Review: Bad News

We picked up one excellent word–a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word–‘lagniappe.’ They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish–so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a ‘baker’s dozen.’ It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. … If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says ‘For lagniappe, sah,’ and gets you another cup without extra charge.

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Irwin said, “There’s so much wickedness in the world, you know what I mean?”

“We know,” Kelp assured him.

Dortmunder said “Little Feather’s an Indian.”

“We’re coming to that, John,” Guilderpost said.  “In the last thirty  years or so, the American courts have been redressing many of those wrongs done so long ago.  Indians are getting their sacred tribal lands back–”

Dortmunder said, “And putting casinos on them.”

Irwin said, “Yeah, sacred tribal lands and casinos just seem to go together naturally, like apple pie and ice cream.”

“The tribes have their own sovereignty,” Guilderpost said, “their own laws, and casinos are extremely lucrative.”

Little Feather laughed, a sound like shaking a bag of walnuts.   “This time,” she said, “the Indians win.”

“The three tribes I’ve been telling you about, “Guilderpost said, “the Pottaknobbees, the Oshkawa and the Kiota, won their cause back in the sixties, and have been operating a thriving casino on their land up by the Canadian border for nearly thirty years now.  The tribes had almost died out, but now they’re coming back, or at least two of them are.  At the time of settlement, there were only three known full-blooded Pottaknobbees left in the world, and at this point, so far as anyone knows, there are none.”

“Wait a minute,” Dortmunder said.  “I’m getting it.”

“Anastasia,” Tiny said.

Dortmunder said, “That’s it.”

It seems strange to me that this is only the tenth Dortmunder novel–in around three decades.  Averaging a book every three  years or so isn’t so bad, I suppose, but Westlake was capable of far more rapid rates of production.  The first sixteen Parker novels were produced in a mere ten year span, followed in due course by eight novels, likewise produced over about a decade’s time.  Five Mitch Tobin novels in maybe six years (probably written in much less than six, allowing for publisher schedules).  Four Samuel Holt novels in just three years (he wrote the first three back to back without stopping).

Dortmunder seems to have taken more time.  Ideas didn’t come as quickly.  The basic  line-up of characters expanded, but didn’t change that much.  And they were comic novels, which I suppose could be part of it–nothing harder to write than a genuinely good comedy. But that never stopped P.G. Wodehouse, and Westlake produced well over 30 comic novels between 1965 and 2008 (the exact number is a bit fuzzy, since some of his comedies were actually pretty serious, like Up Your Banners and Adios Scheherazade).  Well, come to think of it, comedy wasn’t nearly as big a part of his output as some people think, was it?  Maybe a third of what he wrote.

He’d always enjoyed writing the Dortmunders, found them a welcome break from his grimmer story material, and his variously successful attempts to redefine himself as a writer.  Lord knows there was always a market for them, and many of his publishers would have been quite happy if he’d written nothing else.

But now, as his creative energies started to wane (along with all his other energies, because getting old really sucks), Westlake found that he needed Dortmunder more than ever.  This is the first of five Dortmunder novels published over eight years.  He’d never written so many in so short a time before.  He wasn’t spacing them out nearly so much.

In ranking the Dortmunders up to now, I tend to put them in three separate categories, each with three books apiece.  The first three are, in my estimation, the immortal timeless classics of the series, the funniest, the most original, the most illuminating–and, tellingly, the simplest in their conception, each revolving around a single well-defined idea, each with a very specific point to make. He was genuinely excited about the possibilities of this new character, and still at the peak of his ability when he wrote them. They are, in fact, great novels.

After those first three, he faltered a bit, knowing he wanted to keep writing about Dortmunder, not always sure how to do it, introducing a new character, concept, or conceit here and there, just to change things up a bit, expand the cast, keep his readers interested, keep his publishers happy–and as I said, he just enjoyed spending time with these people.   I think it relaxed him.  Not everything has to be a timeless immortal classic.  But then he’d get ambitious again, try to do more with the set-up, see how far he could push it, and then there’d be an epic.

The great Dortmunderian epics are Good Behavior, Drowned Hopes, and What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  The character in a paradoxically heroic mode, that somehow worked for him, because he never once saw himself as a hero.  Just a working stiff doing his job.  Some higher power is making use of him, and (somewhat inconsistently) rewards him for his services.  Not perfect polished gems like the first three novels, but very pleasurable in their rambling Homeric splendor, and with some solid points of their own to make.

That leaves the three engaging but ultimately failed experiments that are Nobody’s Perfect, Why Me?, and Don’t Ask.  Many interesting pieces, that somehow never quite fit together into a coherent balanced whole.  As Richard Stark wrote, half-good is another way of saying half-assed.  But the half that’s good is more than worth the trouble.

I don’t know quite how to categorize the last five.  They form a sort of grouping of their own.  Some I like better than others, but none really stick out that much for me.  They aren’t classics.  They aren’t epics.  They aren’t experiments, failed or otherwise, because they really don’t add much of anything to the series as a whole.  A new character is brought in; a nephew type who never amounts to anything much.  A few more arrogant rich guys for Dortmunder to confound and deflate, variations on an established theme. The odd bit of telling social commentary, as the world continues to change in ways that Dortmunder finds irritating.

They’re all good books.  And they all have Dortmunder in them, and Kelp, and May, and Murch, and Murch’s Mom, and Tiny Bulcher, and Rollo the barkeep, and (far too rarely) Josephine Carol Taylor, and you get to spend time with these people you’ve come to think of as friends.  If you love the Jeeves books, do you only read the best ones?  You read all of them, because that’s what fans do.  Because you could never really get enough of these characters, and that makes each new book, however inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, a gift.

Lagniappe.  It just came to me now.  The final five Dortmunders are for Lagniappe.  That grand old New Orleans custom Mark Twain wrote about in Life on the Mississippi.  Let me just find the quote and post it up top.  Something you don’t really need, that somehow makes life a little richer, a little fuller, because it’s an act of generosity, of kindness, of surplus beneficence.  Westlake wrote these books for Lagniappe–to himself, as well as his readers.  Life gave him a bit more time than he needed to get his work done, and he gave us these books in return.  And this is the first–of the final five.  Let’s get to it.

Bad News opens with a very Twain-like apology from Mr. Westlake to his various translators around the world, and the aggravation he’s put them through via his take on the English language.  He mentions by name Laura Grimaldi, Jiro Kimura, and Jean Esch. (The first two wrote original mystery fiction as well as translations).   Esch definitely translated this one; not sure about the other two.  (It can be challenging, hunting for foreign editions of a novel when you don’t know the title, which will frequently not resemble the original title in any way–not that book covers always mention the translator anyway.  I suspect sales-conscious publishers tend to do the translating when it comes to titles.)

This one has what must be considered one of the best opening passages of any novel in this series.

John Dortmunder was a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness.  Now, like an excessively starry sky, a thousand thousand fluorescent lights in great rows in the metal roof of this huge barnlike store building came flickering and buzzing and sqlurping on, throwing a great glare over all the goods below, and over Dortmunder too, and yet he knew this vast Speedshop discount store in this vast blacktop shopping mall in deepest New Jersey, very near Mordor, did not open at ten minutes past two in the morning.  That’s why he was here.

(Yeah, you see why he might harbor guilt feelings regarding his many valiant translators, don’t you?  I mean, just for ‘sqlurping’ alone.  I suppose they all sighed resignedly, and came up with an equivalently onomatopoeic expression, somehow.)

So leaving aside the revelation that Westlake may have read Tolkien (the first of those elaborately overwrought Peter Jackson films came out quite some months after the publication of this novel was old news), the real takeaway is Dortmunder vs. the Big Box Store (hailing back to a similar escapade for the invisible Freddie Noon in Smoke), and we’ll call this one a draw.

He trips an alarm, and the Jersey cops arrive in Keatonesque numbers.  Improvising as always, he breaks into a little optician shop within the imperious emporium, the door locking behind him–he can’t hide there, because the walls are glass, but that’s not what he has in mind.  He pretends to be a customer who fell asleep waiting for his prescription to be ready–he even filled out the credit card slip–gee, thanks for rescuing me officers, the missus will be worried sick.

He’s so pleased that the flatfoot rubes fell for this threadbare ruse, it doesn’t much bother him that he had to go home to the missus without all the digital cameras he’d been in the process of stealing, which would have netted him about a thousand bucks.  He’s so proud of having fooled them, he forgets they still foiled him.  There’s a little grifter in everyone, you see.  Yes, this is foreshadowing.

The missus is May, of course, who as he tells her the stirring story of his sly scam, is secretly sighing to herself.

May didn’t like to be critical, but she just had the feeling sometimes that John didn’t really want a nest egg, or a financial cushion, or freedom from money worries, or even next month’s rent.  She felt somehow that John needed that prod of urgency, that sense of desperation, that sick knowledge that he was once again dead flat, stony, beanless broke, to get him out of bed at night, to get him to go out there and bring home the bacon.  And the pork chops, and the ham steak, and maybe the butcher’s van as well.

Oh, he made money sometimes, though not often.  But it never got a chance to burn a hole in his pocket, because it burned through his fingers first.  He’d go with a couple of his cronies out to the track, where obviously the horses were smarter than he was, because they weren’t betting on him, were they?  John could still remember, as he sometimes told her, that one exciting day when he’d almost broken even; just the memory of it, years later, could bring a hint of color to his cheeks.

And then there were the friends he’d loan money to.  If he had it, they could have it, and the kind of people they were, they’d take his two  hundred dollars and go directly to jail.

And this is all the explanation we’re ever going to get about what happened to that great trove of treasure Dortmunder got out of Max Fairbanks last time out, folks.  (Hey, it’s more of an explanation than we ever get from Parker.)  May’s lament about her man’s  generosity brings to mind an ancient Gaelic ode to another famous bandit chief (long predating Robin Hood).  It was said of Fionn mac Cumhaill

If the brown leaves
that the trees shed were gold,
if the bright waves were silver,
Finn would give it all away.

And bet the rest on the ponies.  Oh Dortmunder has Irish in him, you can take that to the bank (then take the bank).

So he’ll never be rich, but marginally solvent he must somehow remain, and to that end, enter that most feckless of his Fianna, Andy Kelp (who never knocks, just picks locks).  Andy’s got a job for them, that just happens to pay a thousand a man–May sees a providential pattern in this.  She would see that.

It’s work for hire, which Dortmunder has been willing to do in the past, but always burglary for hire–this is grave-robbing for hire.  Well, grave-switching.  They dig up one dead guy, and put another dead guy in his place.  Okay, where the hell do you find somebody willing to pay a thousand a man for illicit grave-digging?  “I met him on the Internet,” Andy says.  “Oh boy,” Dortmunder responds.  They are never going to see eye to eye on progress, those two.

We never find out what kind of criminal Craigslist Andy has been consulting here (maybe the actual Craigslist?), but we do learn the name of his correspondent–Fitzroy Guilderpost.  And he lives up to the name.  Or down.

As for Guilderpost, the mastermind looked mostly like a mastermind: portly, dignified, white hair in waves above a distinguished pale forehead.  He went in for three-piece suits, and was often the only person in a given state wearing a vest.  He’d given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip.  He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as if the mustache were still there.

(And this is why I have a picture of Philip Bosco up top.  A mere 70 years of age when this was written, perfect for the role, but I don’t expect Westlake had him in mind.  Then again Westlake did love the theater, and those who love the theater in New York speak the name Bosco with as much reverence as one possibly can speak the name of a chocolate syrup brand that is typically spelled in cartoon-like blue and red letters.)

What follows is a chapter in which we learn that Guilderpost is a con-artist par excellence, with two colorful co-conspirators–a defrocked college professor named Irwin Gabel who I have somehow head-cast against type as Sam Waterston, and a delectable if somewhat intimidating former showgirl named Little Feather, who would have been rightfully played by Cher, had this book come out a decade or two sooner, which it didn’t, and had there been a movie, which there wasn’t, and had the producers wanted to pay her asking price, which they probably wouldn’t have.   But Cher is mentioned in the book, and pretty sure she was in Westlake’s mind.  Maybe he caught her act while doing research on casinos.

Little Feather is Native American, or as most Native Americans say in daily parlance, an Indian (for a people who have inspired so much political correctness in recent years, they are not themselves very PC, no matter what Hollywood may think).  It’s possible that like Cher, and an awful lot of other people who call themselves Indians, her ancestry is not strictly indigenous, but outside of Africa, whose ever is?

She’s an Indian, she’s not even the teensiest bit PC, and she’s getting too old to dance on a stage wearing nothing but feathers, regardless of size.  Her back-up profession of dealing cards at casinos has likewise begun to pall.  So she has agreed to go along with Guilderpost and Gabel’s scam, which is explained adequately well in that quote up top.  And she’s also willing to go along with them killing the low-rent hoodlums they con into digging up graves for them, which is what they imagine John and Andy to be.  I believe the word Guilderpost uses is “gonifs”, and I don’t think he’s Jewish at all, or else he’d know that word is not the Yiddish equivalent for pigeon.

And neither are Dortmunder and Kelp, both of whom easily spot Irwin’s tail as they ride along with Guilderpost in the van.  The idea is that they dig up the grave, and switch the bodies, and then Irwin comes up from behind with a gun, and then they both get their hands and feet duct-taped together, and are thrown over the side of a handy bridge, nevermore to be seen.  Dead pigeons tell no tales.  But Westlake heisters are made of sterner stuff.

Before you can say turnabout is fair play, Dortmunder has deftly disarmed Guilderpost, and Kelp goes back to get Irwin–who it turns out is wired for sound–Guilderpost is not pleased to learn this.  With Guilderpost, to know him is to mistrust him, so Irwin was taking out an insurance policy.  And now it’s time to talk turkey.

Guilderpost, to no one’s surprise, does not have their two thousand bucks.  So our duo decides to cut themselves in on his action–whatever it may be.  He’s a bit evasive about that, and just to let him know what a bad idea that is–

Fitzroy called “What are you doing?”  But since it was obvious what they were doing, they didn’t bother to answer him.  What they were doing was, they were geting into the van, Dortmunder behind the wheel.  Then they were making a K-turn on the bridge, while Fitzroy and Irwin stood staring at them.  Then Dortmunder was lowering his window, so he could say, “When you want to talk to us, you know how to get in touch with Andy.  On the Internet.”  He closed the window, then drove back toward Long Island, saying, with deep scorn, “On the Internet.”

“There’s bad apples everywhere, John,” Kelp said.

I’m a bad apple,” Dortmunder pointed out, “but you won’t find me on the Internet.”

But you will find grifters aplenty there, some of them Nigerian Princes, no less.  Dortmunder may have enjoyed fooling those cops in New Jersey, but he’s never considered doing it for a living.

Truth to tell, there’s always been a lot more grifters than heisters in the world.  The life expectancy is better, for one thing.  But Westlake never wrote much about that kind of crime–in spite of the fact that he got an Oscar nod for adapting Jim Thompson’s The Grifters for the movies, and he won the Edgar Award for God Save The Mark,  whose protagonist is the ultimate griftee. Many of his protagonists are certainly accomplished tricksters.  It’s worth asking why he mainly left the grifter subgenre to other crime writers, including his buddy Lawrence Block.

Grifting is certainly all about identity.  You pretend to be someone you’re not, take on a false identity, in order to play on weak spots in the sucker’s identity.  When people say “You can’t cheat an honest man”, they’re really saying you can’t con people who know who they are.

That’s why in God Save The Mark, the hero becomes immune to the short cons he used to fall for so easily, then twigs to the long con being played on him, once he’s figured out who he is.  That’s the point of the story being told–we’re only marks because of our identity confusion.  But in this story, self-evidently, our heroes have all known who they are for a long time now.  The confusion is going to stem from them taking on an unfamiliar role, in order to score.

And the other identity puzzle relates to the original inhabitants of North America–people whose identity is so confused, nobody can even agree on what to call them.  They were nomadic hunters, fishermen, and small farmers; they all had established tribal identities, stories that told them where they came from and where they were headed to (that the stories were not entirely true is neither here nor there, since nobody’s stories ever are literally factually true; that not being the mission statement of storytellers).

Then in comes Mr. Wasichu to foul everything up, and after much unpleasantness (some would say genocide, though obviously it was just intermittently attempted genocide, a somewhat lesser offense), now they’re running gaming establishments.  Well, most of them aren’t, but that’s the new meme. The surviving aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas are called two different names in the U.S., deriving from various misunderstandings relating bizarrely to two Italian navigators.  In Canada, they’re called “First Nations,” which is really just as bad, since the English word ‘nation’ doesn’t remotely describe what they were before the Wasichus got here.

Their group identities got lost in translation.  They had to start reinventing themselves–like the rest of us.  Welcome to America, people who were here thousands of years before it existed as such.  And Westlake is fascinated by the way Indian reservations are distinct sovereign nations within his own nation, part of it, theoretically with all the same rights, yet somehow their own thing, avoiding any proper national definition, neither fish nor fowl. It’s Anguilla all over again.  Under A Yankee Heaven.

It’s a lot for one little book about comedic criminals to get across, and Westlake doesn’t manage an authoritative statement on either theme, but it does somehow enrich the narrative.  Which I seem to be straying from, sorry.

So Dortmunder and Kelp have the van, and thus they have the body of whoever was originally in that grave they dug up, and so basically there’s no way the grifting trio can pull their scam without coming to terms with them–or getting rid of them, which they know would be Fitzroy and Irwin’s preferential option (Little Feather is less bloody-minded), so they bring in Tiny Bulcher to make that option less palatable.

What happens is, Anne Marie Carpinaw, now happily cohabitant with Kelp, wants to have Thanksgiving dinner, like they were a regular couple, which they’re not, but whatever.  Kelp will do whatever she wants, because regular sex is a good thing.  So they have John and May and Tiny and J.C. over, and this is the only time we get to see her in this book, so enjoy it.  I did.  She gets to offer a brief professional opinion on the impending scam, and is seen no more.

And right during dinner, Kelp gets a call from Fitzroy Guilderpost–it took about five weeks, but he managed to get Kelp’s phone number, which means he knows where Kelp lives, which means there’s some pressure on both sides to meet now.  Kelp tells a story about a friend of his who agreed to be home at a certain time to take a call from this guy he had a little disagreement with, and then his house blew  up at that exact time.  So they’re just going to meet in at Parking Area Six at Jones Beach.  The next morning.  Not much time to plan a cross.  Also a really terrible place to sneak up on anybody when it’s not beach season.

And also they’ve got Tiny Bulcher.  Who is terrifying enough all by his lonesome.  At the meet, conducted at Little Feather’s mobile home, parked at Jones Beach, he somehow accessorizes to even more blood-chilling effect.   See, he’s duct-taped a hand grenade to one of his massive hands.  And now he’s offering the extracted pin to Guilderpost.

Guilderpost gaped at the hand grenade.  All three of them gaped at the hand grenade.  Not taking the pin, Guilderpost said, “What are you doing?”

“Well, I’m goin inside there,” Tiny said, “look around, see the situation.”

“But why–Why that thing?”

“Well, if I was to faint or anything in there,” Tiny said, “I wouldn’t be holding this safety lever anymore, would I?”

Irwin said, “Is that–Is that an actual–is that live?”

“At the moment,” Tiny said.

Guilderpost, flabbergasted, said, “But why would you do such a thing?”

Dortmunder answered, saying, “Fitzroy, we’ve got like a few reasons not to trust you a hundred percent.  So Tiny sees to it, if something happens to somebody, something happens to everybody.”

Little Feather takes the pin, and makes a joke about never having been pinned on the first date, making it clear who’s wearing the balls in this outfit.  Irwin insists on accompanying Tiny into the motor home, because yeah, they booby-trapped it. Well, there’s no harm in trying, right?

So now that it’s been established that a trio of grifters, even of one of them is clearly a direct descendant of Sacagawea (because she’s one with the sack, get it?), is nowhere near sufficient to finish off the Dortmunder Gang, they get down to brass tacks about what’s happening here.  Little Feather is going to pose as the last surviving member of the Pottaknobbee tribe, and as such, due a third of the take from an Indian casino operating upstate.  Like the woman who once claimed to be the crown princess of all the Russias, she has been carefully coached to know everything she’s supposed to know about the person she’s supposed to be. Unlike the late Anna Anderson, there are now scientific means of proving she’s a liar, as Anderson was posthumously proven to be in the 1990’s, shortly before this book was written.

Guilderpost has allowed for all that.  Little Feather’s real grandfather’s body is the one Dortmunder and Kelp put in the grave of the man whose great-granddaughter she will claim to be, one Joseph Redcorn, and DNA testing will confirm she is related to him.  A former construction worker, who was up there with the famed Mohawk high steel men  one day (already fading into the past as Westlake wrote this), on the skeleton of what would become the Empire State Building, when he lost his balance and fell. (All surviving members of the Three Tribes have always believed the Mohawks pushed him, which if true would be less of an Indian thing than a clubbish construction worker union thing, I’m guessing.)

And here’s a third identity puzzle.  This woman every reader of Bad News will go on thinking of as Little Feather Redcorn, even while  knowing her real name is Shirley Ann Farraff (at least that’s the name she’s gone by in the white world, her stepfather’s name, and Guilderpost has come up with a fix for that as well), has to spend the rest of her life pretending to be someone she’s not, member of a tribe she didn’t even know existed until these two hucksters approached her–because she looked the part of an Indian princess and dealing cards at a casino generally means you’ve got a good poker face.  And she’s perfectly fine with all that, as long as it means she’s set for life.   And the book clearly wants us to root for her, if not necessarily her partners in grift.  We’ll have to talk more about that later.

So the agreement is made–Dortmunder & Co. don’t get a share of the profits the original conspirators hope to get, but once the plan has succeeded, they will get 100k apiece for their services (and their silence afterwards).  And now they’re all heading north.   To the very heart of Westlake Country, but he never claimed it was his country alone.

You hardly even know you’re leaving the United States.  On your way to Dannemora in upstate New York, near the Canadian  border, famous as the home of Clinton State Prison, you turn left at the big billboard covered by a not very good painting of a few Indians in a  canoe on some body of water, either a river or a lake, surrounded by pine tree-covered mountains.  It’s either sunrise or sunset, or possibly the mountains are on fire.  Printed across this picture, in great thick letters speckled white and tan and black, apparently in an effort to make it seem as though the letters are made of hides of some kind, is the announcement:

Native American Owned & Operated With Pride
5 Mi.

This billboard is brightly illuminated at night, which  makes it seem rather worse than by day.  At its top and bottom, arrows have been added, also lit up at night, which point leftward at a well-maintained two-lane concrete rod that curves away into the primeval forest.

You are deep in the Adirondacks here, in the state-operated Adirondack Forest Preserve, but once you make that left turn, you have departed the United States of America and entered the Silver Chasm Indian Reservation, home of the Oshkawa and the Kiota, and until recently, also home of the Pottaknobbee.  This is a sovereign state, answerable to no one but itself

There are at this time eleven very real Indian Reservations in New York State, including the Shinnecock reservation on Long Island (this one time, bird-watching at Montauk Point at dawn, we came across a man who looked like an Indian at prayer, and it would have been rude to ask if he was a real-live Shinnecock and who he was praying to, so we just quietly left the place to him, since it did belong to him, after all, or he to it.)

The St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in Franklin County, most of which is in the huge Adirondack State Park (three times the size of Yellowstone), is the most likely real-life model for Silver Chasm, but knowing Westlake, I would tend to think he made use of composites here.  That final image you see up top is the Yellow Brick Road Casino, in Chittenango, not far from Syracuse, and right next to Land of Oz and Ends Antiques shop, just in case you have any money left after leaving the casino.

The casino at the Franklin county reservation (which it should be remembered is inside of yet not part of Franklin county) has a more authentic sounding name, and much more luxurious-sounding facilities than what Westlake describes here.  Though since it was founded in 1999, it was probably a lot less grand at the time of writing.  Anyway, he couldn’t very well use the Mohawks here, could he now?   Fictional tribes don’t sue.

Anyway, it’s in this chapter that we meet Roger Fox and Frank Oglanda, managers of the casino, and though they are legitimate members of the two remaining tribes, it’s by DNA only.  They are, we realize quickly, members of a vast and powerful tribe that exists throughout the civilized world; one of whose members is now operating out of the White House, though his reservations are in Manhattan and Mar-a-Lago.  (And our reservations are a bit late to mention, wouldn’t you say?)

They get the letter from Little Feather, carefully composed by Guilderpost, laying claim to her ancestral heritage.  And of course they think she’s a fake, but the real problem is they know their books are fake–they’ve been stealing from their own people, skimming off the top for decades now (this fictional Adirondacks casino has been around for thirty years).   And if this woman’s claim is accepted, she’ll have every right to look at those books.  So they make some calls, and next thing you know, Little Feather’s in jail.  Short novel,  huh?

Well, in point of fact, that only takes us to the end of Chapter 13.  In a 50 chapter book.  As Custer once said at the Little Bighorn, “Oy fucking vey.”  Well, I bet he would have, had he known the phrase.  But now that the foundation is laid, the remaining edifice should rise quickly to its full height in Part 2.  And then I bet the Mohawks push me off.



Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

18 responses to “Review: Bad News

  1. I came to this review knowing full well you’d have already head-cast Fitzroy Guilderpost, and also knowing it would be very different from my head-casting, which is Oliver Platt. I can see no one else in the role.

    Bad News is, in my estimation, the last wholly successful Dortmunder novel, for reasons I’ll get into in more detail for the next installment (and subsequent Dortmunder reviews). It’s possible my opinion of the final four will rise upon re-reading, but I doubt it will rise to the level of Bad News (which even so, isn’t, I agree, in the top three).

    • Platt could work, though of course he doesn’t bear a very strong resemblance to the character’s description (the hair is a minor issue, easily remedied, if they ever made a movie, which they never will). His more unsavory characters are more connivers and blatherskites than grifters, but the distinction can be a fine, one, I’ll grant you.

      Bosco’s probably too old now–not sure he’s even working anymore. And of course, Platt would have been far too young for the role in the years immediately after the book came out. He’s just about getting to the right age now. Let me just say, you should have seen Philip Bosco in his prime, treading the boards Off-Broadway.

      But if we’re fantasizing, why not Frank Morgan? You know–The Wizard? Surely one of the people in Westlake’s head when he created this character. Morgan’s film-flammers were always kindly sorts, no real malice in them, and that’s often the way with fictional con men–they get romanticized quite a bit–Harold Hill, anyone? Paper Moon? Did you see the latest film about The Wizard? The one where he hooks up with Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis?

      Because a confidence man is so good precisely at creating confidence in himself and those who fall for his line, there’s a part of us that likes them, enjoys the stories they tell us, as they meant for us to do–hell, we just elected one President on the basis of a bunch of stories, none of which were true. The challenge for a storyteller is to acknowledge how likable such people can be, and how dangerous it can be to fall under their spell.

      I think Westlake enjoys a good rogue, but he knows that once a rogue, always a rogue, and he was not entirely convinced of the kindliness of grifters. Neither was Jim Thompson, you’ll recall. Which is worse, after all–taking somebody’s money at gun point? Or convincing him to hand it over to you in the profoundly mistaken belief you’re doing him a favor by taking it?

      I will, of course, be reevaluating each of the final Dortmunders, as I read each one for the second time. The second reading always tells you more than the first. But of the Final Five, my favorite is probably the very last one. Doesn’t mean it’s the best. I won’t know which one I think is best until I’ve reviewed each in its turn. I’m not sure I’m even going to be that interested in deciding which is best. Lagniappe has to be accepted in the spirit with which it is offered.

      • Perhaps Tom Hanks, toning it down about 90% from The Ladykillers.

        • Fitzroy Guilderpost is guilty of many things, but never a faux southern accent. Or wearing a bowtie. Or a goatee. Or of impersonating Alec Guinness.

          • The Coens are among my favorite filmmakers, but I cannot bring myself to watch their version of The Ladykillers. If I’ve learned one thing in this life, it’s that you don’t remake the Ealing comedies — especially any starring Alec Guinness.

            • I don’t even understand why they thought they could remake a Henry Hathaway western with John Wayne (yes, Jeff Bridges is by far the better actor, but that’s hardly the point, is it now?). I don’t go to the Coens for remakes. But I’m sure they had their reasons. And I’m equally sure that some cinematic forms, however beloved, are never coming back. We can learn from them, but we can’t resurrect them.

              Even the best pastiches remain pastiches, and pastiche is just a fancy name for fanfic. I can write bloody fanfic, if I want to. I may even do that here, once I’ve run out of books to review. But I won’t ever kid myself into calling it anything else but what it is. Fanfic. Fanfic is to storytelling what karaoke is to music. A fun way to spend an evening, particularly if drunk. 🙂

              • Garry Disher’s Wyatt novels are essentially Parker fanfic set in Australia. The first one was such a blatant copy of Parker, I eventually had to put it down. (Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.) Max Allan Collins’ Nolan series is also Parker fanfic, but he managed to put his own stamp on it. (Still, MAC is no DEW. Who is?)

            • Sincerest form of flattery. With Collins, I’ve yet to get past the Quarry books, which aren’t copies of anything, though they have their influences, like everything else. I’ve enjoyed all of them so far, and expect to enjoy all the rest once I get to them. And they are nothing at all like Stark, or Westlake (or Greene, or Rabe, or Block). Very much their own thing. It’s damned hard to do, writing a series character in a familiar genre, and making him or her unique, sui generis, an individualized personal expression–which is why so few ever manage it. On any level.

            • You missed nothing; it was bloody awful. I loved their version of True Grit, though I’ve never seen the original so can’t compare them. Also, I’m still pissed off they never made a movie of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

              • What I’ve seen of their True Grit looked and sounded fine. I just didn’t see the point of making it. I understand that from their POV, they were re-adapting the novel, not remaking the movie, but it’s a fairly academic distinction. The book is its own thing, and I may even read it someday.

                If you want The Other Duke (first one’s named Ellington) yelling “FILL YOUR HANDS, YOU SON OF A BITCH!” and going hell for leather on Beau, a pistol in one hand, a rifle in another, and the reins clamped in his teeth, you watch Hathaway’s movie, which is beautiful. Maybe it’s not the movie Wayne should have won the Oscar for, but he won because it’s the only movie you can SEE him acting in. He’s not playing The John Wayne Character, it’s a new persona. He had to prove he could do that before they’d give him the statue.

                I think John Waters is right. They should only remake bad movies that should have been good, and try to get them right. They kept doing The Maltese Falcon until Huston got it right, and thankfully nobody’s had the nerve to do it again. Hathaway got it right the first time. if you can’t do it better, why do it at all?

                I go to the Coens for something I’ve never seen before. I’d seen True Grit. Also, Pam Darby was the better Mattie. Underrated actress. And geez, how you gonna top Robert Duvall? I don’t even think Brolin topped Campbell. We seem to have gone off-topic. Who brought up the damn Coens? FILL YOUR HANDS, YOU SON OF A BITCH!!!!

  2. Happy anniversary to The Westlake Review, which was launched with some introductory remarks three years ago today.

    I wish I’d known then (or at least soon thereafter), but it took me more than a year to find this blog.

    (fredfitch’s first comment to me: “Hey, wait a minute–you’re not Ray!”)

    • It was unexpected enough when Ray turned up. I’d never done anything like this before, and was really hoping to have a lively comments section, but you can’t plan for something like that. It happens or it doesn’t. I know there are better blogs out there, but I’ll pit my geek chorus against anybody’s. I just don’t see this level of back and forth elsewhere.

      Funny story–I may have mentioned one of the reasons I was impelled to start this blog was Nick Jones basically telling me I was making my comments at his blog too long and involved, which I was–for his purposes, at least, and his were the purposes that mattered.

      He went as far as to say “I’m not really looking for a co-blogger.” Fair enough. But see, I was, and not just one. It’s more fun this way. And you learn more. It wouldn’t necessarily work for everybody. And it definitely wouldn’t work without highly informed commentators. Which is easier to finagle when it’s mainly about one writer, as Nick’s blog isn’t. And it’s a fine balance–I love it when new posters turn up, but too many would be as bad as too few. Quality over quantity. You don’t want the Tower of Babble. Well, if that hasn’t happened by now, it never will, so I can stop worrying about the perils of mass popularity.

      I don’t know if I can keep this going another three years, or if I’d even want to. Maybe if I can raid that Boston archive you visited for new material, but based on your description, it’d probably take more than one raid. It won’t end with my review of the last book, but All Things Must Pass. Even Tower Records. Or, you know, records. :\

  3. Anthony

    i really like this one. A lot. For lots of reasons. I’ll just mention one: the description of Little Feather as the child of Pocahontas and Mt. Rushmore.

    I recall reading in many sources, when this came out, that Milos Foreman was on board to direct a movie adaption. Which seemed, and still does, bizarre. Obviously, this did not happen, and a quick Google search just now does not back me up on this (“On the internet”). But it’s what I remember.

      • Lawrence’s turn in What’s The Worst that Could Happen? did 38mil worldwide, against a budget of 60mil (thus answering the question the title poses). It opened the month after this article was published. I think we can figure the rest out ourselves. The bad news is that Dortmunder was rarely lucky with casting, and never with producers.

    • I love the language, the characters. I think the plotting could have used some more work. The later Dortmunders tend not to be that well-structured, and to have more subplots than they have room to deal with properly. In my opinion, Westlake often used them as a clearing house for various ideas that he couldn’t find another outlet for. Hence the somewhat ramshackle feel you get from them. But that can be endearing in its own way.

      As I said, not everything in this series has to be a perfect polished gem. In a sense, the imperfections of the Dortmunder books are in keeping with their protagonists. And they tend to attach themselves to my reviews of them. Still trying to figure out Part 2. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Big snowstorm coming. Well, of course there is. 🙂

  4. bobhollberg

    This finally finished my reading of the Dortmunder books, 50 years after reading the paperback movie edition of The Hot Rock (with Redford and Segal on the cover). Not sure why it took so long, except for maybe the hundreds of non-Westlake books that I’ve read. If I had to immediately pick one to read again, I’d probably pick Drowned Hopes—so many interesting threads of plots and subplots.

    That scene with Tiny and the hand grenade reminded me of the movie Big Jake, when John Wayne and Richard Boone took turns saying something like “Whatever happens, your fault, my fault, nobody’s fault, somebody’s going to get killed.”

    I wasn’t sure of the purpose of the scene where Dortmunder acted so confused about the way the legal system works—it seemed like he should have know more than he seemed to know. Maybe it was designed to give Guilderpost a chance to explain some realities of the legal system, which was interesting to read, along with the judge’s similar observations.

    I couldn’t really build up any sympathy for the main female character, and was glad to see her get some kind of comeuppance at the end.

    That scene where the gang turns the tables on Guilderpost and the other guy in the rest stop was extremely satisfying.

    And I couldn’t stop laughing for several pages after Arnie’s comment about coming to terms with his “inner scumbag.”

    • Well congratulations–and condolences. Once you’ve read the last book in a series, all that remains is rereading. I mean, unless it’s one of those series they put on life support after the author dies. Like Dune. Far as I’m concerned, that series ended with Dune Messiah, and the more I think on it, more I think “Nah, it ended with Dune.” Most of the rest Herbert wrote because his wife was sick, and the medical bills were killer. Dortmunder will never meet such a sad fate.

      Dortmunder may have been to court a few times in his life, but no, he would never understand how the law works–only how it works against guys like him. You’re using a computer now. Do you understand how that works? Me neither.

      Little Feather (I assume that’s who you mean) is a bit of a hard case, but I liked her. I also think things worked out good for her. I mean, might as well say Dortmunder gets his comeuppance when he doesn’t get the money, or loses it all at the track afterwards, and that’s every book except the last (he probably still lost all that at the track).

      Remember, it was never her grift–she was just along for the ride, figuring what the hell, maybe she’d get something out of it–she did. She’s got a tribe now. Never mind if it’s her real tribe. Nobody will ever know she’s not a real Pottaknobbee except her, and she doesn’t care. She’s got a home, a guy who’ll do anything for her, and her sense of humor about life. She’ll be fine. She knows herself, and in a Westlake, that usually means you come out okay. Too much money is harmful to the sense of self–that’s why Westlake kept spending all of his, so he’d never be able to stop working. For him, same thing as to stop breathing.

      The Dortmunder are about luck, good and bad, and how hard it can be to tell the two apart sometimes.

      (It didn’t even take me five years to finish basically all the Westlakes, but I’m notoriously weird.)

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