“What it is,” Mr. Dortmunder said, “we got a real problem getting at that thing down in that place, like I told you last time.”
“I’m sorry this whole thing got started,” she said.
“Well, so am I, but here we are.” He shrugged. “The thing is,” he said, “your grandfather and the guy working for him, they’re pretty set on getting that thing. Or, I mean, me getting that thing.”
She felt so guilty about this, much worse than mistaking him for a beggar. “Would it help,” she said, “if I talked to my grandfather?”
“Defeatist isn’t gonna get far with him.”
That sounded like her grandfather, all right. Sighing, she said, “I suppose not.”
“But there maybe could be another way,” he said.
Surprised, ready to be pleased, she said, “Oh, really?”
“Only,” he said, “it’s gonna mean I’m gonna have to ask you to help out.”
She stopped, absorbed a couple rabbit punches from the hurrying throng, and said, “Oh, no, Mr. Dortmunder!”
They’d reached the corner now, and he said, “Come on around here, before they knock you out.”
The side street was easier. Walking along it, she said, “You have to understand, Mr. Dortmunder, I’m an attorney. I’m an officer of the court. I can’t be involved in crime.”
“That’s funny,” he said. “I’ve heard of one or two lawyers involved in crime.”
“Criminal lawyers, yes.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
This title begs a rhetorical question–and the answer is “lots, but not the title itself.” Rather generic, isn’t it? You’d think Westlake could have stuck a chess reference in there, given the subject matter. Kings, queens, knights, bishops, castles, gambits, sacrifices, isolated pawns–it’s endless.
The Dortmunder titles (and many other non-Dortmunder titles of Westlake’s) are often popular turns of phrase, turned on their heads. But I can’t see how that’s the case here. The word ‘funny’ appears an unremarkable nine times in the book (thank you, Kindle), one of which you can see in the quote up top, but nothing close to this specific phrase ever appears. Whereas, in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, the titular phrase serves as a leitmotif, a much-repeated rhetorical question that keeps getting answered in ways that are all too sadly predictable, much like the currently breaking news stories that refuse to stop breaking, no matter how you beg.
If he didn’t want to get all inside-chessball, Your Move would have worked better than What’s So Funny? Too Many Rooks would work, but is derivative of an earlier story. Every Rook and Plan B? I’m not saying the title couldn’t be worse, you understand.
This becomes all the more puzzling when we consider that Westlake did not shun chess-themed titling when it came to the internal structure of the book, divided as it is into two roughly equal parts–Knights Errand and Pawn’s Revenge. Part Two begins with Chapter 33. (I’ve given up trying to figure out how Westlake decided whether the chapter count should be reset when he started a new section. Maybe he flipped a coin? Or the bird?)
Pawn’s Revenge would seem to refer to Dortmunder’s retribution against newly minted private investigator, Johnny Eppick. This comes, paradoxically, towards the end of Part One, after Dortmunder is told his services won’t be required after all, and he won’t be paid for his time, which predictably triggers his less lethal version of Parker’s reaction to being shortchanged.
He holds Eppick responsible for this indignity, even though it’s Hemlow who is stiffing him. It was Eppick who put a handle on his back, forced him into a job he never wanted, by finding proof of his involvement in a minor burglary. Eppick’s the one who has to pay.
A few weeks pass, and then the cocksure retired police detective, enjoying his little private eye fantasy (and hoping to somehow make it pay) finds his own office has been burgled, clearly by a seasoned pro, who defeated his security system with contemptuous ease. Everything there worth stealing is gone. The evidence against Dortmunder has mysteriously disappeared (along with the computer it was stored on). Takes him a while to figure out whodunnit (not much of a sleuth, when you get right down to it).
This is the pawn’s revenge, and I’m not sure I see how what follows in Part Two is revenge of any kind. Dortmunder is only interested in profit after that. So I’m even quibbling over the sub-titles. Enough about the titles, already. I’ve some of my own to think up, as I finish this one out. How about we start off with–
This is a subplot that straddles both parts of the book. In the early stages of planning the heist of the chess set, Dortmunder and Kelp are chauffeured to a Hemlow’s hunting lodge in the wilds of northern Massachusetts, which nobody in his family wants to use anymore, and he figures would be a good place to stow the goods until the heat fades.
They check the place out, and it’s definitely isolated. What they miss out on is the porn. See, there’s two kids from Nebraska holed up there, and I use that phrase advisedly.
Brady tried find his place in the Kama Sutra even while Nessa kept on galloping beneath him at cheetah speed, putting him in a position similar to the person who has to rub his belly and pat his forehead at the same time. Got it; that page! Brady bent to his lesson, and Nessa abruptly stopped.
Brady reared back. “Already? No!”
An urgent hand reached around behind her to grasp his hip. “A car!” she cried, her words only half muffled by the pillow.
Now he too heard it, the throaty purr of some expensive automobile rolling up toward the house. Flinging the Kama Sutra away, he leaped off the bed and ran across the large master bedroom toward the front windows, as behind him Nessa scrambled into her clothes.
A long sleek black limousine rolled to a stop at the garage door behind which Brady’s battered Honda Civic sat, as Brady peeked around the curtain. The car doors opened down there and four men climbed out, one at first on hands and knees until two of the others helped him up. The one from the front seat in the chauffeur’s hat would be a chauffeur, and he’s the one who led the others toward the house, taking a key ring from his pocket.
The door wasn’t locked! Racing back across the room, grabbing his jeans from the floor but nothing else, Brady shrilly whispered, “Hide everything!” and tore out to the hall as behind him Nessa, already hiding the Kama Sutra under a pillow, wailed, “Oh, Brady!”
Brady and Nessa are basically ripped straight out of the ‘sleaze’ novels Westlake used to write in the late 50’s/early 60’s, which he’d sent up memorably in Adios, Scheherazade. Less memorably here, but it’s the same basic story, only without all the deconstruction and soul-searching. Porno-picaresque. Brady took one look at Nessa, decided she was all he was ever going to be interested in, and they took off to see the world and each other’s genitals, not necessarily in that order of significance.
Brady, who thinks of himself as a real operator, found a way for them to get into the lodge undetected, and they’ve been living there a while now, raiding the freezer, and hiding whenever somebody shows up to do a bit of maintenance work. They similarly avoid detection by these new interlopers, and Brady can’t help but listen in with interest, as Kelp (not that Brady ever knows his name) once again shows us he’s a reader.
“The purloined letter,” the chipper one said.
Both of the others seemed stymied by that. Johnny finally said, “Was that supposed to be something?”
“Short story by Edgar Allan Poe,” the chipper one said. “Whatsamatta, Johnny, you never went to high school?”
“Yeah, that’s all right,” Johnny said. “What’s this letter? We’re not talking about a letter.”
So what, Brady asked, are you talking about?
“We’re talking about something where you hide it,” the chipper one told him, “that nobody’s gonna find it. In the story, it’s a letter. And where the guy hid it, turns out, was right there on the dresser, where nobody’s gonna see it because what they’re looking for is something hidden.”
“Crap,” Johnny announced.
The weary one said, “You know, Johnny, maybe not. You got something, you can’t find it, turns out, it’s right in front of you. Happens all the time.”
“Nobody’s gonna look at that set,” Johnny insisted, “and not notice it.”
Set? What the hell is it? Brady was about to go out and ask, unable to stand it any more.
But then the chipper one said, “How about this? We get it. On the way up here, we get cans of spray paint, black enamel and red enamel. We paint ’em all over, this team red, this team black, nobody sees any gold, nobody sees any jewels, it just looks like any chess set. We can leave it right out, like on that big table over there with all that other stuff.”
Gold. Jewels. Any chess set.
Tiptoeing as fast as the first night he ever sneaked into Nessa’s house back in Numbnuts, Brady made his way to the second floor, where Nessa, tired and sweaty, was just finished bringing all their dirty used stuff up from the kitchen. “Baby!” he whispered, exulting. “We’re in!”
More (heavily euphemized) sex follows (That’s what you paid your thirty-five cents for, right? Wait, you paid how much?), but here’s the thing about Mr. Westlake and the pseudo-porns he wrote to pay bills. I’ve read enough of them to know that he was satirizing this shortlived publishing niche even while he was working in it. And he does it again here, nostalgically, you might say.
Brady is determined to heist the heist, but Nessa thinks these were just three idiots shooting off their mouths, and is getting cabin fever out there at the lodge. She insists they leave, and then she leaves Brady for another guy, and that guy for yet another guy, and turns out she was the protagonist of the sleaze novel within the heist novel after all, a sexual adventuress sowing her wild oats, a figure we saw more than once in the Westlake sleazes of bygone days, and one last time here.
Which is why she’s back in Part Two, and Brady is seen no more after Part One ends, having returned to the much-despised Numbnuts (there are towns with much weirder names out there in the American hinterlands). He lands a job at Starbucks, nothing interesting ever happens to him again, and he only occasionally wonders what happened with that purloined chess set. Not that he’d believe it if you told him.
But would you believe in–
The Wicked Witch of the East Side:
Mrs. W (as she preferred to be called by the staff) was, for instance, on the boards of many of the city’s organizations, as well as a director of a mind-boggling array of corporations. Beyond that, she was a tireless litigant, involved in many more lawsuits than merely those involving her immediate family. Solo, or as a very active member of a class, she was at the moment suing automobile manufacturers, aspirin makers, television networks, department stores, airlines, law firms that had previously represented her, and an array of ex-employees, including two former personal assistants.
While passionately involved in every one of these matters, Mrs. W was not at all coordinated or methodical and never knew exactly where she was in any ongoing concern, whom she owed, who owed her, and where and when the meeting was supposed to take place. She really needed a personal assistant.
And Fiona was perfect for the job. She was calm, she had no ax to grind, and she had a natural love for detail. Particularly for all the more reprehensible details of Mrs. W’s busy life, the double-dealing and chicanery, the stories behind all the lawsuits and all the feuds and all the shifting loyalties among Mrs. W’s many rich-lady friends.
And, just to make Fiona’s life complete, Mrs. W was writing an autobiography! Talk about history in the raw. Mrs. W had total recall of every slight she’d ever suffered, every snub, every shortchanging, every encounter in which the other party had turned out to be even more grasping, shrewder, and more untrustworthy than she was. She dictated all these steaming memories into a tape recorder in spurts of venom, which Lucy Leebald, Mrs. W’s current secretary, had to type out into neat manuscript.
Perhaps predictably, Westlake’s deep animosity towards the very rich abated just a touch when it came to very rich women. Not that they were ever fetching fantasy figures in his fiction. But he could appreciate that great wealth, inherited or otherwise, was one means whereby a woman could be absolutely unequivocally herself in a chauvinistic society, without anybody calling her on it. Or at least anybody whose opinion she is obliged to give two shits about. Whether this is a good thing or not, is, of course, a different matter. But it’s a thing.
Livia Northwood Wheeler is a dominating presence in this book, and not only because she is at least part-owner of this chess set Dortmunder is out to steal, which she knows literally nothing about except the fact that she doesn’t want her scheming relations to get it. She has no idea her grandfather stole the set from his army buddies, and used it to build a real estate empire that has given her the position in life she now enjoys. She’s never laid eyes on it. But Fiona’s seemingly innocent questions about it, that led indirectly to her now being very happily in this dragon lady’s employ, have made the dragon lady ask some inconvenient questions.
“Your memoir is fascinating, Mrs. W.”
“Of course it is. But it’s a different history I want you to think about now.”
“Do you remember a discussion we had—two discussions, I think—about the Chicago chess set?”
Oh, dear. Fiona had been afraid to even mention the chess set, but wanting to help her grandfather in his quest—even if at the moment he believed he’d given it up—she had given it a try. She’d even—when they were looking together at the photos of the pieces on Mrs. W’s computer—managed to “discover” the mismatch in weight among the rooks.
But that had been some time ago. She’d given the effort up when she’d seen she was getting nowhere and might even be putting herself at risk. But now Mrs. W herself had raised the issue; for good, or for ill?
Heart in her mouth but expression as innocent as ever, Fiona said, “Oh, yes, ma’am. That beautiful chess set.”
“You noticed one of the pieces was the wrong weight.”
“Oh, I remember that.”
“Very observant of you,” Mrs. W said, and nodded, agreeing with herself. “That fact kept bothering me, after our discussions, and I soon realized there was far more mystery surrounding that chess set than merely one unexpectedly lighter rook.”
Looking alert, interested, Fiona said, “Oh, really?”
“Where is that chess set from?” Mrs. W demanded, glaring severely at Fiona. “Who made it? Where? In what century? It just abruptly appears, with no history, in a sealed glass case in the lobby of my father’s company, Gold Castle Realty, when they moved into the Castlewood Building in 1948. Where was it before 1948? Where did my father get it, and when? And now that we know the one piece is lighter than the rest, and is a castle, now we wonder, where did my father get his company name?”
“Gold Castle, you mean.”
Knowing how she could answer every last one of Mrs. W’s questions, but how doing so would be absolutely the worst move she could make, Fiona said, “Well, I guess he had to have it somewhere else before he put up the new building.”
“But where?” Mrs. W demanded. “And how long had he had it? And who had it before him?” Mrs. W shook her head. “You see, Fiona, the more you study that chess set, the deeper the mystery becomes.”
“History and mystery,” Mrs. W mused. “The words belong together. Fiona, I want you to ferret out the history and the mystery of the Chicago chess set.”
I am being given, Fiona thought, the one job in all the world at which I have to fail. I’m the mystery, Mrs. W, she thought, I’m the mystery and the history, my family and I, and you must never know.
So this is Fiona’s latest identity crisis, but I see nary a one for Mrs. W. She never, at any time, questions her right to the massive wealth and influence she inherited. She does, eventually, learn of her grandfather’s crime, and she finds it appalling, and never does she make the slightest existential query as a result of that. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the very rich, and most particularly those who were born that way, are very different from you and me–not because they have more money, but because they just assume it’s their natural inalienable right to have all that money. And in their position, so would you.
The Devil Wears Prada was published in 2003, perhaps around the time this book was written, and there is a hint of the relationship between that novel’s title character and protagonist and that between Mrs. W. and Fiona. However, it’s a very different thing to scratch and claw your way to the top, and to simply be born there as a result of somebody else’s scratching and clawing.
So perhaps fortunately for Fiona, there is no friction between her and her new employer. Mrs. W. can never see her as a rival, let alone a protégé. Simply one in a long chain of people who exist to service her needs. It may have seemed as if she was making it up to Fiona by hiring her on after accidentally getting her fired from her law firm, but who ended up with the perfect assistant as a result? At her most altruistic, she is still helping herself more than anyone else. Well, that’s the unfortunate part of it, you see.
When Mrs. W. learns of the secret connection between their families–and she knows Fiona was born into a moneyed family as well, even though she’s clearly not inheriting any great wealth–she’s politely apologetic, and not the least bit sorry. The fact is, it’s all working out in her favor, as things pretty much always tend to do. And she’s not done helping herself yet.
Fiona has a live-in boyfriend, named Brian, who works at some youth-oriented cable channel, that does a lot of snarky youth-oriented programming. Brian was definitely not born into a moneyed family, but clearly wishes he was, and his interest in Fiona is pretty clearly motivated at least in part by her proximate connection to great wealth, though the life they lead is anything but lush.
He’s delighted when Fiona gets the job with Mrs. W, and wants to find some excuse to meet the old gal. He finally hits on inviting her to this ‘March Madness’ party at his office–which is a costume party. He invariably goes as a character from one of the shows his network puts on. The Reverend Twisted. Fiona seems to always go as herself, and never really fits in with all the pretenders.
But who will Mrs. W. appear as? She keeps it a secret to the last possible moment.
Yes; that was it. The clunky black lace-up shoes; the black robe; the tall conical black hat; the outsize wart on nose; the green-strawed broom held aloft. It was Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz to the life; to the teeth. “And that goes for your little dog, too!” she cried, exiting the elevator and announcing her presence.
She was an instant hit. Awareness rippled outward through the hall, and people were drawn as by magnets in her direction. People crowded around her, people applauded her, people tried to hold conversations with her, people gave her about thirty drinks. The only sour note in the event, as it were, was the band’s attempt to play “Over the Rainbow”; fortunately, most people didn’t recognize it.
The first excitement and delight soon passed, and the party returned to approximately where it had been before Mrs. W had made her appearance, only with an extra little frisson created by this new presence in their midst. It isn’t every party that has a drop-in from the Wicked Witch of the West, perhaps the most beloved and certainly the best-known villainess in pop culture.
With the theater ticket sales to prove it. So rich she was able to order a rewrite, with herself as the beautiful young heroine! Wicked opened on Broadway the same year The Devil Wears Prada saw print, and that does not seem like a coincidence to me, but who the hell knows?
What Fiona knows, watching her employer dance with her boyfriend, while she sits on the sidelines, holding the witch’s broom, is that she is definitely getting the short end of the stick. But we can talk about that later. Right now, we’re going to be–
Watching The Detectives:
In the earliest days of his retirement years, Eppick had thought about hiring on somewhere, but a life on wages after so many years on the Job had just seemed too much of a comedown. It was time to be his own boss for a while, see how that would play out. So he got his private investigator’s license, not hard for an ex-cop, and set up the office down on East Third because it was inexpensive and he didn’t feel he was going to have to impress anybody. All he needed was files and a phone. Besides, private eyes were expected to office in grungy neighborhoods.
Jacques Perly was the only private detective Jay Tumbril knew, or was likely to know. A specialist in the recovery of stolen art, frequently the go-between with the thieves on the one side and the owner/museum/insurer on the other, Perly was a cultured and knowledgeable man, far from the grubby trappings associated with the term “private eye.”
Tumbril had known Perly slightly for years, since the Feinberg firm had more than once been peripherally involved in the recovery of valuable art stolen from its clients, and now, although Fiona Hemlow could not fairly be described as either “stolen” or “art,” Jacques Perly was the man Jay Tumbril thought to turn to when there were Questions to be Asked.
They met at one that Monday afternoon for lunch at the Tre Mafiosi on Park Avenue, a smooth, hushed culinary temple all in white and green and gold, with, this time of year, pink flowers. Perly had arrived first, as he was supposed to, and he rose with a smile and an outstretched hand when Tony the maître d’ escorted Jay to the table. A round, stuffed Cornish game hen of a man, Jacques Perly retained a slight hint of his original Parisian accent. A onetime art student, a failed artist, he viewed the world with a benign pessimism, the mournful good humor of a rich unmarried uncle, who expects nothing and accepts everything.
Westlake made a very interesting choice here, in giving us two private detectives to watch, one of them trying to arrange a heist, the other trying to prevent it. But we’re not supposed to root for either of them. Just watch them, and note the differences. A study in contrasts, something he was always good at.
What he always had trouble with was identifying with detectives–that is to say, with those who have made it their business to sniff out secrets, solve mysteries, tiptoe around in gum-soled shoes–as far back as Killing Time, his mistrust of them was made clear. (Though the Mitch Tobin mysteries rank with his very best work, and in my estimation are a cut above all but a handful of stories written in this subgenre, that’s basically an anti-detective series.)
To write about detectives, he needed to subvert the formula, defeat expectations, because he just did not believe in detectives, though he was fascinated by the idea of solving puzzles. There could be many reasons for that, but I’d assume one of them would be that it was detectives working for the NY state police who caught him stealing in college, and threw him in a cage for a few days. They humiliated him, and he spent the rest of his life returning the favor with interest. (We Irish are noted for our long memories.)
So you would think, wouldn’t you, that it would be Eppick, the retired cop, ready to put our beloved Dortmunder in a cell for the rest of his life if he won’t cooperate, who’d be the nemesis here. Maybe he was originally intended as such, and Westlake changed his mind.
There are darkly ominous moments relating to Eppick, such as when he surprises May at her job, getting in the checkout line at the supermarket, to send a message to Dortmunder that he knows his every weak spot. His interest in the chess set seems much more than just professional; his distress when Hemlow calls the whole thing off for a time is palpable. But he likes the life he’s got, and the wife he’s got, has no interest in going off to build a new identity with ill-gotten goods. This is just a way to pass the time for him. He’s enjoying the drama, the intrigue, and quite honestly, the company of men he used to incarcerate for a living.
This is the second time I’ve read this, but memory is a sieve, and again I found myself thinking Eppick was going to try a cross, steal the stolen chess set for himself, leave Dortmunder & Co. holding the empty bag–and clearly we’re supposed to expect that, but that’s not what happens. Both detectives ultimately prove honest, each after his own fashion. Westlake ultimately sides with the one who proves to be an honest crook.
Eppick ultimately gets his drama, and Jacques Perly gets the shaft (and I don’t mean the one who’s like a sex machine with all the chicks). Perly gets hired by the same high-powered lawyer who fired Fiona, because he’s worried–Mrs. Wheeler, his very lucrative litigious client, wants that chess set taken out of the bank vault and examined by experts. For no other reason, really, than that Fiona has aroused her curiosity about it. Her squabbling relations have no objection, probably because they’ve always been curious about it themselves. None of them has ever laid eyes on it (and none of them ever will).
Perly is supposed to find out if there’s some nefarious scheme behind all this, and his suspicion somehow falls on poor Brian, who may have some vague designs on Mrs. Wheeler’s money, but could not care less about the chess set (whose real story he knows from Fiona).
Here’s the problem with this approach–knowing there’s some kind of scheme afloat, and knowing what it is–two different things. A good detective, like a good scientist, doesn’t shape the facts to fit his theory. Perly, a polished professional lackey to the rich and powerful, knows everything but what he doesn’t know, but that’s the most important thing anyone can ever know. Once his instincts tell him Brian is the malefactor, he can’t let go of that assumption, and it irreparably warps his ratiocinative processes. The narrative builds towards that moment in every mystery book, where The Great Detective unmasks the villain–and we watch with some satisfaction as he falls flat on his smug round face.
Eppick, by contrast, is not significantly better or worse off by the end–he had his fun, and he’ll probably never have another case half as good (though maybe he’d have shown up in future books, if there had been more than just one more book in the future). He’s actually advocating in good faith for Dortmunder & Co. with Hemlow–a hireling himself, and perhaps more of a rogue than he ever dreamed, he identifies more with them than with his employer. What you’re watching in him is a detective and former cop finding out he prefers the black side of the chess board after all. Maybe he started out as the antagonist, but he ends as decent enough guy, who holds no grudges against Dortmunder for burgling his office.
The Irish have a long memory for slights, as I said, and I don’t know offhand of any ethnicity with a short one–but I’d guess Westlake had made the acquaintance of many a police officer since his youthful disgrace. He must have had a fair few fans among them, and some would have perhaps aided his research. Privately, some might even have been willing to admit to the failings of their profession, and in the words of Lucius O’Trigger, “An affront, handsomely acknowledged, becomes an obligation.” An obligation to at least be an honest dealer, but since the pleasure of a Dortmunder novel is dishonest dealings, it’s time we move on to–
Gansevoort Streeet is part of the far West Village, an old seafaring section, an elbow of twisted streets and skewed buildings poked into the ribs of the Hudson River. The area is still called the Meatpacking District, though it’s been more than half a century since the elevated coal-burning trains from the west came down the left fringe of Manhattan to the slaughterhouses here, towing many cattle cars filled with loud complaint. After the trains were no more, some cows continued to come down by truck, but their heart wasn’t in it, and gradually almost an entire industry shriveled away into history.
Commerce hates a vacuum. Into the space abandoned by the doomed cows came small manufacturing and warehousing. Since the area sits next to the actual Greenwich Village, some nightlife grew as well, and when the grungy old nineteenth-century commercial buildings started being converted into pied-à-terres for movie stars, you knew all hope was gone.
Still, the Meatpacking District, even without much by way of the packing of meat, continues to present a varied countenance to the world, part residential, part trendy shops and restaurants, and part storage and light manufacturing. Into this mix Jacques Perly’s address blended perfectly, as Dortmunder and Kelp discovered when they strolled down the block.
Perly had done nothing to gussy up the facade. It was a narrow stone building, less than thirty feet across, with a battered metal green garage door to the left and a gray metal unmarked door on the right. Factory-style square-paned metal windows stretched across the second floor, fronted by horizontal bands of narrow black steel that were designed not to look like prison bars, to let in a maximum of light and view, and to slice the fingers off anybody who grabbed them.
The single best part of the book is not the heist itself, but Dortmunder and Kelp doing a bit of scouting in advance of the heist. In fact, it’s one of the best pieces of writing in any Dortmunder book, or even any Westlake book–worth the price of admission all by itself. And if you found some way to sneak in and read it for free, well that’s entirely appropriate.
Dortmunder knows the chess set is coming out of its grim redoubt, and he knows that Jacques Perly has, perhaps imprudently, volunteered his own office on Gansevoort Street, as the site where it will be evaluated by experts. Security will be tight as hell–they’re going to need to know the set-up in advance. So he and Kelp head down there at night, and look for a way to break in without triggering any alarms or leaving any trace of their presence.
They find an apartment with a window that looks down on the small building the detective agency is headquartered in. (The resident of said apartment is out enjoying the nightlife.) Maybe they can go in by the roof. Kelp goes out the window to try and find out. Dortmunder waits for him to come back, but you know what? Sometimes people come home earlier than you’d think. He hears a key in the door. He sees light in a nearby hallway. Time to improvise.
Dortmunder didn’t go in for agile, he went in for whatever-works. He managed to go out the window simultaneously headfirst and assfirst, land on several parts that didn’t want to be landed on, struggle to his feet, and go loping and limping away as behind him an outraged voice cried, “Hey!”, which was followed almost instantly by a window-slam.
Dortmunder did his Quasimodo shuffle two more paces before it occurred to him what would be occurring to the householder at just this instant, which was: That window was locked. Once more he dropped to the roof, with less injury to himself this time, and scrunched against the wall to his left as that window back there yanked loudly upward and the outraged voice repeated, “Hey!”
“Who’s out there?”
Nobody nobody nobody.
“Is somebody out there?”
“I’m calling the cops!”
Fine, good, great; anything, just so you’ll get away from that window.
Westlake had been working on this type of parkeur-esque escape scene for a long time now, at least as far back as God Save The Mark–Manhattan is a vertical environment. Cliffs, plateaus, canyons and arroyos, made of masonry and brick and glass and lots of empty air a person could fall through on his way to the very hard ground below. There are people who have fun by learning ways to negotiate this hazardous terrain. Dortmunder would think those people are nuts. But he’s in a poor position to throw stones right now.
Kelp is nowhere to be seen, obviously he heard the shouts, knows what’s going on, took a powder. Dortmunder figures Kelp found his way into Perly’s building, and that seems as good an escape route as any. He can’t just wait around here for some curious cop to show up in response to the householder’s distress call. But there’s no way into the building from its roof–how can he find his way to some useful doorway?
Rungs. Metal rungs, round and rusty, were fixed to the rear wall, marching from here down to the wrought iron. They did not look like things that any sane person would want to find himself on, but this was not a sanity test, this was a question of escape.
Wishing he didn’t have to watch what he was doing, Dortmunder sat on the low stone wall, then lay forward to embrace it while dangling his left foot down, feeling around for the top rung. Where the hell was it?
Finally he had to shift position so he could turn his head to the left and slither leftward across the stone wall toward the dark drop which, when he could see it, was nowhere near dark enough. In the lightspill from across the way, many items could be seen scrambled together on the concrete paving way down there: metal barrels, old soda bottle cases with soda bottles, lengths of pipe, a couple of sinks, rolls of wire, a broken stroller. Everything but a mattress; no mattresses.
But there was that damn iron rung, not exactly where he’d expected it. He wriggled backward, stabbed for the rung, and got his foot on it at last.
And now what? The first thing he had to do was turn his back on the drop and, while lying crosswise on the stone wall, put as much of his weight as he could on that foot on the rung, prepared at any instant to leap like a cat—an arthritic cat—if the thing gave way.
But it didn’t. It held, and now he could ooch himself backward a little bit and put his right foot also on the rung. One deep breath, and he heard that far-off window fly up, and knew the householder was looking for him again. Could he see this far into the darkness, at the shape of a man lying on a stone wall?
Let’s not give him enough time to pass that test; Dortmunder clutched the inner edge of the wall with both hands in a death grip, and slid back some more, letting the right foot slide on down past the safety of that rung, paw around, paw some more, and by God, find the next rung!
The transition from the second rung to the third was easier, but then the transition to the fourth was much worse, because that was when his hands had to leave the stone wall and, after several slow days of hanging in midair, at last grasp the top rung tightly enough to leave dents.
Overcome, he remained suspended there a minute or two, breathing like a walrus after a marathon, and then he progressed down, down, down, and there was the porch which was really just an openwork metal floor cantilevered from the building, with a skimpy rail at waist height.
Next to him. The rungs did not descend into the railed metal floor but beside it. So now he was supposed to let go of these beautiful rungs and vault over the goddam rail?
He manages, somehow, to overcome this Escherian nightmare. Down the fire escape, into a little courtyard with a back door to the building waiting for him. Of course it’s all walled in, no way out to the street, he’s got to go inside, as he still thinks Kelp has done, without leaving any trace of tampering with the lock–very nice work–he pulls out his set of lockpicks. He wants to do just as well as his comrade in arms. Professional pride and all.
So he’s in. Might as well look around. Has one of those tiny powerful flashlights that most people use as keychains–civilization will eventually provide an industrious thief with every tool he could ever desire. One door leads to another, and he’s got the run of the place. Scopes it out, seeing its potentials, its vulnerabilities. He sees a nice wooden door he deduces must lead to Perly’s office. Locked of course. Easily unlocked, of course.
And within this holy of holies, right there on Perly’s nice desk, he finds Perly’s extensive notes on the security provisions that will be in place the day the chess set arrives. And there’s a photocopier he can use to bring them home with him with none the wiser, so helpful. A bit more poking around yields a garage door opener that can get him and his buddies in there anytime they want.
In his mind, Dortmunder has been following Kelp through this labyrinth, the way Professor Lidenbrock was following Arne Saknussemm to the center of the earth. But that, he learns, was all in his mind. Kelp’s parkeurian path led him in an entirely different direction. So when they meet up later, Dortmunder has to tell him the whole story (and we get to enjoy it all over again).
Kelp was astonished, and said so. “John, I’m astonished.”
“No choice,” Dortmunder said. “Down the rungs, down the fire escape. What got me was how clean you went through that basement door.”
“What basement door?”
“Into Perly’s building. What other way was there?”
Kelp was now doubly astonished. “You went into Perly’s building?”
“What else could I do?”
“Did you never turn around?” Kelp asked him. “Did you never see that humongous apartment house right behind you? You get thirty-seven windows to choose from over there, John.”
Dortmunder frowned, thinking back. “I never even looked over there,” he admitted. “And here I thought how terrific you were, you got through that basement door without leaving a mark, got through and out the building and not one single sign of you.”
“That’s because I wasn’t there,” Kelp said. “Where I was instead, I went into an apartment where there’s nobody home but there’s a couple nice de Koonings on the living room wall, so I went uptown to make them on consignment to Stoon, and then I went home. I never figured you to come down that same way. And wasn’t that a risk, you go in there before we want to go in there? Did you leave marks, John?”
Insulted, Dortmunder said, “What kind of a question is that? Here I tell you how impressed I am how you didn’t leave any marks—”
“It was easier for me.”
“Granted. But then, back last night, you were like my benchmark. So what I left was what you left. Not a trace, Andy, guaranteed.”
“Well, that’s terrific, you found that way in,” Kelp said. “Is that our route on the day?”
“We don’t have to do all that,” Dortmunder told him. “While I was in there anyway, I looked around, I picked up some stuff.”
“Stuff they’re gonna miss?”
“Come on, Andy.”
“You’re right,” Kelp said. “I know better than that. Maybe I’m like Eppick, I’m getting a little tense. So what stuff did you come out with?”
“Their extra garage door opener.”
Kelp reared back. “Their what?”
And all he got was a couple de Koonings. Actually, as matters arrange themselves, Andy probably ended up doing better out of their night’s work, but there’s no question in either man’s mind which of the Parkeur Brothers did the niftier bit of burglary that night. There’s always a friendly competition going on between those two, and Andy, to his credit, is only delighted that John got the better of him this time.
You know, all these long quotes are really piling up the word count. Sorry, I just recently found out how easy it is to copy/paste from Kindle, and it’s going to my head. Not going to do a Part 3. Not really feeling the need to cover everything in this book–I’ve spent almost three straight months now, reviewing Dortmunder stories, more than I ever have before–and that’s fitting, since Westlake was likewise writing more Dortmunder than he ever had before.
The results were a bit mixed, but far from unhappy. This book is a very fine bit of late Westlake, well worth reading. However, while it’s a more organic bit of storytelling than the last two, its principle pleasures are still to be found more in the individual bits and pieces than in the finished whole.
I think we’d best move to the endgame now. Hmm, ‘Endgame’ is too obvious a subheading, and this isn’t Samuel Beckett we’re talking about here. I wouldn’t say chess was ever the true theme of this novel (I rather doubt Mr. Westlake played it well, if at all), but it was, you might say, a stylistic motif. How about we go with–
Before dinner, Mr. Hemlow read to them, in the big rustic cathedral-ceilinged living room at the compound, with a staff-laid fire crackling red and orange in the deep stone fireplace, part of a paragraph from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue on the subject of chess: “Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyze. A chess player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random; I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.”
Closing the book, nodding his red-bereted head this way and that, Mr. Hemlow said, “What Poe calls draughts is what we know as the game of checkers.”
Kelp said, “I like checkers.”
Eppick said, “That’s easy. Everybody likes checkers. Shall I put the book back on the shelf, Mr. Hemlow?”
The heist does not go off quite as planned, because Perly, that eager beaver, shows up earlier than expected, forcing them all to scramble for hiding places. But the gang somehow avoids having The Great Detective, you know, detect them. Dortmunder figures out a way to conceal himself in the shower of Perly’s private bathroom.
Dortmunder had it all worked out how they were going to disguise themselves as the private security detail (from the unfortunate Continental Detective Agency, that seems perpetually doomed to keep crossing paths with Dortmunder & Co.), and make away with the goods.
But that all goes into a cocked hat, as you’d expect, and Dortmunder improvises a bold gambit. Thankfully, things don’t go wrong just for him–the armored car with the chess set won’t fit into Perly’s garage, gets stuck on the way in. That’s from an entirely different security company, which means you have a bunch of unrelated security guys milling around–the problem with hiring a lot of extra security is that you end up with a lot of extra security guys who don’t know each other. Or what the hell is going on. Until it’s too late.
The gang, improvising to beat the band, poses as yet another layer of security hired by Perly, just take the chess set, put it in their own van, and leave. He closes the garage door with the garage door opener. By the time the befuddled rent-a-cops have gotten it open again, the Chicago Chess Set is long gone. Like a turkey in the corn. And Perly may never get that armored car out of his garage.
Dortmunder isn’t the type to plan a cross, so they drive the set out to Hemlow’s country place, as planned. They spray-paint the pieces to disguise them, as planned. Hemlow comes out with Eppick to view his long-sought holy grail, as planned. And then Nessa and her latest none-too-bright boyfriend, who got into the house the way Brady showed her months before, come out of the woodwork. Nessa decided Brady had an idea there after all.
They load the heavy gold bejeweled playing pieces, two of which are fakes, into a bright red Cadillac Colossus with MD plates that Kelp picked up back in the city. (Westake’s final fake car name? We shall see.) All that remains is the very nice ebony and ivory chessboard, and a fat lot of good that does anybody. What was it Robert Burns said about the best-laid plans? Oh wait, that was schemes. Same thing, really.
Hemlow is disgusted, but at the same time philosophical. He gets a bit less philosophical when the sticky question of payment for goods received yet not retained arises, but he reluctantly agrees the laborer is worthy of his hire, and the gang reluctantly agrees to a stiffly reduced fee. And they just decide to keep it to themselves that Anne Marie’s jeweler friend cooked up a fake queen, and they still have the real one. I mean, any landing you walk away from is good, right?
Elsewhere, a more successful heist is pulled–Perly insisted that Brian be hauled in and interrogated. He’s no genius, but he knows enough to keep his mouth shut. Perly’s case, such as it is, falls to pieces when he triumphantly produces security footage of Brian in the vicinity of his office, in the company of this older woman who he thinks may be a real Ma Barker type.
It’s Livia Northwood Wheeler. They went to this hot new nightclub down on Gansevoort Street, after the March Madness party. If Mrs. W. is secretly flattered to be described as a criminal mastermind, she hides it very well, and there is very little in this world as intimidating as an outraged rich lady with all the lawyers in the world at her disposal. All charges are dropped, and Perly’s reputation is in tatters, much like his garage.
There is also very little as nakedly acquisitive as a rich lady–she’s lost the chess set she never really gave two figs about, but somehow ends up with a badly traumatized and deeply grateful Brian in her tender custody–had her eye on him ever since the party, just like he’s had an eye on her money. What Livia wants, Livia gets. Leaving Fiona out in the cold. It must be in their genes, she thought. Her father stole my great-grandfather’s future. And now she’s stolen my boyfriend. (You ask me, our mouse is better off without her social-climbing louse, but that’s not going to be much comfort in the moment, is it now?)
As to the chess set, fear not. It finds a good home. Nessa and whatshisname never stopped to consider that the car they stole in order to steal the chess set might itself be stolen. The cops get them in New Hampshire. Nessa claims she never saw this boob before he picked her up. He’s going down for grand theft auto, she’s off to her next sleazy adventure, while Brady writes people’s names on paper cups in Numbnuts Nebraska.
The incognito Chicago Chess Set, the theft of which New Hampshire policemen neither know nor care about, winds up in the custody of–wait for it–the Little Sisters of Eternal Misery. Yes, I believe we can assume this is the same order that raised the infant Dortmunder, after he was abandoned on their doorstep, in Dead Indian, Illinois. They seem to have dropped the Bleeding Heart part of their name, perhaps that was deemed excessive.
They run a home for the elderly in the town. Old people like to play games to pass the time. And the pieces are so heavy, it’ll give them a nice bit of cardio to boot (maybe a hernia or two). Eventually, the paint will start to chip away, and looks like Dortmunder just paid his childhood benefactors off with considerable interest. He’d be so pleased to know that.
And there’s just one Dortmunder novel remaining–which will mark the end of the main part of my reviewing project. Still a few months away. Next in view is a novel that might well have remained forever unpublished, if not for the hard cases at Hard Case Crime. A James Bond novel–without James Bond. Without Spectre. Without gratuitous sex. Without even a single car chase. And most definitely without easy answers. But some rather troubling questions.
So you go get the popcorn, and I’ll just put on a little mood music. This is very definitely the mood I’m in about now. Don’t know about you.