Fair Play: Mr. Block and The Snatch.

 

“I wanted to read it again. I wanted to see if maybe Kelp had a good idea after all.”

Kelp with a good idea.” He finished his Jell-O and reached for his coffee.

“Well, he was smart to bring it around to you,” she said. “He wouldn’t be able to do it right without you.”

Kelp brings a plan to me.”

“To make it work,” she said. “Don’t you see? There’s a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you’ve got and the places you’ll be and all the rest of it. You’d be the aw-tour.”

He cocked his head and studied her. “I’d be the what?”

“I read an article in a magazine,” she said. “It was about a theory about movies.”

“A theory about movies.”

“It’s called the aw-tour theory. That’s French, it means writer.”

He spread his hands. “What the hell have I got to do with the movies?”

“Don’t shout at me, John, I’m trying to tell you. The idea is—”

“I’m not shouting,” he said. He was getting grumpy.

“All right, you’re not shouting. Anyway, the idea is, in movies the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director, because he takes what the writer did and he puts it together with the actors and the places where they make the movie and all the things like that.”

“The writer isn’t the writer,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s the theory.”

“Some theory.”

“So they call the director the aw-tour,” she explained, “because that’s French for writer.”

“I don’t know what we’re talking about,” Dortmunder said, “but I think I’m getting caught up in it.

“Hey,” she said, “where am I?”

She could have answered the question herself.  She was, to judge from appearances, in an especially squalid shack.  The shack itself was fairly close to a highway, judging from the traffic noises.  If she had to guess, she would place the location somewhere below the southern edge of the city, probably a few hundred yards off Highway 130 near the river.  There were plenty of empty fishing shacks there, she remembered, and it was a fair bet this was one of them.

“Now just take it easy, Carole,” the thin man said.  “You take it easy and nothing’s going to happen to you.”

“You kidnapped me!”

“You just take it easy and–”

She squealed with joy.  “This is too much!  You’ve actually kidnapped me.  Oh, this is wild!  Did you call my old man yet?”

“No.”

“Will you let me listen when you do?”  She started to giggle.  “I’d give anything to see his face when you tell him.  He’ll split. He’ll just fall apart.”

They were both staring at her, open-mouthed.  The younger man said, “You sound happy about it.”

“Happy?  Of course I’m happy.  This is the most exciting thing that ever happened to me!”

“But your father–”

“I hope you soak him good,” she went on.  “He’s the cheapest old man on earth.  He wouldn’t pay a nickel to see a man go over the Falls.  How much are you going to ask?”

“Never mind,” the thin man said.

“I just hope it’s enough.  He can afford plenty.”

I should probably explain.

Not long ago, a book crossed my desk at the library.  Portraits of Murder, a hardcover collection of short stories from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (still very much an extant publication) which debuted in 1956, and provided many a much-needed check for Donald Westlake and his partners in crime fiction.  Many of the stories in Westlake anthologies first saw print there, and of course I checked to see if his name featured in the table of contents.  No dice.  Possibly because Mr. Westlake’s best stuff for AHMM was already spoken for, or didn’t fit the profile for whatever the editors were looking for.

But two stories by Lawrence Block, the first of which was quite near the front of the book, and was about a kidnapped child.  Well, minor.  Well, she’s seventeen.  And precocious.  And sexy.   And not to be underestimated.  It’s Block.

This brief exercise in sardonic suspense (less than ten full pages in the book) entitled The Most Unusual Snatch, appeared in the April 1967 issue.  That’s the cover up top. Next to a French edition of a 1974 Westlake novel, the identity of which my most irregular regulars shall no doubt deduce without any difficulty.  That is also about a kidnapped minor, but younger, and male, and not at all sexy, but still–precocious.  And a bane to all would-be abductors.  Well, they both read O. Henry, right?

Man, been so long since I did a synopsis here:

Carole Butler, pretty teenaged daughter of a wealthy doctor, is kidnapped by two men.  One tall skinny sourpuss named Howie who fully intends to kill her once they get the money, more or less just because he thinks that’s what you do when you kidnap somebody.  One younger (and to Carole’s eyes, not unattractive) thug named Ray, who is on the fence about killing her, and whose physical description matches up pretty well with Block’s.  (One of the most attractive things to her about him is that he’s not terribly bright, at least where females are concerned, as if any male ever has been, but there are degrees.)

As you can see up top, she’s delighted at first.  She had fantasized about faking her own kidnapping, and now it’s happened.  She hates her father (who seems besotted with her, no mother in sight, perhaps best not to inquire further), would love to see him lose his shirt getting her back.

She’s full of helpful suggestions for her not over-competent captors, even tells them dad’s got a hundred grand stashed in a safe in the basement at all times, and that he wouldn’t want the IRS to ever get wind of that, probably wouldn’t even call the cops if he got her back in one piece.  Maybe even if he didn’t, but she doesn’t intend to let it come to that.

Howie is the main problem.  Her charms won’t work on him.  But Ray’s an easy touch, wants to touch her, so they enjoy a quick canoodle while Howie’s away.  She’s scared, obviously–but enjoying the danger.  And the sex.  And calculating her odds all the while. She’s a bit crestfallen when he ties her up again afterwards (Shades of Mavis in The Rare Coin Score, published in ’67 as well–but Carole is no Mavis, and Ray’s sure as hell no Parker.)

Here’s where it gets interesting–well, it’s Block, so interesting all the way through, but I mean for my purposes, since I’m no less conniving than Carole in my own way.   The thing that worries Howie is the pick-up.  Carole doesn’t think her old man will call the cops, but if he does, they’ll be waiting to grab him when he goes to get the cash (and then what might happen to her?)  She has anticipated this wrinkle–and has the answer.  She pretends not to know where the hideout is, but says she knows the perfect spot for the transfer, if they just happen to be near the south end of town.

She told him about it–the overpass on Route 130 at the approach to the turnpike.  They could have her father drive onto the pike, toss the money over the side of the overpass when he reached it, and they could be waiting down below to pick it up.  Any cops who were with him would be stuck up there on the turnpike and they could get away clean.

“It’s not bad,” Ray said.

“It’s perfect,” Howie added.  “You thought that up all by yourself?”

“Well, I got the idea from a really super-duper movie.”

Howie is so struck with admiration for her devious criminal mind, he makes a little slip, saying it’s a shame and all, then pretends he didn’t say what they all know he just said.  She knows there’s no way she’s getting out of this thrill ride alive–Howie’s dead set on tying off loose ends. Ray’s too weak to stand up to him.

She does a brilliant job terrifying her father over the phone, making up two additional gang members, then explaining to the puzzled crooks that she’s laying a false trail for the cops.  While Howie’s off getting the cash, she talks Ray into letting her go–the idea is, they’ll make it look like she hit him from behind with the revolver butt, and got away. She’ll give phony descriptions, the police will be looking for three men and a woman, everybody wins.  Ray, possibly thinking they can meet up for more nookie later on, hands her the automatic and tells her where to hit him, make it look good.

She promptly shoots him dead with the business end.  Then the astonished Howie, returning with the loot, so elated about what he thinks is the biggest score of his career, but he was sadly mistaken there.  Then she cleans up the crime scene a bit, so nobody can connect her to it.

She hikes to a payphone (remember them?), calls dad, tells him a story about inter-gang violence, and somehow the two survivors left her alive, taking the money with them.  He comes to pick her up, sees the bodies.  He says it’s best they not call the police, too many questions.  He only gave them ten thousand (he says)–it’s just money.  All that matters is her.  She smiles, hugs him, and laughs to herself, thinking what she’s going to do with the hundred thousand she buried near the shack.

I don’t think Patricia Highsmith would have been ashamed to call this one her own.  Only  she never wrote for the pulps (got her start in comic books),  her Carole would have pretended to enjoy sex with Ray, and the father would have probably died too.  We all have our quirks.  In short, it’s a cracking good yarn in this vein, and no doubt Mr. Westlake thought so too.

So when I wrote my review of Jimmy the Kid, I didn’t know about this story, so I talked about the influence that was obvious to everyone (The Ransom of Red Chief), and the one Westlake himself wryly referenced in a piece he wrote for a 1978 anthology Brian Garfield put together; namely the kidnapping of French automotive heir Eric Peugeot, where the kidnappers used a Lionel White crime novel called The Snatchers as their blueprint, and it all worked out fine until they got their money, and started spending it.  The book hadn’t told them what to do after you get the money, since the kidnappers in the novel never reached that point.

As I observed then, Westlake’s novel ended up being about the dysfunctionally symbiotic relationship between fiction and reality; how each inspires the other, but they never do quite connect.  The kidnap victim was somewhere between the quietly fascinated (and very young) Master Peugeot, who had never really spent time with grown men before, and the western-crazed red-headed hooligan from O. Henry’s story, who made two grown men cry uncle.

It was also one of the funniest things he ever wrote, and having now reread it yet again, I’m even more inclined to think it’s a high-water mark for the Dortmunder series.

But see, I assumed the notion that the ‘victim’ would be not merely enjoying the experience but using it to his own coldly calculated advantage was Westlake’s contribution–as you can see, not necessarily so.

That Westlake read his close friend and sometimes collaborator’s story, in a magazine he himself contributed to multiple times, cannot be reasonably questioned.  Nor can the multiple confluences between the two, up to and including the means whereby the kidnappers arrange the ransom drop-off via a highway overpass, that Carole says she got from a movie, but damned if I can figure out which flick that might have been, and that reference strikes me as a bit of a wink from Mr. Block–only I don’t have the context to know who he’s winking at, or why.  (Definitely not The Master of Suspense.)

But in the story, it doesn’t quite work, does it?  If Carole’s old man knows in advance that’s the plan, and he has gone to the law, there’ll be cops lying in wait beneath the highway, as well as above.  Now as it happens, for purely self-centered reasons Carole herself foresaw, her father never did call the cops, so it all worked out fine (for her), and maybe it’s just her way of lulling her captors off guard, or she’s actually having fun planning her own kidnap, as she used to fantasize doing–but either way, it’s a plot hole, since Howie at least should spot the logical flaw that they’d have to tell Dr. Butler where to drop the money before he left the house with it.  No mention of any phone in his car.

Phones in private limos began to become a thing in the 50’s, but only the very rich had them.  Carole’s dad isn’t that flush (no chauffeur), and is clearly a bit of a skinflint anyway.  By the 70’s, they were less of a big deal, service was pretty good, and a partner in a big law firm might have one just to do business while being driven around.  Still rare enough that even the FBI didn’t have much expertise in putting a trace on one (though they would have other ways of tracing where the money went).

And so the Richard Stark of Dortmunder’s universe writes a novel called Child Heist, that Andy Kelp discovers doing a short stretch in a county lock-up.   In this ersatz escapade, Parker and his cohorts figure out how to make the highway drop work for them–find a vantage point where they can watch for limos entering Manhattan, scope out one that is regularly transporting a rich kid in and out of the city, that also has a mobile phone line. Then tell whoever’s coughing up the ransom to use that car when setting out with the money.  They’ll get in touch along the way.

(It’s never explained how they got the number, since that chapter of the nonexistent novel isn’t included in Jimmy the Kid) but given the relatively small number of mobile lines in a given area, probably not that hard, and why quibble if you’re having fun?)

The cops won’t have enough time to get their Duckbundys lined up (if you read the book, you’ll see what I did there), and by the time they figure out what’s happening, the gang will have the money, and return the kid unharmed, because that way the law doesn’t come after them as hard and parents don’t write angry letters to ‘Richard Stark.’  Another perfect score by Parker!

(Except I have to wonder why the fictional Parker of Dortmunder’s dimension doesn’t have problems with double-dealing accomplices, lousy drivers, unstable significant others, unforeseeable snafus, etc.  Nothing goes wrong, everybody does his job right.  It sounds kind of humdrum and routine, just another day at the office, a clockwork kidnap, but that’s what Kelp loves about it.  And Westlake loves sending up his own alter-ego.)

So this fixes the problem in Block’s story, while creating many more to throw in the path of Dortmunder & Co. Whatever seems straighforward in Parker’s world is fraught with frustration in Dortmunder’s.  Like what if the frightened father is also a confirmed workaholic, and you didn’t tell him to keep the line free?

At the Burger King, Murch’s Mom dialled the operator, and yelled, “I want to call a mobile unit in a private car!”

“Well, you don’t have to yell about it,” the operator said.

“What?”

“You have trouble on your line,” the operator said. “Hang up and dial again.”

“What? I can’t hear you with all these motorcycles!”

“Oh,” said the operator. “You want to call a mobile unit?”

“What?”

“Do you want to call a mobile unit?”

“Why do you think I’m putting up with all this?”

“Do you have the number?”

“Yes!”

Harrington was saying. “Now in the matter of that prospectus. I think our posture before the SEC is that while the prospectus did speak of home sites, it does not at any point say anything about a community. A community would necessarily imply the existence of available water. A home site would not. Country retreat, weekend cottage, that sort of thing. Have Bill Timmins see what he can root up by way of precedents.”

“Yes, sir,” said the secretary.

“Then call Danforth in Oklahoma and tell him that Marseilles crowd just will not budge on the three-for-two stock swap. Tell him my suggestion is that we threaten to simply bow out on the railroad end. of it and carry our venture capital elsewhere. If he approves, try and arrange a phone conference with Grandin for nine-thirty tomorrow morning, New York time. If Danforth has a problem, give him my home number, and tell him I should be there in, oh, two hours at the very most.”

“Yes, sir,” said the secretary.

“But the line’s busy!” the operator said.

“Well, try again!” Murch’s Mom said.

(I half-suspect Mr. Westlake scanned some of the Get Smart novels produced in the 60’s by William Johnston, which at times were even funnier than the TV show, featured as a recurring character the snarky operator Max had to deal with whenever he made a call via footwear, and demonstrated how a phone that traveled around with you might not always be an unqualified asset to your endeavors.  But you know, great minds.)

And as is the case with any tightly plotted scheme, even the slightest deviation leads to chaos.   (Also the case with tightly plotted train schedules, as I learned during a trip to Germany.)  A comedy of errors ensues, but I’ve written about that already.

I think the money transfer is Westlake’s way of crediting Block, since nobody who had read both stories could easily miss the parallel there–a sort of backhanded credit, inadmissible in a court of law (since Block probably got the idea from somewhere else also).

But the primary point of influence is between Carole Butler and Jimmy Harrington, who are not at all similar in age, gender, or characterization, but who share nonetheless several key attributes, not least of which a desire to not merely escape their abductors, but to profit from their credulity.  (And of course, each ends up with the ransom money from daddy, though Jimmy by somewhat more honorable means, and at least he left a tip.)

It all plays out very differently, since Westlake’s novel isn’t written for a magazine that specializes in grisly twists, and he will have need of Dortmunder & Co. in future; and it should go without saying nobody in the Dortmunder Gang is having sex with a twelve year old (or anyone, at this stage of the series.)

But for all the cunning variations on a theme, the influence simply can’t be denied.  It is, as they say in over-formulaic British crime fiction, a fair cop.  Westlake borrowed directly from Block.

So.  Did Block know about it?  Did Westlake ask him if it was okay?  Did these men who used to write pseudo-porn together, taking turns writing chapters, routinely steal from each other, and wait gleefully to see if the pilfery was detected?  Remember, these guys both wrote so much, it would be easy for either to forget a story tossed off in a hurry to pay for a kid’s braces or whatever.  But that seems a mite unprofessional for these two.  Is there some other explanation?

I have one–see that little exchange between Dortmunder and May up top?  The first big gag of the novel is that Kelp not only brings an idea for a heist to Dortmunder, but that this time he’s brought a plan to go with it–which is supposed to be Dortmunder’s purview.  Dortmunder is most disgruntled over this.  “Kelp brings a plan to me.”

So suppose Mr. Westlake was grousing over a few bourbons at some disreputable bar & grill (maybe there was a back room) that he was having story problems with this new Dortmunder, having already had the idea of a comic kidnapping inspired in equal part by O. Henry and the Peugeot case, but that’s just an idea for a caper, not the caper itself.  He’s got the premise. Not the plan. Where’s the hook?

And Mr. Block, ever a generous colleague, as well as a competitive one, brought up his own humble effort in this sub-sub-genre (since his kidnapping was also comedic, however dark).  I have speculated that the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic is at least partly based on the long informal partnership of Westlake and Block. And while there is some of Kelp in Westlake, far more of him is Dortmunder.  So did his Kelp bring a plan to him?   Hmm.

Reading both Block and Westlake, one must always be aware that each scribe read the other’s output assiduously, as did others in their circle.  Westlake penciled in many a gag aimed not at the funny bones of his readership, but those of his poker-faced poker buddies.  See if he could get a rise out of them.  I’m guessing he did pretty well.  And they got a few chuckles in return.

But in this case, being first doesn’t count for much.  The Most Unusual Snatch is a nifty little short that got anthologized a few times.  Jimmy the Kid turned out to be a bit of a phenom, much like its title character.  DonaldWestlake.com lists no fewer than eighteen editions in seven languages (good bet that’s not all).  And there were three film adaptations–Italian, German, and the one with the kid from Diff’rent Strokes.  (Probably they’re all terrible, but it’s the check that counts.)  Not for nothing did Westlake dedicate this one to his agent Henry Morrison, who probably badgered him into doing more Dortmunder books.

I wanted to write this as a companion piece to my previous article, about how Suzuki & Co. stole from Westlake (and a fair few other pulpish writers, no doubt) to make a surrealistic crime movie.  Much as I don’t think Westlake would have been offended, it was still unacknowledged borrowing (had to be, since there was no money in the budget to buy up the adaptation rights, or even time to negotiate for them across an ocean and a language barrier).  And of course these two masters of noir never met, so there was no winking going on in either direction.

But the reason I’m sure Westlake would have given Suzuki a pass had he known was that he knew all good storytellers steal.  It’s how you do it that matters; whether you add something of yourself to the mix.  Suzuki and his collaborators did that, and so did Westlake here (rather better, I think).  Stolen plot elements can become remarkably personal expressions, so long as you don’t get all your loot from the same bank.  Ideas are just building blocks.  Put them together in your own way, and see what happens.  Make it an unusual snatch.

36 Comments

Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, Parker Novels

36 responses to “Fair Play: Mr. Block and The Snatch.

  1. Tom

    I was going to write something on the auteur theory in connection with the last post and funnily enough you quoted the passage that I was going to. Out of nostalgia I had just bought the Ballantine paperback edition of Jimmy the Kid (the one that introduced me to Westlake) and so it’s funny that this post came up.

    I recall in my high school days as a Tarantino fanboy (Pulp came out when I was fourteen) thinking he was so clever for doing his whole Reservoir Dogs/City on Fire Pulp Fiction/Deliverance/Body and Soul/Kiss Me Deadly/You Get the Idea schtick. I hadn’t known about the whole notion of pastiche in art. I only later realized that sometimes the homage is superior.
    Believe it or not, even though I know of Lawrence Block…I’ve never actually read him. Not quite sure why. My ardent fantasy is to have a whole library of these books in a home up in the Swiss Alps, a crackling fire blazing while I read a book with a churchwarden pipe in my mouth (they’re said to be terrific reading pipes) and a cold martini with lemon in my hand. (Not too cold; as Lovell in Midnight Plus One says, ‘Just cold enough to make the glass misty. Not freezing; you can make anything taste as if it might be good by making it freezing.’ To complete the Playboy after Dark fantasy, smooth jazz plays on a turntable while two gorgeous young women make love to each other on the king-sized bed (someday I HAVE to have a cabinetmaker or carpenter build me this) while impatiently waiting for me to join in on the action. They have to wait. I MUST have my Westlake fix!

    (I throw a mean party, by the way. Artie Dexter and Herman X would approve.)

    • Tom

      Shit. That link was supposed to show you this image:

      Knew I screwed up somewhere…

    • I suppose a Playboy ref makes sense, since Westlake wrote a fair few short stories for them, including some Dortmunders. Somehow, Dortmunder doesn’t seem to belong there, but the checks were probably nice.

      I’ve had so many weird coincidences in the course of doing this blog, that they just seem like–incidences?

      My favorite Blocks I’ve read thus far are probably The Girl With the Long Green Heart and Lucky at Cards. I said, favorite, not best. Sometimes it’s the same thing.

      • Tom

        Yeah, if Dortmunder ever came across a Playboy, he might thumb through it, appreciate the naked ladies in a muted sort of way (kind of like how he reacts to that nude painting of Cleo Marlahy) and stare blankly at the John Updike short story and the Thomas Mario home and bar recipes.I imagine his reaction would be similar to when he walked out of that movie in Bank Shot: he remembered that it was in color and he liked ‘that elevator bit’ where the camera goes down the elevator shaft.

        Which reminds me: any idea what movie Westlake might have been referring to with that scene? It’s been bugging me. I keep thinking someone must know what this is a likely reference to, like finding out that the movie Holden Caulfield goes to and makes fun of is Douglas Sirk’s Random Harvest.

        • It doesn’t sound like a scene from a movie May would drag Dortmunder to. 43 seconds of a camera bouncing up and down in an elevator shaft, triggering motion sickness in the audience?

          I think he might just have been extrapolating from some of the weird disorienting shots all these wunderkind auteurs were coming up with in the 70’s, to try and keep audiences interested, while not focusing enough on story and character. How well it worked out can be ascertained from looking at a list of the top ten movies of 2019, and noticing how many are franchise sequels and if they do an elevator shot, it’s CGI.

          I think Westlake himself paid very close attention when watching movies, but a part of him was too aware of the mechanics of filmmaking to be taken in. Part of him was like Dortmunder, like Parker, and it just kind of washed over him, without leaving any permanent mark.

          I could offer one guess–Bank Shot was published in ’72. The Hot Rock movie came out that year, meaning that Westlake was writing the sequel while they were adapting the first novel with a big star, and that tracks.

          Westlake had no direct role production, but he did have lunch with William Goldman, so he probably had an inside line about stuff they were doing, or thinking about doing. In many cases, scenes or shots that never actually got done, or didn’t make it into the finished film.

          And there is an elevator shaft scene in that film. That is not in the novel. Think about it.

          • As evidence for my theory that Westlake liked putting nigh-undetectible references to movies based on his novels into later novels–this is from Put A Lid On It–pretty clear from context, but this is set at an airport.

            She stood next to the revolving luggage carousel, with its endless variety of parcels, far more various than the passengers waiting for them, and silently looked at Meehan, both bags at her feet. He hefted one, then the other, then looked around for a Buster. Catching one’s eye—who did not want that eye caught—he gestured for the guy to come over, and when he did, glowering in Meehan’s face as a way not to acknowledge the presence of Elaine Goldfarb, Meehan said, “These things are very heavy.” The Buster continued to look at him, so Meehan expounded: “If you and your pal shlep them, I won’t run away.”

            The Buster looked at the bags, and back at Meehan: “And if we won’t?”

            “We’ll see who wins the marathon.”

            Westlake had seen Goldman’s original script, liked it very much, and was sorry they didn’t just shoot it as written, but what fun is that? In the original script, there was this big finish where Redford’s Dortmunder would get into a chase on foot at JFK with somebody from the other side, and it would turn into an endurance contest, and apparently this Dortmunder runs marathons when he’s not heisting. Redford was a runner himself, so it could have worked very well from a visual standpoint. Yates didn’t want to do another airport chase after Bullitt. Oh well.

            And here’s another sardonic Westlake heister referencing that never-filmed footrace, and 99.99999999% of people who read that book never catch it, and neither did I until just now, since I’m just now rereading Put A Lid On It in kindle form. A book that rises in my estimation every time I read it, which is nice. But anyway, I’m now even more convinced that the elevator shaft thing is a direct reference to the scene inThe Hot Rock where they try to use a freight elevator shaft to put a a scare into Zero Mostel’s Abe Greenberg.

            • Tom

              I go back and forth on whether I think you’re right. On the one hand, I think of Peter Yates doing Bullitt and that point-of-view shot where McQueen races on the streets of San Francisco. I remember watching that with my mom and her getting queasy watching it. So Yates might well have experimented with a shot like that. On the other hand, in the context of that scene I can’t see the point. The way that scene is filmed, it’s supposed to be a surprise that Greenberg hasn’t been killed from falling down the shaft, so it wouldn’t make sense. But maybe it was originally written differently.

              For some reason the movie Diamonds are Forever popped into my head. It came out in 1971, so about the right time, but there’s a scene where Sean Connery’s Bond has a fight in an elevator, though nobody goes down a shaft. I suspect Westlake’s connection with the Bond franchise (on more than one level) was what had me thinking of it.

              • You know, the time to learn why Westlake put that bit about the movie Dortmunder and May went to see in there would have been when he was still around, though entirely possible he wouldn’t have given a very satisfactory answer, because after all, the way to understand a book is to read it. If the author has to explain it, not much of a book.

                The point is not to guess which movie it is, but to see the way Dortmunder’s mind works. May likes movies, has interesting reactions to them (as we learned in Bank Shot), but she pays attention to the story, is drawn into it. Dortmunder, like Parker, tends to zone out in a movie theater, and only pick up on certain visuals. There’s a somewhat similar reaction depicted in Memory–Paul Cole goes to a musical, and it’s all just sound and color to him. His condition has made it impossible for him to follow a story. (And it’s implied that in that kind of movie, the story is an afterthought anyway, and Paul is seeing what’s really there.)

                The real question would be did Westlake sometimes experience this himself. He clearly couldn’t have done it all the time, or he wouldn’t have been able to write screenplays (or novels). He probably couldn’t help taking movies apart, analyzing them, the way Jimmy Harrington does, even while enjoying them. Maybe his research for Memory led to some case histories of people who experience films this way, unable to tell you afterward what the movie was about, and it stuck with him. To see a theme in an author’s work is not the same thing as knowing where it came from.

                There’s always so much more beneath the surface with Westlake. More than we’ll ever know.

  2. Anthony

    All this influences and pastiche stuff is great and interesting and scholarly. Putting it aside for the moment, there is a flaw in Jimmy the Kid that has bugged me for decades: Stark would not have written Child Heist in the first place.

    Sure, Dortmunder ALWAYS gets dragged into matters outside his comfort zone,* but Parker does not. I can’t envision a scenario where Parker wouldn’t give a kidnapping job a hard pass. There is too much in the hands of other people that he would not be able to predict or manage.

    A hostage in a pinch as means to solve a problem? Sure. A planned kidnapping with a ransom demand? Just isn’t Parker. At all.

    Yes, it’s not a Stark novel; it’s a Westlake book and he no doubt cracked himself up writing it. Yes, I know this is is on the level of dissing Star Wars on the basis that light sabers cannot actually exist. Yes, I will even acknowledge that it doesn’t even rank high on a list of Westlake plot holes.

    Still bugs me, though. Just saying.

    *trying to steal the same emerald over and over, nuns, bones, reservoirs, DNA switcharoos, etc.

    • I said the same thing in my review, about how Parker wouldn’t do a kidnap, but I didn’t call it a plot hole, because it isn’t one.

      See, it’s only a plot hole if we assume this is the same exact Richard Stark we know, who wrote the same exact Parker novels we read. Just like it’s not a plot hole that Dortmunder’s Grofield (originally Greenwood) is different from yet oddly similar from Parker’s, and works with Dortmunder instead of Parker (who is just a fictional character in the Dortmunder-verse) and ultimately ends up quitting the heist-life and doing TV, a compromise the Richard Stark we know would never allow.

      And I know for a solid gold fact this isn’t the same Richard Stark who wrote our Parker novels. How do I know? At the end of the book, he writes a letter to his lawyer, John Donald Riley, under the name Richard Stark. He lives at 73 Cedar Lane, Monequois, NJ 07826. (The zip’s for Sussex County, where Parker is shacked up with Claire, but there’s no Monequois there, except in the sense that Monequois is everywhere.)

      His friend Hal in Hollywood (our Stark wouldn’t have a friend in Hollywood!), whose last name just might be Dresner but it doesn’t say, has clued him in that there’s a script being filmed that clearly plagiarizes Child Heist. But the lawyer tells him no dice, yes the kidnappers plagiarized him, but the kid’s just writing about his own experiences, so he’s legally bulletproof.

      In Dortmunder’s world, Richard Stark is a real person with a real address and his own lawyer, and he’s sued people over stuff in the past, which we know the Stark who wrote our Parker novels wouldn’t do, but Westlake did, of course, relating to The Jugger, which he had to do (or else accept getting rooked by a producer), because there never was a Richard Stark in our world in any other than a pseudonymous sense.

      So what’s the gag? Self-evidently (as I have just figured out several years later), that this Richard Stark screwed up. He had his Parker pull a job that was wrong for him, and apparently it all went smoothly (also wrong), and the result of all this is that he created a situation where he could be plagiarized with impunity by some smartass rich kid.

      It’s his own damn fault, but he made this mistake because he is an offbrand Richard Stark. Just like Quittner from Butcher’s Moon is an offbrand Parker, only he was unfortunate enough to occupy the same space and time as the real Parker. There is actually a theme in Stark of people who echo some ideal form, but don’t quite get there, fall short a bit. Westlake is borrowing that here to apply to Stark himself. (He did something not dissimilar in Adios Scheherazade).

      So you can say, and I agree, that as a satire of the Stark novels, Child Heist falls sadly short, but Jimmy the Kid isn’t really meant as a satire of our Stark novels at all. It’s just using an ersatz version of them (still better than most of the attempts I’ve read from other writers to copy Stark, and you can trust me on that, kiddo).

      Aren’t you glad I’m still around to explain all this to you, Anthony? And how have you been? You never call, you never write. Don’t be such a stranger. Stick around and have a beer, while we wait for Greg and Mike to show up. Here’s the salt shaker.

      • Greg Tulonen

        Here I am. I’m here.

        It sounds like a swell story, and it seems plausible if not likely that Westlake took his cue from it. I also wonder if the Coen brothers borrowed the bridge money transfer idea for their own “super-duper movie,” The Big Lebowski. It didn’t work out any better for those kidnappers than it did for Howie and Ray — except the nihilists were all still breathing at the end.

        I noted this back when you reviewed JtK, but after I read that book, I thought for an embarrassingly long time that Child Heist was real, that I just hadn’t come across it yet in my Parker scrounging. (This was back when the Parkers were out of print and sometimes challenging to lay hands on.) But Anthony is right, of course. It couldn’t be a Parker novel. Not in our world anyway. Beside the uncharacteristic heist idea, nothing seems to go wrong, and something always goes wrong in a Parker novel. Frankly, Child Heist seems like it would be a rather boring entry. Where’s the conflict? Where’s the boom-boom? (“I like a little boom-boom sometimes.”)

        • Ah, the other bourbon! Did Rollo give you the tray on the way in? No ice in mine, please. (What do you think Mike’s drinking?)

          I kind of wish I didn’t know going in, courtesy of the damn stupid internet, that Child Heist wasn’t real. That would have been an enjoyable period of confusion. But of course it’s not intended to make fun of Parker, exactly–Westlake had already learned that he couldn’t do that, not directly. It’s just finding humor in the way that certain mundane details work out according to plan in Stark’s world that never do in Dortmunder’s. Which world you think is more ‘realistic’–well, who believes we all live in the same reality, all the time? I might pass through several in the course of a day.

          Maybe Kelp just filtered out the violence and the crosses, because he knows that’s never happening with his crew (unless upstate reservoirs are involved), so he just focuses on the stuff that works out–if he could just have all the Starkian effectiveness, mixed in with the Westlakeian affability. Never gonna happen, my friend. Choose your poison, or it chooses you.

          I keep meaning to watch The Big Lebowski. (Does this sound familiar?) It’s on, but it’s already started, so I change the channel. I love and revere the Coens, and yet somehow I have never been a completist about them. And that has probably been a strategic error for somebody who blogs about crime fiction.

          • Anthony

            I’m Murch in this back room?! Hmm.

            I like the occasional beer, but tend toward bourbon if I’m offered. Doubt I’d think much of OJ Bar and Grill – “Our Own Brand,” though. I’ll settle for scotch. No water. one cube.

            Which, to carry this through to its Westlakian end, probably equates me to one of the rich assholes who pushes Dortmunder’s buttons. Ah well, no complaining here. I know I wouldn’t want, nor could I handle, vodka and red wine.

            • Well, I suppose there’s no reason there can’t be three or more Bourbons in the group. It’s just metaphorical bourbon, anyway. It can be as pricey as you like when it’s metaphorical. ‘Our Own Brand’ can be Double Eagle Very Rare. Or whatever it was Dortmunder stole from Arnold Chauncey’s townhouse.

              Anyway, I’d probably be the Belgian Ale, or the German Lager—the Pint of Plain, when my Irish is up. But you know Rollo isn’t going to have any of that up front. Have to be a special order. We’ll talk to Otto about it.

              As to scotch, how do you know that wouldn’t be ‘Our Own Brand’ as well? If Amsterdam Liquor Store would bastardize Kentucky Whiskey, I don’t see why they’d draw the line at Scotland and Ireland. Probably Tiny is drinking ‘Our Own Brand’ of vodka and red wine, and just doesn’t know it. (Nobody tell him, okay?)

              • Anthony

                It is well established that Tiny knows his way around a kitchen and has above average taste buds. Would YOU give him “Our Own Brand?”

              • Point taken, but that’s food. And a late novel in the canon. I do have to question his taste in beverages, given his beverage of choice. Just not to his face. But once Josie was in the picture, he probably upgraded his tastes. I mean, what bigger upgrade is there than J.C. Taylor?

  3. Greg Tulonen

    While Miller’s Crossing is the Coens’ (relatively) straight-faced take on Hammett, The Big Lebowski has them filtering Chandler — though with far more pranksterish intent.

    The only Coen brothers movie I haven’t seen (and will never see) is The Ladykillers, because you don’t remake the Ealing comedies. I don’t care who you are.

    (A bit of copy-editing. Feel free to delete this parenthetical after the fact, but you have some Ray-Howie confusion in your synopsis, in that Carole shoots “Howie” dead shortly before Howie arrives.)

  4. Greg Tulonen

    (one more: You indicate that the father gave the kidnappers ten thousand dollars, but Carole ends up with a hundred thousand dollars.)

    • Oh damn, did I need to spell that out? I thought it was pretty obvious. He tells Carole he only gave Howie ten grand (he doesn’t want her knowing what kind of money he keeps around the house, though she does anyway). She knows very well, having counted, that it’s a hundred g’s. He’s lying to her, as he probably has done her entire life, and now she’s turning the tables. God bless the child that’s got her own.

  5. Greg Tulonen

    Ah! Suddenly, it all makes sense. Thanks for spelling it out for the slower among us.

    I’m going to have to seek this one out. There’s plenty of Block I still haven’t read (though Lucky At Cards is my favorite of the stuff I have read).

    • I believe this one is also in an anthology devoted exclusively to his short fiction.

      A very good case could be made he’s stronger in the short fiction department than Westlake. In the long form, I’d have to give Westlake the edge so far, but still so many Block novels I haven’t read. And when I’ve read them all, who knows what might happen? (I do. I can’t go through that again.)

  6. Greg Tulonen

    I’ve read very little of Block’s short fiction, with the exception of the Keller short stories and novellas, are of which all very well done, if somewhat lightweight. (I tend to forget them as soon as I’ve read them.) No argument that Westlake was the superior novelist. I like (most of) the Scudders quite a bit, but have no interest in the Rhodenbarrs and Tanners, and I detest Block’s attempt at a post-9/11 big important novel, Small Town.

    • He’s a stupendous pulp writer. Few equals there. However, the pulp market kind of dried up, and he had to keep branching out. Sometimes you do that by writing an ‘important’ book, just so the critics have to take notice. (For the record, I don’t think that’s what Westlake was doing with The Ax. Not consciously. Which is why it worked.)

      I really liked his novella, Resume Speed, which is why I reviewed it–small masterpiece–but the last few recent things of his I’ve read didn’t work for me. Random Walk, for example (serial killers can be cured and redeemed through walking!) And The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes, an attempt at a steamy southern noir that rubbed me the wrong way, somehow. Like I can see where he’s going with it, who he’s riffing on, but the pieces don’t quite fit.

      He’s getting more overtly philosophical with age, but I find myself less compatible with the philosophy being expressed than is the case with Westlake. But I can’t very well know what I’d be writing about Westlake if he was still alive and still writing in his 80’s. Maybe I’d rather not know.

      The latest Scudder begins with Matthew helping one of his wife’s ex-hooker support group friends with an obsessive John, and ends with her joining the Scudders for a threesome. Spoiler alert. But I guessed that’s where it was going, and so would you, so not really. I really think Westlake had a point about not writing about a detective defined by his emotional problems once he doesn’t have them anymore.

      But recently, after watching a 1975 movie called Nightmare Honeymoon on TCM (fast-forwarded, because it wasn’t very good, but damn the girl was hot), I learned that it was based on a Block novel called Deadly Honeymoon, and that was evailable.

      And the novel was great. Ten times better than the movie. Just a throwaway piece of trash that grips you and won’t let go and has a point to make about how a marriage survives tragedy by the couple fighting out of it together, being on the same team. And it ought to be offensive and implausible (a man’s wife is raped by mob killers on their honeymoon, they seek vengeance), but somehow it’s not. The movie tried to fix it, and predictably ruined it. (In the novel, the wife is an equal partner in the vendetta, and the husband never for one moment doubts she was raped. I guess the director didn’t think that was sexy enough. Also, the movie turns a New York City crime thriller into a southern gothic, for reasons I will never understand.)

      You take him as he is, warts and all. Like any writer worth reading.

  7. Greg Tulonen

    Here’s another find, from the Lawrence Block novel, Savage Lover (according to Wikipedia, written in 1958, published in 1968, and reissued by Hard Case Crime as Sinner Man), which finds its protagonist attempting to establish a new identity in Buffalo:

    The next stop was the Bureau of Motor Vehicles where I picked up a blank for a driver’s license. The license section was part of the application, so I took the whole business to the library where I rented a typewriter and filled out the license part. Then, back in my hotel room, I forged the stamp with a ballpoint pen. This wouldn’t do for driving but I wasn’t planning on driving anywhere. The license made fine identification.

    • Greg Tulonen

      Rats, my quote-tagging didn’t work.

    • And I’ve read that one. I didn’t know it was written a few years before The Hunter, though.

      What I do know is the difference between effective writing and great writing. Wherever the idea originally came from, Block wasn’t giving that passage his all. He was in too much of a hurry. Let the reader savor it a bit. Give us a bit more detail. Even if the detail is Stark.

      Parker went on to the Motor Vehicle Bureau and stood at the long wooden table while he filled out a driver’s license form with one of the old-fashioned straight pens. He blotted the form, folded it carefully, and stuck it into his wallet, which was brown leather and completely empty and beat to hell.

      He left the Bureau and walked over to the Post Office, where the federal government was in charge and they had ball-point pens. He took out the license and stood hunched over it, sketching with small quick strokes in the space reserved for the state stamp. The ball-point pen had ink of almost the right color, and Parker’s memory of the stamp was clear.

      When he was finished, it looked all right for anybody who didn’t inspect it closely. It just looked as though the rubber stamp hadn’t been inked well enough or had been jiggled when it was pressed to the paper or something. He smudged the damp ink a bit more with his finger, licked the finger clean, and returned the license to his wallet. Then he crumpled and bent the wallet in his hands before putting it back in his hip pocket.

      Did people actually do this back in the day? Forge official stamps on ID applications with pens? And get away with it?

      • Greg, check this out–NY Times has a visual history of the NY State Driver’s License–

        https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/03/17/nyregion/17licenses-evolution.html?_r=0

        Sadly, not year by year, but it really didn’t change much between the early 40’s and late 60’s. The official stamp is just letters and numbers, not anything artistic (I somehow visualized it differently, and other states seem to have put more effort into it). Parker actually had to remember quite a bit to write all that out in block print. But probably easier than simulating an elaborate image. And note the ink color. Dark blue.

        In the late 60’s, computerization started, but they still had paper licenses and stamped them. Once they switched over to plastic photo ID’s, Parker’s trick wouldn’t work anymore. And what does the very last novel have him do? Go to somebody expert at forging modern IDs, and the identity to go with them. So much more trouble. Just can’t leave a good thing be. 😉

        • Greg Tulonen

          Interesting. I was picturing something different as well. A state (or departmental) seal or something.

          Yes, I’ve previously noted the odd symmetry of Parker acquiring a fake ID in the first and the final novel — and the vast differences between the two processes.

          • Another little point in favor of Westlake knowing he was quite likely writing the last book in the series with Dirty Money. And deliberately choosing not to wrap things up. The same choice David Chase made with The Sopranos. Kindred souls, those two. Not every story needs to be tied up with a neat little bow. Nobody seems to get that now.

            We tend to forget Parker the grifter, even though that’s the first kind of crime we see him commit, to get himself a bankroll and a wardrobe, without drawing much attention to himself. He could support himself quite well with short cons. It’s just not how he likes to live. Just like a wolf could live by scavenging and stealing the kills of weaker hunters, but still goes after big game when he’s got a string together.

            I feel like doing a bit more research about this stamp business. I really want to know if anyone did this.

            • Greg Tulonen

              As I’ve argued, I believe that’s why Westlake deliberately withheld the name Parker chose for himself — one he and Claire had obviously agreed upon. Since we wouldn’t get to follow Parker’s exploits anymore, there was no need for us to know the name he’d be using.

              I did a Google search for new york state drivers license forgeries history, and the first result was the link you posted above.

              • Possible I’ll find some relevant books in the library I work for. That would be appropriate for the series, even though it was always Grofield or Claire doing the scut work. 😉

  8. Greg Tulonen

    I came across this today in the latest issue of Criminal, the long-running crime comic by Ed Brubaker. Truly, his influence will be felt for a long time.

  9. Greg Tulonen

    (I mean Westlake’s influence, of course.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s