Portrait of US writer Donald Westlake. Portrait de l’ecrivain américain Donald Westlake.
Detective novelists have always been fond of setting their stories in a closed society, and this has a number of obvious advantages. The stain of suspicion cannot be allowed to spread too far if each suspect is to be a rounded, credible human being, not a cardboard cut-out to be ritually knocked down in the last chapter. And in a self-contained community–hospital, school, office, publishing house, nuclear power station–where, particularly if the setting is residential, the characters often spend more time with working colleagues than they do with their families, the irritation that can emerge from such cloistered and unsought intimacy can kindle animosity, jealousy, and resentment, emotions which, if they are sufficiently strong, can smoulder away and eventually explode into the destructive finality of violence. The isolated community can also be an epitome of the wider world outside and this, for a writer, can be one of the greatest attractions of the closed communal setting, particularly as the characters are being explored under the trauma of an official investigation for murder, a process which can destroy the privacies both of the living and the dead.
From Talking About Detective Fiction, by P.D James.
Since the First World War and Prohibition combined to create the atmosphere in which the puzzle would be transmogrified into something new that would reflect the new reality, I think it’s nice that the phrase for that new thing should itself combine words from the war and the bootleggers. Hardboiled dicks. Tough guys who were interested in a very rough kind of immediate justice having to do with this particular case at this particular moment, because there are no reliable long-term social truths or social contracts. The determination to turn the puzzle story on its head shows very clearly in its changed treatment of class, of persons in different social strata. In the previous form–previous in origin but by no means dead, then or now, very much still with us–the detectives and the victims alike tend to be from the upper classes, or at least not below the professional middle class–I mean, no tradesmen–while the murderer could be of any class at all. Frequently, however, he would turn out to be jumped-up, to belong actually to a less exalted class than the one to which he’d been pretending. I mention only Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance. The puzzles tended to be rather more like crossword puzzles, in that the solution might hinge on esoteric knowledge, of bell-ringing, or Chinese vases, or Turkish cigarette ash.
But on come the hardboiled dicks, and everything goes out the window. Puzzle solutions require knowledge no more esoteric than that people are sometimes greedy, people are sometimes jealous, people are sometimes afraid. The hardboiled dick himself was middle-class at best, more probably working-class in his background, never claiming much more than a high school education, and the only thing he will ever offer as special knowledge is that he knows where the bodies are buried. He’s an insider, in other words, in this topsy-turvy unsentimental world. As for the upper classes, who are popularly thought of as having caused the war and profited from it–much of which turned out to be true, by the way–they don’t even come off well in these stories. When they appear at all, they are made fun of and despised, they are gullible patsies for con men and professional gamblers, their daughters are dumb enough to run away to Mexico with ex-cons. They are even, at times, the murderer, and their motivations are as human and messy as anybody’s.
From The Hardboiled Dicks, by Donald E. Westlake (originally a talk given at the Smithsonian in 1982, now collected in The Getaway Car.)
Looking over articles relating to Westlake’s demise recently, I was reminded of a story I first encountered in the article archive for The Violent World of Parker (that site’s long lamented absence is one reason I had a tough time remembering the specifics). A minor episode in Westlake’s life, that just slightly outlived him.
Right after Jimmy Breslin died, I did a piece about what seemed to me a sort of between-the-lines feud going on with him and Westlake. Maybe more of an unstated rivalry, since both wrote about comic criminals. Westlake put a few shots over Breslin’s bow across the years, Breslin finally took umbrage when one of them was a scathing NY Times review of a less than scholarly biography he’d written of Damon Runyan.
Based on a reference to Breslin in Dancing Aztecs, it seemed to me that they had rubbed shoulders here and there–and they definitely met at least once, since they participated in a writer’s panel in 1997. And I never could find a transcript for that. I’m probably not finding any transcripts relating to this story either.
But the link here is my enduring curiosity about whether Westlake ever had any literary vendettas going on, of the type well-known authors so often engage in. It wasn’t his habit to self-publicize much, so we wouldn’t necessarily know if he did.
Closest he seems to have come was when he announced his resignation from the ranks of science fiction writers in a polemic submitted to a little-known fanzine, in which he disparaged (among other things) the editorial style of Frederick Pohl (who according to Lawrence Block, never forgot nor forgave the slight). But they both seem to have spent the rest of their lives ignoring each other. It’s hardly in the same league with Saul Bellow telling a prominent bookseller he’d never speak to him again because the poor schlub had praised John Updike in an interview.
I don’t believe there was any feud between Donald Edwin Westlake and Phyllis Dorothy James, aka Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, ETC., creator of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, who pops up on the telly quite often. I don’t believe they held each other in low regard. Nor was there any kind of mutual admiration society in session there. Guarded distant respect? Something like that.
I know they met once at a dinner party, because that was mentioned when this story I’m trying to understand came out, to the mutual embarrassment of all concerned, other than Westlake himself, since it came out in response to an obit for him in a British newspaper, that seems to have been hastily researched, as obits often are.
There is no reason to think they ever corresponded. There is some reason to think they glanced at each others’ work here and there (Westlake probably more at James’ than vice versa, because he had more catholic tastes.)
They were not enemies. They were not friends. I have to think neither would have approved of the word ‘frenemy.’ They were only colleagues in a peripheral sense, inhabiting as they did different ecological niches within the same genre biosphere. They didn’t even occupy the same land mass. So how did this happen?
I probably rely too much on links (that may someday cease to function), so let’s sum up for the record. P.D. James said something she really should not have said, on a late night shortwave radio program being broadcast to the planet in the wee wee hours (I can’t find out if it was live or on tape–if she was there in the studio at that hour, everybody should have cut her a break, since nobody not holding high office should be held responsible for what they say or do at two-thirty in the fucking morning.)
The comment that got her in trouble was–
“in the pits of the worst possible inner-city area, where crime is the norm and murder is commonplace, you don’t get moral choice, you don’t get contrasts between good and evil…”
Let’s be fair, and give her a chance to state her point more elegantly, which is to say, in print, in Chapter 6 of that instructional of hers I quoted up top, which is entitled Telling The Story–after quoting W.H. Auden’s semi-serious essay on murder mysteries, which compares the stereotypical corpse in some idyllic place to a mess left by the family dog on the drawing room carpet–
He believed, as I think do most British writers of the detective story, that the single body on the drawing room floor can be more horrific than a dozen bullet-riddled bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets, precisely because it is indeed shockingly out of place.
Please note the “So Say We All!” tone of that sentence–not at all sure Auden would have concurred, but never mind–combined with what seems to be a complete ignorance of how Raymond Chandler wrote mystery stories.
I haven’t read all that much Chandler, and have my own critiques to make, as did Westlake–but as I recall, it was usually just a body here, a body there, and they weren’t all found on streets. There were plenty of rich classy dames in mansions, and one sadly neglected redhead in a nice little suburban cottage. His main problem as a writer was bad plotting and spotty characterization, which happens quite often in the cozies as well.
But imagine, if you will, how the author of Killing Time, Butcher’s Moon, and The Ax might react to the notion that a high death toll in a story somehow invalidates it emotionally, renders the audience incapable of pity. (Not that Westlake would have read this, it came out in 2009.) Hell, imagine what Shakespeare would say!
She caught hell from a class-conscious group of fellow mystery writers in the UK, and took umbrage to their criticisms like she was Lady Bracknell instead of Baroness James (she’d been made a non-hereditary peer in 1991). Her words were debated heatedly in Red Herrings, the newletter of the Crime Writers Association, Britain’s answer to the Mystery Writers of America, and the controversy leaked out to the mainstream press. As a direct result of this brouhaha, she canceled an appearance at Bouchercon 1995, which was held in Nottingham. Yes. That Nottingham. Writes itself, really.
Of course Westlake was there. You can’t seriously think the creator of John Dortmunder and his Not-So-Merry Men (complete with Little John), was going to miss a convention held there. Named after his most important critical champion, to boot. You can read a bit about the goings on here. Sounds like fun.
The furor over her ladyship’s remarks died down. She made other controversial remarks years later, but she got the better of that exchange (and a bit of her own back from the Beeb, like it was their fault she’d put her foot in her mouth).
After the great unpleasantness she’d been through, she got so concerned over ‘political correctness’ (I’m not convinced anybody knows what that means) that she ended up as the Conservative whip in the House of Lords.
(Oh I say–did she get a real whip? Please, someone tell me she had a real whip. I mean, the Lord Mayor of London gets a whacking big mace. I’m imagining her with a whip, right now, and you can’t stop me. Ker-rack!)
Then came the Westlake obit in the Telegraph, where (without any source whatsoever, or a byline even) the writer(s?) said Westlake had, in the context of the aforementioned furor at the Nottingham convention, called P.D. James a nitwit.
This was followed by emphatic denials, from everyone involved, that he’d said any such thing (and, confusingly, the article denying the insults also added to them). Mrs. Westlake went so far as to say she didn’t think her husband had ever used the word dimwit.
FYI–he did–at least twice. Both times in Dortmunder novels. That appeared Post-Nottingham. Search engines weren’t as good back then, and ebooks couldn’t be searched via Google. They can now. (The Kelp in me rejoices.)
From What’s The Worst That Could Happen? (1996).
“How was I to know some dimwit crook would choose that night to attack the place?”
(That’s Max Fairbanks speaking; I need hardly mention of whom he is speaking.)
From Bad News (2001)
Kelp said, “Aren’t you gonna get in trouble for this?”
“Oh no,” she said. “Everybody thinks I’m a dimwit anyway, I’ll just be flustered and embarrassed, and apologize to everybody, and they’ll all shrug their shoulders and get on with it.”
That’s Marjorie Dawson, a minor but sympathetic character in the narrative, who is not a dimwit. In fact, neither of the characters referred to as a dimwit is a dimwit. It’s the people who think of them as dimwits who turn out to be the dimwits. So that’s confusing.
There are probably other instances of his using the word, but I confess, my first reaction was also that I didn’t remember him using it. I’ve just learned not to trust my powers of recall. (And neither should anyone else.)
The first use is the more incriminating, since he presumably would have been working on What’s The Worst That Could Happen? in 1995. He might have submitted it before he left for Nottingham, or he might have finished it after the convention was over. It might be a reference to something he said (then wished he hadn’t), something somebody said that he said, or it could be a coincidence.
But it doesn’t prove anything. What are we trying to prove, precisely? That a deceased author of comic capers (and much else of consequence) did or did not belittle a subsequently deceased crafter of ‘cozies’ (not so cozy as all that), because she insinuated that you couldn’t write a satisfactory detective story about moral choices anywhere but the white middle class suburbs?
And anyway, isn’t there freedom of speech in the UK? Unwritten Constitution, you say? English Common Law, you say? Let’s just say we’re curious. That’s probably covered under English Common Law as well. I mean, going by the tabloids alone.
I looked around, and while a transcript for the offending BBC interview with James did exist, and probably does still, it doesn’t seem to be available to the general public now, and of course context is everything.
But there’s a lot of context one can pick up where such a prominent and vocal author is concerned, and I think we can, with cool heads, and a temporary disabling of our outrage circuits, figure out what she meant. “This is the kind of story I want to write, this is the way I want to write it, and I have to believe it’s the only proper way to write it, or I couldn’t write it with complete conviction.”
Some writers (including some of the very finest) are like that. Westlake wasn’t. To utilize the parlance of Isaiah Berlin, he was a fox. She was a hedgehog. I shall elucidate, of course. (Though really, the way she curled into a spiky ball after her fellow scribes berated her tells the tale in itself.)
He’d met her. He knew she was anything but a dimwit. But he also knew she was one of those people who tend to selectively narrow their horizons. Which is not necessarily the same thing as dimming your wits. Focus can be a good thing. And the middle class is well worth writing about, in any setting or genre (Westlake certainly concurred). Along with all the other classes, which is where we reach our sticking point with the Baroness.
When you need to know, every day, that you are doing the right thing, living the right life, writing the best stories, you will be be forced to conclude that certain other people are doing the wrong thing, living the wrong life, writing the wrong stories.
She hadn’t had much of a formal education, but neither had Westlake. They were both autodidacts, who learned by reading, living, and cross-referencing the two (it’s a good system). They were both children of the lower middle class who had risen above their station by dearth of hard work, but there the similarity ends, because Westlake went on identifying with his lowly origins, and developed a powerful dislike for the high and mighty.
James never forgot where she came from, but the memory had quite a different flavor for her. Her philosophy seems to be (and I’m not just extrapolating here, I’ve been reading a collection of nonfiction articles she published) “Yes, the social structure is inherently unfair, but some of us can move up, and we can all hope to move up, so let’s all be content with that.” (I don’t believe she’d have ever used a term so vulgar as ‘trickle-down.’)
She was no Mrs. Bucket (Bouquet, pardon mum), but she was quite chummy with Mrs. Thatcher. She was active in Tory politics. She had a whip. (Okay fine, but she’s got a straight razor in that photo up top.)
The American descendant of Irish Catholic peasants, who spent his life lampooning the rich and powerful, wasn’t going to think much of Thatcher or Tories, not that he was so PC either. But politics was never the most important thing to him. And I can only assume he’d have wondered, later on, why any successful writer would accept a voluntary demotion by going into politics, even if she never had to attend any hustings, or whatever they’re called.
Back to Nottingham: He was going to have been imbibing at least a bit at a trade convention (that’s why they hold the damn things). Her absence and its proximate cause would have been the #1 topic of conversation. He always liked a lively bit of backchat. Gossip is fun, and for any writer, fondly slagging one’s competitors in their (willful) absence is sheer heaven.
She’d promised to be there, and had then absented herself in a snit, her knickers in a proverbial twist, because she’d been raked over the coals in a newsletter nobody but other mystery writers ever read. The temptation to snark among those who were present (and had in some cases crossed an ocean to get there) would have been nigh-irresistible.
He said something. Which somebody remembered. It passed down the grapevine, which made its way to Fleet Street by obscure byways. Transmission error (combined with wishful thinking, the Brits like a spicy obit) could have done the rest. It might have happened like that. How the hell would I know?
But there’s the word ‘dimwit’ in two books he wrote afterwards, only pointed more at the people using the word than the ones subjected to it. And there’s the other thing, that perversely came out in the process of rebuttal. “She was lost in words years ago.”
See, I find it impossible to believe he’d just out and call her stupid in dead earnest, knowing she was no such thing–but that other phrase has a familiar ring of satire to it–this is, please remember, the man who once said of Ross MacDonald “He must have terrific carbon paper.” The implication being that MacDonald kept writing the same Lew Archer book, over and over again. That mot juste was published. In an anthology of articles by and about mystery writers. That saw print in 1977. MacDonald died in ’83.
Westlake could be scathing about other mystery writers, and writers in general. He could also be supportive and sympathetic, but something of the gamecock might come out in him, when a fellow scribbler got on a high horse.
For example, if a fellow mystery writer said something along the lines of “I know how you write a mystery, and everyone else is wrong.” Which, you know, would mean Dashiell Hammett was wrong. (The Telegraph obit writer’s most egregious error was to say Westlake wrote in the style of Chandler, a writer he had many times publicly disparaged. Obits are sometimes written by dimwits.)
It wouldn’t be about political correctness for him, though the elitism would have rankled. It would be more about professional pride. Not only his, but that of many others he admired. P.D. James wrote a very popular and enduring type of mystery, is widely acknowledged as a sophisticated proponent of that form, but she was, at most, one tiny alcove in a rambling old manse, built over the course of centuries, in every architectural style imaginable.
She’s a leading example of her style. It’s still just one style. Many will never agree it’s the most rewarding style. Though it’s really what you do with the style that matters.
Westlake was one of those very rare mystery writers who could convincingly straddle the hard-boiled and cozy styles, meld them, cross-reference them. Starting out in the school of Hammett, he explored more of the manse than any crime writer I can think of. (Much more than James, whose oeuvre stands at fourteen Dalgliesh novels, two Cordelia Greys, and three miscellaneous entries, one of which is a Jane Austen pastiche with a murder in it–and short stories, but not that many. She had a late start. Better late than never.)
I don’t know if he spoke ill of Agatha Christie, as the infamous obit declared, but he sure as hell read and learned from her, as we’ve seen in the course of reviewing his mysteries. He may, at times, have been satirizing the conventions of classic whodunnits, but he knew them, backwards, forwards, sideways. He read everything.
He did locked room mysteries. He did manor mysteries. He did closed society mysteries, though they might be closed societies of outsiders. His manor might be a house in a small New Jersey town that’s being used to bring mental patients back into the world, but it’s the same basic set-up James talked about–and nobody ever wrote a better mystery in that vein than Wax Apple. In which no one is truly good or evil, the detective refuses to think of himself as a detective, and yet right and wrong are very much the subject at hand. Morals, and misunderstandings, which is certainly the subject at hand for us now.
Perhaps no writer was ever better qualified to see both sides of the conflict that James’ remarks created, between the ‘cozy’ and ‘hard-boiled’ schools in Britain. But was he really in a position to play referee? He was just visiting.
She’d been a bit dismissive, perhaps unintentionally so, about those who wrote mystery novels set in high crime areas. Some of the hard-boiled kitchen sink school, resenting their elders and their higher book sales (because they’re aiming for a younger crowd, and older people make up a disproportionate section of the overall mystery audience, for reasons we needn’t dwell on now, but look who started a mystery blog in his 50’s) had been dismissive of her kind of story too. Both sides oversimplified.
There should have been a reasoned discussion of why what she said was wrong, but self-centered calumnies were more fun to write, and to read. The younger neo-noir crowd were chafing at the old guard, the old guard was bristling defensively, and Westlake would have remembered how he chafed under a different old guard, when he was writing science fiction.
(Which James also wrote, later in life, and refused to call it that. The Children of Men is an adaptation of her novel of the same name in much the same way Point Blank is an adaptation of The Hunter–if you look really close, you might catch a glimpse of the original plot and characters. She said she liked it, which in author-ese usually translates to “The check cleared.”)
Westlake had written about moral (and immoral, and amoral) choices, in all classes, in all kinds of settings. So had others. Even allowing for context, what she said was stupid. Nobody has ever lived who hasn’t said something stupid. But to say you can’t write a mystery story about moral choices in a crime-infested ghetto would, to me, indicate a complete ignorance of the work of Chester Himes, or anyone like him. And that kind of ignorance, for a writer, is a form of betrayal. A breaking of the ranks.
Because, you see, a writer is supposed to take interest in the whole world and everyone in it, and in particular everybody who writes about it, even if he/she can’t personally cover every corner of it, or read every book. You can still appreciate those who go where you can’t, tell you things you didn’t know, explain perspectives that differ from yours. That’s one of the reasons we have books. (To many of us reading or viewing ‘cozies’, an English middle class suburb is as exotic a locale as any–strange accents, odd food, arcane etiquette. I feel much more at home watching The Wire than I ever will Downton Abbey.)
At least in this instance, she didn’t appreciate those who ventured where she didn’t. Perhaps because she couldn’t. To her, the world she lived in and wrote about was The World. Everything else was just a shadow. Even her sophisticated suburban killers were more akin to her than the many good and decent people who lived in some violence-ridden slum.
(And you know, there are many gradations between a toney English suburb and ‘the pits of the worst possible inner city area.’ Yeesh. Not hard to break that code, and nothing she said afterwards could take away the taste it left in the mouth.)
She reminds me a bit of Patricia Highsmith, in her fascination with a more intellectual abstracted form of villainy–but James’ morality was a lot more simplistic (makes for better book sales, don’t you know). Highsmith, for all her many prejudices, knew there were all kinds of worlds out there, all kinds of people, and even if you didn’t like them, it never paid to ignore them. The boundaries between class, between race, are always porous. A hermetically sealed social environment is not only boring–it’s a fantasy. Doesn’t exist. Never did. Westlake wrote a book about cloistered monks, just to uncloister them. That’s where the fun is.
Some people read this type of murder mystery to feel safe. Cut off from the more complicated world that really scares them. A lot of people are like that, you know. All over the world, in all classes (it’s the peasant mentality in a nutshell, and we’re all peasants, you go back far enough). My world is the real world, my people are the real people. And they’re all wrong. There are as many ways to live a life as there are lives to be lived. And the sheer variety of life–and literature–was the principal delight of Donald Edwin Westlake. As they are to all foxes. (Though he had his comfort zone as well, and it got larger as he aged).
Now one other thing–her primary series character–a police detective. And a poet. A man of no moral failings at all, almost priestly in his devotion to duty, his lack of personal attachments. Her ideal. Westlake understood ideals. He also knew about Mary Sues. There’s a danger in getting so wrapped up in a character that you can’t see past him or her. He distrusted heroes, and perfect ones most of all.
James didn’t write police procedurals, where the department as a whole was the hero. She created a man who was born to be an independent sleuth–then made him an errand boy for the state–and never dealt, best as I can see (it’s not like I reviewed all her books, or any), with the contradictions that entailed. Well, that’s the sub-genre–in many ways, Lestrade has more descendants than Holmes. The brilliant heroic police inspector, seeking truth at all costs, has a large and legitimate place in the genre. (When they show up in reality, people tend to be less enthused, or have you never heard of John Stalker?)
A sub-genre she wanted to enlarge, make more complex, more challenging, and she did. But then, so did Westlake, when he wrote as Tucker Coe–whose cop-without-portfolio found moral choices in the oddest places. Even while he denied he was a detective. “The world is not one world, but a hundred thousand worlds, overlapping and yet almost entirely sealed off from one another.” Preach it, Brother Tobin.
There’s something else–if you’ve been reading Westlake for any length of time, you know how he felt about cops. You know how he felt, in particular, about detectives (and one of the reasons why, relating to his arrest as a young man–he sure didn’t meet any poets in that interrogation room).
And police detectives–well, they could be professionals, do their jobs honorably and well, and that was worth respecting. But to set one up as the ideal to which the rest of humanity should aspire? This was a man who spent much of his career writing about modern Robin Hoods (who robbed from the rich and kept it) and who’s her hero? The Sheriff of Fucking Nottingham. Who writes poetry on the side. There is an innate gulf of understanding there. To be sure, he wrote with great sympathy about Abraham Levine–but that’s the only series character he ever killed off.
James was herself often quite critical of other mystery writers–she and Westlake had that in common. She had an acerbic side, wasn’t afraid to deploy it in print. I think she suspected Westlake had said something critical of her, if only as a bit of backroom slagging, and the press had garbled it, as they so often do.
So like a good sport, she let the matter pass. It had been years ago, he’d just died, his family had shown the proper respect. To have even acknowledged an offense wouldn’t have been cricket (and might have revived the whole subject of her own dubious remarks). So she denied any offense had been given (which it might well not have been, she wasn’t there, a good detective never assumes).
Classy. It seems fair to say, P.D. James was all about class. Well, maybe that’s an oversimplification too. ( I wonder how many I’ve perpetrated here, but there’s only so much time I can devote to this quaint little cul de sac I’ve pulled us down.)
It seems entirely fair to say I pulled most of that out of my ass. But this story bugs me. It’s a mystery, begging to be solved. For crime writers, words alone are certain good, the ultimate murder weapons, and they can deploy them with cold-blooded efficiency. In this case, there’s no way to dust the weapon for fingerprints.
But there was means, motive, opportunity. Circumstantial evidence. As to James herself, I’d like to read a transcript of that Beeb interview–just based on what we know, we’ve got her dead to rights. But she had a right to her opinion. And to her legacy, which I wouldn’t take from her if I could, and couldn’t if I would.
I do wonder what he really said at Nottingham. We’ve established he knew the word dimwit. He knew worse than that, I’ll bet. So did she. But their respective schools both live on, in altered form, each serving its purpose. There’s plenty of room for both of them in the Mystery Manse, and thousands more besides. The game’s afoot! (Just try not to stick the foot in your mouth.)
But you know, I realize now, I’d much rather know what they said to each other at that dinner they both attended, and whether they had a chance to talk shop, talk books–maybe discuss their mutual admiration for Trollope? A writer whose predilection for political satire, disguised as melodrama, certainly influenced Westlake. And I might give that a look next. Ex officio, you might say.