Category Archives: Donald Westlake short stories

Review: Thieves’ Dozen

 

The fifth and final collection of Donald Westlake’s short fiction published in his lifetime turned out to be the best.  Which is not to say the previous four were lacking in merit.  There were very fine stories in each of them–surrounded by stories that were not so fine.  It was never easy for him to come up with a whole book’s worth that could live up to the standard he’d set in his novels.  This collection marks the only instance where he achieved this.  With a character plucked from a series of often rather broad-ranging novels, and set upon the short and narrow-focused for a change.

Mr. Westlake had his troubles with this form.  Mainly relating to character, which for him was the foundation of everything he aspired to as a writer.  Yes, plot matters, technique matters, style matters, subtext matters–and none of it matters a damn if you can’t create people with their own unique voices and identities.  And when he only had a few pages to work with, he was hard-pressed to make that happen.  I suppose all writers have their troubles with this form, and find different ways to deal with them.

In my biased estimation, the greatest short story writer in English was, is, and shall remain that crafty Corkonian, Frank O’Connor (a pseudonym, wouldn’t you know, his birth name was Michael O’Donovan).  He wrote little else in the way of fiction besides short stories.  Quit the novel after two early attempts, and for good reason: he worked best in miniature.  His characters don’t leap out at you, so much as they pull you in; make you laugh with them, scowl at them, grieve for them (read The Impossible Marriage sometime, or any of his stories–you’ll see what I mean).  Having said all he needed to say, even one additional page would be art crime.  No more about it.

O’Connor drew heavily on people he’d met for his models, his countrymen and countrywomen; vivid, flawed, noble, innocent, brave, brilliant, begrudging, stubborn, perverse.  He wrote of his mother (who was all of the above), with love and wonder, that he’d bribed a London hotel chambermaid to bring her meals, and when he came back a short time later, the mammy had gotten that poor Devon girl to cough up her entire life story over tea and scones; enough material for a novel.  She could seemingly get a novel out of anyone she met, and he could only lament that she never wrote any–not her purview–but she passed that gift for gleaning to her shy subtle son, who boiled a novel’s worth of insight into a nutshell of narrative.

Westlake, himself a shy subtle New York Irish boy, likewise endowed with a formidable mother (and a far better father than O’Connor’s scapegrace sire) had a comparable eye for human complexity, but he was less inclined to draw too directly from life, preferring a bit more distance between himself and his subjects; relying more on genre templates as part of that distancing technique (and to make rent, of course).

O’Connor’s autobiographical writings are without superior (I can think of other short story writers I admire who did well in this regard, which may well mean something).  Westlake’s memoirs remain forever unfinished and mostly unpublished.  For all his outward garrulousness, he was a deeply private man, unwilling to make himself too vulnerable to scrutiny–the Stark in him–the less people know about you, the safer you are.

Closest he got to the confessional was when he wrote as Tucker Coe, a persona he rejected, then ritually slaughtered in a mock-interview.  (Didn’t help that his most personal early novel under his own name was rejected, and went unpublished in his lifetime.) Whatever the reasons, he needed more space to create characters who lived and breathed and spoke to him.  To find ways to reveal himself more obliquely to us.

His models would have included Hammett, O. Henry, and others in his chosen field–better teachers would be hard to find.  But when it came to short fiction, he usually fell far short of the standard they’d set (while writing novels that read like short stories, so his apprenticeship was not wasted).

Having tossed off scores of stories for the pulps in the late 50’s and early 60’s (good practice, needed income, unsympathetic editors), his production slacked off a lot when he found his footing as a novelist–by which time he’d created his two signature series characters. Only one of whom was destined to spawn a series of short stories (and one novella) to augment his long form adventures.

Though Richard Stark began his existence as a short story writer, never once that we know of did he assay to write a short story about Parker, Grofield, or any member of his large supporting cast of players.  Hard to believe he didn’t at least consider it.  Did he try, and find the results wanting?  Stark’s great virtue is succinctness–you’d think that would have translated well to the shorter form.  A mystery that seems unlikely to be cleared up.

It was Dortmunder’s lot in life to do the jobs Parker turned down.  In his introduction to this anthology, Westlake recounts once more how in 1967, he was trying to write a more humorous Richard Stark novel, in which Parker would have to steal the same thing over and over again.  As Westlake puts it, Parker thought this was beneath his dignity, though in the novel that did result from that attempt, he was perfectly willing to do subcontracting work for a group of African revolutionaries.

Still seeing merit in the notion of repetitive theft, Westlake conjured John Dortmunder out of a neon beer sign, and although the initial attempt at a novel stalled out, he returned to it a few years later, with great success.  As with Parker, he didn’t write the first novel with the idea of there being more of them, but more happened anyway.  He’d finished Nobody’s Perfect, when a scrap of conversation between Dortmunder and a well-dressed man came to him, the bare bones of an idea he knew wasn’t enough for a novel.  This could be the start of something small.

It worked out to ten Dortmunder shorts written and published over the course of twenty years, mainly in Playboy.  Not a venue you’d think Dortmunder would feel at home in, but it must have paid well.  Some of the latter run of stories Westlake wrote with the notion that he just needed a few more to make a book out of them, reminiscent of the genesis of Levine.  But he wasn’t trying to finish off a character arc (or the character) here, as he was with that collection of police procedurals that don’t amount to much individually, but somehow pack an emotional wallop when read together.

There’s no discernible arc whatsoever to the Dortmunder shorts, or any emotional wallop at all, because it’s not called for.  More like doodling in the margins.  Inspired doodling, because he’d finally found what he’d always been lacking when it came to short stories–readymade voices, people whose quirks he already knew inside out.  With the problem of character out of the way, he could concentrate on plot and motivation.

These stories are all perfectly balanced in a way the novels rarely were.  No need to come up with elaborate heists for Dortmunder to pull (no time to pull them).  No need to come up with separate subplots for an ever-expanding cast of regulars, all clamoring for their moments in the sun. Just the right number of moving parts here.

You never get the whole ensemble (except in the last offering here, which isn’t a Dortmunder).  The stories were either about Dortmunder and Kelp, or Dortmunder as a single-o.  The solo stories were some of the best.  Focused.  Precise.  Yet still with the loose-jointed nonchalance that distinguishes the series as a whole.

There are, when you think about it, a host of chapters in the later Dortmunders that stand apart from the main plotline, that could have easily been repurposed as short stories with a cursory rewrite. No doubt some of them began as ideas for short stories that were never written, or some that were.  Dortmunder working a short con as a faux encyclopedia salesman going door to door, in The Hot Rock and Bank Shot, was an idea filched directly from a story Westlake wrote about just such a fly-by-nighter–and the versions with Dortmunder are far superior, because Dortmunder is real in a way few of Westlake’s short-form protagonists ever were.

There’s something about Dortmunder, a laconic understated quality that oddly lends itself to vignettes, anecdotes, tall tales.  He feels like somebody O. Henry could have easily dreamed up, but didn’t (and this is one reason my vote for the best Dortmunder novel might well go to the one that reimagined The Ransom of Red Chief).

One more oddity–Dortmunder usually wins out in these stories.  Not such a sad sack in the shorts.  Not without his share of setbacks, sidetracks, and petty humiliations, to be sure, but I think he’d have gladly given up the arduous and too-often futile two to four hundred page slogs in favor of maybe ten modestly profitable short-term ventures a year–as opposed to ten in a lifetime.  The bottom falling out of the market for short stories was one reason that was never gonna happen.  But as always, he made the most of what came to hand.  Let’s see if we can do the same.

Ask A Silly Question: By all means, let’s.  As we join him, Dortmunder is having a conversation with an elegantly dressed older man, in a splendidly appointed Manhattan townhouse at Park & 65th, and he’s being asked what people of his sort usually drink.

“Bourbon,” Dortmunder said.  “Water.  Coca-Cola.  Orange juice.  Beer.”

“Bourbon,” the elegant man told one of the two plug-uglies who’d brought Dortmunder here.  “And sherry for me.”

“Coffee,” Dortmunder went on.  “Sometimes Gallo Burgundy.  Vodka.  Seven-Up.  Milk.”

“How do you prefer your bourbon?” the elegant man asked.

“With ice and water.  People of my sort also drink Hi-C, Scotch, lemonade, Nyquil–

“Do you drink Perrier?”

“No,” said Dortmunder.

Playboy published this in February of 1981, a bit over a decade after The Hot Rock, and Dortmunder was hardly so famous by then that Westlake could presume universal familiarity with his brainchild’s quirks.  He’s not taking a shortcut here, writing Dortmunder fanfic for a quick buck. He’ll do it right, or not at all.

It’s important for his own working methods that he knows his guy, and he does, but he still has to make sure he’s established that guy in the mind of some some gentleman of leisure who has never even heard of Dortmunder ere now, and is merely taking a quick break from ogling Miss February (Vicky lynn Lasseter, I googled, nice eyes), so he can go on pretending he buys this publication for the articles.  I don’t believe even The O’Connor Don ever established character more efficiently than The Don Westlake does here.

The elegant man married some sweet young thing who turned out more young than sweet.  A nasty divorce followed afoot, with no accompanying prenuptial agreement (elegance not necessarily implying prudent foresight).  As part of her punitive inroads on his worldly goods, she demanded his most prized possession, a Rodin nymph in bronze.  Unwilling to part with one nymph to appease another, he had a copy made, and bribed a court-appointed expert to certify it the original.

All well and good, but now for tax purposes she’s donating it to the Museum of Modern Art, and there’s no bribing them.  The elegant man (let’s just call him Tem, inelegant as that sounds) wants Dortmunder to tell him how to steal the copy back that very night, so  his subterfuge may never be revealed. But the ersatz nymph weighs over five hundred pounds, enough to give Jove himself a hernia.  How can she be carried away undetected?

Various potential schemes are floated by Tem, and shot down contemptuously by his contrarian consultant–Dortmunder is irritated at having been picked up by Tem’s plug-uglies as he was on his way to the O.J. to discuss a potential job with the usual suspects.  Tem wants to pay him a measly grand for his advice. Dortmunder bargains him up to five, but Tem decrees that for so large an honorarium, they’d like the honor of his company during the heist.  Dortmunder phones Kelp at the O.J., explains he’ll be late.  Kelp says no problem, they’re having a nice discussion on religion and politics.

One very satisfying plot twist later (I’m going to try to avoid revealing those when possible, but no promises), Tem is in a most inelegant fix, and the vengeful Dortmunder is planning a raid on his now-unguarded townhouse with the gang from the O.J., which one would hope includes the recently introduced Tiny Bulcher (for heavy lifting), but would you want to discuss religion and politics with him? Be my guest.

A hard one to improve upon.  But Westlake did, several times.  Including the very next time, in a little equestrian yarn by the name of–

Horse Laugh: (Playboy again, June ’86, Rebecca Ferratti, I think we got a motif going here.)  Dortmunder and Kelp are in the process of stealing a thoroughbred champion named Dire Straits who is now gone out to stud in the wide open spaces of western New Jersey (Money for nothing and your chicks for free, hmm, wouldn’t have thought he’d be into that band–probably just for the implicit wordplay).

Dortmunder, we later learn, bet on this very nag at the track on one of the rare days Dire Straits finished out of the money (Want to bet that’s a coincidence?  What odds you give me?).  His weakness for blowing his ill-gotten gains on the ponies should not be confused with any personal feeling for them.  He has no more reason to love these four-legged wallet-emptiers than they him.

Dortmunder looked at the horse.  The horse looked at Dortmunder.  “Ugly goddam thing,” Dortmunder commented, while the horse just rolled his eyes in disbelief.

“Not that one,” the old coot said.  “We’re looking for a black stallion.”

“In the dark,” Dortmunder commented.  “Anyway, all horses look the same to me.”

(Again, character established from the starting gate.  You’ll enjoy these stories more if you’ve read some of the novels, but it’s by no means obligatory.)

The old coot, Hiram Rangle, works for some screwy squire with more horses than sense.  He wants better bloodlines for his broodmares (sans stud fees), so they’ll throw a few winning foals nobody will expect great things from, because they won’t know who really sired them. The real money will be in the large bets he lays on them–you see, it’s only illegal to bet against your own horse, at least in America.  Stealing them is a problem pretty much everywhere.

So Dortmunder and Kelp are doing work for hire again, and Hiram, their employer’s employee, is there because he can identify the goods, then cajole said goods into coming along for the ride.  A recalcitrant hotblood equine being a far trickier proposition than a 500lb Rodin nymph, even if he can move around by himself.  (Well, that’s going to be the problem, you see.)

This one’s special to me because it’s the single most sustained look into animal behavior that Westlake ever attempted.  Westlake featured animals in his work fairly often, but they were rarely central to the narrative–a dangerous dog, a hovering hawk, a prattling parrot (we’ll get to him)–sometimes POV characters, but briefly.  More often mere plot devices.  But there’s always this underlying consciousness that they are, in fact, conscious, volitive beings with their own agendas–and that they, unlike we, know what they want.

I’ve read that Westlake once had a cat named James Blue, who provided him with one of his pseudonyms (the kind he wrote pseudo-porn under), and nary a reference to cats can I recall from his oeuvre (too close to home?).  All I can divine from his fiction, vis a vis our fellow vertebrates, is that he was interested in them, and perhaps sometimes afraid of them.  And it’s this tension between fear and fascination that tends to inform his writing about them. Leading to many an absurd situation

Walking through his first barn, Dortmunder learned several facts about horses: (1) They smell. (2) They breathe, more than anything he’d ever met in his life before. (3) They don’t sleep, not even at night. (4) They don’t even sit down. (5) They are very curious about people who happen to go by. And (6) they have extremely long necks.  When horses in stalls on both sides of Dortmunder stretched out their heads toward him at the same time, wrinkling their black lips to show their big square tombstone teeth, snuffling and whuffling with those shotgun-barrel noses, sighting at him down those long faces, he realized that the aisle wasn’t that wide after all.

“Jeepers,” Kelp said, a thing he didn’t say often.

(Okay, how is a devoutly urban thief who probably never even finished high school supposed to know horses usually sleep standing up?  I assume Westlake knew this, but the thing about autodidacts is that they always know more and less than you assume.  We’ll be talking about that when we get to the parrot.)

So they find Dire Straits, and Hiram sweet talks him (which includes doling out sweets in the form of sugar cubes), and they get him outside, and it all goes to hell, really fast.  A complication they hadn’t counted upon.  See, the staff at this place don’t know the thieves are there, but the horses do, and they’ve heard via the equine grapevine that there’s sugar cubes in the offing. Giddyap.

Further complication–coming into the place, Dortmunder and Kelp dislodged the rails of a fence bordering the road, then put them back up without the nails to hold them in place, to facilitate their exit with the loot.  The excited horses have now pushed their way through the fence like a herd of TV zombies, making their way to the fatal complication–an orchard full of green apples, right across the road.

“Like shit through a goose” doesn’t half say it. Geese have nothing on horses.  The stable environs are now fully Augean. The staff are now wide awake, and running around, slipping and sliding in the love offerings of man’s noblest companion, futilely trying to persuade the horses that they’re domesticated animals who only do what they’re told.  Oh yeah?  We’re gonna have a midnight snack, two-legs.  How ya like them apples?

The police are arriving to restore order and will inevitably realize who was responsible for the chaos.  Hiram, who like any horsey person, dreamed in his lost youth of riding some Farleyesque black stallion on a desert isle, leaps aboard Dire Straits, and makes a mad gallop to freedom.  It does not go well.  Dortmunder and Kelp decline the role of Tonto, and through a typical ruse, manage to commandeer a truck to get them the hell out of there.

I will spoil this ending, but only because it’s spoiler-proof.  It turns out Dire Straits took a shine to one or both of them, followed them away from the madding crowd, and they could steal him easy, take him home, and–what then? What could they possibly do with him? Hiram’s boss will be joining him in the hoosegow, shortly.

Kelp isn’t Dortmunder.  He’s never been a horse person, he’s mainly thinking about the million dollars this horse is worth (that they could never in a million years get), but there’s something plaintive in the “Can I keep him?” discussion that finishes out the tale. (As a girl, my significant other begged her father for a horse like she was Richard III.  They lived in a Manhattan apartment.  “Where would we keep it?”  “On the roof!”  She settled for a puppy, who grew to the size of a small horse.)

We don’t just keep animals we don’t eat because they’re useful to us (and so often, you know, they are impediments to our daily enterprise).  They charm us, and this one’s starting to charm Kelp.  Dortmunder, being something of an animal himself, is deaf to this Siren’s song, and drags Kelp away.

But not even the wildest of horses ever dragged anyone away from–

Too Many Crooks: (The usual, August ’89, Gianna Amore, lives up to the name.)  Probably the most famous short story Westlake ever wrote (it’s this or Nackles, and this is a much better story than Nackles).  Won him his second Edgar, on his way to the coveted trifecta (superfecta, if you count the Grandmaster thing).  The story that gave us the perhaps over-used John Diddums gag.  (It’s Welsh.  You knew that).

This is the one that people who don’t know spit about Dortmunder sometimes still know.  “Oh right, he’s robbing a bank, and then he finds out somebody is already robbing it.  Funny!”  You wouldn’t think so if it happened to you.  What’s funny to me is this friend of mine who admits to having read no other Westlake than this, and I just now realize I never inquired where she read it.  Not in this book. She’d have remembered Horse Laugh.  Probably anthologized elsewhere.  I’m sure that’s it.

Westlake used to say Parker was about romantic crime, and Dortmunder was about the mundane reality, and that’s a crock.  Real bank robbers shoot people.  Dortmunder hardly ever points a gun at anybody.  Suppose it went off or something?  The rules are, Parker never shoots anybody who doesn’t deserve it, and Dortmunder never shoots.  So towards the end of avoiding messy gunplay, he and Kelp are tunneling into a bank vault–in the daytime.  During banking hours.  Sure, why not?  I know this sounds critical, but here’s the thing–when you read the story, you 110% believe it.  Fiction isn’t about realism.  Westlake knows this.  Many others seem confused on that point.

In the meantime, a gang of more Starkian heisters have taken the traditional approach, with guns and masks and everything, but being in Dortmunder’s universe they screwed it up royally, and the place is surrounded, come out with your hands up, you know the drill, but they figure they can just take everyone hostage and get out that way.

There’s so many people in that vault when Dortmunder and Kelp break through the wall, that the other gang doesn’t even realize Dortmunder isn’t one of the hostages, and the real hostages think he and Kelp are cops coming in the back way to rescue them.  Kelp beats a hasty retreat through the tunnel, the hostages follow his lead, thereby rescuing themselves, and Dortmunder ends up being the only hostage, having been randomly picked to go outside and relay the demands of the nervous felons with machine guns to the equally nervous cops with sniper rifles.  (Randomly?  Ya think?  Maybe if this is the only Dortmunder story you ever read).

His situation is further complicated by the fact that his story began about two hours after this other, less whimsical, story, and he’s a bit slow catching up.  And one of the guys with the machine guns is a mite oversensitive.  Well, if you’ve got a machine gun, and you’re the emotional type, you tend to use it.  That’s kind of the chief argument against machine guns.

“We’re gonna give the our demands,” the robber said.  “Through you.”

“That’s fine,” Dortmunder said.  “That’s great.  Only, you know, how come you don’t do it on the phone?  I mean, the way it’s normally–”

The red-eyed robber, heedless of exposure to the sharpshooters across the street, shouldered furiously past the comparatively calm robber, who tried to restrain him as he yelled at Dortmunder, “You’re rubbing it in, are ya?  OK, I made a mistake!  I got excited and I shot up the switchboard!  You want me to get excited again?”

“No, no!” Dortmunder cried, trying to hold his hands straight up in the air and defensively in front of his body at the same time.  “I forgot!  I just forgot!”

He forgot.  As if anyone could ever forget. A vital clue, that the detective in this story, namely the red-eyed robber, seizes upon later to unravel the locked-room mystery of where this Diddums jerk came from.  Much good that does anyone, but the formal demands of the genre have been met.  A few pages later, the more informal demands of a Dortmunder story are met, to even Dortmunder’s satisfaction.

I’m not sure I consider this the very best story in the book (tough call), but rest assured it’s the best story about concurrent bank robberies anyone’s ever going to write.  They did later make a movie with that very premise, incidentally.  Flypaper.  No awards.  No nominations.  No audience.  9% ‘Fresh’ with top critics (the one good review is from the Times, and it’s not that good).  I think Dortmunder’s niche is secure for the forseeable future.

What’s not so secure is the future of live theater in the hinterlands, which brings us to–

A Midsummer Daydream:  (Ditto, May of ’90, Tina Bockrath.)  Due to a little professional misunderstanding, Dortmunder and Kelp head about 80 miles upstate to stay with Kelp’s cousin, Jesse Bohker (no relation to Tina, I’d assume) until things cool off back home.

Cousin Bohker has a farm.  Ee ey ee ey oh.  And on that farm he’s got a summer theater where they do Shakespeare for the multitudes, during the afternoon, so as not to conflict with cable TV.  Ee ey ee ey oy fucking vey.  I mean, there’s a guy walking around in a donkey’s head.  There’s fairies prancing all over the place, and not the fun urban variety. Dortmunder says enough with the iambic pentameter already, and goes outside.

And when it turns out the box office proceeds–two thousand, seven hundred twenty-four dollars, not a bad score–got lifted while Dortmunder was standing outside the converted barn with no alibi.   Cousin Bokher has an ultimatum–ee ey ee ey dough.  Or he calls in the state troopers.

The point of this exercise is to put Dortmunder in the position of having to play detective.  He needs to finger the real culprit, to avoid having some upstate Dogberry take a good look at him and Kelp, and finding out there’s much ado about everything where these guys are concerned.  But also–he’s innocent.  Innocent, I tells ya!

The experience of being unjustly accused was so  novel and bewildering to Dortmunder that he was almost drunk from it.  He had so little experience of innocence.  How does an innocent person act, react, respond to the base accusation?  He could barely stand up, he was concentrating so hard on this sudden in-rush of guiltlessness.  His knees were wobbling.  He stared at Andy Kelp and couldn’t think of one solitary thing to say.

(Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into comes to mind, but that’s probably copyrighted.  Great thing about The Bard is you never have to inquire about copyright.  There are inquiries being made about the latest Shakespeare in the Park production, but those are of a different order.  Once more into the breach of etiquette!)

What makes this such a neat little mystery is that the way Dortmunder solves it makes perfect sense for the person he is, and the experiences he’s had.  Westlake liked turning his thieves into detectives (though he never made an entire franchise out of it, the way Lawrence Block did).  Should go without saying, Dortmunder never cared about whodunnit.  He only wanted to prove he didn’t, and then get payback for the cousin assuming he did.  His sense of aggrieved innocence certainly gets an overdue workout here.   Speaking of which–

The Dortmunder Workout:  (New York Times Magazine, 1990, no centerfold, killjoys.)  The shortest story on offer here.  A mere vignette.  Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill.  Apparently just to have a bourbon and catch up with Rollo the bartender, but the regulars have things to discuss, relating to physical fitness and related issues.

The first regular said, “I don’t get what you mean by this food groups.”

“Well,” the second regular told him, “your principal food groups are meat, vegetables, dessert and beer.”

“Oh,” the first regular said.  “In that case, I’m OK.”

Yeah, you’ve heard it before.  Worth hearing again, but not much point parsing it.  Onwards to–

Party Animal: (Back to the motif. January ’93, Echo Leto Johnson.  No that’s her name, honest. I think all these girls somehow escaped from paperback sleaze novels of the 60’s. Hard to be sure, those books are so badly lit.)

As has happened in past, we join Dortmunder on a fire escape at night, cops swooping in from above like flatfooted owls, cops waiting expectantly below, like crocodiles with badges.  The window he’s currently crouching by is cracked open.  There’s a party going on inside. A Christmas party, since that’s the time of year.  He’s going to try and crash it.  Not his usual scene, but hum a few bars and maybe he can avoid going behind them.

It’s cold outside, so the bedroom he’s entering is the traditional repository for coats (nobody in Manhattan has that much spare closet space).  Underneath the pile of coats on the bed, a couple is trying, and failing, to join the party equivalent of the mile high club.  Dortmunder stows his gear, hides his loot, joins the fray.  As he thought, most people there don’t know most other people there.  He can blend into this crowd.  Yet he would fain be gone through yon waiting portal.  But hark, the doorbell rings–tis the coppers, seeking their rightful prey.  He’ll stay a week or two–he’ll stay the winter through–yet I am telling you…..

Who’s the person  you notice least at a catered party?  The lowly server, handing out food.  Which makes no sense at all, that’s the one who can actually do something for you, but there you are.  There’s a little Trump in all of us.  I must get mine surgically removed at some point.

But returning to the point at hand, Dortmunder sees the harried caterer, a not-bad blonde, wearing a perpetual angry frown, precipitated in this case by the fact that the guy supposed to be helping her out here with these party animals never showed.  Dortmunder, good Samaritan that he is, volunteers to fill the gap, pass out the canapes, while she assembles them in the kitchen.  She’s suspicious, but in no position to look a gift server in the mouth.  (As the narrator reminds us, we don’t say ‘servant’ in America, because we’re all equal here, sheahright).

So as he makes the rounds, tray in  hand, little snatches of conversation come to us….

There’s only twenty guys gonna be let in on this thing.  We have seven already, and once we have all the seed money….”

“She came to the co-op board in a false beard and claimed she was a proctologist.  Well, naturally….”

“So then I said you can have this job, and he said OK, and I said you can’t treat people like that, and he said OK, and I said that’s it, I quit, and he said OK, and I said you’re gonna have to get along without me from here on in, buster, and he said OK…so I guess I’m not over there anymore.”

“And then these guys in a rowboat–no, wait, I forgot.  First they blew up the bridge, see, and then they stole the rowboat.”

“Merry Christmas, you Jew bastard, I haven’t seen you since Ramadan.”

“And he said, ‘Madam, you’re naked,’ and I said, ‘These happen to be gloves, if you don’t mind,’ and that shut him up.”

A bit on the mundane side for such a gathering.  You who don’t hail from New York perhaps think I’m kidding.  You who do know I’m understating.  So is Westlake.  Dortmunder also hears the couple from the bedroom earlier, Larry and Sheila, and notes that Larry is basically blowing Sheila off because the coat coitus got canceled.

The caterer has noted the presence of fuzz, and is now giving Dortmunder funny looks–but saying nothing.  Just handing him more snacks for the revelers.  Dortmunder’s protective coloration is still holding up–he tests it by going up to the loitering lawmen and lawwomen, and asking if they want something.  They tell him to mind his own business.  Well, technically, that’s what got him in trouble.

The party is winding down.  The police have left the apartment, but not the chase.  They’re waiting outside.  They will search each departing guest.  Even if Dortmunder abandons his takings of the evening, his fake ID won’t hold up to close scrutiny (another thing that can happen at parties, though usually of a different age set).  Dortmunder has a fix–plant some of the jewelry he stole on one of those departing guests.  He’s kind of pleased it turns out to be Larry.  So are we all, really.

And the irate caterer, it turns out, has developed a little thing for Dortmunder.  She tells him he should know she’s married.  He tells her he is too, kind of.  Ships passing out hor d’oeuvres in the night.  As a token of what they have shared in this brief encounter, and also to say thanks for not blowing the whistle on him, he slips a gold brooch in the shape of a feather into her hair bun.  And then he’s off, free as a bird.  Larry can’t say the same, but they’ll figure out he didn’t do it, once he stops incriminating himself with his personality.  To all a good night.

A different kind of social gathering awaits Dortmunder in a less substantial tale with an interesting genesis to it, namely–

Give Till It Hurts:  This was first published in pamphlet form, by The Mysterious Bookshop, in November 1993, as gift for faithful mail order customers.  (No pin-up girls, perhaps deemed inappropriate for the holiday season, who can say?)  Westlake owed much to that shop’s estimable proprietor, Otto Penzler, but it’s Dortmunder who makes good the debt here–in more ways than one.

Dortmunder is disguised in Middle Eastern garb, having just stolen some rare coins at a hotel convention for collectors (good thing Parker isn’t into plagiarism suits).  Again, he needs to blow the joint before the law finds him, and the regular means of egress will not do.  Finding his way into a supply closet, he ties a bunch of sheets together, and lowers himself out the window in back of the hotel, abutting some smaller structures.  One of which happens to be (ta-dah!) The Mysterious Bookshop, not that he knows what that is, or cares.

So this guy named Otto comes in and sees him, and assumes he’s the ringer ‘Don’ sent in his place.  He jokes that he hopes Diddums (Welsh, remember?) is a better poker player.  That’s what this is.  A friendly poker game in the back room.  Soon other players arrive.  Larry, Justin, Al, Henry.  I know who Larry is, and perhaps someone can fill me in about the others?  I don’t know everything.  But I can easily deduce that all these gentlemen are involved with the mystery genre–also known as crime fiction.  Dortmunder has walked right into the lion’s den, you might say.

So Dortmunder figures he can bide his time until the heat fades, and might as well make a little something extra for the Christmas stocking, right?  He sits down to play, and he cheats a bit. The cops (who I have to say, seem a lot more thorough in Dortmunder’s world than they are here) come knocking, and the other players, being into detectives and all, quickly realize two things–1)Diddums is the thief! and 2)That’s why he’s been winning all our money!

They don’t talk to the law.  Honor among thieves?  Fuck that, they want their money back.  With interest. Dortmunder has to stay for the whole game, lose every hand, and then he will be allowed to leave.  The mills of the mystery gods grind slow…..

The next story is a direct sequel to this, and I believe I will give it short shrift.  It’s got Arnie Albright in it.  No, Arnie, it’s not you, I’m just going long here, and how much am I supposed to write about a story called–

Jumble Sale:  Published in The Armchair Detective [v27 #3, Summer 1994] .  Here’s the cover.  For all I know there’s a centerfold model within, perhaps dressed in nothing but a chalk outline.

armchair_detective_1994sum

(Peter Straub is a mystery writer?  Since when?  I guess since he picked up his phone and said “Sure, I’ll give you an interview.”)

So Dortmunder brings his coins to Arnie Albright, everybody’s favorite least-favorite dealer in stolen goods.  The usual Arnie-shtik is trotted out; old calendars all over the wall, obnoxious personality tics, nose like a tree root, et all.  My own feeling about Arnie is that he takes up a lot of space in the Dortmunders that should have gone to J.C. Taylor, and that you’ve read one chapter with him in it, you know all you ever needed to know about him.  But this story isn’t bad, for all that.

Summing up briefly.  A man and a woman show up to interrupt the transaction.  Arnie forces Dortmunder to pretend he’s a relative.  They say they have a semi parked downstairs on W. 86th, full of stolen flatscreen TV’s.  They keep insisting they’re not a couple.  So obviously they are a couple.  Why would a couple of crooks claim they’re not a couple in the other way?  That’s the mystery.  Solve it yourself, or read the story.  I’m moving on (seriously, Arnie, I like you fine, but I’m over 6,000 words here) to–um–what now?  Oh right!

Now What?:  (December 1999, Brooke Richards, 34”/24”/35”, measurements courtesy of Wikipedia, oh brave new world…) Quite possibly the best story in the book, but again, tough call.  Definitely the longest, all of twenty-three pages.

Dortmunder more or less accidentally stole a bounteously bejeweled brooch, reportedly worth 300k, from a movie star and his intended.  Her name is Felicia, a rather jaundiced reference to a much nicer girl of the same name marrying a much nicer movie star in Trust Me On This.

The actor made a big scene out of it with the press, like they always do, claimed the daring thief broke in and snatched it before their very eyes.  In fact, Felicia, thinking it was some cheesy pin being fobbed off on her, threw it out the window, where Dortmunder just happened to be passing by on one of his beloved fire escapes.

But this is all prologue.  The story is how he tries, and tries, and tries, to fence the brooch, traversing the urban jungle with the goods all the while concealed within a ham sandwich in a brown paper bag.  Knowing as he does, that for reasons perhaps only a tabloid editor could explain, the theft of the brooch is the #1 story in the world today.  The heat, as they say, is on.

And everywhere, there’s cops.  Keaton never saw more cops.  Not looking for him, specifically.  The entire NYPD is not on 24/7 Dortmunder detail, much as it seems that way at times.  But situation after situation emerges in his quest, in which cops emerge from the woodwork, and he has to restrain the innate impulse to run like a rabbit, stay cool, say thank you very much officer, oh yes that’s my lunch, almost forgot it, must be off now.  He has bad luck, then it’s balanced out by good, then back to the bad again. As the gags build, it’s getting hard to know the difference.  Maybe there isn’t any.

Now there were cops all over the place, just as in the recurrent nightmare Dortmunder had had for years, except none of these came floating down from the sky.

Just wait until they get jetpacks.  So after trying two different fences, in two different boroughs, taking breaks along the way to deal with track fires and terrorists, Dortmunder sadly shrugs his already-shrugged shoulders, and heads for Arnie Albright’s place on 86th.  (See, Arnie, I mentioned you in two different sections!  And you thought I didn’t like you.)

This one ends on a bit of a down-note (and not just because Arnie now has this appalling skin disease), but looks like Dortmunder is still (eventually) getting seven grand for a very long day’s work, which is better than I’ve ever done.  Also, a guy tried to scam him with the old “Is this your wallet” routine?  Dortmunder said yes it is, and walked away with it.  God save the conman, when the mark is Dortmunder.  300 bucks, not bad at all, what are you crying about, John?  You chose to live in New York.  For most of us working stiffs here, this qualifies as a good day.

And what follows qualifies as the very last Dortmunder short ever composed, unless there’s a hidden stash somewhere….

Art And Craft: (August 2000, Summer Altice.  I’d snark the name, but thing is, I’m a sucker for long dark hair.  I suppose I could pretend she’s J.C. Taylor….?)

One of Dortmunder’s old prison buddies pops up, and when is this ever not good news?  That’s right.  Three Finger Gillie, so called because of this thing he did with a trio of digits on his right hand, that you probably would not like if he did it to you.  Neither would Dortmunder, so he hears the guy’s proposition out, at a restaurant.

It’s a doozy.  Three Fingers is a professional artist now.  Learned how to paint in the pen.  Seems to me he’s not the first or last felon to get into the art biz that way.  Hmm, let’s glance at the vital statistics:

Among the nymphs and ferns of Portobello, Three Finger Gillie looked like the creature that gives fairy tales their tension.  A burly man with thick black hair that curled low on his forehead and lapped over his ears and collar, he also featured a single, wide block of black eyebrow like a weight holding his eyes down.  hese eyes were pale blue and squinty and not warm, and they peered suspiciously out from both sides of a bumpy nose shaped like a baseball left in the rain.  The mouth, what there was of it, was thin and straight and without color.

I knew this reminded me of someone.  Not that he’s the inspiration for Three Fingers, unless Westlake had a crystal ball, which I’ve long suspected.  He was an artist too.  Well, so was Albert Nussbaum, after a fashion.  Different stories end differently.

Three Fingers is good with the brushwork, and he likes the art game, wants to stay in it (the old reference to how criminals and artists share the same personality profile).  But he also wants to make a nice living at it, which means good isn’t good enough.  You gotta have a gimmick, like the song lyric says.  His selling point is that he’s a former felon.  That got him in the door, provided useful publicity, and now he’s got a show downtown.  But not enough people are showing at the show, or (more important) buying his stuff.

The problem is that the postmodern art-buying public wants irony with their art.  Okay, fine, there’s some irony in a criminal becoming an artist.  But so old-hat.  Irony deficient.  Now what if other criminals were to break into the gallery and steal his paintings?  Irony within irony!  You see what he’s getting at, Dortmunder?

Dortmunder does, and the offer is generous.  The gallery is insured.  He can make a deal with the insurance company, and keep it all for himself.  Three Fingers just wants the publicity.  Three Fingers is not known for his generosity.  Something smells bad.  Well, he’ll check it out. Westlake lived long enough to see the beginnings of what is now the world’s most insanely crowded and overpriced outdoor mall.  Complete with pop-up stores, and a storied history.  Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.

The neighborhood had been full of lofts and warehouses and light manufacturing.  Then commerce left, went over to New Jersey or out to the Island, and the artists moved in, for the large spaces at low rents.  But the artists made it trendy, so the real estate people moved in, changed the name to Soho, which in London does not mean South of Houston Street, and the rents went through the roof.  The artists had to move out, but they left their paintings behind, in the new galleries.  Parts of Soho look pretty much like before, but some of it has been touristed up so much it doesn’t look like New York City at all.  It looks like Charlotte Amalie, on a dimmer.

(It should be mentioned, the starving artists who bought those lofts, and the buildings that came with them, can now afford to paint or sculpt on their own private tropical islands, if they so desire.)

So is there a catch?  Is this a Dortmunder yarn?  A damn good one, and I’ll leave the rest for you to savor.  Just one more in this Thieves’ Dozen, of eleven stories, and never does Westlake explain the joke in the title, though he does say he included this last one to justify it.

Fugue For Felons:   The Dortmunder who never was.  And who never was Dortmunder, but he might well have ended up replacing him on the roster, if certain persons in Hollywood had their way.  Westlake doesn’t provide names or dates, but seems that some suits involved in making one or several Dortmunder films decided they now owned the name Dortmunder. (You know, it’s a mystery why people so good at taking stuff are so bad at making movies about people who take stuff.)

Before the matter was finally cleared up, Westlake was seriously worried he would not be able to write any  more stories about Dortmunder, or the established characters pertaining to that franchise.  I’m going to guess that this was the production team behind The Hot Rock and Bank Shot–remember how the Dortmunder in the latter film, played by George C. Scott, was named Walter Upjohn Ballantine?  Hopefully not, since that film is terrible.  Westlake happened to reference it, and not fondly, in the Dortmunder novel he wrote around the same time he was assembling this anthology.  Perhaps not a coincidence.

Perhaps also not a coincidence that it was around this time Westlake started saying he wouldn’t let anyone who adapted a Parker novel for the movies name the protagonist Parker, unless they bought the rights to all those novels.  Once bitten….)

My guess about who tried to heist Dortmunder from his creator could be wrong, and I say that because there’s a character who is clearly the alternate universe Tiny Bulcher in this story, by the name of Big Hooper.  Tiny didn’t make his debut until 1977.  Years after The Hot Rock came out, in 1972.  Bank Shot was ’74.  But then again, maybe Big Hooper is the prototype for Tiny–a rough preliminary sketch for the much more interesting man monster we came to know. Rough in more ways than one, and that goes for the rest of this gang of second stringers.  And yet, Westlake has more enthusiasm for Big Hooper than for all the rest combined–why?  Maybe because he’s not a retread, but an original in the making.

Dortmunder in this universe is short, and named John Rumsey, after an exit sign on the Sawmill Parkway.  Kelp looks about the same, and is named Algy (oh very good, Mr. Westlake, keeping the aquatic plant life theme alive).  Stan Murch is Stan Little.  No mention of his mom.  (Little’s Old Lady?  Stan’s Ma’am?  Doesn’t work.)

It’s about the new gang, acting as a bunch of single-o’s, trying to rob a bank somebody else just tried to rob.  Things go wrong.  I suppose that could have been a starting point for Too Many Crooks.  There’s a mean dog in it. And not a single laugh.

This story is by far the weakest thing in this collection.  Entertaining at points, sure.  If you or I had written it, we’d be fairly proud.  I also guess we’d get a lot of rejection notices when it made the rounds.  It’s interesting mainly for what it tells us–which is what I told you at the start of this review.

See, Westlake doesn’t know these people.  He can’t make them too much like the old gang, yet he needs them to be able to replace the old gang in future ventures in the same vein as the Dortmunder novels–which has a certain hobbling effect.

Maybe a truly great writer, like I dunno, E.L. James, can take some characters he or she really likes but doesn’t own the rights to, give them different names, make them not vampires or werewolves (you can’t copyright insipid ingenues on the make, nor would you want to), and a lot of people will read that.  For some reason.  Westlake didn’t bend that way.  Having created Dortmunder & Co. once, he could never do it again.  They are, as the French say, sui generis.

But the bigger problem, the problem he always had with the short form, is that these characters are strangers to him.  Without that deep familiarity to build upon, he’s got to spend too much time filling out these profiles in pillage.  He’s trying to make us believe in them, when he doesn’t believe in them himself.  There isn’t a real story here.  Just a collection of loosely linked incidents, aspiring to storyhood.

I could go over some of the ways in which this felonious fugue works, and the many others in which it does not, but I’m now over 8,000 words.  There’s another Dortmunder looming on the horizon.  Again with the Arnie Albright.  Maybe none of your fellow felons love you, Arnie, but your creator sure does.  You bring J.C. back with you, so I won’t complain.  Too much.

What?  No Playboy centerfold for this one?  Well, it was never published anywhere but here, but I think I can oblige, all the same.  Towards the end of his introduction, Westlake mentions that he worked with Alice K. Turner, Playboy‘s longtime fiction editor, on all seven of the Dortmunder shorts that debuted there.  He says something about how she looked upon both him and Dortmunder “with bemused disbelief followed by stoical acceptance,” but I bet he got that a lot.  He says he also got a lot good input from her, something he always valued in an editor.

Images of her are rare online, but here’s one probably taken around the time she worked with Westlake.

Alice-K-Turner

Not bad.  Not bad at all.  She passed away not long ago, at 75–got a big Times obit.  Let me just read through that–oh WOW!!!!  Look at that résumé!  Hubba Hubba!  Twenty-three skiddoo!  I love my wife, but oh you kid!

(And that, dear readers, is how you finish out a motif.)

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, John Dortmunder

Review: A Good Story and Other Stories

Westlake is the exact opposite of, say, a Stanley Ellin, who writes good novels and wonderful short stories.   The Westlake novels are always among the best of the year, the shorts are merely very good–clever, imaginative, ironic, admirably crafted, very much in the Alfred Hitchcock manner, and far more neatly professional than most of that school.  I suppose the main difference is that the novels have people in them.  Westlake has yet to learn how to make his characters breathe in a short story; but his other virtues are so marked that this may be a niggling objection.

Anthony Boucher, Criminals at Large, the New York Times, March 31, 1968–reviewing an earlier anthology, but might as well have been this one. 

You’ll note that the covers of the first hardcover edition of this anthology and the later paperback reprint both feature manual typewriters.  Perfectly appropriate to this author, who stubbornly stuck with that method of committing words to paper (and paper itself) to the end of his life.  His weapon of choice was the Smith Corona Silent Super–but the first edition clearly doesn’t feature that machine.  I rather think the reprint does, but they seem to have removed the brand name (no endorsements).  See what you think.

corona_silent_1950s_pink_l

This is probably a twin of the machine he told an interviewer about getting from a warehouse once, after Smith-Corona stopped making Silent Supers–all they had was pink.  Like really really pink.  He said he gradually managed to de-pink it somewhat, and kept plinking away.  So did Smith-Corona, but they had to give up on the typewriter entirely, after a while.  They make something called ‘thermal labels’ now and seem to be doing fine.  I’m not sure Westlake would have even had the heart to make a joke about that.  They have an entire online museum devoted to the noble typewriter, so you know they never really got over its demise either.  Speaking as somebody who makes a lot of typos, and hated wite-out with a passion, I’m okay with it.  Yet oddly gratified that he wasn’t, somehow.

Westlake wrote quite a lot of short fiction, mostly for magazines, and very little has ever made it to book form.  Basically, if you’ve read the very first anthology for Random House in the 60’s (The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution), combined with the linked stories collected in Levine, and the Dortmunder related stuff in Thieves Dozen, you’ve probably read all his best work in that format.

I can’t say this for certain at the present time, since there are many stories of his I have not yet read (I doubt I’ll ever find them all, nor is a definitive anthology ever likely to appear), but I can’t help but notice, when perusing contents of the existing anthologies over at the Official Westlake Blog, that the same small handful of stories (often under different titles) keep cropping up, over and over again.  Either there were problems with the rights to other stories of his that merited being collected (and I don’t know why that would be) or else Mr. Westlake only felt like a very small percentage of his small-scale  yarns were fit for human consumption. Bit of both, maybe.

(And I have no idea how many of his shorts have appeared in general mystery anthologies involving multiple authors.  Westlake helped compile one of those himself, and guess how many of his stories he put in it?  That’s right.  Well, it would have looked bad if he had put himself in that company.  I still have to review that one, if only for his intro.)

These days, quite a bit of previously uncollected work of his shows up in tiny cheap ebook collections.  Often just one or two stories, mainly science fiction, presumably not protected by copyright.  I’ve found these little offerings for Kindle useful in terms of getting some historical perspective on Westlake’s early preoccupations and development as a writer, but I can’t honestly say I thought any of them were much good as stories.  And neither did he. Man’s gotta know his limitations.

Most of what he wrote for magazines was for experience and to pay bills.  Once he could support himself as a novelist alone (with some work on the side for Hollywood), his short story production slacked off quite a bit, but he never completely stopped writing them, along with articles and essays.  He never gave up trying to master the form, and he never quite did master it, but there were the odd few exceptions, here and there.

His best shorts frequently involve established series characters, such as Levine and Dortmunder.  For obvious reasons–if we agree with Anthony Boucher’s comment up top that Westlake couldn’t easily create believable compelling three-dimensional characters in a short story as he did so often in his novels–it only stands to reason that he’d do his best work at the shorter distance when he already had such a character ready made, so to speak.

The Levine stories, in particular, get stronger with each new entry–because Westlake would keep deepening Levine, remembering what he’d done before with him, and adding to it; fleshing the character and concept out a bit more each time. The end result was a series of brief vignettes that made a negligible impact individually, but were emotionally devastating when read in proper sequence.  I don’t even consider that a true anthology–it’s an episodic novel, composed sporadically over the course of several decades.

Honestly, if you already have a copy of The Curious Facts (a better sharper bit of anthologizing than this, all told, wonder if Lee Wright had a hand in it), I don’t know what you need this one for, unless you’re a completist.  Most of the best stories in it appear in that earlier collection (even the capsule review of this anthology in the New York Times agreed with me about One On A Desert Island being his best standalone short, though I question whether the reviewer was aware it had been previously collected).

(Actually, The Risk Profession is one of those ten that were in The Curious Facts, as well as Tomorrow’s Crimes, and I am now genuinely baffled as to why it keeps cropping up.  That’s three Westlake anthologies it’s appeared in now.  I’d forgotten about it being in this one, when I reviewed Tomorrow’s Crimes, which is the only one it should have been in.  Westlake must have liked it.  I remain unimpressed.)

Obviously that Random House collection was out of print by the time this one came out.  That, I suppose, is one reason for its existence.  The other was to showcase some later stories (mainly for Playboy).  And maybe to remind people that Westlake didn’t just write novels.   But it inadvertently served to remind everyone why he primarily wrote novels.

And now I’d best remind myself that I review pretty much everything of his I can get my hands on, and get about my business.  There’s still eight stories here I have not yet covered.  The first of which is from the 50’s, but did not appear in the earlier Westlake collection.  Why?  Well, possibly because you can spot the ‘twist’ ending a mile away.

Sinner or Saint:  Originally printed in Mystery Digest, in 1958.  And there’s no mystery as to its origins, since The Music Man debuted on Broadway at the tail-end of 1957.  Mr. Westlake did love the theater (and O. Henry stories).

It’s about a con artist, a charming rogue named Joe Docker, and his criminal Sancho Panza, one Lefty Denker; less brainy than his compatriot, cursed with an unfortunately accurate shifty facial expression, but equipped with a large criminal skill set, which includes the unlocking of locks.  Gifted a duo as they are, they got caught and sent to prison, but Joe regards this merely as a hiatus to their careers.  A chance to take stock.

So Lefty has been studying the locks at the prison, and figures he can bust them out any time, but Joe wants to take his time, take advantage of the free room, board, and library privileges there.  Find the perfect scam, and he does.

There’s a parish wanting a new minister, now the old one has died.  There’s a wealthy matron attached to this parish who has a fabulous diamond in her possession.  Opportunity knocks at last.  He has Lefty let them out of jail, and even has him lock the doors after them, so the prison bulls will waste time searching inside the prison before broadening their search.

There’s a neat bit of business where they break into a closed gas station not far from the prison, and pretend to be running the place–the cops ask Joe if he’s seen the escaped convicts.  Joe, properly disguised, regrets to say he hasn’t.  Yes, you can definitely see bits and pieces here that would be put to much better use in many a Dortmunder novel.

So of course Joe, posing as the Reverend Mister Amadeus Wimple, with Lefty as a poor lost soul he has taken under his wing, is a huge success as minister, the best in living memory in fact, and in the ensuing months he wins over the skeptical Miss Grace Pettigrew, convincing her to donate her fabulous diamond to a fund to establish a new hospital.

He has a slight complication in the form of an assistant minister sent by the bishop.  The new man, Rev. Martin, tells ‘Rev. Wimple’ the archdiocese lost his personnel records, or indeed any record of having dispatched him there–fancy that–but were impressed by all the good things they were hearing about him, and wanted to offer support.

This is all hooey, of course (we were told upfront it was a small denomination–obviously the bishop would know all his ministers).  The con man has been conned–the bishop smelled a rat.  And instead of calling the cops right away, he dispatched one of his own men to check up on the situation, and they just waited around to see what might transpire.  Sure, this could absolutely happen.  I mean, why not?  Oh never mind.

Joe gets the fabulous diamond put right in his hot little hands, and Lefty is all for scramming, but Joe, enjoying his pastoral duties a mite too much (foot caught in the door, get it?) insists on waiting–until he can convert it into cash through proper legal channels, maximize returns.  He tells Lefty to hit the road, they’ll meet up later.  Then with just a whisper of regret, he proceeds to deposit the cash–in the account set aside for the hospital.  And this, I should add, without even the inducement of Shirley Jones warbling love songs in his ear at the footbridge.

Joe, or should I say Amadeus, has had a chance of heart–and vocation.  In studying to be a minister, he has become one.  But because the watching law waited for him to abscond with the cash, only to see him donate it for the common good, they have nothing on him but escape from prison, and the previous charges (and he was up for parole in two years anyway). He meekly admits to all his crimes, and waits to be taken back to his cell.

But see, nobody is angry about the con.  Everybody still loves him. Miss Pettigrew promises to hire the best lawyers money can buy, Reverend Martin says he’ll be welcomed back as head minister once he gets out, Lefty shows up saying he doesn’t want to be a crook anymore either, and the investigator from the state police says he’s going to make a little call on their behalf.  And they all lived happily ever after in the idyllic little town of AreYouFuckingKiddingMe?

Call it a road not taken, and thank God for that.  Mind you, O. Henry would have done a beautiful job with it (in the era he was writing in, the plot contrivances would be far easier to justify), and maybe Meredith Willson could have written some punchy numbers for the Broadway version.  There are some comparable Warner Bros. flicks from the 30’s–anybody here ever seen Larceny Inc, with Edward G. Robinson?).  I’m not say saying stories about reformed criminals never work.  This simply isn’t the kind of story Westlake was born to write.

But maybe he had to try and write it first to make sure of that.  And maybe in rereading this story, pursuant to it being anthologized, Westlake got an idea for a more deliciously nasty set of swindlers to be featured in a Dortmunder book he was working on at the time.  No happy endings for them.  Westlake wasn’t much for the grifters–one area of fictive crime where I’d say his buddy Lawrence Block outperformed him.

In fact, I just read a short novel of Block’s where he reforms a small-time hustler, and makes you believe it.  But even in a short novel, there’s time to do the groundwork to pull that off.  Westlake didn’t have that here, but in due time, he’d come up with a much better story about a heister who reforms.  Very much on his own terms, though.

So that’s it for the late 50’s/early 60’s stuff, since the next ten stories, as already mentioned, comprise most of the cream of the earlier anthology (with the head-scratching exception of now thrice-collected The Risk Profession).  So for our purposes here, the next story is the title piece, and just like the title piece of the Random House collection (which is also here), it’s one of the weakest stories in the book.  Go figure.

A Good Story:  More of a forgettable sketch–something that would have worked fine if worked into the fabric of a larger narrative, which might well be what it started out as–background detail for one of Westlake’s Latin American adventures, didn’t make the cut, so he repurposed it for Playboy in 1984.  Just a guess.

This American kid named Leon is running a little cantina and private zoo, way up in the Andes, for some local criminal.  Been there about eight months now.  He’s very pleased with himself, figuring he’ll go home rich when his stint is done.  But he’s bored, and these various hot young female tourists come through, and he’s been telling tales out of school.

So now the ‘ice-blond’ traveling companion of some business suit is talking to him in a bored way, acting like she’s in the mood for a quick fling with someone interesting, and he really wants to impress her, and she doesn’t impress easy. She wears Jackie-O sunglasses and everything.

He shows her this little menagerie of animals his boss ships to zoos.  He explains, strictly on the QT you understand, that the real business is smuggling cocaine inside monkeys–who are then fed to boa constrictors, so they don’t digest the merchandise, and the snakes of course have a very slow digestive system.

Which he will now find out about first-hand, because the girl and the suit both work for the syndicate, and Leon has already created a lot of legal problems for his employers with his storytelling, and now he’s going to be fed some cocaine envelopes himself, and then it’s feeding time for the boa. End of story.

Okay, how did this kid last even eight months?  Sure, okay, he was stupid to go up there in the first place, and overconfidence, combined with a desire to impress the opposite sex, is a frequent attribute of the young.  If he was a minor character in a novel, you could buy it.  But we learn nothing about him at all, other than his penchant for the gab.  He’s every bit as boring as the blonde who lured him in.  Again, the set-up isn’t there to justify the pay-off.  I felt every bit as bored as the blonde looked.  Can’t speak for the snake.  Next victim, please.

Breathe Deep:  From Playboy again, 1985.  The new stories get better as they go–this one probably owes something to the research Westlake did for What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  This is too dark for a Dortmunder, though.  A dealer name of Chuck is nearing the end of his shift at the casino, when an old man walks up to him, starts engaging him in conversation.  The dealer is professional, courteous, but he knows this guy has no money to lose, and therefore no reason to be there.

“Sir,” said the dealer, “I want to give you some friendly advice.”  He’d seen past the imperfectly shaved cheeks now, the frayed raincoat, the charity-service necktie.  This was an old bum, a derelict, one of the many ancient, alcoholic, homeless, friendless, familyless husks the dry wind blows across the desert into the stone-and-neon baffle of Las Vegas.  “You don’t belong here, sir,” he explained.  “I’m doing you a favor.  Security can get kind of rough, to discourage you from coming back.”

Oh, he knows that, sonny boy–happened to him many times before.  But, he explains, he keeps coming back for more lumps.  Something about the air in the big casinos–one time he got thrown out, none too gently, via the loading dock out back; he saw all these green oxygen tanks outside.  He figures the casino puts a very heavy oxygen mixture into the air, to make their customers more hopeful, energetic, stay up later, gamble more.  That’s what kept him coming back, over and over, until his string ran out.  He produces a can of lighter fluid and starts squirting it around.

The dealer insists they don’t do that with the oxygen, frantically presses the button on the floor that summons security, and tells the old man they’re coming for him.  The old man says that’s good–he wants to  have some company on his trip.  He lights a kitchen match.

Sure, just a vignette (not even five full pages), but a decent one.  An even better one next.

Love In the Lean Years: Again from Playboy, in 1992, and proof positive that Westlake could still write a short story worth reading–and that his creative energies were dramatically rekindled  during the 90’s.  There was, you might say, much in the era he found inspiring, if not necessarily encouraging.

Charles Dickens knew his stuff, you know.  Listen to this: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness.  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Right on.  You adjust the numbers for inflation and what you’ve got right there is the history of Wall Street.  At least, so much of the history of Wall Street as includes me: seven years.  We had the good times and we lived high on that extra daily sixpence, and now we live day by day the long decline of shortfall.  Result misery.

Where did they all go, the sixpences of yesteryear?  Oh, pshaw, we all know where they went.  You in Gstaad, him in Aruba, her in Paris and me in the men’s room with a sanitary straw in my nose.  We know where it went, all right.

That’s one of the two narrators, Bruce Kimball, an account executive with a brokerage firm.  The other narrator (they alternate telling us the story) is Stephanie Morwell, 42, attractive widow (lots of time and expense involved in maintaining that), living off various investments her husbands (yes, plural) left behind, hence her relationship with Bruce, which turns amorous, partly because she likes him, and partly because she (incorrectly) assumes he’s loaded, as he (incorrectly) assumes of her.  Yes, again there’s something of an O.Henry feel to the tale at hand, but these two ain’t Jim and Della, and no magi are in the offing.

Cupid capriciously blasts his bolts at this mercenary mingling of fading fortunes.  The sex is great, compatibility is high, and they are married in a sconce, happily so, to the great surprise of both.  But Stephanie has a little secret Bruce discovers when trying, manfully, to straighten out her tangled financial affairs.  More tangled than he had imagined.  She’s had quite a lot of husbands, you see.  And she took out large life insurance policies on all of them.  And each of them just happened to perish unexpectedly about a year after each policy took effect.  And she’s taken one out on him now.

Bruce is no Black Widow’s brunch, no matter how good she is in bed.  He takes out an equally generous policy on her, and awaits the proper moment.  But Cupid is in a joking mood, and Stephanie realizes she really does love this one, can’t bring herself to do him in, they’ll just have to make ends meet somehow, economize more, and to that end she opts to cancel the policy she took out on life, but that’s when she finds out about the one he took out on hers.  That’s where it ends, with Stephanie absorbing the bitter truth that turnabout is fair play.  We never learn who won out in the end, but it sure wasn’t True Love.

Maybe a bit too bloodless?  The point, of course, was to turn O. Henry on his head, as well as to revisit one of Westlake’s own stories (Never Shake a Family Tree, also present in this volume), and to suggest that these are not romantic times we are living in, certainly not those of us who are addicted to conspicuous consumption.  Hey, anybody know how much Trump is insured for?  Well, the next story is a positive Valentine’s Day Card by comparison, though it actually celebrates a different holiday.

Last-Minute Shopping: First appeared in the New York Times in 1993.  A cop named Keenan braces a crook named O’Brien, on Christmas Eve, no less.  But not to arrest him–he needs a little help with his love life.  He broke up with his girlfriend (a waitress) a while back, and now she’s just called him (the holidays being such a lonely time for the unattached), saying she’s been thinking about him for weeks, and they should get together after her shift ends, around midnight.

He realizes she must have gotten him a gift.  But being so hurt and angry over the break-up, assuming it was permanent, he didn’t get her anything.  He’s got one hour to get her something really nice, and the jeweler’s is closed.  Hence O’Brien.  Who has broken into said jeweler’s more than once, Keenan has good reason to believe.

O’Brien objects roundly, fearing entrapment, but Keenan insists this is on the up and up.  It’s not strictly legal, but it’s not theft, since he’ll be leaving cash there for whatever item he chooses for his lovelorn Laurie.  He just needs a little expert assistance getting inside the place.  And come some future occasion, when O’Brien needs a favor–and that day will surely come–O’Brien has little choice but to agree.  And Keenan says O’Brien can pick up something for his girlfriend as well–he’ll also have to pay for it.  You can’t give stolen goods for a Christmas present.  It is known.

So they break in, keeping the lights off inside, since neither can afford to get caught.  Keenan finds a lovely bracelet (gold filigree inlaid with garnets, so much more character than diamonds, I’ve always thought), and O’Brien picks out a brooch that will match his Grace’s eyes, and strangely enough has more than enough cash to pay for it as well.

So at Grace’s place, shortly prior to getting laid (oh grow up, half the Christmas songs you hear at the mall in December are about premarital nookie), O’Brien explains to a gratified yet suspicious Grace how exactly he got the cash to pay for her gift.  He picked the sentimental cop’s pocket.  Flatfoot didn’t even know how much he had on him–must have cleaned out his bank account, to make sure he had enough for whatever peace offering he picked.  Like many another successful burglar, O’Brien has great night vision.  Which he will now turn to less mercenary ends.  Joyeux Noel.

I think O. Henry might have liked this one.  But would have pretended he didn’t, in case there were cops listening in.  And what follows is yet another Christmas-themed short involving larceny, but not romantic in the least.  Well, science fiction so rarely ever is.

The Burglar and the Whatsit:  From Playboy, 1996.  A burglar named Jack, posing as Santa Claus in order to rob people’s apartments unsuspected, is accosted by a drunken inventor, so drunk that he actually believes this guy in the red suit with a bag full of (stolen) goodies is the real ‘Sanity Clause’ as he insists on putting it.  He figures the Big Guy would be the one to ask–he’s invented something.  Something pretty good, he thinks.  But he was drunk when he made it, and he can’t remember what it does. This happens to him a lot, but he usually leaves himself a note on his computer to remind him.  This time somebody stole the computer, would you believe it?  Jack has nothing to say to that.

Jack really has no idea what this weird little device could be–it’s some kind of robot, a box on wheels, and all these antennae sprout out of it, while it makes these whirring noises.  It does not seem to like Jack at all.  The inventor talks about how laughable the burglar alarms in his building are.  Jack silently concurs with that.

So they basically try to figure out what the inventor might have wanted to invent, and when Jack, responding to the inventor’s indignation over the inadequate alarms in the building, says it’s really hard to find a good one, the inventor lights up like his whatsit, and says that’s it.  It’s a burglar alarm–that can actually identify burglars, before they’ve finished burgling–and then call the police.  There’s a knock on the door.  The inventor wonders who that could be.

And again, I am reminded why Westlake never really excelled at science fiction, unless he had some idea he really needed to get across.  Though this could have made a decent enough concept for a Twilight Zone.  Well, maybe half a Twilight Zone.   Probably Rod Serling would have insisted the whatsit have disintegrator beams or something.

And now comes my favorite story that is unique to this collection–partly because it’s a sequel to Trust Me On This and captures the madcap spirit of that book rather more effectively than the second Sara Joslyn novel, but mainly because there’s a dog in it.  Oh Mr. Westlake, you shouldn’t have.  Seriously, he shouldn’t, because this is a murder mystery, and the dog is the victim.  Also a major celebrity.  Who answers (well, formerly) to the rather unsonorous name of–

Skeeks: From Playboy (Again?  Did they have him on retainer?), 1995.  The protagonist of the piece is Boy Cartwright, the sneering smarmy supercilious English rival to Sara Joslyn and Jack Ingersoll, the Uriah Heep of the scandal sheet.  He is still star reporter for the Weekly Galaxy, (No mention of ‘Massa’ so this would definitely have taken place well after the first novel).  A man so utterly without scruples of any kind that were he not a fictional character he would undoubtedly already be on the Trump transition team.

The second and final Joslyn book came out in 1994.  Boy was in it (briefly).  Good bet Westlake would have come up with some secondary storylines to reintroduce him, remind people what an unmitigated cad he is, that ultimately didn’t fit into the finished work.  Or else he just had this idea for another Hollywood satire, Boy was clearly the man for the job, and he was fresh in his creator’s mind.

In any event, this is the longest story in the collection, 22 pages.  Not novella length, but more room than Westlake normally had to work with in this format, and as a result it feels much more like an actual story, as opposed to a sketch.  Though Boy himself is little more than a caricature, albeit vividly drawn.  So in spite of my above attempts to explain the existence of this tale, I must yet inquire–Mr. Westlake–of all the beloved supporting characters from past novels you might have tapped for a leading role–all the Handy McKays, the J.C. Taylors, the Brenda & Ed Mackeys–why him?  Well, let’s try and figure that out.

Boy Cartwright awakens like the dead (to conscience, anyway) from a drunken revel with a subordinate named Trixie (“or so she claimed.”)  His phone rings–it’s Mr. Scarpnafe, some high muckity muck with the Galaxy.  He informs Boy that Skeeks is dead, as if Boy is supposed to know what that means.  Boy pretends to know what that means.

He is to fly to Los Angeles at once, assemble a team, to cover the funeral, assemble vital statistics regarding the deceased, and above all to get The Body in the Box, which as you should all know by now means a picture of some grand personage in his or her coffin for the front page.  These are frequently very tricky to obtain, as has been sufficiently well covered elsewhere.  Skeeks shall prove to be no exception.  But who, pray tell, is Skeeks?

On the plane coming out, Boy had been brought up to speed on the late Skeeks, who had been, it seemed, a lovable German Shepherd, as if there could be any such a thing.  For three years Skeeks had portrayed the adorable pooch on an extremely successful sitcom, and when the human male lead of that show decided to throw it all in for the glories of failure as a motion picture star, the mail bemoaning the disappearance of Skeeks from the nation’s screens (they’re that stupid, and yet they can read and write, marveled Boy) was so overwhelming (the word avalanche was used in all press releases on the subject) that the network brought Skeeks back the next season with his very own sitcom, called Skeeks, in which he portrayed the dog in a man-and-dog vaudeville act.  The idea at the heart of this series–that there is, at this moment, in the secondary cities of America, a thriving circuit of vaudeville theaters–was not the most outlandish suggestion ever made on television, and it was accepted without a murmur, as was Skeeks’ partner on Skeeks, a comedian named Bill Terry, who when sober could juggle, sing, ride a unicycle and remember jokes.

The funeral shall be conducted at Forest Lawn’s Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, “the largest send-off there since that tramp what’s-her-name.” I assume the narrator doesn’t refer to Lassie, since she was a paragon of virtue, and also invariably portrayed by male collies.

(This is all very dated, you know–like worse than the notion that there’s an active vaudeville circuit in late 20th century America.  There had been no American primetime network shows with a dog as the protagonist since Lassie went off the air in 1975.  None that lasted, anyway.  Might as well have said the funeral was for Ed Sullivan, and he was still on TV each week with Senor Wences and Topo Gigio-[I wish].)

Dogs could still have roles on sitcoms by then, sure.  But when Frasier went off the air, they didn’t do a spin-off about the misadventures of Eddie Spaghetti.  Which would have been watched religiously in my house, I can tell you.  And we will watch anything with a lovable German Shepherd in it.  “As if there could be any such a thing.”  I do hope that line was worth the extra stint in Purgatory, Mr. Westlake.)

Now the problem with giving Skeeks the traditional Galaxy treatment, as opposed to your usual dead celebrity, is that being a dog, he’d led a very boring life away from work.  No scandalous affairs (he had, in fact, been neutered as a puppy), no catty ex-wives (well, obviously), no threats to walk over outrageous salary demands, no racist remarks, no drunken binges (at least a famous feline might have had some catnip-related indiscretions), no cults, no stints in rehab.  He just lived quietly at home with his caretaker/housekeeper Mayjune Kent, a former model who had been horribly scarred (The Phantom of the Opera would faint at the sight of her) by acid thrown by a crazed admirer, whom she had subsequently run over with a car.  They were said to be very close, Skeeks and Mayjune–the scars don’t bother him at all–but no sex tapes, so that’s a dead end.

But at a local restaurant, an informant who works at the veterinary clinic Skeeks was pronounced dead at has a terrible secret to reveal–it was murder!  (dramatic music please).  The vets are hushing it up because they’re afraid they’ll get blamed.  But no question at all, somebody poisoned Skeeks, idol of a grieving nation.  And Boy Cartwright, crusading reporter, fully intends to find out whodunnit, because that would make a smashing story.

So let me just cut to the chase, since there’s one more story to review after this.  After a bit of sniffing around (heh), and several successive failures to obtain the required coffin photo, Boy winds up inside the former Skeeks residence, and overhears a conversation between Mayjune Kent and Sherry Cohen, producer on the show, and girlfriend to Bill Terry, Skeeks’ sidekick (he’s reportedly none too happy about that).

Mayjune has cracked the case–she knows Sherry poisoned Skeeks.  She knows precisely why Sherry would do such a thing.  A depressed and overshadowed Bill is slowly drinking  himself to death.  The only way to save him was to make him a star in his own right.  The show’s ratings are such that the network would look for some way to save it in the event of Skeeks’ untimely demise, and promote Bill to star.  (It somehow never occurred to Sherry that there’s other German Shepherds working in showbiz.  I mean, how many dogs have played Kommissar Rex by now?  Komissar Who, you ask?  Dumkopfs.)

But surely Mayjune could be mistaken in her suspicions?  And anyway, so what if she isn’t?

“Mayjune, he was an animal!  You can’t say he–besides, why say it was me?  I mean, if it even happened.”

“I didn’t do it, and Bill doesn’t have the guts, and who else is there?  You did it for love, Sherry.  I know you did, for the love of Bill.  But I loved Skeeks, and that’s why you’re going to die now.”

Jumping to her feet, Sherry cried, “What are you talking about?  I’m not going to die!”

“We both are, Sherry.  Skeeks was the only one in my life.  You took him away from me.  I have no reason to live.”

“Mayjune!  For God’s sake, what have you done?”

“The same poison you  used,” Mayjune said, as calm as voice mail.  “It’s in the cookies, and the tea.  We both have less than half an hour to live.”

Sherry is forced to accept that it’s too late to do anything about the poison, and she and Mayjune somberly await their impending demise, while Boy tiptoes over to the fridge to get himself a snack to tide him over until it’s over.  Mayjune mentioned having a lovely photograph of Skeeks in his coffin that she snapped herself at the vet’s; it’s right there in the other room, so he is victorious on all fronts.  He’ll call the police after he’s safely away from there, and after he’s called his scoop in to the Galaxy, of course.  In the meantime, he starts working on the lead-in to his story.  “They did it for love.”  Something Boy Cartwright could never understand, but hum a few bars…

So if I’d happened to pick up the issue of Playboy this first appeared in (for the articles, of course) I’d consider it well worth the inflated cover price.  (I never did much care for the naked pictures they no longer feature there, so obvious and banal, though there was this red-headed firewoman from Texas–).

And as with his other efforts featuring the delirious denizens of the Galaxy, he achieves this odd effect, where you both rejoice in the amoral escapades of the reporters, and at the same time,  mourn for the human condition, such as it is.  I still believe Westlake was afraid of dogs, hence his almost W.C. Fieldsian cynicism towards them (as much a self-conscious posture as Fields’ supposed dislike of children–in both cases, the real target is cheap sentiment), but under all that, you still somehow feel that Mayjune Kent, as absurd as the motive and manner of her self-inflicted demise may be, is still the only human in this story who is worth a tinker’s damn.

A dog doesn’t care what you look like.  Skeeks only saw and smelled a person he loved.  She saw him the same way, caring nothing for his celebrity, for the image of him projected on TV–just for the image of her true self she saw reflected in his guileless eyes.  And she knew that for all his fame, the law could never properly avenge him. Because to the law, and the holding company that owned (and heavily insured) him, he was only a valuable piece of property.  And the backstory has already established that Mayjune is capable of murder, when you attack her self-image.

And strangely, it’s through the malevolent machinations of a man who never loved anybody, who is completely unmoved by the spectacle unfolding before him, that the world will learn of this poignant sacrifice she made.  No doubt soon to be a movie of the week.  Actually, I don’t think they were doing those on the networks by the Mid-90’s either.  Maybe on Lifetime?  Or E!  Actresses will be lined up from Burbank to Fresno to play Mayjune.  Scars!  Prosthetic makeup!  Emmy, here I come!

So that leaves just one more story, fittingly enough entitled–

Take it Away:  From 1997, published in an anthology called The Plot Thickens (Lawrence Block had something in it too), the proceeds of which went to charity, but a critic must of course show none.

An FBI agent on a stakeout pops into a Burger Whopper franchise (pretty sure there’d be a lawsuit if anybody started a franchise by that name) for a quick bite, and the guy behind him starts chatting him up in ways that subtly suggest he knows the guy he’s talking to is an FBI agent on a stakeout.  The Fed is suspicious, but thinks maybe he’s imagining it.  They’re after this sneaky French art smuggler.  Well, guess what?  The guy in line behind him was the smuggler, playing with him for laughs, taunting him with his mastery of disguise and his ability to assume a perfect American accent.  End of story.

Okay, that was short shrift, but I’m over 6,000 words, and I did not like that one at all.  The Times reviewer loved it, and she gave it all of one sentence.  This is probably the longest review Take it Away will ever get.

There’s maybe ten very good stories in this collection of eighteen written over the course of maybe thirty years.  A few others that are decent enough little thumbnail sketches.  And nothing that comes remotely close to the best work this writer was capable of.

But as I said when reviewing The Curious Facts, it may well be that Westlake needed to keep trying to write that perfect short story that just simply was not in him, in order to prepare himself for the kind of writing he was meant for.  In chapter after chapter of his best novels (and even some of his lesser ones), you do in fact see that perfect short story–bundled into a larger narrative.  By working in miniature, on short deadlines, writing to the ever-dwindling magazine market, he learned how to put a lot of story into a very small space.  But he needed that extra space a novel affords to make his characters breathe.  So that we’d give a damn when they stopped breathing.

But suppose his characters were writers, like himself?  Could he make us care about them?  Time to find out.  And if it doesn’t work, well, better get out the hook.

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories

Mr. Westlake and The Psupermen

Now let me tell you a very sad and very funny story.  A while back, Randy Garrett was staying at my place.  We worked in the same room, and we were both writing stories aimed at Analog.  Enjoying ourselves in the process, we both included private jokes for the other guy’s benefit, and one thing I did was make a minor character, an Air Force Colonel who showed up in the last three pages of the story, the spitting image of John W. Campbell, betting Randy that Campbell would never notice it.  I described the guy as looking like Campbell, talking like Campbell, and thinking like Campbell.

We brought our respective stories in at the same time, handed them to the great man, and both went back the next week because he wanted revisions on both stories.  I forget what he wanted Randy to change in his story, but I’ll never in the world forget what he wanted done with mine: He wanted me to make the Colonel the lead character.  I did it.  Eighteen thousand words.  Four hundred and fifty dollars.

(P.S. That’s the story he wanted a sequel to.  He really liked that Colonel.)

(P.P.S. It was a better story the first time, when it was only fourteen thousand words.  If I was going to rewrite, I wanted more money, so I padded four thousand unnecessary words into it.  It makes for duller reading, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.)

From Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You, by Donald E. Westlake.

The major nodded, unruffled.  He’d known Jim Brice for twelve years.  He understood that the colonel’s abruptness wasn’t so much the result of a nasty personality as it was the result of his single-minded desire to get the job done.  The major realized that no offense was intended, and so no offense was taken.

“I’ll do the job,” he told the colonel.  “Or at least I’ll take a healthy stab at it.”

“A healthy stab isn’t enough.  I want that boy’s ability out on the surface, where I can get some use out of it.”

“You talk as though you owned him,” the major chided gently.

“I do,” said the colonel.  “I own his ability, at any rate.  Or I will, once you dig it out for me.”

“Own it?

“I’ll get the use of it,” said the colonel.  “I can’t teleport myself, but I don’t have to, not if I have someone else who can do it for me.  I’ll get the use of his ability, and what’s that if it isn’t ownership?”

“If I didn’t know you better,” the major said, “I’d think you were power-mad.”

“Not power-mad.  Power-hungry.  That I am.  I have a job to do, and a tricky job, and I need all the power I can get in order to do that job.  And I need the power locked up in that boy’s mind.”

“Us slaves do okay,” said Ed Clark, grinning.

“I own his ability,” said the colonel, pointing at Ed.  “I get to use it through him, and he doesn’t feel as though I’m some sort of evil mastermind.  Do you, Ed?”

“Sure I do,” said Clark, the grin even broader than before.  “But it’s worth it, to get to wear civvies and eat in the BOQ.”

“It’s a pity,” said the colonel, “that brains and psi-talent don’t always go together.”

“Simple Simon met a psi-man,” said Clark.

Look Before You Leap is an 18,000 word novella by Donald Westlake, that was first published in Analog in May of 1962.  It’s only recently become available in ebook form (if you’ve got Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free, otherwise it’s $2.99).  Westlake goes into some detail about its origins in that passage up top, taken from his bile-laden polemic against the entire genre of science fiction that was published in the fanzine Xero (which I will again remind you can be read in The Getaway Car), and which I talked about in more depth in my review of Anarchaos.

This is not a review of that story.  You want a review?  Okay.  Not terrible.  Kind of dull.  Westlake said as much.  He was right.   It was probably a much better story when he first submitted it to John W. Campbell, but still far from a classic (honestly, I think Anarchaos is the only really first-rate straight-up SF Westlake ever wrote, mainly because he wrote it as a hard-boiled detective story, as well as a savage critique of anarchism/libertarianism).   Purely on its own merits, this story is not worth going over in any great detail.

But having finally read it recently, I feel like it sheds quite a bit of light on the next novel I’m reviewing, one of Westlake’s longest works, certainly one of his most complex, and, you know, look before you leap.

Analog: Science Fiction and Fact began as Astounding Stories in 1930, piggybacking off Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering Amazing Stories, which launched in 1926.  It was under the editorship of John W. Campbell that the title was changed to Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938, and to say that Campbell was the single most influential figure in the SF genre overall might be something of an understatement.  He might be the most influential figure in genre fiction, period.  Not so much for what he wrote himself (though every time you watch the latest remake of The Thing, he goes there), but for what he got others to write on his behalf, and perhaps most of all for what still others wrote in reaction to him.  He was the kind of man who inspired extremely strong reactions in people, and they weren’t always positive.  To say the absolute least.

(Mr. Campbell was the first truly powerful figure in the SF genre to insist that his writers know something about science and technology and incorporate that knowledge into their stories–his own knowledge in this area can perhaps be gauged by the fact that he renamed his magazine Analog in 1960, getting rid of the juvenile ‘Astounding’ he’d always hated–doing this at the very dawn of the digital revolution in computing that he was probably largely unaware of to the day he died.  But it sounded cool.  And I guess you could argue all fiction is analog.  I don’t think Campbell ever made that argument, though.  He strikes me as a very digital personality.  Not someone who went in for middle grounds, gradations of truth.)

The patriach.  The father figure.  Rigid.  Demanding.  Overbearing.  Domineering.  Egocentric.  Yes, more than a bit power-mad (even though his only real power was over struggling wordsmiths trying to pay their bills).  Perpetually endeavoring to impose his own personal Weltanschauung on every single writer who ever submitted a story to him.  Also a fierce advocate for pseudoscience of all kinds;  spiritual father to both Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard, a committed apologist for racial supremacism and slavery (a much misunderstood institution,  in his view).

(Gee, you think this might possibly be a guy who’d rub a young Donald E. Westlake the wrong way?)

Basically, when you see a story, in any medium, that deals with some elite group of specially talented people fighting the forces of evil or whatever, you’re probably seeing the very long shadow of John W. Campbell to a greater or lesser extent.  He didn’t invent the idea of The Superman (superheroes were already a thing before he took the reins at Astounding, and of course Nietzsche was a thing long before that), but he popularized it, systematized it, normalized it.

And a whole lot of very good stories came out of that, along with many more bad ones, but to him in particular probably goes the credit/blame for our cultural obsession with outsider groups, splinter cells of ultra-nerds, at odds with the mediocrity of everyday society in some way, plugging into The Matrix in order to upend it.  “Fans are Slans!” was the slogan boldly chanted at the conventions (very different from what we have today–lots of ideas, no Hollywood whoring or cosplay), and A.E. Van Vogt’s novel Slan, about a telepathic mutant super-scientist, who begins as a lone rebel, and ends as leader of a triumphant revolution that overthrows homo stupidicus, was instigated and overseen by John W. Campbell, first saw print in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940.  Frank Herbert’s Dune began as a serial in Analog in the early 60’s.

A very long shadow indeed.  And all relating to Campbell’s personal obsession with finding ways to convincingly portray supermen (highly evolved humans, not beneficent aliens in tights) in fiction.  He was particularly interested in supermen with psychic abilities–telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, precognition, etc.  ‘Psi-talent’ was the kind of term he’d use when drumming the need for more stories of this nature into his writers.  And for this reason, Westlake took to using the derisive term ‘psupermen’ to describe the classic Campbell-type character.  The ‘p’ is silent, of course.

(You can read much more about Mr. Campbell and his Psupermen in a chapter from Brian Attebery’s deceptively titled Decoding Gender in Science Fiction–I say deceptively because the book is actually well worth perusing, in spite of the pernicious whiff of post-modernism that title emits.  Maybe the publisher pushed it on  him.  The market for something like that is pretty much entirely limited to college campuses these days.  Google Books leaves out a few pages, as it so annoyingly tends to do, but most of it’s there.  I couldn’t get the link quite right, but just click on Page 62 and you’re there.)

Now there were different ways to respond to Campbell’s obsession–one was to agree with it, become a disciple sitting starry-eyed at his feet.  Another was to pretend to agree with it, pander to it in order to sell a story to pay your rent (which Westlake self-admittedly did, and he did this with other pulp editors as well, such as Frederick Pohl).

A third path, which Westlake didn’t take back then, (because he was frustrated with the SF genre, tired of the lousy pay-rates and overbearing editors, and increasingly convinced he didn’t really know how to write a good story in that genre) was to satirize it. Turn it on its head.  Take it to its illogical extremes, show how absurd the whole psuperman thing really was.  Philip K. Dick often did that–suppose the psuperman was actually a corrupt morally inferior being, who just happened to have superpowers, but otherwise had no real value to society, and was actually a destructive and/or oppressive force within it?

Even Isaac Asimov, a lifelong friend and admirer of Campbell’s, created perhaps the ultimate evil psuperman in The Mule–the main villain of the Foundation Trilogy, who temporarily derails the Foundation’s work of rebuilding galactic civilization with his ability to exert mass mind control over vast distances.  His psi-tyranny is only ended by the fact that he’s unable to procreate, making him an ultimately doomed pathetic creature.  Superior abilities won’t necessarily make you a superior being.

In fact, they never do, because there’s no such thing.  Darwinian evolution, which Campbell, like so many before and since, blindly worshiped without really understanding how it works, isn’t about creating superior beings, superior races.  It’s about adapting to change in the environment, and change never stops.  There is no final perfect form, for humanity or anything else.  Social Darwinism is a corruption of evolutionary science, no matter what futuristic finery you dress it up in.

Octavia Butler and other non-male non-white authors went another way that Campbell would have hated most of all–what if the first real ‘psuperman’ was (for example) a black woman?  (I’m thinking here of the Patternist novels, particularly Mind of my Mind.)  What if the overseeing mentor who created her was a diabolical disembodied psychic vampire who preyed on his own children?

Butler, a profound and complex intellect, never thought that kind of development in human evolution would mean the dawning of some golden age.  It would just mean change, for change’s own sake, and much of that change would be for the worse, if not necessarily all of it.  The psuperhuman might well be impossible to categorize as good or evil.  But good and evil would still  mean something.  Might doesn’t make right.  All life matters.  Not just life that has satisfied some biased evolutionary meddler’s artificially arrived at standards of perfection.  Eugenics is the worst pseudoscience of all.  Because nobody is qualified to say what adaptations are beneficial over time.  Only evolution itself can make that determination.

The best stories John W. Campbell inspired, I would say, were the stories that were rebelling against him, deepening and subverting his borrowed ideas, while still working within the general set of fictional tropes he’d helped establish.  Using the tools he’d given them to tear down the prison he’d built for them.  The old story.  Fathers and Sons (and frequently Daughters).

Man, I really do not want to talk about Westlake’s story, do I?   Well I do, but again, not at length, because it’s not the point.  The point is that he threw in a John W. Campbell caricature at the end of a story he submitted to Analog as a joke–and Campbell took it seriously, insisted that this character become the real hero of the piece, that his POV be shown to be the correct one.  He did to Westlake what he’d done to countless young authors before.  Force him to get with the program.  Change his vision in exchange for a few hundred bucks–after all, Westlake could already wear civvies, and I don’t think he particularly wanted to eat at the Bachelor Officers Quarters (what BOQ stands for, in case you didn’t know).

All I can read is the version that Campbell published.  A young man named Jeremy, doing a stint in the Air Force, lonely and homesick, placed in a situation of extreme stress during a training exercise, suddenly finds himself at home–then back at the base.  He reports the experience, not entirely believing it himself.  But Colonel Brice, the Professor Xavier of military intelligence (only without any extra power of his own, unless you count hubris), was monitoring him and all the other guinea pigs, and knows he really did disappear for a moment.

So for most of the story, the young hero, so clearly modeled after Westlake himself, his own conflicted feelings about his time in the Air Force, is manipulated, not told that he really did teleport, prodded and tested by ethically conflicted military psychiatrists (under orders from Brice), forced to question his own sanity, until he finally discovers how to use his untapped mental powers (which he reasons were a product of evolution, and that his uncle had them as well,but most people never discover them, because teleportation is so frightening and disorienting).

At which point he joins Brice’s little cabal of psuperman (a telekinetic and a remote viewer), all of them destined for a mission of vital importance that is never really spelled out.   If there’d been sequels, probably it would have been.  Campbell would have doubtless shelled out for more, as long as his crusty alter-ego was in the mix. But no sequel to Look Before You Leap was ever written.

Westlake wasn’t interested in enabling the old man’s fantasies any further. He wrote his polemical farewell to the genre for Xero, which certainly made it impossible for him to ever submit anything to Analog until Campbell’s death in 1971, and possibly afterwards.  The money just wasn’t that good.  Insufficient compensation for him to go on writing what he didn’t remotely believe, that being Westlake’s precise definition of a hack.

It was both a decision made for both creative and economic purposes, as he said in that piece.  Writing mysteries, he was able to appease both his own need for self-expression while still meeting the demands of magazine editors and publishing houses.  He wasn’t very good in either genre to start with, he knew that.  In the Mystery genre he was able to gradually progress towards a more three-dimensional mode of storytelling.  But when it came to science fiction, as he discussed in his response to reader letters reacting to his original piece–

On those few occasions when I thought I’d taken a small step forward, I was immediately returned to Start, either by a No Sale, or a slant-oriented revision.  The Campbell story about the Colonel is a fine instance.  (It was in the May issue of Analog, to answer the questions).  In the original the Colonel showed up at the end of the story.  There was no secret organization of psupermen in the Air Force.  The point of view never deviated from Jeremy.  It was a story about a person.  God knows it was no masterpiece, but it was a story.  (In this connection, Harry Warner Jr’s idea that the Colonel was a “real living characterization” just ain’t so.  Analog is full of Secret Societies with Strange Powers, and the Colonel  under one name or another, runs them all. You will find this same character in spy stories.  He’s the chief of Counter-Intelligence, the hero phones him in Washington every once in a while, and his name is Mac.)  At any rate, I for one am more interested in a person, who suddenly and shatteringly learns he is a teleport, who doesn’t want to be a teleport, and who more than half suspects he’s lost his mind, who struggles through the problems thus created–aggravated by the fact that he can neither control nor repeat the initial teleportation–and works things out to some sort of solution or compromise with the world, than I am in all the Secret Societies and Mystical Powers in the Orient.  But the writing and rewriting of the story kept me vigorously marching in place, back there at stage one.

I have a small quibble here–that character he refers to, that the Colonel quite certainly is one form of (and 007’s ‘M’ would be another)–isn’t yet another to be seen in the Continental Op stories of Dashiell Hammett?

Hammett was possibly Westlake’s supreme literary model, certainly his biggest influence in this stage of his career.  The Op was Hammett’s most important contribution to mystery fiction, and the Op has to report back to The Old Man, head of the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency (frequently referred to throughout Westlake’s fiction).  To a certain extent, the Op is merely The Old Man’s sometimes-rebellious pawn–who nonetheless never quits the agency, as Hammett eventually quit the Pinkertons.

The Op hates and to some extent fears The Old Man.  He fears he might become his boss someday, thinks of him as a mere simulacra of a human being, all identity subsumed by the company they both work for.  The Old Man certainly isn’t a hero of the Op stories, we don’t see a lot of him, but he’s always there, and to some extent, that makes the Op a more believably flawed figure than Sam Spade or Ned Beaumont (and Nick Charles, as Westlake knew well, is a former company man who has lost his identity by quitting his job, driving him to depression and drinking–maybe there’s no escape for a company man, not even a beautiful heiress who adores him).

He’s not a true independent, the Op.  He’s not merely wedded but welded to his job.   Westlake, of course, wanted to write about independents.  Mere hirelings tend not to fare well in his stories (neither do private detectives, as a general rule–hmmm).

And it may well be that it was, in part, his experiences with Campbell and similarly controlling editors in the 50’s and early 60’s that confirmed him in this predilection.  However, it’s not only Campbell he’s reacting to here.  He’s also rebelling against Hammett.  He doesn’t want any Old Man pulling the strings in the background, even though that conflict adds depth to the Op that Hammett’s other detectives mainly lack.

To be a true Westlake hero means to pull your own strings (and in some cases, thwart or destroy anyone who tries to pull them for you).  But in a way that is more believable than in Hammett’s later stories about independent operators.  He’ll have to find other types of conflict for his heroes, to make them more credible.  Because he can’t write about company men, cogs in a machine.  Not unless it’s to mock them (as in I Gave At The Office).  Because he could see too well how close he’d come to being a cog himself.  Because he was always afraid it might still happen to him, if he didn’t find a way to succeed as an independent.

As few science fiction authors have, I might add–the other half of Westlake’s beef with the genre.  Many authors succeeded as he had not, in working past the constraints that frustrated him, creating brilliantly individual work that satisfied both the genre’s demands and their personal muses–but rarely were they able to make a good living doing so.  Philip K. Dick, whose literary estate is now highly lucrative to his heirs, lived at the edge of indigence for most of his adult life.  To be sure, Jim Thompson had the same problem.  Being an independent always comes at a high price, regardless of occupation.  It’s for each independent to decide for him or herself how that price shall be paid, and in what coin.

And years later, having escaped the coils of Campbell and his cohorts, having created many amazing books, made many a compromise along the way to pay the bills, finding himself in a bit of a slump in the 80’s and early 90’s–Westlake made a very odd decision.  He wrote a very long comic crime novel (his established niche) about a man who suddenly and shatteringly finds himself to be invisible.  Who doesn’t want to be invisible (though it has certain short-term career-based advantages for him).  He can’t control his newfound ability, and struggles through the problems it creates for him.   He knew who he was–now he’s not so sure anymore.

And even though no Colonel-type figure knowingly created him, there are several aspiring Colonels in his life.  And he’s got to escape them all (in which he shall have the aid of one hell of a woman).  As Jeremy, in Look Before You Leap, could have quite easily escaped his Colonel, by simply vanishing into thin air, free as a bird, and I wonder if that’s how the original version of the story ended.  If so, small wonder Campbell wanted it changed.  Slaves should know their place.

Westlake’s primary model/antagonist in that novel was not John W. Campbell, though–it was a much earlier father of Science Fiction (much as he preferred the term ‘Scientific Romance’).  H.G. Wells, like many a progenitor before and since, had nothing but contempt for his bastard stepchildren, loathed the science fiction of the pulps, wanted no credit for it at all.  Frankenstein recoiling from his monster.  Wells did that a lot.  Idealists are born to be disappointed.

But in fact there was much that Wells and Campbell had in common, philosophically speaking.  And much that Westlake wanted to say in reaction to that.  And he did, under the guise of comedy, which is in fact the very medium Wells himself had employed in his book.  A seemingly superficial adventure story may contain hidden depths.   Appearances can be deceiving.  What you see is not always what you get.  Oh there’s going to be so many puns along that line.

“A Grotesque Romance” is the subtitle for the book Westlake used as a template for the next adventure in our queue.  And Westlake’s book is all of that, and more.  I have no idea how long this review is going folks.  I’ll try to get Part 1 up sometime next week.  In the meantime–Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

(Thanks once again to the Official Westlake Blog, for providing the artwork from Analog that accompanied Westlake’s story.  A resource any independent operator like me can only thank the beneficent gods for).

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, science fiction

Review: Tomorrow’s Crimes

And so we come to to my third Westlake anthology review (I’m counting The Getaway Car, even though it’s nonfiction).  Jut two more to go, unless something else turns up.  And frankly, I’m rather curious as to how this one came to be published in the first place. Donald Edwin Westlake was known as a mystery writer under his own name–mainly somebody who wrote funny crime novels.  Most of his straight science fiction had been published under the wry pseudonym, Curt Clark–and he’d terminated his relationship with the genre by writing a scathing polemic for a short-lived fanzine, aimed squarely at its shortcomings, and at some of its most influential figures.

The centerpiece (endpiece, really) of this collection is his only science fiction novel, Anarchaos, hardly a big seller when it came out in 1967 (I mentioned it was a science fiction novel, right?).  I’ve already reviewed it here, of course–my review was nearly half the length of the book (I mentioned I wrote that review, right?).  I consider it one of the most interesting things he ever wrote, and maybe the best mingling of the conventions of science fiction and crime fiction that anyone ever came up with.   Heinlein meets Hammett and Hammett wins by TKO was my summation at the time, and I see no cause to back down from that.

Tomorrow’s Crimes is not even close to being a complete collection of his science fiction (Westlake probably wouldn’t have wanted most of his early SF to be preserved for posterity), and most of the stories are rather dubiously of that genre anyway.  More in the Twilight Zone mode, I’d say–that nether realm between SF, fantasy, and straight-up horror).  “Anarchaos and Other Stories of Fantastic Suspense” runs the sub-title, and that’s about right.  The target audience is more mystery readers who dig a bit of SF/Fantasy, than SF/Fantasy readers who are in the mood for a mystery.  But readers can move back and forth between genres just as much as genre authors used to do.  And genres themselves can be surprisingly flexible.

Possible Anarchaos had developed a bit of a cult following over the years, and finding copies of the Ace paperback original would have been a challenge back in the 1980’s (no eBay yet).  So reprinting it for The Mysterious Press (since it is basically a hard-boiled detective story) made sense, but it was too short for a hardcover edition–less than 150 pages in this book–and the paperback original market had mainly dried up.  So take a smattering of Westlake’s more distinguished efforts for the various SF/Fantasy pulps (and other venues) to flesh the book out a bit. This is the result.

The main effect of which is to demonstrate yet again that there’s a reason Donald Westlake is mainly remembered as a novelist, even though he began with the short story.  He produced some exceptional work in that format, but it wasn’t his chief area of strength.  He needs time to establish character, room to run with a story.  Writing shorts helped him as a writer, gave him the discipline and economy he needed to pack a lot of plot into a relatively small space.  But he was never as good in miniature as he was with a few hundred pages to work with.  Even the novella was a bit confining for him.

And science fiction itself, as it was typically written for the pulps in the 50’s and early 60’s, was often equally constraining.  As a young man, he’d been powerfully attracted to the form, to the seemingly unlimited range of ideas you could explore with it, but he came to believe that the preoccupations of single-minded mavens like John W. Campbell were overly limiting, stifling even.  They were pushing their own ideas and personal philosophies on the young writers submitting work to them (while being paid mere pennies a word), and they were insufficiently concerned with character, story, motivation, or style–the things Westlake cared most about.

The best SF writers would find ways to transcend its commercially imposed limitations (still do, I’m sure–not keeping up these days), but Westlake had a family to support, a career to build, and couldn’t wait that long.  He busted out of that joint, and only rarely looked back.  And of course, the mystery genre had its own built-in limitations that likewise constrained him–a larger and somewhat more prestigious ghetto, is what it often amounted to.  No writer wants to believe he or she can only write one thing.  You want as many arrows as possible in your quiver.

So he would have eventually decided he’d been a bit too hasty–there were still things to say with this form, sometimes called speculative fiction–but he’d do it his way, and nobody else’s.  In fact, he’d publish at least two more novels that could be lumped into that category.  We’ll get to those pretty soon.  Worth pointing out that of the nine short stories collected here, six were written after he wrote that infamous polemic for Xero.

Anarchaos, as I mentioned in my review of it, was pretty clearly referred to in that polemic (though not by name).  He hadn’t finished it by then, and he thought he never would.  And yet he did, and got it published, and probably got paid a few hundred dollars for it.  Why bother?  Because he could never quite let go of his love for the limitless vistas of science fiction and its various fantastic cohorts .

The stories we remember him best for were rooted more in the prosaic (even if they were about heists and murders), but there’s always something a bit uncanny about them.  If he’d been raised in Latin America, perhaps he’d have written magic realism.  In a sense, he was always doing that.

Maybe we’re never told in so many words that Parker is a wolf born into the body of a man (because that would ruin it, somehow), but there’s something in him that doesn’t fit the genre he’s in.  Because his creator never quite fit in anywhere either.  The best writers always defy categorization.  And yet, so many of them wrote genre stories.  A paradox I doubt I could ever explain.  But I can review these particular stories, and you can pigeonhole them as you please–or not.  My job is to decide how good I think they are, and what they’re trying to say.  Shall we begin?

The Girl of My Dreams: An unusual provenance to this one, which was first collected in 1979, in a British anthology, The Midnight Ghost Book.  And it is a sort of ghost story, but not in the usual sense.

The narrator is a perfectly ordinary fellow, bit of a Caspar Milquetoast type, working as a clerk in a department store, harassed by his overbearing ambitious boss Mr. Miller, living with his mother and sister at home.   But he starts having these dreams–very real, he tells us.  Not at all like the usual disjointed perspective-switching narratives we experience in our sleep.  Very sharp, vivid, coherent, and he remembers them in complete detail when he awakes.  They all involve this girl.

He saves her from a mugger in the first dream.  Her name is Delia–derived, you should know (and Westlake surely did), from the island of Delos, where the goddess Artemis is said to have been born.  Oddly popular among the Irish, that name, but still quite uncommon.  She’s exquisitely lovely, as you would expect.  So grateful for his help.  And he’s at ease with her, confident, manly, as he never would be with any girl in real life.

They start seeing a lot of each other–each and every dream is solely concerned with the time they spend together.  Every single night he dreams of her and her only.   And more and more, his waking life becomes the dream, and his dream life is reality. He can easily withstand the abuses of his supervisor, the petty humiliations of working life, knowing Delia is waiting for him in his sleep.  He also starts to become attractive to women he meets in real life, due to his newfound confidence–he pays this no mind, since he has Delia.  He and Delia never do get around to making love, but he knows it’s going to happen, there’s no rush.  Then Delia starts to become distant with him; cold, abstracted.  What’s wrong?

She tells him.  She met Miller at the country club.  He seduced her.  She doesn’t love him, he makes her skin crawl, but she can’t resist him.   She’s meeting him in a sleazy little motel room–she tells him which motel, and he goes to see it later, while awake–it’s exactly as she described it in the dream.  She tells him exactly what she and Miller have been doing there in that motel room.  In excruciating detail.  She says she loves him, not Miller.  But she can’t stop seeing Miller.  He’s got a hold over her.  She doesn’t sing her dejected beau that song from Porgy & Bess, but it’s there in the subtext.

So, as he informed us in the opening line of the story, he’s bought a gun.  He’s thinking about leaving his bed in the middle of the night while still awake, going to that motel, and seeing what he finds there.  And if he finds Delia and Miller there, he’s not honestly sure what he’s going to do–or who he’s going to kill.  He’s not honestly sure anymore who–or what–Delia is.  And that being the case, how can he know what he is?

It’s very much in the same vein as One Man On a Desert Island, from 1960, which was collected in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution, and which I thought was the best story in that anthology–and I think the same about this one (excluding Anarchaos, of course).  In that story, a man marooned on an island by himself imagines his perfect female companion–then starts finding fault with her and imagines murdering her.  In a state of deep irremediable remorse, he confesses his crime when he’s rescued, and the absence of a body is easily explained.  He sticks to his story throughout his trial, and is executed.

I found some parallels between that story and a Twilight Zone episode, and I do so here as well, but not the same one.  This one reminds me of Miniature, written by Charles Beaumont.  One of the hour long episodes, this one featuring Robert Duvall as a lonely man living with his mother who starts seeing a beautiful woman in a dollhouse at a museum–just a doll, but to him she’s alive.  She’s being treated badly by a man, is lonely and sad like himself, and he wants so badly to get in there with her, join her in the dollhouse, comfort her, and finally he does.  Forever.  Happy ending.  For The Twilight Zone.  For Beaumont.

Westlake wouldn’t have liked that ending.  To him, that’s the wrong kind of escape (Beaumont’s tragically failing health would have made it hard for him to see any other kind–checking his bio, I see he got sick right around the same time he wrote Miniature).  But he could have had any number of stories besides Beaumont’s in mind–including his own earlier less paranormal attempt–when he wrote this one.  It’s less directly suggestive of Harlan Ellison’s 1967 story, Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes, and of course you can trace it back to mythology–Circe, Succubi, Lorelei.

The point is the same in both stories Westlake wrote–don’t get trapped in your own dreams, your false ideals.  You have to see the world as it is, and yourself as you really are.  You have to accept imperfection.  Falling in love with someone who doesn’t exist is bad.  Falling in love with someone who does exist but not in the same reality as you (the dream world or cyberspace, not that Westlake knew about that yet), and is enticing you to your doom–much worse.   Real lovers can be hard to deal with, fall short of expectations, but at least they’re real.

And I feel strange saying this, but pretty sure I met Delia once in a dream.  Or someone like her.   Haven’t seen her since.  Maybe I wasn’t her type?  (Oh God.  Do you suppose Beaumont was?)

But at least in that story, your imagination can only harm you.  Not so in the case of–

Nackles:  The narrator tells us about his brother-in-law, Frank.   A former football star, turned insurance salesman.  Frustrated with his life, he became angry and abusive, took it out on the narrator’s sister Susie, but the narrator, armed with a baseball bat, adequately made the point that this would not be tolerated.  Feeling like this somehow made them friends, Harry confided in the narrator afterwards, they hung out, even though Frank quite frankly remained a jerk.

As the years passed, and his family grew, Frank, feeling the burdens of fatherhood a bit too keenly (but probably thinking about that baseball bat), began telling his frightened children awful stories about Nackles, the evil opposite of Santa Claus.  The point was to make them stay quiet and well-behaved, and it worked–they’re even more frightened of Nackles than their dad who constantly screams at them.  However, no matter how well they behave, Frank keeps telling them they’re awful, and Nackles is going to get them soon.

He’s tall and skinny, dressed in black, gray face, black eyes.  He lives beneath the earth, travels in tunnels, in a sled pulled by eight goats.  He likes to eat children.  As long as the children in a house are good, Santa Claus can project a shield that keeps Nackles from getting in.  But when children are bad, Santa’s magic weakens, and Nackles will appear, stuff them in a sack, and take them below the earth to be devoured.  The Grinch, before his heart grew three sizes, would find Nackles a mite extreme.

There are many versions of this kind of story, and they all end the same way.  Frank disappeared from an upstairs room one Christmas, and was never seen again.   He did not take his car with him, and his car was the only part of his life he liked. Nor did he berate his wife before leaving, and tell her it was all her fault.  Which he would have done.

The police just assume he ran off on his responsibilities, and the narrator wants to go along with that, but he can’t.  See, Frank made his children really believe in Nackles.  And he told many other dads he knew, some of them salesmen from out of town, about Nackles, and how well the story worked as a way of making the rug rats keep quiet, and of course some of them tried it, and their kids believed.  Spread by both parents and children, the story of Nackles grew, promulgated itself, became an urban myth–and Nackles became real.  And what was Frank himself but an overgrown spoiled child?

It all depends, you see, like the chicken and the egg, on which came first.  Did God exist before Man first thought of Him, or didn’t He?  If not, if Man creates his gods, then it follows that Man must create the devils too.

With the possible exception of a Dortmunder tale penned much later (the one he got an Edgar Award for), this is probably the best-known and most influential short story Westlake ever wrote.  And that’s purely down to the idea itself, because well-written though  it is, taken simply as a story, it’s not that much.  I’d call it more of a dramatized thought experiment.  Jung would have enjoyed it, I’m sure.

It’s hard to trace the lineage of an idea, and certainly an idea in genre fiction.  The genome is too complex.  The basic idea that you can bring something awful to life by believing in it has undoubtedly occurred independently to many unconnected persons.  But I can’t, at least so far, find a story quite like this that predates Nackles.

De Maupassant’s Horla?  Bierce’s Damned Thing?  Perhaps the idea is latent there, but we can’t know that the haunted narrators in those stories created their own monsters. So many stories that came after Nackles, though.  The implicit became explicit.  With a vengeance.

Westlake had been stationed in Germany while in the Air Force, so very likely he’d heard about Krampus.  I’m guessing he did not approve of this aspect of Teutonic parenting.   And there had been a story in the 50’s EC comic, The Vault of Horror, that later made its way into 1970’s Tales From the Crypt, but though that also deals with a murderous Santa, that’s got quite a different point to it.  And about as much depth as a mirror (great artwork, though).  Robert Bloch published a story in 1968 called The Gods Are Not Mocked, which made the precise opposite point–irreverently disbelieving in folkloric beings–like Smokey the Bear–can lead to horrific consequences.

Nackles really seems like something Harlan Ellison could have written (he would have made a much freakier trip out of it), and I have to say I thought about Ellison a lot while rereading Tomorrow’s Crimes.  Westlake and Ellison are connected in many strange ways.  Perhaps the best short story writer science fiction ever produced–he was as much Westlake’s superior in that form as Westlake was his at the novel.  Ellison was just starting to really hit his stride in 1964, when Nackles was published (under the Curt Clark handle) in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, co-founded by Anthony Boucher in 1949, but just then being edited by Avram Davidson.

Ellison also tended to believe we make our own devils, one way or another.  He expressed his admiration for Westlake on more than one occasion.  I have more than just a vague inkling to convince me he was influenced by Nackles, and here it is.  Serling-ized.  Or really, Harlan-ized.  And a damn shame that segment never aired.  And at the same time, do we really want Nackles on television?   I don’t mean the story.  I mean Nackles.

But perhaps the ultimate homage to this story and its title character came in a more real–and horrifying–form.  What are his primary attributes?  He’s very tall.  He’s very thin.  He’s gray-skinned.  He preys on children. He gets stronger and stronger the more people believe in him, the more they spread belief in him–he’d absolutely love the internet. I’m not going to link to the Wikipedia article for Slender Man.  Look it up yourself, if you want. You can take thought experiments too far.  Westlake died the year before that one started.  Coincidence.  Sure.  If Rod Serling steps out of the background now…….

Frankly, the rest of the short stories are not so interesting, and I’m going to give most of them short shrift.  And most particularly–

The Ultimate Caper: The Purloined Letter:  A very short spoof, published in the New York Times magazine, in 1975.   A hardboiled detective is approached by a mysterious fat man (played by Sydney Greenstreet, or if he’s not available, Robert Morley) on a quest to find the fabled lost letter of the European alphabet.  A bit like the stuff Woody Allen used to write when he wasn’t making movies.  And quite a bit like Comfort Station as well, but not as good.  And a little over three full pages in length in this book, so how good does it need to be, really?

“No one has pronounced that letter,” the fat man said, “in over a thousand years.  Some think it’s the sound in a man’s throat on the third day of Asian flu when watching a rock record commercial during the six o’clock news.”

“Gutteral,” said Staid

The fat man, whose real name was Gutteral, frowned at Staid through narrowed eyes.  “It seems I’ve underestimated you,” he said.

The title is a bad pun, and so is the final line.  Everybody who reads Hammett or watches John Huston movies knows sneaky fat men never find the dingus they’re looking for.  Westlake had fun writing it, you might have fun reading it, but it’s no fun at all to review.  On to the next story, which like the two after it, is actual science fiction, huzzah!

The Spy in the Elevator:  When the high-rise apartment complex showed up, science fiction writers got very interested.  Could this be the new social unit?  Might people someday live entirely in self-contained environments, and stop going outside?   To sum up–no.  Extrapolation from isolated trends is not a reliable means of predicting future trends.  But the stories still got written, and this is one of them.

A man living in a  futuristic post-apocalyptic complex (called ‘Project’), is prevented from going to his sweetheart’s apartment some floors below him by a malfunctioning elevator.  He intends to propose to her that night.  He’s told by a friendly telephone operator with nice cleavage (it’s one of those phones where people can see each other, well that happened anyway) there’s a spy from another Project in the elevator, and they’re having a hard time getting him out.

So our narrator, worried his girl (who has a major thing about punctuality), will dump him if he’s late, tries taking the stairs, something nobody ever does anymore.  And with good reason–the spy is in there, and he makes the narrator take him back to his apartment at gunpoint.  And it turns out he’s not a spy at all–he’s from another Project, yes.  But his mission is to try and make people understand that the radiation from WWIII that drove them all into these horrid techno-caves is gone now, they can go outside, they can be free again, walk in the sunlight!

In reaction to this insanity, the narrator, well-versed in martial arts, gets the drop on the spy and kills him.   Why would anyone want to go outside?   That’s just nutty.  His girl does dump him for being late (even though he’s a hero for killing the spy), but it’s cool, there’s plenty of other girls who want to meet him now, like that busty operator.  Life is good.  Why would anyone want to change it?

If you were to collect all the science fiction stories about this particular idea in one book (including that J.G. Ballard novel I have a copy of and keep meaning to read), you might well end up with a book you’d need a forklift to carry around with you.  There’s nothing particularly special about this one.  It was published in 1961, in Galaxy, and entirely possible it was one of the first stories of this type, but I don’t know how you’d go about finding out.

I do know Westlake disliked the new high-rise apartment complexes–felt like they were a threat to individuality.  He later wrote a story called The Sincerest Form of Flattery, for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, that covered some of the same ground (and that I’ve reviewed here).  It’s a better story than this, I’d say–as a story–but philosophically speaking, this one is more interesting (Westlake used science fiction sometimes to get into a more philosophical mode, and so did many others).

The ‘spy’ asks the narrator if he knows how long it took for primitive man to leave his cave and go outside (and this is terrible anthropology, but I’m probably being too literal)–

“I’ll tell you this,” he said belligerently.  “A lot longer than it took for him to turn around and go right back into the cave again.” He started pacing the floor, waving the gun around in an agitated fashion as he talked.  “Is this the natural life of man?  It is not  Is this even a desirable life for man?  It is definitely not.”  He spun back to face me, pointing the gun at me again, but this time he pointed it as though it was a finger, not a gun.  “Listen, you,” he snapped.  “Man was progressing.  For all his stupidities and excesses, he was growing up.  His dreams were getting bigger and grander and better all the time.  He was planning to tackle space!  The moon first, and then the planets, and finally the stars.  The whole universe was out there, waiting to be plucked like an apple from a tank.  And Man was reaching out for it”  He glared as though daring me to doubt it.

One hates to nitpick, but wouldn’t going to the stars mean spending untold generations enclosed in hermetically sealed–sorry, being over-literal again.   The basic point is sound–we’ve turned from outer space to inner space–this blog itself is evidence of that.  Netflix alone is proof of that.  But isn’t that what Westlake himself did when he went from science fiction to mystery?  1961.  Probably written a year or so earlier.  He still had some growing to do.

But always, with him, the emphasis on the rugged individualist over the organization man, and while that didn’t work out so well for the individualist here (because he wasn’t rugged enough, talked too much, cared too much about making other people agree with him), it works out rather better for the independent in a longer story, published the same year in Amazing Stories (the very first SF mag, founded by Hugo Gernsback, a writer of enormous cultural significance who nobody can stand to read anymore).

The Risk Profession:  This is the one story in the collection that had already been collected–in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution and Other Fictions, from Random House.  I didn’t really want to deal with it in my review of that collection–in fact, I said I’d deal with it when I got to my review of this collection, so I guess I have to do that now, huh?  I’m just not that enthused about it.  And yet Westlake must have been, because he knew it had already been collected, and here it is, collected again.  He must have liked it.  I more or less forced myself to reread it.

It’s a murder mystery.  That may be the reason it’s in this anthology from The Mysterious Press.  As such, it’s fine.  The mystery is simple–an asteroid miner is dead. He had a policy with an insurance company–an annuity he paid into over the years, that was supposed to pay off after he retired, if he lived that long, which most of these miners don’t, or at least not very long after they retire.  The asteroids are low-g, so they fall apart once they come back to earth.  The company makes lots of money off the poor schlubs.

So his partner came into a mining town on a nearby planetoid one day, said his partner got himself killed in a stupid accident–they’d made the big strike all these miners are waiting for, they both got drunk, his partner got careless.  No body, because no gravity–he went up into space and never came back.  He left all his worldly goods to his partner, and since he had just applied to get his money from the policy refunded, that counts as worldly goods, and the partner gets it.  The insurance company suits smell a rat (other than themselves, I mean).

So they send an investigator.   Our narrator.  His name is Ged.  I can definitively answer one question–no–this is not a Wizard of Earthsea ref.  That book came out seven years after this story.  Ged is a real English first name, that non-wizards used to have.  I’ve never met a Ged, but maybe there’s still some of them out there.

So our Ged, who hates his boss, and his job, and outer space, goes out there, sniffs around.  In spite of his dislike for his job, he’s exceptionally good at what he does, and his gut instincts tell him the miner is lying–that he did in fact somehow murder his partner.  But he can’t figure out how to prove it.  Then he does.  When you see how, you think “damn, I should have noticed that!”  Just like you do when reading all the other mystery stories you’ve ever read based on a small easy-to-miss detail.  There is a certain element of masochism in the average mystery reader, I’ve often thought.

So that’s all the usual boilerplate–from two genres absolutely packed solid with boilerplate–so what’s interesting about this one?  That Ged uses the fact that he solved the mystery to get rich, and retire, and go lie on a beach somewhere, collecting interest.   It’s like a Continental Op story where the Op tells the Old Man at the Home Office to go screw himself.  Which is kind of cool, but to my way of thinking, not enough to justify the story.   Which has never been anthologized again that I know of, and honestly–once was enough.

I would like there to be more Westlake story anthologies in the future, and I would like even better for this story to not be in any of them. It’s not bad or anything.  It’s a fine professional piece of work.  It’s just not that interesting.  If this is what Westlake thought his best science fiction writing looked like, small wonder he mainly stopped writing science fiction.   The next story in this book is no masterpiece, but I liked it a lot better.

The Winner:   From 1970, first published in Nova 1, edited by Harry Harrison (a writer who had many things in common with Westlake, not least an affection for intrepid thieves).  Not very far in the future at all, political prisoners have been implanted with a small black box that causes them to feel unbearable pain if they venture too far away from a signal transmitted inside their unwalled and mainly unguarded prison.  It’s a pilot program, that may soon be used in all prisons, for all crimes.

A poet has been imprisoned for unknown crimes.   He refuses to accept his imprisonment, and tells the warden (named Wordman) so, before he walks out into the field surrounding the prison, in ever greater agony, until he collapses.  His screams can be heard from the warden’s office.  Wordman feels every scream in his soul, but he wants the poet to learn his lesson.  Then the screams stop.  They search for the poet.  They do not find him.

The poet was picked up by a farmer, who not understanding what was going on, took him to a doctor, who does understand what is happening, and thoroughly disapproves.  He removes the black box.   But by then the authorities have found them, and both are now imprisoned, with black boxes inside of them.  The poet says he’s sorry.  The doctor says not to be.  At their earliest opportunity, they both intend to go walking into that field again, together.  Wordman thinks they’re both insane.  But the madness may be catching.

Now this reminds me a lot of “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Tick-Tock Man.  Harlan Ellison turns it into a fairy tale, a fable, and it works better that way.  The story, as Westlake writes it, isn’t of the proper style to accommodate characters with names like Wordman.  It’s heavyhanded, but extremely sincere.

Wordman’s hands gripped the foot of the bed.  He said “What’s the matter with you?  You can’t get away, you have to know that by now.”

“You mean I can’t win.  But I won’t lose.  It’s your game, your home ground, your equipment; if I can manage a stalemate, that’s pretty good.”

It could be a lot better, but again, the main value of it for us is to get a less filtered version of the author’s own beliefs than you’d normally find in his novels, where he covers his tracks a lot better.  And makes his points more powerfully, I’d say.  And that’s it for the straight SF short stories in this book.  Up next is–

Dream a Dream: First published in 1982.  A young woman who married an older archaeologist she feels no passion for, simply because she wanted to explore Mayan culture, has a dream while they’re on a  dig together.  A Mayan priest brandishing a stone knife says they’re going to sacrifice her as a virgin.  She protests she’s no virgin, but he says she might as well be, since she’s never really given herself to a lover.

Waking up feeling oddly chastened, she proceeds to seduce a handsome young man working on the dig with them, though she’s not in love with him either.  She goes back to sleep, feeling quite pleased with herself, and dreams again of the Mayan priest, who says “Now what we do with adulteresses…”   Rimshot.  Man, what macho haven of misogyny published this Feathers or Lead fable? Cosmopolitan.  That figures. The worst story in the book.  Not worth another word.  But the next one is to die for….

In at the Death: First published in The 13th Ghost Book, 1977, another British anthology, same publisher as the first story.  The narrator informs us he’s a ghost.  But he’s not haunting anyone but him.  He hung himself, because his wife was unfaithful.  He wanted her to feel as badly as he does.  But as soon as he kicks the chair away, he wishes he could take it back.  Too late.  He vividly describes the sensation of death by hanging.  He tells us how he found himself a spectral presence, trapped in the room, forced to look at his corpse, with its bulging eyes and distorted features, and his only physical sensations are those he felt while he was dying.

He wants more than anything now for his wife to never see him like this.   But she does.  It destroys her.  She loved him.  Her affair meant nothing–her lover is actually bisexual, leaning towards gay–he was just comforting her, because her husband was emotionally distant.  The narrator finds out in bitter detail just how wrong he was, how much harm he’s done, how much he did in fact have to lose.  The police come, his wife is taken away, his corpse is taken away, and he’s alone.  And then he sees himself come into the room, with a rope.  The entire scene begins to replay itself.  He knows what hell is now.

I could compare this ghost story–not at all unfavorably–to James Tiptree Jr’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.   That has a science fiction gloss to it, but it’s the same basic point, and I don’t believe either influenced the other.  Just a shared fear that the failures of one’s life could haunt you after death.  To die, to sleep–to sleep, perchance to dream.

Westlake had very strong feelings about suicide, as the first Levine story, The Best-Friend Murder, made clear.  But in that story, the emphasis was on his contempt for those who give up on life.  Here, it’s more about the damage suicide does to the survivors.  He was, of course, raised as a Catholic with the belief that self-murder is a mortal sin.  But I don’t think his dislike of it is specifically Catholic.  It’s more the sense of a man who very nearly died as a baby, whose health may have been shaky at times, who died suddenly at the age of 75, that the real sin is to not take every bit of life–and love–you can grab a hold of.  And to throw love back in the face of those who offer it–no forgiveness.  Not in this life or the next.

And I almost forgot to mention the dead narrator’s name.  Ed.  Presumably short for Edwin.

And that brings us to the last short story in the book, which I’d call more eco-fiction than science fiction–an unusual sub-genre for Westlake.    It’s called–

Hydra: From 1984 (heh), first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction.  A man and his wife have returned from Latin America, where the man’s work for a corporation that manufactures chemicals had taken them both to live a while.  They’re showing slides, which they provide a sort of running narration for, very condescending towards the natives, bordering on contemptuous.

Their guests are curious, and one in particular, named Fay, is a bit more questioning of the husband’s attitudes.  He’s a company man, through and through.  Yes, there have been unfortunate excesses, that thing in Brazil was awful, but that was Europeans, multinationals–they know better than to go that far now, and these people should be grateful for the work they’re getting, all the modern improvements they can’t really appreciate, being so backward.

He’s a bit vague about what his company was doing down below the border, free of pesky government intervention that’s holding America back, keeping it from being competitive in the world economy.  There’s a mention of a company lake that everybody swims in.  A man named Julio who made wine from flowers he somehow grew from the poor soil.  There are slides of children with strange birth defects.

Then Fay goes to have a look at Vickie, their new baby, gestated down below the border.  Beautiful child.  Green eyes.  Forked tongue.  Well, her mother says from the doorway, so what?   They can fix that surgically later on.  So many children back around the company lake have them.  Don’t tell anyone about it.  Fay promises not to.

The only way you’d know this was a Westlake story is that there’s a mention of how they used to go swimming in Lake Monequois.  Somebody mentions it’s all covered in algae now. Well, that’s progress.

Westlake loved Latin America.  He loved the people, he loved the countryside, he loved the sense of the past there.  And he was ashamed of the way other Americans behaved there.  And he hated corporations, as few writers ever have, before or since.   He had a strong feeling that those who figured what we did in the so-called third world could never come back home to bite us were a bunch of damned fools.  And this is a nice little cautionary tale.   And it probably didn’t do any good, and he probably didn’t expect it would.  But slight as the story is, again, it does contribute to our understanding of him.  A man of many parts, Mr. Westlake.

And that’s Tomorrow’s Crimes.  I don’t like having to say, over and over, that somebody else did the same idea only better.   I rarely ever feel that way, reading his novels.  I definitely don’t feel that way reading Anarchaos, which is the last story in this book.

There, in that very short novel, all the different threads you can see in the earlier stories in the book (some of them written years later) come together seamlessly–the influence of Hammett and other classic mystery writers.  The admiration for tough-minded individualists who refuse to compromise with the system.  The hatred of corporations (which leads to the paradoxical awareness that true individualism requires laws and governments to enforce them, to protect you from the money men, inconvenient though that may be for the libertarians among us).

Above all, the hunger for human connection–the sense that the only real wealth we have in this world (or any other) is each other, mingled with a sad understanding that we throw that wealth away, get lost in fantasies, forget what’s real.  It’s all there, and it all works beautifully.

Westlake just wasn’t a great short story writer.  Anymore than I’m a great short review writer.  Over 6500 words about nine stories.  Yeesh.  This was a book on tape, as you can see above.  Same as the earlier anthology.  Theodore Bikel, huh?  That’s all I’ve got.

Anyway, we’re almost through the 80’s now.  Thank God.  Just two more novels.  The next of which is about an actor.  Yeah, another book about an actor.  A movie star, no less.  But with a difference.  Westlake’s just been playing with his actor books up to now.  He’s ready to get serious about this obsession of his.  And then put it behind him, forever.  Time to slay the monster.  Or be slain in the attempt.

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Review: Levine

If you’re a man fifty-three years of age, there’s a statistical chance your heart will stop this year.  But there’s no sense getting worried about it.  There’s an even better statistical chance that it won’t stop this year.  So, if you go to to the doctor and he says don’t worry, then you shouldn’t worry.  Don’t think morbid thoughts all the time, think about life.  Think about your work, for example.

But what if it so happens that your work, as often as not, is death?  What if you’re a precinct detective, the one the wife calls when her husband just keeled over at the breakfast table, the one the hotel calls for the guest who never woke up this morning?  What if the short end of the statistics is that end you most often see?

From The Feel of The Trigger, by Donald E. Westlake

In any mystery story, one element is inevitably the detective’s attitude towards death, his reaction to the concept of death.  The amateur detectives, for instance, the whimsical Whimseys and quaint Queens, view death in the shallowest possible way, as a solvable puzzle, which is in any event one of the subliminal comforts of the mystery form.  Death is stripped of its grief, horror, loss, irrevocability; we are not helpless, there is something we can do. We can solve death.

Similarly, it has become the convention that policemen, professional detectives, are hardened to death, immune to life untimely nipped.  “All I want is the facts, ma’am,” Jack Webb used to say in his Sergeant Friday persona on Dragnet; nothing would make him scream, or cry, or–o’ercome–turn aside his head.  (Although they broke with that just once, when the actor who played Friday’s partner died.  They wrote it in, and on camera Jack Webb–somehow no longer the cop–did cry, was human, faced death squarely.)

From the Introduction to Levine, by Donald E. Westlake

Donald Westlake’s first series character was either Phil Crawford or Abraham Levine.  I don’t know which.   Crawford, an aspiring stage actor who got lucky with the opposite sex far too often for credibility’s sake, was the protagonist of three semi-porn novels Westlake published under the name Alan Marshall, starting in 1959.

Abraham Levine made his debut in a short story published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that same year.  But that story was published under Westlake’s own name, so overall I’d say Abe gets the winner’s garland, no matter who came first.   Westlake would be the first to admit Phil was never much of a character, but maybe we’ll take a look at him sometime, once I can afford to buy those highly collectible never-reprinted paperbacks that are not yet available electronically, dammit.  Neither is this book, and that’s a much bigger shame.

I feel like I don’t need to write a long introduction for Levine (though of course I will anyway), because Westlake already wrote it for me.   The preface to the book that ultimately collected all the Levine stories together (and added one last story to finish the character’s arc) lays everything out beautifully, and you’ll find it not only in every edition of that book, but also in The Getaway Car.  It’s valuable on a lot of levels–as much as any of the stories it introduces–not least in the way it broadens our understanding of a critical period in Westlake’s life and career.

He begins by telling us that 1959 was the most productive year he ever had as a writer (and this is a guy who published six novels and a children’s book in 1967).  Other than the pseudo-porn he cranked out for his then-employer Scott Meredith to sell to fly-by-night outfits like Nightstand Books, pretty much all that output was short stories, written for the pulp magazines–mystery and science fiction, for the most part.

Having started out expecting to be a science fiction writer who dabbled in crime fiction, Westlake was finding the SF genre increasingly hard to write for, because his primary interest was in character development.   Science fiction was heavily geared towards conceptualization, and characterization tended to be rather basic, often bordering on nonexistent.  Also the pay rates stunk.  So he started looking around for publishing niches where he didn’t have to write about horny actors bedding nubile starlets, or square-jawed spacemen zapping BEM’s with rayguns.  Mystery is a very large and diversified genre, so he had to find his proper place within it, via trial and error.

The sub-genre he explored here–one might argue the ultimate sub-genre–was the police procedural.  Part of the larger mystery genre, but also very much a form unto itself. Le Policier, the French call it.  And at its best, it can be amazing.  And at it worst, you might start getting nostalgic for the horny actors and square-jawed spacemen (and I happen to like BEM’s).

The Fall 2015 Network Primetime Schedule had no fewer than fifteen shows that are, more or less, about police detectives of various kinds.  That’s not counting cable.  To be sure, many of these shows are not about ordinary working cops–they’re supercops, members of elite units, or (in the case of Gotham or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) a warm-up act for vigilantes running around in tights.

But at the core of them all is the concept of the police procedural.  A crime is committed.  Trained people working for the state go out and investigate that crime.  They find out what happened.  They apprehend the perpetrator(s), and report their findings.  Anything else that may happen in the course of these events is incidental (and so is life, in case you hadn’t noticed).

Though it’s impossible to say who invented this form, since you can always find some antecedent to whatever story you’re looking at, certainly when you’re talking about the modern incarnation, there are two names that come first to mind–Jack Webb and Ed McBain (AKA Evan Hunter, OKA Salvatore Albert Lombino).   Less remembered is Marvin Wald, who wrote the story for The Naked City, directed by Jules Dassin (who, like Westlake, would end up being more interested in robbers than cops).

It was that pseudonym of a pseudonym McBain (Lombino preferred to be called Evan Hunter in real life) who Westlake learned the most from.  Hunter created the ridiculously long-lived 87th Precinct series–54 books published in just around 50 years–all stemming from Hunter having seen unrealized potential in Webb’s Dragnet.

His innovation was to make the procedural an ensemble piece.  The precinct itself is the protagonist.  Multiple rotating leads, multiple storylines in one book, an all-seeing worldly wise narrator tying it all together, and pontificating to beat the band.  Beat cops, detectives, coroners, police lab techs–all working as a team to bring Law & Order (dun!dun!) to a fictional city that is sort of New York, but not exactly, because he didn’t want to have to do a lot of extra research on streets and neighborhoods and etc.

Hunter was wryly sardonic about the fact that television, having only managed one thirty episode season of a direct adaptation of his books, proceeded to cannibalize them for spare parts, that later helped spawn a virtual industry within the industry.  But given that he was influenced by a TV series to start with, maybe that’s poetic justice.  You tell me.

Westlake was reacting more to Hunter’s work than anything else here, and the influence is obvious–so much so that one of his Levine stories served as the basis for a script on the short-lived 87th Precinct show.  In his introduction to this book, he mentions having to be out the night that episode aired, and it’s unclear if he ever got to see it.  This being the 21st century, you can certainly see it if you want.  I wasn’t quite interested enough to spring for the DVD box set.  Maybe later.

But of course Westlake, as we know, was never comfortable with making policemen his protagonists.  He’d make them the heavies, or the butt of jokes, or solid pros outwitted by some wily crook, or all of the above.  He’d been arrested for petty theft as a young man, interrogated, thrown in a cell, treated in a way that clearly left a permanent mark on his psyche, which must have been fairly anti-authoritarian to start with.

If he makes a policeman his protagonist, he’s a disgraced ex-detective like Mitch Tobin, or a cop turned robber, like the two heister heroes of Cops and Robbers.   Abe Levine is the only instance I can think of where his hero is a working lawman doing his job honestly and well, and never once questioning his vocation (certain aspects of it, maybe–a Westlake hero can never be a true organization man).

And he did this not once but six times.  Creating what amounts to a mini-saga, six standalone stories linked by a common theme, taking place over perhaps a year’s time, even though it took over twenty years for Westlake to complete the saga, and he’d never really planned it as such–it just came out that way.

Now I think it’s time to review each of the six stories, one by one (do I need to remind you my reviews are spoiler-laden?  Consider yourself reminded).  Westlake calls them ‘novelettes,’ and they’re a bit short for that (20-30 pages, on average), but there’s never been any strict criteria separating a short story from a novelette/novella. It’s the term he prefers to use, and they’re his stories, so why not?

I think in this case it’s not about length so much as it is Westlake feeling more like he’s condensing a novel than stretching out a short story–taking what would be just one plot skein from an 87th Precinct book and making it stand on its own, giving it a bit more depth and emotional heft, focusing on one unique perspective.   Since he typically had trouble with the short story form (less time to build character), that may be what he liked about these stories–and their melancholy mensch of a protagonist.  Who we first meet in–

The Best-Friend Murder: Westlake says in his introduction to Levine that he only realized years later how much of his own daily existence he was putting into this story that he originally wanted to call Intellectual Motivation (he had the same belated realization about the Parker novels he started writing not long afterwards).  Given how feverishly he was hammering out story after story, I can well believe this, up to a point.  But it strains credulity just a mite with regards to this particular piece, which is about one aspiring writer who claims to have murdered another, and let’s just say they both sound really familiar.

Abraham Levine, detective with the 43rd precinct in Brooklyn, goes with his partner Jack Crawley to an apartment on Prospect Park West (did they call that neighborhood Park Slope back then?  Not many unemployed writers living there now, I bet).  They are investigating the poisoning death of a young man named Al Gruber.  Perhaps I should mention that Westlake’s father’s name was Albert, though it’s also the original middle name of Evan Hunter.

(Sidebar: Right off the bat, we learn that Levine is at an age where he’s worried about his heart,  is thinking a lot about his own mortality, but not much supporting detail, or any specific reason to think Levine is in any immediate danger of having his ticker give out–Westlake, as usual, is starting a series without knowing that’s what it is, or what its full potential might be–well hey, Chester Himes didn’t know he was starting a series when he wrote For Love of Imabelle.  Great series characters often creep up on a writer, uninvited, unanticipated, maybe even unwanted [ask Conan Doyle]).

Gruber, in his 20’s, was going to college on the GI bill, while trying to sell stories to various magazines, and it was going so badly that he kept a bottle of poison around as a macabre joke–he’d kill himself if he couldn’t make it as a pro.  His close friend and fellow journeyman wordsmith, Larry Perkins, walked up to a patrolman in Prospect Park and said he’d just put some of that poison in Al’s beer when he wasn’t looking, Al drank it, and he’s dead.  He won’t explain why except to say that the decedent was a pompous ass.  Levine thinks this is a lousy motive.

So he and Crawley, having failed to get anything that makes sense out of Perkins, make the rounds in classic procedural style, talking to people who knew the deceased and his purported killer, learning a bit more with each interview (Levine also gets to read Gruber’s notebooks, that contain a lot of personal material, as well as copious notes on people and settings that could be used in stories he was writing).

The picture gets clearer, particularly after they talk to a professor of a writing course both men attended, and a young woman both men dated (they seem to have been rivals in just about everything).   Both acquaintances say that the two friends were polar opposites–Gruber wanted to learn how to express ideas he had about life, about people–he was interested in the way other people thought, in the way the world worked, and how you can get all that across in a story.  Perkins just wanted to be famous and figured being a writer was as good a way as any to get there.  Both were talented, but they had different ideas about how to use that talent.   Gruber comes off a lot better out of the comparison.

The professor says that each would react to the others’ work, particularly Perkins towards Gruber–if Gruber started working on a particular type of project, Perkins would do something similar, and try to one-up him.  He can’t for the life of him believe one would ever try to hurt the other, though.  That doesn’t make any sense to him, or to their shared girlfriend (saddened but not really heartbroken over the grim news), who has a hard time processing that this isn’t all a prank, and Gruber isn’t still alive somewhere.

“I don’t really believe it anyway,” she said–“Al–he’s a lot quieter than Larry.  Kind of intense, you know?  He’s got a kind of reversed Messiah complex.  You know, he figures he’s supposed to be something great, a great writer, but he’s afraid he doesn’t have the stuff for it.  So he worries about himself and keeps trying to analyze himself, and he hates everything he writes because he doesn’t think it’s good enough for what he’s supposed to be doing.  That bottle of poison, that was a gag, you know, just a gag, but it was the kind of joke that has some kind of truth behind it.  With this kind of thing driving him like this, I suppose even death begins to look like a good escape after a while.”

New York had the death penalty in 1959.  Perkins is confessing to cold-blooded premeditated murder without any motive other than spite.  He’s going to the chair for sure, but he sticks to his confession like flypaper, and seems angry at Levine for questioning it.  He’s being put through the system, prepared for indictment and inevitable conviction, when Levine asks to talk to him–he brings another officer Perkins doesn’t know, who at Levine’s request is pretending to be a newspaper reporter.

And as Levine steers the conversation towards publicity, Perkins perks up–then is visibly shaken when the faux-reporter (accurately) tells him that without a sex angle or some serial killer vibe, the story will be lucky to end up buried on page ten.   Too many murders in New York.  Nobody cares if one unemployed scribbler poisons another.    And that’s when Perkins cracks.

Okay, fine, Levine had him figured right.  He didn’t kill Gruber, Gruber killed himself, in a fit of despondency over his failure to achieve his grand ambitions (that pompous ass).  Perkins, feeling just as frustrated by his own failure, decided to piggyback his way to fame by claiming to murder him and frying for it–thus simultaneously copying and one-upping his friend, as he’d been doing all along.  He burned the suicide note.  Murderers are always better remembered than those they murder.  Nobody remembers a suicide, unless he was famous already (maybe if there’s a country-western song about him).

Perkins hadn’t thought it through, and he realizes that now–he doesn’t want to die a nobody, so he’s ready to recant.  But Levine won’t let him.  Levine is furious, at him and Gruber both.   “Youth is wasted on the young,” Shaw wrote, and no truer words were ever penned.  Levine hates both of them with all his faltering 53 year old heart, because they threw away what he’d give anything to have–their healthy young lives, their healthy young hearts, the potential to go on for decades, to see the 21st century even.  He can’t hurt Gruber, but damned if he’s going to help Perkins.

His partner, Jack Crawley, heard the whole thing–as Levine knew he would–and it’s hard to say whether the kid is really going to be tried and convicted.  But as far as Levine is concerned, he’s dead already.  To give up on life is to prove yourself unworthy of it.

So I can well imagine that Westlake had both Al Gruber and Larry Perkins inside of him–along with a host of others, and so do we all have that Greek chorus of selves inside of us, each striving for dominance, but is that really what this story is expressing?  Doesn’t feel like it to me.  It feels more like Al Gruber is a less encumbered version of Donald Westlake–as he both wanted to be and feared he might become.  And Larry Perkins?  Larry Block.

Westlake had met Lawrence Block (Larry to his friends) just a short time earlier (November of ’58), and had quickly formed a close combative connection with him, in spite of a nearly five year age difference–a lifelong rivalry, as well as a friendship, and I think Block is everywhere in Westlake’s writing.  I need to read more of Block to know where Westlake crops up–haven’t seen it yet.  Maybe it’s not there.  Block approaches fiction differently than Westlake did.  But no question, they were learning from each other all the time, and this is just a snapshot of some early impressions Westlake had, no more, no less.

A writer uses people he or she knows when writing.   There’s no avoiding it, and you can’t be thinking all the time “Is this fair?” or the writing will stink on ice.  If you have to cut, cut deeply–it’s a story, and that’s what they’re for.  I think Westlake was dissembling a bit in his intro when he said he didn’t know at the time what he was doing here.  He did know, but he didn’t want to say, because Lawrence Block was his best friend, and it was a real friendship, and a lasting one, and what he said about himself and his friend, the harsh  judgment he passed upon them both, clearly wasn’t the whole truth, but I doubt it was made up out of whole cloth either–obviously I can’t know.

I do know I’d give anything–even my youth, that I don’t have to give anymore–to have a friend who knew the very worst about me, along with the best, and still wanted to be my friend.  Maybe I got that just once.  It’s hard to know, isn’t it?   Point is, you can’t know anything if you end the story before it’s done.  Gruber and Perkins never get to find out who they might have been when they grew up.  Westlake and Block did.

Somehow, Levine brings out these kinds of thoughts, and that continues in the next story–

Come Back, Come Back:  Westlake put Levine aside after that first story, not expecting to write about him again, but the character had touched something in him–there was a potential theme in his love of life, his hatred of death, and his inability to understand anyone who doesn’t feel the same way about the two.

So over a year later, he wrote this story, self-evidently patterned after the 1951 Henry Hathaway film, Fourteen Hours, starring Paul Douglas as the cop and Richard Basehart as the jumper.  That movie was remade for television in 1955 under the title Man On The Ledge, which is probably why Westlake’s original title of Man On A Ledge was not used, and just as well, no?  Particularly since they used that title for a not terribly well-regarded suspense thriller starring Sam Worthington in 2012.  Westlake admits in his preface to this book that titles were always a problem for him, and he’s not the only one.

So it was already a well-worn idea when Westlake got to it, and it’s seen a fair bit of wear since, but that’s the point–how does Levine react when put in the same situation as some other fictional cop trying to talk somebody off a ledge?  What makes him different?  So sure, he does some of the same things Paul Douglas does in the movie; talk to people close to the jumper, try to find out what’s driving him to this, learn about problems in his life, failed relationships, etc.

While all the while Levine’s partner Jack says that the guy standing on the eighth floor ledge of his own office building, his own successful business, is a fraud–that if he wanted to jump he would have already.   It has come out that the jumper’s real problem is his marriage–his wife won’t let him be himself, has controlled him all his life, pushed him to be a success to vicariously fulfill her own ambitions.

He’s met someone who will give him the chance to be his own man (she works at his office, naturally), but his wife won’t talk to him about a divorce–he’s trying to get her to talk to him, but she won’t even come there, or talk to him on the phone.  She’d rather he jumped–in the movie, it was the jumper’s bitchy controlling mother (played by Agnes Moorehead, naturally) who was the problem.

When the moment of crisis finally comes, Levine doesn’t talk to the guy about how they’ll go fishing together, go drinking together, everything’s gonna be okay, life’s not so bad–in other words, he doesn’t lie.  He lashes into that man on the ledge with a fury.  He’s as honest as one human possibly can be with another.  This is probably not approved police procedure for dealing with people on building ledges.  But it’s who Levine is.

“Cartwright, you’re alive.” Levine stared helplessly at the man, searching for the way to tell him how precious that was, the fact of being alive.  “You’re breathing,” he said. “You can see and hear and smell and taste and touch.  You can laugh at jokes, you can love a woman–for God’s sake man, you’re alive!”

Cartwright’s eyes didn’t waver; his expression didn’t change.  “I want to talk to my wife,” he repeated.

“Listen,” said Levine.  “You’ve been out here two hours now.  You’ve had time to think about death, about non-being.  Cartwright, listen.  Look at me, Cartwright, I’m going to the doctor at three o’clock this afternoon.  He’s going to tell me about my heart, Cartwright.  He’s going to tell me if my heart is getting too tired.  He’s going to tell me if I’m going to stop being alive.”

But he still can’t break through, so he screams at Cartwright, tells him to go ahead and jump, throw it all away, JUMP!!!

And Cartwright, face white with shock, begins to cry, loses his balance on the ledge, is about to fall–and at that moment understands the living truth of Levine’s words, and that’s when Crawley grabs him and hauls him in.

And then, crisis averted (for now at least), Levine gets a ride from Crawley to the doctor’s office, telling his partner he’ll get a cab home after he hears the verdict.  And as he stands there alone at the curb, he murmurs “I wanted him to  jump.”

Paul Douglas would never have said that.

Westlake still didn’t think he had a series here, but the character refused to go away, and six months later he had another idea, which became–

The Feel of The Trigger:  Westlake says this story in particular shows the influence of Evan Hunter and the 87th Precinct books, and he was confirmed in that belief by the fact that it was the one that got adapted into an episode of the TV series based on those books (there not yet being enough of them to sustain a series).  Meyer Meyer, the 87th’s resident Jewish detective with the ironically repetitive name, was predictably chosen to stand in for Levine, and was played by Norman Fell (a bit young and healthy-looking at the time for a heart condition, but otherwise a perfect fit, I’d say).

Now there’s a problem with Levine’s heart problem–if it’s that bad, the NYPD would pension him off.  And he couldn’t be a detective anymore, and there’d be no more stories.  And then maybe he and his wife have to be foster parents to a bunch of bratty kids, and that wouldn’t work at all (I know at least one of my readers gets this joke, but the real joke is that Abe Vigoda died eight years after Donald Westlake, having been born twelve years earlier).

So in this story, taking place a few months after the last one (the time lag between when the stories were written and when they took place keeps getting wider, you see), we find out that the doctor told Levine he’s fine, nothing to worry about, just a slight irregularity in the heartbeat, take care of yourself and you’ll live to be a hundred.  (Yeah, that’s probably what Bernie Sanders’ doctor told him, never mind, I didn’t say anything, let it go.)

Levine doesn’t buy it, because he’s listening to his heart all the time now, and it skips every eighth beat; only when he’s under stress, it’s seven, then six, then five, and if it ever skips twice in a row, he’s dead.  I have no idea if this is medically accurate or not, and I have no intention of finding out.  For the record, Marvel Comics introduced Iron Man in 1963, this story was published in 1961, and no I’m not suggesting an influence.  Great minds and all that.

So cutting to the chase (figuratively now, literally soon) Levine and Crawley are investigating the robbery of a tiny Jewish-owned grocery store, where the owner was killed by some trigger-happy kid with a gun.  The widow didn’t know she was a widow, since he died on the way to the hospital, and Crawley, with cruel necessity, uses the shock of the revelation to get her to spill the identity of the killer–a boy who lives in the building next door.

The parents don’t want to believe it, are giving their only son an alibi on pure faith, and there’s no search warrant, so again some psychological manipulation is called for, and when the mother seems ready to break, the kid makes a break for it, up the fire escape, over the rooftops, putting a bullet in Crawley’s leg as he goes, meaning Levine has to follow him alone, the combination of physical exertion and fear putting ever greater strain on his pump.

He corners the perp, but the perp figures he’s cornered Levine– doesn’t think Levine has a gun because he’s not shooting back, and the boy keeps moving closer in the darkness, hating Levine for having exposed his crime, saying he’s going to kill him, and Levine keeps trying to tell him, there in the darkness, don’t you understand what death is, what it means to take a life, how horrible it is, how wrong?   Of course he doesn’t.  He’s not old enough yet for death to be real for him.  All that was real was that the store owner had money and he didn’t.    Nobody is real to him but him.  That didn’t start with videogames and action movies, people.   It didn’t start with guns, either.  Guns just make a bad situation worse.

And Levine realizes that he won’t kill this boy, he can’t, no matter what he did, no matter what he’s about to do, Levine can’t do it, life is too precious, anybody’s life, even a murderer’s.  He’s defenseless.  Then one of the uniformed patrolmen blunders in, and the boy is about to shoot him, and Levine, acting on pure gut instinct, puts a bullet through the boy’s brain, only then feeling the trigger pressed against his index finger, understanding what he’s done, the immutable irreversible nature of it.  “I’m sorry,” he whispers, once again to no one in particular.  And once again, for all of us in general.

So by this point, Westlake knew that any story he wrote about Levine had to be about his relationship with death, and it was almost a year before another idea came to him, and that story was–

The Sound of Murder:  Now all of a sudden I’m seeing Julie Andrews twirling around on a mountaintop with a gun.   But this is probably derived from The Bad Seed (plus one other story I’ll get to in a minute), and I mentioned there’d be spoilers, right?

A remarkably self-possessed and intelligent little girl, ten years old, clearly from a well-off family, comes into the precinct office, and reports the murder of her step-father by her mother.  It’s been four months since Levine went to the doctor, and he’s trying to quit smoking, just to improve his chances–he’s rather irritable as a result, but he’s still very sympathetic to the child, and while dismissing her story at first, is increasingly inclined to give it credence.  Because little children don’t lie, right?  Imagine, sure.  But she doesn’t seem like the type to make things up.

So skipping over the obligatory procedural stuff (that contains a clue as to the real killer, that you will probably fail to spot, just like I did),  Levine suddenly wakes up with a horrifying insight–he’s got to get to the girl’s house–another murder is about to be committed!

He gets over there, and is greeted by a horrible apparition–and a bloodcurdling scream, that affects his heart, but not fatally so.  And then he tells the killer it’s all over, the gambit has failed.

See, the killer knew that Levine, like the murdered man, had a weak heart–but not weak enough for the taped and amplified scream to cause heart failure.  The killer overestimated her cunning.  It’s the little girl, as everybody who saw The Bad Seed has already guessed, though I must say Westlake covers it well, makes you doubt.

Levine is always more about the why of a killing (something he shares with the soon-to-be created Mitch Tobin)–you learn the why, you can figure out who.  His partner asks the questions, he listens closely to the answers, looks beneath the surface of them.

Who had something to gain from the father’s death?   A little girl who hated being told what to do, whose mind had developed too quickly, who wanted the independence of an adult while still a child.  And now she’s killed her mother, poisoned her, and forged a suicide note from her, confessing to the murder of her husband.  And having known Levine was coming, since he called first, the child thought she could kill him too, to shut him up.   But now he’s going to kill her.

Do you know what’s going to happen to you?” he asked her.  “They won’t execute you, you’re too young.  They’ll judge you insane and they’ll lock you away.   And there’ll be guards and matrons there, to say don’t do this and don’t do that, a million million times more than you can imagine.  And they’ll keep you locked away in a little room, forever and ever, and they’ll let you do nothing you want to do, nothing.”

She tried to kill him with a sound, and now he’s going to kill her with words–obviously she might be released someday (and who might she kill then?), but she doesn’t know that, and he won’t tell her.  Goaded to a frenzy by the vision he paints of her future,  she screams “No, they won’t!” and leaps from the window to her death.

Levine had been telling himself all through this that the old have to make way for the young, but looking without guilt at her small broken body below (it was her choice, and this story takes place before The Feel of the Trigger), he says, to all the impatient young people in the world, “don’t rush us.”

(This story, Westlake informs us, was written during the very period when he was writing 361–then hit a wall with it, so he wrote The Hunter–then he wrote The Sound of Murder–then he finished 361, feeling his humanity restored enough to do so by writing this story, which sounds weird to me, because this is the starkest, coldest, and least compassionate of the Levine stories by far.  He was sure in a dark mood that year.)

And the other influence on this would be Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin, unless I miss my guess (and I frequently do).  Westlake was Bradbury’s intellectual superior, and a better writer in many ways, but couldn’t match him as a word painter, and really, how many ever could?  I finished Bradbury’s story in a cold sweat, my heart beating wildly.  I didn’t react that way to this (well, I’m older).

But again, the point is not to surpass the earlier story on its own terms, but rather to use it to tell us something about Levine, and about the way different people feel differently about death.   At least Levine doesn’t use a scalpel.  Well, a different kind of scalpel.

And that leads us to–

The Death of a Bum:  The gaps between the stories got longer and longer–The Sound of Murder clearly takes place before the events of The Feel of the Trigger, but was published afterwards.  Westlake had an idea for another Levine, but he couldn’t sell it to Hitchcock’s, probably because the murder in it is never solved, or even shown.  About three years after the last one was published, he finally found a home for it in Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine.

This one takes place after Crawley was shot in the leg, and Levine has been saddled with a new temporary partner, hotshot go-getter Andy Stettin (this development reeks of 87th Precinct, btw–Hunter would have to keep bringing in handsome lusty new detectives to keep the female readers interested, or so his publisher thought anyway).

They’re investigating the murder of a smalltime bookie, hustler, and part-time heister named Morry Gold, found shot dead in his rented room by his landlady, chunks of potato indicating that the killer used a tuber as a silencer (a little tip of the hat to Peter Rabe and Anatomy of a Killer).

So again with the procedural stuff, and it becomes increasingly clear that while Gold knew a whole lot of people, absolutely none of them are even remotely moved by his death.  Nobody has any idea who’d care enough to kill him, though it seems to be a mob contracted hit.  His own brother tries to get Levine to drop the case entirely, talking to Levine as a fellow Jew, not a cop–telling him there are higher laws.  To Levine, there is no higher law than justice, and he resents the notion that his being Jewish means that he and this equally shady character are linked, part of the same club.

While running down one possible suspect, Levine and Stettin are shot at through the door, because the guy was selling narcotics, had them right there in the apartment, and wasn’t ready to take such a long fall–Levine senses it coming, tries to warn Stettin, but he still gets a potentially fatal wound (a year later, Westlake would recycle this idea for Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death–in that case, Tobin wasn’t there, and his partner was killed, and his relationship with guilt, rather than death, drove that entire series).

His superior gins up the men of the precinct to go out there and find the would-be cop killer, saying that a policeman is a symbol, and an attack on a police officer is therefore an attack on society itself.

No, thought Levine, that’s wrong.  Andy Stettin is a man, and that’s why we have to get Jake Mosca.  He was alive, and now he may die.  He is a living human being, and that’s why we have to get his would-be killer.  There shouldn’t be any other reasons, shouldn’t have to be any other reasons.

So now Levine is doggedly continuing the Gold investigation on his own, and he won’t let go of it, even as other casework piles up, and finally his superior orders him to ‘open’ the case, meaning really to close it, mark it unsolved, pending, stick it in a file, forget about it until such time as new evidence presents itself, which may well be never.

Levine realizes he is literally the only person on earth who cares about what happened to Morry Gold, a man he never met, a man who really was a bum, who led a worthless life, and died a worthless death, and nobody gives a damn.  He does what he’s told, and as he rides the subway home alone, he begins to weep to himself, his shoulders heaving with inconsolable grief.

Yeah, it’s not very Hitchcock, is it?  Then again, Vertigo.   Not like Hitch was editing the magazine.  Maybe if Morry had turned out to be alive?  I kept thinking suppose it turned out the brother was actually Morry, but there’s no ironic twist here.  There’s no resolution.  There’s no closure.  You know.  Like life.

So that was it for Levine–as Westlake explains, he’d moved into the comic phase of his career by then; there was Parker, there was Tobin, there were ‘Nephews’, there’d eventually be Dortmunder, the short story market for mysteries was drying up, and there just wasn’t time for Levine anymore.  Did he forget all about him?  Of course not.

So much time passed, nearly two decades, and Westlake began to form both a professional and personal relationship with a guy named Otto Penzler, and we’re going to be seeing that name a lot in future articles, so I don’t feel any need to go into detail here.  Penzler was starting his own publishing company, and when he found out about the Levine stories, he said all he needed was one more and he could publish them in book form.

And Westlake really wanted to do this, but he had a problem–Levine, 53 years old in all the previous stories, couldn’t possibly still be working as a detective at 73.   Even if his heart had held up.  And for him to live that long negated the point of the earlier stories anyway.

But Westlake never liked writing period stuff.  Nor did he want to rewrite the older stories to match up with the 80’s (thank God).  So the solution, he figured, was to write a story that took place very shortly after the previous one, still in the late 50’s/early 60’s, Levine still worried about his heart, still musing over what he’d learned from those five previous cases, and his partner Jack out of the hospital at last, while Levine is still visiting the recovering Andy Stettin in the hospital.  But he’d avoid any details that might tip the viewer as to when it took place, even though the earlier stories had such details that he left intact (I’m sure this made perfect sense to him).  And this final story was called–

After I’m Gone:  It’s rather a shock seeing how much Westlake’s writing had developed since the early 60’s.  A much more sophisticated and involved piece, that really could have served as the basis for a novel, this has a Mafia hook to it. Levine is approached by a made man, the right hand of a local crime boss, whose son was whacked on the orders of that boss because the kid had been caught screwing the boss’s pretty young wife.  And he’s heard through channels that his head is next on the chopping block, if only to make sure he doesn’t take revenge at a later date.

This guy’s name is Banadando, and in spite of himself, Levine likes him, appreciates his guts and his cunning, his determination to avenge his son and live to tell about it.  He’s no rat–he won’t turn state’s evidence, go into witness protection (he says he himself has bribed NYPD officers to look the other way when witnesses under their protection were murdered).  It’s not his style.  But he will provide enough evidence to jail his boss, and put him in a situation where his own people will have no choice but to kill him.

So he wants Levine to serve as his messenger, help him get the materials he needs, while he dodges the button men, and it’s all working out fine, but then Banadando’s luck runs out.  Levine has been working with just a handful of other cops, including his partner Jack, hoping to keep the cops on the mob payroll from finding out what’s going on.  But now he realizes, out in a lonely spot on the coast of Long Island, that the jig is up, Banadando has been hit, reinforcements are going to be too slow arriving, and he has to somehow hold Banadando’s killer at bay until they get there.  If he fails, it will all have been for nothing, the evidence will have been destroyed, the murders will not be avenged.

And he can feel his heart skipping with the tension and stress, as the killer shoots at him–three beats–two beats–no beats.   Mother of mercy.  Is this the end of Levine?

It is.

His partner and the Suffolk PD get there in time to catch the hitman, who couldn’t get away because he didn’t know Levine was dead–he was crouched behind a boat, with his gun held up in the air, and he was still holding it up in his lifeless hand when they found him, blocking the killer’s escape.  “The wrong ones die,” Crawley says.  Everybody dies, Jack.

Abraham Levine is the only Westlake protagonist to ever definitively unquestionably kick it.  It’s pretty damned likely that Tim Smith, the anti-hero P.I. of Killing Time is dead a second after that book ends, but we don’t see it. Nobody stands over his body and pontificates.  Westlake did not like killing his leads.  Because, I deduce, he had a fairly strained relationship with death himself.  Killing the characters he’d put the most of himself into was too much like suicide for his taste.  And we know what he thought about  suicide.

Did he kill Levine because he didn’t identify that strongly with him, Levine being a cop and all?  I’ve thought that in past, but I don’t anymore.  That’s not it.  It was because he had to respect the character’s integrity, and part of that was respecting the character’s relationship with death, which meant Levine’s story could only end one way.

Much as he feared the end, he feared losing himself more–and the best part of himself was his professionalism, his pride in doing his job, in seeing murderers brought to justice (of one kind or another), and while he may not die without fear, he dies without overpowering fear, knowing that it must be done, knowing that it means something, and knowing he will be mourned.   By his wife, by his colleagues and friends, and by me.  Because as I finished this story for the second time, it was my shoulders heaving, as I quietly sobbed to myself in a local restaurant near my job.  I’m 55, by the way.  I was younger the last time I read it. My heart’s fine, far as I know.

And we can imagine his funeral procession weaving its way through the streets of Brooklyn, the bagpipes droning, the drums beating, the shots fired over his coffin (I don’t know what special provisions might be made for Jewish officers, and we never do find out much about Levine’s religious beliefs) but I fondly imagine Crawley ordering the hearse to make a stop at a local pub along the way to the cemetery, where he and a few other cops, Irish of course, give tribute to a man they loved without ever really understanding, in the only way they know how.   With a song that the Irish have long used to bellow defiance at that bastard Death, and may they ever do so.

And let’s end with that (the next book is funnier, I promise–it’s about the publishing industry, so it would pretty much have to be).

(And they’re all dead too.  Liam went the last, almost exactly a year after Westlake.  Maybe Westlake is having a drink with them right now.  Isn’t it grand?)

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, Levine, Uncategorized

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 Curious Facts Preceding My Execution and Other Fictions

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Donald E. Westlake will always be remembered as a novelist, having published his first novel (that he wanted people to know he’d written) in 1960.  But he’d started out over a decade earlier, as so many aspiring writers have, with the short story.  When he first started submitting for publication, that was a very sensible thing to do, because there was an enormous market for short stories.  Pulp magazines catering to fans of various literary genres (most of which have now folded like the proverbial cheap suit), but also ‘mainstream’ magazines that published short fiction on a regular basis (some still do, but not like they used to).

In the late 50’s/early 60’s, his short story output was, to say the least, prodigious–in his introduction to Levine, a collection of short stories about a police detective, he says he turned out 46 short stories and novellas (he says ‘novelettes’, but I hate that word) in 1959 alone, of which more than half saw publication–not all in that year, of course.  Magazine editors stockpile.  So when I give the publication date of a story below, bear in mind that it may have been written much sooner than that.   Back then, you could make a  living writing short stories for mystery magazines.  Not a princely living, but a living.

The short story still exists as a form, and doubtless always will, but it’s damned near impossible to make any kind of living writing them today.  None other than Lawrence Block was moved to ask Whither the Short Story? on his blog, a few years back, and a damned good question it was, and still is.  It’s reached the point where you might actually be better off as a poet than a short story writer.  You’d almost certainly have better odds at getting into The New Yorker or some similarly toney publication with a poem; they take up less space.

I have greatly enjoyed many of Westlake’s short stories–I’ve read all the major collections, and some uncollected work–and I’ve yet to read one where I thought to myself afterwards that my understanding of the human condition would be less complete if I’d never read it.  Whereas I think that pretty much every time I read a Frank O’Connor story.  O’Connor wrote exactly two novels, neither of which is much remarked upon today–different skill sets (ie, you can do both well, but very few do them equally well).  That being said, I certainly think that my understanding of Westlake as a writer has improved from reading his short fiction–it contains the building blocks of better things.

Westlake wrote well over a hundred short stories–but unless there’s a bunch more of them than you could find in his bibliography, and there may well be, he wrote significantly more novels, under his name and others (most of his shorts were not written under pseudonyms).  By the early 60’s, he’d figured out the short story was never going to be his primary thing, but he went on publishing them pretty regularly, until the shrinking market (and the lousy pay-rates) made it impractical for him to do more than the occasional one-off.

He wrote a lot fewer in the late 60’s and 70’s, and his short stories after that are mainly light stuff (often written for Playboy) that he doesn’t take seriously, nor does he expect anyone else to.  A lot of them are science fiction, believe it or not–and from what I’ve seen, are rife with the very flaws he’d excoriated that genre for in his infamous article for Xero.  He did, however, write some very good stories featuring characters from his novels that he felt were worth a bit more exploration.

His last story collection was devoted to Dortmunder (many of those were published in Playboy as well, which somehow seems like the wrong venue, but never mind), and those stories are brilliant–to a reader of the Dortmunder books.  The characters are already established, you see.  In novels.  The groundwork is done, leaving him free to just tell the story.  It was a Dortmunder story that got him his one and only Edgar nomination (and the award itself) in that category

So that may be the problem–he needs a bit more space to establish his characters, room to run, to stretch out–and in a short story, he can’t quite make his people live and breathe the way he can in a novel.  But he can still try.   And in trying so hard to work in miniature, he doubtless got better at the dark detailed portraits and complex comic murals that we came to know and love him for.  His best novels read like really good really long short stories, quite often–fast-paced, intense–he runs into problems sometimes when he tries to write very long novels–too much room can be as bad as too little.  His novellas are superb, though that form flat-lined commercially even before its diminutive cousin.

This is Westlake’s first story collection, from 1968, and was an important professional milestone for him.  It was published by Random House, his professional ties with which were severed the following year, though confusingly, Richard Stark and Tucker Coe remained there well into the 70’s.  The ‘and other fictions’ part of the book begins on the inside of the dust jacket, where we are told Westlake is ‘barely turned thirty’–he was more like thirty-five, but I guess they hadn’t bothered to update the author bio.

There are fifteen stories, all of which (with one possible exception) had been previously published in various magazines, some of which were defunct even before this book came out, but two–Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s respective mystery magazines–simply refused to die, and are with us yet today.  And I suppose now there’s nothing for it but to review each one in the order it appears (they are not arranged in order of publication), as succinctly as possible:

The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution: One of several short stories published under the name Richard Stark before The Hunter came out, this is an acidic little farce with a twist ending–Westlake wrote a lot of them, and so did everybody else writing for the mystery magazines, but only Stanley Ellin ever got them 100% right, in my opinion.  It’s about a man who plots to murder his selfish grasping consumerist wife Janice, so he can marry his loving decent frugal secretary (who knows about the impending murder, so how decent can she be, really?), but is sabotaged in the event by a succession of door-to-door salesmen, girl scouts armed to their rotting teeth with cookies, phone solicitors, and nosy neighbors, making it impossible for him to conceal the fact that he was present when the murder was committed.

Basically, he never knew what the suburban neighborhood he lives in is like, because he was never home during the week.  He belatedly realizes that his wife turned into the shallow shopaholic she was because it was the only way to mentally survive these hellish surroundings, and with this insight achieved, he awaits the arrival of the police with existential resignation.  It has a nice little satiric point to make, and does so efficiently, but the point of a story like this is never to make you give a damn about any of the people in it.

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You Put On Some Weight:  My personal favorite (and a really important story for Westlake), this was published in 1960 under the title Fresh Out Of Prison in Guilty Detective Story Magazine (which, true to its name, went to the chair after 35 issues) and contains the seeds of both Parker and Dortmunder.

Charles Lambaski (alias Charlie Lane, alias Chuck Lewis, alias Jack Kent, but just call him Charlie) has just gotten out of the joint after serving four and a half years for armed assault.  He used to work with the local rackets, but as he looks up old cronies, he finds most of them have gone straight, or to jail, or the cemetery.  Sure, there’s still crooks around, but they’re not his crowd.  His peer group has evaporated, and he realizes he’s alone, bereft of purpose.

He has absolutely no desire to reform, no regrets concerning his past career choices, and is thinking about how to get back to his life of crime when two clueless young hoods show up at his apartment window, looking to rob the place.  These hapless hooligans have no idea how to do the job, and he realizes, with a glow of renewed purpose, that he can teach them to be better burglars, and they’re delighted to follow his lead.  Which is all very heartwarming, except maybe they’ll be breaking into your apartment next time.

Thing is, he’s going to show them how to make sure nobody’s home–the way they were going about it, they’d end up surprising some old dame, and then hitting her over the head with something heavy to shut her up, and that’s bad for everyone concerned.  This way, nobody gets hurt (just robbed).  Whatever you’re going to do in life, you should be professional about it.  And is there even the suggestion here that it’s a bad thing when the authorities are too efficient in rounding up the experienced crooks?  Who’s going to teach the up and coming crooks, make sure they know the rules?  Young people need role models!

There’s a touch of Stark-ian spareness about this one, as well as a soupcon of Dortmunder-esque good humor, and we’ve already discussed how Parker feels a need to pass on his skills.  The burglary aspect is more Dortmunder, of course–these guys aren’t going after banks and payrolls.  But this really is where it all started–this is the genesis of our two favorite felons.  Their common ancestor in a criminal family tree.  Worth the price of a copy all by itself.

Sniff: From 1967–Albert White, clerk to a truly rotten old attorney, has concocted an elaborate scheme for blackmailing his corrupt employer, which involves sending damning evidence back and forth through the mail–the idea is that if anything happens to him, the incriminating envelope will go to an investigative reporter.

But having put this blackmail machine into motion, he can’t summon the nerve to actually tell his boss about it.  It’s just not who he is–it’s who he’d like to be.  He’s created a false self-image.  And he’s deluding himself into thinking he will someday spring his trap by keeping up the pretense of sending the evidence back and forth, forth and back.  It gives him a sense of impending empowerment.

Albert catches a bad cold one day, and hard as he tries, he can’t get to the post office to pick up the evidence, or persuade an enthusiastic young postal clerk to hold onto it, contrary to his strict instructions.  The reporter gets the scoop, his employer has to flee the country, but he knows who fingered him, and he threatens dire and bloody vengeance.  And Albert, out of a job, and out of illusions, has nothing to do but await his impending denouement.  In Monequois, no less.

Good Night, Good Night:  This feels like it should have been an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and wouldn’t you know, it was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in 1960.  A vulgar narcissistic TV variety show host–some sociopathic hybrid of Milton Berle and Bill O’Reilly (I know he never had a variety show, and he was 11 years old when this came out, but the resemblance is startling)–lies dying in his dressing room, shot by an unseen assailant, and as his time runs out, along with his life’s blood, he tries to figure out whodunnit, while his own pre-taped show, full of suspects, airs on the set in front of him.

He’s got so many enemies–basically to know him is to hate him–that he has to run down a long list of people he’s horribly wronged, looking for clues, and by the time he’s solved the mystery, The Great Mystery itself is upon him.  So a detective story where the protagonist literally solves his own murder, but has nobody to share his revelations with, and you can’t really root for him–but you can’t quite separate yourself from him either.

There’s no final moment of insight–that he brought this on himself.  This type of personality is incapable of that kind of understanding.   So he dies as pointlessly as he lived.  And the murderer presumably gets away with it.  Beautifully written, with an ending that oddly recalls the final moments of Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, though I doubt Hijuelos ever read it, and the emotions invoked are entirely different.  I guess lots of people die watching television, though not usually their own shows.

Devilishly: From 1966–William Piedmont III, born into old money, fell hard for a remarkable girl named Doris, but she was also remarkably poor, with disreputable origins, so his family disowned him.  Clever and amiable, but as he himself admits, utterly derivative in his ideas (whereas Doris is a true original), William and his beloved enter into a life of crime–mainly short cons, burglary, etc.  No heavy stuff.  Now he wants to rob his own family, for profit and revenge.   So he and Doris go to a costume ball at the old manse.

He disguises himself as a devil–along with seven others at the party–Doris has a much more original costume–a form-fitting black suit and a mirror–she’s come as ‘everybody else’.  The robbery goes off as planned, after a few close calls, but after Doris wins the grand prize for most original costume, William, unfortunately, is picked for the least (along with all the other devils), and is exposed, and incarcerated, while Doris makes her getaway.

But he does not despair–he knows his beloved will find an original way to get him out of jail.  Westlake always has a soft spot for this kind of love story–somehow, you wish he’d found a longer tale to spin for this intriguing pair of knaves.  Great banter between them, but not much of a story here

Oh wait–is this where Smoke came from?   That literally just occurred to me.  At one point, black-clad Doris becomes ‘invisible’ by covering the mirror on her face with her hands.   Maybe just the idea of two lovers who are on the bend and on the run–add genuine invisibility, make both of them working class, add a whole lot of story, and shake well.

Murder in Outer Space: Originally called The Risk Profession–from 1961.  The only science fiction story in this bunch, but also a murder mystery.  It’s interesting that he liked it well enough to include it–this well after he’d publicly renounced the genre (though he never did stop writing SF entirely).  Me myself, I never thought much of it.  It’s all ideas, no characters.  The protagonist is a clever enough fellow, a company man with an independent streak.  He’s a futuristic insurance claims adjuster, investigating the suspicious death of an asteroid miner.   He cracks the case, and ends up profiting mightily by it, and I’d rather just move on to the next story, if you don’t mind.   Maybe I’ll revisit it when I get to Westlake’s SF anthology.   And maybe not.

No Story: From 1968, originally published in–um?   Not mentioned in his bibliography.  Did this get published anywhere before this book?  It’s a purely stylistic exercise–as the title indicates, it is not a story so much as an extended practical joke–it’s a dark and stormy night–the gentleman at the club are enjoying a spot of brandy–an retired British officer begins a story–that leads into another story–that leads into another story–and etc.  And somehow none of the stories are ever told.  Like Passage to Marseilles, but shorter, and more fun.  And rather forgettable, but Westlake would do much better with a longer and more specific ‘literary’ parody, in just a few year’s time.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery: From 1966, and again first published in Hitchcock’s–perhaps a whiff of science fiction here.  A man named Albert and his wife Janice, once a sweet loving girl but now a ‘harridan with the soul of a Borgia’ (man, Westlake really did not like that name), live in a vast soulless highrise apartment building (didn’t J.G. Ballard write something like this?), and the relationship has, shall we say, deteriorated.

Like the protagonist of our first story, he’s got his eye on a more sympathetic mate, and needs to eliminate the current missus. Lord only knows how many variations on spousal homicide have been penned in this genre, read avidly by both husbands and wives, and no doubt there are gay variants as well by this time.  Anyway, Albert recently won the sweepstakes, and if he divorces Janice, she’ll get the money.

Albert has a Rear Window moment (well, remember whose magazine this is), seeing a man push his wife to her death across the way, and he decides not to tell the police–he’s going to plagiarize his neighbor’s murder.   He does so–and then realizes yet another harried husband has seen him do it–and is likewise inspired.   It’s going viral.   Well-written, and very much in the style for this particular venue, but I don’t much care for it.  And wasn’t Westlake’s first marriage breaking up right around this time?  One imagines the first Mrs. Westlake edging away from open windows for a while.

Just One Of Those Days: From 1966, and first published in This Week, a magazine ‘supplement’, that was syndicated all over the country–it would be inserted into Sunday newspapers–so a whole lot of people read this one.  And this is another venue for short stories that went the way of all things, since it folded (in the bad sense of the word) less than three years later.

It’s a heist gone wrong story–two guys named Harry and Ralph are robbing a bank–Ralph is the planner, and the first person narrator, and he’s just disgusted.  They have this job worked out to perfection, but then Harry says the bank’s closed–on Tuesday.  Ralph wants to know why such a stupid thing would happen, and Harry tells him–it’s Kenny Griffin Day.

“I give up,” I said.  “What’s a Kenny Griffin?”

“Astronaut,” he said.  He opened his shirt collar and tossed himself onto the bed.  “Comes from this burg,” he said.  “It’s his Homecoming Day.  They’re having a big parade for him.”

“By the bank?” I asked.

“What difference?”  He moved his automatic out from under his hip, adjusted his pillow, and shut his eyes.  “The bank’s closed anyway,” he said.

I cocked my head, and from far away I heard band music.  “Well, if that isn’t nice,” I said.

“They’re gonna give him the key to the city,” Harry said.

“That is real nice,” I said.

“Speeches, and little kids giving him flowers.”

“That’s so nice I can’t stand it,” I said.

“He was in orbit,” Harry said.

“He should have stayed in orbit,” I said.

“So we’ll do it tomorrow,” said Harry.

“I know,” I said.  “But it’s just irritating.”

So they pull the job a day later, and they’re making their getaway–the whole key to the caper is that they get to the airport and catch a flight out before the cops get wise–but they can’t find the exit–they just keep going around and around on this beltway, and finally the cops get wise.  And when a handcuffed Ralph asks a cop why the exit for Airport Road wasn’t clearly marked anymore, like it was when he cased out the escape route, he finds out they just renamed it Griffin Road.  Isn’t that nice?

And more than a little reminiscent of Dortmunder, yeah.   Westlake started working on the Parker novel that eventually became The Hot Rock (after first becoming The Black Ice Score) not long after this came out.   But Ralph and Harry are basically the same character–no foil, no Stan to Ralph’s Ollie–just a bit of bad luck, accepted philosophically.  Still–it’s nice.  And acceptable to a mainstream middle American audience (can’t get more mainstream than a Sunday supplement), because you like the crooks, identify with their long-suffering professionalism, but you don’t feel like they’d croak you and your whole family just to make their escape.

Never Shake A Family Tree: Ah, this one is the goods!   Again from Hitchcock’s, again from 1961.  An elderly widow with a passion for genealogy meets an elderly widower with the same interest–and turns out two distant relatives of theirs were married–and her forebear died of an unknown stomach ailment–and so did a lot of other men who married this female ancestor of her charming (and somewhat younger) new beau. And so did a lot of women who married him in the past few decades. A pattern begins to emerge.

And the twist to follow the twist–she decides this is too good to pass up–how long can a person live anyway? He’s the perfect companion for her golden years. She’ll marry him, and then deny him every possible avenue for discreet murder. He can’t leave her, and if he gets her someday, she’s made sure he’ll burn for it.But there’s no ill will on her part–she’s never had so much fun in her life. A truly original ending to a genuinely clever story. But again, no emotional involvement–that’s not what the form calls for.

Just The Lady We’re Looking For:   Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, 1964.  For some reason, door-to-door salesmen show up constantly in Westlake’s work–either thieves taking a break from thievery and hating the work intensely, or else grifters happily working short cons.   Or actual foot-in-the-door salesmen, being annoyingly persistent, as in the first story here.

So did Westlake have to put in some time as a salesman to make ends meet, or did he just have a lot of them showing up at the door when he was trying to write?   He was working at home, so unlike the unfortunate protagonist of the first story, he knows damned well how many pesky salesmen there are out there, and probably a fair few were on the grift.

Anyway, this isn’t much of a story.   A con man posing as a salesman thinks he’s found a pigeon ripe for the plucking in a timid housewife, not realizing she’s wise to his game from the start, because she isn’t what she appears to be.  Be fine as a minor vignette in a longer work, doesn’t really stand on its own.

I do have to question the inclusion of some of these pieces–what were the criteria being applied?   Many years later, a second anthology came out (A Good Story and Other Stories), and more than half of those had already appeared in this one we’re looking at now, making it a dubious buy for collectors–particularly since the ones that had already appeared were the best in that bunch.  Were some of his stories harder to get the re-publication rights for than others?   Bit late to ask now.

Domestic Intrigue: From 1966, published in The Saint Mystery Magazine, which went to heaven the year after (if more of these magazines had survived, would Westlake have produced more short stories?  And perhaps fewer novels?).   Written in the first person, from the perspective of an adulterous wife, who married for money, and has been seeing the man she really loves on the side.  A blackmailer appears, threatening to expose her to her brutish husband.  All men are beasts, you see–except for her devoted lover.

She sets a trap for the blackmailer–arranges to meet him at a motel, and for her husband to catch them en flagrante.  But she realizes two things a bit two late–first, that the blackmailer is in cahoots with her lover, who feels life as a kept man isn’t as financially rewarding as it should be.  And second, that her husband, finding her with another man, would be moved to shoot her, not him.  So as she desperately runs for her life, she realizes all men really are bea….

All Men Are Bea was the title of a 1968 story in Argosy, and I’d assume it’s the same one?  I find these nasty little tales of spousal murder a bit unworthy of Westlake, but again, that was the market he was writing to.   Murder in general he wrote about quite a bit–murderers getting away with it he wrote about more often than most–but not one of his novels is specifically about the protagonist deliberately dispatching his or her life partner, or being dispatched by same.   Still, I think he had some fun with this specific form–good enough for a very short story.

One Man On a Desert Island: From 1960, first published in Hitchcock’s.  Maybe the best and most haunting short story Westlake ever wrote.  And therefore, naturally, the best identity puzzle of the bunch.  A man grows bored with his empty humdrum existence, and wants to go adventuring on the high seas in his small boat.  The authorities try to stop him, but he’s determined, and of course completely unprepared, and he ends up shipwrecked on a small island.

As he gradually goes mad from isolation, a beautiful woman–literally the girl of  his dreams–appears to him.  She is everything he’d ever wished for, and they fall deeply in love–and then she starts to bug him.  She turns from dream lover to nagging mother, and he begins to hate her.  So he drowns her.  Too late, he is struck with deep remorse and bitter regret. She was the best part of him.

Rescuers arrive, and he tells them what he did.  There’s no body (there was no woman), but they see no reason to doubt his story.  You’d think habeas corpus would apply here, but I checked–you don’t necessarily need to produce the body. He is turned over to the proper authorities, and is eventually tried and executed for murdering a figment of his imagination.   He goes to his death feeling that he fully deserves his fate; relieved to be punished for his terrible crime.

The real kicker–the guy is an aspiring writer.  And what bugged him most about his fantasy woman was that she kept pushing him to write more.

Worth noting that in 1959, when this was presumably written, the Twilight Zone episode The Lonely aired, which bears a certain familial resemblance.   Rod Serling, that famed native of Binghamton New York, penned that script.   Westlake was a bit dismissive of The Twilight Zone at times (he called it ‘bad fantasy for television’), but he certainly watched it, and it’s not hard to believe he’d have used that story as a jumping off point.   Or that a similar idea came to him independently.   But I’d guess it was the former.  And much as I admire Serling at his best, Westlake’s story is better.

The Sweetest Man In The World: 1967, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  Another guileful older woman embroiled in a murder plot, but it’s not what you think, and neither is she.   It must have gotten wearying turning out twist ending after twist ending for these magazines, but a pretty clever job of defeating reader expectations, all the same.   But when you think about it a minute, you don’t really believe it.  Insurance claims investigators aren’t that gullible.   Still, in a world where Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire were both hit films, I guess we can’t be too skeptical.

Which finally, brings us to–

The Mother of Invention Is Worth a Pound of Cure: Published in something called Dapper, in 1966.  No, I never heard of it either (seriously, I hadn’t), but it seems to have been a sort of minor league Playboy–definitely racier than Esquire.  There’s a men’s magazine out of Dallas going by that name now, but I don’t think it’s the same one.  Here’s a cover from 1966, the image of which I filched from ebay–

$_12

I think we all get the idea.  And this is, based on a few minute’s research, a fairly modest cover for Dapper.

And strangely, I think this is the best of the four spousal murder stories in this collection (I don’t count Never Shake a Family Tree), though no spouses actually die during it.  The premise is implausible, but arresting–a beautiful but dangerous woman and her latest boy toy are having a post-coital conversation, and she shows him a letter she’s written, confessing to the murder of her husband–who is still alive, but she’d rather it were otherwise.  She says that if he were to die, the aforementioned boy toy (the narrator of the piece) could blackmail his way to a comfortable retirement–and enjoy her considerable charms in the process.   Or he could refuse–and she’d murder him.  Carrot and stick.  How can he refuse?

He thinks about it, and the story ends with an interesting reveal–all this time he’s been telling this story, he’s actually been talking to the husband himself–and holding a gun on him–but only for self-defense, to give him time to explain the situation.  A cad he is, our narrator, but no killer.   He knows his limitations.  He has no illusions about his identity, unlike the dithering Albert White.

And having told the seemingly dumbstruck husband what’s going on, and provided the undeniable proof of the murder confession itself (which he points out could be read as a suicide note) he figures one way or another, his problem is solved–whichever one succeeds in eliminating the other, he’ll be off the hook.  And on his merry way.   Poor, but free.

That is a Westlake protagonist.  Some of the others, anybody could have written just as well.   But the best of these stories show him transcending the formulaic limitations of the genre he’s working in, and the markets he’s writing them for.  As he did in his novels, but it must be said, he never managed to do it as well in the short form.  Like Cole Porter, Donald Westlake seems to always be saying Don’t Fence Me In.   He needs the structure of genre–the constraints of established conventions–gives him ideas to work from, an audience to aim for–but he needs to make fun of it, even while he’s celebrating it.  It’s just who he is.

And he was more free to be that when he was writing novels.  And hopefully none the poorer, though I bet he missed having some of those magazines to write for.   A writer can have a lot of ideas that don’t quite rate a novel–pity to waste them.  But with only so many hours in the day, I think it’s just as well for us Westlake readers that his short story production dropped way off in the 1970’s–which were his best single decade as a writer.

Yes, the 1960’s were his most prolific period, his most seminal, his most creative–the decade in which he became Stark, and Coe, and the master of the comic caper (though he didn’t really achieve mastery in that area until the very end of that decade).  But the 70’s were where he achieved his fullest potential–one amazing book after another, and no two of them alike.  I expect to review them all next year, and it’s going to be a challenge–but imagine writing them all.   In ten years.  While dealing with an increasingly complex personal life.   That we know almost nothing about, but we know enough to know it was pretty damn complex.  The 70’s were the beginning of his mature period, and the end of his youth.

But I reiterate, whatever his limitations as a short story writer, he learned a lot from writing them–and who’s to say if he hadn’t come along sooner, before the market began to fade, he might not have mastered that form as fully as he mastered the novel?  I just compared him to Wodehouse in my last review, and Wodehouse wrote novels and short stories equally well.  One of the few who could say that, though.  Different skill sets.

I may post one or twice more before the year is out, depending on how hectic the holiday schedule gets.  Next up is The Sour Lemon Score, which fairly brims over with the Christmas spirit, doesn’t it now? (Then again, there is a sort of miracle in it.)

If I don’t post again before 2015, thanks to all of you, all over the world (66 flags and counting!), for coming by, and putting up with my lengthy spoiler-laden ruminations.   The best really is yet to come.

PS: I don’t know how it happened, but this became a book-on-tape–the stories read by none other than Arte Johnson, best remembered for Laugh-In.

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To coin a phrase….

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake short stories