She rubbed her eyes. “What’s that you’re reading?”
He showed her the cover. “It’s a caper story, called Payback, by an Australian writer named Gary Driver. He’s imitating the Americans, but he’s pretty good. He’s teaching me how to behave in dangerous situations.”
Grinning at him, she said, “You behave fine.”
This is Westlake’s globe-trotting novel, his most extensive tour of the eastern hemisphere. Begins well out at sea in Part One. Part Two is set in Queensland; the greater Brisbane area, then the outback. It’s off to Singapore for Part Three. And then the big finish in Hong Kong.
Most of Westlake’s best fiction is set in the U.S., but he loved to travel–and then put the places he’d visited in his stories. He wrote about Canada now and then, Mexico and South/Central America much more often. He liked the Caribbean as well; Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and he became the most improbable author of an entire non-fiction book on Anguilla.
He dabbled in European intrigue, but not much. He devoted an entire novel to East Africa, where he spent some time doing research, and there are other books that reference his enduring fascination with that continent. He ventured to Moscow, very briefly, in Humans. Perhaps in reality as well, though some of his traveling was doubtless of the armchair variety.
So aside from his desire to make something out of the premise he’d dreamed up for a Bond film that never got made, he might also have thought that since this type of story usually comes with multiple changes of setting, he could cross several more exotic locales off his bucket list in the process of writing it.
The problem with a globe-trotting novel, of course, is that the author’s treatment of the various settings will, of necessity, be more superficial. Westlake did research, some of it in person (possibly some of it in preparation for writing the film treatment), but he could never have the same connection with Brisbane or Singapore that he did with Manhattan or Albany. There are a lot of references to local restaurants in this novel–and Charles Ardai has indicated there were a lot more of those before he edited the manuscript. Well, that’s one of my my favored methods of world exploration as well.
His heroes are themselves mainly unfamiliar with the terrain they’re negotiating, and therefore supposed to feel disoriented and out of touch. His villain, by contrast, is fully at home in all of these places. One of which he intends to destroy.
So last time out, engineer George Manville and environmental activist Kim Baldur had escaped Richard Curtis’s yacht, after four hired thugs tried to kill them at Curtis’s behest–leading to Manville critically injuring two of them.
After tying up the remaining two, Manville and Kim take the boat their would-be assassins arrived on, and make for Brisbane harbor. Kim is still feeling the effects, both physical and emotional, of her close encounter with the soliton wave that nearly killed her. Manville is wondering if he’s going to have a career to go back to, after defying one of the richest and most powerful men on earth, who he now knows intends to put Manville’s soliton technique to use in some way that will be both criminal and destructive. But that’s all he knows. Except that now they’re–
Movement made him turn his head, and there was now somebody seated next to him. He was in his forties, heavyset, a bruiser with a large round head, thick bone above his eyebrows, a broken nose. Manville had never seen him before, but he knew at once that this man was connected to the killers on the ship. And that something bad had happened to Kim.
The man leaned forward, as though he wanted to deliver a secret. “George Manville,” he said. Manville looked carefully at him.
The man’s large bony hands rested on the table, empty. He didn’t act threatening, he was just there.
“Yes,” Manville said.
The man nodded. “If you look out there,” he said, his voice raspy but soft, his accent showing him to be a local, “you’ll see a fella that isn’t walking. He’s looking at you. He’s got his hands in the pockets of kind of a big raincoat.”
Manville looked. “I see him.”
It was another stranger, cut from the same cloth as this one. The man said, “If I stand up and walk away from this table, and you don’t stand up and follow me, that bloke’s gonna take a machine pistol out of his pocket and blow your head off. And probably a few other heads around here, too. He’s got rotten aim.”
This is, oddly, my least favorite section of the book, yet includes some of my favorite moments from it–many of which are more than a little redolent of Richard Stark, who at the time of writing had only just made his return. Elements from past novels by Stark, and elements from novels Stark had not yet written, that would be published long before this novel. Westlake hated to let good words go to waste. And Stark famously wasted no words at all.
At 34, Manville is ten or eleven years older than Kim–which is, when you think about it, less than the average age gap between an actor playing James Bond and whatever actress they hire to play the girl he’ll be screwing at the end of the movie. Michelle Yeoh, whose character in Tomorrow Never Dies was at least tangentially influenced by Westlake’s original story treatment, was nine years younger than Pierce Brosnan. I’d guess a similar age gap existed between Mr. Westlake and his third wife, but I don’t really know. Just a number anyway, right?
Obviously there’s going to be a romance between them, though they will decidedly not be screwing at the end of this novel, and only twice during it. Not hard to justify, given that George just put himself at considerable risk to save Kim’s life, they’re hiding out in motel rooms, they’re both good-looking people, and the close encounter with death they shared would serve as a natural aphrodisiac. That isn’t the problem, and Westlake had long experience writing stories about men and women finding love in dangerous circumstances.
This is not going down as one of his better efforts in that regard, and the love story is not that central to the plot. He’s trying to make the obligatory Bond-style hook-up a bit more real here, to rationalize it, as he is rationalizing all the elements that go into a standard 007 yarn. There’s rarely much of an effort to justify the sex in a Bond film (the latest did an above-average job of it, it still feels tacked on, and Lea Seydoux is seventeen years younger than Daniel Craig–the record age gap is thirty–it’s good to be the king, huh?)
Kim isn’t a ‘Bond Girl’–she’s as much Bond as Manville is. She’s going to perform some of the tasks that Bond normally would handle (though her license to kill never gets stamped). Her big moment is going to come in Part Four. Manville’s big moments come in Parts One and Two, and he’s mostly absent from Part Three.
He’s absent when Part Two begins, having docked the boat under a bridge, and gone to get some things they need, like fresh clothing. Kim waits for hours, knowing George took a huge risk to help her, feeling grateful, and at the same time doubting he’ll come back. And then he does. Her relief is as complicated as her doubts were.
George is older, more experienced, and knows how Curtis operates. Kim wants to go to the police (her fellow activists and her parents all still believe she’s dead), but he says Curtis will probably try to make them out to be the criminals (which he does). He’ll also try to get George blackballed as an engineer (which he does). George needs to find allies, get the lay of the land, and he doesn’t know Australia that well. He’s being cautious, but Kim is right–they should go to the cops.
He also needs a place he and Kim can disappear for a while, and figures that’ll be the Gold Coast, Australia’s Miami Beach, not a long drive from Brisbane. Jammed with tourists, and they can blend in for a while. But most of those tourists aren’t Yanks, which is going to make it easier for Curtis’s men to find them.
Fact is, Curtis has not given up on killing Kim, even though there’s every chance she’s going to reach out to friends and family before he can make that happen (though she takes her own sweet time doing that). This is yet another mistake, him trying to tie down every possible loose end when that simply isn’t possible, but it’s consistent with the character–he doubles down on bad ideas, refuses to admit he can’t control everything.
His head flunky, Morgan Pallifer, a 62 year old American exile who served time for drug smuggling, and will do pretty much anything Curtis asks of him to get what he wants (his own boat), is very eager for another crack at the man who surprised and humiliated him aboard that yacht, but Curtis tells him to get Manville alive, if possible. He knows now that he can’t bring George into his full confidence, but he’s not 100% sure he won’t need help with calculations for the much more powerful soliton he’s planning for Hong Kong. This is plausible–barely. And no Bond story is ever complete without the hero being brought to the villain’s lair as a guest/prisoner.
So George and Kim get a bit of breathing space, while Curtis’s men look for them. There’s a cute angle to their first sexual encounter, in that Kim’s ribs are still badly bruised, and George, always the engineer, has to figure out a position they can comfortably connect in. I’m going to guess female-superior, but for the life of me I don’t know why Westlake makes us guess, after all the raunchy scenes he wrote for Kahawa.
(It’s not just the leering lecher in me that thinks Westlake made a mistake here–a good healthy sex scene or three between these two would have been a way to demonstrate the growing connection between them without investing a lot of time he doesn’t have to make that relationship feel genuine. Wouldn’t have hurt book sales any either. Westlake never fully recovered from having to write endless bouts of intercourse for the sleaze paperback market, before he got established in the mystery genre. Anything but prudish, he still tended to write around the sex in most of his subsequent books, though the exceptions were worth the wait. And that mainly worked for him, but here it’s a problem.)
George, still being cautious, meets a high-powered Brisbane attorney that a mutual friend put him in touch with–Andre Brevizin. He tells him the whole story, and Brevizin, a sophisticated man who has heard some rumors that Curtis’s financial situation is shaky, half-believes him. By this time, Curtis has connived with a fellow billionaire to frame Manville, make it look like he was engaged in industrial espionage, and the story has gotten some coverage. So Brevizin can’t be sure Manville isn’t just blowing smoke to cover himself.
In the meantime, Pallifer’s men find Kim at a Brisbane cafe, waiting for George to come back (it’s not explained how, they’re supposed to be searching the nearby resort town). Her injuries mainly healed, she manages to lose them in the crowd, and here’s where we run into another problem–she and George ought to have picked up cheap cellphones by now, to stay in touch when separated. They’d have stores for that in a major tourist trap like Gold Coast.
What time period is this book set in? We know it was written in the mid-to-late 90’s. Westlake showed it to his agent in 1998. The word cellphone occurs twice in the entire novel–both times in relation to secondary characters. No mention of Curtis having one, though he uses an in-flight phone on an airliner, and he’s got some kind of ship-to-shore phone on his yacht.
Westlake’s techno-phobia was more than mere conservatism–there are all kinds of plot complications, a certain approach to depicting daily existence that a writer gets used to, that hinge upon his characters not being in constant touch with each other. Of course he could have Kim dropping her purse that had the phone in it, forgetting George’s temporary cell number, etc. Too busy. How are his people supposed to act as free agents if they’re never actually on their own, unless he arbitrarily confiscates their gizmos? (And let it be said, for a story adapted from a Bond film treatment, this novel is almost entirely bereft of gizmos–there was supposedly going to be an exploding boomerang in the Australian section of the film, which sounds to me like Westlake poking sly fun at that entire convention).
So when George comes back to the cafe, he finds Kim gone. And he finds Curtis’s goons waiting for him. They say they have Kim, and he has no reason to doubt them. They say innocent people will get hurt if they have to start shooting, and he believes that too. And Westlake reworked this scene for Flashfire, as Greg Tulonen pointed out some time back in the comments section here–Parker getting forced into a car by two men hired to kill him. No hostages, no threats to innocent passersby–that wouldn’t work where Parker is concerned. But it’s the same scene, under all the variations. Manville goes quietly, just as Parker does–and all the while, he’s waiting, watching for an opportunity to turn the tables. (Big difference is, he’s in a Bond story, so these guys aren’t here to kill him–yet.)
And this tells us something–Manville is, on the surface, a polite peaceable man, who has never been involved in any kind of violence before. And now that he’s suddenly up to his well-tanned neck in violence, he’s learned he has a natural talent for it–that he keeps his cool under pressure, as he did on the yacht. Pallifer complains, first to Manville and then to Curtis, that Manville isn’t what he was told he’d be. Curtis, always discomfited when people surprise him, says maybe George has some kind of Green Beret training he didn’t know about. No, that’s not it. Curtis and his men have awakened a sleeping wolf. Less ruthless, but much smarter.
So he goes with them for a very long drive, to Curtis’s station (Australian for ranch), way out in the Outback, in cattle country, not too far from some hamlet called Murra Murra. (The second image up top is purportedly from there–KeepGuard is some kind of remote viewing system, so you can watch your cows grazing from the comfort of home–hey, beats network primetime).
Curtis is waiting for him there. Well, of course he is. This is the portion of the story where Bond is an unwilling guest of his nemesis. In Goldfinger, he’s also on a farm, this one in Kentucky, while Goldfinger tries to figure out how much Bond knows about Operation Grandslam–absolutely nothing but its name–by the time he leaves he knows everything and has Pussy Galore working for his side.
You see how problematic this part of the formula is, and yet how useful to struggling screenwriters. Goldfinger has every intention of killing his guest, but has to bask on the glow of Bond’s admiration for his brilliant plan first. In the words of the immortal Ernst Stavro Blofeld–
But then he most frustratingly fails to follow his own advice later in the picture, once Bond is his guest. The latest Blofeld fared no better. My only explanation is that these people all went to elite finishing schools, where host etiquette was strongly emphasized. You can kill your guest, but you must serve dinner and cocktails first. Curtis never went to any finishing schools, but he’s still somehow absorbed a portion of this ethos.
Curtis went so far as to make introductions: “George Manville, may I introduce Albert and Helen Farrelly, they run Kennison for me, and Cindy Peters, an old friend visiting for the weekend. George,” he told the others, “is a brilliant engineer, absolutely brilliant. We’ve been working together for a year and a half now, haven’t we, George?”
“About that,” Manville agreed. Not so long ago, he wanted to say, while everybody exchanged friendly greetings, you were sending people to kill me, then to kidnap me, imprison me. Has one of us lost his mind? But dinner party politeness was just too strong a force; he couldn’t say a word.
Curtis even rubbed it in, saying, “It’s too bad your friend Kim couldn’t be with you, George, we’d make an even number. Well, we’ll do what we can. I’ll be father at the head of the table here, George, you take that place there on the right, Helen, you between George and me, Cindy, you on my left, and Albert, if you’d sit across from George?”
Everybody did, and Manville saw Curtis extend his foot toward what must be a call button in the floor, because almost immediately two servers in the tan pantsuits came out with plates of crisp green salad.
Manville said to Helen, on his left, “Kennison?” Surprised, she said, “The station. This place, you’d call it a ranch. And the house. This is Kennison. You didn’t know that?”
“I came here unexpectedly,” Manville said.
Wine was being poured. Around the server’s arm, Curtis said to Manville, “Kennison’s a great place, George, I wish I could be here more often myself. I’ll show you around, I think you’ll be surprised and pleased.”
“I’m already surprised,” Manville told him, and Curtis laughed.
When the five glasses had been filled with an Australian white wine, a chardonnay, Curtis proposed a toast. “To the good life, in a good place, to getting it and keeping it.”
They all drank to Curtis’s toast, Manville last and only a sip. It was a good clean wine, nicely cold. He would have to be alert not to drink too much of it.
So how to rationalize this? First of all, Curtis’s station is very isolated, well out in the bush. It covers thousands of acres, and the road leading out is poorly marked, and constantly blocked by cattle. Manville would have to trek many long dusty miles to get anywhere. They’d track him down and finish him before he could do anything meaningful.
Curtis has this nice older couple running the place for him, extremely loyal to him, willfully in the dark about the man who has given them an idyllic lifestyle. They wouldn’t kill for him, and he’d never ask them to, but neither will they take the word of a man who has been written up in the papers as having spied on their employer, and Manville wouldn’t ask them to do that either (because he can see it’s pointless). Pallifer would snuff Manville out like a disposable lighter, and not even ask for a bonus. So there’s that.
Secondly, Curtis promises Manville that if he’ll cooperate and stay put for the moment, give his parole, as they used to say, Curtis will squash the whole thing about his being a corporate spy, all a big misunderstanding–he actually does this (for his own purposes).
He also says he’ll call off the hit on Kim Baldur. That he doesn’t do, but what neither of them knows yet is that not long after she escaped Curtis’s goons, Kim ran into Jerry Diedrich and Luther Rickendorf (Jerry suspected Kim might be alive, but he still fainted when he saw her–excitable sort).
They’ve gone to the Australian police, who are skeptical, but interested. They’ve also talked to Captain Zhang, who subsequently committed suicide, unable to reconcile his conflicting loyalties–to his employer, to his family, and to common decency. His suicide note to his wife was on the brief and perfunctory side. So was his subplot.
And the moral, wasted on Curtis, is that people don’t necessarily stay the way they were when you last saw them. He keeps making this mistake over and over. Can’t seem to fathom that people don’t just freeze in place when he walks out of the room, only to come back to life when he walks back in.
So contrived as this all may be, it’s contrived in character, which is what Westlake is going for here. This way, Curtis figures he can just keep Manville quiet, make use of his technical expertise, hedge his bets in case the authorities come calling, and let Pallifer and Manville work out their differences once the Hong Kong business is attended to. As far as he’s concerned, Manville was dead the moment he told Curtis he wouldn’t help cover up Kim’s murder, just as Kim was dead the moment he decided her murder would be useful to him. That both of them are still alive for the moment is a minor detail. He’s already proven he can discredit anything they say about him by manipulating the press, making counter-allegations.
(Also, Curtis doesn’t have a tank full of pet piranhas to feed unwanted guests to. Though I suppose crocodiles could have worked. Or Platypuses. [Platypi?] There is, incidentally, no reference at all to exotic wildlife in this part of the book, not even one kangaroo hopping by. I don’t know if this is because Westlake never saw much in the way of wildlife when he was there, or learned that there wasn’t much wildlife in that part of the country, or decided it was too much of a cliche, or he wasn’t there at all and didn’t want to risk mentioning the wrong critters.)
This part of the book is where Manville gets to really size Curtis up. On his home turf, Curtis lets his guard down a bit, talks about his first marriage–the only one that mattered to him–and how his wife Isabel, who came from the family who started the company he took over, died of cancer as soon as they’d taken control. The woman Curtis is sleeping with at the present time expresses sympathy–she’d never known.
Manville noticed, but thought that Cindy did not, that his smile to her was patronizing, that it said, thank you for your sympathy, but you’re too shallow to know what I really went through. He holds himself aloof from the human race, Manville thought, and that’s why he can be so dangerous.
(What was it Stalin reportedly said, about his first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze?–“This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” None too warm to start with, one suspects. He had several of her close relations killed during a purge later on. Well, that’s one way to deal with in-laws.)
Something else we learn in this brief episode, before Curtis heads back to Singapore–the name of the company he and his first wife took over from her family. It had been started by her grandfather, a hundred years earlier, and given a somewhat odd name–
Manville said, “She was Chinese?”
“No, a Brit,” Curtis said. “Her background was. Her grandfather came out, started a construction company on the island, over a hundred years ago. Called it Hoklo Construction, which was a joke, because the Hoklo were 17th-century pirates from China that settled in Hong Kong and then assimilated and disappeared, so anybody could be Hoklo. Anybody could be a pirate, you see?”
Manville said, “It’s an interesting point.”
“One Isabel’s grandfather always kept in mind,” Curtis said, “as should have his successors. Anyway, the grandfather built the business, and went back to England to marry, and had children, and his first two sons took over the business, and Isabel was a daughter of the second son. I was just a roustabout from Oklahoma, my father was in construction but in a small way, little tract houses in developments in the dirt around Tulsa, not like Hoklo. They were big, always, from the beginning, building the big godowns the Chinese used for waterfront warehouses, putting up office buildings, apartment houses. I was always interested in travel, seeing something other than the tan dirt of Tulsa, and when I got to Hong Kong I took a job for a while with Hoklo, and met Isabel, and that’s where it all started.”
Manville said, “You went into the firm.”
“I became the firm,” Curtis said, and his voice was harsh again, but then it softened as he said, “The difference between the first generation and the third, you see, the first generation has to work for it, and the second generation at least gets to see their parents work for it, but the third generation gets it handed to them on a plate, with no idea there’s any work involved. Isabel’s brother and two of her cousins were supposed to take over the company, and it would have been like having the company taken over by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”
“You took it away from them.”
Curtis smiled. If tigers smiled, it would look like that. “I showed them what it was like to be in a fight,” he said.
Manville thinks to himself, around this time, that Richard Curtis is at his most dangerous when he seems to be most sane. He is under no illusions about his chances of longterm survival, nor does he necessarily believe Curtis’s assurances about not going after Kim. He knows that his soliton technique might be used to do something horrible. But he agrees to stay put for the next two weeks. And he watches. And waits. And nothing more of consequence happens with him until Part Three.
Curtis has to deal with official questions about Kim’s accusations, and to explain away Captain Zhang’s suicide–but now he can say that Manville is working with him again, that the charges of corporate espionage were just a misunderstanding, and would that be happening if he’d tried to have him and Ms. Baldur killed? Without the slightest trace of remorse, he suggests the late Captain Zhang was using Curtis’s yacht to smuggle drugs, possibly people.
He talks to Brevizin, and to Australian police inspector, Tony Fairchild, playing both men like a harp–neither needs to believe him a saint, and he makes no pretense of being one. He pulls a little dodge with the latter, where Pallifer pretends to be Manville, talking to Fairchild from Singapore (his secretary there patches Pallifer in from Australia). Fairchild finds him rather unpleasant, hearing the unmistakable note of caustic misogyny when ‘Manville’ refers to Kim (who now doesn’t know what to believe about her newly-minted lover, suddenly gone over to the other side again–and of course Fairchild doesn’t think of having her listen in to confirm if this really is Manville).
Fairchild is another of Westlake’s professional, smart, decent, but somehow unprepossessing police officers (there’s three of them in this one book alone). He can tell something’s wrong, he’s got no love for the moneyed classes, but he lets himself be gulled by Curtis, as does Brevizin, who is certainly no fool, and who has heard rumors of Curtis’s financial difficulties. Curtis gives them an alternative explanation for his behavior, and they buy into it. Because the alternative, you see, would be to believe one of the richest men on earth is a supervillain who would stop at nothing to pull off some evil plan. I mean, what is this, a James Bond story?
Safely on his way back to Singapore, to start putting the finishing touches on his evil plan, Curtis (who gave up his private jet to economize, first class is more than cushy enough for him), realizes he’s on the same plane as his crazed nemesis Jerry Diedrich, Diedrich’s faithful Teutonic companion, Luther Rickendorf, and the seemingly unkillable Kim Baldur. They don’t see him. But he sees trouble. He’s got to do something about them.
Pallifer is busy keeping watch on Manville. He needs a man in Singapore. Someone who couldn’t easily be connected to him. Someone desperate enough to carry out dubiously legal orders. Someone he can trust to do an odd job or three. He consults his mental rolodex. He picks up the in-flight phone. End Part Two.
There’s an arguable plot hole here, that only gets partly addressed. Curtis now knows Kim Baldur isn’t in Australia anymore. Curtis knows that as far as Pallifer is concerned, he’s still supposed to locate and dispatch her at the earliest opportunity (without letting Manville know about it). Pallifer is one of the two characters I mentioned who has a cellphone, and he’s mainly going to be at Curtis’s ranch.
At no time does Curtis think it might be a good idea to tell Pallifer to forget about Kim Baldur, focus on George Manville entirely. And this is going to turn out to be the opening Manville has been watching for, which Curtis will have cause to rue. Leaving all that aside, it’s damned sloppy–like forgetting to call your dogs off when the day’s hunt is over.
But, you could argue, it’s just exactly the kind of sloppiness a man like Curtis would often be guilty of. That he keeps forgetting that people don’t just stay where you left them, frozen in place, waiting for you to walk back into the room. Having, in his mind, dealt with his problems in Australia, he puts them out of his mind entirely, and focuses on his problems in the Chinese-speaking world.
The problem with somebody to whom other people aren’t quite real is that he’s never really going to understand other people–particularly the ones who can’t be bought, or intimidated. It causes him to make all kinds of jaw-dropping errors in judgment. But it’s also what makes him so dangerous. When he seems most sane.
Anyway, we can talk more about this next time. About my opening quote up top–that’s another little oddity–and another hint as to who really wrote this novel that was going to be published under a pseudonym.
There is, you should know, no Australian crime novel called Payback, nor is there an author of such novels going by the name Gary Driver. There is, as you already know, a 1999 American crime movie called Payback (in production when Westlake would have written this), starring a certain slightly deranged Australian actor, based on a 1962 novel credited to Richard Stark.
So best explanation I can think of (see the comments section for a better one) is that Stark put that reference in there, so we should know who’s instructing Manville how to survive what’s coming. And Manville better pay close attention to Stark’s tutelage. Wouldn’t hurt us any, either. I’m just saying.