Review: The Scared Stiff

In the meantime, I had of course started another book.  It was not a departure, like The Ax, nor was it exactly like the several books I’d earlier published in the nineties.  It was a little comic insurance fraud novel, closest in spirit to books I’d written in the seventies.  I finished it, and gave it to my editor and my agent, and the gloom could be heard to descend. (It sounds like a grounded blimp losing air.)

Gently I was told that this could not possibly be the book that would follow The Ax, nor could it be the book that followed the return of Richard Stark.  I did see that.

Unfortunately, I did.  I saw what they meant, and I had to agree.  I had a certain responsibility now.  The book I published after The Ax and Stark redux could not just be any book.  I had newer readers now, who would come to that book with a certain level of expectation.  They wouldn’t necessarily need The Ax again, they could certainly understand that I also had my comic moments, but there was a level of emotional truth that really should be present in whatever book was published next.  Later, in the future, I might return sometimes to my more frivolous ways.

Donald E. Westlake, from an unpublished article found in his files; now collected in The Getaway Car

Early in the morning, before I snuck out of the Inter-Nación to climb back aboard my Vespa, we had a conversation we’d had before and was the basis of our life together.

“I’ll be here,” I said.

And she said, “Of course you will, you’re the net.”

“And you’re the net,” I said.

“You know I am.”

We smiled at each other.  I said, “We’re out there alone, nobody to be sure of in the whole world except you and me.  I’m your net and you’re my net. The only net we’ve got.”

“The only net we need, Barry,” she said.

Okay.  First of all.  This is a book about a guy who fakes his own death in a fictional country in South America, to defraud an insurance company.  A white Volkswagen Beetle is involved, as is a (literally) breathtaking river gorge.  Look at the covers up top.  How hard was that to figure out?  Japan, take a bow.  Your artist was the only one who got it, best as I can tell.  Anata no hādowāku o arigatō.

But there’s much about this book that is mysterious: for example, why did Westlake think he could get away with publishing it under a pseudonym? The country in question is named Guerrera, and it had a head of state named General Luis Pozos, after whom a highway has been named (which doesn’t necessarily mean the fat egotist is dead, but we can only hope).

Westlake had been writing about variant versions of this country and its ubiquitous dictator since the 1960’s.  Originally in some of the Grofield novels, most notably the first, where it shared a border with Mexico (not in this one). When Stark was writing the book, it would be called Guerrero.  When it popped up in a Westlake novel (as in the Dortmunder novel, Good Behavior), it would be Guerrera.   (I would never have had the nerve to inquire of the great man if this meant Westlake represented his feminine side.)  The name Pozos never changed, though Guerrera seems to have shifted its geographic position much closer to the equator than its Starkian equivalent, migrating across the map in response to the narrative’s needs, just as Monequois kept showing up in different parts of upstate New York.

Guerrero, Guerrera, Pozos, Pozos, he never called the whole thing off–but he almost did when he was told by just about everybody with any influence over his professional life not to publish this book right after The Ax.  We know now that he took such warnings seriously, which is why we’re just now getting to read Forever And A Death.  But this one he finally did publish, in 2003.  Under the name Judson Jack Carmichael.  The ultimate nom de plume for a writer who possessed an inordinately large number of them.

As you can see, that alias did not hold up in subsequent editions.  Well, how could it?   This is so obviously a Westlake, he might as well have credited it to one of his porn pseudonyms (who, for all I know, might have written about Guerrero/a as well; Westlake and his fast-typing poker buddies could keep injokes like that going for decades).  The dust jacket informs us it’s the pseudonym of a best-selling author (arguably true after The Ax), and that was clearly intended to gin up interest.

Best guess: Westlake still wanted to publish the book.  His agent still thought it would somehow damage his ‘brand.’  Otto Penzler agreed to act as the go-between to Carroll & Graf (it’s stated to be an Otto Penzler Book), and they would tantalize potential readers by saying this was a famous writer going incognito (Penzler’s name would narrow the list of guesses some).  I can see no indication there were any reviewers who twigged to it being Westlake, and the New York Times didn’t even review it.  Later editions were credited to Westlake, including the foreign editions.  I don’t know if Westlake was disappointed by this or not.

It neither damaged nor expanded his brand. Because honestly, there’s nothing much new here–it’s just time-tested material arranged somewhat differently. His enduring fascination with Latin America. His interest in large extended families, and how they can work together and/or be at cross purposes–most prominently featured in Ex Officio and Dancing Aztecs.  His love of befuddled and increasingly terrified first-person narrators in jeopardy, comic criminal picaresques, sometimes referred to as Nephew Books–but the classic Nephew is either in his 20’s or just around 30, and just about to choose his path in life.  This one is 35, married for 14 years, and he’s made his major life choices already, good and bad–now he has to find a way to live with them.  Or not.

I’d call it more of a Cousins Book.  A bit of a throwback to what he wrote in the 60’s and 70’s, but a variation on all themes, most of all in the way it deals with Latin America, which is much more than just a scenic backdrop for misadventure here.  This time the half-fluent hero is going to have to try the total immersion route.  His identity is going to be so thoroughly erased by his schemes (he goes to his own funeral), that his sense of self, his past choices, including his choice of mate, will all be tested to their limits.  An experiment, and an interesting one–hardly a complete departure from what came before.

I honestly don’t know what the problem was with publishing it, but I’m not in publishing.  I’m more into synopsizing, but I’ll be atypically brief here, since I don’t feel like doing a two-parter for this.  Which doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like it, but of Mr. Westlake’s south of the border sagas, I think this definitely takes a back seat to High Adventure.  Let’s appreciate it for what it has to offer.

Barry Lee is a Long Islander by birth, classic American mutt with a hefty dose of black Irish in him, giving him a decidedly Latin look when he’s working on his tan.  Perhaps that helped him win Lola Tobón, a Latin beauty of the first water, who immigrated from Guerrera, seeking her fortune, and finding Barry instead. They found each other, let’s say–knowing from the first that they were far more together than they could ever be apart.  But the fortune-seeking thing never did pay off.

The problem is, the world keeps changing. It just keeps changing all the time, too fast for a simple little couple like us to keep up, much less to succeed.  Today it’s VCR, tomorrow it’s DVD.  Today it’s day-trading, tomorrow it’s Chapter 11.  Today it’s dot com, tomorrow it’s dot bomb, and we managed to get burned, one way or another, on every one of those.  But through it all, through it all, Lola and I just kept hustling.  What else was there for us to do?

And it’s caught up with them.  Mired in debt, the walls closing in fast, unable even to borrow on their life insurance.  It’s not that kind of policy, but it is the kind that pays double-indemnity for accidental death.  Lola wakes Barry up one night with a brainstorm–if they go back to her country, as they do periodically, to see her family, Barry can fake his death, and she can collect the insurance–a full 600k.

Her family, properly induced (and loving Lola very much, Barry perhaps bit less but if he makes her happy…), will help him create a new identity (the old Westlake dodge of using a dead child’s birth certificate to apply for a driver’s license, and build a new identity from there).  He’ll pose as her brother, join her in the States, and they’ll live incestuously ever after.  That’s the plan.   And whatever Lola wants–oh please, you knew that was coming.

With the help of Lola’s good-natured older brother, Arturo (a man of many talents, but a cab driver by trade), his new name will be Felicio Tobón de Lozano, but he can’t assume that identity while he’s hiding out in Guerrera, because people will know he’s not Lola’s brother.   For one thing he speaks very poor Spanish (the Guerraran dialect is quite distinctive).  So he needs an interim self, Ernesto Lopez, a deaf-mute from Ecuador who is an old friend of Cousin Carlos, whose house Barry is staying in.  Barry is not thrilled to learn that his unfortunate disability stems from a bad case of syphilis, but he’s not going to be romancing the local girls, right?  Well, si y no.

As fate would have it, Carlos is married to an intimidatingly beautiful Argentinian sculptress, named María, who likes to swim in the pool a lot (Carlos is quite prosperous by Guerreran standards, and he doesn’t like to talk much about how he makes his living).  Barry isn’t sure if he’s being seduced or tested here.  Possibly neither.

But a more serious temptation manifests itself in Carlos’ niece, Luz Garrigues, who Barry already knows by reputation.  Half the ribald stories in Lola’s large interesting family originate with her, and it would be hard to say if they’re apologizing or bragging when they tell them.  Possibly both.

My first thought was: I don’t want this woman to think I have syphilis.  She was a beauty, probably in her mid-twenties, black-haired, chisel-cheeked, with a generous red mouth and large dark fiery eyes.  Her body was hard and tightly curved, as though it had been constructed to contain electricity.  She looked like Lola crossed with a panther, and I thought, Oh, my!

Half the fun in an insurance fraud story is how you fake your death.  Westlake had done this before, of course.  In the short story, The Sweetest Man in the World, which was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1967, and subsequently appeared in a few anthologies (I gave it a very brief once-over in my review of The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution).

As is the case here, the ersatz dead man is in league with his spouse, assumes a false identity, and is the first-person narrator, and that’s really all you need to know–there he disarms the claims investigator by a rather unlikely (but not wholly implausible) ruse.  Also, there’s a very real dead body, which requires some explaining.

This is an entire novel about insurance fraud and death-faking, so the reader has more time to nitpick, and the investigator is unlikely to be so easily bamboozled.  Barry’s got to make it look really good–it helps that Guerrera is not known for its efficient record-keeping.  It helps that officials there are notoriously easy to bribe.  And most of all it helps that dead bodies nobody wants to claim are not exactly thin on the ground.

So he and Lola have rented a white Volkswagen Beetle.  They’ve driven to a very scenic restaurant, cantilevered over a river gorge, to the point where every meal you have there might be your last.   They have acted out a truly horrific marital spat, at the close of which Barry storms out in high style, and heads for the parking lot, which can’t be seen from inside the restaurant.  He opens the driver’s side door, starts the engine running, but in fact the driver’s seat is already occupado–by the aforementioned corpse, decked out in a shirt of royal blue that matches Barry’s.

This unclaimed body has been provided by a professional yet pliable undertaker, who will also serve as coroner, because that’s how things are done in the Guerreran countryside, which is admirably efficient when you think about it.  Barry experiences a moment of doubt, when he notices how surprisingly well-groomed his doppelgänger is, but it’s too late to turn back now.  Arturo, good brother-in-law that he is, rams his Impala into the Beetle, which is parked at the very edge of the aforementioned gorge.

Out it arched, into all that light above the river, a white descending balloon. No. A white descending refrigerator.

Arturo slammed on the brakes, and the Impala stopped just before the drop. He backed around in a tight circle, and I turned away from the dramatic instance of my death.  As I ran for the Impala and jumped into the backseat, I heard the screams start inside the restaurant.

I could pick out Lola’s scream.  It was the loudest one of all.

When next I saw her, Lola described for me the scene after my departure from the Scarlet Toucan.  Into the at-last-calm atmosphere of the restaurant, the shiny white Beetle made a sudden dramatic appearance in the middle of the air, hung there like a surrealist painting, then crashed with a great geyser of foam and spray and auto parts.

Not only satisfactory from the standpoint of convincing the insurance company, but highly artistic as well.  Lola is inconsolable, and all the more rapturously beautiful in her feigned grief.  The police who show up belatedly at the scene are fighting over who gets to console her.

The ranking officer, Inspector Rafael Rafez, insists on accompanying her back in her cab, and in-between telling her how he thinks he’d make an excellent addition to the NYPD because of his multi-lingualism and general crime-solving prowess, forces his sincere and well-meant condolences upon her to such an extent that she has to sock him hard in the mouth, and she worries he’ll never get the blood out of his suit, which suits Barry just fine, once he hears about it.  (But they have not heard the last of Inspector Rafez!)

So then it’s back to his interim pseudonym of Ernesto, trying very hard to think about his eventual reunion with Lola while María swims in the pool, trying to stay on Carlos’ good side, and trying to be convincing as their chauffeur, suit and all, though I think the fact that we’re told he’s chauffeuring them in a late model Buick Riviera (possibly the very last model) would make that challenging, since all Rivieras were coupes, unless I missed something, and yet we’re told this one is a four-door.  Perhaps one of Mr. Westlake’s intentional errors, made to avoid angering the gods.

Carlos doesn’t want Barry to miss his own funeral, which may be his sense of well-hidden sense of humor at work, or perhaps his way of reminding the man spending so much time with Carlos’ lovely wife of his own mortality.  Either way, Barry finds the experience fascinating, and particularly what a ravishing widow Lola makes, but he’s also got some fairly trenchant social observations to relate to us.

Both of Lola’s parents come from large families, well scattered around Guerrera and the neighboring nations and also well scattered through the economic classes.  Some of her cousins were schoolteachers and administrators, and some were day laborers and mild farmers, poor as squirrels.  Carlos was a cousin with money and influence, but there were other cousins, illiterate and unpropertied, who barely existed in the modern world.  We don’t get that kind of diversity in the States because our society is more settled, so the ranges of class within a family are usually not very broad.

(Oh, I don’t know.  Give us a few more years with the current POTUS…)

Between María and Luz, Barry needs himself a little Lola-time, so a brief rendezvous is arranged at a hotel, before she flies back to America to commit felony fraud (which amazingly, as is pointed out several times in the book, Barry himself has not committed, since faking your death isn’t strictly illegal, though certainly frowned upon).  That’s where the passionate conversation up-top takes place.

Shortly afterwards, while driving María to the airport, she mentions that she was wondering if he was going to be ‘difficult’, as in make a pass at her, as men must be doing constantly, but never when her very dangerous husband is around.  She would have refused, and is not at all displeased he never made any such tiresome attempt, but she is, all the same, curious about the source of this restraint–it surely does not come from his deep sense of morality.  She says something about how faithful husbands are rare in this tropic clime of hers.

“I think that’s true everywhere,” I said.  “But Lola and me…it isn’t that I’m being faithful to her. It’s that I don’t have any other way to live.  To go do something else would be like breaking a bone.”

“Yes, of course,” she said, and switched to look at the back of my head again, speculatively.  “It seems like a contradiction, but it isn’t,” she decided.  “You aren’t the faithful type, actually, you’re a rogue.”

“Thank you–I think,” I said.

“Oh, I know you like being a rogue,” she assured me. “What the English call a chancer. You’re unfaithful to the entire world, so why are you faithful to your wife?”

“Maybe that’s why,” I said, and met her eyes in the mirror.  “Maybe I need one little island in a sea of untrustworthy water. And so does Lola.”

“You’re each other’s island.”

“We are the island,” I said, “and I need to be with her again.”

“Poor Barry,” she said, which was the first time she’d used my former name, and without the usual mockery.

I didn’t think I could stand sympathy.  Smiling back at her, I said “Poor Felicio, in fact.”

That made her laugh and restored our relationship. “You aren’t a man,” she said, “You’re an anthology!”

Soon to be expanded into further editions, but we’ll get to that.  After they have an unpleasant encounter with Inspector Rafez (while Barry prays not to be recognized–he’s grown a heavy mustache, but still), it comes out that there is bad blood between Carlos and the the Inspector–the first an honest crook, the latter a dishonest cop, obviously their paths must cross at times–María is thrilled to hear of Lola’s bloodying the man’s white linen suit.  They part as friends, but with María out of the country on art-related business, Barry’s situation has become more tenuous, and this is thanks to Luz.  Who is going to assail Barry’s roguish fidelity as María never could.

Her cousins.  She didn’t know they would be so stupid.  Which cousins, Barry wants to know, and stupid how?  The cousins from Tapitepe, she responds–Manfredo and Luis and the other Luis with the bad arm and Jose and Pedro and poco Pedro.  She was never told directly what Barry and Lola were doing, she was supposed to believe the cover story, but she’s not stupid, just impulsive, and she figured part of it out, listened to vague family gossip, and supplied the rest from her imagination, just as fertile as the rest of her self-evidently is.  In her version of events, Barry and Lola are getting millions of dollars, and sharing it with the entire family, and all they have to do is keep the secret, or the insurance company won’t pay.

And then she told this to the cousins from Tapitepe, who responded to the joyous news in a way she, in her sublimely sexy innocence (I would assume all women in Eden were like her, which is why it was such a terrible punishment to be expelled from there), had not anticipated.

“So they say,” she went on, “if the family gets all this money if Barry Lee is dead, how come he’s alive?”

I looked at her.  “Say that again?”

“Why have the risk? she asked me.  “That’s what they say.   Why have the risk? If the insurance find out Barry Lee ain’t dead, nobody gets nothing.”

“Luz,” I said, they were never going to get anything.

“Millions,” she said

“Not millions,” I told her.  “Listen to me, Luz.  Not millions.  It isn’t millions.  Carlos is getting a couple hundred, and Arturo is getting some, and Mama and Papa are getting some, and that’s all.  The rest of the family isn’t getting anything.”

“Millions,” she said, blinking at me.

I would say both are having equal difficult getting their points across (in Barry’s case, the problem is exacerbated by the way Luz’s breasts keep jumping out of her top), but Luz’s point is the more crucial one, because the cousins from Tapitepe are coming to make sure Barry Lee is dead for real.  They are honest men, and do not wish to commit fraud. Only murder.  Wouldn’t Carlos protect him?  Carlos was never 100% Barry wasn’t sleeping with María when he was away, and now María is away, and he’s not going to get involved.  This seems a bit cold-blooded, since the cousins are also going to kill their housekeeper to make things look good, but Carlos may not realize this, and good help is not that hard to find in Guerrera, I guess.

Luz sneaks him out of town, over to her place in a nearby town, and they go dancing.  No, seriously.  People dance there.  Barry is a good dancer, which is no surprise to Luz, since Lola would never have married him otherwise.  She thinks Barry has been very good for Lola, who was always very snobbish and tiresome before.  She is certainly not trying to drive Barry insane with adulterous lust. That’s just a natural consequence of being around Luz Garrigues.

So now he’s being passed off as a truck driver she took up with, his fourth identity of the book to date, and of course that is never going to hold up, since he can’t even speak fluent standard Spanish.  But you can see him almost warming to the role–if he stayed there long enough, his Spanish would improve, he could come up with a better story, he could just blend into the scenery, illegal immigrant that he is, and they’d go dancing every night, and Luz would probably end up pregnant, but none of that happens because the cousins from Tapitepe show up there, and he has to jump in the filthy river next to her house (no modern plumbing there) so they don’t find him.  Afterwards she showers him off, which isn’t helping matters at all.

He gets Luz to phone Arturo, who shows up in the Impala, and it’s off to Lola’s parents’ house, where an insurance investigator named Kaplan then shows up, along with the indefatigable Inspector Rafez.  Barry has to spend some time with Madonna, the family pig, in her shed.  She tries to take it in good humor, but he smells so bad….

Arturo is disgusted with the stupid cousins from stupid Tapitepe (the word bufons is bruited about, no translation needed) but he wants Barry to understand something.  His little sister is not going to jail.  If the only way to prevent this is to make Barry Lee disappear, for good–well, let’s hope it never comes to that.  But the thing about countries like Guerrera is, people form broad-based social webs (and were doing so long before Facebook). Arturo knows somebody who might help.

An old girlfriend, in fact–Dulce.  Who is still quite sweet on him, even though he’s married to someone else.  And she manages a luxury resort for rich gringos. Can Barry play a rich gringo for a while?   Two, actually–Dulce will be told he’s a film producer hiding out from a vengeful wife he’s divorcing, and his name is Garry Brine (because he’s been salted away, nice pun Barry!)  But while he’s there, he’ll be going by the name Keith Emory, so the wife doesn’t find him.  So now his alias has an alias.  Caramba.

Barry’s feelings about Casa Montana Mohoka are mixed–it’s so–fake.  You’ll never get to know the country this way.  And yet he’s already gotten to know Guerrera so much better than he ever wanted to, and they have modern plumbing.  Also satellite TV.

What a place.  This was the kind of resort being built all over the world these days, in out-of-the-way locations where the costs are low and the regulations nonexistent.  Corporations use them for all kinds of conferences, and then the corporate executives come back and use them for their vacations.  They fly into some little country like Guerrera, go straight to the resort, spend their three days or their week, fly back out, and they’ve never been anywhere at all. Corporate people love that kind of place, because it comes with a guarantee of the removal of all doubt and danger.  A vacation with no surprises: what a concept!

And then–a dramatic coincidence!  Dulce is married to a local doctor (there is certainly nothing improper in her mildly flirtatious relationship with Arturo), who went to college in America, and an old school chum of his happens to be in the country, would ‘Keith’ like to meet him?  Charming fellow.  Works for an insurance company now.  Leon Kaplan.  Who doesn’t recognize Barry either. Man, a mustache can certainly hide many a sin (assuming you don’t think mustaches are a sin in themselves).

As they chat over dinner, Kaplan confirms all of Barry’s worst fears–he suspects the death was faked.  He can’t prove it yet, but he knows how–find out if there are any dead Guerreran children requesting drivers’ licenses of late.  Barry excuses himself from the table–he suddenly isn’t feeling well.

So he calls up Arturo and the Impala once more, and he’s got bad news for Arturo as well–it was Arturo’s wife, Ifigenia, who wrote the letter to the insurance company, darkly suggesting that Barry Lee’s death was not all it should be.  She has, as you might expect from the name alone, a somewhat dramatic temperament.  And if they don’t do something fast, this is going to be a Greek tragedy in no time.

First, Arturo has to explain things to his wife, with whom he enjoys a somewhat on and off relationship (he shows up every few years, and she has a kid, and sometimes she makes him a dessert before he goes) just what a horrible thing she’s done–most of all in trusting the Guerreran post office to get that letter to America before the intended crime had already been committed.  She is tearfully apologetic, and makes them both a dessert, which they spent the next few chapters fighting over, but we can’t get into that now.

Turns out Ifigenia writes for the fotonovelas Luz so adores (small country), and she also has a cousin, Carlita Camal who works in TV news (and is thus the only blonde in this book packed with sultry brunettes, because Spanish language TV). They figure she can get into the hall of records, make them a map of the place, and then they can sneak in there and heist the documents.  Barry says they can eat Ifigenia’s quesilla while they wait for the coast to be clear.  He’s actually looking forward to it.

Instead, she just lifts the license application herself, the only copy, and walks out with it, and gives it to them at the best Chinese restaurant in Guerrera (I can’t dwell on that either, and I really want to–Westlake would have made a fine food columnist if the novelist thing hadn’t worked out).  Now Kaplan can’t prove a damn thing.  Back to the resort.

Where, two days later, the cousins from Tapitepe show up.  Manfredo and Luis and the other Luis with the bad arm and Jose and Pedro and poco Pedro. Security is very tight there, but they found a way in, after finding out he was there, and to sum it up, the problem with a country where you can always find somebody to do something not strictly legal for you is that the people who don’t like you can always do the same.

This is the extreme peril part of the program, and we’ve been through enough Nephew books by now that I don’t feel the need to go into detail.  Off to Tapitepe in a beer truck, being hit over the head occasionally while in a sack.  Escaping the not-very-bright cousins once he gets to Tapitepe, stealing one of their trucks, causing them a few fairly serious injuries in the process, which causes Barry not the slightest guilt–though seeing the truly abject poverty they live in (by Guerreran standards), he can certainly understand why some gringo in-law’s life means nothing to them.  Understand, but not approve.  Bufons.

He runs out of gas.  Naturally.  Then he’s found by the police.  Obviously. Specifically by Inspector Rafael Rafez.  You were inspecting maybe Speedy Gonzalez?  (Referenced in this book, I should mention, he’s very popular down there.)

He looks at Barry’s very convincing fake ID–convincing because it’s real, just misleading.  In the true spirit of Westlake police detectives, the Inspector manages to jump to just about every wrong conclusion in the book but then a ray of light dawns–he remembers Lola Lee.  Well, how could he forget?

And then Barry tells him everything.  Between chapters, needless to say.  And without implicating any members of Lola’s family he still likes.  And it turns out that this makes Rafez like him, because I was a rascal now, and he could control rascals.   And you know what the best thing about corrupt cops is?  They’re corruptible.  Have Lola bring sixty thousand dollars from America, and we’ll call it even. He won’t even throw in the cleaning bill for his white linen suit.

So having been under Carlos’ protection from Rafez, he’s now under Rafez’ protection from Carlos (who probably was never going to do anything to him, but it’s good to be protected, and the Tapitepe cousins might still show up again). No more worries of being murdered for illusory millions.  Now he just has to worry about him and Lola actually getting their 600k, and Lola staying out of jail.

And here’s the thing–he talks to Lola on the phone.  Risky in itself, but she’s using pay phones (there are still pay phones in America?). Her passion for him has not abated, but she’s holding something back.  He can tell.  Something is wrong.  That she can’t talk about.  Even over a pay phone.

The days slip by.   The insurance check has still not arrived, even though the company has decided to pay up.  Rafez is expressing mild impatience over his 60k.  Barry tells Arturo he feels like he’s ‘nailed to the floor’ (which in itself should have been enough to out ‘Judson Jack Carmichael’ as an alias, in this novel of endless aliases).  Inspector Rafez may not have proven to be much of a detective, but that’s precisely the role Barry Lee has to play now–only he has to figure out what Lola’s problem is without her telling him in words.  (In that limited sense, I suppose you could say all men in long-term relationships have to play detective sometimes.)

The crisis comes when he learns Lola has turned her phone off.  To him, this is clearly a signal that somebody on the other side has something on Lola, and is threatening to turn her in.  And on his side, there’s only one thing he can do to counter that.

Arturo said, “Are you crazy?  Turn yourself in?”

“It’s the only way,” I said.  “If Lola’s in trouble somehow, it’s only because of the money.  If I say I’m alive, there won’t be any money, and she won’t be in trouble anymore.”

“And you don’t get the money.”

“But I get Lola,” I said.  “She and me, once we’re together, we’ll figure something else out. There’s always a scheme somewhere.”

He’ll say he faked his death because he was tired of the marriage (documented by the fight they faked in the restaurant), wanted to start a new life (documented by his living with Luz), and Lola knew nothing about it, filed the insurance claim in good faith.  He’ll call Leon Kaplan, who is back in the states by now.  Explain the whole thing, except not the parts that would put Lola behind bars.  Even if the insurance company wanted to try and go after him, it would be too much trouble and expense.

Just one problem.  Kaplan refuses to believe he’s Barry Lee–refuses to believe Barry Lee is alive.  Why would he refuse to believe that?  He just spent a lot of time trying to prove it.  Unless he had something to lose by Barry being alive? Oh wait…..

Change of plans.  Barry tells a dumbfounded Kaplan about that time they had dinner together, you know, at Casa Montana Mohoka?   Remember how they were in on the insurance fraud scheme together?  No?  He’ll remember it after Barry calls the police over there and tells them about it.  Which won’t happen if Barry very shortly gets a phone call from Lola, telling him she’s got her money, along with whatever evidence Kaplan was using to blackmail her.  Check.  Mate.

Everybody’s happy now, except Kaplan and the Tapitepe cousins, who deserve each other, far as I’m concerned.  Barry has Lola, Lola has Barry, and they both have six hundred thousand dollars (don’t even ask how much that is in Guerreran siapas), minus sixty thousand for the intrepid Inspector Rafez, who has proven to be more honest in his own way than his American counterpart, so maybe he’s better off staying where he is after all.  Those gringos can’t be trusted, Inspector.  Probably shouldn’t drink the water either, now that Trump is in charge of the EPA.

But Barry no longer counts as a gringo, because he is, and evermore shall be, Felicio Tobón, living happily ever after in America with his loving sister, “Hansel and Gretel out of the woods; or at least until the six hundred thousand dollars ran out.  But that’s another story.”  The End?  Far as we’re concerned, yeah.

Okay.  If I were compiling a list of Westlake’s fifty best novels, this would not be on it.  But it might just make my list of his fifty most oddly charming novels–the very bottom, perhaps.  It’s fun to read, and I would think it was even more fun to write, particularly right after The Ax, which must have been quite depressing and painful, and so full of death.

And so he wanted to write about Life, not necessarily at its most felicitous, but at its most vivid, vibrant, and vivacious, and what setting could be more conducive to that than Latin America, where government may at times be a work in progress (or its opposite, and that’s not just Latin America these days), but living is an art form in itself, at least when material circumstances even barely allow for its practice.  There is much gentle mockery here, intermingled with great admiration, and a willingness to understand–and obviously if you really want to understand Latin America, there are far more fluent authors you could check out.  Probably even some who write great mysteries, though I suspect most of those don’t get translated much.

I said it’s a Cousins Book, and by that I mean it’s saying we’re all cousins, parts of a huge far-flung maniacal clan, and wherever we may roam, we’re always staying with family, with all the good and the bad that comes with family, even poco Pedro.  And could there be anything more unpardonably rude than to build a wall to keep family out?  Could anything have filled Mr. Westlake with more inchoate rage than to even suggest such a thing?  Is it not cold enough up here already?  Or do we think we’d still be welcome down there, where so many of us love to venture, once we’ve shut the door on any impromptu return visits?   Rich relations give crust of bread and such...  The day might dawn when we’re the poor relations, you know.

I’m glad he got to see this one in print, and I believe it gave him great satisfaction to see the books, in spite of all the bafflingly misleading covers (and the one from Japan).  I also must note in passing that he wrote an awful lot about morally ambiguous yet oddly faithful rogues, as he must have sometimes liked to see himself, facing death down below the border–so often that it might mask a secret desire to meet with Death down there, if he had to die at all.  If so, he got his wish five years later.  But that is also another story.

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25 Comments

Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

25 responses to “Review: The Scared Stiff

  1. I found this one charming as well, and appreciate its departure from the insurance fraud stories we’re used to. (“Double Indemnity” is name-checked, because of course it is.) The man and the woman don’t have a falling out. They don’t betray each other. Barry’s fidelity may be a challenge to maintain but is never really in doubt, so solid is their relationship — or so he tells us. We only have Barry’s version of their relationship, Lola being off-stage for most of the action. (This may be a failing. She’s not much of a character on her own, barely present, though Barry does his best to bring her to life in our imagination, and she does get one memorable line while on the phone with Barry, who’s in front of her entire family.) Even the insurance investigator, the Edward G. Robinson character, subverts expectations by being smart, intuitive, and doggedly determined (as expected) but also corruptible (which is not).

    • And Inspector Rafez is the mirror image to that, seeming like such a vindictive jerk for most of the story, but turning out to have his reasonable side, if not where beautiful grieving widows in taxicabs are concerned. No one is all of a piece here, or in reality.

      The problem you mention with Lola is a problem with many books of this general type Westlake wrote–romantic farces, if you will. All the more here, where The Boy met and married The Girl fourteen years before. It’s about Barry learning about himself and Guerrera, and Lola simply doesn’t have much of an active role to play in that–plus the basic plot requires her to be elsewhere, doing her own thing. If he did parallel chapters showing her travails in las América del Norte, he’d ruin the mystery angle, which is what he’s known for as a writer.

      Anyway, we don’t fault Parker novels for not showing us a lot of Claire (many readers of those novels award extra points for Claire being left out entirely, though I’m not one of those).

      There’s never much doubt of her love for and loyalty to Barry, which I suppose is a flaw, but not a very serious one. It’s not a dark book, in spite of the morbid subject material. After The Ax, that was the last thing he wanted to do, but he had to do it anyway, hence The Hook. But since it is a mystery of this specific type, there’s just enough doubt (particularly for a reader who doesn’t know who Judson Jack Carmichael is) to create a bit of suspense. Which is all that’s needed.

      I mean, it was so obvious in The Fugitive Pigeon (notice how the latter title self-consciously harks back to the original) that the first person narrator hero wouldn’t die that he’s forced to switch to third person omniscient, just to create a bit of distance and doubt. But nobody was complaining, as evidenced by the huge sales that book had.

      However, that was a different era, a different market (a different century), and I’m guessing this book didn’t sell half so well as The Fugitive Pigeon, but it probably did more than well enough to justify the effort by all concerned. Not enough to justify a two part review, though. And the same goes for the next book in the queue, the last and quite possibly least of Westlake’s one-shot criminal farces, though my final judgment on that must wait until I reread it. There, got the segue in through the back door. 😉

      • I’m pro-Claire, but Parker’s identity isn’t defined by his relationship with Claire. She’s an important piece of the puzzle, and perhaps underserved by the narrative, but that’s not what those books are about, so it’s mostly okay. (Also, I have a much stronger sense of Claire than I do of Lola, but she has a lot more books to assert herself in.) Barry’s identity is defined by his relationship with Lola (he says as much himself, repeatedly), and thus the deficiency I feel here. But no matter. This one’s just a trifle, really, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough following Barry along on his misadventures, for as long as they last.

        • A strong argument, but I think an unavoidable problem with the set-up for the book. We do see a fair bit of Lola, but she has to be at least a bit of a cypher, for the story to work as planned. In a sense, we keep seeing her during her absence from the narrative, through her family members in Guerrera that Barry encounters, each of whom has a story to tell. Barry knows things about her he never did before, once his journey is completed. And she knows now that what they say about being each other’s net was nothing more than the truth. It works well enough.

  2. I got this book out of the library when it first came out because it came up in a card catalog search (not really on cards anymore) for Donald Westlake, listing the author as “Carmichael, Judson Jack (pseud. for Donald Westlake).” So, the jig was up from the get-go, at least among librarians.

    Not that there would be any doubt. But just once, I’d like to read a pseudonymously published novel without knowing who the author was beforehand, to see if I could tell. (Maybe this has already happened, but I doubt it.) Thinner was in my hands before the news broke that Richard Bachman was really Stephen King, but I even hadn’t cracked the spine yet. And I’m genuinely curious what I would have thought if I’d read The Scared Stiff (Westlake’s wink to “The Busy Body”?) without knowing who really wrote it. It’s hard to imagine I wouldn’t have figured it out.

    Also, I too find the American cover confounding. Who is that being marketed to?

    • As disgusted as you and I must be by this development, imagine how Westlake felt. If only he could just disappear into a pseudonym as he used to do. If only there were territories! (Getting a bit ahead of myself here, but I do that.)

      (editing) I suppose the American cover could be worse. There’s at least a picture of a body in a morgue. Don’t think Barry is sporting a fedora at any point in the story, but that goes with the genre. The British edition is a pure puzzlement. The Rivages cover is, as usual, a stock image they got the rights to, and they’re going with cherchez la femme as they so often do, which is fair enough, except pretty sure that girl is a blonde. They couldn’t find ONE picture of a raven-haired beauty? Quel dommage.

  3. Thank you for finding another book I need to read! (Not that I have time — but I’ll have to make some, as Kermit did when Miss Piggy refused to accept cancellation of her big number.)

    In my extreme youth I might have been able to answer your car question myself; today, I took the liberty of looking it up . . . apparently there were a few four-door Buicks given the Riviera label, though these days there is talk of “four-door coupes”! Anyway, it seems that one of these models was featured in The Birds, according to today’s second new-to-me treat: the Internet Movie Cars DataBase.

    • This book is set in the email era, since that’s the primary means whereby Barry and Lola discuss their scheme with Arturo, prior to getting to Guerrera. It’s supposed to be a very recent model Riviera. I’m pretty sure it was nothing but two-door coupes by that point in time, but I’d be delighted to be proven wrong. Always possible there was a four-door created for the Latin American market.

      • If there was a Latin American edition, Wikipedia makes no mention of it. Darn. (We could perhaps consult the Riviera Owners Association.)

        Well, Wikipedia does say the latest model year in this universe would still have been a few years old. “1999 was the car’s last model year with production of 1,956 cars ceasing on November 25, 1998. The final 200 cars had special silver paint and trim, and were denoted ‘Silver Arrow'[20] models, a designation which hearkened back to several Silver Arrow show cars that had been built off Riviera bodies by Bill Mitchell.”

        Of course, you’ve read the book so you know much better than I do what Guerrerans would consider late-model. (There have, I believe, been places in the world to which special/classic and/or not-exactly-late-but-on-their-last-legs models of US cars with well-known names were routinely shipped and quickly snapped up. But a four-door Riviera would have to be pretty darned “classic” by now, too — per the concluding sentence of the “Riviera name” section of the Wikipedia article: “The last usage of the term Riviera to describe a luxury trim level was 1963, as the formal designation of the #4829 Electra 225 Riviera four-door hardtop, the same year the E-body model two-door hardtop coupe Riviera made its debut.”

        • I did, of course, think to check Wikipedia before writing the review, since my informational needs are not arbitrarily restricted by a mad dictator. Yet.

          Here’s my best guess. He liked Rivieras (one is featured in Butcher’s Moon). He had been to Latin America many times over the years. He had seen them being driven there, and possibly some had four doors, possibly not, but he just thought the car’s overall styling and its name was somehow right for Carlos and his artistic spouse, but you can’t have a chauffeur driving you around in a two door coupe, nor did it make sense they’d be driving an old car, when they’re rich enough to afford a new one. Hence a late model four door Riviera. I bet he got letters from offended car nuts. Or maybe Carmichael did.

          • Cogently reasoned, sir. The only other option would be a thoroughly restored classic, I guess — probably would have been expensive and prestigious enough . . . but that would be more nearly likely only if there were several cars in the family, and might have required Carlos to be a tinkerer himself.

            • And it wouldn’t match what we’re being told by the narrator. He’s not from Guerrera, and he’s telling us it’s a brand-spanking-new car.

              In the dimness inside hulked a very recent Buck Riviera, black and gleaming, with black leather upholstery. The Batmobile could not have looked more incongruous in that shed.

              And while we don’t know what year it is, we know they have email (and, incongruously, easy access to pay phones in the states, but I guess there would still have been some around when this book was actually written–it’s 90’s vintage Westlake, regardless of publication date).

              It’s a mistake, but whether it was made in dead earnest, or with a bit of a wink to the Navajo gods, I could not possibly say. Maybe he just made it a Riviera because that was the right car, and in the alternate universe this is taking place in, they sometimes had four doors, and they stayed just as stylish and slick as they were in the 70’s. Because honestly, the final model was nothing to mourn for.

              • John O'Leary

                Riviera was Buick’s name for a pillarless hardtop body (both two- and four-door) in the 1950s. Oldsmobile called theirs a Holiday, Ford called theirs a Victoria, etc. In the early 60s the Riviera nameplate was reincarnated as a personal luxury coupe to compete with Ford’s Thunderbird.

              • That is correct, sir! Thanks for calling in to Westlake Car Talk, and that 26 dollar gift certificate for our merchandise store is on its way. Our next caller is an Alan Grofield, who wants to know how to get blood stains out of the upholstery of a 1970 Chevy Nova, and after that, we have a John Dorkmunder?–is that right?–who wants a price list for an intimidatingly large array of super-rare automobiles he believes might be going on the market shortly. But first, a message from our sponsor. Oh wait, we’re non-profit, sorry, forgot. This is TWR, public radio.

              • Don’t review Westlake books like my brother!

  4. Thanks for resolving the mystery of why a book that was obviously Westlake was published under a pseudonym.

    Does everyone know about Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc? He wanted people to take it seriously, so he published it anonymously. But since it was full of things like:

    He recovered, and was himself again after two or three hours; and then he was happy and proud, and made the most of his wound, and went swaggering around in his bandages showing off like an innocent big-child —which was just what he was. He was prouder of being wounded than a really modest person would be of being killed.

    Pretty much no one was fooled.

    • I resolved the mystery? I think I just laid out the available evidence, and made a few reasonable conjectures, many of which are probably wrong.

      Hey, I’m Inspector Rafez! Does this mean I get sixty thousand dollars and the right to paw Lola in the back set of a taxi c–OWWWW! My white linen suit! Señora, I was only paying my respects!

      • Hmm — could “Rafez” be a tip of the hat to Raffles, the decline of whose fan base Westlake has elsewhere deplored?

        • I’ve never read any of those books, or seen any of the movies. And I’m not sure Westlake was seriously deploring the demise of that franchise. Gentlemen thieves were never his thing.

          • You can find all the Raffles books on gutenberg.org. They’re narrated by his sidekick, Bunny (I am not making this up), who’s constantly agonizing over both living off the proceeds of crime and the prospect of being caught, which makes them very little fun.

            • Why would I think you were making up a sidekick named Bunny? We’ve both read The Name of the Game is Death, right? Any bets Marlowe didn’t read it too? Mr. Marlowe had a twisted but working sense of humor, never doubt it.

              The Gentleman Thief, partly or entirely reformed, was, and to some extent still is, a figure to conjure with in popular fiction. Alfred Hitchcock and Blake Edwards both played with the idea to good effect. It began in earnest with Arsene Lupin and Raffles. I might like to read some of the Lupin stories in translation. I just don’t think I could ever take somebody named after something held at a church bazaar seriously.

              • More fox than wolf, which is fine, except once he reforms, he’s more like one of those foxes created by that famous breeding experiment in Russia that inadvertently provided clues as to how dogs were domesticated. Cute, cuddly, and the hounds would catch him easily, and rip him to shreds.

                With this type of story, they’re always looking for some way to make the thief relatable–so that we can enjoy the vicarious thrill of stealing, something our species is hardwired to enjoy, because that’s part of how our primate ancestors survived–but without the guilt that is also hardwired into us (for reasons that are more complex and elusive).

                There are different ways to do it–give him a ‘good’ motivation (somebody needs an operation)–make him very charming and (you should pardon the pun) raffish–put him in a situation where he wants to reform, but he’s not allowed to–have him work for the government or some private outfit that somehow serves the common good (perhaps by opposing an oppressive government, and that’s a really old one)–or just make it clear he’s doomed, punish him, make him a tragic figure, therefore relatable.

                Westlake tried, as best he could, to avoid or somehow subvert all of these dodges–to confront the reader with the undeniable fact that we identify with thieves because we are thieves, one way or another. Didn’t always succeed, but he got there often enough to make him the supreme practitioner of this type of story. The King of Thieves. He had his influences, but he surpassed all of them.

  5. M.D.

    I’ve started this novel twice — once, when I didn’t know it was written by Westlake, another time when I did — and I’ve yet to reach mid-point. On my earlier readings, the book felt…glum. More sad than clever, more gloomy than comedic.

    I donated the volume the first reading, then repurchased the thing from Amazon (and cheap, only a penny over shipping). I still have it and expect I’ll give it a third go sooner or later.

    If I hadn’t tried twice before, your review would have intrigued and excited me. I’m glad you got more pleasure out of the story than I did.

    • I don’t see how anybody gets glum out of it. I honestly don’t. It’s dark at points, but so’s most of what he wrote. So are most of the Dortmunders, really (I think ‘glum’ would be an excellent word to describe that series protagonist).

      Fiction is inherently subjective. If it ain’t subjective, it ain’t fiction. This is, in essence, a story he’d told many times before, starting with The Fugitive Pigeon, one of his most popular and well-liked books. That’s about a younger man, maneuvering on his home turf, and was written in a more optimistic time. But it’s still about somebody running around convinced he’s going to be murdered at any moment over a comically stupid misunderstanding. Maybe that story doesn’t work anymore, except then explain every other comedy at the multiplex these days to me. You seen the promos for the new one with Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn? Difference is, they aren’t going to treat the locals as fully-fledged human beings in that one.

      It is a long way from the best work he was capable of. And a long way from the worst. That might just possibly be the next book. Can it topple Who Stole Sassi Manoon? from the Porcelain Throne? We shall see.

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