–did Shakespeare ever kill anyone in a fight?  Unlikely.  Did Homer ever even see a fight? Writers can’t only write what they know without unbearably constraining their options.  But now Wayne symbolically inhabits some higher plane of noir vérité Bryce can only guess at.

At one point, he confides in Wayne, who strangely seems much less bothered by Lucie’s murder, thinks about it less and less, and Wayne has an author’s insight to share.

“Oh Jesus, Bryce, I understand what it is.” Wayne shook his head.  He almost patted Bryce’s arm, but thought better of it.  He said, “I’ll tell you what it is.  I was there, Bryce, and it was horrible, and you can’t imagine it, but I don’t have to imagine it.  I was there.  So what I have is a memory, and memories fade.  All memories fade, Bryce, that’s what they do.  But you don’t have the memory, all you have is imagination.  And imagination never fades.

It’s dangerous for a storyteller to get too obsessed with reality (‘realism’ is just another artistic pose).  To question his or her ability to inwardly see that which he or she has never seen in the flesh–to lose faith in storytelling as a pathway to the truth.  Wayne has been promoted in Bryce’s eyes to some superior being, who has actually lived out one of those dark fantasies Bryce made himself a rich man by imagining, but now that all seems empty and fake to him.

He never wanted to kill anyone before, and he doesn’t really want to now, but how else can he get his mojo back?  He resists the imp of the perverse, uses every possible means of distracting himself from its siren call, but it keeps tugging at him, relentless as a riptide, inexorable as gravity.

By comparison, the man who actually beat Lucie Proctorr to death is doing great.  He never dreams about the murder. (Have any of you ever, in your lives, had a guilt-driven nightmare about something bad you did that you wish you’d never done?  By and large, the unconscious doesn’t work like that, outside of fiction.)

Essentially, following Highsmith’s logic (perhaps more The Talented Mr. Ripley  than Strangers on a Train, but all those early crime novels of hers are closely linked), he shows us a Wayne Prentice who is, not so gradually, becoming Bryce Proctorr.  But only in a very limited sense–he can’t, at this stage in the game, become an established brandname in publishing.  Joe Katz recognizes that he’s as talented as Bryce, maybe more so (and certainly a better writer than Bryce is now), but editors don’t decide who gets published anymore, to the limited extent they ever did.

Joe tells Wayne that his new novel, The Shadowed Other, won’t sell unless he can find some gimmick to sell it with.  It’s not high concept enough for the existing marketplace–just a good book.  It needs a more obvious–what’s the word I’m looking for here?–oh right, hook.  You know, something you can explain in one short sentence, like “A failed suspense writer agrees to murder a famous suspense writer’s wife in exchange for getting his own book published under the famous writer’s name.”  Bet there might even be a movie in that one.  Well, in France, anyway.

Wayne actually tries to turn his book into a screenplay, entitled Double Impact (already been used, but so what?), which goes not well, because he’s not visual enough.  He thought he was, but he’s not–at least not in the right way.  His strengths as a writer are shown to best advantage on the printed page, not on a screen.  (I detect a grudging admission here, and from an Oscar-nominated screenwriter at that, but that was for adapting somebody else’s work.)

He belatedly learns he can make a decent if unremarkable living doing nonfiction articles for magazines.  Which if he’d thought of it before, could have been the answer to how he could salvage his writing career, without becoming a murderer or (even worse!) a college professor. Still, he knows he’ll never love it the way he loved telling stories that never really happened.

Susan, once his compass (if not necessarily a moral one), is quietly becoming off-kilter.  She wants to go see the apartment Bryce and Lucie shared, that Bryce has now abandoned, leaving furniture Lucie mostly picked out for the new tenants, if they want to buy it. Just curious to see where the woman her husband killed with his hands used to live.  Nothing weird about that, right?  Truthfully, Wayne wants to see it too (this isn’t the transitional divorcee pad he murdered Lucie in), so he doesn’t talk her out of it.

Posing as a genuinely interested couple, they check out the ridiculously expansive expensive digs with a grand terrace view of the cityscape (over 6k a month, which would be a real bargain now), and all of a sudden Susan just talks the realtor into lowering the rent a bit and giving them the furniture outright to dispose of as they will.  The pose was reality, and the reality was the pose.  Wayne just gapes at her and says nothing.  He doesn’t know how to explain it to Bryce (or himself), so he doesn’t. But again, Susan has simply made manifest what he secretly yearned to do.  See how the other half lives.

Their rent-controlled classic six apartment in the Village that was always too big for them goes to Joe Katz and his growing family, along with basically the entire lifestyle Wayne committed first-degree murder to defend, and who the hell are these people now?  Untethered.  Rootless.  And living at the razor’s edge of their means, in spite of having two respectable middle class incomes and a nice bank balance (not to mention Bryce’s personal accountant minding their money).  You know, like normal upwardly mobile people.  No turning back now.

So how are the police not connecting all these dots?  Wayne was already questioned by the investigating officer on the case, Detective Johnson of the NYPD, smart, professional, African American, and you know where this is going already, right?  Because you’ve read The Ax.  You’ve read all the other Westlake novels involving police detectives.  Valerie Sayers had not, so she was irritated that the subplot went nowhere.  Westlake was irritated by something else.

Other than the two linked protagonists, the most central character in Strangers on a Train is a private detective named Arthur Gerard, who did odd jobs for Charles Bruno’s father (the father Bruno wanted Guy Haines to murder for him). He’s the deus ex machina in the story–out of both professional integrity and loyalty to his dead employer, he will relentlessly investigate the elder Bruno’s death if there’s even the slightest whiff of foul play about it, and he seems to have almost unlimited spare time and resources with which to do so.  (And it somehow never occurs to Bruno to just kill him first.)

He’s the primary reason Bruno can’t do the job himself, since he’s been basically waiting for Bruno to try something.  And before the story is over, after following a few false trails, he’s figured out exactly what happened, who did what to whom and and why, linked two seemingly unconnected murders in New York and Texas–he might as well have read an advance copy of the novel, so perfect is his understanding of each man’s character and motivation.  He might as well have written the book himself.   And at the end, when Guy finally unburdens his conscience with a confession (to somebody who couldn’t care less), Gerard is standing outside the door, taking notes.

Yeah.  You can see why Hitchcock wrote him out of the movie (though in a sense, he later had a version of him written into Psycho, played by Simon Oakland, who would have made a perfect Gerard, which is weird, but let’s not get too sidetracked here).

Westlake isn’t about the detectives; not in that sense of the word.  Neither is Highsmith, really–she was feeling her way into the genre with this one–she learned fast which clichés to discard.  If Gerard ever showed up in one of the later Ripley novels, he’d probably be leaving it feet first. But here he makes Holmes look like Lestrade.  And just to get it out there, he’s clearly drawn from Javert in Les Miserables, and the producers of The Fugitive later named their relentlessly pursuing Hugo-esque detective Gerard, and never once mentioned Highsmith as an influence.  Maybe she and David Goodis should have filed a class action suit together.  Well no, they wouldn’t have gotten along.  Not without a lot of alcohol in the mix, anyway. What were we talking about?

Westlake ended The Ax with a perfectly good professional detective making a perfectly understandable mistake.  Johnson isn’t even that important–he’s a McGuffin, is all.  Last we see of him, he’s telling Bryce they’re going to ‘open’ the case on his wife’s murder–which in cop-speak means they’re closing it, and will never look at it again, unless something new comes up.

He may suspect Bryce a little, he doesn’t suspect Wayne at all, he knows something funny is going on here, but he’s not magic, he didn’t read a story outline in advance, he has to work on other cases, and professionalism aside, he doesn’t really care who murdered Lucie Proctorr.  In short, he’s a real detective, not a fictional one.  Though he’s tried his hand at writing detective fiction, just as a sideline.  It’s never worked out for him.  Takes a certain kind of mind.   Not necessarily a compliment.

So there’s no point waiting for the detectives to show up, and Westlake isn’t quite sure there was any point to it in the original version of this story.  That’s not what the story is about, nor is it really about guilt driving the two men mad. Neither is really all that guilty. It’s about how they’ve so badly blurred the line between reality and fiction that they don’t know which is which anymore.

Bryce turned Wayne into a character in one of his novels.  But Wayne is a writer too, and he had to improvise his own story within the general outline.  He’s taken over part of Bryce’s life (while losing his own, since he still can’t get published under his own name), and Bryce feels like his life has become a fiction, and he still can’t write a thing worth reading.

Joe Katz is increasingly aware of Bryce’s professional paralysis.  There’s another deadline looming, and it just happens to be for the last novel in Bryce’s contract with the publisher.  He’s already taken a lot of advance money he has not provided the goods for.   He informs a horrified Bryce that they might have to demand he give that money back (and of course he’s spent most of it already).

What made Joe so convinced Bryce Proctorr is no longer ‘Bryce Proctorr’?  More than anything else, it was an interview he did for the New York Review of Books. Conducted, if you’d believe it, by Wayne Prentice.  Complete coincidence, NYRB didn’t even know the two men were acquainted, but Wayne had done some writing for them already.  They would normally ignore someone like Bryce (as they mainly ignored Westlake), but he’s become so famous, he’s a sort of cultural icon, in spite of the fact that most serious literary critics wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire.  They want to get his perspective on writing.  They promise not to poke fun.

So Wayne drives out to Connecticut, and conducts the interview.  He goes back to New York, reviews the tapes, and ultimately opts to write both the questions and answers himself and submit the piece, which is very well-received).  But Joe got hold of the original transcript through Wayne.  And here’s why I’ve had so few quotes in this review.  I wanted to make space for this passage.

For the record, Wayne’s question is “Were you influenced by Borges?” Relating to The Garden of Forking Paths.  Here is Bryce’s response, verbatim.  There is no indication in the book that Bryce ever smoked a doobie in his life.

“Duality…is, of course, naturally it’s in all of us, opposites and the movements of selfs under the skin, and the feeling that this can’t be happening to me, but then what is?  What is happening, if not what is?  From that point of view, every decision has to be inevitable, no way to get away from what was decided, because history then flows, you see, flows, history flows from each decision, and when we stand up here, you see, you see?  when you stand up here on this hilltop this is where you are and you could not have been here if you hadn’t decided the way you did way back there.  Of course, naturally, of course, if you made  a different decision then, that would be the right, the correct one, the only one, the only possible, the only way you could have gone, if only you’d thought, if only you’d thought it through, and now today, you see, you do see, don’t you?  today you’d be on some other hilltop looking back and you would see that you were right and that was the only possible hilltop, that was the only possible hilltop, if only you’d been patient, and you can’t even see that hilltop from there, where you are instead, you can’t get to it, you can’t ever get to it, but you certainly know, you know now, you should have known then, you should have known, you were thinking like a madman, worse, you were thinking like a storyteller, telling a story, with a hook, and you didn’t see there were other, other, there were other, oh, let’s call them scenarios, and the multiplicity of the scenarios, yes, forking paths, that’s good, I don’t know about a garden, but this multiplicity opens and then closes like stones, like giant stones closing, and all the variables, the variations, what shall we say, diversity, the multiformity narrows, constricts, strangles, until there’s only the one, and that it’s the only one is not the excuse, that it’s the inevitable is not the excuse, that it’s the only thing that could have happened only because it’s the only thing that did happen is not the excuse, and we’re left with a duality that is in the spirit, a remorse, a wish undone, a desire for a forking path, a garden, yes, a desire for a flower that does not grow, which is where I’ve always, my hand has always reached out, but the image and the reality are wrong, to bring us back to your question, the desire for another reality is what makes the writer of fiction, the teller of tales, to bring us back to your question, the liar, the one who forces his reality onto the world but the graft, to bring us back to your question, the graft can never survive on this new root, on this hilltop, this one, here.  Which I suppose is what I was writing about, if I’d ever cared to pay attention.  However, I’ve never read Borges.”

Me neither, and I’ve always meant to.

Even Valerie Sayers was a little impressed by that passage.  She probably had read Borges, but almost certainly not Adios, Scheherazade, or she’d have known Westlake was on familiar ground here, charting the chaos of a writer’s mind when he no longer knows what he wants to write, questions every choice he ever made, because to be a writer of fiction is to be, in a certain limited sense, God–and what mortal being can believe he or she is qualified for that job, if he or she ever makes the fatal error of seriously thinking about it?

But the difference here is that Bryce Proctorr is not some anonymous scribbler of obscure smutty paperbacks who can just fade away into a nirvana of self-realization–he’s a prisoner of his own name, his own fame, and he can’t get away from that, ever.

He can’t even confess what he did to the police and take his punishment–he confesses to his first wife, the one he left for Lucie, so she won’t be caught unprepared when he turns himself in.  She rages at him; how selfish can you be, how immoral, don’t you realize this will destroy your children’s lives, you’re a celebrity!  And she’s right.  But she’s also being very selfish and immoral herself, of course.  It’s pretty much the default human response to life.  And here we are on a hilltop (or maybe the top of a certain tower in Manhattan), wondering how we got here, and how the hell we get back down again.  Jump?

Wayne is still a writer, so he can still distract himself with fiction, but he sees a real danger to himself in Bryce’s mental confusion, their destinies being so interlinked.  He also sees a real opportunity–Bryce needs another novel, and he’s got one.  The Shadowed Other.  He’s going to make Bryce’s real name his pen name. Joe will look the other way, pretend it isn’t happening, so the brandname can survive. Wayne Prentice will become Bryce Proctorr for real. Why not?  How is that any different than writing as Tim Fleet?  If you gotta ask…..

He and Susan move into the house in Connecticut, so as to keep Bryce on as even a keel as possible, see that he doesn’t make any impromptu confessions, keep alive the fiction that Bryce Proctorr had anything to do with writing the book Wayne already wrote.  Wayne will just convince Bryce by degrees that it’s a collaboration, and at the same time, he’ll amass a trail of evidence that Bryce is mentally unstable–so that if he ever does crack and make a clean breast of things, his testimony won’t be admissable in court.  And seriously, who’d even believe such a thing?  Murder somebody’s wife for a book deal?  It’s just another of Bryce’s rejected story ideas, that he came to think was real.  Just another hook.

But Bryce isn’t going to confess.  He’s past that point now.  All he can think about is the murder.  Lucie’s murder.  If only he’d been there.  He should have been there.  He needs to know what it was like.  There must be a way.  Wayne has gone out.  It’s the housekeeper’s day off.  He walks into Susan’s room–she and Bryce never liked each other–he calls her Lucie.  “My name is Susan,” she says.  “Not anymore,” he responds.  End story.  Joe won’t be editing this one.  Johnson, maybe.  Hey, maybe he can write a book about it!

I could go into many more details about the shadowed other to this book that is Strangers on a Train; where the tracks divide and where they converge again, but here’s my advice.  Read the book.  It’s better than this one, as I said to start with, just as it’s better than the Hitchcock film most people remember it for–but not in every respect.  The multifarious Mr. Westlake had some very different things to say than the talented (but often tunnel-visioned) Ms. Highsmith.  They surely differed on many a subject.  But there were times when they gazed steely-eyed upon the same world, those two.  And unfortunately, the world they saw at those times was more than a fiction.  And less.

I liked it better the second time through, probably because I had more context to work with this time.  I don’t rank it among Westlake’s best work, but I do consider it one of his more interesting ‘problem books.’  It was certainly problematic to review, but next up is another Parker novel, and those are always simple, right?

Here’s my problem–this is the first thing by Donald Westlake I ever read in my life.  I consider it the weakest novel he ever wrote as Richard Stark.  It was used as the basis for one of the very worst film adaptations Westlake ever got (hopefully not the last one, but the box office was awful).  And it’s set mainly in Florida.  The most boring part of Florida (and the richest).

But here it is in the queue.  Can’t go around it.  And I’d take the worst thing Stark ever wrote over the best thing Clancy or Cussler (or Kosiński) ever pretended to write.  I couldn’t possibly say about Borges.

Belated post-script:  I had read in the past, but completely forgot until just now, that the British edition of this book had a completely different title. So there is one cover image I missed, but I’m not at all sorry not to have featured it up top.


I have no idea why this happened.  Some kind of copyright issue?  Titles aren’t copyrighted.  Corkscrews play no role in the story at all (as a murder weapon or anything else).  The word corkscrew doesn’t even appear in the book.  Perversity, thy name is Brit.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Hook

Wayne said, “Let me tell you the world we live in now.  It’s the world of the computer.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“People don’t make decisions any more, the computer makes the decisions.” Wayne leaned closer.  “Let me tell you what’s happening to writers.”

“Wayne,” Bryce said gently, “I am a writer.”

“You’ve made it,” Wayne told him.  “You’re above the tide, this shit doesn’t affect you.  It affects the mid-list guys, like me.  The big chain bookstores, they’ve each got the computer, and the computer says, we took five thousand of his last book, but we only sold thirty-one hundred, so don’t order more than thirty-five hundred.  So there’s thinner distribution, and you sell twenty-seven hundred, so the next time they order three thousand.”

Bryce said, “There’s only one way for that to go.”

As has been made evident many times in the past here, I enjoy trying to guess which past works of fiction might have helped inspire whatever Westlake opus I am reviewing at a given moment.  You may not necessarily agree with my guesses, but we certainly agree that’s what they are, and no doubt I’ve been wrong sometimes.  The exercise is, nonetheless, highly pleasurable to me.  Sometimes Mr. Westlake deprives me of that speculative pleasure by making his debt to another writer so blatant and unequivocal that it scarcely seems worth the mentioning.

As is the case with this book, but since Valerie Sayers (at that time the author of  five novels and a professor of English, at Notre Dame no less) completely failed to mention that debt in her well-written and somewhat condescending review for the New York Times, I might as well get it out there, just to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Not a Hitchcock buff, Prof. Sayers?  I won’t even inquire about Highsmith.  Why does the Times so frequently choose non-mystery authors to review mystery books?  A mystery in itself.  Perhaps they confused her with Dorothy?  An idle whimsy, never mind.

Now in all fairness, maybe Sayers (a South Carolinian of Irish Catholic descent, out of the Flannery O’Connor school, and that’s all fine by me) thought the similarity was too obvious to mention as well, or she figured all genre lit is derivative. (Southern Gothic isn’t a genre, you see–it’s a subgenre.  Entirely different.)  Or maybe she didn’t want to sound like she was crying plagiarism when all she really wanted was to deride Westlake’s shallow characterization and over-conceptualized plotting. But I strongly suspect she never made the Highsmith connection at all.  Maybe if there’d been a tennis match or a carousel in Westlake’s book?  Oh, that was mean.

It is not plagiarism, in and of itself, for one writer to react to another.  There is no writer worth talking about who does not do this habitually.  With her own book, Highsmith was clearly reacting to Dreiser, not to mention Dostoevsky (and they were all reacting to Poe). Westlake might have been a bit less careful here than he would have been had Highsmith been alive, and had he not been under the gun a bit (we’ll talk about that), but it’s really no different than his various creative reworkings of Red Harvest.  Less enthusiastic, perhaps–more self-conscious–an older man’s book.

A summary online search reveals that pretty much everybody other than Sayers made mention that Mr. Westlake was fishing with a borrowed hook here.  He wasn’t trying to hide it, and it wasn’t something you really could hide, from anyone who knew the genre at all.  You’re supposed to see the influence, think about it, what it means, compare and contrast.

Strange that Sayers would say in her review that the story Westlake tells here isn’t about character, when it’s riffing on the work of a writer who virtually drowns you in character, after first hitting you with an oar, and throwing you over the side.  Highsmith’s morbid missives take place more or less entirely in the heads of one or several people, expressing to us what seems to be their every waking thought (without going full stream of consciousness, like Mr. Joyce and his many imitators), which makes her work, in equal measure, fascinating and frustrating.  She writes good stories, but she’s primarily interested in aberrant dysfunctional personalities, and she was to all accounts a ranking authority on the subject.

(I’m being territorial here, I’m quite aware, about the Times review, another weakness of mine.  Valerie Sayers is a very fine writer, and has a sharp eye for detail–many trustworthy people have said so, and looking at a sampling of her work, I saw no reason to doubt them.  She got another novel out in 2013. A university press this time; her relationship with Doubleday must have ended by the time she wrote her review of The Hook, for reasons that The Hook might indeed help illumine–she grudgingly concedes Westlake knows his onions when it comes to the world of publishing.

Let me say in passing that a quick glance at her resumé and a general working knowledge of human nature gives me the distinct impression that she would have needed to be a living saint to not have had a hostile reaction to this book, hardly Westlake’s best work, but there’s no indication in her review that she’s ever read anything of his before, even The Ax.  She almost certainly hadn’t read Highsmith, and makes a passel of assumptions no dedicated mystery reader ever would.  If her review is a touch on the jaundiced side, I blame the Times for assigning it to her in the first place.

Westlake was known to write critically of other people’s books as well, often for the Times. I think he was a more perceptive critic than Sayers, but I would, wouldn’t  I?  Scratch a writer, find a backbiter, one of his themes here.  Maybe that entire practice of the literary circular firing squad should be reconsidered.

He could well have gotten a crack at one of hers at some point, except she didn’t publish any books at all between 1996 and 2013–you see my point about how this one might have rubbed her the wrong way.  Her 1996 book doesn’t seem to have gotten a Times review.   Publisher’s Weekly sort of gently panned it.  Her very well-reviewed 2013 offering seems to be a metatextual ode to baseball, certainly an under-covered subject in highbrow lit, and maybe I better get back to Westlake before I drown us all in sarcasm.)

Westlake, to be sure, liked to get at character both more obliquely and concisely than Highsmith did in her novels–he was the master of the thumbnail portrait, particularly when writing as Richard Stark (the part of himself that most resembled Highsmith), and he liked to let the actions of the characters tell us who they were as much as possible, while still reserving the omniscient narrator’s right to sum them up.

But he, like Highsmith, was all about identity, how it changes in response to external stimuli, exigencies beyond the individual’s control, and most of all our relationships with others.  His protagonists usually coped better with the dire situations he put them in than hers did.  Not always, though.

So yes, he took a stripped down plot device from a famous mystery novel (less famous for the book than the movie, the latter of which I’d summarize as a more efficiently told story about far less interesting people, probably true of most Hitchcock adaptations), and I’ll just say it now–he did not improve on the original, any more than The Master of Suspense did.  Did he expect to?  I don’t know.  But he clearly thought there were things he could do with the basic premise that Highsmith did not, otherwise he wouldn’t have tried.

Really, the author he was most obviously copying from here was himself. In my review of The Ax, I referred to an essay Westlake wrote but never published, now featured in The Getaway Car, in which he expressed his frustration that he was having ‘second novel problems’ after publishing scores of novels.  His editors, publishers, agents, spouse, etc, all told him that whatever book came out after The Ax under his own name had to be special, couldn’t be humorous, couldn’t be Dortmunder, couldn’t be some sexy tropical romp. It had to be bloody, hard-edged, suspenseful, and thought-provoking.  In other words, they wanted him to prove The Ax wasn’t a fluke.  (I might personally observe that masterpieces are all flukes, by definition, but I wasn’t involved in that conversation.)

The general sentiment was something along the lines of “This was your greatest commercial and critical success ever; now go do it again.”  Easy for them to say.  So anyway, he had a bunch of ideas, many from past books of his (Cops and Robbers, A Likely Story, others), but he clearly did read (probably reread) Highsmith’s book around this time, and saw so much more clearly than most ever would, what Highsmith was getting at with it–and where she’d gone wrong, because as powerfully unsettling a first novel as it is, it’s also crammed with journeyman blunders that would have made his typing fingers itch, and of course he and Highsmith would not be of a like mind about everything (a serious understatement).  And anyway, a good story is always worth revisiting, updating.

She might have been in his mind then because of her recent death, in 1995.  Since she and Westlake shared a publisher at one point–reportedly not a happy time for Otto Penzler–there’s no way she wasn’t aware of Westlake as a writer, but I don’t know which of her contemporaries she read, or whether she liked any writers other than her patron Graham Greene (I think they mainly just corresponded, probably an aid to friendly relations).  Liking people was never really her thing.  But this novel we’re looking at strongly suggests that writers having issues with other writers is not just a Highsmith thing.  Cats on a hot tin printing press.

I’m not clear on when he was first approached to write a screenplay adaptation of Ripley Under Ground–the film was produced in 2003, but as was frequently the case, they didn’t use much if any of Westlake’s treatment, and went to another writer after him, which would have drawn things out.  So a very good chance this book bears some connection to that project, and the reading he’d have done for it, to get her voice right.

I understand the finished film was terrible, not that I’d know, since it’s damned difficult to find.  I’ve read the novel, which I’m inclined to call the best thing of Highsmith’s I’ve read thus far–not quite as good as The Ax, but it’s close–her career batting average was better than his, but she showed up to play a lot less often.  Anyway, a masterpiece is a masterpiece, and to rank them is a waste of time.

I’ve just finished Strangers on a Train (I do my research), and I get the feeling she spent much of her subsequent career reworking that story, trying to fix it, with varying levels of success. Like Westlake, there were other directions she might have gone in as a writer (see Carol, originally known as The Price of Salt, which got published right away, unlike Westlake’s Memory), but she found a comfortable commercial niche in crime–comfortable for her in ways beyond the commercial. As many had learned before her, and since, you can get away with things in that genre that would raise too many eyebrows in a ‘serious book.’  And make a nice living doing it–she left a substantial estate behind when she died, though no heirs to enjoy it.

I’ve still read relatively little of her, but I’m in the process of emending that deficiency now, and for all her failings as a person, as a writer I consider her one of our very best, a lone sentinel on the ramparts of social alienation, with some troubling insights to share.  A true American original.  Who never much liked Americans either, but it would take too long to list all the subsets of humanity Patricia Highsmith disliked–easier to just say she didn’t like humans.  Least of all herself.  We can all relate, sometimes.

It’ll take me a while to get through her.  She isn’t someone you necessarily want to binge-read.  That could be deleterious to your mental outlook.  Unlike Westlake, whose range of interests and voices and moods could seem unlimited, she was very intently focused on a small handful of themes in her novels, and really just one dark prevailing tone–both a weakness and a strength.  As was Westlake’s need to keep changing up.  Which he was not, as mentioned, permitted to do right after The Ax.  And hence The Hook.  Not as startlingly original as the book that inspired it, or as searingly relevant as the book it was supposed to serve as the informal follow-up to, but a book has to be evaluated on its own merits (if any), so let’s do that now.

Bryce Proctorr, best-selling author, is doing research for a novel at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library (not the grand stone ediface with the lions, but the much less distinguished-looking glass & steel structure across 5th Ave. from it).   It seems he’s not doing research for a book he’s working on, so much as harvesting background material on various exotic locales he might set a book in, if he ever got an idea worth pursuing.

His publishing niche seems to be mainly books about foreign intrigue and adventure, espionage, that sort of thing.  Along the lines of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and similarly lucrative.  That most contradictory of creatures, a celebrity scribbler.  One of his many readers recognizes him there, asks for his autograph, and he’s outwardly polite, inwardly bored, happens to him all the time.  Then he recognizes someone.

Wayne Prentice.  Also a novelist, also doing research.  He and Bryce used to know each other, back when both were struggling to make it.  They lost touch, haven’t seen each other in twenty years.  (Valerie Sayers was struck by their last names–‘Proctor and Apprentice?’ she mused.  She somehow didn’t twig to the fact that their first names combine into Bryce Wayne.  Because they will become each other’s alter egos, secret identities.  I mean, seriously, how hard a reference is that to spot, if you’re actually looking for hidden meanings?  I’m sorry to keep bringing this up, it’s just irritating to me.  It was probably more amusing for Westlake.  He got used to the critics underestimating him.  Beneath the radar once more.)

Bryce hesitates before approaching–the perils of wealth and fame–suppose Wayne hits him up for money?–but he’s curious, and they were friends, and he knows he’s not really getting anything professional done at the library–this will be a welcome distraction.  Wayne is likewise both delighted and embarrassed to see Bryce.  They decide to adjourn to a nearby bar, and catch up.  (They aren’t on a train in the late 40’s, when rich people still took trains, so there’s no private drawing room they can chat in.)

As they sip a pair of Bloody Marys (okay, Sayers couldn’t have missed that, no need to belabor the obvious), Wayne opens up about his professional woes.  He’s not researching a novel.  He’s looking up colleges out in the boonies that might hire him to teach; writing, English, whatever.  His career as a novelist has itself become an exercise in fiction.  Nobody will publish him, and a writer who can’t get published isn’t a writer anymore, in his view of things–just a hobbyist.

He explains to Bryce about the bookstore chains, the computers keeping tabs on your sales, the ever-declining sales, leading to less and less assistance and promotion from the publisher, which leads in turn to still further declines in sales.  He was successful enough at first, but the new publishing landscape is merciless to writers who are established enough to command a decent advance, but not famous enough to deliver the big numbers. He got around this for a while through a subterfuge that nobody understood better than Donald E. Westlake.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Wayne said.  “All over this town, people are writing their first novel again.”

It took Bryce a second to figure that one out, and then he grinned, and said “A pen name.”

“A protected pen name.  It’s no good if the publisher knows.  Only the agent knows it’s me.”  Wayne had a little more of his Bloody Mary and shook his head.  “It’s a complicated life,” he said.  “Since I did spend that one year in Italy, the story is, I’m an expatriate American living in Milan, and I travel around Europe a lot, I’m an antiques appraiser, so all communication is through the agent.  If I have to write to my editor, or send in changes, it’s all done by E-mail.”

“As though it’s E-mail from Milan.”

“Nothing could be easier.”

Bryce laughed.  “They think they’re E-mailing you all the way to Italy and you’re…”

“Down in  Greenwich Village.”

So Wayne Prentice became Tim Fleet, and for a while, Tim Fleet was a successful writer, getting bigger advances than Wayne had recently, because the computer didn’t know him. It wasn’t perfect–no way to do book tours, promotion was problematic, but they were evaluating each book in its own right, not on the basis of past track record.  And eventually the computers caught up, and the same thing happened all over again.  Wayne doesn’t think he can pull the same trick twice.  So he’s worked up a resumé for the colleges, and he’s depressed as all hell about it.

If the goal of fiction is indeed to ‘write what you know,’ Westlake could not be on more solid footing here.  Professionally, he was roughly equi-distant between Bryce and Wayne–never a best-selling author, but well-established enough under his various names that the bookstore computers could only hurt him so much.  He did, in fact, think about taking a teaching job at one point, but more because revenue from script-writing had flagged.  He never (that we know of) had a fully protected pseudonym that even the publisher didn’t know was him, but after the Samuel Holt fiasco, he certainly must have regretted not giving that a try.

Think for a moment, before we proceed, how incredibly difficult it is to make your living as a novelist in the modern age, not that it ever was easy.  Think about how many people are lining up for their share of an ever-shrinking market–because there is still probably nothing anyone dreams of more than saying at some social gathering “My new novel is in stores now.”  It’s the damn 19th century romantic movement.  Used to be nobody of any substance wanted to admit to writing fiction.  Or to being an actor.  Those were the days.

Rich famous people like Bill O’Reilly, who have absolutely no reason to write a novel (and 99.999% of the time, no ability) do so anyway, because it’s just such a neat thing to be able to say.  Admit it–you’ve fantasized about having a book in stores, standing by the book rack, holding a copy with the photograph of you on the back dust jacket exposed, waiting to be recognized.  I certainly have. Everybody who has ever read a novel has thought about writing one. Thankfully, that’s all most of us ever do, but imagine what it’s like for those who choose it as their daily profession, and don’t want to do anything else for the rest of their lives.

A handful will, to be sure, gain such a reputation for this or that book that they can more or less live off of that forever (looking at you, J.D. Salinger, and maybe you too, Miss Harper Lee, which isn’t fair, since neither of you are living at all now), but what kind of life is that?  If you make furniture for a living, if that’s what you love to do, would you be happy knowing that you’re so famous for this one table you produced that you don’t ever need to make another one, and if you ever did, people would just compare it unfavorably to the earlier one?

Let’s say you had this amazing sexual encounter with a stranger once, and you were on fire that night, performed beyond your wildest expectations, and when it was all over, your partner said, with hushed reverence, “Not to insult you, or demean what you and I just shared, but I feel I must leave two hundred dollars on the nightstand.”  And you take the money, not feeling at all dirtied, but rather ennobled, and you treasure that achievement always, as well you should, and maybe it even happens a few times more, though the stack of bills by the bedside keeps shrinking.

Even so–would you then, when asked at a party what you do for a living, declare with pride, “I’m a hooker!”?  Of course not!  Because to do something once, or even several times, is not the same thing as making it your job.  Your job is what you do, day in, day out, until you can’t do it anymore, at which point it is no longer your job, no longer who and what you are.  You are only a novelist for as long as you keep writing novels, with at least a decent chance of getting them published, and the publisher pays you, not the other way around.(Okay, maybe self-publishing on the internet is blurring the lines of this definition a bit–but not much.  Making it easier to kid yourself.  Blogs can work too.)

So Westlake is telling us how he feels about writing–it’s more than just a job to him, it’s an addiction, a craving, a hunger he can only satisfy by getting another book on the shelves of increasingly mercenary booksellers and their cold-hearted computers.   And the difference, as he put it once, between being in or out of print, is being alive or dead.  And what wouldn’t you do to keep that?   To keep your very sense of selfhood alive a while longer?

And even though Bryce Proctorr is a famous wealthy novelist, who hit it big soon enough that he never even heard about any of this computer crap until Wayne told him, he’s got his own identity crisis going on.  He’s in the middle of a bitter divorce battle with his second wife, Lucie, who is quite determined to get half of everything he’s got.  Including half of any books he produces between now and the official end of their marriage.  And the stress of all this has made it impossible for him to produce anything, for a year and a half now.  He’s well behind deadline, and his editor is making politely impatient noises, that will soon become louder and more insistent.

And honestly, for all the money he’s made–Wayne tries not to gasp when Bryce lets it slip his advance is over a million–there really isn’t that much left.  One ex-wife already, three kids to put through college, and he’s gotten used to the finer things in life (the more you make, the more you spend; the more you spend, the more you need to make in order to maintain your spending; the joys of the upwardly mobile lifestyle in a nutshell).

Sure, he wouldn’t be penniless if he hung it all up, but he wouldn’t be Bryce Proctorr either.  He’d be some has-been hack, with no reason to go on, washed up in his mid-40’s.  Never taken seriously by the critical establishment, forgotten by everyone else.  Just another name you see on some tattered mass-market paperback at a garage sale.  (Whatever did happen to Mario Puzo, by the way?)

And he’s just now getting a brilliant and rather evil idea (and really, aren’t all brilliant ideas just a little bit evil?), as well as providing this book with its title. What’s great about talking to Wayne is that they’re both professional storytellers, they both think in the same basic terms, speak the same language.  To them, fiction is not a metaphor for life, so much as life is a metaphor for fiction.

“Wayne, listen,” Bryce said.  “You know how you–You know, you’re working along in a book, you’re trying to figure out the story, but where’s the hook, the narrative hook, what moves this story, and you can’t get it and you can’t get it and you can’t get it, and then all of a sudden there it is!  You know?

“Sure,” Wayne said.  “It has to come, or where are you?”

“And sometimes not at all what you expected, or thought you were looking for.”

“Those are the best,” Wayne said.

“I just found my hook,” Bryce told him.

Wayne has a book he can’t get published–written by Tim Fleet, who almost nobody knows is Wayne Prentice.  Bryce says that can be his next book–he’ll just rewrite it enough so the few people who read the manuscript when it was making the rounds won’t recognize it.  Proctorr-ize it.  He’s read some of Wayne’s stuff under the Fleet name, liked it–he knows Wayne is good enough to impress his publisher, once he’s decked out in the Emperor’s old clothes.  He’ll split his advance with Wayne, 50/50–over half a million bucks.

Wayne can’t believe Bryce is even suggesting this, though in fact it’s a very poorly kept secret that both Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler have done this multiple times (Drowned Hopes contains a reference to a writer named Justin Scott, a crafter of nautical adventures, who is also known to have produced novels of the same general type that were accredited to the Clive Cussler brandname–probably most of Cussler’s readers never noticed the difference, except maybe to say “Hey, Clive’s stepped up his game with this one!”), and they were both probably a lot less generous in terms of the split.  Um–now that we’re on the subject– why so generous, Bryce?

Because there’s a catch.  A hook, if you will.  The book needs to be submitted soon.  The divorce may drag on for years.  Lucie will get half the advance if the book is completed before the divorce is final.  Bryce needs his half, in order to go on living in the manner to which he has become accustomed.  For Wayne to get Lucie’s half, Lucie’s gotta go.  He wants Wayne to kill her.  They may not be complete strangers, or on a train, but it’s close enough.  In return, Bryce will sacrifice his own sense of professional pride on the bloody altar of necessity by using a ghostwriter, which for a novelist is probably the more serious crime of the two.  So still trading murders.

Now.  Here’s my question.  Did Westlake start out writing another book along the lines of A Likely Story, that masterful and murder-free satire of the publishing biz that hardly anybody read?  Only to then be informed by various persons in authority that satire is well and good, but if he wants this book to sell, he needs to recognize that people will expect some kind of criminal activity from him, such as murder, and all the more after The Ax and the return of Richard Stark (his Tim Fleet) reestablished him as something more than just that guy who writes comic capers about baffled burglars.

And at the same time, he was in the early stages of adapting a novel by the late Ms. Highsmith into a movie, and he was not just reading that specific book by her, and he saw how her narrative hook in her first and still best-known novel–and the ideas behind it, the sense of compromised identity, a dark relationship between secret sharers (forgot to mention Conrad on Highsmith’s list of influences) that corrupts and destroys both protagonists–could fit into what he was doing here.  Or maybe he intended all this from the first.  I’m just curious. Because in a certain weird way, this book is a collaboration between him and a writer he may never have even met.

But suffice it to say Valerie Sayers was far more correct than she knew when she said this was a sort of meta-textual commentary on the writing of genre books–it’s a meta-textual commentary on the career of its author, and many another as well (I still think Sayers felt more of a sense of self-recognition there than she was comfortable with).  But she sort of sniffed a bit when she said it, dismissing the effort as somehow trivial, and was she right to do so?

Is this an unsatisfactory compromise of a book, stuck between two modes of storytelling?  Pretending to be a nice diverting suspense novel about murderous writers, while really playing around with another writer’s much earlier idea, turning it into a way to comment on the relationship between fiction and life?

(Though I might mention on the side, because I apparently can’t help myself, that I noted Sayers doing something quite similar in one of her books I was leafing through last week, that was published a few years before The Hook came out.  This character of hers, an aspiring writer, is right in the middle of a dramatic situation with a woman he’s involved with, and even as he deals with that sticky situation, he’s thinking to himself how he’s going to have to rewrite the book he’s composing in his head about their relationship to accommodate his altered perception of her.  Writers probably can’t stop themselves from doing that, fictionalizing daily existence, while cannibalizing daily existence for the building blocks of their fiction–but honestly, can anybody stop doing that these days?  David Copperfield was doing it back in 1849, and it’s only gotten worse since then.)

So I’m only a few pages into the book here, but we bloggers have our own self-imposed deadlines to deal with, internalized editors nagging us, and I’m sure I’ll have many more snarky and unfair things to say about Valerie Sayers’ review in Part 2 (why does she get paid and I do not!), but I will try to actually finish the review next time, and if I fail in that attempt, well, it wouldn’t be my first three-parter, would it now?  Here’s hoping the hook is sufficiently well stuck in your mouths for you all to come back and find out.  See, I really am a hooker.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: A Good Story and Other Stories

Westlake is the exact opposite of, say, a Stanley Ellin, who writes good novels and wonderful short stories.   The Westlake novels are always among the best of the year, the shorts are merely very good–clever, imaginative, ironic, admirably crafted, very much in the Alfred Hitchcock manner, and far more neatly professional than most of that school.  I suppose the main difference is that the novels have people in them.  Westlake has yet to learn how to make his characters breathe in a short story; but his other virtues are so marked that this may be a niggling objection.

Anthony Boucher, Criminals at Large, the New York Times, March 31, 1968–reviewing an earlier anthology, but might as well have been this one. 

You’ll note that the covers of the first hardcover edition of this anthology and the later paperback reprint both feature manual typewriters.  Perfectly appropriate to this author, who stubbornly stuck with that method of committing words to paper (and paper itself) to the end of his life.  His weapon of choice was the Smith Corona Silent Super–but the first edition clearly doesn’t feature that machine.  I rather think the reprint does, but they seem to have removed the brand name (no endorsements).  See what you think.


This is probably a twin of the machine he told an interviewer about getting from a warehouse once, after Smith-Corona stopped making Silent Supers–all they had was pink.  Like really really pink.  He said he gradually managed to de-pink it somewhat, and kept plinking away.  So did Smith-Corona, but they had to give up on the typewriter entirely, after a while.  They make something called ‘thermal labels’ now and seem to be doing fine.  I’m not sure Westlake would have even had the heart to make a joke about that.  They have an entire online museum devoted to the noble typewriter, so you know they never really got over its demise either.  Speaking as somebody who makes a lot of typos, and hated wite-out with a passion, I’m okay with it.  Yet oddly gratified that he wasn’t, somehow.

Westlake wrote quite a lot of short fiction, mostly for magazines, and very little has ever made it to book form.  Basically, if you’ve read the very first anthology for Random House in the 60’s (The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution), combined with the linked stories collected in Levine, and the Dortmunder related stuff in Thieves Dozen, you’ve probably read all his best work in that format.

I can’t say this for certain at the present time, since there are many stories of his I have not yet read (I doubt I’ll ever find them all, nor is a definitive anthology ever likely to appear), but I can’t help but notice, when perusing contents of the existing anthologies over at the Official Westlake Blog, that the same small handful of stories (often under different titles) keep cropping up, over and over again.  Either there were problems with the rights to other stories of his that merited being collected (and I don’t know why that would be) or else Mr. Westlake only felt like a very small percentage of his small-scale  yarns were fit for human consumption. Bit of both, maybe.

(And I have no idea how many of his shorts have appeared in general mystery anthologies involving multiple authors.  Westlake helped compile one of those himself, and guess how many of his stories he put in it?  That’s right.  Well, it would have looked bad if he had put himself in that company.  I still have to review that one, if only for his intro.)

These days, quite a bit of previously uncollected work of his shows up in tiny cheap ebook collections.  Often just one or two stories, mainly science fiction, presumably not protected by copyright.  I’ve found these little offerings for Kindle useful in terms of getting some historical perspective on Westlake’s early preoccupations and development as a writer, but I can’t honestly say I thought any of them were much good as stories.  And neither did he. Man’s gotta know his limitations.

Most of what he wrote for magazines was for experience and to pay bills.  Once he could support himself as a novelist alone (with some work on the side for Hollywood), his short story production slacked off quite a bit, but he never completely stopped writing them, along with articles and essays.  He never gave up trying to master the form, and he never quite did master it, but there were the odd few exceptions, here and there.

His best shorts frequently involve established series characters, such as Levine and Dortmunder.  For obvious reasons–if we agree with Anthony Boucher’s comment up top that Westlake couldn’t easily create believable compelling three-dimensional characters in a short story as he did so often in his novels–it only stands to reason that he’d do his best work at the shorter distance when he already had such a character ready made, so to speak.

The Levine stories, in particular, get stronger with each new entry–because Westlake would keep deepening Levine, remembering what he’d done before with him, and adding to it; fleshing the character and concept out a bit more each time. The end result was a series of brief vignettes that made a negligible impact individually, but were emotionally devastating when read in proper sequence.  I don’t even consider that a true anthology–it’s an episodic novel, composed sporadically over the course of several decades.

If you already have a copy of The Curious Facts (a better sharper bit of anthologizing than this, all told, wonder if Lee Wright had a hand in it), I don’t know what you need this one for, unless you’re a completist.  Most of the best stories in it appear in that earlier collection (even the capsule review of this anthology in the New York Times agreed with me about One On A Desert Island being his best standalone short, though I question whether the reviewer was aware it had been previously collected).

(The Risk Profession is one of those ten that were in The Curious Facts, as well as Tomorrow’s Crimes, and I am now genuinely baffled as to why it keeps cropping up.  That’s three Westlake anthologies it’s appeared in now.  I’d forgotten about it being in this one, when I reviewed Tomorrow’s Crimes, which is the only one it should have been in.  Westlake must have liked it.  I remain unimpressed.)

That Random House collection was long out of print by the time this one came out.  That, I suppose, is one reason for its existence.  The other was to showcase some later stories (mainly for Playboy).  And maybe to remind people that Westlake didn’t just write novels.   But it inadvertently served to remind everyone why he primarily wrote novels.

And now I’d best remind myself that I review pretty much everything of his I can get my hands on, and get about my business.  There’s still eight stories here I have not yet covered.  The first of which is from the 50’s, but did not appear in the earlier Westlake collection.  Why?  Well, possibly because you can spot the ‘twist’ ending a mile away.

Sinner or Saint:  Originally printed in Mystery Digest, in 1958.  And there’s no mystery as to its origins, since The Music Man debuted on Broadway at the tail-end of 1957.  Mr. Westlake did love the theater (and O. Henry stories).

It’s about a con artist, a charming rogue named Joe Docker, and his criminal Sancho Panza, one Lefty Denker; less brainy than his compatriot, cursed with an unfortunately accurate shifty facial expression, but equipped with a large criminal skill set, which includes the unlocking of locks.  Gifted a duo as they are, they got caught and sent to prison, but Joe regards this merely as a hiatus to their careers.  A chance to take stock.

So Lefty has been studying the locks at the prison, and figures he can bust them out any time, but Joe wants to take his time, take advantage of the free room, board, and library privileges there.  Find the perfect scam, and he does.

There’s a parish wanting a new minister, now the old one has died.  There’s a wealthy matron attached to this parish who has a fabulous diamond in her possession.  Opportunity knocks at last.  He has Lefty let them out of jail, and even has him lock the doors after them, so the prison bulls will waste time searching inside the prison before broadening their search.

There’s a neat bit of business where they break into a closed gas station not far from the prison, and pretend to be running the place–the cops ask Joe if he’s seen the escaped convicts.  Joe, properly disguised, regrets to say he hasn’t.  Yes, you can definitely see bits and pieces here that would be put to much better use in many a Dortmunder novel.

So of course Joe, posing as the Reverend Mister Amadeus Wimple, with Lefty as a poor lost soul he has taken under his wing, is a huge success as minister, the best in living memory in fact, and in the ensuing months he wins over the skeptical Miss Grace Pettigrew, convincing her to donate her fabulous diamond to a fund to establish a new hospital.

He has a slight complication in the form of an assistant minister sent by the bishop.  The new man, Rev. Martin, tells ‘Rev. Wimple’ the archdiocese lost his personnel records, or indeed any record of having dispatched him there–fancy that–but were impressed by all the good things they were hearing about him, and wanted to offer support.

This is all hooey, of course (we were told upfront it was a small denomination–obviously the bishop would know all his ministers).  The con man has been conned–the bishop smelled a rat.  And instead of calling the cops right away, he dispatched one of his own men to check up on the situation, and they just waited around to see what might transpire.  Sure, this could absolutely happen.  I mean, why not?  Oh never mind.

Joe gets the fabulous diamond put right in his hot little hands, and Lefty is all for scramming, but Joe, enjoying his pastoral duties a mite too much (foot caught in the door, get it?) insists on waiting–until he can convert it into cash through proper legal channels, maximize returns.  He tells Lefty to hit the road, they’ll meet up later.  Then with just a whisper of regret, he proceeds to deposit the cash–in the account set aside for the hospital.  And this, I should add, without even the inducement of Shirley Jones warbling love songs in his ear at the footbridge.

Joe, or should I say Amadeus, has had a chance of heart–and vocation.  In studying to be a minister, he has become one.  But because the watching law waited for him to abscond with the cash, only to see him donate it for the common good, they have nothing on him but escape from prison, and the previous charges (and he was up for parole in two years anyway). He meekly admits to all his crimes, and waits to be taken back to his cell.

But see, nobody is angry about the con.  Everybody still loves him. Miss Pettigrew promises to hire the best lawyers money can buy, Reverend Martin says he’ll be welcomed back as head minister once he gets out, Lefty shows up saying he doesn’t want to be a crook anymore either, and the investigator from the state police says he’s going to make a little call on their behalf.  And they all lived happily ever after in the idyllic little town of AreYouFuckingKiddingMe?

Call it a road not taken, and thank God for that.  Mind you, O. Henry would have done a beautiful job with it (in the era he was writing in, the plot contrivances would be far easier to justify), and maybe Meredith Willson could have written some punchy numbers for the Broadway version.  There are some comparable Warner Bros. flicks from the 30’s–anybody here ever seen Larceny Inc, with Edward G. Robinson?).  I’m not say saying stories about reformed criminals never work.  This simply isn’t the kind of story Westlake was born to write.

But maybe he had to try and write it first to make sure of that.  And maybe in rereading this story, pursuant to it being anthologized, Westlake got an idea for a more deliciously nasty set of swindlers to be featured in a Dortmunder book he was working on at the time.  No happy endings for them.  Westlake wasn’t much for the grifters–one area of fictive crime where I’d say his buddy Lawrence Block outperformed him.

In fact, I just read a short novel of Block’s where he reforms a small-time hustler, and makes you believe it.  But even in a short novel, there’s time to do the groundwork to pull that off.  Westlake didn’t have that here, but in due time, he’d come up with a much better story about a heister who reforms.  Very much on his own terms, though.

So that’s it for the late 50’s/early 60’s stuff, since the next ten stories, as already mentioned, comprise most of the cream of the earlier anthology (with the head-scratching exception of now thrice-collected The Risk Profession).  So for our purposes here, the next story is the title piece, and just like the title piece of the Random House collection (which is also here), it’s one of the weakest stories in the book.  Go figure.

A Good Story:  More of a forgettable sketch–something that would have worked fine if worked into the fabric of a larger narrative, which might well be what it started out as–background detail for one of Westlake’s Latin American adventures, didn’t make the cut, so he repurposed it for Playboy in 1984.  Just a guess.

This American kid named Leon is running a little cantina and private zoo, way up in the Andes, for some local criminal.  Been there about eight months now.  He’s very pleased with himself, figuring he’ll go home rich when his stint is done.  But he’s bored, and these various hot young female tourists come through, and he’s been telling tales out of school.

So now the ‘ice-blond’ traveling companion of some business suit is talking to him in a bored way, acting like she’s in the mood for a quick fling with someone interesting, and he really wants to impress her, and she doesn’t impress easy. She wears Jackie-O sunglasses and everything.

He shows her this little menagerie of animals his boss ships to zoos.  He explains, strictly on the QT you understand, that the real business is smuggling cocaine inside monkeys–who are then fed to boa constrictors, so they don’t digest the merchandise, and the snakes of course have a very slow digestive system.

Which he will now find out about first-hand, because the girl and the suit both work for the syndicate, and Leon has already created a lot of legal problems for his employers with his storytelling, and now he’s going to be fed some cocaine envelopes himself, and then it’s feeding time for the boa. End of story.

Okay, how did this kid last even eight months?  Sure, okay, he was stupid to go up there in the first place, and overconfidence, combined with a desire to impress the opposite sex, is a frequent attribute of the young.  If he was a minor character in a novel, you could buy it.  But we learn nothing about him at all, other than his penchant for the gab.  He’s every bit as boring as the blonde who lured him in.  Again, the set-up isn’t there to justify the pay-off.  I felt every bit as bored as the blonde looked.  Can’t speak for the snake.  Next victim, please.

Breathe Deep:  From Playboy again, 1985.  The new stories get better as they go–this one probably owes something to the research Westlake did for What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  This is too dark for a Dortmunder, though.  A dealer name of Chuck is nearing the end of his shift at the casino, when an old man walks up to him, starts engaging him in conversation.  The dealer is professional, courteous, but he knows this guy has no money to lose, and therefore no reason to be there.

“Sir,” said the dealer, “I want to give you some friendly advice.”  He’d seen past the imperfectly shaved cheeks now, the frayed raincoat, the charity-service necktie.  This was an old bum, a derelict, one of the many ancient, alcoholic, homeless, friendless, familyless husks the dry wind blows across the desert into the stone-and-neon baffle of Las Vegas.  “You don’t belong here, sir,” he explained.  “I’m doing you a favor.  Security can get kind of rough, to discourage you from coming back.”

Oh, he knows that, sonny boy–happened to him many times before.  But, he explains, he keeps coming back for more lumps.  Something about the air in the big casinos–one time he got thrown out, none too gently, via the loading dock out back; he saw all these green oxygen tanks outside.  He figures the casino puts a very heavy oxygen mixture into the air, to make their customers more hopeful, energetic, stay up later, gamble more.  That’s what kept him coming back, over and over, until his string ran out.  He produces a can of lighter fluid and starts squirting it around.

The dealer insists they don’t do that with the oxygen, frantically presses the button on the floor that summons security, and tells the old man they’re coming for him.  The old man says that’s good–he wants to  have some company on his trip.  He lights a kitchen match.

Sure, just a vignette (not even five full pages), but a decent one.  An even better one next.

Love In the Lean Years: Again from Playboy, in 1992, and proof positive that Westlake could still write a short story worth reading–and that his creative energies were dramatically rekindled  during the 90’s.  There was, you might say, much in the era he found inspiring, if not necessarily encouraging.

Charles Dickens knew his stuff, you know.  Listen to this: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness.  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Right on.  You adjust the numbers for inflation and what you’ve got right there is the history of Wall Street.  At least, so much of the history of Wall Street as includes me: seven years.  We had the good times and we lived high on that extra daily sixpence, and now we live day by day the long decline of shortfall.  Result misery.

Where did they all go, the sixpences of yesteryear?  Oh, pshaw, we all know where they went.  You in Gstaad, him in Aruba, her in Paris and me in the men’s room with a sanitary straw in my nose.  We know where it went, all right.

That’s one of the two narrators, Bruce Kimball, an account executive with a brokerage firm.  The other narrator (they alternate telling us the story) is Stephanie Morwell, 42, attractive widow (lots of time and expense involved in maintaining that), living off various investments her husbands (yes, plural) left behind, hence her relationship with Bruce, which turns amorous, partly because she likes him, and partly because she (incorrectly) assumes he’s loaded, as he (incorrectly) assumes of her.  Yes, again there’s something of an O.Henry feel to the tale at hand, but these two ain’t Jim and Della, and no magi are in the offing.

Cupid capriciously blasts his bolts at this mercenary mingling of fading fortunes.  The sex is great, compatibility is high, and they are married in a sconce, happily so, to the great surprise of both.  But Stephanie has a little secret Bruce discovers when trying, manfully, to straighten out her tangled financial affairs.  More tangled than he had imagined.  She’s had quite a lot of husbands, you see.  And she took out large life insurance policies on all of them.  And each of them just happened to perish unexpectedly about a year after each policy took effect.  And she’s taken one out on him now.

Bruce is no Black Widow’s brunch, no matter how good she is in bed.  He takes out an equally generous policy on her, and awaits the proper moment.  But Cupid is in a joking mood, and Stephanie realizes she really does love this one, can’t bring herself to do him in, they’ll just have to make ends meet somehow, economize more, and to that end she opts to cancel the policy she took out on life, but that’s when she finds out about the one he took out on hers.  That’s where it ends, with Stephanie absorbing the bitter truth that turnabout is fair play.  We never learn who won out in the end, but it sure wasn’t True Love.

Maybe a bit too bloodless?  The point, of course, was to turn O. Henry on his head, as well as to revisit one of Westlake’s own stories (Never Shake a Family Tree, also present in this volume), and to suggest that these are not romantic times we are living in, certainly not those of us who are addicted to conspicuous consumption.  Hey, anybody know how much Trump is insured for?  Well, the next story is a positive Valentine’s Day Card by comparison, though it actually celebrates a different holiday.

Last-Minute Shopping: First appeared in the New York Times in 1993.  A cop named Keenan braces a crook named O’Brien, on Christmas Eve, no less.  But not to arrest him–he needs a little help with his love life.  He broke up with his girlfriend (a waitress) a while back, and now she’s just called him (the holidays being such a lonely time for the unattached), saying she’s been thinking about him for weeks, and they should get together after her shift ends, around midnight.

He realizes she must have gotten him a gift.  But being so hurt and angry over the break-up, assuming it was permanent, he didn’t get her anything.  He’s got one hour to get her something really nice, and the jeweler’s is closed.  Hence O’Brien.  Who has broken into said jeweler’s more than once, Keenan has good reason to believe.

O’Brien objects roundly, fearing entrapment, but Keenan insists this is on the up and up.  It’s not strictly legal, but it’s not theft, since he’ll be leaving cash there for whatever item he chooses for his lovelorn Laurie.  He just needs a little expert assistance getting inside the place.  And come some future occasion, when O’Brien needs a favor–and that day will surely come–O’Brien has little choice but to agree.  And Keenan says O’Brien can pick up something for his girlfriend as well–he’ll also have to pay for it.  You can’t give stolen goods for a Christmas present.  It is known.

So they break in, keeping the lights off inside, since neither can afford to get caught.  Keenan finds a lovely bracelet (gold filigree inlaid with garnets, so much more character than diamonds, I’ve always thought), and O’Brien picks out a brooch that will match his Grace’s eyes, and strangely enough has more than enough cash to pay for it as well.

So at Grace’s place, shortly prior to getting laid (oh grow up, half the Christmas songs you hear at the mall in December are about premarital nookie), O’Brien explains to a gratified yet suspicious Grace how exactly he got the cash to pay for her gift.  He picked the sentimental cop’s pocket.  Flatfoot didn’t even know how much he had on him–must have cleaned out his bank account, to make sure he had enough for whatever peace offering he picked.  Like many another successful burglar, O’Brien has great night vision.  Which he will now turn to less mercenary ends.  Joyeux Noel.

I think O. Henry might have liked this one.  But would have pretended he didn’t, in case there were cops listening in.  And what follows is yet another Christmas-themed short involving larceny, but not romantic in the least.  Well, science fiction so rarely ever is.

The Burglar and the Whatsit:  From Playboy, 1996.  A burglar named Jack, posing as Santa Claus in order to rob people’s apartments unsuspected, is accosted by a drunken inventor, so drunk that he actually believes this guy in the red suit with a bag full of (stolen) goodies is the real ‘Sanity Clause’ as he insists on putting it.  He figures the Big Guy would be the one to ask–he’s invented something.  Something pretty good, he thinks.  But he was drunk when he made it, and he can’t remember what it does. This happens to him a lot, but he usually leaves himself a note on his computer to remind him.  This time somebody stole the computer, would you believe it?  Jack has nothing to say to that.

Jack really has no idea what this weird little device could be–it’s some kind of robot, a box on wheels, and all these antennae sprout out of it, while it makes these whirring noises.  It does not seem to like Jack at all.  The inventor talks about how laughable the burglar alarms in his building are.  Jack silently concurs with that.

So they basically try to figure out what the inventor might have wanted to invent, and when Jack, responding to the inventor’s indignation over the inadequate alarms in the building, says it’s really hard to find a good one, the inventor lights up like his whatsit, and says that’s it.  It’s a burglar alarm–that can actually identify burglars, before they’ve finished burgling–and then call the police.  There’s a knock on the door.  The inventor wonders who that could be.

And again, I am reminded why Westlake never really excelled at science fiction, unless he had some idea he really needed to get across.  Though this could have made a decent enough concept for a Twilight Zone.  Well, maybe half a Twilight Zone.   Probably Rod Serling would have insisted the whatsit have disintegrator beams or something.

And now comes my favorite story that is unique to this collection–partly because it’s a sequel to Trust Me On This and captures the madcap spirit of that book rather more effectively than the second Sara Joslyn novel, but mainly because there’s a dog in it.  Oh Mr. Westlake, you shouldn’t have.  Seriously, he shouldn’t, because this is a murder mystery, and the dog is the victim.  Also a major celebrity.  Who answers (well, formerly) to the rather unsonorous name of–

Skeeks: From Playboy (Again?  Did they have him on retainer?), 1995.  The protagonist of the piece is Boy Cartwright, the sneering smarmy supercilious English rival to Sara Joslyn and Jack Ingersoll, the Uriah Heep of the scandal sheet.  He is still star reporter for the Weekly Galaxy, (No mention of ‘Massa’ so this would definitely have taken place well after the first novel).  A man so utterly without scruples of any kind that were he not a fictional character he would undoubtedly already be on the Trump transition team.

The second and final Joslyn book came out in 1994.  Boy was in it (briefly).  Good bet Westlake would have come up with some secondary storylines to reintroduce him, remind people what an unmitigated cad he is, that ultimately didn’t fit into the finished work.  Or else he just had this idea for another Hollywood satire, Boy was clearly the man for the job, and he was fresh in his creator’s mind.

In any event, this is the longest story in the collection, 22 pages.  Not novella length, but more room than Westlake normally had to work with in this format, and as a result it feels much more like an actual story, as opposed to a sketch.  Though Boy himself is little more than a caricature, albeit vividly drawn.  So in spite of my above attempts to explain the existence of this tale, I must yet inquire–Mr. Westlake–of all the beloved supporting characters from past novels you might have tapped for a leading role–all the Handy McKays, the J.C. Taylors, the Brenda & Ed Mackeys–why him?  Well, let’s try and figure that out.

Boy Cartwright awakens like the dead (to conscience, anyway) from a drunken revel with a subordinate named Trixie (“or so she claimed.”)  His phone rings–it’s Mr. Scarpnafe, some high muckity muck with the Galaxy.  He informs Boy that Skeeks is dead, as if Boy is supposed to know what that means.  Boy pretends to know what that means.

He is to fly to Los Angeles at once, assemble a team, to cover the funeral, assemble vital statistics regarding the deceased, and above all to get The Body in the Box, which as you should all know by now means a picture of some grand personage in his or her coffin for the front page.  These are frequently very tricky to obtain, as has been sufficiently well covered elsewhere.  Skeeks shall prove to be no exception.  But who, pray tell, is Skeeks?

On the plane coming out, Boy had been brought up to speed on the late Skeeks, who had been, it seemed, a lovable German Shepherd, as if there could be any such a thing.  For three years Skeeks had portrayed the adorable pooch on an extremely successful sitcom, and when the human male lead of that show decided to throw it all in for the glories of failure as a motion picture star, the mail bemoaning the disappearance of Skeeks from the nation’s screens (they’re that stupid, and yet they can read and write, marveled Boy) was so overwhelming (the word avalanche was used in all press releases on the subject) that the network brought Skeeks back the next season with his very own sitcom, called Skeeks, in which he portrayed the dog in a man-and-dog vaudeville act.  The idea at the heart of this series–that there is, at this moment, in the secondary cities of America, a thriving circuit of vaudeville theaters–was not the most outlandish suggestion ever made on television, and it was accepted without a murmur, as was Skeeks’ partner on Skeeks, a comedian named Bill Terry, who when sober could juggle, sing, ride a unicycle and remember jokes.

The funeral shall be conducted at Forest Lawn’s Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, “the largest send-off there since that tramp what’s-her-name.” I assume the narrator doesn’t refer to Lassie, since she was a paragon of virtue, and also invariably portrayed by male collies.

(This is all very dated, you know–like worse than the notion that there’s an active vaudeville circuit in late 20th century America.  There had been no American primetime network shows with a dog as the protagonist since Lassie went off the air in 1975.  None that lasted, anyway.  Might as well have said the funeral was for Ed Sullivan, and he was still on TV each week with Senor Wences and Topo Gigio-[I wish].

Dogs could still have roles on sitcoms by then, sure.  But when Frasier went off the air, they didn’t do a spin-off about the misadventures of Eddie Spaghetti.  Which would have been watched religiously in my house, I can tell you.  And we will watch anything with a lovable German Shepherd in it.  “As if there could be any such a thing.”  I do hope that line was worth the extra stint in Purgatory, Mr. Westlake.)

Now the problem with giving Skeeks the traditional Galaxy treatment, as opposed to your usual dead celebrity, is that being a dog, he’d led a very boring life away from work.  No scandalous affairs (he had, in fact, been neutered as a puppy), no catty ex-wives (well, obviously), no threats to walk over outrageous salary demands, no racist remarks, no drunken binges (at least a famous feline might have had some catnip-related indiscretions), no cults, no stints in rehab.  He just lived quietly at home with his caretaker/housekeeper Mayjune Kent, a former model who had been horribly scarred (The Phantom of the Opera would faint at the sight of her) by acid thrown by a crazed admirer, whom she had subsequently run over with a car.  They were said to be very close, Skeeks and Mayjune–the scars don’t bother him at all–but no sex tapes, so that’s a dead end.

But at a local restaurant, an informant who works at the veterinary clinic Skeeks was pronounced dead at has a terrible secret to reveal–it was murder!  (dramatic music please).  The vets are hushing it up because they’re afraid they’ll get blamed.  But no question at all, somebody poisoned Skeeks, idol of a grieving nation.  And Boy Cartwright, crusading reporter, fully intends to find out whodunnit, because that would make a smashing story.

So let me just cut to the chase, since there’s one more story to review after this.  After a bit of sniffing around (heh), and several successive failures to obtain the required coffin photo, Boy winds up inside the former Skeeks residence, and overhears a conversation between Mayjune Kent and Sherry Cohen, producer on the show, and girlfriend to Bill Terry, Skeeks’ sidekick (he’s reportedly none too happy about that).

Mayjune has cracked the case–she knows Sherry poisoned Skeeks.  She knows precisely why Sherry would do such a thing.  A depressed and overshadowed Bill is slowly drinking  himself to death.  The only way to save him was to make him a star in his own right.  The show’s ratings are such that the network would look for some way to save it in the event of Skeeks’ untimely demise, and promote Bill to star.  (It somehow never occurred to Sherry that there’s other German Shepherds working in showbiz.  I mean, how many dogs have played Kommissar Rex by now?  Komissar Who, you ask?  Dumkopfs.)

But surely Mayjune could be mistaken in her suspicions?  And anyway, so what if she isn’t?

“Mayjune, he was an animal!  You can’t say he–besides, why say it was me?  I mean, if it even happened.”

“I didn’t do it, and Bill doesn’t have the guts, and who else is there?  You did it for love, Sherry.  I know you did, for the love of Bill.  But I loved Skeeks, and that’s why you’re going to die now.”

Jumping to her feet, Sherry cried, “What are you talking about?  I’m not going to die!”

“We both are, Sherry.  Skeeks was the only one in my life.  You took him away from me.  I have no reason to live.”

“Mayjune!  For God’s sake, what have you done?”

“The same poison you  used,” Mayjune said, as calm as voice mail.  “It’s in the cookies, and the tea.  We both have less than half an hour to live.”

Sherry is forced to accept that it’s too late to do anything about the poison, and she and Mayjune somberly await their impending demise, while Boy tiptoes over to the fridge to get himself a snack to tide him over until it’s over.  Mayjune mentioned having a lovely photograph of Skeeks in his coffin that she snapped herself at the vet’s; it’s right there in the other room, so he is victorious on all fronts.  He’ll call the police after he’s safely away from there, and after he’s called his scoop in to the Galaxy, of course.  In the meantime, he starts working on the lead-in to his story.  “They did it for love.”  Something Boy Cartwright could never understand, but hum a few bars…

So if I’d happened to pick up the issue of Playboy this first appeared in (for the articles, of course) I’d consider it well worth the inflated cover price.  (I never did much care for the naked pictures they no longer feature there, so obvious and banal, though there was this red-headed firewoman from Texas–).

And as with his other efforts featuring the delirious denizens of the Galaxy, he achieves this odd effect, where you both rejoice in the amoral escapades of the reporters, and at the same time,  mourn for the human condition, such as it is.  I still believe Westlake was afraid of dogs, hence his almost W.C. Fieldsian cynicism towards them (as much a self-conscious posture as Fields’ supposed dislike of children–in both cases, the real target is cheap sentiment), but under all that, you still somehow feel that Mayjune Kent, as absurd as the motive and manner of her self-inflicted demise may be, is still the only human in this story who is worth a tinker’s damn.

A dog doesn’t care what you look like.  Skeeks only saw and smelled a person he loved.  She saw him the same way, caring nothing for his celebrity, for the image of him projected on TV–just for the image of her true self she saw reflected in his guileless eyes.  And she knew that for all his fame, the law could never properly avenge him. Because to the law, and the holding company that owned (and heavily insured) him, he was only a valuable piece of property.  And the backstory has already established that Mayjune is capable of murder, when you attack her self-image.

And strangely, it’s through the malevolent machinations of a man who never loved anybody, who is completely unmoved by the spectacle unfolding before him, that the world will learn of this poignant sacrifice she made.  No doubt soon to be a movie of the week.  Actually, I don’t think they were doing those on the networks by the Mid-90’s either.  Maybe on Lifetime?  Or E!  Actresses will be lined up from Burbank to Fresno to play Mayjune.  Scars!  Prosthetic makeup!  Emmy, here I come!

So that leaves just one more story, fittingly enough entitled–

Take it Away:  From 1997, published in an anthology called The Plot Thickens (Lawrence Block had something in it too), the proceeds of which went to charity, but a critic must of course show none.

An FBI agent on a stakeout pops into a Burger Whopper franchise (pretty sure there’d be a lawsuit if anybody started a franchise by that name) for a quick bite, and the guy behind him starts chatting him up in ways that subtly suggest he knows the guy he’s talking to is an FBI agent on a stakeout.  The Fed is suspicious, but thinks maybe he’s imagining it.  They’re after this sneaky French art smuggler.  Well, guess what?  The guy in line behind him was the smuggler, playing with him for laughs, taunting him with his mastery of disguise and his ability to assume a perfect American accent.  End of story.

Okay, that was short shrift, but I’m over 6,000 words, and I did not like that one at all.  The Times reviewer loved it, and she gave it all of one sentence.  This is probably the longest review Take it Away will ever get.

There’s maybe ten very good stories in this collection of eighteen written over the course of maybe thirty years.  A few others that are decent enough little thumbnail sketches.  And nothing that comes remotely close to the best work this writer was capable of.

But as I said when reviewing The Curious Facts, it may well be that Westlake needed to keep trying to write that perfect short story that just simply was not in him, in order to prepare himself for the kind of writing he was meant for.  In chapter after chapter of his best novels (and even some of his lesser ones), you do in fact see that perfect short story–bundled into a larger narrative.  By working in miniature, on short deadlines, writing to the ever-dwindling magazine market, he learned how to put a lot of story into a very small space.  But he needed that extra space a novel affords to make his characters breathe.  So that we’d give a damn when they stopped breathing.

But suppose his characters were writers, like himself?  Could he make us care about them?  Time to find out.  And if it doesn’t work, well, better get out the hook.


Filed under Donald Westlake short stories