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 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 the other swimmers.

The authors 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. Can’t say the same for Mosley, before now.  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 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.



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

45 responses to “Review: Transgressions

  1. “It’s sub-par McBain, the clichés are too thick on the ground–hmm, speak of the devil–but it still grips you.” . . . well, don’t fret about this bit of devilment overmuch, good sir. “The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.” (Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!)

    • And just like hammers and screwdrivers, you need to know how and when to employ them. The right tool for the task. There’s an interesting book out now that uses computer text analysis to parse the work of various successful scribes, and see how often each of them does the very things they all say a writer shouldn’t ever do. And in each and every case, all of them do that very thing.

      (If you’ve suddenly noticed me using fewer adverbs ending in ‘ly’ lately, this curmudgeonly little book is literally the only reason for that. Whoops.)

  2. Well. I wasn’t prepared to discuss anything but the Westlake, but maybe I’ll use your downtime to catch up. In the meantime, I’d first like to address a couple of issues I have with McBain’s introduction to “Walking Around Money” (if indeed it was McBain who wrote it):

    The Ax, about a man who wants vengeance on the company that downsized him out of a job…

    Well, no. Burke never seriously contemplates vengeance against his former company. He rightly recognizes the futility of such a gesture. No, his murder spree has a much more practical goal, and is all the more interesting for it.

    “…inept thief John Dortmunder…”

    Nope. He certainly has some odd luck, but he’s not inept, which was never more evident than in the very novella this passage introduces.

    • I noticd both of those, but decided they weren’t essential to the review–for some reason, I thought suggesting Chester Himes didn’t add racial politics to the mix when writing crime fiction did merit a correction.

      I am glad you brought it up–we can assume Hunter read much if not most of what Westlake wrote. But I think Westlake was far subtler than him, as a writer and as a man. So the finer points may well have escaped him.

      But is it conceivable he never read The Ax? Or is it more that if he’d written that story, he would have made it about a man seeking vengeance on his employers, the people who are to blame for his predicament? Writers rewrite other writers in their mind. A reflex action, they can’t help themselves. And, you know, he was half a step from the grave when he wrote that.

      I keep meaning to read King’s Ransom, the 87th Precinct novel that was the basis for Kurosawa’s High and Low. Probably some class politics in that, though probably less than in the film.

      Particularly strange he’d call Dortmunder inept to introduce this story, where Dortmunder was never epter. 😉

      • Here’s a nitpick of my own–we’re told these are novellas written by three New York Times bestselling authors. The Ax reportedly made the back end of the L.A. Times list, but I’ve looked and looked, and I don’t believe Westlake ever got on the board when it came to the Grey Lady.

        They have to sell books, and one way to convince people to buy a book is so say “Lots of people have bought books by this writer and so should you!”

        So are they going to say “Two New York Times best-selling authors and Donald E Westlake?”

        Pretty sure Mosley and McBain made the list, but I don’t have infinite time to check these things.

        • How’s this for a technicality? He made the business bestseller list for The Ax on August 3, 1997:

          • Hah! Well scouted! And please note, the blurb there says the story is about revenge as well. Seemingly a common misunderstanding. Subtlety doesn’t make the best-seller lists very often, does it now?

            Between his own incessant writing, and his complicated love life, I wonder how much time Hunter had for reading?

            Subject change–NOBODY wants to argue the point with me over Stark being in the driver’s seat on this one? Am I the last one to figure this out, or are you all just tiptoeing nervously around the crazy man who thinks a writer can ghost-write for himself? You know, like I think Westlake ghost-wrote the first Grofield for Stark? And it’s a matter of record that the first Dortmunder novel began as a Parker novel.

            I admit, I do not know at what point he decided this was a secret Stark. But he knew before he finished it, that’s for damn sure.

            • I admit to not knowing much if anything about Stark and Parker (outside of Jimmy the Kid, which has always left me with an odd taste in my mouth because it seems to me to make Dortmunder and all a bit too hapless and wacky. (Sorry — I know it’s one of your favorites.)

              Anyway, where I was going with this is that, FWIW, I hadn’t thought of the Dortmunder-by-Stark idea for this novella — and I, for one, like it.

              • Some might argue that ‘hapless and wacky’ is the wheelhouse for this entire series, but I don’t. In a sense, O. Henry wrote that one. Westlake channeling O. Henry, put it that way. Maybe this is just Westlake channeling Stark, but then who or what is Stark?

                Ah, the perplexities of identity.

            • I think it’s a sound theory, though I think it’s worth noting where Stark and Westlake diverge. In TMWTGF, Stark shows us Parker and Handy discussing the impending double-cross, and what they need to do about it. It’s very straightforward, as we’d expect from Stark. Westlake plays it a bit differently. He’s all about understatement and subtext. He knows that we know that Dortmunder and Kelp know that their partners are planning a cross, but he doesn’t come right out and state that, and he doesn’t show us the scene in which Dortmunder and Kelp acknowledge it to each other. He just shows us their countermeasures in real time, and then later he backtracks.

              Come to think of it, that structure kind of matches Stark’s four-part Parker novel pattern, with the third part taking others’ perspectives and the fourth part switching back to Parker to explain how he got there.

              So yeah, Stark helped with the plotting. But the characters and language still feel like pure Westlake to me.

              • Yeah, it’s the Stark Rewind, no question–and I was so focused on getting this one in under 7,000 words (lest it turn into a novella of its own) that I forgot to mention that. Again, you have saved me from my perverse aversion to the outline, that stems back to grammar school composition courses. I still can’t diagram a sentence, and I’m damn proud of it!

                I mean, it’s all a metaphor, right? It’s always the same guy writing this stuff, however his personality quirks may change in response when he’s at the typewriter. Westlake had more than one mode of self-expression, even when writing solely under his own name. Stark could have a (somewhat) gentler side to his nature. The Grofield novels prove that, if nothing else. Dortmunder is, if anything, closer to the Starkian ethos than Grofield ever was.

  3. Well, was this the paperback that bore this blurb? If so, when was it published? Maybe this is the bestseller they meant. . . .

    • No, it wasn’t. And bear in mind, there are no federal laws regulating the use of the word ‘bestseller’–there’s not even an agreed upon set of numbers to determine which books are bestsellers. That’s why the different lists compiled by different publications all disagree with each other.

      I’m just being persnickety. Thing is, I wish Westlake had been a true bestselling author. But at the same time, I’m glad he wasn’t. And as usual, I assume he had the same conflicted attitude towards this yardstick of authorly success.

      • Hrumph! See if I do you a light-hearted research favor again for a while! . . . :}

        Well, I hope we can settle for agreeing that he was a best, selling author. (That is, he was a selling, working author — and he was one of the best.)

        • That was the consensus opinion among his devoted readers, long before this blog existed.

          My goal has been to extend the consensus to the more casual Westlake reader.

  4. Reviewing novellas isn’t much easier than writing them, I think. At least for me. Too long for a thumbnail review, too short for my usual endless dithering about. I did okay with the two in Enough!, but I did not want to make this a two parter, let alone a three-parter, so my goal was to focus in on the essential elements in each story, and as usual, I left some things out.

    1)Mosley’s novella and (most particularly its protagonist)bears more than a passing resemblance to The Caveman’s Valentine. I’ve only seen the movie with Sam Jackson, and I like it much more than the critics and the filmgoers did. I have not read the novel by George Dawes Green, but seems pretty likely that Mosley did–he’s been interviewed by Green. Proudly paranod slightly schizophrenic dreadlocked detective nursing conspiracy theories, except in this case, they’re more than just phantoms of the mind. Riffing on the same changes, I’d call it in jazzspeak. If the influence went from Green to Mosley, no harm, no foul (particularly since Green got his novel published, and sold it to Hollywood).

    2)Reading Mosley’s novella, I thought I saw the influence of Rex Stout. Looking at the color-themed titles for his Easy Rawlins books, I felt sure I was seeing a disciple of John D. MacDonald. Full marks for Inspector Fred–I found an interview where he was being pumped about which mystery writers he most admired, and those were the names he brought up. Chester Himes made no bones about his debt to Dashiell Hammett–and much as Hammett was the more influential writer, I think Himes was the better one. I’ll have to see about Mosley (but that would also mean reading a lot more Stout and MacDonald as well).

    • One more Mosley-related musing–you’ll see the headshot of him is of a much younger man than the one who would have submitted this story to McBain. That’s not because I necessarily think that’s how old he was when he wrote it–though I think this story does reflect many of his more youthful interests and ideals, both political and literary, and Felix is evidently, to some limited extent, himself as a young man, following a different star.

      But no, I picked that one because I wanted the three images of the three authors to all be roughly the same size, and sometimes making it come out that way on WordPress can be a real bitch. I kept experimenting with older versions of Mosley, and it never balanced out right. One or the other would turn into a giant in the non-literary sense, and the others would look terrified he was going to grind their bones to make his bread. This one worked. And the black and white makes a nice contrast. So does the novella. I figure I can start reading some Mosley pretty soon. Only six more Westlake novels to go. And the odd bit of ephemera.

  5. Anthony

    The early books – Kelp annoys Dortmunder and is full of stories about who’s not available for a job because of some outlandish event and says don’t blame me, it’s what I heard.

    The middle books – Kelp annoys Dortmunder and is full of technology adoration which turns out at times to be helpful


    I’m not sure when Walking Around Money was written, but it seems to me that the Kelp-Dortmunder relationship got tweaked slightly starting with Bad News. All that talking without moving their lips stuff demonstrated, essentially, that despite the personality quirks they did in fact work together as a well oiled machine. With the rest of the gang, things had to be explained between the characters to a greater degree, but a D-K telepathy – like that of, say, Nick and Nora Charles or even any reasonably happy long married couple – was now a given. This pattern, having been established, lived on through the rest of the series and is very evident in this novella, perhaps only because the other gang members are not part of this story. Westlake didn’t use Dortmunder-Kelp dialogue to provide exposition for the reader because that was not who Dortmunder and Kelp were at this point.

    • They were very much out of O. Henry and Runyan earlier in the series, not to mention Laurel and Hardy. My explanation for why the dynamic changed is that Westlake could only write the same shtik so many times. He couldn’t help tweaking something, even something that worked. He had to tinker, make it better or at least different. And while Dortmunder may be star-crossed, he’s no buffoon–how could we have any respect for him if he kept working with a guy, and the heists never worked out?

      Your timeline is on the money, I’d say. Kelp is always necessary to the story–as necessary as Dortmunder. But his function in the series changes over time. Well, he’s learning. We all are, right? I hope so.

      Dortmunder and Kelp hadn’t worked together for quite some time before The Hot Rock, and there were some gaps in their working relationship after that. I think the big turning point was Why Me? Dortmunder couldn’t understand why Kelp would put himself at risk to help him out of a jam. It changed their dynamic, this recognition that what they had was actually a friendship, not just an arrangement. Dortmunder never considered severing the connection after that.

      But right before that, in Nobody’s Perfect (the title mainly refers to Kelp) came the nadir of their relationship–it had reached the point where it was too much of a cartoon. So Kelp had to stop being the albatross, and start being useful, and stop getting on Dortmunder’s nerves so much. There could be other sources of aggravation for a man so easily aggravated.

      Which makes it all the more fascinating that Westlake turned this novella into a re-imagining of the Richard Stark novel that introduced the most compatible of Parker’s criminal companions, Handy McKay. You’ve read it, right? Everybody who loves this genre should read that; it’s as perfect a crime novel as you could find.

      Parker and Handy understand each other, speak very nearly the same language, and you don’t see that with Parker very often. Parker is at ease with Handy, trusts his judgment, his instincts, his professional ‘ethics.’

      And Handy would like nothing better than for him and Parker to be a team, to be friends, but Parker won’t agree to that. He won’t allow himself that kind of connection. Handy is willing to march into the jaws of a mob stronghold with him, doesn’t even care if he scores or not–Parker can’t understand it, anymore than Dortmunder can. But his reaction is different from Dortmunder’s.

      He pushes Handy away (I don’t buy that Handy would have retired to that diner if he’d thought Parker wanted him around), merely using him as a ‘mailbox’, and eventually Handy McKay disappears from the series altogether, with no explanation (though a hell of a send-off). You would never, ever, see them hanging out at a bar together just for the sake of hanging out.

      Dortmunder is better socialized than Parker. Not a lot more, mind you. But some. Nobody sticks to Parker, except Claire. Dortmunder acquires people the way dogs acquire fleas.

      The advantage of being like Dortmunder is that you’ve got more back-up. The advantage of being like Parker is that you’ve got more space.

  6. Ray Garraty

    What you call recycling I call cannibalizing.

    • All authors do it, you know. Anna Karenina cannibalizes War and Peace–Levin is just a rebooted Pierre, with the same problems, the same philosophical torments, and (ultimately) the same solution (marry a nice girl and have kids). But is it the same exact character arc both times? Nope.

      The point is to find out what it would be like if Stark wrote the Dortmunder stories. Stark has a sense of humor, but it’s very different from Westlake’s. Both Parker and Dortmunder have a loyal companion, but the interplay between them is different, because Kelp and Dortmunder know each other a lot better, and Dortmunder has given up trying to push Kelp away (perhaps a better name for Kelp would have been Barnacle).

      This Starkian Dortmunder is just as kvetchy, but perhaps a bit less creative. His only real contribution here is to figure out how he and Kelp can get their money, while at the same time non-fatally punishing their faithless co-conspirators. Just like Parker, he wants exactly what was promised him, no more and sure as hell not one penny less. He was always a comical alternate universe Parker, but it was never this explicit before.

      Read it sometime (it doesn’t take long). It’s a lot more than just copying an old story and hoping nobody would notice. He was hoping somebody would notice. That’s the whole point, but if he came out and said “This is Dortmunder written by Richard Stark,” that would ruin it.

      I’m sure I can’t be the first to figure this out, but there’s been so little writing about Westlake that it just amounted to a bunch of scattered readers thinking “Hey….!”

      • Anthony

        “Bad artists copy, great artists steal.”

        Attributed to Pablo Picasso, and to many others, which in and of itself demonstrates its veracity.

        Whether Westlake/Stark ever thought this is probably unknown, but he sure as hell demonstrated it

        • Stark openly accused Westlake of stealing material from old movies. While he was stealing money from Westlake, Coe, and Culver.

          DONALD E. WESTLAKE: Will you take a check?

          RICHARD STARK: Beat the Devil, 1954, Robert Morley to Humphrey Bogart. They ought to ask me where you get your ideas. You, Tucker Coe, on your feet.

          No question, Westlake got the idea of Parker having plastic surgery from Dark Passage (no idea whether he encountered the Goodis novel or its WB adaptation first), and did so without a qualm, since everybody knows that one. Print and celluloid swap ideas back and forth incessantly in this genre. Symbiotic relationship, or at least it was.

          But even allowing that Westlake could steal from Stark (a very fine point of copyright law), since I think Stark wrote this one, it’s pushing things a bit to say he could steal from himself. And nothing in Walking Around Money is derived from either version of Dark Passage. Which is not half the book The Man With the Getaway Face is. As I said a while back, Goodis still had his best work ahead of him when he wrote that. A shame that’s the one most people still remember him for.

          The only verified incident of that variously attributed quote, incidentally, is from T.S. Eliot.

          immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

          He actually wrote that down, in 1920, so he owns it. And it makes more sense that way, doesn’t it? You don’t have to be a bad artist to copy, or a great one to steal. It’s simply that to begin with, you’re borrowing something you admire without understanding what makes it work. Once you do understand, it’s yours for the taking.

          Which doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as plagiarism. But plagiarism isn’t really theft–it’s imitation. Using somebody else’s inspiration to cover your own lack thereof. And nobody ever learns from that. Plagiarists become worse and worse writers over time. Thieves get better and better.

          Hemingway did not, in fact, say “You can steal from anyone you’re better than.” That was too arrogant even for him. This is what he did write to someone, and again, you really should have these quotes in writing, if you’re going to put any credit in them.

          Never compete with living writers. You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good. Then when you can pass them up you know you’re going good. You should have read all the good stuff so that you know what has been done, because if you have a story like one somebody else has written, yours isn’t any good unless you can write a better one. In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own.

          Eliot also says the good stealing is usually from somebody long dead. I don’t think Westlake would agree you can only know if dead writers are good or not–he thought his general contemporaries were well worth learning from. He certainly agreed you shouldn’t take bread from another writer’s mouth. That’s a whole different thing, particularly in genre, where nobody can long survive without borrowing, because you need to keep producing saleable work.

          Hemingway is confusing lasting fame with quality, because he’s still wondering if his fame will be lasting. You learn from anybody who has something to teach, but you become the teacher once you’ve internalized it. And after all, it’s not up to you to decide if you improved on an idea or not. What Hemingway was really saying was “Steal from the writers who can’t sue you and never admit to stealing from anybody who can, even though you did.” Westlake would have agreed with that, and found oblique ways to say as much himself (he was a more honest wordsmith than old Ernest).

          PS: I stole the revelation that it was T.S. Eliot from another wordpress blogger. But my blog is better, so it’s cool. 😉

          • Anthony

            Search domain

            This goes into a bit more detail, and is what I read prior to my post because I was always leery of the Picasso attribution. Even T.S. Eliot had a predecessor on the thought.

            Not surprising because it is a universal truth. Every artist – writer, painter, musician – is inspired and influenced by others and I would argue that it’s not possible to completely do one’s own thing. Every guitar lick or trumpet solo or poem – great, good, or bad – owes something to those that came before. That standing on the shoulders of giants thing.

            As far as plot contrivances or snippets of dialogue – again, done before. You mention old movies and pulp crime novels, but the net is cast wider. For all we know, one of the Parker novels might have been inspired from a Wizard of Id daily panel from 1963. Or Winnie-the-Pooh or the Bible.

            A good example of this is Jimmy Page. He referenced the Picasso “quote” in an interview, which is where it first came to my attention. It had never occurred to me that the riff in Moby Dick could be traced back to a similar but different one in the Beatles’ Eight Days a Week, but once the seed is planted it’s quite clear. Is this theft? No. Is it copying? No. Sure, you can say theft, but “inspired by” is probably more on the money.

            I paint as a hobby. When I first started i would try to copy photos or other people’s paintings as much as possible. It’s how I learned mechanics. Now, whatever I paint owes very little to the source material but the source material (usually my own photos) is always in there somewhere. Copying, theft, inspired by others, whatever you call it, again, it’s universal.

            • The person who started the colloquy was not, himself, a great artist of any kind, so he went with the conventional Victorian thought that stealing is always bad. Eliot, who knew what it was to make something original–and how much had gone into it–went the other way. If only to be perverse, to shock the reader, make him or her think.

              For every confirmed quote we can find, there would have been hundreds (thousands?) that were not preserved for posterity, even by misattribution. It was in the modern era that the artist became an important world figure–the romantic obsession with creativity. Before that, nobody much worried about who was influenced by whom. You liked it or you didn’t. An artist was just another working schmo. I’m not sure we weren’t better off that way.

              The more original you are, the more aware you are of how original you are not. And if you forget, someone will remind you. I mean, who was more original than Oscar Wilde? And yet this story, in all its variations, seems to be authentic at its core.


              To be seen as original is a terrible burden for an artist. People expect so much of you, and you must somehow keep producing. Small wonder most ‘great’ writers of the 20th century were not, by and large, terribly prolific, less and less so as the century dragged on.

              Which is why I often tend to prefer the writers who managed to avoid that stifling mantle–at least until after they were safely dead.

      • Ray Garraty

        I’m not saying like it’s something amoral. Everybody’s cannibalizing. I even think it’s a sign of professionalism.

        • Fair enough. But it’s more than professionalism–it’s curiosity. How will it turn out? Will people realize what he’s doing? He’s stuck with just two series now, for the rest of his career. He might as well have some fun with it.

          He already tried writing Parker as Dortmunder–that’s why there is a Dortmunder. What if he writes Dortmunder as Parker? Yeah, he kind of did that in Jimmy the Kid, but not really. Because Parker would never involve himself in a kidnapping. The next logical step is to write a Dortmunder story based around a Parker story. Then figure out how Dortmunder would react. Differently than Parker. But not entirely differently.

  7. Mike Schilling

    I like the Dortmunder as by Stark rubric. It covers all the similarities mentioned thus far.

    One thing I found interesting. When Kelp tells Querk about Anne Marie, he says that Janet will like her. You might recall than when he first tells Anne Marie about May (talking very fast to dispel the impression that he’s trying to set her up with John) he says “You’d like her!”. In both cases, he’s a bit too sunny, so this was an early clue that he doesn’t trust Querk.

    • Interesting catch (and you’ve got the right icon for that), but I might mention that Anne Marie and May did end up liking each other, quite a lot. In the former case, he’s worried that Anne Marie won’t trust him, so he wants her to know he’s not some creep on the make, he’s got friends, a social network, which is going to mean something to a girl like her. He’s on the make all right, but it’s a bit more than that–he’s noticed that Dortmunder has a good thing going with May, Tiny’s apparently doing good with J.C., and he’d like to maybe try that out, see how this monogamy thing works, what you can do with it. In this one case, not such an early adopter, was Mr. Kelp.

      Dortmunder distrusts Querk from the start. Kelp is the one pushing the job (as is usually the case in their relationship, another difference between their dynamic and Parker/Handy, clearly Mr. Stark read the Dortmunders carefully, well of course he did, this is silly, but I’m doing it anyway). Whatever doubts he has, he’s going to keep them on the down-low, because he doesn’t want to scare Querk away, or give Dortmunder an excuse to bail.

      It’s made clear that Kelp needs this job, he mentions his finances are a bit shaky. And why would that be? Because while Dortmunder has May, who brings home free groceries, and just sort of rolls her eyes about Dortmunder blowing his scores at the track, he has Anne Marie, who is in fact a lot like Claire–just out of an unsatisfactory marriage, very attractive, turned on by Kelp’s lifestyle but not wanting to participate in it much (can you see her moving to a little town upstate for weeks, knowing she could drown there at any moment?), and extremely high maintenance.

      (And Andy Kelp, for all his charms, is never going to have the same effect on women that Parker does. Parker doesn’t have to bring anything home but himself, the money, and his huge veiny hands. I assume not the only appendages of that general description he possesses.)

      There’s a running gag in the later books where she’s more or less telling Andy she expects to be kept in the style to which she has become accustomed–he better keep bringing home nice things for her, because after all, he got the better end of the deal in their relationship (he ‘married up,’ as they say, even though it’s not technically true in this case), and it’s not like he’s got the same effect on women that Parker does.

      He brings her furs and jewels, and then they screw. It’s a mutually satisfactory arrangement, but it does put some pressure on Andy to perform, in more ways than one. She’s also logistically useful to him in the same ways Claire was to Parker. Never in the ways May is to Dortmunder. She’s the Claire Carroll of this dimension. I just figured that out now. And that might be why Stark would invoke her–while not actually including her, because he so rarely does include Claire, and anyway, it’s a novella.

      I debated about whether to make Transgressions a two-parter, and devote the entire second part to Walking Around Money. This was, for me, a very cursory treatment of one of Westlake’s most interesting efforts from the last few years of his life. I managed somehow to make each mini-review about the same length–equal treatment. I found that more satisfying, and there’s no need to analyze every single story to death. And to have discovered an uncredited Stark novella seemed revelation enough in itself. Westlake was the pseudonym, for once. How he must have smiled at that.

      But they are not equal, these three novellas. Westlake is in full control of his material from start to finish; McBain and Mosley both falter a bit in the home stretch. They are, as I said, using this as an opportunity to try something out of the ordinary for them, stretch out. He’s merely combining his two best-established modes of storytelling. Without telling anyone he’s doing that.

      Kelp is always a bit too sunny–that’s his thing. That’s one more aspect that makes him a counterpart to Dortmunder, the perfect foil for him. Under that sunny exterior, there may not precisely be hidden depths, but there are uncharted coves.

      • There’s this thing early on, where Dortmunder and Kelp are discussing the pros and cons of this ex-con, and Kelp is clearly just as dubious as Dortmunder, so he’s muttering, not quite believing what he himself is saying, but so desperate to find a way to make this job doable (partly because successful scores make Anne Marie more doable).

        So finally, to win Dortmunder over, Kelp says they’ll go talk to the mutual friend who sent Querk to them, get the whole skinny on him–another Stark thing–this guy sent Querk to to them because he himself is retired from The Profession. Parker often gets into bad situations by working with not-so-solid guys he got in contact with through past associates who aren’t working anymore, or are working on something else. (And he’s got the Anne Marie Karpinow of his dimension to keep in the style to which she has become accustomed.)

        Dortmunder can’t argue with Kelp’s reasoning, but he’d like to, so now he’s muttering.

        “Mutter,” Dortmunder muttered.

        I really could have done a full-length review of this one, no problem. It has more than enough in it to warrant the traditional TWR synopsis. But I figured hey, what’s the comments section for?

        Go on, find something else. I’m still a few days off from Part 1 of my next review. Yeah, it’s a Part 1. Long book. More to it than I thought. Well, there almost always is with Westlake.

        • mikesschilling

          Well, there’s a couple meetings at Dortmunder’s, and Querk shows what an outsider he is by suggesting they shouldn’t be planning a crime in front of May.

          • To which she responds “Aw, that’s nice.” So courtly. But unlike Claire, she likes to hear the details. Actually, so does Anne Marie, after the first book or two. J.C. doesn’t really seem to care either way, though since we never see her and Tiny at home, it’s hard to tell.

            Obviously Janet, Querk’s girl, knows all. Now pretty sure that in The Man With The Getaway Face, Skimm does not know about any impending cross. He knows Parker, and he knows what the consequences are if you take Parker’s cut. He doesn’t even need the money from the heist, but he needs to work, and he needs a woman. Alma’s interest in him is solely centered around the money. Skimm refuses to see this, because he’s reached that last chance stage in his life cycle, and that’s what it turns out to be.

            Here it’s a mutual needs thing–they both need to get away, they both need to start over, Janet would normally be a little bit out of Querk’s league, but she’s in a bad marriage, and she likes a challenge. It’s unclear whether they’re really in love, or just think they are, but it can amount to the same thing. They’re in love with the idea of a fresh start. Querk’s never going to beat up his woman, Janet’s never going to stab him and take the cash, and they both like fishing. Lasting relationships have been based on far less.

            It is a bit romantic, the way he goes fishing before the job, thinking that this is the part of the stream where he first met her, “beautiful in her fishing hat and waders.” Aw, that’s nice. They’re nice people. But they crossed Dortmunder. In a novella written by Richard Stark. They got off easy.

            • mikesschilling

              My point was about how in the previous book the gang couldn’t meet at Dortmunder’s because May wouldn’t go for it.

              • Well, that was a bit of a contrivance from the previous book, but we discussed that already. We don’t know when precisely Westlake wrote this novella. For all we know, he handed it in to McBain before he wrote Watch Your Back! The O.J. isn’t even mentioned here.

                But see, I don’t think Westlake did write this one, exactly. Would Parker ever have a regular hang-out in a bar, where everybody knew his name? Would Grofield? Self-evidently not. Nor would Parker plan anything at the house in New Jersey, even if Claire wasn’t sensitive about things like that–they don’t really plan anything at the apartment, that scene doesn’t really serve much of a purpose–unless it’s just a way to have May in the story. Why would Stark want May in the story?

                Huh–I just remembered–years before we met May Bellamy, a different May appears in The Man With the Getaway Face. The physical descriptions are quite similar, though the characters and their ultimate fates are not. That could be yet another hint we all missed. Though May is in all the Dortmunders after Bank Shot, so admittedly, not a dead giveaway.

                Now I don’t really believe this, you understand, but I’ve always wondered–where did May come from? She doesn’t seem to be a native New Yorker either. She seems awfully familiar with crime and criminals. What Stark’s May does to Parker, threatening him with exposure, isn’t all that different from what Westlake’s May does to Chepkoff, that sleazy wholesaler, when he’s giving Dortmunder a hard time.

                The May in the earlier book would have had to go somewhere else after her meal ticket died, right? Sadder and wiser. And maybe liking Parker, as women invariably do, in spite of the way she treated him, but finding him too mean and tough (and out of her league)–and then fate drops a more tractable gettable version of Parker into her lap. In an entirely different dimension. No, I don’t believe that for a second, but neither do I believe Westlake wasn’t thinking about how in some weird way, one of his most beloved supporting characters began life as a Richard Stark character who was anything but lovable.

                Here, we have them meeting at a variety of locations that were never seen before or since in the series–the novella opens in Paley Park, that nice little respite in the center of Manhattan, with the faux waterfall that conveniently masks what you’re saying. Later, they’re at the Fairway parking lot, where they can just be some guys waiting for their women to come back with the groceries. Stark trying to rationalize Dortmunder, make him a more efficient believable crook than he normally is. Move around, don’t be predictable.

                Reflexive tinkering aside, Stark knows he can never make Dortmunder into Parker, and he shouldn’t try. From the chapter at the apartment–

                Kelp said “So you’ll take the chance.”

                “The odds are so extreme,” Querk said. “I mean, unless one of you guys is a Jonah, I don’t see I’ve got anything to worry about. I’ll risk it.”

                Nobody said anything.

  8. Pingback: Spread It Around: Walking Around Money | consideringstories

  9. Been forgetting to mention–that little bit about Fairway in Walking Around Money–out of date now. The Harlem Fairway is going to close. They tried to get somebody to buy it, keep it open, maybe under a diffferent name–the only thing anyone wants to buy is the parking lot.

    People there are sad about it, but the thing is, the people behind the Fairway chain got over-ambitious, hubristic, started opening up stores outside the city, where they got crushed by the big box competition, and developed liquidity problems. They got notions above their station, which was to run a decent city supermarket with more choices than the usual. The flagship store on the Upper West will go on, at least a while.

    It’s basically Tower Records all over again, only people still buy food, so no excuses.

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