In his world, Richard Curtis moved from one tower to another. Everywhere he went, it seemed, there were plate glass views of sky and land and city and sea, sprinkled with the tiny unimportant dots that were human beings; barely to be noticed.
He didn’t blame Curtis either, for firing him. Curtis had had damn good reason. And Curtis hadn’t even known the full extent of the mess Colin Bennett had made of things. He didn’t know a man had died.
Bennett was a construction man by trade, or had been, a big burly fellow—too large for this Honda Civic, for instance, which he seemed to wear rather than ride in—who had worked for RC Structural for nine years before he’d made his beaut of a mistake. In that time, he’d moved up from crew foreman to works manager, running the whole damn site for the engineers. In those days, he was outgoing and popular, a cheerful rowdy sort of man who claimed he got along with everybody because he looked like everybody, which was very nearly true. His father had been half English and half Malay, while his mother was half Dutch and half Chinese, and the mixture had created a big man whose squarish face featured slightly uptilted eyes, a gently mashed nose, a broad mouth and high prominent cheekbones. His ears lay flat to his skull, and his hair was straight and thick and black, now beginning to gray at the sides.
Part Three of this novel, which may be my favorite, is about henchmen. And that’s an interesting thing to look at, in fiction and in life. No scheming megalomaniac is worth a damn without back-up. And certainly no Bond villain worth mentioning.
Let the names roll down your tongue. Red Grant. Fiona Volpe (a henchwoman, evil being an equal opportunity employer). Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (evil also does not discriminate by sexual preference). Baron Samedi (or by race, damn, evil gets a bad rap). Jaws. May Day. Also a bunch of blonde personality-deficient Teutons whose names I tend to forget.
The latest was Mr. Hinx, played by wrestler Dave Bautista, and I still don’t understand why he was trying to kill Bond on that train when the plan is for Bond to go to the secret base and get tortured by Blofeld. Communication snafus; they happen in the best-run organizations. (And quite often in this novel.)
Only one could be the greatest henchman, to whom all others must be compared and found wanting. He’s so much better than the others, he doesn’t even need any fucking lines. Korean in the novel, generically Asian in the movie, where he was played by Harold Sakata–red-blooded American boy, born in Hawaii, Olympic weightlifter, silvered for America in ’48. (Sure, fiction is addicted to forced irony.)
You bounce a heavy gold bar off his chest, he grins, bows slightly, and resumes beating you to death. Spraypaints blondes, decapitates statues, and he caddies! One is sometimes moved to inquire as to his haberdasher, but we must all doff our proverbial hats to Oddjob. He wins the Henchman Derby most handily.
And there can be little doubt it was Auric Goldfinger’s amenable amanuensis Westlake was invoking when he created Colin Bennett. Bennett is only half-Asian, a sort of Singaporean creole, as is explained in the longer of the two quotes up top (Westlake trying to avoid the casual racism of the Fleming novels, and perhaps inadvertently invoking a different stereotype). He has no training in the martial arts. He eschews head wear, deadly or otherwise. His first and perhaps only language is colloquial working class English, and he is anything but mute. But he’s the Oddjob in this book. And maybe the best-developed character in it. His advantage over the original, who isn’t developed at all.
See, the thing about the henchman in a Bond story is, you rarely find out much about him, other than his favored methods of killing people. How is one attracted to this line of work? Are the benefits good? Do they have a strong union? Did a henchman make a particularly engaging classroom presentation on Career Day? One would like to know, somehow.
Their evil employers will usually get a nice explanatory monologue or two in the movie, but the humble henchman’s background and aspirations are typically ignored. Red Grant being the exception that proves the rule, more in the novel than the film, but they weren’t going to cast Robert Shaw and not give him a backstory, and I suppose class resentment is as good a motive as any–at least he’s not Irish in the movie (which would have been too funny with Connery playing Bond).
As a general rule, the henchman is treated as a sort of deadly found object, who the main villain perhaps ordered through a catalogue or obtained via some headhunting agency (only in this case, the headhunting isn’t metaphorical).
Not here. We’re going to learn all about Colin Bennett; who he is, where he came from, why he’s so eager to do the criminal bidding of a man who once tossed him aside like a crumpled beer can, how he transitions from guilt-ridden semi-employed ex-drunkard to bumbling private detective to brutal unrepentant killer, all in a matter of days. Born with a body designed for mayhem, mayhem still wasn’t his first career choice by any means.
His story, in short, is the best identity puzzle in the book, to the point where I almost wonder if the book should have been written entirely from his perspective–a squat bestial Archie Goodwin to Richard Curtis’s less corpulent and cerebral Nero Wolfe. (Oh please, Goodwin is a total henchman, serving at the beck and call of a man who, if Ian Fleming had created him, would be a villain to make Goldfinger and Blofeld look shabby by comparison.)
His origin story is briefly outlined–he worked for Curtis on a project in Belize, building a hydro-electric dam. It all went fine, until Bennett, who liked the drink a bit too much, made a really bad mistake, ordering the sluice gates open too soon–before various objects had been cleared from the tunnel–including a man. The man’s body was never found, nothing could be proven, but he knew. He’d killed somebody. He also wrecked the turbines, which is what Curtis canned him for.
He’s scraping by in Singapore, subsisting on odd jobs (enjoyed that implicit pun, did you, Mr. Westlake?), when Curtis phones him from the plane he’s on. Leaving cushy first class in search of reading material, Curtis has spotted Jerry Diedrich & friends back in lowly coach, without being spotted in return. He needs a man in Singapore to keep watch on the kibbitzing do-gooders, and it can’t be an on-the-books employee, or a by-the-book one either. He must acquire an unregistered weapon he can point at these–
When the phone rang this afternoon, in his shabby little apartment off China Street, Bennett had been hopelessly studying yet again the help wanted ads in the Straits Times. These days, he had one part-time job as a messenger, and another unloading trucks at a lumber yard, but the work was dispiriting and the pay meager. Still, without references…
Then the phone rang. Not knowing what to expect, and not expecting very much, he’d answered, and the astonishing voice had said, “Colin, this is Richard Curtis.”
“Mr. Curtis!” It was like getting a phone call from God, it was that impossible.
“I’m calling from an airplane,” the astounding Mr. Curtis said, “and I want to make this fast.”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”
“I’m wondering if you’re a more controlled person these days.”
“Oh, I am, sir! Honest to God.”
“If you do a little job for me, Colin, it might make me think better of you.”
“Oh, yes, sir. Just tell me what it is, sir.”
“There’s an annoying fellow from Planetwatch on this plane. Remember Planetwatch?”
“Oh, do I. Right buffoons.”
“Worse than buffoons, Colin. They can make trouble. This fellow, Jerry Diedrich, is determined to make trouble. Write that name down.”
“Yes, sir!” He already had the pen in his hand, hoping to find job offers to circle, and he wrote the name on the margin of the newspaper.
He goes to Curtis’s corporate headquarters, doubtless where Curtis got Bennett’s current phone number in the first place. (Bennett lost his home, marriage, and family after he lost his job, though less because of his newfound poverty than the pent-up rage stemming from it–frightening in a man that size.)
He gets photos of Diedrich, and brief descriptions of the other two. He waits at the airport, sees Curtis leaving in a hurry (first class deplanes first, natural order of things), thinks admiringly of how the boss never even gives him a sideways glance as he goes by.
He sights his quarry, follows them to their inexpensive motel, notes with some confusion that the pretty blonde girl gets her own room and the two men bunk together. He goes back to the office to report, whereupon Curtis curtly explains that Diedrich and Rickendorf are ‘fairies,’ to which Bennett has pretty much the standard response for a construction worker who is not himself gay.
He gets five thousand in Singapore dollars, since he has no credit cards himself now, and they can’t very well issue him a corporate card. Curtis tells him to buy himself some new clothes with what he doesn’t need for the job, so he can look the part of a tourist, but Bennett realizes, with gratitude, (bear in mind that Curtis didn’t just fire Bennett, he made sure nobody else in their industry would ever employ him), that he’s really saying “I don’t want you to look so down in the mouth while you’re working for me.” Bennett’s devotion to his once and present master is getting stronger by the minute. He’d kill for me, Curtis thought, surprised to realize it was true. And that he might have to.
Curtis tells him to check into the same motel and follow Diedrich everywhere, taking photos of anybody Diedrich talks to with a Polaroid camera (digital not a thing yet?) He will bring the photos to Curtis, in an effort to find out which well-placed person in Curtis’s employ is passing Diedrich information. He will also bug Diedrich’s motel phone. Aside from the identity of the mole, he’s to try and find out the source of Diedrich’s obsession with Curtis (more to satisfy his employer’s curiosity than anything else).
So, basically a P.I. They do have those in Singapore, as they do in most large cities. Curtis must have hired people to do corporate espionage before now. That would be the way to go now, not some amateur who couldn’t even do the job he was trained for properly–that is, if Curtis wasn’t already contemplating the possibility of having Diedrich and the others killed. He’s not ordering Bennett to do that–he’s not ordering him not to, either. Fact is, he doesn’t really care if they live or die, as long as they’re out of his way. Diedrich, in particular, is the most persistent gadfly he’s ever encountered, and he needs to find some way to swat the pest.
But he will learn he’s created a far more dangerous pest, by refusing to let well enough alone. Curtis has a pernicious tendency to make his troubles worse in trying to end them. (The name Comey comes popping into my mind, for some reason. Which Bond novel was he in?)
Meanwhile, back at the Australian ranch, the other henchman in this story, Morgan Pallifer, is getting bored playing babysitter to George Manville, Curtis’s unwilling guest.
Chapter 4 in Part Three is pure unadulterated Richard Stark. I don’t mean that Westlake was channeling Stark when he wrote it. I mean Stark wrote it. Entirely possible he was switching back and forth between this and a Parker novel–my guess would be Backflash, going by the dates, but who knows?
And Chapter 4 is so good, you almost have to wonder if Stark should have stayed in the driver’s seat all the way through. Just five and a half pages long. Stark pops up elsewhere in this book, but never quite so–starkly.
Morgan Pallifer was nearing the end of his rope. Not only was he stuck on land, extremely dry land at that, with no significant body of water for hundreds of miles in any direction, but his job had somehow been reduced to that of babysitter. No action in it at all, no movement. Nothing to do, day and bloody night, but play nanny, with assistant nannies Steve and Raf. Now, there was nothing wrong with Steve and Raf, Pallifer had chosen them because they were professional and reliable in a crisis, but if you didn’t happen to have a crisis on your hands, those two were not what you might call stimulating company.
As for George Manville, Pallifer found him a disgusting disappointment. Where was the fire, the resistance, the defiance? Where were the escape attempts, the maneuverings to get at a telephone or a vehicle, the confrontations with his jailers? But no; all Manville did was sit around and read.
Pallifer would be right at home in a Parker novel. A tough man, and a smart one, but he overrates himself. And once again he underrates his opponent. Manville is doing more than reading.
As Pallifer prepares to head out to kill Kim Baldur, having finally gotten the name of the Gold Coast motel she checked into with Manville (which she has long since departed, and it says something for his opinion of women that he actually thinks she’d still be there), his sidekicks inform him Manville has disappeared. He’s also informed that Manville was listening at the window when he got the call about the motel.
Not knowing what Manville might have heard, Pallifer figures it doesn’t matter–he can’t escape the sprawling outback station, and they’ll find him sooner or later. He’s got to go before nightfall, or he won’t be able to find his way off the place himself. He’s got to get out of this dreary place. Back to the coast, where a shark like him belongs, doing what sharks most love to do. And you know, when a shark stops swimming, it dies.
So he’s heading down the highway, stops to take a piss, and comes back to find Manville sitting in the back seat. He was in the trunk. He heard quite a lot at that window.
“If you’re going to that motel,” Manville said, “then Curtis still wants Kim Baldur dead, no matter what he said to me.”
“So the deal’s off, is that it?”
“That’s it. Drive, Mr. Pallifer.”
He might as well; there was no point just sitting here, on an empty highway. He put the Honda in gear, and they started again to drive east.
When he’d got into the car, back at Kennison, he’d put a pistol in the glove compartment, the one he figured to use on the girl. Now he glanced at the glove compartment, thinking about it.
Manville said, “It isn’t there anymore.”
“I thought not,” Pallifer said. He looked at that expressionless face in the rearview mirror, then watched the road. “You heard me on the phone, then you hid out till I put my bag in here, so you knew which car I’d be taking, and then you got in the trunk. Where were you, before?”
“On top of the framework for the garage doors, between that and the ceiling.”
“So you could look to see which vehicle I was gonna take. But what if I just got in it and drove away?”
“At first,” Manville told him, “I was going to drop on you as soon as you opened the driver’s door. But then, when you came in and opened and closed the trunk, and went away again, I saw I could do it more quietly.”
“Well, you’re pretty cute,” Pallifer said, and slammed on the brakes, sluing the wheel hard right across the empty road with his left hand while his right hand snaked inside his jacket to whip out his other pistol. Pressed against the door, he turned, whipping the pistol around, and Manville shot him in the head.
Even Manville’s trick–hiding over the garage door–straight out of The Blackbird. Grofield was in a similar situation at that remote lodge in Canada. Manville should be grateful he was at least maneuvering in a warm climate.
Manville disappears from the story for a number of chapters after this, then shows up suddenly in Singapore to save Kim from Bennett (kind of), later in Part Three. The other two men eventually go looking for them, but never find Pallifer’s body, or the car.
There’s no Stark Rewind, as in the Parker books, to catch us up in real time with what Manville was doing between the end of Chapter 4 and his return in Chapter 17. George briefly tells a dazed Kim how he went back to Brisbane, met with Brevizin again, they got in touch with Inspector Fairchild, compared notes, and now they all know they’ve been had. She’s got a few things to tell him as well, but we’ll need a rewind of our own to cover that.
Fairchild is in Singapore too, to vouch for George’s story. In the original manuscript, Brevizin came along for the ride, and there really were a few too many moving parts in this one. What we do find out is that Curtis only hears about this little complication for his plans a week later, when his other two flunkies finally realize they better call him. He hasn’t bothered to check in. Too preoccupied with other projects, and there have been some major hitches with the one that involves destroying Hong Kong. He decides both Pallifer and Manville are probably dead.
It’s not entirely out of character for Curtis not to sweat the small stuff, avid multi-tasker that he is. Again, he just tends to think people will stay where he left them. Particularly with armed guards watching them. Maybe a bit of a stretch that he’d flat-out forget to tell Pallifer to forget about killing the Baldur girl in Australia, once he’d seen her on the plane to Singapore. You don’t often see holes like that in a Parker novel. Too many cooks here?
This is a recurrent problem Westlake has with this book, trying to rationalize a type of story that is, at its heart, irrational. When you’re reading a Fleming novel, or watching one of the movies, you just kind of go with it–since it’s all nonsense, the more nonsensical elements don’t stand out much. But this is too intelligently written for the parts that don’t make sense not to bother you.
Back to the surviving henchman, who does make sense, in his own twisted way. Let’s talk about what happened between Chapters 4 and 17. Which is that Colin Bennett became a killer. Though in his mind, he’s been one for a long time now.
There’s a lot of the old hugger-mugger in those chapters, where Bennett is following the troublesome trio around, trying to see who they meet up with. Somebody named Mark, he learned that much, but Curtis has thousands of employees, that isn’t enough. He knows Mark is gay, like Diedrich and Rickendorf. He follows them to a gay bar, but to everyone’s shared bafflement, Mark doesn’t show.
(Sidebar: Yes, there were gay bars in Singapore in the 90’s. I was skeptical, seeing as there are still draconian anti-gay laws in that town (no anti-lesbian statutes, and trans-genders are allowed to marry, go figure), but there used to be in New York City too, and there was Stonewall in ’69, and many such places before it. The whole gay rights movement in Singapore is decades behind ours, but there’s a scene that goes back generations, organizing patiently, waiting their moment, and may it come soon.)
Bennett refers to this particular establishment as being for older more well-heeled a clientele, ‘fellows with umbrellas.’ Funny bit where Kim wants to go with them for the meet, is told she won’t fit in, then lies about how she’s been to gay bars before. Luther, genuinely interested, says “Really? Why?” She relents, stays at the motel, leafs through magazines, looking for something to read, and suddenly realizes–they’ve been moved–her room has been searched.
Mark spotted the tail easily–Bennett is not exactly unobtrusive, no self-respecting queer would ever dress like some tacky tourist for a night on the town, and anyway, Mark’s the Curtis employee who brought the expense money for Bennett. He suggests over the phone (that Bennett has tapped) that they meet at Empress Place, a huge outdoor market, always crowded. And once again, Jerry and Luther don’t see him–but this time Kim is along, wandering around, and Mark makes contact through her.
They end up meeting on a bus–Bennett follows in a car, but he can’t see inside, doesn’t know what’s happening. Mark doesn’t know much of anything either. (Curtis is not confiding any part of his plan to anyone he doesn’t need to carry it out–he’s not telling anybody at all the whole of what he has in mind for Hong Kong. A clear violation of Bond villain protocol, as has been mentioned already.)
Jerry is convinced he finally has Curtis by the short and curlies–he’s going to do something horrible, and if Jerry can find out what it is, he’s got the bastard, at long last. Mark promises to try to find out more, and Jerry says he’ll reach out to his Planetwatch contacts there. And I guess you could say this is an environmental issue, if not the kind that Planetwatch would normally be involved with.
And this is the problem, the reason why things are about to take a tragic turn for a man who wants to be the hero of this story, but isn’t going to be. Jerry Diedrich is caught between worlds, between identities. In public, he’s a crusading environmentalist, but in private he’s just trying to even an old score that only he knows or cares about. In some ways, his subplot is reminiscent of Little Bob Negli’s from The Seventh. (To say why would be giving the twist away–stop reading if you don’t want to know it).
Realizing that there could be many lives at stake here, sincerely wanting to prevent whatever Curtis is planning, he still can’t see past his own grievance. Or grasp the reality that he’s in more danger than anyone. It’s not a windmill he’s tilting at here. It’s an evil sorceror, served by a very real giant.
They know now about Bennett, see him everywhere, watching them, waiting for them to meet their informant, but Jerry is keeping in touch with him via payphone, and they won’t do any more face-to-face meets.
And the irony is that all Curtis has to do about Diedrich & Co. is nothing. Nobody but his partners in crime know his target for the soliton, not even they know his ultimate goal. Mark’s covert investigations remain fruitless, though he does tell them Curtis met with a Jackie Tian, from Hong Kong–big wheel in the construction union there. (Another henchman.)
Never occurs to the tenacious triumvirate that as they are getting ever more desperate to learn Curtis’s plans, Curtis is putting ever more pressure on Bennett to find out what they’re up to, by whatever means necessary. Bennett doesn’t cope well with pressure. Never has. He won’t go back to the odd jobs. He’s convinced himself that a grateful Richard Curtis will put him back where he belongs. If he gets results.
He follows them to a restaurant. He follows Jerry into the men’s room. He knocks Jerry out with a piece of pipe, and stuffs him through a small window. Takes him to his tiny apartment and ties him to a chair.
As Kim and Luther grow ever more frightened about what might have befallen their friend, Colin Bennett, who never intentionally harmed a living soul before now, is learning how to be a torturer. Kicks to the ribcage are not getting him Mark’s last name. Jerry’s having trouble breathing after the fall he took going out that window. Bennett perceives a vulnerability he can exploit.
Back in the living room, Diedrich hadn’t moved. Bennett walked through into the bedroom and pulled that sock once more out of the laundry. Bringing it back with him, carefully shutting the bedroom door, he knelt before Diedrich and showed him the sock and said, “Do you see what this is?”
Diedrich gave the sock a dull look, then apparently remembered he was supposed to respond to questions, so he said, “Yes.”
“It’s a sock.”
“I was using it to gag you, so you wouldn’t be shouting for help and like that, such as you did, but when I put it in your mouth, turns out, your nose isn’t working. So I had to take it out again. It was like this.”
Diedrich tried to fight, but Bennett was stronger. He pried his jaws apart and stuffed the sock inside. “And now I’ve got to wash me hands, you see,” he said, and got to his feet, and turned away from the strangling sounds Diedrich made, his legs kicking on the floor.
Bennett went into the bathroom and washed and dried his hands. When he came back out, Diedrich’s eyes were popping, his face was mottled dark red, he was straining every muscle in his body. Bennett casually pulled the sock from his mouth, and Diedrich made horrible sounds, flopping like a captured fish in the bottom of the boat. Breathing seemed to be painful for him, but at least it was possible.
Bennett sat in his chair to wait for Diedrich to be recovered enough to talk. He wasn’t a cruel man, he didn’t do this sort of thing, had never done this sort of thing, but he had no choice, did he? In for a penny, in for a pound. And he’d always believed, if you take on a job, you do it as best you know how. No self-satisfied smug little poofter like Jerry Diedrich was going to ruin Colin Bennett’s life, and that was that. That was that. No second thoughts about it.
This is, of course, right out of The Ax. (And you can see it also in the one death in The Hunter that Parker never intended to cause.) The final murder in The Ax, involving duct tape. Bennett and Burke Devore, from very different backgrounds, would understand each other quite well. Both are trying to get back to an earlier cherished self, transforming into a newer harder self in the process. But whereas Burke only needed certain men to die, Bennett needs information first, which is trickier.
Diedrich, deeply ashamed of himself, but broken, spits out Mark’s last name–Hennessy. And has to watch, as a satisfied Bennett phones Curtis, right in front of him, and gives him the name–which he recognizes. Someone very highly placed in his organization. Someone who is going to end up wishing Curtis had just fired him.
Bennett hasn’t yet decided to kill his prisoner. He has no criminal record; it would just be Diedrich’s word against his (and he still thinks Curtis would protect him, when in fact Curtis is going to great pains to make sure he can’t be connected to Bennett). But he still needs to find out one more thing–why? Why has Diedrich gone to such pains, taken such risks, to go after a man who was never, after all, more of an eco-criminal than scores of other in his business. It’s personal. So who was the person?
The answer fills Bennett with terror, and then guilt–the latter emotion coming from the last bit of humanity left in him.
Diedrich had a lover, before Luther Rickendorf. Daniel Foster. They were going to be married. He worked for Curtis. On a dam construction project. In Belize. He disappeared. Diedrich made inquiries, and found out about the accident. The accident Colin Bennett caused, the accident that got him fired from his job, blackballed from the construction business, but Jerry never knew about that. He just assumed Curtis had covered it up, when in fact Curtis never even know Daniel Foster’s name.
He needed a place for his rage and grief to go–an emotional soliton, seeking the path of least resistance, and who easier to blame than a reckless uncaring billionaire who acted as if nothing had happened at all? So he devoted his life to destroying Richard Curtis.
And in doing this, in pursuing his white whale across the oceans of the world, he created complications that Curtis, pursuing his own path of vengeance, could not ignore–forced him to make one mistake after another, pushed him into hiring a man like Colin Bennett, who has now come face to face with the one moment in his life he’s most ashamed of. But it’s too late. Too late for shame now. Too late to say he’s sorry.
The man said, “I’ve been a guilty fellow and a beaten fellow for a long time. My marriage broke up, I was blackballed everywhere. Not looking for sympathy, you know what I’m saying, but I’ve been punished. Oh, you can believe that. You wanted somebody punished for what happened to your friend, well, you got your wish.”
“If Curtis didn’t…” Jerry began, but then didn’t know what it was he even wanted to ask.
The man nodded at him. “Curtis knew you were there,” he said. “For a long time, Mr. Curtis, he’s known you were out there, a thorn in his side. A mosquito, but a bad mosquito. You know, he didn’t say to me to kill you, that isn’t the sort of man we’re talking about here. He said to me, Colin, find out who’s the traitor in my camp, and for the love of God, Colin, find out what this fellow Diedrich has against me.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Jerry said. He couldn’t look at the man anymore.
“Well, so I’ve done the job,” the man said. “Haven’t I, Jerry Diedrich?”
“I’m a willing worker, you know, I’m deserving of trust. I’m deserving of a second chance. Don’t you think so?”
“You’ll get your second chance,” Jerry said, not trying to hide the bitterness he felt.
“Well, but there’s the rub,” the man told him. “I’ve given Mr. Curtis the information on this fellow Hennessy, so he’s pleased with me for that. But can I answer his other question? Can I tell him why it is you’ve been hounding him all this while?”
Jerry looked at him, and now he understood why the temperature in the room had changed. He whispered, “I’ll never tell anybody, I swear.”
“Now, why would I trust you?” the man asked him. “What sort of relationship have we had, you and I, that I would trust you? You’ve already told your lover friend there, haven’t you? The German boy.”
“No! I never told anyone!”
“You? A bigmouth like you?” The man seemed almost amused by him. “And the girl with you,” he said, “You couldn’t resist telling her, could you, for a sympathetic smile?”
“Honest to God, no, I never told— I never told anybody, I never will tell anybody!”
“Oh, I know that,” the man said.
“Please. Please. I swear to you, I’ll never say a word, you can trust me, not a word to anybody, I’ll never bother Curtis again. I’ll—”
“I know all that,” the man said, and stood. “I know all that, because you’re going to keep your mouth shut.” He went down on one knee beside Jerry. “You know the saying,” he said. “When you want somebody to shut up and keep shut up, what is it you say?”
He waited, but Jerry didn’t answer. Finally, almost gently, the man gave the answer himself: “Put a sock in it.”
So that’s how Colin Bennett commits his first (and arguably only) murder. Not for some smug supervillain, not acting as some politely smiling cipher in a flat-topped razor-tipped bowler, a most memorable and impressive two-legged plot device, the source of whose devotion to an employer who will order him to die in a nuclear blast remains forever a mystery, because he was never really a human being to start with.
Colin Bennett, human to the core, became a murderer as an act of self-preservation. He started out like the rest of us. Built a decent life for himself, a trade, a family, and then he lost it all with a single moment’s miscalculation, as could happen to anyone, at any moment in time, and so often does.
And having lost the man he once was, he was open to becoming some other man, a man Richard Curtis could use, while still deluding himself (as did Pallifer, as does Jackie Tian, as does Richard Curtis himself) that he could find a way back to that earlier more innocent self. Perhaps even Jerry Diedrich shared in this delusion to some extent, but at least he wasn’t some rich man’s toadie, and the only one he ever tried to hurt deserved it, more than he ever had a chance to know.
Bennett could have tried to be his own man for once, but strong as his body is, he’s weak as water on the inside, looking for something outside himself to give him form, purpose, agency. Weak men must have masters, always, and that’s where henchmen come from. He sees in Curtis the kind of power and success he wishes he had, blames him for nothing, unleashes his resentments at more vulnerable targets–like environmental activists who happen to be gay. But hey, it’s just a story. Right?
Much as he may resemble Burke Devore in some respects, he’s not a reader, doesn’t have a family to anchor him, and so he is going to make murder the answer to everything. Having started down this road, he won’t stop.
The other two would be more complicated. Lying in bed, in no hurry to rise, he thought about ways to kill them, and then smiled at his own thoughts. He’d never deliberately considered killing anybody before, and hadn’t originally intended (so far as he knew) to kill Diedrich, but now that it had been done, something new had opened up inside Bennett, because now he saw what a solution this was. How easy, and how permanent. The solution to so many problems.
Well, he should get to it, shouldn’t he? They’d be missing Diedrich, they might have already reported his disappearance to the police. Before they made too many waves, before they did too much talking to too many people, he should stop them. The good new permanent way.
He starts with Kim, but she fights back long enough for Manville to make his surprise re-entry to the story. Manville doesn’t have a pistol this time (say this for Singapore, they have excellent gun control), and he’s no match for Bennett in physical altercation (any more than Bond was a match for his prototype), but he distracts the hulking henchman long enough for Kim to give him a dose of hairspray in his eyes. He escapes through the window, to the amused laughter of workmen who assume he was screwing the blonde American girl and then her husband discovered them–but they’re still witnesses. He registered at the motel under his own name. His life in Singapore, such as it was, is now over.
So he meets up with Curtis, who still has uses for him, and isn’t sorry to hear Diedrich is no more (Bennett will never tell him what really happened or why). He had never intended to create such a monster, had never really thought about the potential consequences of ordering a deeply depressed non-professional to do this kind of work, but now that it’s happened–
Curtis took the opportunity to study Bennett, this shambling messy creature across from him, and consider what he had done and what he seemed willing to do. He hadn’t realized how much of a brute Bennett was, and the knowledge was both pleasing and alarming. The man could be even more useful than Curtis had thought, but he would also be more dangerous, because he clearly wasn’t very smart. To take Diedrich home!
Curtis tells him that they’re going on a trip together. He doesn’t need to know where the trip ends just yet. (Curtis is quite wrong to think he knows where the trip ends but we’ll get to that next time.) Curtis tells him that Mark Hennessy, who has no idea he’s been found out, and ignored Luther’s desperate warnings, will be coming along with them.
And then even Richard Curtis, on the verge of killing millions, is a bit frightened by the eager smile that creases his golem’s face at this news. Here’s the other thing about henchmen; they tend to get a bit, shall we say, overenthusiastic about their work?
And there’s other stuff in Part Three, about how the new triumvirate of George, Kim, and Luther, aided by the now fully convinced Inspector Fairchild, try to convince the understandably skeptical Singapore authorities that something terrible is going to happen, and one of the richest most influential men in Singapore is going to do it, only they don’t know what. Or where. Or even when. But soon. That they know.
And next time we’re going to finish this novel. That I know. And you’re going to see the book cover that might have been. From an artist whose name you should all know.
21 responses to “Review: Forever And A Death, Part 3”
Charles Ardai’s response to my earlier comments about revisions leads me to believe there may be at least two versions of the manuscript out there. But the box of materials the archive presented to me only had one version, and the archive clearly only presented one version to Ardai. So I’m at a loss. The simplest explanation is that I copied the quotes down wrong. Except I know I didn’t. I’m especially certain about the “Well, damn” after the bird-in-the-throat metaphor, because that’s such a recurring Westlake construction that I recognized at the time, with the manuscript in my hand. The two-word sentence that begins “Well-comma.” That’s so Westlake. It’s maddening not being able to explain the discrepancy.
All of which is a preface to discussing some changes I’ve noted about the Singapore section. Some of these changes Ardai has already acknowledged, to you or in the comments of the blog. Another change I’m not quite as certain of (I may be remembering the order of events wrong). But also, Ardai and I may have been working off of slightly different materials. Like I said: maddening.
One of the changes occurred in the actual manuscript, a retroactive edit made (presumably) by Westlake himself, but inconsistently applied, creating a continuity error. In the manuscript I read, when Richard Curtis learns that Mark is Jerry’s spy, he essentially “promotes” him and invites him along on his big trip. In the original manuscript, the destination Curtis reveals to Mark has been whited out, replaced with “Sydney.” (I held the page up to the light, but could not make out what had been underneath the white-out.) “Sydney,” of course, is a lie to throw Mark’s contacts off. However, the white-out indicates to me that Westlake decided upon this later, and there’s absolutely nothing else in the scene to indicate that Curtis is lying. (The published version adds a sentence or two that makes it clear that Curtis is dissembling.)
In the manuscript, the next time Mark talks to our heroes (when they call him to beg him to come forward to the police), he accurately reports his and Curtis’s destination, which is a continuity error suggesting that in the first scene, underneath the “Sydney,” the correct destination had been supplied by Curtis. (This has its own problems, for why would Curtis trust Mark with this information?) I e-mailed my concern about this discrepancy to Charles Ardai, and he assured me that this would undoubtedly be fixed in editing. And indeed it was. (I doubt very much that my input was needed here.) In the published version, Mark passes along Curtis’s misdirection, and the gang susses out Curtis’s actual destination during a subsequent conversation in Wai Fung’s office. This works so much better, an example of Ardai smoothing over Westlake’s rough draft rough patches.
(Or maybe Westlake himself made this improvement, in the phantom second draft, though I like to think I was reading the phantom second draft.)
I agree that the Part One text you copied reads better than what we have, and that the contradiction is maddening–but I must note–this is not a humorous book. And that is a humorous quote. Many of Westlake’s voices went into this one–his sense of whimsy he mainly kept on mute. Possible he did experiment with a more of a wry tone here and there, and you somehow got a glimpse of that. I can’t believe you’d copy it wrong. Hopefully the mystery will be solved someday.
My own feeling is that Mark’s arc (heh) needed more work. Or else it just needed to end, with Mark taking a powder before Curtis can wreak his wrath upon him. He’s been a fairly skillful spy, spotting the tail, following up with Jerry, even after he knows he could get made. And then suddenly he’s on Team Curtis? I don’t buy it. There’s no time to really develop that character. But he didn’t need a lot of developing, until suddenly Westlake makes him a victim.
I think the idea is that he was playing at being a spy, enjoying the intrigue, without realizing the potential consequences of his actions. That could work. But not the way it’s written. The transition from intrepid agent to brainwashed collaborator to beaten-down victim is too swift. And why would he assume Jerry is fine? He knows a very rough-looking man employed by Curtis has been trying to find out his name. That would scare the hell out of me in his place.
I think your take on Mark is the correct one, and it’s definitely the sense I got reading the manuscript (so there may have been some deleted scenes). This is all fun and games to him, until it isn’t anymore. But even in the manuscript, this is underdeveloped, compared to, say, Colin, whose motivations and character progression (as you note so well above) are expertly mapped.
The beautiful thing about covering this one is that we get a glimpse of Westlake’s creative process–he’s got a lot of POV characters here. Some are very well developed–mainly the bad guys. Well, they are pulling a heist, and Westlake had done some of his best work in the past about guys trying to take vengeance on towns. He’d just done maybe the best book ever about a peaceful man becoming an accomlished murderer. So he’s already got the blueprint for that kind of thing.
The question here is whether, with a few more drafts, a bit of editorial help, he could have finished building this web of interconnecting relationships, all these people becoming something they never dreamed they could be, for better and worse.
It would be nice if the complete manuscript, warts and all, got released as an ebook. But for that to happen, we’d need to stop thinking of him as just an entertainer. That he was, and few better. But that’s not all there was to him.
I think he could have shaped this into something pretty great. It wouldn’t have risen to The Ax levels (its plot too outlandish), but there’s something very powerful about the idea that ordinary people can decide to become heroes (and villains). The collective James Bond idea that you’ve raised could have been strengthened into something special.
Except maybe, just maybe, one rich, narcissistic sociopath can too. (God, I hope we don’t find out.)
Just started to read Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, and yeah, I finally caught the glaringly obvious reference to that book in Trust Me On This. Mr. Westlake basically read everybody. Everybody who had something to say.
Trollope’s narrator is a bit too chatty at times, writing lengthy historical essays about people who don’t exist, while the story gets lost in a profusion of prose, but of course they all did exist under other names, and do exist, and will go on existing, and we we need to see them for what they are, and be on guard against them. Trollope saw what was coming from his time, and Westlake saw it had come from his own.
Now considered Trollope’s best novel. Back then, the influential people all mainly hated it. Well, nobody likes a mirror that tells the truth.
You perfectly sum up what Westlake was trying to do with this book. Use a popular type of story to get past that social resistance to honest mirrors. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked, but it was a valiant endeavor, all the same.
A change Ardai has acknowledged (and with which I have absolutely no beef) is the excision of of the lawyer Andre Brevizin from the Singapore and Hong Kong sections. In the manuscript, Brevizin tags along with Fairchild and the rest of the gang, which doesn’t make a lot of sense as a character beat, as he’s been established as a man who prefers routine. His decision to go to Singapore (and then Hong Kong) can be read as another example of the novel’s theme of characters becoming the heroes of their own stories, but he doesn’t contribute much except his presence (and his money). He lifts right out of the plot without the slightest ripple.
His arc ends a bit abruptly, but yeah–there’s too many people in the mix as is. What’s he going to do there? He’s a lawyer. Fairchild makes sense, since they need somebody who speaks cop. But even he’s a bit of a third wheel.
Fairchild actually has a bit more to do in the manuscript. Wai Fung, his Singapore equivalent, is slightly less cooperative than we see in the published version. In the manuscript, after a fair amount of placid stonewalling from Wai Fung, Fairchild essentially goes over his head, calling in some favors and using connections and influence with Wai Fung’s superiors to coerce some cooperation, which Wai Fung reluctantly but efficiently provides. That reluctance is (somewhat) toned down in the published version, and Fairchild’s interference omitted.
It’s actually pretty interesting to get three different takes on the police inspector character, in three different countries.
That’s from Comeback, of course, and it seems like something similar is going on here, with a cross-cultural twist.
(and once again, I’ve screwed up my tagging)
Never fear, Fitch is here. 😉
Thanks (for the tagging fix, and for fixing my “who” typo). 🙂
There is a problem with the Asian part of the book, in that it lacks an Asian hero. Making Wai Fung even more of an impediment to stopping Curtis is, to my way of thinking, not a step in the right direction. All three top cops make serious errors in judgment, because this is a Donald Westlake book–doesn’t like cops, doesn’t like bosses. But he gives Fairchild a chance to recover from his mistake.
Martin Ha is a very promising character, whose promise is cut abruptly short. I understand why, what’s being said there, and it still feels unnecessary. Westlake takes American cops to task for being too trigger-happy, and now he’s taking Chinese cops to task for not being trigger-happy enough? For being too polite, in essence.
As with Humans, Westlake’s sincere interest in other cultures, other nationalities, doesn’t stop him from doing the expected thing when it comes to who wins, who loses, who lives, and who dies. A weakness he shares with many other authors. I mean, has Toni Morrison ever written a heroic white character? Well no, because she feels like that’s been well attended to elsewhere, which it has.
I’m not big on the PC myself, but I’m big on learning as much as I can about my fellow humans of all colors, cultures, and creeds, and so was Westlake. I feel like he flubbed the mission statement a bit here. Stark, oddly enough, never did, and there’s not a dram of PC in Stark. Interesting.
Martin Ha is an improvement Wai Fung, in that he seems serious and competent and helpful, but his time with the story is extremely brief, and he doesn’t really get a hero moment. Not everyone in this life gets a hero moment, of course, but everyone in this book who gets one just happens to be white. PC or not, that’s a failing. Still, his exit places our heroes in an interesting predicament, with no “in” with the police, no introduction, no background, no reason for anyone to listen to anything they have to say. (Their solution is a touch colonialist, though Westlake has the sense to notice that.)
All of that said, I actually love the character of Fairchild. I love his backstory and his cramped handwriting and his sharp intellect and his tenacity. He’s another character whose point of view this novel could have been written from, except that a police officer is such a traditional hero and that’s so not the point of the book. The police are here to help, but sometimes they won’t be much help at all. You’d better be ready to step up yourself.
It’s interesting to watch Fairchild interact with his opposite numbers in Singapore and Hong Kong (technically, both men outrank him), how they understand each other, and how they don’t.
He’s a thoughtful well-crafted character, of which there are many here. Maybe too many for the narrative to bear. There’s a reason the manuscript is so much longer than the published book.
When I did Ex Officio (in just a one part review, how the hell did I do that?), I made Culver out to be a bit of a cut-rate Tolstoy. And maybe that’s how long this book needed to be, to get everything said, and make sure everybody got a voice, but who’s going to let Westlake publish a book that long? Who does he think he is, George R. R. Martin?
And with all due respect to a very intelligent writer, whose vision has held me fast in its televised format, Westlake was a vastly superior wordsmith, who knew how to say a lot more with a lot less.
However, there are times when I think he should have let Stark have the last word on Culver–or else let Culver write the mammoth labyrinthine doorstops he was born to write. But again, who’d publish them?
When we critique a writer, particularly one slotted into a specific publishing niche, we should always remember the constraints he or she is laboring under. They can’t just write to entertain themselves, nor can they write purely to satisfy the LCD, if they’re going to amount to anything. So they keep trying to thread the needle, and small wonder they don’t manage it every time.
However, I do disagree (respectfully; Ardai’s doing god’s work here) with the removal of a small but devastating moment that occurs in Singapore, one that I singled out in my original review: In the manuscript, after Kim is attacked by Colin Bennett, she insists that they engage the authorities. But before that can happen, Luther gently suggests switching rooms with Kim, as homosexuality is a crime in Singapore, punishable by ten years to life in prison. I feel that this is important, as it illustrates Westlake’s research (he didn’t just biff on the legal implications), and it’s a telling character beat about Luther (and, by extension, Jerry), and the stakes involved in their very presence in Singapore.
It’s good to know, so many years after A Jade in Aries, Westlake remained sensitive to the plight of a gay community that’s even now probably worse off than New York’s was in the late 60’s.
Though I can sympathize with Ardai’s need to try and cut down on wind resistance in a very crowded plot.
Luther deserved every good character moment he got. I’m going to try to give him his fair due in Part 4. Incidentally, though there’s never going to be a movie of this–Alexander Skarsgård.
Okay, this last change (if it is a change) I don’t feel as confident about. I didn’t take notes on this, so I’m relying on my memory of how the story was structured. But I think there was a Parker rewind in the original manuscript. Perhaps Charles Ardai can weigh in again, if he’s still hanging around these parts.
In my recollection of the manuscript, immediately after George helps foil Colin Bennett’s attack on Kim, there’s a Parker rewind flashing back to George’s escape from the Australian compound. The published version places the escape in proper chronological order, so it comes much earlier than I remember.
In the published version, after the attack on Kim, instead of the flashback I recall, we get a scene in the police van with George and Kim in which George reveals to her that Tony Fairchild, Luther, and he had been meeting with the police before George decided to go get Kim.
Now, I know that’s not how it played out in the manuscript. Luther went to the police station? Without Kim? He left the hotel and went to the police, where he met up with Tony and George? He did this before the attack by Colin? This doesn’t quite make sense to me, but perhaps only because I so dearly miss the conversation I cited earlier in which Luther discusses Singapore’s strict homosexuality laws.
I think what happened here is that Luther is sitting in where Brevizin was in the manuscript, but it’s not a seamless swap.
It’s such a Parker thing, that I considered mentioning the possibility there was, in fact, such a chapter in the original manuscript, but I figured nah, if there was, you or Ardai would tell me. Parker’s absent for a certain number of chapters, while stuff is happening to other people, and then he shows up out of nowhere, and then you find out where he’s been, and what he’s been doing, and how he got there, and then the story proceeds from that moment.
But then again, Westlake might think, he’s trying not to be too obvious about who wrote this novel he intends to publish under a pseudonym. That means the trademark stuff–his humor under his own name, and things that are very strongly associated with the Parker novels, are going to be dead giveaways.
(Of course, Parker doesn’t typically get roughed up by the bad guy when he makes his appearance. George is good, but he ain’t that good.)
Stark was, in a sense, taking control of this book at odd moments. Probably because Westlake would take breaks from this to work on a Parker novel, and then come back to it in Stark mode. He couldn’t just shake that off in a moment, especially not after he’d just reclaimed that voice. He may not even have been aware he was doing it, until after he went back and read it.
However, Stark’s approach is very pure and focused, and this book is neither. So he’d go back and forth about how well it works. He’s trying to write something different here.
But that chapter with Manville and Pollifer on the highway is probably my single favorite thing in the book. It just flows. And once I’m through with this, it’s going to be a pleasure to get back to books that know exactly what they are, and what they want to do. Not that this wasn’t fascinating. But it’s also a bit frustrating. Must have been for him too.
I’ve been bingeing on the old Phil Silvers Show. Sergeant Bilko has two corporals that act as his henchmen: Rocco Barbella, called Rocco, and Steve Henshaw, called (the perfect name for a henchman) “Hensh”.
I was more of a McHale’s Navy man. I think they have a yearly football game or something? That would explain Army’s losing streak. Bilko betting against his own team. 😉