Monthly Archives: July 2017

Review: What’s So Funny?

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May knew John had a very bad tendency, when things got unusually difficult, to sink with an almost sensuous pleasure into a warm bath of despair. Once you’ve handed the reins over to despair, to mix a metaphor just a teeny bit, your job is done. You don’t have to sweat it any more, you’ve taken yourself out of the game. Despair is the bench, and you are warming it.

May knew it was her job, at moments like this, to pull John out of the clutches of despair and goose him into forward motion once more. After all, it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s just you have to be in the goddam game.

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

(Donald Westlake did not write this.)

Look what I found, rummaging about the dust-free virtual attic–a cops and robbers chess set!  Pretty cool, huh?  This leads, as ever, to a question–if you were going to make a Dortmunder-themed chess set, how would you arrange it?  Obviously Dortmunder, simultaneously peripheral and central to everything, vulnerable and fugitive at all times, is the king.  Of crime.  And kvetching.

The queen must needs be female, someone with great power and freedom of movement, so I’d go with J.C. Taylor, no slight intended to May, who is nothing if not supportive of her larcenous liege in this story, but not a major player in it, not that J.C. is either.   May’s got old movies to watch, and this is not her game.  I’d say that’s maybe Parcheesi.  Mah Jongg?

Knight is the easy one, that cute bastard, always moving in a crooked line.  You never see him coming.  Drops in unannounced and helps himself to a beer.  Do I even have to say it?

Tiny Bulcher would be the castle.  Because he’s massive.  And comes straight at you.  Best not call him a rook.  He might take it as a compliment, but I wouldn’t chance it.

I guess that makes Stan Murch the bishop by default?  Is there an automotive angle to work with here, as with the cops & robbers chess set?  Maybe his mom could be the other bishop.  She’d be in her cab, him in a purloined getaway car (that only goes slantways).  Problem solved, but then I wonder if Rollo the bartender would be better suited to that role.  The Bishop of Bourbon.  I bet that used to be a thing. (checks)  Well, I was almost right.

Dortmunder begins as something of a pawn in this novel, and a fair few others.  So a looming confident Dortmunder as king, and a bunch of shrunken furtive-looking Dortmunders as the pawns?  Or make them all unique quirky supporting characters who only showed up now and again, your Herman X’s, your Wilbur Howeys, your various Wallys?  Aesthetically pleasing, but expensive to manufacture and confusing to play.

Arnie Albright is in the pawn game, you might say, but imagine looking at eight of him.  You’d be sacrificing pawns right and left just to settle your stomach.  The other pieces would sacrifice themselves to get away from him.  Are pawns even appropriate in the context of a writer who celebrated the individual?

As to the other side of the board (which no decent person would even want to play), an assortment of vindictive lawmen, arrogant tycoons, crooked foreign dignitaries from fictive nations, and I guess we could fit Tom Jimson in there somewhere (a very dark knight indeed).  Pawns could just be burly no-neck security men.

These things always break down when you think about it too much.  Chess, as we play it now, is based on the old feudal system, and when we try to update the roles, the analogies get strained.  Sets based on Japanese feudalism work beautifully, but most others fall apart.  I mean, the American Civil War was a lot of things, but it wasn’t feudal, and both sides are always blindingly white, so how do you even know who moves first?  Point is, we already know who moved last.

Putting such distractions aside, I ponder the central question further, and a ray of light appears–make it specifically a Good Behavior themed set–that book is about neo-feudalism, so it works.  Sister Mary Grace could be Dortmunder’s bishop.  (I suppose the Curia might object, but the Pope is cool, we’d get a dispensation.)  A What’s The Worst That could Happen? set also has its attractions, but the temptation to make Max Fairbanks look like You Know Whom would be overpowering, and we’d get tied up in court for eons, possibly jailed for lèse-majesté.  Please feel free to make further suggestions in the comments section, especially if you have access to a 3D Printer.

I prefer checkers myself.  Draughts, if you want to be British about it. Also referenced in this book.  But you can’t do themed checkers sets.  How about Dortmunder Stratego?  Risk seems too obvious to mention.  Chutes and Ladders?  Monopoly is definitely not his game, and anyway it’s trademarked. Okay fine, we’ll talk about the book.

This is one of the longest Dortmunders, 359 pages in the first edition.  Like all the longer books in this series, it has a lot of extraneous material in it–I’m tempted to call it Six Subplots in Search of an Author.  But once I worked my way through through a somewhat muddled opening gambit, I was pleased to find the author does in fact show up to play.  Pirandello he ain’t, but he has his own decided take on theater of the absurd.

It’s not mainly about the heist, but the heist is great.  It’s got a lot of fol-de-rol in it about characters we’ll never see again, who are only tangentially involved with the heist, but somehow Westlake does a better job here making them mesh with the overall story than he did with the previous two, which ended up feeling like several different books stitched together.  At this point, as previously discussed, it’s almost impossible for him to find anything new to say about Dortmunder & Co.  He needs new characters with new identity crises to work on.  Or else it’s going to be a short book (like the next and final one, which does somehow find one more thing to say about the main cast).

It’s got two very different rich people as pivotal characters, and surprise–they’re both oddly likable, and neither is Dortmunder’s nemesis.  Neither is an aggressive narcissistic billionaire, either–both have some irritating rich people quirks, but they’re not villains, per se.  The rich are human too.  No, seriously.

It’s also got two very different private detectives (another peevish pet of Mr. Westlake’s), and that’s a more complicated discussion.  It’s got a variety of very different young people seeking their footing in the world, variously finding and/or losing it.  All this plus Captain Francis X. Mologna, the somehow still solvent Continental Detective Agency, perhaps the finest extant sample of Dortmunder parkeur, a golden bejeweled chess set, a subplot ripped straight out of a sleaze paperback, and Edgar Allan Poe.  Still not a patch on the early classics, but I might go so far as to call it a late one.

Let’s just lay out the set-up.  Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill, and wonders why none of the regulars are talking about things they don’t know about, or talking at all, for that matter.  Because there’s a cop in the bar, that’s why.  Not in  uniform, but he might as well be, with the ‘plainclothes’ he’s wearing.  Not a man, woman, child, or dog there couldn’t spot a cop blindfolded, if he came in dressed like Quentin Crisp.

As if that’s not bad enough, Dortmunder realizes, to his horror, that said cop is there to see him.  For which crime, he wonders?  Remember, Dortmunder is now, as ever, on double secret probation with the law–one more strike and he’s out–of circulation, ’til death or compassionate release, whichever comes first, and they’d amount to the same thing, really.

When is a cop not a cop?  When he’s done his twenty, retired from the force, and his wife in the ‘burbs told him to find something to do with himself before they both went nuts.  This is how Johnny Eppick (for hire), formerly of the NYPD, ended up a P.I., duly licensed, with an office on East 3rd St., far east as you can go without drowning.    He could have just taken a job with some security outfit, which is what most retired cops who decide retirement sucks do. But there’s a romantic streak in Mr. Eppick (that’s why his card says ‘Johnny,’ instead of merely ‘John.’)

Having hung out his shamus shingle quite recently, Eppick lucked his way into the kind of job most real P.I.’s only encounter when they’re watching TCM.  An eccentric millionaire named Hemlow, an inventor no less, in a wheelchair no less, wants him to help recover a priceless chess set, made of (almost) solid gold, encrusted with precious gems, heavy as hell, with a fascinating history behind it that of course they insist on sharing with Dortmunder, who is no more successful at preventing them from doing so than Parker was with that Lost Mourner of Dijon, and you’re not skipping the history lesson either, so there.

Hemlow’s father and his army buddies found the chess set in an abandoned warehouse in the port city of Murmansk, while involved in the ill-fated American military expedition to Russia after WWI. It had been meant as a gift to the czar and his family, but that ship had already been shot and bayoneted multiple times.  These shivering young shavetails dreamed of using it to become pioneering media moguls in radio once their government let them come in out of the cold.

But instead, their sergeant, a sly bastard named Northwood, made off with it, dropping from sight, along with their dreams.  Hemlow’s father never recovered from the loss, his family has never stopped grousing over this injustice, even as his chemical patents made them all quite comfortable. But where’s the romance in chemical patents, I ask you?

It was his lawyer granddaughter, an amateur historian, who much to her surprised fascination, found out that Northwood used the set to set himself up in real estate (no better field for an unrepentent cad), and he’s long dead of course, but his very wealthy family is still fighting over his estate–including the chess set.  Now ensconced in a bank vault in the subbasement of the very building she works in, she being a minor functionary in a major law firm, which represents one of the squabbling heirs.

I mean, put yourself in the dick’s flat feet.  This is the stuff dreams are made of, schweetheart.

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(I couldn’t find a Maltese Falcon chess set.  Maybe the black birds could be different colors, sizes? Wear crowns, miters, perch on tiny castles, horses, etc?  Different species of falcon?  I’ll get to work on that right after the Dortmunder chess set sells its first million units.)

Since the gumshoe part of the program has already been attended to by the granddaughter, what’s left for Eppick?  Well, the ailing Hemlow wants to get that chess set back before he dies.  Legally speaking, he’s got no leg to stand on (that was insensitive), no way to prove prior ownership of something the gypped GI’s didn’t technically steal, and didn’t technically own, either.  He’d die long before the lawyers finished collecting their fees.  He doesn’t need the money himself, but dreams of righting past wrongs, seeing that the other families get their rightful wrongful due.  You know–closure.

Hence–a heist.  Eppick is to seek a suitably skilled specialist then solicit the sap to steal the serially stolen set.  And what’s to stop a professional thief from just making off with the goods?  Why would he even attempt such a risky job for the relative pittance of a fee that Hemlow shall provide?

Leverage.  Eppick did his research, figured Dortmunder was the right wrong guy for the job, and obtained images from surveillance footage of him burglarizing a store.  Blurry images, but if Dortmunder declines the job offer, all Eppick has to do is point and his cop buddies shall descend like vultures upon our hero’s slope-shouldered carcass.  Even if they can’t make that particular charge stick, they’ll find something. And he’ll find his old cell waiting for him.  As he will if they catch him trying to get that chess set.  And anyone trying to get into that bank vault and back out again with a 680 pound chess set tucked in his pockets is getting caught.  Catch-22.

Much as he hates the idea, rather than plagiarize Joseph Heller, our metropolitan mutt considers leaving New York forever.  This passage contains one of those lines people always quote without necessarily remembering exactly how it goes or which book it came from.

Riding down, alone this trip, he thought his best move now was to go straight over to Grand Central, take the first train out for Chicago.  That’s supposed to be an okay place, not that different from a city.  It could even work out.  Meet up with some guys there, get plugged in a little, learn all those new neighborhoods.  Get settled, then send word to May, she could bring out his winter clothes.  Chicago was alleged to be very cold.

(I believe that is a known fact about Chicago.  The city thing remains a matter of opinion.)

Eppick, wise to the ways of felons, anticipates this fantasy of setting out for the territories, and shuts it down cold.  Police departments are communicating much more than they used to, via the internet.  He’d put out feelers, and the blue network would find Dortmunder, no matter what godforsaken hole he curled up in.  Oh now, Chicago, don’t be so sensitive, you’ve got that deep-fish pizza or whatever and that tower named after a nigh-defunct chain of department stores.  And did you just win a World Series recently?  Twice in the last century?  That’s cute.

(Tiny later informs Dortmunder the loophole to Eppick’s outreach would be someplace like Biloxi–southern cops still don’t talk to Yankee cops, let alone those that root for the New York Yankees–Biloxi is not even theoretically a city, so that still wouldn’t work. He might as well try Mayberry.  Maybe he did, lot of eps I never got around to watching.)

Though initially, after they see him with Eppick,  his felonious friends treat him like he’s come down with a mild case of plague, loyalty mingled with curiosity mingled with greed brings them in to confer.  Maybe there’s some way they can get this thing.  Maybe there’s even some way they can keep it.

Eppick knows quite well that Dortmunder can’t pull this job by himself, and is pleased when he learns Kelp has come in–a bit less pleased when Kelp turns out to be his opposite number in more ways than one, and not the least bit intimidated by Eppick, now that he knows this isn’t a real cop anymore, and (more to the point) that he’s actively engaged in soliciting an illegal act.  Kelp, more into pool than chess, sees angles to be played here.  Question is, what angle is Eppick playing?

The string in this one is composed of Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Tiny, and Judson Blint, who was only introduced in the last book, and is still working his day job with J.C., keeping her old mail order cons alive, while she concentrates on being her own country. That’s a photo of four of them up top.  Murch isn’t there, must be working on the warp drive or something.  I think you can guess which one Judson is.  Oh, that was mean.  But it gives us an opening for–

The Crusher Conundrum:

Kelp said, “You know, we got another little conundrum here. I know it isn’t as important as the main problem—”

“The vault,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s the problem I was thinking of,” Kelp agreed. “Anyway,” he told the others, “you see these pictures of these two rooks.”

“Those are castles,” Stan said.

“Yes, but,” Kelp said, “rook is a name for them in chess. Anyway, everything weighs the way it’s supposed to, except this one rook here is three pounds lighter than the other rooks.”

They all leaned over the pictures, including Judson, who got up from the radiator and came over to stand beside the table, gazing down.

Stan said, “They look alike.”

“But you see the weight,” Kelp said. “They wrote it down right there.”

Stan nodded. “Maybe it’s a typo.”

“This stuff is all pretty careful,” Kelp said.

Dortmunder said, “I don’t find this as gripping as the main problem.”

“No, of course not,” Kelp said. “It’s just a mystery, that’s all.”

“No, it isn’t,” Judson said. “That part’s easy.”

Judson Blint is something of a prodigy, something of a ‘Nephew’, and 100% a Wesley (I should not need to explain).  And maybe just a wee bit of a Mary Sue, Westlake’s idealized younger self, stepping into an exciting criminal underworld, and grasping its finer points with alacrity.  The amateur learning how to be a pro.

And he’s all over this book, even though little further attempt is made to develop his character.  He’ll be playing this role for the remainder of the series, which isn’t saying much.  He figures out things the more seasoned heisters, including Dortmunder, are baffled by.  A fresh young mind.  Is this necessarily a good thing?  Well, it’s a thing, whether we think it’s good or not.

Hence The Mystery of the Cooked Rook.  Looking at the vital statistics of the set provided them by Hemlow’s granddaughter, Kelp notices one of the pieces is much lighter than it should be.  It’s Judson who has the sleuthly flash of insight that this is because Northwood, having stolen the set, needed some ready cash in order to get out of town and then make his fortune with it as collateral.  He raised it by selling the gold and jewels from one of the castles–and replacing it with a clever copy, so as to seem not to have broken up the set, thereby reducing its value.

This later leads to the gang doing the same thing themselves, Anne Marie knowing a jeweler of flexible ethics in DC (yes, we all get the joke, Mr. Westlake). But it does not solve the problem of how to get into the vault, and when asked how they do that, Judson says they can’t.  It’s impossible.  The gang wracks its collective brains and comes up with zip.  Dortmunder is in despair, and Judson feels bad.

It’s Dortmunder, the full professional, with more than amateur brilliance to guide him, who will find the answer.  But this answer doesn’t come to Dortmunder immediately,  and in the meantime Judson is at the bank building (the good old Capitalists and Immigrants Trust from Bank Shot, called C&I International here), casing the joint to try and find the solution himself, and Kelp comes along to tell him he’s doing it wrong, drawing too much attention to himself.  Kelp continues to take Judson under his wing, because Kelp is the Riker in this crew.  Dortmunder is Data.  Tiny is Worf.  Murch would be some combo of La Forge and O’Brien.  There is so not a Picard here.  There are a whole slew of Trek-related chess sets we might look at, but let’s don’t.

Rather, let’s take a closer look at a character not much older than Judson Blint, who plays a somewhat less intrepid role here, but also a more important and interesting one.  But though her role be large, she herself is not.

Ode to a Mouse:

“So you found this thing,” Dortmunder began. “This chess set.”

She laughed. “Oh, Mr. Dortmunder, this is too good a story to just jump in and tell the end.”

Dortmunder hated stories that were that good, but okay, once again no choice in the matter, so he said, “Sure. Go ahead.”

“When I was growing up,” she said, “there was every once in a while some family talk about a chess set that seemed to make everybody unhappy, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was gone, or lost, or something, but I didn’t know why it was such a big deal.”

She drank Diet Pepsi and give him a warning finger-shake. “I don’t mean the family was full of nothing but talk about this mysterious chess set, it wasn’t. It was just a thing that came up every once in a while.”

“Okay.”

“So last summer it came up again,” she said, “when I was visiting my father at the Cape, and I asked him, please tell me what it’s all about, and he said he didn’t really know. If he ever knew, he’d forgotten. He said I should ask my grandfather, so when I got back to the city I did. He didn’t want to talk about it, turned out he was very bitter on that subject, but I finally convinced him I really wanted to know what this chess set meant in the family, and he told me.”

“And that made you find it,” Dortmunder said, “when nobody else could.”

“That’s right,” she said. “I’ve always been fascinated by history, and this was history with my own family in it, the First World War and invading Russia and all the rest of it. So I took down the names of everybody in that platoon that brought the chess set to America, and the other names, like the radio company they wanted to start, Chess King Broadcasting, and everything else I thought might be useful, and I Googled it all.”

Dortmunder had heard of this; some other nosey parker way to mind everybody else’s business. He preferred a world in which people stuck to their own knitting, but that world was long gone. He said, “You found some of these people on Google.”

Fiona Hemlow, daughter of Hemlow Senior’s third son, is in her middle 20’s, black of hair, slight of stature, efficient, decent-natured, and mainly a stranger to herself.  Like many people just out of law school, she’s a very small part of a very large firm–a ‘wee beastie’ she terms herself, and you know where that term derives from, dinna ye not?  A modern girl, probably not fluent in Lallans, she wouldn’t describe herself as sleeket, cowran, or tim’rous.  But aren’t we all, sometimes?  Us and all our best-laid schemes.  Beware of murd’ring pattles.

Fiona, like any mouse, has a tendency to poke her curious whiskers where they are not welcome. She’s clearly bored with her job, and to find that the fabled chess set of family lore is being kept in a vault beneath her tiny feet is not something she could be expected to keep to herself, so off she runs to the grandfather, the patriarch of her clan, the one whose inventiveness and drive brought them all up in the world with him, and no doubt paid for her schooling.

She herself is not to be involved in any way with the theft, naturally–Hemlow Sr. is repeatedly at pains to warn Dortmunder about that, wracked with guilt at any thought his granddaughter might suffer for his pursuance of an old vendetta. And yet here she is, talking to Dortmunder about it, in her own office, and feeling guilty about having put the poor man in this situation.  Her worries will be closer to home soon enough.

It’s a bit like the Stone Soup.  Seems so simple at first, then you get lured in, one ingredient at a time.  Dortmunder needs the specs on the set, he needs to know more about the heirs, he needs this, he needs that, or the soup will never be ready.  And Fiona self-evidently wants to play the sleuth as much as Judson does, but she is constrained by her position.  She can’t commit to the game, as Judson does, because she’s playing too many different games at once.

She forces herself to personally address one of the squabbling heirs, just because it’s such a thrill to meet a member of the family her family has had a shadow-feud with all these years.  Mrs. Livia Northwood Wheeler, who does not bear fools gladly, or at all (though she herself has never worked for a living in her life, would be mortally offended if you suggested she should).

Fiona makes up a story about how she’s always admired this woman, her guts, her refusal to ever let anyone get the better of her (least of all her own family), and only later realizes she really does admire Mrs. Wheeler for that, because that’s how she’d like to be (but such is not a mouse’s lot).

Mrs. W, as she’s known for most of the book, suspects a ploy (because she always suspects a ploy, literally every day of her life) and goes to Fiona’s boss, Mr. Tumbril (the term for the carts used to convey prisoners to the guillotine; you ever wonder how much time Westlake spent on names alone?)  She assumed Fiona was questioning her on Tumbril’s behalf.

Mrs. W., not quite the dragon she appears, Fiona’s fellow mortal (and female, in a man’s world), only realizes her mistake when Tumbril decapitates Fiona (in a professional sense) right in front of her.  A stunned Fiona mails out the intel Dortmunder needs, right before she cleans out her desk, with security watching her, and is conveyed in disgrace (but not in a cart) to the street outside.  Her wee-bit housie in ruin.

And the end result of this bleak December wind?  She winds up as Mrs. W’s personal assistant, in a fantastic office with a view of Central Park, a spy in the enemy’s camp, but really more of a double agent, because as mentioned, she truly does admire and like her curmudgeonly new employer, and is grateful for her suddenly improved prospects–but she’s embroiled in a plot to steal from her. How long before the cruel coulter (no, not that one) slices through her cell once more?  Forward tho’ she canna see, she guesses and fears.

Oh, and there’s some stuff about her no-good boyfriend (spoiler alert), but that can wait for later.

What could have waited for always is the one subplot (in this book crammed to the gills with them) I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s there.  Maybe you can pierce the puzzle of–

Murch’s Muddled Mecca:

“I’m happy for them,” John said. “But up till now I don’t see your idea in here.”

“The dome,” Stan said.

John just looked at him, ostrich or bison visible in his open mouth.

So Stan said, “The dome got delivered before they shut down, and it’s gold. Not solid gold, you know, but not gold paint either. Real gold. Gold plate or something. It’s sitting out there on this empty construction site, it was delivered when the walls were supposed to be up, but of course the walls weren’t up, so it’s sitting there, with this crane next to it.”

“I think I’m getting this,” John said. “It’s your idea, we use the crane, we pick up this dome— How big is this dome?”

“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high.”

“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high. You wanna pick this up and take it away.”

“With the crane, like you said.”

“And where you gonna stash this thing?”

“That’s part of what we gotta work out,” Stan said.

“Maybe you can take it to Alaska,” John said, “and paint it white, and make everybody think it’s an igloo.”

“I don’t think we could get it that far,” Stan told him. “All the bridges. And forget tunnels.”

Poor Stan.  The world’s greatest getaway driver, the human GPS, and he gets no respect, no respect at all.  He never even gets to outrun the cops in a thrilling chase scene (because seriously, if you’re being chased by the cops, probably with news choppers overhead, the heist is already ruined, and you’re going away for a long time, to watch the chase footage in the prison rec room, over and over, on those damn reality shows).

So at least he gets a subplot here, but it goes nowhere.  He wants to heist the (partly) golden dome for a mosque under construction along the Belt Parkway–he drives past the site all the time, to and from Canarsie, and it’s calling out to him, “Stan!  Stan!  Come get me!”

Dortmunder really does not have time enough in the day to list all the ways in which this is an incredibly bad idea (he already had some kind of fatwah out on him in Why Me?, and that was just over a fucking ring).  He’s got this chess set to worry about, he’s got Eppick to worry about, and if anything, this dome job is even worse.  He gives a very hurt Murch the brush.

But Murch just won’t give up.  He gets Kelp out there, he gets Judson out there, they all have to go look at the golden dome, and they all think it’s a terrible idea to try and heist it, and finally Murch has to give up on it, and go along with this other job they’re all getting sucked into, because John (their brain, and down inside they all know it), is going to get sucked back into prison if they can’t manage to make it work.

What the hell was that about?  You keep waiting for it to get tied back into the main story (maybe they could hide the chess set under the dome?), and it never is.  Dortmunder subplots sometimes turn into dead ends, which is not typical of Westlake’s work as a whole.  The first three books were perfectly balanced–most of what followed was Westlake clearing out his mental attic, while spending time with old and cherished friends.

I would think Westlake himself was driving past a construction site for a mosque, or saw it on TV, and thought “hmmmm.”  And then “naaaaahhh!” Maybe this ties back to research he did for the first Samuel Holt novel, which hinged upon a newly built golden-domed mosque in L.A. (In that case, it was the entire four book series that went nowhere.)

Now I say he doesn’t tie it in to the main heist, but axiomatically speaking, you might say he does.  Because Dortmunder finally hits on it.  What they have to do in order to get that chess set.   That is in that vault.  The one even Judson says they can’t possibly get into and back out again.

“No, you were right,” John said. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along, there’s no way to get into that vault.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Fuggedabodit. See, what it is I gotta do, I gotta stop thinking about getting into the vault because I can’t get into the vault. That’s the backwards part.”

Judson said, “It is?”

“The mountain,” John explained, “gotta go to whatsisname. Mohammed.”

Fearing the worst, May said, “John?”

“You know,” John said, and gestured vaguely with both hands. “He won’t go to that, so that’s gotta go to him. Same with the vault. We can’t get in at the chess set, case closed, no discussion, so what we gotta do is get the chess set to come out to us.”

“That’s brilliant, John,” Andy said. “How do we do that?”

“Well,” John said, “that’s the part I’m working on.”

Let’s work on it next time.  I’d say next week, but look how long it’s been since my last post.  Whenever.  Oh, and Murch to Kelp 2.  Check.  Your move.

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

Review: Transgressions

When I was writing novellas for the pulp magazines back in the 1950’s, we still called them “novelettes,” and all I knew about the form was that it was long and it paid half a cent a word.  This meant that if I wrote 10,000 words, the average length of a novelette back then, I would sooner or later get a check for five hundred dollars.  This was not bad pay for a struggling young writer.

A novella today can run anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words.  Longer than a short story (5,000 words) but much shorter than a novel (at least 60,000 words), it combines the immediacy of the former with the depth of the latter, and it ain’t easy to write.  In fact, given the difficulty of the form, and the scarcity of markets for novellas, it is surprising that any writers today are writing them at all.

Ed McBain.  AKA Evan Hunter.  AKA Salvatore Albert Lombino.

This assignment turned out to be more complex than expected.  Which is par for the course.  This is the mystery genre, after all.  Does a book detective ever have a less complex assignment than expected?

Originally, I was just going to review the Dortmunder novella Westlake contributed to the Transgressions anthology, edited by his longtime friend and mentor, Evan Hunter, under his more popular crime fiction pseudonym. This being far and away the shortest and simplest Dortmunder that isn’t a short story, I figured it wouldn’t take much time–but rereading it, I came to a realization regarding its true authorship, that had eluded me in the first reading.  So that’s one thing.

The other thing is that this time I read all three novellas in the paperback edition I’d originally acquired just to read Westlake’s.  The paperback reprints of the original collection were from Tor, a publisher Westlake probably assumed he’d never be involved with again after the Sam Holt debacle.  They broke up the original set into several, and it just happened that Westlake’s story shared a volume with McBain’s and Walter Mosley’s.

I know McBain fairly well but not intimately–I’ve read maybe half a dozen 87th Precinct novels, early books in the series, and hope to read a lot more (All of them?  Who says I’m living that long?)  I’m a fan, with a few minor reservations. I don’t think any mystery writer other than Doyle has been more identified with just one franchise.  And that’s the franchise represented here, one of the very last 87th Precinct stories ever written, if not the very last (or the very best, but McBain said novellas were hard).

Mosley I’ve only glimpsed from afar, till now–I was bemused at his introduction here (presumably written by McBain), which says he followed in the tradition of Chester Himes and John Carroll Daly, but ‘added the complex issue of race relations’–???–pretty sure Himes beat him to that by over three decades, with the Harlem Detective novels. But Himes left plenty of material for Mosley to work with.  He doesn’t write like Himes (no one did), and I don’t get the Daly reference at all.  I saw different influences.  And a writer I need to maybe move up in the queue.  We have some shared interests.

So this is, after all, The Westlake Review, and I could be pardoned for just skipping over the other two offerings here.  (I’m sure not reviewing all ten.)  I am, predictably, most interested in the Dortmunder story, which is, predictably, the best piece of writing on offer here.  But in certain respects, the other two are more interesting to me.  I can’t just ignore them, any more than when reviewing The Perfect Murder, I could pass over all the other contributors to that crazy quilt of a book.  Mr. Westlake said he and all his fellow authors swam in the same ocean together, and I would be doing him no service by ignoring his fellow swimmers.

The stories are billed in alphabetical order, then presented in reverse alphabetical order, and I’m going to reverse it yet again, and begin with McBain. Buckle up, we’re headed into Isola, for what is, unfortunately, still a very topical piece, entitled–

Merely Hate:

The driver behind them kept honking his horn.

“So much hate in this city,” Meyer said softly.  “So much hate.”

McBain died in 2005, the year Transgressions was published.  At 78 (Aw geez, he died at 78? Invert that and cue the Twilight Zone theme.), his mind was still sharp and inquisitive, his passion for the city of his birth, that became the city of his imagination, still undiminished.  He was not quite the writer he had once been, and the 87th was now hopelessly lost in a sea of mediocre copycat procedural melodramas with the precinct as the protagonist.  Nothing succeeds like excess.

He was working on novels to the very end, he had assembled a truly prestigious group of authors for this collection (that presaged the recent resurrection of the novella, now once again commercially viable, thanks to e-readers), he had laurels to spare.  He could have turned in a standard bit of rigamarole; a sex criminal, a bank robber, maybe bring back The Deaf Man, super villains being hotter than ever in the 21st.

Instead, he chose to take on the issue of Muslim immigrant communities in the big city, post-9/11.  The  man never lacked for guts, but maybe he figured it was safer to hide this one in a crowd.   Or he didn’t have enough time left to do the research a full novel would call for.

But when he summoned up his narrator for these books–who I always think of as the wise and world-weary tutelary deity of Isola, looking down on his people with mingled admiration and despair,  seeing them all, knowing them all, willing them to combine their unique strengths, and live as one many-faceted collective organism–knowing that they will fall short of the ideal, calling upon his champions to try and fill the gap, heal the wounds–well, let him tell it.

Just when Carella and Meyer were each and separately waking up from eight hours of sleep, more or less, the city’s swarm of taxis rolled onto the streets for the four-to-midnight shift.  And as the detectives sat down to late afternoon meals which for each of them were really more hearty breakfasts, many of the city’s more privileged women were coming out into the streets to start looking for taxis to whisk them homeward.  Here was a carefully coiffed woman who’d just enjoyed afternoon tea, chatting with another equally stylish woman as they strolled together out of a midtown hotel.  And here was a woman who came out of a department store carrying a shopping bag in each hand, shifting one of the bags to the other hand, freeing it so she could hail a taxi.  And here was a woman coming out of a Korean nail ship, wearing paper sandals to protect her freshly painted toenails.  And another coming out of a deli, clutching  a bag with baguettes showing, raising one hand to signal a cab. At a little before five, the streets were suddenly alive with the leisured women of this city, the most beautiful women in all the world, all of them ready to kill if another woman grabbed a taxi that had just been hailed.

This was a busy time for the city’s cabbies.  Not ten minutes later, the office buildings would begin spilling out men and women who’d been working since nine this morning, coming out onto the pavements now and sucking in great breaths of welcome spring air. The rain had stopped, and the sidewalks and pavements glistened, and there was the strange aroma of freshness on the air. This had been one hell of a winter.

The hands went up, typists’ hands, and file clerks’ hands, and the hands of lawyers and editors and thieves, yes, even thieves took taxis–though obvious criminal types were avoided by these cabbies steering their vehicles recklessly toward the curb in a relentless pursuit of passengers.  These men had paid eight-two dollars to lease their taxis.  These men had paid fifteen bucks to gas their buggies and get them on the road. They were already a hundred bucks in the hole before they put foot on pedal.  Time was money. And there were hungry mouths to feed.  For the most part, these men were Muslims, these men were gentle strangers in a strange land.

But someone had killed one of them last night.

And he was not yet finished.

(I can imagine Westlake thinking, “If Arthur Hailey had known what a writer is, this is how he’d have written.”  It’s sub-par McBain, the clichés are too thick on the ground–hmm, speak of the devil–but it still grips you.)

So somebody is killing Muslim cabbies, and spray-painting a Star of David on the windshield as a calling card.  Detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer (who is Jewish) are assigned to the case, which means they have to talk to people who worked with the victims, lived with them, ate with them, prayed with them.  Bit by bit, the diversity of the Islamic community in Isola is laid bare, people from many parts of the world, united only by faith, and sometimes not even that.  Well, most believe a Jew did it, once they hear about the magen David.  That’s a kind of unity that hate can bring.

Even the first victim’s wife believes it, though at first she can’t understand why a Jew would kill her husband, since they came from Bangladesh.  But when she hears about the graffiti, she says “The rotten bastards.”  Clearly, whoever the murderer is, whatever the motive for the shootings, he or she intends to drum up discord between the tribes of Isola.  More than merely the usual hate.

Before long, a handful of Islamic extremists have set off bombs in public places, ostensibly in protest of the murders not being solved (dangling subplot, never gets resolved, McBain hadn’t written a novella in quite a long time). No attacks on synagogues or Jewish neighborhoods–just freeform hate.

Carella and Meyer keep looking for a motive, a suspect, doing all the rote things real detectives do, no great flashes of insight from 87th Precinct detectives, though Meyer has one great idea–figure out if the person who is spray-painting the symbol on the cabs is right or left-handed.  The killer isn’t a southpaw, so it doesn’t help much (I knew it must be those right-handed infidels!  And they call me sinister!)

One of their suspects, pointed out to them by a rabbi, is Anthony Inverni, an outspoken young Italian American, who wants to marry a young Jewish girl.  Her family is trying to stop them.  The rabbi thinks maybe he’s getting revenge by trying to pin the killings on Jews.  An aspiring author, very angry at the world, very anti-religious (one of two such characters in the book), Inverni says he’s going to change his last name to Winters, it’ll look better on a book cover (Hunter would also work, or McBain).

Inverni/Winters also admits he was sleeping around on the girl he means to marry, since he needs an alibi, treats it as no big deal.  Under any name, it is now a well-known fact that the compiler of this anthology was not a faithful husband for much of his life.  Hate can also be directed towards one’s younger self, particularly in old age.

What McBain does here is take what would have been just one plot skein in an 87th Precinct novel, and make it the whole story.  Too cramped for such an expansive topic–he tries to be fair, spends a lot of time in the heads of many different Muslims, showing us their varied lives and interests.

Putting myself in the place of a Muslim reader, I would see the good intentions, the genuine perceptions, and still find it wanting.  Too forced, too hasty, and the shock of 9/11 is still there, the wounds still fresh and raw.  I don’t buy that terrorist bombers are motivated by a few cab drivers getting whacked.  It is mentioned that Muslims died in the towers on 9/11–it is not spelled out whether that happened in Isola, since that would be openly admitting Isola is New York, which McBain was always loathe to do.  The problem with fictional cities being used to talk about specific real-life events.

He’s looking for some way to believe that these newest arrivals can also become fully part of his city, join the larger family, without abandoning their core identities.  It’s a noble project, that needed more time, more research–and perhaps a fresher eye.

He also doesn’t have much space to talk about his detectives–there’s lots of friendly banter between the two comrades, “a Catholic who hadn’t been to church since he was twelve, and a Jew who put up a tree each and every Christmas”–there’s also a brief cameo by the irascible anti-ideal, Andy Parker–but their personalities don’t really come through strongly here.  Nobody who hadn’t read the earlier stories would get a strong sense of who these detectives are.

Comes up short compared to some of his earlier books centered around Puerto Rican immigrants and their kids–who once upon a time were likewise believed to be incapable of assimilation, slotted as gangsters (they did some terrorism too).  It’s a long list of ethnic groups who have been declared social undesirables in America, and we’re all on it.  But you see how quickly he put this one together, wanting to make some personal contribution of his own to this project he’d embarked upon, wanting to make some final statement.  Not enough space, not enough research, not enough perspective.

Maybe he felt the ultimate deadline looming as he typed it.  But with so little time left, and nothing left to prove, what would make him care enough to attempt something so daunting, difficult, and controversial, that would profit him nothing?  Merely love.

And that was merely adequate, as a review, but at least I’ve read some McBain.  A strange thing to begin one’s acquaintance with an important mystery writer with something he wrote in a format he’d probably never attempted before (since the market for novellas had died out before he even got started).

This is an origin story, along the lines of A Study in Scarlet, with a first person narrator who is both protagonist in his own right and observer of a unique investigative mind.  Written as the starting point of a series of stories about two intrepid mismatched detectives–that ends up a bit like those unaired TV pilots you can sometimes see on cable, or get on home video–a series that never happened, stillborn.  All kinds of unrealized potentials that were never explored.  We can talk about why that is, while we’re–

Walking The Line:

There was a bookshelf in the bathroom.  The books were composed of two dominant genres: politics and science fiction.  I took out a book entitled Soul of the Robot by the author Barrington J. Bayley.  It was written in the quick style of pulp fiction, which I liked because there was no pretension to philosophy.  It was just a good story with incredible ideas.

Walter Mosley writes mainly detective novels, series fiction.  He started out with science fiction, broke big with mysteries, and wrote a fair bit of erotica on the side–hmm, who does that remind me of?  His various franchises are always based around a strong central character with well-established quirks and a memorable name–Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, Leonid McGill, Socrates Fortlow.  I’ve read none of their books.  No, I had to start with Archibald Lawless.  And his artsy antsy amanuensis, Felix Orlean (of the New Orleans Orleans.)

It’s not clear when he wrote this–there’s a slighting reference by Mr. Lawless to President Bush–probably Bush the Younger, going by context–but you can’t be 100% sure–maybe this dates back to before Mosley was a name, still into science fiction, dreaming of the pulp magazines that folded before he had a chance to write for them.

The narrator, doing Dr. Watson as a cultured young black man, encounters Lawless because he reads all the personal ads in multiple print newspapers.  Nobody seems to be using even flip phones, let alone the smart kind.  Computers and the internet are a thing, but not really used much.  There is a certain retro feel to this one, so Mosley could just be filtering some changes out (hmm, who does that also remind me of?).  I find it very hard to believe this was originally conceived in the 21st century, though going by the sarcastic reference to Bush being a legitimately elected President, it was written after the 2000 election (that ref could have been shoehorned in later).

McBain says in his intro that some writers who responded to his entreaties in the positive had ideas too slight for a novel, too involved for a short story–others had a character in mind they wanted to introduce, run him/her up the flagpole, see who saluted.  But I’d think a few had something written or half-written already, and just didn’t have a market for it before McBain sent out the call.  (In Westlake’s A Likely Story, the anthologist protagonist suspects many of the famous authors responding to his call for Christmas-themed pieces are simply dusting off some unpublished work and reworking it.)  Well, the provenance isn’t really the point.

The point is anarchism.  Felix needs a job to support himself while he studies at the Columbia Journalism School–for his temerity at rejecting the practice of law his father and grandfather and great-grandfather sacrificed much to attain success in, he’s been cut off from his wealthy New Orleans clan–he personally prefers the less well-heeled more ‘authentically’ black members of his large socially diverse family (he describes himself as being very light-skinned–as is Mosley himself).  His father whipped him with a belt as a boy, and he’s scared spitless of the man, was quietly delighted when dad told him to get out and never come back.  (But he still thinks about calling him when the cops haul him into a frightening holding pen on a bum rap, where he’s about ten seconds away from getting raped when Lawless pulls a few strings to spring him.)

The man he meets at a midtown office building is the polar antithesis of his father–an alternative authority figure, a modern-day crusader, whose enemy is authority itself.

The man standing there before me had no double in the present day world or in history. He stood a solid six three or four with skin that was deep amber. His hair, which was mostly dark brown and gray, had some reddish highlights twined into a forest of thick dreadlocks that went straight out nine inches from his head, sagging only slightly.  The hair resembled a royal head-dress, maybe even a crown of thorns but Mr. A. Lawless was no victim.  His chest and shoulders were unusually broad even for a man his size.  His eyes were small and deep set.  The forehead was round and his high cheekbones cut strong slanting lines down to his chin which gave his face a definite heart shape.  There was no facial hair and no wrinkles except at the corner of his eyes.

He takes an immediate liking to Felix, who quickly realizes this guy is at least a little bit crazy (more than just a little, as things work out)–but compelling. Convincing.  He’s not part of any organization, but he monitors the outpourings of fellow anarchists across the globe, recognizing that much of what they’re saying is demented gibberish (and that they can be as dangerous as the people they’re fighting), but sometimes they stumble across something real.  He says there are government and corporate assassins everywhere (calls them ‘killkills’). He sees a world most people choose not to see.  His office is full of file boxes containing endless conspiracies of the powerful against We The People.

Yeah, he’s Fox Mulder without the FBI, aliens, mutants, or the ability to hail a cab.  And Felix is Dana Scully without the sexual tension to distract you. Definitely conceived after 1993.  And just like that overblown accident of a cult show that ran far too long (and still ludicrously clings to half-life, like a TV zombie), the believer is always right, and the skeptic is always wrong.  And yet remains a skeptic.  I’ve always had issues with that dynamic. It’s very hard to get the balance right.

Mosley mainly doesn’t here, but Felix is a much better-realized sidekick than Scully–helps that he’s the first-person narrator, of course.  He even gets himself a waitress/music student girlfriend who shares his congenially complicated relationship with her ethnicity.  They enjoy a classic New York date at a classical music concert at The Cloisters, then a sweet raunchy sex scene, and I applaud Mr. Mosley for rejecting the old Chandleresque “Gumshoe meets nice interesting girl he could be happy with, but goes for the deadly noir-blonde siren instead” trope (Though that trope is here in force, her name is Lana Drexel, and she ends up working for Lawless too.)

Who knows if the girlfriend would remained part of the series, if there’d been one? Who knows if Felix would ever have been proven right about anything? The story itself is almost more of a mystery than the mystery its protagonists try to unravel.

So Felix can smell trouble all over this awesome anarchist; he himself is small of stature and timorous of nature, but he really needs the job, he’s got the investigative instinct of a hound dog, and he finds Lawless fascinating, as anyone would, as I do.  As indeed nearly everyone we meet in the story does.  Lawless can’t seem to go anywhere without being recognized–he’s not famous, but everybody knows him, from the humble to the great.  (The only one who doesn’t seem to know who he is happens to be the one ‘killkill’ we meet in this story, which I found a bit random, but it’s a cool fight scene.)

And the minute Felix questions anything (like what are the odds an anarchist would be born with the name Lawless?), this peripatetic Nero Wolfe gets up on the invisible soapbox he carries everywhere with him for precisely such occasions.  His one weakness, but it’s a bad one.

“I am Archibald Lawless,” he said.  “I’m sitting here before you.  You are looking into my eyes and questioning what you see and what you hear.  On the streets you meet Asian men named Brian, Africans named Joe Cramm. But you don’t question their obviously being named for foreign devils.  You accept their humiliation.  You accept their loss of history.  You accept them being severed from long lines of heritage by their names.  Why wouldn’t you accept just as simply my liberating appellation?”

Why can’t Felix, who is no dummy, riposte with “Lawless is a foreign devil’s name, and we’re all foreign devils here except the Indians”?  Trouble is, the author identifies more with Felix, but would much rather be Lawless.   Which could lead to interesting tensions in the narrative, ways for Mosley to explore his own inner contradictions (that you kind of figure a man with a black father and a Russian Jewish mother is going to have, and who doesn’t?) but there’s not enough room to work with them.  Though there was plenty of room for Lawless to just smile at Felix’s little jibe, and say “A man from New Orleans whose last name is Orlean thinks my name is contrived?”  And he doesn’t, because that’s not the character.  Lawless talks too much and says too little (and I am, after all, something of an authority on that).

This is the longest of the three novellas on offer here–so long, I’d call it more of a short novel.  The narrative style reminds me more than a little of the Mitch Tobin mysteries, though the themes and character dynamics don’t.  Mosley sticks in a lot of bells and whistles, about stolen jewels, and mysterious murders, and a haven for fugitives in a restaurant on the western banks of the Hudson, and you can tell he’s really jonesing for the halcyon days of pulp fiction, when it was so much easier to get away with crap like this.  When it felt a lot more real than it does now.  A lot of McGuffins here, none of them terribly convincing, but they never are–the trick is to make the story so engaging, we don’t care.  Mosley doesn’t quite pull it off, but he does make me wish he’d tried again, because I do care about these people, I am interested in what they think.

The real story is Felix stepping into a larger world, accepting his alternative father figure (I think we can all see the looming confrontation between Lawless and Orlean Sr., and that would have been something to see.)  So when that’s done, maybe all that’s left is formula, and Mosley didn’t see a way forward.  He’s clearly more than good enough a writer to know when he hasn’t done his best work.  But there’s a lot of good work here, all the same.  And a lot more than your standard identity politics.  Lawless sends Felix to talk to a snooty real estate agent he suspects of being involved in something more than just gentrification.  Felix bluffs his way in by using his father’s name.

“Why did you need to see my ID?”

“This is an exclusive service, Mr. Orlean,” she said with no chink of humanity in her face.  “And we like to know exactly who it is we’re dealing with.”

“Oh,” I said.  “So it wasn’t because of my clothes or my race?”

“The lower orders come in all colors, Mr. Orlean.  And none of them get back here.”

Her certainty sent a shiver down my spine.  I smiled to hide the discomfort.

I suppose Mosley could still bring Felix and Archie back someday.  But I doubt it. And these days, I’m more afraid of the wild-eyed conspiracy mongers than I am of ‘The Deep State.’  Though there’s plenty of fear to go around, isn’t there?  And no clear lines of scrimmage anymore, if there ever were.

So I’m over 4,000 words into a Westlake review, and I’ve yet to talk about what Westlake wrote.  (Be warned, there will be a lot more spoilers for this one). McBain contributed a less than fully satisfactory installment to his most famous series–perhaps the concluding installment.  Mosley turned in a much more interesting but confused introduction to a series that never happened.  Both struggled with the constraints of the novella form, which McBain had abandoned maybe 40 or more years earlier, and Mosley probably had little or no experience with.

Westlake always had problems with the short story, but the novella was a form he felt much more confident in.  He’d published a two-novella collection back in ’77, proof of his wishing there was still a market for them.  Anarchaos (a science fiction novel I’m not sure would have been in Lawless’ collection, though it fits Felix’s description to a T) is little more than a novella, and he probably didn’t even get 500 dollars for it.

In his early days, Richard Stark was writing basically nothing but novels about the same length as Walking the Line, but a whole lot more focused and sure of themselves, with a protagonist who disdains both soapboxes and sidekicks.  And I am much inclined to think Stark’s the one who really wrote–

Walking Around Money:

Dortmunder said, “It’s a heist.”

“A quiet heist,” Querk told him.  “No hostages, no explosions, no standoffs.  In, out, nobody ever knows it happened.  Believe me, the only way this scores for us is if nobody ever knows anything went missing.”

“Huh,” Dortmunder said.

“You oughta try cough drops,” Querk suggested.

I gave the game away up top, so might as well just say it.  This is a clear rewrite of The Man With the Getaway Face.  I say clear, even though I didn’t twig to it on my previous reading–Westlake always hid his recycling well.  It doesn’t play out the same way, because Dortmunder is not Parker, he lives in a much less brutal reality than Parker,  and he’s never getting plastic surgery (though he probably could use it more), but the stories share a skeleton, and his name is Querk–though it used to be Skimm.

Querk:  A skinny little guy, maybe fifty, with a long face, heavy black eyebrows over banana nose over thin-lipped mouth over long bony chin, he fidgeted constantly on that wire-mesh chair in Paley Park, a vest pocket park on East 3rd Street in Manhattan, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

Skimm: He was a thin stub end of a man, all bones and skin with no meat.  His head was long and thin, set on a chicken neck with a knotty Adam’s apple, and his face was all nose and cheekbones. The watery eyes were set deep in the skull, the jaw small and hard.

In both cases, there’s a woman at the back of it.  A mean frustrated New Jersey waitress named Alma who is just using Skimm in the Stark novel.  A good-natured hearty trout-fishing upstate New York travel agent named Janet, for Querk, with a pernicious habit of trying to improve the men in her life.   Both a bit on the hefty side, but attractively so.  Big difference is that Janet actually wants to be with Querk–Stark can relax and be a bit more mellow and forgiving here, but it’s still Stark–hell, he was actually wordier in his physical description of Skimm.

Janet likes the man she’s using (Querk will make a good project for her), but they are still both looking for an escape route–her from a really bad marriage with an abusive paranoid who works for the phone company.  Him from having to work at his brother’s printing company, having been trained for the old school non-digital printing industry that no longer exists during his last stint in prison, and only his brother would hire him on.

The plant sometimes prints money–lots and lots of money.  But security is lax there, because it’s not our money.  It’s Guerraran money, siapas–yep, Guerrera is back for one last encore.  (And please recall, Guerrara also exists in the Starkian universe, albeit under the more masculine alias Guerrero.)

The pitch is simple–Querk works at the plant.  He can get them in during a period when it’s shut down a few weeks so that the river that serves as its power source can be opened up for the annual trout run.  They’ll get the power to run the presses from a mobile generator kept at the local firehouse they can borrow with none the wiser.  They print themselves a hundred billion siapas, in twenty million siapa notes.  This will come to about 500g’s in our money.  (No, I don’t know why they don’t just make the siapa worth more, I’m not an economist, ask Paul Krugman or somebody.)

Instead of being the finger on this job, like Alma was in the earlier book, Janet’s involvement is explained by her having a contact in Guerrera who can fence the money for them, demanding a hefty cut of course.  Kelp goes to check out this story, finds it lacking in credibility.  Like Parker and Handy before them, Dortmunder and Kelp smell a cross in the making.  This alone should tell you who’s writing this, since that’s a common twist in the Parker novels that only showed up once in the Dortmunders before now.

Where Stark and Westlake come together is in their endless interest in their surroundings–you gotta know the territory.  But the territory has changed a lot since the early 60’s.  Querk explains the job to them while they are parked along the West Side Highway–remember how much I loved the familiar settings of the second Parker novel, so near where I grew up?  This is equally familiar, but much more contemporary. And a lot less noir-ish, but that goes with the territory as well.

Querk said, “What is this?”

“Fairway,” Kelp told him, as he found a parking space on the left and drove into it, front bumper against fence.  It was hot outside, so he kept the engine on and the windows shut.

Querk said, “I don’t get it.”

“What it is,” Kelp told him, putting the Infiniti in park, “Harlem never had a big supermarket, save money on your groceries, they only had these little corner stores, not much selection on the shelves.  So this Fairway comes in, that used to be a warehouse over there, see it?”

Querk nodded at the big warehouse with the supermarket entrance. “I see it.”

Kelp said, “So they put in a huge supermarket, great selections, everything cheap, the locals love it.  But also the commuters, it’s easy on, easy off, see, there’s your north-bound ramp back up to the highway, so they can come here, drop in, buy everything for the weekend, then head off to their country retreat.”

Querk said, “But why us?  What are we doin’ here?”

Dortmunder told him, “You look around, you’ll see one, two people, even three, sitting in the cars around here.  The wife–usually, it’s the wife–goes in and shops, the husband and the houseguests, they stay out here, keep outa the way, sit in the car, tell each other stories.”

Kelp said, “Tell us a story, Kirby.”

Dortmunder and Kelp don’t make one wrong move this whole mini-book.  They scout every problem out before it happens.  There are no surprises.  The idea wasn’t that Querk and Janet would kill them, but just scoot off to Guerrera with all the cash, never to be seen again.  They get surprised–by Janet’s crazy husband, and by their criminal co-conspirators being so much smarter than they look. (As Kelp says at the end, “That’s what we specialize in.”)

But other than uncomfortable rental cars (they decide it’s too long-term a job for Kelp to borrow some doctor’s luxuriant Lexus or whatever), bad upstate food, and a brief moment of buying into Querk’s original story, there are no embarrassments for Dortmunder here.  He’s finally what he’s always wanted to be–a Stark heister.  But without one vital little element.

See, the job goes off fine, without a hitch, they have the money, they’ve neutralized the crazy wife-beating husband (Janet’s black eye was a vital clue for Inspector Kelp), they’ve got Querk and Janet at their mercy–and they show mercy.  Kind of.  See, in the words of Lord Vader, they have altered the deal. Maybe Querk and Janet would have been better off with Parker.  It’d be over faster.

The original deal was that Dortmunder and Kelp get a bit over 62 grand to split between them.  In dollars.  New deal is Querk and Janet can run away together to beautiful scenic Guerrera, as planned.  They can take one box of freshly minted walking around money,  a hundred thousand bucks’ worth of siapas to start their new life together, mazel tov.   But here comes the catch.

Querk said, “Where am I gonna get that money?”

“You’re gonna steal it,” Dortmunder told him.  “That’s what you do, remember?  You gave up on reform.”

Querk hung his head.  The thought of a Guerreran jail moved irresistably through his mind.

Meanwhile, Dortmunder said, “If you don’t show up in six months, the four boxes will go to the cops with an anonymous letter with your names and a description of the scheme and where you’re hiding out, and the probable numbers on your siapas.  And then, you’ve got nothing.”

“Jeez,” Querk said.

“Look at it this way,” Dortmunder suggested.  “You lied to us, you abused our trust, but we aren’t getting even, we aren’t hurting you.  Because all we want is what’s ours.  So, one way or another, you keep your side of the bargain, and we keep ours.  Looking past Querk at the window, he said, “Here’s the goddam compact, I hope we can fit these boxes in there.  Come on, Querk, help me carry the loot.”

I can imagine many faithful readers of this series coming to this point in the story and exclaiming out loud, “Why is Dortmunder being so mean?”  He was pretty damn mean in The Hot Rock–many since have learned you don’t want to tick him off–usually some wealthy powerful person who did a lot worse than just stiff him.  Querk and Janet are basically nice people (as opposed to good people) who only wanted to escape their unsatisfactory lives, and needed to stiff somebody in order to start over from scratch.

But they stiffed the wrong guy.  And they didn’t realize who was writing this story.  A much harsher god than Donald Westlake.  Who is enjoying the chance to administer justice without the use of firearms or huge veiny hands.  A change is as good as a rest, as they say.

Far and away the best novella of the three on offer here–I couldn’t say about the remaining seven in the original hardcover.  Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King are no slouches, Lawrence Block recently put out maybe the best novella I’ve ever read via Kindle, which is proving to be the savior of that long-neglected form.  But could anybody beat a tag-team composed of Donald E. Westlake and Richard Stark?  Talk about a handicap match.

His entry, in a form none of them employed regularly, is the best because he’s not trying for something bigger, bolder, brassier, he’s not trying to save the world in 40,000 words or less, he’s not jumping on any soapboxes.  He’s just using this opportunity to try a little experiment–what would Dortmunder be like if Stark wrote him?  And he’s not going to tell anybody that’s what he’s doing.  Because that would skew the data.

Which I suppose is what I’ve just done, but it’s been over ten years now, and I think the statute of limitations has expired, along with the author, sadly.  Only Mosley is left now.  They should have set up a tontine or something.  For all I know they did.  That would make for an interesting novella, don’t you think?

I think it’s going to be a while before my next review, since I haven’t had time to reread the next Dortmunder novel, and it’s a long one, with all the extra plot elements Stark summarily dispensed with here.  Maybe I’ll find something to write about in the nonce, maybe not.  Forgive my transgressions, gentle readers, as I would forgive yours, had you any.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels, Richard Stark