Category Archives: comic crime novels

Review: Put A Lid On It

The MCC was the Bastille writ small, the runt of the same litter, tall, dark, concrete, with rounded corners rather than sharp edges.  It had a closed-in look, like the kind of maniac that listens to voices in his teeth a lot.  When the French decided to give freedom a shot, they tore their Bastille down; when the Americans opted for freedom, they put up the MCC.  Go figure.

A big goof (stealing an unmarked mail van) landed Francis Xavier Meehan in a federal prison, and only a bigger goof (stealing an incriminating videotape for the president’s re-election committee) will get him out. Donald E. Westlake turns this ridiculous premise into sublime comedy in PUT A LID ON IT (Mysterious Press/Warner, $23.95), a crime caper that also gets some nice digs in as political satire. With his deep distrust of human nature, Meehan is no patsy for the Washington pols who point him at the patriotic bigot who is hiding the presidential tape within his antique weapons collection. Looking to hedge his bets, the wily crook comes up with a scheme for lifting the tape and keeping the gun collection for himself, but he is nearly undone by the stupidity, not to mention the cupidity, of his associates. People should know better than to make deals with guys in government, he lectures himself; but no, ”they just can’t help themselves. They want to believe. Everybody, somewhere down the line, trusts a politician.” Although Meehan isn’t quite as ingenious a thief as some of Westlake’s other criminal protagonists, he’s a born philosopher.

Marilyn Stasio, New York Times, April 21st, 2002

Let me put a lid on this one right off the bat (to marry mixed metaphors)–it’s the last good crime novel Donald Westlake published in his lifetime that doesn’t involve Parker or Dortmunder.  Stasio describes it quite well in that capsule review, and one of the reasons it’s so easy to sum up is that it’s only 247 pages in the first edition, which with Westlake tends to indicate he knew exactly what he wanted to say with it, so he didn’t feel the need to take a lot of detours.  Very focused and economical, this one.

But because it doesn’t involve a series character, it tends to fall between the cracks.  As does its protagonist, who Westlake doesn’t see as a potential franchise bearer.  Which was initially true of Parker and Dortmunder as well, but in this case he puts the lid down pretty firmly on any further books featuring the witty wily Francis Xavier Meehan.  If it had been a big seller, I’d guess the lid would have come back up quick enough, but that was never very likely, and he knew it, so he could do what he never could with his more famous thieves–have this one decide his thieving days are done.

Westlake knew people would always remember him as the guy who wrote about heistmen who don’t get caught (or at least stay caught), and don’t ever repent of their wicked wicked ways.  He also knew there’s only so much you can do with that.  Parker and Dortmunder always live to steal another day, because there has to be another book.  Their characters can’t develop past a certain point, because their stories aren’t meant to end.  They can’t be used up, as Mitch Tobin was, when his identity crisis was finally resolved.

A Parker novel is never just about Parker, never entirely from his perspective.  A Dortmunder novel is even less exclusively focused on Dortmunder, with the ever-growing supporting cast and lots of important characters unique to each book.  They anchor the story, but the story isn’t just about them.

The Grofield novels, by contrast, are mainly from Grofield’s perspective (the only one that tried switching perspectives, ala Parker, was the weakest).  Grofield wasn’t so much used up as let go–Butcher’s Moon was the pink slip.  Westlake didn’t know how to go on with him, since it didn’t work to have him remain a thief or to stop being one.  There was no workable solution to Sam Holt’s professional and personal conundrums, either.  Sara Joslyn’s conflicts were all resolved by the end of her first book (which sold really well, so there was a second; see what I mean?)

Prior to this, Westlake had only once written about a criminal protagonist who goes straight after one book (unless you count Cops and Robbers, and somehow I don’t).  Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, featuring Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, the black sheep of an upper crust family of WASPs.  Kelly was never really a crook at heart; he was just dabbling, looking for a quick score, a chance to prove he could beat the system, live life on his own terms, and having achieved that goal, while meeting a girl he really likes with similar life goals, he sails off into the sunset with her.  Westlake never really believes in the character, and thus neither do we, but I think there’s a fair bit of him in Meehan, all the same.  Meehan is Kelly Bram Nicholas Mark II.  Among other things.

There are echoes of many prior Westlake books and stories in this one (we can list them in the comments section, if you like), and he’s basically using this book to take another whack at ideas he’d used in the past.  Sometimes Westlake liked picking up a spare more than rolling a perfect strike.  And when he solved a problem, he tended to forget about it, move on to something else (this late in the game, there wasn’t much left to move on to).

The Problem: Write a book about a career criminal who gets recruited to do the government’s dirty work, and make it credible this could happen, more than just another Alexander Mundy.  Use him as an opportunity to craft sharp timely satire that doesn’t get all baroque and preachy, but does feature Westlake’s trademark morality play of Self-Styled Loners vs. Cogs In The Machine.

Put in a good romantic subplot, like in the Nephew books, but this time let The Girl be a bit different–not such a girl anymore–a less glamorous more grown-up version of Chloe Shapiro from The Fugitive Pigeon.  A determinedly unromantic romance, about two people who just unexpectedly click and don’t make a big deal about it.  You know, like the book we never got about Dortmunder meeting May.  But no hearts and flowers, or even tuna casseroles (they eat out).

The result may not be one of his all time classics, but it isn’t really trying to be–it’s trying to break the earlier genre molds Westlake worked from, even while recycling them, and it succeeds handily.  Its ambitions are modest, but solid, and it hits every target it aims for.  It’s also maybe the last of Westlake’s books to peek around corners, to warn us with his accustomed sardonicism of unpleasant surprises that might be coming in the near future.  (Foreigners intervening in our elections, blackmailing our Presidents?  Whoever dreamt of such a thing?)

But for the characters in this book, when exactly is the present?  Cellphones are severely limited in functionality, and not all that relevant to anything most of the time.  The internet exists, but is referred to exactly once, does not figure into the plot at all.  VCRs are still a thing, and nothing goes viral (you’ll need the mainstream media to dish the dirt for you).  The President is pretty clearly a Democrat, up for reelection (there’s no way the rich megalomaniac in this story is backing a liberal).  There’s a reference to a little blue dress having plagued a previous administration.

There’s also a reference to it being harder to rent vehicles than it used to be, which presumably relates to the first Trade Center bombing in ’93.  The story seems to take place in some historical nether-realm between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Which makes sense, since he’d probably started it before Bush was President, and of course before 9/11 (an event that shook many of his core certainties to their foundations, along with everyone else’s).

My best guess is he had the idea in the late 90’s, when he was still being pressured to do more books like The Ax.  Once it became clear he could only do that once, he got back into comic caper mode as Westlake, leaving the dark material to Stark.  Possible it started as an idea for Dortmunder, maybe even Parker, then turned into a one-shot character’s one shot.

What resulted was Westlake’s best standalone caper featuring an habitual thief, though the caper isn’t really the main point, as it was with Cops and Robbers (which I sometimes think is Westlake’s best caper of all, taken purely as a caper).  The caper here is an entry point to satirizing the world of politics, and unless you count Anarchaos (which is really about what happens after politics, and how that would be even worse), I think this is his strongest attempt in that vein.  And certainly his most direct.  Not something I can ever be accused of.  Let’s cut to the chase, or rather, what typically happens afterwards.  Which is to say, prison.  But before that (::sigh::)……

There’s no getting around this.  The book kicks off with unquestionably the most surprising and moving and oddly belated dedication of the author’s career.

My old friend Mickey Schwerner, who was murdered with James Chaney and Andy Goodman on a berm in Mississippi the night of June 21, 1964, by a group of political cretins, once in conversation described the American two-party system to me in these words, with which I have never found reason to argue; “It’s the same old story,” he said.  “The moochers vs. the misers.”

This is for Mickey.  Forest green.

I looked and looked and looked, and I can’t find any other mention–anywhere–of Westlake’s friendship with the eldest of those three young men, two Jewish, one black, who famously gave their lives to help put an end to Jim Crow.  Symbols of integration, equality, courage, camaraderie, self-sacrifice, martyrdom.

But, you know, they were also people, with goals and dreams and loved ones, and none of them intended to die.  They were very carefully trained how not to die down there, and it just wasn’t enough.  When an entire way of life wants you dead, odds are it’s going to get its wish.  Even though that meant accelerating the very process the murderers were trying to delay.  As Mr. Westlake said–political cretins.  All societies have them.  Like cockroaches.  Only they step on you, given half a chance.

I’d assume they met in the very early 60’s, possibly while Schwerner was working for CORE on the Lower East Side, and Westlake was still living in the Village, just starting to make a name for himself.  Maybe they met through Bucklin Moon, Westlake’s editor on the Parker novels, who had a long history of anti-racist activism himself, but however it happened, it happened, and Westlake would have picked up a paper one day, and seen that cheerful cocky face looking back at him over a headline, known he was gone.

It presumably wasn’t a central relationship in either man’s life, more of a friendly acquaintanceship, a few conversations, held in bars perhaps, or while negotiating the winding labyrinths of lower Manhattan, but how would I know?  There’s no biography for either man, and Westlake’s unfinished memoirs remain unpublished. Schwerner tends to get bundled in with his fellow martyrs in the few books out there–the only part of his short generous life people pay much attention to is that last few bloody minutes, which is so funny it makes me weep.

But for Westlake, the memory of a free spirit would have lingered–this was one of Life’s independents, as Westlake would have seen it, but he had perversely chosen the path of serving others, trying to expand the freedom he cherished, and that had killed him, and turned him into a symbol, as opposed to a complex living being.  No doubt there’s much of Mickey (which is in fact what his friends called him) in Up Your Banners–maybe the wound was too fresh then for Westlake to bring him up.

This isn’t a book about race prejudice, though it’s referenced in various oblique ways, as is what happened in Mississippi (the trio that pulls the heist is two whites, one black, a combo we’ll see repeated in our next book). It’s not a book about social justice, though ditto.  It’s not a book about political activists–though it is, you might say, a book that argues political activists are suckers.  Or does it?  We’ll have to talk about that.  Later.  But strange, so very strange, to begin a mere ‘comic caper’ on such a somber note.  Then again, this isn’t exactly a comedy, is it?  It’s a satire.

So then the story begins at the Manhattan Correctional Center, a Federal detention facility over in the courthouse district, right by Chinatown.  The Gitmo of New York, some have called it.  I remember it well.  No, not that way.  Geez, Part 1’s going to end up being all prologue at this rate.  I’m rolling my eyes more than any of you, I swear.

See, I was an activist myself for a while.  Among other things, I was on something called the Committee to Free Joe Doherty (pronounced ‘Dockerty’), Joe being a very decent guy from Belfast who joined the Provisional IRA for roughly the same reasons Mickey Schwerner joined CORE (though his situation was closer to Chaney’s).  The nonviolent methods had already failed in Northern Ireland by then.  Bloody Sunday and all.  At least in Mississippi, they had to wait until sunset to lynch you.

So he never bombed anything, but he and his mates and their machine gun got into a fight with an SAS commando unit that was going to ‘capture’ them  (with extreme prejudice), and one of the British soldiers was killed doing his duty, and Joe was caught, and then he escaped to America like many an rebel before him, and the FBI caught him, and he got clapped in the MCC to await extradition.  And he ended up living there for about eight years, with all the court challenges.  Then he got transferred to Lewisburg Federal prison in Pennsylvania.  Then he finally got extradited, and was put in the Maze prison (no, that’s what they call it, really).  And then came the peace process, and amnesty, and he’s out now, living his life, and working with disadvantaged youth.  Viva Democracy, on the rare occasions it works.

(We never met, though one of the Committee’s meetings was held in a church right next to the MCC.  I did send him some books once while he was there, him being a great reader.  A Frank O’Connor anthology, and An Beal Bocht by Flann O’Brien, in the original Irish, since he was reportedly fluent.  I got a nice thank-you note, in English, since I wasn’t.  In retrospect,  wish I’d sent him some Parker novels instead, but I hadn’t read any myself.  Sorry, Joe.)

So this is where Westlake chooses to open the book.  And this is where we meet Francis Xavier Meehan, 42 years old, who as far as he’s concerned, shouldn’t be here at all.  He’s just an honest thief, who helped hijack a private carrier truck he thought was full of computer chips, but turned out it was full of registered mail.  Federal offense.  Goddam privatization.  Though he’s none too fond of the public sector either, and least of all Federal prison guards.

Of course, the primary difference between the Manhattan Correctional Center, which was where bail-less federal prisoners in the borough of Manhattan, city and state of New York, waited before and during their trials, was the attitude of the guards.  The guards thought the prisoners were animals, of course, as usual, and treated them as such.  But in this place the guards thought they themselves were not animals; that was the difference.

You get into a state pen, any state pen in the country–well, any state Meehan had been a guest in, and he felt he could extrapolate–and there was a real sense of everybody being stinking fetid swine shoveled into this shithole together, inmates and staff alike.  There was something, Meehan realized, now that he was missing it, strangely comforting about that, about guards who, with every breath they took, with every ooze from their pores, said “You’re a piece of shit and so am I, so you got no reason to expect anything but the worst from me if you irritate my ass.”  These guards here, in the MCC, they buttoned all their shirt buttons.  What were they, fucking Mormons?

Meehan is, as Stasio correctly observes, a born philosopher.  He is not content merely to observe his environment and the denizens thereof; he wants to comprehend them.  He rarely writes any of his observations down, because one of the ten thousand rules he lives by is “Never write anything down.”  That’s a big part of his philosophy, the ten thousand rules, which we can assume he’s never actually bothered to count, since that would involve writing them down. Basically a collection of helpful aphorisms to keep him solvent, alive, and free.  Hey, no system is perfect.

So Meehan gets word his court-appointed lawyer is there to see him, but his court-appointed lawyer is a skinny Jewish lady named Goldfarb just around his age, and this ain’t her.  This is some guy named Pat Jeffords, and with an eye for detail that Sherlock Holmes would envy, Meehan tells Jeffords that not only is he not Meehan’s lawyer, he’s not any kind of lawyer at all.  So what’s he doing here, would be the operative question.

In response, Jeffords observes that they’ve clearly found the right man for the job they need done, points out that Meehan is quite inevitably heading for a very long stretch in Federal stir, and writes out a little mini-questionnaire (or ballot, if you prefer), which reads “If you might want to help me, I might want to help you.”  Meehan can check the box saying ‘Yes’ or the box saying ‘No.’  What’s he got to lose?  ‘Yes’ by a landslide.

The referendum having passed, Meehan finds himself sprung from the MCC, but not exactly.  He’s still technically a Federal prisoner–the MCC thinks he’s in Otisville Prison in the Shawangunks, and Otisville thinks he’s still at the MCC.  But in point of fact, Meehan is now in the custody of the Committee to Reelect the President.  Of the United States, even.  Not that he’s told this right away.  These people would prefer not to tell him anything at all.  They just want him to steal something for them (you already know approximately what), and then they’ll arrange for his permanent release (pending his inevitable commission of further felonies, naturally).

But Meehan is not impressed with these jokers; Jeffords and his boss, a guy named Bruce Benjamin.  They have all the hallmarks of schmucks.  They forgot to get the key to his shackles before leaving the MCC.  They flew him to the Outer Banks of North Carolina in a private campaign contributor’s jet, leading to people who shouldn’t know about him knowing about him anyway.  They even forgot to give him dinner before they locked him in what looks like an exceptionally bland motel room.  They just want to drive him near where the stuff is, and wait for him to come back with it.  That’s how they think this is done.  Like he’s a Labrador Retriever, or something.

Their idea was to avoid the fix Mr. Nixon got himself into by employing a burglar who actually knows how to commit burglary (as opposed to a guy who thinks holding his hand over a lit candle makes him look cool).  Meehan will obtain this videotape and supporting documents the challenging candidate’s campaign intends to use as an October Surprise, currently at the home of a rich supporter of the other guy.  But the real surprise is Meehan wants to go back to the MCC.  It’s a sound bargaining position, since it’s already October, and they don’t have time to get anybody else.  They ask him what he wants.  He tells them.

First of all, they tell him what’s going on, about the October Surprise and such (though not what it is, that comes later).  Meehan notes a major difficulty with their idea–the moment they let him go, he’s going to scarper, because that’s what criminals do when you let them go, for some strange reason.  He suggests maybe he could be the consultant, instead of the contractor, instruct eager young campaign volunteers how to commit grand larceny in his place.

They don’t like the idea (they’re too familiar with how eager young campaign volunteers tend to fare in such situations, or really any situation), but they accept it’s the only solution, and then they happen to mention that the man whose house is to be burgled has this large valuable collection of old guns.  And that’s when the light bulb pops up over Meehan’s head.  Sure, he can do the job for them.  All he needs is a string–and for them to look the other way when he and said string pull what you might call a supplemental heist.  Once the profit motive is engaged, they can count on him.  But first he needs to talk to his lawyer.  His real lawyer.  Goldfarb.

Why Goldfarb?  Because she’s the only lawyer he knows isn’t working for them (or else they’d have had her tender their offer in the first place).  Also, one might quietly infer, because in spite of the burka-like clothing she and all female attorneys at the MCC tend to wear, he’s developed a certain interest, and he’d enjoy seeing her again, and here comes the B Plot.  Boy meets Girl.  I don’t think we can call this a Meet Cute, though.

So they arrange for him to meet Goldfarb–first name Elaine (Meehan struggles to remember her given name, never uses it in her presence, one of those last-name-only pairs, like Mulder and Scully, only they’re both skeptics.)   She is by far the most interesting love interest Westlake created in his last three decades, harking back to Chloe Shapiro, as I said, but instead of a bohemian hippie chick who happens to be Jewish and is figuring out who she wants to be in life, she’s a battle-hardened professional, fiercely strong-willed, whimsically argumentative in ways that go far beyond her legal training, and if you’ve lived any length of time in New York, you’ve met her.  And if you’re any kind of person at all, you enjoyed the hell out of meeting her, and hope to meet her again sometime.

She presented herself differently out here; not more attractive,  more aggressive.  Her skinny body was encased in fairly tight black slacks and clacking black leather boots and a gleaming black leather jacket, with an open zipper.  Her steel-wool hair was controlled by a golden barrette at the back in the shape of a narrow bouquet of roses, and large gold hoop earrings dangled to both sides of that sharp-nosed sharp-jawed face, making her black-framed eyeglasses look more than ever like spy holes in a fortress wall.

She is, needless to say, wondering what the fuck she’s doing at an airport in Norfolk Virginia, meeting a guy supposed to be locked up in Manhattan who she’s only talked to three times in her life.  But as he fills her in, she adapts to the situation with remarkable aplomb, and mainly is just delighted not to be at the MCC for a while, though she will not be delighted at all times in this story.  Meehan wonders at times what influential a-holes she offended to land that MCC job.  She does not bear fools gladly, this woman.  Fortunately, he’s not one.

Where’d Goldfarb come from?  Well, Westlake spent a whole lot of time in New York, and as I’ve remarked in past, most of his best friends were Jewish, so he met many a Goldfarb in his day.  But just between you, me, and the fence post–

USAschwerner2

Rita Schwerner.  Mickey’s wife.   No, I wouldn’t want to piss her off either.  The glasses were no doubt added for comedic purposes.

(When I read Goldfarb’s dialogue, the voice of a friend of mine I don’t see half-often enough comes through loud and clear.  Goldfarb in a different life; not a lawyer, a bit less combative, but then again, not really–I once saw her threaten to punch out the headlights of a car that didn’t respect the stop signal, down in the Village.  And if she ever reads this blog, as she keeps promising to do someday, she’ll know who she is.  Hello you.)

So the reason he needs Goldfarb is that he doesn’t trust these guys to live up to their part of the bargain–even if they intend to get him off, they could screw it up.  He needs her to advocate for him, and in exchange he makes sure she’s going to be properly compensated for her time, which tickles her no end.

There follows an exchange in which it is made very clear they have no idea how to get his charges dropped without creating too many questions, or else putting Meehan in a situation he has no intention of being in (like witness protection).  She suggests a Presidential pardon.  Okay, a gubernatorial pardon?   They’re still getting the vapors.  Meehan has a brilliant idea (he gets those sometimes).  Switch him over to juvie.

“I bet you could do it,” Meehan said.  “It’s all in the bureaucracy, right?  Switch me to juvenile court, closed session, I plead guilty, time served.”

Elaine Goldfarb said “Which is how long?”

“If we count today,” Meehan said, “twelve days.”

Jeffords said “Why would we count today?”

Meehan looked at him.  “What am I, free to go?”

Elaine Goldfarb said to Benjamin, “What have you done about the paperwork at this point, his whereabouts?”

“Pat knows that,” Benjamin said, and Jeffords said, “The MCC thinks he’s in Otisville, and Otisville thinks he’s in the MCC.”

“So he’s still serving time,” she said.  “And if you could transfer his case to juvenile court, to a judge who wouldn’ make difficulties, he could first release Meehan into my custody, I undertake to assure his presence at a hearing in chambers, probably early next week, he pleads guilty, he’s remanded into my custody again in lieu of parole, and we could very esaily make the paperwork look kosher.”  Smiling at Meehan, she said, “Good thinking.”

“Already,” Meehan said, “I feel like a kid again.”

This is more involved and pragmatic than the usual justification for this type of deal we see in fiction all the time (such as in the Grofield novel, The Blackbird).  This is actually the first time we’ve seen one of Westlake’s heisters have any kind of real attorney/client relationship, though we saw a lot of that kind of thing in the Sam Holt novels (where the Goldfarbs were both middle-aged men).  Goldfarb knows you can’t just make all that paperwork vanish, because it’s in too many places, and too many people would notice.  But Meehan knows something else, which is what I’m going to conclude Part 1 with, because I’m creeping up on 5,000 words, it’s been over a week since I posted, and I need to put a lid on this one, so I can start on Part 2.  This book was harder than I thought it would be.  Well, what else is news?

And what is this brilliant insight (out of ten thousand), from that intrepidly Jesuitical philospher, Francis Xavier Meehan?  (Don’t call him Frank, he hates that.)

That was one of the great things about the law; they couldn’t help but make it too complicated, so that in the nooks and crannies an actual person might live.

She was going on: “Once I make an appointment, I’ll give you a call.  Where do I reach you?”

“Well, I don’t know, he said.  “Where I was staying before was just temporary, and I been gone awhile, and the cops came there after my arrest to pick up my stuff, so I think maybe I don’t live there anymore.  I’ll have to find a place.”

She gave him a funny look.  “You mean the stuff in that little carry-on bag of yours is everything you own in the world?”

“Sure,” he said.  He didn’t see any point mentioning the little cash stashes he had salted away here and there, figuring everybody has such things so she’d take it for granted.  And come to think of it, a couple of those older stashes he ought to deal with, now that the goddam government was changing all the money.

Government, everywhere you turn.

She couldn’t get over the skimpiness of his worldly goods.  “Maybe you ought to rethink crime as a career path,” she said.

“I do, all the time,” he said, “but nothing else gives me the same job satisfaction.”

If you read between the lines, you know that’s not just Meehan talking.  And if you read between Donald Westlake’s lines a lot, you feel much the same way about it.  These books were never meant to be taken literally, you know.  The goal isn’t crime.  The goal is freedom.  How we get there from here.  Or if.  Anyway, Westlake got his guy out of that room.  Several rooms, in fact.  And now he’s got to figure out how to keep him out.  And I’ve got to scarper.  See you.  Yeah, not if you see me first, I know.

PS: I have never been more tempted to give the British first edition (from Robert Hale, Ltd., no less) pride of place over the American edition from Mysterious Press.  That’s a nice evocative bit of Trompe L’oeil there to the right, and what do we have on the left?  A red phone with the receiver off the hook.  No, I don’t get it either.  They’re going to nuke Meehan?  I ever actually buy a copy of this one, I’m going with the Brits.  I’m sure Joe Doherty would understand.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Bad News

We picked up one excellent word–a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word–‘lagniappe.’ They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish–so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a ‘baker’s dozen.’ It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. … If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says ‘For lagniappe, sah,’ and gets you another cup without extra charge.

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Irwin said, “There’s so much wickedness in the world, you know what I mean?”

“We know,” Kelp assured him.

Dortmunder said “Little Feather’s an Indian.”

“We’re coming to that, John,” Guilderpost said.  “In the last thirty  years or so, the American courts have been redressing many of those wrongs done so long ago.  Indians are getting their sacred tribal lands back–”

Dortmunder said, “And putting casinos on them.”

Irwin said, “Yeah, sacred tribal lands and casinos just seem to go together naturally, like apple pie and ice cream.”

“The tribes have their own sovereignty,” Guilderpost said, “their own laws, and casinos are extremely lucrative.”

Little Feather laughed, a sound like shaking a bag of walnuts.   “This time,” she said, “the Indians win.”

“The three tribes I’ve been telling you about, “Guilderpost said, “the Pottaknobbees, the Oshkawa and the Kiota, won their cause back in the sixties, and have been operating a thriving casino on their land up by the Canadian border for nearly thirty years now.  The tribes had almost died out, but now they’re coming back, or at least two of them are.  At the time of settlement, there were only three known full-blooded Pottaknobbees left in the world, and at this point, so far as anyone knows, there are none.”

“Wait a minute,” Dortmunder said.  “I’m getting it.”

“Anastasia,” Tiny said.

“Dortmunder said, “That’s it.”

It seems strange to me that this is only the tenth Dortmunder novel–in around three decades.  Averaging a book every three  years or so isn’t so bad, I suppose, but Westlake was capable of far more rapid rates of production.  The first sixteen Parker novels were produced in a mere ten year span, followed in due course by eight novels, likewise produced over about a decade’s time.  Five Mitch Tobin novels in maybe six years (probably written in much less than six, allowing for publisher schedules).  Four Samuel Holt novels in just three years (he wrote the first three back to back without stopping).

Dortmunder seems to have taken more time.  Ideas didn’t come as quickly.  The basic  line-up of characters expanded, but didn’t change that much.  And they were comic novels, which I suppose could be part of it–nothing harder to write than a genuinely good comedy. But that never stopped P.G. Wodehouse, and Westlake produced well over 30 comic novels between 1965 and 2008 (the exact number is a bit fuzzy, since some of his comedies were actually pretty serious, like Up Your Banners and Adios Scheherazade).  Well, come to think of it, comedy wasn’t nearly as big a part of his output as some people think, was it?  Maybe a third of what he wrote.

He’d always enjoyed writing the Dortmunders, found them a welcome break from his grimmer story material, and his variously successful attempts to redefine himself as a writer.  Lord knows there was always a market for them, and many of his publishers would have been quite happy if he’d written nothing else.

But now, as his creative energies started to wane (along with all his other energies, because getting old really sucks), Westlake found that he needed Dortmunder more than ever.  This is the first of five Dortmunder novels published over eight years.  He’d never written so many in so short a time before.  He wasn’t spacing them out nearly so much.

In ranking the Dortmunders up to now, I tend to put them in three separate categories, each with three books apiece.  The first three are, in my estimation, the immortal timeless classics of the series, the funniest, the most original, the most illuminating–and, tellingly, the simplest in their conception, each revolving around a single well-defined idea, each with a very specific point to make. He was genuinely excited about the possibilities of this new character, and still at the peak of his ability when he wrote them. They are, in fact, great novels.

After those first three, he faltered a bit, knowing he wanted to keep writing about Dortmunder, not always sure how to do it, introducing a new character, concept, or conceit here and there, just to change things up a bit, expand the cast, keep his readers interested, keep his publishers happy–and as I said, he just enjoyed spending time with these people.   I think it relaxed him.  Not everything has to be a timeless immortal classic.  But then he’d get ambitious again, try to do more with the set-up, see how far he could push it, and then there’d be an epic.

The great Dortmunderian epics are Good Behavior, Drowned Hopes, and What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  The character in a paradoxically heroic mode, that somehow worked for him, because he never once saw himself as a hero.  Just a working stiff doing his job.  Some higher power is making use of him, and (somewhat inconsistently) rewards him for his services.  Not perfect polished gems like the first three novels, but very pleasurable in their rambling Homeric splendor, and with some solid points of their own to make.

That leaves the three engaging but ultimately failed experiments that are Nobody’s Perfect, Why Me?, and Don’t Ask.  Many interesting pieces, that somehow never quite fit together into a coherent balanced whole.  As Richard Stark wrote, half-good is another way of saying half-assed.  But the half that’s good is more than worth the trouble.

I don’t know quite how to categorize the last five.  They form a sort of grouping of their own.  Some I like better than others, but none really stick out that much for me.  They aren’t classics.  They aren’t epics.  They aren’t experiments, failed or otherwise, because they really don’t add much of anything to the series as a whole.  A new character is brought in; a nephew type who never amounts to anything much.  A few more arrogant rich guys for Dortmunder to confound and irritate, variations on an established theme. The odd bit of telling social commentary, as the world continues to change in ways that Dortmunder finds irritating.

They’re all good books.  And they all have Dortmunder in them, and Kelp, and May, and Murch, and Murch’s Mom, and Tiny Bulcher, and Rollo the barkeep, and (far too rarely) Josephine Carol Taylor, and you get to spend time with these people you’ve come to think of as friends.  If you love the Jeeves books, do you only read the best ones?  You read all of them, because that’s what fans do.  Because you could never really get enough of these characters, and that makes each new book, however inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, a gift.

Lagniappe.  It just came to me now.  The final five Dortmunders are for Lagniappe.  That grand old New Orleans custom Mark Twain wrote about in Life on the Mississippi.  Let me just find the quote and post it up top.  Something you don’t really need, that somehow makes life a little richer, a little fuller, because it’s an act of generosity, of kindness, of surplus beneficence.  Westlake wrote these books for Lagniappe–to himself, as well as his readers.  Life gave him a bit more time than he needed to get his work done, and he gave us these books in return.  And this is the first–of the final five.  Let’s get to it.

Bad News opens with very Twain-like apology from Mr. Westlake to his various translators around the world, and the aggravation he’s put them through via his take on the English language.  He mentions by name Laura Grimaldi, Jiro Kimura, and Jean Esch. (The first two wrote original mystery fiction as well as translations).   Esch definitely translated this one; not sure about the other two.  (It can be challenging, hunting for foreign editions of a novel when you don’t know the title, which will frequently not resemble the original title in any way–not that book covers always mention the translator anyway.  I suspect sales-conscious publishers tend to do the translating when it comes to titles.)

This one has what must be considered one of the best opening passages of any novel in this series.

John Dortmunder was a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness.  Now, like an excessively starry sky, a thousand thousand fluorescent lights in great rows in the metal roof of this huge barnlike store building came flickering and buzzing and sqlurping on, throwing a great glare over all the goods below, and over Dortmunder too, and yet he knew this vast Speedshop discount store in this vast blacktop shopping mall in deepest New Jersey, very near Mordor, did not open at ten minutes past two in the morning.  That’s why he was here.

(Yeah, you see why he might harbor guilt feelings regarding his many valiant translators, don’t you?  I mean, just for ‘sqlurping’ alone.  I suppose they all sighed resignedly, and came up with an equivalently onomatopoeic expression, somehow.)

So leaving aside the revelation that Westlake may have read Tolkien (the first of those elaborately overwrought Peter Jackson films came out quite some months after the publication of this novel was old news), the real takeaway is Dortmunder vs. the Big Box Store (hailing back to a similar escapade for the invisible Freddie Noon in Smoke), and we’ll call this one a draw.

He trips an alarm, and the Jersey cops arrive in Keatonesque numbers.  Improvising as always, he breaks into a little optician shop within the imperious emporium, the door locking behind him–he can’t hide there, because the walls are glass, but that’s not what he has in mind.  He pretends to be a customer who fell asleep waiting for his prescription to be ready–he even filled out the credit card slip–gee, thanks for rescuing me officers, the missus will be worried sick.

He’s so pleased that the flatfoot rubes fell for this threadbare ruse, it doesn’t much bother him that he had to go home to the missus without all the digital cameras he’d been in the process of stealing, which would have netted him about a thousand bucks.  He’s so proud of having fooled them, he forgets they still foiled him.  There’s a little grifter in everyone, you see.  Yes, this is foreshadowing.

The missus is May, of course, who as he tells her the stirring story of his sly scam, is secretly sighing to herself.

May didn’t like to be critical, but she just had the feeling sometimes that John didn’t really want a nest egg, or a financial cushion, or freedom from money worries, or even next month’s rent.  She felt somehow that John needed that prod of urgency, that sense of desperation, that sick knowledge that he was once again dead flat, stony, beanless broke, to get him out of bed at night, to get him to go out there and bring home the bacon.  And the pork chops, and the ham steak, and maybe the butcher’s van as well.

Oh, he made money sometimes, though not often.  But it never got a chance to burn a hole in his pocket, because it burned through his fingers first.  He’d go with a couple of his cronies out to the track, where obviously the horses were smarter than he was, because they weren’t betting on him, were they?  John could still remember, as he sometimes told her, that one exciting day when he’d almost broken even; just the memory of it, years later, could bring a hint of color to his cheeks.

And then there were the friends he’d loan money to.  If he had it, they could have it, and the kind of people they were, they’d take his two  hundred dollars and go directly to jail.

And this is all the explanation we’re ever going to get about what happened to that great trove of treasure Dortmunder got out of Max Fairbanks last time out, folks.  (Hey, it’s more of an explanation than we ever get from Parker.)  May’s lament about her man’s  generosity brings to mind an ancient Gaelic ode to another famous bandit chief (long predating Robin Hood).  It was said of Fionn mac Cumhaill

If the brown leaves
that the trees shed were gold,
if the bright waves were silver,
Finn would give it all away.

And bet the rest on the ponies.  Oh Dortmunder has Irish in him, you can take that to the bank (then take the bank).

So he’ll never be rich, but marginally solvent he must somehow remain, and to that end, enter that most feckless of his Fianna, Andy Kelp (who never knocks, just picks locks).  Andy’s got a job for them, that just happens to pay a thousand a man–May sees a providential pattern in this.  She would see that.

It’s work for hire, which Dortmunder has been willing to do in the past, but always burglary for hire–this is grave-robbing for hire.  Well, grave-switching.  They dig up one dead guy, and put another dead guy in his place.  Okay, where the hell do you find somebody willing to pay a thousand a man for illicit grave-digging?  “I met him on the Internet,” Andy says.  “Oh boy,” Dortmunder responds.  They are never going to see eye to eye on progress, those two.

We never find out what kind of criminal Craigslist Andy has been consulting here (maybe the actual Craigslist?), but we do learn the name of his correspondent–Fitzroy Guilderpost.  And he lives up to the name.  Or down.

As for Guilderpost, the mastermind looked mostly like a mastermind: portly, dignified, white hair in waves above a distinguished pale forehead.  He went in for three-piece suits, and was often the only person in a given state wearing a vest.  He’d given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip.  He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as if the mustache were still there.

(And this is why I have a picture of Philip Bosco up top.  A mere 70 years of age when this was written, perfect for the role, but I don’t expect Westlake had him in mind.  Then again Westlake did love the theater, and those who love the theater in New York speak the name Bosco with as much reverence as one possibly can speak the name of a chocolate syrup brand that is typically spelled in cartoon-like blue and red letters.)

What follows is a chapter in which we learn that Guilderpost is a con-artist par excellence, with two colorful co-conspirators–a defrocked college professor named Irwin Gabel who I have somehow head-cast against type as Sam Waterston, and a delectable if somewhat intimidating former showgirl named Little Feather, who would have been rightfully played by Cher, had this book come out a decade or two sooner, which it didn’t, and had there been a movie, which there wasn’t, and had the producers wanted to pay her asking price, which they probably wouldn’t have.   But Cher is mentioned in the book, and pretty sure she was in Westlake’s mind.  Maybe he caught her act while doing research on casinos.

Little Feather is Native American, or as most Native Americans say in daily parlance, an Indian (for a people who have inspired so much political correctness in recent years, they are not themselves very PC, no matter what Hollywood may think).  It’s possible that like Cher, and an awful lot of other people who call themselves Indians, her ancestry not strictly indigenous, but outside of Africa, whose ever is?

She’s an Indian, she’s not even the teensiest bit PC, and she’s getting too old to dance on a stage wearing nothing but feathers, regardless of size.  Her back-up profession of dealing cards at casinos has likewise begun to pall.  So she has agreed to go along with Guilderpost and Gabel’s scam, which is explained adequately well in that quote up top.  And she’s also willing to go along with them killing the low-rent hoodlums they con into digging up graves for them, which is what they imagine John and Andy to be.  I believe the word Guilderpost uses is “gonifs”, and I don’t think he’s Jewish at all, or else he’d know that word is not the Yiddish equivalent for pigeon.

And neither are Dortmunder and Kelp, both of whom easily spot Irwin’s tail as they ride along with Guilderpost in the van.  The idea is that they dig up the grave, and switch the bodies, and then Irwin comes up from behind with a gun, and then they both get their hands and feet duct-taped together, and are thrown over the side of a handy bridge, nevermore to be seen.  Dead pigeons tell no tales.  But Westlake heisters are made of sterner stuff.

Before you can say turnabout is fair play, Dortmunder has deftly disarmed Guilderpost, and Kelp goes back to get Irwin–who it turns out is wired for sound–Guilderpost is not pleased to learn this.  With Guilderpost, to know him is to mistrust him, so Irwin was taking out an insurance policy.  And now it’s time to talk turkey.

Guilderpost, to no one’s surprise, does not have their two thousand bucks.  So our duo decides to cut themselves in on his action–whatever it may be.  He’s a bit evasive about that, and just to let him know what a bad idea that is–

Fitzroy called “What are you doing?”  But since it was obvious what they were doing, they didn’t bother to answer him.  What they were doing was, they were geting into the van, Dortmunder behind the wheel.  Then they were making a K-turn on the bridge, while Fitzroy and Irwin stood staring at them.  Then Dortmunder was lowering his window, so he could say, “When you want to talk to us, you know how to get in touch with Andy.  On the Internet.”  He closed the window, then drove back toward Long Island, saying, with deep scorn, “On the Internet.”

“There’s bad apples everywhere, John,” Kelp said.

I’m a bad apple,” Dortmunder pointed out, “but you won’t find me on the Internet.”

But you will find grifters aplenty there, some of them Nigerian Princes, no less.  Dortmunder may have enjoyed fooling those cops in New Jersey, but he’s never considered doing it for a living.

Truth to tell, there’s always been a lot more grifters than heisters in the world.  The life expectancy is better, for one thing.  But Westlake never wrote much about that kind of crime–in spite of the fact that he got an Oscar nod for adapting Jim Thompson’s The Grifters for the movies, and he won the Edgar Award for God Save The Mark,  whose protagonist is the ultimate griftee. Many of his protagonists are certainly accomplished tricksters.  It’s worth asking why he mainly left the grifter subgenre to other crime writers, including his buddy Lawrence Block.

Grifting is certainly all about identity.  You pretend to be someone you’re not, take on a false identity, in order to play on weak spots in the sucker’s identity.  When people say “You can’t cheat an honest man”, they’re really saying you can’t con people who know who they are.

That’s why in God Save The Mark, the hero becomes immune to the short cons he used to fall for so easily, then twigs to the long con being played on him, once he’s figured out who he is.  That’s the point of the story being told–we’re only marks because of our identity confusion.  But in this story, self-evidently, our heroes have all known who they are for a long time now.  The confusion is going to stem from them taking on an unfamiliar role, in order to score.

And the other identity puzzle relates to the original inhabitants of North America–people whose identity is so confused, nobody can even agree on what to call them.  They were nomadic hunters, fishermen, and small farmers; they all had established tribal identities, stories that told them where they came from and where they were headed to (that the stories were not entirely true is neither here nor there, since nobody’s stories ever are literally factually true; that not being the mission statement of storytellers).

Then in comes Mr. Wasichu to foul everything up, and after much unpleasantness (some would say genocide, though obviously it was just intermittently attempted genocide, a somewhat lesser offense), now they’re running gaming establishments.  Well, most of them aren’t, but that’s the new meme. The surviving aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas are called two different names in the U.S., deriving from various misunderstandings relating bizarrely to two Italian navigators.  In Canada, they’re called “First Nations,” which is really just as bad, since the English word ‘nation’ doesn’t remotely describe what they were before the Wasichus got here.

Their group identities got lost in translation.  They had to start reinventing themselves–like the rest of us.  Welcome to America, people who were here thousands of years before it existed as such.  And Westlake is fascinated by the way Indian reservations are distinct sovereign nations within his own nation, part of it, theoretically with all the same rights, yet somehow their own thing, avoiding any proper national definition, neither fish nor fowl. It’s Anguilla all over again.  Under A Yankee Heaven.

It’s a lot for one little book about comedic criminals to get across, and Westlake doesn’t manage an authoritative statement on either theme, but it does somehow enrich the narrative.  Which I seem to be straying from, sorry.

So Dortmunder and Kelp have the van, and thus they have the body of whoever was originally in that grave they dug up, and so basically there’s no way the grifting trio can pull their scam without coming to terms with them–or getting rid of them, which they know would be Fitzroy and Irwin’s preferential option (Little Feather is less bloody-minded), so they bring in Tiny Bulcher to make that option less palatable.

What happens is, Anne Marie Carpinaw, now happily cohabitant with Kelp, wants to have Thanksgiving dinner, like they were a regular couple, which they’re not, but whatever.  Kelp will do whatever she wants, because regular sex is a good thing.  So they have John and May and Tiny and J.C. over, and this is the only time we get to see her in this book, so enjoy it.  I did.  She gets to offer a brief professional opinion on the impending scam, and is seen no more.

And right during dinner, Kelp gets a call from Fitzroy Guilderpost–it took about five weeks, but he managed to get Kelp’s phone number, which means he knows where Kelp lives, which means there’s some pressure on both sides to meet now.  Kelp tells a story about a friend of his who agreed to be home at a certain time to take a call from this guy he had a little disagreement with, and then his house blew  up at that exact time.  So they’re just going to meet in at Parking Area Six at Jones Beach.  The next morning.  Not much time to plan a cross.  Also a really terrible place to sneak up on anybody when it’s not beach season.

And also they’ve got Tiny Bulcher.  Who is terrifying enough all by his lonesome.  At the meet, conducted at Little Feather’s mobile home, parked at Jones Beach, he somehow accessorizes to even more blood-chilling effect.   See, he’s duct-taped a hand grenade to one of his massive hands.  And now he’s offering the extracted pin to Guilderpost.

Guilderpost gaped at the hand grenade.  All three of them gaped at the hand grenade.  Not taking the pin, Guilderpost said, “What are you doing?”

“Well, I’m goin inside there,” Tiny said, “look around, see the situation.”

“But why–Why that thing?”

“Well, if I was to faint or anything in there,” Tiny said, “I wouldn’t be holding this safety lever anymore, would I?”

Irwin said, “Is that–Is that an actual–is that live?”

“At the moment,” Tiny said.

Guilderpost, flabbergasted, said, “But why would you do such a thing?”

Dortmunder answered, saying, “Fitzroy, we’ve got like a few reasons not to trust you a hundred percent.  So Tiny sees to it, if something happens to somebody, something happens to everybody.”

Little Feather takes the pin, and makes a joke about never having been pinned on the first date, making it clear who’s wearing the balls in this outfit.  Irwin insists on accompanying Tiny into the motor home, because yeah, they booby-trapped it. Well, there’s no harm in trying, right?

So now that it’s been established that a trio of grifters, even of one of them is clearly a direct descendant of Sacagawea (because she’s one with the sack, get it?), is nowhere near sufficient to finish off the Dortmunder Gang, they get down to brass tacks about what’s happening here.  Little Feather is going to pose as the last surviving member of the Pottaknobbee tribe, and as such, due a third of the take from an Indian casino operating upstate.  Like the woman who once claimed to be the crown princess of all the Russias, she has been carefully coached to know everything she’s supposed to know about the person she’s supposed to be. Unlike the late Anna Anderson, there are now scientific means of proving she’s a liar, as Anderson was posthumously proven to be in the 1990’s, shortly before this book was written.

Guilderpost has allowed for all that.  Little Feather’s real grandfather’s body is the one Dortmunder and Kelp put in the grave of the man whose great-granddaughter she will claim to be, one Joseph Redcorn, and DNA testing will confirm she is related to him.  A former construction worker, who was up there with the famed Mohawk high steel men  one day (already fading into the past as Westlake wrote this), on the skeleton of what would become the Empire State Building, when he lost his balance and fell. (All surviving members of the Three Tribes have always believed the Mohawks pushed him, which if true would be less of an Indian thing than a clubbish construction worker union thing, I’m guessing.)

And here’s a third identity puzzle.  This woman every reader of Bad News will go on thinking of as Little Feather Redcorn, even while  knowing her real name is Shirley Ann Farraff (at least that’s the name she’s gone by in the white world, her stepfather’s name, and Guilderpost has come up with a fix for that as well), has to spend the rest of her life pretending to be someone she’s not, and a member of a tribe she didn’t even know existed until these two hucksters approached her because she looked the part of an Indian princess and dealing cards at a casino generally means you’ve got a good poker face.  And she’s perfectly fine with that, as long as it means she’s set for life.   And the book clearly wants us to root for her, if not necessarily her partners in grift.  We’ll have to talk more about that later.

So the agreement is made–Dortmunder & Co. don’t get a share of the profits the original conspirators hope to get, but once the plan has succeeded, they will get 100k apiece for their services (and their silence afterwards).  And now they’re all heading north.   To the very heart of Westlake Country, but he never claimed it was his country alone.

You hardly even know you’re leaving the United States.  On your way to Dannemora in upstate New York, near the Canadian  border, famous as the home of Clinton State Prison, you turn left at the big billboard covered by a not very good painting of a few Indians in a  canoe on some body of water, either a river or a lake, surrounded by pine tree-covered mountains.  It’s either sunrise or sunset, or possibly the mountains are on fire.  Printed across this picture, in great thick letters speckled white and tan and black, apparently in an effort to make it seem as though the letters are made of hides of some kind, is the announcement:

WORLD-FAMOUS
SILVER CHASM CASINO
Native American Owned & Operated With Pride
5 Mi.

This billboard is brightly illuminated at night, which  makes it seem rather worse than by day.  At its top and bottom, arrows have been added, also lit up at night, which point leftward at a well-maintained two-lane concrete rod that curves away into the primeval forest.

You are deep in the Adirondacks here, in the state-operated Adirondack Forest Preserve, but once you make that left turn, you have departed the United States of America and entered the Silver Chasm Indian Reservation, home of the Oshkawa and the Kiota, and until recently, also home of the Pottaknobbee.  This is a sovereign state, answerable to no one but itself

There are at this time eleven very real Indian Reservations in New York State, including the Shinnecock reservation on Long Island (this one time, bird-watching at Montauk Point at dawn, we came across a man who looked like an Indian at prayer, and it would have been rude to ask if he was a real-live Shinnecock and who he was praying to, so we just quietly left the place to him, since it did belong to him, after all, or he to it.)

The St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in Franklin County, most of which is in the huge Adirondack State Park (three times the size of Yellowstone), is the most likely real-life model for Silver Chasm, but knowing Westlake, I would tend to think he made use of composites here.  That final image you see up top is the Yellow Brick Road Casino, in Chittenango, not far from Syracuse, and right next to Land of Oz and Ends Antiques shop, just in case you have any money left after leaving the casino.

The casino at the Franklin county reservation (which it should be remembered is inside of yet not part of Franklin county) has a more authentic sounding name, and much more luxurious-sounding facilities than what Westlake describes here.  Though since it was founded in 1999, it was probably a lot less grand at the time of writing.  Anyway, he couldn’t very well use the Mohawks here, could he now?   Fictional tribes don’t sue.

Anyway, it’s in this chapter that we meet Roger Fox and Frank Oglanda, managers of the casino, and though they are legitimate members of the two remaining tribes, it’s by DNA only.  They are, we realize quickly, members of a vast and powerful tribe that exists throughout the civilized world; one of whose members is now operating out of the White House, though his reservations are in Manhattan and Mar-a-Lago.  (And our reservations are a bit late to mention, wouldn’t you say?)

They get the letter from Little Feather, carefully composed by Guilderpost, laying claim to her ancestral heritage.  And of course they think she’s a fake, but the real problem is they know their books are fake–they’ve been stealing from their own people, skimming off the top for decades now (this fictional Adirondacks casino has been around for thirty years).   And if this woman’s claim is accepted, she’ll have every right to look at those books.  So they make some calls, and next thing you know, Little Feather’s in jail.  Short novel,  huh?

Well, in point of fact, that only takes us to the end of Chapter 13.  In a 50 chapter book.  As Custer once said at the Little Bighorn, “Oy fucking vey.”  Well, I bet he would have, had he known the phrase.  But now that the foundation is laid, the remaining edifice should rise quickly to its full height in Part 2.  And then I bet the Mohawks push me off.

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

Review: Smoke, Part 3

fig4

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?

ralph_ellison_memorial

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