Category Archives: Donald Westlake

Mr. Westlake and the Fender-Bonder

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Dear Jeff,

In LIVE AND LET DIE, I am the passenger in the red car in the stunt driving sequence on the FDR Drive in New York.  When I saw the movie, back then, I was astonished at how much that black silhouette (moi) inside that car was being thrown around.  At the time, it had just seemed like a little sideswipe, not such a much at all.

Donald E. Westlake, writing to Goldeneye producer Jeff Kleeman, in 1995.

Well, it’s taking me a bit longer than I thought to write my review of Forever And a Death, but I kind of thought it might take me longer than I thought, which sheds perhaps an unfortunate light on my  mental processes, but there you are.  Maybe tomorrow (assuming tomorrow doesn’t die).

In the nonce, I found something interesting to share with you all, that I considered just mentioning briefly in the review (in a prologue that’s already getting very long), but I think it’s worth highlighting, because it’s such an odd quirky little story, based on an unpredictable series of coincidences. A very Westlake story, when you get right down to it.

The story goes like this: long before he was ever approached to write a story for a Bond film (the story that eventually became Forever And a Death), Westlake was in a Bond film, namely Live And Let Die.  This happened in 1972, when he was at the very peak of his powers as a writer, and amazing novels bearing his various professional names were getting rolled out in the bookstores five to seven times a year.

He told Jeff Kleeman this story, when approached about writing the follow-up to Goldeneye, and Kleeman kept the letter, the relevant section of which you can see above.  You can read more in Kleeman’s (superb) afterward to the novel I’m supposed to be reviewing now.

No, he’s not in the cast, don’t bother looking on IMDb.  He was, in a sense, an unpaid extra. To even call it a cameo would be gilding the lily–it’s unclear whether the director, Guy Hamilton, had the slightest inkling who this bespectacled fellow in the back seat of a red Chevy was, or if he’d have cared.

But he was in the back seat, I’m pretty sure, though he didn’t specify–the guy at the wheel would have been a pro, the guy on the passenger side up front has very long hair, and can be pretty clearly seen–not a ‘black silhouette.’  I don’t know that there’s any technical wizardry that could produce a recognizable image of Mr. Westlake in that car.  (Hell, I didn’t even make the screen capture up top, found it on a discussion forum where they talk endlessly about cars used in movies. Obsessives can be very useful, I find.  I trust I’ve been useful at times myself.)

Last night, having borrowed the ‘James Bond Ultimate Edition 2-Disc DVD Set’ (2006) from the library I work at,  I watched the scene in question with the commentary enabled–first from the director, then Roger Moore.  (Moore wrote a book about his experiences making Live And Let Die, not evailable, paperback copies are now prohibitively expensive, and it’s not that important, is it?)

Moore wasn’t much help, though drily entertaining as always (much more fun when he’s not being Bond, you ask me), but Guy Hamilton filled in some useful details that provided a clue as to why Westlake would be in that car at all.

Hamilton enjoyed filming that scene very much, one of his favorites I think.  That section of the FDR Drive was closed off to traffic for the shoot, inconveniencing many a Sunday motorists out for a day’s pleasure, we can be sure.  Hamilton was well and truly chuffed at how eagerly the local authorities facilitated all this hugger mugger, awfully decent of them, really.  (Other local authorities were less helpful, but we’ll get to that.)

It’s the scene in which Bond, having been picked up at the airport by some unfortunate fellow named Charlie at the behest of Felix Leiter, survives an attempt on his life by one of Kananga’s henchmen, Whisper.  Poor Charlie gets a dart in his brain, which not only kills but paralyzes him, so that he’s just sitting there gripping the wheel, dead eyes staring vacantly ahead, which to be sure is a commonly seen expression on the faces of Gotham motorists.

Bond, realizing his chauffeur is now deceased, and therefore not fully competent to handle New York City traffic (though I’ve seen worse),  has to be a literal backseat driver, and can I just ask, if the goal was covert assassination, why didn’t Whisper dart him instead?  People who are not indestructible globetrotting secret agents survive horrific car crashes every day.  This is perhaps a topic best reserved for Bond-blogs, of which there is no present shortage.

You can watch the entire sequence on Youtube–the part with the red car getting jostled comes a bit over two minutes in–

So what Hamilton reveals in his DVD commentary is that they were filming this scene very near the Manhattan offices of United Artists, which provided distribution for all the Eon-produced Bond films prior to Octopussy (MGM having absorbed UA by that time).

Some studio ‘brass’ as he refers to them had wanted to come by and watch the scene being shot.  He told them they weren’t going to see anything much as distant bystanders, and they’d get a much better view from inside one of the cars being used in the scene. But he was grinning inwardly as he told them that.  He names no names, and a good bet he had a pretty vague grasp of who any of them were.

He probably just got a call from some high muckety-muck at Eon (the people actually signing his checks, remember), saying there were these dashed Yanks who’d like to take a look around, try to humor them, there’s a good chap.  No director in the history of cinema has ever taken kindly to such requests.

So he put them in the car that was going to get bumped up into the highway divider.  Not a terribly difficult or hazardous stunt (though I just bet you they didn’t have Moore in the other car doing the bumping when they filmed it).  But Hamilton figured it would seem like a fifty car pile-up to them.  As he relates, with great satisfaction, they got out of the car white as a sheet, looking as if they had momentarily concluded their last day on earth had dawned.

Westlake’s account of how scary it was differs quite a lot, and he was one of the people in the car, wasn’t he?  But then again, he was Donald E. Westlake, wasn’t he?  And he’d done a stint in the Air Force, meaning that he’d experienced far worse jostling, thousands of feet in the air, over water.  Maybe the others (there are perhaps three passengers in all, other than the stunt driver, hard to tell)  experienced it differently than he did.  Or maybe Hamilton didn’t want to admit his practical joke had been thoroughly enjoyed by its victims.  Or maybe Westlake was retroactively editing his own reaction.  We shall never know.

But that’s not really the question here.  My question was more along these lines: Westlake wasn’t any kind of studio brass.  He had no connection with this movie, in any capacity whatsoever.  Hamilton doesn’t even seem to have known who he was.  What the fuck was he doing there?

And I figured out the answer, or so I think.  Strange as it may seem, there were a few other United Artists releases in 1973, besides Live And Let Die, and one of them was this.

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(The more interesting movie of the two, but try telling that to the public.)

One of the few instances of Westlake writing a script based on his own (very) original story that actually got made into a decent enough movie, which he subsequently expanded into a much better novel which I’ve already reviewed.  It was released in theaters about a month before Live And Let Die.  Meaning it would almost certainly have been in production around the same time.

There’s little production info out there about Cops And Robbers, but there’s plenty about every Bond film ever lensed.  The exterior scenes featuring Bond in New York were mainly filmed in December of 1972, according to Wikipedia.  The Hot Rock, based on one of Westlake’s most successful novels, had been released in January of that year–not a hit, but still a big movie with Robert Redford as the star.  So while he was hardly a name to conjure with in Hollywood, he would have been somebody the suits were keeping tabs on, in case he could be useful in future.  And therefore, somebody who’d be taking a fair few meetings, doing the odd few lunches.

He was probably taking a meeting there that day (it was a Sunday, so fewer people around the office), maybe with one of the execs who wanted to go check out the Bond shoot nearby.  Not much of a stretch to figure somebody asked him if he wanted to come with.  Can you imagine him responding “Nah, thanks, I’m going to go get some lunch, maybe hit a museum”?  Me neither.  Mr. Westlake liked to watch professionals of any kind at work.  Research.

At a different point in his correspondence with Kleeman, Westlake tells a story that Moore corroborates on his commentary track–a black stunt driver from Pennsylvania, who didn’t know the rules of the road in New York very well, had to go off and get gas, prior to shooting the scene.  He was dressed as a pimp, in a car customized as a pimpmobile.  He made a right turn on red, on a Sunday, in the Wall Street district, with no traffic, and he got pulled over (as a banker in a Beemer probably wouldn’t have been).

He had no registration for the car, because why would he?  His wallet was in his other set of clothes.  He tried to explain to the officer he was working on a James Bond movie.  Would you have believed him?  He got bailed out very late in the day, after it was too late to reshoot the scene.  And all this tells us is that 1)Westlake really was there that day, and 2)Some things never change.

One more thing of interest (out of many) from Kleeman’s afterward–Westlake told him he had not seen all of the then-sixteen previous Bond films.  He was anything but a diehard fan of that franchise (probably not of the Diehard franchise either).  It was just a casual interest, which is all it is for most people.  Kleeman had sent him video copies of three Bond movies (I’d guess Goldeneye was one of them?), and he asked for one more.  He wanted to see Live and Let Die again, “because I’m in it.”  It was 1995, you could get that movie anywhere there was electricity.  He probably didn’t have a single Bond video in the house.   (Well, neither do I, but I work for a library.)

In the same letter to Kleeman that I quote up top, he wrote “A continuing motif, I see, is birth through water; I have no problem with that.”   Meaning he could work with that.  And he did.  But not, ultimately, in a Bond film. And the one being reborn through water would not be Bond.

Okay, fine, I’ll get back to work.

 

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Review: Watch Your Back!

What was going on?  Was it a wake around here?  Nobody wore a black armband, but the faces on the regulars were long enough.  They, all of them, men and the women’s auxiliary, too, were hunched over their drinks with that thousand-yard stare that suggests therapy is no longer an option.  In short, the place looked exactly like that section of the socialist realist mural where the workers have been utterly shafted by the plutocrats.  Dortmunder looked up, half-expecting to see top hats and cigars in the gloom up there, but nothing.

“But first I wanna know,” Tiny said, “about the O.J.”

“Well,” Dortmunder said, “it’s a bust-out joint.”

“Shit,” Tiny commented.

Kelp said, “A nephew.”

“Not one of the better ones,” Dortmunder suggested.

Tiny rumbled, “There are good nephews?”

He would not fail her.  She has faith in me as a con artist and a crook, he told himself, and I will not let her down.

Dortmunder said, “You think everything’s okay in life, and then something different happens.”

Kelp gave him a look.  “John?  On one beer you’re turning philosophical?”

“It’s the environment,” Dortmunder told him.

Okay, it’s like this.

I really wanted to do this review as a one-parter.  I remembered the book–nearly every book I’ve reviewed on this blog, I read in its entirety before I created said blog–so there’s a pretty significant gap between readings by now.  I remembered enjoying it, like I enjoy all these books, or what am I doing here.  I also remembered being a mite underwhelmed.  But I forgot most of it, because c’mon, that’s a lot of books. How do you retain all that?  You’d need some kind of idiotic memory.  That’s what a regular at the O.J. Bar and Grill told me it was called, right before another regular hit him with a beer bottle.  Misunderstanding.

Even if I’d remembered it all, line for line, I had a lot less context back then–you learn as you go–so I picked up on things I missed last time, that I will be compelled to share now. Who knows what else I’d find if I reread and reviewed these books all over again from scratch?  Maybe somebody better hit me with a beer bottle before that happens. Hey–that was a joke.

So the story is, there’s a lot more story than I remembered, a lot more I want to talk about, and I’ve managed to scrounge up four cover images–all of them lousy– look at the first edition; red/orange letters on a field of taxi-cab yellow, and it’s the pick of the litter.  Rivages/Noir somehow got confused (no, you’re supposed to be watching your back, not some android strip-club waitress’s derriere, geez, how French can you get?) The two I’m using next time are even worse.

I did find some images I like, though.  Well, I don’t relish those two photos up top, of the shuttered and derelict St. Nick’s Pub, and the now-demolished Lenox Lounge, historic Harlem jazz bars that fell prey to ‘progress.’  But they illustrate the point of this book much better than its own cover art.  And what point is that?

On its face, this is yet another story about Dortmunder pulling yet another heist on yet another mendacious moneybags who has it coming, with interest.  How many times has that happened now?  I make this the sixth notch on Dortmunder’s lock pick (including one short story), and edifying as that may be, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to watching rich bastards squirm like fat gasping orange carps on a hook.  Like you needed me to tell you that.  (Reel it in careful-like, Bob.  Don’t want to lose this one.  Or capsize the boat.)

But that is not what this book is about.  The moneybags here isn’t the enemy.  Mildly diverting at best, pointless padding at worst.  A subplot that got out of control.

There’s also an organized crime angle (a first for Dortmunder; one was starting to wonder if maybe his universe was Cosa Nostra free). The Mob is not the real threat, either, and their subplot is something of a backhanded homage to David Chase.  I think we can take it as a given that Mr. Westlake watched The Sopranos (being a great admirer of Chase’s work on The Rockford Files), and the storyline involving Tony’s old school chum Davey Scatino clearly caught his attention.  As did the colorful but limited vocabulary of the Jersey mobsters on that show.

There’s two final ‘Nephews’ (and a strong textual hint that this is exactly how Westlake thought of them).  One is only his own worst enemy. The other is the final addition to the gang and will be seen again in future.  I’m on the fence about whether that’s a good thing, and so’s the gang.  But he’s definitely not somebody you have to watch your back over.

No, the antagonist in this book is change. Unneeded, unwanted, and let’s face it, unstoppable.  A river bursting its banks, oddly selective in what it sweeps away–mainly what you value most.  Good change happens because we make it happen, because we’re paying close attention to our surroundings, performing needed adjustments.  Bad change happens, too often, because we get careless; don’t see it coming until it’s upon us. By which time it’s usually too late to do anything but bitch and moan and move on.  Assuming that’s an option, and we probably shouldn’t assume that.

Is there no champion we may call upon to save us from this entropic dreadnought, this devourer of dreams?  Maybe one–if he can be sufficiently motivated to watch our backs for us, since we hoi polloi seem disinclined to do much of anything besides jaw to each other on our virtual barstools.

Change is going to try and take the O.J. Bar and Grill away from John Dortmunder. Change does not know who it’s fucking with.

Westlake begins by reminding us of what could be lost to world culture forever.

When John Dortmunder, a free man, not even on parole, walked into the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Friday night in July, just before ten o’clock, the regulars were discussing the afterlife.  “What I don’t get,” said one of them, as Dortmunder angled toward where Rollo the bartender was busy with something far over to the right end of the bar, “is all these clouds.”

A second regular put down his foaming beerglass to say, “Clouds?  Which clouds are these?”

“That’s what they’re sitting on!” The first regular waved an arm dangerously, but did no damage.  “you look at all these pictures, Jesus sitting on a cloud, that other God sitting on a cloud, Mary sitting on a cloud–”

“A little lower down,” suggested a third.

“Well, yeah, but the point is, can’t Heaven come up with furniture?”

Dortmunder takes a break from this divine cabinetry conclave to note that Rollo the bartender is absorbed in making fancy drinks with fruit, arcane liqeurs, and tiny paper parasols–some ladies of a certain age have decamped for refreshment, and are looking around at their surroundings with an anthropologist’s guarded delight.  The colloquy at the bar continues apace.

Another regular, meantime, was objecting to the concept of furniture in the beyond, saying, “Whadaya want with furniture?  Heaven isn’t Westchester, you know..”

A fifth regular weighed in, saying, “Yeah?  What about all those fields of plenty?”

“Land of milk and honey,” added the third regular, as though it were an indictment.

The first regular lifted a skeptical glass and a skeptical brow to say, “Do they give out overshoes?”

The learned debate then verges over into what had just recently become, under unfortunate circumstances, a much-discussed take on the afterlife,   The one with the 72 virgins.  To which one obvious cavil would be–

“There aren’t seventy-two virgins,” the first regular objected.

“Well no,” the second regular conceded, “not all at one time, but still, what kinda Heaven is this?  It would be like being assigned to an all-girls high-school.”

“Ouch,” said the third regular.

“Can you imagine,” the second regular said, “what it sounds like in the cafeteria at lunchtime?”

The fourth regular, the one with something against Westchester, said, “Would you have to learn volleyball?”

Okay, fine, the Algonquin Round Table it’s not, but that lasted a bit over ten years, starting in 1919 then informally concluding in 1932, when Edna Ferber showed up and found a family from Kansas had foreclosed (the Gulch family, one supposes).  The O.J. Regulars held court from 1970 to 2009, and that’s just what we know about.  We’re going to know a lot more by the time this book is done.

Dortmunder is there for a meet in the back room, and as always, Rollo provides him with a bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (“Our Own Brand”) and two glasses.  Some question is raised in this narrative as to whether there is any such establishment, or if the bottling is done in the very bowels of the O.J.–but just FYI, at Amsterdam Ave. and 127th, at this precise moment in history–

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(Ya gotta believe.)

Dortmunder is going to meet up with Ralph Winslow, or as Rollo knows him, ‘the rye and water, the one that tinkles his ice cubes all the time.’  He claims not to know any of their names, only their beverage preferences.  Well, that would make things challenging for the D.A’s office, should Rollo ever be called upon to testify.

In the back room, Dortmunder finds the surprisingly (and delightedly) early Stan Murch (aka the beer and salt), expounding on how the Williamsburg Bridge is okay to drive on now that construction is finished, and Robert Moses didn’t need to build that mammoth expressway after all, the one he wanted to cut Manhattan in half with ‘like the Great Wall of China.’  He also mentions he’s on his second salt shaker, that’s how early he was this time, because traffic was so good on Canal and the West Side Highway.  And yet he’s still on his first beer.

(Sidebar: How many of you reading this have actually tried sprinkling salt in your beer to bring back the head?  Reading this at my local last Saturday, I was moved again to reach for the salt shaker behind the bar, and again found the results equivocal.  Yes, you get a bit of a head back, with a few sprinkles and a bit of discreet agitation, but not a full head, and it doesn’t last long–well, neither does the beer.  Unlike Stan, I’m not driving.

Stan needing more than one shaker’s worth to nurse along a single beer would suggest this method is more conducive to hypertension than anything else.  Is kosher salt more efficacious?  Sea salt?  Do those folk of metaphoric legend, who are ever crying in their beers, know something we don’t? Please report your own findings in the comments section.  Where I regret to say there is no beer or salt on offer, but I’m working on it.)

So the meet doesn’t pan out.  Ralph maybe had something, but the cops pulled him in for something else, and until that gets resolved, he is incommunicado.  He called Stan–has him on speed-dial on his cell.  Stan asks if Dortmunder has a cell, so he can add him to his speed-dial.  Dortmunder’s response is terse and in the negative. He’s not going to be on anyone’s speed dial.  Something tells me he’s yet to fully recover from the untimely demise of the rotary dial.

So that’s Chapter One.  The review is just over 2,000 words now.  What was I worried about, this’ll be over in no time.  Call it setting the scene, and let’s try being a bit more expeditious.

Dortmunder gets a call from Arnie Albright, the world’s least-loved fence of stolen goods.  Not unpopular from any moral failing on his part (Dortmunder is not one to cast stones, his own house being glass), but rather from his general manner and physical appearance.

We are perpetually reminded of his non-pulchritudinous aspect (“He told me once, he finds himself so disgusting, he shaves with his back to the mirror.”), while he is being inflicted upon us in book after book, not to  mention several short stories.  One sometimes notes a barely-suppressed strain of sado-masochism in Mr. Westlake.  And just for the record, compared to Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the fence featured in Westlake’s Smoke, who shares many of the same quirks (probably because they were created around the same time), Arnie is Will Freakin’ Rogers.

Arnie’s family members recently did an intervention (referenced in the previous book), sending him to a Club Med, where he was supposed to learn to be a bit more of a person.  It kind of worked.  Well, he got a tan.  He still insists on referring to Dortmunder by his full name all the time.  And he still deals in stolen goods.  The family didn’t object to that, man’s gotta make a living and all.

So he’s got a proposition he wants Dortmunder to hear, and Dortmunder would rather not, but then again, maybe he could get Kelp to come along, share the burden.  Kelp is just then robbing a furrier, bringing the fruits of his labor back to Anne Marie, who proceeds to prance around in a sable jacket and nothing else, so distracting Andy that he agrees over the phone to meet Dortmunder at Arnie’s.

The proposition mingles those two great motivations in human affairs–profit and revenge.  Whilst at Club Med, Arnie made the acquaintance of a certain involuntarily expatriate venture capitalist, one Preston Fareweather.  Preston is not in exile due to any troubles with the law–well, not criminal law.  Civil.  If you want to call it that.

He has a lot of very attractive ex-wives, who he married for the sole purpose of bedding then discarding them.  They all hate him.  More even than they hate each other, and thus they have joined forces, they and their lawyers, in an attempt to attach his worldly goods.  Process servers can go many places, but not, it would seem, a Club Med.  (Pretty sure they can get into Mar-a-Lago just fine.)

Preston has personality issues that even Arnie finds hard to tolerate, and he’s been tolerating himself since birth.  Not so much from his personal appearance as from his believing he and he alone is worthy of any consideration, and other people exist only to be insulted and abused and talked down to.  (Is there any Trump in the mix here?  No, probably too smart to be Trump-influenced.)

Point is, his contempt for Arnie, the smalltime crook, was not even thinly veiled, even while he entertained himself by hob-nobbing with his social (and no doubt criminal) inferior.  Arnie, long inured to people not liking him, was unfamiliar with this specific form of pariah-dom the rich routinely heap upon everybody who isn’t, and thus developed a keen dislike for Preston.

And yet, he kept returning for more daily doses of derision–during which he learned everything he could about Preston’s luxurious duplex penthouse, located on Fifth Avenue and 68th.  Full of so many valuable accoutrements.  And this is where Dortmunder and Kelp come in.  Literally.

Perhaps this schadenfreude shows a lack of gratitude on Arnie’s part, since as he explains, it was meeting Preston Fareweather that finally brought about the most sovereign remedy his own exile was meant to enact. (Translation: He’s a bit less obnoxious now.)

Kelp said “Preston cured you?”

“I watched him,” Arnie said.  “I watched the people around him, how they acted, and I suddenly go tit, those are the expressions I used to see on the faces of people looking at me.  I was never obnoxious in the same way as Preston, on purpose to hurt and embarrass other people, but it all comes down to the same place.  ‘I don’t wanna be Preston Fareweather,’ I told myself, ‘not even by accident,’ so that was it.  I called you, John Dortmunder, because here’s my proposition.

“I’m ready,” Dortmunder allowed.

“I’m sure you are.  I despise that Preston so much, I put up with so much crap from that guy while I’m casing his apartment long-distance, that my reward is the thought of the expression on his face the next time he walks into his house.”

He’s offering seventy per cent of whatever he gets for whatever Dortmunder gets.   Even allowing for some creative accounting on Arnie’s part, it’s a solid proposition.  And Arnie, no heistman himself, still has a useful suggestion as to how they might proceed–Mr. Fareweather has his own private parking garage, to billet his own private BMW, and this comes with its own private elevator up to the penthouse.  Take the Beemer out, put a truck in, Bob’s your uncle.

So what’s to lose?  They walk across Central Park, and there it is, big as life, and surprisingly unglamorous.  Well, you’re paying for the view out, I guess.  Who cares what the wretches down in the park have to look at?

The building, up ahead, taller than its neighbors, built in the real-estate flush of the 1950s, when details and ornamentation and style and grace were considered old-fashioned and unprofitable, hulked like a stalker over the park, a pale gray stone structure pocked with balconies.

A pretty fair description of the general run of uber-pricey housing there (location, location, location).  I’m guessing Preston’s building would be a composite (since non-fictional tycoons do get robbed sometimes, and their lawyers aren’t fictional either), but here’s a pretty fair example of the style.  If you want to call it that.  (Mr. Westlake’s architectural conservatism can be contagious at times.)

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They agree to do another meet at the O.J., this time with Tiny, since there’s going to be a lot of heavy lifting if they pull this one.  There follows a brief interlude with Stan Murch, just then in the process of stealing a Lincoln Navigator (one of the few legit car names in this book, but we’ll get to that next time), which he suddenly realizes comes equipped with the current bane of Stan’s existence, namely GPS.  Not a bane so much because he wants to handle navigation himself, but because of what the letters GPS stand for.  And they won’t stand for much.

That was the snag lately.  If you grabbed some old clunker, it didn’t have enough resale value to be worth the risk involved in taking it away from its former owner, but a sh iny new, valuable piece of tin was more than likely to be leashed to a satellite. And there was no known way to jam a satellite.

That’s the problem, Stan thought.  The law’s got all the labs.

He barely ditches the goods before the cops show up, drawn by the GPS signal like bees to nectar.  They see him walking towards the subway, but he talks himself out of their tentative clutches, and boards the A train.  Which we’re told has its northernmost terminus in the Bronx.  Which has never been true, unless you consider North Manhattan part of the Bronx.

I can’t explain Westlake making such an egregious Gothamite gaffe.  Unless he’s trying once again to avoid incurring the jealousy of the Navajo gods.  This is a pretty good rug he’s weaving here, but a long way from perfect, so I don’t know why he’d bother. Explanation, Mr. Westlake?  Oh right. Mystify us, why don’t you?  Maybe he just forgot.

Next chapter takes us into the inquiring mind of Judson Blint, 19 years of age, just out of high school in Long Island, looking to make his mark (God save him).  He has come to scale the Avalon State Bank Tower in search of J.C. Taylor.  He’s hoping Mr. Taylor will give him a job with Allied Commissioner’s Courses, Inc.–the location of which is supposed to be a secret, but young Blint has tracked it to this location, using some of the very methods learned from their mail-order detective course.

Scanning the directory at the ground floor, he’s surprised to see just how many different businesses are headquartered in room 712–Intertherapeutic Research Service–Super Star Music Co.–and once he’s up on the seventh floor, he sees it’s also the home of the Maylohda Commercial Attaché.  Maylohda.  What was that, a country?  Who was J.C. Taylor, anyway?  He sees the answer before he recognizes it, when he goes in to speak to the receptionist.

Oh.  My.  God.  She was something out of Judson’s dreams, but not the more soothing ones.  No, more like the ones inspired by video games.  In her thirties, she was a hard-looking brunette with gleaming eyes that caught the light, and a mouth that looked born to say no.  Only louder than that.

She yanks him around a bit.  You know our Josie (sadly rare as the occasions have been for us to gaze upon her in the last few books).   She’s impressed with him, in spite of herself.  He’s not a complete rube.  He figured some stuff out (if not her correct gender) and he put together a résumé for himself that is pure uncut malarkey–and yet impossible to directly disprove.  Kid’s got potential–and turns out she’s ready to ditch her old cons, since the being her own country thing is working out so well for her.  Only so many hours in the day to fleece suckers.

Tiny comes in to see his beloved, gives Judson a narrow look.  Judson blanches, and you’d be very lucky if that’s all you did.  A conversation ensues, and the upshot is that she’ll give Judson a try–he can run the other mail order scams for her–she hates to let them go.  It’s the sentimentalist in her.  More on Master Blint later.

It’s at this point that Dortmunder returns to the O.J. Bar and Grill, only to discover (see up top) that something terrible has happened since his last visit.  Rollo tells him the back room isn’t available.  Dortmunder is given to  understand it will never be available again.  There are two questionably attired gentlemen there, tough-looking, both clearly heeled, in the meaning of that word that has nothing to do with footwear.  Kelp saunters in, looks the first goombah over.  “What flying saucer did this come out of?”

Rollo, knowing Tiny (or as he knows him, the red wine and vodka) will arrive at any moment, and how he tends to react to anyone with the temerity to try and intimidate him, begs Dortmunder and Kelp to leave, and gives them a complimentary bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (they later comment that it does not travel well).

Murch, and Murch’s Mom, and Tiny, all arrive to find John and Andy on the sidewalk,  bereft.  They decide to meet at Dortmunder’s place, something nobody is happy about, least of all Dortmunder.  The situation is explained.  Tiny is mildly disappointed to have missed out on the chance to take the two wise guys at the O.J. apart at the garish seams, but it’s not like he owns the joint.  They decide Arnie’s proposition has merit, and that John and Andy will look into the matter of the O.J.

When they get there, the situation has only gotten worse.  The place is basically a walking corpse.  Two different yet identical mob guys are keeping watch.  Rollo is still at the bar, and Andy offers to buy Dortmunder a beer.  Dortmunder may be more easy-going than Parker, but he has that same innate suspicion of even the most innocuous forms of altruism.  Unlike Parker, his Handy McKay didn’t retire to Maine.

Dortmunder looked at him.  “What are you up to?”

“What up to?  I feel like I wanna buy you a beer.  It happens, we have another one, then you buy for me.  That’s how it works, John.”

Dortmunder said, “What if we only have the one?”

“My feeling is,” Kelp said, whipping out his wallet and putting cash money on the bar next to the glasses Rollo was putting down in front of them, “some day we’ll be in a bar again.”

Dortmunder could only agree with that.  “You’ll keep track, I guess,” he said, as Rollo took Kelp’s money away to his open cash register and rummaged around in there a while.

“No problem,” Kelp assured him, and lifted his glass.  “To crime.”

“Without punishment,” Dortmunder amended, and they both drank.

Rollo quietly tells them to watch out–these guys in the bar now are criminals.  Dortmunder gently breaks it to him that he and Kelp are criminals.  Rollo says yeah, but these other guys are organized.  In a Westlake novel, this does not necessarily constitute an advantage, but Rollo’s main concern at this point is that nobody gets hurt.

They don’t like what they find, but they recognize it.  More and more of the O.J., including their beloved back room,  is taken up with merchandise from various businesses that supply bars.  Ordered on the O.J.’s line of credit, invoices signed by a resigned and dismal Rollo.  It’s a bust-out.  The mob guys are going to keep ordering until the bar’s credit runs dry, then cart the goods away to sell at a (100%) profit.  It’s a bit like that thing where the wasp lays its egg in the paralyzed cicada.  I believe analogies have also been drawn regarding the financial sector.  One might consider expanding that to encompass certain aspects of politics.  It’s a rich tapestry.

They meet up with Tiny in a suitably capacious vehicle rented and driven by Judson, and he’s not happy about the O.J., but he figures none of his business, too late to do anything, focus on the heist.  Not that they get very specific, with Judson there, but he reads between the lines, wants to help out, necessitating a somewhat nerve-wracking (for Judson) conversation about whether maybe this kid knows too much.  The general consensus is he knows nothing (like all kids), but maybe he could learn (like some kids).   As for the O.J., Dortmunder finds that he simply can’t let it go.

Chapter 15 somehow fails to open with “When Dortmunder broke into the O.J. Bar and Grill”, sticking with the more traditional opening, but that’s exactly what he’s done, for the purposes of gathering intelligence.  He gets down into the basement, via a trap-door behind the bar.  He finds records, dating back to founding of the O.J., forty-seven years before, by Otto Medrick and Jerome Hulve, and now we know why it’s called that.  It seems to have had multiple prior incarnations.  And who could possibly say how many prior Dortmunders?

Now he sees the problem–Otto Medrick bought his partner out thirty-one years ago.  He retired to Florida a while back.  And he transferred ownership to one Raphael Medrick, Otto’s nephew (always with the nephews).  Who seems to have had, as they say, a troubled past, often involving ‘bad companions.’  Bingo.  There were mob guys up there talking while he was down there reading, taking expensive liquor for their capo’s daughter’s wedding in New Jersey.  Dortmunder helps himself to a stray bottle of Stoli on his way out.  But he’s going to give something back for it.

Next thing, Dortmunder is meeting the gang at the appropriately named Twilight Lounge, on Forty-third Street.  J.C. suggested it as an alternative to the O.J.  It’s pretty clearly not going to work out.  I mean, when Stan asks for salt, they give him a bowl of it.  But Tiny insists there’s nothing to be done, they should focus on getting theirs.  Nobody brings up that this is what Tiny said when those mercs had taken Dortmunder prisoner during the Avalon State Bank Tower heist, before J.C. shamed Tiny and the others into going up to rescue him, and you wouldn’t have brought that up to Tiny’s face either, so shaddap.

However, Tiny still wants to go see this nephew who has forced him to do meets at the Twilight Lounge, and so they head off to a not very nice section of Queens, where it turns out Raphael is completely unaware of anything that’s happening with his uncle’s bar, nor could he care less.  He’s making music.  Well, he’s taking other people’s music and making it into his own thing, with a lot of electronic equipment.  That’s basically how he got in trouble last time, but he figures now everybody’s stealing music and selling it online (right at that moment, he’s creating an unholy amalgram of The Star Spangled Banner and Hey Jude), and at least he’s customizing it first.  Westlake’s contempt for ‘sampling’ is palpable  here.

So he looks up and there’s all these tough-looking guys standing there, like he’s done something to them.  Tiny pings him with his thumb, just to get his attention.  His attention gained, Raphael explains that Uncle Otto will get all the money, and it’s fine.  He didn’t want to run the bar himself (and clearly he couldn’t run a popsicle stand in a heat wave).

Some lawyer told him nobody would buy the bar because the nabe had changed and it was too ‘down-market’.  Which is bullshit, of course–a new owner could easily up-market it, all you need is a place with a liquor license, and frankly, it’s amazing nobody made the offer before then–The O.J. is at 96th and Amsterdam.  By the early 21st, that’s the bleating heart of Yuppieville.  The O.J. must be the last old school bluecollar joint left in that part of town.

Now we know why it’s still there–the real owner is in Florida, leaving Rollo in charge.  The owner on paper is interested in nothing that doesn’t come out of his headphones, and this guy Mikey, that Raphael knows, fed Raphael a line of b.s. to make a nice score.  As the now thoroughly depressed Dortmunder gang leaves this archangel of emptiness to his solipsistic universe, he thinks to himself, The O.J. Bar and Grill.  Who cared?  That was so yesterday, back when people used to leave their houses.   Brave New World.

And Dortmunder still can’t give up on the O.J.  How come?  Yes, it was a nice place to hold meets, and Rollo is a lovely man (not physically, you know what I mean), the regulars are a kick, it’s a shame and all, but why?  Why put himself out over a cheesy over-the-hill dive bar, that isn’t even walking distance from his apartment?  When he’s got a penthouse full of goodies to steal, and there are Jersey boys with guns who would take offense at any eleventh hour intervention?

Should I do what I do when I review the Parkers, talk about some button in Dortmunder’s head, and once it’s pushed, he has to keep going until he’s achieved his end?  No, because Parker wouldn’t care about some bar closing.  Parker is big into non-attachment.  The mere notion of there being a place you could hang out in and have a good chance of seeing him walk through the door would make him uneasy.  Only reason he’s got that house in New Jersey is because of Claire.  She’s more like Dortmunder, in this specific instance, than Parker ever could be.

Dortmunder lives in a world of change that he can’t control, and he hates it.  So does Parker, but ever the instinctive existentialist, he shrugs and deals. Dortmunder can’t let it go.  There’s so few constants in this whirling maelstrom we call a planet, so few things you can rely upon.

For him, there’s May, May’s tuna casserole, Kelp’s weird ideas (whether Dortmunder likes it or not), and New York itself, the only place he ever wants to live, even though he wasn’t born anywhere near it.  Within New York (which as the saying goes, will be a nice town when it’s finished), there’s the O.J. Bar and Grill.  His proprietary domain. He can’t afford to lose his point of orientation, his haven of respite.  Who can?  And who doesn’t?

The day my father died, last October, I had made plans to meet up with an old friend for lunch in midtown.  I got the word while waiting for the train, and spent the ride soaking it in.  I was not going to call off the lunch.  I needed it more than ever.  All the more because it was my favorite Chinese restaurant in the entire universe.  Repeat.  Was.

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Nothing like it north of Chinatown, and I’d rate it over any Chinatown place I’ve ever tried.  A vast baroque menu Westlake could have written odes to.  Cash only, no plastic.  No reservations, but you could always get a table after the peak lunch rush.  Unpretentious decor, relaxed atmosphere.  Always good jazz–real jazz–playing in the background–the owner must have been a fan.  No liquor license–meaning you could bring your own beer, wine, whatever the hell else you wanted to drink.  They’d put it on ice for you.

I could never describe the nuances of their hot and sour soup, their pork dumplings, their Phoenix Shredded Beef Min-Young–anyone who tells you Cantonese is bland has never really had it.  I had it just a few years, after discovering it.  If I was in that part of town, I’d find an excuse to eat there.  Got so the staff knew me and my peculiarities (who else has German double bock with Chinese food?)  That was nice.

But when I got there that day, I found a locked door with a notice on it.  The landlord.  The rent.  Do I have to draw a picture?  A thriving business with a devoted clientele has no guarantee of survival in any part of Manhattan.  Not anymore.  They’d have been better off dealing with the mafia.  At least those people appreciate good food.

My friend showed up, and we wound up commiserating about current events over mediocre diner grub.  She was sorry to hear about my dad.  I was just grateful to have somebody to talk to.  You think everything’s okay in life.  And then something different happens.  Change happens.  The wrong kind of change. The change that comes when you don’t watch your back.

Change isn’t evil.  That’s not the point here.  Change is the source of everything anyone ever loved.  Change created the O.J., as Dortmunder learned in that basement.  Change created Chinese American cuisine (and Chinese Americans, even better).  Change created these books we’re talking about.  Change is the reason you look around and see something, instead of nothing.  Change is why you’re here to look around.  God is change. Octavia Butler wrote two whole novels about that.

And everything has a mortal span, all things must pass, certainly all earthly establishments.  You can know all this and still know when something’s being taken away from you before its time.  Before something equivalently good is ready to replace it.  And if we lose too many things we value, too quickly, lose all our fixed points of reference, our sense of self can start to unravel pretty darn quick.

Okay, call it conservatism.  I don’t care.  I believe in conserving things that need conserving, and so did Donald E. Westlake, and so did John Dortmunder. Admittedly, I’m not much good at conserving words, when I write these reviews.

So to wrap things up until next week, Dortmunder knows what he’s got to do. And where he’s got to go.  And who he’s got to see when he gets there.  He’s not happy about it, but being who he is, knowing who he is, he’s got no choice.  He asks the gang if any of them want to come with.  He gets the answer he expected. If he were Parker, he’d probably make some sort of terse bloody-minded inspirational speech, but even that might not work in this case.  You might follow someone to the very gates of hell, but Florida in the summertime?  Pass.

Well, if it would have kept Phoenix Garden open, maybe.  As for my dad, just as well he didn’t live to see some of the change happening now.  Okay, fine, comedy, I know.  We’ll get to the lighter side next week, okay?  That’s when the all the people who have conspired to upset Dortmunder’s orientation suddenly find occasion to wax philosophic themselves. They should have watched their backs.

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

Mr. Westlake and the LOA.

 

‘Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print.
A book’s a book, although there’s nothing in ‘t.

Lord Byron

In reviewing our last book, I was moved to rant a bit about how, much as I disparaged its quality as a literary work, it was, nonetheless, still easily and instantaneously available to anyone with with an e-reader.  That was largely because it came out in 2003, by which time pretty much any book that got a print edition got an electronic one to go with it.  Unfortunately, by the time e-books became de rigeur, most of Westlake’s best work had already been produced and published.

And yet, it must be said, most of his best work is still ‘in print’, even if only in digital form, or as audio books (if you call that print).  All twenty-eight Richard Stark novels.  Of the fourteen Dortmunder novels, the only one you can’t get at the Amazon Kindle Store is Don’t Ask (has anyone asked?), and there’s still fourteen books, because Thieves Dozen is there.  The five Mitch Tobin mysteries–all there.  Series fiction tends to perpetuate itself, because publishing, tangible or virtual, loves repeat customers.  (Sara Joslyn and Samuel Holt are shit out of luck, but I don’t think we need to worry ourselves too much about that for the present time.)

The Ax, his best-selling and most critically lauded work, self-evidently has a Kindle edition.  His few very long novels, none of which quite exactly fit his usual niche, are all there too, amazingly.  Ex Officio.  Dancing Aztecs.  Kahawa.  Smoke.  You could spend a whole summer at the beach getting through all that digital ink.

Between University of Chicago Press, Hard Case Crime, Mysteriouspress.com and a few other outlets, you can read the great bulk of Westlake’s vast treasure trove of stories, in physical and/or electronic form (including some things that went unpublished in his lifetime)–some e-publishers have even made some of his early science fiction and sleaze paperbacks available–nice thing about that is they don’t have the money to commission cover art, so often you get the original cover, in all its lurid tawdry splendor.  You can even get Comfort Station, a throwaway parody of Arthur Hailey (that nobody who has the original paperback will ever throw away, because precioussssssss…..)

And naturally there’s plenty of used hardcovers and paperbacks of many editions still to be had via used bookstores and the online marketplace.  Also, lest we forget, The Getaway Car, a nonfiction anthology, that opened our eyes to new possible interpretations of Westlake’s fiction and Westlake himself.

So I can’t really complain that  his books aren’t out there, pretty easily available to anyone with a bit of spare cash and spare time, and the willingness to search around a bit.  You can get download most of his best work (and much of his worst) with nothing more than a credit card and a wifi connection.

But I’m going to complain anyway, because it’s not enough.  Some of the best novels he ever wrote have been out of print for decades.  And it’s increasingly difficult to find even his most famous and influential books in anything other than ebook form.  I understand the way the publishing industry is going–I work for a library, and I thank the gods for my own Kindle (reading Dostoevsky’s Demons on it right now–timely–too timely)–but I also know we’re a very long way from abandoning paper books yet.  I ought to know, since I’m the one toting boxes full of them, day after day.

I have read that Abby Westlake and others with a connection to her husband’s literary estate, have expressed interest in some of his work being reprinted by The Library of America.  Inquiries were made not long after Mr. Westlake’s death.  But nothing came of them.  And yet, shortly after Elmore Leonard’s death–

three_library_of_america_covers

Well deserved, but why him and not Westlake, who died almost ten years ago?   I could make some guesses, but guess what?  I don’t care why.  There may be reasons, but there aren’t any good reasons.

Leonard got his start in westerns; Westlake in science fiction and fantasy, with the occasional dash of horror–the old literary establishment prejudice against the latter genres?

 

Maybe not.  Philip K. Dick got a collection too (with none of my favorites in it–mainly the ones that feel least like science fiction, which I would guess was the point).  And Vonnegut, but of course he shook the dust of genre from his feet a long time ago. I was never all that impressed with him, to be honest.  But he’s an Important Writer (who is mainly kept in print by college professors and their students).

(Incidentally, that Jackson collection is wholly inadequate–where’s The Birds Nest, The Sundial, Hangsaman?  Most people still don’t understand how great she was.  I’m glad she got in, but that is not sufficiently representative of her range.)

My interest in the LOA began in earnest when I read their collection of crime novels of the 1950’s–a truly original and downright seminal anthology of oddball authors, that will centrally figure in articles I aspire to publish here someday soon, and maybe I will.  They also published five David Goodis novels, almost single-handedly reviving interest in him (though not in France, where they’ve never stopped being interested in him).

 

I truly admire David Goodis.  I have spent many a cold windy day pouring over his dark meanderings in a bar, a foaming glass of suds beside me (it’s really the only way to read him).  He was not nearly as good a writer as Donald Westlake.  Hell, I’m not sure he was a good writer at all; that’s not the point of Goodis.  I guess you can say he epitomizes a style, a mood, but I suspect the main reason he got that anthology is that the French like him.  (Psst! They like Westlake too!)

Looking over their list of volumes to date, I note a decided dearth of humorous writers.  Goes without saying they have Twain, Thurber, Lardner–but no Perelman, no Benchley, and no Wodehouse (he’s more American than Nabokov!).  George S. Kaufman gets a collection, and much as I love the Marx Brothers, I’m not entirely sure why that is.  You can just watch the movies made of his plays (the best of which were co-written with Moss Hart).  I’m not begrudging him, I’m just saying.  Nobody reads Kaufman to laugh these days.  I mean, it’s bad enough they haven’t published any Parkers, but they haven’t even published any Dorothy Parkers!

One can understand that there’s a whole lot of sacred scribblers out there in the weeds, waiting their moment in the sun.  One can further understand that every time they publish a collection of some author who isn’t deemed to be quite the right sort (apparently some people didn’t think Shirley Jackson was LOA-worthy,  which I find LOL-worthy), you start seeing things like this–

 

(Okay, I agree something can be funny without being at all fair, but none of that changes the fact that Shirley Jackson was one of the greatest writers of her generation, and she’s been anthologized a lot.)

So you can imagine that some people would look down their noses at a Westlake collection.  But that being said, what would such a collection look like?  I don’t have the mad web skills that would allow me to create mock LOA covers, but I do have a pretty clear notion of what books of his ought to be in print that are currently not in print.

If Leonard got three books, Westlake deserves no less, but I don’t think we need to go with the decade-based system.  I’d suggest that one volume be devoted to works leaning towards the whimsical side of Westlake’s nature (but often with a dark edge to them) and another leaning towards the dark side (but still with the odd dash of whimsy).  Some of his books are so perfectly balanced between the two poles, they could go either way.  But here’s how I’d do it.

Volume I–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Heroic Absurdity, 1966-1984

The Spy in the Ointment
Adios, Scheherazade
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
Brothers Keepers
A Likely Story

Volume II–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Dangerous Bewilderment, 1961-1975

Killing Time
Killy
Anarchaos
Up Your Banners
Two Much!

Volume III–Donald E. Westlake, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe–Five Crime Novels, 1962-1997

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The Hunter
The Seventh
Wax Apple
The Ax

My problem with Vol. III is that it steps on the toes of the publishers who are keeping all these great books around for us  (so does Two Much!, I guess, but it’s just two good to leave out).  It also potentially gets them a lot of new readers for Westlake, Stark, and Coe.  A net positive, I think.

I’d really love to get A Jade In Aries in there too, but as I said, all the Tobins are evailable now.  Wax Apple, to me, is the best of the five, even if A Jade In Aries is more ambitious and radical.  Wax Apple is also the midway book in the series, the relative calm between the storms.  And, you know, gender identity politics–what was brave and forward-thinking then can be easily misunderstood now.  People can always go find more, and make up their own minds.

Just dreaming out loud.  Maybe there’s something about Westlake that makes people in the book biz underrate him, even while they’re loving him.  Maybe he was too successful at flying beneath the radar.  Maybe he published too much, under too many names, and maybe he wrote to the market a little too much. (Elmore Leonard arguably did that even more.)  Maybe he’s just too confusing, too hard to pigeonhole, flitting back and forth between comedy and crime, mendacity and murder, and blending them together so artfully that you don’t know where one leaves off and the other begins.

I have to admit, I wouldn’t envy the editor tasked with finding a way to sum him up in three books–and if it ever happened, he might well get only one.

I’m not the only one who thinks he’s among the greatest writers America ever produced, and my blog stats reveal that there are people all over this planet who think the same thing.

I’m just putting it out there.

And hopefully next week I’ll be putting out my review of the next Dortmunder, but after a two week hiatus, I figured a quick toss-off wouldn’t go amiss).

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe

Mr. Westlake, Mr. Breslin and the ‘feud’ that couldn’t shoot straight.

My much-valued friend, Dr. Barnard, now Bishop of Killaloe, having once expressed to him an apprehension, that if he should visit Ireland he might treat that people of that country more unfavourably than he had done the Scotch, he answered, with strong pointed double-edged wit, ‘Sir, you have no reason to be afraid of me.  The Irish are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false representations of the merits of their countrymen.  No, sir; the Irish are a FAIR PEOPLE; they never speak well of one another.’

From Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Six feet four inches tail [sic], Hugh Van Dinast was at forty-three utterly the patrician New York type in appearance.  His hair was thin and sandy, his eyes mild and blue and somewhat watery, his nose unobtrusive, his mouth broad and made for easy smiling, his chin slightly recessive, his body built for the uniform of a palace guard.  His accent seemed British to most Americans but other New Yorkers recognized it at once and bridled at it.  One assumed he would spend his evenings swapping condescending remarks with William F. Buckley and George Plimpton, though in fact his acquaintanceship with those two gentlemen was slight, and he much preferred the books of Gore Vidal.  (Seeing him with Jimmy Breslin, as one on occasion well might have done, they being in approximately the same vocation, was to undergo a strangely Kiplingesque echo; for if that wasn’t the Colonel with his loyal Master Sergeant, there is no such thing.)

From Dancing Aztecs, 1977. 

He fears the lancet of my art as I fear that of his.  The cold steelpen.

James Joyce

Jimmy Breslin, dead at 88.  So read the Sunday headlines, and though his rather improbable longevity softens the blow, it’s still a lot to swallow.  I’m not exactly in the pink of youth myself, and to me it seemed like he’d always been there, an illusion not dispelled by a satiric article I read once (can’t find it now) that imagined how the chariot race in Ben Hur would be covered by various well-known journalistic voices.  A parody of Breslin’s reportorial style has him not bothering to talk to Mr. Hur or any of the other bigwigs; he’s down in the stables, interviewing a disgruntled groom,  who concludes the piece with the words “Quit that!  Motherfucking horse!”  (I may not have gotten that quote exactly right.  Neither did Breslin, a lot of the time.)

When James Garner died, you may recall, I did a sort of obit for him here at TWR, including words of glowing praise for The Rockford Files that Westlake had written years before.  “Hey, did Westlake ever say anything really nice about Jimmy Breslin?” read the words in the thought balloon over my misshapen head.  And of course he didn’t.  See the above quote from Dr. Johnson, who knew his stuff where us micks are concerned.

Okay, it’s not an absolute hard and fast rule that we diss each other in public (and ten times worse in private; the venerable Gaelic tradition of back-biting).  But by and large, it’s pretty reliable, at least under certain conditions.  I don’t know if Yeats’ famous explanation for this cannibalistic trait of ours applies quite so well to those of us born over this side of the pond, but “Much hatred, little room” could certainly be said to describe the Gotham Irish at odd moments, and the less assimilated we are, the more true it holds.

The other quote up top, from Dancing Aztecs, is the only time Westlake seems to have ever mentioned Breslin in his fiction, and it’s not exactly a diss, but it’s not what you’d call a glowing compliment either, is it?  WASP aristocratic old moneyed political science professor Hugh Van Dinast is by far the most contemptible character in that labyrinthine comic narrative; a shallow silly-ass pseudo-ineffectual (I did that on purpose), and would-be rapist of the female lead, who happily escapes his lecherous designs to the waiting arms of the proletarian male lead, and I’d assume Breslin would only approve of that.

Westlake says they share a vocation, Van Dinast and Breslin, which is stretching a mighty thin point, since Breslin wasn’t ever a Political Science prof. that I know of.  Okay, they both publish books and articles.  That’s Westlake’s vocation too.  What’s he saying?  Maybe that Breslin often rubbed elbows with his social betters in private, even while he played the working class hero in public. Which I suppose is true, but you could call that research, I guess. It’s at most a glancing blow, playful, with little in the way of ill intent behind it, but still a mite head-scratching, no?  Where did it come from?  I don’t know.

It just so happened that 1976, the year of Dancing Aztecs, came just before The Summer of Sam, which catapulted the already successful Breslin to new heights of what you’d kind of have to call infamy (that’s when he got the beer commercial).  To say, as some have, that he was the first to give notorious murderers a public forum that might encourage others to try mayhem as a means to fame is kind of forgetting Jack the Ripper’s letters to the press that were widely published while he was still out there butchering, and a case could be made for Truman Capote, but there’s a lot of false attributions like that connected to Breslin.  I often think nobody ever did anything first.

But what Westlake would have taken out of that whole thing was that this was a tireless self-promoter, who probably didn’t even consider just turning the letters over to the cops, giving up the scoop Berkowitz had handed him, and too frequently doing just precisely what we know (from I Gave At The Office, and later on, the Weekly Galaxy stories) Westlake thought journalists should not be doing–not just reporting the news, but making it, getting involved in it.  Westlake himself never seems to have sought celebrity, in its own right.  He liked to be just beneath the radar.  Breslin, a different kind of writer, thought he was the radar.  He was occasionally right about that.

Cut ahead a few more years, to 1984. Westlake published one of his best comic novels, the shamefully out-of-print A Likely Story, and as you should already know, that is one of the most epic exercises in literary name-dropping ever printed.  The protagonist, aiming to put together an anthology of Yuletide-related articles, sends letters of solicitation to just about every famous name out there, and gets answers from many.  Guess who didn’t get a solicitation letter?

Now Westlake wasn’t necessarily a fan of every screwy scribbler he referenced in that book, but he certainly admired many of them (and made fun of them anyway because that’s what writers do), but seriously, Breslin would have been a natural for The Christmas Book, no easier style to lampoon, and he’s not even mentioned as a potential prospect.  What gives?  Again, not the foggiest.

Let’s drop back a few years, to 1969.  The year The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight came out.  Several years after Westlake had established himself as the King of Comic Crime, and mere months before the debut of John Dortmunder.  Did Westlake think Breslin was copying off his paper, stealing his thunder?  Doubtful.  He knew very well he hadn’t invented that kind of storytelling.

Did Westlake think Breslin was getting more attention for something he did much better purely on the basis of being a guy who wrote about real crime for the papers? Getting warmer, but far as I can tell, Breslin didn’t make the best-seller lists either that time, though his book sold well, and got a movie deal, as Westlake’s own much less violent comic crime novels had often done. (And the movie sucked, as ditto, though Bob De Niro was certainly better casting than Bob Redford).

The Times review described Mr. Breslin’s first foray into (admitted) fiction as ‘Neo-Runyonesque’, made reference to Fellini’s Big Deal On Madonna Street, and said maybe Breslin needed to work harder on the next novel (and so he did; Table Money is a damn good kitchen table melodrama about an Irish American family of sandhogs, and he manages to avoid a lot of his usual stylistic excesses in it).  That ‘Neo-Runyonesque’ label kind of stuck, though, as we’ll see.

Jumping ahead to September 16, 1988, there’s an article in the Times on that late great institution, New York is Book Country.  One of many beautiful things killed by terrorism and its intended results.  We learn that Westlake would be one of the writers (including Isaac Asimov, but he was everywhere), manning street booths where they’d be making with the autographs, and that later there’d be an auction where one of the items on the block would be your right to have a character in an upcoming Westlake mystery novel named after you.  I’m going to guess Sacred Monster, based purely on the fact that it’s the only novel Westlake had out in 1989.  I wonder who the lucky winner was, and under what circumstances he and/or she got killed and/or fucked?

Meanwhile, over the the Park Lane Hotel (toney!), Breslin was reading from his work over tea and scones, along with Barbara Tuchman and Toni Morrison (tonier!).  Also someone named Cleveland Amory. I should know who that is, right?  What I do know is that Jimmy Breslin was a lot more famous than Donald E. Westlake in 1988, and probably every other year they shared a planet.  He was more than a writer, a newspaperman, a local character–he was a celebrity.  And how did Donald E. Westlake tend to feel about celebrities?  Sacred Monsters indeed.

Let me take just one more little trip in my Times Machine (I finally broke down and subscribed, seems like a lot of people were doing that after last November), and good thing I had the exact date of my destination, since the archive search engine leaves much to be desired.  This time to 1991, which is when Jimmy Breslin’s 410 page biography of Damon Runyon, (evocatively entitled Damon Runyon: A Life) was published.

As Breslin himself related, he never personally had the idea of ever writing any such book, until Ticknor & Fields, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin since 1908, pitched him the idea and wrote him a big check.  Breslin’s not-uncommon philosophy regarding which projects to take was always something along the lines of ‘the more money you have, the more independent you are,’ and many eminent spiritual persons have dissented, but never mind that now. They want Breslin on Runyon, they got Breslin on Runyon.  Which I’m sure would be the name of a sandwich at Mindy’s delicatessen, if that existed outside of Damon Runyon stories.

Point is, he flew down to Austin, since the University of Texas is the rather improbable final resting place of the Hearst New  York newspaper morgue (that may be redundant, and do they have the sled too?). He immersed himself in the material for many a moon, and then he just kept typing until he had himself a nice fat hardcover with his Cheshire Cat face on the back of the dust jacket.  Which was then reviewed.  You see where I’m going with this.

The Sunday New York Times Book Review.  October 6th, 1991.  This is where the titans finally clashed.  Don’t ask me which one was the Kraken.  In the longest, liveliest, and most sarcastic review of his that I have yet to read, appearing under the title The Pleasures of Bad Company, Donald Edwin Westlake proceeded to dismantle James Earle Breslin’s Damon Runyon: A Life.  While at the same time making it clear he thought Breslin was usually well worth reading. To give you the flavor of it, let me type out the first few paragraphs, since the churlish Times won’t let you copy/paste from its digital archives, but at least I don’t have to fly to Austin.  Which I hear is a lively little town, but still.

So here’s how I score it: Runyon 57 points and 6 rounds, Breslin 43 points and 3 rounds, one round even (this was not a championship match).

But it’s a grudge match.  Jimmy Breslin dislikes Damon Runyon, disapproves of Damon Runyon and is determined to bury Damon Runyon all over again, 45 years after the man died.

It’s strange to read a biography in which the author doesn’t like his subject.  Of course, that’s common practice in the world of politics–Robert Caro gnawing endlessly at the withers of Lyndon Johnson, for instance–but it usually doesn’t happen that way when the subject isn’t a politician.  Much more typical is Phyllis Rose, who wrote in her preface to her biography of Josephine Baker, “Jazz Cleopatra”: “My choice was made as instinctively as it is when you fall in love…You see someone.  You light up inside.  If the choice is a deep one, the lists, reasons, and rationalizations come later…after five years I had come to see her…as not all that different from myself….You’d be surprised how much we have in common.”

But we wouldn’t be surprised at how much Mr. Breslin and Runyon have in common.  Both of them New York newspaper columnists turned fiction writers, both with successful movies made from their stories  (“The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” in Mr. Breslin’s case), both with a talent for transcribing or inventing tough street humor, both with an abiding interest in crooks and the wrong side of the law.  (Mr Breslin’s creation Marvin the Torch is merely a Runyon character Runyon didn’t happen to think of, and Jimmy Breslin is the only other guy who could have thought of him.)

In fact, the commonality must have seemed so striking to somebody in publishing that this book is the result.  Jimmy Breslin and Damon Runyon–almost a collaboration in one book.  Except it isn’t a collaboration, it’s a mugging.

And the review is police brutality, but on the whole, it’s still a fair cop.  I have a copy of Breslin’s book on my desk as I type this.  I’ve looked at it.  How can I put this?  Why don’t I let a much better critic than myself or even Westlake do the dirty work, since he does it for a living anyway.  I give you Adam Gopnik–who is doing Runyon, not Breslin, but when you’re writing about somebody who has a biography out, you’re supposed to read it first.  Whether you want to or not.  He opens with a compliment.  Breslin was still alive then.  (Also, there is apparently just one book ever written about Damon Runyon; all the rest were about his writing, which is different; well played Mr. Gopnik.)

The best book about Runyon is Jimmy Breslin’s slightly dispiriting biography, published in 1991, one of those “matches” that make a publisher feel wonderful until the manuscript comes in. Writers train for one length or another, and Breslin’s is essentially a series of eight-hundred-word columns strung together, all told in that good Breslin style, where this guy said that to this other guy—quick glimpses of Prohibition, the Hearst press, stealing coats in the Depression—so that the total effect is like watching the world’s longest subway train go by at night.

But see, Breslin could take that one on the chin like a good sport, since it came out in 2009, long after Damon Runyon: A Life had departed from the shelves of the local booksellers, to be followed in due course by local booksellers.  Westlake’s review was aimed directly at his royalties, and while it was somewhat disingenuous for Breslin to assert in public, vociferously, that this was The Only Bad Review In The Entire Country, it would be fair to say that the others were more diplomatic.

Most newspaper and magazine critics are journalists by trade, such as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who wrote a slightly earlier and much gentler Times review (the one I can actually find via the Times search engine, hmmmm).  Breslin and Lehmann-Haupt were comrades in arms.  Westlake was from a different outfit.  And as ever, the ultimate independent–Breslin probably thought that was him, but even the most powerful newspaper columnist is still an organization man, and Breslin wasn’t ever Walter Winchell, was he now?  (Which is only a compliment.)

Please note, Breslin never had any stated problems with that review, even though it basically hits all the same bases Westlake’s did.  But then it basically says “Buy the book anyway.”  The one crucial point Breslin wanted made.

And a point Westlake resolutely refuses to make.  It’s hard to read, it’s badly sourced (unsourced, really), the biographer seems to think the book is at least as much about him as it is about its ostensible subject, who he seems to cordially despise, while still looking for some way to make us think he’s important enough for us to want a 410 page book about him.  Also, it keeps sticking modern racial politics into the mix for no reason whatsoever, and insinuates there were no black people in New York City before 1961, which Westlake says would have surprised his dad who grew up in Irish Harlem (Mine too!  Small world.)

You can always go to the library.  You could probably figure out who Runyon was as a man much better by reading an encyclopedia article (no Wikipedia yet) and a good anthology.  Why would anyone not related to Breslin want to buy this?

(I want to be as evenhanded and objective here as a blogger who has written almost exclusively about one writer for three years possibly can be, and Westlake does type one line he thankfully did not live to see turn into a bad joke.  Responding to Breslin’s frequent attacks on Runyon’s admittedly less than stellar qualities as a family man, he says “This is not Bill Cosby, you know.”  Yeah. Now we know.)

A lot of Westlake’s ire is not against Breslin so much as it is for Runyon.  He’s deeply angered that Breslin doesn’t seem to appreciate how much they all owe this guy for arguably doing more than anyone (except maybe Ring Lardner) to create what you might call the basic infrastructure that every subsequent wordsmith who wrote about street people and petty crooks in a whimsical way has made use of, whether he or she ever read one word of Runyon. You give credit where credit is due, but Breslin wants to believe he’s his own unique creation, and there never was anybody like him before, and that’s just a silly thing for anyone to believe, however accomplished, but so many do anyway.

But clearly Breslin read the review.  Now this is a guy who was never known for mincing words, or even parsing them.  If he didn’t like something you did or said, or didn’t do, or didn’t say, he’d tell you and the whole world, in black and white, and he wouldn’t be gentle about it.  And you might think a guy like that would have a sense of humor about the same thing happening to him.  And you’d think wrong.  When it came to the physical stuff, he could famously take it about as well as he dished it out, if not better (ask Jimmy Burke).  When it came to criticism, written or oral, not so much (ask Ji-Yeon Mary Yuh).  Only words could ever hurt him.  Because words were what he most believed in.  Because Irish.

So he did this interview on C-Span, which you can watch online (or just read the transcript) and there he is, going off on tangents as always, and at one point he’s ranting about this one bad review he got in the Times (when he could have just talked about the other review from the same paper that said the same things more nicely),  The Only Bad Review He Ever Got In His Whole Life, and he doesn’t seem to even want to say Westlake’s name until the interviewer says it first.  He’s pissed.  And maybe a bit hurt.  What did I ever do this guy?  About as much as Runyon ever did you, Jimmy.  Nothing personal, right?  Well, I don’t know if it was personal or not.  For you or Westlake.  How could I know that?

My title is probably misleading.  This isn’t a feud.  It’s not Hatfields and McCoys.  It’s not even Bette and Joan.  It’s just two Irish Americans, both writers, both New Yorkers, both lapsed Catholics, both funny, both sharp-tongued, both self-styled champions of the common man, both hating the rich and powerful (while still perpetually fascinated by them), both capable of writing a timely essay (but Breslin was better), both capable of writing an enduring novel (but Westlake was better).  Not quite the same age set, Breslin having come in about five years earlier, but close enough to share most of the same generational experiences.  They both had failed marriages, they both made lasting matches later in life, they both had blended families of kids and step-kids, and they both had to compromise sometimes because of that.

You want to know how great Jimmy Breslin really was, when he was doing what he was born to do?  Read this.  And weep for the loss of him.  Our loss, not his.  And I have no doubt Westlake would have agreed, if we hadn’t lost him first.

But something about Breslin clearly bugged him.  I can only guess about what that was.  I can’t find any evidence Breslin ever noticed Westlake prior to 1991.  That could have been what bugged him.  But I do kind of imagine them keeping occasional tabs on each other over the years; circling each other warily if they met at some midtown bar or literary soiree, squaring off like gunfighters, “This town ain’t big enough fer both of us!”, then thinking nah it’s plenty big enough, and heading over to wherever they were keeping the hors d’oeuvres.

And that’s all I got.  Bye, Breslin.  Maybe you and Westlake can hash things out now.  You can always bond over Trump (I swear, he’s like the Huns; all kinds of weird alliances springing up in his wake).  But if we hear thunder in the heavens…….well.  There’s room up there too.

PS:  I found something else!  At the 1997 trade show of New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Organization (NAIBA), held October 3-5 in Philadelphia (it would be Philadelphia), there was a Saturday morning breakfast roundtable thing, featuring Nat Hentoff, Michael Moore, Jimmy Breslin and (drumroll please) Donald Westlake.  They were discussing issues like censorship and whether there were going to be any independent bookstores in the near future because Walmart.  No mention of Amazon being discussed, or for that matter whether Breslin publicly upbraided Westlake for that bad review (one feels somehow it must have come up, at least in private conversation).

NPR recorded the discussion for its Radio Times show.  At present, I can’t figure out how you get a transcript.  Obviously the actual recording would be even better.  Or hey, there’s always a seance.  😐

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Filed under Donald Westlake

Mr. Westlake and The Home Stretch

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We must dance because the Fifties zing
The Fifties zing because the Sixties swing
And the Seventies flash and the Eighties bang
And the Nineties whimper and the century hangs

Robots working in the cotton fields
Vacations on Venus just a tourist deal
Fornication on tape, instant happiness
So we keep on dancing, dancing, we can’t rest

From Les Flamandes, by Jacques Brel
(very freely translated by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau)

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

And here we are.  The final years of a six decade career, though I never really covered the 50’s–that was the journeyman era, the cranking out short stories for the pulps and sleaze paperbacks for Scott Meredith decade.  The 60’s were the time when Westlake stopped imitating others, and found his own voice–many, in fact–the era of staggeringly prolific creation that seemed for a time to be without any limit.

The 70’s were when he began to focus–lose the aliases for a while, take stock, pull in, then stretch out.  The 80’s were when he began to deal with limitations–his, and those of the ever-changing marketplace he had to hawk his wares in. The 90’s were when he buckled down, recommitted to what was best in him as a writer, wrote his masterpiece, reclaimed perhaps his most idiosyncratic and genuine voice, that of Stark.

And the 00’s?  God, I hate typing that double aught.  Decadism, as a system of dividing up time into defined segments, has some serious drawbacks, in English at least.  There’s never a satisfying name for the first two decades of the century–‘aughts’, ‘teens’–doesn’t work.  And what happens when we reach the 20’s?  We still remember the ‘Roaring’ 20’s, because of movies and Prohibition and Jazz and The Lost Generation and Babe Ruth and such.  (Most of the meanings imposed on these arbitrary decimal points in time are imposed well after the fact.)

So from 2030 onwards, when somebody refers to the 20’s, how will we know which one?  How will we refer to the 20’s yet to come?  If we’re lucky they’ll  be the Boring 20’s, but who thinks we’re going to be that lucky?  The Historian’s Curse is a real thing, people.  So’s nostalgia for past eras pretty much nobody was all that thrilled about while they were happening.

Donald Westlake was never about nostalgia.  He almost never wrote stories set more than a year or three before the time he was writing them.  He was all about the now, because now is all there is, all there can be.  Now is when you live, now is when you find out who you are, what you can do, what you can be.  The past is always there, sure.  Change is never all of a piece, there’s always remnants from earlier eras, anachronisms, glorious and otherwise, but that’s not living in the past–that’s the past living on into the present, just like Faulkner said it would. And the future? Who says we get one?  Best not to assume.  Live now.

It’s hard to say for sure exactly when Westlake came to the realization he was typing on borrowed time.  As of July 12, 2003, when he turned 70, he’d outlived his father Albert by well over ten years.  He’d very nearly failed to live more than a few days past the date of his birth–just a quirk of fate that they’d recently developed an infant formula his digestive system could tolerate.  A man who is told that story as a boy grows up with a healthy respect for contingency, not to mention mortality.  Live now.

And there was nothing left for him to prove, as a writer.  He’d sought out new frontiers to explore, and the explorations hadn’t always succeeded, but that was less important than the fact that he’d tried, that he’d never let himself go stale, give up, write entirely to the market, do what everyone expected of him.  Most importantly, he’d never stopped publishing–he published his first novel under his own name in 1960.  After that, there are only four years he didn’t have at least one new novel out–’78, ’79, ’82, and ’99.

His last book published in his lifetime was Dirty Money, last of the Parkers, conclusion of a bloody trilogy (that was not originally planned as such), in which Parker comes face to face with Post-9/11 America, the Surveillance State.  The year after that came the final Dortmunder novel, which like the final Parker, has vague premonitions of mortality in it, but is mainly concerned with the way people were voluntarily surrendering their inmost selves to the media–the other Surveillance State.

The year after that came the posthumous publication of Memory, the greatest of his lost books, the road not taken.  So he finished out the first decade of the 21st Century with at least a book a year (frequently more).  In fact, he’s getting published again this year.  There’s no reason to think we won’t see still more of his work resurfacing in various forms for a good while to come yet, though probably no more novels.   So really, his publishing career has stretched across seven decades.  And still counting.

But to get back to my point–he must have guessed he didn’t have much time left. He certainly knew his best work was behind him. I find it hard to believe he needed to publish every single year to remain solvent–he may not have needed the money at all.  But whether he needed the money or not, he needed the books. He needed to keep working. He needed to stay in print. Because for a writer, the difference between being in or out of print is the difference between being alive or dead. That’s what he said once, and that’s what he believed. Don’t ask me what he thought about ebooks.

I’ve arbitrarily decided this final decade begins in 2002, since that’s the first year we can be pretty sure he was publishing stuff he finished after the new century began.  Not counting Memory, in the remaining years of the decade, he published eleven novels (one posthumously), one novella, and a collection of short stories.

For most professional writers, that wouldn’t sound half-bad for an entire lifetime’s work, would it now?  It would be asking a lot for all of them to be classics, and most of them aren’t.  The Dortmunders are mainly workmanlike, fun, inventive as always, full of lively trenchant observations about the passing parade, but the series had peaked well before that time, and he was mainly just hanging out with old friends by this point.

The last Stark novels are harder.  It’s more difficult to take their measure.  I don’t rank them as highly as the best of the First Sixteen, or even the final Grofield. I’m not sure I think they’re as good as three of the four Parkers he’d turned out in the 90’s (they’re all much better than Flashfire).  You can see his powers fading, here and there, details getting a bit fuzzy–and then he snaps back to, regains clarity, grips hold of the wheel, and there are moments of such power as to make you gasp–and shudder, because this is as Stark as Stark ever gets.   This is Stark writing with the full knowledge that he’s going to die soon.  Nothing focuses the mind half so well, as Dr. Johnson once said.

And in a very real and chilling way, this is Westlake finally surrendering himself to Stark, letting his greatest alter-ego take control of the partnership in a way that’s new–and yet familiar.  Because, you begin to see, Stark was the foundation all along.  Stark was what always lay underneath all the jokes, the farce, the whimsy, the satire and social commentary, the cheerfully irreverent asides. Stark was what was real.  Stark was the core program.  And as old age begins to take hold of Westlake in dead earnest, it’s Stark holds them all together, refuses to give in, stares horror right in the face, stares it down.

There will be an ending.  Nobody runs forever.  But there will be no surrender. There will be no talking to The Law.  There will be no despair, no second-guessing.  There will be no retirement.  Retire to what, pray tell?  That’s what Joe Sheer tried.   Remember how that worked out?  Stark did.

From 2002 to 2009, there were just three novels published that were neither about Parker nor Dortmunder, and the oeuvre as a whole wouldn’t be much the poorer without them.  One had actually been written back in the Mid-90’s, and it’s interesting in its own way, Westlake bringing back his fascination with Latin America one last time, but this time it’s the total immersion route.

And there is the 10th and final Nephew Book, or so I think of it, and by far the weakest of the bunch.  That approach to comic crime had burned itself out by the Mid-70’s, where it should have stayed.  Westlake can’t write about the Nephews anymore, because he’s gotten too far away from them, can’t really believe in them now.  Picaresques are for the young.  Stark in particular can’t believe in them. (Stark would just as soon kill them, you get right down to it.)

But he did start off the Home Stretch with a comic crime novel I do quite admire, a different take on the heist story, with a different take on that type of protagonist, midway between Parker and Dortmunder, but less fixed in his career path.  A reflective reformation, you might say.  We’ll talk about that one next.

But even as we talk about it, the sound of thundering pursuit is in our ears, as we rocket down the last furlong, the crowd cheering wildly, the finish line just ahead.  And here comes Seabiscuit!   Born May 23rd, 1933.  Just about a month and a half before Donald E. Westlake got foaled.  I came up with the Home Stretch thing, because I hate typing that double aught.  Then I found the image up top.  Then I looked up the birthdates.  Then I felt a slight chill.

The world is not simple enough to understand.  With books and their authors, we can at least try.  So let’s try.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: The Perfect Murder

Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon trial, which lasted seven years. In summing up, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away.

At this my counsel rose and said:

“May it please your honor, crimes are ghastly or agreeable only by comparison. If you were familiar with the details of my client’s previous murder of his uncle, you would discern in his later offence something in the nature of tender forbearance and filial consideration for the feelings of the victim. The appalling ferocity of the former assassination was indeed inconsistent with any hypothesis but that of guilt; and had it not been for the fact that the honorable judge before whom he was tried was the president of a life insurance company which took risks on hanging, and in which my client held a policy, it is impossible to see how he could have been decently acquitted. If your honor would like to hear about it for the instruction and guidance of your honor’s mind, this unfortunate man, my client, will consent to give himself the pain of relating it under oath.”

From My Favorite Murder, by Ambrose Bierce

So.  You’re beginning to enjoy our correspondence, are you?  That may change, my friend.

Granted, I had understood from the outset that you were adding to your risk of exposure by consulting others as well as myself–yet another indication of your ambivalence toward the entire operation–but I had expected you would be forming a jury of at least my, if not your peers.  The latest Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, say.  Dr. Hannibal Lector.  Pol Pot.  Imelda Marcos.  A member of the Senate’s Intelligence Oversight Committee.  An executive from Drexel-Burnham.  People, in other words, who had already gotten away with  murder.  I’d thought, quite naturally, you understood that my own…

Well.  Never mind.  The point is, I had no idea at the outset that you intended to insult me in this fashion; to cobble me together with these, these scriveners.  I had no thought that you expected me to hobnob, rub elbows, shuffle along with the likes of these makeweights, these cutpennies, these artificers.

Well, it’s not their fault.  I mustn’t blame them overly.  They’ve done their best, poor catchpoles, and I shall give them–not you, my friend, them–the decent respect of treating their humble offerings with sympathetic patience and a critical eye well tempered by compassion for human imperfectibility.

Donald E. Westlake, writing to ‘Tim.’

For an article in the September 1988 issue of Harper’s Magazine, journalist Jack Hitt convened a panel of distinguished experts in the fine art of literary murder, which was held at the Union Club in New York City.  The participants were Sarah Caudwell, Tony Hillerman, Peter Lovesey, Nancy Pickard, and Donald E. Westlake.

To these worthies Mr. Hitt posed a problem–suppose his name was Carl, and he wanted to murder his wife Linda, who was having an affair with someone bearing the Joycean name of Blazes Boylan, and intended to divorce Carl shortly, cutting him out of her large inheritance.  How could he do this in such a way as to 1)Avoid being caught, 2)Have Blazes take the blame, and 3)Make the murder memorable and stylish, not at all the usual sort of dull tasteless thing one reads about in the papers nowadays.  Something that would be talked about for generations to come. Lovesey seems to have made the suggestion that Carl could publish the details in his posthumous memoirs.

What followed was seven pages of enthused back and forth between the writers (with little in the way of interruption from their moderator, if that’s what you want to call him–nothing terribly moderate about that discussion, you ask me).  Feeling suitably encouraged by the results of his thought experiment in execution, the aptly-named Mr. Hitt decided to do it all again on a larger canvas, and the result can be seen above.

Lawrence Block was brought in to sub for Ms. Pickard.  I want everyone to know that the images of him and Mr. Westlake up top being larger is a formatting thing, and not me playing favorites, though they are in fact the only writers in that assembly I am well familiar with,  ‘cozies’ not being my usual thing.  I just wanted to make a suitably chilling rogue’s gallery, and of course only black and white photos would do for this macabre array of blood-boltered fiends.  Though Mr. Block looks good in sepia, I must say.

And instead of a convivially bloody discussion over Bloody Marys (I’m sure Westlake and Block opted for bourbon), it became a round robin correspondence between Hitt–now taking the deceptively mild-mannered name of ‘Tim’–and the five avariciously adversarial authors, who have been promised much in the way of filthy lucre should Tim successfully employ one of their plans.  Tim proposes, they disposes.  Perhaps literally, in one case.   Hitt mentions in the preface that the correspondence took about a year to complete–meaning, I’d assume, that the authors were not merely dashing off their responses–they were taking the project seriously.  Though not somberly.

(I wish the original article was available free online, but Harper’s has opted to insist that you either subscribe or shell out $6.95 to read it on their website–that’s nearly a dollar a page!  Did they even pay Hitt that much?  However, working at a library has its perks, and one of them is a thing called Proquest.  I have a print-out of the piece on my desk as we speak, for which I paid precisely bupkus. I had hoped to be able to send it to my readers individually upon request, but that doesn’t seem to work, so I’ll post scans next week.)

‘Tim’ opens with a lament on the sadly diminished state of the fine art of murder (consciously echoing De Quincey, whose famous Blackwoods essay on this subject is referenced specifically in his introductory missive).  He lays out a specific set of circumstances–he married for money.  He studied to be a doctor before that.  His wife is betraying him with his best friend, still named Blazes Boylan, but no Leopold Bloom is Tim.  He wants revenge, and he wants to inherit his wife’s fortune, and he wants Blazes to be punished for the murder, and he wants the murder to be artistic enough so that when he posthumously reveals it in his memoirs, people will never stop talking about him in awed and reverent tones.

He’s just read in his morning paper about a man who murdered a neighbor for money, and then attempted to destroy all evidence of the crime by feeding the body into a woodchipper–the police, unfortunately (unfortunately?), found residues of the deceased on the leaves of a nearby oak tree.   Had he just moved the chipper a bit further away before proceeding, he probably would have gotten away with it.  And Tim then poses a truly diabolical question.

Can it be true?  That we wish him to get away with this crime?  Of course, it’s true!  Because what really attracts us to this story–whether we are sitting in our housecoats after breakfast, or catching a paragraph or two at a red light on the way to work, or absorbing the details as we roar along in the common carrier–is the novelty of that damned woodchipper.  In some strange way, we wish to reward this man, privately, each to ourselves, with our regret over his loss of liberty for taking an act so wretchedly common these days and endowing it with a certain freshness.  I belive there is an entire school of thought that considers such cleverness to be the very soul of genius.

Mr. Westlake is the first of the consultants to respond, and he applauds Tim for his sagacity in seeking informed advice.   So many people just blunder their way into murder, as if just anyone can do it.

What your story demonstrates initially is that it is never too late to begin acting sensibly.  You yourself will, I think, admit that your choices till now have been less than satisfactory.   Let us begin by recapping the erroneous steps that that have led you to this impasse; an impasse which, happily, you seem to at least have delved deep within yourself to tap some previous unsuspected lode of wit and make the right move for a change, by turning to experts for their guidance and counsel. Would you install your own plumbing?  Take out your own adenoids?   Prepare your own tax return? Park your own car at a better restaurant?  Of course not.  In the very nick of time, at the ultimate brink of fate, you have suddenly realized what we all must sooner or later acknowledge: You need help.

Westlake makes a rather detailed analysis of what he perceives to be the crucial defects in Tim’s character, his mistakes in life, deduced from the slight biographical data provided.  Each writer is free to a certain extent to improvise upon the basic scenario provided them, to add certain crucial details to the tapestry being woven. This does, in fact, lead to some minor contradictions in the unfolding improvised narrative, because everybody is just making it up as s(he) goes along.  Did Tim provide a correct return address with his letters?  You would think not, but some correspondents behave as if they don’t know where and who he really is, and others claim to know literally everything about him. Westlake starts out by just taking Tim’s story as a given, and working from there.

His plan is, all admit, ingenious.  Tim must create and then assume a false identity, using methods any Westlake reader is familiar with–Tim is amazed to find that Westlake is correct in saying that you can claim the identity of a child that died shortly after birth, and through that ruse get a social security number, and a bank account under that name.  Tim must also get Blazes to join a local shooting club with him (this assumes there is one, but we know it’s a well-off community, so that’s not pushing things).  This will lead to Blazes’ fingers testing positive for gunpowder residue.

Basically, Tim is to use his false identity as his alibi.  He will go on a business trip to meet with his double, and then fly back again, going to the hotel room Blazes and Linda habitually use.  He will kill Linda right in front of Blazes, in mid-assignation.  He will hand the terrified (and naked) Blazes the gun and spray him with mace.  He will then fly to another city, where he will supposedly be meeting with his other self, establishing the alibi.   He will have to work at creating an alternate persona, so that the police interrogating both him and his alias won’t suspect anything.  Blazes will know who framed him, but the police will have him red-handed, and will not believe his ridiculous story.

Personally, I see some flaws in the scheme–which I half-think are put in there on purpose–Westlake could create the perfect crime if he wants to, but like the Navajo weavers, puts an intentional flaw in the pattern so as not to anger the gods (for which one of our authors might accuse him of poaching on his domain).   But still–with some variations–I think you could actually do this (be easier if you didn’t have to leave a witness alive).

In truth, Tim has set his experts a nigh-impossible task.  He wants to kill his wife, frame his best friend, get off scot-free, live a long prosperous life, and then brag after his death about the artful and original murder he committed, so that his name will rank with the immortals like Jack the Ripper or Gilles de Rais. Each writer will have to err in one direction or the other–to make the murder more practical, believable–or to make it more colorful.  Our next writer chooses the second alternative.

Peter Lovesey comes up with a scenario he entitles “The Jellyfish in the Jacuzzi.” It contains some of the same elements as Mr. Westlake’s scenario–obtaining a pass key to the lovers’ hotel room, traveling back and forth by air to develop an alibi, but it’s far more complicated and baroque (and the more complex a scheme, the more things that can go wrong with it, but Mr. Lovesey can rightly claim to have come up with the most unorthodox method for dispatching the unfortunate Linda, perhaps cribbed just a wee bit from A. Conan Doyle).

Basically, Tim is to spend some time creating the suspicion that Blazes is playing elaborate practical jokes involving marine life on Tim and Linda.  Then he is to obtain a Sea Wasp (a particularly lethal species of box jellyfish) from a local research laboratory in Tim’s community that just conveniently happens to stock them, and where they are left completely unguarded in an unlocked room most of the time (I must sniff a bit at this threadbare contrivance, but we’re supposed to be having fun here, right?).

Then, at a time when he can establish he was somewhere else, he leaves the jellyfish in the jacuzzi (an ideally warm environment for the tropical creature), where Linda can be expected to encounter it, and Blazes to be blamed for it.   In fact, people do often survive encounters with the Sea Wasp, which has caused only 63 documented fatalities since 1884–it depends on the size of the victim, and the amount of venom administered.  But if she’s by herself when stung, death is certainly the most likely scenario by far.

She could die from a non-lethal dose, simply by drowning after losing consciousness.   That happened to an uncle of mine–it’s happened to lots of people.  The drowning in a hot tub thing, not the stung by a jellyfish improbably resident within the hot tub thing.  I don’t believe.   The question never came up in my uncle’s post-mortem, to my knowledge.  A lovely man, but a drinker.  He slipped and hit his head.  Isn’t it grand, boys?   And wouldn’t you know, I inherited a fair sum of money from him.  Why are you all looking at me that way? I was nowhere nearby when it happened.  Let’s move on.

Tony Hillerman, author of many a best-selling multicultural murder mystery, who died only a few weeks before Donald Westlake, offers a western perspective, and heartily concurs with Tim’s opinions on the degraded state of modern murder.

Crime in our republic has indeed suffered a serious decline.  If you have noticed it in the effete East, consider how much more galling this condition must be to us Rocky Mountain Westerners.  Lacking ballet, literacy, major league baseball, and the other daintier pastimes, we had to build our culture principally on larceny and homicide, stealing all the states west of the eighty-third meridian from their previous owners, shooting the inhabitants thereof, and then, when that supply was exhausted, shooting one another.  Our bandits–from Black Jack Ketchum to Butch Cassidy–were giants in the land. Even our lawmen, I point to Wyatt Earp and the infamous Sheriff Brady of the Lincoln County War as notable examples, were often criminal enough to warrant hanging.

Alas, that was yesterday.  Today, as your complaint notes, we can boast only of quantity.  My own smallish city, Albuquerque, tallied fifty-two bank robberies last year–so many that the gunmen were reduced to robbing the same places two or three times.  Not one of these felonies showed the slightest sign of originality or imagination.  Nor were any of those elements applied by the polce.  The only arrests made recently were of a robber who used a bicycle as his escape vehicle and wasn’t very good at it and another who parked at the drive-up window, handed the teller his note demanding money, and waited patiently until the police came to lead him away.  The once proud Federal Bureau of Investigation, formed in large part to protect our banks back in the halcyon days of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, was finally stirred from its lethargy.  To what end?  It issued a press statement criticizing bank security systems, then went back to investigating librarians whom it suspects of checking out subversive books to Democrats.

His scheme in many ways is the simplest–but also the riskiest.  Tim is to confess to drowning his wife in her bathtub in a fit of rage.   The police, upon investigation, will find that she had no water in her lungs.  She was, in fact, a victim of mushroom poisoning.  As were many others, who happened to shop at something called the Yummie Yuppie Deli, where somebody–various hints will point to Blazes–put a handful of poisonous mushrooms on a mixed display of fancy fungi.  The natural suspicion of the police towards the husband of a dead wife will then naturally be diverted to Blazes.  Tim’s desire to confess to his crime will convince them he committed no crime at all.  When in fact he’s slaughtered half the community.

(More than one other contributor points out a critical failing here–how many police detectives, faced with a confession of murder from a cuckolded husband, are going to look a gift perp in the mouth?   There is quite a bit of skepticism regarding the efficiency of police departments in this book–from people whose livelihoods often depended on depicting policemen as relentless seekers of truth, armed with the latest deveopments in forensic science.)

Hillerman brought up this scenario at the original gathering, but in embryonic form–merely the spore of an idea, you might say.  Westlake responded by mentioning a large coffee table book he had of home, composed entirely of photographs of beautiful mushrooms, which included a  loose errata sheet shoved unceremoniously into the back of the book, which mentioned all the highly poisonous mushrooms the author had erroneously identified as edible.   Bon appetit, gourmets.

The late Sarah Caudwell (born Sarah Cockburn) hailed from a family of some renown–I used to read her uncle Alexander’s columns in the Village Voice (back when that publication was still worth reading) and even occasionally rubbed elbows with her niece Laura Flanders at various seditious gatherings in times long-gone, but I have not read her four highly regarded mystery novels, a situation I fully intend to remedy in the near future, because she was clearly brilliant, and the books sound intriguing as hell.

Still, she was a barrister by trade, not a writer.  That may be why in the original Harper’s article, she was one of the dominant voices–far more than Westlake, who was fairly reticent by comparison, offering only a few scattered (though telling) comments.  Her knowledge of criminal law and crime itself stands her in good stead there.  She is on familiar ground.

By contrast, I would say she’s a bit self-effacing (and quite brief) in her contributions to the book–perhaps just a mite overawed by the distinguished company she’s in, and while a trained legal mouthpiece (and a Brit to boot) may rightly feel she can out-talk anybody, particularly in a club that serves alcohol, she knew she couldn’t out-write the assembled company once they’d set about seriously to business (a few more books to her credit, she might well have done). She still comes up with a very engaging response to Tim’s query, that is not quite as impractical as her countryman Lovesey’s, but rivals it for vividity.

She says right off the bat that Tim must not even think of committing a murder in the United States.  It’s so–common.  Statistically, I’m afraid that is still true. No, she insists, he must somehow spirit Linda away to Europe–and after a quick overview of the grisly heritages of France, Italy, Greece, and foggy London Town, being of Scots heritage, she settles on a locale for the crime.   Again, terra cognita.

No country to compare with Scotland, and no city to compare with Edinburgh.

A city one might almost think designed with deliberate purpose to symbolize the dichotomy between reason and passion, the light and dark aspects of the human psyche.  Through it runs the long, deep cleft of Princes Street Gardens; on one side is the orderly decorum of the eighteenth century, wide streets and elegant squares, the quintessence of rationality; on the other the tenebrous wynds and narrow stairways of the old medieval town; and dominating all, the dark, majestic outline of the Castle and Cathedral.

Wow–!

She’s going into some depth about the long treacherous sanguinary history of Bonnie Scotland, and she’s making me feel more like visiting than anything ever produced by either Hollywood or their tourist board ever did (or Westlake’s one novel set there, for that matter).   She’s damned good, our Ms. Caudwell.   I find myself already lamenting how quickly I’ll get through her oeuvre.

But it’s very hard to see how her murder could be made to work.  It involves the Edinburgh Festival, a splendid affair held each summer, which I could see Linda agreeing to attend with Tim and Blazes tagging along just for fun, but already we’re pushing hard at the limits of plausibility here.  Now everybody has to be in traditional attire, and both Tim and Blazes are in full Highland regalia, kilts and all (the shameless feminine preoccupation with masculine limbs on full display here, pure objectification I calls it), and each ensemble comes with this little ceremonial dagger, the Sgian dhubh  (she uses the anglicized spelling, for which I am subtracting points from her final score).  Tim will arrange to get Blazes’ implement away from him without his knowing it.

So you see where this is going.   Tim will immolate Blazes’ dirk in the blood of his bride, but through a very elaborate chain of events involving a tape recorder and a grand banquet with candelebras and all, Blazes will end up being the one caught red-handed, while Tim tenderly cradles Linda’s encrimsoned corpse, murmering broken endearments, and asking Blazes how he could have possibly done such a thing.  It’s very romantic, isn’t it?  Bring the life right back into a marriage, while taking it out of one of the partners, but nothing’s perfect.   I suppose you’d prefer they took a weaving class together, or learned to do the cha-cha.

Finally Mr. Block has his say, and while none of the writers have been entirely complimentary to poor cuckolded Tim, he’s flat-out derogatory and dismissive.

You think this is funny, don’t you?

That’s what’s galling about this whole unhappy enterprise.  You think it’s amusing, with all your brittle patter, your happy horseshit about murder as an art form.  Murder is never artistic and it is rarely formal.  It is a means to an end.  Almost invariably, it is a bad means to a bad end.  An unamusing means, if you will, to an unamusing end.

Life, we are told, is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel. You, sir, reveal yourself as one who does neither.  You seem to crave applause for the artistry of your efforts at homicide while at once wanting to escape detection.  If your crime should be perfect, if your wife should perish and your friend Blazes be blamed for your death, whatever artistry you would purport to have displayed would in fact remain forever undisplayed.  It is as if you would feed to the woodchipper not a human corpse but the good Bishop Berkeley’s tree, the one that falls unheard, the one that makes no sound.

And having said all that, he provides the most ghoulish plan of all.   Tim shall set about becoming a full-fledged serial killer, who makes appointments with ill-starred sex workers (the preferred prey of Jack the Ripper, you’ll recall), has coitus with them, then kills and dismembers them, and arranges their body parts in various imaginative ways, to get the attention of the police.   He shall obtain physical evidence in the form of male pubic hairs from the adulterous sheets of Blazes and Linda, with which to implicate Blazes (while making sure none of Tim’s pubes are ever found at the crime scenes–okay, already I’m shaking my head a bit).

Mr. Block seems to think the one objection to his plan is that Tim may find out that he enjoys killing strangers so much that he no longer will wish to pursue his original plan.  He also says killing Linda, much as he hates her, might prove harder for Tim to stomach than murdering some anonymous whore.  Well, serial killers rarely go after people close to them, that’s true.  That’s actually a major recommendation for Block’s plan.  Except isn’t Blazes close to her as well?   So really, this is a variation on Christie’s The ABC Murders–somebody pretending to be a serial killer, in order to kill someone who has become inconvenient, and pin the blame on someone else.  You really can’t get away from Dame Agatha in this area of endeavor, can you?   For sheer inventiveness, she topped the bill.

Mr. Block claims to have satisfied here both the need for getting away with it, implicating Blazes, and attracting the attention of the media to the murders, so that Tim may achieve the notoriety he so desires.   Block does not seem to have fully processed that Tim plans to reveal all the bloody details of his crime and/or crimes after he’s shuffled off the coil himself.  Maybe read the opening letter a bit too quickly, and of course he wasn’t at the original meeting at the Union Club.  (I was a bit worried about what Block might have done to Nancy Pickard to get her slot, but apparently she’s still alive and presumably still in one piece.)

But taken simply as pieces of writing, Block’s contributions are superbly enjoyable–he’s in rare form.  You don’t often get to see him play the curmudgeon in his fiction, and he’s deuced good at it.

So Tim, delighted by the malevolent machinations he has inspired, writes back to each author, enclosing copies of all the other scenarios, and explaining that as he received each new missive in the mail, he would be so taken with it that he’d immediately set about executing it–only to receive the next one, and he’d be so taken with that he’d start carrying it out, and so on, and so forth.

He’s just mixing and matching after a while, never carrying any one writer’s scenario out to the letter because he wants to be creative about it (maybe he should try making movies), and it sounds like a bloody shambles, only without any actual blood.  He’s done much of what they recommended in terms of set-up. He’s even created (elaborating on Westlake’s plan), a female identity for himself, named Diana Clement, and seems to greatly enjoy being a girl.  But he hasn’t actually killed anybody yet.  And since he hasn’t used any of their ideas to dispatch Linda thus far, obviously he doesn’t owe any of them a check.  It’s not like he signed a contract.   Maybe he should have just taken one out on Linda.

Is there anything in God’s own creation that so infuriates a professional writer as accepting a commission, and then not receiving full payment?  Or any?   If there is, it’s probably seeing another author vying to nab that paycheck away from you. Professional jealousy rears its verdant head.  Each will strive to excoriate Tim and eviscerate each rival’s scheme, while still insisting on the sheer perfection of his/her own.

Mr. Hillerman begins this round of recrimination (heh), purporting to be surprised to learn the original letter was a mere ‘fishing expedition’, without any commitment.  In fact, most of the respondents claim not to have realized this, even though it was made pretty clear (just not precisely who the other conspirators would be).  His analytical mind finds serious flaws in all the other schemes, predicated mainly on what he refers to headscratchingly as the Peter Principle, though he clearly means Murphy’s Law.

Caudwell’s tape recorded scream will malfunction, leading people to believe there are ducks in the house.  Lovesey’s complex advance scenario, which is supposed to draw the media’s attention to the events coming before the murder, will be pushed aside in favor of the Queen’s second cousin developing hangnails–or alternatively, some American equivalent of aristocracy, such as Donald Trump (okay, full marks there, Mr. H–just as well you didn’t live to see how right you were).  Lovesey’s scenario depends far too much on planes in America departing and arriving on their scheduled times (he’s English, he couldn’t know).

He accuses Lawrence Block of the high crime of being an intellectual, who holds Tim in contempt.  He says Block is trying to set Tim up to take the fall, not Blazes Boylan.  Honestly, I’m not sure he’s wrong about that, not that Block would ever admit it.  He also cunningly exposes Block’s inspiration, by mentioning The ABC Murders, and thus insinuating that if Block’s scheme were used, the check would be properly payable to Agatha Christie’s estate (not-so-veiled accusations of plagiarism are rife in this part of the book, and you’d expect nothing less when the ire of authors has been aroused).

He can’t find too much wrong with Westlake’s plan, but he does score one palpable hit–Westlake said Tim could get a copy of the key to the lovers’ room by making an imprint in soft putty.  Imprint of what, pray tell?

Mr. Westlake’s fame among mystery readers is long established.  For him the day has since passed when his publisher’s marketing people bundle him up and send him off on those awful tests of stamina known as book tours.  Thus, while Westlake remembers that a hotel with a room  number as high as 1507 must be a big hotel, he seems not to know what has happened to hotel keys in such monstrous places.  We who must still endure these mind-numbing journeys from one hotel to another know that Room 1507 isnt’ opened by a key these days.   The hotel key is another victim of America’s progress in crime and technology.  The door to Room 1507 these days is opened by a little rectangular strip of stiff plastic.

To which I’d respond that I was just staying in a very small hotel that uses that same type of ‘key’, and the cleaning woman had one that opened all doors in the place, and how hard could it be, really, to get one of those?   Harder than planting poisonous mushrooms in a busy delicatessen?  Mr. Westlake’s tradecraft does need some updating, but I call that quibbling.  I’m far from convinced Westlake didn’t already know all that, since I doubt very much he was outselling Tony Hillerman in the early 90’s, and his love of Travel is well known.

But I do perceive the outlines of a professional compliment there, all the same.   Each writer is trying to say, at the very same time, to each of his/her colleagues, both “You are an adornment to our shared profession who inspires my deepest admiration” and “You are a shameless hack.”  And I have no doubt they are deeply sincere in both sentiments.  It’s a writer thing.

On the whole, Lovesey’s second response is the weakest of the bunch, if only because he knows as well as anyone that his murder scheme is the least practical of the bunch.   He also expresses great admiration for Westlake’s scenario, and then pokes holes in it, along with everyone else’s.  But mainly he’s just saying that his jellyfish is so much more memorable than anyone else’s weapon of choice that it would be criminal not to employ it and send him a check forthwith. Practicality be damned, this is art!

Caudwell, as I already said, is a bit too deferential here (as she was decidedly not in person at the club, when she met all the authors other than Block), and all the more once she’s read the other proposed murders.  She seems somehow more offended on Westlake’s behalf than on her own–she says “he has devised for you, at considerable personal sacrifice–he might have used it for his own next novel–a plan of great beauty and artistic elegance, and that you, by your rash and self-indulgent action, have rendered it entirely useless.”  I think she may spend more time defending Westlake’s plan than her own!   She doesn’t like the bit about changing the alternate identity to a woman, either.  Her generosity is breath-taking–but a bit out of keeping with the general tone of the book.

(Caudwell raises a valid point, though–she was probably wishing Westlake would write a novel about a murderer who painstakingly creates an alternate persona to serve as his own alibi–that actually would have been amazing, and much in keeping with Westlake’s usual obsession with identity.  Probably he had considered just such a book, and had discarded the idea for one reason or another. We’ll never know just how many Westlake books we missed out on.)

Still and all, she concludes by saying, as Lovesey before her, that her plan is the most aesthetically pleasing, and therefore the best.  She says she has enclosed a copy of the program for the Edinburgh Festival.   She wants to see those bekilted male legs.   But Lawrence Block suggests another motive for her.

Block is even more enraged with Tim now.   His vituperative bile fairly leaps from the page.   It’s always a pleasure to watch him work, but never more than when he is angry (or pretending to be).  He says he doesn’t know how he missed the implication that he was not the only writer being consulted, and has many a disparaging thing to say about his competitors, Mr. Westlake not least among them.

My first impulse, I must admit, was to toss out their contributions unread.  I have for years been doing just that with their novels, which their publishers persist in sending me in the hope of eliciting promotional blurbs.  A word from me, evidently, goes a long way in establishing a lesser writer’s reputation, and I’m continuously besieged with galleys from hopeful editors.  I have thus long formed my opinion of the work of Westlake, Lovesey, Hillerman, and Caudwell, and could well imagine what sort of a murder they would lay out for you.

Westlake would enlist the aid of some bumbling criminals, and he’d have all of them try to kill your wife, and they’d all fail, until she died laughing. Lovesey would have her slain in the ring by a bare-knuckled pugilist. Hillerman would dress you up in a feather headdress and have you make a sand painting, calling down the Great Spirit to crush your wife to death in a buffalo stampede.  And Caudwell would shuttle you between Lincoln’s Inn and the Isles of Greece, in the company of people named Ragweed and Catnip.

He then professes surprise that their actual plans are not so bad as all that.  He finds little things to admire about each of them.   Then, as all the others before him (with the partial exception of Caudwell vis a vis Westlake) rips them to shreds.  Like Lovesey (the artfulness of whose proposal he admires, while attacking its efficaciousness), he drips disdain for Westlake’s means of killing Linda–a gun.  So boring.  He rips into his closest friend more than anyone else here, even Tim–no doubt anticipating a similar fusilade from Mr. Westlake, aimed in his direction.  Well, that’s what friends are for, right?

But I particularly like what he did to Caudwell–which is to point out that Caudwell is, after all, a woman.  Of the unhappy coupling of Linda and Tim, who is more likely to hold her sympathy?   Who will really end up dead, or carted off by the bobbies, when her Scottish Play (Lovesey’s term for it) has concluded?   She’s luring Tim into a trap!  I can imagine Caudwell roaring with laughter at this.   Unless she just smiled slowly in a sinister secret sort of way….

Mr. Block then claims to have made private investigations (well, he is the progenitor of Matthew Scudder, and the back dust jacket informs us his most recent book was A Dance at the Slaughterhouse).  He says he’s found proof that Tim is in fact carrying out his plan (ie, murdering a series of unrelated women).

I don’t know, that seems almost like cheating to me–claiming victory over his peers on the basis of things he’s just made up himself (I would assume).

But he probably knows by now who’s going to follow him, and I think I’ve mentioned he and Westlake had a lifelong rivalry that went along with their lifelong camraderie.  A competition he probably misses as much as anything else in that friendship.  But at 78, he definitely won the longevity sweepstakes.

As he was the first to respond to Tim’s original letter, Mr. Westlake gets the last word in the second.  And the best.  I’m biased, that goes without saying.  But here is where we really do see that even in such a literally cutthroat competitive environment as this, there was only one Donald E. Westlake.   And there is an air of cool practiced deadliness about him we have not seen in some time.  Not since 1974, to be precise.

Westlake has, as Block probably feared, done him one better.  He hasn’t just made discreet inquiries over the phone.  He’s tracked Tim to his (we are informed) tastelessly appointed McMansion, and he’s been inside of it.  He’s planted certain things in it.  He’s watching Tim, as Tim is reading his letter.   He’s not getting mad.  He’s getting even.   Certain promises were made to him, as he sees it.  Those promises were not kept.   What does Parker do when somebody makes a professional arrangement with him, then fails to keep his end of the bargain?   Precisely.

So here’s the deal.   Tim will carry out Westlake’s plan to the letter–the innovation of making the alternate identity female Westlake applauds as a worthy embellishment to the plan, that he wishes he’d thought of himself.  But Tim will, in all other respects, carry out Westlake’s plan as detailed.  He must show that he is proceeding with it–Westake will know if he does not.  Westlake will see.  Westlake sees all.  And after all is completed, Tim will be given some time to bask in the glory of his achievement.  And then—.

And just imagine, if you were to be found dead somewhere–oh, say, a stroke, an auto accident, you know the kind of thing–in Diana’s fig.  The police arrive, the medical personnel, the folk from the mortician.  Such surprise! Such confusion!  There’s art, if you want.  The laughter of the gods o’erlying a minor everyday human drama.

But there I go again, getting ahead of myself.

He is, of course, equally merciless and efficient in eliminating all his rivals’ proposals, one by one.  I doubt he’d read Caudwell’s admiring description of his own plan before penning his of hers–which he describes as having ‘a certain je de paume which would no doubt have a certain appeal for frivolous minds; the sort of people who can never guess the ending of a “Columbo” episode.’   Ouch.   Though he admits it probably will work in terms of Tim getting off with the help of good lawyers, if only because Scottish courts uniquely have a third possible verdict–“Not Proven.” Which he says means “You didn’t do it, and don’t do it again.”

He dismisses Hillerman’s proposal as impossible–Tim studied to be a doctor. Which means he will be automatically suspected of a poisoning.  Not to mention that all those grieving yuppie family members will hire private detectives to find ‘the real killer’, and while private detectives may be stupid, they also have no scruples, and they will be all over Tim like the cheap suits they typically wear. He says the same objection–as well as the tawdry repetitive aspects of it–eliminate Mr. Block.  If Tim was lucky enough to make Lovesey’s bizarre and complex plan work, he wouldn’t need to kill Linda–she’d drop dead of natural causes before he ever got around to slaying her.

(Block’s best salvo against Westlake also involved private detectives–hired by the wealthy Blazes Boylan to expose Tim’s alibi as a fraud.   Westlake has no defense to offer in this regard, and given that Tim’s life is reportedly in his hands, does he really need one?  In the comments section, we might be moved, I think, to try and plug the holes in Westlake’s scheme–or any others that take our fancy.   That would be highly diverting, I believe.)

Westlake’s entire response is a small masterpiece of chillingly methodical mastery–turning the tables on Tim, and establishing his dominance over the situation.  Others in the group have tried this gambit, but none half so effectively.

And Hitt, writing as Tim, seems just a tad unnerved to me as he concludes the book with a letter that amounts to a polite complimentary brush-off.  He tries to make it seem that Block must be lurking about his house as well, and Westlake should be watching his own back, and all the writers should be worried about each other instead of him, but that doesn’t hold water.   Block has made no such claim to proximity.  The others are mainly just concerned with getting their pay.

After Westlake’s final word, Hitt, a very fine writer whose three chapters in this book are all a delight to read, can’t quite avoid a sense of anticlimax.  He can’t follow Donald Westlake in top form.  Who ever could?

But in saying he still intends to go ahead with the murder, and that none of his consultants have any purchase over him at all (since they would be implicated in his crime were he found out, and then instead of being remembered as great mystery authors, they’d be remembered as his accomplices), ‘Tim’ does have one very interesting thing to say about all contrived murder scenarios that we scoff at in books–but don’t some of them actually work in reality?  Isn’t there always an element of luck in any plan?

One, I think, simply has to believe that it will work–that the planes will leave on time that day, that the damned cassette recorder will click on when the button is pressed, that Blazes will join the club on cue, that the detective will sense a contradiction in the neat confession, and that the tiny evidence when magnified by forensic technology will appear to be a milewide swath leading to Blazes.  One could make a case that the forensics of murder are the aesthetics of contingency–the beauty of luck.  It is only fitting that an art form that aspires to such high ideals must raise itself above the aesthetics of craft associated with other pursuits.  Who wants an art whose beauty is under the complete control of the artist?  Who could care for a beauty that would undoubtedly be atomized and sifted into categories of technique and become the subject of soporific seminars at the annual PMLA meeting?  Rather, let us have an aesthetics built upon the exacting hand of the artist and the palsied hand of fate, upon talent and faith.  I like it.

And I like this book, very much.  Which is why I’ve typed over 7,000 words about it, and I could probably manage 7,000 more without trouble.  I’ve left many an intended observation by the wayside here, and hopefully I can get to some of them in the comments section, or some of you will beat me to them.  But one last observation I must make.

Westlake, in his brief contributions to this work, seems, I must say, almost Godlike in his perceptions and abilities.  In the quote up top, he is putting himself in the same category as those who have destroyed untold numbers of human lives.   Why is that?  Probably because  of his work on our next book in the queue, mentioned as forthcoming on the back dust jacket for this book.  A novel in which God Himself sets about to destroy all life on earth. And chooses as His means of accomplishing His will, a rather odd assembly of players, human and otherwise.  A very elaborate murder scheme indeed, and His intended victim is Earth.  Hey, that’s our job!

And as I’ve said elsewhere, I think this could have potentially been one of Westlake’s very best books.  He sometimes referred to it as one of his favorites. And sadly, it’s not one of mine.  I consider it a failure.   But I’ll take an inspired failure over a safe success any day.  Because Hitt was right.   An art that is fully under the control of the artist is not art.  And a God that can be fully understood by mortals is not God.  As He remarked to Job once.

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Sidebar: The Dannemora Escape

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Dannemora is a little town.  In most of it, you wouldn’t know there was a penitentiary around at all.  The town doesn’t look dirty enough, or mean enough.  But the penitentiary’s there, a high long wall next to the sidewalk along the street.  The sidewalk’s cracked and frost-heaved over there.  On the other side, it’s cleaner and there’s half a dozen bars with neon signs that say Budweiser and Genesee.  National and local beers on tap.  Bill had Budweiser and I had Genesee.  It tasted like beer.

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake

I’m now quite sure I’m not going to finish my next review before I start jury duty this week–possibly next week, but that will depend on some unknown variables.  And there is something else we could talk about in the meantime.

I have thus far been privileged to receive visitors from 97 countries and territories, according to my WordPress stats.  I suspect news of the escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora NY (which has long been popularly known as Dannemora) has reached each and every one of them by now. Some are more interested than others, but it has become a story of interest, far outside the region it happened in.

Really, it’s not that big of a deal, is it?   Two minor crooks with violent records broke out of jail nine days ago.  Nobody knows where they are.  There’s been a massive manhunt, costing the taxpayer (according to one account) one million dollars a day, and it’s come up with bupkus.  Fingers pointing in every possible direction as to whose fault this is.  It is very unusual for prisoners who break jail in America to avoid the authorities for more than a day or two.  Many are caught hours later.  Not this time.  You could come up with almost any scenario, and have as good a chance of being right as anyone else.

All I keep hearing is how it’s just like The Shawshank Redemption.  I don’t know how the hell anybody makes that analogy.  I suppose the confusion could stem from the fact that Shawshank heavily copied a much better film that does resemble this escape quite a bit.

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Don Siegel crapped better movies than Shawshank.  (I do love to blaspheme against internet top ten lists.)

One person I have no doubt would be following this story with rapt fascination were he still around is Donald E. Westlake.  Not least because one of his earliest novels, 361, has a scene set right outside that prison–Eddie Kapp, former mob boss, gets released from Dannemora after a long stretch there, and is about to get whacked by men working for his former associates, when Ray Kelly and his brother intervene.   Dannemora might as well be called Monequois–upstate New York, edge of the Adirondack Park, near the Canadian border–Westlake country.  Hell, for all we know the name Monequois is partly derived from Dannemora (which is Swedish, not native American, but there ain’t no such tribe as the Monequois, and there never was).

Westlake didn’t write a lot about prison life, but when he did, it was memorable.  He got a lot of letters from guys in prison who read his books (particularly the ones written as Richard Stark), and one of them he clearly found inspirational, to say the least.  As he told a NY Times interviewer in 1980–

Another guy–this one was doing time in a penitentiary in Walla Walla–wrote me a letter saying that the prison was honeycombed with tunnels because it was built on sandy soil.  One day the gym caught fire.  The firetruck headed across the exercise yard, but then the middle section broke through into a tunnel; the cab angled up in the air one direction and the rear of the truck angled up the other way, in a giant V, and the gym burned down.

So if all these tunnels were still there, and the authorities didn’t even know about them until that happened (you can hear him thinking), suppose inmates were just going out to do stuff, and returning before anybody noticed they were gone?   He presumably heard other stories like this from incarcerated readers (though of course there’d be only so much they could tell him while they were actually in prison, private correspondence being a privilege you generally have to do without while you are a guest of the state).   And he would have been doing some research of his own along these lines.

This train of thought such letters put him on led him to have an untrustworthy character in Lemons Never Lie make up a story about inmates going out to pull small jobs at night, then returning to their cells–building up a nice chunk of change in the process, which they intended to leave for their families.   He developed this concept much further for Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.  The idea clearly delighted him.   These were decent civilized well-behaved comic caper type crooks, of course–not murderers.

Very late in his career, there was Breakout–the one where Parker goes to prison, and he feels it eating away at his sense of self–he has to get out of there.   It’s not a long-term set-up like Dannemora–he’s just being  held for trial there, so escapes aren’t so common–because of the constantly rotating population, prisoners rarely get to spend enough time together to come up with a plan, so Parker has to move fast.  We’re a long way from that book, but interesting that while there’s no tunneling involved in his escape with two confederates he’s met in there, they do end up doing some tunneling afterwards, while pulling a job together.  Anyway, it’ll keep.

Long before that book, in 1961, Westlake contributed an article of the same name (with an added hyphen) to Ed McBain’s Mystery Book.  It’s collected in The Getaway Car, and if you haven’t read it, you really should.

The main point of the essay was that telling prisoners they can’t escape is the same thing as daring them to try.   Westlake described several famous break-outs, from Alcatraz, Leavenworth, Newgate (in London), and Walla Walla State Penitentiary, which you see mentioned in the quote above–what he finds fascinating is that the escaped prisoners nearly always got caught not long afterwards, and they must have known that was the likely result, and yet they wanted to do it anyway.  The tougher the prison was to escape, the more exciting the challenge.

Whereas, Westlake notes, a model prison in Chino, California that was comically easy to escape from, and restrictions on the prisoners were very slight (they spent a lot of time outside), there were virtually no escapes.  Nobody felt like they’d been dared to give it a try.

A sage observation, I think–but these guys they’re looking for now are murderers–one of them a cop-killer–they were never getting out, and they knew it.  So much so that they pretended to be model prisoners in a not-so-model prison–for years–just to get the privileges that would make their escape possible.

And in fact, nobody had escaped from Dannemora in a long time–though there was one notably successful escape in 1974.  Unlike most escapees, those two men had a plan not just for getting out, but staying out, and were not recaptured for some time.  Matt and Sweat (sheesh, who writes this stuff?) will have a hard time equaling their record.

Some recent articles have pointed out that there was recent unrest at Dannemora, and that the habitual prison-wide cell search was not performed afterwards–which might have uncovered the work the two men were doing, and thwarted them.   Westlake talks about this as well–

The prisoner who is carefully working out the details of an escape, in fact, dreads the idea of a riot as much as do the prison officials themselves.

The result of a riot is inevitably a complete search and shakedown of the entire prison.  And this means the discovery of the potential escapee’s tunnel or hacksaw or dummy pistol or specially constructed packing case or rope ladder or forged credentials.  And the escapee has to think of some other plan.

What you realize, when reading this piece (without any great sense of shock if you’ve been reading his books), is that Westlake is very much on the side of the escape artists.  He had only spent a few days of his life imprisoned, after being arrested for stealing a microscope, and it wasn’t a penitentiary–it was just the Plattsburgh city jail.  And this is how it felt for him–

I spent four nights and five days in that jail, and hated it, even more than you might expect.  Every instant was intolerable.  I hate being here now; I hate being here now; I hate being here now.

Years later, when I was writing novels about criminals, and when at least some of the criminals were still literate, I’d occasionally get a fan letter from somebody doing time, and in a few instances, when I replied, I gave an edited version of my own jail time so I could ask the question; How can you live in an intolerable state for years?  I couldn’t stand one single second of it for a mere five days; how do you do it year after year?

The answer I got was always the same, with minor variations.  Yes, what I described was what they, too, had gone through, the absolute unbearable horror, but I’d quit the experience too early.  Some time in the second week, they told me, your brain flips over and this becomes the reality.  This becomes where you live now.  And how, I wonder, do you come back from that damage?

In the case of guys like Matt and Sweat–who have spent most of their adult lives in various prisons–you probably don’t.

So on a pure wish-fulfillment level, armchair criminals that we are, we can contemplate the minor philosophical question of whether, in spite of their awful crimes, some part of us wants them to get away, to beat the system, just to prove it can be done–that man’s ingenuity can overcome any obstacle to his freedom.

But we might better spend our time asking how  many more monsters we want to create, just like these two, via a penal system that has proven exceptionally good at doing that–when forced to confront the reality that no matter how high and thick we build the walls, they can still find a way over, under, or through them.

Or we can just wait for the thinly disguised ‘true crime’ novels (none of them, sadly, by Westlake), and the inevitable big Hollywood film.

You thinking Sean Penn or Edward Norton for Sweat?  George Clooney for Matt, I’d think.   They cast Matt Damon, I’m not showing.

Anybody else have any thoughts?  Because seriously, I don’t know when I”m going to get to finish that next review.  Nobody escapes from jury duty.  I’m not complaining, though–as long as they give me a decent lunch break.  In the Manhattan courthouse district.  Right over by Baxter Street and Canal.  Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.

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Filed under Dannemora prison escape, Donald Westlake