Monthly Archives: June 2017

Review: Watch Your Back!, Part 2

richard-estes-amsterdam-avenue-and-96th-street

“I’m a guy goes to the O.J. sometimes,” Dortmunder said, “and I thought you oughta know what’s happening there.”

“I’m here,” Otto Medrick told him, “so I don’t hafta know what’s happening there, I got family looking after it.”

“No, you don’t,” Dortmunder said. “Your nephew Raphael, I have to tell you the truth, I met him, and I don’t think he could look after a pet rock.”

“Yeah, you met him all right,” Medrick agreed. “But there’s the rest of the family, his mother, cousins by the dozens.”

“Nobody,” Dortmunder said. “Whatever they’re supposed to be doing, they’re busy doing something else.”

“By God, that sounds like those useless sonsabitches,” Medrick said, and peered all at once more closely into Dortmunder’s face. “I bet,” he said, “you’re one a them back-room crooks.”

Many years ago, I made a mighty vow that I would never write two novels about John Dortmunder in a row, but would always write at least two books about other people and other things in between. The reason was, I didn’t want to overwork John, me or the reader. So far, I think the system has worked pretty well.

So what happened? After The Road to Ruin, clearly, I was supposed to write two non-John novels, and yet, Watch Your Back! is absolutely about Dortmunder, Kelp and all the rest of them. And what happened was, this was the only story I could think about. I resisted, I tried to come up with something else, but the brain refused to move until I had cleared it of this idea. So I hope it’s gonna be all right. I leave it to the reader to judge.

A word about that exclamation point. Generally speaking, I don’t much hold with exclamation points, and certainly not in titles, but some time after I decided this book was called Watch Your Back!, it occurred to me that there are two meanings for that phrase, the American meaning and the New York meaning (America and New York are always at odds, so why not here?), and it was the New York meaning I meant. In America, “watch your back” means be careful, someone means to do you harm. In New York, it means, “Comin’ through!” Move over, in other words, or get hurt. I added the exclamation point in an attempt to juke the reader toward the New York meaning. But whatever you think the title means, I hope you like the story. ~DEW

(Filched from The Official Westlake Blog.)

What did happen?  Leaving aside that What Happened? wouldn’t be a half bad Dortmunder title, following in the tradition of Why Me?, What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, and the penultimate novel we’ve yet to cover.  Westlake liked taking familiar turns of phrase and standing them on their heads.  But why is it a man who had so many novel ideas for novels couldn’t just knock off another standalone, and give his two larcenous franchise boys a break?

As we’ve discussed, his powers were slowly ebbing, his recent attempts to break new ground hadn’t mainly worked out (often to the point of his not even finding a publisher for them), the 21st century was perhaps not entirely to his taste, and even though he was writing as Richard Stark again, this didn’t satisfy his personal and professional need to publish under his birth name.

His memory is a bit selective here–his final seven novels were all Parkers or Dortmunders after 2003’s Money For Nothing (and that title sounds like a Dortmunder too, doesn’t it?)  Ask The Parrot wasn’t ready for 2005 so this ended up being the only book he published that year.  In fact, 2004 was the last year he published more than one book–in the 60’s, he’d routinely come out with seven per annum.

I suppose I ought to take him at his word when he says the title means “Comin’ Through!”–a phrase I have yet to hear in that context from any New Yorker.  What you hear from all the wannabe Lance Armstrongs coming up fast behind you in the park, on their $5,000 racing machines, is “To your Left!” If you can’t process that direction-based directive quickly enough, too bad for you and your bones.

If somebody’s comin’ through, that means you better watch your back, or harm will befall you.  The exclamation point makes it more assertive (and therefore, more New York).  He knew the title had a double meaning, as so many of his titles did.  Believe what writers of fiction tell you in their fiction.  That’s where they tell the truth about themselves.  But it’s for we the readers to divine that truth, so let’s get back to it.

I think I’ll go back to the titled subheadings approach now, which tends to serve me well in the case of Mr. Westlake’s more rambling endeavors.  Beginning with (this will be a long one)–

Florida in August Sucks For Everyone:

The rich and poor alike, but let’s start with the middle class.  Dortmunder goes to see Otto Medrick, co-founder of the O.J. Bar and Grill, now retired to Coral Acres, a seemingly fictional retirement community, just outside Jacksonville, as far north in Florida as you could go and still be in Florida; but on the other hand, you were still in Florida. 

As you can see up top, Otto has heard of Dortmunder–Rollo told him about these guys who held meetings in the back room, presumably referring to Dortmunder as the taller and gloomier of the two bourbon & ices.  But when Otto retreated from winter, he did not leave a phone number or even a forwarding address with Rollo.  Nobody has told him about the O.J. being turned into a bust-out joint, with his nephew’s mob friends siphoning away at the bar’s line of credit, planning to leave nothing behind them but dry bones, and a mountain of debt that Otto would then be on the hook for.

Otto’s main interest was always his little camera store on Broadway he had for 42 years.  Jerome Hulve (the ‘j’ in O.J.) had the dry cleaners next door.  It was Jerry found out this nearby bar on Amsterdam was up for grabs, needed a partner to buy in, dragooned Otto.  Neither ever took much interest in running the place, that’s what bartenders are for, though they did briefly try to turn it into a dinner spot (the explanation for the waiter’s uniforms Dortmunder saw when he was snooping around the O.J.’s basement).  Restaurants take up a lot more time, you have to deal with chefs and inspectors and stuff.  They ultimately decided to focus more on the bar than the grill.

So after accusing Dortmunder of being like his cat Buttercup, who used to bring him little dead creatures and drop them at his feet, Otto concedes that yes, this is happening, and he should probably do something to stop it, assuming that’s possible.  All he’s doing in Coral Acres, aside from engaging in ‘kanookie’ with a fellow senior he won’t marry because taxes, is taking pictures of flowers and things with a 1904 8×10 Rochester Optical Peerless field camera–the kind that has a bellows and you go under a cloth to take a picture.  This precise camera, in fact.  The frame is mahogany.  Nice.

Rochester-Optical-Peerless

Only–and I don’t know precisely what this is meant to convey, which only makes me more interested–Rochester Optical, which was, as the name would suggest, headquartered in upstate New York (same as Donald E. Westlake was in his formative years, fancy that), was taken over by Kodak (still in Rochester today, kind of) in 1904, and the Peerless line had been discontinued back in the late 19th century.  Now this is where I’d say ‘Obviously Mr. Westlake didn’t have the internet to do research with,’ but he wrote this book in the Mid-00’s, so obviously he did.

Otto, as stated, got interested in photography well after he started selling the equipment, and his embrace of a camera that was obsolete before he was born stemmed from his dislike of digital imaging (which is all the Kodak in Rochester is doing now, not even making film anymore).   He wanted to find the most basic unadorned form of photography available to him that would get the job done efficiently (maybe a bit like a writer working mainly after the IBM Selectric came out in ’61 deciding to work exclusively with manual typewriters).

“Then came digital,” he said, and shook a disgusted head. “What you got with digital, you got no highs and no lows. Everything’s perfect, and everything’s plastic. You see those Matthew Brady pictures from the Civil War? The Civil War! I’m talking a long time ago. You try to take those pictures with digital, you know what they’re gonna look like?”

“No,” Dortmunder admitted.

“Special effects in a Civil War movie,” Medrick told him. “People look at it, they say, ‘Wow, that’s great, that’s so lifelike!’ You know what is it, the difference between life and lifelike?”

“I think I do,” Dortmunder said.

The narrator quietly informs us that Dortmunder could not care less about the difference between old and new photographs, but needs Otto to keep the O.J. alive, which he does care about.  You have to let people talk about what they care about, so you can eventually get to what you care about.  Parker would understand.  And not care at all about the O.J.

(Sidebar: This is a very funny chapter in the book that makes me very wistful.  My friend, Leonard Abramson, worked in a film lab until he retired, and he also got seriously into amateur photography, mainly nature, some abstract, had exhibits, won a few minor prizes, even got a snap of a Wild Turkey in Van Cortlandt Park published in USA Today–but he, in contrast to Otto Medrick, became obsessed with digital cameras towards the end, loved their precision, their clarity–always an early adopter, was Lenny.  He died a few years ago–stuck it out in the Bronx to the [very] bitter end.  He was nothing if not argumentative.  Would he have differed with Otto over the difference between life and lifelike?  Never got to have that discussion with him.  Isn’t that just like Life?)

So the photography chapter ends with bad news–Otto talks to Rollo on the phone, and he tells Dortmunder, with dead hopeless eyes, that the mob guys are done with their bust-out scam, and are moving all their ill-gotten swag out of the bar that night.  So it’s over, right? John Dortmunder does not know the meaning of defeat!  Okay fine, he knows it like the backs of his large knobby hands, but that just makes him more determined to avoid any deepening of the acquaintance.

There was other stuff about Florida and the general Caribbean mileau, scattered hither and yon through the narrative–oh right, Preston Fareweather.  My least favorite part of the book, but he sure takes up a lot of it.  He sets his sights on yet another short-term hook-up (he’s given up on the serial monogamy thing, since it leads to serial divorce lawyers coming after his money).

Overly long story short, this very seductress in a flesh-colored bikini, parading herself around at the resort Preston is holed up at (that pun was unintended, but I see it now), is a femme fatale in the employ of an ex-wife’s wealthy brother, who inveigles the lustful Preston into going sailing with her, outside the inviolable sanctuary of Club Med, and next thing you know he’s been bundled aboard a very fast drug smuggling boat piloted by some rather caustic Australians (???) who are not interested in his promises of beating whatever the other side is paying them, since it’s all about the purity of their impure profession to them.

All that’s going to happen to him is that he’ll be served with legal papers when back on U.S. soil, and forced to pay off his former spouses for their years of service in the trenches.  The thing about some rich people is that the question “Your money or your life?” strikes them as a contradiction in terms.  Preston sees a chance to escape to a nearby Florida Key, and so leaps overboard, getting picked up by a scruffy-looking Cuban fisherman named Porfirio, who eventually gets him to a Holiday Inn, where he’s able to contact his secretary Alan, and tell him to come running and bring clothes.

Then he tries to stiff the fisherman, who he’d promised his Rolex back when he was treading water with angry drug smugglers coming after him. He’s going to give poor Porfirio a measly hundred bucks, but the hotel clerk, in a noble act of class solidarity, makes sure his paisano gets five hundred.  Which is still a lot less than a Rolex.

Also. The African Queen is there.  The actual boat.  On display, like a trophy of war.  Since this book came out, they’ve drafted the old girl back into service.  Not against the Kaiser, one assumes.  Alan, once he arrives, can’t get over this disorienting presence, and probably neither could Westlake when he found out about it, perhaps even stumbled across it on vacation–was the boat from Key Largo not available?  Did Westlake toy with having the temporarily penniless Preston reference a different Huston?  He wouldn’t be the first.

The answers to these and other questions must be out there, hopefully not on the Victoria Nile or Lake Albert, which look nearly as uncomfortable for Bogie and Kate as Florida in August is for mere mortals.

Preston, knowing the forces now arrayed against him will not have given up, is focused on getting back to his penthouse in Manhattan, where he figures nobody will expect him to go, and of course nothing bad could ever possibly happen to him there.

Preston, who visually lives up to the term fat cat,  has spent the last forty-eight hours or so in a very skimpy bathing suit (when you’re rich, you don’t have to care how you look, or hadn’t you noticed that lately?), plagued by biblical hosts of mosquitoes, and he even had to eat at Burger King.  He swears his former legal concubines shall pay for these outrages, but for our purposes, this section has achieved its goal of demonstrating how at both ends of the state, all through the economic spectrum, Florida supremely sucks in August.  Unless you’re a truck driver, in which case your ultimate bete noire is going to be New York City, as we shall now examine in–

No, You Take Manhattan:

In Chapter 22, we meet the guy driving the big semi from Pittsburgh, that’s going to take all the O.J. swag to somewhere it can be disposed of profitably, and we meet Mikey Carbine (yes, that’s a real name that Italian American people really have), the no-good fourth son of Howie Carbine, a no-good Jersey mob boss (The Sopranos without the sexy, would be a good summation of this particular crew, and of Westlake’s general attitude towards ‘organized’ crime).

The truck makes its arduous way through Manhattan, to the intersection of 96th St. and Amsterdam Ave., where the O.J. still tenuously clings to life, the driver cussing under his breath at the sheer unbridled cussedness of New Yorkers, and now I feel fully confirmed in my suspicion that Mr. Westlake was an admirer of Jean Merrill.

Also, no matter what the hour of day or night, there was always traffic everywhere in New York City, darting cabs and snarling delivery vans and even aggressive suburbanites in their Suburbanites. Unlike normal parts of the world, where other drivers showed a healthy respect tending toward fear when in the presence of the big trucks, New York City drivers practically dared him to start something. They’d cut him off; they’d crowd him; they’d even go so far as to blat their horns at him. The people operating small vehicles in New York, the driver thought, drove as though they all had a lawyer in the backseat.

This being New York, they very well might, but lawyers aren’t going to stop him from picking up all the stuff bought with the O.J.’s credit line–guess who is?  That’s right.

Dortmunder somehow whipped up a plan right off his sweat-stained cuff, conveyed it to his own crew in absentia, and here they are, not identified by name (since it’s from the other side’s POV), but we may easily discern that it’s Stan Murch, Andy Kelp, and Tiny Bulcher wielding an axe, like this was an entirely different kind of story, set in a much earlier era of pillage.  I’ll just let you imagine it, until you get a chance to read it again or for the first time, but the scene closes with the unnerved mob guys in disarray, the empty truck in flames, its tires in shreds, and its driver saying something about overtime.

And now we’re going to hear Otto say something to Dortmunder, that he considers germane to their present situation, as they experience the unparalleled joys of air travel in the Post-9/11 era.  Otto wants a seat with one of those air phones, which he uses to tell all the wholesalers who provided the bust-out swag that it’s all going back to them, in the original wrappers.

Prior to that, he tells his brother Frank, father to Raphael, that either Frank gets his idiot Moby wannabe son committed, by the same quack headshrinker who certified him fit to run a bar, or big brother’s coming home to live with them on Long Island, forever.  These calls have the desired effect, in both cases.  Ah, isn’t the telecommunications era grand?

Neither of them has any personal digital devices they can while away the flight with, of course, so they have to talk to each other.  Okay, Otto has to talk, and Dortmunder (as already mentioned) figures he needs to listen and nod politely and occasionally make some proforma response.  And this is what Otto has to say to him about–

Smoke Signals:

But Medrick had a point and intended to pursue it. “It’s communications technologies that did us in,” he said. “Now you got your Internet, before that your television, your radio, your newspapers, your telephone, your signal flags, your telegrams, your letters in the mailbox, but it all goes back to smoke signals, the whole problem starts right there.”

“Sure,” Dortmunder said.

Medrick shook his head. “But,” he said, “I just don’t think society’s ready to go back that far.”

“Probably not,” Dortmunder said, and yawned. Maybe he could drink the coffee.

“But that’s what it would take,” Medrick insisted, “to return some shred of honesty to this world.”

Dortmunder put down his coffee mug. “Is that what we’re trying for?” he asked.

“Right just this minute it is,” Medrick told him. “You see, with smoke signals, that was the very first time in the whole history of the human race that you could tell somebody something that he couldn’t see you when you told him. You get what I mean?”

“No,” Dortmunder said.

“Before smoke signals,” Medrick said, “I wanna tell you something, I gotta come over to where you are, and stand in front of you, and tell you. Like I’m doing now. And you get to look at my face, listen to how I talk, read my body language, decide for yourself, is this guy trying to pull a fast one. You get it?”

“Eye contact.”

“Exactly,” Medrick said. “Sure, people still lied to each other back then and got away with it, but it wasn’t so easy. Once smoke signals came in, you can’t see the guy telling you the story, he could be laughing behind his hand, you don’t know it.”

“I guess that’s true,” Dortmunder agreed.

“Every step up along the way,” Medrick said, “every other kind of way to communicate, it’s always behind the other guy’s back. For thousands of years, we’ve been building ourselves a liar’s paradise. That’s why the video phones weren’t the big hit they were supposed to be, nobody wants to go back to the eyeball.”

“I guess not.”

“So that means they’ll never get rid of the rest of it,” Medrick concluded. “All the way back to smoke signals.”

“I don’t think they use those so much any more,” Dortmunder said.

“If they did,” Medrick said darkly, “they’d lie.”

I could quibble here, mention Skype or FaceTime (mainly for conversations with distant loved ones, and only partly to try and determine if they’re loving somebody else).  Or videoconferencing (and why precisely do the suits want to gaze upon each other’s unappetizing countenances when hammering out deals?)

I might even mention the way some people in very high places lie straight to our faces and we believe them anyway, or pretend to (Otto mentioned that), but on the whole, I feel this needs no extraneous textual exegesis.  If there was any, it’d be lies, right? Hey, anybody know when the next White House Press conference is being televised?  They did what?

Intermezzo:

With Dortmunder, Murch, and Brother Frank at his side, and Raphael now practicing basket-weaving in place of downloading, Otto easily retakes his stronghold from the two gobsmacked gunsels guarding it, who go back to Mikey for new orders.

Otto calls Rollo up, tells him to come back to work, and maybe bring some of his old buddies from the Merchant Marine (well, hello sailor!) to hang out for a week, as a sort of honor guard against the dishonorable.  The magic words ‘Open Bar’ are uttered (got to get those regulars back, and that’ll do it).  One begins to suspect Otto is enjoying this urban scrum a lot more than flower photography in fetid Florida, but one could always do both, I suppose. Alternate.

Mikey never tries to win back control of the bar, thus depriving the reader of what could have been a delightful donnybrook–in a series that tends to avoid gunplay and fisticuffs like it was a PBS kiddie show.  If you’re wondering whatever happened to that old Jersey Mob spirit, here’s the thing.  Mikey was doing this way off the books, and also the reservation–by the laws of his own perfidious polis, he’s poaching here.  Gotham ain’t Jersey, similar though the accents may be.

There’s already a Mafia in New York, in case you hadn’t heard.  Once he got the money from the bust-out, his dad could go through the right channels, make it good, but not if they go in with guns blazing, heads knocking, cops arriving, creating all kinds of headaches for the New York chapter of the fraternity.  The bust-out is a bust.  Now he just wants payback.

Spies are dispatched to the bar, to get the straight dope on what brought Otto Medrick back from the grave (okay, maybe I’ve busted Florida’s chops enough for one review).  Of course, they have to get that dope from the regulars.  So it’s what you might call more of a long and winding road.

“Yeah,” said the first regular, and asked himself, “Now, what’s that guy’s name?”

“It’s the same as some beer,” the second regular told him.

“I know that much.”

“Ballantine?” hazarded the third regular.

“No,” said the second regular, as the new arrivals at the other end of the bar started in on some sea chanteys.

The first regular had to raise his voice but managed: “Budweiser?”

“No, it’s something foreign.”

“Molson,” tried the first regular.

“Molson?” The second regular couldn’t believe it. “That’s not foreign!” “It’s Canadian.”

“Canadian isn’t foreign!” The second regular pointed perhaps north. “It’s right there! They’re part of us, they’re with us, except for ‘oot’ and ‘aboot’ they talk the same language as us.”

“They’re their own country,” the first regular insisted. “Like Hawaii.”

“It’s not Molson,” the second regular told him, to put an end to that.

The droopy-nosed guy said, “Heineken?”

“No.” Everybody took shots at it now: “Beck?”

“No.”

“Tsingtau?” “What? He’s not Chinese, he’s like one of us, he’s not even Canadian, it’s just his name is—”

“Amstel?”

“No!”

“Dos Equis.”

Nobody’s named Dos Equis! Wait a minute, wait a minute.”

When the second regular put on his thinking cap, it made his entire forehead form grooves, as though somewhere there might be a socket to screw his head into.

“Dortmund!” he suddenly cried.

They all looked at him.  “Yeah?”

“Yeah! That’s his name! Dortmund.”

“That’s pretty funny,” said the droopy-nosed guy, and took the name with him back to Jersey, where he gave it to Mikey, who didn’t think it was very funny at all.

We’ll call that a minority opinion, and move on to the heist section of the program.   While Dortmunder has been saving the O.J. Bar and Grill for posterity (someday there’ll be a statue of him in Central Park, and the pigeons are just gonna love it), work has been proceeding slowly but surely on setting up the penthouse robbery, which looks really suite (you wish you didn’t see what I did there).  Tiny is of the opinion it’s been more slow than sure, to which Kelp tells him Rome wasn’t built in a day.  To which Tiny remarks “It was robbed in a day.” Probably by one of his ancestors.  Civilization is overrated, anyway.

(Mr. Bulcher is on fire in this one.  Later, Kelp says something about how you have to roll with the punches.  “Not my punches,” Tiny retorts.  I mean, you’d laugh even if you weren’t afraid not to.)

Murch has to get a truck–not stolen this time–then remove Preston’s BMW from the private garage with its own private elevator up to the penthouse.  Not necessarily in that order.  He has a notion he could do a straight-up trade, the BMW for the truck, and thus he makes his way to Maximilian’s Used Cars in the farflung outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens.  I believe Voyager 2 is getting there any day now.  And will be for sale at Max’s lot shortly afterwards, with a sign reading “!!!Creampuff!!!” affixed to its solar panels.

They work out a deal, but Max needs some time to get the truck.  Giving us time for yet another sidebar–

Wouldn’t You Rather Have a Broadsword?:

Who wouldn’t?  As he did in Drowned Hopes, Mr. Westlake decided to have some fun with car names.  But he’s sneaky about it here, starting off with real cars that sound fake, like the Lincoln Navigator.  Then, please recall, he has the truck driver complaining about suburbanites in their Suburbanites (almost right).  From then on the standard Detroit workhorses still go by their real names, as do the really classy foreign makes (like Preston’s BMW), but you start noticing something screwy about the monikers when it comes to various ill-considered attempts at re-branding.  Here’s the list.  If I missed any, let me know in the comments section.

Lexus Dzilla (the gargantuan SUV Judson Blint rents for his new boss’ gargantuan guy).
Buick Broadsword (the car Stan drives to see Max–not his, naturally).
Olds Finali (Olds folded in 2004, though really it was 1908, just three years after that song about the guy who wanted to fuck Lucille in the backseat of one, go figure).
Lexus Enorma (When the Dzilla just isn’t enough.  Alan and Preston rent two of these, consecutively).
Chrysler Consigliere (guess whose ride this is?).
Jeep Buccaneer (ditto)

Not much of a list compared to the one in Drowned Hopes, and maybe this isn’t much of a Dortmunder epic next to Drowned Hopes, but at this very late date, I’ll take it.  With a Dortmunder, it’s always the fine details that count the most. Also true of some paintings, which brings us to the perhaps over-hasty wrap-up (it’s late, I have a lot of work tomorrow, let’s put this one to bed, so I can do the same).

Only The Young Die Rich:

Oh I will be so impressed with anyone who catches that ref right off the bat.  But let me explain, while you cogitate.

Judson Philips was one of Mr. Westlake’s fellow grandmasters in the Mystery Writers of America.  Very much an elder of the tribe, since he was born a full thirty years earlier, was publishing novels as far back as the 40’s, copped the coveted title in ’73.  I’d say it’s a good bet they knew each other–how well, I wouldn’t venture a guess.  (I did find a reference to Philips and Lawrence Block having corresponded briefly, in relation to a book about mystery writing Block was working on–mystery writers are a pretty tight club, and would be even if they didn’t have an actual club).

Now the name Judson, as has been recently observed in the comments section, shows up here and there in Westlake’s oeuvre (as does the name Philip, now I think on it).  Westlake even made Judson part of his final pseudonym, and the original Judson also published under multiple pseudonyms himself.  I bet I’d have a better idea what all this means (if anything) had I ever read any Judson Philips, but alas.

However, under the name Hugh Pentecost, Mr. Philips published a 1964 novel called Only the Rich Die Young, and that’s a good enough hook for a section centered around Judson Blint.  (Or possibly Billy Joel, but let’s put that to one side for now, or perhaps forever).

All through the book, young Judson has been soldiering away in the trenches of mail fraud for J.C., and he’s a quick study, as we’ve seen.  So much so that he’s branching out into burglary.  Kelp decided to accept his offer of assistance, and after some tutelage from the master, ’twas Master Blint who disabled the alarm in Preston’s garage.

He’s gotten his own walk-up studio apartment through J.C.’s contacts (for $1,742.53 a month, in Manhattan, on West 27th St., Chelsea, in the early 21st century, so J.C.’s got some serious pull, like that was ever in doubt–try getting that rent in East Harlem now).  He’s introduced his parents to Andy Kelp.  They didn’t know what to say to that, so they said as little as possible.  Well, at least he’s getting a career.

He’s a regular go-getter, is young Judson and now he wants to go get him some loot.  But of course he’s still too green, too much of a journeyman, and anyway, they don’t want to split the take five ways–he’ll get a taste, for helping out, no more.  J.C., sensing his hurt, quietly lets Judson know that where Dortmunder is involved, there might not be any take to split.

But he just wants to know what it’s like!  To experience it!  He’s balanced on that fine line between amateur and pro, with the boundless enthusiasm and dangerous curiosity of the former, but increasingly informed by the pragmatic prudence of the latter.  He doesn’t want the gang mad at him.  Most particularly he does not want Tiny mad at him.  But he wants to know.

The heist goes off like a Swiss watch (of which no doubt there are many in Preston’s digs), and then something goes wrong.  J.C. knows Dortmunder, and she knows his luck.  Good and bad, and you never know which until it’s too late.

As the book has been hinting at all along, with the chapters documenting Preston Fareweather’s abduction from Club Med, and his long retreat from the Florida Keys (much like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, only with mosquitos and heat rash),  Preston and Alan are both most unexpectedly at home when Dortmunder & Co. arrive, with Arnie Albright in tow (another subplot I don’t want to dwell on much, but basically Dortmunder appealed equally to Arnie’s greed and his rancor towards Preston, so they could have an expert on hand to tell them which valuables to steal).  But being exhausted from their trek, they are both dead to the world.

Nonetheless, with the householders enhoused, this burglary is now a home invasion, something Dortmunder would always rather avoid.  But the gang is blissfully unaware of their presence, and the somnolent duo are no more aware of the departure of Preston’s worldy goods than Cindy Lou Who was about the Roast Beast.

Everything is being packed into the elevator and taken down to be loaded in the Ford E-450 Stan got from Max, which has the added benefit of having once belonged to the Feds for use in apprehending illegal immigrants coming in from Canada (don’t ask), thus making it a perfect ‘mace’, ie a vehicle with registration papers that make it look legit to law enforcement, man I wish I had time to cover that chapter, but I absolutely can not make this a three-parter.

Arnie goes around slapping red dots on everything he wants to fence, like this was an auction, and they were sold.  Dortmunder really had to talk him into this, and the way he did it was to say that when this theft was reported in the news, they’d be saying how these guys were so brilliant, they even got the things no ordinary thief would know were valuable, only Dortmunder is kind of an ordinary thief when it comes to art and shit, so he keeps using the wrong names, which helps convince Arnie he better come along after all.

Filled with a warm larcenous glow of achievement, finally fully participating in the process he normally only sees the final stage of, Arnie wanders into Preston’s bedroom, stops and stares at the fat snoring lump under the blankets.  And then Preston wakes up–briefly–looks at Arnie Albright, who you will please recall he had many a disrespectful word with at the Club Med, which is why all this is happening now.  Preston recognizes Arnie, but assumes he’s dreaming, and then he really is again.  Arnie Albright’s nightmare has now begun.  Because Preston can give his name to the law once he realizes it wasn’t a dream.  And the law already knows his name.

Okay, it’s clearly time to skedaddle, and they got basically everything of real value anyway–or so they think.  Andy already scoped out a place to stow the truck at a construction site (another chapter I had to skirt over, and where’s your hard hat?)  Maybe Arnie has a problem, but Preston Fareweather doesn’t know any of their names.  The Perfect Crime.  Sheah.  Right.

Because this is where Mikey Carbine makes his move, with the Consigliere and the Buccaneer, and guns, and Kelp and Murch get hijacked, which is just the most horrible indignity Murch can imagine, never happened to him before! Mikey’s not planning any whackings, not on the NY mob’s turf, just get his money back with interest.  Only thing is, what he gets is to hold that proverbial bag.

So many sideplots here.  Earlier, we met some members of the staff at Preston’s condo, among them Big Jose and Little Jose, who were watching his penthouse (ie, having the time of their lives partying there).  Well of course they can’t do that anymore, now that Preston is back home again, but they have a sort of proprietary feeling about the place, and when they see this truck come out of what they know is Preston’s private garage,  they call the cops.  Who quickly determine the plates belong to Preston’s BMW (query–if this truck is the ultimate mace, why would they use stolen plates?  Oh never mind.)

So what happens next?  That’s right.  Mikey’s people have control of the truck. Mikey’s people get busted, Mikey not long after, and Howie’s gonna have some ‘splainin to do to New York, and there might be a little war in the offing, and unlikely some sympathetic FBI Agent is going to offer tactical support, so the Carbine Crew is going to end up jailed and/or dead.  Stan and Andy walk away innocently from the scene, looking like ordinary working Joes in their yellow hardhats, and indeed they are, but the job didn’t work out.  Oh well, beats prison.

So by the time Preston finds out he’s been robbed, and starts ranting about Arnie Albright, the police are there to tell him the robbers have already been arrested, bunch of Jersey mobsters, so he goes back to thinking it was a dream, and says maybe he even owes Arnie an apology (yeah, like he owes Porforio a Rolex, and his ex-wives their alimony).

The place is left vacant, while Preston and Alan go downtown to fill out reports and stuff.  And who should wander in but Judson Blint, who came up via the private elevator, like he already had before, with Kelp.  He didn’t know exactly when the heist was taking place, but he sort of hoped just to witness a bit of it. He’s downcast when he realizes he missed the party, but he still wanders around, fascinated, figuring maybe he could find some little knick-knack for a souvenir, and then something catches his eye in a dimly lit hallway.

One of the pictures attracted his attention, though it was kind of dark and small, less than a foot wide and maybe eight inches high. But for its size, it had a lot of detail. It was kind of medieval, with two guys his own age, in peasant clothes, and they were carrying a pig hung on a long pole, each of the guys having an end of the pole on his shoulder. They were walking on a path on a hillside with woods around them, and down the hill you could see what looked like a lake, with a few very rustic houses and wagons beside it, and a few people chopping wood and stuff like that.

What drew Judson’s eye to this picture was the expressions on the two young guys’ faces. They had, like, goofy grins on, as though they were getting away with something and couldn’t help laughing about it.

Judson looked at the guys and their mischievous eyes and goofy grins, and he felt a kinship. He’d be one of those two, if he had lived then.

And all at once he got it: they’d stolen the pig.

Judson took the picture down off its hook on the wall, and studied it more closely. It was old, all right, done when those clothes were what you wore. It was painted on wood, and it was signed in the lower right with a signature he couldn’t figure out.

The painting was in an elaborate gilded frame that didn’t seem right for those two guys. There was also a sheet of nonreflective glass. Once Judson removed the picture from the frame, it wasn’t heavy. It wasn’t big. He liked it. He slid it under his shirt, tucked into the front of his pants, and headed for the elevator.

It’s a freakin’ Brueghel.  Now I think Westlake made this picture up–I can’t find it anywhere online.  But in fact, the elder Brueghel did like to paint pictures of mischievous persons, even thieves, because capturing humanity in all its flailing flawed fulsome fun-loving folly was his passion (one Westlake shared).  He also painted pigs, because c’mon, they’re cute, funny, and you can eat them.  So maybe Westlake extrapolated, or maybe the online catalogues are incomplete. Academic for our purposes, and Judson’s.

So eventually the whole gang (and Judson too) is listening to WINS in Arnie’s apartment (the narrator makes the quip all of us in that station’s broadcast range have already composed many variations upon.  “You give us twenty-two minutes,” they threaten, “we’ll give you the world,” and then they give you mostly sports. They may not know this, but sports is not the world.

They are slowly coming to terms with the fact that 1)The cops think they already got the perps and 2)One of the most valuable things in the apartment, valued at around a million bucks ten years ago, was stolen, but not by them.  Preston is telling the reporter “They even got the Brueghel.”  Who is this master criminal who spotted a tiny picture in a dark hallway, kept there to protect it from light exposure?

Dortmunder, master detective that he is, figures it out.  Good thing too, because Tiny needs something to distract him from the fact that Dortmunder’s O.J. obsession is the reason Mikey hijacked their heist.  Of course, it’s also the reason Mikey is arrested and not them, but you really don’t want to argue the fine points of causality with an irritated Tiny Bulcher.

“Judson,” Dortmunder said.

Everybody looked at Dortmunder, and then everybody looked at Judson, who was blushing and stammering and fidgeting on that kitchen chair with his arms jerking around—a definite butterfly, pinned in place. Everybody continued to look at him, and finally he produced words, of a sort: “Why would you— What would I— How could— Mr. Dortmunder, why would you—?”

“Judson,” Tiny said. He said it softly, gently, but Judson clammed up like a locked safe, and his face went from beet red to shroud white, just like that.

Dortmunder said, “Had to be. He went there, wanted to hang out with us, we were already gone, he went in and up, looked around, decided to take a little something.”

Kelp said, “Judson, what made you take that?”

Judson looked around at them all, tongue-tied.

Arnie, in an informational way, said, “Kid, you’re one of the most incompetent liars I’ve ever seen.”

Judson sighed. He could be seen to accept the idea at last that denial was going to be of no use. “I identified with it,” he said.

Everybody reacted to that one. Stan said, “You identified with it?”

Dortmunder said, “What’s it a picture of, Judson?”

“Two young guys stealing a pig.”

Tiny said, “That’s what goes for just under a mil? Two guys stealing a pig?”

“It’s nice,” Judson said. “You can see they’re having fun.”

“More than we are,” Tiny said. Dortmunder said, “Judson, where is this picture now?”

“In my desk in J. C.’s office.”

Tiny said, “I tell you what, kid. You were gonna get a piece of what we got, but we no longer got what we got, so now we are gonna get a piece of what you got.”

“That seems fair,” Kelp said.

Again Judson sighed. Then he said, “Maybe I can take a picture of it.”

“Good idea,” Dortmunder agreed.

(Ah, what a world it would be if art only belonged to those who most appreciated it, instead of merely the philistines who can afford it.  Actually, there’s a pretty good heist movie about that, called Artworks, and Virginia Madsen shows a hell of a lot of skin in it, so check her, I mean it, out.)

Like many another supporting character in the Dortmunders who isn’t one of the core crew, Judson is seen again in future books (of which there are only two remaining), but never has another moment quite so fine as this.  But we’re given to understand he’s won the respect of the gang, and a place at the table, even if it’s only the kiddie table for now.

Unlike Raphael, who chose to retreat into what I suppose one might call his mind, Judson chose to go out and engage the world on his own terms, and to Donald E. Westlake, that’s all there is to life, and most of all to youth.  Only the young die rich.  Because youth is the only real wealth there is.  Well, that and bitcoin, of course.   (Oh what a shame Mr. Westlake missed out on that–the word first cropped up about a month before his demise, and I doubt he even noticed).

Preston’s own wealth has been recovered, but not by him–he forgot that ex-wives and their lawyers watch the news as well.  As one of the tech guys for his interview files out (after Preston strikes out with the hot newscaster), he tosses Preston a summons.  He got served.  In both senses.  And all that recovered swag of his, no longer in his direct possession (since it is now evidence), is going to get divvied up by the exes.  And to top off his day, Alan, the closest thing to a friend he had, walks out on him.  And so will I, because it’s time to finish up.

Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill, in Mid-September, for a meet with the now free and clear Ralph Winslow, so he can finally find out what kind of job that ice-tinkling fellow felon has in mind.  There’s a bad moment when Rollo says the back room is in use but it’s just a support group (support for what we never learn), and they’re leaving.  And Dortmunder is staying.  His place.  His little corner of the planet, his anchor, his respite, his home and hearth, his meat and drink, well mainly just drink.  He saved it, and it’s his, as it never was before.

So what if the heist failed.  He still won where it counted.  And there’s always another day (for something else to go wrong).  Also, he pocketed a few small trinkets on his way out, and what the rest of the gang doesn’t know won’t hurt him, particularly Tiny.

The regulars, of course, know not the name of the peerless champion responsible for their triumphant return to their beloved barstools, where they can once more jabber away endlessly about things they don’t understand, which is surely the right of all Americans, it’s in the Constitution, look it up, and we hold it even more sacred than the right to shoot people with guns (relatively few of us actually exercise that right, but everybody’s a know-it-all).

They know not that the champion is in their very midst as they speak (and if they did, they’re probably associate the wrong beer with him).  But the one thing all barflies know for sure is that the greatest man in the world is your bartender. And you know, a case could be made.  So they sing him a song.  And get it wrong.

“The back room is open, gents,” Rollo said.

They all thanked him, not whispering, picked up their drinks, and headed for the back room, Ralph gently tinkling along the way. As they rounded the end of the bar toward the hall, the regulars decided spontaneously to laud Rollo in song.

“For he’s a jolly good fell-oh,
For he’s a jolly good fell-oh,
For he’s a jolly good fell-OH!
For he’s a golly good fell.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” the second regular said. “I think the last line goes, ‘For he’s a jolly good elf.’” So they tried it that way.

So I said last week that all the covers I’ve found for this book are lousy, and I stick to that.  Maybe the one on the left up-top isn’t too awful in its conception, but impaling Dortmunder on the Empire State Building (which isn’t even in the book) doesn’t quite work for me.  What would have?  Well, check out the image down below the two covers.

That’s a painting, by Richard Estes, master of photo-realism.  From 1995, it’s entitled Amsterdam Avenue and 96th Street.  Yeah.  Where we’re told in this very book the O.J. Bar and Grill is located–not sure it was ever made that specific before.  Westlake went to a fair few art shows, one gathers.  I could see him looking a long time at that one.  I could imagine him saying quietly to himself, That bar could be the O.J.  It really could, you know.  Can you prove it’s not?  In the real world, no, it isn’t there–or it’s some sad yuppie singles joint–but in a painting–as in a novel–many things are possible. Including immortality. The difference between life and lifelike.

But see that open cellar door on the sidewalk?  Just waiting for somebody to fall in.  Pitfalls are everywhere.  So are bilious billionaires, and gangrenous gangsters.  Better watch your back.  Or hey, we could watch each others.’  How’s about that?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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

Review: Watch Your Back!

What was going on?  Was it a wake around here?  Nobody wore a black armband, but the faces on the regulars were long enough.  They, all of them, men and the women’s auxiliary, too, were hunched over their drinks with that thousand-yard stare that suggests therapy is no longer an option.  In short, the place looked exactly like that section of the socialist realist mural where the workers have been utterly shafted by the plutocrats.  Dortmunder looked up, half-expecting to see top hats and cigars in the gloom up there, but nothing.

“But first I wanna know,” Tiny said, “about the O.J.”

“Well,” Dortmunder said, “it’s a bust-out joint.”

“Shit,” Tiny commented.

Kelp said, “A nephew.”

“Not one of the better ones,” Dortmunder suggested.

Tiny rumbled, “There are good nephews?”

He would not fail her.  She has faith in me as a con artist and a crook, he told himself, and I will not let her down.

Dortmunder said, “You think everything’s okay in life, and then something different happens.”

Kelp gave him a look.  “John?  On one beer you’re turning philosophical?”

“It’s the environment,” Dortmunder told him.

Okay, it’s like this.

I really wanted to do this review as a one-parter.  I remembered the book–nearly every book I’ve reviewed on this blog, I read in its entirety before I created said blog–so there’s a pretty significant gap between readings by now.  I remembered enjoying it, like I enjoy all these books, or what am I doing here.  I also remembered being a mite underwhelmed.  But I forgot most of it, because c’mon, that’s a lot of books. How do you retain all that?  You’d need some kind of idiotic memory.  That’s what a regular at the O.J. Bar and Grill told me it was called, right before another regular hit him with a beer bottle.  Misunderstanding.

Even if I’d remembered it all, line for line, I had a lot less context back then–you learn as you go–so I picked up on things I missed last time, that I will be compelled to share now. Who knows what else I’d find if I reread and reviewed these books all over again from scratch?  Maybe somebody better hit me with a beer bottle before that happens. Hey–that was a joke.

So the story is, there’s a lot more story than I remembered, a lot more I want to talk about, and I’ve managed to scrounge up four cover images–all of them lousy– look at the first edition; red/orange letters on a field of taxi-cab yellow, and it’s the pick of the litter.  Rivages/Noir somehow got confused (no, you’re supposed to be watching your back, not some android strip-club waitress’s derriere, geez, how French can you get?) The two I’m using next time are even worse.

I did find some images I like, though.  Well, I don’t relish those two photos up top, of the shuttered and derelict St. Nick’s Pub, and the now-demolished Lenox Lounge, historic Harlem jazz bars that fell prey to ‘progress.’  But they illustrate the point of this book much better than its own cover art.  And what point is that?

On its face, this is yet another story about Dortmunder pulling yet another heist on yet another mendacious moneybags who has it coming, with interest.  How many times has that happened now?  I make this the sixth notch on Dortmunder’s lock pick (including one short story), and edifying as that may be, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to watching rich bastards squirm like fat gasping orange carps on a hook.  Like you needed me to tell you that.  (Reel it in careful-like, Bob.  Don’t want to lose this one.  Or capsize the boat.)

But that is not what this book is about.  The moneybags here isn’t the enemy.  Mildly diverting at best, pointless padding at worst.  A subplot that got out of control.

There’s also an organized crime angle (a first for Dortmunder; one was starting to wonder if maybe his universe was Cosa Nostra free). The Mob is not the real threat, either, and their subplot is something of a backhanded homage to David Chase.  I think we can take it as a given that Mr. Westlake watched The Sopranos (being a great admirer of Chase’s work on The Rockford Files), and the storyline involving Tony’s old school chum Davey Scatino clearly caught his attention.  As did the colorful but limited vocabulary of the Jersey mobsters on that show.

There’s two final ‘Nephews’ (and a strong textual hint that this is exactly how Westlake thought of them).  One is only his own worst enemy. The other is the final addition to the gang and will be seen again in future.  I’m on the fence about whether that’s a good thing, and so’s the gang.  But he’s definitely not somebody you have to watch your back over.

No, the antagonist in this book is change. Unneeded, unwanted, and let’s face it, unstoppable.  A river bursting its banks, oddly selective in what it sweeps away–mainly what you value most.  Good change happens because we make it happen, because we’re paying close attention to our surroundings, performing needed adjustments.  Bad change happens, too often, because we get careless; don’t see it coming until it’s upon us. By which time it’s usually too late to do anything but bitch and moan and move on.  Assuming that’s an option, and we probably shouldn’t assume that.

Is there no champion we may call upon to save us from this entropic dreadnought, this devourer of dreams?  Maybe one–if he can be sufficiently motivated to watch our backs for us, since we hoi polloi seem disinclined to do much of anything besides jaw to each other on our virtual barstools.

Change is going to try and take the O.J. Bar and Grill away from John Dortmunder. Change does not know who it’s fucking with.

Westlake begins by reminding us of what could be lost to world culture forever.

When John Dortmunder, a free man, not even on parole, walked into the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Friday night in July, just before ten o’clock, the regulars were discussing the afterlife.  “What I don’t get,” said one of them, as Dortmunder angled toward where Rollo the bartender was busy with something far over to the right end of the bar, “is all these clouds.”

A second regular put down his foaming beerglass to say, “Clouds?  Which clouds are these?”

“That’s what they’re sitting on!” The first regular waved an arm dangerously, but did no damage.  “you look at all these pictures, Jesus sitting on a cloud, that other God sitting on a cloud, Mary sitting on a cloud–”

“A little lower down,” suggested a third.

“Well, yeah, but the point is, can’t Heaven come up with furniture?”

Dortmunder takes a break from this divine cabinetry conclave to note that Rollo the bartender is absorbed in making fancy drinks with fruit, arcane liqeurs, and tiny paper parasols–some ladies of a certain age have decamped for refreshment, and are looking around at their surroundings with an anthropologist’s guarded delight.  The colloquy at the bar continues apace.

Another regular, meantime, was objecting to the concept of furniture in the beyond, saying, “Whadaya want with furniture?  Heaven isn’t Westchester, you know..”

A fifth regular weighed in, saying, “Yeah?  What about all those fields of plenty?”

“Land of milk and honey,” added the third regular, as though it were an indictment.

The first regular lifted a skeptical glass and a skeptical brow to say, “Do they give out overshoes?”

The learned debate then verges over into what had just recently become, under unfortunate circumstances, a much-discussed take on the afterlife,   The one with the 72 virgins.  To which one obvious cavil would be–

“There aren’t seventy-two virgins,” the first regular objected.

“Well no,” the second regular conceded, “not all at one time, but still, what kinda Heaven is this?  It would be like being assigned to an all-girls high-school.”

“Ouch,” said the third regular.

“Can you imagine,” the second regular said, “what it sounds like in the cafeteria at lunchtime?”

The fourth regular, the one with something against Westchester, said, “Would you have to learn volleyball?”

Okay, fine, the Algonquin Round Table it’s not, but that lasted a bit over ten years, starting in 1919 then informally concluding in 1932, when Edna Ferber showed up and found a family from Kansas had foreclosed (the Gulch family, one supposes).  The O.J. Regulars held court from 1970 to 2009, and that’s just what we know about.  We’re going to know a lot more by the time this book is done.

Dortmunder is there for a meet in the back room, and as always, Rollo provides him with a bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (“Our Own Brand”) and two glasses.  Some question is raised in this narrative as to whether there is any such establishment, or if the bottling is done in the very bowels of the O.J.–but just FYI, at Amsterdam Ave. and 127th, at this precise moment in history–

2016-06-17

(Ya gotta believe.)

Dortmunder is going to meet up with Ralph Winslow, or as Rollo knows him, ‘the rye and water, the one that tinkles his ice cubes all the time.’  He claims not to know any of their names, only their beverage preferences.  Well, that would make things challenging for the D.A’s office, should Rollo ever be called upon to testify.

In the back room, Dortmunder finds the surprisingly (and delightedly) early Stan Murch (aka the beer and salt), expounding on how the Williamsburg Bridge is okay to drive on now that construction is finished, and Robert Moses didn’t need to build that mammoth expressway after all, the one he wanted to cut Manhattan in half with ‘like the Great Wall of China.’  He also mentions he’s on his second salt shaker, that’s how early he was this time, because traffic was so good on Canal and the West Side Highway.  And yet he’s still on his first beer.

(Sidebar: How many of you reading this have actually tried sprinkling salt in your beer to bring back the head?  Reading this at my local last Saturday, I was moved again to reach for the salt shaker behind the bar, and again found the results equivocal.  Yes, you get a bit of a head back, with a few sprinkles and a bit of discreet agitation, but not a full head, and it doesn’t last long–well, neither does the beer.  Unlike Stan, I’m not driving.

Stan needing more than one shaker’s worth to nurse along a single beer would suggest this method is more conducive to hypertension than anything else.  Is kosher salt more efficacious?  Sea salt?  Do those folk of metaphoric legend, who are ever crying in their beers, know something we don’t? Please report your own findings in the comments section.  Where I regret to say there is no beer or salt on offer, but I’m working on it.)

So the meet doesn’t pan out.  Ralph maybe had something, but the cops pulled him in for something else, and until that gets resolved, he is incommunicado.  He called Stan–has him on speed-dial on his cell.  Stan asks if Dortmunder has a cell, so he can add him to his speed-dial.  Dortmunder’s response is terse and in the negative. He’s not going to be on anyone’s speed dial.  Something tells me he’s yet to fully recover from the untimely demise of the rotary dial.

So that’s Chapter One.  The review is just over 2,000 words now.  What was I worried about, this’ll be over in no time.  Call it setting the scene, and let’s try being a bit more expeditious.

Dortmunder gets a call from Arnie Albright, the world’s least-loved fence of stolen goods.  Not unpopular from any moral failing on his part (Dortmunder is not one to cast stones, his own house being glass), but rather from his general manner and physical appearance.

We are perpetually reminded of his non-pulchritudinous aspect (“He told me once, he finds himself so disgusting, he shaves with his back to the mirror.”), while he is being inflicted upon us in book after book, not to  mention several short stories.  One sometimes notes a barely-suppressed strain of sado-masochism in Mr. Westlake.  And just for the record, compared to Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the fence featured in Westlake’s Smoke, who shares many of the same quirks (probably because they were created around the same time), Arnie is Will Freakin’ Rogers.

Arnie’s family members recently did an intervention (referenced in the previous book), sending him to a Club Med, where he was supposed to learn to be a bit more of a person.  It kind of worked.  Well, he got a tan.  He still insists on referring to Dortmunder by his full name all the time.  And he still deals in stolen goods.  The family didn’t object to that, man’s gotta make a living and all.

So he’s got a proposition he wants Dortmunder to hear, and Dortmunder would rather not, but then again, maybe he could get Kelp to come along, share the burden.  Kelp is just then robbing a furrier, bringing the fruits of his labor back to Anne Marie, who proceeds to prance around in a sable jacket and nothing else, so distracting Andy that he agrees over the phone to meet Dortmunder at Arnie’s.

The proposition mingles those two great motivations in human affairs–profit and revenge.  Whilst at Club Med, Arnie made the acquaintance of a certain involuntarily expatriate venture capitalist, one Preston Fareweather.  Preston is not in exile due to any troubles with the law–well, not criminal law.  Civil.  If you want to call it that.

He has a lot of very attractive ex-wives, who he married for the sole purpose of bedding then discarding them.  They all hate him.  More even than they hate each other, and thus they have joined forces, they and their lawyers, in an attempt to attach his worldly goods.  Process servers can go many places, but not, it would seem, a Club Med.  (Pretty sure they can get into Mar-a-Lago just fine.)

Preston has personality issues that even Arnie finds hard to tolerate, and he’s been tolerating himself since birth.  Not so much from his personal appearance as from his believing he and he alone is worthy of any consideration, and other people exist only to be insulted and abused and talked down to.  (Is there any Trump in the mix here?  No, probably too smart to be Trump-influenced.)

Point is, his contempt for Arnie, the smalltime crook, was not even thinly veiled, even while he entertained himself by hob-nobbing with his social (and no doubt criminal) inferior.  Arnie, long inured to people not liking him, was unfamiliar with this specific form of pariah-dom the rich routinely heap upon everybody who isn’t, and thus developed a keen dislike for Preston.

And yet, he kept returning for more daily doses of derision–during which he learned everything he could about Preston’s luxurious duplex penthouse, located on Fifth Avenue and 68th.  Full of so many valuable accoutrements.  And this is where Dortmunder and Kelp come in.  Literally.

Perhaps this schadenfreude shows a lack of gratitude on Arnie’s part, since as he explains, it was meeting Preston Fareweather that finally brought about the most sovereign remedy his own exile was meant to enact. (Translation: He’s a bit less obnoxious now.)

Kelp said “Preston cured you?”

“I watched him,” Arnie said.  “I watched the people around him, how they acted, and I suddenly go tit, those are the expressions I used to see on the faces of people looking at me.  I was never obnoxious in the same way as Preston, on purpose to hurt and embarrass other people, but it all comes down to the same place.  ‘I don’t wanna be Preston Fareweather,’ I told myself, ‘not even by accident,’ so that was it.  I called you, John Dortmunder, because here’s my proposition.

“I’m ready,” Dortmunder allowed.

“I’m sure you are.  I despise that Preston so much, I put up with so much crap from that guy while I’m casing his apartment long-distance, that my reward is the thought of the expression on his face the next time he walks into his house.”

He’s offering seventy per cent of whatever he gets for whatever Dortmunder gets.   Even allowing for some creative accounting on Arnie’s part, it’s a solid proposition.  And Arnie, no heistman himself, still has a useful suggestion as to how they might proceed–Mr. Fareweather has his own private parking garage, to billet his own private BMW, and this comes with its own private elevator up to the penthouse.  Take the Beemer out, put a truck in, Bob’s your uncle.

So what’s to lose?  They walk across Central Park, and there it is, big as life, and surprisingly unglamorous.  Well, you’re paying for the view out, I guess.  Who cares what the wretches down in the park have to look at?

The building, up ahead, taller than its neighbors, built in the real-estate flush of the 1950s, when details and ornamentation and style and grace were considered old-fashioned and unprofitable, hulked like a stalker over the park, a pale gray stone structure pocked with balconies.

A pretty fair description of the general run of uber-pricey housing there (location, location, location).  I’m guessing Preston’s building would be a composite (since non-fictional tycoons do get robbed sometimes, and their lawyers aren’t fictional either), but here’s a pretty fair example of the style.  If you want to call it that.  (Mr. Westlake’s architectural conservatism can be contagious at times.)

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They agree to do another meet at the O.J., this time with Tiny, since there’s going to be a lot of heavy lifting if they pull this one.  There follows a brief interlude with Stan Murch, just then in the process of stealing a Lincoln Navigator (one of the few legit car names in this book, but we’ll get to that next time), which he suddenly realizes comes equipped with the current bane of Stan’s existence, namely GPS.  Not a bane so much because he wants to handle navigation himself, but because of what the letters GPS stand for.  And they won’t stand for much.

That was the snag lately.  If you grabbed some old clunker, it didn’t have enough resale value to be worth the risk involved in taking it away from its former owner, but a sh iny new, valuable piece of tin was more than likely to be leashed to a satellite. And there was no known way to jam a satellite.

That’s the problem, Stan thought.  The law’s got all the labs.

He barely ditches the goods before the cops show up, drawn by the GPS signal like bees to nectar.  They see him walking towards the subway, but he talks himself out of their tentative clutches, and boards the A train.  Which we’re told has its northernmost terminus in the Bronx.  Which has never been true, unless you consider North Manhattan part of the Bronx.

I can’t explain Westlake making such an egregious Gothamite gaffe.  Unless he’s trying once again to avoid incurring the jealousy of the Navajo gods.  This is a pretty good rug he’s weaving here, but a long way from perfect, so I don’t know why he’d bother. Explanation, Mr. Westlake?  Oh right. Mystify us, why don’t you?  Maybe he just forgot.

Next chapter takes us into the inquiring mind of Judson Blint, 19 years of age, just out of high school in Long Island, looking to make his mark (God save him).  He has come to scale the Avalon State Bank Tower in search of J.C. Taylor.  He’s hoping Mr. Taylor will give him a job with Allied Commissioner’s Courses, Inc.–the location of which is supposed to be a secret, but young Blint has tracked it to this location, using some of the very methods learned from their mail-order detective course.

Scanning the directory at the ground floor, he’s surprised to see just how many different businesses are headquartered in room 712–Intertherapeutic Research Service–Super Star Music Co.–and once he’s up on the seventh floor, he sees it’s also the home of the Maylohda Commercial Attaché.  Maylohda.  What was that, a country?  Who was J.C. Taylor, anyway?  He sees the answer before he recognizes it, when he goes in to speak to the receptionist.

Oh.  My.  God.  She was something out of Judson’s dreams, but not the more soothing ones.  No, more like the ones inspired by video games.  In her thirties, she was a hard-looking brunette with gleaming eyes that caught the light, and a mouth that looked born to say no.  Only louder than that.

She yanks him around a bit.  You know our Josie (sadly rare as the occasions have been for us to gaze upon her in the last few books).   She’s impressed with him, in spite of herself.  He’s not a complete rube.  He figured some stuff out (if not her correct gender) and he put together a résumé for himself that is pure uncut malarkey–and yet impossible to directly disprove.  Kid’s got potential–and turns out she’s ready to ditch her old cons, since the being her own country thing is working out so well for her.  Only so many hours in the day to fleece suckers.

Tiny comes in to see his beloved, gives Judson a narrow look.  Judson blanches, and you’d be very lucky if that’s all you did.  A conversation ensues, and the upshot is that she’ll give Judson a try–he can run the other mail order scams for her–she hates to let them go.  It’s the sentimentalist in her.  More on Master Blint later.

It’s at this point that Dortmunder returns to the O.J. Bar and Grill, only to discover (see up top) that something terrible has happened since his last visit.  Rollo tells him the back room isn’t available.  Dortmunder is given to  understand it will never be available again.  There are two questionably attired gentlemen there, tough-looking, both clearly heeled, in the meaning of that word that has nothing to do with footwear.  Kelp saunters in, looks the first goombah over.  “What flying saucer did this come out of?”

Rollo, knowing Tiny (or as he knows him, the red wine and vodka) will arrive at any moment, and how he tends to react to anyone with the temerity to try and intimidate him, begs Dortmunder and Kelp to leave, and gives them a complimentary bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (they later comment that it does not travel well).

Murch, and Murch’s Mom, and Tiny, all arrive to find John and Andy on the sidewalk,  bereft.  They decide to meet at Dortmunder’s place, something nobody is happy about, least of all Dortmunder.  The situation is explained.  Tiny is mildly disappointed to have missed out on the chance to take the two wise guys at the O.J. apart at the garish seams, but it’s not like he owns the joint.  They decide Arnie’s proposition has merit, and that John and Andy will look into the matter of the O.J.

When they get there, the situation has only gotten worse.  The place is basically a walking corpse.  Two different yet identical mob guys are keeping watch.  Rollo is still at the bar, and Andy offers to buy Dortmunder a beer.  Dortmunder may be more easy-going than Parker, but he has that same innate suspicion of even the most innocuous forms of altruism.  Unlike Parker, his Handy McKay didn’t retire to Maine.

Dortmunder looked at him.  “What are you up to?”

“What up to?  I feel like I wanna buy you a beer.  It happens, we have another one, then you buy for me.  That’s how it works, John.”

Dortmunder said, “What if we only have the one?”

“My feeling is,” Kelp said, whipping out his wallet and putting cash money on the bar next to the glasses Rollo was putting down in front of them, “some day we’ll be in a bar again.”

Dortmunder could only agree with that.  “You’ll keep track, I guess,” he said, as Rollo took Kelp’s money away to his open cash register and rummaged around in there a while.

“No problem,” Kelp assured him, and lifted his glass.  “To crime.”

“Without punishment,” Dortmunder amended, and they both drank.

Rollo quietly tells them to watch out–these guys in the bar now are criminals.  Dortmunder gently breaks it to him that he and Kelp are criminals.  Rollo says yeah, but these other guys are organized.  In a Westlake novel, this does not necessarily constitute an advantage, but Rollo’s main concern at this point is that nobody gets hurt.

They don’t like what they find, but they recognize it.  More and more of the O.J., including their beloved back room,  is taken up with merchandise from various businesses that supply bars.  Ordered on the O.J.’s line of credit, invoices signed by a resigned and dismal Rollo.  It’s a bust-out.  The mob guys are going to keep ordering until the bar’s credit runs dry, then cart the goods away to sell at a (100%) profit.  It’s a bit like that thing where the wasp lays its egg in the paralyzed cicada.  I believe analogies have also been drawn regarding the financial sector.  One might consider expanding that to encompass certain aspects of politics.  It’s a rich tapestry.

They meet up with Tiny in a suitably capacious vehicle rented and driven by Judson, and he’s not happy about the O.J., but he figures none of his business, too late to do anything, focus on the heist.  Not that they get very specific, with Judson there, but he reads between the lines, wants to help out, necessitating a somewhat nerve-wracking (for Judson) conversation about whether maybe this kid knows too much.  The general consensus is he knows nothing (like all kids), but maybe he could learn (like some kids).   As for the O.J., Dortmunder finds that he simply can’t let it go.

Chapter 15 somehow fails to open with “When Dortmunder broke into the O.J. Bar and Grill”, sticking with the more traditional opening, but that’s exactly what he’s done, for the purposes of gathering intelligence.  He gets down into the basement, via a trap-door behind the bar.  He finds records, dating back to founding of the O.J., forty-seven years before, by Otto Medrick and Jerome Hulve, and now we know why it’s called that.  It seems to have had multiple prior incarnations.  And who could possibly say how many prior Dortmunders?

Now he sees the problem–Otto Medrick bought his partner out thirty-one years ago.  He retired to Florida a while back.  And he transferred ownership to one Raphael Medrick, Otto’s nephew (always with the nephews).  Who seems to have had, as they say, a troubled past, often involving ‘bad companions.’  Bingo.  There were mob guys up there talking while he was down there reading, taking expensive liquor for their capo’s daughter’s wedding in New Jersey.  Dortmunder helps himself to a stray bottle of Stoli on his way out.  But he’s going to give something back for it.

Next thing, Dortmunder is meeting the gang at the appropriately named Twilight Lounge, on Forty-third Street.  J.C. suggested it as an alternative to the O.J.  It’s pretty clearly not going to work out.  I mean, when Stan asks for salt, they give him a bowl of it.  But Tiny insists there’s nothing to be done, they should focus on getting theirs.  Nobody brings up that this is what Tiny said when those mercs had taken Dortmunder prisoner during the Avalon State Bank Tower heist, before J.C. shamed Tiny and the others into going up to rescue him, and you wouldn’t have brought that up to Tiny’s face either, so shaddap.

However, Tiny still wants to go see this nephew who has forced him to do meets at the Twilight Lounge, and so they head off to a not very nice section of Queens, where it turns out Raphael is completely unaware of anything that’s happening with his uncle’s bar, nor could he care less.  He’s making music.  Well, he’s taking other people’s music and making it into his own thing, with a lot of electronic equipment.  That’s basically how he got in trouble last time, but he figures now everybody’s stealing music and selling it online (right at that moment, he’s creating an unholy amalgram of The Star Spangled Banner and Hey Jude), and at least he’s customizing it first.  Westlake’s contempt for ‘sampling’ is palpable  here.

So he looks up and there’s all these tough-looking guys standing there, like he’s done something to them.  Tiny pings him with his thumb, just to get his attention.  His attention gained, Raphael explains that Uncle Otto will get all the money, and it’s fine.  He didn’t want to run the bar himself (and clearly he couldn’t run a popsicle stand in a heat wave).

Some lawyer told him nobody would buy the bar because the nabe had changed and it was too ‘down-market’.  Which is bullshit, of course–a new owner could easily up-market it, all you need is a place with a liquor license, and frankly, it’s amazing nobody made the offer before then–The O.J. is at 96th and Amsterdam.  By the early 21st, that’s the bleating heart of Yuppieville.  The O.J. must be the last old school bluecollar joint left in that part of town.

Now we know why it’s still there–the real owner is in Florida, leaving Rollo in charge.  The owner on paper is interested in nothing that doesn’t come out of his headphones, and this guy Mikey, that Raphael knows, fed Raphael a line of b.s. to make a nice score.  As the now thoroughly depressed Dortmunder gang leaves this archangel of emptiness to his solipsistic universe, he thinks to himself, The O.J. Bar and Grill.  Who cared?  That was so yesterday, back when people used to leave their houses.   Brave New World.

And Dortmunder still can’t give up on the O.J.  How come?  Yes, it was a nice place to hold meets, and Rollo is a lovely man (not physically, you know what I mean), the regulars are a kick, it’s a shame and all, but why?  Why put himself out over a cheesy over-the-hill dive bar, that isn’t even walking distance from his apartment?  When he’s got a penthouse full of goodies to steal, and there are Jersey boys with guns who would take offense at any eleventh hour intervention?

Should I do what I do when I review the Parkers, talk about some button in Dortmunder’s head, and once it’s pushed, he has to keep going until he’s achieved his end?  No, because Parker wouldn’t care about some bar closing.  Parker is big into non-attachment.  The mere notion of there being a place you could hang out in and have a good chance of seeing him walk through the door would make him uneasy.  Only reason he’s got that house in New Jersey is because of Claire.  She’s more like Dortmunder, in this specific instance, than Parker ever could be.

Dortmunder lives in a world of change that he can’t control, and he hates it.  So does Parker, but ever the instinctive existentialist, he shrugs and deals. Dortmunder can’t let it go.  There’s so few constants in this whirling maelstrom we call a planet, so few things you can rely upon.

For him, there’s May, May’s tuna casserole, Kelp’s weird ideas (whether Dortmunder likes it or not), and New York itself, the only place he ever wants to live, even though he wasn’t born anywhere near it.  Within New York (which as the saying goes, will be a nice town when it’s finished), there’s the O.J. Bar and Grill.  His proprietary domain. He can’t afford to lose his point of orientation, his haven of respite.  Who can?  And who doesn’t?

The day my father died, last October, I had made plans to meet up with an old friend for lunch in midtown.  I got the word while waiting for the train, and spent the ride soaking it in.  I was not going to call off the lunch.  I needed it more than ever.  All the more because it was my favorite Chinese restaurant in the entire universe.  Repeat.  Was.

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Nothing like it north of Chinatown, and I’d rate it over any Chinatown place I’ve ever tried.  A vast baroque menu Westlake could have written odes to.  Cash only, no plastic.  No reservations, but you could always get a table after the peak lunch rush.  Unpretentious decor, relaxed atmosphere.  Always good jazz–real jazz–playing in the background–the owner must have been a fan.  No liquor license–meaning you could bring your own beer, wine, whatever the hell else you wanted to drink.  They’d put it on ice for you.

I could never describe the nuances of their hot and sour soup, their pork dumplings, their Phoenix Shredded Beef Min-Young–anyone who tells you Cantonese is bland has never really had it.  I had it just a few years, after discovering it.  If I was in that part of town, I’d find an excuse to eat there.  Got so the staff knew me and my peculiarities (who else has German double bock with Chinese food?)  That was nice.

But when I got there that day, I found a locked door with a notice on it.  The landlord.  The rent.  Do I have to draw a picture?  A thriving business with a devoted clientele has no guarantee of survival in any part of Manhattan.  Not anymore.  They’d have been better off dealing with the mafia.  At least those people appreciate good food.

My friend showed up, and we wound up commiserating about current events over mediocre diner grub.  She was sorry to hear about my dad.  I was just grateful to have somebody to talk to.  You think everything’s okay in life.  And then something different happens.  Change happens.  The wrong kind of change. The change that comes when you don’t watch your back.

Change isn’t evil.  That’s not the point here.  Change is the source of everything anyone ever loved.  Change created the O.J., as Dortmunder learned in that basement.  Change created Chinese American cuisine (and Chinese Americans, even better).  Change created these books we’re talking about.  Change is the reason you look around and see something, instead of nothing.  Change is why you’re here to look around.  God is change. Octavia Butler wrote two whole novels about that.

And everything has a mortal span, all things must pass, certainly all earthly establishments.  You can know all this and still know when something’s being taken away from you before its time.  Before something equivalently good is ready to replace it.  And if we lose too many things we value, too quickly, lose all our fixed points of reference, our sense of self can start to unravel pretty darn quick.

Okay, call it conservatism.  I don’t care.  I believe in conserving things that need conserving, and so did Donald E. Westlake, and so did John Dortmunder. Admittedly, I’m not much good at conserving words, when I write these reviews.

So to wrap things up until next week, Dortmunder knows what he’s got to do. And where he’s got to go.  And who he’s got to see when he gets there.  He’s not happy about it, but being who he is, knowing who he is, he’s got no choice.  He asks the gang if any of them want to come with.  He gets the answer he expected. If he were Parker, he’d probably make some sort of terse bloody-minded inspirational speech, but even that might not work in this case.  You might follow someone to the very gates of hell, but Florida in the summertime?  Pass.

Well, if it would have kept Phoenix Garden open, maybe.  As for my dad, just as well he didn’t live to see some of the change happening now.  Okay, fine, comedy, I know.  We’ll get to the lighter side next week, okay?  That’s when the all the people who have conspired to upset Dortmunder’s orientation suddenly find occasion to wax philosophic themselves. They should have watched their backs.

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

Advance Publicity: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner–back in print! (next year)

 

Got the word from Charles Ardai, just a few weeks ago–he read my piece on what a Westlake Library of America edition might look like, and this book was high on my list of criminally out of print Westlake crime.   It’s not being released until February 13th, 2018 (not a Friday, I’m disappointed to say), but Amazon already has a page up for it, so I’m not giving away any trade secrets here.  Behold! Cover art!

Yes, of course I bitched and moaned to Ardai about how The Girl in this book is a blonde, but seems like the artist wanted a brunette, and I shall privately entertain my own dirty-minded suspicions as to why that was.  The spirit of Robert E. McGinnis lives on, as indeed does McGinnis himself, but this isn’t his handiwork.  This version of the not-too-maidenly Marian is suitably zaftig, and that’s what really matters, right?  That and getting one of Westlake’s best Nephew Books back in print–and not just as an ebook.  (Though the nice thing about ebooks is that once you’ve got something digitized, it tends to stick around.)

In early 2019, Hard Case is planning to come out with a new edition of Brothers Keepers, and there are subsequent reprints in the works.

I must say, it’s getting a bit spooky how as soon as we here express our desire for a particular Westlake book to be reprinted, Hard Case turns out to already be on the case.

(C’mon, Adios Scheherazade! Or is that too hard a case even for them?)

 

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Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Review: Thieves’ Dozen

 

The fifth and final collection of Donald Westlake’s short fiction published in his lifetime turned out to be the best.  Which is not to say the previous four were lacking in merit.  There were very fine stories in each of them–surrounded by stories that were not so fine.  It was never easy for him to come up with a whole book’s worth that could live up to the standard he’d set in his novels.  This collection marks the only instance where he achieved this.  With a character plucked from a series of often rather broad-ranging novels, and set upon the short and narrow-focused for a change.

Mr. Westlake had his troubles with this form.  Mainly relating to character, which for him was the foundation of everything he aspired to as a writer.  Yes, plot matters, technique matters, style matters, subtext matters–and none of it matters a damn if you can’t create people with their own unique voices and identities.  When he only had a few pages to work with, he was hard-pressed to make that happen.  I suppose all writers have their troubles with this form, and find different ways to deal with them.

In my biased estimation, the greatest short story writer in English was, is, and shall remain that crafty Corkonian, Frank O’Connor (a pseudonym, wouldn’t you know, his birth name was Michael O’Donovan).  He wrote little else in the way of fiction besides short stories.  Quit the novel after two early attempts, and for good reason: he worked best in miniature.  His characters don’t leap out at you, so much as they pull you in; make you laugh with them, scowl at them, grieve for them (read The Impossible Marriage sometime, or any of his stories–you’ll see what I mean).  Having said all he needed to say, even one additional page would be art crime.  No more about it.

O’Connor drew heavily on people he’d met for his models, his countrymen and countrywomen; vivid, flawed, noble, innocent, brave, brilliant, begrudging, stubborn, perverse.  He wrote of his mother (who was all of the above), with love and wonder, that he’d bribed a London hotel chambermaid to bring her meals, and when he came back a short time later, the mammy had gotten that poor Devon girl to cough up her entire life story over tea and scones; enough material for a novel.  She could seemingly get a novel out of anyone she met, and he could only lament that she never wrote any–not her purview–but she passed that gift for gleaning to her shy subtle son, who boiled a novel’s worth of insight into a nutshell of narrative.

Westlake, himself a shy subtle New York Irish boy, likewise endowed with a formidable mother (and a far better father than O’Connor’s scapegrace sire) had a comparable eye for human complexity, but he was less inclined to draw too directly from life, preferring a bit more distance between himself and his subjects; relying more on genre templates as part of that distancing technique (and to make rent, of course).

O’Connor’s autobiographical writings are without superior (I can think of other short story writers I admire who did well in this regard, which may well mean something).  Westlake’s memoirs remain forever unfinished and mostly unpublished.  For all his outward garrulousness, he was a deeply private man, unwilling to make himself too vulnerable to scrutiny–the Stark in him–the less people know about you, the safer you are.

Closest he got to the confessional was when he wrote as Tucker Coe, a persona he rejected, then ritually slaughtered in a mock-interview.  (Didn’t help that his most personal early novel under his own name was rejected, and went unpublished in his lifetime.) Whatever the reasons, he needed more space to create characters who lived and breathed and spoke to him.  To find ways to reveal himself more obliquely to us.

His models would have included Hammett, O. Henry, and others in his chosen field–better teachers would be hard to find.  But when it came to short fiction, he usually fell far short of the standard they’d set (while writing novels that read like short stories, so his apprenticeship was not wasted).

Having tossed off scores of stories for the pulps in the late 50’s and early 60’s (good practice, needed income, unsympathetic editors), his production slacked off a lot when he found his footing as a novelist–by which time he’d created his two signature series characters. Only one of whom was destined to spawn a series of short stories (and one novella) to augment his long form adventures.

Though Richard Stark began his existence as a short story writer, never once that we know of did he assay to write a short story about Parker, Grofield, or any member of his large supporting cast of players.  Hard to believe he didn’t at least consider it.  Did he try, and find the results wanting?  Stark’s great virtue is succinctness–you’d think that would have translated well to the shorter form.  A mystery that seems unlikely to be cleared up.

It was Dortmunder’s lot in life to do the jobs Parker turned down.  In his introduction to this anthology, Westlake recounts once more how in 1967, he was trying to write a more humorous Richard Stark novel, in which Parker would have to steal the same thing over and over again.  As Westlake puts it, Parker thought this was beneath his dignity, though in the novel that did result from that attempt, he was perfectly willing to do subcontracting work for a group of African revolutionaries.

Still seeing merit in the notion of repetitive theft, Westlake conjured John Dortmunder out of a neon beer sign, and although the initial attempt at a novel stalled out, he returned to it a few years later, with great success.  As with Parker, he didn’t write the first novel with the idea of there being more of them, but more happened anyway.  He’d finished Nobody’s Perfect, when a scrap of conversation between Dortmunder and a well-dressed man came to him, the bare bones of an idea he knew wasn’t enough for a novel.  This could be the start of something small.

It worked out to ten Dortmunder shorts written and published over the course of twenty years, mainly in Playboy.  Not a venue you’d think Dortmunder would feel at home in, but it must have paid well.  Some of the latter run of stories Westlake wrote with the notion that he just needed a few more to make a book out of them, reminiscent of the genesis of Levine.  But he wasn’t trying to finish off a character arc (or the character) here, as he was with that collection of police procedurals that don’t amount to much individually, but somehow pack an emotional wallop when read together.

There’s no discernible arc whatsoever to the Dortmunder shorts, or any emotional wallop at all, because it’s not called for.  More like doodling in the margins.  Inspired doodling, because he’d finally found what he’d always been lacking when it came to short stories–readymade voices, people whose quirks he already knew inside out.  With the problem of character out of the way, he could concentrate on plot and motivation.

These stories are all perfectly balanced in a way the novels rarely were.  No need to come up with elaborate heists for Dortmunder to pull (no time to pull them). No need to come up with separate subplots for an ever-expanding cast of regulars, all clamoring for their moments in the sun. Just the right number of moving parts here.

You never get the whole ensemble (except in the last offering here, which isn’t a Dortmunder).  The stories were either about Dortmunder and Kelp, or Dortmunder as a single-o.  The solo stories were some of the best.  Focused.  Precise.  Yet still with the loose-jointed nonchalance that distinguishes the series as a whole.

There are, when you think about it, a host of chapters in the later Dortmunders that stand apart from the main plotline, that could have easily been repurposed as short stories with a cursory rewrite. No doubt some of them began as ideas for short stories that were never written, or some that were.  Dortmunder working a short con as a faux encyclopedia salesman going door to door, in The Hot Rock and Bank Shot, was an idea filched directly from a story Westlake wrote about just such a fly-by-nighter–and the versions with Dortmunder are far superior, because Dortmunder is real in a way few of Westlake’s short-form protagonists ever were.

There’s something about Dortmunder, a laconic understated quality that oddly lends itself to vignettes, anecdotes, tall tales.  He feels like somebody O. Henry could have easily dreamed up, but didn’t (and this is one reason my vote for the best Dortmunder novel might well go to the one that reimagined The Ransom of Red Chief).

One more oddity–Dortmunder usually wins out in these stories.  Not such a sad sack in the shorts.  Not without his share of setbacks, sidetracks, and petty humiliations, to be sure, but I think he’d have gladly given up the arduous and too-often futile two to four hundred page slogs in favor of maybe ten modestly profitable short-term ventures a year–as opposed to ten in a lifetime.  The bottom falling out of the market for short stories was one reason that was never gonna happen.  But as always, he made the most of what came to hand.  Let’s see if we can do the same.

Ask A Silly Question: By all means, let’s.  As we join him, Dortmunder is having a conversation with an elegantly dressed older man, in a splendidly appointed Manhattan townhouse at Park & 65th, and he’s being asked what people of his sort usually drink.

“Bourbon,” Dortmunder said.  “Water.  Coca-Cola.  Orange juice.  Beer.”

“Bourbon,” the elegant man told one of the two plug-uglies who’d brought Dortmunder here.  “And sherry for me.”

“Coffee,” Dortmunder went on.  “Sometimes Gallo Burgundy.  Vodka.  Seven-Up.  Milk.”

“How do you prefer your bourbon?” the elegant man asked.

“With ice and water.  People of my sort also drink Hi-C, Scotch, lemonade, Nyquil–

“Do you drink Perrier?”

“No,” said Dortmunder.

Playboy published this in February of 1981, a bit over a decade after The Hot Rock, and Dortmunder was hardly so famous by then that Westlake could presume universal familiarity with his brainchild’s quirks.  He’s not taking a shortcut here, writing Dortmunder fanfic for a quick buck. He’ll do it right, or not at all.

It’s important for his own working methods that he knows his guy, and he does, but he still has to make sure he’s established that guy in the mind of some some gentleman of leisure who has never even heard of Dortmunder ere now, and is merely taking a quick break from ogling Miss February (Vicky lynn Lasseter, I googled, nice eyes), so he can go on pretending he buys this publication for the articles.  I don’t believe even The O’Connor Don ever established character more efficiently than The Don Westlake does here.

The elegant man married some sweet young thing who turned out more young than sweet.  A nasty divorce followed afoot, with no accompanying prenuptial agreement (elegance not necessarily implying prudent foresight).  As part of her punitive inroads on his worldly goods, she demanded his most prized possession, a Rodin nymph in bronze.  Unwilling to part with one nymph to appease another, he had a copy made, and bribed a court-appointed expert to certify it the original.

All well and good, but now for tax purposes she’s donating it to the Museum of Modern Art, and there’s no bribing them.  The elegant man (let’s just call him Tem, inelegant as that sounds) wants Dortmunder to tell him how to steal the copy back that very night, so  his subterfuge may never be revealed. But the ersatz nymph weighs over five hundred pounds, enough to give Jove himself a hernia.  How can she be carried away undetected?

Various potential schemes are floated by Tem, and shot down contemptuously by his contrarian consultant–Dortmunder is irritated at having been picked up by Tem’s plug-uglies as he was on his way to the O.J. to discuss a potential job with the usual suspects.  Tem wants to pay him a measly grand for his advice. Dortmunder bargains him up to five, but Tem decrees that for so large an honorarium, they’d like the honor of his company during the heist.  Dortmunder phones Kelp at the O.J., explains he’ll be late.  Kelp says no problem, they’re having a nice discussion on religion and politics.

One very satisfying plot twist later (I’m going to try to avoid revealing those when possible, but no promises), Tem is in a most inelegant fix, and the vengeful Dortmunder is planning a raid on his now-unguarded townhouse with the gang from the O.J., which one would hope includes the recently introduced Tiny Bulcher (for heavy lifting), but would you want to discuss religion and politics with him? Be my guest.

A hard one to improve upon.  But Westlake did, several times.  Including the very next time, in a little equestrian yarn by the name of–

Horse Laugh: (Playboy again, June ’86, Rebecca Ferratti, I think we got a motif going here.)  Dortmunder and Kelp are in the process of stealing a thoroughbred champion named Dire Straits who is now gone out to stud in the wide open spaces of western New Jersey (Money for nothing and your chicks for free, hmm, wouldn’t have thought he’d be into that band–probably just for the implicit wordplay).

Dortmunder, we later learn, bet on this very nag at the track on one of the rare days Dire Straits finished out of the money (Want to bet that’s a coincidence?  What odds you give me?).  His weakness for blowing his ill-gotten gains on the ponies should not be confused with any personal feeling for them.  He has no more reason to love these four-legged wallet-emptiers than they him.

Dortmunder looked at the horse.  The horse looked at Dortmunder.  “Ugly goddam thing,” Dortmunder commented, while the horse just rolled his eyes in disbelief.

“Not that one,” the old coot said.  “We’re looking for a black stallion.”

“In the dark,” Dortmunder commented.  “Anyway, all horses look the same to me.”

(Again, character established from the starting gate.  You’ll enjoy these stories more if you’ve read some of the novels, but it’s by no means obligatory.)

The old coot, Hiram Rangle, works for some screwy squire with more horses than sense.  He wants better bloodlines for his broodmares (sans stud fees), so they’ll throw a few winning foals nobody will expect great things from, because they won’t know who really sired them. The real money will be in the large bets he lays on them–you see, it’s only illegal to bet against your own horse, at least in America.  Stealing them is a problem pretty much everywhere.

So Dortmunder and Kelp are doing work for hire again, and Hiram, their employer’s employee, is there because he can identify the goods, then cajole said goods into coming along for the ride.  A recalcitrant hotblood equine being a far trickier proposition than a 500lb Rodin nymph, even if he can move around by himself.  (Well, that’s going to be the problem, you see.)

This one’s special to me because it’s the single most sustained look into animal behavior that Westlake ever attempted.  Westlake featured animals in his work fairly often, but they were rarely central to the narrative–a dangerous dog, a hovering hawk, a prattling parrot (we’ll get to him)–sometimes POV characters, but briefly.  More often mere plot devices.  But there’s always this underlying consciousness that they are, in fact, conscious, volitive beings with their own agendas–and that they, unlike we, know what they want.

I’ve read that Westlake once had a cat named James Blue, who provided him with one of his pseudonyms (the kind he wrote pseudo-porn under), and nary a reference to cats can I recall from his oeuvre (too close to home?).  All I can divine from his fiction, vis a vis our fellow vertebrates, is that he was interested in them, and perhaps sometimes afraid of them.  And it’s this tension between fear and fascination that tends to inform his writing about them. Leading to many an absurd situation

Walking through his first barn, Dortmunder learned several facts about horses: (1) They smell. (2) They breathe, more than anything he’d ever met in his life before. (3) They don’t sleep, not even at night. (4) They don’t even sit down. (5) They are very curious about people who happen to go by. And (6) they have extremely long necks.  When horses in stalls on both sides of Dortmunder stretched out their heads toward him at the same time, wrinkling their black lips to show their big square tombstone teeth, snuffling and whuffling with those shotgun-barrel noses, sighting at him down those long faces, he realized that the aisle wasn’t that wide after all.

“Jeepers,” Kelp said, a thing he didn’t say often.

(Okay, how is a devoutly urban thief who probably never even finished high school supposed to know horses usually sleep standing up?  I assume Westlake knew this, but the thing about autodidacts is that they always know more and less than you assume.  We’ll be talking about that when we get to the parrot.)

So they find Dire Straits, and Hiram sweet talks him (which includes doling out sweets in the form of sugar cubes), and they get him outside, and it all goes to hell, really fast.  A complication they hadn’t counted upon.  See, the staff at this place don’t know the thieves are there, but the horses do, and they’ve heard via the equine grapevine that there’s sugar cubes in the offing. Giddyap.

Further complication–coming into the place, Dortmunder and Kelp dislodged the rails of a fence bordering the road, then put them back up without the nails to hold them in place, to facilitate their exit with the loot.  The excited horses have now pushed their way through the fence like a herd of TV zombies, making their way to the fatal complication–an orchard full of green apples, right across the road.

“Like shit through a goose” doesn’t half say it. Geese have nothing on horses.  The stable environs are now fully Augean. The staff are now wide awake, and running around, slipping and sliding in the love offerings of man’s noblest companion, futilely trying to persuade the horses that they’re domesticated animals who only do what they’re told.  Oh yeah?  We’re gonna have a midnight snack, two-legs.  How ya like them apples?

The police are arriving to restore order and will inevitably realize who was responsible for the chaos.  Hiram, who like any horsey person, dreamed in his lost youth of riding some Farleyesque black stallion on a desert isle, leaps aboard Dire Straits, and makes a mad gallop to freedom.  It does not go well.  Dortmunder and Kelp decline the role of Tonto, and through a typical ruse, manage to commandeer a truck to get them the hell out of there.

I will spoil this ending, but only because it’s spoiler-proof.  It turns out Dire Straits took a shine to one or both of them, followed them away from the madding crowd, and they could steal him easy, take him home, and–what then? What could they possibly do with him? Hiram’s boss will be joining him in the hoosegow, shortly.

Kelp isn’t Dortmunder.  He’s never been a horse person, he’s mainly thinking about the million dollars this horse is worth (that they could never in a million years get), but there’s something plaintive in the “Can I keep him?” discussion that finishes out the tale. (As a girl, my significant other begged her father for a horse like she was Richard III.  They lived in a Manhattan apartment.  “Where would we keep it?”  “On the roof!”  She settled for a puppy, who grew to the size of a small horse.)

We don’t just keep animals we don’t eat because they’re useful to us (and so often, you know, they are impediments to our daily enterprise).  They charm us, and this one’s starting to charm Kelp.  Dortmunder, being something of an animal himself, is deaf to this Siren’s song, and drags Kelp away.

But not even the wildest of horses ever dragged anyone away from–

Too Many Crooks: (The usual, August ’89, Gianna Amore, lives up to the name.)  Probably the most famous short story Westlake ever wrote (it’s this or Nackles, and this is a much better story than Nackles).  Won him his second Edgar, on his way to the coveted trifecta (superfecta, if you count the Grandmaster thing).  The story that gave us the perhaps over-used John Diddums gag.  (It’s Welsh.  You knew that).

This is the one that people who don’t know spit about Dortmunder sometimes still know.  “Oh right, he’s robbing a bank, and then he finds out somebody is already robbing it.  Funny!”  You wouldn’t think so if it happened to you.  What’s funny to me is this friend of mine who admits to having read no other Westlake than this, and I just now realize I never inquired where she read it.  Not in this book. She’d have remembered Horse Laugh.  Probably anthologized elsewhere.  I’m sure that’s it.

Westlake used to say Parker was about romantic crime, and Dortmunder was about the mundane reality, and that’s a crock.  Real bank robbers shoot people.  Dortmunder hardly ever points a gun at anybody.  Suppose it went off or something?  The rules are, Parker never shoots anybody who doesn’t deserve it, and Dortmunder never shoots.  So towards the end of avoiding messy gunplay, he and Kelp are tunneling into a bank vault–in the daytime.  During banking hours.  Sure, why not?  I know this sounds critical, but here’s the thing–when you read the story, you 110% believe it.  Fiction isn’t about realism.  Westlake knows this.  Many others seem confused on that point.

In the meantime, a gang of more Starkian heisters have taken the traditional approach, with guns and masks and everything, but being in Dortmunder’s universe they screwed it up royally, and the place is surrounded, come out with your hands up, you know the drill, but they figure they can just take everyone hostage and get out that way.

There’s so many people in that vault when Dortmunder and Kelp break through the wall, that the other gang doesn’t even realize Dortmunder isn’t one of the hostages, and the real hostages think he and Kelp are cops coming in the back way to rescue them.  Kelp beats a hasty retreat through the tunnel, the hostages follow his lead, thereby rescuing themselves, and Dortmunder ends up being the only hostage, having been randomly picked to go outside and relay the demands of the nervous felons with machine guns to the equally nervous cops with sniper rifles.  (Randomly?  Ya think?  Maybe if this is the only Dortmunder story you ever read).

His situation is further complicated by the fact that his story began about two hours after this other, less whimsical, story, and he’s a bit slow catching up.  And one of the guys with the machine guns is a mite oversensitive.  Well, if you’ve got a machine gun, and you’re the emotional type, you tend to use it.  That’s kind of the chief argument against machine guns.

“We’re gonna give the our demands,” the robber said.  “Through you.”

“That’s fine,” Dortmunder said.  “That’s great.  Only, you know, how come you don’t do it on the phone?  I mean, the way it’s normally–”

The red-eyed robber, heedless of exposure to the sharpshooters across the street, shouldered furiously past the comparatively calm robber, who tried to restrain him as he yelled at Dortmunder, “You’re rubbing it in, are ya?  OK, I made a mistake!  I got excited and I shot up the switchboard!  You want me to get excited again?”

“No, no!” Dortmunder cried, trying to hold his hands straight up in the air and defensively in front of his body at the same time.  “I forgot!  I just forgot!”

He forgot.  As if anyone could ever forget. A vital clue, that the detective in this story, namely the red-eyed robber, seizes upon later to unravel the locked-room mystery of where this Diddums jerk came from.  Much good that does anyone, but the formal demands of the genre have been met.  A few pages later, the more informal demands of a Dortmunder story are met, to even Dortmunder’s satisfaction.

I’m not sure I consider this the very best story in the book (tough call), but rest assured it’s the best story about concurrent bank robberies anyone’s ever going to write.  They did later make a movie with that very premise, incidentally.  Flypaper.  No awards.  No nominations.  No audience.  9% ‘Fresh’ with top critics (the one good review is from the Times, and it’s not that good).  I think Dortmunder’s niche is secure for the forseeable future.

What’s not so secure is the future of live theater in the hinterlands, which brings us to–

A Midsummer Daydream:  (Ditto, May of ’90, Tina Bockrath.)  Due to a little professional misunderstanding, Dortmunder and Kelp head about 80 miles upstate to stay with Kelp’s cousin, Jesse Bohker (no relation to Tina, I’d assume) until things cool off back home.

Cousin Bohker has a farm.  Ee ey ee ey oh.  And on that farm he’s got a summer theater where they do Shakespeare for the multitudes, during the afternoon, so as not to conflict with cable TV.  Ee ey ee ey oy fucking vey.  I mean, there’s a guy walking around in a donkey’s head.  There’s fairies prancing all over the place, and not the fun urban variety. Dortmunder says enough with the iambic pentameter already, and goes outside.

And when it turns out the box office proceeds–two thousand, seven hundred twenty-four dollars, not a bad score–got lifted while Dortmunder was standing outside the converted barn with no alibi.   Cousin Bokher has an ultimatum–ee ey ee ey dough.  Or he calls in the state troopers.

The point of this exercise is to put Dortmunder in the position of having to play detective.  He needs to finger the real culprit, to avoid having some upstate Dogberry take a good look at him and Kelp, and finding out there’s much ado about everything where these guys are concerned.  But also–he’s innocent.  Innocent, I tells ya!

The experience of being unjustly accused was so  novel and bewildering to Dortmunder that he was almost drunk from it.  He had so little experience of innocence.  How does an innocent person act, react, respond to the base accusation?  He could barely stand up, he was concentrating so hard on this sudden in-rush of guiltlessness.  His knees were wobbling.  He stared at Andy Kelp and couldn’t think of one solitary thing to say.

(Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into comes to mind, but that’s probably copyrighted.  Great thing about The Bard is you never have to inquire about copyright.  There are inquiries being made about the latest Shakespeare in the Park production, but those are of a different order.  Once more into the breach of etiquette!)

What makes this such a neat little mystery is that the way Dortmunder solves it makes perfect sense for the person he is, and the experiences he’s had.  Westlake liked turning his thieves into detectives (though he never made an entire franchise out of it, the way Lawrence Block did).  Should go without saying, Dortmunder never cared about whodunnit.  He only wanted to prove he didn’t, and then get payback for the cousin assuming he did.  His sense of aggrieved innocence certainly gets an overdue workout here.   Speaking of which–

The Dortmunder Workout:  (New York Times Magazine, 1990, no centerfold, killjoys.)  The shortest story on offer here.  A mere vignette.  Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill.  Apparently just to have a bourbon and catch up with Rollo the bartender, but the regulars have things to discuss, relating to physical fitness and related issues.

The first regular said, “I don’t get what you mean by this food groups.”

“Well,” the second regular told him, “your principal food groups are meat, vegetables, dessert and beer.”

“Oh,” the first regular said.  “In that case, I’m OK.”

Yeah, you’ve heard it before.  Worth hearing again, but not much point parsing it.  Onwards to–

Party Animal: (Back to the motif. January ’93, Echo Leto Johnson.  No that’s her name, honest. I think all these girls somehow escaped from paperback sleaze novels of the 60’s. Hard to be sure, those books are so badly lit.)

As has happened in past, we join Dortmunder on a fire escape at night, cops swooping in from above like flatfooted owls, cops waiting expectantly below, like crocodiles with badges.  The window he’s currently crouching by is cracked open.  There’s a party going on inside. A Christmas party, since that’s the time of year.  He’s going to try and crash it.  Not his usual scene, but hum a few bars and maybe he can avoid going behind them.

It’s cold outside, so the bedroom he’s entering is the traditional repository for coats (nobody in Manhattan has that much spare closet space).  Underneath the pile of coats on the bed, a couple is trying, and failing, to join the party equivalent of the mile high club.  Dortmunder stows his gear, hides his loot, joins the fray.  As he thought, most people there don’t know most other people there.  He can blend into this crowd.  Yet he would fain be gone through yon waiting portal.  But hark, the doorbell rings–tis the coppers, seeking their rightful prey.  He’ll stay a week or two–he’ll stay the winter through–yet I am telling you…..

Who’s the person  you notice least at a catered party?  The lowly server, handing out food.  Which makes no sense at all, that’s the one who can actually do something for you, but there you are.  There’s a little Trump in all of us.  I must get mine surgically removed at some point.

But returning to the point at hand, Dortmunder sees the harried caterer, a not-bad blonde, wearing a perpetual angry frown, precipitated in this case by the fact that the guy supposed to be helping her out here with these party animals never showed.  Dortmunder, good Samaritan that he is, volunteers to fill the gap, pass out the canapes, while she assembles them in the kitchen.  She’s suspicious, but in no position to look a gift server in the mouth.  (As the narrator reminds us, we don’t say ‘servant’ in America, because we’re all equal here, sheahright).

So as he makes the rounds, tray in  hand, little snatches of conversation come to us….

There’s only twenty guys gonna be let in on this thing.  We have seven already, and once we have all the seed money….”

“She came to the co-op board in a false beard and claimed she was a proctologist.  Well, naturally….”

“So then I said you can have this job, and he said OK, and I said you can’t treat people like that, and he said OK, and I said that’s it, I quit, and he said OK, and I said you’re gonna have to get along without me from here on in, buster, and he said OK…so I guess I’m not over there anymore.”

“And then these guys in a rowboat–no, wait, I forgot.  First they blew up the bridge, see, and then they stole the rowboat.”

“Merry Christmas, you Jew bastard, I haven’t seen you since Ramadan.”

“And he said, ‘Madam, you’re naked,’ and I said, ‘These happen to be gloves, if you don’t mind,’ and that shut him up.”

A bit on the mundane side for such a gathering.  You who don’t hail from New York perhaps think I’m kidding.  You who do know I’m understating.  So is Westlake.  Dortmunder also hears the couple from the bedroom earlier, Larry and Sheila, and notes that Larry is basically blowing Sheila off because the coat coitus got canceled.

The caterer has noted the presence of fuzz, and is now giving Dortmunder funny looks–but saying nothing.  Just handing him more snacks for the revelers.  Dortmunder’s protective coloration is still holding up–he tests it by going up to the loitering lawmen and lawwomen, and asking if they want something.  They tell him to mind his own business.  Well, technically, that’s what got him in trouble.

The party is winding down.  The police have left the apartment, but not the chase.  They’re waiting outside.  They will search each departing guest.  Even if Dortmunder abandons his takings of the evening, his fake ID won’t hold up to close scrutiny (another thing that can happen at parties, though usually of a different age set).  Dortmunder has a fix–plant some of the jewelry he stole on one of those departing guests.  He’s kind of pleased it turns out to be Larry.  So are we all, really.

And the irate caterer, it turns out, has developed a little thing for Dortmunder.  She tells him he should know she’s married.  He tells her he is too, kind of.  Ships passing out hor d’oeuvres in the night.  As a token of what they have shared in this brief encounter, and also to say thanks for not blowing the whistle on him, he slips a gold brooch in the shape of a feather into her hair bun.  And then he’s off, free as a bird.  Larry can’t say the same, but they’ll figure out he didn’t do it, once he stops incriminating himself with his personality.  To all a good night.

A different kind of social gathering awaits Dortmunder in a less substantial tale with an interesting genesis to it, namely–

Give Till It Hurts:  This was first published in pamphlet form, by The Mysterious Bookshop, in November 1993, a gift for faithful mail order customers.  (No pin-up girls, perhaps deemed inappropriate for the holiday season, who can say?)  Westlake owed much to that shop’s estimable proprietor, Otto Penzler, but it’s Dortmunder who makes good the debt here–in more ways than one.

Dortmunder is disguised in Middle Eastern garb, having just stolen some rare coins at a hotel convention for collectors (good thing Parker isn’t into plagiarism suits).  Again, he needs to blow the joint before the law finds him, and the regular means of egress will not do.  Finding his way into a supply closet, he ties a bunch of sheets together, and lowers himself out the window in back of the hotel, abutting some smaller structures.  One of which happens to be (ta-dah!) The Mysterious Bookshop, not that he knows what that is, or cares.

So this guy named Otto comes in and sees him, and assumes he’s the ringer ‘Don’ sent in his place.  He jokes that he hopes Diddums (Welsh, remember?) is a better poker player.  That’s what this is.  A friendly poker game in the back room.  Soon other players arrive.  Larry, Justin, Al, Henry.  I know who Larry is, and perhaps someone can fill me in about the others?  I don’t know everything.  But I can easily deduce that all these gentlemen are involved with the mystery genre–also known as crime fiction.  Dortmunder has walked right into the lion’s den, you might say.

So Dortmunder figures he can bide his time until the heat fades, and might as well make a little something extra for the Christmas stocking, right?  He sits down to play, and he cheats a bit. The cops (who I have to say, seem a lot more thorough in Dortmunder’s world than they are here) come knocking, and the other players, being into detectives and all, quickly realize two things–1)Diddums is the thief! and 2)That’s why he’s been winning all our money!

They don’t talk to the law.  Honor among thieves?  Fuck that, they want their money back.  With interest. Dortmunder has to stay for the whole game, lose every hand, and then he will be allowed to leave.  The mills of the mystery gods grind slow…..

The next story is a direct sequel to this, and I believe I will give it short shrift.  It’s got Arnie Albright in it.  No, Arnie, it’s not you, I’m just going long here, and how much am I supposed to write about a story called–

Jumble Sale:  Published in The Armchair Detective [v27 #3, Summer 1994] .  Here’s the cover.  For all I know there’s a centerfold model within, perhaps dressed in nothing but a chalk outline.

armchair_detective_1994sum

(Peter Straub is a mystery writer?  Since when?  I guess since he picked up his phone and said “Sure, I’ll give you an interview.”)

So Dortmunder brings his coins to Arnie Albright, everybody’s favorite least-favorite dealer in stolen goods.  The usual Arnie-shtik is trotted out; old calendars all over the wall, obnoxious personality tics, nose like a tree root, et all.  My own feeling about Arnie is that he takes up a lot of space in the Dortmunders that should have gone to J.C. Taylor, and that you’ve read one chapter with him in it, you know all you ever needed to know about him.  But this story isn’t bad, for all that.

Summing up briefly.  A man and a woman show up to interrupt the transaction.  Arnie forces Dortmunder to pretend he’s a relative.  They say they have a semi parked downstairs on W. 86th, full of stolen flatscreen TV’s.  They keep insisting they’re not a couple.  So obviously they are a couple.  Why would a couple of crooks claim they’re not a couple in the other way?  That’s the mystery.  Solve it yourself, or read the story.  I’m moving on (seriously, Arnie, I like you fine, but I’m over 6,000 words here) to–um–what now?  Oh right!

Now What?:  (December 1999, Brooke Richards, 34”/24”/35”, measurements courtesy of Wikipedia, oh brave new world…) Quite possibly the best story in the book, but again, tough call.  Definitely the longest, all of twenty-three pages.

Dortmunder more or less accidentally stole a bounteously bejeweled brooch, reportedly worth 300k, from a movie star and his intended.  Her name is Felicia, a rather jaundiced reference to a much nicer girl of the same name marrying a much nicer movie star in Trust Me On This.

The actor made a big scene out of it with the press, like they always do, claimed the daring thief broke in and snatched it before their very eyes.  In fact, Felicia, thinking it was some cheesy pin being fobbed off on her, threw it out the window, where Dortmunder just happened to be passing by on one of his beloved fire escapes.

But this is all prologue.  The story is how he tries, and tries, and tries, to fence the brooch, traversing the urban jungle with the goods all the while concealed within a ham sandwich in a brown paper bag.  Knowing as he does, that for reasons perhaps only a tabloid editor could explain, the theft of the brooch is the #1 story in the world that day.  The heat, as they say, is on.

And everywhere, there’s cops.  Keaton never saw more cops.  Not looking for him, specifically.  The entire NYPD is not on 24/7 Dortmunder detail, much as it seems that way at times.  But situation after situation emerges in his quest, in which cops emerge from the woodwork, and he has to restrain the innate impulse to run like a rabbit, stay cool, say thank you very much officer, oh yes that’s my lunch, almost forgot it, must be off now.  He has bad luck, then it’s balanced out by good, then back to the bad again. As the gags build, it’s getting hard to know the difference.  Maybe there isn’t any.

Now there were cops all over the place, just as in the recurrent nightmare Dortmunder had had for years, except none of these came floating down from the sky.

Just wait until they get jetpacks.  So after trying two different fences, in two different boroughs, taking breaks along the way to deal with track fires and terrorists, Dortmunder sadly shrugs his already-shrugged shoulders, and heads for Arnie Albright’s place on 86th.  (See, Arnie, I mentioned you in two different sections!  And you thought I didn’t like you.)

This one ends on a bit of a down-note (and not just because Arnie now has this appalling skin disease), but looks like Dortmunder is still (eventually) getting seven grand for a very long day’s work, which is better than I’ve ever done.  Also, a guy tried to scam him with the old “Is this your wallet” routine?  Dortmunder said yes it is, and walked away with it.  God save the conman, when the mark is Dortmunder.  300 bucks, not bad at all, what are you crying about, John?  You chose to live in New York.  For most of us working stiffs here, this qualifies as a good day.

And what follows qualifies as the very last Dortmunder short ever composed, unless there’s a hidden stash somewhere….

Art And Craft: (August 2000, Summer Altice.  I’d snark the name, but thing is, I’m a sucker for long dark hair.  I suppose I could pretend she’s J.C. Taylor….?)

One of Dortmunder’s old prison buddies pops up, and when is this ever not good news?  That’s right.  Three Finger Gillie, so called because of this thing he did with a trio of digits on his right hand, that you probably would not like if he did it to you.  Neither would Dortmunder, so he hears the guy’s proposition out, at a restaurant.

It’s a doozy.  Three Fingers is a professional artist now.  Learned how to paint in the pen.  Seems to me he’s not the first or last felon to get into the art biz that way.  Hmm, let’s glance at the vital statistics:

Among the nymphs and ferns of Portobello, Three Finger Gillie looked like the creature that gives fairy tales their tension.  A burly man with thick black hair that curled low on his forehead and lapped over his ears and collar, he also featured a single, wide block of black eyebrow like a weight holding his eyes down.  hese eyes were pale blue and squinty and not warm, and they peered suspiciously out from both sides of a bumpy nose shaped like a baseball left in the rain.  The mouth, what there was of it, was thin and straight and without color.

I knew this reminded me of someone.  Not that he’s the inspiration for Three Fingers, unless Westlake had a crystal ball, which I’ve long suspected.  He was an artist too.  Well, so was Albert Nussbaum, after a fashion.  Different stories end differently.

Three Fingers is good with the brushwork, and he likes the art game, wants to stay in it (the old reference to how criminals and artists share the same personality profile).  But he also wants to make a nice living at it, which means good isn’t good enough.  You gotta have a gimmick, like the song lyric says.  His selling point is that he’s a former felon.  That got him in the door, provided useful publicity, and now he’s got a show downtown.  But not enough people are showing at the show, or (more important) buying his stuff.

The problem is that the postmodern art-buying public wants irony with their art.  Okay, fine, there’s some irony in a criminal becoming an artist.  But so old-hat.  Irony deficient.  Now what if other criminals were to break into the gallery and steal his paintings?  Irony within irony!  You see what he’s getting at, Dortmunder?

Dortmunder does, and the offer is generous.  The gallery is insured.  He can make a deal with the insurance company, and keep it all for himself.  Three Fingers just wants the publicity.  Three Fingers is not known for his generosity.  Something smells bad.  Well, he’ll check it out. Westlake lived long enough to see the beginnings of what is now the world’s most insanely crowded and overpriced outdoor mall.  Complete with pop-up stores, and a storied history.  Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.

The neighborhood had been full of lofts and warehouses and light manufacturing.  Then commerce left, went over to New Jersey or out to the Island, and the artists moved in, for the large spaces at low rents.  But the artists made it trendy, so the real estate people moved in, changed the name to Soho, which in London does not mean South of Houston Street, and the rents went through the roof.  The artists had to move out, but they left their paintings behind, in the new galleries.  Parts of Soho look pretty much like before, but some of it has been touristed up so much it doesn’t look like New York City at all.  It looks like Charlotte Amalie, on a dimmer.

(It should be mentioned, the starving artists who bought those lofts, and the buildings that came with them, can now afford to paint or sculpt on their own private tropical islands, if they so desire.)

So is there a catch?  Is this a Dortmunder yarn?  A damn good one, and I’ll leave the rest for you to savor.  Just one more in this Thieves’ Dozen, of eleven stories, and never does Westlake explain the joke in the title, though he does say he included this last one to justify it.

Fugue For Felons:   The Dortmunder who never was.  And who never was Dortmunder, but he might well have ended up replacing him on the roster, if certain persons in Hollywood had their way.  Westlake doesn’t provide names or dates, but seems that some suits involved in making one or several Dortmunder films decided they now owned the name Dortmunder. (You know, it’s a mystery why people so good at taking stuff are so bad at making movies about people who take stuff.)

Before the matter was finally cleared up, Westlake was seriously worried he would not be able to write any  more stories about Dortmunder, or the established characters pertaining to that franchise.  I’m going to guess that this was the production team behind The Hot Rock and Bank Shot–remember how the Dortmunder in the latter film, played by George C. Scott, was named Walter Upjohn Ballantine?  Hopefully not, since that film is terrible.  Westlake happened to reference it, and not fondly, in the Dortmunder novel he wrote around the same time he was assembling this anthology.  Perhaps not a coincidence.

(Perhaps also not a coincidence that it was around this time Westlake started saying he wouldn’t let anyone who adapted a Parker novel for the movies name the protagonist Parker, unless they bought the rights to all those novels.  Once bitten….)

My guess about who tried to heist Dortmunder from his creator could be wrong, and I say that because there’s a character who is clearly the alternate universe Tiny Bulcher in this story, by the name of Big Hooper.  Tiny didn’t make his debut until 1977.  Years after The Hot Rock came out, in 1972.  Bank Shot was ’74.  But then again, maybe Big Hooper is the prototype for Tiny–a rough preliminary sketch for the much more interesting man monster we came to know. Rough in more ways than one, and that goes for the rest of this gang of second stringers.  And yet, Westlake has more enthusiasm for Big Hooper than for all the rest combined–why?  Maybe because he’s not a retread, but an original in the making.

Dortmunder in this universe is short, and named John Rumsey, after an exit sign on the Sawmill Parkway.  Kelp looks about the same, and is named Algy (oh very good, Mr. Westlake, keeping the aquatic plant life theme alive).  Stan Murch is Stan Little.  No mention of his mom.  (Little’s Old Lady?  Stan’s Ma’am?  Doesn’t work.)

It’s about the new gang, acting as a bunch of single-o’s, trying to rob a bank somebody else just tried to rob.  Things go wrong.  I suppose that could have been a starting point for Too Many Crooks.  There’s a mean dog in it. And not a single laugh.

This story is by far the weakest thing in this collection.  Entertaining at points, sure.  If you or I had written it, we’d be fairly proud.  I also guess we’d get a lot of rejection notices when it made the rounds.  It’s interesting mainly for what it tells us–which is what I told you at the start of this review.

See, Westlake doesn’t know these people.  He can’t make them too much like the old gang, yet he needs them to be able to replace the old gang in future ventures in the same vein as the Dortmunder novels–which has a certain hobbling effect.

Maybe a truly great writer, like I dunno, E.L. James, can take some characters he or she really likes but doesn’t own the rights to, give them different names, make them not vampires or werewolves (you can’t copyright insipid ingenues on the make, nor would you want to), and a lot of people will read that.  For some reason.  Westlake didn’t bend that way.  Having created Dortmunder & Co. once, he could never do it again.  They are, as the French say, sui generis.

But the bigger problem, the problem he always had with the short form, is that these characters are strangers to him.  Without that deep familiarity to build upon, he’s got to spend too much time filling out these profiles in pillage.  He’s trying to make us believe in them, when he doesn’t believe in them himself.  There isn’t a real story here.  Just a collection of loosely linked incidents, aspiring to storyhood.

I could go over some of the ways in which this felonious fugue works, and the many others in which it does not, but I’m now over 8,000 words.  There’s another Dortmunder looming on the horizon.  Again with the Arnie Albright.  Maybe none of your fellow felons love you, Arnie, but your creator sure does.  You bring J.C. back with you, so I won’t complain.  Too much.

What?  No Playboy centerfold for this one?  Well, it was never published anywhere but here, but I think I can oblige, all the same.  Towards the end of his introduction, Westlake mentions that he worked with Alice K. Turner, Playboy‘s longtime fiction editor, on all seven of the Dortmunder shorts that debuted there.  He says something about how she looked upon both him and Dortmunder “with bemused disbelief followed by stoical acceptance,” but I bet he got that a lot.  He says he also got a lot good input from her, something he always valued in an editor.

Images of her are rare online, but here’s one probably taken around the time she worked with Westlake.

Alice-K-Turner

Not bad.  Not bad at all.  She passed away not long ago, at 75–got a big Times obit.  Let me just read through that–oh WOW!!!!  Look at that résumé!  Hubba Hubba!  Twenty-three skiddoo!  I love my wife, but oh you kid!

(And that, dear readers, is how you finish out a motif.)

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, John Dortmunder

Review: The Road To Ruin, Part 2

“The question is,” Lieutenant Orville said, “is the butler in on it?”

Lieutenant Wooster cocked his head, like a very bright spaniel.  “You think the butler did it?”

“It’s been known to happen.”  Liking the phrase, Lieutenant Orville said it again: “Known to happen.”

“When are people going to get over it?”

“People don’t get over it when you’re a pariah, Monroe.”

“Why do people keep using that word?”

“Well, Monroe, think about it.”

“I don’t want to.”

“–Another three conspirators are thought to have been  involved, but little is known of them except that they are alleged to have belonged to the same labor union.”

“There you go,” Dortmunder said.  “Now the kidnappers got a union.”

Because I keep doing these multi-part reviews, and would like my readers to have something other than great tedious blocks of text to scan, I have found it necessary to scour the web for exotic cover art, traveling far afield of our author’s native land, and too often finding to my chagrin that the golderned foreigners did a better job illustrating him than us Yanks did.  Westlake had avid readers across the globe, and I could spend the rest of my life tracking down foreign editions (so rarely utilizing the original title, because why would they?), and never scratch the surface.

By far the two best covers I found for this book are the two you see up top.  The domestic ebook beneath looks like a manual on road safety the Murches would be forced to study for some court-ordered traffic school course. This is, wouldn’t you know it, the only edition of this book I possess.

French publisher Rivages (which must have the widest selection of Westlake, Coe, and Stark of any extant publishing firm, if extant publishers there be) simply looked for a pre-existing bit of art they could get for cheap, and this time they happened to hit on something that works beautifully (it would work just as well for a Jeeves novel, which is kind of the point here).

But feast your dumbfounded eyes, won’t you, on the nifty purpose-built artwork for the Finnish edition. Yes, Finnish.  According to Google, the title (so much smaller than the author’s name, indicating said author’s name alone sells books there) more precisely translates as The Road to Corruption, and I’m not sure that isn’t an improvement on the original.  Nothing could ever improve on that cover, though. Enough prologue; back to the synopsis or we’ll never be Finnish.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and it’s a challenge to explain what some of them are doing here. My inclination is to skip over these as quickly as possible, and concentrate on the storylines that matter.

For example, there’s an entire subplot involving Chester Fallon, the former stunt/getaway driver (whose incipient professional rivalry with Stan Murch doesn’t get nearly enough play here).  His wife is bugging him to get out of the house and do something useful, so even though he’s in the middle of planning a heist, he takes a job driving an office supply salesman whose license was taken away because he’s always drunk.  He’s always drunk because there’s no other way he can stand all the schmoozing and gladhanding that goes with his job.  Trouble is, he can’t turn the snappy patter and bad jokes off when he’s in the car with Chester.

This subplot does lead to Chester finding an abandoned store at a failing strip mall, that can be used to store the vintage cars they mean to steal.  Plus it gives him a fallback position if the heist doesn’t work out.  It’s not a bad story in itself.  It could have been a good short story–or a subplot in another novel, which it very well might have been originally intended as–a novel in which Chester would have played the Dortmunder role in a topical satire; another take on Put A Lid On It.  But since Dortmunder is here, Chester is little more than the finger on a job that doesn’t pan out, and the bit with the salesman seems pointless, if amusing.  So let’s skip it.

There’s a subplot involving a short heavily muscled fitness instructor named Flip Morriscone, who is acting as Monroe Hall’s personal trainer, even though he can’t stand the guy.  This gives him and his Subaru access to the estate.  Hall has a creepy mancrush on him, but still takes perverse pleasure in ratting him out to the IRS for not reporting the cash Hall hands him for their sessions together.

This gives Flip a motive for revenge, which is instrumental to the B plot, involving the alliance of three disgruntled union guys and two equally disgruntled small time venture capitalists, who are also toting large grudges against Mr. Hall.  But again, it kind of clogs the story up a bit–Westlake needed to be at absolutely top form to write a novel with this many moving parts and have it come out as a well-balanced unitary offering–this one is more of a jumble sale.  Well, those have their own pleasures to offer, right?  I’ve never gotten anywhere near Mr. Westlake’s top form, so I think that’s all we need to hear about Flip Morriscone, even though the chapters dealing with him and his passionate love affair with his buff image in the mirror are pretty funny.

There’s also a subplot about Arnie Albright, the world’s most unlovable fence of stolen goods (there’s actually a fence in Smoke who makes Arnie look like Albert Schweitzer, but never mind that now), involving his family doing an intervention and sending him to a Club Med so that he can learn to be less obnoxious, and you know what?  That’s a much more important plot point in the next Dortmunder, so I don’t need to talk about that here.

And there are many other subplots, for characters we normally don’t hear much about, so surely there must be a subplot for the delectably devious Josephine Carol Taylor?  In fact, she isn’t even mentioned in the book, though her behemoth boyfriend sure is.  Not enough eyerolls in the world, Mr. Westlake……

So with all that out of the way, what’s left?  Dortmunder & Co. hiring on as domestics at the understaffed Hall Estate–understaffed because he is now so universally despised, nobody will work for him (they have an excellent personal chef, but she came with Alicia, Monroe’s wife, and never liked Monroe to begin with).

That’s the main gag of the book, and it’s a good one.  Is it a plausible one?  I have my quibbles.  Good help is always hard to find, but so is a good-paying job, and it’s a bit hard to swallow that Hall can’t find any takers (to be sure, he’s under too much scrutiny by the law to hire illegal immigrants like a normal rich conservative).

The Enron guys were widely hated and reviled after their downfall, without question.  Money is still money.  Kenneth Lay (‘Kenny Boy’ to the more recent President Bush) presumably had all the servants he needed, right up to when he cheated the system one last time by dropping dead at a luxury ski chalet before his sentencing (and so hated was he that people were demanding to know why the chalet’s management allowed him to die there, instead of some convenient ditch).  Some of those servants probably lied to their neighbors about where they worked, but they took the money.  Contrivance is an integral part of comedy, so this is not such a huge problem.

Hall’s self-image relies upon having underlings around, so he can be condescending, irritatingly over-familiar, do the odd bit of bullying, all in order to make himself feel like the big wheel he wants everyone to see him as.  He’s basically an overgrown child with a superiority/inferiority complex that requires the constant presence of social inferiors, even while he’s painfully aware that most people on his economic level regard him as an inferior.  (Yes, I’m seeing the parallels, you can hardly miss them, but this book was inspired by different models, and let’s not kid ourselves that there’s ever just one rich prick with these types of issues at any given time.   Their name is Legion.  Or should I say, Lesion?)

After alternately pleading with, hectoring, berating, and outright threatening the increasingly disgusted head of the employment agency that’s been trying in vain to fill all his vacancies, Monroe Hall is overjoyed to learn that all of a sudden there are four new applicants!  One an intimidating mass of muscle to man his gates, frighten away any potential ill-wishers.  Another a carrot-haired chauffeur who seems to know everything there is to know about cars and potential routes for them to take.  And best of all, a personal secretary (the male kind) with a narrow nose and a congenial bustling air about him, a real take-charge kind of guy who attacks his newfound duties with unparalleled enthusiasm.

And there’s the new butler.  Well, he’s going to be a work in progress.

And how did this come to pass?  As we covered in Part 1, Dortmunder figured the only way for them to get onto the Hall property in order to steal Hall’s property was to pose as the hired help.  But all new servants will be subject to intimidatingly strict security checks.  Your average jury rigged fake ID’s are not going to cut it here.  In this new digital era Dortmunder & Co. have been forced to live in, how can the motley likes of them ever hope to fool the system?  And here’s where I switch over to those titled subheadings I so often resort to in my reviews of these books.  Not always when the book as a whole underwhelms me, while certain components within it enchant me, but……

In Memory Yet Green:

It is none other than Kelp’s charming lady friend, Anne Marie Karpinow, who, noticing her beau’s atypically downcast air, and learning the reasons for it, tells him he should have confided in her from the start.  She’s got a guy.  Well, she knows a guy.  Her father, you will recall, was a U.S. Senator.  It was through daddy that she became friendly with Jim Green, who is a ‘substitute identity specialist.’  In other words, somebody who creates the kind of fake ID that holds up to anything.  Even his own name is fake–he picked it because it’s forgettable.

He’s not with the government anymore–freelancing now, selling his services to various people who have to become somebody new or else go shopping for cemetery plots.  He’s prohibitively expensive, but she’s got an in.  The friendship came with certain benefits.  He always liked her.  Used to dandle her on his knee.  “When you were a little girl” Andy suggests.  “Oh, seventeen, eighteen” she responds offhandedly.

So there’s a chapter showing us the Verdi of Verisimilitude (damn, that would have been a good subheading), at work with some eastern bloc outcast, and we learn something about how you create new identities in the digital world, and we also learn that Mr. Westlake was actively updating his own tradecraft in this area–because he needs to believe there will always be a way for someone to disappear, if he or she really wants to.  And in fact, there is an escape hatch concealed in the prison cell of meta data.

Every day, the web of information grows thicker, more convoluted.  When so much is known, what can still be secret?  But the very complexity of the knowledge stream at times betrays it.  Here and there, in the interstices of the vast web of details covering the globe, there are glitches, hiccups, anomalies, crossed wires.  Jim Green could find those like a hunting dog after a downed quail.  He could find them and store the knowledge of them for later use.

Then the phone rings, and of course he remembers Anne Marie and he’d be delighted to come see her (no mention is made of knee-dandling, though it is surely in his mind).  He meets Kelp, Dortmunder, and the rest, and finds the experience most revelatory.  On the whole, he’s favorably impressed with Kelp.  He’s pleased to learn that the former Mrs. Karpinow, who he once knew (biblically, perhaps?) as Anne Marie Hurst, isn’t dating and/or marrying jerks like her father anymore, it being a nigh-universal guy-thing that if we can’t have some girl we fancy, we at least don’t want to see her with someone makes us sick to our stomachs, and it’s uncanny how they unerringly home in on some emetic in pants, ain’t it?    As Andy puts it, she’s changed her M.O.  (Or has she?)

Cherished memories of perfectly innocent knee-dandling aside, Jim doesn’t work for free, and they can’t afford the elite services he provides, even if he was willing to delay payment until after the job was done. Seeing the crestfallen look in Anne Marie’s lovely eyes, Jim amends his statement this much–there are certain of his former clients who have either died or gone back to their original identities.  Their manufactured identities are still out there in cyberspace.

With a bit of jiggering, he can re-engineer them for John, Andy, Stan, and Tiny.  And that somewhat attenuated level of professional service he won’t charge for.  (Or you could say Anne Marie made payment in advance.  Perhaps that knee-dandling sometimes verged on lap-dancing.  Still perfectly innocent, as long as nobody got pregnant.)

One negligible caveat–Jim cautions them it is barely possible that either the original owner of one of these identities or whatever unpleasant persons he was trying to evade, will come knocking should any of them learn that name is back in circulation.  But since the gang is only going to be using their borrowed bonafides for maybe two or three weeks, tops, it’s not very likely this will transpire.  (And of course it does transpire, but that’s yet another subplot I feel this review can do without).

Having gathered the necessary data from the four felons to meld into the new identities, Jim is pleased as punch with the way his clients react to their new aliases (complete with passports that would calm the most querulous of TSA screeners).  Like kids unwrapping their Christmas presents by the tree.

Anne Marie tries to turn the unwrapping into the kind of midwestern society shindig she’s used to from her days as a politician’s daughter, and is a bit deflated to learn her hostess skills are not needed (Jim tells her if she ever needs to disappear, he’ll give her the deluxe package, no charge, but she’s not that deflated).

Dortmunder is now John Howard Rumsey (the last name borrowed from Dortmunder’s alternate universe double, we’ll get to him shortly).  Murch is Warren Peter Gillette.  Tiny is Judson Otto Swope (he likes that name, for which Jim should be grateful).

Kelp is Fredric Eustace Blanchard, and being a Westlake character, he will shorten that to Fred.  Which brings us to–(with profuse apologies to Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow)–

Thief vs. Secretary:

All four of the guys interview first at the employment agency (which gets its own subplot, there’s a positive superabundance of them), and the way they’ve worked out their cover stories is they’ve all been distracted by other matters, and simply don’t know how universally loathed Monroe Hall is now. Or in Tiny’s case, simply don’t care, because all his character wants to do is bust heads for a living, which isn’t really all that different from what he actually does for a living.  Typecasting can work.  The minute Monroe sees him, all he can think is “I want him on my side!” (And the moral is, even very rich people don’t always get what they want.)

Kelp and Dortmunder are supposed to have worked at the same foreign embassy in DC–the embassy for none other than Votskojek (grrrrr!), a fictional Westlake nation in Central Europe, last seen in Don’t Ask.  What makes this cover story useful is that the guy they supposedly worked for there, Ambassador Chk, was assassinated, and therefore is not currently available to provide references.  Oh those Votskojekians and their periodic purges.  So quaint and Ruritanian.

When Monroe gets to interview the four of them, he’s mainly quite pleased, except he’s not so sure Dortmunder looks like a proper butler, which he doesn’t (he watched a lot of old movies with butlers in them, but simply is not to the manor born).  But then again, who’s coming to the house to see how he looks?  Nobody.

Anyway, Hall is fine with all of them, disgraced billionaire beggars can’t be disgraced billionaire choosers.  Except, as he tells this eager and attentive young fellow Blanchard, he doesn’t really need a personal secretary anymore.  He used to have two of them, and play them off against each other for laughs (I know, I know, maybe Westlake was falling back on some of the research he did on Trump, it’s possible), but now that he’s persona non grata to the world at large, what’s the point in employing even one?

This is an unexpected wrinkle in the plan, which calls for improvisation on Kelp’s part, and as ever, he rises to the task.  Well, he’s up to the task, put it that way.  He tells an astounded Monroe that he must not give in to those nattering nabobs of negativity.   Words to that effect.

“Rehabilitation!” Blanchard cried, and pointed a stern finger at the ceiling.  “It’s time,” he declared in ringing tones, “to get your story out there!”

“My story is out there,” Hall said, “that’s the problem.”

“Your old story is out there,” Blanchard insisted.  “It’s time for a new story, and that’s why you need me.  A personal.  Private.  Secretary.”

After a brief homage to Prof. Harold Hill, Kelp cuts to the heart of the matter.  Okay, so Monroe bankrupted millions, destroyed lives, simply in order to enrich himself when he was already rich.  Who hasn’t done that?  It’s time everybody just got over it!   He’s only human!  Aren’t we all sinners?  Hall has one timid little query–

“Would I have to give back the money?”

“Never!” Blanchard’s eyes flashed.  “You’re explaining your common humanity, you’re not feeding the multitudes!”

“No, no, I see.”

“We’ll start small,” Blanchard said.  Somehow, he was halfway across Hall’s desk, staring into his eyes.  “Church social egg rolls on the lawn.  Boy Scout groups meeting here.  Have your photo taken at the wheel of one of your famous cars.”

“Not driving it!”

Sitting in it.”  Blanchard beamed, his arms spread wide.  “The squire of Pennsylvania,” he announced.  “How bad a fella could he be?”

“You’re hired!” Hall cried.

Now of course this is Andy adroitly feeding into the mark’s narcissism and utter lack of conscience, but how much of a conscience does Andy himself have?  How much of a core?  The reason, I think, he’s clung to Dortmunder like a barnacle to a hull for so long is that his own identity is far more pliable and adaptive than Dortmunder’s, and he needs some kind of fixed navigational point to keep from going adrift.  But now he’s hitched his wagon to a very different star.

He’s got to believe in the role to perform it properly, like any good flim-flammer, something he’s always been better at than Dortmunder (who has a hard time being anybody but himself).  And there’s nothing else for him to do, really, until it’s time to jack the cars.  So he commits totally to the role of loyal lackey to a maligned mogul, and for a while he really is Fred Blanchard–and this means being a shameless toady.  Something he’s never been before.  (He was shameless, but on his own time.)

To be sure, he’s spent years steadfastly plugging Dortmunder as a criminal genius, but Dortmunder really is a criminal genius, hard as that may be to fathom when looking at him.  Plugging Monroe Freaking Hall as a misunderstood victim of circumstance is rather more of a challenge, even for Mr. Kelp’s considerable talents at dissimulation.

And he reaches the point where he’s so engrossed in this project that he starts wishing they could put off the heist for a little while, just so he can make some progress–he sincerely wants to get Hall accepted by society once more.  At no point does Andy ever stop in the midst of his nigh-Kushnerian  labors (I’m going to catch hell for that in the comments section, but he’s too slick and self-effacing for Spicer, nor is he blonde enough for Conway, or deranged enough for Bannon) and think “What the fuck is wrong with me?”

And of course his new employer is grateful to him for his devotion.  To the extent that he is capable of such an emotion, which isn’t much.  After a very short while, Monroe just accepts it as his due, as he accepts all things to be his due. At one point, Andy, with his usual curiosity about how gadgets work, pops a quarter into one of Monroe’s collectible antique toy banks.  Once his coin predictably disappears into the gizmo’s inner recesses, he asks how he can get it back.  He can’t ever get it back.  It’s Monroe’s quarter now.  He is smirking at his underling’s credulity.

Andy blinks, and the most delicious identity crisis of the entire book presents itself.  The unctuous Heep he’s pretending to be and has to some extent become should just write the quarter off as a loss.  The thief in him needs desperately to steal that errant two bits back.  In the end, the thief wins, of course (though the quarter is still history).

But you’re made painfully aware of the fact that to a very great extent we are our jobs, and that Andy is the free-wheeling independent we love precisely because he never previously had the motive, means, or opportunity to be anything else.  In a different life, he very well could have become some smug sycophant like Anne Marie’s former hubby.  There but for the grace of God (whose name is Westlake) goes he.  There’s an ass kisser lurking inside the best of us, waiting to get out.  And much as I admire Mr. Kelp, he ain’t the best of us.

But he’s still one of the best liars around (he can even lie with the truth, as we saw in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?), and here’s the kicker–by the end of his tenure there, he’s actually starting to make progress.  He figures out he just has to spread some of Monroe’s ample excess funds around in the right places–cash strapped charities, say–and he starts seeing results.  His crowning ambition is to create a golf tourney going by the majestic moniker of the Monroe Hall Cup.  You have to admit, there’s kind of a ring to it.

Given a bit more time, Mr. Blanchard might well have succeeded in at least partly rehabilitating the most loathed robber baron  in America, re-imagining him as a penitent philanthropist who has suffered, without expending more than a small fraction of the boss’ ill-gotten gains.  The secretary might have eaten the thief.  The phrase “Money talks and bullshit walks” takes on a whole new meaning here.  There’s no end of suckers out there who want to believe in Daddy Warbucks.  That’s not Little Orphan Andy’s fault, folks.  That’s on us.

But dinner’s on Tiny, as we learn in–

The Iron Chef:

The guys end up bunking together in a little green house on the estate, where Chester and his missus once dwelt in happier times, and there’s quite a nice kitchen there.  Much to everyone’s confusion, mingled with apprehension, Tiny insists on cooking.  You want to tell him he can’t?  Maybe read this first.

They all trooped in, to view the unprecedented sight of Tiny in two aprons, overlapping, with a meat cleaver in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other, with a lot of big pots and pans hissing and snarling on the stove.  What he looked mostly like was some darker version of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen.  “Soup’s on at six,” he told them.

Not literally soup, he explains, just an expression.  Dortmunder takes some Pepto-Bismol to prepare, but in fact the food is delicious, and wholesome, and quite different from anything any of them have had before, except Tiny.  Like mother used to make, if your mother came from a fictitious country somewhere in the Carpathians.

And then it was good.  It wasn’t your ordinary stuff, but it was good.  Real tastes, but not too sweet, not too sour.  There was lamb, in chunks; there was bacon, not too crisp; there were home-fried potatoes, with some kind of tasty oil on them; there was swiss chard, boiled up and spread with some kind of sauce that tasted sort of like chutney; there were biscuits, so light and fluffy you had to put butter on them to keep them from floating away.  And there was not just beer, but stout, to tie it all together.

There was no talk at the table for quite some time.  It was Kelp who first came up for air, saying “Tiny this is great.  What is this?  This is great.”

“It’s Tsergovian,” Tiny told him.  “It’s from the old country.  It’s how my people used to eat in the old days, when they had food.”

John said, through a full mouth, “Then I’m surprised they ever left.”

“Well, there were a lotta days,” Tiny said, “when they didn’t have food.  So that’s why they come here, before my time.  The food wasn’t as good over here, but it was around every day.”

And there’s pumpkin pecan pie for dessert, which I don’t associate with the Carpathians, but I could be wrong.  They end up eating it for breakfast, because nobody has room for another mouthful.   And this review has no more room to explain something the pleasures of which are self-explanatory.  As I said in my review of Bad News, the late Dortmunders are about lagniappe.  This is a fine example of that.  Tiny, we hardly knew ye.

Something else you’d hardly know about, going by this review, is what’s going on elsewhere, as the gang gears up for the heist.  Namely–

The B Plot:

Plot as in scheme, naturally.  The very inorganic teaming of Mark and Os, the venture capitalists without capital (thanks to Monroe Hall), and Buddy, Mac, & Ace, the union guys without jobs or pension plans (ditto).   Having agreed that they must find a way into the estate, grab Hall, and force him to cough up large quantities of offshore cash by way of electronic transfers, they are, all through the book, figuring out how to go about doing this.  Then figuring out they shouldn’t have done it at all.

The scheme they eventually hit upon involves Flip Morriscone (I knew I’d have to type that name again), just as enraged by Monroe’s perfidy as they, because Monroe (who actually likes Flip) went and reported his off-the-books cash payments to Flip to the IRS, leading to substantial tax penalties for the latter (Monroe finds this very funny, tells a mildly reproving Alicia that it’s good for the lower orders to make up the revenue shortfall stemming from people like him, who know how to avoid taxation).  So Flip is amenable to participating indirectly in their venture.

Monroe has mentioned to Flip that he wants to learn how to ride a horse, since he owns a bunch of them. It seems like a thing to do.  Flip tells Monroe he knows an instructor, but the guy has to bring his own horse, specially trained as a practice mount.  Mark and Os don’t have any money (Mark is actually sleeping in his mother and stepfather’s basement, all too aware of what a cliché that is), but they have credit, so they can rent all kinds of things, including a horse trailer.  A Trojan horse trailer, if you will. (Mr. Westlake did so enjoy his implicit puns.)

The plan goes swimmingly, until they actually get through the gates, and Hall comes prancing out to greet them–with his butler in tow.  Uh-oh.  Dortmunder tries to explain he’s on their side–well, he’s not on Hall’s side, at least–but they can’t stop to listen, or leave any witnesses, so he gets scooped up and carted away in the Trojan horse trailer, fuming impotently at the ruination of his perfect plan by some unforeseen event, like that’s never happened before

So this is all perfectly sound comic capering, with a class-based satiric bite to it,  and what’s the problem?  The problem is that everybody likes Dortmunder & Co. better, including Westlake, who is giving them all the best material, see above.

There’s lots of good story material in the B Plot too; it’s just not quite as good.  The voices of these one-shot characters are less well-defined, and with Westlake’s attentions divided about equally between the A and B Plots, not to mention the endless subplots, there isn’t enough space to refine them.  Devout Dortmunderians understandably feel they are being deprived of more quality time with their beloved rogues, and their resentment predictably if unfairly falls upon the B Plotters.

But I think some of the more interesting moments in the book do, in fact, involve these auxiliary protagonists.  Which I’ll get to in due course, but before I do–why on earth would Monroe drag poor old Rumsey out with him to greet some silly-ass riding instructor?  What’s been going on between the Squire of Pennsylvania and his gentleman’s gentleman?  A tale I shall plagiarously entitle–

‘Jeeves’ and the Lie That Binds:

Kelp loves being the personal secretary.  Dortmunder hates being the butler.  Hates.  There could not, in all the world, be a job he is less well-suited for, all the more since it requires him to wear a suit.  He goes through the motions as best he can, trying not to stick out too much, which only makes him stick out more.  He opens endless doors for the master and mistress of the house, as he saw the movie butlers do; he says “Sur!” at every opportunity, and honestly, shouldn’t this Hall fella just be grateful anyone even wants to be his butler?  I think we’ve already discussed Mr. Hall’s limited grasp of gratitude.  All he’s mastered thus far is the ‘tude part.

In P.G. Wodehouse stories, ineffectual rich men are slaves to their unflappable butlers and their anal dress codes (Yes, Jeeves is a valet, I know, and so did Westlake, but to the world at large he’s a butler).  Even if that was universally true for silly-ass English gentlemen with inherited incomes in the 1920’s (and I greatly misdoubt it), it’s not at all true of someone like Monroe Hall.  To him, the whole point of having a gentleman’s gentleman is that he doesn’t have to behave like a gentleman himself, the moment even the least little thing is out of place.  There’s a reason the wealthy here so often have to outsource this type of job to people they can have deported if need be.   (Though be warned–that’s changing.)

(I should perhaps mention, my maternal grandfather, formerly of the county Limerick, was ‘in service’ for a time–chauffeur, mechanic, and general handyman to Ethel Barrymore.  Yes, that one.  Actors, even famous ones, are perhaps a tad less class conscious than your average rich person, less inclined to stand on ceremony, and I never heard any horror stories about his tenure there–I never heard any stories at all from him about that time in his life, since all we ever did together was dig potatoes in his garden–he was the first of my grandparents to pass, and I wasn’t yet old enough to be curious about who he’d been before he was grandpa. All I knew was my mom couldn’t stop crying for a while after he died.

He didn’t stay with the Barrymores all that long–married my grandma and got his own gas station in New York, during the Depression.  The additives in the gas ultimately caused him to die a painful death by cancer, though at a fairly advanced age.  And if he’d known that would happen, you think he’d have opted to remain in service?  I’m sure he touched his cap with the best of them.  A step up from tugging your forelock to a landlord back in Ireland.  It’s a long hard climb.  Don’t look down.)

For some reason, none of the films he’d studied explained to Dortmunder that one of a butler’s jobs is to polish the master’s shoes down in the pantry.  Which is probably more of a valet’s job, or maybe a footman’s?  (What is a footman, anyway?  I know they started out as dogs, or lizards, or something, but that’s all I can remember from the Disney films.  I’ll look it up later, maybe add a footnote.)

Monroe, formerly surrounded by underlings, has nobody to boss around now but the butler.  So when he sees his unshined shoes gathering dust in the hallway, where he left them, he gets to enjoy the most important perk of being a rich bastard.  Not having to pretend not to be a rich bastard.

Hall won’t even tell Dortmunder what he did wrong.  He’s told to go and ask Alicia.  Who is normally a pleasant enough person, but this Lord and Lady of the Manor thing can be contagious, and she’s almost as snippy.  She explains to him that Monroe wants his shoes polished, how could a professional butler not know this to be one of his duties?  Dortmunder makes up a story about how at the embassy there was a military orderly in charge of that kind of thing.  (No one even suggests that Monroe might want to shine his own fucking shoes, or that it doesn’t matter if they’re shined or not, since he never leaves the grounds, or has any guests.)

In the event, he only had to go back twice to buff the shoes some more, even though he could see his reflection in them the first time he’d whacked them around.  But three trips was all it took.  While Kelp sat smug and amused in his office, Hall gave each shoe a long and critical once-over, and at last grudgingly said, “I suppose they’ll do.  And do you know what to do with them next, Rumsey?

“Put em outside your door, sur.  Where I got um.”

“Very good,” Hall told him.  “We may make a third-rate butler of you yet.”

“Thank you, sur.”

It’s right after this that he tells Dortmunder to be so good as to come get him when the riding instructor arrives, and Dortmunder fondly imagines him riding head-first into a very thick heavy tree branch.

And you know, that wish does come true, after a fashion.  Dortmunder is bad luck for rich bastards.  God bless him.  If the gap between the very wealthy and everybody else continues to grow (as it is doing in China, of all places, where butlering to newly minted millionaires is a vocation on the rise now), God bless us everyone.  The Jeeves stories make for delightful fiction, precisely because they are a comic reversal of the normal order of things in a class-based society.  The Lie that Binds is much closer to the mark, I think.

And speaking of getting closer to the Mark (God save him)–

If Only There Were Territories:

I have this sneaking feeling that, in the book this might have been if it hadn’t turned out to be a Dortmunder, Mark would have been co-protagonist with Mac–each serves as the POV character for his respective side.  Each makes a claim on our sympathies, which is not to say those claims are equally valid.

Mark isn’t a real tycoon yet, just an aspiring one, though he already thinks of himself as a Master of the Universe, albeit one who moved back in with his mom and step-dad for lack of funds.  He and Os (the more severe and formidable of the two, whose inner depths, if any, are never plumbed) basically looked around for investment opportunities, and sometimes they scored, and sometimes they didn’t.  It wasn’t until they invested all they had in Somnitech that they found out what it means to lose everything.  But they still had themselves.  And their vendetta against the much richer man who conned them.

He’s not a bad guy, and he’s not a good guy.  He’s just a guy on the make–a sort of Nephew figure, as is Mac.  Each man is much more frightened by what he’s doing than he’s willing to admit .  Mark’s goals are totally self-interested, Mac’s entirely altruistic.  But in both cases, they can only get what they want via Monroe Hall.  So they keep shoving that very justified fear back down into their guts, where it proceeds to ruin their digestion.

So now they have him.  The wellspring of all their ills.  Locked up in a remote hunting lodge, where they believe they can frighten him into coughing up the necessary funds.  But you know that line from Prizzi’s Honor?  About how Sicilian mobsters would rather eat their children than part with money, fond as they are of their children?  All very rich people are Sicilian mobsters at heart.  And Monroe recognized Mark’s voice, in spite of the silly Halloween mask Mark was wearing.  He figures he just has to wait them out.  Or escape.

Both Mark and Monroe, I’d say, are grown-up and corrupted versions of the title character from Jimmy the Kid.  Resourceful, determined, deplorably admirable in their single-minded absorption in getting what they want.  Mark was the main planner of the abduction,  and Monroe uses a metal rod borrowed from the toilet in his room to break through the boarded up window of his makeshift cell, and scarper.  But now that he has escaped, Mark and Mac both have to face up to the fact that they committed felony kidnapping.

Mark is particularly frightened, since it was his voice Monroe half-remembered, and will attach a name to eventually.  Even before they find Monroe’s room empty, he’s remembering that line from Huckleberry Finn, Huck thinking about how he’s going to light out for the territories.

Isn’t that, after all, what it really means to be an American?  All of the current resistance to a national identification card (and many years ago, for the same reason, to the Social Security number), all of the alarm about the threats to “privacy,” are based on the simple American conviction, from the very beginning of the immigrant experience, that it was the ultimate right of every American, if circumstances happened to call for such drastic measures, to turn himself into somebody new.  The classless society was the ideal partly because, in a classless society, all identity is flexible.  Mark, in  his sleepless hours of not so much battling funk as welcoming funk aboard, had used every shred of schooling he could dredge out of memory to convince himself that at this point of crisis in his life, it would be not only acceptable, it would not be only guilt-free, but it would be damn near his patriotic duty, to run away and become somebody else.

But he tells himself it’s impossible–in this new modern age, there are no Territories to light out for anymore.  Then Monroe disappears, the game is up, and he desperately thinks to himself, If only there were Territories! 

Mac and his friends just want to get out of there.  Os, the level-headed pragmatist, heartily agrees with this sentiment.  None of them are really bad people, so they go to let Dortmunder (who they still think is the butler) out.  Only not knowing he’s going to be let out, he hides behind the door and clubs Mark hard in the face.  Later, he comes back to the abandoned lodge to get some food, and figures out how Monroe escaped.  Hmm.  Pretty good.  He should have thought of that.

So in the hospital, his jaw swollen up, speaking with a ridiculous lisp, refusing to listen to his lawyer, and mentally speaking not at his very best, Mark plays what he thinks is the proper card in this game of Prisoner’s Dilemma he’s found himself in–be the first to confess.  Only the detective, named Cohan, who showed up to question him had nothing on him.  Until now.

Yes, they found Monroe Hall, but he seems to have developed permanent amnesia, due to severe head trauma (the price he paid for going out that window).  Without Mark’s helpful confession, they would never have cracked the case.  They’re grateful to him for ratting out Os, but seems like Mr. Faulk cagily planned in advance for such a dread contingency, and is now hiding on some tropic isle, under a new identity he’d worked out in advance.  There really are Territories!

Mac and his buddies?  They just went home.  They thought about Territories and stuff, but here’s the thing–they are who they are.  Just working stiffs, with families and friends, who hang out in each other’s basements, drink beer, sing union songs, and try to think up noble ways to help their fellow man.  They never did it for themselves.  They wouldn’t even ask for help from their union brothers and sisters, for fear of implicating them in the crime.

And thankfully, there’s nothing Mark can tell the law that will link them to the crime.  Os could, but Os is gone, baby, gone.  They failed to win their symbolic victory of a few thousand bucks for each member of the Amalgamated Conglomerated Workers Factory Floor Alliance (at least we finally find out what ACWFFA stands for).  They don’t feel like they won.  But they kinda did, anyway.

It was never their intent to harm Monroe Hall, much as they hated him (nor did they).  It was never their intent to personally profit from his abduction (nor have they).  And he’s still alive, reasonably healthy, back in the care of his loving if increasingly weary wife, who one suspects won’t ever be getting high-handed with the hired help again–and he’s wiped clean as a newborn babe.  Tabula Rasa.  Has no idea who he is, what he’s done, why anybody would dislike him, who the pretty blonde lady fussing over him might be.

Most of his money is gone, because only he knew the codes for the numbered overseas bank accounts–he didn’t even trust Alicia with them.  There is no Monroe Hall anymore.  The estate and all its furnishings is going to be sold off.  And the valuable antique cars Dortmunder & Co. hoped to steal?  Shipped to that museum in Florida Monroe donated them to earlier as a tax dodge.  Gone, baby, gone.

(One is reminded of that scene in Memory, where the amnesiac protagonist goes to a priest for guidance, and instead of getting him to a doctor, the old man starts musing to himself about whether if you can’t remember any sins you committed, are you still guilty of them?  Have you inadvertently entered a state of grace?

This could become a highly relevant theological/philosophical debate in the near future, if a certain President whose name I’m weary to my death of typing inherited the Alzheimer’s gene from his equally scurvy dad, and it’s looking quite likely this is the case.  One way or another, he’s getting locked up.  Whether we’ll still have a comfy basement den to go drink beer and sing union songs in after that happens remains an open question.)

I’m over 7000 words.  I could go on like this for another 7000.  There’s a lot in this book to talk about.  So many good gags to mull over, and realize as we do, that there was much more to them than mere drollery.  A fellow of infinite jest, was Mr. Westlake.  But the jokes were never at our expense.  They were for our edification.  They were to try and wake us up.  Not his fault we mainly prefer to go on sawing wood.

So yeah, it’s not a great Dortmunder novel, as such.  Maybe it wasn’t originally going to be a Dortmunder at all.  You can say that it’s too many mismatching (if delightful) bits and pieces, a patchwork quilt of criminal farce and social satire.  I think Westlake himself had the last rueful word on its mixed merits, when he typed the final paragraph.

Yet one more running subplot–when Monroe is abducted, two detectives are assigned to the case.  Lieutenant Orville, and his sidekick, who is named Wooster (but of course he is).  They are not, shall we say, the brightest badges on the force, or at least one hopes not.  Orville, in particular, comes in for more than his share of ribbing from the detective-mocking Westlake–seems he learned most of what he knows about police work from crime fiction–like those 87th Precinct novels (damn, those boys were good, he thinks to himself).   Orville thinks in clichés, because he is one.

But he is not without certain constabulary instincts.  He can sense that this Fred Blanchard fellow, the personal secretary with the guileless air about him, isn’t who he’s pretending to be.  He thinks the kidnapping is an inside job, and Rumsey the butler was taken precisely because he’s in on it.  Of course, there is an inside job, and Rumsey the butler is in on it, but they haven’t done it yet, and it’s not a kidnapping.  Dortmunder had enough of that kind of gig to last him a lifetime, eight books ago.

And then, when somebody shows up trying to kill Fred Blanchard (thankfully for Kelp, his borrowed identity didn’t set off any alarm bells with the previous Blanchard’s enemies until they’d all gone back to their true selves)–Orville is even more convinced he’s on the right track.  They arrest the baffled hitman from Votskojek (grrrrr?) who showed up a mite too late to do his job.  Surely he shall provide them with clues as to the whereabouts of this so-called secretary!  Fred Blanchard has disappeared without a trace, but he shall not forever escape the long arm of the law!

“I knew I was gonna get you, Fred Blanchard!  You won’t hide from me!  Nowhere on Earth, Fred Blanchard, will you be safe from Lieutenant Wilbur Orville!  Let’s go, Bob.  This is a wrap.”

This is almost a direct lift from the final lines of Bank Shot, the most dismally awful film ever made from a Dortmunder novel (if there’s something worse, please don’t tell me).  A good satirist doesn’t exempt himself from the slings and arrows of his art.  And in my estimation, Donald E. Westlake was one of the finest satirists his nation ever produced.  If the nation but knew it. Well, the nation has other concerns at present time.

And just FYI, nation, the Road to Ruin is a cul-de-sac.  Further down it you go, the longer the return trip will be.  If you won’t believe Donald Westlake, will you believe a nice girl in a feather boa doing a wicked Mae West impression for Jesus?

The nation can attend to its own affairs (maybe).  In the meantime, I have eleven very short reviews to write for next week. See you then.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels