Category Archives: comic crime novels

Review: Smoke, Part 3

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I am an invisible man.  No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of  your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.  I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.  Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.  When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ralph Ellison

“Nobody has ever seen me,” she said.  “Seen me.  Neither of my husbands ever saw me; they both felt cheated whenever that trophy on the shelf acted as though it were an actual living creature.  The last time my looks gave me pleasure I was probably nine years old.  I can’t scar myself deliberately, that would be stupid.  But this?  Why not?  No one can see me anyway, so why not be invisible?  Make the rest of my life a phone-in?  With pleasure.”  That dazzling smile had something too shiny in it.  “Let’s hope your invention is a success, Dr. Heimhocker,” she said.

Donald Westake

I know a funny little man,
As quiet as a mouse,
Who does the mischief that is done
In everybody’s house!
There’s no one ever sees his face,
And yet we all agree
That every plate we break was cracked
By Mr. Nobody.

’Tis he who always tears out books,
Who leaves the door ajar,
He pulls the buttons from our shirts,
And scatters pins afar;
That squeaking door will always squeak,
For prithee, don’t you see,
We leave the oiling to be done
By Mr. Nobody.

Nobody admits to writing this.

In writing about an invisible man, Westlake was primarily influenced by the first and best-known book on that subject, reacting to it, revising it, as I detailed last week.  But he could not possibly have failed to see the significance of a far more important book with virtually the same title, published when he was a teenager.

I don’t know when he first read it, but I would bet everything I own that he did.  Invisible Man is the supreme 20th century novel of human identity.  The fact that it’s specifically about the African American experience, black identity, does not in any way detract from its universality, any more than Shakespeare’s tendency to write ancient Romans, Danish princes, and medieval Scots as Elizabethan English people detracts from his universality.

We all know what it’s like to have people look at us and not really see us.  And in that moment of empathy, we can see past our own parochial little worlds, and feel the pain of Ellison’s nameless narrator, down in his basement, see his point of view, see him–and see ourselves in him.  And that is something only a great novelist can do.  And regrettably, Ellison could only do it once.  Tough act to follow.  But it earned him a monument in my nabe, where he used to live.  Want to see?

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Westlake isn’t trying to compete with Ellison’s vision here, let alone revise it.  That would be a fool’s errand.  But it’s there in the subtext.  H.G. Wells wasn’t really looking at identity in his novella about the abortive rebellion of Hawley Griffin, though it crops up here and there, tangentially–his story was about a failed one-man revolution that might pave the way for more successful future attempts. There’s at best the faintest suggestion that Griffin’s failure comes from his inability to know himself.

It was the very essence of Ellison’s book–a man who finds out that the revolution that really matters is the one going on inside–can’t change the world if you can’t change yourself first–and it’s central to this much less ambitious book as well. Westlake liked to put deeper messages into seemingly light stories.  Spoonful of sugar, don’t you know.

See, if you are literally invisible, not just metaphorically, the question of identity changes.  You can’t even see yourself in a mirror anymore.  You can’t see your own hand in front of your face.  The woman you love is starting to forget what your face looked like.  So are you.  So if identity is another term for self-image–what’s left? If nobody can see you, but you still get blamed for your actions, are you in fact Mr. Nobody?  Or is somebody still there, all the same?

Perhaps the closest thing here to a direct reference to Ellison’s book  comes in a brief episode where the two scientists who accidentally made Freddie Noon invisible try to do it on purpose.  They have two volunteers recruited by the tobacco company that indirectly funds their research.  One is a black man, George Clapp, who works as a limo driver for the company–he’s had a somewhat checkered past, and there are outstanding warrants out on him in other states.  His fingerprints are on file.  He’s one police stop away from getting arrested and extradited.  Invisibility sounds just fine to him (he probably hasn’t read Ellison), and they’re promising lots of money.

The other is a woman, a brilliant young nuclear physicist and theoretical mathematician, who has been cursed with extraordinary physical beauty.  Nobody can see past the way she looks. Nobody can ever take her seriously, no matter how good she is at her job.  In spite of her considerable intellectual gifts, she’s been forced to work as a statistician for a tobacco company.  To her, invisibility would be like taking the veil.  She can finally escape the ogling eyes of men, the envious eyes of women.  She can finally just be herself.

So to these two very different people, invisibility is the answer to their prayers, or so they think, but they never get to find out, because the two experimental drugs that Freddie took in combination are unpredictable in their effects.  George just becomes lighter-skinned (as Big Bill Broonzy sang, ‘If you’re brown, stick around’).  His scars vanish.  His fingerprints are simplified to the point where they can no longer be identified.  He looks years younger, says he feels like he did when he was nineteen.

And of course the company stiffs him out of his money, since they can’t use him as a spy, but he doesn’t care.  As far as he’s concerned, these are the best doctors in the world.  Free at last.

And the woman–Michael Prendergast–well, we can’t all be so lucky.

She was no longer the lushly healthy California-style beauty Mordon had met on Tuesday.  Her skin was pale and pink now, almost translucent.  A kind of ethereal glow surrounded her, as though she were an angel, or one of the lost maidens mourned by Poe.  She looked fragile, unworldly, un-carnal, and absolutely stunning.  She was ten times the beauty she had been before.

“Ms. Prendergast,” Mordon stammered, poleaxed.  “You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life!”

She burst into tears

Later, George tells his two saviors that Ms. Prendergast (also cheated out of the money she’d been promised for participating in the test) resigned from her position, taking a job working on the nuclear program of some middle eastern country (Iran, Iraq, George isn’t sure which), where she can hide behind a chador.  And there was some talk of her wanting to blow up the world, but I’m sure she got over that eventually.

There are basically two major antagonists in this story.  One is NAABOR, which stands for National American Allied Brands Of Raleigh–it would take too long to explain, but suffice it to say they make cigarettes.  And they devote an enormous amount of money towards the growing problem of people increasingly associating cigarettes with life-threatening illnesses, for some strange reason.

They were funding the Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis’ work on  melanoma cures mainly to say “Look, we’re against cancer too and after all, cigarettes don’t cause all cancer, do they?   There’d be cancer anyway!  So light one up, where’s the harm?”  But when the good doctors report the strange case of Freddie Noon to Mordon Leethe, a lawyer who works for NAABOR, and he reports in turn to his employers, they seem to think that now they own Freddie Noon, or his newfound ability, anyway .  And it could come in handy for spying on people, couldn’t it?

Mordon relates the details of Freddie’s very literal disappearance to Jack Fullerton the Fourth, who inherited the title of CEO from his uncle (who died of heart disease because he smoked), who in turn inherited it from his cousin (who got lung cancer because he smoked), and etc.  Jack is himself dying of emphysema.  Well, I suppose that’s one way to get rid of capitalist overlords, except they keep reproducing–there’s always a nephew somewhere.

Jack IV, whose voice is described as sounding like ‘the wind in the upper reaches of a deconsecrated cathedral, possibly one where the nuns had all been raped and murdered and raped,’ goes around all the time with two medical attendants and an oxygen tank, a tube jutting from his nose.

Some users wear that tube as though it’s a great unfair weight, pressing them down, down into the cold earth, long before their time; on others it becomes a ludicrous mustache, imitation Hitler, forcing the victim to poke fun at himself in addition to being sick as a dog, but on Jack the Fourth, with his heavy shoulders and glowering eyes and broad forehead and dissatisfied thick mouth and pugnacious stance, the translucent line of plastic bringing oxygen to his emphysema-clenched lungs was borne like a military decoration, perhaps awarded by the French: Prix de Nez, First Class.

Charming fellow.  Anyway, he mainly just wants Freddie so he can spy on his doctors, who he is convinced are lying to him about his health, and apparently they were, because he dies a little over halfway through the book.  (His funeral is compared to that of famed Columbia Pictures exec Harry Cohn, and if you don’t know that joke, I’ll just let you discover it for yourself).  He is succeeded by (ta-dah!) his nephew, Merrill Fullerton, who does not smoke, and fully intends to keep as many other people on this planet smoking as he possibly can.

And now that he’s privy to the existence of Freddie Noon,  he wants to use him for a much more Machiavellian end than spying on a few demurely diplomatic doctors who were just trying to keep a mean old bastard happy.   He wants Freddie to spy on elected officials, congressional subcommittees, that kind of thing.  And he wants Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis to devote themselves to a different kind of cancer research.

He’s been reading about this Human Genome Project (I get the distinct feeling Mr. Westlake did not approve).  Soon we’ll be able to identify faulty disease-producing genes in advance, and abort imperfect infants (they’re already selectively aborting girls in some parts of the world, not that you need the genome project for that). We’ll be able to tell which of our impending offspring meet our exacting standards of perfection (that we have never lived up to ourselves) and stop them before they happen.

(Merrill brings up the gene for homosexuality in this exchange, which you might imagine is not a comforting thought to the two gay scientists he’s basically inducted into his cause, but also shows Mr. Westlake now subscribes to the Born That Way view of sexual persuasion.   Mr. Westlake, as we now know, was a sickly infant, born with an inability to digest his mother’s milk.  He only survived because of an experimental soybean-based formula just developed.  His sympathy for the oddballs in life is well known–and well-founded.  Only Life itself can test  your worthiness.  Genes are merely a roadmap–not the destination.)

But how, you may ask, would any of this assist an industry known primarily for producing self-administered carcinogen delivery systems?

Merrill leaned forward, his eyes now hot ice.  This was the gist, at last.  “I want the code for lung cancer,” he told them.  “I want the code for emphysema.  I want the code for congestive heart failure.  I want the codes that tobacco taps into.  And then I want a reeducation program, aimed directly at our consumers, not just here, but around the world.  Abort the lung cancer cases.  Abort the emphysema cases!  Never let the little bastards see the light of day!”

David and Peter both blinked.  Merrill sat back, as though after an orgasm, and smiled.  “We’ve spent the last forty years,” he said, “trying to make cigarettes safe for the human race and we failed.  We can spend the next forty years making the human race safe for cigarettes!”

Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.  And believe you me, it does.

Since NAABOR clearly can’t make more invisible operatives, their desire to find and recruit Freddie Noon–forcibly if need be–takes on a new urgency.  Mordon Leethe had already enlisted the services of possibly the most cheerfully corrupt and brutal New York City cop Westlake ever created, which is saying something.  And a restaurateur to boot.   Also our other major antagonist.

A restaurant can be a very satisfying business.  Barney Beuler found that so, certainly.  It had so many advantages.  For instance, it always gave you a place to go if you wanted  meal, but you it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.  It gave you, as well, a loyal–or at least fearful–kitchen staff of illegals, always available for some extra little chore like repainting the apartment or standing in line at the Motor Vehicle or breaking some fucking wisenheimer’s leg.  It also made a nice supplement to your NYPD sergeant’s salary (acting lieutenant, Organized Crime Detail) in your piece of the legit profit, of course, but more importantly in the skim.  And it helped to make your personal and financial affairs so complex and fuzzy that the shooflys could never get enough of a handle on you to drag you before the corruption board.

The downside was that, in the six years Barney Beuler had been a minor partner–one of five–in Comaldo Ristorante on West Fifty-sixth Street, he’d gained eighty-five pounds, all of it cholesterol.  It was true he’d die happy; it was also true it would be soon.

To say his personal and financial affairs are complicated is somewhat understating things–“A man with three ex-wives, a current wife, a current girlfriend, a very small drug habit (strictly strictly recreational), two bloodsuckers he’s paying off to keep their mouths shut and himself out of jail, a condo on St. Thomas, a house and a boat on the north shore of Long Island, and a six-room apartment on Riverside Drive overlooking the Hudson from eleven stories up needs these little extra sources of income to make ends meet, as any sensible person realizes.”

So Barney is quite open to collecting a fat finder’s fee for fetching Freddie.  His off-the-books employers don’t consider it necessary for him to know why they want to talk to this small-time burglar, but Barney’s a man who likes to play all the angles, and he fully intends to find out anyway.  Little extra sources of income, you know?

His first ploy–a fake lottery notice, claiming Freddie won over 200 grand, gets sent to his parents’ house,  and one of his brothers gets the word to him, but Freddie’s too wily a bird to fall for that old game.  All that means is that the law is after him, which is what triggers his and Peg’s exodus to the Hudson Valley.

Barney has a meeting with Mordon at a parking garage (don’t ask me which one is Deep Throat), and tells him that Freddie’s been fingered–he left prints at his heists at the Diamond District and the Fur Warehouse.  Mordon muses this is because he couldn’t wear gloves.  Barney’s really intrigued now, and using the world-class intimidation tactics his career in law enforcement has equipped him with, he pressures the scared shyster into giving him the fully skinny on Freddie Noon.  (And as the plot progresses, he begins to think he could use Freddie’s talents himself–make him murder those blackmailing leeches clinging to him–hire him out to to the mob as a hit man.  Never mind if that’s in Freddie’s nature or not).

A game of fat cat and invisible mouse follows, which ends with Barney tailing Peg to a train station in Rhinecliff, through the use of a tracking device.  Whereupon Freddie and Peg turn the tables on Barney, and he not only loses them at the station, but gets four slashed tires into the bargain.  And now it’s personal.  Barney gets maybe a bit too involved in the case for his own good.  “The thing about anger is, it tends to overwhelm one’s sense of self-preservation, even if that one is such a one as Barney Beuler, whose sense of self-preservation had been honed for years on the whetstone of the New York City Police Department.”  He had to take a fucking Amtrak train home.  Vengeance shall be his.

And by all right, this actor should have been his, but he died in 1989, and there was no movie anyway.

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(But if things had arranged themselves differently, then Baron Vladimir Harkonnen of Planet Giedi Prime would be only the second scariest sumbitch Kenneth McMillan ever played.)

The hunt goes on throughout the long summer, through private detectives, and taps placed on Peg’s phone in her Brooklyn apartment.  But for some strange reason, an invisible man can be hard to trace.  He even arranges a meeting with Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis, figuring (correctly) that sooner or later, an invisible man will want to make himself visible again, and who else would he turn to?  That meeting could have gone better.

Barney and the doctors were meeting for the first time, of course, and it was interesting to Mordon to see how immediate and instinctive the loathing was on both sides.  The body language alone was enough to set off seismographs in the neighborhood, if there were any.  Mordon was watching two herbivores meet a carnivore on the herbivore’s own ground, and the rolling of eyes and curling of lips and stamping of  hooves was thunderous.

Mordon, as though nothing at all were wrong, made the introductions.  “Dr. Peter Heimhocker, Dr. David Loomis, I’d like you to meet Detective Barney Beuler of the New York City Police.”

“Harya,” Barney snarled.

Loomis remained wide-eyes and mute, but Heimhocker looked Barney up and down, raised an eyebrow at Mordon, and said, in a you-rogue-you manner, “Oh, really.”

Yes, really.  And as the two doctors become increasingly aware that NAABOR is trying to get its hooks into their former test subject, they become correspondingly determined to get him under their own control–not to use him for espionage, but to study him, and figure out where they went wrong–or right–whichever.  David and Peter’s feelings towards Freddie are complex–a mixture of guilt, responsibility,  and a sort of proprietary professional interest.  Plus there’s one little thing they need to tell him about his, urm, condition.

“It’s a one-way street,” Loomis said, and Heimhocker said, “Freddie Noon’s invisibility is irreversible.”

“Irreversible.”

“Think of albinos,” Loomis said, and Heimhocker said, “That’s a loss of pigmentation in a different way,” and Loomis said, “Not as thorough, not as severe,” and Heimhocker said, “But just as irreparable,” and Loomis said “You can’t paint an albino and expect it to stick,” and Heimhocker said, “And the same is true, forever, of Freddie Noon.”

“In the movies,” Barney said, “once the guy is dead, you can see him again.”

Heimhocker curled a lip.  “I have no idea what the scientific basis for that would be,” he said.

(Another little side-reference to the H.G. Wells novel, since Hawley Griffin was born an albino, and he does famously become visible once more after his death, and there’s really no science in these stories at all, you know.)

The final crisis is triggered by an announcement from Peg that has been brewing for some time now.  Being the Invisible Man’s Girlfriend has had its moments, but on the whole, she finds the role limiting, and more than a little unsettling.  She figures he’s got plenty of cash now from all the heists (of which she asks no split for herself, even though her role in each operation was vital).  She says she loves him–that hasn’t changed–but she wants to go back to Brooklyn, work as a dental technician again, and maybe they can see each other later, um, awkwardly phrased.  And she doesn’t really mean it, anyway.  She’s letting go of him.

Peg was all that was anchoring Freddie, and without her, he starts to become unmoored.  Stuck in the rental house, with nowhere to go, he phones the doctors at their townhouse–only to find they’re spending the weekend with friends–just a short distance from where he is.  Peg has the van, but he borrows a bicycle, peddles naked down back country roads, and you can imagine how that works out, but he gets there.  And spying on them, as they unburden themselves to a circle of equally gay friends and general hangers-on (they know he’s coming to see them, but they don’t know he’s already in the neighborhood)–he learns the truth.

See, they’re trying to persuade the other guests to help them restrain Freddie, so they can talk sense into him.  They’re his only real option, otherwise he’ll end up in the clutches of NAABOR, or (even worse) Beuler.  It’s just that they think he’ll be understandably upset when he finds out–

“When he finds out what?”

“That it’s permanent, of course,” Peter said, and then looked up and frowned at everybody, to see them all frowning at him. “Who said that” he asked.

They all went on looking at him.

“It’s permanent?”

“Oh, my God,” David whispered, “He’s here.”

“Impossible!” Peter cried.

“Peter,” David whispered.  “Can he fly?”

“I’m never gonna get myself back?”

This is also the point in the story where Freddie finds out that his fingerprints are not invisible, and he’s wanted by the police in connection to jobs at the Diamond District and the Fur Warehouse. Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed, ya know?

And so a merry chase ensues, with a very confused group of prosperous weekending gay men chasing a very agitated invisible man, who in his mental turmoil, drank a lot of (presumably excellent) champagne right in front of them, and it takes about two hours for food and drink to stop being visible inside of him, which is most upsetting to all, you can be sure.  He runs outside, breaking a four hundred thousand dollar Ming vase as he goes.  Peter and David are never getting invited back, you know.  (Oh, and can I recommend a friend of mine for the repair job?  Chinese ceramics are her specialty.  I have her card here somewhere…)

They finally have him trapped in the swimming pool, the retractable cover closed over his head, and he’s getting cold, and when all hope seems lost, a gray van comes roaring in, like Victoria’s Messenger Riding. It’s Peg. She came back to the house, figured out where Freddie was from the map he’d left behind, and she could have just said it was none of her business now, but then she wouldn’t be Peg, would she now? Freddie slips through the edge of the pool cover in the confusion and jumps in the van, which departs, leaving the lawn and the gardens in some disarray (the poor delphiniums), and Peter and David are very definitely never getting invited back.

And her courage and loyalty notwithstanding, she’s still going back to Brooklyn without him. She’s gotten him a car–an AMC Hornet with tinted bulletproof windows. It’s green. Don’t say it. And yes, we saw another green Hornet (damn, now I’ve said it) in Drowned Hopes. This one at least won’t end up at the bottom of a reservoir. Peg and Freddie end up in the pool at their rented house, having sex, and Peg seems to be warming up to the idea of an invisible man in her life (among other things), but she still needs some time to herself.

And so Peg Briscoe returns to her native Brooklyn, only to find Barney Beuler and some well-dressed thugs who work for NAABOR waiting for her. Barney intimates, in his usual disarming way, that she’s either going to help him get Freddie, or he’s going to start cutting her fingers off and mailing them to Freddie, care of his family, I suppose. And would you believe she actually tries to con him?

She gives him the address of a part-time smalltown lawman, who she and Freddie had a run-in with earlier. Lots of subplots, I can’t do them all, sorry. Only he wasn’t wearing his lawman hat when they arrived, and Barney caught him off guard, again in his usual disarming way. Barney’s really not kidding about the finger thing, and so Peg reluctantly calls Freddie at the house, and clues him in. Figuring it’s his choice whether he comes to rescue her or not. Not entirely sure what choice she wants him to make. But his choice is never in doubt.

Is this a problem with the book? I think so. We always know what Freddie is going to do. He’s one of Westlake’s most predictable heroes, and there’s a reason for that. Westlake was responding to H.G. Wells, and to a lesser extent, Ralph Ellison. Wells’ invisible man never really knew who he was, so invisibility breaks his already tenuous grip on sanity. Ellison’s nameless hero, invisible only to white people (and certain overly dogmatic black people), spends the entire book finding out who he is, and who he isn’t, losing the whole world, but gaining his immortal soul in the process.

But Westlake wanted to have as his starting point a man who had already gone through the long painful process of self-discovery before he became invisible–because he figured only such a person could survive invisibility, triumph over it. It challenged Freddie’s sense of identity, changed it–but he was coping very well, as long as he had Peg. Now somebody’s threatening to take her away from him forever. Bad idea.

But also, one might argue, a less than satisfactory protagonist–less interesting than Parker, than Dortmunder, than Tobin, than most of the Nephews. Because he was a finished product before we ever met him. That’s a weakness in the story–but its saving grace is that the normally obligatory romance angle you get in books like this becomes essential. Because like the song says, You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You. Whatever her doubts about their future, Peg proved her love and loyalty to Freddie. Now it’s his turn to save her.

And he does. Spoiler alert. I see no reason to spoil it any further. True love wins out, aided by invisibility, low cunning, and an everpresent willingness to dissemble. Evil is punished, and the shooflies of Internal Affairs are getting Barney Beuler giftwrapped, all tied up in a nice bow. Mordon Leethe and our two madly gay scientists, having chosen their master unwisely, will be forced to serve him indefinitely, but the money’s good at least. Oh, and you’ll never guess where Merrill Fullerton’s apartment is!

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And Peg pays a visit to Freddie’s mother’s far more humble abode in Ozone Park Queens, telling her that Freddie can’t come to see her right now, he’s been sick–but he’s okay, and they’re going to stay together now, he and Peg, because Peg realizes now they need each other. They’re going to take a plane somewhere, and be together, and it’ll be all right. There is one kind of glance that can pierce the veil of invisibility, after all. And hey, blind people fall in love all the time.

Freddie’s mother, who has no illusions about her son’s true nature, but doesn’t hold it against him (you have nine kids, you have to figure on some variety), and she fully approves of Peg. An easygoing girl, just right for her boy. She is worried about how vague Peg is being, and asks fearfully if he’s dead.

“I’m alive, Ma.”

Peg Briscoe smiled a slightly nervous smile, said, “He’s fine. Bye.” and pulled the door shut.

Did I hear that? What was it?

Elizabeth Louise opened the door and watched Peg Briscoe cross the sidewalk to a little old green car. As Peg opened the driver’s door, the passenger door opened by itself. She got in and shut the driver’s door and the passenger door shut by itself. She waved and smiled, and drove away, and another wide-body jet’s shadow crossed over Elizabeth Louise and the house.

This one she noticed. She looked up, as the shadow went by. One of those would be Freddie, with his nice girlfriend. From now on, it could be any one of them, going over. One of those shadows is Freddie.

It’s a big, teeming, funny, angry, intriguing, detail-heavy, and somewhat messy book, with a protagonist a bit too easy to figure out. I have a sense that Westlake put several different ideas for several different books he never wrote into it. But it’s a grand piece of work all the same, though it had the misfortune to be overshadowed by a novel that followed fairly close on its heels; shorter, darker, bloodier, more focused, more angry by far, and we’ll be getting to that one very soon.

But we have another book to cover before that, and let me say something before we do–I don’t plan for these little coincidences of timing that happen now and again here. I didn’t plan for my review of Adios Scheherezade to come along around April Fool’s Day. I didn’t plan for my review of Brother’s Keepers to come along around St. Crispin’s Day. I didn’t plan for my review of Good Behavior to start right around both the Feast of St. Dismas and Good Friday. The world is not simple enough to understand. We all need to understand that. So I can only assure you all that it just happens that my review of the next book in the queue has come up just about a month before Election Day. Serendipity trumps all, you know. And maybe it even trumps–well. Let me conclude with a snatch of poetry.

In the Land of Dortmunder, where the shadows lie.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them.
One ring to bring them all, and in Las Vegas blind him.
In the Land of Dortmunder, where the shadows lie.

It’ll be huuuuge. Believe me.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Review: Smoke, Part 2

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

From To A Louse, by Robert Burns

“The more I thought it over, Kemp, the more I realised what a helpless absurdity an Invisible Man was,–in a cold and dirty climate and crowded civilised city.  Before I made this mad experiment I had dreamt of a thousand advantages.  That afternoon it seemed all disappointment.  I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable.  No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got.  Ambition–what is the good of pride of place when you cannot appear there?  What is the good of the love of woman when her name must needs be Delilah?  I have no taste for politics, for the blackguardisms of fame, for philanthropy, for sport. What was I to do?  And for this I had become a wrapped-up mystery, a swathed and bandaged caricature of a man!”

Slowly, stroke by stroke, the face began to appear.  It was like magic, or like a special effect in the movies.  Cheeks, nose, jaws, all emerging out of the air, the slightly woodsy tan color of Max Factor pancake makeup.  Freddie complicated matters by flinching away from the brush a lot, and even sneezing twice, but nevertheless, slowly and steadily, they progressed.

Partway along, with just the major areas roughed in, the forehead and on down, Peg reared back to study him, and said, “I don’t remember you like that.”

“Like what?”

“That that’s the way you look.  Freddie?  I think I’m beginning to forget what you look like.”

The parts of the face that now existed contrived to express surprise.  “You know what? he said. “Me too.  I was just thinking this morning, when I was shaving.  I’m not sure I really remember what I look like, either.  If I saw me on the street, I don’t know that I’d recognize me.”

According to Leon Stover, that indefatigable student of all things relating to Herbert George Wells, Hawley Griffin (H.G. get it?), The Invisible Man, was named after that winged mythological beast of yore, because the griffin/gryphon is the vengeful destroyer of greedy avaricious men, and furthermore preys on horses, symbols of the aristocratic ‘horsey set’ of England.

Nobody to my knowledge has ever devoted that kind of intense etymological scrutiny to this book, so I guess I’ll have to try.  Why is Frederick Urban Noon named so?  Well, Frederick could denote a conqueror, I suppose.  Frederick the Great.  But more likely, it’s just a name Westlake liked to use, and frequently did (Fred Fitch, for example).

The Urban thing is fairly self-explanatory, Freddie being a New York City boy, born and bred, from a good Catholic family in the Ozone Park section of Queens (no doubt that’s also significant).  His middle name is derived from one of eight different popes, so good luck trying to get any theological/historical/allegorical meaning out of that.  The second Urban famously started the Crusades, and a few of them were later made saints, and I can’t see any reference there to Frederick Urban at all.

Ah, but Noon.  Good Irish name, that, frequently ends with an ‘e.’  There a subtler meaning can be discerned.  Because Noon shares a common liturgical origin with None, referring originally to the prayers said at 3:00pm each day at meals. Which has the additional meaning of–well, you know that.  And I need hardly explain how it applies to our hero.  Hey, this subtextual scholarship isn’t so hard.  I might as well have finished my doctorate, but of higher degrees I as yet have noon.

Thing is, nobody ever paid much attention to Freddie or any other of the nine Noon offspring, all of them nobodies.  They grew up, we’re told at the very beginning of this story, next door to JFK Airport–

Throughout his childhood, the loud gray shadows of the wide-body jets swept across and across and across Freddie Noon and his brothers and his sisters and his house as though to wipe them clear of the table of life; but every shadow passed and they were still there.

But now Freddie Noon casts no shadow at all.  A burglary gone wrong led to his becoming the unwilling guinea pig of two madly gay (but not gaily mad) scientists working on a preventative treatment for melanoma on behalf of a company that makes and markets cancer sticks, of which we shall be hearing more anon.

The drug is supposed to reduce skin pigmentation, which would supposedly prevent skin cancer.  Through an unfortunate miscommunication, Freddie took both of the experimental drugs they were working on (prior to walking out of their nicely appointed townhouse with many of its appointments), which have now abolished all pigmentation from his body, leaving him imperceptible to the mortal eye, even the loving eyes of his girlfriend Peg.

He’s not sure how long this condition will last, and since you might as well make hay while the sunshine passes right through  you, we rejoin him and Peg as they make a foray into Manhattan’s famed Diamond District.  Freddie is invisible, not intangible, and items he picks up remain visible themselves, seeming to float in mid-air, so his native wit shall be sorely taxed in the course of pulling this heist.

But as Hawley Griffin discovered before him, perhaps the greatest challenge to an invisible man involves walking down a crowded city street.

All those bodies in motion formed a constantly changing woven fabric, a six-foot-high blanket of rolling humanity, and now it was Freddie’s job to weave himself horizontally through this fabric, slipping through the weft and warp without any of the textile becoming aware of his existence; to be, in short, the ultimate flea.  To do all of that, and to do it successfully, would require every bit of his concentration, leaving nothing for the careful self-protective study of this dubious sidewalk that the surface really deserved.  Freddie knew his bare feet were just going to have to get along as best they could.

Freddie took one tentative step away from the van, and here came hurtling two hooky-playing kids in big sneakers, waving cigarettes and laughing at each other’s dumb jokes.  Freddie dodged them, but then almost ran into a guy carrying a roll of tarpaper on his shoulder, coming out of the roofing-company truck.  A rollout in the other direction put Freddie in the path of three middle-aged Japanese women, marching arm in arm, cameras dangling down their fronts, forming a phalanx as impenetrable as the Miami Dolphins’ defensive line.

Improvising his way past these and many other obstacles, Freddie gets inside one of the diamond merchant establishments, and uses a self-absorbed woman shopping for jewels to cover his exit with the loot.  Without a visible accomplice he can rely on, however (something the self-absorbed Hawley Griffin repeatedly failed to obtain), unlikely he’d be able to pull any of this off.  He’s so excited by his achievement, he tells Peg he’s going back for more.  As a thief, Invisible Freddie is a smashing success.

Freddie pulls two other scores in the book–a furrier’s warehouse in Queens gets burgled after-hours, but his only real problem there is that the place is heavily refrigerated, and he’s naked, so he ends up beckoning Peg in with the van so they can load it up with pelts while he’s wearing a fur coat and nothing else over his own invisible pelt, which freaks her out more than she let’s on.  Peg is just not adjusting well to Freddie’s condition at all.

In crafting the chapters involving heists, Westlake is, you might say, offering his professional criticism of Wells’ invisible protagonist, and his own attempts at thievery.  Griffin, who refuses to admit he even is a thief (because that would be so lower-class), is nonetheless constantly stealing from others, rationalizing to beat the band about how he has no other choice, he’s a revolutionary and all–but his actual technique leaves much to be desired.   He’s clumsy, careless, and often unnecessarily violent.  He doesn’t really ever think it through, and often has to abandon his loot, because he has no way of transporting it.  When he tries to get an accomplice, an indigent drunk, to hold the loot for him, the accomplice simply walks away with it (and at the end is hoarding a copy of Griffin’s scientific notes, while enjoying the expropriated fruits of Griffin’s larceny).

The most obvious point of comparison relates to Griffin trying to rob ‘Omniums,’ a London superstore, containing every imaginable item someone could want.  “A huge meandering collection of shops rather than a shop.”  Omniums is fictional, but the department store was already in its formative stages, in Britain and elsewhere, and Wells clearly found it an interesting capitalist development.  Later, Griffin robs a much humbler establishment, representative of a dying form of commerce (that has actually taken a damned long time to die, since Westlake depicts a similar rundown shop in The Sour Lemon Score.)

Griffin gets in while Omniums is open, wanders around unseen  until it’s closed, and then helps himself to whatever he needs.  He intends to get food, clothing, and money, and then set himself up in an apartment, but having laid himself down to sleep on some quilts, clothed against the cold, he’s quickly discovered by the returning employees at dawn, and has to leave with nothing.  Though he does toy with the idea of mailing himself a parcel of goodies from the warehouse–he can’t figure out how.  He knows how to make someone invisible, but until he actually was, it never occurred to him how much work and thought was involved in making practical use of such an attribute, and thieving turns out to be much harder work than he’d imagined.

And what would the one writer most known for stories about thieves have said to all that?  “Amateur.”  And then he might say, “What would be the 1990’s equivalent of the department store?”

Wednesday, July 5, the day after the long hot exhausting holiday weekend, was a quiet one at the Big S Superstore on U.S. Route 9, the main commercial roadway on the east side of the Hudson River.  A few retirees with nothing else to do wandered the cavernous interior of this warehouse-type store, the no-frills successor to the department store, where mountains of items were piled directly on the concrete floor or stuffed to overflowing on unpainted rough wooden shelves.  Once you became a “member” of their “club” (not a hard thing to do), you could buy everything in here from a television set (and the unpainted piece of furniture to hide it in) to a goldfish bowl (and the goldfish) to put on top of the set for those times when there’s absolutely nothing to watch on TV.  You could buy canned and frozen food, truck tires, toys, books, washing machines, flowers, tents (in case your house fills up), small tractors, bicycles, benches, lumber to make your own benches, double-hung windows, storm windows, snow tires, dresses with flowers on them, blue jeans, and baseball caps honoring the team of your choice.

Here in the Big S (“the Big Sore for Big Savings!”), in other words, you could get everything you used to be able to get in the Sears Roebuck catalog, except now you have to go to the warehouse and pick it up instead of phoning it in and having them send it to you.  People enjoy a new wrinkle, and the warehouse you go to instead of phoning it is a very successful new wrinkle indeed.  Even the day after the big Fourth of July weekend, there were people in the place; not many of them, but some.  And in among the retirees with nothing better to do was an attractive young woman talking to herself.

And we need hardly be told who she’s really talking to, or why they are there. Freddie needs a really big score.  There are no end of re-saleable items here, but how can he get them in large enough quantities to give him the return on his labors he seeks, when he can’t make the goods themselves invisible?  This is the problem that thwarted Invisible Man The First (as Griffin modestly dubbed himself), but Invisible Man the Westlake Heister is made of sterner stuff.  If you want to effectively steal from large-scale shopkeepers, you need to understand and penetrate their bureaucracy, something wild-eyed revolutionaries tend not to do very well, visible or not.

At the top, he found the second floor was mostly one large room with a vaguely underwater feel.  The industrial carpet was light green, the walls and ceiling cream, the fluorescent lighting vaguely greenish, the office furniture gray.  The could be on the Nautilus, and out beyond those venetian blinds could be the deep ocean itself, with giant octopi swimming through the submarine’s powerful searchlights.

Instead of which, of course, this was the command center of the Big S, a long, low-ceilinged air-conditioned humming space full of clerks, mostly women, with an enclosed office at the far end for the manager.  Freddie looked around and saw, positioned atop the desk nearest the stairs, a small TV monitor showing the space in front of the desk below.  The woman seated at that desk was entering an endless series of numbers into her computer terminal, reading from a two-inch-thick stack of pink vouchers.  While Freddie watched, an employee appeared in the monitor and pushed the button; the woman at the desk never looked away from the vouchers but just reached out, pressed a button in front of the monitor, and went on with her typing.

Routine is the death of security.

Yeah, tell us about it.

Having learned to his pleasure that the Big S does not employ any guard dogs, Freddie figures out how to use one of the computer terminals to arrange for a very large shipment of valuable items to be loaded onto a truck by the loading dock, which he can just drive away with.  He and Peg return later, and carry the plan off without any significant hitches–the hitch comes when he drops the goods off with his fence.

This book has a whole lot of sub-plots to it, and I can’t possibly cover them all in any great depth.   One involves Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the fence Freddie uses, who is basically a more repellent version of Arnie Albright from the Dortmunder books–and who knew that was even possible?  Arnie has a famously unappealing personality and really bad breath; his idea of interior decoration is to paper his walls with old calendars–but compared to Jersey Josh, he’s George Freakin’ Clooney.

His apartment, where he keeps all his stolen goods, is right over by the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, and those of you who are New Yorkers know what a terrible place that would be to live (it’s getting gentrified never), but somehow it just suits him.  Dingy, gaseous, and toxic.  That’s Josh.

Long story short, Freddie phones Josh to say he’s sick and is sending Peg over with the gems from his first invisible score, and upon viewing her womanly charms, Josh immediately decides to rape her.  I mean, he doesn’t think of it that way.  He’s just going to hit her over the head with something to quiet her, and have a quick date, nothing wrong with that, guy has to have a social life, doesn’t he?  And of course, appearances to the contrary, Peg isn’t really alone, and Josh gets hit over the head with something while he’s eagerly groping Peg–he can’t figure out how she did it.

But Jersey Josh is a persistent fellow, and when Peg shows up with the furs from the next heist, he’s ready to try again, and by this time Freddie & Peg have had quite enough, so Freddie arranges for Josh to get a friendly visit from the Doberman Pinschers who guard the business establishment downstairs, and feel about Josh pretty much the same way everybody else who ever met him does.  (I do believe Westlake is starting to warm up to dogs just a bite, I mean bit.)

So this has been an enjoyable enough running plot thread, but it’s getting a bit more serious as Freddie and Peg drive to the arranged meeting place in the old meatpacking district of Manhattan, where Josh and some vaguely mobbed-up associates are going to accept delivery of the goods and hand over the cash.  If they feel like it.  I mean, it’s not like Josh has any bad feelings about being hit over the head, nearly ripped to pieces by savage dogs, and not getting past first base with Peg.  That would be petty, right?

As we’ve seen him do before ( Castle In The Air, that aside about the Paris canal system, which has since gone on to become a tourist attraction), Westlake focuses in on a neglected piece of industrial-era infrastructure that will, in the 21st century, become one of New York’s most-visited amenities).

A long long time ago there was an actual slaughterhouse in Manhattan, way down below Greenwich Village, near the Hudson River.  In the nineteenth century, they had cattle drives to Fifth Avenue, bringing the cows to the slaughterhouse, but then they built a railroad line that was partly in a cut between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, which is still used by trains from the north coming down to Penn Station, in the West Thirties.  Going down from there, the old train line was elevated, at second-floor level, and ran all the way downtown, the trains that carried the doomed cows trundling south and south, as buildings were constructed all around the track, and neighborhoods grew up, until here and there the elevated train line was actually inside buildings along its route.

Then it all came to an end.  The slaughterhouse shut down and there was less and less manufacturing of other kinds in lower Manhattan, and fewer and fewer cargo ships from Europe that unloaded there, so there was no longer a need for a railroad line down through Manhattan south of Penn Station.  But that old elevated line had been constructed of iron, and built strong enough to carry many tons of train and beef, and it was not an easy thing to tear that big old monster down, so for the most part it was left standing.  Here and there, when new construction was under way, it made ense to remove a part of the old line, but most of it is still there.  It’s there today, just above your head, black old thick iron crossing the street, out of that old building and into that old building, an artifact from an earlier and more powerful time.

And now a place to idly stroll with your sweetheart and drink lattes, surrounded by bars and restaurants.  Westlake lived to see construction on the High Line begin–wonder what he made of that.

The meeting place is in a deserted factory in the West Village, near the elevated tracks.  Freddie’s stolen truck has just enough clearance to get underneath those tracks (I’ve seen big rigs get stuck that way).  This time Freddie is wearing his Dick Tracy mask, and maybe this is why Josh acts like one of those grotesque Dick Tracy villains (maybe Mumbles, since he speaks in words of mainly one syllable, and sometimes just one letter–he pronounces the word ‘yes’ as ‘S’).  Pretty much on a whim, he decides he’s going to take the truck and all that’s inside it, and give Freddie nothing in return.  A very real chance Peg gets thrown into the bargain.

We have by now seen many examples of how stupid it is to doublecross a Westlake heister–how much stupider would it be to doublecross an invisible Westlake heister?  Not that they know he’s invisible–which just makes their situation more hopeless.

“Peg,” Freddie said, “go around the block,” and he was already ripping off the head and gloves when he dove down and went rolling under the trailer.

The henchmen shouted as Peg accelerated, and Josh missed her wrist by a millimeter.  The van went tearing away down the block.  The henchmen ran around both ends of the truck.  Josh bent to peer under the trailer, seeing nothing, hauling out his own very old and well-used pistol, just in case Freddie decided to come rolling back.

The henchmen met at the far side, and stood over a pile of clothing on the sidewalk there.  “He’s naked,” one of them said.

“Duhhh,” the other one said, and fell down.

The first henchman stared.  It was a brick, is what it was, a big dirty brick, waving around in the air all on its own, and now it was coming after him.  He backed away, stumbling over Freddie’s clothes, dropping to one knee in his panic, and took a shot up at the damn brick, and the bullet zipped away up into the infrastructure of the railroad, binging and caroming off the metal up there for quite a while.

With a moan, the henchman dropped his pistol, swung about, and tried to escape on all fours, which meant he didn’t have far to drop, when he dropped.

Josh had a whole lot of money there–for Freddie and for his two associates.   Freddie gets all of it–a hundred grand.  Josh gets to explain the loss of the money to his associates, after they all wake up (Josh doesn’t get knocked out–he faints dead away).  And that’s the last we see of Jersey Josh Kuskiosko.   But an invisible man with well over a hundred grand is still an invisible man.  Peg is about to tell Freddie that he’s lost something worth a whole lot more.

Yeah, I’m really skipping around, aren’t I?   My main interest here in Part 2 is showing how Westlake was riffing on the H.G. Wells novella, updating it.  I’d guess Jersey Josh is Westlake’s riff on Mr. Marvel, Hawley Griffin’s unreliable partner in crime.   But maybe the best riff of all occurred much further back in the book, Chapter 19, when Freddie and Peg, fleeing the city because they’ve become aware there’s people after them (more on that next time), are looking for a summer rental to hide out in, and have a brief stay at a quaint little Bed & Breakfast establishment in the Hudson Valley, just outside Rhinebeck.

See, probably nothing in the Wells novella is more fun than the humorous early chapters, where the people of the quaint little English village of Iping ,which really exists (as indeed does Rhinebeck) have to deal with a stranger who will not let them see his face (because he doesn’t have one anymore).  Wells used these chapters to mock the simple people of Iping, who remain unaware for a rather long time that there’s an invisible man in their midst, staying at a local inn maintained by a respectable older woman, who is rightly horrified by Griffin’s rude behavior.

So what would be the American late 20th century equivalent of Janny Hall, the late 19th century proprietress of the Coach and Horses Inn, catering mainly to urban tourists who want to experience the rural England they’ve read about in books; friendly, sociable, but an inveterate busybody who wants to know everybody’s business?

City people, they think they know it all.  Mrs. Krutchfield, a buxom motherly woman rather beyond a certain age, was sorry, but she just couldn’t help it, New Yorkers rubbed her the wrong way, they always had.    They were never impressed by anything.  You can take your tourist families from faraway places like Osaka, Japan, and Ionia, Iowa, and Urbino, Italy, and Uyini, Bolivia–and Mrs. Krutchfield could show you all of them in her visitors’ book with their very excellent comments–and you could show them your wonders of the Hudson River valley, and you could just happen to mention that this lovely old pre-Revolution farmhouse, now The Sewing Kit bed-and-breakfast outside Rhinebeck, was known to be haunted by a British cavalry officer slain under this very roof in 1778, and those people are, in two words, im pressed.

But not New Yorkers.  It was such a pity, then, since The Sewing Kit was a mere 100 miles straight north of Manhattan, into the most scenic countryside, that New Yorkers were so much more important to her operation than all the Osakians and Ionians and Urbinos and Uyunis put together.  Mrs. Krutchfield just bit her lip and kept her own counsel and tried not to look at the “wives” ring fingers, and did her level best to treat the New Yorkers just like everybody else.

(Including the ‘Briscoe snip’ as Mrs. Krutchfield’s privately thinks of our Peg, who gets checked into the General Burgoyne room, is blithely unaware of Mrs. Krutchfield’s opinion of her, and probably couldn’t care less.  Because seriously, rest of the world, we Gothamites don’t need to care what you all think of us, and I’m not saying that’s fair, but it’s reality.   We just don’t care.   And you know you’re going to come see us in your millions anyhow, so let’s  move on, shall we?)

As she heads up to her room, Peg, who has been regaled about the resident ghost, is informed that yes, there’s literature in every room, telling about him, and she sighs resolutely, saying “Well, we can only hope for the best.”  Well, we the readers certainly can.  Freddie Noon has had one hell of a practical joke played on him just recently.  Only fair that he shares the wealth.

That evening, the current guests are settled down in the parlor, watching television with Mrs. Krutchfield.  She’s got a satellite dish.  She controls the remote.  Or so she thinks.

At first, everything was normal and serene.  Then, at just about four minutes past nine, as everybody was contentedly settling in to watch a program broadcast from some parallel universe in which, apparently, there was a small town where the mayor and the fire chief and the high school football coach spent all their time joshing with one another at a diner run by a woman suffering from, judging by her voice, throat cancer, all at once the TV set sucked that picture into itself, went click and spread across itself an image of three people moving on a bed, with no covers on.  With no clothing on!  Good gracious, what are those people doing?

Some horrible corner of the satellite village, some swamp beside the information highway, had suddenly thrust itself–oh, what an awful choice of words!–onto their TV screen.  Gasping and shaking and little cries of horror ran through the room as Mrs. Krutchfield grabbed frantically for the remote control, only to find it had somehow fallen to the floor under her chair.

The channel keeps changing, one disturbing program after another.  Finally a refuge of black and white calm–TCM, no doubt–a woman is walking along the edge of a cliff.  With her clothes on, regrettably, since it happens to be–

“Gene Tierney!” cried a midwestern gentleman who had not shut his eyes.

She wouldn’t do things like that!” cried a midwestern lady, whose eyes were still firmly sealed.

“It’s a movie!” cried another midwestern gentleman.

Eyes opened.  On-screen, the action had moved indoors, into an extremely cute cottage not unlike The Sewing Kit itself, though perhaps a bit more cramped.  In this setting a recognizable Rex Harrison marched and harrumphed, dressed like a pirate captain or something, and behaving in a rough-and-ready way that didn’t at all suit him.  Also, you could see through him, which was odd.

A midwestern gentleman said, “It’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”

A midwestern lady said, “I remember that series.  But it wasn’t Rex Harrison.”

“No, no, no,” said the gentleman.  “This is the original movie.”

“There was a movie?”

A Canadian, somewhat younger, said, “There was a television series?”

A midwestern lady gave out a sudden shriek.  “It’s the ghost!” she cried.

“And Mrs. Muir,” said her companion on the sofa.

“No!  The ghost!  Colonel Pardigrass!”

That shut them up.  For a minute or two everyone in the room just sat and gazed at Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, finding love–or something–across the centuries.  So much pleasanter to contemplate than those other people.

This is all a great surprise to Mrs. Krutchfield, since she just made up the ghost out of whole cloth, or ectoplasm, whatever.  The real estate agent told her there were stories about ghosts connected to the old farmhouse that is now The Sewing Kit, and he was probably making that up to sell her the place, but all the fine details came from a newspaper story she’d read about a British colonel who had been murdered long ago in the general vicinity, and it might as well have been her converted farmhouse as anyone else’s this happened at.  A nice conversation piece for her hostelry.  But he’d always been such a respectable phantasm before now.  What could have possibly gotten into the Colonel?  Can you find an exorcist in the Yellow Pages?

Hawley Griffin is in too distracted and self-centered a mental state to really enjoy being invisible, you see.  His creator is having fun with these people, but he’s not.  He more or less inadvertently horrifies Mrs. Hall and her other guests with his bumbling invisible antics, terrorizes the entire village of Iping as the story goes on, and a short time later they terrorize him, in the process of beating him to death.  There are potential consequences to scandalizing small town people, you know.

But Freddie knows himself, he knows his limitations, and he knows how to have fun, and that’s all he was having here.  He and Peg leave the next morning, and she tells him that wasn’t very funny, and he asks then why is she still laughing?  Same reason we are.  Donald Westlake was not the social prophet Wells was, but he was a much better writer of comic fiction.

There may be other points of direct comparison between The Invisible Man and Smoke, but I can’t think of any offhand, and there is much in this book that owes nothing whatsoever to Mr. Wells, so I think I’m going to call this Part 2, and devote Part 3 to those remaining thematic elements of Westlake’s book.  Which is decidedly not one of the more tightly structured of Westlake’s books.  And consequently, this is not one of my  more tightly structured reviews.  Assuming you think I’ve ever written any tightly structured reviews.

See, this book isn’t named Smoke because its hero is a wraithlike specter who vanishes into thin air.  It’s named Smoke because its primary satiric target is the tobacco industry and its servitors.  And we’ll be talking about them next time.

(And yes, I’m horribly late with this, but let’s just say there have been distractions.  Personal and Political.  I don’t really know which is worse.)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Smoke

Except for Stella and the myth of Perseus (and the spoofery of W.S. Gilbert in his treatment of Old Peter), the usual moral is that an invisible man is bound to act without ethical constraint.  Plato in The Republic raises the question of why any man should behave ethically if he has the means to escape punishment for evil deeds, and he cites the myth of Gyges, who used a ring of invisibility to get away with regicide and so take over the kingship himself.

All such powers are the object of the same moralizing in Hollywood science fiction and horror films, in which a mad scientist always gets his just deserts by dying a horrible death.

Leon Stover, in his introduction to The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance, A Critical Text of the 1897 New York First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices.

“But still,” said Kemp, “in England–today.  And the man was in his own house, and you were–well, robbing.”

“Robbing!  Confound it!  You’ll call me a thief next!  Surely, Kemp, you’re not fool enough to dance on the old strings.  Can’t you see my position?”

“And his too,” said Kemp.

The Invisible Man stood up sharply.  “What do you mean to say?”

H.G. Wells

Freddie was a liar.  Freddie was a thief.

D.E. Westlake

Donald Westlake didn’t write a lot of very long novels.  They weren’t really what he did best–his sweet spot generally lay somewhere between 150 and 300 pages, maybe under or over that sometimes, but not by much.  Enough room to get his points across, not so much that he’d have to belabor them to the point of tiresomeness.

It was a matter of the market he was writing for as well–mysteries tended to be on the short side when he started out.  You want to keep books in that genre fast-paced, don’t want to give the reader too much time to think about who’s dying or whodunnit, you want them to finish it quickly, then run off and buy another one.

As time went by, the market changed–the paperback original died off, hardcovers got a lot more expensive, and people wanted more kiss-kiss bang-bang for the buck, I suppose.  Ponderous tomes once more became de rigeur, and not just in the historical romance field–you might say the short pithy genre novel was gone with the wind.

It wasn’t all about the market by any means–sometimes Westlake just had so much to say with a given book, so much ground to cover, that he needed more room to run.  While these may never have been his most impeccably polished perfectly structured books, they all had their own virtues.  Dickens never wrote a perfectly balanced long novel either.  Of course, that was partly because he was mainly writing them as magazine serials.  Marathons are, of necessity, not so pretty as sprints.

Westlake’s first and fattest attempt at a really long novel (even the posthumously published Memory doesn’t quite qualify, at ‘only’ 365 pages) was Ex Officio, a bonafide airport novel, almost 500 pages of political thriller mixed in with social commentary and family conflicts, written under a single-use pseudonym (weirdly, this one is evailable, as many of Westlake’s shorter better more typical books published under his own name are not).

Second-longest is probably Kahawa, a tale of foreign intrigue, adventure, and romance–with a bit of a heist angle thrown in, since that was not written under a pseudonym, and comic crime was expected of Westlake by that point, but the comedy was pretty thin on the ground in a story about African genocide, so that one was a hard sell.  Some people actually like it the best of all his novels, go figure.

He wrote one very long Dortmunder, Drowned Hopes, that is structured rather more like several short linked novels, but his longest novel ever in the crime/mystery genre has got to be this one, and it plays no structural games–you start with Chapter 1 and go on until you reach Chapter 57.  454 pages in my first edition–which is autographed.  Westlake was clearly doing a lot more signing events at bookstores than he used to.

So the signature doesn’t boost the book’s value much, but still a nice thing to see when you open it up, and it’s comforting for me to feel his presence here, as I try to figure out the twists and turns of this, the last of his epic-length novels, and in my opinion, the first of his signature works of the 90’s, though better were on the way by the time it was published.

A crime novel this certainly is, as the very first thing it tells us is that the hero of the piece is a liar and thief.  Seems like an oddly superfluous thing for this particular author, writing for this particular publisher, to feel the need to spell out right from the start.  Much quicker to list all the Westlake protagonists who were not liars and/or thieves.  What makes this book, this protagonist, any different from what we’ve already seen?

Mainly that he’s based on an H.G. Wells character–or is, to state it more aptly, a response to that character, to that novel (novella, really–it’s a much shorter book than Smoke).  I don’t need to tell you which novel I’m talking about, do I?  It had been a very long time since I’d read it, and I felt like I better renew the acquaintance.  And as it happens, the only copy we have here at the library is the edition quoted up top, heavily (I’m tempted to say excessively) annotated by Leon Stover (Ph.D),  perhaps the most painstakingly dedicated scholar of Wells’ literary output the world has ever seen.

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And perhaps the most fanatically single-minded.  His one goal in dissecting this novel (as he’d already done for several other Wellsian tomes) is to convince us that Wells, without any irony at all, intends the reader to see Hawley Griffin, The Invisible Man, a clownish thief and liar (ultimately freelance terrorist and murderer), as the hero of the piece, a proto-revolutionary, a worthy experiment in overturning the old world order that Wells spent his very busy life fulminating against.

Re-reading the book, along with Stover’s many footnoted interpretive interpolations to it, I found many of his points very convincing–illuminating, even.  I began to see what he was getting at.  I read a lot of Wells growing up, but I didn’t know much of anything about him then.  I knew he was a socialist, but so many people were at the time, and most of them didn’t go around cheering a wraithlike thief and killer who didn’t have anything close to a realistic plan of achieving his ethereal objectives, and who mainly seemed to have gone off his nut.

Stover admits there is much ambiguity about the narrator’s true feelings towards the title character, but keeps hammering home a series of fine details embedded in the narrative, little bits of symbolism that do in fact seem to hint Wells saw Griffin as a sort of comi-tragic hero, a failed experiment, but one that might lead in time to a successful one–that is to say, in the total overthrow of bourgeois society, by any means necessary (Wells was partly inspired by the increasingly chaotic career of Sergei Nechayev, who also inspired Dostoevsky–imagine what he could have done if he were invisible), and the setting up of a one world state where all power would be in the hands of a scientific elite, and you know how Plato felt about Democracy, right?

That’s pretty much exactly how Wells felt about it.   Philosopher Kings don’t tend to like the common folk much.  They need a strong hand.  Don’t know what’s good for ’em.  (And who ever does, pray tell?   A counter-revolutionary question, I know.)

Does the late Dr. Stover (he died a bit less than two years before Westlake) overstress his points at times?   I thought so.  I think Wells wrote the book, to a certain extent, in a state of confusion, trapped between two modes of being, between who he was and who he thought he should be, identifying with and loathing both Griffin and his confidante/nemesis Kemp, who speaks for the existing order of things, for law and order and morals and good old English fair play and not hitting random passersby over the head with something heavy just because they annoy you (cathartic as that would unquestionably be, which is why the story in all its myriad forms has always been very popular).

(I must say, Stover does go overboard at times, working his way through an entertaining little genre novel, finding all these buried meanings in it, sifting through every paragraph for clues, acting as if he and he alone can plumb the inner mysteries of the author’s mind, and–hum.  Why does that remind me of someone?  Can’t quite seem to place who.  Well, it’ll come to me.)

Westlake couldn’t have read Stover’s edition, since it came out in 1998, but something must have impelled him to reread Wells’ book in some form.  Maybe he stayed up late one night and watched the brilliant funny little movie James Whale made of it, where as he did with Mary Shelley’s monster, he is once again making it all about his own closeted homosexuality and not telling anyone that’s what he’s doing (Wells probably didn’t even notice that, but he was reportedly deeply upset that Hawley was portrayed as a madman, to which Whale roguishly replied that only a madman would want to make himself invisible in the first place–now that’s a meeting of minds I’d have liked to see).

It’s not at all hard to imagine Westlake thinking to himself, “An invisible thief would be interesting to write about.”  And easy to pitch to a publisher, what’s more.  Ad copy writes itself.

So he went back to the source, viewing it with more insight perhaps than when he first read it, and he wouldn’t have had the same level of context as Stover–but he would have seen beneath the surface of the narrative, as he always did, would have known something of Wells’ beliefs, and what lay behind them (I find, as a general rule, the educated reader is well-advised to assume Westlake is at least as knowledgeable as him/her, and probably much more).  He would probably have known, for example, that Wells was heavily influenced in his thinking by Thomas Carlyle (Stover talks a lot about that).

Westlake’s attitude towards that scribbling Scot was made pretty clear in the opening quote for Up Your Banners.  Carlyle was an elitist, someone who felt the common people, and particularly those of certain types–blacks, Irish–needed to be kept down, put in their place and kept there, maintained in perpetual slavery or serfdom–for their own good, as well as society’s.  Well really, for the good of people like Carlyle, but it sounds so petty when you put it that way.

Wells had a very different set of prejudices and politics than Carlyle, and many other influences, people like Comte and Saint Simon–people who wanted to remake the world in their own image, impose their reality, their identity really, on everyone else, for the sake of universal order and well-being.  Westlake most definitely had a revolutionary thinker lurking around in him–nobody who disliked the rich as much as he could be otherwise–but you only have to read Anarchaos to know that he didn’t think you could ever succeed in making a good world by imposing ideas on people, by leaving everything behind and starting fresh.

He was more of in the Edmund Burke school in that regard.  He disliked change for the sake of change.  You need to shake things up, but you also need some things to stay the same.  More evolutionary than revolutionary.  And close enough to his working class roots to feel a strong irritation towards those who see the proles as mere pawns (as Marx certainly did).

Reading Wells’ book, seeing the confused thought processes of his title character, I was reminded of Dan Tynebourne, the tragically misguided young academic in Don’t Lie to Me, who gets sucked into a subversive scheme by a self-centered mentor who is only using his naive proteges to line his own pockets.  Mitch Tobin, casing Dan’s apartment for clues, sees many signs that Dan is someone with a split in his identity, torn between then and now, wanting to be something he’s not.  He’s wavering between two worlds, like a Walter Scott hero.  He’s not really the revolutionary type, but he thinks he ought to be.  And so many young people go through this phase.  I did.  Westlake probably did too.  Some never really come out of it.  (And some, to be sure, really are revolutionaries by nature, and they can be useful in some situations, enormously destructive in others.)

And might this be what Wells himself was expressing in The Invisible Man?  Stover certainly knew him better than me, and his biography of Wells is still unpublished, but it’s possible he missed something that Westlake picked up on–Wells believed in being a revolutionary–yet he visited the Soviet Union, which certainly filled many of the conditions he’d laid out years before for a revolution–and he washed his hands of it, said it would never work out (and of course it didn’t).

He didn’t mind so much Lenin and Stalin killing all those people; that thing Lenin said about how you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs surely resonated with him.  But it just wasn’t quite right.  Would it ever have been?  Do people who imagine revolutions in their heads ever find precisely what they’re looking for in real life?  They either have to settle for a flawed revolution, or wait for perfection to come, and it never does.  Both approaches have shortcomings.  By the end of his life, Lenin saw his revolution had become Stalin’s, it was all going wrong, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.  And of all things, as he faded from existence, his life’s work in ruins, he upbraided Stalin for insulting his wife, Krupskaya. How very bourgeois of him.  Trotsky no doubt had a good laugh about that, before the icepick.

Wells has his unseen protagonist declare against romantic love of any kind, say that he met a girl who had once meant a great deal to him just before turning himself invisible, and she was really nothing special at all–the idea expressed by Nechayev that the true revolutionary has no love, no friends, no attachments of any kind, no compassion for individuals, because this gets in the way of what needs be done.  But Wells himself had a great superfluity of women in his life, two marriages, many affairs, many friends.  And no doubt he sometimes felt this is why all he ever really accomplished in life was writing some very entertaining books.  Tolstoy was much the same way.  Geniuses can be awfully perverse sometimes.

He wanted to destroy the middle class, yet he remained very firmly a part of it all his life, sharing many of its attitudes, and pretty nearly all its prejudices.  His novella savagely satirizes English small town petit-bourgeois life–but that’s the precise life he was born into, the very people he’d come from.  I’d put him in that very large category of British social thinkers who dreamed of changing everything, and yet drew away in horror when actual change seemed to be on the horizon.  “Oh God, make me virtuous–but not yet!”  And one way to deal with that, of course, is to write about revolutionary change happening in the far distant future, which Wells increasingly did over time. (I’d personally say Olaf Stapledon did it better, more insightfully and compassionately and believably, but nobody ever makes movies out of his books, somehow).

(Oh, and not to be picky or anything, but Wells was a pretty nasty anti-semite, which comes out rather obviously in The Invisible Man.  That’s not hard to spot at all.   Oh certainly there are some decent ones, but really the Jews should just assimilate, don’t you think, give up their collective identity–if they don’t–well–you know that thing about the omelette.  In his defense, Wells felt rather badly about some things he’d said and written after certain events in Europe became clear shortly before his death in 1946.  He meant well.  We all do, right?)

So it’s Wells’ own identity crisis being laid out in the pages of that short novel, and Westlake would have seen that like a shot.  Why does Hawley Griffin fail? Because he doesn’t know who he is.   He can’t see himself, any more than anyone else can.  He becomes visible after his death (which even on the basis of the dubious fictive science that created him, makes no sense) because death has resolved his identity crisis, as it ultimately resolves everyone’s.

Seeing all of this and more, Donald Westlake resolved to write a book that would pattern itself after The Invisible Man, borrowing many of Wells’ ideas (as Wells had borrowed from still-earlier stories), elaborating on them, revisiting them in very different (and oddly similar) settings, fleshing them out quite a bit (there’s no market for a novella in the Mid-90’s), and utterly subverting this highly subversive book.  Because his invisible man won’t be a failure.  He won’t be alone.  And if you called him a thief, he’d just shrug his shoulders and grin, not that you’d see him do it.   He knows who he is.  His main identity crisis was over before the story began.

Frederick Urban Noon was the fourth of nine children born to a working class family in Ozone Park, Queens.  Most of his siblings were honest folks like his parents, but in that large a family, there’s always going to be a black sheep or two.  His sanitation worker father’s salary couldn’t buy him everything he wanted, so he took to stealing, took a few falls, took to drugs, stole even more to support his habit, and finally got sent away for two whole years.  And since an improbable coalition of Muslim and Born Again inmates made damn sure no drugs got into that prison, he had to get himself straight, and when he did, he made an odd discovery–

And here Freddie met a new self.  He hadn’t made his own acquaintance since he was fourteen years old, and he was surprised to find he liked the guy he’d become.  He was quick-witted, once he had his wits about him.  He was short and skinny, but also wiry and strong.  He looked pretty good, in a feral-foxy sort of way.  He liked what he saw himself doing, liked what he heard himself thinking, liked how he handled himself in the ebb and flow of life.

He never reformed, exactly, never became born again or changed his name to Freddie X, but once he was clear of drugs he saw no reason to go back.  It would be like infecting yourself with the flu all over again; back to the stuffy nose, the dull headache, the dulled thought processes, the dry and itchy skin. Who needed it?

So that was why, when Freddie Noon hit the street once more, two years later, at twenty-seven years of age, he did not go back on drugs.  He stayed clean, alert, quick-witted, wiry, good-looking in a feral-foxy way.  He met a girl named Peg Briscoe, who worked sporadically as a dental technician, quitting every time she decided she couldn’t stand to look into one more dirty mouth, and she also liked this new Freddie Noon, and so they set up housekeeping together.  And Freddie went back to being a thief.  Only now, he did it for a different reason, a third reason. Now he was a thief because he liked it.

(So that’s twice in three paragraphs we’re told Freddie is foxy, and between Parker the wolf and Dortmunder the coyote, we’ve got a matched set of cunning canids in human form now.  In the last Dortmunder, Westlake had referred to Kelp as fox-like, so no doubt something of Kelp went into Freddie, and something of their creator into both of them.  As the saying goes, “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows One Big Thing.”  Westlake was a fox.  Wells perhaps falls into the same category Isaiah Berlin put Tolstoy into–a fox who believes in being a hedgehog.  But I digress.  Foxes always do.  No need to get all prickly about it.)

Some time has clearly passed since Freddie got out of prison, so he’s nearing thirty years of age–which I really shouldn’t need to mention by now is the age Donald Westlake thought people become true adults, and their mature identities emerge–for better or worse.  Hawley Griffin’s disastrous rebellion begins and ends at that very age, same age as his fellow student and mortal enemy, Dr. Kemp, so maybe Wells agreed with that.

A character every bit as significant to the story as Freddie himself is introduced in that quote, also somewhere in her mid/late 20’s, but we don’t actually meet her right away.  First, Freddie has to do his fade, and not being a scientist himself, let alone an albino (as people tend to forget Hawley Griffin was, prior to his disappearing act), he’s got to meet up with some scientists before that happens.  Not mad scientists, by any means.  Though they are a tad–unconventional.

Dr. David Loomis and Dr. Peter Heimhocker were lovers.  They were also medical researchers, both forty-three years of age, currently funded by the American Tobacco Research Institute to do blue-sky cancer research.  Their work, reports of which looked good in tobacco-company annual reports, and references to which invariably formed a part of tobacco-industry spokespeople’s testimony before congressional committees, was sincere, intelligent, and well funded.  (Even the alarm system had been paid for with tobacco money.)  David and Peter were encouraged by their funders to come up with anything and everything that might help in the human race’s battle against the scourge of cancer, except, of course, further evidence that might recommend the giving up of the smoking of cigarettes.

David and Peter had met twenty years earlier, in medical school, and had soon realized how much they had in common, including a love of non-result-oriented research and an infinite capacity for guile and subterfuge in the suspicious sight of the outside world.  Their coming together strengthened both.  They’d been inseparable ever since.

I believe these two are the last of Westlake’s really significant gay characters, and he may spend more time on them in this very long book than he did any previous pairings of that persuasion (his most interesting same sex coupling will be making a rather grim return in the near future).

They’re not the villains of the piece, nor are they heroes-they have both sympathetic and unsympathetic aspects to their characters, and you like them without necessarily admiring them. I find they have much in common with the gay couple dabbling in art smuggling, from High Adventure, that Westlake never had time to develop much.  Like that duo, they have a lawyer friend, also gay, who proves to be smarter and and more professional than either of them, and tries to keep them out of trouble (a motif that goes all the way back to A Jade In Aries).

Their main problem is that they are corporate servitors, much as they delude themselves about it, though it becomes increasingly clear to them as the story winds on, just what kind of a devil they’ve made a Faustian deal with.  It’s not the central identity conflict of the story, but it’s important, all the same.  And that kind of conflict, as we all know, is very far from being a gay thing.

They are, in essence, a plot device to explain how Freddie turns invisible, it being important for Westlake’s purposes that this not happen by Freddie’s own choice, as it did with Griffin.  I rather think he agreed with James Whale that only a crazy person would want to make himself invisible, and he figured the romantic days of heroic proto-scientists experimenting on themselves were long gone, necessitating a guinea pig.

And I suspect Westlake made Messrs. Loomis and Heimhocker gay as a backhanded reference to Mr. Whale’s (and Claude Rains’) own sub-textual cinematic take on Wells’ story.  Wells’ dour and sexless Mr. Griffin, we can be sure, was never going to skip happily down the lane in borrowed trousers, singing to himself–he had more important things to do.  More’s the pity.  At least Whale’s Griffin has some fun along the way.

So Freddie breaks into their townhouse/laboratory, hoping to find some valuable stuff he can sell, and as mentioned above, there’s an expensive silent alarm system that alerts them to the break-in at dinner.  Peter, the stronger of the two, insists on going down there with a gun and apprehending the burglar.  He’s got an idea.

Westlake is going with Wells’ idea (adapted in turn from Charles H. Hinton’s Stella, a largely forgotten novel about a girl made invisible by her father to make a rather obscure left-wing political point), that if you could remove all pigmentation from a living creature, and reduce its refractive properties to zero, it would then be imperceptible (Wells knew this would also render the invisible creature’s own sense of sight unusable, and for the purposes of his story, he didn’t care).  But in this case, invisibility is an unforeseen complication resulting from a badly done experiment.

David and Peter are trying to find a way to prevent skin cancer.  They figure reducing the skin’s capacity to absorb sunlight might do the trick.  They’ve already got several translucent felines roaming about the house (a reference to Hawley Griffin first experimenting on a neighbor’s most unwilling cat in Wells’ story).   They have two experimental drugs, one in the form of an injection, and the other is taken orally, in the form of what looks like an after-dinner mint.

Held at gunpoint, Freddie reluctantly agrees to sign a release and allow himself to be injected with the first drug, in exchange for them not calling the cops on him.  They lock him up in a room, after getting his promise to stick around a while for them to monitor the results–but maybe they should have considered the fact that he’s a professional thief.  Not to mention a liar.

(There is a brief passage where we’re told Freddie knows all about ‘faggots’, as he thinks of them, from prison, and knows that in the outside world they’re called ‘gay’, even though a lot of them aren’t really all that convivial, and I don’t think Westlake ever really forgave the re-purposing of that word.  I mean, I think we’re all over it now, but it does complicate matters sometimes; like you’re a straight guy with a nice voice and you want to sing This Heart of Mine, a great little number, and you get to the part where you dream of gay amours, and good thing Fred Astaire got to that one before the transition was complete, or Lucille Bremer would have gotten the wrong idea.)

So they come back from a reheated dinner (David is most upset, dammit he worked hard on that meal), only to find Freddie Noon is gone, having taken the door off its hinges.  And believing, due to a misunderstanding of his they did nothing to discourage, that the after-dinner mint is the antidote to the drug he was given (being an ex-con, he’s well familiar with the potential drawbacks to being a test subject), he’s eaten it.   And left the premises.  With a whole lot of valuable office equipment.  Like that’s their main worry now.  Because those two drugs were never meant to be taken in tandem, and as they compare notes, they realize, to their horror–well, let’s cut to the fade.

Freddie returns to the apartment he shares with Peg, she wakes up after a bad dream about oral hygiene, to find his hand on her breast, and I mean they’re in love and in their 20’s, obviously–

“Mmm, nice,” she whispered, feeling that gentle pressure, feeling him find his way home.  Her left hand reached out in the darkness, toward the bedside table.  “Oh, let me see you,” she whispered, and her fingers found the pull chain.  She pulled, and the light came on, and she SCREAMED.

“Wha?”

Her eyes snapped shut.  She thought, Take me back to the dream!  Back into the mouths, anywhere, anywhere but here!

Thrashing on top of her. “Whasa matter?”

She opened her eyes, wide, and stared at the ceiling.  “There’s nobody there!” she screamed, “Oh, my God, I’m going crazy!”

“What?  Whadayou–Holy shit!”

Indeed.  After a few more supplemental expostulations, a story follows, Peg is brought up to speed, and since there’s nothing else they can do right now, they become the first couple in history to have half-visible coitus.  Peg, we are made to understand right away, is no ordinary woman herself.

This isn’t really one of Westlake’s ‘Nephew’ stories, since Freddie has already found both himself and The Girl, and merely has to avoid losing them in the wake of this disturbing new development in his life, but Margaret ‘Peg’ Briscoe (the family name of a famed Dublin-Jewish political family, as Westlake surely knew), blonde, very attractive in a practical non-ostentatious sort of way, good-humored, level-headed, flexibly ethical when it comes to such matters as larceny,  and gutsy as all outdoors, may in fact be the only other among Westlake’s numberless young female love interests to be ranked with Chloe Shapiro, that heroic hard-driving hippie chick from his very first comic crime novel, The Fugitive Pigeon. She’s that great.

And this time through the book, I finally managed to head-cast her.  Shouldn’t have been that hard, really.  Peg is a Brooklyn girl, through and through.  For most of the story, she’s struggling with her feelings for this shameless reprobate, knowing he’s a thief and a liar, knowing she’s enabling his life of crime, and now he’s fuckin’ invisible?   The actress I have in mind was out of her 20’s by the time this book came out, but she’d already played a rather similar character in a little indie crime film. And a while later, she played an older, more prosperous, and rather more tragic version of the same character on The Sopranos.

But Peg is no tragedian, and Freddie proves himself worthy of her in the end.  Ms. Falco could have had a lot of fun with Ms. Briscoe, exercised comedy chops she’s rarely been given a chance to flex in her career.  It’s kind of a tragedy that never happened.

Peg is increasingly disturbed by Freddie’s appearance, or lack thereof.  He manages to hide from her a while the fact that for about two hours after he eats, the masticated food is visible in his gut, before absorbed and somehow rendered invisible as well (another idea that comes from Wells, and neither writer seems much inclined to dwell on the subject of whether it becomes visible again upon excretion, best not to ask).  But if he’s naked in the house, she feels like she can’t know if he’s looking at her, which is creepy.  If he’s dressed, there’s all these gaps where hands and head and such ought to be, which is creepier.

She goes out and gets a collection of Halloween masks for him to wear–Dick Tracy, Bart Simpson, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Ayatollah Khomeini (it was marked down).  And he’s got to wear rubber gloves.  And he’s got to go out for a walk sometimes, totally naked, and call her so she knows he’s gone out, just so she can feel she’s got some privacy.  (Hawley Griffin inexplicably chose to make himself invisible during an English winter–Westlake, more compassionate and practical-minded, has given Freddie this cross to bear at the start of a New York summer).

During one of these walks, Freddie steals some businessman’s cellphone to call Peg, and with no way to conceal it, ends up being chased by a mob until he throws it away.   Another scene out of Wells’ story, the difference being that Griffin uses it to fuel his growing ressentiment towards all humankind, and justify his bloody crusade.  Freddie just thinks to himself that people are weird, and goes back about his business.

Which is stealing.   It’s actually Peg who brings his attention to the fact that whatever the personal drawbacks to of invisibility, it’s the precise opposite of a professional disadvantage to him.  He starts devoting some thought to how he can make use of it.  True, he can’t be seen, but anything he picks up still can be.  He can still be felt if someone brushes up against him.  And bare feet on a New York City sidewalk (in summer!) are never a good idea.  But fox that he is, he can usually figure out an angle, given a bit of time.

Before Hawley Griffin takes to murdering people, his primary activity as an invisible man is theft–in fact, before he was invisible, he stole from his own father to buy the materials he needed to fund his experiment, which led to Griffin Sr.’s disgrace and suicide, since the money his son took from him was not his.  He’s stealing all through the book, feeling no guilt over it, but not really owning his actions, or processing the rather obvious fact that those who steal are, by definition, thieves.  He’s a respectable English gentleman, educated, industrious, with a great destiny to achieve.  To each according to his needs and all that, don’t you know.

So as with a funhouse mirror, we’re going to go on viewing Wells’ strangely amoral morality play, Westlake style, played out in a whole new light, with a protagonist who probably couldn’t murder anybody (this being a comic caper), but who could never deceive himself about who he is, or cling to any class delusions, or cherish any revolutionary fever dreams.

And that adamantine sense of self, combined with the love of a good woman, is all he has to anchor himself against a sea of troubles.  And a slew of enemies.  And we’ll see how he does that in Part 2.  And possibly 3.  We’ll see about that too.  But nobody will ever see Freddie Noon again.  See you next week?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Enough, Part the First–A Travesty

“It’s so hard to keep track of an individual death, isn’t it?” she said.  “There are so many deaths, so many injustices, they all blend together.”

“Well, that depends how closely they affect you.”

She smiled; she had bad teeth.  “That’s right,” she said.  “It isn’t morality at all, it’s personal convenience, personal emotions.  None of us really care how many strangers get killed.”

Well, if you’re going to a cocktail party you have to expect cocktail party conversations.  I said, “Naturally, it affects you more if it happens to somebody you know.”  And even as I was saying it, I knew I was giving this girl an irresistible opportunity to quote John Donne.

Which she took.  I received the tolling of the bell with my best glazed smile, and she said, “But the point really is morality, isn’t it?  People are liberal or conservative these days, they believe in women’s rights or property rights or whatever, some of them are even still ethical, but nobody’s actually moral any more.  Nobody hates sin.”  Then she nodded, looking amused at herself, and said, “See?  People smile if you even use the word sin.”

Was I smiling?  Yes, I was.  Wiping it off, I tried another catch phrase: “The only sin is getting caught.”

Nobody knew what to make of this book when it came out, and to the extent anyone remembers it, they still don’t.  It isn’t a novel.   It isn’t an anthology of previously published material; short stories, essays, whatever–it contains two stories, neither of which had ever seen the light of day before.   A farcical novella about a critic/murderer who turns detective (while still committing murders), followed by a longish short story about a sailor who finds out his ex-wife is a movie star, goes to see her, then goes back to being a sailor.   They’re both written in the first person by Donald E. Westlake, and that’s about all they have in common, aside from being in the same book.  Or so it seems, anyway.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ still writing his pseudonymous crime fiction column for the New York Times that he inherited from Anthony Boucher, was baffled.  He liked the first story a lot–it was what he and most people expected from Westlake–a funny mystery.  But the second story, which he admitted was well-written, had no murder mystery in it (well, no dead body, put it that way), no heists, no illegal activity of any kind.  It’s not crime fiction by any accepted definition.  “What it is doing in this book is anybody’s guess” he wrote.  Well, we’re anybody, so let’s guess.

Westlake’s work for M. Evans & Co. was eclectic, to say the least.  You really never knew what was coming next.   He published ten books with them (not including the western/crime hybrid he co-wrote with Brian Garfield).   Except for the two Dortmunders, no one book much resembled any of the others–but they were all  at least nominally in the genre he was known for,  with the exception of the political thriller Ex Officio, his first book for them, which he published under another name, so nobody got confused by that.

Westlake was producing much less by this time, and the previous year he’d come out with Dancing Aztecs, a sprawling comedy epic, which must have taken longer to write than his usual thing, and had perhaps depleted his energies somewhat.

He’d finished with Parker, Grofield, Tobin–couldn’t really write as Stark or Coe anymore, at least for the time being. He was probably enjoying the novelty of just being one person for a while.  But it was perhaps harder for him to write as much as he used to with only one voice, and the publishing industry still didn’t like putting out too many books by the same author in one year.

He’d just about run out his string with the ‘Nephew’ books–only so many viable variations in that story.   His personal life was more complicated than ever, with two ex-wives, four growing sons, and a new relationship that was heading towards a third and final marriage.   It has to have cut into his writing time at least a bit.

You could say that he simply owed M. Evans a book for that year (1977), so he foisted some odds and ends on them–but he gave them a Dortmunder later that same year.  Hard to believe this was a mere contractual obligation volume–particularly since he published nothing with them in the next two years, only to finish off with one last rather head-scratching heist story set in Europe.

Westlake’s relationships with publishers often seem to have soured towards the end, and he’d head off to the next one.  You get a shift in personnel at the top, a change in priorities, and all of a sudden the rapport isn’t there anymore.  Or maybe his agent got him into another bidding war.  He’d had an amazing run there, but it was winding down, along with the 70’s.  The 80’s would be–problematic.  But we’ll get there.

The title itself is odd–Enough what?   The first story isn’t really long enough for a hardcover mystery, so maybe the second is just to pad things out, so the book buyer would feel it was worth the $7.95 pricetag.  I love the cartoon-strip artwork on the cover of the first edition, but it says absolutely nothing about the contents.

None of the covers ever managed to address both stories, which demonstrates an underlying problem of the book.  How many people looking for a nice little comic crime novel really want to stick around for a somber, poignant, and impossible-to-pigeonhole story about a sailor and his starlet ex?

The dedication reads “For Avram Avakian, fondly, this two-reeler.”  Avakian being the guy who made a workmanlike but rather uninspired film from Westlake’s screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which Westlake later turned into an excellent novel.  Westlake felt that Avakian was a brilliant film editor who didn’t really have the full skill set to be a successful director.

The opening quote is from Ambrose Bierce (a favorite writer of Westlake’s, which is an interesting coincidence, since I was mildly obsessed with Bierce as a kid, and didn’t know Westlake was similarly afflicted until well after I started reading him)–it’s from The Devil’s Dictionary–“Enough: too much.”  (Or perhaps, two much?)

And then there’s a quote from Thomas DeQuincey  (who I keep meaning to read), specifically geared towards the first story, which basically says if a man commits murder, this may lead to worse sins, like bad manners.

Allow me to theorize (like anyone can stop me).  He normally gave M. Evans two books a year–maybe they didn’t insist on it, but he wasn’t getting paid for books he didn’t produce.  Dancing Aztecs had, of necessity, been his sole contribution for ’76.  He had a Dortmunder for ’77, but he needed something else.

He had an idea for a mystery novel, but it wasn’t ‘enough’ for a full-length book.  And at some point in time–maybe recently, maybe years before–he’d turned out a short story, that he liked, but couldn’t find a buyer for, because it wasn’t what people expected from him, and it was too long for a magazine.  He talked M. Evans into publishing them both in the same volume.   That way with the Dortmunder published shortly afterwards he’d have two books for ’77–not much, for him–but enough.  And then he published no books at all for over two years.  Well, I didn’t say it would be a flawless theory.

We can’t discount the possibility that Westlake did think there was a link between these two stories, different as they are.  That one served as counterpoint to the other, and of course they’re both about identity, because that’s what he writes about.  Probably a few years earlier, he’d have published the second story under a pseudonym, but he was fresh out of pseudonyms.  Maybe he wanted to remind people yet again that Westlake wasn’t just the comic caper guy.

And maybe I’ve speculated long enough about Enough.   I debated about whether to review the two stories in it together or separately, and mainly decided on the latter because in subsequent editions they were often published separately, particularly overseas.

The second story actually got a film adaptation, many years later, in France–which must have come as a surprise to Mr. Westlake.  It would have come as a surprise to ‘Newgate Callendar’ as well, but he’d died the year before.  Really no surprise a part-time mystery reviewer and full-time music critic liked the first story better–the protagonist is, after all, a critic who solves mysteries, while bedding luscious ladies, and outsmarting (and cuckolding) befuddled homicide detectives.   Seriously, show me a critic who’ll give that story a bad review.

Carey Thorpe is another of Westlake’s unapologetic cads–in many ways reminiscent of Art Dodge in Two Much.  But he has a somewhat more conventional profession–he’s a film critic, moderately successful, who writes semi-scholarly articles for various obscure film journals, as well as reviewing recent releases for a small Manhattan weekly called The Kips Bay Voice (for those who are not Gothamites, Kips Bay is a neighborhood on the east side of Manhattan, just below 34th, and since the British used it to land their invading forces during the Revolutionary War, has never been known for much of anything other than absurdly high rents).

As we meet him, he is standing over the dead body of one of his two girlfriends, Laura Penney.   They had quarreled, and he hit her, and she hit her head on her own coffee table, and is no more among the living.  If this were the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham writing this, he’d say the manner of her passing was almost like a cliche, but this is a murder mystery novel, let’s remember.

Thing is, nobody knew he and Laura were sexually intimate–they were seen at various social events, screenings and such, but because he has a somewhat more serious girlfriend, Kit Markowitz, and he wanted to date both of them at once without either of them knowing, he’s created the illusion that when he’s seen with the other it’s only for the purposes of having somebody on his arm at the aforementioned social events.  The quarrel that led to Laura’s death was a byproduct of this deception.

Carey, who is separated from his wife Shirley (only an offstage character in this play), doesn’t sound to be all that much of a hunk, but he’s clever and charming enough to talk his way into bed with any number of desirable females, though talking his way out again is a more challenging proposition, as many a rake has learned.

He’s been under a lot of stress from work and multiple bedmates and insufficient funds and an estranged wife who wants his head on a platter (which ties neatly into the insufficient funds thing), and he’s been taking a lot of valium, which allows him a somewhat more abstracted view of his increasingly dire situation (maybe a bit too abstracted).

But even when he’s not popping pills, he’s never going to be the soul of compassion.  His main agenda here is going to be to make sure he doesn’t take the rap for Laura’s death, so he tidies up the crime scene a bit, and makes his exit.   When two police detectives greet him at Laura’s apartment (he’s keeping the date he knows she put in her appointment book, because it would look suspicious if he didn’t), and inform him of her demise, he is suitably horrified–and rather surprised to find that as the investigation proceeds, neither of them seriously suspects him.  They’re nothing like the police detectives in the movies he reviews.

Carey thinks of everything in terms of movies–when somebody buzzes him into Laura’s apartment, and just for a moment he thinks she’s alive, he starts envisioning Gene Tierney.  The first detective, named Bray, reminds him of Dana Andrews–he wonders if that makes him Clifton Webb.   The second detective, Fred Staples, doesn’t remind him of anybody, but he, surprisingly, is a fan of Carey’s reviews in the Kip’s Bay Voice.    He says his wife loves them too.  This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

For a short book, this one has a lot of plot twists, and I don’t have the patience to cover them all.   I’ll list a few–there’s a blackmailing private detective (working for a company called Tobin-Global, and let me just say, this book makes me miss Tucker Coe very badly), who was tailing Carey on behalf of his wife, and wants ten grand to keep quiet.   Carey liquidates every asset he has, then actually robs a bank to get most of the rest–then realizing the detective has set himself up as an ideal suspect that Carey could finger in turn, makes him give the money back.

As if things weren’t complicated enough already, Carey is rather effortlessly seduced by Fred Staples’ outwardly placid and domestic blonde wife Patricia, while Carey is screening Gaslight for her (Gaslight becomes their code word for sex).   Contrary to his first impressions, she turns out to be a total narcissist, and a really incredible lay.   He knows this is a bad idea, screwing the wife of a detective investigating a murder he himself committed, but he just can’t seem to stop acting on bad ideas.

In the meantime, the private detective (who reminds Carey of Martin Balsalm in Psycho), unwilling to play the patsy, refuses to go away quietly, and you know that recurring line from the Parker novels about how you shouldn’t make murder the answer to everything?   Seems like Carey never read any Parker novels, and that line never made it into any of the movie versions.   And private detectives rarely come off well in Donald Westlake novels.

So is that the end of his problems?   Alas, no. Because the detectives suspect his favorite girlfriend, Kit Markowitz, of murdering Laura in a fit of jealous rage.  She doesn’t have an alibi, and once they question her, the indignant Kit decides to play girl detective–she even throws a party (with Carey’s help) where she invites all the potential suspects.

That’s where the little exchange up top occurs, Carey talking to a woman who showed up with two gay male friends–who just got married in San Francisco–interesting little bit of social data there, we tend to forget that gay marriage was going on for decades, with varying degrees of legality, long before it became a major national issue.   The dialogue rather reminded me of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which only goes to show that Carey is not the only one out there who is constantly making connections with movies.

God is a luxury Carey can’t afford either, not that he ever brings up religion.  Unfortunately for Kit, she turns out to be a pretty good detective after all, and she figures out who the killer is–and rather inexplicably, chooses to tell him that in private.

Now this is a major problem with the story.   Are we supposed to believe the otherwise bright and perceptive Kit is so engrossed in her role as detective that she thinks Carey will simply turn himself in, or the police will break in just in the nick of time–or that she’ll have a hold on him, to keep him from straying in future?  None of the above happens, and he feels just terrible about what he does next, but in for a dime…..

So this is all entertaining enough, but frankly it’s rather sub-par Westlake, full of characters that are intentionally tissue-paper thin (this is a farce, after all, but Westlake doesn’t normally use that as an excuse for poor characterization).   And yet for all that, it’s still worth reading, and it’s worth asking why.

The central gimmick, what sets the story apart, is that in the midst of trying to avoid being identified as the murderer, and committing two further murders (and a minor bank heist) towards that end, Carey finds out he’s a far better detective than he ever was a film critic.

Fred Staples is just delighted to pal around with (as he sees it) a celebrity, and Carey wants to keep an eye on him and his partner to make sure they don’t get the right idea about him.  So he accompanies them on another case, and he just happens to solve it–in that way that fictional detectives in bad mystery stories so often do.  Just spots something the professionals missed.

It’s not something he particularly wanted to happen, it’s not something he ever aspired to do.  He just wants to attend film screenings, write articles, go to bed with pretty girls, and live a generally shallow meaningless pleasure-filled existence, like any civilized man who reads Esquire.

But having done it once, to Fred’s awestruck delight, Carey finds himself in demand as a consulting detective.  And over and over, he spots that one little clue that cracks the case.  He has a gift for both committing murders and solving them.  Go figure.

Now if he actually wanted this to happen, it would be impossibly contrived and far-fetched (like most detective novels), but because it’s just something Carey finds himself doing reflexively, more or less because it’s so damned obvious to him that he can’t keep from speaking up, and because, after all, it’s what detectives are always doing in the movies, you sort of let him slide, because you want to see how far Westlake can stretch this gag out.  And he can stretch it pretty damn far.

First he solves the mytery of a murdered director, shot while he was screening his own film.   Turns out the killer was an aspiring screenwriter whose work was used without attribution.   He immediately confesses, as fingered killers so often do in mystery stories, because trials are so messy and time-consuming for dramatic purposes.

There’s this leitmotif of otherwise sensible people behaving like cheap genre cliches, when they really ought to know better, because they, like Carey, think that’s how you’re supposed to behave in this type of situation–the movies have programmed them.  Life imitating bad art, badly.

Then there’s another murder, this one a gay travel writer murdered by a lover–Carey realizes the man put a coded message into what he was writing at his desk when he realized he was in danger.   See, the murdered copy-writer refers to Antigua as being right next to St. Martin.  They check a map.

When he removed his finger, I bent to read the lettering: “Anguilla.”

“Anguilla, Antigua.” Staples shrugged, saying, “He was upset from the argument, that’s all, he just got mixed up.”

“Does that make sense?”  I studied Ailburg’s writing again, shaking my head.  “No, it doesn’t.”  This was his job, he knew what island was where.  And look how he broke that sentence, starting a new line after the word ‘charming.’  It looks awkward.”

Staples said, “I don’t see what you’re driving at.”

Only because you’ve never read Under An English Heaven, officer.

Then there’s a seeming suicide that Carey realizes was a murder (see if you can spot the clue), but he decides not to finger the killer for personal reasons (this one’s a bit of a reference to The Sincerest Form of Flattery, a Westlake short story that appeared in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution).

And finally, a classic locked door mystery at the consulate for some tiny obscure nonexistent Eastern European nation, and I have to confess, Westlake plays fair with all these mysteries, puts in enough information for the reader to solve them all, and I didn’t solve any of them–even on the second reading.   Well, I remembered whodunnit, but I didn’t remember how Carey figured it out.

(All the chapters in this book have mystery novel titles, even when they don’t have an actual mystery in them–The Adventure of the Missing R–The Problem of the Copywriter’s Island–The Chainlock Mystery–The Death of the Party–see if you can guess which of these features Carey solving a murder mystery, and which is just him dealing with the complications attendant to his own personal murders).

So Carey’s rather enjoying being the criminal sociopath’s answer to Ellery Queen, but he’s gotten so wrapped up in playing detective/murderer that he misses the obvious denouement.  Fred finds out Carey’s been diddling the missus.  So he frames Carey with planted evidence.  For murders Carey actually committed.

Fred does not know, nor will he ever, that Carey actually is the murderer–nor does he care who actually did the killings.  He thinks he’s just being petty.   Being framed for something you actually did is an old obsession with Westlake, ever since The Affair of the Purloined Microscope (see The Getaway Car).  It’s just so–unprofessional.   Detectives should care about their craft.  Carey rubs it in just how much better a detective he is, by pointing out an obvious (to him) clue in that one case he’d decided not to solve–something Fred missed entirely.  Fred is most admiring of Carey’s sagacity, but what’s that got to do with the fact that the man had sex with his wife?

So Carey is in Fred’s car, going to the inevitable Station House, knowing that he’s going to prison, because the only way he can prove he was framed is to admit his actual guilt.  He’ll have to plead guilty, get the lightest sentence possible, and hope to rejoin the civilized world someday.  And there’s every indication in the book that he will do that, and he might be a more successful film critic than ever–notoriety will bring him a wider readership.  But it’s still so unfair.  All he did was kill three people, and he didn’t mean to kill the first one, and the other two were just–loose ends.  He’s guilty, but he’s not the least bit guilt-ridden. He’s only sorry he committed the sin of getting caught.

Westlake was experimenting with a very detached yet whimsical tone in this novel, and it doesn’t entirely work.  And it doesn’t entirely fail.   It’s one of those middling efforts, cleverly worked out, fun to read, and easily forgotten.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the very detailed knowledge of film that Westlake reveals–he probably could have been a fairly successful film critic, but I have this feeling he wouldn’t have been a very enthusiastic one.   He can’t really make Carey live and breathe the way his best characters do, because he can’t identify with somebody who’d spend his life writing about movies–even writing smutty greeting cards would be more creative, because they’d at least be your smutty jokes.  Movies are fun and all, but are they worth all that analysis?   Is anything?   (Yes, I do seriously wonder what he’d have thought about this blog).

In his capsule review of this same story, Ethan Iverson quoted a passage I surely would have used myself if he hadn’t beaten me to it–it’s an interview Carey does with some aging Hollywood director, one of those guys who made a bunch of classic films and never wrote the scripts for any of them, but he still gets the credit, and the money, and a gorgeous young thing to keep him warm in his declining years, because that’s how it works in Hollywood.

And it really sums up that mixture of affection and disdain Westlake always had towards the movies–how well a good filmmaker can tell a story, and how helpless he is without a good script, and yet look who gets all the worship and acclaim in that business.   How can you say it’s your work when so many other people contributed?   And how could somebody who has decided to just live in the reflected glow of that unreal medium ever know himself?  Carey Thorpe got caught up in unreality, captured by it, and was ultimately undone by it.  And yet it really doesn’t matter, because there doesn’t seem to have been much of a person there to start with.   That’s the weakness of the book.

I think Westlake might have been influenced in the writing of this one by Charles Willeford’s The Burnt Orange Heresy, which is about an art critic, and which is roughly ten times the novel this is (and Westlake would have agreed).   Willeford wrote a lot less than Westlake, and he had to make his shots count more.  Westlake, having so much more ammo, could afford a few misses.

But while it’s not the kind of story we remember him for, the second part of this two-part tome was by no means a miss.   It’s a palpable hit, and ‘Newgate Callendar’ should have seen that, but let’s just say Westlake had a point about critics.  Yes, me too.  It’s a fair cop, Mr. Westlake.  But being a mere amateur, typing all this nonsense for absolutely no monetary compensation at all, I can always plead insanity.  I’ll be out in two years, tops.

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Filed under A Travesty, comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, Enough, Uncategorized

Review: The Hot Rock, Part 2

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An ideally good gag, perfectly constructed and played, would bring the victim up this ladder of laughs by cruelly controlled degrees to the top rung, and would then proceed to wobble, shake, wave and brandish the ladder until he groaned for mercy. Then, after the shortest possible time out for recuperation, he would feel the first wicked tickling of the comedian’s whip once more and start up a new ladder.

From Comedy’s Greatest Era, by James Agee

“Nice doggy,” Dortmunder said.

The German Shepherd wasn’t buying any.  He stood in front of the stoop, head down, eyes up, jaws slightly open to show his pointy teeth, and said “Rrrrrr,” softly in his throat every time Dortmunder made a move to come down off the porch.  The message was clear.  The damn dog was going to hold him here until somebody in authority came home.

“Look, doggy,” Dortmunder said, trying to be reasonable, “all I did was ring the bell.  I didn’t break in, I didn’t steal anything.  I just rang the bell.  But nobody’s home, so now I want to go to some other house and ring the bell.”

“Rrrrrr,” said the dog.

Dortmunder pointed to his attaché case.  “I’m a salesman, doggy,” he said.  I sell encyclopedias.  Books.  Big books.  Doggy?  Do you know from books?”

The dog didn’t say anything.  He just kept watching.

“All right now, dog,” Dortmunder said, being very stern.  “Enough is enough.  I have places to go, I don’t have the time to fool around with you.  I’ve got to make my rent money.  Now, I’m leaving here and that’s all there is—” He took a firm step forward.

“Rrrrrrrr!” said the dog.

Dortmunder took a quick step back.  God damn it, dog!” he cried.  “This is ridiculous!”

The dog didn’t think so.  He was one of those by-the-book dogs.  Rules were rules, and Dortmunder didn’t rate any special favors.

From The Hot Rock, by Donald E. Westlake

In many ways, The Hot Rock reads like a Richard Stark novel.  Which isn’t surprising, given that it started out as one.  I’ve said several times already that the first two Grofield novels feel like Westlake ghost-wrote them for Stark–I would not go so far as to say Stark ghost-wrote this book for Westlake (nor do I really think Westlake was the literary equivalent of Sybil Dorsett, though he and his third wife both made jokes to that effect).

No, this is decidedly a Westlake, but one with a distinctly Stark-ian flavor and cadence–a hybrid approach that succeeds on many levels.   The prose is simpler, the dialogue more terse, the narrator much less inclined to extemporize.  Westlake hadn’t written much in the third person under his own name by this point.   He’d only written one heist book under his own name before now, and he knew that book had not been one of his crowning glories.  It’s not surprising he’d fall back on what he’d learned writing the Parker novels–for what is, in essence, an informal send-up of those books.

But not a true parody–not an attempt to mock the seriousness of Stark (the third Dortmunder came close to being a Stark parody, but we’ll worry about that when we get there).  Rather an attempt to loosen up, have fun with the same subject matter–the playful passage I quote up above is not something Stark would have written under any circumstances.  Stark wouldn’t see the humor in that situation with the dog at all.  Westlake sees the humor in just about everything.  This is the primary point of difference between them.

Stark would never put Parker in that situation–if Parker was confronted by a dog, the dog would end up dead (and Parker would not be peddling encyclopedias door to door).  Dortmunder yearns futilely for a club to beat the dog senseless with, but we know he’s never going to do that. When it comes right down to it, Dortmunder’s never going to hurt anybody–over 14 novels, he periodically threatens physical violence, and never follows through–he’s in one fist-fight that I can recall–from a much later book–and loses it.   Oh, and he hits Kelp now and again, but you can hardly blame him.

He’s not afraid to fight, if he’s got to–he certainly knows how–but violence isn’t really his thing–it’s there gathering dust at the bottom of his toolkit, often referred to, rarely employed.   A wolf in human form like Parker may relish a bit of close combat on occasion.  A coyote in human form like Dortmunder knows the better part of valor.

And this is something we love about Dortmunder.   He’s every bit as no-nonsense as Parker, but he’s so much less dire.  So much more like us, little as he’d like to hear it.  He doesn’t see the humor in his situation at all; he resists being made the constant butt of cosmic jokes, but in the main he simply rails against his misfortunes, indignantly complains about them to whomever might listen (even a dog)–in a word we shall ever be indebted to the Yiddish language for, he kvetches.  And that gives us license to laugh, not so much at him as at the absurdity of existence, and the perversity of fate.  At ourselves, really.

Stark did put Grofield in a situation where he was confronted by a menacing German Shepherd (on a leash), who looked longingly at his throat–in The Dame.  Grofield conversationally remarks “Hello, Fido”, similar to Dortmunder–if a bit more ironical.

But where Parker would have had to fight the dog, and Dortmunder simply stands there looking frustrated, Grofield avoids the conflict, walks right past it–the situation (which like the other two, stems from Westlake’s own obvious dread of canine-kind) goes unexploited, because the character is not sufficiently well-defined.  Grofield is an intriguing protagonist, but not really a compelling one.   He never quite did take on a life of his own.   Westlake has to tell him what to do–but a great character–a Parker, a Tobin, a Dortmunder–tells his or her author what to do.  Much simpler that way, no?

And who ends up rescuing Dortmunder from the jaws of the slavering beast?  His own fictional dimension’s equivalent of Grofield, Alan Greenwood, who will have taken the name Grofield by the end of the story.  He just tells the dog to sit, and the dog obeys.  Dortmunder would have never thought of that.  Westlake once again referring to other books of his he has no reason to assume his readers are familiar with–simply to amuse himself.   But you don’t need to have read The Dame to be amused.  Like all good in-jokes, it’s thrown in for lagniappe.

The best jokes in this book are not private ones.   Westlake has gotten the range now–he’s figured out how to be funny.   He’s not just stringing isolated gags together anymore–like the great silent comedians William Agee wrote about in the famous essay I quoted from up top, he’s going to build a framework of laughs, a precarious geometric structure of hilarity, each new gag proceeding from the previous with inexorable logic, a sort of absurdist chain reaction, where he’ll enticingly dangle the bait in front of his characters, then jerk it out of their reach, over and over.

He wants to test their mettle–their professionalism, their camaraderie–but also their capacity to absorb punishment–to gaze sadly at us, like Oliver Hardy after an especially humiliating setback, and silently ask “Was this really called for?”  Then try try again.

One problem I’m going to have with the Dortmunders is that I may not always want to discuss their plots as thoroughly as I do the Parker books.  For one thing, to thoroughly explain a joke notoriously kills it.  For another, they’re generally much longer and more involved than the Parkers.  But it’s hardly a spoiler, 45 years after the book came out, to say, like the cover of that British reprint you see above, that it’s about a gang of thieves stealing the same thing over and over again.

Only that’s not quite accurate, is it?   They steal it once, and lose it before they even get out of the building.  Then they have to steal the guy who knows where it is.  Then they go where he says it is and find somebody else stole it first.  Then they have to steal that guy, and make him say where it is.   Then they finally steal it for real, only in a way no real thief ever stole anything.  Then they have to steal it again–so they can give it back to the people they originally stole it from.   That’s the book.   Contrived, yet simple–and so ingenious, no summary can ever do it justice.  You have to experience it–and I can say now with authority that the story–and the laughs–hold up to repeated readings.  Much better than Westlake’s earlier comic novels did.

The problem is never Dortmunder’s plans, all of which work to perfection.  One could argue Dortmunder is actually a better planner of heists than Parker, at least in this book.  But when things go wrong, he doesn’t seem to know how to adapt, improvise, tweak.  He’s not so good under pressure as Parker–not a great troubleshooter, which is Parker’s other talent.  When Dortmunder’s plans fall apart, he has to go back to the drawing board and start over again from scratch.  He plans, God laughs.  Oh God, how God laughs.

Dortmunder is not much of a self-starter–as a general rule, his big jobs are usually somebody else’s idea.  Also true of Parker, to be sure.   And frequently true of Donald Westlake, when you think about it.  How many of his books were originally pitched to him by someone else?  I’ll have to do a count sometime.  It’s quite a few.   Really, all the Parker novels but the first were technically Bucklin Moon’s idea.  Creativity is not such a solo venture as people often imagine.   We all bounce ideas off each other–hell, I’m only doing this blog because Nick Jones of Existential Ennui told me to, mainly so I’d stop clogging up his blog with my endless responses to him.  Hi Nick! (waves).

Dortmunder’s #1 fan, partner-in-crime, agent, life coach, and general pain in the neck is Andy Kelp, and as I think I mentioned before, I am moved to wonder who Westlake modeled him after.  He’s never very well described in this book, and his descriptions in the later entries are generally quite vague.  And yet he feels very real and vivid–almost as if Westlake has a very specific person in mind, but doesn’t want anyone to know who it is.  Well, possibly a composite.   But I bet it was a fellow writer.  Unless the character is simply a summation of mannerisms Westlake found in himself that irritated his core personality–come to think of it, he’s the only member of the string who drinks bourbon, other than Dortmunder.

One could say Kelp is to Dortmunder as Sancho Panza is to Don Quixote, but I’m not sure it isn’t the other way around.  Far from being dragged along on yet another absurd quest, Kelp is constantly exhorting his goodly knight to joust at yet another windmill, and Dortmunder keeps resisting–never successfully, but he keeps trying.  Kelp is nothing if not persuasive, and he knows a secret–Dortmunder wants to be persuaded–he needs to practice his avocation.  He can’t exist without work, and there’s only one kind of work he knows how to do.  But left to his own devices, he mainly goes out on his own to rob small appliance or jewelry stores.  Without Kelp, his heists would be rather desultory affairs.

In this book, having originally left prison vowing to the warden that he was a reformed man, knowing all the while he was going to go right back to his old ways, he gives up in mid-book–he’s had enough.   He tells his breathlessly delighted parole officer that he’s not going to associate with his felonious former friends anymore–he doesn’t tell the poor naive fellow that his idea of reform is to run short cons on householders, selling them nonexistent encyclopedias.   To him, that doesn’t even count as stealing.   A master of the mental reservation, is Dortmunder–you can tell he was raised a good Catholic boy.

Kelp knows better–Dortmunder can’t give up stealing–he just has to keep pitching, and Dortmunder will come back to the fold.  He really is Dortmunder’s alter-ego–the eternal cock-eyed optimist to Dortmunder’s confirmed pessimist.  The tech-crazy early-adopter to Dortmunder’s old school conservative, who despises change of any kind.   He’s a better thief than Dortmunder in most respects, nerveless as a sponge, slippery as an eel–but he lacks the one thing Dortmunder has–imagination.

Dortmunder can visualize a way to get at the goods, whatever the goods may be–Kelp lacks this talent.  And he knows it, cheerfully cops to it, and thus must continue to attach himself to Dortmunder, like a remora to a shark, keeping him company on his endless swim.  Whether the shark wants the remora’s company is entirely beside the point, of course.   It’s you and me to the end, pal.   Hey, any beer in the fridge?   Ya gotta love the guy.   But you can also understand why Dortmunder really doesn’t, most of the time.

In the same profession, living basically the same life, they perpetually misunderstand each other, which bothers Dortmunder quite a bit, and Kelp not at all–there in his dingy hotel room, Dortmunder tries to explain that he really is going straight, and his parole officer told him to stay away from criminal types, and this is the result–

“You don’t need me,” Dortmunder said.  “Besides, I been warned away from bad companions, and that means you bunch.”

Kelp waved his hands in negation. “That horoscope stuff doesn’t mean a thing,” he said.  “I got hooked on that stuff once, my second wife was a nut for all that.  The only fall I ever took, I did what the horoscope told me.”

Dortmunder frowned at him.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Horoscope,” Kelp explained.  He moved his hands like a man shuffling jigsaw puzzle pieces. “Bad companions,” he said.  “Tall dark trips.  Afternoon is good for business marriages.  All that stuff.”

Dortmunder squinted, trying to see Kelp clearly enough to understand him.  Finally he said, in some doubt.  “You mean horoscope?”

“Sure,” Kelp said.  “Naturally.”

Dortmunder shook his head, still trying to understand.  “You believe in horoscopes?”

“No,” said Kelp.  “You do.”

Dortmunder thought about that for a few seconds, then nodded heavily and said to the room at large, “I hope you guys’ll be very happy here.  I’ll let you know where to send my stuff.”  He turned and headed for the door.

So what gets him back on the job?  Well, this funniest of fictional thieves just can’t stand being laughed at.  Now, I’ve taken such an ass-backwards approach to talking about this book (plus I know most of you reading this already know the plot by heart), I haven’t even explained that this job is basically work-for-hire (which is obviously one big reason why it keeps going sour, since this is a Donald Westlake book).

Major Iko of the small fictional African country of Talabwo (the Westlake Atlas continues to grow) wants Dortmunder to steal the famed Balabomo Emerald from its current owners, the equally fictitious country of Akinzi (Dortmunder thinks that’s the guy who wrote the sex book that he could never get out of the prison library).  The Major promises to pay each member of the string thirty thousand dollars upon delivery of the emerald.  Dortmunder insists he pay living and work-related expenses as well.  He’s driving a shrewd bargain, but failing to grasp that Iko may not feel like he has to honor an agreement made with thieves.

The Major is quite a good character in his own right–increasingly befuddled by these strange men he’s hired, increasingly appalled by each new list they present to him, of needed items for the next heist–each successive job is a bit more complex, a bit more absurd–but he’s got to go along with it, because he’s hooked.   He’s set out to get something very valuable for as little money as possible, but like so many people who hire outside contractors have learned, in for a penny, in for a pound.  He’s like the villagers in the famous story of the Stone Soup, only the stone is an emerald, and he ends up in the soup himself.

When Westlake told a different version of this same story in The Black Ice Score, the Africans were treated very sympathetically, and the story ended up being about colonialism and African politics.   This is a Dortmunder story, taking place in a much less grim reality, and the Major’s race and nationality are not really important.  We’re all just God’s clowns, right?   The Major’s ultimate fate is probably not going to be a happy one, but mortality is rarely witnessed in the pages of a Dortmunder book.  The primary casualty is usually pride.

So anyway, back to my point–Dortmunder knows he’s being made fun of–he can’t always figure out by whom.  The author of his misfortunes is safely out of his reach (lucky for the author).  But give him a target for his righteous indignation, and that target is in trouble.  First a shyster lawyer named Prosker makes the mistake of openly laughing at him–then the Major gives him the finger.

Dortmunder may be something of a coward at times–it’s a wise man’s failing–but when sufficiently humiliated, his fear is quickly drowned out by a burning need for retribution, and his full resourcefulness is brought into play.  In his own way, he is as implacable a foe as Parker.  It just takes a lot more effort to get him motivated.   That’s one reason his books are usually longer.

The final chapter ends with another African dignitary (the only person in the book with any dignity left, if only because he was smart enough to come in at the very end) saying to Dortmunder “I must make a memo to myself never to try to cheat you.”  And that’s always good advice, when you’re dealing with Dortmunder.   He is a clown, yes–but he’s not your clown.  God can make a fool of him–God’s name being Westlake–but no one else.  He won’t have it.  And the truth is, we don’t begrudge him a bit of his pride–because we’ve had to swallow ours so many times, and we know just how he feels.

We’ve all been made fools of by the higher-ups, the suits, the bosses, the money men.  It’s happening right now, and it will go on happening.  It’s like we’re the Beagle Boys, and they’re Scrooge McDuck, and they always get their money back–with interest.   They steal from us, and we go back to jail, or back to work, same difference (hey, it’s my blog, and I’m entitled to the odd bit of ranting).  And of course if I’m reading a Carl Barks classic, I’m Uncle Scrooge, swimming around in my personal money bin, so that’s all fine and dandy.  But then I put down the comic book, and guess what–I’m Dortmunder.   We all are.  We always will be.

But does that mean we have to take things lying down?   Not on your life.   We’re not rich, we’re probably not even good-looking, but we can be smart.  We can fight back.  We can find weak spots in their armor–we can turn their arrogance against them–we can win temporary but oh-so-satisfying victories–and we can have fun along the way.

Much as he may enjoy teasing them, Westlake loves this motley gang of crooks.  You know he does, because he goes out of his way to treat them along the way.  Stan Murch gets to pilot a helicopter over New York City (without ever having flown one before!).  Chefwick, the model train nut, gets to be the engineer inside a life-size model train (a replica of the famous Tom Thumb, no less).   And where do they end up at the end of the tracks–in a looney bin–which one might argue is where they all belong, and so do the rest of us reading this joyous nonsense.

Yeah, they’re a team of losers–but they’re each and every one of them a character–an individual.   Life can thwart them, mock them, but it can never break them down.    In a world that seems determined to reduce and every one of us to a set of vital statistics–like the Major’s beloved dossiers–the Dortmunder gang keeps busting out.   And they take us with them.  And for that, we’ll never be able to thank them enough.

And there’s more gang members coming.  This is just the start of a long bumpy ride.   Not all the books will end this triumphantly.  Dortmunder will endure many far worse humiliations–and this guy who seems to want more than anything to be left alone will end up at the center of a sort of bizarre ersatz family, that makes even the Addams’ look normal by comparison.   And maybe he likes that more than he lets on, but he’ll never ever let on.  You wouldn’t really want him to.

Having read all the books, I think this is the funniest of the bunch in some ways.   Arguably, Westlake never again came up with quite as clever a comic extravaganza again, never did quite as good a job building the gag.   That’s neither here nor there, because all things considered, there are better books coming–the cast of characters expands, and the quirks of each individual character are elaborated upon.   The humor becomes more refined, better defined–and the truth is the books don’t even have to be that good for us to enjoy them–we’re just so glad to be back with these people again.  We’ll take them on any terms offered.

Not all the Dortmunders are classics–but the best of them surely are, and I wouldn’t personally part with a single one.  There are 14 of them, and a scattering of short stories, and I only wish there was some way Westlake could have cloned himself, and put one of the clones in charge of doing nothing but writing Dortmunder stories.

But there was only ever one Donald E. Westlake. And he had other things to write about.   Different kinds of jokes to make.  The kinds of jokes that might  make you cry as much as laugh.  Like suppose a guy wanted to be a writer, but the only writing he was allowed to do was smut.  And each and every chapter had to be 5,000 words long.  And he couldn’t even use his own name.  And his life–his very soul–is getting swallowed up by the work he’s doing.

Dortmunder got off lucky by comparison–and he got a movie–actually a bunch of them–but only one worth reviewing.  Which I’ll review next week.  And then it’s off to the porn pits we go.  Heigh-ho, heigh-ho.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Hot Rock

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One day in 1967 I was wearing my Richard Stark hat, looking for a story to tell about my man Parker, and I thought, he reacts badly to frustration, what if he had to steal the same thing four or five times?  I started to work it out, then realized the idea was only comic and Parker wouldn’t stand for it.  But I still liked the notion, and even–once it was comic–saw how to make it six thefts of the same elusive item.  So I’d do it that way.

But if it wasn’t Parker, who was it?  Who was this guy, dogged but doomed, and what was his name?  Without a name, I couldn’t see him, and until I could see him, I couldn’t write about him.

For a long time I just couldn’t think of the right name, and then one day, I was in a bar–the only time in my life–and one of the neon beer logos on the back-bar said “DAB–Dortmunder Action Bier,” and I said, “That’s what I want, an action hero with something wrong with him,” and John Dortmunder was born.

Donald Westlake, from his introduction to the Mysterious Books reprint of The Hot Rock.

Oh, I dream about being Bugs Bunny, but when I wake up, I’m Daffy Duck.

Chuck Jones

It’s 1970.  For ten years now, Donald Westlake has been writing and publishing crime novels–almost thirty in ten years.  He started out publishing some pretty dark and bloody work in that genre, under his own name, but early on he began to distill two very different voices out of this approach, which he published under pseudonyms–the spare unemotional Richard Stark, and the confessional guilt-ridden Tucker Coe.   If you’re out to read Westlake’s best work of the 1960’s, you’re mainly reading books bearing those two names.

But about halfway through the decade, he stumbled upon a third voice–the comic voice–which turned out to be his most successful in terms of book sales, and ended up being the only voice he employed under his own name for quite some time to come.   In the 60’s he mainly wrote these comic crime novels in the first person, and the Coe books as well–while Stark played it closer to the vest in the third person.

His only comic novel written in the third person to this point had been The Busy Body, a frenetic farce about a luckless criminal trying desperately to outmaneuver the slings and arrows of his own outrageous fortune, and complaining loudly about it all the way through (Who Stole Sassi Manoon? is also in the third person, but he’d originally written it in screenplay form, and that book is terrible).

As Stark, he had mainly written about Parker, who was known to laugh occasionally, but never at himself.   As an attempt at counterpoint, perhaps, he wrote several novels about Parker’s partner in crime, Alan Grofield, who kept up a never-ending patter of sardonic commentary, rather like Groucho Marx (or if you prefer, Spider-man), partly as a way of keeping people off-balance.  Like the kvetchy protagonist of The Busy Body, Grofield had a tendency to be a mite aggrieved with his own often-uncertain fate, but took a more positive attitude, overall.

And why shouldn’t he?  He was handsome, talented, successful with women, and usually walked away with a nice bundle of loot.  He was, in short, a bit too cool for school–fun to read about, but never really funny.  Stark, being a romantic, could not let his heroes become comic figures.  His protagonists are too self-possessed to be clowns.  There’s no comedy in a man who knows what he is.

No, comedy comes from identity confusion–which is why Westlake could succeed as a comic writer with his ‘Nephews’–young men caught up in ridiculous and usually life-threatening situations, that ended up teaching them who they were–the comedy of the picaresque, and while Westlake never measured up to the standards of Dickens, Fielding, or Twain in this area, he did pretty well, producing several first-rate books–only the thing about picaresque characters is that once you’ve told their stories, there’s not much more you can do with them.  They don’t really lend themselves to sequels.

The ultimate writer of comic sequels was, of course, P.G. Wodehouse, who did his share of picaresque one-shot protagonists, but also created hugely successful series characters like Bertie Wooster–who were incapable of ever really learning anything about themselves.  Who even in the most absurd scenarios, always took themselves quite seriously–and were all the more hilarious for it. Who never see the humor in their situations, because that’s your job.

And who were, of course, surrounded by a coterie of comic companions, each equally memorable in his or her own right.   For this type of farce, you need a sort of revolving repertory cast, who readers will greet in turn with cries of joyful welcome, anticipating the chuckles and guffaws to come.  Oh, and of course they need to have funny names.   What makes a name funny?  If you could explain it, it wouldn’t be funny.

Self-evidently, The Hot Rock shares a common origin with The Black Ice Score–Westlake had started out writing a story where Parker would steal the same item over and over again, but Parker simply didn’t bend that way (Westlake would later write a study in professional frustration for Parker that succeeded very well, and is not the least bit comic in nature, but we’ll get to that in the fullness of time).  It’s the same basic set-up, African politics and all, but the books could not be much more different from each other.  And not for the last time, the comic heister surpassed his somber cousin.  Or rather, the coyote surpassed the wolf.

Yes, Dortmunder is a coyote in human form.  Well, don’t act so surprised, you must all know by now how much I love this type of metaphor–only I don’t quite see it as that–my meaning is somewhere between the figurative and the literal, as are Parker and Dortmunder themselves.  Dortmunder is more seemingly human than the hard-eyed lupine Parker, his emotional reactions easier to comprehend, if only because we always find it easier to identify with comic foils.   But underneath, he’s looking at the rest of us with this expression that says “You’re all crazy.  I’m the only sane one there is.”  That’s very Parker, and that’s because Dortmunder is the opposite side of the same coin–not the idealized beast of prey, the antihero, but rather the trickster and buffoon.   Latrans, not Lupus.

The first Americans loved to tell stories of Coyote–who might take the form of the actual animal, a normal-looking man, or some hybrid of the two (they saw more clearly than us how thin the line between man and beast was)–and who was always getting himself into trouble.   Always stealing something from the gods, from other beasts, or from men–always another scheme, frequently self-defeating, but ingenious for all that.

And when sufficiently aggravated, Coyote could be quite formidable–he might set himself against the most powerful opponents and come out on top.  Often a figure of fun in the stories about him, Coyote always has the potential to transform himself in moments of high inspiration into The Trickster Incarnate.  And when he does, the gods themselves might do well to fear his wrath.  Reversals of fortune–in either direction–are his stock in trade.  He is a child of luck, bad and good.  And you never know which it’s going to be.

Long before Dortmunder, even before Looney Tunes, the great silent clowns had embodied this mythic type of comedy in modern form–Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, but most of all Keaton.  The Great Stone Face–caught up in the machinery of life, alternately struggling against it and learning to work with it, but never once laughing at his troubles, because IT’S NOT FUNNY.   We beg to differ, but we love him for refusing to see the joke, or at least to dignify it with a rueful grin (Dortmunder would not be quite so facially inflexible, but he came close at points).

And somehow, whenever Buster sees a cop, he ends up sidling nonchalantly away–then trotting–then running–because policemen, and authority figures in general, unerringly identify him as an instigator of chaos, their rightful prey, and set off in hot pursuit.  There’s nothing anybody can do about it.  It’s the natural order of things.

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So not surprising that when we first meet John Dortmunder, he’s just getting out of prison, and suffering through a well-intentioned lecture from the warden, knowing all the while that he’s just going to go back to his thieving ways, because that’s his place in life.   One wonders what he was like beforehand–we know that Stark protagonists can’t bear imprisonment–it eats away at their sense of self, breaks them down.   Dortmunder seems to have survived two long spells of incarceration better than Parker or Grofield would have, but it still must have taken its toll.

One thing that strongly separates Dortmunder from Parker is that we learn a great deal about his background, thanks to one character’s compulsive need to compile dossiers on people he works with.   We not only know his real last name, we even know his middle name (funny, of course).

In terms of facts, Major Iko knew quite a bit about John Archibald Dortmunder.  He knew that Dortmunder was thirty-seven years of age, that he had been born in a small town in central Illinois, that he had grown up in an orphanage, that he had served in the United States Army in Korea during the police action there but had been on the other side of the cops-and-robbers game ever since, and that he had twice been in person for robbery, the second term having ended with a parole just this morning.  He knew that Dortmunder had been arrested several other times in robbery investigations, but that none of these arrests had stuck.  He knew that Dortmunder had never been arrested for any other crime, and that there didn’t even appear to be any rumors concerning any murders, arsons, rapes, or kidnappings that he might have performed.  And he knew that Dortmunder had been married in San Diego in 1952 to a night-club entertainer named Honeybun Bazoom, from whom he had won an uncontested divorce in 1954.

That’s more background data in one paragraph than we got about Parker in 24 novels.   Making the reasonable supposition that the book takes place at the time it was published, his age would put his birth year at around 1933–same year Westlake was born (hmm!).  Parker would have been born maybe 1927-28, and served in WWII in his very early teens, which as I’ve remarked in past is not that hard to believe with regards to that war–there are many documented cases.

Dortmunder would have been just about legal age to join the army when the Korean ‘police action’ began–I guess the orphanage could have given consent for him to sign up at 17?  He was almost certainly drafted, in any event.  Though I guess if he did join of his own volition, that experience could have taught him never to volunteer for anything.   But he keeps right on getting forced to participate in operations he wants no part of, throughout the series.  Early life patterns, once established, can be damnably persistent over time.

I’ll be synopsizing the book in Part 2 (Hey, Parker always gets a Part 2!  Fair is fair!), but will mention now that it’s remarkable to me how many elements of the series as a whole were established right from the start.   Just as he walks out of the prison, Dortmunder meets up with Andy Kelp–his #1 fan, and single biggest headache–and often I’ve wondered who Westlake used as the model for him.  I’m going to guess a fellow writer, and leave it at that–there’s a fair few potential candidates.  Kelp isn’t that well-developed in the first book, but all the basic elements are there, up to and including his penchant for stealing cars with MD plates.

We also meet the stoic barkeep Rollo, of the O.J. Bar and Grill–and how many times have I walked down Amsterdam Avenue in the 80’s, hoping to run across it?  If I won the Lotto (which I never play), I’d be strongly tempted to create it–much further uptown, of course–Harlem maybe, or Washington Heights–it makes sense to me that it would shift location, fleeing an increasingly unsatisfactory clientele.  That section of Amsterdam is all glitzy singles bars now–back in 1970, that was a real blue collar working class nabe, seedy and low-rent.  Westlake couldn’t have known that it would transform itself almost overnight into an overpriced yuppie enclave in the late 70’s (I oughta know, I was living there when it happened).  But as the years passed, the O.J. somehow survived, a timeless relic of the past, as is Dortmunder himself.  A rebel against ‘progress’ at all times, is our John.

We also meet the redoubtable getaway car driver, Stan Murch, and his even more impressive cab driver of a mom (would any Richard Stark heister ever live with his mother?   And like it?)–also the less frequently appearing Alan Greenwood, who in the course of the book’s events is forced to change his name to Grofield.  He’s not really that much like Stark’s Grofield, other than his eye for the ladies (he has to work a lot harder than Stark’s Grofield to land them), but Westlake delighted in pointing out the odd connections between these two felonious fictional universes he’d created.

Dortmunder was no more supposed to be a series character than Parker, originally–at least if Westlake is to be believed.  After having come up with Parker, Tobin, and (in short story form) Levine, Westlake probably felt like it was time to liberate himself of the albatross of series fiction–having to keep coming up with new ways of writing the same story–he was always wary of being pigeon-holed.

But the book sold too damned well for him to let the character go–there were other stories to tell about him, though he ended up with slightly over half as many novels as Parker (and some very good short stories, including Westlake’s one and only Edgar winner in that category).  Comedy–good comedy–is a lot harder to write than a straight crime novel.  Building from one gag to the next, keeping it all logical within certain boundaries–writing all those Nephew books, and that one lousy comic caper about a movie star’s kidnapping, had prepared him for this.   He’d merely been a journeyman humorist before–with Dortmunder, he became a master of the art.  He had the characters, the voices–and the audience to sustain them, while he fleshed them out, made them a bit more vivid and alive with each book, until the thought of a world without Dortmunder & Co. became unbearable.

And yet at times he seems to have begrudged Dortmunder the time and effort he could have spent on other books.   He was increasingly eager to branch out, test his wings, write fiction that couldn’t be so easily categorized.   And he did, frequently–the 70’s were, in many ways, his most creative period.  But I think having Dortmunder to keep coming back to kept him honest, in a way–particularly in that long gap between the sixteenth and seventeenth Parker novels.   Writers don’t always know what’s good for them, which is why we the readers have to keep telling them–otherwise, A. Conan Doyle might have spent much more of his career writing turgid historical romances about the Hundred Years War.

One last point, before I break this off, and start work on Part 2–Westlake was fond of saying that Dortmunder lived much more in the real world than Parker.  I don’t agree.  Parker certainly lives in a brutally romanticized reality, where he gets away with far too much, and Parker himself is an impossible creature–an amalgram of man and wolf that I don’t believe exists in reality, though I’m sure there must be those few who come close at times.

Westlake said that if Parker was robbing a bank, he’d find a convenient parking spot right in front, but if Dortmunder was robbing the same bank, he’d have to park several blocks away.   Fair enough, but when Dortmunder robs a bank in The Hot Rock, he does so by means of a hypnotist called Miasmo the Great.  Earlier in the book, he employs a helicopter–to rob a police station!  Then he mounts an assault on a mental institution via a portable locomotive.  This is the real world?  Parker’s heists, even the wildest of them, could actually happen in the real world–and have.  Dortmunder’s could only happen in a Dortmunder novel–or maybe a Rube Goldberg cartoon–his stories are no more realistic than Buster Keaton’s–and no less believable when you’re engrossed in them.

The difference is Dortmunder himself–he’s more real than Parker, because he’s closer to us–and to his creator–in his reaction to his many misfortunes.  Parker has endless runs of bad luck–much worse than Dortmunder’s–think of all the times he gets betrayed, shot, left for dead–and he takes them all with a stoicism that the philosopher Zeno might envy.  Nothing like this ever happens to Dortmunder, whose colleagues (with one noteworthy exception) are all deathlessly loyal and steadfast–perhaps a bit reluctantly so, at times, but they stick by him, through thick and thin.   Dortmunder experiences fewer real calamities than Parker, but many more embarrassments–he’s the comic foil that Parker steadfastly refused to be.   Dortmunder would refuse if he could, but he’s not allowed to.   He was made for this life.

And you can almost see him casting the occasional aggravated sideways glance at his creator–“you wouldn’t do this to the other guy.”  No, he wouldn’t.  But he would do a lot worse, knowing the other guy could take it.   The younger of his kleptomaniacal alter egos he treated much more protectively.  Like a father shields his prodigal son from the consequences of his mistakes–but rejoices all the more when the screw-up makes good, as Dortmunder so often did (he actually heisted a LOT more money than Parker per book, believe it or not–then blew it at the racetrack).

Parker lives outside the world of men–only visiting it to gain the necessary cash to sustain his abstracted wolfish lifestyle–but Dortmunder–like the coyotes who have invaded America’s urban spaces–is a creature of this crazy modern world we live in, forced to march to its beat, however out of step he may be.

And he takes insults much more personally than Parker ever did.   Parker will just kill you if you cross him in some materially significant way–one way or other, your troubles will be over.  Dortmunder, if he gets angry enough, will make you wish you were dead.   Over and over, we’ll see him strip some wealthy powerful tormentor of everything, and leave him naked to the wind–the Trickster Incarnate is not to be taken lightly when he takes his aspect upon him, and directs the full force of chaos against you.  And then, of course, he goes back to being the same poor schmuck he was before.   Power doesn’t stick to him, any more than money does.

Laugh at him if you will, ye mighty of the earth, but the last laugh shall be his.   Because much as he may not know it, he is our champion–Robin Hood in a shabby suit, carrying a Smith & Wesson Terrier in place of a longbow, marshaling his not-so-merry men to some new enterprise of great pith and moment, whose currents often turn awry and lose the name of action.   But we the readers feel merry, watching them stubbornly ply their trade.   Because thieves though they are, they’re our thieves.   The heisters of our discontent.

For the eight years, Donald Westlake had dreamed that he was Parker.   But then he woke up and he was John Dortmunder.

Aren’t we all?

See you in a week or so.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Somebody Owes Me Money

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“That’s very funny,” I said.  “Abigail.  You don’t look like an Abigail.”

“I’m not an Abigail,” she said.  She was getting irritated.  “Everybody calls me Abbie.”

But I was enjoying needling her about it, maybe because of the trouble I have about Chester, maybe just to get some of my own back with her.  “Abigail,” I said.  “It’s hard to think of you as an Abigail.”

“Well, you’re a Chester, all right,” she said.  “You’re a Chester if there ever lived one.”

“That’s it,” I said, twisted around, started the car, and we moved out onto Flatlands Avenue again.

“I think you stink,” she said.

“The feeling is mutual,” I said.  “In fact, the feeling is paramutual.”

In the mirror, I could see her looking blank.   “What?”

It had been a pun, on pari-mutuel, of course, the betting system at race tracks.  I’d meant “para” like more than or above, like parapsychology or paratrooper.  But try explaining a pun.  Explanations never get a laugh.  So I didn’t say anything.

This was, for quite a long time, a forgotten Westlake.   It doesn’t seem to have been reprinted in the U.S. for decades after it came out–which is unusual–Westlake almost always got at least one paperback edition for his Random House hardcovers.  This one got reprinted in Playboy, of all places–it’s maybe just a little bit sexier than the average Westlake, though there’s no actual sex in it (typical for a ‘Nephew’ book, where the hero mainly gets laid after the final curtain falls), and maybe that had something to do with the lack of reprint editions?   The rights got screwed up somehow?  They figured everybody just read it in the magazine?   I’ve no idea.

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Book sales were probably not that great.  And honestly, look at the cover Random House gave it–can you blame people for not buying it?  What the hell is that garish headless down-pointing torso even supposed to signify?  Was the artist dropping acid at the time? Did he read the book?

Back in 2008, Hard Case Crime took pity on this poor orphan, and gave it the paperback edition it had always merited, with a cover from Michael Koelsch that leaves little to be desired.  Sexy blonde in orange fur coat, blue miniskirt, yellow Checker Cab at her feet.  Maybe a deck of cards or a racehorse wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it covers enough of the bases.  How hard is that?  Apparently too hard for whoever was in charge of seeing this book to market when it first came out.

Random House and Westlake were increasingly on different wavelengths by this point.  This is his last book for them under his own name.  His agent got a bidding war going between Random House and Simon & Schuster, and it wasn’t a very protracted tug of war–Random House just let go the rope.   The end of what had been a mutually profitable ten year relationship–but not quite–because Random House would publish the next four Parker novels, and the remaining three Mitch Tobin mysteries.  So Westlake was outta there, but Stark took his place, while Coe remained where he’d always been, and they both published some of their best work there as the 70’s got into gear.  Such ironies abound in the multifarious world of Donald E. Westlake–and the publishing industry in general.

But is it just a case of a book that wasn’t properly packaged and sold?  This is an entertaining story, make no mistake.  It got good reviews, as Westlake’s comic crime novels nearly always did.  But it’s still one of his weaker efforts–fun–interesting–more than worth the time it takes to read–but of his non-sleaze books to date written under any name, I’d rank it near the bottom.  Much better than Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which was a new thing for Westlake–a genuine comic caper.  But not up to the standard he’d set with the four previous Nephew books, which are basically criminal picaresques.  And indicative that this little sub-sub-genre he’d created for himself was already showing its age, and needed some serious revamping.

It’s a bit take one from column A and one from column B.   Affable if somewhat clueless young working class New Yorker who has been delaying maturity runs into trouble with organized crime, has a wild adventure, and meets a great girl along the way–The Fugitive Pigeon (Westlake’s biggest seller up to that point, and maybe ever).  He’s got a little quirk–he’s a sucker for the ponies–then he unexpectedly comes into a lot of money, and that gets him into trouble–God Save the Mark (Westlake’s only Edgar-winning novel).  And the girl in question, a leggy stylish blonde, is basically a smarter tougher blue-collar version of the endearingly ditzy Angela Ten Eyck from The Spy in the Ointment (his best comic novel of the 1960’s–because I say so).  So that would be column C, I guess.

Westlake basically hit the jackpot with The Fugitive Pigeon–struck a vein of pure gold, when he thought he was just indulging himself by letting what was supposed to be a serious crime book turn into a comic romp.   But having found this goldmine, he didn’t know quite what to do with it.  He experimented with different ideas, different approaches, and while his technique improved, the books mainly didn’t.

There’s a spontaneity, a conviction, to Pigeon, that doesn’t quite come off in the subsequent six comic novels–that always end up feeling a mite too contrived, though Spy succeeds by dint of its fascinating ideas, and a unique protagonist (who is really only half a Nephew, since he’s already found his life’s work and his true love, and merely has to recommit to both).   It’s a bit like a chef who more or less on a whim cobbled together a pièce de résistance out of an unlikely blend of ingredients salvaged from the kitchen shelf–and then keeps trying to do it again.  He can’t quite get the flavor right–but he keeps working at it.   Just need to find that missing ingredient.

Like all but one of the ten Nephew books, this is a first-person narrative, and our narrator is one Chester ‘Chet’ Conway, a New York City taxi driver, 29 years of age (so just on the cusp of adulthood, as Westlake sees it), who lives with his retired father at their small house at 8344 169th Place, Jamaica, Queens.  There is no such exact address, of course, but there is a 169th Place in the Jamaica section of Queens, as well as a 169th Street, which is entirely different.  Hey, I’ve lived in New York City most of my life; my mother was raised in Jackson Heights, and I’ve yet to figure out the street grids in Queens.   I’m not convinced anyone ever has.  Maybe we’re not supposed to?

Chet is yet another charming garrulous slacker, like his not-terribly-distant ancestor, Charlie Poole.  He’s perhaps a bit more sophisticated and experienced than Charlie–as well as a few years older in calendar terms–but still basically living out a cheerfully undistinguished protracted adolescence. He reads a fair bit, and can hold up his end of a conversation with just about anybody he happens to pick up in the course of his workday, but of formal education he has only the minimum. He’s an inveterate gambler; playing the ponies, the numbers, Sunny Dollars (whenever he needs to fill up the gas tank), and he’s got a running poker game going with a pretty disparate assortment of friends, who figure into the story pretty significantly (and yet not quite enough, in my opinion).  Oh, and he hates being called Chester.  Well, who wouldn’t?

One day he picks up a fare from JFK, heading into Manhattan, and the guy, very prosperous looking indeed, seems to be connected in some way–when it’s time to pay up, instead of a tip–as in money–Chet gets a tip–as in a winning horse.  Purple Pecunia, running that very day in Florida, and currently listed at twenty-two to one.  Charlie is skeptical, but then again, this fare who gave him the tip seemed to be able to work out odds in his head like an IBM machine, and he didn’t have any reason to hand Chet a bum steer, and hey–Chet’s a horseplayer.  And this guy says the horse can do, can do, can do……

Chet phones in the bet to his bookie, Tommy McKay, who agrees to cover him for thirty-five bucks (Chet already owes him fifteen).  He keeps track during the day with a transistor radio he keeps in the cab, and just as he’s shuttling around a racist old biddy (reminds me of my Great Aunt Bridie, who lived in Jackson Heights too, and boy would she not want to live there now, were she living at all), he get the good word–his horse came in.  And how–twenty-SEVEN to one!  Taking out the fifty he owes Tommy, that leaves Chet with nine-hundred and thirty dollars–a working man’s fortune.  Cue the Pogues!

But when he shows up at Tommy’s place in Hell’s Kitchen (West 46th between 9th and 10th, and would you believe I used to live around there?  If you could call it living.), he gets two nasty surprises:  1)His money isn’t there.   2)Tommy’s dead bullet-riddled body is.   And hence the title of this book.

After a comedy of errors in which he reports the murder to the police, while Tommy’s wife (now widow) Louise accuses him of being the murderer and says she’s going to call the cops, which he’s already doing, and he meets a rather unnervingly laconic detective named Golderman, and is (almost) cleared of complicity in the crime (obviously he can’t come out and tell them he was there to pick up his illegal winnings, which makes things a bit awkward), Chet goes home, and finds out later his complete address has been printed up in the papers, as a material witness (Do they still do that?   Why would they ever do that?   Oh never mind).

He goes over to the McKay apartment a few times, hoping to find out who he goes to in order to get his money, which arouses Detective Golderman’s suspicion.   Then he gets picked up by two armed hoodlums (the old recurring pattern of the Nephew books–always two), who take him to meet a ganglord named Droble, who tells him a poker buddy named Sid Falco works for a rival of his named Solomon Napoli, and so does Chet, so why did Napoli tell Chet to whack Tommy–Chet vigorously denies all these dangerous assumptions they’re making about him, and they (eventually) kind of believe him, so they take him home.

He’s thinking all the time that if he was Robert Mitchum, he’d show these guys a thing or two.  Chet is absolutely not Robert Mitchum, and he knows it.  This is important, by the way–Chet may not have figured out what he’s going to do when he grows up, but he knows his limitations–he’s got a pretty good sense of himself.  It keeps him alive.  For the time being.

Next thing he knows, he’s picking up one hell of a cute fare–see the paperback cover up above for a good visual approximation of her general pulchritude.  If they’d made this into a movie around the time it came out (and it might have actually worked as one), they should have cast Blythe Danner–she was a vision in the early 70’s.  She doesn’t look half bad today, actually.

Her name is Abigail McKay–that’s right–Tommy’s sister.  She prefers to be called Abbie, and though she wasn’t that close to her brother, he was all she had in the world, so she’d also prefer whoever killed him to end up behind bars.   And she thinks Chet killed him.  Probably because he was having a fling with Louise, Tommy’s wife, who put him up to it (he wasn’t, and he’s insulted more at the implication he would have such desultory taste in female companionship than he is about the murder thing).

She tells him this while holding a gun on him.  Chet gets the gun away from her (as he puts it, there’s a little Robert Mitchum in all of us), and much to her surprise, starts talking about taking her to the nearest police station.  So now she knows Chet didn’t do it.   She changes tack, and asks him to help her find out who did.  She’s very aware of the way he’s been looking at her (she gets those looks a lot), and she kind of likes him anyway, so she’s going to play that card for all it’s worth (I’d call it a hole card, but that would be in poor taste.)

They agree to meet at Chet’s card game that night, after she goes to Tommy’s funeral–she wants to sit in (she’s not exactly in deep mourning here, which cuts into her motivation a bit, but what the hell).  And as Chet arrives at the game, we finally meet his poker buddies, and an interesting bunch they are.   The game is being held at Jerry Allen’s apartment this time, a fifth story walk-up on the Upper West Side (yeah, I lived there too, and I remember those walk-ups–not fondly).

Jerry is gay, not that the word appears in this book.  He owns part of a flower shop–and I just want to state for the record that from what I’ve seen, a lot of NYC florists are actually pretty butch–I remember passing one down in the 30’s one time (lots of plant shops down there), unloading some wares out on the sidewalk, and he gave this cold hard stare at someone nearby and said “Gimme those fucking begonias” in a classic Noo Yawk accent, and a tone that would have intimidated John Gotti.  I would not want to mess with that florist, regardless of sexual persuasion.  But I digress.

As Chet puts it, “it’s possible he isn’t entirely heterosexual, but he isn’t obnoxious about it and none of us care what he does away from the card table.  I think in losing to us and hosting the game he’s sort of paying for the privilege of being accepted by a bunch of real guys, whether he realizes it or not.”   And whether Mr. Westlake realized it later on or not, passages of this general ilk in books of this general time period, and the attitudes that lay behind them, are among the many reasons why some gay men decided it was time to get really obnoxious. Come to think of it, this book was published right around the time of the Stonewall Riots.   The times they are a’changin.  Westlake will be catching up with them a bit, not too long from now.

This is a twice a week game, with a rotating group of regulars, including the henpecked Fred Stehl, schoolteacher Leo Morgentauser, gas station manager Doug Hallman, and the aforementioned Sid Falco, who has been outed as a connected guy to Chet.  Chet makes the sixth man, and then in comes Abbie, puffing a bit from the stairs, but still making quite an impact on everybody there (except maybe Jerry).  Abbie says her game is seven card stud.  They’re more than happy to oblige her.

She didn’t find out anything at the funeral–except that Louise didn’t show, which just confirms her suspicions.   Turns out she’s got a hidden talent (as well as the obvious ones).  She’s a blackjack dealer in Vegas.  By the time she’s finished showing the gang some of the tricks she can do with cards, they’re all eating out of the palms of her dainty clever hands.   But Chet actually has a great night himself–wins 53 bucks.  His luck is changing, he thinks.   If he only knew.

Abbie drives him back to his house in her rented Dodge Polara (do I need to post an image?–nah).  Abbie realizes they’re being tailed by somebody, and then demonstrates a knack for creative driving that rivals her Packard-equipped predecessor from The Fugitive Pigeon, Chloe Shapiro (apparently women with suicidal driving habits turned Westlake on–well, it takes all kinds).

Dodges have more pep than they used to.  We took off like the roadrunner in the movie cartoons, shooting down the Expressway like a bullet down the barrel of a rifle.

“Hey!” I said.  “We have cops in New York!”

“Are they staying with us?”

I looked back, and one pair of headlights was rushing along in our wake, farther back now but not losing any more ground.  Fortunately there was very little traffic on the road, and our two cars wriggled through what there was like a snake in a hurry.”

I said “They’re still there.”

“Hold on,” she said.  I looked at her, and she was leaning over the wheel in tense concentration.  I couldn’t believe she meant to take that exit rushing towards us on the right but she did, at the last minute swerving the car to the right, slicing down the ramp without slackening speed.

There was a traffic light ahead, and it was red.  There was no traffic anywhere in sight.  Abbie got off the accelerator at last and stood on the brake instead. Bracing myself with both hands against the dashboard, I stared in helpless astonishment as we slewed into the intersection.  I believe to this day that Abbie made a right turn then  simply because that was the way the car happened to be pointing when she got it back under control.

Chet pays Abbie a number of very nice compliments in the course of the story, but the one she likes best is when he says she’s just driven a car in such a way as to terrify a New York City cabdriver.

As exciting at this all is, it’s reminding Chet that this girl is maybe not as survival-oriented as one might hope, and he tells her he won’t be helping her find Tommy’s killer, and she should just leave that to the cops.  They are about to part on somewhat frosty terms, in front of Chet’s house, when somebody shoots him in the head.

Okay, maybe more alongside the head.  He wakes up in Tommy’s apartment of all places, with a bandage on his head–he got grazed pretty bad.  Abbie is tending to him–she got a doctor to come and look after him.  He’ll be okay, but he’s pretty weak, and he can’t go out for a while.  And this is where he’s going to spend about a third of the book, believe it or not.

It’s actually made into a metatextual joke–Chet says he’s like Nero Wolfe, with everybody coming to him for answers–only he doesn’t have any, and does Abbie look like Archie Goodwin to you?  Droble and his people, Napoli and his people, Detective Golderman, Louise McKay (who turns out to be having an affair with one of Napoli’s top men, Frank Tarbok, who had kept her incommunicado a while, since she was hysterically accusing him of killing Tommy), keep trooping in and out of the place, making all kinds of bad assumptions, but also providing some possible answers about what was going on with Tommy that might have gotten him killed.

If this was a play that got adapted into a movie that then got turned into a novel, this long strange stationary interlude would all make perfect sense, but it’s a novel, and on the whole, I think it slows down the plot a bit too much. Interesting choice, but perhaps not an entirely successful one.

It does give Chet and Abbie a bit more chance to get acquainted–the first night, she actually sleeps next to him, and they wake up in each others arms the next morning–then she figures he’s recovered enough for her to start worrying, and somehow in the Nephew books, when the hero meets his dream girl in the course of the plot, the deed is never done until after the curtain has fallen.  Which is the one thing I like least about the Nephew books.

Chet has to keep explaining to both sets of mobsters visiting the McKay residence for answers that he doesn’t work for either one, and he has to explain all these suspicious happenings to the increasingly skeptical Golderman, and he and Tarbok strike a pact to find Tommy’s killer together, but then Chet realizes what’s actually going to happen, once these warring gangs get their heads on straight, is that they’ll realize he and Abbie know too much to go on breathing, so they both go up the fire escape, and over the rooftops, and into a passing cab, which happens to be from Chet’s company.  It’s freezing cold, and they have no coats.  And the mob guys are in hot pursuit.  But they’re together.

This is one thing I will applaud about the book–it doesn’t split up the cute couple it’s created for our entertainment, as The Fugitive Pigeon did with Charlie and Chloe (who I happen to like better than Abbie, if only because Abbie is such an obvious shiksa Chloe clone–mental note–must check later to see if Google can find this article with just the phrase ‘shiksa Chloe clone’).  They stick together all the way through the final part of the book, which is mainly them looking for answers while the mob looks for them.   Only fair, since the nominal mystery of the book is who killed Abbie’s brother.  Chet has basically given up on getting his money.

They end up at Detective Golderman’s house on Long Island (seems all the NYC cops who could afford it were living there, even then).  He turns out to have made his basement into a sort of monument to suburban kitsch, and he seems a lot less impressive a character now that he’s off-duty.

Only is he ever off-duty?  After telling him the whole story, figuring he can trust him not to be on the mob’s payroll (because he’s sure seemed like he’s on the up and square up to now), Chet suddenly realizes–he’s on the mob’s payroll.  And he’s just tipped the mob off as to where Chet and Abbie are.  Abbie distracts him, and Chet knocks him out with a bottle of Black & White Scotch Whisky.  A nice brand.  With terriers, yet.

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As they discuss their next move, Chet figures something out–he was shot with Abbie’s now-missing gun, which he’d brought to the card game in his coat pocket.  Golderman informed them that the gun used to kill Tommy was a much more powerful weapon, that would have blown Chet’s head clean off.  He also thinks the real target was Abbie–since her gun shoots pretty badly to the left.  They spend maybe a bit too much time talking this over, because as they’re sneaking out of Golderman’s house, after borrowing a lady’s coat and a hunting jacket (and a really ridiculous looking hunting cap for Chet), the mobsters show up, and we’re off to the races again, through the dark chilly streets of Westbury.

So not to interrupt the big chase scene (which involves jumping onto a moving Long Island Railway train, and then falling off it, and then Chet is getting choked by a mob guy, who then gets knocked out with a shovel by Abbie), but let’s cut to the chase already.   Back to the card game–still at Jerry Allen’s place.   Chet’s problem, as the reluctant detective, is that he knows one of these guys must have taken the gun out of his coat pocket, which would seem to mean one of them is the killer.  But he doesn’t really believe any of them would do such a thing.  And you know what?  Spoiler alert–it was somebody else.  Read the book to find out who.  And here’s Abbie, to speak for all of us–

“But that isn’t fair,” she said.  “How can I solve the murder if I don’t even know the murderer, if I never met her?  The woman never put in an appearance!”

“Sure she did,” I said.  “She walked right by me with a baby carriage.”

“Well, she never walked by me,” she insisted.  “I say it isn’t fair.  You wouldn’t get away with that in a detective story.”

Westlake never does tire of poking fun at the genre he earns his bread with. Overall, the solution to the murder mystery makes sense, after its own fashion–with the exception of the killer’s punishment.  Hey, it’s the late 60’s–going into a convent is hardly a prison sentence.

But see, that was never the point–in a Nephew book it never is.  The point was for the hero to have an adventure, and to meet a great girl, and to learn something about himself–and wait a damn minute.   What exactly did he learn? Is he going to stop driving hacks for a living?  Not clear.   Will he stop gambling? He and Abbie are sitting down to play cards as the book ends.   She’s the only real change in his life–he asks her to consider moving to New York, so they can get to know each other better (they’ve made a pretty good start already).   Will she move in with him and his dad, who spends all his time trying to work out some way to beat the life insurance companies?   Not clear.

Chet finds out he’s a bit braver and more resourceful than he’d realized, but is that really worth the price of admission all in itself?  As Nephews go, he’s not much of a learner–there’s no real sense of transition here.   He’s clearly ready to give up his bachelor life–for a beautiful blonde card-shark who drives like a maniac, and is self-evidently nuts about him.  That seems more like a wish-fulfillment fantasy than a lesson well-learned.

Maybe I’m being too nitpicky.  There’s lots to like about the book.  I’m glad it got reprinted.  I can see why Westlake didn’t talk about it much, and why it went so long without a paperback edition.  I think he probably wrote it in too much of a hurry–to finish out his book-a-year contract with Random House.  He threw together a bunch of ideas borrowed from his earlier books in this vein, and added in a personal passion of his own–card playing.  Westlake himself played a whole lot of poker with his buddies.  That part of the book works really well, and one wishes there’d been more of it.   What you get from those scenes is how card players learn to size each other up, figure out each other’s weaknesses, their ‘tells’, and that at least partly explains how Chet survives his ordeal.

Read with limited expectations (which may be difficult to manage, after seeing the cover Hard Case Crime came up with), this is a fun read, and that’s all it has to be, but Westlake is capable of much more.   Still–there are a few interesting things about it I haven’t mentioned–like for example–Abbie?

Westlake would, of course, eventually take as his third and final bride, the gardening writer, Abby Adams, who best as I can tell (photos of her are hard to find online) somewhat resembled her defacto namesake in this book.  That’s a hell of a coincidence, and yet given the timeline, I have to assume that’s what it is.  I mean, If he’d already met her in 1968, when he was writing this, and was just recently married to Sandra Foley, who was in the process of presenting him with two more sons, would he really have made her a character in a book his then-wife was presumably going to read–and used her own name, with a slight variation in spelling?   I think not.

But then one must ask–was this a wish his heart was making, which Ms. Adams later appeared to grant?  Like the Abigail in the book, I can’t solve a mystery without knowing all the players, and I never met any of them (except Abby Westlake herself, very briefly, at the signing for The Getaway Car, and very charming and gracious she was, and I never did find a tactful way to ask whether she had a penchant for reckless driving as a young woman).   Much as I like the romantic relationships Westlake created for these books, I think we have to acknowledge that love in the world of the Westlake Nephews is a whole lot simpler than love in real life.  Intentionally so, I might add.

One thing I can say definitively–this is the first Nephew book that doesn’t include a Westlake spouse in the dedication up front–the usual pattern up to now has been for Westlake to dedicate his comic novels to a friend and to Nedra Henderson, his first wife–and as we saw, Who Stole Sassi Manoon? was dedicated solely to Sandra Foley, his second.

My Hard Case edition of this book has no dedication at all, but I got a look at a first edition, and the dedication there reads “This is for Joe Goldberg, a titled man.”   Joe Goldberg, in case you didn’t know, was a very highly-regarded Jazz critic (his book on the Jazz music of the 1950’s is still considered definitive), who also worked in Hollywood and that’s probably how he met Westlake, who shared his passion for the greatest American musical form, and if you don’t agree, that’s your problem.  Goldberg’s the guy who when Westlake complained that Parker had been played thus far in the movies by Anna Karina, Lee Marvin, and Jim Brown, made a joke Westlake never tired of repeating–“The character lacks definition.”

But no mention of Sandra in this one (and certainly no mention of Nedra)–what’s that mean?   Possibly nothing.  Personally, I’d have said the next Parker novel would have been the ideal place to tip the hat to Joe Goldberg, but that got credited to Joe Gores–‘for the hell of it’.   And again, I just don’t know enough to draw any conclusions at all based on Westlake’s book dedications, but maybe I’ll do an article on them sometime.  For the hell of it.

And for the sake of maintaining rough chronological order, our next book is yet another Nephew story–but set a bit more in the real world, featuring a hero with very real problems, which were quite timely back then, and sadly, still are.  And he’s in hot pursuit of a girl who could not be much more different from Abbie McKay–if Abbie might have been played by Blythe Danner in a movie, this girl would have been depicted by Pam Grier or (even better) Vonetta McGee.  And it’s a much better book, all around.  A truly odd duck in the Westlake canon, and we’ll talk about how that happened next week.  See you then, fellow Westlake pupils.  Class dismissed.  Keep those banners flying.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels