Monthly Archives: May 2018

Review:The Duplicate Keys, Part 3–Smashing Mercenary Cuties

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Another interesting new and young writer is Donald E. Westlake whose THE MERCENARIES (Random, $2.95) is substantial and effective–if the publisher’s “the first new direction in the tough mystery since Hammett” remains mysterious.  Clay is a troubleshooter for what he does not like to call The Syndicate–an efficient, likable, understandable young man who arranges everything including, when need be, murders.  When a syndicate newcomer is framed for killing a blonde, it’s Clay’s job to turn detective, to find and eventually to execute the real killer. Despite a few (probably necessary but regrettable) concessions to conventional morality, this is a largely excellent job of sustained narrative and observation within the framework of a self-consistent world, alien to law and convention.  (And don’t tell me Hammett didn’t do just that in “The Glass Key.”)

Anthony Boucher, from the Criminals at Large column, New York Times, August 7th, 1960. 

“Clay. Don’t tell me to don’t be silly. I know, I know, you’re fine with me, you’re a nice guy and we have a good time together, but—then you can turn around and be so cold-blooded, talk about giving somebody an accident when what you really mean is you’re going to go out and commit cold-blooded murder, and it’s just as though it doesn’t really mean a thing to you at all. There just isn’t any feeling there, any emotion. And that scares me, Clay. With me, you show feeling. One of those two faces has to be false. I’m just scared it’s the face you show me.”

“You can’t feel pity for a guy you’re supposed to kill, Ella,” I said. “Or you couldn’t do it.”

“Do you want to feel pity?”

“I can’t. That’s all there is to it, I can’t. I don’t dare to.”

“You don’t have to kill, Clay.”

“I do what I’m told,” I said. “I’m Ed’s boy, he’s my boss, he says do, I do.”

“Why? Clay, you’re smart, you don’t have to be Ed’s boy. You could be anybody’s boy. You could even be your own boy, if you worked at it.”

“I don’t want to be my own boy.”

“What’s Ed to you, Clay?” she asked me.

I lay there through a long silence, my head in her lap, her fingers soothing on my temples. What was Ed to me? “All right,” I said. “I’ll tell you a story.”

The question that nags at me is why.

Of course Westlake would start by imitating Hammett.  Hammett meant more to him than maybe any other writer, certainly any other mystery writer.  His second crime novel was a revisionist take on Red Harvest, a book he revisited over and over again across his career.  His first major series protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam Spade, huge hands, animal magnetism, and all (though Parker has many literary forebears, as I’ve noted elsewhere).  His second major series protagonist, Mitch Tobin, was a re-imagined Nick Charles, with the emotional problems only implied in The Thin Man made much more explicit, worked out in greater detail across five novels.

The Op stories, The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man–those all resonate across many Westlake books (maybe all of them).  He returned to that well over and over.  I’m not sure I see any strong influence from The Glass Key, in any book other than this, the first he wrote under his own name (The Fugitive PigeonThe Busy Body?  Maybe a touch, but neither of those guys qualifies as a fixer.  Butcher’s Moon has a mobbed up cop who might qualify, but there’s no close relationship between him and the crime boss, for obvious reasons.  There’s a mob fixer in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, and that book is clearly a variation on this one, but it’s not about the fixer, or his relationship with his boss–it’s about a disgraced police detective solving a mystery for them.)

The final duplicate key–the last I know of.  Recognized as such at the time among cognoscenti–it wasn’t meant to be a secret, what he was doing here (both books begin with the protagonist having a confused conversation with a stutterer who is begging a favor from their mutual boss).

That capsule Boucher review up top is prima facie evidence of this recognition.  Though I wonder if even Boucher recognized that The Mercenaries, as it was then called, was not homage so much as revolt.  More than in any other story of his that derived from Hammett, Westlake was saying here that Hammett got it wrong.  And he was drawing obliquely upon his own past experiences (that no critic knew anything about then) to say this.  And I would say that all the other duplicate keys are evidence that he was not the only one who thought Hammett got it wrong.  Or at least that there was room for improvement there.

But why?  The very first novel bearing his name.  For Random House.  In hardcover.  Maybe the most significant career choice he ever made.  What would that book be about?  He chose to make it a rewrite of The Glass Key.  Which he knew had been rewritten multiple times in the past few decades.  And none of those rewrites were bestsellers (as the original had been).   Most had vanished without a ripple. And the writers who produced them were all damn good.  What made him think he could do better?  Better, perhaps, than Hammett himself? On his first try?

Before we proceed, let’s recap:

The Glass Key: A beautifully written book with a murky repetitive plot and sketchy motivations.  Ned Beaumont loves Paul Madvig like a brother, is loved in return, his loyalty seemingly unbreakable.  He executes his job as fixer with polished efficiency, even though he’s only been in this town about a year.  And just as mysteriously as it manifested itself, his loyalty to Madvig disappears, replaced by a very unconvincing romance with the society gal Madvig has been so unwise as to fall for.  He leaves town with her, no better or worse off than he was before, having cleared Madvig of murder by solving a mystery–shoring up Madvig’s power base before leaving, but leaving his friend a broken man, desolate and alone.  Ned never kills anybody, though he indirectly causes a few deaths.

Love’s Lovely Counterfeit:  A marginal duplicate. Cain tries not to get too close to the original, but his influence is clear.  Ben Grace double crosses his boss (no love lost on either side) first chance he gets, takes charge of the organization, makes mistakes, pays the price, but he’s not bitching about it, goes out on his own terms.  With Ben, it’s all about the girls–who happen to be sisters, which is where he really goes wrong, because that’s how James M. Cain rolls.  Not a terrible book, but not what Cain did best, though he does add some interesting details about the way organized crime ties into politics (and the police force), and makes money primarily by entertaining the masses with illicit (or semi-licit) pleasures, such as pinball machines.  Ben kills once, in self-defense.

Devil On Two Sticks: Wade Miller went back to the original idea of a mobster’s consigliere assigned to solve a mystery–in this case plug a leak.  Find a mole, then whack said mole. Steven Beck feels no loyalty to his boss, nor the boss to him, but Beck is all about the job, doing it better than anyone else–he’s described as more machine than man by a lawyer working for the outfit, gifted with an ability to switch off his emotions, that fails him in the end.  He’s likewise been doing this job for a suspiciously short time–just came up out of nowhere, no backstory, no explanation of how he got into this line of work.  Again, a woman (the lawyer’s daughter)  is the reason his Machiavellian machinations don’t work out as planned, but he leaves under his own steam, alone, having made a moral choice–that means violating his professional ethics.  (Note: In the fifth Max Thursday novel published the year after this, it’s revealed that Beck’s boss and his entire organization got taken down by the law not long after Beck split for parts unknown, though Beck isn’t referenced in that book.)  Beck takes out a few rival hoods who plan to kill him, and accepts the job of killing the mole once he finds him without complaint.  It just doesn’t go that way in the end.

Dig My Grave Deep:  Daniel Port feels a deep (if irritable) loyalty to his mentor and boss Stoker, who wants him to stay and take over once he dies, but is willing to kill Port if he tries to leave, which he’s trying to do for the entire book.  Port feels a deeper loyalty to himself–he’s supremely good at his job, doesn’t really know how to do anything else, but he doesn’t think the job is worth doing, or worth the price you pay for doing it.  He meets a girl (predictable, ain’t it?), who he’d like to leave town with, and she’s good with that, but he gets cheated of his happy ending, perhaps because Rabe (or the publisher) wanted more books about Port, which wasn’t necessarily a good idea.  More useful details on the kinds of things a guy in this position might do to interfere in what is depicted as an utterly corrupt local government.  But on his way out, he provides one of the few honest people left in town with all the ammunition he’ll need to clean it up.  Port can be brutal, but like Beaumont, he doesn’t kill anyone, even if sometimes his choices lead to deaths.

Kill The Boss Goodbye: Maybe the best of these books as a book, but Rabe cunningly reverses the polarity, making it much more about the boss than the flunky.  Cripp, the Beaumont proxy, has never really had an identity of his own, in spite of some extraordinary gifts–his withered leg is symbolic of a withered soul.  His employer and friend, Tom Fell, has had a breakdown, and as a friend, his duty should be to get Fell the professional help he needs.  As his aide de camp, it’s Cripp’s duty to get Fell back to the trenches before a conniving subordinate takes over.  Fell rises to the challenge, then falls before his own maddened hubris.  Cripp presumably falls with him.  We never find out, because it was never really about him–he was just along for the ride, because that’s his karma.  There’s a woman, Fell’s wife, who is the only thing holding Fell together–she’s not the cause of his downfall (that would be Fell himself, hence the name), but in the end, her love isn’t enough to save him either.  Cripp would probably kill for Fell, but it never comes up.  Horse-racing isn’t that violent.

Murder Me For Nickels:  The first of these books to be written in the first person.  Also the first (and only) to approach the material humorously, and therefore does not feature a single dead body, though it makes up for that lack with lots of lusty guilt-free extramarital sex.  (One might wish this approach were more prevalent in the genre.)   Jack St. Louis feels both loyalty and friendship towards Walter Lippit, but he still puts himself first in a pinch, seducing Lippit’s girlfriend (and she him), maintaining a business of his own on the side–he nearly goes down because of the girlfriend’s wounded pique, but she’s also the one who intervenes on his behalf.  When they become a couple, there’s no real hard feelings in either direction, but (in keeping with the original) the friendship and partnership with Lippit is over.  Probably goes into greater detail about what somebody like this does on a daily basis than any of the other books, but you don’t need to corrupt a whole lot of people to have a jukebox monopoly in a small town.  Jack’s a brawler, but he never even thinks about killing anyone.  (He hates guns, and as a general rule, none of these guys makes a habit of carrying one.)

We know for a fact Westlake read The Glass Key, and all three Rabe novels (the last one probably after he penned his own duplicate, also in the first person).  Seems likely he’d have at least scanned Cain’s novel–very influential crime novelist who didn’t write all that many crime novels (and this one got turned into a movie full of red-hot redheads).

The question mark is Devil On Two Sticks, since I don’t know that Westlake ever mentioned Wade Miller.  The marked similarities between that book and this one we’re looking at now could be coincidence, but it would be a lot of coincidences.  I’m pretty sure he’d come across it.  There’s talk in that book about the organization moving into narcotics, and Beck’s against it.  This bush league California syndicate is connected to the Mafia (never mentioned by name), but other than a few lower-ranking guys of Mexican or Filipino ancestry, it’s seemingly all WASPs.  They meet at the boss’ house for cocktails and light sophisticated conversation.  The Sopranos it ain’t.

Westlake’s goal wasn’t documentary realism (unlikely an Italian American mobster in Gotham is going to have some upstater named George Clayton as his second-in-command, though I suppose stranger things have happened).  But one decision he made early on was that it would be set in a real city–New York–and that organized crime would be depicted as Italian-run, and up to its neck in the heroin trade (which is a prime mover in the story–their supplier is in Europe, and if they lose that connection, they lose their power–and then their lives.)

This is a noir whodunnit with an organized crime angle, written for Random House’s hardcover mystery imprint. Which means there’s going to be a corpus delecti at the center of the story, and we’re going to spend most of the book finding out how it got there, and the solution to that puzzle will be the denouement.  Since this is Westlake, it won’t be the real point of the story.  The point is identity, like I said the last time I reviewed it.  But that’s not saying the half of it.

My original review, which I just reread, covered the bases pretty well, considering.  I even caught the similarity between Clay and Daniel Port, since I’d read a lot of Peter Rabe novels by then–but I hadn’t read The Glass Key, the template from which all these books came.  The Master Key.  And for somebody trying to understand where Westlake is going with this, a skeleton key.

So no point in a synopsis here.  Let’s talk about what makes this duplicate different from all that came before.

The setting is New York City–not some fictional burg out in the middle of nowhere, and not the little-known National City, a short drive from San Diego, which Wade Miller used.  The very epicenter of western civilization and the world economy then, and to some extent still today.  The cities in most of the other books don’t feel quite real, because they’re not.  Doesn’t mean the other writers were wrong–sometimes you want that kind of complete control over the locale that comes from inventing it.  But not always.

The protagonist is George Clayton, known as ‘Clay’ to his colleagues.  Raised upstate, like Westlake.  Did a short stint  in the armed forces like Westlake.  Went to an upstate college on the GI bill, like Westlake.  Got into trouble with the law, like Westlake–but worse.  Ran over a young waitress on a deserted road, while driving a car stolen as a prank.  Crime boss Ed Ganolese happened by, and more or less on a whim, helped him get rid of the evidence, coached him on how to avoid paying the price for his mistake.

Nobody could prove he’d killed the girl, but he knew he had, and so did everybody else, and he got the cold shoulder, even from his dad.  Feeling like Ed was the only one on his side, he eventually came across him again, and asked for a job.  It only took him a few years to work his way up from the bottom to be Ed’s right-hand man, described in the papers as a trouble-shooter.  That was nine years ago–he’s 32 now.

This is quite different from all the other books (especially Hammett’s), where the fixer’s past isn’t really gone into, where he’s only held the job for a year or two (and yet performs it with practiced skill), and where his loyalty (if any) to the boss is never explained very well.  Westlake goes to a lot more trouble with motivation than the others.  He doesn’t want Clay to be a mystery to us.  There are a lot of speeches in the book where he explains himself (maybe more than there should be–overcompensation–Westlake cared a lot about character motivation, but needed a few more books to learn how to get it across without hitting us over the head).

Like Murder Me For Nickels (which only came out a few months before The Mercenaries), it’s Clay telling us his story in the first person.  The others all had third person narrators, though Hammett’s never leaves Ned Beaumont’s side for a moment.  In some of the other  duplicates, the POV switched around a bit.  Not here.

Women are important in all these books, but mainly as a way of telling us things about the men.  Ned Beaumont likes women, and they him, but there’s always this offhanded diffidence about the way he treats them.  He can take ’em or leave ’em alone, but they refuse to let him alone.  He eventually leaves with one, but it’s pretty hard to buy that he’s in love with her.  She’s just the next best thing to his friendship with Madvig, which ran its course.

In Cain’s treatment, the fixer (now boss) gets caught between two sisters–using one for her connections, and then falling head over heels for the other, which is always a terrible idea, but never having been in love before, he didn’t know how it can turn your priorities upside down.

In Wade Miller’s book, the fixer falls for the daughter of a colleague, much younger than himself, and she falls for another member of the gang, closer to her age.  This has a devastating impact on him, emotionally.  He’ll never believe in himself the same way again, and he can no longer control his emotions–which lead him to walk away from the organization, after doing something really noble. And a bit stupid (as noble deeds often are), but we’re given to understand he’ll be okay, if not too happy.

The way of a man with a maid was a Rabe specialty–happy endings not so much. Daniel Port finds true lust with a Mexican American girl, but perhaps because he’s got to remain single for as long as the series lasts, he’s leaving town in search of her at the end, and far as we know he never found her.  He finds many others, but if he ever finds The One his story is over, because that seems to be all he cares about (big switch from Beaumont).  Cripp seems to have no interest in women, or figures they’d have no interest in him, even though he’s a good-looking guy from the waist up. Jack St. Louis is the biggest ladies man of the bunch, hooks up with two bountiful brunettes during his book, but he never finds much time seriously talk to either of them–just banter, as a prelude to sex. (Could be talk is overrated).

Ella, Clay’s girlfriend of a few weeks, a nightclub dancer who he asked right away to shack up with him, is depicted as the ultimate male fantasy–smart, serious, sympathetic, and sexy as all hell.  Unconvincing, being utterly without flaw–but that may be the point.  Clay has to make a choice, and Westlake wants to make the stakes clear.  If he can turn this girl down–since she wants him to go straight, or at least go solo, cut the cord to Ganolese–then he’s got no excuse.  Life made him an offer, and he turned Life down.

And this is why she’s much more central to the story than the other women in the other books.  Even though some of the others were more accurately drawn. She’s Clay’s conscience, and he’s going to talk to her a lot, and listen to her, and be troubled by what she says to him–and what she doesn’t say–that she can’t accept what he does for a living. She knew he was a mobster when they first got together, but she didn’t understand the full implications until later.

Because, you see, part of that living involves dying–murdering anyone Ed Ganolese points at.  Sometimes just hiring a pro, but in some cases, the job requires the personal touch.  At which point, Clay tells both her and us, he turns off his emotions and becomes a machine.  He’s talked to professional killers while engaging their services (Westlake is drawing heavily on Rabe’s influence here), and he says one of them told him he didn’t see how anyone couldn’t enjoy killing.  He disagrees.

It’s an easy thing to take your own private sickness and claim everybody else has it too, so it really isn’t a sickness after all. And who could tell this guy, if he were still alive—the cops got him, finally, when he was enjoying himself so much after one job he couldn’t bring himself to leave the body—that he’s wrong, that the sickness is real, and almost exclusively his own?

A guy who’s never killed can’t say whether killing is enjoyable or not. I’ve killed, so I can refute that madman. I’ve never killed a man I hated. I’ve never killed a man who was doing any good for society in being alive. I’ve never killed a man for personal reasons of any kind.

I’ve killed. Only a few times, but I have killed, and I’ve never enjoyed it. It’s been strictly business, strictly a job I’m supposed to do. And I know if I let any emotion come out at all, it wouldn’t be enjoyment, it would be pity. And then I wouldn’t be able to do it.

What I do enjoy is the reputation I’ve got. Ed knows all he has to do is point a finger and say, “Clay, that guy has to stop breathing, don’t farm it out,” and he knows the guy will stop breathing, and I won’t farm it out to one of the professional triggermen, and I won’t do a sloppy job of it. The law has never come near us for any killing I’ve done personally.

That’s part of the reputation. Dependability, no matter what. I enjoy knowing I’ve got that reputation, and I enjoy knowing I deserve it. The other part is that the people in the organization who know me, or know of me, know I’m the best damn watchdog Ed Ganolese has ever had. They know I can’t be bought, they know I can’t be scared, they know I can’t be outfoxed. They know I can turn emotion off, and they know no man has ever been trapped except through his emotions.

Unlike Beaumont and all the others in this key chain I’ve been examining, Clay has committed multiple murders, in cold blood, before we ever met him, and if that bothers him, he does a good job hiding it.  Not good people, to be sure, but that’s just because Ed never asked him to kill any good people.  He tells Ella that if Ed pointed at her, he’d do it, even though he’s in love with her–this is how he first tells her he loves her–and she sticks around–you see what I mean about the unconvincing part, right?

Hammett and the others didn’t feel comfortable with making an unapologetic killer their hero, for reasons both personal and commercial–that ‘conventional morality’ that Boucher refers to in his review of Westlake’s book is hard to shake, even in crime fiction. But for Westlake, this is not something to be shied away from, danced around.  This is a story about organized crime–Ed Ganolese isn’t a corrupt ward-heeler, but a mafia don, albeit with some influential friends in city government.  Making people who are in some way complicating your business disappear is part of that business.

Even if there are fixers out there who never bloody their own hands–and there are–or never hire a killer–because that’s a lot easier to get away with in fiction–what difference does it make?  You know who you’re working for.  You know what the job is.  You’ve chosen your loyalties, and right and wrong don’t enter into it.  If the boss tells you to make some blonde he slept with go away, and you hire some tough to lean on her, and her baby daughter is there in the car when he leans, and then you pay her off, shut her up–is that better or worse than personally whacking a fellow crook, who’d gladly do the same to you?  I guess we could argue the point.  I guess we will, someday.

Ed Ganolese himself is different from the other bosses in the other book.  We don’t see a lot of him–he’s mainly a voice on the phone, or a brief presence here and there, telling Clay to go find that cutie who set up Billy Billy Cantell for the murder of Mavis St. Paul, and (like Steven Beck, in Wade Miller’s novel) deal with him personally.

We learn about him through Clay, but because Clay is loyal to Ed–feels that he owes him for getting him out of an accidental homicide rap, then giving him a shot that led to his current cushy mobbed-up lifestyle, when he could have just been some ordinary schmo, working a dead end job–because Clay’s identity is all wrapped up in serving Ed–to the point where he knows if Ed goes down, he’s probably going with him–we get the feeling he’s not one of your more reliable narrators, at least where Ed is concerned.

Ella was right, I did like working for Ed Ganolese. I liked everything about it. I liked the feeling of being Ed Ganolese’s strong right arm. I was high enough in the organization so that no one in the world but Ed Ganolese could give me orders. At the same time, I wasn’t in a position of final authority, where the power-hungry boys would like to rush me to the graveyard so they could take over. It was a safe and strong position, one of the safest and strongest in the world, and I liked having it.

That’s not Ned Beaumont, who doesn’t really seem to like his job much, good as he is at it.  Ned, a born loner, just likes having a friend he’d do anything for, and he likes being part of his friend’s family, having dinner at the house with Paul’s saintly silver-haired mother, being treated like he’s Madvig’s old army buddy or something, and he just takes all that for granted, until suddenly he doesn’t, and we never really see the process by which that happens.

That’s not Ben Grace, who despises his boss, and can’t wait to backstab him. That’s not Steven Beck, who could care less about his boss, or his position in the organization (which he could walk away from at any time), but is just in love with the idea of being good at his job.  It’s not the conflicted rebellious loyalty of Dan Port (who is dead determined to quit for the entire novel, but just when he thinks he’s out….), the blind loyalty of Cripp to Tom Fell (that destroys them both), or the cunningly conditional compartmentalized loyalty of Jack St. Louis to Walter Lippit, while still looking out for his own private interests, and screwing Lippit’s girl when he’s not looking.

George Clayton has just decided to define his identity through his loyalty to the man he works for.  He feels no great love for the guy.  They don’t socialize (that’s bad business).  He doesn’t go to dinner at Ed’s house.  It’s 100% professional, and well-compensated as he is, unshakeably loyal as he is, Clay doesn’t think of himself as Ed’s friend.   He thinks of himself as Ed’s servitor.  His good right hand.  Ed uses the phrase himself.  He’s all-in for Ed–but it’s strictly one way.

He’s not being groomed for leadership (wrong background, no family connection, unlike Ray Kelly in 361.) Which is fine by him, because he doesn’t want to be the boss.  And in spite of Ella’s remonstrations, he doesn’t want to be his own man either–take responsibility for his life, his choices.  And that, for Donald E. Westlake, is the unforgivable sin.

Most of the book is Clay dutifully following the trail, interviewing suspects like a cop (he’s painfully aware of how funny this is), crossing names off the list one by one, until he’s got the perp.  It’s well done for what it is, but the real point is to see how smart Clay is, how perceptive about other people–and how blind to himself.

That crack he makes about that hired killer pretending everybody else has the same problem as him–he’s doing the same thing all through the story.  Over and over, he insists that we’re all crooks, in one way or another.  Nobody’s honest, nobody’s clean, everybody’s got an angle.  He makes a persuasive case–but for the wrong reason.  Not to see himself more clearly, but to avoid seeing himself at all.  He tells Ella all about what he does, who he is, because he wants her to be with him, not some image of him she’s invented in her mind–but she sees him more clearly than he ever will.

“As a cop told me tonight,” I said, “I work within the system. Guys like Ed Ganolese, and the organizations they control, exist only because the average citizen wants them to exist. The average citizen wants an organization that can supply a nice, reliable whore when he’s in the mood. The average citizen wants an organization that runs after-hours drinking places for the nights when Average Citizen doesn’t feel like going home at closing time. The average citizen likes a union that’s a little crooked, because he knows some of the gravy’s going to seep down to him. The average citizen even likes to know there’s some place where he can pick up some marijuana if he feels like being wild and Bohemian for a while. And with the number of drug addicts in this country numbering over a hundred thousand, I’m talking about the average citizen. The average citizen also likes to gamble, to buy his imported whiskey cheap, and to read in the papers about desperate gangsters. The average citizen votes for crooked politicians and knows they’re crooked politicians when he votes for them. But maybe he’ll get something off his property assessment, or he’ll be able to pick up a little graft. At the very least, he’ll get his kicks by knowing somebody else is picking up some graft.”

“That’s all rationalization, Clay, and you know it,” she said.

“It isn’t rationalization, it’s the truth. It’s the way the system works and the reason for the system’s existence, and I work within the system.” I got to my feet and paced back and forth, warming to my subject. It was a subject I’d thought about often during the last nine years. “Simple economics shows it’s the way the system works,” I said. “Look, no business can survive if it doesn’t get support from the consumer, right?”

“Clay, this isn’t a business.”

“But it is. We don’t rob banks, for God’s sake. We run a business. We have items for sale or for rent, and the goddam general public buys. Girls or drugs or higher wages or whatever it is, we give something for the money we get. We’re a business, and we wouldn’t last a minute if we weren’t supported by our goddam buying public.”

And that’s true.  Maybe more today than it ever was.  And maybe there’s nothing anyone can do about it, but there’s something anyone can do something about–and that’s himself.  Clay talks a good game about how other people kid themselves, but he’s the biggest kidder of them all.  Because he believes as long as he’s loyal to Ed Ganolese, Ed Ganolese will be loyal to him.

That was the crucial assumption in The Glass Key, and it’s the central flaw of that book.  Beaumont never betrays Madvig, no matter what the inducement. Madvig only betrays Beaumont by withholding crucial information, for what would have to be called unselfish (if irrational) reasons.  Ned Beaumont is a fantasy figure with a credible world-weary edge to him, and nobody did those better than Hammett–but Madvig is pure fantasy. He doesn’t exist.  Not in that job.  Not for very long.  And the novel founders on that problem.  Okay, not everyone agrees with me about that.  But I can think of five capable mystery authors who did.

All the writers who tried their hand at fixing Hammett’s mistake came back to the relationship between fixer and boss.  Why would someone so much smarter and tougher than the man he works for go on working for him, when the price is so high?  James M. Cain said he wouldn’t–he’d take the power for himself.  Wade and Miller said he only cared about doing his job well, and the fixer job was more interesting.  Peter Rabe said one was trying to repay an old debt before he made his exit–another had no self-esteem, needed an idol to worship–a third was just biding his time, delaying maturity.

Donald Westlake said what Shakespeare said before him–the fault is in ourselves.  That we are underlings.  Whether we follow the leader blindly, or blame him for our problems–either way.  We’re not taking responsibility.  We’re failing to know ourselves.  And that makes it inevitable that bosses will come–and they won’t be any great geniuses. Like Ed Ganolese, who makes a critical mistake at the end, and (it is strongly implied) sets up his good right hand to pay for it–they are ruled by their own chaotic emotions.

It’s interesting to me that Westlake didn’t let Ed get away with it.  He wrote a much better novel than this, not long afterwards, about a better man than Clay, who does come to know himself–and Ed Ganolese has a brief cameo in that novel, where he meets his own end.  Doesn’t even get any lines.  And when the trigger is pulled, you know it’s Westlake pulling it.  And I like to think that was also Westlake’s subtextual homage to Wade Miller’s book, since Pat Garland’s downfall is reported to us in an unrelated detective novel.  Westlake did it better. Westlake almost always did it better.  We should remember (and he never forgot) that he stood on a lot of shoulders while doing it.

Did he this time?  Is this the best of the duplicate keys?  Is it better than even the Master Key?

Yes.  No.  I don’t know.  Does it matter?  Do we really read fiction only to rate it? And shouldn’t we rate it most of all by what it teaches us?

Reading this book for the fourth time (Fifth? Lost count.), I was reminded how not good some parts of it are.  Westlake was maybe halfway to finding his voice as a writer.  Parts of it are startlingly sharp and on-point, even today–which only clashes the more with the parts of it that are too by-the-numbers.  The contrivances you can’t avoid in a story like this (or any story) are not well concealed enough.

Too many well-worn genre clichés that he hasn’t quite yet mastered the gift of making his own. Too many stock characters who don’t quite come to life. Ella is more than a mere sex interest, though there’s a lot of (sadly offscreen) sex, and we’re very interested–but she’s less than a fully developed person, a problem Westlake would have over and over again when he idealized women, as he was wont to do at times (his best women were crooks, like just his best men.) A few too many impassioned self-explanatory speeches by Clay, though it was crucially important to Westlake that he get his points across–while we infer all the points left unmade.  The soapbox was another thing he’d learn to conceal better over time.

Of all these noirish narratives, only The Mercenaries is a first novel (well, first novel that isn’t pseudoporn cranked under a pseudonym).  I think each of the previous books is better, each in its own way–and worse, ditto.  I think that’s the story here.  That each writer found his own answer to the question posted by Ned Beaumont and his duplicates, and no answer could ever be perfect, because Hammett’s original pattern was flawed, if intriguing.  The key always shattered in the lock.

But for all that, I would say the door opened a little wider each time, even if the chain stayed on.  Life has certain  unifying patterns, just like keys do.  But it’s the variations in each new pattern that make the difference.  That create the possibility of a different ending to the same old story.  That make us individuals. When the bosses in this world just want us to be machines they can use and control. But we can walk out on them.  Or overthrow them.  Or become them. Or remain loyal to them.  And see where that gets us.

I wonder about Clay.  After all this time.  He’s sitting there in his living room, having sent Ella a message they’re through.  He let himself get emotional about her, and he can’t afford that.  But as he goes over recent events in his head, he’s recognizing that Ed made a stupid emotional blunder, that the cops will capitalize on–they’re going to need another fall guy.  Then the doorbell rings. It’s probably that nameless call girl he ordered, to help him forget Ella, and all her niggling little questions.  But what if it isn’t?  What if he had it figured wrong, this whole time?  What if he’s the fall guy?

Even now, he’s still got a choice.  We’ve been told there’s a fire escape.  He can use it.  He can run to the club, tell his beautiful conscience he’s sorry, she was right all along, and they make a run for it together–or he can turn state’s evidence.  The odds of either path working out are lousy.  But his creator gave him that escape hatch on purpose.  So he’d have the chance of at least going out his own man.  Instead of a pathetic patsy.  That’s one chance we all get in life.  For all the good we make of it.  God Save The Marks.

Boucher got one thing wrong in that review.  It’s not conventional morality.  Clay isn’t doomed because he’s a crook, or he murdered somebody in cold blood.  He’s doomed because he’s murdered himself in cold blood.  Alternate morality. Something Donald Westlake (and Richard Stark) would become known for in a lot of much better books coming down the pike.

See, one of the undoubted pleasures of crime fiction is that it gives us an escape from our humdrum lives–a chance to immerse ourselves in a world where the rules and guilts and fears that run our lives can take a backseat for a few hundred pages.  Westlake is writing about himself and his fellow crime writers, as much as Clay, when he puts that speech in his mouth about how us law-abiding folks love to read about criminals, identify with them–as long as we don’t see our own pockets being picked.  (They are, of course, we know full well–just don’t let us see it.)

What made The Glass Key special for Hammett, I think, was that he was doing something different from his other books–instead of bringing law-abiding readers into a criminal underworld, he was bringing the criminal underworld into the world of law-abiding readers.  He could have done a better job of it, and one of the things those who followed his lead were doing was trying to better fill in that gray area he created, inhabited by the fixer and his boss–straddling that fence between lawless and lawful.

Westlake did more than that–he had his protagonist suggest the law-abiding world itself is an illusion.  That we’re all crooked, all on the take, all part of a criminal underworld–and as Clay tells the Puerto Rican kid who parks his car for him, and wants to join the Ganolese mob, “It’s not what you think it is, kid.”

I’m guessing some I know who like this book more than I do (and I do, just not as much) are reacting to this honesty, vis a vis dishonesty.  And the escape hatch it gives them.  But they’re missing a crucial point.  Clay is right in a general sense.  We’re all crooks in some sense.  But it’s the specific sense that kills him. (Unless he found that escape hatch.)  The creator of Parker and Dortmunder didn’t damn this early prototype for being a crook.  He damned him for being a tool.

Even if everybody around you is a crook, that doesn’t prove you have to be one–even if you are literally a crook, that doesn’t mean you have to work for bigger ones. You still get a choice, every day, to go a different way.  And you’re responsible for your choices, whether you acknowledge them or not.  The sin is not being a crook, or even an enabler of crooks.  The sin is lying about it.  “I had no choice” is the biggest lie of all.  That’s just stealing from yourself.

Now I said this is the last duplicate key I know of, and in the realm of print fiction, that’s true.  But in the realm of celluloid fiction, there’s one more.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of it on cable, never watched it all the way through.  I’m going to do that now.

And while I do, I’m going to wonder whose sick sense of humor is responsible for the fact that the people crafting this key, imagining yet one more feckless fixer for a boob of a boss were brothers by the name of Coen.  (The ‘h’ is silent anyway).

One more time, I am moved to ask–who writes this stuff?

I only wish Westlake did now.  Holy ghost-writer?  We can but hope.

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Review:The Duplicate Keys, Part 2–Port of Rabe

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This began Rabe’s first effort to develop a series character, beginning with a book called Dig My Grave Deep, which is merely a second-rate gloss of Hammett’s The Glass Key, without Hammett’s psychological accuracy and without Rabe’s own precision and clarity.  The book flounders and drifts and postures.  The writing is tired and portentous, the characters thinner versions of Hammett’s. The Ned Beaumont character is called Daniel Port, and at the end he leaves town in a final paragraph that demonstrates how sloppy Rabe could get when he wasn’t paying attention: “Port picked up his suitcases and went the other way.  By the time it was full dawn, he had exchanged his New York ticket for one that went the other way.”

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Why would anyone ever want to read a book called Kill the Boss Goodbye? And yet, Kill the Boss Goodbye is one of the most purely interesting crime novels ever written.

Here’s the setup: Tom Fell runs the gambling in San Pietro, a California town of three hundred thousand people.  He’s been away on “vacation” for a while, and an assistant, Pander, is scheming to take over. The big bosses in Los Angeles have decided to let nature take its course; if Pander’s good enough to beat Fell, the territory is his.  Only Fell’s trusted assistant, Cripp (for “cripple”), knows the truth, that Fell is in a sanitarium recovering from a nervous breakdown.  Cripp warns Fell that he must come back or lose everything.  The psychiatrist, Dr. Emilson, tells him he isn’t ready to return to his normal life.  Fell suffers from a manic neurosis, and if he allows himself to become overly emotional, he could snap into true psychosis.  But Fell has no choice; he goes back to San Pietro to fight Pander.

This is a wonderful variant on a story as old as the Bible: Fell gains the world and loses his mind.

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And next, published in May of 1960, Rabe’s sixteenth Gold Medal novel in exactly five years, was Murder Me For Nickels, yet another change of pace, absolutely unlike anything that he had done before.  Told in first person by Jack St. Louis, right-hand man of Walter Lippit, the local jukebox king, Murder Me For Nickels is as sprightly and glib as My Lovely Executioner was depressed and glum.  It has a lovely opening sentence, “Walter Lippit makes music all over town,” and is chipper and funny all the way through.

All three passages clipped from the essay Peter Rabe, written by Donald E. Westlake in the late 80’s, now collected in The Getaway Car.  

I’ve no idea how many mystery authors have rewritten The Glass Key over the years, but I’m pretty sure only Peter Rabe rewrote it three times.  Westlake easily spotted the first duplicate key, as you can see up top, and hated it.  He probably saw Rabe had returned to that well twice more, but liked those books too much to reduce them to mere ‘glosses’, and so held his critical tongue.

I’d say his critiques of Rabe’s first Daniel Port novel could be applied to the Hammett novel Rabe was copying.  Hammett was the one crime writer Westlake could not critique incisively, or perhaps at all.  Too close.  Too personal.  Like a bishop giving God a bad review.

I don’t think Rabe would have minded if Westlake had said that he’d rewritten The Glass Key three times (Westlake rewrote it once, and we’ll get to that)–he made it known that he’d appreciated Westlake’s pans as much as his plaudits, since the pans proved the plaudits were sincere.  Nor was Westlake disparaging him by seeing where his influences lay.  All writers begin, to some extent, by copying those they admire. But with repeated effort, copies may take on a life of their own and even surpass the original, in some respects at least.

In a December 1986 letter to Rabe, that was also published in The Getaway Car, Westlake made no bones about his debt to the older wordsmith, who he had a lot of questions for, preparatory to writing that essay.  They had never met or corresponded, and not presuming Rabe would have heard of him, he explained that he’d written a number of books under the name Richard Stark, and they had been stylistically influenced by Rabe’s work in the 50’s and early 60’s. He went so far as to say he’d drained Rabe’s blood.

(Rabe’s first marriage was to a woman named Claire Frederickson, and I wish I could write Westlake now to ask him if that’s a coincidence.  To which Rabe, a professor of psychology, therefore a student of Freud, would probably say there’s no such thing.)

My feeling about all the duplicate keys, good bad and indifferent, is that they are not mere copies of the original.  (A gloss is, after all, a commentary on a previous text, and they have their place in literature).  They are, I believe, attempts to fix the problems in Hammett’s novel–but also to use the same basic story to get some different points across.

Nothing new about that. Many ancient myths–such as that of the Pandavas in The Mahabarata–have been retold many times over the centuries, and each new telling has its own spin and sensibility.  You can’t own a story, no matter what copyright law says (for which you should probably ask a copyright lawyer).  You own the specific way you told that story.

The same is true, incidentally, of the gospels, which is why it’s stupid to try and meld them together into some cacophonous concordance for tawdry reasons of dogma.  Mark does not agree with Matthew does not agree with Luke and nobody agrees with John. You can admire a book and still want to turn it on its head, make it tell your truth.

A look at Rabe’s overall body of work shows that he was interested in depicting ambitious men, often trying to rise to the top of some criminal empire, and ultimately falling prey to hubris, and the emotional conflicts it gives rise to.  The hunger for success at war with the need for love.  Identity crises that, more often than not, end tragically.

But something about The Glass Key interested him–suppose the man wasn’t that ambitious?  Suppose he didn’t want power?  Suppose he wanted to walk away from it all? Suppose he was undyingly loyal to the man he worked for, but had hitched his wagon to a falling star?  Suppose he was just somebody who enjoyed the daily scrum of a semi-licit business, but felt like maybe it was time to go fully legit?  All these things are suggested in Hammett’s book.  None are fully spelled out.  The Glass Key is ultimately about a friendship that founders.  There are other things to say with the underlying structure of the narrative.

And maybe now I better get to laying out what they are, because reviewing three novels in one article smacks of hubris.  Let’s start with the book Westlake hated, that I think he was a little unfair towards, but you’re cruising for a critical bruising when the title of said book is–

Dig My Grave Deep:

“Tell me again, Danny.”

“I want out, that’s all.” Port tried to hold his temper, but it didn’t work. “I want out because I learned all there was: there’s a deal, and a deal to match that one, and the next day the same thing and the same faces and you spit at one guy and tip your hat to another, because one belongs here and the other one over there, and, hell, don’t upset the organization whatever you do, because we all got to stick together so we don’t get the shaft from some unexpected source. Right, Max? Hang together because it’s too scary to hang alone. Well? Did I say something new? Something I didn’t tell you before?”

“Nothing new.” Stoker ran one hand over his face. “I knew this before you came along.” He looked at the window and said, “That’s why I’m here till I kick off.”

The only sound was Stoker’s careful breathing and Port’s careful shifting of his feet. Then Port said, “Not for me.”

Series characters are good business for a genre author (repeat business is always good), but it’s hard to strike a good balance with them–you can end up telling the same story over and over or you can be all over the place, seeking ever stranger variations on a theme, thus losing that sense of continuity that makes the form rewarding.  And most significantly, in a genre crammed with surly sleuths, how do you stand out from the herd?

With a peripatetic former criminal forced to play roving detective, was Rabe’s idea–lifted from Hammett–continuing, in effect, the saga Hammett hinted at with Ned Beaumont leaving the town he’d helped corrupt with a girl who had despised him for it; never looking back, but presumably not settling down and becoming a solid citizen, because that isn’t his nature.

(It should be noted, Hammett only ever wrote one story about Ned Beaumont.  There may have been reasons for that unconnected to his writer’s block. Some characters just don’t have a second act.  Most of them, really.  Imagine a series of whaling novels about Ishmael.  And really, there was no need for us to ever hear from Huck Finn again.)

Rabe seemed to think it was worth trying–possible Gold Medal suggested it to him after he completed the first Daniel Port book, and he figured ‘what the hell?’  (They had the best pay rates in the business.)  This would track very nicely with the origins of many other series characters, including one we’ve spent some time discussing here.  But Port is no Parker–even though he may have influenced Parker, if largely in a negative sense.  What not to do.

Whether he’d planned it this way or not, Rabe cranked out five increasingly aimless sequels to the first Port book, and the last is the only one Westlake liked.  I haven’t reread it–I agree it’s better written than most, and the girl is really something, but I remember some serious problems with it–it’s set in Latin America, like many of Westlake’s novels (but none of his best ones).

So maybe just to be contrary (since even I don’t think Mr. Westlake is always right), I’m going to say the first novel is best.  Because it’s the the one story this glossed-up Ned Beaumont  was designed for.  In the five subsequent entries, he’s a shark out of water, flopping around on dry land, and it’s every bit as ungainly as it sounds.  One character in search of a point.

Not as subversive a rewrite as Wade Miller’s, and unlike James M. Cain’s, it sticks very close to the main outline of the original, while streamlining it a lot–but I think it does fix at least some of the problems in Hammett’s narrative–and his hero.  A tighter piece of work, with all the sex and violence and cutting to the chase one expects from a Gold Medal p.o.–but  it does somehow lack conviction.  Particularly the ending (of course I felt the same way about Hammett’s ending).

(And now I’m wondering–if Gold Medal did convince Rabe to bring Port back, did he have to rejigger the finish?  His protagonists don’t generally get happy endings–happy being a very relative term in this sub-genre, but I’d almost rather be a character in a Kafka story than a Rabe novel.  Just because Beaumont walks away in one piece doesn’t mean Port originally did, since this is a revisionist take on the story.  Westlake knew all about that kind of thing–we owe twenty-three of the twenty-four Parker novels to an editor at Pocket Books issuing a reprieve for the heartless heister.)

Daniel Port doesn’t like his career path anymore.  Maybe he never did.  His job is to solve problems for his aging mentor, named Stoker, the boss of Ward 9, in an unnamed town somewhere in the midwest.  It’s not really clear what this outfit does, other than fix elections–some gambling here, a little prostitution there, political graft whenever. There’s a reform party–but they’re crooks as well.  Using the press to undermine Stoker and get their own guys in (again, straight from The Glass Key.)

The Stoker mob is connected to organized crime nationwide, and they’ve got a lot of well-armed tough-talking hoods–and as you’d expect in a Glass Key rewrite, they’ve got local competition looking to take over.  Uneasy hangs the head and all.  Stoker needs his errant knight to stay in the game, if he’s going to hang onto his throne.  But Port’s had enough of being a vassal, and he doesn’t care to be king himself after Stoker dies.

They’re close–not brothers from different mothers, like Beaumont and Madvig–more like Stoker’s a surrogate dad for Port, who lost his younger brother to the organization–kid followed Port into the Stoker mob, after they did their stint, and somehow managed to catch a bullet after surviving WWII.  Port doesn’t blame Stoker, of course–he blames himself.  He’s one of those crooks with a conscience you meet in crime fiction (maybe not so often in reality).

And he’s got a caretaker complex.  He feels responsible for people he likes, will go to extraordinary lengths to help them, a theme that resonates across the entire series.  Knowing this about his protege, Stoker plays Port like a harp–if he can’t bribe or intimidate him into staying, he can guilt him into it. Port knows what Stoker is doing, but feels like he’s got to pay off a debt of honor he doesn’t really owe.

There’s a move from the city to demolish Ward 9 and replace it with new housing–this would effectively destroy Stoker’s power base, leaving him vulnerable to the opposition.  Port agrees to fix that problem prior to going.  While Stoker’s other  main lieutenant, a mean-spirited mediocrity named Fries (don’t even say it), just keeps repeating that nobody leaves, unless it’s feet-first.  His idea is that Port serves him after Stoker croaks (bad heart) and he’ll kill Port once he’s not needed anymore.  Port’s not real thrilled with the company retirement package.

One thing wrong about Hammett’s version of the story is that Madvig is too much of a boy scout, trusts Beaumont 110%, even when Ned pretends for a moment to be going over to the other side.  (Guys that trusting don’t survive long as crime bosses.)  When Stoker finds out Port was grabbed by the other side in his town, his immediate assumption (helped along by Fries) is that Port has turned traitor.  They were trying to turn him, absolutely–but Port is done with the whole dirty business.  But he still nearly gets clipped, right then and there, before he talks his way out of it (shades of Devil On Two Sticks, which you can bet Rabe read avidly).

So it all plays along much like Hammett’s story, but Port isn’t much like Beaumont.  He’s a lot more serious, he doesn’t gamble (except with his life), he’s not solving any murder mysteries (not a required component of the genre in a Gold Medal crime novel), and he’s got better taste in women.

He meets this girl, Shelly, the dark and lovely daughter of Mexican immigrants, whose younger brother Ramon (who she raised herself, since the parents were always working) is also tied up with the Stoker bunch–ambitious punk, probably headed for an early grave, just like Port’s brother, and of course Port’s guilty about that too, but there’s no reasoning with the guy, and Port has his own problems.

Port plants Ramon as a gardener (heh) at the home of a guy named Bellamy,  leader of the corrupt Reform party, to find out what they’re planning, and she’s mad at Port about that, but then she winds up there as a maid herself, getting pawed over by the old lech, and Port’s mad about that.  He grabs her, all caveman-like, throws her in his great new car Stoker gave him, in her skimpy domestic attire, and you’ve read Gold Medal novels before, right?

“Safe and prim as hell, right? What is it, Shelly, afraid I’m going to rape you?”

“You know you can’t! You know…”

“No. As long as there’s you and Nino I wouldn’t think of it. You’re not even here! And all you ever feel is sisterly love, isn’t it?”

She sat still, and Port started to think she was going to let it pass, when she suddenly swung out her arm and cracked the back of her hand into his face.

He jammed on the brake. At first he thought he was going to laugh but then felt himself getting furious.

“Stop the car,” she said. She sat crouched in the seat, and she had one of her shoes in her hand, holding it so the heel made a hammer.

Then she said again, “Stop the car and let me out!”

Port made a fast turn into a dirt lane and stopped the car. He was out before Shelly had found her balance.

The air was rainy and cool, with a strong leaf odor out of the woods next to the road, and while Port stood there, breathing it, he wondered whether she’d ever come out. Her teeth showed like an animal’s, and when she stood in the road she stopped to kick off the other shoe and then didn’t wait any longer. She didn’t wait for him to move, but came at him.

He hadn’t figured she was very strong or as determined as she turned out to be, but before he got the shoe out of her hand she had clipped him hard over the ear, had tried to knee him, and then bit his neck. He had to let go of her to get a good grip, and that’s when he stopped fighting her off. He got a hold on her that changed the whole thing, except that Shelly wouldn’t give in.

The next time she tried to knee him Port lost his temper. He picked her up, tossed her over the ditch, and was next to her when she jumped up. There was one heated look between them and then the front of her dress came apart in one loud rip. She froze, but Port wasn’t through. He reached out and tore the rest she had on, and when she tried to free her arm to claw him, he yanked it all down.

He was holding her as if she might get away long after Shelly had no such thought.

He had taken his jacket off and Shelly was wearing it, and when she had reached for the cigarette he had lit for her she left the jacket the way it had fallen because they were still far out of town. Port was surprised to see how far they had come.

She said, “Your place, or mine, Daniel?”

“Mine’s more private.”

“But mine is closer.”

“And I got better accommodations.”

“Except my clothes are at home.”

He shook his head sadly and kept on driving….

They keep on driving at Port’s apartment for several days, while Stoker frets and worries.  In fact, Port has done a good job thwarting the enemy plans, has found a cunning legal loophole to keep the slum clearance from happening, which almost amounts to a good deed (it’s not designed to benefit anybody but the people planning it–it’ll just displace the bluecollars from the only homes they can afford to live in, fragment their community, destroy it.  This was, you should remember, the era of Robert Moses.)

He’s found the weak spots in the opposition’s armor, their corrupt little secrets, and the only problem (as Stoker reminds him) is that only Port is smart and strong enough to pull the scheme off.  Fries hasn’t got a clue.

And Port still doesn’t have a workable exit strategy, but he’s got the girl he means to exit with.  He takes her shopping, then escorts her (the former domestic) to the big social event at Bellamys house.  This after half-killing Bellamy earlier that day, when he and his hoodlums tried to either turn Port or kill him.  (Basically non-stop violence, in this and all the other Ports, but again, you’ve read Gold Medal novels before.)

He’s there to show solidarity with Stoker, but it’s just not going to work–Stoker has a point, you’re either in or out, and Port’s trying to have it both ways.  Port finally realizes it won’t work, that he’s got to cut the cord, or accept his fate.  He and Stoker have their final face-off there–no matter what loyalty he may feel to his mentor, he’s got to be loyal to himself first.  Even if it kills him.  Even if it kills Stoker.  And it does.

“Face the facts, Danny. I won’t be here much longer. Which way do you want it: With Fries under you, or you under Fries?”

Port felt the rage grow, and he couldn’t stop it this time. “To me, that’s not even a choice.”

“There’s another one. The one I told you at first.”

Stoker saw the color come into Port’s face, a thing he had never seen, and like an infection he felt his own face become glutted with blood, the heart-pound loud in his ears, and he shouted, “Take it or leave it! I’m through begging you! Take it or leave it, and I don’t give one stinking damn!”

Port’s voice came out hoarse. He controlled its strength but no longer anything else. “You go to hell!”

“Wha—” “If I can’t get rid of you and the air you breathe, you and the Frieses and Bellamys and the big shots with small heads and the small shots with big heads, then I’d sooner crap out!”

“I’ll see you will!”

“Try it, Stoker. Try stopping me now!”

What stops, as if Port’s rage alone had done it, is Stoker’s tired old heart. Cracks his head on the stone hearth going down.  Guess who the Reform mobsters try to hang a murder rap on?  But Port gets out from under it with his accustomed eptitude, and informs them all–both mobs–that now he’s got the information needed to take them all down. Names, dates, places.  The works.  He’s leaving town, for good, and none of them better get in his way.

It’s the old fail-safe plot device (not sure how old in 1956).  He’s got it set up so that if he dies–for any reason–the information goes to the press and the law.  As a final parting shot, he gives the old Reform leader–the one who actually meant it, but got forced out by Bellamy–just enough intel to burn Bellamy, and regain control of the party.

This Samson’s bringing the whole temple down–but not before he leaves it.  With his girl.  Well, that doesn’t pan out, because the resentful Ramon (beaten to a pulp by the Reform thugs, and blaming Port for it) told Shelly Port was dead, and she left town herself, headed for the west coast.  Port was going to New York (like Beaumont), but he changes his ticket and goes the other way.  Doesn’t discourage easily.

And I wish Rabe had left it there, with the knight errant of noir, his liege lord no longer impeding him, riding out to find his lady love. For all the lack of conviction I lamented above, it’s still a fairly strong ending to a book that is hit or miss all the way through– though full of interesting minor characters, including a nerveless gunsel (in the sense he doesn’t process pain the way normal people do) and a hooker with a heart of brass, who may well end up with the gunsel, we never find out.  I agree with Westlake that it’s not as good as Hammett’s book; except in the ways that it’s better.

Westlake, ever the word nerd, was nitpicking about the repetitive language at the end, which I’d say Rabe used on purpose–Daniel Port always goes the other way.  You can say it doesn’t work, but no reason to assume he was being careless.  I like it better than Hammett’s ending for Beaumont, which just sort of hangs there, like a bad joke.

We never see or hear about Shelly in the later books–Port either couldn’t find her, or she just figured she’d had enough.  Different sexy broad each book–have to keep the roving hero single.  He’s settled down with another luscious Latina by the end, south of the border, but he’s too far out of his element there–the book isn’t really about him, he’s just kibbitzing in someone else’s story.  Rabe’s acknowledgement, perhaps, that Port wasn’t suited for a series, and then the series ended.

Rabe experimented with different styles, different types of story (as Westlake later did with Grofield, not a lot more successfully)  but all Port really has, as a character, is the caretaker thing (motivation to keep sticking his neck out), the not wanting or needing a boss or steady job thing (keep him rootless, searching), the eye for the ladies thing (so horny guys will keep buying the books), and this low tuneless whistle thing he does when he’s feeling pensive (because ya gotta have a gimmick).

Once his major conflict is resolved, at the end of this book, there’s just not enough left to hang a series on.  Which is why I say this book is the best of the six, since at least he does have the conflict here, even if it’s borrowed from Ned Beaumont.  And I’ve got two more books to cover, so that’s more than enough about Daniel Port.

Even though in some ways I find this a more enjoyable and focused novel than the mordantly messy original that inspired it, even though I find it handles many of the story ideas more adeptly (and sure as hell has the better sex scenes), I can’t say I think it’s as good as Hammett’s book.  Rabe wouldn’t have thought so either.  And there were other variations he had in mind, so at around the same time as he wrote this one (before?  after?  simultaneously?), he came up with a nigh-Shakespearean syndicate saga, entitled–

Kill The Boss Goodbye:

“Look, Jordan,” said Dr. Emilson. “If Fell should leave now, that might be all he needed to go over the brink.”

Cripp sat up. He was finally getting straight answers.

“That’s my professional guess,” said Emilson, “and it’s enough to warn you.”

“Warn me?”

“Did you ever hear of a psychosis?”

It made Cripp think of padded cells and children’s games for grown men. It made him think of Fell, whom he had known for over ten years. Fell had picked him up in New York, where Cripp was making pocket money in a cheap sideshow at Coney Island. The Brain Boy with the Mighty Memory. Tell the kid the year and date of your birthday, mister, and he’ll give you the day of the week. And now the most astounding feat ever performed! Read any sentence from this paper, mister, this morning’s paper, and the kid will tell you what the rest of the paragraph is. This morning’s paper, mister, the kid’s read it once – and Fell had picked him up after the show, kept him with him ever since. A mighty memory was quite a boon in Fell’s racket. No bookkeeping, no double checks on collections, no time wasted on figuring odds and percentages. Cripp did it all in his head. He and Fell weren’t friends, or even buddies, but whatever they had between them was as close a thing as Cripp ever had with anyone. And Cripp made it the only attachment there was. It was easier that way.

“Did you ever hear of a psychosis?” Emilson had said, and right then all Cripp knew was that Fell was not like those men playing children’s games or like somebody in a padded cell. Fell was strong, always right, generous because he was big; and he could make things sure because he was always sure himself. Fell had two legs that gave him a straight, even walk. Fell was –

“Mr. Jordan, I asked you a question.”

Rabe’s other two duplicates were not so much revisions of Hammett’s story as fresh takes, inspired by it, but not following the template too closely, which explains Westlake’s (justly) higher regard for them.

He talks about this one as if Rabe wrote it after his other 1956 novel (the one we just covered), and I don’t know if that’s based on his correspondence with Rabe, or if he just assumed.  I’ll just assume myself, because this is a better book–better than the book about Port, or the one about Beaumont.  Better than 99% of 50’s crime novels.

But it’s also a book that reverses the polarity, in some intriguing ways–the Beaumont stand-in isn’t looking to leave, ever.  He’s not so much loyal to the Madvig in his life as welded to him–unable to imagine life without him–content to be second banana, no agenda of his own.  Not even a love interest, which I assure you is quite unique among the duplicate keys.  There’s sex, because Gold Medal, but none for him.

His name is Cripp–well, that’s what they call him, because he’s got a withered leg, which he’s compensated for with a remarkable memory and an overdeveloped upper body.  He’s actually the one who pulls the boss back into the game.  And the boss is, to coin a vulgarism, nutty as a fruitcake, magnificently and tragically so as Lear.  It’s a tragedy Robert Ryan didn’t get to play him.  (maybe Kirk  Douglas for Cripp, but they’d have had to beef the role up, add a love interest, because Kirk Douglas.)

The story isn’t about Cripp.  He’s merely the fool to this mobbed-up Lear, head of the local gambling syndicate in some inland California town with a racetrack and a police force that looks the other way when properly greased.

The weakness Fell’s showing is mental–or really, emotional.  He’s had a nervous breakdown, and he’s been recovering at a sanitarium, and you read Westlake’s synopsis.  But no synopsis can ever prepare you for what follows.  Because Tom Fell is nothing if not magnificent in his burgeoning madness–

Fell turned around again. He was talking to Cripp.

“Ever notice that nose on Pander? Ever notice how nice and straight that nose is?” It was another switch nobody could follow, and Fell walked to the door. He stopped there and said, “Pander used to box, some years back. Even if we hadn’t set up a fight for him now and then Pander could still have looked good. A good welter,” said Fell and started to smile. “And then he suddenly quit. Just getting good, and he quits. No heart, you can call it.”

Pander had started to hunch himself up and got ready to take his sunglasses off.

Fell continued smiling. “You see a boxer with a beautiful nose,” said Fell, “and you got a fighter without heart. Look at him.”

Millie Borden looked from one man to the other. Then she moved back. She hadn’t understood a thing that had gone on, but she understood what was shaping up. She moved because there was going to be a fight.

Pander leaned up on the balls of his feet, arms swinging free, face mean, but nothing followed. He stared at Fell and all he saw were his eyes, mild lashes and the lids without movement, and what happened to them. He suddenly saw the hardest, craziest eyes he had ever seen.

See, in some ways it’s an advantage–to not give a damn.  To never count the cost.  To believe you can’t be stopped.  And it’s not like he doesn’t have Cripp to be his brains, or his beautiful wife to hold him together emotionally–except he’s putting unbearable stress on both relationships with his behavior.  Without a superego to get in the way, rein him in, he just keeps upping the ante–he wins a lot at first. But the more he wins, the more he knows he can’t lose.

There’s some stuff about a racehorse he’s been keeping under wraps–gorgeous stuff.  The writing here can make you gasp sometimes.  Ned Beaumont’s card games seem very small and shabby compared to the big race, where the horse, representing nothing less than Fell’s unbridled id, delivers in a big way, beats the oddsmakers, crushes all opposition, puts Fell right back in the driver’s seat–but he can’t stop driving.

A horse knows when it’s time to stop running, cool down, eat some grass, find a mare–a madman doesn’t.  He doesn’t even quite register his horse is a gelding–telling symbolism there–keeps calling him a she.  “I call ’em all she,” said Fell, and then he went outside to Buttonhead.  (Believe it or not, no database I’ve searched can find a thoroughbred by that name.) 

Fell starts pressuring local politicians, knocking over apple carts left and right, looking to build new castles in the air–the town is all sewn-up, on the take, but the state isn’t.  He’s drawing attention to himself and the organization.  He’s doing things for the sake of doing them, like a shark who can’t stop swimming forward, and Cripp just watches him helplessly, knowing it’s all wrong–knowing, in fact, that Fell is sick, because the doctor told him so–but not knowing how to stop him or leave him.  And he could never betray him.  So he just gets dragged down under with him.  Again, quite unique among the duplicates.

The bosses in L.A., who never thought much of Pander, would like to go on trusting in Fell, still can’t help noticing the lines he’s crossing, that put them in jeopardy as well–they do some research–they find out about the psychosis.  The mental hospital.  They dispatch a killer.  Named Mound.  Rabe was good with names.  And killers.

The ending is abrupt, unsettling, and doesn’t tell us what happened to Cripp.  What would be the point?  If Mound finished him, or Pander, it would only be a mercy-killing.

The story, as I said, isn’t about Cripp, and that’s nobody’s fault but Cripp’s.  He let his story be about somebody else, subsumed his identity into Fell’s.  The brain boy forgot how to use his brain for himself.  There’s a moral in there somewhere.  About how blindly following even a magnificent madman can have fatal consequences.  Imagine for a moment, how bad it would be if the madman was just a sleazy old fake, who didn’t even know his own business, his paymaster was a foreign power, and he was in charge of a whole country.  Well, who’d believe that?  Gotta keep these things plausible.

I’d call this the best of the duplicate keys, except it strays so far from the pattern of the master key, it almost doesn’t count.  It reimagines the story to the point where it’s a different story. One reason I’m giving it less time here.  (The other is I don’t want to spoil it for you.)

But Rabe had one more key in him, and this one gets my vote for the cleverest–and funniest–of all these linked stories about fixer and boss.  Even though it’s not as well written as Kill The Boss Goodbye.  Can’t have everything.  It’s got a much better title, Rabe’s own this time, namely–

Murder Me For Nickels:

I have a rule about money, which goes: make it, spend it. It’s the nearest thing to a rule which fits the way I’ve been living through one job or another, until I put in with Lippit. After a while with Lippit, and what with the business we built, there was money left over. What I mean is, I wasn’t used to spending that much and I didn’t have the time, anyway.

That’s how I got to own Blue Beat.

This studio taped only the rare jazz for the aficionados. Naturally, the place was going broke. I had bought the place for what always comes out as a mixture of reasons: I had the dough; I saw a bargain; I like jazz; I know some of the rare musicians, whether they’re known or not. Sew it all up and call it a gamble, and maybe I got Blue Beat because of that. The Lippit operation by then was getting boring, and smooth.

Then Blue Beat made money. We only taped what we liked, but this time it paid. Next for the action, I bought up what was left of a pressing plant on the ground floor where we started pressing our own records and also did jobs for the rest of the studios in the area. Nothing big, but it didn’t lose money. The whole works was Loujack, Inc., Jack St. Louis on the top of the stock pile, but silently.

I’d rather not mix friends and business, and as for Loujack I wanted Walter Lippit to be just a friend. He knew that the outfit was there, the way you know there’s a lamp post down the street, but so what. He didn’t know — there were few who did — that Loujack was me. That would have been different. That would have been less like a lamp post down the street and more like uncle Walter Lippit observing the doings of his favorite nephew. Next, kindly interest. Next, this being all in the family, he might have dreamt dreams about mergers and empires and since Lippit was not much of a dreamer, next thing, he would grab. I’m not against Lippit — friend of mine — but I myself don’t like to be grabbed.

I love being grabbed, if it’s a book grabbing me–and tickling me to boot.  Rabe, unlike Westlake, isn’t known for comedy.  Nor was he half so good at it as Westlake, but in 1960, neither was Westlake.

Gold Medal published this the same year Westlake’s first novel under his own name came out from Random House (also a duplicate key), and reading Rabe’s book certainly would have given the younger wordsmith a notion that you could write a story about funny criminals and not be arch–still make it thrilling, sexy, hip (also extremely violent, because still Gold Medal).

This is all of the above.  It’s also a bit clumsy and rushed at points–Rabe wasn’t used to this, he was trying something new (for one thing, it’s written in the first person, which he hardly ever used).  So you have to excuse the rough spots.  You’ll be well-rewarded if you do.  And that Robert E. McGinnis cover alone was worth more than a measly 1960 quarter.  (You can still get a decent vintage copy for twenty-five bucks or less online–go figure.)

This certainly is a ‘gloss’ on The Glass Key. (Gloss Key?)  Westlake could hardly have missed that–it’s the exact same story, from the same perspective, that of the fixer, but the first person narration is new, as is the narrator.  In this case one Jack St. Louis, a hard-punching fast-running girl-chasing low-flying small-time entrepreneur, right on the edge between legal and illegal, who makes Ned Beaumont look like a stick in the mud plodder.  (Beaumont literally kept getting stuck in the mud, which got kind of vexing after a while.)

The gag here is that what they’re doing isn’t really criminal–they’re putting jukeboxes in bars and other establishments.  That’s a crime?  It is, maybe, if you kind of give proprietors the impression they don’t have any choice in the matter–but they never have to break any windows, or fingers.   They’re providing a service, and making a good living by it. Jack’s doing so well, he’s started his own record label on the side (that he doesn’t want Walter to know about, see above).

Since people want to hear music when they drink, something they can relax to, tap a toe to, maybe even dance to, it’s fairly victimless.  Except the people providing this service may fall victim themselves–to rival mobs muscling in.  In this case, not just any mob, but The Mob, or people affiliated with it.  People with names like Benotti, who Jack goes looking for in a tux, no less.  He wins the fight, but these guys don’t intimidate.  If Jack and his boss/buddy Walter don’t watch out, their thing will become somebody else’s thing, and they might just get murdered for nickels.

And if Walter doesn’t watch out, his current girlfriend will become Jack’s thing–Jack, whose loyalty doesn’t extend to matters of sex (very Grofield), goes to the Lippit home and finds Patty, an aspiring chanteuse hoping Walter can get her into the bigtime, all by her delectable self.  They’ve been eyeing each other a while now.  The moves are applied.  Resistance is feigned.  A zipper unzips. The deal is sealed. But neither means anything serious by it.  It’s not a serious book.  Though it might become one,  if Walter finds out.  About any of Jack’s little side-deals; the one with Patty perhaps mattering least of all (but only cows look good with horns).

Jack doesn’t solve any murder mysteries (because nobody gets murdered–even Gold Medal had to lighten up sometimes).  But he does have to figure out where this new outfit muscling in on their turf came from, how to stop them, and sometimes to get into some pretty serious scuffles with them.  Jack doesn’t think of himself as a tough guy (what real tough guy ever does?) but he’s learned to hit first and ask questions later, and he does pretty well in the fisticuffs department, just by moving fast and doing the unexpected, dressed to the nines while he does it, dropping hoods–and ladies underdrawers–all over town.  (Jon Hamm?  Oh never mind, nobody’s going to adapt it now.)

So it’s a detective novel after its own idiosyncratic fashion, but it’s much more about describing the jukebox business to us, and all the related businesses, like jobbers, record companies, etc.  A lot of organized crime actually involves legit enterprises used in illegit ways, and it’s refreshing to see that done so well here.   There’s no political angle, because they don’t need to corrupt any public officials to do what they do, as long as they don’t do it too loudly.   There’s a wee bit of union fixing, but it’s not the Teamsters.  Nobody gets buried under the 50 yard line for nickels.

So Jack goes on dancing, juggling women (Patty, but also a short stacked little brunette who also wants to be a singer, but can actually carry a tune).  Juggling his job defending Lippit’s interests while trying to defend his own private business concerns at the same time.

Benotti’s bunch buy out their jobber, and now they can’t get new records for the jukeboxes.  Jack’s own record business, complete with pressing plant, could address that short-term.  But Lippit would want to own it himself.  And Patty has found out about it.  And she wants a recording contract.  And Benotti, like every rival gangster in every duplicate key, wants Jack to come over to his side, or else get murdered for nickels, or at least very badly beaten up.  And there are guys on their team who aren’t to be trusted.  Vaudeville never saw such a juggler as Jack St. Louis

So when he finally drops a ball (or Patty drops it for him), Lippit believes he’s a traitor (which, you know….), and let’s just say none of the duplicate key bosses are as trusting as Paul Madvig.

“So what was your plan, right-hand man?” said Lippit.

“The plan was,” I said, “to help you keep playing your jukeboxes.”

“Was that the reason you snuck around behind my back and set yourself up in a legitimate business?”

He used the expression like a dirty word and I felt I should make one thing clear right away.

“Just remember it’s mine, Lippit. Not yours.”

“Sure. And you just remember that I got the union that can rock your boat.”

“How’s that going to help you?”

“It would make me feel just fine. The way I feel, it would make me feel just fine.”

Lippit doesn’t even know about Patty, and he’s almost ready to murder Jack for nickels.  The friendship, that Jack valued (in spite of the bird-dogging behind Walter’s back), turns out to be built on a flimsy foundation–they never understood one another.  But Walter’s not the problem so much as the guys looking to take over from him, who will murder Jack for nothing.  (I can’t possibly recap all this, there’s too much, and I’m over 7,000 words)

Patty, a nice girl down deep, knows it was her blabbing on Jack that got him into this mess–she’s mad at him, for seducing and abandoning her, (and even more because his other girl can sing better than her), but she does not want him dead.

So she does the old femme fatale routine with one of his captors, distracts him, and another thrilling fight scene and a few smooth moves later, Jack’s on top again.  He and Walter call it quits, more or less amicably.  He and Patty go legit with the record label (and his other girl, now superfluous, is more than content with her new recording contract).  Maybe the girl he ended up with can’t sing, and isn’t quite so curvy, but a gal who’ll vamp a hulking hood for you (even if she’s the reason he’s got you tied to a chair, half-conscious) is a keeper, any way you look at it.

Jack steals his best friend’s girl, just like Ned Beaumont–but it’s the right thing to do, they really do care about each other, and Walter doesn’t give a shit about either of them now (he was never that stuck on Patty to start with).

Jack leaves the organization, just like Ned Beaumont–but he stays in town, and becomes an honest businessman–well–as honest as anybody ever gets in that biz.   (When did the payola scandal break wide open?–oh right, year before this book came out.  Would have made for an interesting sequel.)  He was headed that way already, but delaying it–putting off full adulthood–because he liked the romance of being a kindasorta crimelord’s right-hand man.  This crisis forced him to stop with the fence-sitting, and he chose the other side of the fence.

Jack stops the rival mob from taking over, but he doesn’t cause any deaths in the process, and the cops never even seem to notice what’s happening.  He seems happy and hopeful,  when last we see him, Patty leaning on his shoulder–not a fatalist existential bone in his body.  Hardly reformed.  Jack St. Louis will always be a rogue, but he’s not a killer–or a hireling.  He’s his own man now, with his own woman, a team–and he likes it that way.  Rogues can be adults too.

It’s damned upbeat and optimistic for a duplicate key–or a Gold Medal paperback–and most of all for a Peter Rabe novel.   Although after all the beatings that went around, these people should be getting dental work and maybe dialysis.  Gold Medal must have had the best health plan going.

And that gets us through all the duplicate keys save one–that as I’ve already mentioned, came out the same year as Rabe’s last duplicate.  It’s the other duplicate written in the first person, and the only one set in a major city (The Major City, not that I’m biased).  The only one that’s really about The Mafia, and drug-smuggling, and all the things the others kind of danced around.

And it’s not upbeat or optimistic at all.  Not sure what kind of health plan Random House had, but more interested in what kind of funeral benefits they offered.  And yeah, I already reviewed this one.  First book I ever reviewed here.  Let’s see what I missed.  Next time.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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